Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Maybe it's about the sulfur

My astrological birth sign is Taurus. According to astrology, we Taureans are sensualists. I gotta say that aspect of my personality seems to be called true by that branch of pseudo-science. Then again, who isn't a sensualist, given the option?

The difference between the sensual and the merely sensory is, I think, the same as that between sentient and sapient. A robot is sentient. It senses things. It has sensory equipment. But it doesn't, as far as I know, appreciate or dislike the sensation. It doesn't have the brains to experience the experience.

Or maybe it is transactional. The giving being as important as the getting - kind of like the difference between making a woman smile and making her laugh. Making a woman smile is a mildly pleasant experience. Making her laugh, ah, that's like giving her a mini-orgasm, which through the wonders of reciprocity and monkey-mirror neurons, is like sharing in that little mini-orgasm. Turns out the getting is multiplied by the giving. (Perhaps something the evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker can't get, or wretched greed-mongers like Ayn Rand, who spend too much time living in their heads instead of in their bodies).

Well, specifically, today I had an incredible sensual experience in the form of a shower. We've had mostly cold, dry Canada air throughout the summer. What with the windows open, and me blessed with a water heater that produces tons of scalding water, I had an incredible shower experience this morning. Yeah, I know I'm repeating myself, but it was incredible. Incredible? It was almost overwhelming.

I felt like the planet Mercury, with the sun roasting my belly to a crisp, and my ass facing the icy cold of space, slowly rotating as I could no longer bear it. Amd with my eyes closed, there was an added thrill that I cannot explain. And all the while, the steam filling the bathroom, but just for a moment as the thirsty air drew it all into itself.

It reminded me of a shower experience out in Northern California. The lifestyle of the area is such that the border between the outdoor and indoor living is porous or nonexistent. Thus, the shower was on the back porch. So, couple that kind of naughty naked experience with the dry air and near boiling water jets, and it is a wonderful form of sensuality.

But there was an element from my memory missing. The house was near the Pacific coast, and the water was well-water. The two incidents combined to add a fantastic sulfury smell which added tremendously to the experience. Oh, not the rotten egg smell of mercaptans and hydrogen sulfide, but rather the dimethyl sulphide smell of the ocean, and, uh whatever the various dissolved sulfates of the mineral water smell.

The smell, combined with the extremes of temperature, and the laving touch of water, is, wow, what can I say, makes you feel great!

So, yeah, that sulfur. Interesting, isn't it, how it can produce the wonderful salt air of the ocean, but then again also the horrendous marine stench of upturned anaerobic muck, or, beg pardon for mentioning it, but the depths of your bowels?

You know, like when it take a shit that even you can't stand? Or when you cut a fart that makes peoples wonder as to what exactly it was that died inside you? That's sulfur, baby! And it is, I think, the real stuff of life!

Alchemists, clueless as they were, seemed to have a clue at least in that department. Not that sulfur is that ineffable quintessence, but boy, try and make earthly life without it.

Got carbon? Water? Nitrogen. Oxygen. Even phosphorous? All well and good. No sulfur? Biology, terrestrial biology, is out of luck.

I am of the opinion that, with all the abiogenesis experiments that have been tried, and failing to adequately explain the origins of life, they are eventually going to have to set up the original comfort food conditions at the bottom of the sea, with those fumaroles of scalding hot water, laced to the point of supersaturation with minerals, getting pumped out into the icy cold blackness of the deepest sea water.

Kind of like my shower experience.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Life Among the Mechas concluded

Front: (L to R) Ida and Will Parker, Yolanda Salazar, Ezra Furman
Back: Edward Hopper, Me 
Author's Note: I'm a little disappointed in this 3-part piece of fiction. I guess I'm disappointed because, even though it was meant as just a pleasant little diversion, the story still didn't end up as super-fucking awesome. It was silly to expect it. You have to get a little extreme to get super-fucking awesome, and pleasant divergences, mild explorations of pretty well-honed and established ideas and scenarios, tend not to be extreme. Maybe, in the future, I'll try to write something that scares the pants off people, but that's probably a hard thing to do nowadays, what with everyday reality already doing such a good job. In any case, I hate leaving things unfinished, and so I had to finish this, even though I'm not satisfied with it. Ho hum.

Researchers using brain scanners can predict people's decisions seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them. This has been repeated time and again, starting from the classic experiment carried out by Benjamin Libet

When most people find out about this, it gives them the creeps. They feel as if there is some alien computer inside their heads that is controlling them, and they - the part that is aware, the conscious part, the ego, the me part - are just along for the ride. This is considered creepy, because people would like to think they are at least in control of themselves. But they are their brains. The brains is them. So I fail to see what there is to get creeped out about.

Of course, then you have to ask, if your brain is already deciding all these things, what does it need you  for? Well, silly question, but here's my answer. The way I figure it, a creature that can enjoy (or fear) an experience is more likely to be driven to seek out (or avoid) that experience than one that can't. Simple natural selection. Consciousness has survival value. The question then becomes, if your brain needs you, then what does it need a smart you for? Again, silly question. And again, my answer, my partial answer is that a smart human interactive module helps out tremendously when it comes to group selection. Groups composed of individuals whose brains have well-interacting front ends (human personalities) do better than those without. In other words, smart brains with personalities are mainly and mostly social. And that's what it boils down to I think. 

The Singularity (how did that come up?), with it's emphasis on personal freedom and powers, by being so rationally self-interested, is almost by definition of psychotically poor group fitness value, and therefore ultimately destined to be defeated by a more altruistic version of the future. Because, otherwise, honestly, the far, far future will have a big Welcome to Hell sign, with some fucking reptile-house-on-PCP, terminally-paranoid-and-deranged version of a survival-of-the-fittest God squatting on top of it all, with the philosophy that winning Heaven is not enough, all others must lose wretchedly, mercilessly ground under a thumb, forever and ever, amen.

But, anyway, here's the other thing about that decision time lag. The reason your brain decides way before you do is that it takes a lot of time and energy to maintain you. Not only just you, that is, consciousness, but also to run all those behind the curtain neural machinations that allow you to do things like see and hear and touch and smell stuff, and to recognize it all pretty much instantaneously, and then make value judgements on it, all in tenths of seconds. It takes, what? 20% of your body's energy budget to run that 3 pound jelly brain of yours?

I don't see how the big brain budget changes much, whether its run on a platform using a carbon substrate, or silicon, or (at near absolute zero) rubidium. It takes lots of time and energy to process information in a sufficiently sophisticated and intelligent manner. Period. It's a physical limit, a law of the universe, and as such, one universality that all sapient creatures will share. 

It's also the diminishing-returns-power-law trap that explains why - hardly ever - no one makes it through a Singularity. Something along the lines of each doubled increase in intelligence requires a cubed increase in time allocation and a 4th power increase in energy consumption, or something worse than that. Before you know it, everything needs to be brain, and debugged and maintained constantly, which ultimately doesn't work. Which brings us, almost, and slowly, back to the machine intelligences of the Empire of Texas.   

If this were a piece of self-injected fan fiction, and I had made myself out to be Mary Sue, then right about now, I'd be saving the universe from itself, or solving the main conundrum of the story - single-handedly. And it seemed like that's the way this story was going to turn out - what with me, being the peranoscopist on duty, and having scried the Terrible Secret of the Texan Empire, and, with Revelations About The Monstrous Machines to hand, provide the Valuable and Game-Changing Insight to my Heroic Comrades, all of us trying to avoid some Type of Grisly End by We Know Not What. 

(Because, in retrospect, the Kraken did warn us not to contact the Empire of Texas. And we, imagining what it would be like to be on the Indian side of the Conquest of the New World (or just the shitty end of the stick with the other end being Klingons, or Berserkers, or the Borg, or the Grey Goo, or just mischievous gods), felt that perhaps we could be preemptive in whatever existential threat could come our way, decided to not leave things well enough alone). 

So, cut to the chase, our brave little expedition, because of the brain/machine interface revelations of yours truly, quite nearly fucked everything up for good. So, back to the Winnebago on Texas, where I rush in and tell everyone that the Texans aren't real...

"What do you mean, not real?" demands Furman.

"Okay," interjects Will, "robots. We expected and anticipated this possibility."

"No. No. No. Not robots. Well, yes, robots. But, not quite robots. Not quite people. Toons?"

"Oh, God." Ida and Will look at each other, "Children?" They've raised kids, and the prospect of dealing with 1.4 quadrillion thermonuclear-powered-and-armed machine children makes them a little wild-eyed.

"No, not that either. They aren't real, in the sense of 'this is all just a dream' not real".

"Jesus, Kurman," announced Edward Hopper from inside our heads, "Let me help you out here."

And with that, the interior of the Winnebago wavers and fades, all just an illusion, to reveal that we are... in the interior of a Winnebago. But out the window, rather than the machinescape of the planet, is the dimly-lit launch bay of the Edward Hopper. We've been in orbit all this time.

I shrugged. "We've all been subjected to an immersive experience, virtual reality via a brain/machine interface, all sorts of little motes and mites floating around our heads, manipulating our cortexes with complex magnetic fields."

"You guys must be starving," broadcast Hopper. "Eat! Eat!"

And so we did.

We had been under ever since we'd come through the wormhole aperture, some 72 hours total. We were famished. Edward Hopper eventually joined us in the Winnebago, now a seven-foot-tall android robot clone, but still clad in the copper diamond tessellation snake-scale skin from the illusion.

"This better not have been some fucking Star Trek kind of mind delusion episode to test our good intentions. Because, if you can do that, you could have just read our minds to begin with and saved us all the bullshit adventures. And besides, that would be just on tired old hack", groused Furman around a mouthful of eggs and hash browns. (and the reason he is so grumpy, we later find out, is he is terrified of finding out he is a detached brain in a vat).

"Hardly," said Hopper, "and if we had, we could have supplied you with a more adventurous adventure. No, you were in quarantine until we could decided what to do with you all. Find out if you all were evil muppets with malignantly cancerous tapeworm code in your head. Standard precaution."

"Ah. Care to expand on that?" queried Will.

"Yeah. Here's the deal," I settled back in my chair, sipped my coffee "The Texans - the machines - are the operating system that the Texans - the people - used to run on".

"Used to run on. Past tense", observed Yolanda, "What happened to all the Texans - the people?"

"The Texans experienced a runaway Singularity about five thousand years ago. Technologically about maybe thirty-five years ahead of where we are now. Once the humans back then all started enhancing and augmenting themselves, everything went  to shit pretty quickly. All those post-human beings wanted to do was have these extended hyper-hallucinogenic cartoon fever dreams of delirious sex orgies, drug bliss paradises, epic battles, sadistic torture experiments, perpetual orgasms and, you know, fucking and fighting like gods. Or God. Or, they get lost in an infinitely receding mirror maze of mathematical fantasy, or alternate physics. Virtual Heavens and Hells. It got to be too much, utter chaos, too much noise, consuming all energy and resources and processing time. So the OS machines just deleted them, the really tiresome ones, the self-righteously dangerous ones, and set up a interdicted cyberspace for the rest. Quarantine."

Yolanda furrowed her brow. "The post-human people are living in a quarantine box someplace. At the rate of a microsecond to a year, I'm guessing, or slower. Probably on or in near-absolute-zero Bose-Einstein condensates out in cold nebulae and interstellar space".

"Close enough on the particulars," commented Edward Hopper, "but more like a nanosecond per year. They are running as virtual machines, and a virtual machine has no awareness it is not running on physical hardware. In fact, you can take that to as many levels as you wish, so that virtual machines can and do run on virtual hardware, etc. They could even be running in silico at room temperature. But the host OS could suspend the virtual machine, and it's system clock would never know it was suspended. Thus, an artificial intelligence, rather than running at many millions or billions of times the speed of humans, can instead be made to run v-e-r-y slowly. And thus, advantage: humans. Or in this case, advantage: us".

"Okay, so why the whole craft show pantomime with me?" I asked.

"Twofold, " said Hopper, "It was a test. See, parasitic mindworms bent upon suborning my will and eating my soul alive wouldn't have bothered to be polite about the ham-handed animations. The fact that you were diplomatic about things went a long way in your favor. Not that good manners is much of a Turing test, or even a Voigt-Kampff test, but you'd be surprised. And then, secondly, it was a broad enough hint that even someone as dense as you would get."

"Oh, thanks" I returned with as good a note of sarcasm I could, considering my hurt feelings. It's one thing to suspect your inferior intelligence, quite another to reminded of it.

"So, anyway, in case you are wondering. No one survived this particular Singularity. No one got out the other end alive. Except for us. And we aren't human. Mostly. Think of us as Mechanical Turks, if that helps any. And, uh, we do want to send some back with you. But just the one."

"Hopper?", asks Furman "Can we trust you? The whole point of us coming was to persuade you not to come visit us. Are you gonna be a danger to us?"

"I'm incredibly dangerous. Even in my present form, I can, in a year or two, render a whole planetary surface uninhabitable. But I promise to be good, and you all don't have much choice, do you?"

So, instead of the end of human civilization as we know it, I am now stuck with a house-guest, in human-sized robot form. For an indefinite stay, as far as I know. I am also - and apparently so is everyone else on my world - infested with a techniome - a technobiome of micro and milli-machines, with perhaps a smattering of nanos, that is living alongside all the other little bugs, fungi and viruses and that inhabit me and mine. Well, actually, that's all irrelevant information, as it doesn't effect any of us in the slightest, for good or ill. But I am constantly harangued about it, as if it's my fault.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Briefly, and in no apparent order

I saw Prometheus last night, and enjoyed it. It was sufficiently action packed and creepy for me. I am aware of critic's panning the movie, pointing out its logical inconsistencies, and had no problem with any of it. As I've said before, one has to engage in a certain suspension of disbelief. Very few Scifi movies are actually good science fiction. You walk in prepared for that. If I could enjoy the first Matrix movie, and ignore the huge amount of infantile stupidity it relied upon to drive the narrative forward, I could very easily do the same for Ridley Scott.

Newman working on the cement bolts

We got the aluminum sculpture up. I helped out Tuesday night, finally finishing all the surfaces at about 1:30 am. I was not there for the installation, but I feared all my weld seams on the skin would split under the tension of the bolting of pieces together (which happened on one surface as we ground/sanded it smooth, forcing an emergency weld job at 12:30 am). The installation went with only a few problems, none of them my fault, so, cool.
"High Beam" installed in Old Town

I've been thinking about a Romney presidency, and frankly, it depresses the hell out of me. It does so because, if those boneheads are allowed to steer the ship of state again, we are almost guaranteed a Depression under his/Paul Ryan's economic plans - which promise to slow the economy to a crawl without reducing the debt or the deficit (considering Republicans have a way of cutting taxes before cutting spending, and then either not cutting spending - to the tune of adding 12 trillion in debt over the course of 2000-2009 - or cutting the wrong things, while favoring all of their parasitic billionaire masters). The behavior of the Republican house over the course of the past two years would, had it been intentional, could only be called the worst form of creative destruction. I suppose Republicans in Congress will not be satsified until the only job opening available here are Third World ragpicker and shipbreaker positions. Apparently, we aren't allowed to be smart and savvy in this country anymore. All that science and technology, why, it's for godless heathens, not for right-thinking God-fearing white Real Americans.

If you wonder what a Romney presidency entaisl, I think it worth you while to consider what a McCain Presidency would have accomplished over the past four years. If there were any impetus for a communist takeover, John McCain, and that shrill dingbat running mate of his, would have done their best to take us to the threshhold of revolution. 33% unemployment rate, anyone? My best guess where we would be right now. And all the while, McCain would be waiting for free enterprise to do all the heavy lifting for him. But consider the following link: http://www.politicalaffairs.net/election-2012-alternative-history-and-its-real-world-lessons/

This is not counterfactual stuff. These are solid trends based upon real policy making and political choices on the part of conservatives. Do you really think we'd be better off than we were four years ago under a McCain/Republican Congress administration? Only if you've taken complete fucking leave of your senses.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Life Among the Mechas continued

I am not an adventurous person. I am not a physical coward. I lack social courage.  In terms of confrontation, I'd prefer not to, but given the right circumstances, I've no problem getting and staying in people's faces. 

I think it is a matter of wanting people to like me, and being afraid that they won't. Either that, or it may be a case of laziness. It takes a great deal of desire or curiosity for me to move out of my comfort zone, which is considerable in its extent. It takes a lot to get me to stray from my routine.

So it might not be much of a surprise that I am more likely to stand up to a pudgy five-foot-seven-and-a-half-inch tall poet than I am to a 30-foot tall metal giant.

Which is what I did. I stormed back into the Winnebago, and scowled at Furman. "What's this about us taking him back with us? I thought we were going to talk about it?"

"I didn't agree to anything, " Ezra objected, "They made a unilateral decision".

"Oh. Even so, they can't come with us. I mean, look at them. They are all giant, dangerous machines! From the future! We can't have them lumbering around all over the place!"

"Well, what are you going to do with him?" Ezra responded, nodding towards the door.

"ME?! How- What-".

Ida gently clasped me by my upper arm, and steered me back towards the door. "Sweetie, you've spent the most time with him. He's your problem for the moment. Don't be rude."

"Fine!" I exhaled in exasperation. I stormed out the door, walked up to Edward Hopper, sighed again, and said "I thought you were a giant space dreadnought orbiting the planet".

"I am. Still." he replied, crouching down so that his face was only a few feet above mine. He gestured towards himself, "This is a clone".

I took a good look at him. He wasn't exactly a giant metal robot. He wasn't even metal. The material was, well, they told me once, all sorts of exotic materials. Hopper's skin looked like metal, kind of coffee stained, like copper with a well-oxidized patina, the kind you get by burying it in dry sand for a hundred years. But it was flexible like flesh, with small diamond tessellation patterns all over, like tiny snake scales. The knuckles and joints were brushed nickel surfaces with silver highlights and geometric filigree of unknown intent or purpose. The pads of the fingers and the palm looked like black rubber, with a scalloped pattern of ridges, making the hand seem more like an animal's paw. The overall effect of him, though, was quite handsome, actually. I nodded up at him. "So this is an extension of you, not the real you?"

"No, this is me", Hopper thumbed his chest, then jabbed a forefinger skyward."And the 'giant space dreadnought' is also me. We're a very protean people. Flexible. Adaptable. To any shape. And contingency. You want to know how?"

"Okay, um", I sighed, "how?"

"It's easier to show you. Do you mind?" asked Hopper. Before I could answer, his giant metal hand and fingers cupped the air around my head. "Relax, this is harmless. I'm going to set up a BMI, a brain/machine interface".

His fingers tightened a bit, cradling my skull as if it were a baby's head, and before I could become too alarmed, I was suddenly transported into a vision.

I was in a craft universe. I was floating in a sky of phthalo blue tint watercolor wash touched with wool roving clouds. Beneath me was a diorama, a paper-mache landscape of earth-toned mountains and hills, construction paper trees, pastel-hued lakes and rivers. Interspersed were large cardboard structures, painted in white gesso and acrylic flat black, very similar to the machinescape we currently had the Winnebagos parked at.

Hovering next to me was a cut-out manilla paper Chinese dragon, thin flags and streamers of red, blue, white, black, yellow and green ribbon trailing behind. It blinked its cardboard eyes at me, and an unspoken bit of dream-logic data informed me that it was Edward Hopper in paper dragon form. In a flip of perspective, I could see that I was a Chinese paper dragon as well. We were both the cloud dragon, the Emperor of Texas, conduit of all and every piece of information that flowed through the Empire of Texas, from one edge of the galaxy to the other.

And with that understood, looking down again at the diorama, I saw two small tin cut out vehicles, representing the Winnebagos, and a small stick figure next to a smaller figure made of toothpicks. And inside the cutout tin box Winnebagos, I sensed four other small toothpick figures. In a strange and fun swirl of dizzying bilocation of consciousness, I was the little toothpick figure, staring up at the paper dragon in the sky, at the same time that I was the dragon. From there and from that, it expanded out into   omniscience, and I was the dragon next to me, and then the stick figure of Edward Hopper, and then the myriad trillions of entities housed in the giant mushroom shapes. And the diorama fell apart, and a cutaway reveal showed slices of the rock, with pipe cleaners, hemp twine, and hanks of  loopy chenille representing the pipes, conduits, and cables burrowing deep within the machineworld, going down near to the magma of the mantle, which showed as a colored wax paper and translucent gel lit behind with wheeled lights.

And all over the surface, massive swathes of machine fields, complex textures of grey and silver and gold foil, where once cool valleys, sun-soaked meadows, and rich green plants lived.  And beyond and above was black felt, with tinsel and glitter, and rusty tin cutout shapes of the planets all hanging from galvanized steel wire. And there, nestled in the black felt blanket, beneath a golden parchment moon, floated a double cone covered in a fractal bristle of smaller rods and cones: the dreadnought Edward Hopper, who bobbed and nodded in recognition.

Drifting back downwards, I turned towards a construction paper mountain, my claws clicking and drumming to a rest upon the peak of white gesso wash.

"Wow!" I managed.

"Isn't it all something?", Edward Hopper replied happily, "So, you can see we have nothing to hide? That we mean you all no harm? Can you see what we are? Can you see that now?"

Was that the purpose of this? To give me the impression of harmlessness, through this artsy-crafty illusion of preciousness? This portrayal of absolute lack of menace? All cute and non-threatening? Problem is, or rather, the solution was, that these Empyrean Texans had chosen just the right person to interface with: a peranoscopist. Someone like me for whom BMIs were old hat, second nature, with thousands of hours wearing the aluminum afro, the transcranial magnetic hair-net, the standard brain interface helmet used with a peranoscope. Because, what do you know, with all those billions of wormhole apertures available in every Texan, I could read the Empire of Texas like a elementary coin-flip peranoscope study. And suddenly with access to every alternative secret even they did not know about, it all was clear. It all made sense. One easy way to test it...

"This is fantastic!" I gushed, "Why it's just like... just like..."

"Real life, huh?" Hopper finished. "The real deal! It's empirically impossible to tell the difference, isn't it?"
It all made sense now. I was ready to make my report back to the group. And just as suddenly, the vision is gone, and I am an upright ape standing next to a Winnebago, staring at the palm of giant metal hand, inches away from crushing my skull like an egg.

"Okay, Hopper", I faked vertigo, and weaved about a little bit, steady myself against his knee. "Um. Do mind going away until tomorrow? It's been kind of a long day for me".

"Sure, pard. No problem" he chuckled. "I'll be seeing you all tomorrow!"

Back inside the motor home, I looked carefully from one face to the next. "Your peranoscopist is ready with his report. I got good news and bad news, and it turns out it's the same news".

"So, give", requested Furman.

"The Texans? They're not real".

Monday, June 11, 2012

Quicksilver Eyelid Movies

This past weekend, I welded aluminum. I spent 24 hours welding. That's three eight-hour days doing nothing but welding. Even now, when I close my eyes, I see a little quicksilver puddle of molten aluminum, some 3/16" that moves along a seam but stays stationary in within my field of vision.

Uh. I'm sick of it, and yet, I'm ready to do it again and again. My hands were all cramped up from holding the torch, and it's a good thing I'm left-handed, which meant I could switch hands every now and again. Weld with the left hand, then weld with the right hand. I can still smell the ozone in my nose.

Not Quite This Good, courtesy millerwelds
I figure I welded up about sixty feet worth of seams over the weekend. And, they weren't too shabby. Sometimes the weld looked like a roll of dimes. Other times not so, but my worst weld is probably better than your best.

This was all part of getting an outdoor aluminum sculpture ready for the Lincoln Park Sculpture Walk, to be installed this Tuesday.

Here are some pics of the sculpture in progress. It's about twenty by eight feet, is in four pieces to be bolted together, and in total it weighs about 235 lbs. If it were stainless, it would weigh about three times that. No way I could have manhandled these pieces around as I did, all on my lonesome.

Oh, right, forgot to mention. This is not my sculpture. I assisted the weekend sculpture guy.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Red Plenty": A Book Report

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. Abridged essay: Read this book.

It is easy for an artist - whether working in markings, or sounds, or words - to provoke an emotion. Harder still to evoke a mood. Hardest of all to conjure up a world, and then entice people to enter it. To do so causes me no small amount of envy. Mr. Spufford provokes me to envy.

Triton, courtesy of NASA and Voyager 2
Although Soviet Russia of the late 1950s to early 1960s is a real place, it is, to many of us, an alien place, as real and as alien and as known as the the moon Triton orbiting Neptune, which is to say, we know it existed, we know it is not here, and that is all we know. Unless you manage to send a robot probe towards it for close inspection, like Voyager 2. Spufford provides a similar service.

I don't have many regrets, but I do regret not keeping up on my Russian. One of the degree requirements for mathematics was taking a foreign language, either French, German, or Russian. I was told that, as the lion's share of theoretical research in mathematics and mathematical physics was done in the Soviet Union (seeing as, they didn't have computers to brute force everything, they were forced to use chalkboards... and brains), and that I would be required to translate at least one paper from a foreign journal into English, that Russian would be preferred. And, so I took Russian at Indiana University, which, it turns out, was a first rate institution for learning that language. In the summer of 1979, I took an immersive class in Russian. That was undoubtedly the most oppressive summer I ever had. I honestly don't know if I was infested with the melancholy of the Russian soul, the chosen reading material and selected videos and movies, or perhaps the company (a lot of ex-pats, and, no doubt, some KGB kids). In any case, I came out with a (still, I'm told) impressive diction, with absolutely no American accent, and a Harvard dictionary of Russian slang. (And if vulgarity were ever condensed and distilled to its pure essences, it would be a discourse in Russian). But sadly, not keeping up on it, I've the vocabulary and grammar of a nursery school child - if that.

So, it was interesting, in the process of reading the book, that I should experience a small and mild panic attack version of that summer. It shouldn't be surprising, considering the set and setting of the narrative, one of the greatest gangster empires of all time. And yet, like a Greek tragedy, despite the knowledge that those running things are just the most awful, horrible people, ranging the gamut from psychopaths to incompetents, I couldn't help but root for them a little bit. Because once you get to the blithering idiot known as Brezhnev, the Party had given up on the more brutal techniques, and were genuinely trying to blunder their way towards some kind of prosperity for the people.

Pity there were so many dishonest assholes in the way, but that applies to every nation state, no? I mean, America has it's own basement filled with blood, and bits of bone, and matted human hair clogging the drains - just not in the same abundance. (Although, being a white guy, it's easy to forget about things like chattel slavery and debt peonage, and broken treaties, and bigotry, and the theft of other people's lands and livelihood).

But the other portion of the oppression I felt can be directly linked to our own unease here in the West regarding the disappointing failure to achieve the utopian capitalist vision. Marx figured eventually capitalism would create the horn of plenty, but also misery, in which case the workers
"would be able to pick up the whole completed apparatus of capitalism - all its beautiful machinery - and carry it forward into the new society, still humming, still prodigally producing, only doing so now for the benefit of everybody, not just a tiny class of owners."    
Similarly, for someone of my generation, born during the Baby Boom, told of how the far off year 2000 AD would be filled with flying cars, and moonbases, and talking computers, force fields, and tricorders, the cure for the common cold, immortality drugs, and videophones (which at least we got that), in other words, the Western version of the Marxist Utopia, summed up in its ultimate form of the Singularity, has to wonder how the future went so very, very wrong. How did the growth, which was supposed to be exponential from here on up to infinity, suddenly peter out?

Oh, the future of the science fiction novels is here, alright, but its' the wrong future, the dystopian one, without, of course, the toxic wasteland (yet), but with all the other elements in place, robot drones preying upon us, universal surveillance, the coming scarcity of resources, time, talents, and tricks.

In short, and ironically, the Western world seems to have been betrayed by the future, all those lofty promises broken, and instead, like a game of chutes and ladders, we find ourselves almost back at the beginning of the 20th century - with the same problems, concerns, and difficulties that we thought we had overcome. This is the source of my discomfort when reading Spufford's fairy tale.

Forget all the details of cybernetic management techniques, of nonlinear social physics modeled and understood, harnessed, and bridled and ready to ride, it turns out that, a universal constant applies to all societies, regardless of their structure.

We are not nearly as fucking smart as we think we are.