"Kids playing stickball in Havana, 1999"


I think this picture is rather wonderful. See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boys_Playing_Stickball,_Havana,_Cuba,_1999.jpg for full details and the interesting story about the picture.  

According to the FoAK, kids used to play stickball in the US until the 1980s. They probably still do in truth in some places and were playing it in Cuba in 1999. This reminds me of a couple of things. We used to play cricket in the street in the 1970s and 1980s. Do kids still do that at all? There's a famous picture of boys playing cricket in the street from the 1920s or 1930s, which obviously is staged (well, it looks as though as it is). One might look at this picture and think "Shouldn't the kids be fielding". But Cliff is right. The children (most of them) do have their eyes on the ball. And, of course, we can't how many fielders there are out of shot.      

Always Coming Home


I went to Half Price Books yesterday. It's near the University District, so good to get to see a different part of the city, of course. The university does have its fair share of monolithic buildings, Neal Stephenson's The Big U and all that. I preferred Half Price to the Elliott Bay Book Company, mostly because the books are priced to sell, although as a secondhand shop, there's no chance to be surprised by the unexpected. They have a huge fiction section and I could have spend hours there, but there is only so much time. I should go back and just do the fiction section. You never know what you'll find.

I pulled a (seemingly) random book off the shelves. This was Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler. I hadn't heard of the novel or the writer. Thinking about it, perhaps subconsciously I was attracted to the title because it was similar to the book I wrote 95% of, Sixteen Short Stories About Love. It turns out that Butler is British and came up wth the idea whilst on an Arvon course in 2007 at The Hurst with Maggie Gee.

Now, I've been to The Hurst (In 2010) and Maggie Gee was the tutor of the other group on my Faber Academy and she once talked to me in the lift and praised me for some question I'd asked at one of the talks. So there's a connection of sorts there.

But it always seems odd to find British books in America. When I was a child, America seemed impossibly exciting, exotic, glamorous and frightening. They were days when primetime TV was stuffed with US shows. We were very familiar with the US (or an idea of it), but we never expected Americans to know or care much about us. I remember being in a bookshop in San Francisco, probably that legendary Friday, 31 August 2001 (although it could possibly have been on my first visit in 1990) and coming across a hardback novel written by someone who lived in Aberdeen. I have no idea what novel it might have been, some kind of Hampstead novel by some kind of academic type probably and probably not set in Aberdeen. But I wondered why someone in San Francisco would want to read a novel by someone from Aberdeen (or why a publisher would want to publish it). It seemed an awfully long way from Aberdeen to San Francisco.

Of course, it's not. There are no doubt many people who have made their way from Aberdeen to San Francisco over the past decades and even some who have gone the other way (there's oil in California, after all). But I didn't go, unbelievable as it might seem now, abroad until I was 21 or fly till I was 22. It's only a few hours from Aberdeen to San Francisco (or Preston to Seattle, natch), but the psychic distance? There is one.

I also spotted a copy of Mark Barrowcliffe's Girlfriend 44. Now, that's a book I have actually read, back in the days when I was interested in dating and lad lit and, of course, writing 16SSAL. But didn't the Weasel contact Mr B about something to do with his book on D&D, The Elfish Gene, possibly related to the economics of publishing and the Men Do Stuff genre? And furthermore Mr B is one of the tutors on the Arvon course on Science Fiction and Fantasy in October. He writes fantasy under pseudonyms. But the other tutor is Emma Newman. I must have come across her before because I was already following her on Twitter, but was reminded by bagging a book via BookBub that she has a story in Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales From Shakespeare's Fantasy WorldWith me failing to sign up for the Hugo House course that started yesterday (perhaps I will have better luck with the latter course on the City), it might make more sense to save my money from the other possible Seattle course and do the Arvon one in the autumn. It seems to be what the World is telling me!

There was also a copy of S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep. That's not such a surprise. It was runaway bestseller now ubiquitously found in every charity shop in the UK, and made in an execrable movie I saw. But Watson was the Faber Academy's first poster child and my tutor (Richard Skinner) helped him a lot with the book and is name-checked in the acknowledgements. Even a continent away and on the far side of that, the world is not always as large as it looks.  

Which is the thing. As the Weasel says "Wherever you go, that's where you are". You can take the boy out of Preston or Aberdeen, but not Preston or Aberdeen out of the boy. Not this boy anyway. If it's the same here as there, you might just as well be there as here. Or vice versa, of course. The world is a much smaller place now that it was in 1990, much less the 1890. But people have been crossing the Atlantic for hundreds of years, even if they weren't making it to San Francisco or Seattle until the C19th. I can never get to 1990 or 2001. And yet I have another 20 years ahead of me of working career assuming no personal or global existential crisis and something like the present technoeconomic paradigm continues to operate. Preston is still there and here I am in studio apartment in Seattle. You have to make your home where it is to found.   


Pacific Tower


There are a number of very stolid Art Deco buildings in Seattle. I spotted a particularly fine example from the tram yesterday. 

Pacific Tower (picture by Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20886010) used to be a hospital and bits of it are still a medical centre. It was the global headquarters of Amazon (when bits of it were, of course, a medical centre). It does have a very Ayn Randian air to it and it is easy to believe to imagine Jeff Bezos surveying his domain from his lair at the top of the tower. You wonder why he ever wanted to move.

Foom! I


According to The Register (remember when it was good?), Eric Schmidt recently opined that

“We are nowhere near that in real life, we’re still in baby stages of conceptual learning,” he said. “In order to worry about that you have to think 10, 20, 30, or 40 years into the future.”

"That" being the Singularity, natch. The Reg said that Schmidt said, in the words of The Reg "there’s no sign that the Singularity is on the horizon." I'm not sire what I could 40 years much less 10, but there you go, that's The Reg for you. It wasn't an Orlowski article at least.

AI has been around for a long time. Neural nets were invented in the 1940s, the term was coined in the 1950s, a lot of the basic ideas and algorithms have been around since the 1960s and people were saying much of what people are saying now in the 1970s. AI has always been 20 years away. So why is it different this time?

Moore's law, for one. 50 years is about 30 Moore's law periods or a billion fold increase in the "power" of computers. Quantity has a certain quality. A lot of things were simply impossible 50 years ago even if the algorithm existed. Today you can get a computer for less than $2000 that is as powerful as the most powerful computer on the planet 15 years ago, so the capacity for more people to be able to do stuff is vastly greater than it was only a couple of decades ago even leaving aside the improved algorithms and out of the box tools that exist now. It is not as though A(G)I is suddenly going to become a bad idea. It is one of the best ideas anyone ever had. And there are vastly more research dollars and hours going into A(G)I R&D now than was the case 5 years much less 15. Even if the current bubble bursts if seems unlikely that A(G)I research won't continue. And we have in recent years seen many important breakthrough: Alpha Go, Google Translate, that poker program, improved computer vision, pointers towards solutions of the frame problem and the grounding problem. We are awash with data and for a lot of A(G)I problems, lack of data was an issue in the past. Just having Wikipedia, much less the whole of the (Deep) Web is something that researcher could only have dreamt of in 1987.

So even if we extrapolate linearly from where we are in 2017 compared to where we were in 2012 or 2007 or 2002, we would get to quite interesting place in 2022, 2027 and 2032. Think of all those graduate students who are going into A(G)I now. If only I were 25 years younger! (A blog for another day.) Glomming together a bunch of advanced technologies could produce at least an interesting demo.

Foom! comes from self-modifying systems that can think thoughts exponentially more quickly all the time. There are (potential) constraints on a system going to "infinity" "quickly". But if we get powerful neuromorphic chips and some clever insights and new algorithms from all those researchers sucked into A(G)I and tools to bring together a lot of existing algorithms and data, it's not that hard to imagine having a borderline seed AI by 2037.

At the 1995 Worldcon, I was on a panel where I opined that for AGI (we didn't call it that then) and molecular nanotechnology, 1995-2005 would be the research period, 2005-2015 the consolidation period, 2015-2025 the implementation period and after 2025 all bets were off. That was 22 years ago this year. NMT hasn't amounted to much yet, but it's still a brilliant idea, but I was on the money (so far) with A(G)I. The Singularity could come from someone in their parents' garage, although more likely from the GRU. I don't expect if before 2025, but technology can surprise us at times. I can easily imagine it in 2038. 40 years is 2057. That's a lot of Moore's law even if we hit the limit on components per unit area soon (NMT, anyone?) So, from the Traveller/Vernor Vinge/Transhuman Space perspective, we have to assume that A(G)I is much harder than it might be. And given that we had 200,000+ years of H. Sapiens before language, it's easy to think that language might be a software hack. Imagine another 40 years of NLP. There's a point at which you have enough powerful narrow domain system that if you string them together, you get something interesting (that can assimilate every book and paper ever written). I find it hard to imagine something won't come of that.      

"Bhodhisattivan technologies with a polytemporal, trans-dimensional scope"


The reason for TL-Z being the highest is because there you go up to tech level if you carry on counting after G == 16 and exclude I and O. Miller does state in Traveller5 that each tech level is an order of magnitude more advanced than the previous one, so there's a kind of Moore's law going on here. That puts F as far ahead of us of we are of the Bronze Age. But as I suggested yesterday, I'm not sure there's enough stuff to fill up that many levels given that there is such a big gap between levels. We are rather in the realms of those higher D&D sets that went to vast experience levels.

Miller does give some hints as to what sorts of things you do get a higher levels. You only get artificial people and practical robots at TL-16, which seems high to us now, but might be down to technology evolving in a different. Matter transport is at TL-19, stellar scale physical manipulation at TL-28 and pocket universes at TL-31. No mention of time travel oddly. Much of the stuff at higher levels could be compressed into lower ones. We could use the Kardashev scale to give an indication of the kinds of objects different tech levels could manipulate. TL-11/TL-12 is full planetary system civilisation. You are probably terraforming at TL-12. But, of course, that's a far cry an interstellar civilisation, much less an intergalactic one. At what TL are you making Jupiter brains? So you could stick extra levels for early/middle/late interstellar civilisations then intergalactic ones (temporal scales millions to tens of millions). I suspect, of course, that we sublime. But the possibility of there being levels within the Singularity is a very plausible one. And the Imperium at its TL-15 zenith would be a society capable of large scale engineering works in the universe.           



Further to my post yesterday, so more thoughts on tech levels in Traveller. As we saw yesterday, we can do a pretty good job of ascribing levels up to the current tech level 8, which is post-mid-1990s

  • tech level 7 - Cold War
  • tech level 6 - WWII
  • tech level 5 - WWI
  • tech level 4 - Victorian
  • tech level 3 - Early Modern
  • tech level 2 - Medieval/Iron Age
  • tech level 1 - Bronze Age
  • tech level 0 - Stone Age

But Traveller tech levels go to G. In the canonical descriptions in the original text, tech level 8 is 1980s and 9 1990s. A is early 2000s, which includes, as I recall, the discovery of the jump drive. Tech level 9 might be mid-2020s, so self-driving cars/early A(G)I/early nanotech/early planetary colonisation. See my article on the world in 2034 from a couple of years back. A is then arguably the Singularity (I am still predicting that for 19 January 2038), but if we avoid that then A corresponds to mature robotics/arcologies/fusion/extensive exploration of the Solar System (mid-C21st). That probably pretty much fits with the original Traveller description. B then is late C21st when things do start feeling quire different with significant numbers off-world, mature nanotech, early anagathics. C then on this scale, early C22nd, is off the scale, so even there's it's not an actual Singularity, it's hard for us to imagine what it would be like (although think Transhuman Space or, more probably, Eclipse Phase). We are probably talking a mature space-going civilisation and possibly early Clarketech. (We might even wonder whether there's enough range to need A and B in the C21st. A might be enough.)

In Traveller, the number of tech levels is determined by a game mechanic. The later levels are more concerned with the introduction of types of weaponry and jump drive. We'd really get Clarketech until, implicitly, tech level G. Jump drives and gravitics could be considered Clarketech.  We might suggest D for picotech, E for femtotech and F for attotech (possibly see the various beam weapons in Traveller). G is then beyond attotech, which might imply messing around in the quantum foam at the Planck scale. But beyond B or C is difficult to imagine. See here for some more discussion. Interestingly, in GURPS Traveller, "the maximum tech level that present human can imagine is TL 12." (It might also be the case that jump drive appears to at tech level 9.) "Traveller5 aka T5 has introduced a new theoretical maximum to the TL System of TL-33." I think I have a copy somewhere. 




TL-31-33 Omni-tech Bhodhisattivan technologies with a polytemporal, trans-dimensional scope.

(Omega Period)

Which is a thing, although I am not sure you would need to get to TL-33 for that.  And Traveller5 does indeed have rules for the Singularity at TL-33 or TL-Z. Well, that's something new to explore.

Eternal Human Verities


In the Traveller universe, the Ancients visited Earth about 300,000 BP and removed from groups of humans from our planet for seeding on various worlds. Now, as I understand it, Cro-Magnon Man did emerge around 300,000 BP and that might have been the consensus figure in the late 1970s when Marc W. Miller was inventing the universe. But these days it would seem the thinking is that language only emerged around 70,000 or 80,000 BP. So, Homo Sapiens was around over 200,000 years before our most salient characteristic emerged. In which case, there's no no reason to suppose that humans on Vland or Zhdant or other worlds would even evolve language. In the late 2010s, we would have to compress the timeline quite a lot.

That though might no bad thing. Canonically, at least in the classic era, the Traveller universe is absent both A(G)Is (largely certainly) and molecular nanotechnology (totally, but not surprisingly). I have argued in the past that Anathem is a Singularitarian novel: the Thousanders (and Ten-Thousanders) are themselves post-Singularitarian and act to prevent the world from destroying itself in a Singularity-related apocalypse by knocking the civilisation back down a few tech levels whenever it starts getting to close to the level that would produce a Singularity. Now, of course, Traveller is set several thousand years in the future. The conflicts between the Imperium and the Zhodani and the Solomani are played out over hundreds of years, Of course, civilisation has risen and fallen, but we still have a high degree of continuity over centuries for civilsation at high tech levels. I thnk I have probably also said before that now we'd interpret the Darrians at tech level G has having had a Singularity-related apocalypse. We're at tech level 8 or 9 now. Probably 8.

  • tech level 7 - Cold War
  • tech level 6 - WWII
  • tech level 5 - WWI
  • tech level 4 - Victorian
  • tech level 3 - Early Modern
  • tech level 2 - Medieval/Iron Age
  • tech level 1 - Bronze Age
  • tech level 0 - Stone Age

Which puts us at tech level 8, I'd say. The Imperium is F, so that's as far from us as the Stone Age. Which is a lot. Will have to have a close think about this. Tech levels A (10) or B l(11) look like the Singularity. But perhaps we just get to a level of very high technology that hits a degree of diminishing returns and in which the strength of the different elements (basically how easy it is to make WMDs versus how easy it is to stop people doing so) allows us to return to a period of very high technology, but basic social and political stability on longer temporal (and spatial!) timescales.

Chris decades ago suggested that Traveller, which even in 1983, were ludicrous in their specification, were a reinvention based on fundamentally different principle from our computers. Of course, you can get round it in exactly that way. Massive quantum computers (or even hypercomputers) needed for interstellar navigation. But what else could do with them? It might be that Vilani society has evolved necessarily over hundreds of thousands of years to be more conservative than Terran civilisations. If we want to recreate for a modern space opera something like the Traveller universe, we either need something like Stross's Eschaton (very good one) or the Time Lords or the Culture (but even Banks's realised that there must be Singularities in his universe). We have the Ancients, but perhaps there are deeper mysteries in the Traveller universe than we knew in the 1980s and there is a hierarchy of Powers in the Galaxy. What have the Zhodani found on their way to the Core?              

Hurricane Ridge


Sounds like the name of a Steve Earle album or a Steve Earle-soundalike band or an album by Steve Earle-soundalike band. It's one of the more accessible places in the mountainous area of the Olympic National Park. Some from the UK, one of the extraordinary things about the US is how much of it is wilderness. Apparently, it takes more than a weekend to hike into the remote areas of the park and the terrain is very rough. I am reminded of an account I heard of a couple of members of the South African scientific/meteorological team who a few years ago hiked up into the high meadows on Gough Island. That must have been something. And the isolation there is incredible.

But Hurricane Ridge would make a good name for a novel or a short story. So, yes, we can already see something about remote wilderness, possibly on an island, and the protagonist whose Seattle-based job is to create soundalike music rights-free music for DVDs and somehow ends up in the wilderness. The Olympic Marmot will, of course, feature. (I saw a racoon on my home last night. It ran up a tree like a squirrel. It was about twice the size of a cat.)  


The Infinite Variety of Mankind in Space


As you are probably aware, I am a big fan of the Traveller universe and Marc W. Miller and his colleagues did a pretty amazing job in suggesting something of the vast of the space and time in the universe even if the cribbed a lot from sources like Anderson, Niven and Tubb. Only "something" of course. The Traveller universe is a few hundred parsecs across and the main setting of the Third Imperium is a few thousand years in our future. It still does feel a little too much like 1970s America, but at least they try.  

Now, an interesting thing about the Traveller universe is that the Ancients seeded various planets (about 50) with humans. Three of those planets had civilisations that developed the jump drive. The Zhodani have psi powers and are the subject of two supplements, one of the original GDW ones on alien races and one of the Steve Jackson Games GURPS ones, shared with the Vargrs. I am curious to know if there are a deep resources though about the Vilani and Solomani. They have been mixed together in the Imperium for thousands of years. To some degree, Terran-derived culture was dominant after the Vilani were defeated in the wars following contact between the two groups. We know something of the Vilani. Their planet was very hostile and simply obtaining enough to eat in an ecosystem is implacably alien to the human biology was a massive struggle that left indelible traces on Vilani society. But here's the question: how homogeneous was Vilani society and what does Vilani culture really mean thousands of years after first contact with the Terrans.

I was reading the Solomani Rim supplement last night. It was one of the ones I had when I was young. I did remember the Vegans. Interestingly, the Vegans are highly culturally diverse.. A Vegan at sexual maturity chooses which of hundreds of tuhuir (culture/philosophy/tao groups that evolved from ancient nation states) to belong to. It is stated that the Vegans did better under later Terran administration than under the original Vilani rule as they resisted being integrated into the rigid Vilani culture. That implies that Vilani society was much more homogeneous that Terrans. I recall that is it divided into three broad castes that originate in occupations needed for survival on ancient Vland,, but I don't know how much it is opened out. American society is different to European society even though most are Western and clearly different from non-Western societies in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It's easy enough to imagine that the the Terrans and the Vilani were obviously different even taking into account the cultural diversity of the Terrans and, presumably, of the Vilani. But it still be the case that in some sense Vilani  

The Third Imperium Solomani on the other hand might be more like neonationalist Trumpites. But they are thousands of years in our future in a very different historical and cultural context. Their society might bare little actual resemblance to anything we would recognise from contemporary Earth, much less the West, much less America. It is interesting that Miller is aware of the problem of the Planet of Hats by explicitly avoiding it with the Vegans. I would like to know how much this is done in official materials about the Vilani and the Solomani. Was there ever supplements that fleshed out these cultures in the detail that was done for various alien and minor human races? (It's even possible I have it as I have got a lot of electronic copies of Traveller material and there's a lot of MegaTraveller, GURPS and later supplements that I am not very familiar with.) Some material can be found here.          

Writing the New City (If I Can - and It is)


Quite frankly, in the circumstances, how could I resist a course described liked this

Writing the New City

All Levels. In 1972, the American physicist P. W. Anderson published an influential paper titled “More Is Different.” What did he mean by this? Simply, there is a point when you have so much of something—so many cells, so many ants, so many people—that something new emerges. Moreover, that new thing could not be predicted by its constitutive elements. Nothing about an individual ant tells you anything about its colony. With this in mind, we turn to Seattle, a city that has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. What do these changes mean? And how can we write about them? Does a new Seattle demand a new language? This class will explore these questions and more with texts, writing workshops, and the general intellect/experiences of the participants.

Unfortunately, Hugo House (indeed, but I assume not) on their website assume that you have a US credit card. Which seems a bit parochial for a global city and, of course, I do not have one. How hard would it be to just allow you enter actual billing address. Never mind. There are probably ways. So this does look promising. As I have said, you don't this sort of thing in Preston. This should be very useful to me useful in terms of both my Seattle novel and my Preston novel and, indeed, any other city novels I might (surely I now have to) write.