The dumbest saying in the world

I realized something today.  The saying, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” makes no sense.

I understand and even appreciate the underlying notion, but it’s a deceitful, awful, duplicitous saying.

If you are handed a bunch of lemons here is a list of all the things you would be able to make:

1. Lemon Juice

That is all.

Not a container of lemonade.

Not a container of lemonade.

Lemon juice is not lemonade.  To make lemonade you add lots and lots of sugar to the otherwise undrinkable pure lemon juice.  And that’s not what the saying says.  It doesn’t say, “When life hands you lemons…and some sugar and a pitcher and some ice and maybe a stove and a sink so you can reduce the sugar and make a simple syrup to add to the lemon juice…well using only that you should make some lemonade.”

It says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

You know what? If you can make lemonade using nothing but lemons then you are capable of creating other ingredients out of thin air and thus you are a wizard. Which means you can probably make lemonade if life hands you limes, or oranges…or a baboon.

And is that helpful?  “When life hands you baboons, make lemonade?”

No.  No it is not.

Stupid saying.

Become Just like Matthew and Epp!!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have discovered something amazing.

Apparently this man:

burt-goldman

Burt Goldman

Is going to teach you, me, all of us, how to Quantum Jump.

quantum-jumping

Now, I know what you’re saying. “But, Mr. Devon. That ad says this is for ‘astral projection enthusiasts only.’ Do I qualify?”

Yes.  Yes you do. According to Burt, anyone who wakes up and occasionally doesn’t feel like they’re living the absolutely best life they could be living is qualified for his course.  Apparently he and his copy editor got their lines crossed…possibly because they were in different dimensions.

Plus, as if you needed more selling on this idea, some of the top minds in the world are making discoveries that back up Burt’s claims.  Stephen Hawking and Neil Turok have made discoveries in quantum physics that, according to his website, back up the discoveries taught in this course.

It’s all right here.

The startling thing? With a little tweaking that’s actually sort of almost true.

A lot of people who have read Probability Angels ask me questions like, “So how exactly does Epp travel around?” Or, “How does a tester actually interact with people?”

My answer is always a resounding, “I have no idea.”

On the other hand I try to read a few  science books every so often and this tends to fuel the more out-there aspects of my writing such as, say, probability photographs or time tape.  I would encourage you to read, for example, The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene. In this book, Greene takes you on a little tour of physics (using NO math) and walks you through various breakthroughs, such as Einstein’s theories of relativity and the like.  And, as you read and slowly learn about relativity and the nature of gravity, you come to learn that science has spent much of the last century doing a very good job of proving that absolutely nothing makes the slightest bit of god-damned sense.

And I’m not saying that in a, “This is way over my head and too complicated so I’m going to make fun of it,” sort of way. Brian Greene is a very good teacher and there are number of other well written books out there on this exact subject and the weird thing is that it’s the points that I get that cause the most confusion.  Like how nobody knows how gravity works.  Or how on the microscopic scale things exist only as probabilities (sound familiar?) and not in any real way in space and time until you measure them at which point they actualize and all the other possibilities manifest themselves in separate universes possibly maybe.  Or, for that matter, how space and time are actually one thing and that mass bends space-time…which sort of explains gravity except it doesn’t at all depending on what scale you’re talking about. And then there’s the double-slit experiment which…

einstein

E = shit gets crazy

Anyway, let’s just say that the best part, for me, is the mindsets of the top physicists.  You want to see someone who lives in a state of constant wonder and good humor? Talk to a quantum physicist (okay so I’ve never actually met one and this might be a gross overstatement but the writings of a lot of them seem to back this up…or you can watch them on TV…The Elegant Universe was made into a great PBS special). They sort of have to take the craziness of their work in stride to get anywhere and so you tend to see a very interesting sense of humor there.  Like Noble winner Richard Feynman who, before a lecture once said:

What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school… It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see my physics students don’t understand it. … That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.

Where else are you going to find someone at the start of a lecture doing his best to drive home the point that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

What I wound up doing with the characters of Probability Angels was to basically take the coolest, wackiest shit that theoretical physicists have come up with and run with it.  Assuming I understood anything I’ve read about this stuff, and assuming physicists aren’t completely insane, and assuming you could actually take their theoretical work and use it in a real world setting you could conceivably make any electron you wanted to wiggle in a certain way. With that under your belt, you could conceivably wiggle every election in your hand in a certain way. And then you conceivably could wiggle every electron in a desk in a certain way. And if you could exert enough control over every atom in both these things, well maybe you could get your hand to pass right through the desk.

Or if you could take every atom in your hand and make it shake and rub really really hard against all the other atoms that were also shaking and rubbing really hard you could create a large amount of heat and your hand would burst into flames.

Also Kyo has a samurai sword.

Physics

Physics

Do I understand any of this? No.  At the very least I get a simple theoretical grasp of it but that dissolves the second anyone starts using math, which I’m pretty sure is cheating as far as physics goes.

Do I think theoretical quantum physicists are full of it? No. They have to face the real world just like everyone else and attempt to design experiments to prove or disprove their theories, and the experiments have been matching up with this craziness for awhile now.

Do I think that someday the tricks that Matthew and Epp use may be possible in our world? Sure, what the hell.  There was a point in time when 99% of the stuff sitting on my desk, not to mention airplanes and aluminum and the iPhone, would have seemed like pure necromancy so I like to keep an open mind.  I’m just not crazy enough to think it’s going to happen anytime soon or that it’s in any way a sure thing.

So is Burt form the start of this post really so far off?  Are there alternate dimensions out there that it might be possible to travel to?

No.

And yes.

It’s complicated and there’s a lot of math involved.

Dissecting The Empire Strikes Back

millenniumfalconthumbOver the weekend I caught some of The Empire Strikes Back on television.  It was chopped apart with commercials and heavily edited and I turned it on about halfway through and yet it still managed to suck me in.  I’ve seen it at least a billion times and I’m always amazed.

As for the other movies in the series? Well A New Hope is a classic as well and Return of the Jedi certainly provides enough fun and adventure to be enjoyable.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that because I try my hardest to pretend like the other movies never happened. Though they do sneak in at the end here.

Empire, though, is just magic.  You have the battle on the ice planet Hoth, you have Yoda’s unique brand of instruction, you have Han and Leia’s utterly bent love story.  It has everything, perfectly balanced, with nothing overplayed or left on the burner too long.

And, on this my one billion and first viewing, I was surprised to discover that this whole movie is set in motion by the simplest of plot points.  A broken engine.

The Millenium Falcon (could you imagine naming your car something like that and not getting the crap kicked out of you? “Yeah this is my car, The Infinite Eagle.” “That’s a Honda.” “Yeah but I painted Infinite Eagle on the side so now we’re calling it that.”) can not make the jump to hyperspace. And this lack of a functional engine drives everything. As soon as everyone leaves Hoth the movie splits into two stories with Luke and Yoda on one track and and Han and his crew on the other just trying to stay alive. We move from asteroids to Imperial Cruisers to cloud cities and all of this happens because Han and Chewie can’t get the hyperdrive on the Falcon working again.  To be more precise, they can’t get it working again after Chewie, presumably because he was bored, decided to dismantle it while they were hanging around on Hoth to begin with.

My point here is simple. I admire the script of Empire for it’s ability to take a really, really, mundane plot point, the inability to fix an engine, and use it to orchestrate an entire movie.  If the engine works in the beginning then Han gets Leia to safety before moving on to pay off Jabba all the while staying happily out of the clutches of Darth Vader.  The same can be said for every other subsequent attempt to jump to hyperspace (I think there are three or four more failed attempts). If the engine is fixed, if they happen to have the right spare parts, if Chewie can cross-hypobulate the shmander rod or whatever, they escape. And if they escape Vader never gets to put his plans for them into motion. No interaction with Vader, no pain and suffering.  And if they stay away from the pain and suffering Luke, sweating away at Degobah U, never had reason to worry about them and never reaches his main crisis in the movie which is whether or not to continue on with his Jedi training or rush off half-baked to try to save his friends. And without a half-baked and half-informed Luke rushing off to confront Vader we would miss out on probably the greatest movie moment of my childhood and Luke would keep possession of both his hands.

I mean seriously, how boring would it have been if the Falcon was carrying the proper spare parts?

All of this comes about because of a broken engine, something so deceptively simple that we never question it for a moment.  Hell, why wouldn’t you do some repairs or upgrades on your ship while you’re stuck at Hoth? For that matter when Han first yells at Chewie to stop futzing with the Falcon and put her back together, before any of this starts to unravel, it seems like a nice little bit of comic relief.

A lot of times when I’m trying to steer a story in a particular direction, or I’m trying to build up to what, in my mind, is a large scene, the impulse is to use huge brush strokes, large plot points, big hairy important things because otherwise I might lose the impact of my big hairy important scene and not get through to my readers. This is, almost always, a massive mistake. Oftentimes the simple little plot point is the most effective.  Partly because it sneaks up on the viewer/reader, and partly because it’s so much more accessible. A giant speech from one of the characters to provide motivation for their actions could never carry as much weight as the instantly accessible, “Something’s wrong with the engine.”

Of course, with the addition of the numerous plot holes that the prequel/trainwrecks add it could be argued that Chewie is the ultimate rebel spy and the only one who actually knows what is going on, that he is completely rogue at this point in the story, and that he quite possibly orchestrated the entire thing.

Not to mention the fact that either the Falcon spends weeks and weeks dodging those asteroids or Luke’s Jedi training takes all of six hours.

But we’re not going to go into that here.

“Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”

godfatherThe great thing about putting my books and stories online is how I start popping up in all sorts of places where I can get exposure to new readers I never would have found otherwise.  The downside is that I have pretty much lost track of how many downloads there have been of my stories and of Probability Angels.

What I do know is that there are a lot of you, and yet the number of reviews over at the amazon site is a mere nineteen.  Nineteen?

This book, that is about actual angel sightings and which shows up when you search for my book because it has “angel” in the title, has twenty-five reviews.

Twenty-five reviews.  And I have nineteen reviews.

Here is some math.  25 > 19.

Seriously people? I’m part Sicilian, you know. This will not stand. I know you’re out there. You’ve emailed me.  Now let’s take that one step further.

Please click on this button right now, sign into your amazon account, and review my book.

That is all.

Prestidigation

swapthumbWhile writing Probability Angels I was on a very fixed time table.  When a section needed to be done it needed to be done.  It was going to go up on the site and I was hell bent on finishing my 26 Stories project without missing any deadlines (though I did miss one over Christmas).  I also never expected to be writing a book in this format.  The 26 Stories were supposed to be short stories, I kind of stumbled onto Matthew and Epp and the rest and they kept growing until I had a larger work on my hands.  The result was the weirdest book writing experience I’ll probably ever have.  Not only was each section written under an intense deadline, and not only did I not have a real idea of what was going to happen next most of the time, but once a section was published it was set in stone and I couldn’t go back and change things.

This was crazy. There’s a pretty good argument to be made that I write because I’m not particularly quick on my feet, because I need to sit and mull things over before making decisions, because words never come out of my mouth correctly but weeks later it will occur to me what I should have said in any given situation.

To write Probability Angels the way I did was madness.  I’ve forgotten how great it is to be able to go back to previous sections and change things that happened so that my story as a whole can work better.

Those following the blog closely will notice that my word count hasn’t moved much over the past few days.  This is because I’ve been delving around in the past rearranging some things that I don’t like now that I have some distance on them.  I mentioned a character named Gary a few weeks ago that had sort of stolen a large number of scenes at the outset.  Well Gary, because of his unexpected appearance, wasn’t a very interesting guy.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the unexpected characters can turn out to be wonderful.  Nyx was unexpected (I miss Nyx).  But Gary seemed a little vanilla to me, and when you add to that the fact that there was another character named Memphis who showed up for barely a half a scene and then never came back…well it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to take a great name like Memphis, a name that suggests a certain look and personality instantly to me, and use it on someone who barely showed up for a scene.

So I’m turning Gary into Memphis and Memphis into Gary.

Presto-chango.

I, also, want to love bees

beesthumbThis week seems to be all about things I’ve stumbled onto while doing research.  This morning it was the “I Love Bees” website.  This website is not, in fact, about bees.  Although it appears to be.

I’ll start over.

Before the launch of Halo 2, a massively popular video game, some pretty unique marketing was put into play.  Through various methods potential fans were directed to the website ILoveBees.com.  Some, for example, received actual jars of honey in the mail with directions to the website somehow contained within.  Upon visiting the site these people received an error screen.  You can still see it if you go to the site yourself.

Now, this took place years ago so I didn’t see it play out, but from what I’ve gathered the error screen starting leading people to clues embedded all over the website.   For example, if you go to the “View” menu at the top of your browser and select “Page Source” you can see the underlying code that comprises any website.  This is the stuff that your browser then reads and turns into a nice neat web page for you to view.  It is possible to embed stuff in this code that can only be seen by viewing the code itself, not to mention provide links to other sites or files which don’t necessarily need to be in any way shown when the browser displays the page.

By following these clues visitors eventually began to unravel a much larger game, like a cross between a treasure hunt and a series of riddles, which was loosely based on the events of Halo 2, the video game being marketed. Within the construct of this game the “I Love Bees” website had been corrupted by a rogue program which needed help figuring out what was going on due to a memory wipe.  At one point the players (and keep in mind that anyone who wanted to help unravel the mystery could be considered a player) were even given GPS coordinates and numbers which corresponded to pay phone locations and the times that phone calls would come in containing recordings that furthered the plot or provided more clues.

This is amazing to me.  On so many levels.  Not the least of which is the storytelling potential of this sort of interactivity.  Imagine you didn’t just sit in a theater and hear Darth Vader tell Luke that he was his father, but instead you sat up waiting until a set time when some stranger waiting by a telephone would get a phone call before reporting back to a chat room in order to tell everyone that he had just spoken to Darth Vader…and that Darth Vader claimed to be Luke’s father.

Sadly, sitting here right now, I can’t even begin to imagine how to go about putting something like this together.  But you can color me intrigued and I most certainly plan to learn more about this type of advertising.

It just seems like so much damned fun.

With great irony I can almost foresee a time when writing books is merely a day job that supports me while I pursue my true love…advertising those books.

Man the internet is weird.

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

aithumbThe title of this post (which it turns out I constantly mis-quote) is from Stanley Kubrick’s film: 2001: A Space Odyssey.  For those of you who’ve never seen this movie, it’s a delightful slapstick comedy set amidst the backdrop of a zany space station where every character is a hoot, people go for jogs on the ceiling and robots tell nursery rhymes.  Then you spend ten minutes watching weird colors before some old guy wakes up in a marble bathroom and a baby sits in the moon.

The terrifying thing is that absolutely nothing in that description is false.

I love Kubrick.  My jury is still very much out when it comes to this particular Kubrick film as a whole.  Scene by scene, however, I’m capable of forming opinions.

Thus my opening quote is stolen from a scene in 2001 that I consider to be utterly brilliant. In it HAL, the supercomputer on board Space-station Acid Trip, has decided that the humans traveling with him, because they’re questioning HAL’s protocols, have become a danger to the mission and must be eliminated.  From the humans’ point of view, HAL has made a mistake, the first mistake HAL has ever made, and if their computer is capable of one error then it’s capable of more errors and therefore can not be relied upon fully and needs to be disconnected from controlling the space-station.

halThe characters up until this point in the movie have had breezy, perfectly compliant interactions with HAL, casually asking him for reports and data and enjoying his voice interface with good-natured smiles.  After HAL’s error the humans continue on (with one brief attempt at secrecy) as if HAL can be ignored, oblivious to the fact that that not only is HAL aware of their plans to disconnect him but that HAL is also very upset about this.  The tension which is built around this sequence amounts to a “Don’t go in the attic, the ax murderer is in there!” sort of thing where the audience is more aware of HAL’s intentions than any of the characters on screen.  All of this comes to a head when Dave, after hopping out of the space station to check on something, asks HAL to open the doors so he can get back in.  HAL’s response? “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”  A line delivered perfectly causing the audience to cringe as Dave finally catches up with us and we are planted firmly inside of his head, floating alone in the cold depths of space, suddenly faced with the fact that the door to get back inside will not be opening.

All of which has nothing to do with today’s post.  Today’s post is about the Turing test.  I stumbled onto this while doing research for a character this morning and proceeded to spend the next few hours playing and reading.

The Turing Test was proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 as a test to see whether machines could think, which is how I wound up also reading up on HAL and my favorite Kubrick scene from above.  More specifically, the test was an attempt by Turing to do away with the inevitable arguments that arise from a question like, “Can machines think?” and come up with some sort of measurable test instead.  What he proposed was a set up where a machine and a human were placed in separate rooms.  Then a third party interacts with each of them via typewritten messages and tries to see if they can tell the difference. If the machine can fool the third party into thinking it is human then it has passed the Turing test.

There is a ton of debate as to the merits of such a test and to be fair Turing meant it more as a stimulant for philosophical questioning and not a real measure of artificial intelligence.  Most A.I. researchers attempt to build machines that can solve problems, such as scheduling, which they feel are a better measure of intelligence than the ability to fool a human into thinking that something is human. My favorite rebuttal to the Turing test comes from A.I. researchers Russell and Norvig who:

…suggest an analogy with the history of flight: planes are tested by how well they fly, not by comparing them to birds. “Aeronautical engineering texts,” they write, “do not define the goal of their field as ‘making machines that fly so exactly like pigeons that they can fool other pigeons.”

For me the Turing test is a wonderful thing, though, because it spawned tons of attempts to create human-like automated texting programs on the Internet. Yes, there are places on the Internet where you can talk to robots.

I found the following:

jabberwacky.com – This one is fun because it is constantly learning.  Every person who chats with it contributes to its store of responses and it can actually begin to learn about new topics and, assuming enough contributors, new languages.

A.L.I.C.E. and Jeeny AI – I’ll be honest, these two produced a very real emotional response in me. Which is to say that they kind of pissed me off.  Which is odd they’re being computer programs and all. Their conversations tended to be one-sided with the computer elbowing away what I was saying and proceeding with the conversation it wanted to have, not to mention the terrible syntax errors that kept popping up.  And even when you find common ground the conversation usually slows to a halt.  You say something, the computer agrees with you, then you both kind of sit there nodding with nothing to say.  The terrifying thing is how well this approximates so very many of the conversations I have with real humans in the real world.  I don’t need some snooty robot pointing out to me how bad I am at small talk.

Cleverbot.com – This is an offshoot of Jabberwacky from above.  I couldn’t find an “About” page for this so I’m not sure, but it seems to streamline Jabberwacky and put it into a very slick looking interface so the computer appears to be typing, something that adds a lot to the experience.  Actual conversations were hard to produce.  But then again, actual conversations are often hard to produce.  When I started playing with these things I approached them thinking I would test them by attempting to produce robust conversations about the arts; I figured I’d play to my strengths and talk books.  The results tended to be, as I’ve mentioned, a few decent responses that then grind to a halt as things get sort of confusing.  At first I wanted to dismiss these as not very good examples of conversation, then I realized that these are, in fact, perfect examples of conversation.  It’s just that the person you’re talking with is not exactly on the same wavelength as you.  Basically the Internet has managed to replicate every cocktail party I’ve ever been to. Cleverbot is at least friendly about it in a semi-distracted way, unlike the truly irratating A.L.I.C.E. and Jeeny AI…again I should point out how weirdly easy it is to form actual emotional responses.

The real winner I’ve saved for last, though.

MegaHAL – Sadly this is also the only one I couldn’t get to work, so I couldn’t actually play with it, but it has real potential.  The interesting aspect of MegaHAL is that it programs randomness into its answers. Once the computer has analyzed your text and decided on a number of appropriate responses it then chooses one that it measures as being the least expected.  The idea here is that randomness will make MegaHAL a more stimulating conversationalist, always saying something new and interesting.  Judging by the “Examples” page this produces some utterly crazy stuff, but at least MegaHAL is trying.  You don’t have to carry the conversation the whole time with this guy.

One odd aspect of writing fiction is that I have to try and write dialogue. Actual dialogue.  I spend as much time as is socially acceptable doing nothing more than sitting around listening to other people talk, whether they know it or not.  The fun part comes in accepting the fact that actual spoken dialogue is a complete mockery of any and all formal language.  People sound nuts when they talk. Information gets transmitted, don’t get me wrong, but an actual written transcript of most conversations would just look freaking weird.  I always view it as my job to replicate this odd disregard for formalities when I’m writing dialogue.  Which is maybe why I tried so hard, and sadly failed, to chat with MegaHAL.  This thing understands my job.

I’ll finish up with this example sentence that MegaHAL produced during a previous exchange.

MegaHAL: CHESS IS A FUN SPORT, WHEN PLAYED WITH SHOTGUNS.

Now that’s someone I want to talk to at a cocktail party.

The Worst Post in the World

sickthumbI…am sick.  There aren’t many things I hate but being sick is most definitely one of them.  It makes me stupid.  I resent the ability of a foreign entity to inhabit my system and make my brain function like crap for an extended period of time.  It’s one thing to invite this on myself with scotch but quite another for a microorganism that makes its living off of my sneezes to turn my brain to mush.

I’ve been sick for a few days now so I’m at that point where I honestly can’t tell if my head is muddled from the bug or from the various cold and flu remedies I’ve been taking.  Last night I finally asked Fair Lady NyQuil to dance, and she’s a woman who will hit you just as hard as your fever.  But it was necessary, the past few nights have been akin to an abusive relationship with my lungs where they keep me up coughing just until I’m ready to jump out of bed and go to my medicine cabinet, at which point they suddenly calm down and I convince myself that this time things will be different, this time they’ve really changed and I’ll be able to sleep.

I can’t concentrate when I’m sick and I can’t write…not fiction anyway.  I can construct sentences and paragraphs of this nature, but composing a scene has almost always proven too difficult.  I can barely keep track of what room I’m in, keeping track of which of my made-up rooms my made-up characters are in tends to elude me.

I did, however, come to this conclusion many a year ago after a bout of fever when I realized that everything I had written over the past few days had to be completely scrapped and rewritten.  This has biased me towards even attempting to write when my head is foggy.  I’m wondering, though, if this state of mind isn’t maybe perfectly suited to some other form of writing.  Maybe this is the perfect mindset in which to come up with names (something that my sober brain can’t seem to do easily), or to figure out my ending, or to write a one-act play or something.

I have no idea.  This is the tail end of this bug and I should be thinking clearly, or as clearly as I’m capable of thinking, by tomorrow or Friday.

Till then I’m boycotting writing but have decided to try something very bold and audacious in the writing department the next time I get sick.

June’s Contest is Now Open

QuizIf you journey over here you’ll see that June’s contest is now running.  It’s a quiz containing fifteen questions based on my short stories.  The winner gets a $100 Amazon Gift Card. All the details are over at the contest page, I won’t go into them here, so please go have a look.

This was interesting in a number of ways.  Coming up with questions for your own stories is pretty weird.  I’ve talked a lot on here about how I’ll often get too close to a story over the course of its being written so that I wind up losing all sense of subjectivity.  When you know each character, even the minor ones, from the ground up and when you were there for the creation of every setting, it becomes very difficult to step back and get a sense of how things look as a whole.  And it’s this outsider’s perspective that, in my opinion, makes the best trivia.  Or to put it another way, just because something is trivial doesn’t make it trivia.  I have all sorts of tiny little details stored in my head about these stories, but they wouldn’t make good questions because they’re largely irrelevant.  Good trivia should make you reflect back in a new way on some larger entity as a whole.  I have no idea if my questions achieve that goal, but I knew enough not to just drop in 15 questions about minutia and call it trivia. Also I was hopped up on Claratin-D and cough syrup when I made up this quiz.

Plus there was the matter of the internet to be dealt with.  What might seem like a nice bit of trivia could, in fact, be the easiest thing in the world to dig up using Ctrl-F or Google.  And, granted, for some of the stories I’m…shall we say…less than super-psyched about, I tended towards questions that were more searchable.  Whereas the questions for some of my favorite stories I tried to make not really gettable from a quick search but require a thinking grasp of the story.  I hope.   The other thing about the internet is that it is always smarter than you are so we’ll see how this goes.

Anyway, this was a lot of fun and I foresee  myself using this idea again in various forms.

Good luck.