The Saturday Morning Post #12

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 12. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. This time around, the narrator was a co-worker of Tycho Ford, who was abruptly promoted to an executive-level position in the wake of the great quake that struck L.A. Well, Riverside, but it was big enough to do damage. But let him explain why Tycho’s promotion screwed things up.

FIFTH WHEEL

Okay, I know that the universe is totally random and shit, but I couldn’t help but take the timing of this earthquake very personally, because it had totally blown my long thought-out plans out of the water and, on top of that, had cock-blocked me big time.

The afternoon it happened, in fact, was a mere couple of hours before I was going to ask the Big Question, and I was pretty sure that the answer was going to be, “Sure.” The question was, “You want to go out, and then maybe stay in?” And the target of that question was a hot and sexy coworker in my department who I got along with really well. But there was a complication to the question, because the coworker had met my girlfriend many times, and the coworker was also a dude.

He was a little younger than me, but very gay, very out, and so painfully beautiful that it was sometimes hard to look at his face. It was like staring into the Sun. He was also incredibly intelligent and funny as hell and, to be honest, he always smelled really nice. I’m not sure what shampoo or cologne he used, but he was like a walk past the toiletries department at one of our ever rarer department stores, but far enough away that it wasn’t like being punched in the throat by an atomizer.

He also knew that I was bisexual and, over the last few months, he had become my chosen sob sister as I bitched and whined about every single way my girlfriend, Mercedes, wasn’t keeping me happy. And yes, I appreciate the irony that her first name and his last name are both cars. His name is Tycho Ford. Sadly, my last name isn’t Dodge or something like that. It’s Baxter. Trivia: Baxter is the female form of the occupation baker. Yeah, English used to gender things that hard.

Speaking of that hard… that had been my perpetual state, at least mentally if not physically, whenever I’d been in Tycho’s presence, or even thought about him, for the two years he’s been here. Seriously. My number one masturbation fantasy since about July 2027 has been bending him over a sofa and slamming his ass while using his shoulders for leverage while licking the back of his neck and whatever else I can get my mouth to while I still have my dick up his ass.

And then the earth shook and it all went to shit. I lost my opportunity to ask and our schedule went into major “Gov owns yo asses now” mode, and he and I wound up assigned to different posts in the disaster area. And then, the next time I saw him was after he’d suddenly been promoted and I’d gotten a text from our regional manager, Gloria, that I was now his assistant, and that he’d picked me.

And… fuck!

See, I knew how the rules worked, and that totally changed everything. At least on the official level, although we all also knew what was going on unofficially: already established couples who hadn’t formerly been superior and report got through fine. Those of us who hadn’t established already? Well, shit. Tycho would get fired for asking, and I’d get severely disciplined for coming on to him.

Speaking of which, I don’t want to say a lot about it, but I had an unfortunate run-in with some little gay fuck in the tailoring department who says that he’s Tycho’s SO, and claims that I jizzed on a flawed suit that I returned. As if. It was goddamn mayo from a Subway sandwich, and if he tries to say otherwise, I’m going to sue his ass for slander or libel or both. And definitely defamation of character.

Bitch is just jealous, because he can see how much I love Tycho.

But, again, the rules stop me from finally revealing it, so I’m not sure what to do. In lieu of anything else, I take advantage of our unlimited TAP cards to figure out where Tycho is staying. I stay a discrete distance from him on the platform before we hop the B Line, then get into the car behind his, and discretely watch through the windows, figuring rightly that no one really pays much attention to anyone in the other cars because they’re too worried about some crazy suddenly going off in their car.

And then I start to see him and this little queer tailor boy traveling together — both ways. What? I found a park near their hotel where I can sleep and no one will question because, hey, post quake, right? A lot of people are camping out at the moment. And so it goes until the Friday ten days after the quake and I follow them home.

Only this time, instead of going all the way to the NoHo Station, they hop off at Hollywood and Vine, and I follow, and they head up Vine almost to Sunset to a club on the ground floor of a forty story Omni Hotel. The club is called NCLU, and it has the typical jet black walls around and into the entry, overly muscled Bouncers/Security, velvet ropes and long lines. Except that Tycho and his little slut walk to the head of the line and they are let in immediately. Meanwhile, I have to stand in the very long line, and it’s about ninety minutes before they finally let me in — after charging me a $40 cover and telling me that there’s two drink minimum.

Motherfuckers. I mean, I could cheap out and just wait across the street, but that would probably be the best way to get spotted, so I pony up, dictating a note into my AI. “Cut grocery budget this week, try to stretch one into two.”

Inside, the club is a well-planned mind-fuck. The walls, floor, and ceiling are jet black, and the only light comes from purple OLED tubes where the walls and ceiling meet. I go down a short hall, around a corner, and then up some stairs — which are marked in red OLEDs. The walls here also have glowing figures on them — characters from Alice in Wonderland, dicks and tits and asses and twats, and, toward the top, large green illuminated arrows with the words “EAT ME” and “DOWN THE HOLE” in them.

It’s another u-turn and then into a gigantic warehouse space at the top of a metal staircase, and the place is insane. Here there are colored OLEDs sweeping everywhere and constantly changing, artificial vape clouding the air,  and some definitely old school shit, like spinning black balls stuffed with different colored… um… portholes? And, OMG, there are even Disco Balls up there — things I remember my mother telling me existed when she was my age, but which were considered “ironically” (another thing people my mother’s age did back then), but which also, apparently, had been big with people slightly older than her and, ultimate irony, were originally popular as dance hall accessories a century ago, in the years of the Great Depression.

As I walk in here and remember my grandmother telling me that latter fact, all I can think is, “Ooh… shiny. So what shit are they distracting us from now?” And then my brain screams at me, “Forty bucks to get in and they want you to spend another thirty on drinks, dipshit.”

“Um… did they specify what kind of drinks?” I wonder.

“No,” that voice sighs, and so I go down the metal stairs into Wonderland, go to the first bar and ask, “How much is a Coke?”

“Eight bucks,” he says.

“And… water?”

“Eight bucks.”

“And… how much do they pay you an hour?”

“It’s $22.50,” he replies.

“Shit. Same non-living wage here, dude. How much do they pay per Coke?”

He just smiles at me in some sort of extreme gratitude and says, “These bottles? They pay 89 cents each.”

“Holy fucking shitballs. Okay, so… they make a fortune, you make shit?”

“Yeah. Sucks. Doesn’t it?” he says. “Who do you work for?”

“City government,” I reply, flashing my ID on instinct, and he looks like he’s going to shit his pants.

“Oh, dude, sorry. Wrong price. For a Coke, or whatever soda, you pay two bucks.”

“Um… why does my employer matter?” I ask.

“City runs this place, ma dude.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Okay,” I tell him. “So… bang me a Coke.” I show my city debit card, then stick it in the reader.

He charges me two dollars, so I tip him six.

“Hey. Thanks, man! Oh, hey — you didn’t know. I hope they didn’t charge you full cover.”

“They did.”

“Shit. You want me to talk to the manager — “

“No, it’s fine. Call it a donation.”

By this point, I was over it, and I was going to full on justify this as a business expense for the government. And why not? First, I had to make sure that my boss wasn’t abusing government funds or time (hint: he was not.) Second, I had to check up on our contractors, right? And if I cleared them, no harm, no foul. Right?

Okay, sure. Our particular department, the UECLA, didn’t really deal with places like this — unless you could call them houses of worship, and I’d argue that some of the guys here would — but it was all about CYA.

I grabbed my two dollar Coke and headed back up to the dance floor, taking up a position on the catwalk above it, scanning the crowd for that one familiar face. It wasn’t easy because of the constantly changing lights and moving crowds, but I eventually spotted Tycho and his little whore. They were both shirtless, jeans riding tantalizingly low, and they were grinding each other.

Mental snapshot for the fap bank, then I raced on down, figuring that, by this point, it wouldn’t be weird if I happened to bump into them. On the way down, I peeled off my T-shirt and stuffed it down the side of my jeans to match their style, and then danced my way through the crowd to where they were, taking enough time so that I’d be sweaty enough to look like I’d been dancing all night, too.

When I finally get within hailing distance of them, I realize that the two of them are dancing with a couple of really hot Hispanic guys, who are equally shirtless and sweaty, and judging by the body language, it looks like they’re all well on their way to having a foursome.

Well, fuck.

And then Tycho’s little tailor boy spots me. We lock eyes and I’m not sure what to do, but then the little bastard smiles and waves me over. Tycho notices and so do the other two guys, so I’m trapped, and I walk over to join them.

“Jimmy!” Tycho’s fuck toy gushes weirdly, throwing an arm around my shoulders. “Fancy meeting you here. How are you doing?”

“Okay,” I mutter.

“In case you forgot, or I never told you, I’m Finley, by the way.” He extends his hand and I’m not sure how to take it, so I just give it a brief shake, constantly wondering, “Why the hell is he being so nice to me?”

This is the guy who accused me of jerking off on his “boyfriend’s” suit. Okay. Okay, So it wasn’t mayo from a Subway sandwich. I lied. It was my jizz. But how the hell did he know that on sight?

“I had no idea you’d show up at a place like this,” Tycho said. “Where’s Mercedes?”

“Um… we… broke up,” I lied. “She really wasn’t into all the quake overtime and having to be separate and all that.”

“Oh, right. Where did they put you up?”

“The Lexen,” I lied again. I was actually at a Holiday Inn in Hollywood, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Wow, us too, but I haven’t seen you there. You’ll have to pop up to our room some time.”

“Yeah, I should,” I said.

“Who’s your hot friend?” one of the other guys asked, and Tycho did the quick intro.

“Oh. This is Jimmy, my assistant. Jimmy, we just met these guys. Um… shit. Refresh me?”

“Adam and Tony,” the other one said.

“Right,” Tycho added. “Adam and Tony.”

“Este tipo debe llenar un sándwich con pan moreno y carne blanca,” the taller one said to the other.

“Y monta nuestras vergas toda la noche,” the other one adds.

“Tipos… hablo español,” I reply and they look at me in total shock.

“¡Mierda!” the tall one mutters.

“Pero… todavía deseas que te follemos?” the other one asks.

“Fuerte y duro, papís,” I reply. Sure, I’m usually a top, but I’m willing to make an exception sometimes, and these guys are exceptional.

“You little slut,” Tycho mutters. He smiles but then he sort of freaks. “Sorry. Sorry, no, I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. It was encouragement, okay?”

 “I’m just impressed that you understood all that.”

“What? Dude, it’s almost 2030 in L.A. Who do you know under forty who doesn’t speak Spanish?”

“Yeah, true, I guess.”

“And… we’re okay with that comment?” he asks.

“Why would I not be?” I reply. “I am a slut…”

Image: © 2018 by the author, Vine Street looking north from Hollywood Boulevard.

Friday Free-for-All #9

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If all humans want the same basic things, why is there so much violence and strife between people?

And away we go, then… this is one of the more interesting questions that’s come up so far, and probably also one of the most meaningful and important.

Well, the short answer is in my favorite film right here:

And yes, that bone-toss and cut to: satellite shot is quite intentional, because Kubrick and Clarke were geniuses, but especially Kubrick, because in one single cut he explained everything that I’m about to do with a bunch of words.

As you can see in the clip (and you really need to watch it), the proto-humans involved all want the same basic things — food, water, shelter, etc. Two groups of them have come upon one pond. Now, realistically, there’s more than enough water in there for all of them. Kubrick even emphasizes this point earlier in the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence of the film, when we see various beasts (all of them potential prey for humans and big cats alike) sharing the same body of water to drink from.

What changes the dynamic is when one of those proto-humans (known as Moonwatcher in the book, nameless in the movie) suddenly gets an idea while toying with the femur of a long-since dead and predated tapir type creature.

It becomes at first a tool, and then a weapon — first to kill for food by taking down another tapir-beast (no different than what we’ve seen a proto-leopard do already), next to kill for resources and territory by taking down another member of his own species — something that had not occurred previously in the film.

But here’s the nice hidden ditty in this one. Moonwatcher gets the idea to use this bone in the first place from a mysterious black monolith that just appears one day. On the one hand, and canonically, it was a benign artifact placed long before by an alien race passing through, basically meant to give a little nudge to the local populace at such point that they were able to receive it.

Note that in this world, none of the other beasties on view showed any interest, but Moonwatcher and his tribe did — and, as it turned out, it was really, really unfortunate that the monolith showed itself at first to very tribal animals.

Intent of the alien race: Probably to teach whatever sentient species encountered by their drones (Clarks’s name for them: sentinels) how to make and use tools. Context: At the time that Clarke and Kubrick created 2001, the prevailing idea was that only humans used tools. Yeah… wrong. And even more wrong when the attempted definition was “only humans use tools to make tools.” Sigh.

But… the salient point is that the sentinels accidentally shared advanced knowledge with a species that was not ready for it because it wasn’t ready to share. Ironically, if they had hit up the tapirs or zebras first, the planet might be more successful now. Instead, nope. They enlightened assholes, and in a bad way.

Why? Well, reason number one: Moonwatcher and his bunch — probably immediate extended family — were not willing to share shit that they didn’t even own — i.e., water — with that other tribe over there that, honestly, were probably already his second or third cousins, but nobody was keeping records, and great grandma ran off with that dude, and… whatever…

Not that other animals are immune to this. Mammals are particularly bad at sharing, and birds can be territorial assholes. I can vouch for that one from personal experience with geese and swans. At least in the case of the former, the asshole geese in chief — who actually bit me — wound up as Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days later, so I was vindicated.

What? I was visiting my grandparents on their farm. They grew the goose for food. It’s not like they shot an elephant. And, anyway, see above. That goose was a major asshole.

But, particularly among humans there’s an Us and Them thing going on for no good reason at all, perpetuated only because we are the one species that labels things because we have language and names and insults and so on. One ram facing off another only knows, “Hey, this mine, yours not. Go away!” With humans, though, it gets more complicated. “Here is Mydonia. You are from Theristan. None of you can come here.”

And then let’s complicate it more once humans go into full-on hallucination mode and start making up invisible friends and then declaring that their side gets special favor from some supernatural or imagined entity as long as they do stupid things that make that entity happy, and bingo. There is the formula for creating endless violence and strife.

One imagined entity is a border, and the other is a god.

This creates the two flavors of separation, but they frequently combine into one swirly cone of stupid: Religion and Nationalism.

The thing that causes strife in humanity is the absolute illusion that we are a bunch of separate tribes, each of us battling over resources, and divided by utterly arbitrary and artificial things like religion, nationality, borders, and languages.

But if you look at the Earth from above, you’ll see that the only natural divisions are, well, just that… natural. Oceans, mountain ranges, and deserts are probably the big three things that naturally separate one group of people from another. But… if you go back far enough, the geographic divisions don’t matter, because genetically, there are no divisions.

All of humanity has a common ancestor, and one which pre-dates our humanity and makes us cousins of chimpanzees. Or, in other words, all of us are related, period. We are all one tribe.

Let me repeat that part: We are all one tribe. What we call “races” are just different expressions of genes which were created by accidents of location — i.e., colder climate with less Sun would favor people with paler skin, while hotter climates with a lot of Sun would favor people with darker skin, etc.

And one other thing: It is a big, big planet, so there’s plenty of room for people on it if we divide it up. Eliminating borders and just letting people have their own plot of land to live on, we’d each get half an acre, maybe… although it’s not clear whether that calculation of people over arable land allows room for all of the public stuff, like roads, streets, libraries, fire stations, etc.

Although if we cut that down to half an acre, it’s still a space that’s 104 feet on a side, and that is already a lot bigger than most of the apartments that people, couples, thruples, and beyond already jam themselves into. Hell, cut it down to 52 by 52, you’re still bigger than the typical urban apartment by a longshot — 52 by 52 is a house.

So… if we decided to share the entire planet equitably, everyone would get more than enough. Also keep in mind that a lot of these lots would go to families, and would be based on number of household members, but that the addition of a family member does not necessitate the addition of space equal to the original. I.E., a couple with that 52 x 52 house doesn’t need to add that amount to their square footage to accommodate a child living at home. Rather, their add-on might be more likely in the vicinity of a 10 x 12 or 12 x 12.

So, we have plenty of room, we’re all related, there are no borders, All of that should be obvious and self-evident, and yet we still fight each other, but this comes back to the other brilliant message Kubrick hid in his movie, because his opening sequence was nothing more than the secular version of original sin — the thing that divides us today.

And in the beginning, was not-human, but not-human listened to a not-god, got the message wrong, and committed the first murder, then never stopped doing it.

Yes, there are shades of Cain and Abel in the first act of 2001 as well. Or is that story our collective cultural memory of that first murder by that first proto-human, backed up by the mistaken belief that some higher power had commanded it?

Or, in other words, the biggest creator of violence and strife between humans in the present day — and the thing that must be wiped out — is organized religion. Period.

It’s everything Kubrick warned us about in the first thirty minutes of that film. Start with a group of creatures who think that they are different from another group of the same species, and then they discover a precious resource. Meanwhile, one of them hallucinates or has a major insight and attributes it to a deity, rally ‘round the flag, and Bam! Cain kills Abel; the first murder happens; this occurs across cultures, and the justification becomes, “I was doing it for my god.”

Down through the years, the worst terrorist acts have been perpetrated in the name of religion — any religion. And there’s the crux of the biscuit. If we want to take the next step, get off of this planet, and evolve beyond being just a bunch of silly monkeys, then we need to start.

So my short answer to the question “Why is there so much violence and strife between people?” is: religion and nationalism. Get rid of those, solve a lot of problems.

Friday Free-for-All #8

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Is true artificial intelligence possible with our current technology and methods of programming?

It’s funny that this question should come up, because I’ve long thought no, this isn’t possible with our current technology for various reasons, and just recently I ran across an article about a program called TextFooler, which in effect uses A.I. to mess with A.I.

The project came about as a way to find vulnerabilities inherent in A.I., specifically how algorithms designed to spot auto-generated media stories could be tricked into accepting them as legit, and it basically involves swapping in some synonyms that will not change the meaning to a human reader but which will fool the A.I. into thinking that the text has a different tone than it really does.

A test example given in the article cited above is this: TextFooler will take the source, “The characters, cast in impossibly contrived situations, are totally estranged from reality,” and change it to read “The characters, cast in impossibly engineered circumstances, are fully estranged from reality.”

The net effect in this case is that the target A.I. classified the quote completely incorrectly, seeing it as positive instead of negative. A human could see in an instant that both versions are negative reviews, but the A.I. focuses on the italicized words, which are the changed ones, and weights the latter versions as positive, even though the overall meaning is still negative.

In most cases, TextFooler was able to reduce the accuracy of the A.I. tested to less than 10% while changing fewer than 20% of the words in the source text. In the above example, the change is 25%, but it’s quite likely that changing totally to fully doesn’t have as much of an effect, in which case changing only 17% of the words would do it.

From personal experience, I know that it’s really easy to mess with A.I., and one of its weaknesses is that it can’t deal with ambiguity, which includes humor and especially puns. If we ever get into a serious cyberwar with A.I. backed forces, our best defenders would be squads of Dads, armed with their best worst jokes.

It’s the inability to deal with ambiguity that will keep us from developing true A.I. for a long time, and it’s not something that machine learning can overcome. Human brains just process information differently.

I’ve seen this countless times as new people come onto my improv team. We traditionally end most of our shows with a “jump-out” game, which involves the players making lots and lots of puns based on audience suggestions. Punning is a difficult skill. Some people are naturals at it — I learned very quickly that I was — but others aren’t.

Here’s the difference between a human and A.I,, though. Teach a human the parameters of a pun game, let them try it a few times or watch other people do it, explain how to structure a pun, and suddenly they start to get good at it as well; in some cases, rather quickly.

One of the classic games is called 185, and the basic form of the joke (as we play it now as opposed to the version in the link) is this: “185 (suggestions) walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the (suggestions) say (punchline).”

For example, “”185 horses walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the horses say, ‘Guess we should hoof it out of here, then…’”

Simple for a human to come up with and understand, but for A.I., not so much. The program would have to understand the double meaning of “hoof” — one a common noun related to a horse, the other a slangy and somewhat dated verb — but then would also have to decide, “Is this funny?”

Funny is often based on the unexpected, and here’s another good example from my improv company. When we have a birthday in the audience, we’ll bring the person onstage, make a big deal about it, then prepare to sing for them. The players do some throat-clearing and vocal warm-up, someone sings a tune-up note, and then they launch into it, to the tune of Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay.

Here’s where the joke comes in the unexpected, though. After all of that build up, there are exactly two bars: “This is your birthday song, it isn’t very long — ” And then it abruptly ends and everyone just walks away, now focused on a new subject, making small talk with their fellow players, whatever. It always gets a huge laugh from the audience and, truth to tell, although I’ve seen it a bunch of times and have done it a few myself, it cracks me up every single time.

A.I. ain’t gonna get that, not now, and not soon, Turing test notwithstanding, because it really may not be the best way to detect fakes. That distinction may actually go to the word poop.

But getting back to the Achilles heel of A.I. — computers are only as good as their programming, and there’s an old term you may or may not know: GIGO, which stands for garbage in, garbage out,

The short version is that the output you get is only as good as the input you gave, and if the input was in an unexpected form, you won’t get anything usefull back. For example, if the computer expected a number and you entered “snot,” you’re probably going to get back an error message.

If you’ve ever seen those annoying #NA or #VALUE or #NAME? errors pop up when you’re trying to enter a formula in Excel, you’ve committed a GIGO error.

Now remember that input can also come from internal sources, so if you have a database of words or phrases for an A.I. to look up and find responses to, it can quickly turn into garbage out by tossing some nonsense at it.

For example, if the A.I. says, “Good morning, what’s your name?” and you reply, “My name is Digital Badger Wankstick Flipflap III,” a human would probably reply with, “What? You’re kidding, right?” A.I., though, would see the designated response tags “my name is” (or “I am” or “It’s” or just take any unprefixed response as the name), and reply, “Hello, Digital Badger Wankstick Flipflap III. How are you today?” Particularly smart A.I. might just reply with “Hello, Digital,” but still… the fact that it doesn’t immediately ask, “Is that really your name?” is a dead giveaway that you’re probably not dealing with a human.

In theory, this could be programmed in, but think of how much data it would need. The programmers would basically have to create two tables — one containing actual, normal names across a number of cultures, and the other containing things that are most likely not normal names, then the A.I. would have to search both and respond accordingly.

In computer terms, it wouldn’t add much lag time to the response — maybe milliseconds — but when it came to the size of the program and the lines of code needed, it could bump things up considerably. Not to mention that the data would have to account for all kinds of possible variant spellings.

Hell, as a human, I’ve learned to always ask someone to spell their first name unless it’s totally unambiguous, which is rare. At least in the U.S., my first name is itself the less common variant of John (I’ve also seen it spelled Jhon), and you can have variations like Ralph/Ralf, Marc/Mark/Marq, Karen/Caren/Karin, Jack/Jaq, Alan/Allan/Allen, Jeff/Geoff, Charles/Charlie/Charley, and on and on and on. And yes, I’ve known people with every single one of those variants.

One of the more disappointing attempts at A.I. with a good purpose is Replika, which tried to be a counsellor and source of help, but which failed badly. The idea was that it would get to know you quickly through a series of conversations, but despite having spent a lot of time (as it turns out, over a year ago) chatting with it and answering its annoying questions, it never learned anything, and I never saw its personality change.

Of course, the grandmother of all A.I. is Eliza, who was pretty much the first attempt at this sort of thing. The original Eliza was created back in the early 1960s, believe it or not, although it was not so much an attempt at true A.I. as it was a stab at getting computers to communicate in natural language.

But if you click the first link in the preceding paragraph, it won’t take very long for you to figure out that you’re talking to a program. In fact, IIRC, in my early days of learning to program, studying the code for Eliza was one of my assignments, and it really was an amazing job of using very few clues from the input (with a lot of wiggle room for “noise” thrown in) to select from a fairly limited number of slightly customizable responses.

Also keep in mind that, at the time Eliza was originally written in a long lost language called MAD-Slip (which was decades before I encountered the code in BASIC [which lives on in Microsoft products as VBASIC, yay!], as a training exercise) that the possible size of programs was very, very limited.

In fact, after a little searching, I found out that the version of the program in BASIC was limited to… 256 lines — which is a very, very important number in binary. In fact, it’s as high as you can get in 8 bits, because 256 is 2^8 (or 16^2).

But that’s all the long way around of me saying that, no, we won’t develop true A.I. until we build computers (probably quantum) that can deal with enormous amounts of data, ambiguity and multiple choice, actually learn and reprogram themselves constantly, develop a sense of humor, and play with language like humans can. Meaning… no time soon, and not until we manage to create artificial and literal neural networks that would involve interfacing computers directly with… well, lab-grown brains would be cheating, because that wouldn’t be artificial.

We’d have to figure out how to create a completely synthetic and functional analogue to a human brain. Well, to be honest, we’d have to start simple, and to some extent things like John Conway’s famous Game of Life did manage to cause artificial objects to follow certain rules and either reproduce and thrive or die out, and he did it with a few simple rules, but that was basically creating single-celled organisms, which are not intelligent, only reactive.

But if we want “real” A.I., we’re going to have to fake it by creating biological computers. Or growing brains in labs and wiring them up, but that would probably be all kinds of unethical.

Whether you think so is up to you, but please discuss it in the comments, and thanks for reading!

The Saturday Morning Post #6

Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of a not-yet-titled book made up of thirteen short stories and one novella, each story told by a different narrator and the novella stepping outside to bring all of the stories together. It’s very much a story of Los Angeles, and takes place in some of my favorite parts of the city. You can read from the beginning starting here, or catch up with the previous chapter here.

LOSING GOD

The last week and a half since the Riverside quake has been exhausting, but gratifying. That’s always the way with disaster relief, and especially when we have to wait for the dilly-dallying of the bigger NGOs — not naming any names. I could have mobilized the UECLA — United Ecumenical Council of Los Angeles County — by the day after the quake, and it would have taken one text an hour after to mobilize my own group, the United Atheists of America, or UAA.

And before you try to point out any contradiction between those two groups working together, I’ll just say that I’ve spent the last decade reminding the religious groups that “ecumenical” is a big tent, and yes it includes atheists and agnostics (and Satanists), even though neither we atheists nor the other two groups will ever consider our positions to be religious beliefs.

I’ve had this job since right out of college. Well, actually, I’ve been in this department since then, but worked my way up fast. I majored in both religious studies and public policy, and the two meshed really well. I’ve been Director of Communications for the UECLA for four years now, and Director of the UAA for seven.

Oh. My name is Rebekah Clement, and you’ve probably seen it on various press releases over the last few years if you live in L.A., as well as having seen it be ripped and defamed for just as long a time if you happen to follow any particular fundie or orthodox religion or subscribe to their newsletters.

Funny thing, though. At least where I work, I have watched the number of regular churchgoers plummet. It was about 30% when I started, and now it’s hovering at 22%. It was certainly interesting, after I’d given the first invite, to see how many people either just wandered off, or followed the couple of totally secular groups I pointed out.

And that kind of thing was a major anchor that kept me from freaking out, because I’d been stuck downtown since the quake doing duty for the county, and then wound up in Koreatown on Friday, embedded with the Red Cross. I’d tried to contact Matt after the quake on Tuesday, but got no answers. I didn’t even get voicemail when I called our landline.

Yes, we still had one, but it was more a requirement from both of our employers than anything else, since governments tend to lag about thirty years behind reality. I mean, honestly, my office still had fax machines. Really?

I was trying to stay calm, but I remembered my parents’ stories of Northridge, which happened two years before I was born. They had lived in Sherman Oaks at the time, and their neighborhood was devastated because it happened to follow the old path of the Los Angeles River. Even though the river bed had been concrete since the 1930s, there was still enough alluvial flood-plain for the whole thing to liquefact in the shaking, and that’s exactly what happened to their two-story house, which basically became a one-story house as the first floor sank eight feet and the upper half of the front façade fell off. Luckily, they weren’t injured and were able to walk across the fallen wall onto dry land, but the place was never going to be rebuilt.

Fortunately, though, my dad had actually bought the earthquake insurance and the supplemental insurance that covered the deductible, so that the payout enabled them to buy a new and pretty similar house a bit more northeast — and for cheap, because it was “freak out and move” period for a lot of transplants, aka “highly motivated sellers.” That’s the house I grew up in. Oh yeah… even though their old house had been wrecked, they still owned the land, so they also sold that off when I was in high school, which paid my college tuition. I think that it eventually became the site of a commercial development.

But… this job had been getting really annoying because I had to pretend to be objective because… “I work for the county,” per my job description. On the other hand, it was getting harder and harder to deal with these bigoted religious assholes who hated anyone outside of their system while smiling and claiming to be inclusive as I had to host ecumenical breakfasts post disaster. Of course, that didn’t mean that I couldn’t point people away from these dicks, and I certainly did — especially when I wound up in the Koreatown Camp.

The Sunday after the Riverside quake, I couldn’t have been happier than to realize that less than a third of the people under the breakfast tent decided to follow some kind of religious leader. In reality, way more than a third of them went off to do theater and improv, another third and change wandered off to just go do… whatever, and the rest of them seemed to follow the several milder mainstream religions — a lot of Catholics, a lot of Anglicans, a lot of MCCs. The only people who seemed to follow the few fundies were the resident Koreans, but that wasn’t surprising. They had been exploited by those monsters since the time of the Korean War, and the colonial hooks were deep in them. I was just surprised that most of the members hadn’t died off by now.

Then again, since this place had been Koreatown in name only since about fifteen years ago, there weren’t a huge number of Koreans to follow.

At least I wasn’t leading the atheist meeting. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but it gave me a much-needed break to try to get in touch with Matt again. This time, I tried calling and texting, since the Red Cross brought WiFi and chargers with them, but I still got nothing. Voicemail picked up on neither. But he had to be all right. He worked in Van Nuys, farther from the epicenter than I’d been when it hit, and we lived on the West Side, in the house on Euclid in Santa Monica that he’d inherited when his grandmother died.

We had also lucked out when they opened up the Q Line, because he could now take the train from Santa Monica to Van Nuys. I’d been taking the E Line since I’d started the job. Hell, it had been so long, I remembered when it was still the Expo Line.

I started googling damage reports and so on, and found nothing major in either of those places. Santa Monica had not been swept away by a tsunami, and Van Nuys hadn’t been sucked underground. In fact, most parts of the Valley seemed to be fairly well-off, which seismologists explained by the various mountain ranges surrounding it creating so-called “earthquake shadows.” I’d had no idea that those were even a thing, but I guess it makes sense. And it was certainly nice payback to the Valley, which had been host to two of our previous big quakes, Northridge and Sylmar, and so had gotten wrecked.

They even brought Lucy Jones out of retirement on the newspods to explain the earthquake shadows. And I don’t think I need to mention how happy I’ve been about California having nothing but female seismologists in the public eye since forever, female senators for almost as long, and, finally, a female governor since the inauguration in 2023. Well, okay. Transwoman, but that still counts.

Suck it, fundies.

But… none of this explains why I still can’t get hold of Matt. The cell phone thing… maybe, but only if all the towers around him are down, or he isn’t able to charge his phone. But the landline is still mystifying, and despite the TelCos spending so many years trying to propagandize us into the idea that we all still needed them in case of disaster, no one ever bought that bullshit.

Of course… while most of our handsets at home were wireless, the base station had one of those really old-fashioned handset on a cradle things, and if the shaking knocked it off, the phone would go “off the hook,” in a literal, not figurative, sense, and that would block all of the other lines. I couldn’t remember whether that would block voicemail from answering or not, because I wasn’t sure whether that lived on the phone or happened at the phone company.

So… phew-ish?

Still… I was stuck down here until such point that… oh, what did the guidelines say? I was here until “…a majority of the faith-community organizations within your district are able to once again provide for the pastoral care of their members in their own, original physical spaces or FEMA-approved emergency structures in the case of buildings that have been yellow- or red-tagged. Alternate venues provided by other existing businesses or residents are also acceptable, provided that they have the same maximum occupancy capacity as the space they are replacing. Representatives are expected to remain on-site for at least thirty days after initial event, with two days of home-leave allowable commencing at the end of shift on the ninth day after the inciting event, and on the ninth-day after return from each home-leave. Except during home-leave, disaster pay and overtime are in effect, and per diem at current county rates and secure, suitable lodgings within two miles by ride service or forty-five minutes via public transit, station-to-station (should the lines be operational), will also be provided in the form of a TAP card. Most lodgings will be single-occupancy except for married couples both of whom are employed by the county or city of Los Angeles, or upon the written request of two un-related employees om different departments, after direct-report review and approval.

I remember watching an improv show by a theater company in my area right after the quake that had a game they called “Yay, Boo!” and this was definitely it. Combat pay and overtime? Yay! Remain on-site thirty days? Boo! Per diem and suitable lodgings provided, yay! Nine days between home visits? Boo! That meant I’d have to wait. There were so damn many registered faith-community organizations within the area we were covering that it could easily take months to get them all accommodated.

And Matt still wasn’t answering, I couldn’t get hold of him on social media, and I wasn’t sure what the hell to do. At least we didn’t have children, so that was a little bit less to worry about…

Image taken in 1948, Fukui, Japan;  now public domain under Australian law. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bert Cohen. 

Wednesday Wonders: Thoughts into action

Today, March 11, 2020, marks the 209th anniversary of the birth in 1811 of a man named Urbain Le Verrier, a French astronomer and mathematician. One thing he is remembered for is his hypothesis that our solar system had a second asteroid belt, located between the Sun and Mercury. It, of course, does not.

But there was one other thing he did that led to a big discovery. Before we get to that, though, we need to jump back to almost exactly 30 years before Le Verrier was born — March 13, 1781.

This was when the astronomer William Herschel took a look at his third survey of the night sky and realized that one of the “stars” in it was not a star, it was a planet. By sheer luck, he had managed to find Uranus.

This was no mean feat, because the five “classic” planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — had been discovered in ancient times and were always a part of human culture.

They were also easier to spot because all of them could be seen by the naked eye. Uranus can be, too, but it is incredibly dim, which is probably why it wasn’t picked out as a planet a lot sooner. Not to mention that its year was a lot longer, so its apparent motion relative to the stars would take a much more time and patience to notice.

But for the other planets, motion is what made them stand out. The constellations and everything else appeared to travel together across the sky, but these five objects had their own  different and predictable pattern.

In other words, Venus, which frequently appears in the eastern sky after sunset (in the northern spring) or the western sky before sunrise (in the northern fall), will appear to move from constellation to constellation as the year progresses. What’s really happening, and what it took astronomers a long time to figure out and a longer time to convince the public of, is that it was the Earth that was moving around the Sun, along with all of the other planets.

In effect, all those stars out there could basically be considered fixed objects, as if they were painted on the inside of a giant sphere that we’re moving around in. Oh, they’re not fixed at all, and they all move too — the Big Dipper will look really different in thousands of years — they just move too slowly for humans to notice the change.

It’s a variation of the old “moving landscape effect”, more properly known as motion parallax. That is, if you’re riding in a vehicle as a passenger, look out the side window, and you’ll notice that nearby objects, like freeway guardrails, trees along the road or close buildings appear to zip past, while slightly farther objects cruise along more slowly and the most distant objects, like far-off mountains, appear to barely move at all.

It’s this effect plus the telescope that finally allowed Herschel to find Uranus. And, by the way, it’s actually pronounced oo-RAN-oos (or you-RAN-us, if you must), so enough of those jokes. Don’t make the IAU change its name!

Uranus turned out to be a really odd duck of a planet, though, one of the more interesting facts being that its axis, unlike every other planet, is tilted on its side. The others basically rotate with their north poles being “up” and “down” relative to the plane of the ecliptic. Not Uranus. Its axis is tilted more than 90 degrees, meaning that it’s rotating on its side. Astrophysicists aren’t sure yet why this happened, but the leading conjecture is that something about the size of Earth smacked into it once it had substantially formed as a planet, knocking it over, and it can’t get up.

But there was one other oddity, and one that was only noticeable because of the work of Sir Isaac Newton. He’s that gravity guy — and no, an apple didn’t fall on his head, although he did wonder why things fell and whether they all did it at the same rate.

This led to him coming up with some laws of gravity that have proven to be pretty damn accurate. So damn accurate, in fact, that once Uranus had been discovered, something quickly became apparent: It wasn’t quite orbiting the Sun the way that it should be according to how the gravity of the Sun and other planets should have affected it.

This is what got to Urbain Le Verrier. There were noticeable differences between what Newton’s laws said Uranus should be doing and what observations showed that it was doing, but Newton wasn’t wrong, so something else must have been going on here.

Here’s a little note for people who still don’t know the different scientific terms. A law is something that is an irrefutable fact. It’s been observed, tested, confirmed, and reconfirmed far too many times for it to be falsifiable, and generally comes with a formula to back it up, like Newton’s f = ma, or force equals mass times acceleration.

If anything appears to violate a law, then there’s something else affecting it, period. And a law doesn’t come with an explanation, it just is what it is. In terms of gravity, the law just says, “Stuff falls at this speed,” which in an equation is F = Gm1m2/r2, or, more commonly, the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the distance between the centers of two objects, with G being the gravitational constant. Simplified, gravity on Earth is described as g = GM/r2, where M is the mass of the Earth. Which is 5.972 × 1024 kilograms, or 6.583 × 1021 tons, by the way. You’re welcome.

Law is top of the ladder in science. Theory is next, and in science it doesn’t mean what it does in popular vernacular. A theory is an explanation of how and why the law works. It says “After a ton of reproducible experimental results and rigorous testing and attempts at falsification, this idea here is our absolute best statement of what we think is really going on.” For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity is an explanation of how Newton’s laws work.

So Le Verrier, being a math dude, looked at the discrepancies and ran the numbers, and although he was really flying blind, here’s what he managed to do, using Newton’s Laws and a lot of calculation. He reverse-engineered our solar system to the point that he said, “Okay. Uranus is acting weird because there’s this other planet out there, and here’s where you’ll probably find it in the sky.”

August 31, 1846: Le Verrier announces his prediction to the French Academy.

September 18, 1846: He mails his prediction to Johann Galle of the Berlin observatory. The letter arrives five days later.

September 23, 1846: Galle finds Neptune, within one degree of where Le Verrier says it will be.

Fortuitously, this is the day of the autumnal equinox — one of two days in the year when Earth’s axis has zero degrees of tilt. That has nothing to do with Neptune, but it’s a nice touch in the story, and something that gives the astronomically inclined a little warm fuzzy.

Now just think on that one for a moment. Herschel only found Uranus because he’d been looking at the sky repeatedly and noticed something a bit off, and he made his discovery at least ten millennia after all the other planets had been discovered.

It only took sixty-five years (and six months) for the next planet to be discovered, and how that happened says a lot about how science should work. The theoretical folk (Le Verrier) used the math and formulae to come up with solid predictions, and then the experimental/observational folk (Galle) put those into action. End result: instant planet!

Throughout human history, we have had thinkers and we have had doers, and both are indispensable to progress. We will always need idea people, who can come up with solutions, questions, or fixes. We will always need action people, who can take those solutions, questions, or ideas and make them happen.

Together, the two are an unstoppable force. Just take Le Verrier and Galle as an example. They did, in seven decades, what all of humanity had been unable to do for tens of thousands of years before Herschel found Uranus.

Now just imagine what would happen if we applied this model to every field. Let the thinkers do their thing, then they hand their ideas to the doers, who do theirs. I think that the overused corporate term for this is synergy, but it works. If we can discover planets out there with it, imagine what we could do with it down here.

Image: Neptune by NASA, public domain.

Rebranding contest and giveaway!

Answer a question, win a cool prize

Hello, gentle readers and faithful fans, and pardon the interruption to the theme schedule, but with the start of Daylight Savings Time, and in honor of my recently having passed 200 posts, this is also a good time to do some spring cleaning.

See, I originally named this blog The Word Whisperer because, well, I’d just come off of a decade working for the Dog Whisperer, a lot of that spent as his main content creator and, honestly, interview and article ghost writer and all that.

But we’re now at the point where I haven’t done that for him for a good two years this month, he’s kind of faded from sight, so I need a new thing.

I leave it to you, my dear fans and readers, to tell me what I should rebrand as, and you can do so right here:

You can also offer your own suggestions in addition to voting for the given choices, but if any of your suggestions come in the form of (Thing) Mc(Thing)face, you will be eliminated from the pool of possible winners immediately. Fair warning.

If none of the options wins a clear majority, then there will be a run-off, but here’s some good news. The prize for this round gets awarded no matter the results. Oh yeah. There’s a prize, and it’s this: a copy of Simon Pegg‘s memoir Nerd Do Well. Apparently, fans of my blog are also fans of him, and the winner will be chosen completely at random, so it doesn’t matter if you vote for the final choice. All that matters — like this year — is that you friggin’ vote!

Bonus points: If you share or reblog this post in any way on social media, you’ll get an extra entry, one per share, reblog, retweet, whatever, so you’ll up your odds of winning. Just let me know that you did and send me the link!

Friday Free-for-All #1

I wasn’t sure how I was going to decide what this theme would be. On the surface, it seems like “just write whatever you want to” would work, but I tend to do that otherwise, constrained only by the subject of the day. But then I ran across a site that generates random questions, and realized that this was the way to go. In a sense, I’d be letting AI interview me. But to make it truly random, rather than take the first question, I pulled ten, and then used Excel’s RANDBETWEEN function to pick one from that list.

And you’re all invited to play. Feel free to answer the question yourself in the comments and let’s see what we all come up with. Now with no further ado, here we go…

What personality trait do you value most and which do you dislike the most?

This is a very interesting question because there are so many possibilities for the first one — sincerity, intelligence, punctuality, honesty, integrity, and so on. But beyond all of those, which are all very good things to have in my book, I think the one that anchors them all is curiosity about the world, and a desire to constantly learn new things.

All of the most interesting people I know are still students, whether they only graduated from high school six months ago or whether they’ve been retired for ten years. And they don’t necessarily have to be taking classes, but if they’re reading, listening to podcasts, studying on their own, whatever… it shows. And that kind of interest in self-growth extends to every other part of their life.

These are the people who actually remember things that I tell them when, for example, they can’t figure out how to do something on their computer. Their minds are definitely in “one and done” mode.

Me: “To do thing X push keys Y and Z, and then follow with A and B…”

Them: “Ah, got it, thanks.”

And the truly curious ones do, and never ask me the same question twice. The incurious ones, though? Every five goddamn minutes. “How do you do that thing, again?”

“Jesus, Mildred. I told you. Hit control-whatever, click on particular box, done.”

The great thing about curious people is that they never create the mindset of “oh, this is hard,” or “I can never learn that.” Instead, they dive in with a hearty and enthusiastic need to know and confidence in their ability to know it.

I’ve experienced both sides constantly in my own process of re-learning Spanish again and learning improv for the first time as an adult way out of college. The fellow students I encounter fall into two camps. One group asks questions and accepts answers. The other group complains and whines — “What I said should be right because…” This is always followed by a wrong example, and then they don’t listen to explanations.

The absolute classic version of this for students of Spanish is this: “It should be la agua, because agua ends in ‘a’ so it’s feminine.”

Except… this is one of those rules you just have to know. Yes, agua is feminine, but Spanish doesn’t like to put “la” before a word that starts with a stressed “a.” It’s exactly the same reason that English uses “an” instead of “a” before a vowel sound. It’s just easier to say.

So… the singular version of agua, which is still feminine, uses the masculine article to avoid the “a/a” crash: el agua. Other examples include el águila and el arpa. Note that with indefinite articles, it’s okay to go either way.

But, yeah. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone who is clearly only at a ¿Qué Hora Es? level of  Spanish insisting that they’re right. It’s… cute. Infuriating, but cute.

Now, when it comes to the one I dislike the most, you might think that I’d go for the easy opposite, which is “incuriosity.” However, that’s not it. I can just ignore incurious people and let them go on with their empty little lives. The personality trait I dislike the most is what we could probably classify as flakiness. That is, making a commitment to doing something, and then bailing out with no advance notice or explanation.

Now, this is different from saying you’ll come to something and then letting me know, last minute or not, that you can’t. That is totally fine. If you send a text an hour before with literally any reason in it, or even not a reason, then we’re cool.

“Sorry, stuck at work.”

“Sorry, forgot I had this other thing.”

“Sorry, I really don’t feel like it tonight.”

“Sorry, my S.O. surprised me with other plans.”

Those are all fantastic, and so is something as simple as the no reason, “Sorry. Can’t.”

That’s cool, too, because at least you’ve told me not to wait for you to show up, so you’ve respected by request, and you’re awesome.

But… if you’ve told me, and especially if you’ve done it enthusiastically, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be there for sure,” and then your place is taken by crickets at time and date, and then you don’t bother to catch up later and say why… WTF, really?

That’s flakier than a bowl of morning cereal, and it’s not an attractive look for anyone. Want to know how to get fewer invites to anything? To paraphrase Archer, “This is how you get [fewer invites to anything.]”

Okay, I think they said ants, but whatever. The point is… if someone asks, you answer, and a simple “Yes” or “No” without excuses is acceptable. This is modern life. Enjoy it.

Image source: Image Howard Lake, used via Creative Commons (cc) 2.0.

 

It’s Talky Tuesday!

As I announced yesterday, inspired by the reception of my Countdown to Christmas series of posts, and as a way to give me a writing prompt every day, I’m going to experiment with a theme for each day. This started with the first Sunday Nibble, followed later by Saturday Morning Reading, with Monday’s subject of history, one of my favorites, revealed yesterday.

Today’s theme is Talky Tuesday because it will be all about another of my favorite subjects: language. Okay, so the “talky” part is purely figurative until I turn this into a podcast, but I couldn’t think of a better word that relates to language and creates alliteration with Tuesday.

And while “Wordy Wednesday” might have seemed like a natural, having only four possible letters — S, M, T, and W — limits the options, especially if one insists as one does on using the full “th” alliteration for Thursday, but finds a better fit of subject for that than another alternate for Wednesday’s theme, which will be revealed tomorrow.

And I know I blew the alliteration on the weekend, but that’s because I came up with those first. I suppose one could become the Sunday Snack, while I’m really tempted to call the other one the Saturday Morning Post. Incidentally, the original Saturday Evening Post is still around and will celebrate its bicentennial next year. While its presence nowadays is more online and it’s owned by the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society (Franklin kinda sorta founded the magazine), it still prints six issues a year. A far cry from coming out in time for the second mail delivery every Saturday, but still impressive in this day and age.

The print magazine in its heyday also made Norman Rockwell a very famous artist and American institution to the extent that many of his cover illustrations are still instantly recognizable to this day to people not at all familiar with the original magazine,

But now you’ve got me going down a side path because I love diving into rabbit holes and sharing interesting bits of trivia, and you’ve managed to get me bringing up history in the set up for the language theme. Gee, thanks!

So let’s bring on the topic at hand!

More frequently confused words

As I’ve discussed recently, English is a mongrel of a language, cobbled together over centuries with the collision and mixing of various other languages and with a propensity after the fifteenth century to borrow words from everywhere. If you’ve ever taken algebra — or a siesta — you’ve used borrowed words. You can also see the roots in the words themselves. In the sentences above, discussed and centuries come from Latin, language, and collision are French, cobble and mongrel are Anglo, and our borrowed examples are, in order, Arabic and Spanish, although Spanish has a ton of Arabic words courtesy of the Moorish occupation of Southern Europe for centuries.

Hint: Any Spanish word that starts with “al” is probably Arabic because “al” is the Arabic equivalent of “the,” and the two wound up stuck together. So… algodón, cotton;  alfombra, carpet (not to be confused with carpeta, file folder); alazar, to hoist or erect (not to be confused with al azar, at random); alcalde/alcadesa, mayor.

But… the point is this. English, like many other languages, has become more of a spoken medium than it is a written one, at least on a large scale. That’s part of the reason why internet news aggregators get choked with video links instead of text, and yeah, this one drives me nuts. No, I don’t want the story read by talking heads who obviously don’t get it because I’m probably not in a place where I can listen to the audio or watch the video, just give me the words, please.

And for god’s sake, make sure that they were edited and proofed by a professional, although I despair more and more by the moment of that ever happening, and in major media outlets more often than not I see articles that my high school English teacher would have failed without remorse.

That said, to the people who don’t read a lot, it does become obvious when they post online, because they will play the “sounds like” game with a lot of words (when they’re not just making up spellings, but that’s something for a completely different post), and frequently manage to grab exactly the wrong word.

Ripped from today’s… social media comments (no, really) here are six more words that are frequently mixed-up and misused.

Away and aweigh

I’ve seen this mistake made frequently when someone is referring to a ship leaving port and getting underway, and given that the arts of sailing and seafaring are very alien to most modern people — particularly those who live in urban or landlocked areas — it’s a very understandable mistake to see “Anchors away!”

I mean, on the surface, that makes sense, right? What are you trying to do? Get away from the port or the dock, and it somehow involves removing the anchors that are holding you there, right? And if you have a naïve understanding of how anchors work, that adds another level of sense to it. Anchors are notoriously heavy, right? So they must work by weighing down the ship (ooh… look at that word!) and keep it from moving until they’re cast away. Ooh. Another seafaring word when you combine them into castaway!

Except… that’s not how anchors work. Anchors may be heavy in human terms (or not), but they weigh nothing compared to the weight of the ship. What they do do is drop to the seafloor or lakebed, and then dig into the sediment with those hooky-thingies on them. You know. The whole reason an anchor is shaped like that. Its job is to grab that mucky slop down below and dig into it so that the ship stays where it’s been moored.

By the way, have you ever noticed that a grappling hook looks a lot like an anchor? Yeah, that’s because it does an anchor’s job in reverse.

But… a ship would never cast its anchors away because then they’d have nothing to moor themselves with at the next port, or to do likewise in an emergency at sea. What ships do do is call “anchors aweigh,” and it’s an expression ultimately built out of old English.

The word “weigh” refers to a really old English expression meaning to lift, measure, or carry, while the “a-“ prefix most likely takes on the middle English mean of “off” or “from.” So… the proper phrase, “anchors aweigh,” means to lift the anchors from… in this case, whatever silt or sludge they’re stuck in. And the word “aweigh” happens to have been coined specifically and only to refer to the concept of hauling up an anchor.

Lean and lien

Yeah, actually seen in a “give me free legal advice because I can’t adult enough to figure out how to google that that’s a thing” post on a social media site, something along the lines of (paraphrased to protect a-hat’s identity): “My bank just put a lean on my car because I missed a few payments. How can I not lose it?”

Well, the simple bonehead advice is, “Talk to your bank and arrange to make those payments, dumbass.” But, on top of that one, if your bank leaned on your car, assuming that your bank is a big building of at least one story, I don’t think that there’d be much of a car left.

The word they were thinking of is lien, and it’s basically any official charge placed against a piece of real property. Anyone who’s ever bought a car from a dealer and contracted to make payments knows it well, since the phrase “lienholder” will appear on the registration until the day you pay that loan off.

There’s also a nice ironic reminder on this one. “Lien” happens to be the French word for “link,” and in its traditional sense, that’s what a lien was — a link between a physical piece of property and the money owed on it. Boom, done. But… go to French websites, and that word means more often than note “click here to go there.”

Fortunately, the quick way to remember and not mistake “lien” and “lean” is that the first two letters of “link” are “Li.”

Illusion and allusion

In this case, the former is definitely used to mean the latter far too often. An illusion is an image, mirage, or the word that GOB prefers to trick. An allusion is a literary reference. You’ll see the former in Vegas constantly. You’ll have to think back to 10th grade English to remember that latter one, which is basically referring to something without referring to it.

Frankly, my dear, allusions can be… tricksy, and not as clear-cut as you’d assume without making an assumption out of it or you and me. But let’s rejoyce in the idea that one doesn’t need to reference a hawk to describe a handsaw unless one is being chased through an empty field by a crop-duster.

And that was a paragraph packed with allusions. The idea that I just made you think of at least a few books, movies, authors, and directors was no illusion.

Ascent and assent

Thanks to that pesky silent “C,” I see the latter word misused to replace the former a lot more often: “The mountain climbers planned to begin their assent at five a.m.”

Well, of course you’d want a mountain climbing team to agree on everything before they start going uphill, but they can’t start the climb until they begin their ascent.

The word ultimately comes to English via French and Latin, with the Latin source being the word “scendere,” to climb. You can easily see the pair of English antonyms that come from this: descend and ascend, along with their noun versions descent and ascent.

The prefixes determine direction. A descent is a climbing from, while an ascent is a climbing to. In our interpretation of “climb,” these become up and down.

Assent, while it also comes from Latin, took a very different route and it comes from the prefix “ad” and the verb “sentire,” to feel. When “ad” is combined with a word starting with “s,” it becomes “as.” The prefix itself implies moving toward, so an assent is moving toward a feeling, i.e. the group coming to a common decision.

Interestingly enough, the French took the Latin word for “to feel” to mean “to smell,” and this lead directly to the English word “scent,” but not to the English word ascent. Go figure. It’s just one of those weird linguistic coincidences.

But… it does give us a mnemonic to tell them apart. What is a smell? “A scent” that goes up your nose. Meanwhile, a message you receive “as sent” agrees completely with what the sender intended.

Mantle and mantel

This pair is regularly swapped, and it’s easy to see why. Strictly speaking, a mantel is the one that’s around a fireplace and nothing else, while a mantle is a cloak or covering, or part of the surface of the Earth that comes above the crust.

But to confuse things, mantel itself is a fifteenth century variant of the Middle English mantel, which came from the Latin mantellum, which means cloak. So, ultimately, a mantel is just a cloak for a fireplace, but if you put a mantle near your fireplace, it’ll probably burn up.

Yes, derivations can be silly and make no sense sometimes, but here’s a way to remember the very special word that only goes around your fireplace. What’s in your fireplace? The fire. In Spanish, that’s el fuego. And what are the last two letters of the right word? That’s right. “El.”

Now, I could confuse things a bit more by giving you an “le” mnemonic for mantle by reminding you that “the cloak” in French is “le manteau,” and that second word should look familiar, but I think the fire clue should be enough.

Sorted and sordid

A rare find in the wild, but indeed it did appear, with the former word being used in place of the latter in the context of “delving into those sorted (sic) affairs,” when, of course, those affairs were sordid.

Again, though, if it’s a word someone has only heard, sorted, like away, makes some kind of sense, if only because sordid affairs tend to involve a lot of bits and pieces, so the assumption that somebody would have to sort them to work them out makes total sense.

The funny part here is that sordid is by far the older word, and while sort came into English in the 13th century, the dictionary only attests “sorted” to the 1950s, believe it or not, and only in a specific jargon usage in geology, although I know many an Australian who’d differ with that opinion, since the love to deal with getting confusing situations sorted, i.e. figured out.

As for sordid, it came from the Latin word for dirty. Specifically, the Latin word for dirt with the suffix –id indicating “born from.” So… filthy things are sordid.

I can’t think of any really good reminder here other than these. First, if it’s dirty it’s got double D’s, like sordid. Or… sordid kind of sounds like the answer when someone asks, “Hey did you read that trashy article in (insert gossip rag here)” and you say, “So I did,” with the proper drawl. (“Sah uh did.”)

And there you go. Which pair of confused words annoy you, or which ones do you always mix up? Let me know in the comments below!

Sunday Nibble #2

Shorter bite-sized pieces with no particular destination meant to enjoy on what should be a day off, or at least a day of fun.

According to Freedictionary, there are 92 English words that end in -yme, although most of them are scientific words made up of “enzyme” with prefixes. One relates to botany (cyme) and the other to medicine (zyme).

This leaves three common words, two of which are probably familiar to everyone and one that is not: Rhyme, thyme, and chyme. The first, of course, refers to arranging words that end with similar sounds — a very common human trick, most needed for a limerick.

Thyme is, of course, an herb used for seasoning, and also well-known from the song Scarborough Fair, which is a traditional English ballad going back to at least the 17th century, famous for the refrain, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”

The third word, chyme, is somewhat… gross. It refers to the glop your stomach turns food into before passing it on to your intestines.

Each one of these words has a homophone, which is a word pronounced the same but with a different meaning and, often, a different spelling. Those are rime, time, and chime.

Although “rime” is an alternate spelling of “rhyme” (q.v. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), it generally refers to a relative of frost caused when super-cooled water droplets freeze on impact with a surface. I didn’t think it was appropriate to mention until now, but there is a fourth –yme word, berhyme, now archaic, which means to use as the subject of a rhyme, especially to lampoon. “In Poe’s The Raven, the author berhymes his lost love, Lenore.” And this word can go both ways, as either berhyme or berime. Yes, it sounds like to berime would be to coat something in rime, but that word doesn’t exist, and to rime is sufficient.

Time is money, time flies, time is fleeting. The times, they are a-changin’.

Time is simply the measure used to determine that something has happened. No time, nothing happens. It’s also very convenient for putting events in order — “The meeting is at 10 a.m., after which we will break for lunch at 1 p.m., then reconvene at 2:30.” Of course, to a physicist, time is what you measure with a clock.” Why? Because the way that scientists measure time is by observing change. It’s the phenomenon their clock follows, not the other way around.

You’ll know this firsthand if you’ve ever cooked something for the time mentioned in the recipe only to find out that it wasn’t quite done, so you had to keep it in longer. The “bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees” is only a suggestion. The reality is when the thing you’re baking hits the desired internal temperature, which could be 35 minutes or it could be an hour. And if you’re a scientist don’t even try to use time to put events in order, because the first question you have to ask is “Which reference frame am I ordering events in?”

Finally, we have chyme and chime. The latter is both the thing that a bell does and the word my computer keeps trying to auto-correct chyme to every time I type it. Since those bells chiming are usually connected to a big clock, chime relates back to time, and one of the more famous usages of the word is in a Shakespeare quote (Falstaff, Henry IV Part 2, III-ii: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”) This in turn became the title of an Orson Welles film, The Chimes at Midnight, which I haven’t seen, but which looks amazing.

And just to bring all three words together in one thought, Orson Welles basically pulled all the Falstaff bits from Shakespeare, put them back together to make Falstaff the hero in the Prince Hal saga (hint: he was not in the original), and came up with something that George Lucas would describe as “rhyming with the original.” In case you forgot, Lucas said that all of the films in the first two trilogies rhymed. Oddly enough, and haters be damned, I think that the final trilogy managed to do that too.

But, as our ComedySportz referees are fond of saying, “That’s time!”

Family secrets

It’s strange sometimes the connections that social media can make, and one of the more interesting but also odder ones that happened recently on Facebook was when someone messaged me at random and said, “Hey, are you any relation to (First Name) Bastian who went to (Dead President) High School?”

Well, as a matter-of-fact, that person, let’s call him Will, happened to be my much older half-brother, so I replied that yes, I was, but had to inform this stranger that Will had died way too soon back in 1992.

This was when I found out that the stranger, let’s call him Don, was the son of the people who lived next door to the house my parents bought right after they got married — yeah, people used to be able to do that in L.A. — and I only didn’t recognize the last name because my parents always apparently mispronounced it.

Now here’s the thing I always have to explain about my family, but I’m sure I’ve brought it up here before. Both of my parents were married previously, to people their own age. In fact, to their high school sweethearts, so they were living examples of why that’s a bad idea. Mom very quickly had marriage number one annulled because he was an abusive asshole. Dad endured marriage number one for nearly 18 years despite her being an alcoholic shrew. Well, at least that was the issue once whispered to me by an aunt, my dad’s sister-in-law.

But the point is this: When Dad met Mom, he was the 40-ish professional and she was the 20-something waitress in the diner across from his office. They met because he always came in the same time every day for breakfast. They married, they had me, and then they moved to the West Valley. The end result of all of this was that I’m kind of a generation off on my dad’s side but right in the middle on my mom’s side, just like she was.

So while I technically have three older siblings, they’re all a lot older than I am and I never grew up with any of them that I can remember. Two of them were old enough to be my parents and the third happened to be a lot younger than those two. That’s one half-sister and two-half brothers, although I don’t know whether that counts as three siblings or one-and-a-half.

The one other thing you should know about Will is that, like me, he was gay, although being a generation before me, he was gay at a much less friendly time and yet was never in the closet, at least not with the fam. Growing up, I always knew about him and “Uncle” Larry, they were part of the family, and I understood, even when I was a really little kid, that the two of them had the same kind of relationship my parents did.

Oh… meaning emotional besties who lived together part, not the icky sex part, because I didn’t learn about that until later, obviously. But they came as a set. Will and Larry. Mom and Dad. Same thing.

Still, because he was a gay role model to me, he was the sibling I loved the most and looked up to, not to mention that whenever he was around, we just connected, because he was also a musician, he was funny and creative, and always encouraging. But, because he was already an adult when I fell out of mom and he had moved off on his own, we never really got the opportunity we should have had to connect. I also never got the chance to come out to him, and when he died way too soon, that door shut forever. Hell, I’d barely come out to myself when that happened.

And then, this stranger contacted me on Facebook asking if I was related, and then confessing that he and Will had been best friends in High School, as well as something a bit more, because while this neighbor, Don, explained later that he didn’t even know what “gay” meant or was when he was in high school, he shared that kind of relationship with my bro, if only briefly, and before I was born.

As he explained it in a message to me, “I had no idea I was gay when I knew him. Actually I knew, but didn’t know what to call it. He was kinda my ‘teacher’ about things like that. I will always be indebted to him for helping me. I remember the night in front of a church in Canoga Park where he kinda ‘explained’ things to me, and showed me some things.”

And I have no idea what explaining and showing mean there, but I did get a long narrative recounting some high school adventures of the two and, damn… I discovered a side of my favorite died-too-young half-sibling that made me think, “Okay. Maybe not a role model.” He loved to play hooky from school, which is something I can honestly say that I never did or even contemplated except, of course, for the one time it was sanctioned on Senior Ditch Day in high school, but since it’s the school approving it, it doesn’t count as being truant.

But my god. These two cut school, they shoplifted, they threw spitballs and M&Ms in class, and tormented an English teacher. The only way my older half-bro could have been more different than me was if he’d been straight.

And these were all things that made me think, “Wait. I looked up to this one?” And, as Don told it, Will was clearly the bad influence in this situation. Plus he apparently did not get along with my mom, although she never tipped that off to me, although it is a common issue in step-family relationships.

Then I think about one of the big reasons he wasn’t around when we were adults. While I was still in high school, the somewhat successful salon he’d started suddenly closed, and he and Uncle Larry moved to Vegas. Apparently, they’d decided that not paying taxes (federal, state, or payroll) were a good idea. So, in effect, they played hooky yet again, except with a more serious set of consequences. All along, I’d thought that this had been Larry’s doing, but with this new advice from Don, I realize, “Nope. Probably Will.”

It doesn’t make me love him any less in retrospect. It just makes him more human. And makes me wish even more that we could have been more present in each other’s lives when we had the chance, but at least I’ve found a proxy who was there, and that’s one of the few benefits among the vanishingly small reasons to keep feeding social media.

Photo: First wife, half-sister, Dad; at least “Will” and I inherited his looks. Will moreso. He was a dead-ringer. Me, not quite as much.