Because the only thing more terrifying than velociraptors are velociraptors that can fly.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Story Duel aka "Millie the Golden Lamb Goes to the Farm"...Twice

Hello hello, dear readers! 

You're in for a special treat today as my esteemed colleague, Ms. Samantha Barrett and I are currently participating in a story duel. During a conversation we had this past week, Ms. Barrett and I both became enamored with a story title and main character. To decide who could tell her story better, we each wrote our own and then agreed to post both of them, leaving our respective audiences to vote for their favorite. Here is my version of "Millie the Golden Lamb Goes to the Farm," and I shall provide a link to Ms. Barrett's version below.

If you enjoy the story, please leave a comment here, or on my Facebook, or on my Twitter. I'd appreciate it. (And be warned, this story is pretty creepy.)

Millie the Golden Lamb Goes to the Farm
Once upon a time, there was a lamb named Millie. Her name was not “Ewe Spawn #7794,” nor was it “Walking Cutlet,” but rather “Millie.” Millie’s fleece was unlike any fleece the other sheep had ever seen. Instead of black or white or grey, or made of rusty wires or bleeding worms, Millie’s fleece was the softest, most lustrous gold.
            One day, Millie decided that she would go to a farm. She did not go because she was being abused at home, nor was she concerned about being slaughtered and eaten by a cannibalistic sheep that secretly ruled the flock with an iron hoof, but because Millie wanted to go on an adventure.
            Millie said goodbye to her mother and father, because she had a mother and father, as opposed to being taken away from her mother at birth and forced to live in a small cage for the rest of her life, so small that her leg muscles atrophied and she could not stand. Instead, her family lived in a wide open meadow with luscious grass and colorful flowers.
            “Goodbye, Mother,” Millie said, nuzzling her soft nose against her mother’s. “I shall miss you terribly on my journey.” She did not say, “I hate you, Mother, for abandoning me to the wolves which ate my entrails,” nor did she say, “I wish you would not bite me, Mother, when I do not obey as quickly as you would like.”
            Then Millie turned to her father, the great ram, Rosiah, and bowed her head to him. “I ask for your blessing, Father,” she said, “as I travel through the woods to the farm.” Had things been different, she might have said, “Please stop striking me with your horns, Father, that hurts,” or “You are not my father, Rosiah. You killed him and have tried to take his place.” But things were not different, so she did not say these things.
            Millie’s mother nuzzled her back and her father, the great ram Rosiah, gave her his blessing. Having just finished a hearty lunch of grass and clovers, not nails and broken glass or poisonous frogs, still twitching feebly as they slithered down her throat, she set off into the woods towards the farm.
            As night fell, Millie was not set upon by a group of bandits, starving, ill-mannered men that used Millie cruelly before slitting her throat and draining her blood. She was not flayed by their sharp knives nor was her bloody hide fashioned into a pillow so that the leader of the men might have a comfortable place to sleep that night. Her haunches were not roasted over a fire to be eaten by the bandits; her organs were not valued for the richness of their flavor; her intestines did not become sausages. None of these things happened, and Millie spent her first night in the forest in great peace.
            Millie’s dreams were of her great adventure, not of the fear that she might never return home, nor was she concerned that the farm might not exist, that it might only be a story and a figment of the sheep’s imagination back in the meadow she called home. It never entered her mind that the elder sheep of her flock could have concocted a story about “a farm” to lure those sheep unsatisfied with their lives in the flock away into the dark forest so that their rebellious thoughts would not infect the orthodoxy of the other sheep. Such a thought did not occur to her, nor would such a thing have been true even if it had.
            When Millie awoke the next day she drank from a crisp, cool stream she found nearby. She did not have to walk the whole day without a drink of water, her throat slowly growing more and more parched as she grew wearier by the moment. Millie did not have to worry about growing dehydrated, nor was she concerned that when she finally found a sluggish brook and broke through its scummy surface to slurp the viscous water that she was ingesting heavy metals and toxins, waste products of a distant factory whose poisons would kill her, leaving a stiff carcass to rot in the forest, foam on its lips. She came upon her first stream just feet away from where she’d laid her head the night before, and the water that burbled merrily over the rocks was pure and clean.
            The grass on the stream’s banks was bright green and sweet on her tongue. It had not been colonized by an exotic species of spiders. No eggs would attach to the interior of her first stomach, dispensing their payload of immature arachnids. Mille didn’t have to worry about those spider larvae working their way through her bloodstream until they emerged in her cranial cavity, nor was she concerned about the spiders spinning webs over her brain, slowing her thoughts and making her woozy. She did not stumble after a few days of walking aimlessly, all thoughts of the farm forgotten, fall to the ground, and moan pitifully as the spiders assumed control of her brain.
Millie did not then return to the other sheep of the meadow a brain-dead zombie, nor did she die there with her family gathered around her. An army of millions of spiders did not erupt from her corpse once she had died, nor did they go on to infect the rest of the sheep of the meadow.
The grass that Millie ate was perfectly safe.
Near the end of her first day in the forest, Millie heard a rustling sound in a bush. She was a little frightened as thoughts of bears and foxes did run through her mind, but then a large hare bounded out of the thick brush and came to a halt when he saw her. “Hello,” said the hare. “My name is Harold.” He did not curse Millie for being a stupid sheep wandering through the forest, nor did he curse her for her golden fleece, fearing her as an abomination or mutant. Instead, he marveled at her lustrous coat. “My goodness!” he said. “You’re beautiful!”
Millie thanked Harold for the compliment and introduced herself. “I’m going to the farm on the other side of the woods,” she said, not, “I’m fleeing my responsibilities back in the meadow,” or “I hate my family and so I’m running away from them.”
Harold, in turn, said, “That sounds like a wonderful adventure,” not “This seems like an incredibly foolish thing for a young lamb to do, especially one with a coat like yours. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb and predators will have eaten you by the end of the day.” Instead, Harold said, “I’ve never been to the farm. May I join you?”
            “Of course you can,” said Millie, as she did not shun Harold for being of a different species from herself. Nor did she find his large ears and teeth off-putting, nor the way he bounded along on his large back feet. Millie did not find his chatter annoying or the sound of his voice irritating. When they lay down to go to sleep that night, the lamb and the rabbit snuggled up close, neither one distrusting the unfamiliar scent of the other.
On their journey the following day, Millie the golden lamb and Harold the hare came upon a large, placid river. Its banks were not sheer cliff faces leading to a turbulent torrent below, nor were they treacherous pits of quicksand and bubbling mud. Instead, smooth grass transitioned into soft sand the color of a lion’s hide, an image not in Millie or Harold’s mind at all as they began to swim.
Tall fronds of thorny weeds did not wrap around their limbs as they swam through the water, plunging them below surface of the river to strike their heads on hidden rocks. Hungry piranha did not rend the flesh from their bones with sharp teeth, the lamb’s bleats mixing with the hare’s screams as they eventually succumbed to the shock of their wounds. A floating log did not reveal itself to be a crocodile that snatched Harold up in a single gulp leaving Millie to swim furiously for the opposite bank. The golden lamb was not forced to make the rest of the journey alone, her mind now scarred by the images of her newfound friend getting eaten alive, nor did she cry herself to sleep each night hearing the gaps he made just before he died.
Millie and Harold made it to the opposite bank safely and shook themselves off, the sun shining down on them to dry out their coats.
After a few more days of walking, the golden lamb and the hare stepped through a line of trees to find themselves at a tall wooden gate. Harold was small enough to squeeze between two of the wooden slats, and rusty nails did not scratch him as he did so, giving him tetanus. Nor did jagged splinters work their ways into his tender paws as he figured out how to move the wooden peg keeping the gate latched shut. Eventually he managed to work it free, and the gate swung open, granting Millie access.
The pair walked up the dusty narrow lane and found themselves staring at a sign. The sign did not read, “Bazinville’s Institute for the Criminally Deranged” nor did it read “Poskon Slaughterhouse.” Instead, the sign read, “Welcome to Sunnvale Farm.” Neither Harold nor Millie the golden lamb knew how to read, of course, but then Millie heard a sound and knew she had brought them to the right place.
The sound was not a pneumatic rod being driven into the skull of a cow, nor was it rifle bullet ripping through the air. It was the bleat of a happy sheep. “I know that sound!” said Millie, starting to run toward where she thought it had come from. When Millie turned the corner of a large red building, she saw a large meadow like the one she’d left in the woods. “Look,” she said to Harold. “That ram there looks like my father, the great ram Rosiah.” She did not say that she was desperately lonely and wished she’d never come to the farm, nor did Harold say that he found all sheep incredibly ugly and he could not bear to meet another one.
Millie led Harold to the fence where all the sheep were standing and said, “Hello! My name is Millie and I come from the meadow in the woods.” At that point the farmer did not come out of his farmhouse and see the golden-fleeced lamb. He did not take a shotgun and shoot her, not understanding what she was, nor did he grab her and place her within his fence so that she might never return home. The farmer did not kill and eat Harold for his dinner and he did not breed Millie against her will when she grew up in order that he might get more golden-fleeced lambs.
Instead, Millie spoke with the sheep of Sunnyvale Farm for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, the farmer’s children let Millie eat the same forbs they planted for their own sheep. When Millie had eaten her full, she lay down on the ground next to Harold and slept, where she did not have bad dreams.
When Millie returned home to her family, she did not hoard the story of her adventure, selfishly keeping what had happened to herself, nor did she make up lies to increase her stock in the minds of the flock. Her mother and father and the other sheep did not disbelieve her story of the forest and the river and the farm, then call her names and ostracize her out of jealousy. No, Millie the golden lamb went to the farm and no ill befell her. 

You can read Sam's story here.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Birthday Report

Well, it was my birthday yesterday and it was pretty delightful. I wrote an article about a show I'm trying to support on Kickstarter called "Job Hunters," (which is really great and you can help here; I worked on another article that just went up today on Geek Smash; I got a hair cut; I had sushi for lunch, played some Bioshock Infinite during the afternoon, had pizza for dinner (from Pizza Hut!), went with my friend Grizzly to watch "Jurassic Park" in 3D at the movie theater, and all in all, had a great day.

I was lucky to have the day off from work, but now I have to get back into the swing of things. Five days straight until my next day off :/ Bleh. At least I'm reading a good book called "River of Stars," which I'll be reviewing on Geek Smash soon. (It's one of my free ones!)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who Doesn't Love Free Books?

Recently, I've been able to get my hands on free copies of Encounters of Sherlock Holmes and Ex-Heroes, and no, I didn't use the five-finger discount.

As you may or may not (but probably do) know, I've been writing reviews and articles for Geek Smash, which has been awesome. I get my name out there, get articles published, good times. What's even more cool is that people in the industry are starting to pay attention to me.

It began with my review on Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. Someone recommended it to me so I picked up a copy and enjoyed what I read. I published a review and then got an email from a PR firm that worked on RPO when it came out. They had another book coming out, Ex-Heroes, and they wanted to know if I'd be willing to write a review on it if they gave me a copy. My thoughts were as follows: "Free book? YAY!" So I wrote my review.

Around the same time my boss at Geek Smash gave me a press copy of Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of new Sherlock Holmes stories. One that I liked in particular was called "Woman's Work," and was a re-imagining of the Watsonian narrative through the eyes of Mrs. Hudson, the famous duo's housekeeper. The guy who wrote that story, David Barnett (@davidmbarnett) tweeted about my review, and I got to talking/tweeting with him about how I liked the story.

It seems he has a new book coming out this year, so he gave me the contact info for his publisher to get a copy of it. Also, after my Ex-Heroes review, the PR company wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing another review for them later in the year.

So these people are willing to give me free books for writing, something I love to do already. My life is awesome. (Now if only I could figure out how to get paid to do all this...)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Language of the Dying Earth

Lately I've been on a Jack Vance kick, specifically his Dying Earth stories. They are delightful. Like Walter Moer's Zamonia stories, Vance's Dying Earth stories are picaresque--following the rather meandering adventures of roguish characters with great attention paid to seemingly irrelevant details.

But really "irrelevant" is only applicable if one subscribes to the notion that everything within a story must serve the plot or characterization. And I do not. Nor does Jack Vance, as Mr. Vance is more than willing to spend long sections of his story carefully describing in close detail minutiae of his world, from the history of the singing fish swimming in the pond passed by the protagonist, or the specific series and color taken on by a stream of wine as it pours from the mouth of an enchanted wine ewer.

Plus the words he uses...I love reading Vance on my Kindle because I can move its cursor to hover over a word and give me the definition. I consider myself to have a rather wide vocabulary, so I probably only use it once or twice in a given novel. With Vance's work, I use it at least once a page, sometimes more. Vance uses old, archaic words, many of which can be deciphered from context, but by no means all of them. But that's one of the reasons I like reading his work. I know know that "brummagem" is a dismissive word akin to "gewgaw," and "badinage" means "idle chatter." They're not words I'd use in everyday conversation, sure, but I like to spice up my own writing now and then with some fun words, and Vance is a great place to get them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What Will be on Geek Smash Soon

Just finished reading a good book recently called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I don't want to give too much away since I'm planning on doing an official review of it on Geek Smash pretty soon (though you could check out some of my other stuff there if you wanted to...) All in all, I enjoyed it. Lots of 80's references from every medium, plus some awesome virtual reality video game stuff. A good read.

Currently I'm reading Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, (though I'm almost done) a collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories edited by George Mann. I'm also going to be reviewing it on Geek Smash soon, as well as interviewing Mr. Mann, which is cool. (I've never interviewed anybody before. It's like I'm an official member of the Press and everything.)

I might also have some exciting news, but I'll have to wait for a few days to see if it pans out. If it does, I'll be sure to post again.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Teleportation = Death?

After reading some science fiction, I've found myself pondering the ethical ramifications of teleportation, specifically teleportation by use of a "Twinmaker machine." A Twinmaker is a device that scans the person standing within it, sends a signal to a second machine--which creates a copy of the first--and then the original is destroyed. In this case, none of the atoms that make "you" up are present in the second booth, and yet from the perspective of the "you" in the second booth, you're still you. Both copies would be atomically identical, more alike than any twin or clone. It would be, essentially, you.

Or would it? Obviously there are a number of reasons why such a device could not/cannot be created as far as the laws of the universe are concerned (as we currently understand them). First, the ability to measure the position and velocity of every atom within your body (in order to create a duplicate) would violate the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Secondly, even if we could measure every single atom that makes up a person, the amount of energy necessary to rebuild them on the other end would be crazy high. I'm not hip to the physics, but I think it'd be something on the magnitude of a medium-sized star per person (but don't quote me on that). An enormous amount of energy in any case.

Thirdly, to make sure that the person on the other end would be "you," or at least, have all your thoughts, feelings, and memories, you'd have to figure out a way to A) retrieve that information from the person's brain, B) store that information, C) send that information to the second booth, and C) download that information into the new brain, all of which have a host of problems.

But let's ignore all that. One of the advantages of science fiction is that you don't have to solve those technical issues. You can just say that they have been solved. So imagine that I can step into a booth and press a button. I close my eyes, and when I open them, I step out of the booth somewhere else, like Mars. Everything that makes me "me," the way I react to things, my memories, etc. remain the same. While it's true that the atoms I'd be made of at that point aren't the same ones that made me up a minute ago, it's also true that I no longer possess any of the same atoms I did when I was born.

The way I interpret the Ship of Theseus is that consciousness is selfhood, not the body. If I lose a limb, I am not less myself. If I replace that limb with a prosthetic, I'm not "partly" Colin. I am all-Colin. My body is not what makes me me. However, what happens if I'm not the only Colin around?

Let's go back to the Twinmaker for a moment. Essentially, the Twinmaker teleporter moves people like a combination fax-and-shredder. The piece of paper you fax to someone doesn't really travel to them. The original is still in your machine. They have a copy. The same information, but not the original. Now imagine that all fax machines had shredders built into them. The fax goes through, it prints out on the other end, your version gets destroyed. The information is the important part, right? That's basically how a Twinmaker works. 

But if it worked like a regular fax, if I step in the booth on Earth, close my eyes, open them and find myself still on Earth, what happens when I find out there's a me on Mars? I'm the "original," sure, but we've said before that the original doesn't really matter. I know my gut reaction to this issue is to say that the "real" me is the on on Earth, but why? If the process had worked I'd say the real me was the one on Mars. That me has all the same thoughts and feelings as the Earth me does, after all.

And even if the Twinmaker always works perfectly, copying the original before destroying it, what happens if you believe in a soul? When the original is destroyed, do they die? If they do, does their soul go on to the afterlife while a soulless automaton is created? Or does the "new" person get a new soul? Or does the soul transfer over?

I realize teleporation is a pipe dream now, and even if it ever comes to be, it might not work this way, but if it does, I advise you to think carefully before stepping into the booth on your way to the stars.

As for me? I'll see you on Olympus Mons.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

I don't think it'd surprise anyone if I said I love the Harry Potter books. I started reading them when I was eleven and lived in Switzerland (so you can imagine my disappointment when I didn't receive my owl-delivered letter to Hogwarts. [England was right there!]) 

They were great. Plus, I've heard (so I'm not sure how true this is, though it makes sense to me) that one of Rowling's goals in creating the series was to start talking to a generation of kids, and then keep talking to them for the next several years. Obviously she didn't come out with a book every year (seven books over a decade), but that's pretty close. If you were eleven when the first books came out, you were around seventeen-ish when the last one did. Events that went on in Harry's life were roughly analogous to things going on in your own.

But the series ended. The supplementary books (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages, and The Tales of Beadle the Bard) were all pretty short. Even with all the stuff on Rowling's website, Pottermore, and the world of the movies, once all that stuff came out, Harry Potter was over. We weren't going to ride the train to Hogwarts any more. Rowling is moving on as an author, and she has the right to do so. Still, haven't you always wanted to go back there, to Magical Britain? I know I have. That's why a book that I read this past weekend grabbed my attention so strongly. It's a piece of fanfiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

I loved this book. Not since the original HP series has a book grabbed my attention so firmly and refused to let go. I actually spent all of Friday night reading it (nine solid hours). It is in turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, filled with moments that make you want to stand up and cheer as well as ponder the new scientific concept this version of Harry has brought up.

Written by a researcher of Artificial Intelligence (a very smart fellow), HP&TMOR asks the question, "How would Harry's life have been different if his Aunt Petunia had A) married someone who loved Harry, and B) raised him to think as a scientist?" In this book, the author (Eliezer Yudkowsky) creates a world where Harry doesn't just accept the way wizardry works. He actively seeks to understand it through experimentation and gathering results. Why can't you Transfigure part of an object and not the whole? Do ghosts prove the existence of a soul? Why didn't Voldemort make a Horcrux out of an extrasolar space probe? And so forth.

The book is a wonderful read, and I enjoyed it as much as a young Colin did in his bedroom in Switzerland, staying up all night just to read one...more...chapter...

Here's the link to the page to read it online (or you could download the MOBI file to read it on your Kindle as I did: