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Have you ever read Rossum’s Universal Robots?  It is a Czech play from 1921 which introduced the word “robot” to describe a synthetic/machine person manufactured through a state-of-the-art process.  Since the play anteceded the great glut of mid-twentieth century sci-fi/fantasy novels and movies, it does not partake of their familiar narratives of futurism and high adventure, but rather is a brooding meditation on class, alienation, industrialization, and the post-human world.  Rossum’s Universal Robots treats its subject with the solemn dark intensity which Mary Shelley and Kafka brought to these same questions about what it means to be human and to try to pass one’s fundamental values on to one’s offspring.   

I am not asking this question out of idle curiosity (although I am curious if anyone read RUR), but rather as a means for reintroducing our old friend–and occasional guest blogger–Daniel Claymore.  Claymore, an LA-based writer & director, has just published Requiem for a Good Machine, his own science-fiction work about robots replacing humankind.  In Claymore’s sparkling yet chilly future megalopolis, Mirabilis, wise robot masters have built and maintain a perfect paradise habitat for humankind…because natural humans are failing and going extinct.  Some unknown pathology has sapped organic people of their well-known drive to multiply and gobble up all available resources.  The sad spectacle of hauntingly familiar near-future humans barely stumbling through the forms in a world which has lost its purpose makes up the backdrop of Claymore’s series.  But don’t worry, this isn’t Rossum’s Universal Robots and humankind isn’t quite out of the game yet…the protagonist, Leo Song, is a classic gumshoe who will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of a mystery.  And there are mysteries aplenty in Claymore’s novel.

As a human cop in a world where robots solve 99% of all crimes within instants (and make up all the top echelons on the police force—and every other authority-wielding body), Song has his work cut out for him trying to unravel a string of gruesome murders which the robots have not solved.  Also, even if the robot masters do not know who or what is committing these ghastly crimes, they certainly know a lot of things which they aren’t telling Officer Song. 

Like a Dashiell Hammett sleuth, Song must bend all the rules and take terrifying risks to figure out what is going on (his sad oxygen gun is painful but not-very-effective to humans and does nothing at all to robots).  Pursuing this case will take him to the inner sanctum of artificial intelligence, and out to the gritty edges of Mirabilis where the robots haven’t applied any glitter (and where non-conformist humans and trans-humans still have their own agendas).

The most compelling part of Claymore’s work deals with the robots themselves.  At first these characters seem like utterly inhuman constructs of tubes, wires, and abstract shapes.  Yet as we get to know them through Song’s eyes, their humanity starts to become apparent to us (in both good ways and bad).  Likewise, the question of who ripped apart an expectant young mother starts to seem like a subset of the larger questions about what is going on behind the scenes in Mirabilis and how humankind and the robots have gotten to this place to begin with.     

Claymore’s work is a taut thriller which will delight all lovers of action and mystery.  However, the deeper roots of this work tunnel down into flintier bedrock. The dark lights of Mirabilis reflect today’s world of climate crisis, political stalemate, and ever-quickening waves of future shock.  Above all else, the characters’ anomie, loneliness, and meaningless “make-work” jobs reflect the recent pandemic and the pointless nature of our empty economy.   

If Karel Čapek stepped out of 1921 into today, he would not recognize anything, yet he would recognize everything.  The same human drives and industrial alienation shape a world where technology grows tantalizingly close to consciousness. Daniel Claymore has reached into this morass and pulled out a glistening, squirming mass of naked wires and raw emotions which he throws in your face.  You’re going to love Requiem for a Good Machine, but even if you don’t, the algorithms will think you did!

Hmm…uh oh

It has been a long time since Ferrebeekeeper presented a post about augury. Who could have foreseen this?

A wise equestrian reads the future from birds on a lack and red wine vessel from mid 5th century Greece

Seriously though, today’s post is a quick clarification about the real meaning of the term augury (particularly in relation to how we use the word here on this blog). In ancient Rome, “predicting” the future by means of charismatic quackery was a pastime of astonishing popularity. In fact the word “pastime” might not even be comprehensive enough, since serious, society-wide decisions involving battle, agriculture, politics, statecraft, and commerce were regularly made by soothsaying consultation (naturally all sorts of frivolous personal matters were decided by such means too, just as they are now). Since the Romans were so profoundly hooked on magical prediction of the future, they had a lot of different divination methodologies. The famous sibyls, like the ones at Cumae, Dodona, and Delos, were closely entwined with pantheistic cosmology and thus critical to state power. However, the internationally famous seers and oracles were hardly the only channel for divination. The classical word also featured a breathtaking suffusion of fortune-telling methodologies such as:

  • cleromancy–fortune-telling through casting of lots, stones, or dice
  • hydromancy–predicting the future based on the movement of water
  • necromancy–consulting the dead about hidden matters
  • haruspicy–divination through examination of entrails
  • geomancy–interpreting omens within rocks, mountains, or sand
  • pyromancy–seeing events to come within fire
  • stikhomanteia–reading the future through writings or books (opened at random or by number)
  • numeromancy–using numbers to predict the future
  • augury–scrying by watching the acts or appearances of birds

In contemporary English, this last word (which once was its own specialized practice) has come to mean trying to tell the future through any and all means. Most likely the future is opaque to all forms of meaningful prediction other than logical projection (if a person steps into the ocean they will soon be wet). And, despite my facile parenthetical example, reason itself is a limited tool for understanding the future (which is filled with unknowable unknowns).

Yet I have a special place for augury in my heart because, like all goodhearted people, I love birds…but also because birds base their movements and actions on meaningful stimuli in the hopes of certain outcomes. Birds have senses and sensibilities which are different than our own. Of course, in my book, such matters are best explored by the ornithologist rather than Zeus (although, according to myth, the latter explored the avian mind through direct experience and found that birds have desires similar to our own).

Most importantly, birds can teach us what the future holds, not via magic or divine influence, but by more corporeal means. Modern people do not base their decisions on whether a dove escaped a falcon or a swan attacked an eagle not because we have learned to throw off the yoke of superstitious thinking, but because we don’t often see doves, falcons, eagles, and swans. The birds are very much predicting the future–by vanishing! Unless we want to follow them to oblivion, we need to help them stay alive by curtailing our abuse of the planet.

There’s an augury for you.

Here are three different fluted ewers from medieval China which exemplify Longquan-type celadon. This style of porcelain (or stoneware, if you ascribe to a purely western methodology of ceramics terminology) was abundantly produced in the kilns of Zhejian and Fujian from about 950 AD to 1550 AD. The characteristic blue-green and gray-green colors are the result of iron oxide glazes fired at temperatures around 1250C in a reducing atmosphere (which is to say the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of the dragon kilns where they were made).

Longquan Fluted Ewer with Lid, late Southern Song Dynasty

Of course the real point of this post is to appreciate the beauty of these ancient ewers. I particularly like fluted pieces because the elegant vertical lines go so very well with the simple round melon/pumpkin shapes. Likewise, the understated green glaze color (along with the fleabites and brown patches of irregular glaze) are particularly suited to this sort of pot. They look like they grew on a magical vine in some immortal’s secret garden! Even the texture–which is perfectly smooth and glossy, yet also has appealing pits, bumps, and micropatterns–seems strangely alive.

These three ewers are arranged from oldest (top) to most recently produced (bottom). The top piece is from the Northern Song Dynasty when the Song emperor controlled both the north and south of China. The middle piece is from the southern Song (when the imperial capital moved to Hangzhou a city not so far from Longquan which was the center of these sorts of crafts).

The last piece is a Yuan piece from the era of Mongol hegemony and seems to have a different feel from the other pieces (so much so, that it is the most questionable of all of the pieces). Yet its gorgeous shape and color mean I must include it. As a final note, it is worth mentioning that part of the beauty of these works is in their utility and strength. They were all built robustly enough that they are here in pristine shape after a thousand tumultuous years of Chinese history. All of them have highly functional and thermodynamically efficient designs which, in the end, are not so different from the modern machine-made English teapot which I use every day. Indeed, considering where tea and porcelain originated, they are all ancestors of my teapot

Longquan Pumpkin Shaped Ewere Yuan Dynasty

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue to marvel over the images from the James Webb telescope (the first such image was the subject of Monday’s post). As an ongoing homage to the new telescope (and to the team of scientists, engineers, and experts who made humankind’s marvelous super eye in space a reality) here is a short pictorial post…about a completely unrelated Caribbean filefish!

This is Cantherhines macrocerus, the American whitespotted filefish, an omnivorous filefish which lives along the southern coast of Florida and southwards through the shallow tropical waters of the Caribbean. The fish makes its living by eating algae and reef/coastal invertebrates like worms, small mollusks, sponges, soft corals, gorgonians, etc. The adult fish grows to a size of 45 centimeters (about 18 inches).

Perhaps you are wondering how this fish is related to the space telescope. Well, like many fish, the whitespotted filefish can–to a degree–alter its color depending on its mood or background. The fish’s dark coloration scheme pays homage to deep field images of the universe filled with galaxies

Obviously this is one of those aesthetic-themed posts which deals with delightful and fantastic (albeit superficial) similarities of appearance. It is the only way I know how to express my delight with cosmology and ichthyology! Indeed, even when this fish is not white-spotted (there is a yellow and olive variation) it still reminds me of the Webb scope..

Of course Ferrebeekeeper has a long track-record of seeing the forms of the universe within the patterns of fish. Humankind looks for patterns–and sometimes finds similar patterns in unrelated forms. Although maybe this particular similarity is not just an artistic conceit: humans and all vertebrate life descend from fish…and all-living things are made of atoms built in long-dead stars. The highest purpose of our new space telescope is to find out about the possibilities of life out there in the universe (since Webb can possibly peak into the atmospheres of exoplanets to let us know about any whiff of molecules associated with life). While we are looking millions of light years away we also need to keep looking at where we are. For the present, home is still the only place we know for sure to have abundant lifeforms (like, for example, the whitespotted filefish). Imagine if we found a water-dwelling, pincer-nosed alien which devoured fractal lifeforms and had a picture of deep space on its lozenge-form body. We would go crazy with delight. But we already have such a thing swimming around Turks and Caicas hoovering up gorgonians and looking cute.

Sooo…since I am back to writing, I would like to start blogging about politics again. Unfortunately, continuing political stalemate is causing the rapid decline and failure of the United States of America. In such circumstances, it is enormously frustrating to write, talk, or think about politics. I can’t even successfully agree with the people I know I agree with, because I am so angry and dissatisfied! I have a feeling I am not the only person in such emotional straits!

Therefore to ease my way back in to the subject, I would like to write a furious jeremiad about the fundamental cause of our trouble–stalemate in Congress–and address where that fatal deadlock comes from. As ever, feel free to disagree or push back in the comments below (although I am less respectful of the fascist Republican party than I was a few years ago, when their plans to destroy the nation, replace our democracy with a theocratic dictatorship, and throw down everything we have built were only beginning to yield dark fruit).

Most good-hearted Americans currently look at the bitter strife, anger, and divisiveness of the political arena, and logically, they blame politicians. It is like if you walked into a bar fight, you wouldn’t bother figuring out who started it, you would just blame drunks in general and leave hastily before someone smashed your head. Unfortunately, that general self-preservation strategy is dead wrong for the fight which is going on in today’s America. The centrists’ cry that “they are all equally bad” is not warranted. Our founding fathers designed the legislative houses of Congress to be the center of the democracy with the power of the purse, the power to make war, the power to regulate interstate commerce, and of course the power to make and unmake laws. Congress is failing to do these things and we are only barely able to avert outright crisis by the unsuitable vehicle of executive power, or, worse, judicial fiat (whereby unelected and immoral rapists, dolts, and savages in black robes strip away all of our rights and return society to the middle ages).

The reason Congress is unable to address the crises of our time is indeed because the two parties have divergent views and desires…but the parties have always wanted different things. In the past, they could compromise. Why can’t they do so now? The obvious answers–political polarization, and gerrymandering (where politicians pick out their own voters and assure their easy re-election) are the right answers, but they too are symptoms of the fundamental disease. The disease is a sort of autoimmune condition–one party (the Republican one) has begun to attack government itself.

Since at least the time of Reagan, Republicans have been making war on the idea of government. It is a very cynical ploy (and an unexpected one, since Republican executives, legislators, judges, apparatchiks, etc. are themselves the government, or at least a big block of it). But it turns out to be a highly effective strategy. Here is how it works: When government does not work right, Republicans can say “look! the government doesn’t work right! We are obviously correct. Vote for us!” Then, when they are voted in to power, they can pass enormous tax-cuts for very wealthy people and do absolutely nothing else. This makes very wealthy people support Republicans and ensures that the government works even worse (which is what happens when things are not properly funded and when people who are supposed to do something do not do it).

Of course, sometimes the Democrats manage to win an election (although un-representative and minoritarian features of our system keep conspiring with outright Republican sabotage to make this ever harder), and then the Republicans pull out all of the stops to make sure everything fails and gets blamed on Democrats. Then, when Republicans are back in power there are more tax cuts for the enormously wealthy and more judicial appointments from the Federalist society and the doom loop continues.

For Republican tacticians, stalemate and continuing failure are the point. They are making it happen (with some help from selfish Democrats like Joe Manchin and Josh Gottheimer). Continuing stalemate gives the Republicans what they want and assures the Republicans will be able to continue moving us away from representative politics and towards one-party rule. Once we get there, they will no doubt rediscover the virtues of the government in the form of jackboots, Jim Crow, and privatizing everything off to the same people who have made our health-care system what it is. So if you say “everyone is equally wrong! Why can’t the parties get along? Politicians are the problem! Government is the problem!” well…that isn’t a neutral or centrist perspective, it is a Republican one. It is actually a clever strategy–unless you wanted to actually live in our country and make progress and have a family and not be a worthless indentured servant to some MBA shithead. If you want such things then government is very much your friend. Indeed, it is your only hope. You need to help people of good conscience make it work as well as possible by electing smart and devoted Democrats who can end the Republican doom loop!

Hey everybody! Sorry I went awol for a little sabbatical from writing. It is summer plus I felt burned out after the last two (or 20) years, and none of my blogging pleasure centers were registering any joy. However today there is something to be quite joyous about: the President of the United States released the first deep field image from the James Webb Space telescope, a colossal near-infrared eye in the sky, which is now unfurled, debugged, and fully operational at Earth’s second LeGrange point! Huzzah!

Courtesy NASA Webb Space Telescope

And what a picture it is. It is so good and so spectacular that it almost looks like background art from a disco album rather than a colossal galaxy-studded expanse of outer space as it existed billions of years ago. The image is a composite of multiple scans taken with the space telescope’s Near-Infrared camera over a 12.5 hour window (the world famous ultra deep field photo from Hubble which rocked the world back in 2004 required closer to 12 days of scope time and did not peer early so deeply into the universe).

The Webb image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 which is 4.6 billion light years away. Because this galaxy cluster is (or was?) so massive, it acts as a gravitational lens and much more distant galaxies can be glimpsed in the curvy fisheye at the center of this image. I am no galactic astronomy expert (here are some vague pointers about what the color means from an earlier post), but the beauty and grandeur of the image is evident to even the rankest layman…and this is the first real image. There are going to be lots and lots of additional pictures coming in of every conceivable sight out there in the universe and we are going to be blown away by what we see. I can hardly wait for more!

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