I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.

Richard Rumbold, from his speech on the scaffold

Spoken as drums were being loudly played to cover his voice (see note 2)


It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. You forgive a conventional duel just as you forgive a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.

Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown

The Inspection Paradox

 Suppose you ask college students how big their classes are and average the responses.  The result might be 56.  But if you ask the school for the average class size, they might say 31.  It sounds like someone is lying, but they could both be right.

Allen Downey

The reason is that there are obviously classes with more than 31 students, and some with less. That means that more students are in larger classes, so a student chosen at random will report being in a class with more students than average.

Moravec’s paradox

The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four-year-old that we take for granted – recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question – in fact solve some of the hardest engineering problems ever conceived… As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come

— Steven Pinker

The 35-year life of AI research mimics the life of many people at that age: they’ve given up on their early dreams, but found out a pretty good way to make money doing something much more boring but arguably adjacent to it. Like an aspiring writer who admits to themselves that life as a marketing creative is pretty comfortable, or a precocious young scientist who wants to cure cancer, but settles for owning a home and working for the pharmaceutical industry. AI was going to bring about the technological singularity, instead the killer app is setting a timer by voice command. What would 15-year old AI research think if it could see itself at middle age?

Dystopian and Post-apocalyptic fiction

The difference between them:

Dystopian books are concerned with societies that have gone wrong, or which were bad to begin with. 1984 is a dystopian novel, because it’s about a version of our world where a politically corrupt and all-powerful Party has taken over the country. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, because it is about an oppressive religious regime taking power in America.

Post-apocalyptic books are concerned with the consequences of the end of the world as we know it. The apocalypse could be world-ending, as in a nuclear war (The Road), a zombie apocalypse (Word War Z), a viral outbreak (Station Eleven), or an economic collapse (Soft Apocalypse). In a post-apocalyptic book, human civilization may be ended (On the Beach), or it may go on in a different form (Earth Abides).

To complicate the issue, some dystopian novels are also post-apocalyptic: the apocalyptic event is often an inciting event for the dystopian turn in society (The Hunger Games).

The Poison Pill

The crows like to insist a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows.


The Ad Element

This post is brought to you by the Council for Doomed Quixotic Proposals

HTML needs to have a semantic tag for sponsored content, e.g. <AD>.

The AD tag, which (like HEADER, MAIN, or NAV tags) has no essential presentational requirements — no prescribed way of affecting the layout or appearance of the document — only serves as a container to note the presence of sponsored content.

This tag would apply not only to third-party ads (i.e. ad banners) loaded into a page, but to paid editorial content inside a page. So, if I paid you to write a 1000 word piece about my new washing machine, and put it on your washing machine review site, you’d have to wrap your ARTICLE tag in an AD tag.

This would also apply to other media content: wrap your AUDIO and VIDEO in AD blocks, too.

A definition of sponsored content would have to be in place, but that doesn’t sound impossible. In fact, it would likely be a question of which of the many definitions to choose from. These definitions come from search engines, consumer protection groups, newspapers, and so on.

It may in some cases be hard to judge whether what you’re publishing is an advertisement or not, but developers are already asked to use their best judgment when applying any semantic element, or (for that matter) when making sure their content follows any regulation (GDPR, CAN-SPAM, etc.) . Usually, the rule is to err on the side of caution.

Anyway, there are a few advantages to this idea:

  1. HTML exists solely to describe content on the web, and since ads are such an important part of the web, this is an opportunity to fill in a huge gap.
  2. The AD tag would provide a mechanism to highlight sponsored messages and avoid confusion among readers as to whether what they’re seeing is part of the editorial voice of a website, or whether it’s a second party speaking through them. You may have noticed that it has gotten harder to tell the source of online content (I certainly have) and having a clear annotation helps avoid confusion.
  3. Since many advertisers may not want to reveal they’re paying for promotion, the AD tag would make it easier for sites to safely enforce rules against this bad behavior. What I mean is, it’s easier to say “your content was removed from our platform because it didn’t clearly disclose it was a political advertisement, not because we disagree with you politically.”
  4. It would also be easier (and at any rate, not any harder) for sites like Google and Facebook to differentiate honest, well-intentioned content sources from bad actors, by whether they properly use this tag.
  5. It is likely that, unless self-enforcement of some kind is put in place by online advertisers, either the U.S. or E.U., or both, will put some stricter regulation in place. Often, self-imposed restrictions like this are a good way for industries to prevent heavy-handed regulation by legislators who probably don’t know what they’re doing¹.
  6. And, of course, that it would be so much easier to block them.

¹ Compare the voluntary MPAA rating system used by the film industry, compared with the disastrous EU Cookie Law)


Presently — faced with the immaturity of Chinese sci-fi — everyone in our sci-fi community is envious of the adult sci-fi readership in the US, and see it as a sign of maturity in sci-fi literature. But one must know that senility comes after maturity, and death comes after senility. The prosperity of US sci-fi is largely a result of the prosperity of its movie and TV industries, and these sci-fi movies and TV shows are but a stylistic extension of the “golden age” (sci-fi). Contemporary sci-fi literature itself in US is already deep in twilight — full of works applying complex techniques to express dense metaphors, completely devoid of the youthful energy of the “golden age”; and many magnum opuses in recent years already have an air of death about them. Americans under 25 these days basically don’t read sci-fi; I don’t see what’s to be envied about that.

— Liu Cixin (2001)

That was almost twenty years ago. I don’t read very much contemporary SF, but from what I’ve seen this prediction was accurate: SF is now even more driven by movies and television for broadened definitions of both, as well as more ornate and more cynical, while less exuberant and hopeful.

I’ve heard a lot of teenagers and college-aged kids asking for a ‘beginner’ science fiction book recommendation, and I’m always put on my heels by it. The idea of a dependency tree in literature was foreign to me before a few years ago. Maybe it’s just my ignorance, but I don’t remember ever feeling like there was a ladder you had to climb with reading. It was more like a garden where you could walk around and pick from whatever looked good. Something from over here, and something from over there. If it turned out not to be pleasant or rewarding, put it back and keep walking. The existence of a ladder implies an order, which implies an end, which troublingly reflects what Liu was predicting.