Stupid Human Year 2265 or whatever it is.

Continuing my naif fanfic from our WFRP group. If you’re wondering why my dwarf student speaks Yiddish, and why Dwarvish sounds so much like Hebrew, it’s down to Tolkien. He created some parallels between Jews and Dwarves; both were “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue… their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” However, he only wrote a very small number of Dwarvish words in any of his works, such as “Baruk Khazad”, so I have to go back to Yiddish to pull out anything appropriate. It definitely changes the Lord of the Rings if you think of the Dwarves as Jewish – and points up Games Workshop’s depressing anglocentrism that they took something hugely multicultural and made it just English – Orcs are Cockneys, Dwarves are from Yorkshire, etc.

To the tune of: Miles Davis – The Man With The Horn

Continuing my naif fanfic from our WFRP group. If you’re wondering why my dwarf student speaks Yiddish, and why Dwarvish sounds so much like Hebrew, it’s down to Tolkien. He created some parallels between Jews and Dwarves; both were “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue… their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” However, he only wrote a very small number of Dwarvish words in any of his works, such as “Baruk Khazad”, so I have to go back to Yiddish to pull out anything appropriate. It definitely changes the Lord of the Rings if you think of the Dwarves as Jewish – and points up Games Workshop’s depressing anglocentrism that they took something hugely multicultural and made it just English – Orcs are Cockneys, Dwarves are from Yorkshire, etc.

Dear mother,

I know you didn’t expect me to be writing this so soon, as I promised to save all the ratskin parchment for important letters, but I gotta kvetch – don’t worry I’ve written this on beastman fleshig, so apart from the holes from extra eyes and that glowy green gunk I wiped off, this is kosher. Beastmen, apparently, are those big schnook sheep I was telling you about in my last letter. We spent a lot of today running away from them, whilst frantically bandaging each other (turns out I’m not very good at it – the other Big, the yeger Cully, seems to think that just pulling on a sprained ankle doesn’t help it) and following that little nebbish we rescued through ancient dense woodland (I was mainly dragged through the schmutz, to be fair; short legs, too many meaty stouts and tzimmes). It was only when we got out that I noticed that my big fishy friend had a crude arrow sticking out of his shoulder. I wanted to pull it out, but he said that it was lucky and it might be worth enough money to buy a boat. He’s really a schlub, but he’s proving hard to kill. Thankfully, there was the goys’ village, and a young guard just let us all in.

Mr Wit Chunter.

Anyway, no sooner had we got into the palisade of the takhshet boy’s village, than he was grabbed by a langer loksh pervert all in black leather, with pistols and a big floppy hat (who they all called Mr Wit Chunter Sir and who the other Big, Cull(?) recognised from his bounty book). This new Big pulled off the little wossiname’s hat to reveal he had dinky beastman horns! While we argued amongst ourselves, the Wit-chunter did a talk (a bit like Hammerer Morgrim gave before we had to raise the new buttressing for pit number 4), and by the time we stopped arguing the village folk were baying for the little boy’s blood! Heinfish (I think that’s his real, real name) stood up and tried orating back, but he’s got those funny webbed fingers and croaks rather than talks, and when he tried to make them scared of beastmen outside the village, it was rather counter-productive – they actually got scared of the boychik. It was only when they were actually carrying the little chap to the stake for burning that Fishy actually achieved anything, when he tried bullying that dybbuk Mr Wit into letting the boy go, by pointing out that he needed proper Beastman horns to get his bounty in Altdorf. Mr Wit agreed and cut the poor lad’s head straight off to keep the horns. Such tsuris.

Anyway, as it was getting dark, we all piled into one of the watchtowers, so we could see outside and inside the village. While the others got some shuteye, I got to thinking. We’re not much cop at this sight-seeing lark; the wildlife keeps attacking us, anyone nice we meet gets killed, normally because of us, and the local police force are rubbish. I was wondering if Norsca might be nicer at this time of year? Or the Dead Lands (Sounds nice, but I can’t find a guidebook anywhere.)

I was still sat up and the others were asleep (Fishy folded up protectively around the arrow protuding from his shoulder) when I saw a shtickle green glow by the village well. I gently kicked the other two awake and had them follow me down, surrounding a tall man who was busily engaged with the well chain. It was Mr Wit and, when we asked what he was up to, he got rather threatening, before offering to bribe us! I pointed out, rationally enough, that if we really wanted his money we could just take it, and I was about to open my purse to show just how rich we were and how we didn’t want his stinking money anyway, when he pulled his flintlocks on me. Well, the other Big, Cully, shot Mr Wit in the back, but not before meshuga Wit’d shot my belly. It is really getting awfully bruised and the chain links are seizing together. In revenge, I hit the rotter with my pick, which knocked his teeth clean out, and while klutz Fishy was falling over his own feet distractingly, I gave the schmendrick a potch in the face and laid him out flat. As he fell over, his hat fell off revealing two shofar horns, like those on top of the Ionic columns next to the Helmet Store. What chutzpah!

Well, the villagers had heard the ruckus and came running. Heinfish did his weird croaky babbling thing until I had to interrupt (which scared the xenophobes, who’d obviously never seen a dwarf before). I was getting rather worried that everyone in town had those horns, so I got Heiny to croak and point his knife at the guard until he took off his helmet, very reluctantly, to reveal… a big bald patch. He was hugely embarrassed and angry, and was then all for burning the mamzer Mr Wit when we revealed his horns. Whilst Fishy was doing some frankly maven-level knotwork with the toothless and concussed Mr Wit, Cully persuaded the villagers to calm down, and they agreed to give us until morning to ‘torture’ Mr Wit (which Cully now tells me isn’t a name but a title and he’s really called Humbert Humbertdink or something like that. Stupid human names) before they toast him. Though we really just want to steal his pistols and boots (assuming they’re not cloven inside), see if he owns a boat (Fishy is obsessed), chop off his head for Cully’s bounty, and see if he knows the way to Altdorf. Oh, and find out what he was doing in the well!

It’s getting light, so we’d better get on with the torturing; I promise to clean the thumbscrews and empty out the gouging spoons, don’t kvetch.

Love xxx

Fuck Provenance

To the tune of: The Durutti Column – Trust The Art Not The Artist

Fuck provenance. The joy of many modern critics seems to lie in the attribution of intention to the auteur, or at least cause to the auteur, focusing on the backstory more than the object of study; the importance of something is thus pushed back, the homunculus raised to the point of key importance, and credit or blame ascribed to this new creation instead of the creator or the piece, and so on, ad infinitum. The homunculus is to blame, no it’s the sense of ego, no it’s the neuroticism in that ego, etc. Value drains out of the object and down this chain of blame or praise.

What does this hunting for origins add to the enjoyment of the piece? What does knowing where Jeunet grew up add to the value of Jules et Jim, or even knowing Jeunet made it? Provenance is not mandatory knowledge for the appreciation of a good. As if a single billionaire could tell the difference between a identical diamond dug out of the ground in Africa and one compressed in a Russian machine, but they pay the price for the story. It’s the placebo effect, carried over to appreciation; oh, this was Nabokov’s cap, my look at the lining, that must be his sweat staining the hat-band, my, I’m enjoying this hat so much more. This steak was cut from Wagyu beef; not grown in Japan, no, nor of the same breed, nor subject to the possibly-mythical abuse/massage, but it’s Wagyu despite the lack of relevant attributes. If the sense data is the same, what matters the origin?

Much of this painting's quality is from the canvas's texture; whether that was intended or not is unknowable and doesn't matter.

This approach is used in food, increasingly, and I was with Delia in her kickback against the snobbery of food provenance; some of the most interesting food I’ve eaten has been cheap, or canned, or frozen, (though the mediocrity of source matters as little as the quality, of course, and inverted snobbery is as bad as the original.) In the arts (movies, games, paintings), we ask what the intention of the author is, as if that’s relevant to the finished product. Yet intention does not imply result, especially where silver-tongued auteurs are involved, and correlation does not imply causation. I judge Gaugin on his skill levels and the general quality of his works (occasionally good texturing, great colour range, poor penmanship/perspective); I judge his artwork on its own merits.

Again, if you’re a subconscious determinist, you might argue for the creator’s story being important irrespective of what he actually intended, the act of creation being valuable whether or not the direction was accurate. I, personally, don’t understand this. I have no problem with you appreciating a story; but it should not impinge on the important aesthetic judgement, that comes from you irrespective of history. The way cut glass grates against your incisor; the satisfaction in the predictable kickback of Bioshock’s shotgun; the richness of colour I’m told raw meat and Van Gogh’s paintings possess; the surprising toxicity of lead-based paints eating away at your reason. These are the raw materials for your judgement, not the supposed intentions of a fellow human black box, not that the water of this distillery flows through peat bogs; I just love the scent of smoke from that glass, and I don’t need to know why it’s there to appreciate it.

Fuck provenance. Fuck intention. Fuck origins. Taste is personal, value is visceral; move away from that and you’re just lying to yourself.

Cult Games: Minecraft

To the tune of: Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine

I gone and done wrote something about Minecraft:

Gamers, especially PC gamers, give the impression of being more than averagely intelligent. It’s a self-selecting set – a group of people who have the desire for and capability to buy a top-end computer and keep it tickety-boo – that requires dosh, patience and technical knowledge. However, despite their divergent nerdcore qualities they still manage to share a herd mentality, wheeling around to chase tropes like migrating swans. Perhaps the selection criteria are too rigorous, but there’s a very similar, snarky mindset that dominates this faction. Hence, when something hits that spot perfectly, it hits all of them at once – like any virus hitting a shallow gene pool, or a lightning strike hitting a box of lightbulbs, a good meme that appeals to the correct desires will turn all the gamers on at once.

Go read the full thing at Sabotage Times.

Stupid Human Year 2252

To the tune of: Bloodhound Gang – Your Only Friends Are Make Believe

GamesMaster Kieron has persuaded QuinnsMatt Sheret and I to join a game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I’m playing a dwarven student called Grok. I’m already addicted.

Stupid Human Year 2252.

Dear mother, da, and family.

Well, here I am in the Empire! I’m writing this in a waterfront bar which is full of Local Colour. Everyone is very friendly, though the beer seems rather expensive and not at all beerlike. It’s very thin and has hardly any mould or meat in it; no flavour whatsoever!

Oh, I forgot to say; I made a friend! He’s a tall mensch with webbed fingers and a constant cold. He taught me this (very easy) game of cards, and looked very excited when I learnt it so quickly. He jumped all over the place, and said lots of goyim words, then gave me his boat. What do I do with a boat? It would have been orcward to say no, so I accepted it, then asked the landlord, (called Fast Fortlifh – what silly names they have!) to keep hold of it for me.

Heinrich seems lucky (after all he ran into me!), so I’ve decided to keep him. He doesn’t cost much to feed and water, and it’s good to have someone who understands the local customs. He says tomorrow we’ll go up into the woods, as it’s fun up there. I think I’ll finish this letter then.

There’s so much sky here! We ran into a very nice human called Karl, who’s promised to show me a ‘bad time’. He’s crept off oh-so-quietly to go birdwatching I think, so Heinrich and I are having a sit down. We’re

Karl Playing With The Sheeps.

Well, that was EXCITING! After a while Karl didn’t come back but there was lots of yelling (a bit like when father stood on that squig) so we went through the woods to find him being beaten up by sheep! They were a bit taller than the sheep I remember – perhaps twice my height – and carrying axes! I thought it was very funny to see such silly sheep, until the ram gave me a big butt in my belly. Thankfully, I was wearing my mail shirt like you always told me so it didn’t hurt that much, and eventually I jumped high enough to chop his head off.

After we finished the others off, I suggested we stew up the mutton, but Karl looked a bit sick and we could hear what sounded like a whole flock in the distance, so decided to head towards a village a little boy we found stuck up a tree (tell Granda that they’re the big green things you burn if you run out of coal) told us about. Better stop now, as the others are telling me we need to be running rather than writing.

I hope you and the mine-ponies are okay, and the watcher in the deep hasn’t eaten any of the cousins recently.


Ask A Neuroscientist!

To the tune of: Green Day – Brain Stew

My preamble: One of the few blessings of attending Oxford, save for the acquisition of an archaic process of thought, was my acquaintance with my admirable friend Dr Paul Taylor. Paul is, apart from being an awesome trumpeter, a professor of Neuroscience, with a speciality in attention and… uh, I wasn’t listening to the rest. Something about decision-making and consciousness. Anyway, this is the future, the human brain, the great unknown canyons of the mind; focus!

Paul’s preamble: As part of my reply I have been doing such things as starting to read Neuromancer and then forgetting about it for a bit. My widdlings follow —

Paul's Brain

You stimulate reactions in your patients with with what is basically a big magnet. Is this procedure something that could eventually be automated – that is, before any interface is installed, a short automated configuration period would be needed to identify the relevant brain centres?

—what we sometimes do at the moment is first scan people to see which areas ‘light up’ in response to a task, and then use some clever registration software involving an infrared camera and some tracking pointers so that we can find the part on their skull directly above that activation ‘blob’ – and then zap it. So it could be in a different place for different people but we’d find it.

How fine is our current level of interaction with these areas? What technical innovations would be needed to improve this?

—in one sense not fine at all and in another quite impressive. These stimulators I use are pretty bulky and definitely activate millions of brain cells immediately after this pulse. On the other hand some of the effects can be very sensitive – often we’re able for example to specifically produce a twitch in someone’s right index finger, for example, rather than the other fingers. To improve it we need some means of producing extremely focal magnetic pulses which are strongest at some distance from the stimulating device – it’s still a centimetre or even two from the top of your head down through the skull to the first bit of brain. Or, tiny little nanobots that can somehow cross the blood-brain barrier and be remotely triggered and moved around.

People have been known to kill themselves over things as innocuous as tinnitus – are there any dangers from direct brain stimulation?
–funny you mention tinnitus, it’s one of the few things which transcranial magnetic stimulation has been suggested to be used to treat. Tinnitus – a hallucinatory auditory experience – can be caused by all sorts of different things from the ear to the brain. Some types, maybe, you can make go away entirely by zapping the right bit.
Important to mention here is that the clinical doses are way beyond the experimental doses I use. For example, I use a MAXIMUM of 1500 quite weak pulses in a day. These clinical doses use ten to a hundred times that, every day for months.

The brain is highly adaptable. Does this adaptability vary with age? Brains can rewire themselves to bypass paralysis, etc – is this something we could induce to allow connection with unfamiliar connections? E.g. implanting an coprocessor at an early age which allows a defined level of control over a drone unit, and allowing the brain time to work out how to use this as an extra limb, say?

–OK lots of things here. Brains are as you say highly adaptable – almost to the point of being the best definition of what a brain is – adaptable. The rewiring after paralysis (‘plasticity’) is currently studied a lot, including with TMS. For example, I mentioned above the thing where you can stimulate the motor cortex to produce a motor twitch. You can also do other things, like slow someone at doing something complicatedly fiddly, such as wiring a plug. If you stimulate their ‘premotor’ cortex – another part of brain – normally people get worse at using the hand represented by that side of the brain.  If someone has a stroke such that one side of the brain is damaged then sometimes the other side of the brain starts to take over. You can show that stimulating that other side of the brain starts to have the effects which the old side used to. So now they only get worse if you stimulate the other side.
—you could have a prosthesis implanted so you could control an arm. The wiring would be a bit fiddly though. The best way to go about it though is to make the most of the brain’s adaptability. Rather than trying to plug something in the right way to just replace or extend something like a hand, say, instead just splash something in the cortex and let people figure it out. People are very good this. Did you hear the recent experiment at Duke university with the monkey operating a joystick in new york with it’s motor cortex?
—I was at a conference recently where they were showing video footage of people who’d had both hands amputated after an accident. They then transplanted new hands onto the old hands. People could use them – one patient could very easily strip the wire off a plug and – amazingly – also waved his hands around automatically as he talked. They, again, stimulated the motor cortex to demonstrate how the brain had reorganised.

The Outside Of Prof. Taylor's Head.

Fiction writers always imagine technology to be invasive; are there any benefits from implanted brain tech? What disadvantages are there to implants?

–I guess the problem would be that presumably the implant would have a single fixed function. The brain is always changing though – from milliisecond to millisecond and from year to year. So one problem would be having an implant that could change with the brain.
–The other problem is – well, it’s like this. To be honest, neuroscientists as a whole don’t really have the flying first idea what most parts of the brain are really doing. Neuroscientists individually do, but there’s no real agreement on anything. So everyone would have a different idea of which bit should be plugged in where.

The brain seems to be able to transfer routine actions to a non-conscious brain element eventually; is there anything barring integrated technologies from being subconscious as well?
– absolutely nothing barring that, one would expect that to happen as a matter of course.

This is all stream of consciousness on my part – what have I missed out?

–there’s so much to be said here, i don’t know where to begin. There’s a big research initiative here in Munich on robotics, i’ll look out for new findings that might be of interest.

Thank you, Paul!

Joyce & O’Brien; Ulysses & At Swim Two Birds

Joyce, 1918

James Joyce’s Ulysses is an acclaimed masterpiece, one of the key works of the 20th century. Joyce himself was a peripatetic piratical genius, wandering the world dispensing wisdom and blarney in his white suit and eye-patch. Or so my English teacher told me. I think he was both dull and a bit of a git, but I guess when your face is against the window, there’s no room for reflection.

Why did that critical 1920s generation say Ulysses was so good? Well, it was the longest of his books – always a good sign for a magnum opus. He invented an awful lot of new literary techniques – the stream of consciousness, – and reused older ones, like heavy references to older works. So it professed to be about the odyssey, even though Joyce didn’t know that much about it, and nicked his chapter titles from a French author (hence the misspellings of several Greek names).

It mixed all these high-end literary techniques, with grubby writing in Irish dialect, so was perfect for playing to the sympathies of the modern English teacher, who was himself often a product of the grubby reading rooms of some rural town, rather than the Victorian teachers who were normally younger daughters of posh families. Finally, it was prosecuted for obscenity, because of the scenes where Molly Bloom fantasises about her lovers and Leopold’s masturbation – and writers love to big something up that’s under attack (see the equally turgid Lady Chatterley’s Lover.) What Ulysses wasn’t notably praised for, in my opinion, was for being any cop as a novel. Story, characters, description, even the puns, all are second-rate , even compared to Joyce’s more readable soap opera that is The Dubliners.

Mr Flann O'Brien

Contrast this with the works of Flann O’Brien (born Brian O’Nolan). A contemporary, and protege, of Joyce’s he was in fact a civil servant all his life, and only wrote, under many pseudonyms, as a sideline. His books use the stream of consciousness – but turn it into a comprehensible, first-person perspective, as seen most notably in his hilarious, Gothic masterpiece ‘The Third Policeman’. He uses the trick of nesting, making Matrioshkas of his stories, raising the reality levels the nearer you get to the ‘real’ storyteller, but never letting you know of the authenticity of the experience. He also plays with these levels, crossing the characters over, except where he wants to maintain authenticity – so in his experimental novel ‘At Swim Two Birds’, the heroes and villains of his deepest stories sneak into the level next to them, causing chaos, but never up to the ostensible sub-author, a semi-autobiographical student of literature. He drops references into his books – but they’re either absurd nonsense, parodying Joyce and Eliot, or ones that the majority of his readers could be expected to know. And though, he uses scientific and philosophical thought experiments, anticipating much, more turgid modern fiction, they’re saturated with humour instead of text. He’s a much more commercial writer – because, unlike Joyce, he wasn’t writing for fame (he had to be anonymous, after all), or to develop new techniques, but to entertain.

You get this sense most easily from his columns that he wrote, every week for years and years, under one of his many pseudonyms, Myles na gCopaleen. These are witty, local, perfect examples of what a newspaper column should be; from his presumed Mexican grave they conjure up the spirit of Ambrose Bierce, with their perfect acts of creation, their running jokes, the interspersion of created characters who live and die with the whims of the columnist and his correspondents.

I’d argue that it’s rare that perfection occurs in the first instance of an art; often, it takes someone who’s grown up in that art to polish and more it to the next step. O’Brien took Joyce’s metafiction, his flirting with academia and new literary techniques and punched the po right out of its face. Writing like Joyce’s is just a matter of rigorously applied labour – but writing like O’Brien is craft and genius.