Against Superheroes is live on Amazon!

Grab a copy immediately if you must, but there will be a five day promotional give-away of the Kindle edition starting tomorrow. If you prefer print, the paperback edition should be available in a day or two.

This is the first edition and it is trimmed down from a rather portly initial cut, though it still runs to 300+ pages. The metanarrative that was removed will be available in the second edition. And then, I imagine, there will be the extended cut with additional excised spelling mistakes or something…

Twilight of the Artistic Mind

Deep Dream Generated Image: deepdreamgenerator.com

Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, co-authored a paper on using deep learning neural networks in her new movie that she is directing. The basic idea is very old but the details and scale are more recent. If you take an artificial neural network and have it autoencode the input stream with bottlenecking, you can then submit any stimulus and will get some reflection of the training in the output. The output can be quite surreal, too, because the effect of bottlenecking combined with other optimizations results in an exaggeration of the features that define the input data set. If the input is images, the output will contain echoes of those images.

For Stewart’s effort, the goal was to transfer her highly stylized concept art into the movie scene. So they trained the network on her concept image and then submitted frames from the film to the network. The result reflected aspects of the original stylized image and the input image, not surprisingly.

There has been a long meditation on the unique status of art and music as a human phenomenon since the beginning of the modern era. The efforts at actively deconstructing the expectations of art play against a background of conceptual genius or divine inspiration. The abstract expressionists and the aleatoric composers show this as a radical 20th Century urge to re-imagine what art might be when freed from the strictures of formal ideas about subject, method, and content.

Is there any significance to the current paper? Not a great deal. The bottom line was that there was a great deal of tweaking to achieve a result that was subjectively pleasing and fit with the production goals of the film. That is a long way from automated art and perhaps mostly reflects the ability of artificial neural networks to encode complex transformations that are learned directly from examples. I was reminded of the Nadsat filters available for Unix in the 90s that transformed text into the fictional argot of A Clockwork Orange. Other examples were available, too. The difference was that these were hand-coded while the film example learned from examples. Not hard to do in the language case, though, and likely easier in certain computational aspects due to the smaller range of symbol values.

So it’s a curiosity at best, but plaudits to Stewart for trying new things in her film efforts.

Apprendre à traduire

Google’s translate has always been a useful tool for awkward gists of short texts. The method used was based on building a phrase-based statistical translation model. To do this, you gather up “parallel” texts that are existing, human, translations. You then “align” them by trying to find the most likely corresponding phrases in each sentence or sets of sentences. Often, between languages, fewer or more sentences will be used to express the same ideas. Once you have that collection of phrasal translation candidates, you can guess the most likely translation of a new sentence by looking up the sequence of likely phrase groups that correspond to that sentence. IBM was the progenitor of this approach in the late 1980’s.

It’s simple and elegant, but it always was criticized for telling us very little about language. Other methods that use techniques like interlingual transfer and parsers showed a more linguist-friendly face. In these methods, the source language is parsed into a parse tree and then that parse tree is converted into a generic representation of the meaning of the sentence. Next a generator uses that representation to create a surface form rendering in the target language. The interlingua must be like the deep meaning of linguistic theories, though the computer science versions of it tended to look a lot like ontological representations with fixed meanings. Flexibility was never the strong suit of these approaches, but their flaws were much deeper than just that.

For one, nobody was able to build a robust parser for any particular language. Next, the ontology was never vast enough to accommodate the rich productivity of real human language. Generators, being the inverse of the parser, remained only toy projects in the computational linguistic community. And, at the end of the day, no functional systems were built.

Instead, the statistical methods plodded along but had their own limitations. For instance, the translation of a never-before-seen sentence consisting of never-before-seen phrases, is the null set. Rare and strange words in the data have problems too, because they have very low probabilities and are swamped by well-represented candidates that lack the nuances of the rarer form. The model doesn’t care, of course; the probabilities rule everything. So you need more and more data. But then you get noisy data mixed in with the good data that distorts the probabilities. And you have to handle completely new words and groupings like proper nouns and numbers that are due to the unique productivity of these classes of forms.

So, where to go from here? For Google and its recent commitment to Deep Learning, the answer was to apply Deep Learning Neural Network approaches. The approach threw every little advance of recent history at the problem to pretty good effect. For instance, to cope with novel and rare words, they broke the input text up into sub-word letter groupings. The segmentation of the groupings was based, itself, on a learned model of the most common break-ups of terms, though they didn’t necessarily correspond to syllables or other common linguistic expectations. Sometimes they also used character-level models. The models were then combined into an ensemble, which is a common way of overcoming brittleness and overtraining on subsets of the data set. They used GPUs in some cases as well as reduced-precision arithmetic to speed-up the training of the models. They also used an attention-based intermediary between the encoder layers and the decoder layers to limit the influence of the broader context within a sentence.

The results improved translation quality by as much as 60% over the baseline phrase-based approach and, interestingly, showed a close approach to the average human translator’s performance. Is this enough? Not at all. You are not going to translate poetry this way any time soon. The productiveness of human language and the open classes of named entities remain a barrier. The subtleties of pragmatics might still vex any data driven approach—at least until there are a few examples in the corpora. And there might need to be a multi-sensory model somehow merged with the purely linguistic one to help manage some translation candidates. For instance, knowing the way in which objects fall could help move a translation from “plummeted” to “settled” to the ground.

Still, data-driven methods continue to reshape the intelligent machines of the future.

Solstice in the Crystal Cities of Talon

A chance encounter, a sloshy woman at a corner bar, a recollection of an uncle who fell into a well, all the tequila poured, all the prejudices spun out, about my accent and my allegedly highborn ways, about the elections and conspiratorial meanderings, my filters built into a Great Wall against a bareknuckle dustup, bloodied noses and cops and lights, and then, as the night drew up into its cold intestines, a mention just in passing that this uncle fell in the well on the solstice morning and became some kind of sloganeer, some kind of soothsayer. But it was more, I heard her faintly say, and that the shocks of that icy water aroused some otherworldly spirit within him, around 1958 or so, and he was cast out of his church and lost his business, an upwardly-mobile fin-tailed car magnate with a country-club future. He wandered the countryside with his well-sprung tale until impoverished and abandoned by his wife and two adorable children, her cousins, one who was now dead (the boy), crushed by a front-end loader at a construction pit, and the other who was a retired school librarian down in Fayetteville. That cousin had kept all his writings, all about the physics of Tlon.

My ears perked up and I asked her again what she had uttered, about the slurred syllables that came forth from her salted and limed lips. She repeated the word again, then laughed at me, hissed “Tlon” once more and shuttled her head side-to-side. It was another world her demented uncle had bragged about, some agitated dream erupting from his freezing parts while captive in that black bore. It was a solstice night, long, with the snows of the preceding week in skirts around the trees. He had lost the tips of his fingers crawling out of that hole, but how he survived beyond that he was unable to say. He only talked about that world. He only talked about mystery people and the universe.

I begged her for a bit more and maybe some context for the daughter and she slanted her eyes suspiciously. I was informed, as she drew up and away from our conspiratorial hunches, like a raptor asserting dominance, that she wasn’t going home with me, which was a relief, and to which I readily agreed. I nevertheless passed her my cell number and insisted I wanted to know more about the uncle, that was all, and could she maybe, if not too much trouble, arrange for me to see the writings of this madman?

I had no expectations that she would remember any of the evening. She was high above the Eiffel Tower and heading for the moon as I left to return to my dreary hotel room down the road, stepping carefully to avoid the slippery tendrils of ice built from the runoff of the day. I slept fitfully with the wall-mount heater tracking a blistering seventy-eight. Had I heard her right? Was my quest beginning to reveal fruit?

I scanned the directory of the local college that morning over black coffee and found a Doug Henders, M.A. Hist., listed among the instructional faculty. Mr. Henders was the only regional history specialist, with far too many of his fellow professorial sorts focused on far-flung matters in Europe, Asia, and even one emeritus who seemed to be exclusively an historian of arctic expeditions. While intriguing, his experience could likely shed little light on the matter of the uncle.

I finally phoned Mr. Henders and, following brief introductions, including an effort to convey my scholarly credentials while not emphatically calling out this-or-that publications or little professional accolade in the broader community, he asked how he could be of assistance. I asked about the uncle, about the story of the well, about the car dealer gone righteous, about the cryptic writings and, specifically, I avoided mention of the word in question. He claimed to be unaware of these developments and began to convey little hints of irritation. I finally dropped the bombshell term, about Tlon, casually as an aside. He stopped cold, there was a hard pause on the line, the static-free encodings of digital transmissions robbing the moment of even the faintest hiss that might provoke a conclusion that the line had dropped.

He asserted quite precipitously that he had a college disciplinary meeting to attend to and could not help me further. I thanked him but, before I had even concluded my statement, an actual and exaggerated chirp of a disconnect sounded from my phone. It was curious, I realized in hindsight, that he not only had pushed me away but had responded with an odd intimation of violence, of control, of discipline, as if to threaten and steer me from my endeavors. And it had only happened with the mention of the key word, not before. But maybe I elaborate to much? Perhaps my pursuit has heightened my senses to such an extent that the background noise of even these casual social interactions pops with a radiative glow drawn from speculation? I could only pursue the southern librarian’s written records at that point, though I was at the mercy of my barfly for that.

I waited through the next two days. I considered returning to the bar and begging the woman for more information, but I had not the boldness to pursue the lead in such stark terms. And then, around 11 AM the next day, a Tuesday I believe, I received a call from an unknown party on my phone. I was in the local library at the time and the orchestration of my ringtone caused the librarian to raise his startled gaze as I peered over family records in the white, cotton gloves of an archivist. Berlioz does not appeal, I surmised.

I staggered out into the winter light flashing off the ectoplasm of cars in the snowy parking lot as I took the call, asking twice for her to please wait and not hang up. I was given the coordinates then, and told that I must arrive precisely before 10AM to get an hour-and-one-half with the records or interest. I could have no more because the lady in question had an appointment of an urgent matter with her proctologist. I agreed to all the terms readily, worrying as well for the poor woman’s health and the implications associated with such a narrow medical speciality. The documents could vanish completely, I realized, and be lost among her transitory possessions, were she to succumb to some asinine malaise.

I arrived as required at the nondescript clapboard house. There was a single string of colored Christmas lights around a black side-window. A potpourri of plant pots—crimson, fuchsia, taupe, lime, mottled turquoise—denuded in the winter freeze but for a stray twig or two, covered the small porch before the screen door. A knock, a wait. A knock again. I began to fear she had rescinded the offer, this retired librarian, and had left early to have a coffee before her dreaded appointment with the medical establishment. But then there was a shadow of motion through the small window, an eye looking up to me, shaded by the blue of the day, and the door opened.

I was admitted then, dear reader, and allowed to shed my heavy coat and stomp my shoes against the thick mat of the mudroom. Minnie Mouse stared up at me in delighted wonder as I wiped salt and ice from the edges of my shoe. It smelled of wool and cooked eggs in the living room, of natural gas and sulfur. My host was surprised at the interest in her father, gone so long and lost in so many ways.

I inquired perhaps too indelicately how he had died, but she turned from me and pointed me towards the kitchen, never answering the question or seemingly even acknowledging the significance of the query. I saw a small stack of yellow sheets of paper starkly offset by the warm red of Santa holograms cleverly embedded in the plastic tablecloth, their form shifting from sleigh to decorated tree as I shifted above the scene. I was asked to hand over my cell phone, which I did readily as I stooped towards the pencil-etched mound of calligraphy before me.

Soon, following agreements and safeguards of the namesake, the family reputation, and the probing appointment close at hand, I was deeply entranced by the inscrutable documents. And, let me assure you dear reader, that the scribbles and markings did not disappoint. We start, page one, with a description of a crystalline city supported by the mental capabilities of masters who live below and follow an exacting timeline for their rotations in their duties, lest the city shudder or, worse, fall from its tenuous perch. There are always hints of return in these documents, of recurrence, I realize. Where the masters were before they will be again. When their capacities are exhausted, they rest and come again to aid the city in its meditative hover.

But there is more, so cryptically encoded yet so tenderly elucidated, for the masters know of another world that is so very like our own. They dream of it when they are not busy in their scholarly and masterful duties. It is a subject of great discussion. How can it be that they all dream of the same seasonal change, of the same calamity of purpose, of the same ritualistic dogmas and contempts? They hold salons to try to unravel the mystery, expressed in epigrams and enigmas. They write on these matters but cannot unravel the core, perplexing mystery. This parallel universe is an exaggeration of the purposes that they know, an unraveling and corruption of the sensible progression that enervates their thinking and that of the steadfast people of the city. The dream people are locked to ancient sky beings, they are contemptuous of the world that they are immersed within, they are riddled with petty preoccupations. It is only in this realization that the right course of action can be understood.

I leaned back in my steel and plastic chair, feeling the flush of the furnace from the ceiling vent. It washed over me, drawing in the premonitions of tears that began in my conjunctiva, and then evaporated them in a blink. My kind host appeared in the doorway, silhouetted by the flash of blue television light in the living room.

I reluctantly departed after thanking her. I told her that I would like to phone her with a few more questions if I might, maybe later, perhaps in the afternoon? She agreed and closed the door. I was almost to my car when the door reopened and I stomped back to fetch my phone that she had held hostage.

Driving back the hour or so to my original perch, my mind was awash with the remarkable details and rich orchestration of what I had read. But, I realized, that the word never appeared anywhere in the documents. I had been so mesmerized by the elliptical phraseology, by the incongruent grammar, and, mostly, by the tale of woe and cataclysm, that I had not seen or noticed that signal term.

I phoned in the afternoon and thanked the librarian/cousin again. She had been very kind. I hoped her appointment had been acceptable and that her health outlook remained positive. I continued my encouraging words for a few more minutes until she indicated that she needed to see to her needlepoint activities. I fully understood, I assured her, but then asked if she knew the word Tlon from the writings.

There was a pause, deep and consuming, and I worried that I was about to receive the same angry disputation that the instructor at the college had provided me for my unexpected impudence. But no, she cleared her throat briefly, apologized, and asked me to say the word again. T-lon, I repeated, trying to de-emphasize any inadvertent alveolar flapping that arises naturally from my first-language slurring of the dialect.

There was an oooh of recognition then, and I waited breathlessly. I think you mean Talon. His name was Barry Talonik Denzigger—the middle name from the old country in Bohemia—but folks called him Talon for short. He went by that for many years after falling in the well.

I held the phone fast against my face and asked her to repeat that. He was called Talon. That was all. No surprise that I didn’t see that in the documents. They were written before he got the name. She offered to write Talon at the top of each page for future scholars who might be passing through, though I quickly asserted my professional opinion that the pages should be preserved as they are between sheets of acid-free paper, even as a crestfallen gloom began a rapid attack on my gut. As a former librarian, she understood what I meant, it seemed. I hung up and updated my notes.

Against Superheroes and Novel Next

Editing is complete, cover designs are converging with new trade hardcover dustjacket form factors arriving, and all is looking swimmingly for a release in the immediate future. In the meantime, my next novel, racing to the front of the line ahead of the much-delayed Pornotopia and the impossibly ambitious Vin Diesel Versus the Vampires (An embedded board game? A film about the failure of the described unmade film? Really?), is ¡Reconquista!, a comedy incited by contemporary politics and my return to the border region.

It could only be a comedy, I decided. Anything less or more would be too heartbreaking.

Here are the new cover contenders for Against Superheroes, both of which introduce Ugaritic glyphs to provide a background shade to the Baalic figure who is, of course, against the very notion of superheroes. v7 looks like the leader in this race…

Dark Theme v7
Dark Theme v7
Cover v9
Dark Theme v9

 

Boredom and Being a Decider

tds_decider2_v6Seth Lloyd and I have rarely converged (read: absolutely never) on a realization, but his remarkable 2013 paper on free will and halting problems does, in fact, converge on a paper I wrote around 1986 for an undergraduate Philosophy of Language course. I was, at the time, very taken by Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter’s poetic excursion around the topic of recursion, vertical structure in ricercars, and various other topics that stormed about in his book. For me, when combined with other musings on halting problems, it led to a conclusion that the halting problem could be probabilistically solved by an observer who decides when the recursion is too repetitive or too deep. Thus, it prescribes an overlay algorithm that guesses about the odds of another algorithm when subjected to a time or resource constraint. Thus we have a boredom algorithm.

I thought this was rather brilliant at the time and I ended up having a one-on-one with my prof who scoffed at GEB as a “serious” philosophical work. I had thought it was all psychedelically transcendent and had no deep understanding of more serious philosophical work beyond the papers by Kripke, Quine, and Davidson that we had been tasked to read. So I plead undergraduateness. Nevertheless, he had invited me to a one-on-one and we clashed over the concept of teleology and directedness in evolutionary theory. How we got to that from the original decision trees of halting or non-halting algorithms I don’t recall.

But now we have an argument that essentially recapitulates that original form, though with the help of the Hartmanis-Stearns theorem to support it. Whatever the algorithm that runs in our heads, it needs to simulate possible outcomes and try to determine what the best course of action might be (or the worst course, or just some preference). That algorithm is in wetware and is therefore perfectly deterministic. And, importantly, quantum indeterminacy doesn’t rescue us from the free-will implications of that determinism at all; randomness is just random, not decision-making. Instead, the impossibility of assessing the possible outcomes comes from one algorithm monitoring another. In a few narrow cases, it may be possible to enumerate all the stopping results of the enclosed algorithm, but in general, all you can do is greedily terminate branches in the production tree based on some kind of temporal or resource-based criteria,

Free will is neither random nor classically deterministic, but is an algorithmic constraint on the processing power to simulate reality in a conscious, but likely deterministic, head.

Traitorous Reason, Facts, and Analysis

dinoObama’s post-election press conference was notable for its continued demonstration of adult discourse and values. Especially notable:

This office is bigger than any one person and that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the constitution explicitly requires but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy, similar to norms of civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.

But ideology in American politics (and elsewhere) has the traitorous habit of undermining every one of those norms. It always begins with undermining the facts in pursuit of manipulation. Just before the election, the wizardly Aron Ra took to YouTube to review VP-elect Mike Pence’s bizarre grandstanding in Congress in 2002:

And just today, Trump lashed out at the cast of Hamilton for lecturing Mike Pence on his anti-LGBTQ stands, also related to ideology and belief, at the end of a show.

Astonishing as this seems, we live in an imperfect world being drawn very slowly away from tribal and xenophobic tendencies, and in fits and starts. My wife received a copy of letter from now-deceased family that contained an editorial from the Shreveport Journal in the 1960s that (with its embedded The Worker editorial review) simultaneously attacked segregationist violence, the rhetoric of Alabama governor George Wallace, claimed that communists were influencing John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement, demanded the jailing of communists, and suggested the federal government should take over Alabama:

editorial-shreveport-60s-m

The accompanying letter was also concerned over the fate of children raised as Unitarians, amazingly enough, and how they could possibly be moral people. It then concluded with a recommendation to vote for Goldwater.

Is it any wonder that the accompanying cultural revolutions might lead to the tearing down of the institutions that were used to justify the deviation away from “reason and facts and analysis?”

But I must veer to the positive here, that this brief blip is a passing retrenchment of these old tendencies that the Millennials and their children will look back to with fond amusement, the way I remember Ronald Reagan.

A Big Data Jeremiad and the Moral Health of America

monopolydude2The average of polls were wrong. The past-performance-weighted, hyper-parameterized, stratified-sampled, Monte Carlo-ized collaborative predictions fell as critically short in the general election as they had in the Republican primary. There will be much soul searching to establish why that might have been; from ground game engagement to voter turnout, from pollster bias to sampling defects, the hit list will continue to grow.

Things were less predictable than it seemed. During the 2008 and 2012 elections, the losing party proxies held that the polls were inherently flawed, though they were ultimately predictive. Now, in 2016, they were inherently flawed and not at all predictive.

But what the polls showed was instructive even if their numbers were not quite right. Specifically, there was a remarkable turn-out for Trump among white, less-educated voters who long for radical change to their economic lives. The Democratic candidate was less clearly engaging.

Another difference emerged, however. Despite efforts to paint Hillary Clinton as corrupt or a liar, objective fact checkers concluded that she was, in fact, one of the most honest candidates in recent history, and that Donald Trump was one of the worst, only approximated by Michelle Bachman in utter mendacity. We can couple that with his race-bating, misogyny, hostility, divorces, anti-immigrant scapegoating, and other childish antics. Yet these moral failures did not prevent his supporters from voting for him in numbers.

But his moral failures may be precisely why his supporters found him appealing. Evangelicals decided for him because Clinton was a threat to overturning Roe v. Wade, while he was an unknown who said a few contradictory things in opposition. His other moral issues were less important—even forgivable. In reality, though, this particular divide is an exemplar for a broader division in the moral fabric of America. The white working class has been struggling in post-industrial America for decades. Coal mining gives way to fracked, super-abundant natural gas. A freer labor market moves assembly overseas. The continuous rise in productivity shifts value away from labor in the service of innovation to disintermediated innovation itself.

The economic results are largely a consequence of freedom, a value that becomes suffused in the polarized economy where factories close on egghead economic restructuring. Other values come into question as well. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, brought a controversial conservative lens to the loss of traditional values for working class America. In this world, marriage, church, and hard work have dissolved due to the influence of the 60s pernicious counter-cultural deconstruction that was revolutionary for the college-educated elite but destructive to the working class. What is left is a vacuum of virtues where the downtrodden lash out at the eggheads from the coasts. The moral failings of a scion of wealth itself are recognizable and forgivable because at least there is a sense of change and some simple diagnostics about what is wrong with our precious state.

So we are left with pussy grabbing, with the Chinese hoax of climate change, with impossible border walls, with a fornicator-in-chief misogynist, with a gloomy Jeremiad of divided America being exploited into oblivion. Even the statisticians were eggheaded speculators who were manipulating the world with their crazy polls. But at least it wasn’t her.

Against Superheroes, Chapter 22

Against SuperheroesAs I watched over the Nepalese countryside populated by small hilltop compounds, the irregular terraces of rice paddies reflected the clouds in their muddy mirrors. I had taken on a certain quality of stasis here, frozen above a jungle mountain in an envelope of mist.

I took to trying to mine my memories, to unravel these chains of semantic and temporal associations that reached back through the gray wall of my origins. It was maddeningly difficult, shifting through trapezoids of connections shot through with scientific and technical associations, and with the addition of the perspectives of the people who I had possessed, but I achieved some clarity with diligence and strain. When my mind wandered out to those rice paddies and the tiny shifting figures tending to them, or to the small vans that struggled along the high, sloppy roads, or when the focus moved to the dancing energies of the sky and moisture, I learned to return to this rummaging by counting slowly by threes or by prime numbers, up and down, the necessity of the mental acrobatics pushing the imagery back into a halo around the mathematical gears until they were finally erased, and I returned to the signals of my past.

There I was again, in graduate school, the poetic inflections of the Orphic hymns impressing me until I began writing my own inspired variations, like a composer copying and reordering works by Baroque masters. This theme of divinity, from the Vedas through to the Native American myths, from the Slavic translations to the Babylonian Baals, was always the encompassing and central element of the written and oral traditions.

And all these texts reflected a time when the human mind was only connected to one town, almost always to agriculture, subject to the whims of the seasons and the terror of sickness, and then often forced into violence by the more powerful or by passions that arose without control. The theme had played out for me as my knowledge expanded. I had tried to imagine their minds at work but I concluded that I was hopelessly analytical; they were so simple as to be incomprehensible, much like their mythologies. Yet they stuck with their stories, and retold them, and then transformed them again into derivative works.

Inanna descended into the underworld, her regal clothes lost as she floated past Earth and into the darkness below, until she was at last naked. From the great above into the great below, the seven gates of the underworld were unlocked for her as she found her sister, the Queen of the Dead, Ereshkigal. She was naked before a court of judges until she was killed by her sister. Her body was hung on a hook, crucified for the lords of the deep to observe. Then, days later, her hair swirled around her head like “leeks,” two demons took Inanna back up from the underworld but could only return her by an exchange. Inanna’s husband, Dumuzi, failed to mourn her and thus was given to the demons, but his sister offered to take his place. The seasons were born in their constant rotation through the underworld, half the year with Dumuzi in residence and the other half with Geshtinanna.

1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17…

And then we reinterpreted this, with the semantics playing about searching for semiotic purchase on angles and agendas. This was the rite of the priest and priestess, laid naked before the immensities of the gods, broken from the world and resurrected into a new relationship with the divine. Or in parallel with Persephone, abducted by Hades into the underworld, searched for from above by Demeter, until Hermes finally brought her back to the Earth. But having consumed of the pomegranate in Hades’s world, and grown to love Hades too, she would return in the winter months, only to rise back to vouchsafe the arrival of verdant spring.

There was the fruit of knowledge and the imprisoning of the mind, then in pseudo-epigraphy of the Ascension of Isaiah, and the productive association of the scene in Eden. All these entreaties and copies of one another. Superman ejected from a war in heavenly Krypton, sent to Earth to be raised as human. The power reluctantly embraced at first and then carried into the heroic conclusions. Isra and Mi’raj. The visions, the madness, the waves of belief stretched out like skin over a drum until tight and transformed from one thing into another altogether.

All of this great elevation of something other than the self, the everyday clatter of spoons against bowls, the dying of the cattle, the drunks and the fights.

Then we got into the dark spirits of the air, of animism, of sacredness and fear in a wafting of magics all around the people. This sensation that broke in was briefly trapped in apophenic illusory shadows, then drifted away like a half-remembered dream. The voices in the wind, the faces in the tree knots, the dragons in the clouds—they all arose from an impoverished sense of this infinite connectivity. I could see it now, and there was a reconciliation of the sameness I had with them and who I was. The silent walk near the stream broke the temporary summit of ordinary sensation until the voices rang in, shouted by these strange atomistic spirits.

I looked out at the hills again and there were those shadows across them, moving, like in Iceland so long ago, but only for a second, and then I saw the verdant hills alone and isolated, without that undulating spirit envelope.

19, 23, 27, 29, 31, 37…

Arguments, considerations, the epistemology of belief. I assimilated it all as precious globes, each with an individual spark, but then they shone together, some lost, some merged like soap bubbles, their cross-sections in perfect shadow of their own arcs. All the old ones had been reduced into this fantasy of fixed aspects of ideas, broken away from the irrationality and the impish impiety that occupied the young minds of man. They acted according to the shadows that were projected onto them, but with the mystery of being elsewhere, above the firmament, outside the world, beneath the fields from which they lived. They traveled through these spaces, just touching the people with their emanations in the forms of spirits of the air, rattling storms, disease and health. But they were just indicators and symbology for me, trapped in the economics of priestly castes, or the power struggles of tribal leaders, made into the controlling idolatry of peasants and kings. The nurturing of these mythologies shored up, shorn off, and collided between the warriors and their neighbors.

I labored at this scholarship. I unfolded new theories like they were fresh sheets for a spring bed. Great men, identity theory, Marxism and neo-Marxism, evolutionary psychology, ecological anthropology, diffusion, and landscape dynamics. Each was tuned and applied to the ever-present problem of why people thought what they thought as reflected in these ancient artworks, in bowls and vessels, and in rooms and jewelry. A hook on a belt became an interpretative framework that rallied an interconnection between fragmentary speculations about artisans’ growing power here, or about the changing roles of priests there. The climbing form of the hero was a striving toward the heavens, challenging the gods and leading to his downfall. The shape of a temple was a concession to the powerful, allowing for private immersion in the sacred pools away from the commoner.

The mixing and retelling of myth was as much a trade in knowledge as the Silk Road was in goods. The ideas filtered and fluxed. Persian shaitans, whisperers at court, carried forward and then into Satan, then again into the Antichrist. Meanwhile, the Hellenists brought the underworld that became Hell, their unhappy subjects transforming Tartarus into something new. And then even the tribal messiah of worldly victory of the Chosen People became just a new mythology where victory was achieved in the afterlife.

A raptor was using my cloud architecture to its advantage, soaring on the periphery as the warm air was pulled up to sustain the moisture against the cold mass above me. The black kites did this daily, though they seemed to get no tactical advantage from the action. They seemed to just enjoy the effortless flight controlled minimally with tiny variations of their finger wings.

41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71…

But there were shadows of other things. What was a laser? I couldn’t tell you. I knew it was pure light, but I had no idea. I had no idea what Inanna was, either, but she was like a human but was revered as something more. But a laser was an alien artifact with meanings filled in by circumstances, by achievements and applications. Some hippie laser light shows, flashing about to Pink Floyd, but then just a menace to pilots. Maybe the things that did something inside a CD reader, or a DVD, but I was not sure. I never was. What was the meaning of these things that I didn’t really know? The semantic cloud was a precipitate, a suspension, a collection of correlations that gradually intersected upon the real target, known only to a few scientists and engineers, but still unfolding in meaning as their uses, their threats and opportunities, unroll and there was a new becoming.

Inanna must have been like that—like the wheel that moved carts and then ground grains, then was a Ferris wheel, then a spinning bearing in a jet engine. And these gods and heroes like mere powers and sensations in the dark woods, then reimagined into people and animals, then projected into accusations of moral exhortations, and then turned back into aliens and otherworldly beings. Each wave reinforcing and strengthening the connections that people felt for them. Like lasers and gamma ray observatories. All things that transcribed the words and actions we used to explain them.

There was a vague memory from a common room, a dormitory in Arizona, rife with cigarette and pot smoke, and dim lights enhanced by blackout foil on the windows. A red laser pointer, a prism, a lighter, a cat. The cat was chasing the bloom around the carpeted floor, claws digging into the nape of the rug to make predatory darts and flinches accompanied by a rip and tear. We laughed, young all, but I could see a pointillist dance in the purity of the crimson blossom when it stopped. Later I would guess it was the empty spaces between cones in my retinas, but there, high and engaged, it was just the sensorium of feelings and giddy gameplay. Me, my friends, that instinctual play of a young feline who would devolve to feral given two days of neglect, her rippling grabs of carpeting in pursuit of the effortlessly darting red enemy. That memory emerged and held, everyone’s faces in low-wattage incandescent glows, wan to brown, eyes shaded down into indirection.

The kite dipped and rose again, then went to ground after a rodent, mouse-like and unaware of the shadow closing from above.

73, 79, 83, 89, 93, 97, 101, 103, 107…

Wait, 93 was wrong.

A laser was some light thing that I could describe but couldn’t define perfectly. No one could. We relied on professionals for that and built our reality on those definitions when we needed to. A child heard the gods were all around us. They were the makers and the source of our goods and ills, and the child looked up at the sky and into the dark waters. They must be those things motivating the clouds or the turbid whirl of currents. But then, no. The semantics shifted and the gods were something else. They were the motivations within us, the desire of our enemies to hunt and kill our tribe. But that wasn’t right, either. The gods were in the fire of the hearth and somewhere up above a metal dome holding a sky sea in juxtaposition above us: they were down in the caves of the world in mazes and molten chthonic cathedrals. But yet, the gods were within us again and were a personal relationship with a redeemer or his master. The semantics changed and resolved with the quixotic implausibility of an absurdist drama.

I would eventually be found, I knew. It had been some months since I had escaped. Jessica had been interrogated. She might be off the team, compromised. She might be imprisoned or killed. There was a guilt in that. I had done my best. I told her to confess that I had come to her. But, then, they might have overlooked her. It was impossible to know without taking a risk. Between missions they would look for me and eventually I would be found. It might be that they had developed a scanner that could zero in on me like that laser. I didn’t know, but didn’t doubt that they could do it. Their technology was almost as profound as mine, just slower and more communal.

89, 97, 101, 103, 107, 109, 113, 127…

That kite, soaring.

They did come for me, too. I made a move. I went into China in the belief that Aesir would have to confront geo-political rivalries that would give them pause. The sensitivities and increasing technical sophistication of Beijing meant that they likely already knew something about Aesir, though it would likely be a pulsing oddity on their intelligence map for America. How were we doing the things that seemed to pull the world in our favor but that looked like accidents and natural phenomena?

I swooped down on an unoccupied border station near the Aksu River. The smell of pine and flowers merged with birdsong as I landed, providing a sense of naturalism and normality. I opened the locks on the station and lifted an old-style telephone receiver off the hook, then tried dialing Jessica’s number directly. I got an automated message in Chinese that I interpreted as requiring an additional nine and three to get an outside line. My Chinese was minimal, having only spent a few weeks hovering around the Kyrgyzstan border region, watching the locals coming and going, and occasional Chinese and Western tourists hiking the rugged mountains.

It rang and went to voice mail, Jessica’s familiar voice asking for a message. That human voice and the memory trail that surrounded it snapped me back to our time in England and to the women I had known, and I slipped to the bare concrete floor beside the steel counter. I dialed again and listened to her voice, but left no message. That flood of imagery pulled me again, and I found myself crying there and the transference of all the materials around me, of the vibrations of the mountains and the shifting expectations of the animals in the valley below, folded away from me like a buzzing in the head that gives way to sleep. I rested there for hours, then flew back up to a cloudy mountaintop and willed myself into a deep state of quiescence.

Time passed—weeks—and then there was an awakening. Brilliant sunlight seemed to be piercing through my man-made storm, cutting away at the clouds. I stirred and expanded my awareness toward the light and there was a shield that stopped me completely. They had arrived, I realized. I thought about fleeing but I knew that they would just find me again, so I evaporated all the clouds and saw Nemesis for the first time. He was a small, dark mote in a halo of light and fire less than a mile away. The fire boiled around like the chromosphere of the sun, orange networks of churning shadows flitting over the halo of energy. It shuddered and raced toward me.

I pulled a wave of ice and snow from the air and created a shield before me, the mass congealing into a hard wall more than thirty feet in thickness in just a few seconds, but Nemesis shaped his fireball into a spike and impaled the center of the mass. I still could not see into him and even his corona of energy was impenetrable to my mental probing. I flew downward and into a bright green lake snuggled between high peaks. I could move quickly under the water by maintaining a torpedo-like air bubble around me and boiling the water around it, creating an underwater jet that shot me across the clear bottom of the mountain lake. Minimal water plants hovered around me and I slowed, feeling the chill of a current and following it to its source in a canyon.

I flew up out of the water and behind a waterfall. There was a small, wet cave there, carved out by the endless action of the water splashing over a granite overhang forty feet up. I waited for hours but nothing happened. I reached out my mental faculties to sense the world around me, probing at the limit where the vibratory essences of matter become frayed and foggy, like looking through the haze of the waterfall. There was the mass, hovering still over the center of the lake. Nemesis was waiting.

I realized I needed to probe his powers—not just run away—if I was going to be able to confront him and, ultimately, Aesir. I wondered briefly if I could arrange a truce, but my ability to trust them was largely gone since they had imprisoned me for a second time. There was also the likelihood that Nemesis would be needed for other missions and that I could run and wait him out. I ultimately abandoned these thoughts. I still needed to probe his capabilities and understand mine. I had manipulated thoughts and weather, but also heavier materials when close enough. I also felt like I could see time and shift it, and that my powers ultimately derived from those imperceptible opportunities that lurked between moments.

I flew up rapidly and tried to pull as many boulders out of the wash of the cataract as I could. A dozen rose with me, ranging in size from a small car to a dishwasher. I had never tried this before but it was only straining me in coordinating their motions. A piece fell off one boulder as it shivered and cracked, and I couldn’t catch it in time. As it hit the water below I saw Nemesis in his distant ring of fire. He rocketed toward me and I began rotating the boulders around me, testing my coordination. He once again narrowed his fire into a sharp spike as he approached, and I expanded my ring of stones, then hurled them simultaneously at him in a converging cone. He deviated his flame toward the largest of the rocks, hitting it with scorching ferocity that pushed back against my will. I tried to propel it forward, but it immediately reached a stasis point between his fire and my efforts. My other weapons did not pause, however, and I watched him snap out of his position as one of the rocks grazed him, then another. He relented against the largest rock, then, and it surged forward.

Nemesis pulled his fire back, and I could feel the limits of the sphere around him. He was using it as a shield by boiling the air with such ferocity that the remaining rocks deflected from the surface. Still, he appeared weakened and smaller. I pulled the rocks back around me and felt stronger. He retreated until he was a small circle of orange. More bits of my stones crumbed and dropped into the lake below. Minutes passed and then he came at me again. His fire was a flat disk around him, like the rings around the planet Saturn. It was pulsing to blue at the leading edge. I raised my rocks up above the plane of his ring and swung them at him, but he began spinning his ring, knocking the rocks away and bursting several of the smaller ones when pockets of moisture trapped inside them vented into cracks and shattered them into sharp pieces. I was left with only three, and he continued forward.

I hardened myself against contact as I had done before, forcing myself to drop control of my remaining rocks. The blue fire, when it hit me, was strange. It was not pain, but was like a tremor racing over the surface of my skin. The artifact began throbbing, and I felt my hair shatter despite my protective armoring, then burn in a brief flash of green. I closed my eyes and focused on protection and stillness, but the tremor was growing in intensity, moving into my bones and center. I wasn’t sure I could withstand much more, so I tried to mentally reach around the wave of energy, seeking holes in his armor, like I had done before in response to the field generator at Aesir.

This time this effort must have only lasted a few brief moments, I surmised in retrospect, but it was alarmingly long from the inside. I finally found a hint of purchase, a distortion in his protective field. His head was a steel ball, likely protected by a micro-shield, but its extension over his torso and into his arms and legs diminished with distance.

I grabbed his foot and flung him straight down into the lake with sufficient force that lake water splashed around me two hundred feet above, followed by a wave of steam as his fire powers were quenched. I rose up higher and gathered a swaddling of storms around me. A blossom of churning water spread out over the center of the lake. It continued for a minute and then a pink glow began to solidify in the center of the storm, turning deeper red as the massive boiling bubbles rose up out of the lake. And then another spike of fire shot up with new ferocity and speed. I dodged but it followed me, tracking like a homing missile as it sliced through the clouds, dissipating my cocoon of rain into hot fog.

I was hit again and again, thrown upward and stunned. I could see just orange and white as tiny bubbles crowded across my eyes. I closed them and reassembled my powers as I shot up over the mountain range in a parabolic trajectory at the tip of his fiery spike. I could feel the tendrils of heat split and move around to grasp me, then, and he began to throw me down toward the mountainside. I reached out again toward Nemesis, feeling along the spout of flame, but he was too far away. And in that action, I wasted precious moments and smashed into the rock and earth of the peak. A few scraggly pines evaporated in the vortex of heat around me and then, as I slid beneath the ground, propelled by the tentacle of fire, the heat vanished and was replaced with still solidity.

I seemed intact but dazed. He had used distance to protect himself and, likely, would not expose his full profile to me again, knowing that I could get at his extremities. I had to find another way and he would then find a counter to my efforts. I cycled through the options I had while feigning immobility. I could sense that I was about fifteen feet into the mountain wall. The fiery impact had set the mountainside ablaze, with low, dry brush carrying the fire up a nearby ravine. If I were right, he would keep his distance and observe for a while, fearful of getting too close. He couldn’t confirm my destruction, however, without a body or visual identification. A body was probably the requested result, however. Aesir suspected I was immortal and extremely durable, so they had to have another plan than just beating me up with fire.

I waited several more minutes and then began swirling clouds around the mountain until a rain deluge quenched the fire. I turned in my dirt grave and pressed the walls away from me, feeling the earthworms and insects move with the earthen walls.

I still could not sense Nemesis out around the mountain. I began driving hot air from below, near the ground, up into the rain mass. I separated the clouds into competing groups and started sliding them up and across one another, building a range of electrical potential in the masses. And then, with millisecond suddenness, I shot out of the hole and pulled lightning from the clouds until I had created a swirling ball of energy that looked like a neon swarm of eels darting in a frenzy.

Nemesis was across the lake, almost a mile away. He was surrounded again by fire but appeared to be waiting. I sensed something else, too. An aircraft was further behind him, circling slowly and using some kind of vectored thrust to maintain a slow, hovering path. The plane was dark and there were long, black tendrils like antennas drifting below it in the jet wash. They had a more comprehensive plan, I realized, but I didn’t feel prepared for it. I shot up, propelling myself into the upper atmosphere. I would escape for now. I had been to the edge of space before when at the Oasis. I had found it beautiful but eerie, with the lifting of the constant pressure of air and moisture creating a quiet that I never had among the voluble minds and Brownian molecules of the world.

I could see night moving toward the coast of China from here and flew north through Russia. I looked back and there was nothing, no point of flame following me through the faint remnants of air. Soon I was over the arctic sea, the icepack glistening beneath hovering drapes of northern lights. It reminded me of Iceland. I landed on an iceberg drifting in the cold ocean and settled my thoughts again.

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