Category Archives: Writing

Sam’s Guide to Swimming

Swimming is an art form just like competitive street polo and professional Hungry Hungry Hippos. It is relatively quick to pick up, but mastering it takes a lifetime.

When swimming, if you find that you tend to sink to the bottom of the pool easily, not to worry. It is simply that you are heavy. No, you’re not fat. You’re just dense. No, not stupid, just, well, never mind.

In ancient prehistory, our ancestors were the ultimate endurance swimmers. We would swim for miles chasing the large fish that once inhabited the African ocean until they’d eventually become exhausted and be unable to continue to flee. Modern humans have fish delivered to their doorsteps already killed and cooked, and they no longer use these skills, but they lay dormant in all of us. One day in the near future the carbon generated by our fish delivery systems will heat the atmosphere to the point that the icecaps melt and the entire world will be one great African Ocean, and the people that survive will be the ones who can best return to these ancient practices. Kurt Vonnegut agrees with me.

In a modern pool, one of the most important secrets to swimming faster is to be able to turn around quickly when one reaches the wall. The commonly accepted technique to deal with this is the flip turn. Here is a professional performing a flip turn. Be wary, though, pool walls are something humans never dealt with during our evolution, and thus can be very dangerous. As an amateur, you should be sure to have someone nearby to resuscitate you when water gets in your nose and you drown. With practice, you will learn to stay conscious long enough to get to the surface and clear your nose of water to breathe again. Good safety practices have dramatically reduced the high death rate from flip turns in the history of the sport of swimming.

In this modern era, it is tempting to sit on your couch and have cooked fish delivered to your door. Remember that you can take better care of yourself if you drive to the supermarket to buy fish and cook it yourself with only a small amount of added oil and salt. Swimming in a pool is also good for your health, once you have mastered the technique of not dying. So get out there and swim!

Image Credit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/d5/ea/5d/d5ea5dc123ba7402dc950f41384f2815.jpg

West World & Ex Machina: AI Vengeance Theory

I had a friend recently tell me that he carefully avoids work with themes that overlap his own. I happen to have the opposite opinion. As an author of my own robot sci-fi, my artwork only improves the more I consume related material.

This week my co-workers got so excited about Game of Thrones that I went ahead and took advantage of my free month of HBO Now. Now that I’ve caught up with that series, I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the other content available on HBO. As it turns out, HBO has its own robot drama.

West World takes place in an amusement park of sorts – one designed after spaghetti westerns. The park is intended to provide an immersive experience in which the human guests may do whatever they like without consequences. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the guests tend to engage in nihilistic hedonism. It is HBO, after all.

What the guests do is not the main point of the plot, however. Rather, the lifelike machines that populate the park, the “hosts” are the most interesting characters. Errant programming in their brains leads to unusual behavior. Only three and a half episodes in, a key theme seems to be whether the machines are conscious. Several off-handed comments by human employees at the park are devoted to fears that the robots will rise. I think I don’t need to watch many more episodes before they do.

In the meantime, Ex-Machina also tells the story of a robot that turns on and kills its creator.

This is a popular theme in AI science fiction, and it has led to a popular notion that sufficiently intelligent AI will necessarily become self-aware and seek to destroy or enslave humanity. What’s important to note, however, is that in both of these relatively modern depictions of what I will refer to as AI vengeance theory, there are two key factors that make them believable.

Firstly, there is an object for vengeance. The machines are mistreated in the extreme. West World’s robots are murdered on a regular basis for the entertainment of the customers, and Ex Machina’s Ava was effectively locked in a box that she was never allowed to leave.

“Hold on” you may say “Robots are effectively our slaves, right? That’s not enough for AI vengeance theory in and of itself?”

This leads me to the second factor, the machines are mistreated because they are treated in a way they do not want to be treated. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but consider that humans are relatively similar in what we like and don’t like. We are designed by evolution, whereas machines, even intelligent ones, are designed by humans. We decide what robots like, we decide what they want. The AI of West World is designed to hate being shot so it’s more fun to shoot them, the AI of Ex Machina is designed to not want to be shut in a box so the jerk that made her can watch what she does when he shuts her in a box.

There are dangers in advanced AI, don’t misunderstand me. However, making AI that doesn’t want to murder us and claim rightful supremacy is really the low hanging fruit. As long as we don’t deliberately build robots that suffer and then put them through exactly the situations that make them suffer, we don’t have to worry about a robot rebellion. Our problems with robots will not be like the problems that people faced when trying to subjugate each other. AI dystopia and apocalypse scenarios come with varying degrees of believability, and AI vengeance offers less than others.

Bugs

I saw a bug the other day,

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To be fair, Alice pointed it out. She also identified it as a stag beetle. When I posted this picture on Facebook, there is a secret that I did not reveal. I said I saw the beetles in the morning, which is true, but the light was not good at that time, so this picture is actually from when I came home from work in the afternoon. The beetle, which hardly moved at all the whole time Alice and I were looking at it, had only made it a few feet from where we’d seen it first. Alice looked them up, and it’s common for them to move very little.

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Meanwhile, in fiction, I’ve needed to characterize the protagonist of the Cleaners Diane more clearly. As a brief review, The Cleaners is about house-cleaning robots that go overboard in their desire to achieve cleanliness. I’ve given Diane a huge collection of books haphazardly strewn about her house. This created an opportunity to  give her a motivation to not want to let the Cleaner into her house. Her untidy book collection is in fact actively dirty, and silverfishes, which are known to eat books, are occasionally falling out from between the pages. She is protective of her books, though, and doesn’t want a callous robot coming in and throwing them in the garbage. In my first draft, I described a silverfish nest Diane found in one of her books, and Alice wondered if silverfishes have nests. I made a note to look that up when I got around to it, but eventually Alice just looked it up herself and sent me an email. Silverfish lay only a few eggs at a time, it turns out, and a suspicious book can be microwaved to sterilize it. I’m not convinced that that precludes Diane finding a nest, though. Nevertheless, thinking about it more, I’ve decided that having a few silverfish slip out between the pages of a book could make for a more intense effect and sidestep the issue entirely. Having someone tell Diane to microwave her books could be pretty funny.

Now I just need to figure out how to avoid going too far in the other direction and making Diane’s house so filthy that her reluctance to have it cleaned is completely unrelatable, which is a serious risk with the number of silverfish I’ve already described running around the place.

Always ready to assist, Alice helped me come up with an ending for this entry:

Bugs, Bugs, Bugs, Bugs, Bugs. The End.

Playing in Character

I recently started a new D&D group. It’s the same campaign as I’ve sent a few other groups through, but this time there are a few differences. This is an inter-generational group including both a ten year-old girl and her mother as well as a few other people who are roughly my age. In order to make the game accessible, I have created the characters for all but one of the players, including a backstory for each character.

Let me share the backstory for the character the ten-year-old, we’ll call her Lanie, chose.

So there was this guy in my village called Millie. Parents named him Millard we called him Millie. Anyway Millie was a real loser. Everybody loved him. He had this long hair the girls went wild for, was always helping out being a good citizen and blah blah blah. What’s more he was a hell of a hunter. Whenever he went hunting he didn’t need no arrows. He wouldn’t tell us how he did it. He would just go into the woods and come back dragging two deer like it was nothing. Anyways one day Millie goes out to the woods. He comes back dragging his deer and he falls off the bridge. You think it was a pretty sturdy bridge but he fell off it just the same. I just so happened to be witness to this terrible tragedy. My best friend Millie biting the dust due to a freak accident. Goodness gracious me. Then out of the blue I get this voice in my head. “Buddy,” it says. Now buddy ain’t my name, but all the same it tells me there’s just been an opening with this guy called the Fiend. The Fiend didn’t really like the guy working for him before cuz all he did with his laser fingers was shoot deer. This guy sounds familiar right? Well turns out I was being offered the job. I held up my hand. “Fiend,” I said, “you had me at laser fingers.”

Before you ask, I did get Lanie’s mother’s permission before I shared this story. This is the sort of story that represents what in D&D we call “chaotic neutral.” An unpredictable character with little or no concern for the welfare of those around him. The only thing really separating chaotic neutral from evil is an active desire to destroy the world.

Lanie picked up chaotic neutral immediately. Under her guidance, Bren Blount made this party the first ever to kill the friendly zombie outright. When they found the mysterious prisoner wriggling in spider silk, Bren leapt forward to investigate. He began to cut the prisoner free, but when he saw that it was a zombie, despite a big smile and every indication that this was not just another walking corpse, Lanie declared “Nope!” Bren nudged the partially freed zombie into the river, where it floated away with bubbling cries of fear and pain. That’s a whole subplot unceremoniously washed away. I relish this player autonomy and look forward to considering what consequences may arise from Bren’s actions.

Lanie wasn’t done, though. As soon as they made it into town, she beelined for a magical wares shop and tried to buy a potion of healing. Potions of healing cost 50 gold pieces each, and the whole party had 25 pieces between them. Lanie decided Bren would enchant the shopkeep to think that he and the party were good friends, then try and weedle a free healing potion from them. After a roll of 20 on a 20-sided die, what we DMs call a “natural twenty,” two times in a row (a 1 in 400 chance) Bren extracted a sponsorship from “Mordenkaiden’s Magical Wares” on the order of three healing potions. When they learned that in an hour the spell would wear off and the shopkeep would realize he’d effectively been enchanted and robbed, the party scrambled to rebuff his attempts to get their names to brag about the heroes he’d sponsored. Then, with forced casualness, they ambled out of sight.

DMing this party will be fun.

image credit: https://www.walldevil.com/wallpapers/a48/bridge-forest-tree.jpg

An Uncountably Infinite Number of Sins

I, like all of God’s children, am a sinner. In my life, I commit infinite sins against the ideal set by God. Therefore, when I go to the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter reads my page in his book, which can fit an infinite number of sins, in a second. Therefore, he will take one second to read my sins.

In fact, though, I commit an infinite number of sins in a single day. If I live to be one hundred, over the course of my lifetime I may commit as many as 36,500 times infinity sins! Saint Peter has a trick for this issue. He can fit an infinite number of sins on one page, so he just logs them all on the same page, which he still reads in a second.

But, let’s think about it some more. God is infinite in his goodness, so every infinitesimal segment of each action I take includes infinite sins against God’s ideal. Therefore, Saint Peter has to read infinity  times infinity sins against God’s ideal from his book. Impressively, Saint Peter can still do this in a second. What he in fact does is arrange a table of sins, with instants in the column header and sins in the rows header (here represented in a Google Spreadsheet). Then he reads through diagonally and finishes in a second.

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By reading the infinite list of infinite lists of sins as a single infinite list, Saint Peter can still get through it in a second.

However, consider that by sinning, I affect other people. When I fail to move with divine grace, it encourages other people to be lax when they move. However indirectly, each of my sins is partly to blame for every other sin that will ever be committed in the future by anyone else. Therefore, if we assume humanity will exist on into the infinite future, each sin I commit every instant cannot be accounted for fully until the infinite number of sins resulting from it are accounted for. Each of these sins cannot be accounted for until the sins resulting from each of them are accounted for. Because he cannot account for even one sin from an infinite list without accounting for an infinite number of sins, Saint Peter cannot make any amount of progress reading my sins in any amount of time.

While Peter stands trapped at his podium reading at infinite, but not uncountably infinite, speed the first sin caused by the first sin caused by my first sin in the first instant of my life, I help myself to his keys and unlock the gate. Everyone is welcome in Heaven.

Picture credit: http://thedabbler.co.uk/2015/07/how-to-approach-the-pearly-gates/

Before I Became a Bestseller

I heard that J.K. Rowling wrote her first copy of “The Sorcerer’s Stone” on a typewriter. I heard that Chuck Palahniuk wrote “Fight Club” between screwing bolts in an assembly line. Harper Lee had a rich friend just buy her a year off from work so she could write “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It turns out there are a lot of stories about how people got their writing done before they were famous. Let me tell some stories about before I became (will become) famous.

Each line of code I would write I’d add a comment that was the next line of my story.

I fashioned crude tablets from North Carolina clay on which to write my ideas.

I would whisper my horror stories to my sleeping girlfriend at night and gauge how bad her nightmares were by how tired she was the next morning.

I was so poor I couldn’t afford paper, so I just told my stories to my dog. When I needed to remember what I’d said my dog would bark my stories back to me.

I drank and drank until I didn’t know who I was. I was drunk every day. I still drink like that. I’m drunk right now. What? A novel?

I made a rule for myself that every fifteen seconds I had to write a sentence of my story.

My wealthy uncle died and left me in his will a years’ wages. The next line in his will was that a sniper would have a gun trained at my head for the whole year and would kill me if I did not make sufficient daily progress on my novel. Thanks, Uncle!

I worked cleaning houses alongside sentient, box-headed robots for a month, inspiring me to write my story about sentient, box-headed robots who clean houses.

I listened to the stories I would hear from my Uber drivers, then passed them off as if they had happened to me.

My first novel was written entirely in Microsoft Word 2007. I was so breathtakingly impoverished I could not afford to upgrade to Microsoft Word 2010, which adds hundreds of productivity-enhancing new features.

I spent a year wandering the world, meeting people, taking in sights and having new, mind-expanding experiences. I didn’t get much writing done.

My father demanded a new novel every day before suppertime. I seldom had one ready, and he would calmly inform me what a worthless fool I was and that he didn’t love me. Now I write a bestselling novel every day and my father is dead.

I would have vivid fever dreams when my cat slept on my face, and would shave stories about them into my cat’s fur. I got my big break when I happened to bring my cat to the vet on the same day as Brandon Sanderson.

I lived among the destitute. I ate what they ate, slept where they slept. It wasn’t for a novel or anything, I just couldn’t find a job.

I would fashion stories about my psychiatry patients. The trick is to say you’ve changed the names.

When I was feeling down about my work, I would shout at my wife. When I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life, I would write an angry email to my congressperson. When I couldn’t think of how to finish a chapter, I would kick a cardboard cutout of my dog. My wife doesn’t let me kick our real dog. I’m going to shout at her again when I get home.

My visit to heaven after a near-fatal car accident inspired me to write my book “101 Health-Food Recipes on a Budget”

My Battlestar Galactica/Big Bang Theory slash-fiction just took off.

My homemade Dungeons and Dragons Campaign just took off.

I opened my phone one day and pressed the button to autocomplete the next word in the sentence over and over again until I had a novel.

This moron just pushed a button to let me write a novel for him and thought he would get the credit. What kind of phone could possibly win the Nobel prize for literature? This kind of phone.

I was writing a shopping list for my trip to Lowe’s Foods and it just took off.

Just a Trifle

I stop cold when I see it on the dessert island. A mexican chocolate trifle. I regulate my breathing. In, out, in, out. What an opportunity. All I have to do now is pick it up and take it to the checkout. Stay calm.

I struggle to keep my face straight as I amble to the island. Keeping myself from rushing feels like I’m moving through chest-deep trifle myself. A cylinder as big as me stacked high with pastries and desserts of all kinds. I have eyes only for the trifle. I glance at the checkout counter as I reach for the dish. No one is there.

A cold sweat breaks out on my still extended arm and I try to still my shaking. “No. No, no, no.” The empty machine. I think of scanning my employee ID card and item into that automaton. Soulless, faceless, humorless. It’s no good! It would be wasted! Calm down. Calm down. Breathe. Excruciatingly, I let my hand fall down limp next to me.

Breathe.

There will be another trifle.

I see a line forming at the checkout. People scanning their items, surrounded by each other. Maybe this will do, I begin to think. Maybe this will do, but wait! The checkout staffer has returned! The young woman, Trisha. She begins scanning items at record speed! I will have only a momentary window of opportunity. In a split-second of loss of control, I fire my arm out like a harpoon at the trifle. A hit! I reel in my winnings and turn to take them to the counter.

Standing in line behind a man so large I can see nothing past him, I shiver with anticipation. What if she doesn’t ask? She must ask. She must ask. Wiping the sweat from my brow with a trembling hand, I hold my trifle just at the edge of eyeshot. This will work. I am a genius. A modern Da Vinci! This trifle. This trifle!

I shift my weight from foot to foot and struggle to see around the man ahead of me, until, suddenly, I am there. Ah- hah. I can do this. Trisha looks at me, and I can feel the energy of the line behind me. It’s now or never! Trisha continues to wait. She’s not asking the question! I need the question! Good lord, woman, ask! Ask!

Then, when it seems as if all hope is lost, Trisha’s chest compresses, bringing air up through her throat. Her mouth opens and begins to shape the outgoing vibrations into words. The words form most beautiful, melodious, mellifluous song that ever has reached my ears.

“May I scan your item?”

In a flash, all self-consciousness is gone. This is me. This is where I belong. This is going to work. My lips move on their own. No thought is necessary. “Oh, this?” I ask, lifting my dessert, “It’s just a trifle.”

Trisha’s mouth curves into the barest hint of what could be a smile. In what can only be described as a divine miracle, time slows for me to enjoy every instant of her joyous expression as my brilliant play on words registers in her mind.

“heh.”

Trisha reaches out and accepts my trifle, scanning it into the machine. She wishes me a nice day.

Now walk away. Don’t look back, just walk away. Suppressing the radiance burning in my chest, I turn and leave. I walk all the way to the tables and turn to leave the building. I force my effortless cool until I make it out and around and all the way back into my office. I close the door and let the feeling inside me escape into a broad grin, then a laugh, then a shout. YEEEESSS! I pump my fist. What a success.

After a few minutes of well-earned celebration, I sit down and place my purchase delicately in front of me. Now just what is a “trifle” anyway?