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Unfinished Story Fragment

Once upon a time magic wasn’t very useful. Most people could touch it, bend it in at least a small way, but as a practical force it was too complicated, too arcane for most. The most successful magicians, the ones with towers of their own and actual incomes from the use of magic, were mildly autistic types with the superhuman will and precision which to perform spells beyond cantrips without getting something wrong.

The will generated the power to accomplish the work of the spell. Magic, after all, is little more than human will imposed upon the world, forcing the world to change. The precision was required to actually perform the spell, which in casting looked something like an impressionistic dance: precise, twitchy movements accompanied by precise, arpeggaited nonsense syllables. None of it was actaully nonsense though: one twitch misplaced, one word mispronounced, and the whole spell was wrong. When dealing with the kind of spell the casting of which allowed a wizard to afford a tower, even the most trivial error was often fatal.

Incidentally, most people are familiar with Merlin, the last of the great casters of the old style. He was a genius, to be sure, and was instrumental in uniting Britain. However, in the popular imagination, his prowess has eclipsed his actual accomplishments. Few people remember that the lowest 12 stories of his tower were occupied by his support staff, who did most of the work of actually inventing the grand spells that he cast. He was the performer, and an exceptional one; he was the manager, and talented at it. They were just the writers, but without them he would have been a gun without bullets. All his most famous sorceries were ghostwritten.

The Djinni of Arabia, the faculty of the research university of al-Djinn, had been advancing the world’s understanding of magic for centuries. In an inversion of European norms, the faculty themselves were the researchers and writers; they used slaves to cast the spells they wrote. They’d discovered compulsion spells as early as the 9th century AD, but it took another four centuries before anyone figured out how to make them useful: on their face, they were more complicated and more trouble to cast than simply paying someone to do whatever work would have been compelled.

The key to the revolution wasn’t immediately obvious: an efficiency improvement which allowed anyone who could cast a cantrip to at least begin a compulsion. Even then, the meticulous precision with which the actions to be performed had to be described couldn’t make compulsion cost-efficient for industrial purposes. Upon this discovery Abara Adaba, the researcher in charge of the project, lost his grant and turned to other projects.

Two years later, he made history by casting on himself a compulsion to read a given magical text, memorize it, then perform it exactly as written. The resulting spell–one which endowed an ordinary carpet with flight–had been until that moment tremendously expensive: it generally killed dozens of slaves attempting to cast it before one managed to get it right. Adaba rode his magic carpet straight into the history texts as the innovator who introduced the Industrial Age.

Refreshing the Creativity Well

Vacations are wonderful times. It’s not just that I get to hang out with my wonderful friends and family. It’s not just that together, we head out and explore new and cool parts of cities and partake of fascinating events and activities. In addition to these, I get all the time in the world to spend without expending a jot of brainpower on work.

That turns out to be surprisingly important. The routine while working settles down fairly quickly until even given the time and opportunity to head out and entertain myself, I simply don’t have the energy or will to do so. Living the drab life isn’t awful in any traditional sense–I still exercise, eat, sleep, work; strictly speaking I’m pretty high up in the hierarchy of needs–but it makes me feel more than usual like a machine. Without creativity, without the mental energy to exercise that creativity, I’m more or less going through the motions of life.

Vacations are the only time I know of in which I can refresh that well of creativity and start feeling human again. I could tell that it was working about halfway through when I started cleaning and cooking for the friends with whom I was staying. I’ve made, or had a major hand in the making of, cuisines from three continents (including General Tso’s Chicken, from scratch!), a bunch of writing, three or four toy programs (including a full implementation of Pong!), and a yet-to-be-launched website for a friend while out here. None of this, strictly, was required. All of it was a wonderful exercise in proving that I am in fact more than a machine which takes in money and churns out work.

The vacation is nearly over: I fly back tomorrow. I’ll have spent a ton of money and nearly all my accumulated leave in exchange for these 30 days in the US.

It was worth every bit.

Visibility

One consequence of flight school was learning the pilot’s two measures of weather: ceiling and visibility. Ceiling is the lowest level above which there are too many clouds to dodge. Visibility is the distance you can see through whatever atmospheric haze is present.

In Korea, you could accurately simulate a day’s visibility as a function of randint(0, 8), expressed in nautical miles. 2 is the minimum to fly a low-risk mission; 3 is required to be comfortable; 7 or more is considered unlimited visibility. That’s not really true, though: even on a day when the weather shop’s reporting unlimited vis, you can tell that visual acuity fades sharply toward the horizon. Unlimited visibility in Korea really just means that you can usually distinguish the horizon, as opposed to the region where the ground fades into the sky.

I never really thought about it, because Korea does get occasional days where visibility is truly unlimited. They are rare and perfect days of intense beauty. Since coming back to New England, though, I’ve had almost three weeks so far of such days uninterrupted.

The weather here is a treasure. It’d be a pity to leave it unremarked.

The Soul Solution

Doctrinally, Catholics must go to Mass every week [ref]. That’s tough, though: there are plenty who’d rather be sleeping in and then watching the game, not dressing up for worship. This business is here to provide a solution.

The notion is simple: your soul is like your dry-clean-only laundry. Drop it off at the cleaner’s every week before 10AM, get it back no later than 5PM the next day. When you sign your soul over at the counter, you get a ticket with which to claim it back later. While you’re away doing your own thing, a Professional Catholic will carry it to Mass and get it eucharized for you. So convenient!

Worried about God’s take on the thing? Well, remember: His eye is on the sparrow. Even He’s not going to mass! He’s out birdwatching. As for the Attendance Angel, they see the right number of people with the right number of souls showing up, and your name is clearly printed on your own. (Soul Name Desmudging is a complimentary service.) (The Professional Catholics each have a small safe in their locker at the office in which to store their own soul during the Mass.) As far as tallying which soul is supposed to go with which body, that’s too much effort for most of them. After all, bodies are natural, constantly changing, and kind of hard to identify. Just counting up the souls is much more efficient.

There are additional services available, of course. Been missing a few Masses recently? No problem! Our team will take your soul through up to 12 Masses daily until you’re caught up. It’s better not to get behind in the first place, of course, but if you already are, you’d better remedy that as soon as possible: the interest is hell. If you’re worried about the actual cleanliness of your soul, just detail your sins in the comment box when you deposit it and let the professionals take care of both the confession and the penance! Additional fees may be assessed for mortal sins.

Interested in the concept but of a different faith? Not to worry! Additional faith options are coming soon. Islamic Daily Salah will be available on a subscription basis within the next six months, with more to follow. Get involved in not getting involved, by joining this exciting service today!

This Is My Niece, With Whom I Am Well Pleased

om nom nom

Age: 6 months
Interests: Gnawing, and Incredulity
Quirks: Aside from the cooing and other normal baby noises, she occasionally lets loose with a primal GHRAAAAAAKK with a vast intake of breath. She then giggles at the surprise everyone around her inevitably displays.

If you’ve been wondering why I’ve been almost entirely off the internet recently, wonder no more: blame her. I’ve been on leave hanging out with the family; normal operations will resume in November.

Airplane vs. Treadmill

If you haven’t heard of it, this was a meme a while ago, whose best solution is here. Right now, I’m just reading through some of the archived debates, laughing at idiots. The funniest are the people who almost understand what’s going on:

Mike:
The plane will TAKE OFF. But there’s no guarantee of it FLYING. Once it reaches a speed fast enough to overcome friction of the conveyor belt the engine has to be powerful enough to generate lift against air rather than the ground. If the plane were in a vacuum (no air) it would not fly. That’s my stab at it any way.

January 31, 2008 at 12:50 AM

There should be a word for what I’m doing. Something related to schadenfreude, but meaning “pleasure derived from the idiocy of others.”

A word other than “trolling.” That one implies an active participation in the conversation.

Ground Zero Mosque

The fact that there even is a debate about this sickens me. It’s one thing to impose security theater on air travel, making it even more terrible with no real increase in safety. I can accept that; I am outvoted by the masses who do in fact prefer to trade in liberty for the perception of security.

It is another thing entirely to alienate and anger all of Islam in order to spite them for the attacks of almost a decade ago. 9/11 is old news. The world has, in general, moved on. There is no such thing as true outrage at the attacks anymore; there is only political posturing and irrational grudge-holding.

This was a chance to show the world what freedom meant. To show that we welcomed the moderate majority of a religion which, despite its share of extremists, is generally peaceful. To show that we could rise above such simple pettiness. To show that we respect our own Constitution.

That chance was botched. There will always be the morons who truly do still hold a grudge. I suspect that they remain a tiny minority; I’m not yet cynical enough about the nation to postulate that they’re widespread. The people who really get my goat in this parade of idiots are the ones who fill themselves with mock outrage in order to score political points. Because of them, this is somehow a big deal. Because of them, we’re driving away the moderate Muslims, and encouraging the extremists.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That should have been all that needed to be said.

Understanding Humans

The world needs a proper model of human comprehension of natural language. This one is based partly on the OSI Model, partly on standard compiler design. Conceptually, it’s an interface stack: a set of layers of functionality. Each layer can talk freely within itself, and has a well-defined interface to the layers above and below, but never calls otherwise.

  1. Lexer / Phoneme Analyzer: This just tokenizes the input stream, whether it be audio or text. These are actually separate branches for the different types of input, but functionally do the same thing. Operates at the character/raw sound level.
  2. Parser: Checks grammar and syntax of input tokens. Generates all possible interpretations of homonym/homophone possibilities. Operates at the word level. Generates sentences.
  3. Local Contextual Integrator: Considers local details: formatting of text, source and quality of audio, etc. Gives a small, local “big picture” to frame the input in question. Operates at the word level, but by nature considers a variety of external cues.
  4. Literal Semantic Analyzer: Given the tokens and their context, decides what the literal meaning of a given sentence is. Operates at the sentence level.
  5. Source Knowledge Integrator: The source of a given communication is important. A message from a family member might be more trusted than a random internet article. A sentence from a very literal, precise person is more likely to mean exactly what it says than one from an excitable teenager. Operates at the sentence level.
  6. Conceptual Accumulator: Collects a bunch of related sentences into a paragraph-level concept. Decides what sentences are related and how they fit together.
  7. General Semantic Analyzer: Decides what the author probably meant in a particular paragraph. Resolves logical contradictions and paradox. Operates at the paragraph/concept level.
  8. General Contextual Integrator: Integrates a concept with a worldview. This is the level which decides if someone is lying, wrong, or otherwise speaking falsehoods. Operates at the concept level, though by nature includes a wide variety and broad scope of external information.
  9. Cognition: normal thought about ideas. Operates at the conceptual level. Can modify the rules of lower levels, for example when learning a new language or updating the current model of the current language.

Humans accomplish layers 1-5 automatically and unconsciously. Layers 6-8 are like breathing: generally subconscious, but can be consciously overridden. Layer 9 is when we start getting into id, ego, superego stuff: possibly subconscious but generally sentient behavior. Computers right now are quite good at steps 1 and 2 using artificial languages, and rubbish at them for natural languages. Layers 3 and above may exist as research projects, but are above the current state of the art.

When I go back to school, there is a high probability that this is the stuff I will focus on, trying to push the state of the art in computer thought up, level by level. It is fascinating!

Cars

Cars have been on my mind a lot recently. So far in the decade I’ve been licensed, I’ve owned three. My parents gave me an Eagle Vision when I was in college, and I bought a Saturn LS2 from them a few years later after returning from Japan. Both were sensible, practical, well-maintained sedans firmly planted in the center of the luxury curve.

I might still be driving the Saturn, but the Army wouldn’t ship it to Korea. The standard tour here is only a year; they don’t figure it’s worth shipping cars for such a short time. I extended my tour almost immediately on arrival, and gained eligibility to have a car shipped, but it was sold by then.

I almost bought a cheap ancient hoopty, as is traditional for army folks in Korea. For $500, you can get a car good enough to last you your year or two–probably. One of my friends here literally had one of his wheels fall off as he was driving down the highway last week. He was fine. The car was totaled. I was lucky, though: before I went with the hoopty, I happened to see a nice-looking sports car with a For Sale sign in the window. The price was right, and I ended up owning a 1992 Dodge Stealth.

It’s been a good car for Korea, quick and agile enough to blow through traffic while being cheap enough that I wouldn’t be devastated if it got wrecked somehow. Still, when I PCS out of here, I’m going to sell it off and upgrade. I’ve never owned a new car, but I’ve got enough in the bank to plausibly buy one outright. (I’m not particularly interested in buying the biggest car I could afford the loan of; it’d be a bad value proposition and also far too easy to drive beyond my abilities and wreck it.) It’s become a question, now, of what I want to buy, and (after much research) there are three major contenders.

The first option is a Mazda Miata, in its highest trim level, with the convertible hardtop. After throwing in all the options, it’s both the cheapest car I’m looking at and the most luxurious. The issue is power: it only runs a 4-cylinder engine displacing 2 liters, and statistically it’s just not in the same class as the others. Still, every review talks about its wonderful handling and the pure exhilaration of driving it; it also gets many bonus points for being a hardtop convertible. It’s the current leader in my mind for what to buy.

Alternately, I could go for a Nissan 370Z. Its ancestor, the 350Z, was the first car I ever looked at and thought “I really wish I owned that thing.” It’s pure beauty, power, and good reviews. The convertible version is reviewed even better, but costs more than I want to spend. Even as a coupe, it’s a car that looks fast standing still. Of course, the speed isn’t just in its looks; it goes quite nicely. The only real issue is the price: it’s the most expensive of the three. If my budget were 25% higher, there’s no question: I’d get this car as a convertible. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

The last option is to go pure musclecar and buy a Ford Mustang GT. Here, the convertible version got markedly worse reviews than the coupe, so that’s not really an option. On the other hand, this is by a large margin the most powerful (and heaviest) of the cars I’m looking at. I honestly do not know how atavistic the thrill is of laying down twin rubber streaks on takeoff, and how it balances against the budget for tires; it’s one of the things I want to find out in a test drive. This car really has only two niggling and strange cons. The first is simple: I’d prefer a convertible. The second is that, of these three cars, this is the only one that actually makes me worry about driving within the car’s capabilities but not within mine and killing myself by accident.

If I worry about pushing too hard in the high end and dying, why bother with a sports car at all? It’s simple: they are fun. They are adrenaline in a shiny metal body; sexiness on wheels. They are enablers of joy: there is simply nothing like darting through medium-light traffic at twice its average speed, planning your movements three lane-changes ahead. There is much about driving in Korea that I’ll gladly forget the moment I leave, but I suspect that the sensation of freedom when the traffic finally opens up and the next obstacle is a speed camera 5 miles ahead is one I’ll treasure for a long time. I would never have experienced that in a hoopty; my ancient, base-model sports car is the only reason I have had that feeling. I can’t help but look forward to knowing what it will be like in a car that is modern and even more capable than what I have now.

Summer Fest

Command has been promoting the K-16 summer fest for over a month now. Come to summer fest! It’s a Friday off! All the cool people from not just this base, but Yongsan and the surrounding Seongnam community will be there!

Naturally, the day arrives and there is rain. This isn’t just any rain, though: it’s a downpour. Torrential in volume, ferocious in intensity, seemingly endless in duration. This has led to some amusing scenes.

The BN HQ parking lot, for example, is filled to capacity. At its only entrance, a large sign warns “Parking Lot Subject to Flooding. NO OVERNIGHT PARKING.” An inch of water is streaming down the tarmac at the entrance.

In front of the community center, in the normal parking lot, there’s a raised stage and some enormous speakers connected to what looks like a pile of very expensive audio equipment. In front of this are about a hundred folding metal chairs. It’s all deserted, with the electronics entarped in plastic wrap.

Surrounding that are a dozen or so small awnings for the various services, groups, and businesses that want to make a good impression on the soldiers here. Most are simply deserted. Others are manned by one or two lonely-looking but dedicated people. The only one with any customers at all is selling $1 beers, $1 hotdogs, and free popcorn. There’s an air of mirth around that one, as though everyone suspects that they are being ridiculous. Periodically someone pokes the awning, pushing a solid sheet of water off the edge.

I like the rain, and I don’t like crowds. I probably should feel bad that this is how the summerfest is turning out, but honestly it is just amusing.