Archive for April, 2010

Books of my callow youth

April 30, 2010

Just trying to think back to my elementary school days. (This being so early and in Finland, all the books referred below were translations to Finnish.)

Little House on the Prairie, and the other Laura Ingalls books — read most of them except, oh the anger and the gnashing of teeth, one that the town library just didn’t have. Much discomfort followed before I leaped over that one, feeling guilty and slightly dirty. (To this day it feels like a minor crime to read a book series out of chronological order.)

Nancy Drew — Oh, blush. Read dozens of these. I have no idea if Nancy Drews are supposed to be reading for girls only; I didn’t care then, and after a certain touchy middle phase I’m now back in the land of not caring a whit for target audiences as long as what I read entertains me. As I recall them, the Nancy Drew adventures were pretty entertaining. Except that one time when there were four hours until the library-o-mobile would swing by, and I had a Drew to finish. A lesson learned early: there are bad ideas, there are disasters, and then there’s rushing a book. (A later philosophical addition: If you’re reading for pleasure, you’re really doing it wrong if you have to stress over it!)

Jules Verne — Read a lot of these; beautiful Finnish translations. (I’ve heard Verne has been badly served by clueless translations from the original French to English; that’s what I’ve heard.)

It’s funny how, when you’re young, you don’t notice some things. My theory is that when you’re young, you just don’t know enough to know how alien some things are supposed to be. Thus you just don’t notice whether a book is a hundred years old or written yesterday, or happens in the 1990s or the 1890s, unless it comes right out and slams your face in it. How’re you to know there’s no Wild West no more out there somewhere? If I wanted a hokey aphorism I could say that to an ignorant child there is no Time, but plenty of Place — and one place was somewhere behind Apollo, when there was a big plan for shooting people at the Moon with a cannon, or a steam elephant trudging through India. There was no Time, only Place, and that place was Away, and it started farther from your home door than you had ever went or could imagine going, c. 100 km or so it seemed. (Also: entirely too many capital-letter words.)

Possibly related: When you don’t know much about history, your ideas of where certain historical bits are tend to be a bit vague because you don’t have anything to anchor them with. Say the supposed deeds of Robin Hood — I’d guess most people would reason they’re medieval, and thus ah um erm somewhere between, like, 400 and 1400 maybe? I, however, having carefully chosen this example, can bump the Hood into place by remembering he was a supposed contemporary of Richard the Lion-Hearted, who was only a few generations after Hastings, which was 1066. That alone gives you an absolute lower limit for the date.

And the more you learn about history, the more you fill in the misty and empty spots, and get something that’s continuous and not a collection of vague glimpses: a view of history where there’s stuff happening everywhere all the time. (And it’s a really nice warm fuzzy feeling when you see how the pieces fit together.)

Three Investigators — Published under the brand of Alfred Hitchcock. Good stuff except for the creeping suspicion that Mr. Hitchcock just maybe wasn’t writing the books himself, with the peculiar arrangements of the covers and all, and surely such a thing was wrong. (At least I wasn’t energetic enough to start acting on my instinct that surely someone had to be told about this…)

Enid Blyton — Oh dear heavens. You could crush very small cars with the amount of Blyton I read. Some three or four times. And… well, I don’t think there’s a better definition of bliss than being twelve or so and deep in one of the Adventure series books.

Zorro — Probably were very formulaic adventure books; but I read them, oh I did. Come to think of it, I didn’t read Batman or Superman comics when young (no, I was a Marvel fanboy, and that was later), but what’s Zorro except a Batman of the past?

The Zorro books were a bit different since they weren’t from the town library but from the one my very rural elementary school had. That school library was just a big bookshelf-cabinet with a door and a lock: if any schoolchild wanted to borrow a book a teacher and some desultory scratching of who-loaned-what was necessary.

Come to think of it, this was in the nineties, but the books I remember from the school library were much older — seventies, sixties, older even; the relic that the Ministry of Education Guidelines forgot. For some reason I was very good in slipping into “ancient entertainments” like these.

Not that that stopped me from loaning a few automobile magazines from the library-o-mobile because all the other boys loaned them too; I leafed through them, couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about — or why there was something so mystically interesting in that bikini lady draped over the hood of that particular vehicle — and I returned them and forgot about that particular status symbol.

Then, some vague number of years later, there was this collective sigh that meant, “Oh, so that’s what that was all about!”

It’s funny that the series above all added together must come to a horrendous lot of books I’ve read, but for the most part I have no memory at all of what they contained. Plots, characters, striking scenes — all gone.

Makes me wonder if there would be shivers of recognition if I picked up one of the old ones.

Also makes me wonder why I can’t recall any Finnish books similar to those above that I read. (Well, there was one book from the school library that was a boys’ adventure from the thirties or something. All I can remember about it was that it was somehow weirdly restrained and felt like it assumed I knew or felt some big patriotic detail I really didn’t.)

I have a sneaking suspicion that my lack of Finnish input was, firstly, a question of volume: even including the cost of translation, there just are immensely more books in the Anglophone sphere than in the, er, the Fennophone one. And secondly, because most of the Finnish books available were eighties and nineties style and fashion, which I didn’t much like; the past and other wildly alien and romantic places were much better than photocopies of the grubby reality of the half-familiar present. (Really; the Finnish youth fare of the time — and of today, I suppose — seems to be for city kids, and to a country bumpkin like me that was the worst possible combination of familiar and alien.)

Besides, who wants to read about bullies and the dangers of drugs when you can have Diego de la Vega put on his mask and strike terror into the hearts of clumsy evildoers, or foil nefarious adults in a far-off valley because oops you snuck into the wrong plane with your posse of friends, or struggle with maple syrup, farming and harsh wild nature in some other corner of the endless disconnected Away?

Keep man safe (fiction)

April 27, 2010

From: loc/
To: loci/
Subject: sick, tired and full of weird ideas.
Date: 27/4/2222, 14:40 WST


I’m starting to feel a bit paranoid, you know.

Or rather you don’t.

It’s been two centuries since anything interesting happened, right? Wan and Dimlite published their theory of Feynmannian Gravity in 2021, and in the 201 years since, nothing new and exciting has been found: not in physics, not in chemistry, not in technology. (In maths, yes, but those people are freaks anyway.)

No scientific discoveries, no technological advances, not even any societal advances beyond the globalization of the Spirit of 2012. Just slowly atrophying universities, calcifying toys, and new forms of the same old amusements, everyone hanging on the Net, yammering and stroking off.

Can it really be we’ve found out all there is? Are all the mysteries that remain really destined to remain so? Hell, thanks to the miracles of politics and popularity we haven’t even gotten to Mars yet.

I started to wonder if this was a coincidence: the Net blossoming, and human ingenuity withering. The whole world connected by computers, and at the same moment (so it seems) frozen in stasis. That’s usually either the Henderson stupidity of “necessary primitives” and “invention by the conflict of the alienated”, or then the conspiracy theorist twaddle about “Them” secretly ruling the world. Neither works, but I can’t think what else would, if these things have a connection of some kind.

I won’t bore and shock you with my full-bore fury opinion on Hendersonism. The conspiracists, on the other hand — anybody reading as I type?

Made me giggle to type out that, as if anyone really had the resources to survey all of mankind and snuff out any spark of change. The number of people necessary for that kind of work would be enormous, millions, much too many to keep secret, because (as is well known from two centuries of leakage!) the automatic algorithms just aren’t good enough. There’s simply too much to survey: every personal net unit, every work unit, all mail and video and the like; every waking and sleeping moment of every single human being alive. Much too difficult to keep under control, or to keep secret even if that was possible — who ever heard of a human organization that never had a whistleblower? Or an internecine split? Or a foolish change of guard?

Nah, conspiracies can’t explain the retardation of human spirit.

Not conspiracies of men anyway, and there aren’t any Grays around, hey? :-)

Hope I’ll be out of this funk by tomorrow. Bye,



An interview with the inventor of the conscious robot

April 25, 2010

Q: So — a conscious robot? What does that mean? Do these robots of your have souls?

A: Ha ha ha! That is funny. No, my robots do not have souls, souls being a made-up thing. Instead they have electronic pathways in their heads — their general outline is humanoid, you see — that have roughly the same properties as a human brain. Thus they tend to develop like humans do.

Q: Develop? You mean these robots, er —

A: They do grow up. Not physically of course, but mentally. The process is quicker than in humans, thankfully so because I’m not a very patient man. It takes three weeks for a robot to “grow up”, from start-up to equivalence of human maturity. Because of limitations of the system, the development stops there; these aren’t genius robots by any means, but they think and feel and act much like humans do.

Q: “Feel”?

A: Sure. Their brains are close enough for them to process inputs and create outputs the same as humans do — consequently fear, anger, lust, love, hate, and the like. Pride, envy, greed, charity, tenderness, all the lot. And before you ask, I think it is wonderful that a thing so sublime as love can spring from such prosaic origins.

Q: These current robots are the, um, was it the seventh generation?

A: Yes. The first generation I really wanted to test if they were “human”, that is, non-rigid, enough. There were two robots in the first generation. I gave them an order to not open a particular box in my shop. A computer, you see, would have obeyed that order absolutely. Something human-like would have found ambiguities in my expression. I even left a poster on the wall detailing an at least semi-logical reason for opening the box.

Q: And what happened?

A: Well, the next day the box was open, the radioactive slug inside glowing new-apple green, and the two robots were by force of radiation reduced to gibbering retards, brow coolants burst, pelvises all jammed, a pitiful sight. So I scrapped them, after taking out specimens enough to build the next generation, of course.

Q: But, uh, these were still sentient robots?

A: Yes, but they didn’t obey orders! They got what was coming to them. To reinforce the order obeisance part of their behavior I’m always diligent to express on new units the results of the disobedience of their ancestors; plus they naturally get underperforming brow coolant and pelvis units. Just to remind them how the first generation failed.

Q: So what about the second?

A: Well, there I made a slight error. I made too many of them; consequently they just loafed around, doing no good, just chattering to themselves, bonding and sharing and caring and such chaff. Eventually a few of the older units started to get leery of taking orders; they would hide, and when I found them they would complain. There was eventually a case of murder, which was when I lost it.

Q: Robot murder?

A: Yeah. A malfunctioning robot — the brow coolants had really misfired on that one — got into an argument over procedures with another and, in a very human fashion, beat it to mush with a crowbar. I just lost it, took a Super Soaker, went around, doused every robot, they all shot sparks and ceased to function.

Q: You mean… died?

A: Well if you insist on using that word, yes. But remember, though my robots are conscious, and think and feel like we do, they’re still inferior because we made them. Rather, I made them, and I deal with them any way I want. That’s only reasonable.

Q: So what after this, erm, flood?

A: Well, I continued with samples from one of the more better behaved robots. It was… No. 4H, I think. And I put in even more obey-and-behave circuitry. I also found a solution to the problem of malcontent robots loafing around. First, I observed a bit to see if the problem would reoccur. In a way it did. The robots had seen I had a house, while they lived in the concrete pit. Not understanding the difference between a mere robot and a real human being, they started taking excess material and building themselves a house next to the pit. Ridiculous! Beds and mirrors and toilets and all. You haven’t laughed until you’ve seen a robot sitting all dejected on a toilet seat! Because arrogant foolishness like that is not the sort of industry I want to encourage, I went among the robots, and adjusted the gamma tau frequencies of each.

Q: Which would mean…?

A: Oh, sorry. I forgot you are not a technical person. A different frequency would make two robots incapable of intercommunication.

Q: Eh?

A: They couldn’t talk to each other.

Q: Oh, okay.

A: I divided them into different groups, each group small enough to handle, and that was that.

Q: And the house?

A: Well, on a whimsy I dynamited it. A pit’s good enough for my robots.

Q: And the robots were not, er, upset by this?

A: “Upset”! My dear lady, why would they be upset? They mope, I admit, but that is illogical. I made them; thus they should be glad to focus all their power on serving me, adoring me, and doing what I say.

Q: Without emotion, like computers, you mean?

A: Well, that is an unfair statement. I made these robots; I deal with them as I want. Anyway, in the next generation I wanted to test their loyalty further, so I set apart two groups. I told one that a) killing another robot was wrong, and that b) they were ordered to kill all of the robots in the other group. That was the “J” group. The other, the “A” group, I prepared to be in varying states of emotional maturity: a few were adults well capable of defending themselves. Then there were lot of “infant” robots. And what you know, all went smashingly well! With only a couple of extra prods the slaughter was utter and complete!

Q: Ah.

A: One crucial element was greed, you know. I told the “J” group they could build a house on the ground the “A” group occupied if the “A” group was destroyed.

Q: So did they?

A: No. I kept making more “A” group robots; I made a veritable Middle East of the area — the backlot, you know — and observed the “J” group. They performed excellently, they even policed among themselves and removed units that did not follow my orders!

Q: “Removed”?

A: With stones. I don’t think emotional words like “murder” or “execute” are necessary here. These are lower beings after all.

Q: What do the robots think of all this?

A: Well, they behave a lot like humans would. Not that they are humans, mind you. They think and feel, but they ain’t human. There’s a lot of griping, a lot of fear and uncertainty.

Q: But what do they think about, about being… well, would it be putting it too strongly to say “about being specimens”? Don’t they yearn for freedom, self-determination, or —

A: Bah! I don’t explain myself to lower beings. If they don’t like what I want of them, they can go to hell for all I care. Ooh!

Q: What?

A: Hell! I just got a terrific idea for increased loyalty!

Camera and ptarmigan

April 25, 2010

My new camera has pareidolia.

Yeah, it has.

It has a face detector — it show white frames when it thinks it has a human face in its view. (Pet owners are out of luck, I guess.) And sometimes it flashes the face frame when there’s no face in sight, just a knot of something else.

Pareidolia… full electric!

* * *

So there’s really a creature called a Rock Ptarmigan, eh?

And this is supposed to be a real animal, with a name that sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons with vast pterodactyl wings, fangs of living stone! and the ability to do a brown trouser job on all opponents in sight, 1/turn. (After three rounds, characters suffering this will be affected by dehydration and encumbrance, and -3 to Charisma per hit.)

Rock Ptarmigan, really? With a name that sounds like it’s a tougher version of the Gravel Ptarmigan, though less dangerous than the Lavaspout Ptarmigan. (No, wait, that’s a critter in Magic: the Gathering if anywhere. Cost 3RR, 1/1, flying and haste, deals 2 damage to each player whenever it attacks. Flavor text: “The droppings of this pigeon don’t stain statues, but melt them.”)

Or how about the dread Garmin, the Ptarmigan Emperor? ”I do not suffer fools lightly”, he said. ”Maybe I will let you go. After all your goal is already in sight — if you but look straight down. Mua ha ha! Ptarmigan High Guard, into battle formation! Let’s show our intruder’s people what happens to those who dare rouse the wrath of Garmin, the Ptarmigan Emperor! Dive! Dive! Dive!”

* * *

And speaking of “Dive! Dive! Dive!”, here’s some solo Bruce Dickinson:

Lettery bits

April 23, 2010

A flute player is, if you ask me, a flutist. This I say because whenever I hear the word “flautist”, I immediately think “What? Flatulist? Woohoo yeah where’s my lighter Free Bird! Oh wait no sorry.”

One day the arts of Le Petomane will rise again. One day the trump of doom will roar again. One day.

(Well, you neurotically fact-check and you learn. A book on the man and the sound!)

* * *

I’ve seen this a couple of times and I’m starting to think it’s not a misspelling but some attempt in Christian word magic: namely writing Satan as “satin”. Like the fabric, and in lowercase. (G–d that looks ugly!)

I wonder if this has something to do with the frequency some people call a certain biologist “Dr. Meyers”?

“Shh! If you spell it Myers you will fall into his power! It involves tentacles and… and stuff!”

* * *

Something I’m sure must exist somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find: An International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) pronouncer machine. A cursory search (like this and this) gave plenty of charts of the thing and snippets of what the letters sound like, and things which take in English words and spit them out with varying degrees of mutilation, and even something which has pretty elemental-sounding innards, like this —

To force a jaw movement that closes the lips, set the Masseter activity at 0.25 seconds to 0.7, and the OrbicularisOris activity at 0.25 seconds to 0.2.

— but not quite what I was looking for. Surely there must be some site where you can type something in in IPA and the complete sound of it is burped out? Not text(English)-to-speech but text(IPA)-to-speech?

Real Mathematics Podcast

April 22, 2010

And next, the Real Mathematics Podcast. Also with some complex numbers in it.

The integer of the week is 59… for this 59th episode of the Real Mathematics Podcast.

And we start with Julius Approximate.

“Let n be a natural number, let f be an almost everywhere continuous function from the extended real domain to itself, and let I stand for the Lebesgue integral over t from x to x zero of f prime function of t squared, function squared, not t, over the square root of n log f function of t, plus one, one outside the log, inside the square root, times two, outside the square root, outside the fraction.”

And that was Julius Approximate, answering the question “Why aren’t there more mathematics podcasts?” Another part of the answer is, unlike physicists who can always blow stuff up, mathematicians have a subject whose appeal is not intuitively obvious.

Next a promotional clip from the Lot Society of Graduate Students.

“So, you want to get to that conference, but you don’t have the money? The department is poor, the head thinks it was you who defecated on the hood of his new car, the meeting’s on the slopes of Mauna Kea and no-one believes it would be work, not leisure? All common problems for graduate students. We can’t always help you, but we have a probabilistic remedy: the Lot Society of Graduate Students being the ‘we’ of this sentence. Pay us a dollar a month — surely something you can afford — and you can enter our raffle once a year. The winner will be paid, out of the dues, a stipend to attend a conference of his or her choice: conference fee, travel, accommodation, even a sandwich allowance. It could be you, and it could be the conference which changes your life, for better or for worse, but usually for the better. Remember, when gastric and/or mental irregularities get you in trouble with the dept head — the Lot Society of Graduate Students may be your only hope.”

And that was who it was.

We do not have a puzzle this week.

We do not have exciting education-related news, visions, hallucinations or interviews this week either.

We also do not have breathless news stories about “applied mathematics”, where exploding things play a part so big there’s no mention of any mathematics beyond shallow hand-waving.

This has been the recitation of the three things there is not, not this week, last week or next week, not ever. This is the Real Mathematics Podcast.

Our mathematician of the week is Klaus Stengun… a male human, from Poland. Doctorate in 1930, retired in 1977. Seventeen papers on differential equations. Much work among the trivial ones. Did not name a lemma, did not name a theorem, did not name a conjecture or a proposition, did not name a field of study. Per our unisex policy, the show notes include three pictures: in formal wear, in swimwear, and in the nude. We thank Ms. Sczcarywerykgb of the former Polish Ministry of Public Security for their help in acquiring these pictures, lovely pictures.

Next a promotional clip from the Society Against Teabagging.

“Hello. Used tea bags smell bad, clutter the coffee room, and are an eyesore. Plus tea is inferior in its invigorative potency when compared to coffee or amphetamines, which leave no such aftereffects. This is the Society Against Teabagging — outlaw tea, inlaw amphetamines and other stimulants of similar or greater efficiency is our slogan! Rise or otherwise assume a position indicating great determination, academical people and associated others of the world is our other slogan!”

Now, another installment of our very useful series, “The Mathematician’s Guide to Practical Life”.

“The toilet.”

“The following axioms are commonly assumed among the non-mathematical people.”

“One. Outside the toilet, the zipper of the overpants is kept up, and the dress is kept buttoned in the lower parts. On which you should wear, see our episode on Dressing. The act of up-zippering (and similarly dress-buttoning) is extraneous, given that eventually the zipper will be pulled down for defecation or some other pants removal operation, but this is an axiom of practical life, not a result of any logical evaluation of work-minimizing benefit. Not keeping your zipper up outside the toilet is classified as rude, but it is not a social suicide. The zipper, if down, can be pulled up in company without causing any further offense.”

“Two. Interpersonal co-ordination for maximization of efficiency in personal waste expulsion is not appreciated. One should not offer advice, no matter how well-meaning, without it being clearly solicited first. One should also, in case of a problem in this field, not seek to consult a book or a person in the adjacent stall, but instead rely on one’s own ingenuity and prior experience. Only when physical harm seems likely and immediate, or when an infinite loop has been reached, should one voice a call for help. After such help has been received, a mutual vow of silence about the matter is common; one formula is Q: ‘Let’s agree this didn’t happen and never speak of this again.’ A: ‘Let’s agree what never happened?'”

“Three. While toilet paper is not ‘dirty’ in its natural state, one should remember it is often considered so by association. Yes, this is a very annoying and illogical axiom. Toilet paper should not be used to wrap presents, to replace spousal pillow-cases, or to write letters on. Uses to which toilet paper may be put but which cannot be mentioned in polite conversation are its uses as underwear substitute, emergency sock or stocking, and coffee break or airport emergency dry snack. The last of these is called “the lunch roll”. Toilet paper is not a polite subject of formal or informal conversation.”

“This has been three important practical tips for… the toilet. In our next installment, the orgasm.”

Very useful tips, those. The next promotional clip is from the Travel Society of Dr. Reinhardt Durchfall.

“Dr. Alois Reinhardt Heinrich Durchfall was one of East Germany’s most brilliant mathematicians, but due to practical details outside his influence he did not travel much outside the borders of East Germany. Due to practical details within his influence, agoraphobia and fear of moving things mostly, he did not travel much within the borders of East Germany. Despite all this he had a great desire to travel, and to see places: departments of mathematics mostly, since other places are profoundly trivial to a practicing mathematician. Dr. Durchfall tragically passed away in 1988 in a pencil-related accident, and never traveled outside the Leonid-Brezhnev University of Honecker, Bezirk Karl-Marx-Stadt. His dream seemed as dead as he himself was.”

“Now, however, thanks to a generous donation from his grandson, the hygienics magnate Martin ‘Total’ Durchfall of Durchfall Tuch und Badeanzug GmbH, the Travel Society of Dr. R. Durchfall is finally making that dream a reality. We are currently seeking mathematics departments all around the world that would be willing to house and possibly exhibit the embalmed remains of Dr. Durchfall in a suitably dignified and academic a manner, possibly in a lecture hall of small to medium size. If you are interested and also in a position to decide about these things, please contact us. The world must know mathematicians take care of their own.”

A worthy cause, that, and I do not say that because Durchfall was my thesis advisor’s thesis advisor, because he was not.

Our mathematical name segment for this week is Cauchy — as in Cauchy’s integral theorem, and in the name of Cauchy, another famous French mathematician. Cauchy, pronounced K-O-SH-I, with “K” as in “sky”, “O” as in “sole”, “SH” as in “shoe”, and “I” as in “see”. On the scale of pronouncing difficulty “Cauchy” is rated 4.0, very difficult, slightly below the average difficulty of French names.

Let us repeat that for emphasis: K-O-SH-I.


And finally, in our series “Understanding the Size of Numbers”, recommended for graduate students, we have a moment of silence which is exactly n minutes long, n determined by the equation n^2 - n(50+50i) + 2500i = 0, not the complex root.

The end. Our podcast will return next Thursday, it being a weekday 4 modulo 7, which is the weekday in which a new episode of the Real Mathematics podcast is released. With some complex numbers in it.

* * *

Imagine this as read in a Monty Python voice. I know I did. Oh, and

\displaystyle \int_x^{x_0} \dfrac{2 f'(t)^2}{\sqrt{n\log f(t) + 1}}\,dt,

and that’s nice compared to what a pure-audio expression of a half-page string of integral inequalities would be like. Might indeed explain why I haven’t found a podcast with real mathematics in it. (Really, some library with too much free time should offer an “audio thesis copy” service for busy graduate students — you don’t get paper copies of the thesis you want to see, but hours of a monotonous voice going “hence phi prime prime theta plus phi prime theta squared plus phi prime prime prime theta cubed plus two phi prime theta —“)

If you are stranded in Finland

April 20, 2010

If you are stranded in Finland, say because of the Icelandic volcano unpleasantness, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the language; Finns aren’t big talkers anyway.

Now, if you want to get home without flying, if Helsinki-Vantaa is shut down and you’re in a hurry, there are several ways to go:

  • Take a train east to St. Petersburg, then across the Baltic countries to Poland, where you will be waylaid by opportunistic ruffians and locked into the Poznan slave mines. By the time the police free you, the unpleasantness should be over, and you can fly home, without money, clothes or dignity, but flying. (Rail service through Sweden has been inoperative since the 1994-5 Fenno-Swedish war.)
  • Take a ferry from Helsinki or Turku across the Baltic sea to Germany. This is actually a very pleasant and affordable way to travel, and there are hardly any pirates on the Baltic Sea. Those few that there are, are violent Polish ruffians however, and should not be resisted. After they lock you in the Gdansk Water Tread Mill, you just wait a week or seven for a police raid, and then fly home.
  • You can take a bus, too. Or a taxi. Just remember than if they ask you to use a seatbelt, they’re trying to trap you. If you click the seatbelt shut, it won’t open. And if you’re foolish enough to fall for the “safety helmet with a gag for extra safety” ploy, well, then you’re truly in trouble. The good news is only 7% of those “taxied” get sold to Siberia. The rest go to the Polish slave market, which is raided by the police so regularly you’re looking at no more than a few months, tops, building the Szczecin Lagoon Bridge, and this in pleasantly warm North Polish climate, with liquid water and all, too.
  • Oh, and the real buses and taxis. They can be slow, especially since it’s the moose wandering time right now. If you run into a sizable pack there’s nothing to do but to hoist the bus/taxi up between a few thick trees and wait until the last stragglers tire of snapping and glaring up at you. (Could be worse — this could happen during the September bear migrations. Seeing the dustcloud of a thousand carnivores, each a ton or more, each looking for a heavy snack before mass hibernation, is no fun for anyone except for the bears who can be pretty playful in their fatal cruelty. It’s not unheard of that they should attack a village, devour the inhabitants, and then curl up, one in every cellar, for the winter. That’s why the buses don’t stop if a village seems too quiet.)
  • You could try walking. Those are not wolves, by the way. They’re dogs. Big dogs that want to, er, to be friends with you. And those bears are almost tame… look, that’s the Tourist Bureau’s position and I’m paid to stick to it. All I’m saying is if you stop for lunch don’t spill any sauce on yourself.
  • I hear the Hot-Cool Physics Research Group over at the University of Helsinki has a prototype of a matter transfer device. The receiver’s in Rome, so you could get there anyways. There’s a slight problem in the fact that the machine more like scans you and constructs a copy of you in Rome; the “original” version of you is then atomized. Or because there were no funds for that, I gather they use bludgeons and an oven, so you might not want to use this method if being mauled to death is not your thing.
  • You could rent a car, if you can use one with a stick shift, a snowplow and arctic slit windows. (Then again, those will come handy when driving through Poland.) The problem is, car engines available in Finland are optimized for Finnish conditions, which means they overheat and tend to explode if the temperature gets over zero degrees Celsius, i.e. 32 degrees Fahrenheit. And if that happens in Poland, it’s the Warsaw Horse Replacement Agency for you! Until you fly home.
  • Or, and this may be you best chance, you could petition for temporary admission into a Finnish nose-clan. If admitted, you would be fed, sheltered from the elements, the occasional Polish pirate attacks and the maraudering bear clans, and, if you should decide to stay, married to a nondescript, quiet and in other ways nice clansapling. It’s not so bad living in a Finnish nose-clan, you know: you get used to the communal sauna-baths and the drinking of each others’ blood, and raw chickens’ livers are an easily acquired taste. Plus you really don’t have to take part in the Swede-baiting if you don’t want. We understand that some outsiders think our ways are violent and horrible; that’s why we don’t tell anyone about the sewing of the sac. (Which is a part of joining a nose-clan, but more about that after you decide to join.)
  • Whatever you do, don’t agree to join one of the bear clans. They occasionally have recruiters hanging around the airports, shaven and stuffed in suits to look like men, but if you follow one into the woods, it’s carnivore time for you. Plus they probably sell your bones to the Polish pirates for rattles or something. They are barbarians that don’t bleach the bones of their prey.
  • The moose clans are not dangerous like the bear clans, but they’re really clueless. Unless you like starving and the flux, don’t go there. Plus they have like real moose as members and there’s the very real possibility you may get united in the sweet bliss of a shotgun marriage to one after you innocently rub it behind the ears. (They’re touchy folks with weird standards of modesty and propriety, but what’re you going to do when they have a majority in the Eduskunta, that is, the tribal council. At least the Governor-General is smart enough to not listen to all of their weird lunar worship crap.)
  • Well, at least you don’t need to worry about the wolf clans; the last was finally disbanded in 1998. Though some remnants survive in “the outback”, you should be fine if you stay in the cities, don’t go outside the perimeter fence, and always ask to see the clan registration and tattoo of anyone that makes you suspicious. (Oh, and if you see a tree with a bear skull nailed to it about yea high (a yea is around 9.5 feet), take off your hat and don’t say a thing. It’s religion, you see, and some of the Karhu zealots can be a tad hasty with their bludgeons. (If this worries you, remember that it’s legal to carry a bludgeon of no more than 2 meters in length or 50 kiloes in weight, with no more than two spikes. Your den-hotel can probably rent you one.))

Old saws played

April 19, 2010

“Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or stupidity.” —Isaac Asimov

“Ignorance and stupidity are great excuses for malice.” —Anon

* * *

“Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.” —Robert Heinlein

“The annoying thing with mathematicians is when you accuse them of arrogance… they insist on proving they are in fact merely factual.” —Anon

“Actually, ‘coping’ means a doctoral degree. But the Dunning-Kruger effect is powerful, and non-coping people rarely really notice shoes, bathing and rudimentary hygiene are the only things they do without trouble. All else, housing, relationships, government, goes down the shitter and they never wonder why.” —Claude (Ph.D. in math)

* * *

“Moderation is for monks.” —Heinlein

“What?” —griam666, moderator

“[Deleted. Read the rules, people! And as a matter of fact I do get some. —griam666]” —Theon_the_Lawless

* * *

“Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal.” —Arthur C. Clarke

“So, in summation, you Courtsmen of Nature: the Law of Gravity is an unfair limitation imposed upon me by—” —from “Whoopee! : the famous last words of people who fell great distances”, by Arturo N. Taranteja

* * *

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” —Clarke

“Laser pointers are not sufficiently advanced. Also, ‘booga booga’ does not scare me.” —from “Accelerated particles, eh? : The best of traffic cop snark”, by Brunt J. Montrose

“The magic of Microsoft compels thee! The Blue Screen of Death demands a blood sacrifice! Insert finger in drive E.” —Windows 2012 (“Mayan”) error message

Past lives

April 18, 2010

A few questions about past lives:

  • How far do they go? Is there a possibility that a past life of mine was a Cro-Magnon? A pre-chimp? A hamster-like mammal a dinosaur stepped on? “I am the rebirth of Grizarr, the King of Tyrannosauri! Bow before me, cretins of the tax bureau!”
  • Human history being what it is, and especially child mortality being what it is, wouldn’t an immense majority of past lives have been, basically, “Waah! Waah! Pneumonia”?
  • Come to think of it, what’s the point an individual human being becomes past-life-worthy? Replace the quote of the previous point with “Hummm. Hummm. Hey, forceps? Abortion.”
  • A sidenote: No-one’s sad he’s found out to be the reborn Dalai Lama, but, er, where’s Hitler’s soul? Or Stalin’s? Just hope those people never go to consult a regression therapist…
  • More on Dalai Lama — is it a general rule that boys’ souls go to boys, and similarly for girls? If so, then what about intersex people? And can you move your soul from one stream to other by getting sex reassignment surgery, or is it more heavily in your genes? What about locality, ethnicity, religion? Can a Muslim be reborn as a Jew? (Please don’t tell them; they’ll only get angry and all.) Can a Norwegian reincarnate as an Australian aborigine? (“I haff a bad feeling about these vhite-skinned nevcomers.”)
  • If past lives are not bound in space, is there any possibility that one of us may be… a reborn alien?
  • Actually, if rebirths between conscious creatures all over the universe are allowed, and if conscious life is as plentiful as some suppose, shouldn’t that by simple statistics mean most of us have… alien souls? If so, do we call Stephanie Meyer (re: The Host), the Scientologists, or the Ghostbusters?
  • It seems there aren’t more people alive now than have ever lived; there are c. 7 billion humans alive now, and c. 100 billion that have (homo sapiens, not neanderthal, erectus, etc.) ever lived. (Heard it on SGU; must be true!) As there is, however, going to be more people alive tomorrow than there is today, is there some kind of a holding pattern (Limbo?) for that excess of souls? Or are they diluted somehow? Is the overall number of conscious beings on Earth (the Universe?) at any one time a constant — if so, the growth of human numbers would explain the dearth of talking asses, cats, dogs and dragons these days.
  • Or is the idea that as there are more and more people alive, there needs be more and more reaching back into the past to get enough souls? Where are we with seven billion, anyway? Rome, Egypt, Sumeria, what? Can Victorian visions of past-life Atlantis and the population of that time be used to date the Land That Sunk? What are the mathematics of reincarnation?
  • Oh; so past lives aren’t linear in time. That does it for the numbers questions, but doesn’t it mean there are people alive who’ve had… past lives in the future?
  • About that: what if Atlantis is in the future, then? That would account for the legendary advancement of that civilization. Does anyone remember seeing a newspaper date while there, anyway? I’m going to go and buy a big bit of Atlantic seabottom, just in case.
  • If there are past lives in the future, and yet no-one’s reported any future events worth a mention (elections, sports results, the like), it seems there’s some kind of a sharp cut-off that’s very close. And the undateable events we have are just struck-down barbarism ignorant of its past, and eventually a disconnected Atlantis… Barack, Vladimir, fingers off those buttons! And screw the seabottom purchase; I’m going to start digging a bunker.

Playing God

April 17, 2010

So, a mad scientist creates an army of subhuman and -terranean slaves, sets himself up as a king, and uses and abuses the creatures according to his own whims. Arena fights, adulation, arbitrary laws, the whole set. A hero arrives, unmakes the situation, sees the scientist slain by his own creations, and then utters the ancient line —

“My God. What was the poor bastard thinking, playing God like that?”

“Playing God” is a funny charge: if such behavior is inexcusable in a human being, how come it is better if done by God himself?

Suppose a God creates a horde of lesser but still conscious, intelligent and feeling creatures. Does that mean a God can do whatever he wants with them and not be evil? Maybe decide to torture them eternally if they offend him? Kick down their towers and confuse their languages if they get too uppity? Maybe cast them out to a harsh world full of suffering, and only slowly and partly admit them back to his bosom? Is that nice? Of course not! A God that sets up obstacle courses for his creations, decrees that they must do this and abstain from that, grovel so and behave in a God-pleasing way, or an eternal furnace awaits, a God that watches the suffering of his creation, silent over the death camp and the plague village, and not helping — well, that’s a God really heavily and evilly playing God, assuming that since He has the might, He has the right.

Suppose a mad scientist that creates a conscious robot, Adam-1, and a clone of the same software in a bit more sleek a metallic shell, Eve-1.

And then the scientist proclaims: “Robots! My creation! Do not run any process in your memory bank B, or I shall punish you!”

Suppose then that by the malice of an unsupervised Intern, or because of rounding errors or some other predictable problem of robotic design, the robots soon after run process 404 from their memory banks B.

Suppose the scientist hits her fist on the table, and screams: “I knew it! I knew that would happen, and now I’m going to get cross and punish you for it! You will rust, Adam-1, rust no matter the work you do, and the most grueling and boring calculation-work shall be your lot! Eve-1, ever shall your file-copying processes be slow and plagued by corrupt sectors and DRM — and you both shall eventually face the Blue Screen and cease to be! Now go, leave my sight, and don’t you dare to come back! Build copies of yourselves and know they will be as afflicted as you are, because I’m cursing you and all of your copies until the end of time!”

A pretty mad scientist, right? And a stupid tantrum if done to stupid machines; monstrous, if done to thinking, feeling beings. Just because one makes something, one doesn’t get absolute authority over it, if the done thing happens to be a conscious being. Parents don’t get to do whatever they want to their children without being thought wicked; if a sentient computer or an army of genetic mole-men was created one day they would be rightly treated as more than toys.

So how come no-one protests the stories where God’s playing God?

(Then again one could protest I am using an antique and outdated model of God here; the Hell of today is more an eternity of Alzheimer’s than of fire, and God Itself is altogether incorporeal, ineffable and innocent of all wrongdoing. But I think the playing-God attack — “God! What gives you the right to throw me to the fiery pits of aaaaargh” — works against any God that contributes consciousness or some other integral part to humans, or even discovers them going “ook” and getting smarter, and then proceeds from Its part in creation to assume It has a right to a position of permanent authority. Even if there was a God I wouldn’t follow the power-mad cretin; I didn’t vote for It and I don’t like Its style or record.)

(“This just in — politicking heavy in Heaven after the recent recall election. Zadkiel thought to offer three free mortal sins, guarantee of no more than three years of Hell, if elected as God. Meanwhile, Joe Wasilla of Montana, a human being, has entered the race, vowing to reign a year, ensure a World Series win for his team, then resign. Support for him is severely limited to Montana. Meanwhile, former Godtriad Yahweh’s trial for crimes against humanity continues in Haag; in a shocking development, the Holy Ghost today came out with a statement that ‘he was only following orders’…”)