Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Keep Calm And Carrion.

It was a crisp, clear, October morning, which was unusual because around here because summer usually lasts into November and then the temperatures plunge because the weather likes to skip fall entirely. For some reason the car was in the shop so I was walking to the bus, which annoyed me in spite of the nice weather. And then I heard “Woof!” and I stopped and turned, expecting to see a small dog, but instead there was a cluster of black vultures in someone’s yard. If you’ve never heard one black vultures bark like dogs. It’s pretty funny. I wondered too if the people who lived in that house were home and if they were what they thought of a bunch of big black birds tearing apart some roadkill in front of their chrysanthemums. A group of vultures, by the way, is called a “venue”. Vultures get a bad rap, mostly because they’re associated with death, but somebody’s gotta clean up the garbage and we should be grateful they’ve stepped up. Their digestive systems can destroy anthrax and cholera, unlike some other carrion eaters who spread these diseases, and vultures fill such an important anthropological niche they’ve evolved independently on different continents, and like crows and ravens vultures are very intelligent. They’re smart enough to have figured out that it’s a lot easier to catch your food once it’s stopped moving.

In myth and legend vultures run the spectrum. The Cherokee believed the vulture’s bald head was a sign of shame, although really it’s just practical–they wouldn’t have to worry about getting rotten meat stuck in their hair, and we all know how annoying that can be. The ancient Egyptians regarded the vulture as a nurturing mother, but they also associated it with death. That’s not surprising. What would be surprising is if they didn’t associate it with death, which reminds me of a joke. A psychiatrist shows an ancient Egyptian a picture of a bird and says, “What do you think of when you see this?” The ancient Egyptian says, “Death.” The psychiatrist pulls out a picture of a tree and says, “What do you think of when you see this?” The ancient Egyptian says, “Death.” The psychiatrist pulls out a picture of a tree and says, “What do you think of when you see this?” The ancient Egyptian says, “Death.” The psychiatrist says, “Obviously you’re obsessed with death.” The ancient Egyptian says, “Whaddya mean? You’re the one with all the morbid pictures,” but that’s another story.

Then there’s the story of the founding of ancient Rome. Remus thought the hill where he wanted to build a city was the lucky one because six vultures flew over it, but then twelve vultures flew over the hill chosen by Romulus, and Rome turned out pretty well.

Yeah, I felt pretty lucky to be walking by the venue down an avenue.

 

こんにちは, Mr. Roboto.

Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:
“Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…”

-Ray Bradbury, There Will Come Soft Rains

A few years ago I volunteered for a psychology experiment. I was shown a clear plastic case filled with gears and levers arranged to form what looked kind of like a face, although that just might have been pareidolia (check out Ann Koplow’s definition of that word). The young woman administering the experiment told me the case was a robot named Marvin and I thought, hey, the paranoid android, does he have diodes causing pain in his left side? But I wasn’t the one asking questions. Instead the young woman asked me a series of questions about Marvin. Does Marvin have feelings? Does Marvin think like we do? Does Marvin have rights? As she went down the list I ticked off “no”, feeling a little bad about it, but, hey, it was a machine, not a person.

When the experiment was done the young woman explained to me that she was studying how people respond to machines. She had a different “robot” without a face and with a more technical name. She told me most people responded negatively to the other robot but more positively to Marvin, and I’d just completely blown the results. Maybe I would have felt differently if that uncanny valley had been narrower, but I doubt it.

The odd thing is I’ve really been into science fiction, and especially robots, my whole life. The first Halloween after Star Wars came out I went as C-3PO and the first time I saw Forbidden Planet on a Saturday afternoon I thought Robbie The Robot was the hero. I still kind of think that and sometimes when I offer someone a drink I’ll add, “Would sixty gallons be sufficient?” and no one ever gets it, but that’s another story. And the ethics of artificial life, and especially artificial intelligence, is something science fiction has grappled with since, well, about as long as there’s been science fiction. “Robot” comes from a Czech word meaning “slave” and entered science fiction in a 1921 play by Karel Čapek. The term android is a compound of ancient Greek words that mean “man-like” and has been used to mean something resembling a person since at least the early 18th century.

It’s still a big question. The series Humans and the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica are both built on the question of what happens when machines become self-aware, Star Trek: The Next Generation used Commander Data and Star Trek: Voyager used the holographic doctor to grapple with the rights and responsibilities of self-aware machines, and, back in the Star Wars universe, even though Obi Wan says, “If droids could think there would be no need for humans at all,” it seems pretty clear that the droids can think. They’re even programmed with personalities–or is that something that just happens when their ability to process information reaches a certain level? And while the replicants in Blade Runner look biological–almost completely indistinguishable from humans–they’re still machines, but what happens when you program a machine with an instinct for self-preservation?

And let’s not forget one of film’s most famous thinking machines: HAL 9000. As Dave says, “He acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. Whether or not he has real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.”

2001 does try to answer that question, though. In the end HAL’s voice runs down like a record player losing power, a mere machine. In 2010, though, we learn that HAL goes on a killing spree because it–or he–was told to lie, causing an internal conflict. The machine has a mental breakdown.

For all that science fiction has wrestled with the question there still seem to be no answers, but one thing is clear: the more like us machines become the more they’ll tell us about who–or what–we are.

Across The Universe.

FROM: THE GALACTIC COUNCIL, MILKY WAY
TO: PEOPLE OF EARTH
SUBJECT: FIRST CONTACT

Dear People of Earth,
We hope you don’t mind being called that. You do have a lot of names for your planet as well as each other, and even the mid-sized yellow star your planet orbits. It gets very confusing. We decided to pick one and go with it.
Now down to business. While this signal may make you say “wow” understand that it is not to be considered a formal first contact. We expect you to carry on as you were, but since a growing number of you accept that you are not alone in the universe we thought we’d make this little courtesy call. We’ve been monitoring your transmissions, although your recent switch to satellites that direct signals directly to locations on your planet, what you call “cellular” communication, rather than broad-range wave-based technology has made this more difficult. We’ve also studied your culture extensively, although almost entirely without your awareness. There have been a few unfortunate incidents when we were sloppy. They were incorporated into what you call “mythology” or “religion”, but since we understand this is a sensitive area for you we won’t go into further detail.
The reason for this message is we’d like to assure you that everything will be fine. Well, perhaps “fine” isn’t the right word, but you can take comfort that your formal first contact with creatures from another planet will be exactly as you’ve predicted.

Your first contactees may be a hostile and scavenging species that is intent on draining your planet’s resources as they sweep through the galaxy.

They may be gentle and enigmatic creatures.

They may be completely carnivorous.

They may see you as food.

They may be vegetarians.

They may be vegetables.

They may make a dramatic appearance in large craft that suddenly appear in your skies.

They may crash land in a small ship.

They may come in large numbers only for you to discover that a small group crash-landed here some time ago.

They may bear such a close resemblance to you that they can and even have passed among you with the aid of little more than hats, socks, or slightly eccentric footwear.

They may be so completely unlike you their forms cannot be contained in anything comprehensible to you.

They may be intimately familiar with your planet and your ways.

They may find you as alien as you find them.

They may land on your planet.

You may land on theirs.

You may encounter each other in space.

They may be bipedal.

They may be mammals, molluscs, cephalopods, insects, avians, fish, amphibians, reptiles, or a form of life that defies all categorization.

They may be machines with an advanced level of intelligence resembling your own.

They may be organic creatures contained within machines.

They may be microscopic, perhaps even viruses, that operate by inhabiting either organic host organisms or specially designed machines.

They may be able to breathe your planet’s atmosphere.

They may require special equipment just to be among you.

They may be gelatinous blobs.

They may communicate, like you, through audible and visual cues.

They may communicate by exuding pheromones, liquids, or by the direct transfer of electrical discharges from one individual to another.

They may not have any interest in you.

They may want to put you in cages and experiment on you.

They may be carbon-based.

They may not.

They may look like giant guinea pigs that wear purple capes and defecate sapphires. This is unlikely, but it’s a big galaxy. A lot of things can happen.

They may have a single planet-wide monoculture.

They may be clones of each other.

They may be at least as culturally diverse as you are.

They may be highly varied, even multiple species working collectively.

They may want you to join their multi-species collective.

They may not.

You may want to have sex with them.

They may want to have sex with you.

They may look like ordinary pets: dogs, cats, ferrets.

They may be arachnids whose enormous size defies the laws of physics.

They may look like creatures from your mythology.

They may merely adopt the look of creatures from your mythology or some other familiar form in order to make you more comfortable.

To sum up, we can say with a high degree with certainty that your predictions are accurate and the first aliens you encounter will look exactly like what you’ve come to expect.
Or they may not.
We hope everything goes well and wish you the very best of luck on your first contact, but ask that when it happens you please at least pretend to be surprised.
Sincerely,
The Galactic Council, Milky Way
cc: Andromeda Galaxy, other members, Local Galactic Group

 

Monstrously Easy Quiz.

So I had this idea for a quiz: match the real-life serial killers with the films that their crimes inspired. I started with Psycho, Silence Of The Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but when the answers came up Ed Gein, Ed Gein, Ed Gein, I knew it was either a terrible idea for a quiz or a brilliant idea for the world’s most morbid slot machine, but that’s another story.

Instead here’s a quiz that should be ridiculously easy if you’re of a certain age or really into cryptozoology, or of a certain age and also really into cryptozoology, two things which just might go hand in hand.

Pop Quiz: Musical Group, Performer, or Cryptozoological Creature?

  1. Kajagoogoo
  2. Oingo Boingo
  3. Ogopogo
  4. Bjork
  5. Morag
  6. Nahuelito
  7. Nickelback
  8. Inkanyabma
  9. Chupacabra
  10. Aswang
  11. Chumbawamba
  12. Rutles
  13. Bunyip
  14. Pomplamoose
  15. Elwedritsche
  16. Loup Garou
  17. Hoobastank
  18. Radiohead
  19. Melonheads
  20. Jackalope
  21. Pixies
  22. Mothman
  23. Mongolian Death Worm
  24. Molly Hatchet
  25. Monkees

He Was Also The Phantom Of The Opera.

Have you ever been on an elevator with a group of people and it stops at a floor no one selected and when the doors open there’s no one there? Whenever that happens I always say, “It must be Claude Raines.” And no one ever gets it. Or maybe they’re contemplating the fact that in Britain elevators are called “lifts” even though they lower you too. Or maybe they’re too busy considering the physics of invisibility, or even the biology of an invisible person. Probably not the chemistry because what would that have to do with anything? Yes, in the 1933 movie and even in the H.G. Wells novel the protagonist, Griffin, becomes invisible by injecting a chemical, which is kind of ridiculous because most chemicals, even ones that prompt such dramatic changes, would eventually wear off. At least in the 1975 TV series, which I remember watching as a kid, it was a nuclear process and in the 1987 novel Memoirs Of An Invisible Man and the 1992 adaptation with Chevy Chase the protagonist is rendered invisible by bombardment with radiation, but then in 2000 with Hollow Man it was a chemical process all over again. And in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man it’s really an extended metaphor, but that’s another story.

It’s the biology that’s ridiculous, though, which I didn’t realize until I was taking an anatomy exam and one of the questions was, “Could the Invisible Man see? Discuss.” And I wrote, “No, sight depends on light projecting images onto the back of the retina. What do you want me to discuss? How you’ve just ruined what I thought was a pretty cool story? That maybe the Invisible Man isn’t really invisible but is like some kind of chameleon and can blend into the background? That you’ve tried to drag out a yes-no question so you can slip off to the teachers’ lounge for a smoke? That there are times when the power to become invisible would be really helpful in dealing with the perils of adolescence? That since it’s May I should be gathering nuts instead of sitting in here going nuts?”

I had to stay after school. My correct but creative answer was not appreciated. Go figure.

 

Don’t Feed The Plants.

There must have been plenty of them about, growing up quietly and inoffensively, with nobody taking any particular notice of them–at least it seemed so, for if the biological or botanical experts were excited over them, no news of their interest percolated to the general public. And so the one in our garden continued its growth, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world.

It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots and walked.

-John Wyndham, Day Of The Triffids

 

Doctor Smith: Let him change me into an orchid, a papaya tree, a fragrant bougainvillea!

Lost In Space, The Great Vegetable Rebellion

 

Less than a month ago, Santa Mira was like any other town. People with nothing but problems. Then, out of the sky, came a solution. Seeds drifting through space for years took root in a farmer’s field. From the seeds came pods which had the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)

 

Jess: Look at the giant tomato, Martha.

Martha: I didn’t know they grow’d them so big, Jess.

Jess: I wonder where he’s going. He got little Timmy.

Martha: Poor Timmy.

Jess: He ate him all up.

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes

 

The desert cabbage is not often found near the canals; it is a weed and not tolerated in the green sea bottoms of the lower latitudes, though it may be found in the deserts miles from any surface water. The western half of this specimen was still spread out in a semicircular fan, flat to the ground, but the eastern half was tilted up almost vertically, its flat leaves still reaching greedily for the Sun’s rays to fuel the photosynthesis by which plants live. A hardy plant, it would not curl up until the Sun was gone completely, and it would not withdraw into the ground at all. Instead it would curl into a tight ball, thus protecting itself from the cold and incidentally simulating, on giant scale, the Earth plant for which it was named.

Robert Heinlein, Red Planet

 

As I did stand my watch upon the hill,

I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought

The wood began to move.

The Scottish play, Act V, Sc.5

 

Hermione had managed to free herself before the plant got a firm grip on her. Now she watched in horror as the two boys fought to pull the plant off them, but the more they strained against it the tighter and faster the plant wound around them.

“Stop moving!” Hermione ordered them. “I know what this is–it’s Devil’s Snare!”

Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone

 

DOCTOR: Revolution’s going on down there.

THACKERAY: Revolution. Come now, Doctor. Are you choosing your words with care?

DOCTOR: Somehow the Krynoid can channel its power to other plants. All the vegetation on this planet is about to turn hostile.

THACKERAY: You mean like aggressive rhubarb?

DOCTOR: Yes, aggressive rhubarb.

Doctor Who, The Seeds of Doom

 

I am Groot.

Guardians Of The Galaxy

Next Time Order Online.

Hello! Thank you for calling Plank Pizza. Please hold. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Plank Pizzas come in your choice of thin, regular, deep dish, and casserole crusts, and in size ranging from our one-person piece to the Plank Party special. It’s your choice. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Plank Pizza crusts also come in your choice of flavors: white, sourdough, marbled rye, parmesan, romano, olive oil, pretzel, graham, sriracha, cheddar, bleu, cornmeal, peach, and gluten-free. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. We know you value quality and that’s why our dough, cheese, sauce, and all toppings are prepared and packaged fresh. That way you can enjoy quality Plank Pizza no matter where you are. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Thirty-four years ago Kevin Plank sold everything he owned to offer the best pizza at the best price. Then, three months later, facing bankruptcy and complete ruin, he sold his soul. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Kevin Plank had just one wish: to make the best pizza in the world, and also wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. With a lot of hard work and a little black magic he made that wish come true.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. That’s right. In a bizarre midnight ceremony involving the sacrifice of a goat with a pizza slicer by the light of a burning can of sardines Kevin Plank summoned Asmodeus, archduke of the ninth circle of Hell and, we’re told, a real pizza lover. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. At the time eternal damnation seemed worth it, and if you’ve already tried a Plank Pizza we think you’ll agree. That’s why we’re the most successful pizza franchise in the world with locations on all seven continents, including Antarctica. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Kevin Plank, as you may know, wasn’t content with delivering a pizza that even the world’s top food critics describe as tasty as sin. He’s also one of the most generous business owners in the world, a major contributor to global charities. What you may not know is he also employs a full-time staff of priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, Hindus, Buddhists, and even a small number of modern day Druids in a desperate attempt to save himself from an eternity of pain and torment in the bowels of a pit that far exceed the wildest imaginings of Dante. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. It was Kevin Plank’s army of lawyers, though, who finally found a loophole in the contract written and signed in blood and currently locked in a vault in the safe room of his San Francisco mansion. And you can be part of it! Yes, you can be the secret ingredient. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. The only way Kevin Plank can save himself from an eternity of unspeakable horrors is if his pizza draws in a large enough number of innocent souls. Then, and only then, can he escape. So be sure to ask about our special, and how every pizza you eat—

[CLICK]

Thank you for calling Plank Pizza. May I take your order?

Smart Guy.

Source: Wikipedia

I have a book called The Best British Stand-Up And Comedy Routines with comedy bits by a dozen or so performers. The title is slightly misleading, I think, because it’s not as comprehensive as it sounds. It’s more of a sampling of some really great stand-up and comedy routines by various performers spanning about three decades. An interesting thing about it is there are two American included, only one of whom is still alive—Greg Proops, whose birthday is today.

If you’re a fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway? you know Greg Proops, especially if, like me, you started with the British version where he and Clive Anderson would trade barbs, like the time Proops explained for American viewers that when he said “naff git” that was British for “Clive Anderson”.

Proops also performs solo, does two podcasts, and his book, The Smartest Book in the World, is full of his sharp, intelligent satire. And he really manages the neat trick of being really, really intelligent without being smug about it and he plays to the intelligence of his audience without blowing smoke up anyone’s skirt, maybe because he’s smart enough to know that real intelligence isn’t gauged by what you know but how well you know that everything you know is only a small facet of all that can be known and that the more you know the less you know because everything you know only makes you know what you don’t know.

You know?

Stuck Standing.

Source: Singapore Times

So a sixty-year old man is facing two years in prison for sticking toothpicks in bus seats, which seems horrifying, appalling, even unfathomable, or at the very least excessive. Two years? A bus driver told me about a kid who threw a milkshake out of the window into the open sunroof of a car in the next lane, and, as far as I know, he got off with a warning even though there should be stiff penalties for wasting milkshakes, but that’s another story.

Granted it was in Singapore, which has a reputation for harsh penalties, that the man placed toothpicks in bus seats, but I still think there are extenuating circumstances. He didn’t want anyone sitting next to him, something a lot of us can appreciate. I know there have been plenty of time I’ve gotten on a crowded bus and had to stand and when a seat opened up I offered it to someone else. If the bus is crowded I always offer my seat to a woman, which I realize is either chauvinism or chivalry, although sometimes it’s just so I can get away from whomever I’m sitting next to. And there were times in high school when the bus I rode home was so crowded I had to stand, even though school buses aren’t designed with overhead rails and handles. Maybe someone should have gone to prison for that, although it’s hard to say whether it would be the bus driver, the other students who wouldn’t scooch over so we could squeeze three kids into seats that were only big enough for two, or me for hanging around so long I was the last one to board the bus. And don’t get me started on the problem of manspreading, where one guy will not only take up at least three seats meant for one but a good chunk of the aisle too.

Anyway I think it’s understandable when someone doesn’t want to sit next to another person. Buses often force strangers together and sometimes it can be rewarding and sometimes you can get stuck next to a person you can’t stand.

 

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