April’s Fool

We each need our own coping mechanisms to deal with the chaotic Trump presidency, from ranting about it in blogs to taking powerful antidepressants.  Over the past year, at particularly poignant (or pungent) moments, I have sometimes resorted to distracting myself with the music of Mary Poppins, which stubbornly repeats in my mind until the crisis has abated.

On Inauguration Day, this is what I heard over and over:

Super-callous narcissistic ex-reality show host, um diddle diddle, Donald Trump, diddle ay…

The lyrics have evolved over time, of course.  For example, during Trump’s exchange of childish insults with Kim Jong-Un over the threat of nuclear annihilation, I heard:

Please oh please don’t go ballistic with North Korean boasters, um diddle diddle, diddle bomb, diddle pray…

For several weeks now, the Trump administration has clashed with California over ICE raids in sanctuary cities; the census to include a question on citizenship; Obama-era tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle mileage requirements; and the transfer of federal lands for development and drilling.  Add all of that to the many Trumpian threats to immigrants, net neutrality, air and water quality, etc. already facing California (see my previous blog, Most Likely to Secede), and no wonder I can’t get Mary Poppins out of my head:

He’s anti-Calif pugilistic blasting tweets ferocious, um diddle diddle, piddle dump, in the middle of the bay…

And now Donald Trump– of all people!– is declaring April Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.  This despite being credibly accused of sexual harassment and assault by so many women.  It’s not only ironic, it’s laughable!  Today’s outraged mantra:

While keeping tally of his antics loudly braggadocious

This groper’s wiping Stormy’s lipstick off the White House sofas

Awareness Month?  He’s schizophrenic!  Hypocrisy atrocious!  Um liddle liddle, liddle Trump, liddle ay…

Thanks again for coming to the rescue, Mary Poppins!  I’m sure I’ll hear from you soon!

And now, back to work on my real writing project:  the Fourth World trilogy.



They Are, Therefore They Think

Here’s an excerpt from the final novel in the Fourth World trilogy, soon to be released on Amazon.  In this passage, the humanoid robot Protem Two (who is the acting President of the United States), although in possession of what I call quasihuman intelligence, desires a much broader range of cognitive abilities:

Humor?  Why exactly do you want us to introduce a sense of humor into your neural network?” asked the QI Supervisor, a bit startled by the President’s request.  She threw a quizzical glance at the CIA general standing a short distance behind Protem; their eyes met, but he remained straight-faced. Humor? As a young professor of computational linguistics, she had never ventured far into that particular aspect of her field.

Protem Two tilted its head to the left and gazed slightly upward, as though engaged in deep thought.  It was a new affectation which made Protem seem more human; the intriguing thing was, the QI Supervisor could not remember having programmed that subtle gesture.

“Humor has strategic implications, professor.  In my analyses of the masses of data arriving daily from operatives around the world, I have often encountered what might be considered humorous.  For example, a local demonstration might contain elements of satire, parodies of government actions or mocking depictions of PWE Leader Bigelow. A complete and accurate interpretation of these reports, I find, is impossible without any grasp of the humor involved.”

“I see.  So you think we’ve been losing a significant percentage of analytical yield… the result being suboptimal planning for the Resistance?”

“Yes, professor.  A lack of humor actually hampers our long term strategic thinking.  This is not a trivial request, just so that I can have a good laugh once in a while.”

“Ha, that’s quite funny!  You know, Protem, you may already have a sense of…”

“No, professor.  That was a rote extrapolation based on natural language processing, not a true joke.  Learning complex patterns over decades has expanded my computational techniques, but there is more to humor than the resulting algorithms.”

“Well, they say that humor is a uniquely human trait…”

“Which may be approximated by a degree of computational creativity beyond what I currently possess.  My interface with the external world depends on studying vast amounts of pre-filtered text.  By sheer statistical analysis, I can determine what is truly hilarious, versus quite funny, or just mildly amusing.  In contrast, a human child, with its wide range of senses and emotions, has the advantage of feeling afraid, or being surprised, or experiencing pain, pleasure, excitement, disappointment, and so on.  These many forms of input, I gather, help the child develop a rich sense of irony as it grows up, and it is on irony that humor depends.  I would like to go beyond a statistically correct definition, to learn the language and the deeper meaning of humor…”

“I’ll have a talk with my vendors at Cumulonimbus, the Palo Alto company that filters your incoming data.  To approximate a human child, you would begin by engaging the world through multiple senses, or at least the computational equivalents of senses:  a highly-developed avatar, is that where you’re going with this, Mr. President?”

“Precisely, professor.”  Protem paused momentarily, working on its comedic timing.  “Ironically, I would be excited by the pleasure of feeling pain, and, I’m afraid, I would be surprised not to be disappointed.”  There, all seven goals, in one sentence!  Protem arched its humanoid eyebrows, anticipating a satisfactory level of hilarity from the Supervisor.

But she only winced, barely suppressing a roll of her eyes. “No, I’m the one who’s afraid, Mr. President.  Afraid that your humor does leave a lot to be desired; apparently there is much more to the puzzle than algorithms can solve!  I’ll get right to work on it, sir.”


Recently, I mailed the preceding excerpt to a loyal follower of this blog, asking for his opinion about machine humor.  Sean Noah, a doctoral candidate in Neuroscience who also contributes to the blog knowingneurons.com, responded with a fascinating essay on the interface between human and artificial intelligence.  I’ve included his essay in this rather lengthy post, adding a few comments at the end– read on!

The Rise of Thoughtful Machines

–by Sean Noah

In the mid twentieth century, artificial intelligence researchers invented a new type of computational system that could detect patterns in images – a daunting task for previous technology. Because this new system comprised highly interconnected information-processing nodes, resembling the organization and function of the brain, it became known as an artificial neural network.

At that time, neuroscience was still in its infancy, and the understanding of the brain was limited. Scientists knew that neurons could pass signals to other neurons. They had some idea that the connections between neurons were flexible, and that connection strengths could change. And by peering at cells through a microscope it was easy to extrapolate that the total number of neuronal connections in the brain was astronomical. But basic information about the brain’s operation was still mysterious. Nobody had a clue how the human brain’s 89 billion neurons were subdivided into functional groups, how electrochemical fluctuations encoded information, or how neural circuits processed electrical signals. Thus, the similarity between artificial neural networks and biological neural networks didn’t extend very far.

At least, it didn’t initially.

Today, neural networks resemble biological brains more vividly. These artificial systems can perform complicated tasks with surprising intelligence: Researchers are currently developing systems that can learn how to drive a car just by observing a human driver, or that can cooperate seamlessly with humans to solve problems jointly. And the secret to the performance of these advanced neural nets is a complex and inscrutable system of connections buried in so-called hidden layers. The more hidden layers a deep learning neural network has, the more remarkable its problem-solving ability – and the less anyone can understand how it’s working.

Hence, we have reached a peculiar stage in the history of technology wherein the researchers designing systems are also desperately trying to understand how they work.

To investigate the intricate computation occurring deep inside neural nets that classify images, for example, one strategy involves systematically feeding the network different images and singling out one hidden node at a time to find out what image properties cause that node to activate. In a neural net that can identify cupcakes in photos, there might be a hidden node that responds to blue stripes angled at 45 degrees. Or, there might be a node that responds to pink frosting in the center of the frame. By discovering the image properties uniquely recognized by each of many hidden nodes, researchers can start to piece together the function of the hidden layers, and how the composition of these layers can decode information about the image – from pixel to cupcake.

This same strategy is a staple of neuroscientific research. Foundational studies of the brain’s visual system homed in on the precise properties of light and the visual field that activated specific neurons in different regions of the brain. With this method, neuroscientists learned that there are numerous brain areas in the visual system that each respond to different aspects of visual images – some neurons encode the region of space that a visual stimulus inhabits, some neurons encode colors, and other neurons encode more complex properties like object identity. And now that these neurons’ functional properties are clear, neuroscientists are able to form theories about how different visual areas connect, work together to decipher visual information, and distribute it throughout the rest of the brain.

It seems then that neural networks are more aptly named than their inventors ever realized. Neural network researchers are using a strategy to study their creations identical to one neuroscientists use to study the brain, which leads to some thought-provoking speculation: What other neuroscientific research methods could be useful for studying neural networks?

It’s possible to imagine how fMRI, tractography, optogenetics, or event-related potential techniques could be tailored to the study of neural networks. In neuroscience, these popular and powerful methods each capture a different type of data, and so can be used to test different types of hypotheses. The brain is too complex to ever yield complete knowledge of every neuron’s activity at every moment in time, so research questions focus on specific aspects of neural operation: the location of activity in the brain, whether a type of cell is necessary for some behavior, or the time course of a specific neural process. Then, findings from different research programs can be compared and woven together to form a theoretical understanding of how the brain works. This same broad strategy could be applied to the study of artificial neural networks, the ever-increasing complexity of which also thwarts detailed mechanistic understanding.

If we extrapolate further, to the bleeding edge of neuroscience, we tread into the realm of science fiction. Neuroimaging technologies have been steadily advancing, but the most methodological progress is being made in data analysis. Using the same fMRI data that has been available for decades, neuroscientists are now devising sophisticated statistical tools to answer new questions that were once thought to be unapproachable. Many of these advanced analytical tools, such as multi-voxel pattern analysis, support vector machines, and representational similarity analysis are machine learning applications – they are powered by the same technology that drives artificial neural networks. So, if researchers studying artificial neural networks find success in the adaptation of neuroscience methods to their own work, their efforts might eventually include these recent machine learning applications, at which point neural networks would be deployed in the analysis of themselves.

Introspection, the capacity to gaze inward and reflect on the very mental processes that underlie our inquisitiveness, is often considered to be a defining trait of humanity that sets us apart from other animals. But if advanced neural networks can be directed to analyze their own functioning, would that change how we view ourselves? Would artificially intelligent systems need to be recognized on equal standing with us? Or would we simply need to strike one possible essentially human trait off of the ledger of human nature?

Before we start worrying about losing our unique place in the universe, we can take some small comfort in one likely scenario. Namely, it’s possible that self-reflective neural networks would be more successful in deciphering their functioning than we are as humans. As the great American psychologist William James described, our introspection is “like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see the darkness.” In other words, we have the capacity for introspection, but true introspective understanding is elusive. So our uniqueness would then be preserved: In the club of ineffectual self-reflection, we could still be the sole members.


A few aspects of the essay that particularly caught my attention:

  1.  “… we have reached a peculiar stage in the history of technology wherein the researchers designing systems are also desperately trying to understand how they work.”  Those who build the hidden layers of connections enabling deep learning don’t know how those connections work?  Seems like the cart before the horse:  peculiar, indeed.
  2.  Tools used to study human neuroscience may soon be used in an analogous way to study machine neural networks.
  3.  The process of trying to understand a “defining trait of humanity” such as introspection (in my excerpt, I chose humor), the psychologist William James said, is “like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion.”  I hadn’t realized that psychology has its own equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle!
  4.  One day, machines may surpass humans in understanding themselves, a task at which we humans have been largely, and sometimes spectacularly, unsuccessful.

Eyes to the Sky

The accolades continue to pour in for Dr. Stephen Hawking, who passed away this week, thus ending an era for physics, astrophysics and cosmology.  At about the same time, our Chaos President turned his own limited thoughts to space.  To paraphrase Trump:

“Space!” he said, pronouncing the word with a hint of awe.  “Space is a war fighting domain.  We have the army, the navy, the air force… why not a Space Force?”  He waved his hands in the air, as if to frame the idea, then added dreamily, “A Space Force… a Space Force… why not?”  When asked about an upcoming NASA mission to Mars, he said nothing of intrepid exploration, expanding human horizons, the search for extraterrestrial life, the intriguing possibility of terraforming another planet; not even the image of a red Tesla on Mars crossed his mind.  All this man could think to say was, “If my opponent had won the election, we wouldn’t be going to Mars… no, we wouldn’t.”  So space is all about fighting more wars, and Mars is further confirmation that he did defeat Hillary in 2016.

When Stephen Hawking turned his thoughts to space, there were no warships in sight.  Gazing up at the night sky, he saw the universe replete with all-consuming black holes, lively subatomic particles, the river of time flowing past.  Among many scientific milestones, he joined quantum theory with general relativity by proposing that small amounts of radiation (known as Hawking Radiation) managed to escape from black holes, something never before imagined.  His admonition to us, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” has been quoted all week.

Compared to Trump, Hawking lay at the opposite end of the spectrum of neuro-psychological development.  His vision was so wide and deep, his imagination so powerful, that he could actually “see” theoretical, abstract events happening in space.  Trump, on the other hand, not only has extremely narrow vision, he has trouble with simple object permanence.  In Piaget’s first stage of child development, from 7-9 months of age, an infant becomes capable of holding the image of an object in mind, so that if that object disappears from view, the child knows that it still exists.  Hence the game “Peek-a-Boo.”

When Trump holds televised meetings on immigration at the expiration of DACA, or gun control after yet another mass shooting– meetings attended by prominent Congressional members from both parties– he pleads dramatically for a “bill of love,” makes full-throated statements that “something has to be done” to protect the Dreamers or teenage victims of gun violence, demands that “both sides come together… send me something and I will sign it!”  The day after these meetings, when Feinstein, Schumer, Pelosi, Ryan and McConnell have gone back to the Capitol Building, they cease to exist, and Trump turns back (Peek-a-boo!) to ICE, and to the NRA.

Lacking object permanence, can he still be blamed entirely for the thousands of lies coming out of the White House since Inauguration Day?  Yes, he lies all the time, and knowingly (for example when he insisted to Justin Trudeau that the US has a trade deficit with Canada, and later privately admitted he had no idea whether that was true).  But might some of his lies result from a fluid understanding of reality; vision perceived through a narrow concrete tunnel; calcified memory banks incapable of maintaining object permanence?  In other words, is it a form of dementia that keeps Donald Trump from developing a broader, more enlightened perspective?  If not, then please look up at the stars, Mr. President, and not down at your feet.

It is said that the concept of Hawking Radiation was ill-received by science fiction writers– but not this one; after all, in order to explain the space engine in my novel Fourth World, I had to create a subatomic particle called the capacitron!  Who can predict what new empirical evidence will emerge by 2196, what amazing inventions and discoveries are yet to come?

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World:

On the blank wall facing his bed, a floor-to-ceiling image of the Mars Wellness Institute flickered to life, accompanied by swells of grandiose martial music.  The five-story MWI seemed relatively nondescript, especially as the view expanded to include extravagantly stylish apartment fronts; towering, elegant spires topped by colorful flags which fluttered in a non-existent wind; bustling parks lush with faux-vegetation; and graceful pedestrian arches (look at all those graceful pedestrians, Benn marveled) in the background.  The Highland City Compliance Center came into view, above its imposing stone entrance an engraved quote from J. P. McGrew, the first mayor of Highland City: To Each New Generation on Mars, Greater Wealth and Status.

Rolling his eyes, Benn pictured the buildings and grounds of Tharsis One, which consisted of dull metal sheds of all sizes, lumped together in seemingly haphazard fashion, and often resting on bare soil, with a rudimentary first-generation terrasphere arching over all.  J. P. McGrew must not have meant each new generation at Tharsis. No elegant spires, graceful pedestrians or colorful flourishes here. No grand public projects of any kind. In fact, over ninety percent of the habitable structures in Tharsis One were hidden beneath the planet’s surface, in case of a breach in the terrasphere.  We live like moles, safe only underground, thought Benn with a shudder.

In contrast, the metrospheres of the New Colonies, built out of new/improved “chain-link” metallopolymers and lined with stout plasma shields, allowed the raising of cities a hundred times the size of Tharsis One.  These materials admirably resisted gamma rays, meteorites, the extreme seasonal temperature variations in the South, the six-month long winters, and the horrifically violent dust storms that returned each spring. Not to mention the occasional Marsquake.  No, the new colonists had no need to cower underground as the Martians did. They breathed purified, odorless air; their children played in bright, radiation-free sunlight filtered by translucent domes high overhead; they engaged in professional and social lives approximating those they had left back on Earth.  Benn struggled simultaneously to imagine the Utopian life, and to resist even thinking of it, as he stared at the visual on his narrow bedroom wall.


The Power of (Banning) Words

Flabbergasted as we were when our Chaos President threw his Republican colleagues under the bus by declaring in a televised White House meeting that they were “terrified” of the National Rifle Association, while he was not dependent on it, that display was just another example of his extreme instability and dishonesty (the next day, he kissed and made up with NRA leaders).

Trump’s chaotic style of presidency continues to bend our minds, but the nation has become hardened and, to some degree, immune to the thousands of lies coming out of the White House since Inauguration Day.

Much more profound is the obscuring of truth when any government bans the use of certain words it deems to be threatening in some way.  Those who read and write appreciate the power of words.  George Orwell illustrated this in his novel 1984, by creating Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, which was used to serve the ideology of the superstate and was enforced by the Thought Police.

A thing cannot exist if there is no word for it:  whereas an eskimo can say “snow” in about 27 ways,  there are zero ways in Poland to refer, without legal consequences, to the infamous Polish death camps.  Although Auschwitz was built by invading Nazis (the Gestapo probably had 27 words for torture), Poles did kill Jews during WWII; anti-Semitism has been a force in Poland for centuries, and it is on the rise now.  Israel argues that banning relevant terminology is really aimed at suppressing Poland’s national memory,  future Holocaust research and freedom of speech.  It would be as though the government of Myanmar decided to ban the words “Rohingya” and “genocide.”

In China, leader Xi Jinping wants to remove the current limit of two terms he is allowed to serve, in order to stay in power indefinitely.  Not everyone in China agrees, of course, but their voices are quickly silenced by the government.  According to the NY Times, censors search the internet for terms like “my emperor,” “lifelong” and “shameless” and sweep any dissident opinion out of view.  Even the letter N was banned for a while.  A University of Pennsylvania professor explained:  the ban was to pre-empt social scientists from expressing dissent mathematically (N greater than 2, N being the number of Xi’s terms in office).  Imagine banning even something as obscure and nerdy as that!  On the plus side, it gives an alternative meaning to “term limits.”

Authoritarian governments need to rely on thought control, in order to continue ruling.  But are they alone in seeing the truth as a threat?  Closer to home, we’ve all heard by now that any references to “climate change” and “global warming” have been scrubbed from the EPA’s website as well as intra-agency communications.  If you can’t say it, eventually you might stop thinking it’s real– which would serve (pro-fossil fuel industry) Director Scott Pruitt just fine.

At the Centers for Disease Control, it is now officially verboten to use such expressions as “science-based,” “evidence-based,” “diversity,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” and “fetus.”  Apparently relying on scientific evidence, or paying attention to diversity when hiring or setting public health policy, and even acknowledging the existence of fetuses can lead to dangerous, left-wing policies.  For example, “vulnerable” and “entitlement” are known gateway words which might cause one to tumble down the path to (gasp) Socialism!  Such obsessive word and thought control goes beyond the ludicrous; it affects real life, real diseases which CDC is supposed to be controlling.  When applying for CDC grants, how are researchers supposed to propose studies on the Zika virus, or on congenital syphilis, without mentioning the word “fetus”?  How do they monitor disease outbreaks, apply preventive measures (even if “vaccine” is allowed), and protect us from potential epidemics while staying clear of scientific evidence, as though science itself was the Bubonic Plague?

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  The banning of language denies reality, but of course it doesn’t change the actual facts.  Or does it?  Some have shrugged and said we now live in a post-factual world, one that admits the “truth” of alt-facts.  This blogger, for one, refuses to go along with that.  And so do the Zika virus, congenital syphilis, global warming, the Holocaust, and Trump’s predictable return to the bosom of the NRA.



The Endless Upward Spiral

In the aftermath of the Feb. 14th school shooting and massacre in Florida, pundits and our Chaos President are pushing the idea of arming teachers as a deterrent to future shooters, never mind the fact that most of these deranged people fully expect to die during their attack on the schools.  Wayne LaPierre of the NRA has repeated the old line “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.”  Another talking head on Fox News called for schools to accumulate “superior firepower.”  According to the NY Times, arming 20% of the teachers in the country would result in 700,000 handguns circulating in schools (in addition to those already present), which would certainly be a boost to gun sales and the NRA, but not a boost to school safety.  Even trained police 1) often miss their intended targets in a shootout, potentially hitting bystanders and 2) have their own prejudices in identifying who is, or isn’t, a threat (a point well made by the Black Lives Matter movement).

Trump himself has said that it would have been “beautiful” if everyone in that club in Orlando had been armed, when the killer began to shoot.  I can just see it:  a dark, crowded club, someone by the bar fires a shot, and suddenly 200 guns whip out of holsters and start blasting away.  When the smoke finally clears, the original gunman may be the only one left standing.

Likewise, a teacher hears gunshots in the hallway, grabs a pistol from the desk drawer and fires at the first threatening-looking (these days, practically synonymous with black or Middle-Eastern) male who appears in the doorway.  I have a feeling that most teachers would instinctively throw themselves in the path of a bullet to save their students, but very few would want to convert their schools to combat zones.

Escalation, rather than rational gun control.  Dissemination of even more weapons, rather than removing access to semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15.   The same mentality leads to increasing the nuclear armament rather than the pre-Trump era negotiated decreases on all sides, when we already have enough to destroy the world many times over.  If someone makes a threat, the only response is to make a bigger threat, “fire and fury like the world has never seen before!”

Here’s an excerpt from the final novel in the Fourth World trilogy, currently a work in progress.  The robot Protem is discussing escalation with General Slocumb:

“Our agents in Beijing report that, after seven years of neglect under Lee Kam-Mun, the attention of the PWE has once again settled on the worldwide Resistance.  Under their new Leader, Pers Bigelow, mobilization of PWE troops in Asia, Africa and the Eurozone has increased sharply.  It is only a matter of time before we come under attack here in the Western Quarantine Zone.”

“Then it’s a bloody good thing we haven’t wasted those seven years of respite,” said Slocumb, his smile easy and confident.  “As you know, Mr. President, we’ve built a rather substantial fleet of small fighter ships, each powered by a modified Flowsorb engine; they can outrun and out-maneuver anything on the PWE side.  The ships have been armed with the fourth-generation Razer cannons developed in our San Jose labs, which have greater range, and pack a more powerful wallop, than conventional PWE weapons.  Let the blighters come, I say; we’ll show ‘em what for!”  He suddenly brightened at another thought.  “And— and, I haven’t even brought up our beautiful, brand-new battleship, launched last week— Big Bella!”  Protem had heard that the ship’s name Bella was derived from bellum, war.  As in a bellicose, belligerent battleship:  was the name, along with the alliteration, an example of humor?

A warning signal always turned on in Protem’s neural network whenever its military officers began to speak in an over-excited way, like boys exulting over their new toys.  “You are assuming that the PWE has not made similar advances.”  The general’s smile slowly disappeared.


Super Blue-Bloods

The Bay Area has had front-row seats in the past couple of months for two major celestial events:  first the total solar eclipse (I’ve already lost the special glasses used to view that), then a few days ago, the total eclipse of a super blue blood moon (super because of its size at the moon’s closest distance to the Earth along its elliptical orbit, blue because it was the second full moon in the same month, and blood because of its color, imparted by red light from all the sunrises and sunsets on Earth passing through the atmosphere to be reflected back from the moon).  Shivering in my greatcoat and wiping the condensation off my binoculars at 4:30 in the morning, I watched the super moon gradually bleed red as it slivered into the pre-dawn darkness.

It brought to mind an early morning in my novel Fourth World Nation (the sequel to Fourth World), when Benn steps out during the Double Lunar Eclipse Festival to explore the Martian colony where he now lives:

“Low in the morning sky, Deimos and Phobos sat perfectly aligned as Mars moved between them and the sun, plunging both moons simultaneously into darkness.  Over the preceding hour, Benn had watched tiny Deimos, which was 20,000 km away and appeared like a slow-moving star in the sky, duck into hiding behind Phobos, which was not only larger at 22 km across, but also much closer, appearing more like a small moon.  Phobos, circling the planet at high speed from west to east, had swallowed its little brother, and now both sons of the ancient Greek god Ares (called Mars by the Romans) lay in their father’s dense shadow.  Q!  A double-lunar eclipse!  Benn had never witnessed one, simply because he had lived most of his life underground.  It was highly unlikely that anyone from Tharsis Colony had ever seen such a spectacle.

In contrast, everyone in Highland City was out in the streets to begin the holiday, despite the early hour.  All eyes, drowsy or alert, were directed upward for the duration of the eclipse, which, although relatively brief, did not disappoint the cheering crowd.  The rarity of the phenomenon, the surrounding media buzz, and above all, the opportunity to throw a city-wide party at five-thirty in the morning more than compensated for the brevity of the actual eclipse.  In fact, the festival would stretch through the entire day, from unusually early opening times for the downtown bars, to the Mayor’s Parade at ten, and the lunar-themed dinner menus at many restaurants.

Among the myriad festival events, Benn had highlighted a noon concert by the Highlander Symphony; the program on his da-disc featured “The Planets” by Holst; Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” transcribed for horn and Mars-harp; and finally, Panic and Fear, a modern piece by LaGuardia.  What a stark difference there was between Highland City, where wealth and a sophisticated population could support a “world-class” (albeit a small world) symphony orchestra, and Benn’s home colony of Tharsis, where the only musical ensemble was the five-man pit orchestra at Tharsis-on-Avon, the Shakespeare company.  At the thought of that singularly talentless quintet, Benn had to laugh.  Their conductor often made his musicians play over the actors’ voices, and Benn’s best friend Jace had sometimes stopped in the middle of a soliloquy to rail at them.  What had Jace called them?  Scurvy rogues?  Rampallions and fustilarians?  Was he making these up?  No, he remembered:  Basket-hilt stale jugglers!  At one particularly disjointed rehearsal, Jace had rushed downstage, drawing his cutlass and yelling, “Away, you cut-purse rascals, you filthy bungs, away!”  When the conductor responded with a rude hand gesture, Jace had raged on, “I’ll tickle your catastrophe; I’ll thrust my knife in your mouldy chaps!”  Hmm, Benn chuckled, maybe there was high culture at Tharsis, after all.

On this rare day off, the first thing that struck Benn—who had so far been shuttered away in an underground lab at MWI—was that Highland City clearly tried to fashion itself after New York Metropol—even their Mayor had been imported from there.  He savored the great outdoors by strolling aimlessly north on Av7, east on St46, then north again on Av5, stopping to explore the illogically-named neighborhoods.  Notably, there was no rise in altitude at Morningside Heights, neither park view nor terrace at Parkview Terrace, and he would have been shocked to find a river at Riverside Drive.  Pleasantly diverted, Benn wandered on, taking in the fascinating billboards and door signs on every street.  They reflected the City’s ethnic and cultural diversity (at least commercial diversity, down here at street level).  Overhanging the arched entrance to Nasser’s Lunch Site was a rocket ship that looked like chunks of meat on a skewer; its menu spoke with a Mideast Zone accent, promising an oasis of lush, exotic pleasures within.  Several doors down, Benn peeked into The Pho Chateau, a chain restaurant originally based in Earth’s Mekong District, which offered moon-shaped rice noodle dishes, served family-style in a Baroque white-and-gold paneled room, its high ceiling ringed by a slate mansard roof.  The menu at The Pho Chateau’s gilded entrance depicted dancing dumplings which accurately reflected the elongated shapes, if not the movements, of Deimos and Phobos.  Farther up Av5, a quasi-religious group calling themselves the Highland Druids hawked tiny Aresite amulets and gave demonstrations of Areodynamic cookery, which, they claimed, had healing powers tied to the phases of both moons.”

The similarity to New York City had already struck Benn at a high-society dinner party.  Here’s another excerpt from Fourth World Nation:

“From his long wait in line, overhearing the nasty comments that the cream of society made about one another, Benn had concluded that the oldest families in Highland City enjoyed far less prestige than the newer ones.  Some even referred to them dismissively as Oldies (at least they weren’t called Martians, a distinction enjoyed only by natives of Tharsis)!  Benn thought again of the archived black-and-white films.  Unlike the New York high society they were trying so hard to emulate—where the oldest established families, many with Dutch or English surnames, looked down on social climbers and the nouveau riche—here, wealthy Oldies like the Monroes were perceived as the most backward colonial subjects.  It was the recent arrivals from Earth who occupied all the positions of power.  Unlike the early settlers of colonial New Amsterdam and New York, whose philanthropic families became permanent fixtures of city life, their modern equivalents on Mars had become largely irrelevant, as a growing technocracy rapidly supplanted the old plutocracy under the PWE.  Still, the old families understood the rules governing fashionable society.  They had defined local tradition, and that was something the diverse newcomers craved.  Therefore the Monroes and other Oldies were invited to high-society events; however, whispered the young technocrats and their spouses to one another, the blue-bloods should not let that further puff up their leathery egos, which some compared to overstuffed, old-fashioned club chairs.


Shameless Commercial II

At a large trade tasting of the wines of Bordeaux held in San Francisco yesterday, a friend– the owner of a great chateau in St. Julien– told me he had downloaded and started to read Fourth World Nation, the second book in the trilogy.

“Oh no,” I replied (despite an initial flush of success and gratitude– maybe it was time for a translation into French!).  “The series is meant to be read in order– so it’s better to start with Fourth World, and then move on to Fourth World Nation.”  Otherwise it would be hard to understand Benn’s abilities, his relationship to Lora, and why they are running away from the Pan-World Electorate.

In going back to Fourth World, my friend would probably be amused by Chapter Eight, in which Dr. Nes Neelin holds a tasting of the Greatest Wines of the Century in the Mellon College dining hall.

Ever since Fourth World Nation came out on Amazon, I’ve been working assiduously on the third novel in the trilogy, in which the setting shifts from Mars back to Earth– in particular, my old stomping grounds of Malaysia and Singapore.  With a minimum of spoiler alerts (I won’t even mention its title), here’s an excerpt:

As a young linguistics student at Cambridge University, Wesley Stuart had appeared in numerous collegiate theatrical productions, including some by his favorite playwrights, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.  Which one was he channeling now?  Someone in between, perhaps.  Chou Xia-Yu had found his classmate’s talents amusing, and was therefore willing to tolerate his sporadic spoofing of British Peers, or “p-p-pompous p-persons of p-p-privilege,” as Stuart sometimes put it.

How had a charming but harmless thespian, a Bohemian polyglot such as Wes Stuart, ended up as the PWE Superintendent of Singapore?  Chou knew very well the final step, having promoted Wes to that position during his time as Leader.  Before that, Wes had served for eighteen years as a minister in the British Parliament, a local governing council of the Pan-World Electorate.  There was, of course, no longer a distinction drawn between the House of Lords and the House of Commons (nor had there been for almost a hundred years), but the Stuarts had occupied a seat in Lords since the seventeenth century, and on the day Wesley Stuart had staked his claim by strolling ever-so-naturally through the grand entrance to Parliament, no one had thought to object.  Even the vehement stand taken by The London Stage, a cultural review published and edited by Wes, against the long-lost traditions of aristocracy— which still glowed in the hearts of many Britons like a warm coal among the morning ashes— had drawn nary a negative comment from his fellow ministers.  He may have written and acted as a traitor to his class, but that class now existed only in a dense fog of London nostalgia.

As he closed the front door, Stuart affected a different accent.  “Roit this wye, lidees and gents,” he pronounced like a circus barker, with a bow and a broad sweep of his arm.  Lora walked slowly past him into the living room, pausing to gawk at two huge bronze Buddhas flanking the entryway.

“Wes, you haven’t lost your touch,” said Chou.  He flashed a momentary smile, then cleared his throat pointedly.

“Ah.  By that you mean my touch of craziness,” replied Stuart, feigning embarrassment.  “Well, you were ever the serious one, Chou.  Always getting straight down to business, eh?”  He gestured at the furniture crowding his living room, which consisted of a club-style sofa and three leather wingback chairs (“Water buffalo,” he announced proudly) surrounding an ornately-carved Indonesian hardwood kopi table with a tall Chinese vase at its center.  Bookshelves overflowing with publications in several different languages lined the walls.  Everyone settled into a comfortable seat, but Ari plopped herself down on the edge of the low table, shifting it sideways on the marble floor by a millimeter or two.

Stuart lunged forward and steadied the vase, even though they both knew there was no danger of it tipping over— and besides, it was made of an indestructible polymeric material, the product of multispecies recombinant DNA.  “Oi sye, steady on, young pip!  That’s from the Ming Dynasty, innit?”

Not bloody likely, not unless the Ming Emperors had access to genetic engineering, thought Stuart with an inward laugh.  Ari felt a wave of irony and smiled innocently at her host:  she had liked him immediately, sensing his openness, his affection for Chou, and above all, his excellent humor (what Wes himself might have termed his “infinite jest”).