Monday, July 9, 2018


You think that you're a good person. Well, maybe not, but at least you're an OK person. Not deranged or whatever, you know? Live and let live, that sort of thing. And so you wonder, psychologically, what it is that makes someone become blatantly evil. Not in a "why do people do bad things" kind of way, but the real monsters. Mass murderers. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. Those guys. What led them down that path? It's so far removed from your own experience that it's a bizarre subject to even consider. How does the mind of a tyrant work? What goes through their heads?

And then your cell phone breaks and you have to get a new one. Your new phone automatically comes with autocorrect on the text messages and it triggers before you notice it. You see that autocorrect slightly altered one of your sentences without your permission. Nothing embarrassing or important, but it made the words wrong. You get annoyed and want to turn it off, but it isn't intuitively obvious to you how to get to that option in your phone's settings. So you think to yourself, "The people responsible for this should be marched up to a trench and shot. Yes, that is the appropriate consequence for this injustice and I would like it carried out immediately."


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Litmus tests

Litmus is an umbrella term for lichen extracts that were historically used in one of the oldest analytical chemistry tests. Typically, the extract is impregnated onto paper. Dipping the paper into a liquid can change the color of the paper, due to the presence of pH-sensitive pigments in the extracts. This technique can provide an approximate reading of the pH of the liquid. Because of the historical popularity and utility of this technique, the term "litmus test" has entered the cultural lexicon as a slang term for actions with social use that is considered analogous to the use of a real litmus test in chemistry. Often this kind of "litmus test" is applied to a person: a question is posed and the response is read to gauge characteristics about the person. More generally, it's a label applied to any method in which a reading of something tested indirectly provides information about the thing, perhaps when direct observation of the point of interest is not possible. It's a metaphor. I can't see the pH of a liquid, but the pH of a liquid affects the pigments in litmus, and I can see the color change in litmus. Through that color change, I gain knowledge about the pH. I can't directly observe the nuances of your mind, the contents of your thoughts, the worth of your wit and wisdom. But I can ask a question and observe your response to the question, and through your answer I gain knowledge about your character.

The previous paragraph is at least slightly tongue-in-cheek. If that is your introduction to this concept of a "litmus test" then I have not provided an adequate background for you to engage the concept. If, as is far more likely, you are already familiar with the concept, then I've told you what you already know and done so a few times in a few different ways. What's the use, then? Well, it's not a litmus test if that's what you're thinking! That'd be deliciously ironic, though. I should have found a way to do that. No, what I'm trying to do here is set the stage.

I've been thinking about entertainment in terms of litmus tests. The specific work that got me hung up on this was Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which I read last summer. And I'm only making this post just now because I'm very, very bad about updating my blog. I said I should probably change the format. Well yeah, that's true. Anyway, I loved the book. And while looking for something else, I happened to learn that I found the reactions of the critics of the book to be generally wrongheaded. To be clear here, the concept I'm talking about is not that this was my favorite book. It's good, but there are others I like even more. In fact, Anathem might not even be my favorite Neal Stephenson book. So I'm not saying it's a paragon, not really. And not every book is for everyone! I'm not saying that either. Hm...

I'll put it thusly, Anathem isn't for everyone, but it's a great book and also a rather long and intimidating one that appeals to a certain segment of the population. And it seems like the people who read it, finished it, and disliked it all display notable patterns of some sort of failure. I could be more or less generous in my analysis of that, but let's just call it a regrettable lack of appreciation. Shots fired? I mean, kind of.

Some of the works I really like, and they may or may not overlap with the ones that are my real favorites, turn out to be very useful for gauging people. For letting me, based on how they react, see how they think. I don't know how much to trust my instincts on this because I often say relatively little, or even nothing at all, about books I've read and such. But the more I mulled over this, the more convinced I became that it works reasonably well, at least for my purposes. I'm being too cryptic here, I know. Sorry.

What I should say by way of example is that for a book like Anathem, not everyone can read, not everyone who can read can read at a level to enjoy the book, and not everyone is into science fiction; but if you are intelligent and into reading longform science fiction and you do not like it, we have irreconcilable differences about what makes something good. That summary will have to suffice, although of course there's more to it.

Anyway, I want to identify some good litmus tests. I should have started this last summer, and now it's harder to think of them. But I'll try...


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


I, Robot [full album by The Alan Parsons Project]

Fallout 4


I'll try to think of more later...

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A different format?

On occasion, I find myself either looking for some specific thing I wrote in the past or just browsing archives. As I've mentioned before, when I was on LJ, I was much more active. Lately, another site that it occurs to me has worked for this (for producing more content) is one with a more specific niche: the Casual Players Alliance, a Magic:  the Gathering message board that I've been a member of since a few weeks before I got on LiveJournal, and the online community where I've remained the most active for the longest period of time.

I've touched on this before. The LJ days were different. Enough people I knew were on the site that I'd spend some time browsing my "Friends" page, commenting on updates by my friends, responding to their comments on my own updates, and doing silly stuff. So content, in some form, flowed naturally. And it seems that there was a kind of migration to Facebook around 2008 or so. I don't like it. Not a topic that comes up much, but I check Facebook almost every day because it has essentially replaced the "Friends page" function that LJ had. Some people have deleted their Facebook accounts. I don't want to because its sheer success has given it the useful feature of linking me to people I hardly ever see in real life. But if it weren't for that, I'd get rid of it. And I loathe Twitter. Completely despise it. Twitter is cancer.

Blogger is fine, I guess. On LJ, I felt comfortable posting just a couple of sentences or a link. That meant I was posting more often. Combined with the social aspect, I was coming back to the site more often, which meant I was doing more long-form updates too. This is also why at the CPA, I write so much more than I do here. So I've been wondering about a change of format. There are posts floating around in my head, some of them have been floating around for years, and I don't take the time to write them because Blogger just feels like I'd have to sit down at my computer for several hours and type out the whole thing in one go. It's not even technically true. I could make multiple short posts, or save a post as a draft and come back later. But I'm just not on the site often enough. It feels like a chore. If this seems silly, I agree. It is silly. But that's where we're at.

So for about a year now, I've had this idea that what I should really do is change format, that I need to either change the way I think about Blogger or I need to use a different site. Updates here are depressingly sporadic. And browsing the volume of my content at the CPA, it occurred to me that maybe what I want is a message board. And that led me to two conclusions...
  1. This is silly. Message boards are for communities. I am not a community. I mean,  I am a community of cells, but that doesn't count. I am one person. Starting my own message board for me would be crazy.
  2. Yes, that is exactly what I need! I could organize different fora for the major topics I like to talk about, start threads for more specific subjects, and add new posts to those threads as it suits me, sometimes long and sometimes short.
Can this concept simultaneously be perfect and also be bad? I don't know. I'm not doing it yet, but I am seriously considering it. Most good message board software costs money, so that could be a barrier right there. Blogger is free. Maybe someone else already invented the concept of "personal message boards"? I don't know. I just know that this blog has been in a lull far too often.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Crap from Facebook: November 28th, 2017

Yep, here we go doing this again. Sometimes I just can't resist...

I have no idea who this person is or what qualifications he or she possesses, but the analysis that will be presented demonstrates a striking lack of comprehension of human behavior, and not just in an "I disagree with this person" kind of way. It's blatant, but I'll get to that. What's important is that the reception is almost universally positive, lots of glowing comments like "this so much." I'll only be critiquing the original content, but by itself, it's unremarkable and silly. The reason I'm taking the time at all is that people apparently buy into this bullshit. And with that, we're off...

Seeing some folks I follow circulating a point that's worth drawing attention to. One of the oldest canards in low-denominator comedy is that women are inscrutable and men can't understand them. There's a reason for this and it ain't funny.
 Comedy, by definition, isn't serious, so I'd argue that it doesn't have canards at all. The word "tropes" or perhaps "devices" would be more appropriate. But I'm totally nitpicking. Let's not be here all day.

So, the problem here is that the trope isn't really "women are inscrutable and men can't understand them." People, especially if they're primed to accept the premise, might recall the comedy they've seen and think, "But I did see comedy that did that. I have examples." Well, the trope is really much broader, more of a "women and men are different and their differences lead to misunderstandings." And that's true! It's a true statement. It's also bland and very much old news. The way that comedy functions, it takes that truth and then draws it out to absurd lengths, elaborating on a simple concept and producing a more outlandish version of it for the purposes of humor. That's pretty much what comedy does. That's its function.

Most comedians are male and, when writing jokes about this concept, focus on the "men misunderstand women" part primarily and don't emphasize the "women don't understand men" part. This is because they are men and can plausibly bring the joke around to themselves. Sometimes it's for the purposes of self-deprecation, another trope in comedy, but sometimes it's just because the comedians are drawing on personal experience. This is all perfectly natural, while maybe not common knowledge, and it should be obvious to anyone who has made any serious attempt to analyze the nature and structure of comedy.

By the time a man reaches adulthood he has probably heard that women constantly say one thing and mean another, and that they are impossible to understand, at least a thousand times. To some extent he probably believes this to be true.
No, that's fucking stupid. People say one thing and mean another. Not just women. People. Women do it, men do it, and children start learning to do it at some point, although initially they do not grasp the concept. Hidden meaning, double meaning, innuendo, nuance, code words, signalling, etc. It's stuff people do. Incidentally, it's stuff that women, on average, are just a bit better at, so when comedy tackles the topic, it has to exaggerate female speech as arcane and male speech as simple and primitive. These are jokes, and that's all.

And to a degree it is. Women VERY frequently say one thing and mean another, display expressions or reactions that don't jibe with their feelings and so on. But it's actually really easy to decode once you understand why it happens. It is survival behavior.
This is going to become one of those sneaky arguments that sounds definitive, but necessarily remains vague enough to slip away from critical analysis. On the surface, it would seem like all we have is a simple binary: either it's a survival behavior or it isn't. But, if I decided to take this claim into a debate and my opponent offered evidence against it, I could almost always use plausible deniability to deflect the import of that evidence. More on that later.

When it comes to communication and survival, the field that can actually examine things in a rigorous manner is evolutionary psychology. But I suspect that the author of this post, and most of the fans, do not like evolutionary psychology and do not take it seriously. Ironically enough, some of the same feminist pop-science pundits who derided evolutionary psychology as "just-so stories" have now given rise to posts like the one I'm critiquing, which actually is an honest-to-goodness just-so story.
 While some men choose to become skilled dissemblers, men are not -required- to learn very much subterfuge at all-- looking calm while you'd like to strange your boss is the biggie. Women face a completely different situation.
Well, empirical evidence shows a strong trend that females tend to score higher on verbal communication skills and that they develop those skills at a younger age. Again, this is all on average. But it is demonstrated and it does seem to account for the difference all on its own, with no need to resort to anything about survival.
Women spend their lives surrounded by people who are, on average, bigger than they are, socially privileged over them, both more inclined to immediate anger (testosterone is a hell of a thing) AND more socially encouraged to express it, and best of all? Cherry on top?
People like you blather on about social constructs and and how all of the problems in the world can be pinned down to society and its horrible biases. You invoke it yourself with the line "socially privileged over them." It's been a mantra I've seen over and over, that men as a group supposedly oppress women as a group and have "privilege" over them. And that concept is used as the default tool whenever there's a contrast between men and women in any setting, setup for an argument that society is unjust and that the explanation for the difference between men and women is oppression. Been there, done that, seen it all before.

The cherry on top? Well, the cherry on top would be that as soon as it becomes the least bit convenient, even if it's in the same damn sentence in which you invoked "social privilege", you suddenly remember that testosterone exists. Yep, it sure is a hell of a thing. And there are even other innate differences between the sexes. I wonder if any subtle differences in their communication patterns could be attributed to those innate differences? Nah, it's got to be a survival skill!

Some of these dudes around them are extremely dangerous, others are not, and most of the time it is impossible to tell the two apart on sight, or even from extended contact. Often the only way to find out is to say or do something that might make a man blow up and see if he does.
 Contrary to this author's portrayal, men are not actually bombs.

This is not a great way of finding out what kind of guy a woman is dealing with for the same reason that we don't  use pogo sticks to test for buried land mines. It's often the only one available, though. So, VERY SENSIBLY, women will generally just opt not to run the test.
This is ludicrous, but it also underscores the author's failure to comprehend survival behaviors and how they actually work. As a hypothetical, if the author really were right, absolute avoidance of running this "test" would be detrimental to survival. Here's how. Violent men are, well, violent. They're not tranquil automatons that suddenly spring into violent action only when triggered by a woman running a test on them. They unleash their violence both as a tool and out of an urge to do so. In addition to the violence itself being eminently observable, there are communication cues that can be noted. An intelligent woman looking to survive would begin mapping these observations, tracking which men are known to display violence and to what degree. Men who successfully (and the success is important) apply violence are, pretty much by definition, powerful. Attaching herself to a powerful man can be an excellent way for a woman to survive. But a woman doesn't even need to be especially good at this sort of thing to survive! She could instead associate herself with nonviolent men and, in many cases, she'd be fine. She could even be pretty bad at it and wind up being the victim of violence herself, but even that would probably not be lethal or frequent. What would be even worse for survival would be to tiptoe around all men on the principle that their capacity for violence is completely unknown and that they might attack her at the slightest provocation. She wouldn't be assertive enough to have any sort of power in any relationship, and might be targeted by predatory individuals, men and women alike, who would exploit her weakness. So no, "opt not to run the test" is not very sensible.

What that means is smiling at a man's flirting in a closed or isolated space, or laughing at an uncomfortable joke because the room is full of men and all of them are laughing.
Psst, men do that too. This isn't an example of women being sneaky or not saying what they mean at all. It's just a quirk of social interaction. There are jokes that I don't really find that funny, but if I was with a group of people I knew and it was a situation in which we were exchanging banter and the group was laughing, then I'd laugh. It's automatic. I don't have to think about it. I don't make a calculated decision to do it so that I won't offend anyone or whatever. It's just how laughter works. For everyone. Not just women.
Men are not only -not- required to learn  dissembling, they -are- taught to seek affirmation of self-worth from women. They take these reactions at face value because they very much want to. And this can build uncomfortable or dangerous cycles and relationships.
So if a man laughs at my joke, that's irrelevant, I guess? But if a woman laughs at that same joke, then my self-worth is affirmed. Because that's what I was taught. Also that's dangerous. Right. Do the people who read this stuff and comment positively on it ever think about it for more than five seconds?

Lemme be real clear on this point: Women do this because the way our society is currently set up, they have absolutely no better option available to them. They quite rightly value their safety over offering legibility to people who might seriously hurt or even kill them.
I mean, men are basically tornadoes and women are basically wildflowers, so that totally makes sense. Wait? Is this whole thing comedy? Did I miss that? The author took the bland observation that men are, on average, bigger and stronger than women, and extended it to the absurdity that, at any moment, any man might just reach out and beat any woman to death who pisses him off. Ignore that some men are weak. Ignore that some women are strong. Ignore that lots of communication happens in public, with other people around. Ignore that some men are bigger and stronger than other men. Ignore that some women are bigger and stronger than other women. Ignore the effects of aging. Ignore the fact that all men started out as children and lived in a world in which they were surrounded by women who were bigger and stronger than them. Nope. It's got to be that women dissembling is the one thing holding back a bloodbath of testosterone-packed men punching them into fine red mists.
So while this may be frustrating to guys, it is not on women to behave differently as long as the social baseline for masculine behavior is a toxic stew of lionized violence and anger. They're gonna smile and laugh as long as a huge % of men present a serious potential threat.
Toxic stew of lionized violence and anger? You know what? You keep talking like that and I'm going to kick your stupid face in. You like that?
 But let's say that you weren't raised by fucking spiders and your reaction to this isn't annoyance but instead serious concern, because you DON'T want to freak women out but now realize you might have been reading "oh god go away" as "yes chat me up more in this elevator."
Elevatorgate lives on! Ah, 2011. What a time. I look back on it and, well, anyway...

Spiders are awesome. Also, my sole contribution to the carnival of madness that was Elevatorgate, the time I "won the internet," just so happens, by sheer random luck, to be the perfect response to this. Weird how that works out.

So, this was on  an old ScienceBlogs comment thread (for a blog post by Abbie Smith aka ERV). This thread had already gotten pretty crazy, but at some point, somehow, the topic had arisen that some of the commenters felt that a man walking down the street at night should, before passing a woman, cross over to the other side of the street in order to make her feel more safe. Others took issue with this, calling it sexism and such. The argument was a downward spiral and so I chimed in (and won the internet) with something like...

"I don't care if it's 4 am, I'm covered in blood, and I'm carrying a fire axe. If the prospect of my passing you on the same side of the street is so dreadful, then you can cross the street yourself."

I rest my case.

A few simple tells that you're doing something that's putting a woman's hackles up, which will follow outward affirmative signals: She leaves the area; she changes the subject; she moves herself or the two of you toward other people, esp. other women; she doesn't flirt/joke back;
Holy shit, women have hackles? But really though, the metaphor of "raised hackles" comes from dogs, but you have it backwards. Raised hackles isn't "I feel threatened by you." It's "I am threatening you."
or, her rejoinder doesn't match what you put out there-- a compliment, for example, eliciting "Thanks" or "haha" rather than a return compliment. All of these have a good chance of translating to "you are overstepping my boundaries but I don't feel safe saying so."
 All of those are something that both men and women do and there is no evidence indicating that it has anything to do with threat assessment.
 There's a good chance that when you spot this, your first instinct is going to be to say something like "Am I making you uncomfortable?" or "Did I say something wrong?" That's what a good dude would ask, right? Welllll it's not the worst response but it's not a good one, either.
 Cool story, life coach.

Those questions have a very good chance of getting back a response calculated to calm you down rather than an honest answer, because you have STILL offered no real indication you won't blow up when rebuffed. You see, those are also questions an irritated dude would ask.
Rebuffed? Is that what this has been about the whole time? Is this a guide to asking girls out? Look, the problem there isn't "toxic masculinity" or whatever. The problem is that it's super awkward no matter what. You can't make it not be awkward. That's why I don't do it. But if I were to start, I don't think I'd start by taking advice from the person who wrote this stuff.
It puts the woman on the spot and makes her pull off an immediate calculation-- is this guy actually concerned or is he just feeling offended because he realized that wasn't a real laugh? Am I in more danger now, or less?
Rest in peace, all the women who were beaten to death when their laughter was discovered to be fake. 
If you are in doubt it's usually best to back off, provide some breathing room, and then once the situation has a low threat index (non-confined space, potentially supportive people nearby), boot up honesty.exe:
So you're hitting on this woman in a confined space for some reason and you get the impression that she is worried. Looks like your next step is to extract her from the confined space and bring her to the confined space attendant and confined space supervisor, who can hopefully offer her the support she needs. Makes sense. I am learning so much about flirting and stuff!

"Hey, if the jokes about clown dicks are over the line, please let me know and I'll cut that out." Not just interrogation about her real feelings, but proactive information about the reaction that an honest response will provoke from you.
 Uh, I've got to be honest here, author of the original post. I'm starting to think that the problem isn't women being too coy or toxic masculinity. I'm starting to think that the problem is you personally. Women aren't afraid of you because you're a man, they're afraid of you because you drag them into confined spaces and force them to listen to your jokes about clown dicks. You should stop doing that. It's a bad thing.
That's not some kind of cheat-code to human interaction, mind. People are complicated as fuck and women don't come off an assembly line at a factory.
 They don't, but the story of where they actually come from will totally blow your mind because a lot of the time it involves women not really being all that afraid of men at all. I know it must sound crazy to you, but it's true.
But it's generally a better base-line set of guidelines for social navigation than either taking everything at face value or assuming the female mind was forged from the same inscrutable mystic bullshit as Harry Potter's wand.
I just looked it up and apparently Harry Potter's wand is made from wood, a substance that isn't forged. You lose again!
Oh and this should go without saying but if you put forward the promise that you're not going to blow up, for the love of fuck, STICK TO IT. offering a guy candor is an act of trust, be worthy of it.
Not really setting the bar high for men there, are you?

OK, OK, that's enough of that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Livejournal, Goodreads, book reviews, Asimov, and inspiration

I'm sure that I've said it before, but my relative inactivity on this blog is a source of some consternation for me. A bit of inner struggle. There have been times, not especially frequent but nevertheless pronounced, when I've gone back and perused the archive of my old Livejournal, which I maintained for six years. My reasons for doing this vary, but what always strikes me is how those old journal entries off their clues, their hints as to what I was doing at a specific time in the past. I get little glimpses into what my life was like. My memory is jogged as to just how such and such things were going at such and such time. And so on, and so forth, and anyway this is something I value. And this blog never really lived up to it. Well, why the hell not? I can't be sure, but I've pondered several possible explanations...
  • Something about me changed. Could be good, could be bad. Looking back, my LJ activity ran from early 2004 to early 2010. So, it was the tail end of my high school experience followed by the rest of the 00's. Those must have been some of my hardest years. Not that there is a definite boundary between that time and other times or that it was all bad. Far from it! But a lot of this was a trying time for me, with a sense of despondency and a bitter struggle against that. Much of the time I was out of work, or broke, or dissatisfied with school. I walked around at night talking to myself. Good times. Well, without getting into the details of what changed, how, and when, I could reason that perhaps I didn't need the outlet that LJ provided.
  • When I became a UW student, it swallowed up my time and I never got back into the habit of journal-writing. Yeah, I moved away from LJ in early 2010, but I intended to use this very blog as a replacement. And at first, I did so. The content did shift, but not in a sharp, immediate way. I started at the University of Washington in 2011 and that really affected things, sharply and immediately.
  • I started to make plans for grandiose projects and didn't follow through. Or at least, generally didn't follow through. I actually did a long, multi-post exploration on, of all things, the mechanics of the Necromancer character in Diablo II. Yikes. To be fair, I still sometimes play that game. Anyway, I distinctly remember planning to do big posts or series of posts on my experiences in Europe (seven years ago and didn't do it), as a UW student (four years ago and didn't do it), and working as a labpack "field chemist" (up until last year, and again, no post). I even explicitly mentioned my plans to do a big post of some sort on the subject of feminism, and of course that never happened either. But really, huge events have happened and I've been living my life, and there's very little hint of it here. Instead, I thought, "This deserves an extensive post." Only at least a short post would have been something instead of nothing.
  • Livejournal was a kind of social site for me. I'd go there to read what my friends posted, and while I was there I'd write my own content. When I lost that, I lost my close attachment to the site where I'd post my own journal/blog. At the time, I didn't notice that my "friends page" had any connection to how often I wrote my own journal entries, but in retrospect I'm pretty sure that was how it worked. It seems like Facebook replaced LJ in some ways, but for me that never really worked.
I'm not going to pretend that I've arrived at a solution. I'm not even really sure that this is a problem. It's just that I had something from 2004 to 2010, and I feel like that something is missing for 2011 to 2017, that no matter how I change my approach in the future, I won't be able to do for this part of my life what I did for that part. But I haven't forgotten. And I'm not leaving. I'm just, I suppose, a bit torn.

Well, that preamble went off on a tangent. But my point was going to be that in my quest not to abandon this blog, one mode of content that I adopted was a kind of book blurb. Sometimes I binge-read and sometimes I only read for a few hours a week, but I'm almost always in the process of reading something. I used that as an anchor to bring me back to this blog. No matter how little I updated with real content, I'd always pop in to announce what I'd read. The problem with this approach was that I felt like I had to say something about my reading. Like a book review. And I don't like book reviews. Actually, I have nothing against book reviews, but I am crap at writing them and I know it, which makes me dislike the process. Worse still, there was that "grandiose" problem of wanting to write longer posts and then procrastinating. Some of the books that I focused on the most and thought a great deal about were the ones that I didn't bother to review in any capacity at all, like all of Terry Goodkind's books and a bunch of books by Frederik Pohl. Yeah, the "book review" idea for this blog wasn't working and I recognized that, so I just kind of went for brief updates, often covering multiple books at once, which meant even fewer visits to the blog.

Last year, the book posts pretty much dropped off entirely. But my reading didn't! And I'm belatedly announcing the replacement to my clumsy non-reviews. Primarily, this is of interest to me, as I'd like to have a record of what I read and approximately when I read it. And I have a solution: Goodreads! Someone, I believe that it was Nick, turned me on to this site. And I like it. So it's what I'm going with. You can view my bookshelf here:

Goodreads offers me the option to write book reviews, but I don't intend to ever take advantage of it. However, its star-based rating system is quick and easy, so I do plan to use that to roughly state whether I liked a book and about how much. It's not that I don't want to say anything. I love talking about books. If you want to talk to me about a book that I've read, absolutely feel free. Totally. That would be cool. I just don't like writing reviews. Feels different, you know?

The last book that I read was what really got me thinking and motivated me to write this post. Earlier this year, probably on the FOCL (Friends of the Covington Library) booksale shelf, I picked up an old used copy of a book called Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection by Isaac Asimov. I immediately recognized it and knew that I had to buy it. That I recognized some book is not unusual. That I recognized a relatively obscure posthumous book of uncollected writings from decades ago is probably a bit odd (for me). But what is important is how and why I recognized it. You see, Gold is one volume of a posthumous collection of Asimov's work. It was published in 1995. He died in 1992. There was a companion volume, Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection published in 1996. I read it in 1997, about twenty years ago. And at that time, I had no idea who Isaac Asimov was. I can confidently say, with no exaggeration, that that book changed my life.

I wasn't especially interesting in science fiction. Didn't have anything against it, but I just didn't know anything about it or especially care. I liked books, though. I was always looking for new books to read. Somehow, while performing different searches on the KCLS catalog (it was computerized, even back then), I came across the title. It had both "Magic" and "Final Fantasy" in it. I hadn't heard of Isaac Asimov before in my life (although I'd later discover that his work had hugely influenced a whole lot of things that I did know about). But I had recently become enamored both with a card game, Magic: the Gathering (which I still play) and with a video game, Final Fantasy VII (which is probably a bit hamfisted in retrospect, but it impressed me at the time). So with nothing other than a title that piqued my curiosity, I checked it out. My eleven-year-old mind was thoroughly blown. It's not so much that Magic was Asimov's best work, but that it exposed me to a world I hadn't seen before. The fiction was fun, fascinating, and really hooked me in. But the nonfiction in the collection was something I'd never imagined, something so totally novel to me that it was, well, I can only describe it as formative. I had to have more! Magic led me to looking into Isaac Asimov, which led me to I, Robot, which I recognized as the title of an Alan Parsons Project album, so I checked that one out too. But the copy I checked out came bundled with Foundation, so I also read that, which subsequently transformed me into a science fiction nerd for life.

If I'd been pressed to cite the most important book I've read in terms of its influence on me or my appreciation for it, I'd probably start thinking of things like Alastor, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Death Gate Cycle, East of Eden, The Gods Themselves, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or maybe even The Lord of the Rings. And then I met Gold. It's a fine read, don't misunderstand. But I am perhaps uniquely affected by it. The stories are interesting and the nonfiction is, for those with a specific interest in the world of science fiction publication in the late 20th century, enlightening. But for me, this book was heartwrenching. It was so evocative, so similar to Magic, a book that had been buried in the back of my mind. I'd forgotten how damn impressed I was by that book, how it had driven me in the sorts of books I sought out thereafter, how as a kid I'd gotten a kind of crash course of insight into topics I'd never even considered. The memories came flooding back. I'd seen that Gold was the other volume back then. But I didn't find it at the library back then and eventually I moved on. I came full-circle twenty years later, by sheer coincidence.

Asimov had been dead for five years before I ever ran into him. And it would be another twenty before I realized just how much he inspired me.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Excerpt I like from Anathem by Neal Stephenson (published in 2008)

Boredom is a mask that frustration wears. What better place to savor the truth of Fraa Orolo’s saying than a penance cell of the Warden Regulant? Some cunning architect had designed these things to be to frustration what a lens was to light. My cell did not have a door. All that stood between me and freedom was a narrow arch, shaped in the pointed ogive of the Old Mathic Age, framed in massive stones all scratched with graffiti by prisoners of yore. I was forbidden to stray through it or to receive visitors until the penance was complete. The arch opened onto the inner walkway that made the circuit of the Warden Regulant’s court. It was trafficked at all hours by lesser hierarchs wandering by on one errand or another. I could look straight out across that walkway into the vault-work of the upper chancel, but because of its parapet I could not see down to the floor two hundred feet below where Provener was celebrated. I could hear the music. I could gaze straight out and see the chain moving when my team wound the clock and the bell-ropes dancing when Tulia’s team rang changes. But I could not see the people.
On the opposite side of the cell, my view was better. Framed in another Mathic arch was a window affording a fine view of the meadow. This was just another device to magnify frustration and hence boredom, since, if I wanted, I could spend all day looking down on my brothers and sisters strolling at liberty around the concent and (I supposed) discussing all sorts of interesting things, or at least telling funny stories. Above, the Warden Fendant’s overhanging ledge blocked most of the sky, but I could see to about twenty degrees above the horizon. My window faced roughly toward the Century Gate, with the Decade Gate visible off to the right if I put my face close to the glass. So when the sun rose the morning after Tenth Night, I was able to hear the close-of-Apert service. Looking out my cell’s doorway, I could see the chains move as the water-valves were actuated. Then by stepping across the cell and looking out my window I was able to see a silver thread of water negotiate the aqueduct to the Decade Gate, and to watch the gate grind closed. Only a few spectators were strewn about extramuros. For a little while I tortured myself with the idea that Cord was standing there forlornly expecting me to run out at the last moment and give her a goodbye hug. But such ideas faded quickly once the gates closed. I watched the avout take down the canopy and fold up the tables. I ate the piece of bread and drank the bowl of milk left at my door by one of Suur Trestanas’s minions.
Then I turned my attention to the Book.
Since the sole purpose of the Book was to punish its readers, the less said of it the better. To study it, to copy it out, and to memorize it was an extraordinary form of penance.
The concent, like any other human settlement, abounded in nasty or tedious chores such as weeding gardens, maintaining sewers, peeling potatoes, and slaughtering animals. In a perfect society we’d have taken turns. As it was, there were rules and codes of conduct that people broke from time to time, and the Warden Regulant saw to it that those people performed the most disagreeable jobs. It was not a bad system. When you were fixing a clogged latrine because you’d had too much to drink in the Refectory, you might not have such an enjoyable day, but the fact of the matter was that latrines were necessary; sometimes they clogged up; and some fraa or suur had to clean them out, as we couldn’t very well call in an outside plumber. So there was at least some satisfaction in doing such penance, because there was a point in the work.
There was no point at all to the Book, which is what made it an especially dreaded form of penance. It contained twelve chapters. Like the scale used to measure earthquakes, these got exponentially worse as they went on, so Chapter Six was ten times as bad as Chapter Five, and so on. Chapter One was just a taste, meted out to delinquent children, and usually completed in an hour or two. Two meant at least one overnight stay, though any self-respecting troublemaker could bang it out in a day. Five typically meant a stay of several weeks. Any sentence of Chapter Six or higher could be appealed to the Primate and then to the Inquisition. Chapter Twelve amounted to a sentence of life at hard labor in solitary confinement; only three avout had finished it in 3690 years, and all of them were profoundly insane.
Beyond about Six, the punishment could span years. Many chose to leave the concent rather than endure it. Those who stuck it out were changed when they emerged: subdued, and notably diminished. Which might sound crazy, because there was nothing to it other than copying out the required chapters, memorizing them, and then answering questions about them before a panel of hierarchs. But the contents of the Book had been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless: flagrantly at first, more subtly as the chapters progressed. It was a maze without an exit, an equation that after weeks of toil reduced to 2 = 3. Chapter One was a page of nursery-rhymes salted with nonsense-words that almost rhymed—but not quite. Chapter Four was five pages of the digits of pi. Beyond that, however, there was no further randomness in the Book, since it was easy to memorize truly random things once you taught yourself a few tricks—and everyone who’d made it through Chapter Four knew the tricks. Much harder to memorize and to answer questions about were writings that almost but did not quite make sense; that had internal logic, but only to a point. Such things cropped up naturally in the mathic world from time to time—after all, not everyone had what it took to be a Saunt. After their authors had been humiliated and Thrown Back, these writings would be gone over by the Inquisition, and, if they were found to be the right kind of awful, made even more so, and folded into later and more wicked editions of the Book. To complete your sentence and be granted permission to walk out of your cell, you had to master them just as thoroughly as, say, a student of quantum mechanics must know group theory. The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain to its very roots. It was more humiliating than you might imagine, and after I’d been toiling on Chapter Five for a couple of weeks I had no difficulty in seeing how one who completed a sentence of, say, Chapter Nine would emerge permanently damaged.
Enough of the Book. A more interesting question: why was I here? It seemed that Suur Trestanas wanted me removed from the community for as long as the Inquisitors were among us. Chapter Three wouldn’t have taken me long enough. Four might have done it, but she’d given me Five just in case I happened to be one of those persons who was good at memorizing numbers.