Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

A Dead Beat comment

February 22, 2012

It’s potentially very embarrassing to write commentary on something after having read only a part of it, but here goes: after Dead Beat, book 7 of the 13 currently available of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, I am torn.

Mild spoilers follow.

In Dead Beat, our hero Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only publicly practising wizard, has among all his other problems a fallen angel trapped inside his mind.

A fallen angel that is nothing but helpfulness and sweetness, promising all kinds of help if Harry would just co-operate, but Harry has a problem with the “fallen angel” part.

I don’t know if I do.

This is probably because I’m an atheist and I don’t come with good prejudices to the White God, the Dresdenverse Christian God that possibly exists and if so, probably is just some kind of a spirit. (See endnote.)

Thus I don’t feel good just accepting the idea that, duh, it’s an angel fallen away from God, it can’t be good. And though the readers have seen some other fallen angels that were real bastards, they have not seen this one do anything evil. They’ve heard one Michael, Harry’s friend and a sword-bearing Christian, describe this one as the Seducer, the Webweaver, the Temptress. As one who may at first seem reasonable and give you power and wisdom but then bam! she’ll take your soul, corrupt you, possess you and whatnot.

It’s an interesting place to be in: to see this as the thing Harry believes, and that probably is true in the world of the story… and still have this suspicion in my head, whispering: “Well, that’s what someone like Michael would say, isn’t it? Who is no longer on his God’s side is all evil, all the time! Death to defectors! Uninformed prejudiced propaganda bullshit!”

I’m probably forgetting many details (and because of fear of spoilers can’t go looking for them), but that’s my view of the thing. I would end with something like, “good and evil are often more nuanced than these blanket denunciations issued by simple men of action, and one does not need to be God’s good to not be evil” — but that sounds like a fallen angel line.

* * *

Endnote, on the White God as the faeries call him. It seems Dresden’s faerie folk are not Christians, and not especially damned either; I’ve seen no religion in them, and they don’t seem to give a wizard’s cuss about the supposed Big-G God. Are they then outside the dominion of this world’s Christian God, making Him a spirit not unlike the Winter and Summer Queens of faerie? Do the faeries have afterlives?

Do Dresdenverse’s humans?

In Dead Beat Harry meets his father’s ghost — and no sooner it appears than Harry says, this must be a hallucination brought by exhaustion; again, very cleverly, Butcher keeps ambiguous about the real-world-religion thing, for obvious reasons. It’s not a good marketing move in America, I think, to say “The Christian God exists but is this lesser limited lord of a part of the world!” (I can’t even say if it means anything pro or con that the irritating Christian sinfighter and wife team of Michael and Charity Carpenter, note the ha-ha surname, is not from the most pleasant and easygoing end of the Christian pool. Sweet Lucifer, the uncharitable prissiness of those people!)

And we’ve seen an afterlife of Harry’s mother, in Blood Rites I think, but only as a magical voicemail. So Heaven and Hell — Dresdenverse canon or not? Do I even want to… well of course I do; must keep reading.

Or is the Dresdenverse God just a fiction, since Harry frequently stresses that emotion, faith alone, deep honest conviction alone, is enough to power and empower the magic the Knights of the Cross and similar folks do? (I think that on that Michael the holy knight would say Harry is in a bit of denial, and I’m neck deep next to the pyramids, but that’s just the “you’re close-minded!” line Christians and placebo-merchants always say, isn’t it? One shouldn’t postulate Gods, when magic is enough to explain things.)

I don’t think the books have had an angel in them so far; so is it possible the fallen angels of the Denarius band are something else, some other creatures who like play-acting and having the Knights as their chew toys? And if there are angels in Dresdenverse, who says they can’t be liars too — or also confused between faith-is-magic and faith-implies-God?

Or perhaps this is one of those settings where all myths and religions are true. In which case, huge problems since the definition of “monotheism” is, there is but one God and he is this God of mine. If all religions are true, then many gods must be weaker than promised in the original texts. (Or there is this big hovering vague all-good God who has no position on abortion and homosexuality and isn’t Christian, Jewish or Muslim but goody good; I hate that noncommittal spectre and the writerly good sense and cowardice it implies.)

(Wait — did I just call “not pissing off the majority of your potential readers” “cowardice”? Dear fnord!)

See — being an atheist makes everything funner!

Rules

February 8, 2012

Everyone has an opinion.

Everyone has “facts”. Most of these are not facts.

The easiest place is not between two extremes.

The correct opinion is not always between two extremes. (“Well, but don’t liberate the slaves too much.“)

There’s always someone more extremer than thou.

Don’t whistle while pissing; that attracts the pissbears.

Corollary: Paranoia is easy.

You are not special.

Corollary 1: “I strongly feel” is not a good argument.

Corollary 2: Your experiences are not the sum of the total of human experience.

Corollary 3: The sum of the total of human experience isn’t all there is.

Corollary 3b: Tradition is overrated.

“Do good” is about as useful a guide as “Turn right”. (“Universal guide to arriving to Las Vegas: Turn right!”)

There are stupid questions.

Corollary 1: Aardvark whatever us charley horse a state?

Corollary 2: Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

Corollary 3: Assuming this is a good thing and this is an evil thing, which do you think is gooder?

You should ask even the stupid questions.

Corollary 1: Colorado!

Corollary 2: Mu.

Corollary 3: The first one; and about your model of the world and the world itself, a few words…

Negatives and certainties

October 25, 2011

I

It is impossible to prove a negative, I hear.

This strikes me as a very stupid statement. (Then again, I don’t know anything about philosophy.)

In pure logic; in mathematics, say, proving a negative is the easiest thing in the world. “There is no even prime greater than two.” That’s a negative; it is proven in one line.

(“A Proof. An even number is divisible by two. Kapow!”)

(Well, okay. “And if that number is greater than two, it has two as a divisor and thus cannot be a prime, i.e. a number whose only divisors are one and itself. Any number you’d suggest, its demise I attest. KAPOW!”)

In real life (which I know considerably less about), you don’t ever prove anything, never, so not being able to prove a negative is a true statement, but not a particularly deep one.

Real life is a mess, you see: anything you claim you know about real life might be just a hallucination, a misunderstanding, a really convoluted mistake, or a lie. Real life has no “proof” that Copenhagen exists; just really good evidence, leading us to assume that why yes, that mermaid statue is there for real. There are people who say they’ve been to Copenhagen; there are satellite pictures, webcams, the like. It could all be a giant hoax, or a mistake (“Did I say Copenhagen? I meant Bielefeld!”) — but the most sensible interpretation of the observations is Copenhagen is there.

(Just for note: I don’t think I’m playing any postmodernist games here; I’m just a mathematician trying to express what I’ve heard scientists to say.)

And the negative in real life — well, you can be pretty sure there’s no unicorn behind you, watching you.

Don’t look; keep reading.

First, on a general level, the non-existence of unicorns is about as certain as the existence of Copenhagen: there’s no carcass, no photo of one; there’s no particular reason why a unicorn should exist; it is one in a bestiary of similarly no-show Medieval beasties; known “unicorn horns” are narwhal tusks; and so on. Unicorns could be invisible and immaterial; but there could be a hallucinogenic anomaly that makes people believe in Copenhagen, too. “Could” is not “is”, not even “likely is”.

If there is no good reason to think unicorns exist, there’s no good reason to think one is watching you.

I said don’t look. They don’t like it.

There’s no way to conclusively prove your non-watchedness; but reality is not a game that has a visible set of rules, like mathematics or Magic: the Gathering. In Magic, there’s no deep existential doubt about the number of cards in your hand; in mathematics, a set of four has four elements in it and no mistake. In real life the rule set is hidden, and we perceive it only through its effects, and the effects are dastardly complicated, and we can’t ever consult the rulebook. We just try new plays and try to figure out which rules are acting when the universe kicks us in the nuts. We could be missing “except”-clauses for a long time; we could be operating and testing in just an “except”-clause of a greater rule until we come up with something clever.

We’re assuming just that there are rules; the rest is conjecture.

When you’re playing that kind of an uncertain game, it’s silly to get stuck on not being able to prove negatives; in real life, you can’t prove anything. You just try to convince yourself and others, just try to sidle closer to truth. Every negative is a unicorn watching you; the negative proof is impossible in theory, and approximately doable in practice.

As regards actually being watched by a unicorn, the most stringent observers tend to be convinced that not being watched by one is the bet to make, the one to live your life by, the one to consider true when choosing windows and security alarms. And if one day you will be found in your chair ravaged by hooves and a horn, eh, we’ll be wiser the next day. (You, probably not; but you’ll get a footnote in a zoology manual. “First confirmed unicorn victim”, page 53.)

The reason why people talk about “proof” and “certainty” in real life is… eh, because people are dumb. That is, most people don’t realize how easy it is to be mistaken. I myself went through a phase when I thought anything in a book had to be true. Then I ran into a book by von Däniken.

The problem is, nothing has to be true just because it is written down.

Nothing has to be true just because it is in a published scientific paper, even.

Nothing has to be true because you feel like it, or because a teacher says it, or because everyone agrees about it.

The universe doesn’t give us answer sheets; there’s no ringing bell when we’re right about something. The universe gives us more than enough rope to hang ourselves by our mistakes. Because this is fucking scary, and also non-obvious, and because we have a limited lung capacity, we say “certain” and mean “as certain as I can imagine it being”; we say “proof” when we mean “all the evidence is for it”; and we say “truth” when we mean “truth, as far as we’ve found ways of testing it”. (Not “a truth”, but “an approximation of the truth”.)

That way, proving a negative is doable; and most times, that is enough for life.

* * *

II

The preceding is, as I understand it, what the middle part of this Matt Cartmill quote is about.

“As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life — so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.”

* * *

III

Tangentially related: this is what skepticism is about. I’m certain-with-footnote that there is no Bigfoot; that homeopathy has nothing in it; that there is no God, too. I’m not baldly, boldly CERTAIN because that’s more than I can honestly say; that’s for persons that have no subtlety.

But, and this is the important point, while not capital-C certain, I’m not an agnostic either. The question of Bigfoot is unsolvable in the deep philosophical sense either way; it could be really good in hiding, or any presented carcass could be a hoax (“This living Bigfoot is just manufactured to be like a Bigfoot!”); but the question is solvable in the practical sense, in the same sense that Copenhagen’s existence is solvable, and solves: in the sense of, “good enough, consistent enough, elegant and observation-fitting enough, for now”.

If you ask me — people usually don’t — skepticism in the practical sense doesn’t mean agnosticism, that is unwillingness to decide, or willingness to surrender to uncertainty. Skepticism means going for the best explanation, with all the evidence, with all the wits you got, while admitting there might come a better explanation come tomorrow. But until then, the findings of today will do. With enough days of that attitude, the next different day will be farther and farther away. It’s possible to be Right without being Certain of it.

* * *

IV

And, well, if you had a Cosmic Answer Sheet, or some Fundamental Oracle, how would you even know it was correct?

Maybe the first ten answers correspond to independent observations, to some extent. Maybe the first ten thousand. But maybe the thing is the work of some more advanced but still fallible scientist. Maybe it contains non-obvious untruths. A trivial mathematical example would be the fallacy of crossing out the sixes. It is true that

26/65 = 2/5

and

16/64 = 1/4,

but it would be a very bad idea to suppose those two examples serve to establish a general rule. Similarly, in real life, there were two centuries between Newton and Einstein that were full of people certain that time was fixed, and no funny business happened even if you moved really fast. Because getting to a fraction of c with a horsecart is difficult, the untruth (well, the incompleteness) was non-obvious; Newton seemed to be an Oracle.

Conversely, maybe the Absolute Tome is right, but you disregard it because your independent test is faulty, being based on an insufficient understanding of the nature of reality: the Tome is Wegener, and you’re unable to see how true its theory of plate tectonics is, because you reason from unsafe assumptions.

Well, the Sheet might try to convince you by saying it is infallible, but saying so doesn’t make it so.

The only way such a Cosmic Answer Sheet could work was if it gave the answers along with the route of arriving at them; but even then, those steps would need to be checked. (Come to think of it, that could be a Holy Book I would be willing to believe in: one that contained novel true statements whose truth could be independently checked and/or derived using given instructions. The usual offerings are not persuasive: “This unclear, many-valued, poetic past statement was about this concrete later past event or discovery!”; most “prophecies” are on the level of Assassinations foretold in Moby Dick.)

Even in math, if you had a collection of statements and one of them was “All of these statements are true”, it would not help you. That one statement could be either true or false with no contradiction, with no problem with the rules of the game. And I fear if you tried to improve that statement you’d end up in the wonderful nightmare land of set theory, which could just as well be named for Set, the Egyptian demon god of deserts and chaos.

* * *

V

To sum this all up: There is no certainty anywhere, but there are pretty good odds.

Crap you shall ever have with you

September 2, 2011

It’s not true that today is crap, or that yesterday had nothing but great art in it.

First, great works of art (or entertainment, or most categories you might be interested in) are sparse. You need to integrate over time as well as place to catch as many as you can; today alone is just a small sampling. It’s the sampling with the most modern sensibility in it, the sampling that is the easiest to relate to, and the most heavily publicized one… but there are deeper wells for most subjects you might be interested in.

Second, the past had just as much schlock, slavish imitation and shameless pandering as today has. Indeed, the world was ruled by it… as much as today is. We’ve just forgotten that, because the failures are easy to forget.

As I understand it, Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a pre-eminent bestselling author of the Victorian times. Most probably you’ve never heard of him, unless as the inventor of the line, “it was a dark and stormy night”. So, maybe, one day with J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. (I know J. K. Rowling has been said to be an insta-classic, Harry Potter a work that will last for all time — no doubt the same was said of Bulwer-Lytton. Then again, the enduringly famous Charles Dickens was an immensely popular Victorian novelist, too…)

The future will not remember Justin Bieber; it will remember… well, I have no idea who will be the lasting musical talent of our time. When I try to think of one, I come up with ones already active in the Eighties, already by now shown well resistant to time. I don’t know how to tell the difference between lasting acclaim and froth, if the target is still alive. If you look at lists of Hugo Awards or the Oscars, they are filled with works you’ve never heard of; only occasionally a classic intrudes. Might be that lasting talent of our time is not particularly famous right now; might be she or he is, or them are. What is certain is in fifty years people will look back at 2011 and sigh, dreaming a decline, hallucinating of the lofty, gifted, talent-filled, greed-free artistic scene of 2011.

And all those artists of older time, Renaissance and Medieval times and the like; I’m pretty sure the vast majority were talentless hacks that had a stroke of luck, or just knew how to suck up to their gullible audience. The audience may have been a few rich noble patrons instead of the mass market paperback crowd, but I believe the same dynamic applies: people cranking out portraits in raw imitation of that hot new guy Da Vinci; or laughing at that dabbler Bach when clearly the money, fame and legacy were in drinking songs for the royalty. (Then again, Gaudeamus Igitur.)

Exercise for the reader: take your favorite peeve about modern art/entertainment, and see where it fits into a Renaissance patron-based art/entertainment system. Then cry something about different days and same excrements.

Talking animals

August 29, 2011

Sometimes I wonder if it would be nice to write books for children.

Not ones that the child will a decade later realize were vast metaphors for drug addiction and suicide… well, not entirely those ones.

Just weird and not dull ones.

The problem might be, for each page I’d finish there’d be three pages of MST-ings where something adult suddenly happens.

My father used to tell stories, when we three children were young, stories to get us to quiet down for sleep… stories with Aunt Organic-Waste-Basket and various characters, all anthropomorphic sausages of varying brands, in them.

Childhood is weird.

Below is my essay on what kind of children’s stories I would write. After reading it, you might conclude it is best I do not.

* * *

My personal idea for a best-selling series of children’s books (okay, cribbed from me and dad joking around, a long time ago) is the Adventures of the Gangster Squirrels.

Or, actually, the Gangster Squirrels are the bad guys. They blackmail and steal and don’t even fear the Human People. First book: Gangsterioravat ja sarjapurija; The Gangster Squirrels and the Serial Biter; I don’t know what the plot is about or who the characters are.

Also there may be evil pigs; I’ve got the perfect name for their shuddersome boss: Kärsimys. A Finnish word that may recall kärsä (“snout”), especially on a pig, but is just capitalized kärsimys, “suffering; intense, terrible and lasting agony”. That’s one baconmaker you don’t want to make unhappy.

Er, but wait. If I introduced human-sentient talking pigs and squirrels, just what kind of a horrid world would that be? Think of it as an alternate world of science fiction: boom! all mammals are sentient now.

Turns out carnivores are not nice. How would you feel about a human tribe that tries to eat you?

Turns out humans are worse. There are entire species that are held captive by humans, robbed of their young (chickens), carried away and butchered (pigs), abused in a parody of their maternal reactions (milk cows), or subjected to involuntary labor (horses).

And don’t even talk about dogs, the drooling harlequin hordes of endlessly varying genetic perversion, the happy coward lapdogs of the human-colonial oppression regime.

The idea that humans are sentient and have a language too, but never notice their animals are the same… is just too horrible. (Also highly implausible.)

So what then? An animal enclave deep in the woods, with nothing known of humans except old, dark rumors? A peace of indifference between the herbivores, and a common hostility against carnivores. (Among whom, “fox shall eat no fox”? Or “Chicken people, bring us five of your young every week, or the small bear tribe shall come and utterly destroy you all. Accept or be destroyed. We do not bargain with meat.“)

And what does “sentient and with a language” really imply? Tools? Houses? Clothing against the elements? How much can a pig without opposable digits, without a pair of limbs that are off the ground, actually do? And with animal lifespans, how much room is there for intelligence — if wild pigs live for 25 years, and squirrels for 16, that probably implies something about the culture, and the transmission of culture. (Then again, after assuming sentient squirrels with a language it might be silly to assume a normal lifespan, but hey, of such details are stories made.)

If mammals (or say “big enough animals”) are sentient, would those that live the longest grow to be the smartest, the most well-knit and cohesive community, the most able to retain and exploit inventions, and eventually the Lord of Creation?

Swans live for a century. (I’m just pulling these numbers off a seemingly reputable list.) So do carps. Tortoises live a century, or several centuries. Imagine the intellectual development of a human being that has several centuries of time to learn and grow. Now imagine a race of such creatures… with protective armor!

If there are enough turtles, they will rule the animal world.

This, of course, assuming there are enough turtles. Probably not, because in the great fashion of children’s literature I’m thinking about the rural corner of Finland I grew up in. (Swans, yes, occasionally; but not too many turtles.)

(What does it mean that animals are smart? Would Bucephalus have thrown Alexander off in exchange for Persian oats? Would the geese of the Capitol have taken bribes? Would Spartacus have been a ram? Or is intelligence, in the world of the story, a recent, local development? Then consider the trauma, in the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie, of Caesar thrown among the “normal” monkeys, who to him were a horde of gibbering, screaming heavily developmentally disabled people; people that looked the same but had… nothing in there.)

(There’s no obligation to ask why; but one is forced to ask “what then?”, or end up with a weak and unsatisfying story. Which, mind you, is crazy business for a talking animals story, but I have too much free time.)

This may be an unfortunate case where fantastic racism or speciesism really is justified: it does not seem far-fetched some species will be smarter, just by brain size (squirrels and pigs, come on); and the lifespan alone will make some cultures more expansive and wear-resistant than others.

And the biology: different social structures would lead to different morals, I think. Pack animals have pack virtues and vices: obedience, subservience, and the like, just out of biology. Carnivores and herbivores live differently, need different traits to survive; and if intelligent, will probably start with deciding those traits are moral and so decreed by the Fox-God or the Rabbit-God. (That’s where many of the best and worst of human morals come from, after all: from social monkeys that will eat anything.)

Those species with a short lifespan would, to put it youthfully, so totally get exploited by the long-lived species. Imagine a tribe whose intellectual capacity stops at the level of a sixteen-year-old human, not seemingly, because of difficulties of culture, language and stimulus, but because after that the animal dies. It’s not that the work-filled life leaves no time for intellectual advancement; there is no time, work or no work. Human sixteen-year-olds feel smart, but aren’t all that; that animal tribe would be hoodwinked over and over again, until it got used to the fact, or became very unwilling to talk to strangers. There would be lackey tribes, and savage, suspicious isolationists; and king species… but no interbreeding. Even I know enough biology to say that is impossible.

In human history, marriages and interbreeding have been very good in making humans live with each other — how about a situation where a fox is a fox and a pig is a pig, and the two shall never mix? That situation just screams the ease of genocide. There are no half-pigs, or foxes with a pig grandparent; if one species decides it doesn’t like another, the line is drawn clear, and deadly. And beyond extermination, if a king species decides it is the only one fit to rule, its rule will not be diluted by bed-hopping. (I think it’s an inevitable effect of intelligence that there will be bestiality between all species, rishathra, or at least between those with the power, and those without… but this may not be a meaningful speculation for a children’s book.)

(Marriages and sex… well, one would need to think about those too, but not narration material, no.)

Mind you, “different species will have different cultures” needs sufficient numbers; I have no idea how many rabbits, squirrels, foxes, etc., there are per a square kilometer of forest. And if, as an effect of intelligence, communities will form… what will a rabbit village look like? How long will it be able to sustain itself by foraging? Will there be carrot fields cared for by rabbitses? How much social interaction do you need for language, and for culture?

Where, on the incline from animals to the stone age, to Ur, to Carthage, to medieval folks, to the Renaissance and to mobile phones, are these animal cultures? (No badgers with jetpacks, thank you very much. Not my genre.) Remember that each “stage” builds on those before — unless one can look at humans, or swans, and leap-frog into the neighbor’s utopia. But what do the neighbors think of badgers in waistcoats? Would it be the easiest to just assume humanity has gone extinct, giving the animals room to roam and grow without their cultures being the uneasy refuse of humanity… or does it stretch credulity and imagination too much to try to have them totally independent of humankind, except for old graves and rotting concrete? (Or is there someone in orbit, chuckling at what the medieval badgers do? If so, a very bored posthuman doing long-range sociological experimentation, or an AI unsure if this is what the last order for “the happiness of almost human pets” meant?)

Also mind you, “different cultures” should not be taken as “good cultures and evil cultures”, much less “good and evil species”. I very much doubt some would be kind, hospitable herbivores full of love, cheer and cuddly modern values, and others cold treacherous vermin red in tooth and fang. Each culture would have its ups and downs; and a culture, or a species, would not fully define each individual, except as far as stereotypes and biological imperatives kick them in the head. (“He’s a badger. Badgers are no good. Lazy, stupid, venal, greedy, not worth your trust. Tell that badger to get out!” — that generalization would be nearly as bad tosh about animals as it is about human groups.)

Dogs don’t seem to top thirty years, and average much less; this means the greatest dog thinkers will need to get their ideas early. A dog university won’t offer doctoral degrees; the students would die of old age before graduating.

Or squirrels. One shouldn’t assume that if the average squirrel lifespan is 16 years, then squirrels magically get a huge vocabulary when two years old, just so that they can have a culture. No, they will (as I see it) grow up like human children do: slowly, maturing physically quicker than mentally. (That’s a huge problem: say two thirds of your society is mobile, able to forage and to survive… but mentally on the level of not particularly bright human toddlers. What manners does that lead to? What laws?)

There’s a horror story for you: to be on the mental level of a ten-year-old, and going upwards, and already a grandfather and a survivor of a decade of mostly instinct-based forest life. To first consider yourself as a you, as a separate being with goals and desires beyond food and shelter… and to know that your children have children already, you have no idea who you had those children with, and in five years you will be so frail you’ll likely to be et by a fox.

For something worse, consider the fox. How about developing an adult sense of self and a sense of morals, and then realizing you’ve been hunting, killing and eating other sentient beings all your life? That means instant denial; carnivore societies would not regard the meat species as precious, important minds; they would be talking meat, with “meat” being more important than “talk”. There might be sporadic attempts at vegetarianism; but overall I think those would be societies more cruel and callous than anything I can think of. Humans are proficient in racism, but even the worst racist doesn’t need to accept the death and devaluation of a sub-being as the price of their every meal. Even the most callous capitalist doesn’t actually kill and eat the workers pursuing his profits.

Would the foxes and wolves prefer “live hunts”, or capture and breed particularly tasty species and then hunt and kill them for sport? Less chance of the stupid prey fighting back, not knowing it is made for defeat, that way. And how do the meat species dare to organize and fight back? Would they have the proud hunting foxes starve? Why, the Fox-God says it is the duty of the weak to be meat for the strong; there’s no shame in the weak going that way…

And back to squirrels. With the squirrel lifespan averaging off at sixteen, well, the old geezers will have the maturity of teens; which is to say, maybe my idea of Gangster Squirrels wasn’t that far off. I’m not sure what a society would look like when there are no middle-aged people, no old people; but a sort of a primitive gang-based life seems right to me.

Meanwhile, the swans not only fly; they live, even without medical intervention, decades longer than humans do. The Gangster Squirrels would be bowing at their Swan Overlords pretty quickly; or then wiped off the face of the forest, driven screaming into hiding. And swans can fly, and paddle — they have an air force and a navy from the start! For land use, I’m sure there are fox mercenaries that can be hired for the spoils and a loser buffet.

Consider carps, too — there are no carps in Finland, but maybe there are other long-lived fish species? — a lifespan of a century, and a pond that will not have swans or squirrels invading it in any hurry.  And lakes don’t have any easy avenues of escape, if you are an underwater creature: if a would-be fish empress closes the rivers, she can guarantee there will be no escape for her enemies.

As for dryland suits for the fish, well, really, how cartoonish can you get? First you’d need tools, which fish are not best built to use; then you’d need the materials and the ingenuity to conceive of and to create a fishbowl and some mechanical legs or treads. All without fire, without glass, without smelting and forges, mind you; fire is difficult underwater. Though there could be mines, deep into the silt; and baskets of woven weeds — but for some reason I can’t escape the thought that any fishbowl might be unpleasantly organic, fish being known for having all kinds of air bladders in them, that could be cut away and sewn into waterproof sacs.

The fish may come out of the lakes, but it will take a long march along the road of technology before they do.

Though they could always obtain some tools by capsizing a boat…

“That lake? Jake, we don’t go boating on that lake. Too many good boats and men been lost on that lake…”

The problem here is that the horror movie scenario of a murderous, suddenly cunning animal species is familiar to all; but what does it look like when a scenario of less ferocity persists? When animal intelligence is a fact known for years, decades, for all of human history? (Well, it would be easier for the animal rights movement. If you can hear a cow saying “Please don’t eat me!” in English, well…)

If animal intelligence is a new, local thing, there will be hordes of curious biologists, or gruff animal control officers. But if it is an old thing, there will be… enduring oppression of Animal-Americans? Actual voting asses and elephants? Because animals keeping up a charade of stupidity is an… an asinine thought; such a conspiracy would never last. And without it, people of all species need to deal with the situation.

I’d probably need to go with an isolated forest, with not many humans around; otherwise the story would quickly become a leaden metaphor for foreign people, integration, and racism, which is a very bad idea if you have species that really are fundamentally different. (“Why do the white swans rule? Because they are superior. It is the nature’s law that the superior species rules…”)

But language. If squirrels die as teenagers, I don’t see much great poetry coming from them; and I’m not sure how many languages there will be. Multiples ones for each species, if they are divided and isolated; the same language across multiple species, with varying dialects, if there is One Species To Rule Them All. A squirrel grunting a few syllable of Swan, bartering with a squinty-eyed pig for a few acorns…

All above has been assuming the idea of “talking animals” is much like the issue of “talking humans”: biology and its consequences. All is different if you have only a handful of sentient, intelligent animals with a language: not Redwall but the Winnie-the-Pooh gang, a small group set apart from the bestial majority of animals. Then there’s no great disruption in the order of the world, and no great consequences.

There I’d go for the why: Why, all of a sudden, a bear, a cat and a sparrow think much like humans do, feel like humans do, use the language humans do? How can they all of a sudden do that? And who are they — is this sudden awareness a possession, or an amplification? Language is not something to be poured into a person’s head, and culture even less so: how come the cat can quote Shakespeare, not even having hands for leafing through the pages? Has she seen it on stage? How can the bear do mathematics, not having had any natural reason for developing those abilities? He she picked it up, doing tricks? And how on Earth the sparrow, small enough to fit in a human hand, can have the brain capacity to behave socially like humans do, instead of madly pecking and cacking all over the place? Not by the processes of nature.

What then, but a quest after answers. Is it “magic”, rebirth, the surgical work of a mad computer seeking agents, or something more bizarre? Who, how, why? (“You are”, the Man in Black drawled, “My people. I made you people. How dare you disobey me, Mr. Bear? Now go and get me those Russian nuclear secrets!”)

Turns out “talking animals” is an interesting idea, with the potential for very heavily screwed up tales in it, tales far beyond Winnie-the-Pooh or Redwall… and far beyond the point where the potential publisher says, “I think your future lies with the Xerox machine.”

Questions of Air

August 25, 2011

So I was in a plane earlier today (a small mathematics meeting in another corner of Finland), and I happened to think about the supposedly medieval idea that the world is a disc, and airs surround it. That’s a sketch I’ve drawn many times, making up fantasy worlds because I was bored, but an idea hit me then, looking out of the plane window.

Namely, “I am six kilometers up, and the air up here is very, very thin”.

Consider Earth. It is a sphere, with gravity towards the center. Air tries to fall down, and forms an ocean of air whose bottom is good for human-like creatures, and the upper reaches less so.

Consider Larry Niven’s Ringworld. It is shaped like a bicycle outer tire, spinning as a wheel does; the gravity is pointed outwards, away from the axis, so a ring of air stays in place, not bleeding over the rim.

What about a world disc, a stationary thick pancake? First, its gravity will be mightily strange. That gravity is towards the center of the pancake, halfway through it — so when you are standing at the centerpoint of the pancake (say on the upper side), gravity is where it is supposed to be. Walk towards the rim, and gravity doesn’t point at the ground, but towards that point under the pancake’s center, halfway through it. You’re essentially walking uphill, just walking on the level surface of the pancake world.

That is not a lasting arrangement; every pebble will tend to roll downhill, creating a mountain in the middle of the pancake; and the disc will crumble into the stable shape of a sphere, both on the upside and on the downside. There will be no falling over the edge; instead, the edges will crumble towards the center, until a sphere is born.

Thus, to save the world-disc, we need magic.

Suppose the source of gravity is not mass, but some external force that creates a down as a direction (as it seems to us; say as “the direction of the negative y-axis”), and not as a ring of arrows towards a point in space (or in the most solid… er, most molten core centerpont of mass. Uh.) Then the pancake has a genuine up-side and a down-side; and nothing stays on the down-side unless it is bolted on to it; all else will fall off and disappear downwards. “Gravity” is in the intuitive direction everywhere on the top of the pancake; and you can walk to the edge, lay down, and peer down into the depths, over which this world pancake magically hovers. (Maybe it’s made of an anti-gravity mineral?)

(Also, say goodbye to volcanism. Lava will exit downwards pretty quickly, if there even is enough pressure etc. to make and preserve it.)

This model gets worse, too, though. If the world disc has no rim, and thus no barrier to waterfalls over the rim (hints of Discworld here), the waters will drain away; but it will not be the big problem. Air will be.

Over the rimfall of water, there will be an “airfall”; and shortly afterwards breathing will become very difficult and no-one will have any fun, except in deep valleys in the disc’s interior. Even if there is a barrier range round the rim, well, one should hope for a fairly impervious platter for the pancake (in Ringworld speech, scrith), or all that’s not held up by magic anti-gravity will filter down through the world pancake, bit by tiny bit, and be gone, never to return.

That thought raises the question of what lies around the world disc; if there is a practically endless vacuum, then the air and water will be gone in the down direction, and not seen again. Suppose there is some kind of an envelope somewhere far around the disc, like a black plastic bag for the pancake to float in; and this envelope is filled with air. Then no-one will suffocate and all will be happiness and light, right?

Well, kinda sorta. The air pressure could “happen” to be just right for human-like creatures at the level of the surface of the pancake; but what would lie below it would not be pretty.

There is such a thing as compressed air, you see; I’m fairly certain that our normal air pressure is not because that’s as far as air will be packed, but because we just don’t have any more air to pile atop us. In this model, what lies over the edge of the world, in the “down” direction? Why, an ocean of air, with a step more of air above for every downward step you take. All that falls off the edge of the world will fall into this thickening soup, and gather at the bottom of it, at the end of the world envelope, and form a new world there.

Venus, to be exact; a place with a crushing weight of air above it. Just imagine a pillar of a few more kilometers of air atop you — a few hundred kilometers of air — it will not be a nice, hospitable place. If you fall over the edge, an impact will not be your problem; you will be crushed to pulp by air pressure long before you hit the bottom cup.

One could, having postulated magic coordinate gravity and magic anti-gravity rocks already, add a teleport at the bottom of a funnel-like envelope, a teleport pointed at the very top of this world system. Then, surely, the airs would not form a Venusian hell at the bottom, but zap to the top, and then filter back down, maybe even creating a pleasant breeze —

Well, or then you kick something over the edge of the world, it zips down, falling ever faster, accelerated by the addition of energy from the magic potential of the external gravity; and soon it will zoom through the teleport, appear far above you, and meteor-like make a big fat kinetic impact on your head. Now think what will happen to those air molecules… and you end up with the world pancake smashed flat because magic gravity keeps pumping kinetic energy into the system. (I suppose; I’m a mathematician, not a physicist.)

So remove the teleport; accept the thick Venus of fallen debris at the bottom, and a sparser stratosphere above our floating disc. (What beasts will fly out of the thicker airs to assail the world’s rim? What thin-air angels will live in the voids above?) We can assume, for convenience, that the amount of lost water is offset by some weather action, maybe evaporation caused by the rays of…

Oh, crap. The sun?

A big central sun does not make immediate sense in this model of a disc and an envelope; a small sun would be just a source of light, not of much gravity. But what kind of wild weather do you get if you have a platter of water and mud, and a source of heat somehow going in circles through the airs around it? (You get days and nights if the sun arcs over the disc and then under it; you get seasons if it rises and sets each time a little bit further along the edge. It’s not a exact copy of Earth — if I recall some earlier calculations of mine correctly, the central “pole” will have just one season, the cold one (remember Discworld’s frozen Cori Celesti), assuming the sun is at its highest when above the centerpoint of the disc. The disc’s edges will have a sunrise-summer and a sunset-summer, and winters in between; these seasons will blur when going away from the rim towards the centerpoint.)

Finally, consider the disc itself. It either does not generate gravity through mass, or its mass is insufficient to generate enough gravity to much alter the situation. (How thin is it? Horrors, consider a world where miners risk breaking through the bottom of the world, and falling into a yawning depth below!) The disc stays up because… well, the easy magical explanation is that the rock, or some common mineral, has anti-gravity in it. Which then would imply that it could be mined, refined, shaped, made into flying ships — but this line of thought has surely been examined many times before. (Me, I’m partial to the thought of castles atop flying mountains, floating over the landscape; I blame Dragonlance.)

But wait; what is “anti-gravity”? If our magical gravity means “a force, either a constant or a function of ‘height’, affecting everything, pulling along the same vector”, then our anti-gravity needs to be a counter-gravity to not eventually drop the disc to the bottom. (Doesn’t matter if a major fraction of the disc is unaffected by gravity; the part that is affected will exert a downwards force on the whole.)

So should one assume (for example) that there are two kinds of matter in this system, indistinguishable except for the fact that one is affected by this magic downwards gravity, and the other by an “upwards gravity”? That’s a horrible system; the disc would dwindle, shed matter upwards and downwards, wobble out of balance, and crash either upwards or downwards depending on which force dominates.

What then? Assume there are materials that long to be at some fixed height, that gravitate towards some level of air pressure? (A rock that “floats” at 1 bar?)

Assume some lifting engine, regulated by some wish to remain at a certain altitude? (That’s an end-of-the-world scenario if I’ve ever seen one; tap the right place and half the disc breaks away and falls, while the other spins out of balance, reducing all aboard to fine jelly.)

So, turns out it’s difficult to think up a system that works half as well as a simple sphere; but still, I think thinking these is more rewarding than just taking a cosmology and ignoring the associated problems of physics.

Then again, I once did integration to find out how much sunlight each spot on the disc gets in the system above; I may be biased towards the worldbuilding geek end of the spectrum.

Mr Breivik: The anatomy of commentary

July 23, 2011

So a nut, an Anders Behring Breivik, goes on a killing spree in Oslo and Utoya, Norway. He is a nut described as a “Christian conservative”, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration (but I repeat myself) and the sort.

Shortly afterwards, in those circles, these are the reactions —

  • No true Scotsman: “Well, he wasn’t a real Christian conservative!”
  • Un-derailable mind: “Well, I say he was a Muslim sleeper wanting to smear Christian conservatives!”
  • Shadow jumper: “It strains my credulity that he worked alone. Where are the handlers? Who I’m not saying who they were, but *doomchord*!”
  • Long-liner: “He is a patsy, just like McVeigh, Oswald and Booth! (This is well known.)”
  • Non-Occamian: “So ‘his fb account was set up a few days BEFORE’, gunpistolman08? That cinched it — no Christian conservative, but a well-planted plant patsy false-flag operation supported by American Boobama-Soros REAL AXIS OF EVIL agents in Norway!”
  • Generic advisory: “DON’T BELIEVE THE LIES!!!”
  • All-Connecter: “…how convenient. Because this is clearly NWO/UN persecuting me/us, isn’t this convenient, the death of all our freedoms, from my cold dead hands, a more “primitive” nation would have beaten him to death with chisels, this is why the Fed is bad for you, also the police are useless because they do not teleport.”
  • Party whip: “Hey, you, bigmike133, what are you, a socialist commie homo? Why do you hate Christ and want to put all of us in camps? Also, as to the content of your post, what do you mean he was Christian, what kind of commie bullshit is that?”
  • Patternalist: “First my favorite reporter gets fired. Then my cats knocks over the milk dish. Now this. I sense a pattern here.”
  • Patternafictionalist: “Oh right, this is just like in the book where this was a plot to undermine the credibility of Christian conservatives. I say we citizen-arrest the president pre-emptively.”
  • Keeper to the essential: “Uh, but haven’t you seen this scary headline about MUSLIMS???”

Not that those have been the only stupid reactions to this stupid, deluded criminal lunatic —

  • Mr. Law-and-Order: “Clearly metal detectors on highways and in public areas are the solution. Also those buying fertilizer should be checked for unstabular mental tendencies.”
  • Mr. Armchair: “I find it appalling that the Norwegian police would take more than five minutes to get anywhere. Clearly more police is needed.”
  • Mr. Reason: “As there is no free will, this hobby of his is to blame.”
  • Mr. Alarmist: “Today it happened in Norway… so clearly you should feel like it will happen to you next! Get in your car and race to buy firearms now!
  • Mr. Post-Fact: “I am made angry this man was not stopped. That he gave no warning is no excuse! The police must have precognition, or face punishment! Fire them! Sue them! Blood for the grief god!”

A fan of false histories

July 20, 2011

I may have said it before, but I like the Lord of the Rings a lot; and of it, my favorite part overall are the Appendices.

Also, as delicious as novels of alternate history are, there’s something stronger, tastier in Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail, a textbook from an alternate history of the United States and Mexico… excuse me, from the history of the Confederation of North America and of the United States of Mexico. (Point of divergence: if the dastardly American rebellion against his most sane monarchy of George III went splat instead of hurrah.)

Every bit of fantasy, alternate history and science fiction that goes on, needs to tell of the world it goes on in; and for some reason those worlds often interest me more than the tales told in them.

It’s something of a problem that the wider reading public, and the publishing industry that serves it, does not seem to feel likewise. When I try to think of books that have worldbuilding and false history in them, without all those meddling heroes and plots and character development (or that at least zoom out enough), I don’t come up with a long list. The Lord of the Rings appendices; A Song of Ice and Fire appendices (at A Dance with Dragons length they begin to count), David Eddings’ Rivan Codex, the World of Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time and a few other fantasy-epic “compendiums”, and a wide variety of roleplaying manuals. For Want of a Nail is the only book that’s the thing in and of itself that I can recall; and that pisses me off, now and then. (Then I go surfing to some wiki or other; also, I’ve never watched a single episode of Star Trek, but Memory Alpha sure is fine reading.)

Surely there should be enough people that read streamlined factual history for fun, even without the injection of plots; surely I’m not the only fan of fantasy that’s always hoping for more background. There are fans of portraiture, and fans of landscape painting because not every landscape needs to be a backdrop to a portrait; why not likewise with books?

* * *

I just note that usually when I scribble something fantasy-related down, it’s not an engaging character or a dramatic quest — no, it’s a weird local habit or a line on dragon-related economy or a note on lineage, and if I try to expand on it I get king lists and essays on manners and warfare and bloody witcheries; but I don’t get much plot.

Maybe someday I’ll fish out my world-sketches of the place where Angala and Amida fought their terrible hundred-year war, and Tyrion Shimonda and Ablen Aotha and Tion Gomennaich raised the Southern Empire, the genius and the grunt and the adopted son made a god; where Kor’s trader ships glide through dark waters into Tivyania (all of whose three millennia of history I could recount, emperor by emperor, and disaster by doom, the immortal first emperors and the troubles caused by their children, fallen into shadows and forgotten but not dead), and through poisonous coasts, haunted by serpent shadows and bone-filled temple ruins and the Lovecraftian beginnings of a Forgotten Realms-ian world, into the central sea where the three empires of Falyon rose and fell (and now girl knights laugh at the opposing shore’s sputtering patriarchs), until Aen’s military orders, Angala’s wayward children, rose with their massed soldiers and their denial of families and their not-quite-human knights; where the Codakian Civil War continues, the magistrates of Drakkenport scheme, and the magistrates of Thonport thrive, and magic is not a convenient entropy-reversing thing but an electric socket for probing fingers of iron; where… ah, hell. You see the problem? Millennia of history, ideas and theology (and a third fact wherever two clash), and never enough time to detail it all — even those few brush strokes are just the first of what I recall off the top of my head.

Humor: dark and powerful

May 2, 2011

Here’s an opinion.

Humor is a dark thing. A dark, powerful thing.

There are two basic ways to deal with the horror and the wonder that is reality: laughter and tears. Every day hundreds die, lacking something as basic as clean water. Every day a million lawns are watered while human beings die of thirst. You can react to that with anger, indifference, or deep concern — but despite what you do or say, what you intend or envision or want, in the end you must deal with the fact of the world being a shitty place: and this means laughing or weeping. Or then possibly some kind of a walking denial coma.

Humor is not some idle pursuit, some incidental luxury, some adolescent lark. Humor keeps people sane. Humor keeps people going, because there are cold places where weeping will not keep you warm.

Imagine the worst job you can. Which do you think lasts longer, deals with the job better: she who laughs, or she who weeps? She who refuses to let the job be bigger than her, or she who curls into a fetal shape, hides, and sobs in despair? Which will stay sane enough, whole enough, to keep walking, and walk out of that place?

I hope you agree on the horns of this forced dilemma that it is the first one, she who tells horrible, evil jokes; she who cuts the horror in half with each word, and subtly throws it down from its throne, that will survive much better.

Imagine an oppressive tyranny. How do people deal with living in such a state? They strive for better; they dream of better; but how do they deal with the horror of the world? In the Soviet Union decades ago, and no doubt in North Korea today, they laugh. They tell pitch-black jokes of gulags, secret police and death sentences, of murderers and beatings and senseless injustice. That gnarly fire within keeps them sane, because dreams take time to come true.

I do realize this is all rather pompous, but I seriously think humor, laughter and mockery are vital for the sanity of individuals and the societies they make. I would not trust anyone who hasn’t a sense of humor; and though I can respect humorless people, I can’t ever love them.

The important thing here is that humor is a powerful tool: a way of dealing with things you cannot change. (Or that you haven’t changed yet.)

Here’s one more thing I believe: If you can’t joke about something, you will be slightly insane about it. Insane in a very bad way.

If you can’t joke about Hitler, he will remain this spectral ogre, this inhuman monster. What’s the result? People think he was inhuman, and hence won’t recognize the same very human stupidities in others. He stays a Very Serious Subject — and as a result, he retains a mystique that our latter-day idiots find very fascinating. Throw a pie in Adolf’s face; he’s reality, and we must deal with him.

If you can’t joke about rape, rape remains an unspeakable, unthinkable thing. It remains a mystery, a Difficult Subject. This is wrong — rape is a terrible crime, and we only hurt ourselves by also making it into a Difficult Subject. Unless we can cut it down to size, it will have too much power over us all. Why bother with breaking the silence, if only a hushed whisper is allowed? Even speaking, we would regard it with too much silence and fear, and not with enough disgust and outspoken action.

Will such casual joking then insult those that have first-hand experience of such evils? Will it trigger their anxieties, or normalize the evil? I think it shouldn’t; but people are difficult and occasionally cruel and I am dumb. I think the best jokes of hypocritically idiotic bureaucracy came from its victims in the Soviet Union; the best jokes of any evil come from those who have lived with it. Those who have no personal knowledge of it… I think it will be better for them, too, to not be so damned serious and careful, or else they’ll end up leaving the victims alone out of sheer courtesy, and subtracting from the horror of the thing by treating mentions of it as just as bad. The world needs to be grasped, touched: some parts of it with your fists and a raised knee, but the world needs to be grasped tightly, because elsewise it will turn in your hand and grasp and cut you.

Everyone should do the same: laugh at anything that is sacred, feared or inviolate. Laugh at what hurts you. Laugh at what troubles you. Laugh at what you love. Laugh at everything you see. Laugh at the fucking idiots who’d take this all as an excuse to be insensitive and hurtful. Laugh at yourself for getting so caught up by a few extruded scribbles on your computer screen. Laugh at me, being so damned pseudo-philosophical about a trifling thing. Don’t take things so seriously; don’t tolerate unlaughability. Let go! We human beings have a very bad habit of setting people and concepts up on pedestals. As a result they become tyrants over us: evils too evil to be spoken of, goods too good to be criticized. Don’t take that.

Humor is a tyrant-killer. Humor makes the shadows less dark. Humor keeps things in proportion. Do you think Mother Teresa never took a dump? Keep imagining that until it becomes funny. Don’t let anything, good or evil, become a Serious Thing, because seriousness is not healthy.

But — you may protest — but think of the victims! They will be offended! Their suffering will be trivialized!

Oh, bugger the victims, I say, even as I realize that that may be the worst possible formulation of the sentiment I could have chosen. If we don’t speak, will that undo the horrors they have been through? Either their hurt cannot be healed, in which case they need to cackling deal with it; or they can get better, and we should help them up by making their terror lesser. The world is a terrible place, a place of horrors that ever dwarf each other, that loom so that any particular instance is trivial compared to the others; it is better to cackle and look this all in the eye than to keep looking away. You speak of trivializing like it was a bad thing, Mr. Sensitive; I think you are mistaken. All my loves are trivial, yet no less precious; all my fears are trivial, and hence made lesser.

And there are endless victims anyway, because that’s how the world is made. Do you worry about offending a victim? Well, in any audience there are victims for a million things, greater and smaller. Consider their hurts and triggers, too. The world, as I said, is a shitty place: murder, loss, betrayal and failure are never absent. Don’t make funeral jokes; someone may have just died. Don’t make jokes of job loss; that may have happened to someone. Don’t make crime jokes, violence jokes, cheating jokes, embarrassment jokes… don’t make spoon jokes; his sister was killed with one. Remove all that could offend, and the resulting anodyne broth will not make anyone laugh.

Humor is, as I said, by its nature a dark and powerful thing.

It has been said that to be funny, humor needs to kick the powerful. This is not true; but it is true that to be funny, humor needs to kick something. Maybe the kick is feather-light; maybe it hits the teller’s own shin; but if the word “humor” vanished, the replacement we would be using is “outrage”.

Humor is offensive; but without it, life is unbearable.

Is this then all that humor is? A dour tool of keeping yourself and your society sane?

Of course not.

Such important tasks can’t be a drab routine. Do you think you could start every morning with five minutes of laughing at the injustices of the world, and then stop smiling? I snort laughter at the idea. Humor needs to be really funny; it needs to entertain and to seduce. Humor can be a religion, but it can’t ever be solemn.

Humor is not just a tool; it is a way of looking at the world, a way of seeing the world as it is, and saying you will not let that break you; and you don’t need to ever quit it. The world is a senseless place of injustice, pain and misery. There is beauty and love in it, but not enough. Some of those things you can change, and please do; but the great majority are looming colossi of midnight despair that you can’t make a dent on. Don’t let them crush you. Let loose a fell whoop of laughter and fly at them; your fey wildness will make you soar up until you are bigger than they.

You don’t have to be a humorist to live in this world, but it helps.

Amnesia

April 19, 2011

I don’t know how amnesia works.

Suppose you lose your memory; lose your identity; have no idea who you are, where you came from.

Yet you still know a language: you may even know several. That tells something of you. And you don’t just know English (or Finnish): you have a certain vocabulary — you can look at a list of words and define some but not others. That then defines your (self-)education, does it not? Or does the amnesia of a nurse extend to not knowing a spatula from a speculum?

Wouldn’t you still know many meaningful things about the world round you? What’s the capital of Denmark? What does the Statue of Liberty look like? A lot of this knowledge is generic and not very helpful, but it seems to me you could probe, play ping-pong inside your head, and find which areas are more familiar to you than others: what geography? What technology? Which profession? What entertainment? Trace the frame, and you’ll learn something of the missing portrait. It’s not like the you in you is a floating thing that can be taken away without a trace, leaving a fully functional human being.

Possibly this is a problem with how movies and books portray people with amnesia: they are “blank humans”, people that talk normally and know how to order a taxicab and operate a phone, but are missing some “individual part” from within, like a computer with “My Documents” erased but Windows still running. Can it really be that simple? In stories, there will be some magic muscle memory, probably ninja skills or something; but wouldn’t the more interesting memories be those normal ones that still remain? Because it seems to me it would be very curious if there was such a thing as a “blank human”, ready for society but with no indications of personality.

Yet there are people with amnesia, people who don’t remember who they are, but function “normally”; I have no idea how that works.

I think if I ever got amnesia I would, once over the panic, be gleefully going hammer and tongs at what I remembered, and what that implied. Successfully, probably not; but gleefully. (Brings to mind a sci-fi story I read years ago, one where the vogue was a drug that gave you amnesia: the thrill was in rediscovery. I’d tell you who wrote it but… I can’t remember. Ah.)