The dissolution of Herpo the foul

011herpo-200x0-c-default

Herpo was by no means a pleasant wizard. Though history would give him the title of “foul”, he was not so much evil as chaotic. He did not set out to hurt people. Rather, he wanted to push the boundaries of the possible, and discover all that magic had to offer. In itself, it may not have been such a bad goal, and Salazar Slytherin’s fascination for his work is understandable. Granted, his acrimonious and grumpy demeanour did not help his image. But the real problem was undoubtedly his methods.

Herpo was extremely obsessive, and he would not let anything stand in the way of his projects. Fixated on his ambitions, he didn’t have the slightest respect for his peers, let alone muggles. In his twisted mind, the world was nothing more than a tool to play with, and that included living creatures. In fact, he prided himself on not being shackled by “silly arbitrary superstitions” like morals or ethics. He never killed or inflicted pain for pleasure or out of cruelty. But he often did so for his experiments.

Needless to say he wasn’t very much appreciated. He lived as a hermit, more than a day of walk away from any human settlement. The dense forest around his cave was said to be filled with atrocious creatures resulting from past operations. 

He spent a long time doing research on animals. It started with fairly simple attempts to see how much metamorphoses, potions and other spells could change a living being, and how long it could last. But he longed for more permanent results, so he delved into more macabre operations, stitching together different animals or breeding them in twisted ways.

More often than not, his trials failed in strident screeches of pain that echoed miles away through the valley. Around the entrance of his cave, the floor was littered with bones and coagulated blood. But every now and then, a deformed abomination would emerge and haunt the neighboring woods.

Ironically enough, what he considered to be his greatest success was obtained by a relatively simple method: by hatching a chicken egg beneath a toad, he produced a deadly giant serpent that he called Basilisk. As a Parselmouth, he had no problem controlling the monster, and there were always a couple of them guarding his hideout against wandering travelers.

As bad as their fate may seem, those poor souls were the lucky ones, for Herpo did not stop his experiments to animals and frequently took humans as subject, mostly muggles but occasionally wizards too. He dissected more than one to try and find the source of magic so that he could increase his powers, but the answer always eluded him. As his victims piled up, his sanity died out, and soon there was not much human left in him anymore.

Regardless of what became of his spirit, his body however remained one of a man. Even with the extended lifespan of a wizard, he could feel his constitution waning, his muscles becoming weaker, his magical powers starting to fade… So he obviously turned his research towards himself. Surely something could be done to prolong life and vitality. After all, magic had already improved so many aspects of life. He would simply dare to explore domains nobody had ever investigated before.

His flesh was deteriorating, nothing could be done about that. The passage of time wore off buildings, even mountains. His organs were no exception. But what really mattered was his soul, his spirit. And these didn’t have to go down with their mortal vessel.

He first tried possession spells, to make another body his. They turned out to be impossible to maintain over long periods of time, even after breaking all the resistances of his targets. He did not have more luck with potions. He even attempted his unholy acts on “weaker minds”, including animals and – it has to be said – corpses, to no avail.

But failure had never stopped Herpo in the past. It certainly wasn’t going to stop him in this quest, that he came to consider as the most important of his life. 

If the easy solutions had been misses, he simply needed to try harder and tackle the harder ones. He would need to transform his soul into a form he could make timeless. This new form could also allow him to craft replicas of himself, should anything happen to his earthly vessel. This would be the only sure way to conquer the ever-looming Death.

He had peeked inside enough bodies to understand how the different parts played together to make it survive and move. He just needed to give the spirit the same scrutiny. 

What followed was the most gruesome period of his life, and the tortures he inflicted cannot possibly be described. Physically and magically, he sliced and diced many heads to perfect his analysis of the mind. To properly manipulate his soul, he needed to understand it in its smallest corners.

After several years, he had perfected a spell to split his spirit into smaller fragments that he called Horcruxes. The procedure was difficult and costly, but the resulting shard could be imprinted for preservation. The problem remained, however, to find vessels worthy of his immortal soul.

He first turned to objects, as stones and metal seemed to promise the best chance for longevity. It did not work great. The gist of the spell was to manipulate matter at an elementary level, to shuffle what his contemporaries would call atoms, and arrange them in the same shapes and patterns that formed his brain. But the rigid objects he tried to use were too different from his head to be a decent substrate. Imprinting his mind on them was too imperfect, unreliable and costly. It would require unfathomable amounts of energy for a result that was not even guaranteed.

The solution was straightforward: he needed to use supports that were more similar to his own brain. The closer the resemblance, the less effect the spell had to inflict, and the less chances of errors or data loss. He started working on animals, and moved quickly to humans.

From there on, it was easy. Their minds were vast and complex, but he only had to find a part comparable to his shard and tweak it in order to embed the fragment into his victim. A single matching piece was enough. 

By that time, his vitality was already on the decline, so he set out to split his soul into a myriad of little elements and to find the fitting recipients that would keep his spirit alive long after his body departed.

Unsurprisingly, the best candidates were the ones that had some common grounds with him. One had his perseverance, another liked reptiles, another yet showed promising signs of creativity. One shared his views on muggles, another his secret fondness for berries… Surely they would make the best vessels. He began his wicked process.

But when he peeked into their minds, something unexpected happened that shook him to his very core. In the place where he intended to plant the fragment of his soul, he found that it was already there. The part of their brains he was looking at had the exact same structure as the piece he got from his own. They were indistinguishable. No tweaking or adjusting would be necessary. The operation was, for all intent and purposes, already done.

It was not an isolated occurrence. For each scrap of his spirit, he discovered a person who already possessed it. Sometimes it was as simple as finding the area of the brain that loved snakes, forests or experiments… Other times it was impossible to describe in words. But before long he found himself with no shard left to place without even having done any transmutation.

And so he vanished, as all pieces of his soul were safely stored in his heirs as they had been all along. His life that had been spent in misanthropy and solitude ended in an explosion of empathy, as his spirit merged with the many around him. He found comfort and peace by becoming one with everything and losing himself into other people. They would in turn pass on the fragments of his self, through magic, influence or genetics. His horcruxes travelled on and on, and still keep him alive to this day.

the Book of Maki

TW: Jordan Peterson

So I recently went to see Book of Mormon yet another time, and during the performance I started thinking that there may be an interesting parallel to draw with Hoshiai no Sora, a recent anime I liked a lot.

Book of Mormon tells the story of two mormon missionary sent to Uganda for their first mission. People there have it hard, obviously, and they understandably curse god for it in the famous catch phrase “Hasa Diga Eebowai. Faced with the impossibility to convert new believers, one missionary gives up hope, while the other one starts inventing random bullshit to keep people interested. In the end, the people get really inspired by the nonsensical bullshit, it gives them courage and hope in their struggles, and the show ends by everyone rejecting the established mormon church and founding a new church based on these fables. The last words are “Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai”, thank you god, paralleling Hasa Diga Eebowai.

Image result for book of mormon

Now I’ve written a fair share of somewhat negative things about religion, especially institutionalized, but I think we have in this reversal of mindset something pretty interesting that I first came across in Jordan Peterson’s biblical analyses series. Among a lot of other things of course, he presents an interesting conceptualization of god as the possibility to make “a bargain with the future“. Following the unique human ability to deal with potential as if it was real (i.e. to act because of potential future causes), he posits god as an ever-present absolute that stands in as guarantor for this future. In this view, it makes sense to make sacrifices/efforts in the present, because there is something that acknowledges it and makes it pay off down the road. 

Image result for peterson philosophytube

In some way, that’s what we see in Book of Mormon. Belief, even in complete nonsense, gives strength to everyone to rise up and fight for the outcome they wanted. The point being, for Mr Peterson, when faced with hardships, turn off your negative emotions, man up, clean your room, believe, and be in a “Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai” mindset rather than a “Hasa Diga Eebowai” because that’s how you’ll get the best results.

I thought that this was worth digging into this a bit. Because it’s true, if you accept that the world is obviously deterministic and free will is an illusion, that consciousness is a more or less elaborate byproduct, a sort of “noise” that your internal gears are making as they turn. With no causal role, it’s therefore completely irrational to accept negative qualia/emotions, and it’s only logical to try and chase them. I don’t know if you’ll get best results, but you’ll tautologically be happier.

Image result for destroy consciousness

But I really wanted to dig into this notion of best results. It may be intuitive that you’re more likely to be successful if you have a positive mindset, but this is kind of twisting the question on its head and looking at it the other way: considering a world where the success will happen (the role of the guarantor is to make this hypothesis easy), what mindset has the best chance of accomplishing it? Let’s work backwards from a potential success and see what lead us there retroactively.

Image result for walk backwards

I’ve been struggling for weeks to try and formalize this reversal of point of view with  Bayes theorem (doesn’t it look similar ^^), but I’m getting nowhere with my Probability(success|guarantor). If you get somewhere please tell me. But maybe the reason I’m running in circles here is that we’re faced with a much simpler tautological framework, “100% of winners have tried their luck”

Image result for 100 des gagnants ont tenté leur chance

Working backwards from success may be precisely what belief allows. It’s the ability to trust that we’ll make it, that it will work out, that this possibility exists. I this model, that’s what the guarantor is for. Maybe the guarantor is here as a reference point, to help you out of a local extremum you’re stuck in, towards a real extremum. Or maybe it may be a case of the prisoner dilemna where the other person is guaranteed to be trustworthy, which brings the best long term outcomes.

Image result for prisoners of love producers

Someone made me notice that it’s a actually closer to a sort of Pascal’s wager: stars may or may not align, but if I want a successful outcome, my only rational move is to try (success = try + circumstances).

Stars align Stars dont align
Belief/try (B) success failure
Disbelief (¬B) failure failure

Stars Align” is not so coincidentally the english title of the anime “Hoshiai no Sora”. It is centered around a highschool club of soft tennis who have accepted that they kinda suck. Maki Katsuragi, a transfert student, shakes things up by making them notice that they’ll never get anywhere with this kind of attitude, and we get to see these adorable dorks progress at their own pace now that they believe in the future. As in Book of Mormon, you can see the shift from the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” mindset to the “Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai” mindset and its positive effect on the children, even though they may not win big. 

There are countless examples of this, though (albeit not as cute as this anime). Maybe the most notable is Les Schtroumpfs olympiques, where Schtroumpf Chétif only manages physical prowess when he believes he can win (because he believes to have ingested a special potion, which turned out to be strawberry jam). Yes, this is the actual parallel I wanted to make.

Image result for schtroumpf olympique

In the end, american media did a good job at marketing the notions of “just believe”, but there may still be some truth to it. I think one of the best way to conceptualize this “belief muscle” is through cognitive science (and economy) and its model on preference theory and temporal discounting. It posits that the total “value” of a thing according to a human is equal to the sum over all instants t of the value at this instant, discounted by how far in the future this instant is:

A famous illustration of this is the marshmallow experiment: are children able to refuse a marshmallow right now (value of 1 marshmallow, no discount) if this will give them 2 marshmallow in 1 minute (value of 2/discount). In this toy example, they would if the decay factor discount < 2 (which makes 2/discount > 1 marshmallow).

I think the simplest explanation is that believing is training yourself to have lower discount factors (i.e. to value the future more). In other words, in this framework, god is an increment of the discount factor. 

And I guess it can be good for you? be it only if it helps you mute irrational negative qualia that don’t bring anything to the table.

 

Withering with you

Circumstances have kept me away from writing this article that has been burning in the back of my brain ever since I went to the local premiere of Makoto Shinkai’s latest movie – Tenki no Ko (weathering with you), in presence of the director himself. So let’s eagerly jump into it, with a lot of spoilers ahead for a movie you probably shouldn’t see.

Image result for tenki no ko Amano Nagi

I’m a big fan of Makoto Shinkai, and have been following his career with attention, including a bunch of interviews. Lately, he’s been finding inspiration in real world tragedies. Kimi no na ha (your name) was self-admittedly inspired by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. It strikes me as a bit odd how you go from a real world tragedy to a fiction “love comedy” like that, but I can kinda see it, I guess it has something to do with awe in the face of something so much bigger than humans, or something about how beautiful human connections/solidarity are in the face of difficulties… 

This time Tenki no Ko is apparently inspired by global warming (the movie directly echoes many “record rains/temperatures/cyclones” that the director was telling us about seeing on TV). Very brief summary: in a world where the weather is getting worse and worse, a girl has the magical power to bring about the sun with certainty. She realizes that the only way to stop the trend towards environmental catastrophe is for her to disappear, which happens. 

Image result for temperature record

I’ll skip the problems I have with the cliche element of the story or its execution (and even over the borderline climate-skepticism ^^) to focus on what comes next. In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, the boy-love-interest refuses to sacrifice and comes to her rescue and persuades her that she should live, so she un-disappears and environmental catastrophe happens. 

Let me start by saying that I fully understand what the director was going for here. In the Q&A, he was explaining how our polarized society has become extremely judgmental and that it was important to be more tolerant, forgiving and let people live. He obviously also wanted to show that even if the environment is completely destroyed, we can still rely on human connections, find each other, find happiness, and ultimately live. He wanted it to be a message of hope and tolerance in the face of a gloomy future, and on some level I appreciate and respect this.

But this doesn’t mean we can ignore the content and implications of the movie, whose main motive is essentially “it’s okay to follow your desires even if it destroys the world”. Boy-love-interests simply willfully chooses the girl, meaning his desires, and by extension the material comfort of consumerist life, over actual efforts to solve the world problem. He chooses the selfish and easy way, even if it causes terrible consequences. Granted the situation would have been more complicated from the point of view of the girl, but the movie follows the boy.

Image result for simpsons burns nuclear

And that’s where I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the director. Sometimes when the stakes are so big it’s dangerous to cut oneself some slack and celebrate it. Huge problems like global warming simply can’t be solved by following the easy path. They require constant effort and attention. I don’t remember if the Q&A or the movie was mentioning that the character’s actions were okay because catastrophe “is not one’s person fault”, but using this to rationalize and exonerate individual actions is obviously a very dangerous slope. In actuality, it’s not one’s person’s fault means it’s every person’s fault and problem, and it’s simply not okay to not do effort and be proud of it. Seems like it’s precisely what got us into this mess.

In the Q&A, Shinkai was telling us that one of the things he cared the most about this movie was a scene at the end where the girl, back in a now destroyed world, was looking over the result of the catastrophe addressing a silent prayer. He was using this to justify that the characters cared about the world. 

not this one, imagine it under the rain

But of course they care, just not enough, and this scene illustrates the problem with a tragic clarity. Her empty prayers are too little too late, completely ineffective, especially when put in contrast to the actual effort that was effective. In a way, this picture shows brilliantly that intentions and care are not enough, and that they mean nothing compared to our choices and actions which are what destroyed this universe. This  may make her feel better, but it doesn’t actually help anything, and it may even become dangerous/negative if used to disculpate destructive actions (“I know I’m doing the wrong thing, but I still care and pray it away”). We actually have a great example and all know too well how effective are “thoughts and prayers” at stopping the mass shootings in some parts of the world. 

Untitled.png

This movie’s accidental depiction of the meaninglessness of intent versus choices and actions is pretty beautiful and certainly its greatest success. This is all well and good, but it wouldn’t be this blog if we just stopped there and didn’t dig a little more, would it? When all is said, I may have had a very hard time watching this movie, but I still think there are two extra noteworthy points to take out of this… morally questionable enterprise. 

Japanese consumers use 30bn plastic shopping bags each year, but it lags behind major European initiatives on phasing reusing and recycling.

The first one is a great cautionary tale about the appeal of individualism, consumerism and material comfort. Japan, with its mostly-coastal cities and its frequent typhoons, is certainly being hurt pretty bad by the climate crisis. But if even Japan can rationalize choosing consumerism over environmentalism, it says a lot about how strong its appeal is, and how strong efforts need to be in order to stop its excesses. If even the regions most impacted by its side-effects can be seduced into an over-indulging lifestyle, the will we must deploy to counter this attraction is quite formidable. Especially when inaction is always easier.

Image result for death note kira plan

The second point is about intent: as I said, I have no doubt that Makoto Shinkai did not set out to make a pro-climate-crisis movie, and just wanted an uplifting tale of hope. So this movie is actually a great example of how you can end up writing something very questionable even with the best intentions, without realizing it. It’s so easy (perhaps inevitable) to be misunderstood or have unintended consequences. You can probably never be sure that what you say or write doesn’t have a potentially completely opposite effect to your original intent. So be careful about what you say and do, and the way you do it. And most importantly, be lenient with others, be tolerant and forgiving. Through a weird roundabout (and meta) way, Makoto Shinkai actually demonstrates with this movie what he wanted to say in it.

A ‘A christmas carol’ Carol

page0.png

STAVE  I – Dickens’ Ghost

Charles Dickens was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The time he roamed the streets and wrote his tales is now long gone by many decades. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

The other fact to bear in mind as we move into this story is how utterly plain and unremarkable its protagonist is. Apart from the events of this book, your faithful servant never attracted much attention. I led the most normal of lives, waking up as anyone would, splitting my days between a very normal work and very regular hobbies before going back to a most normal sleep. There was no setting me apart from any of my contemporaries.

So you can imagine my surprise when something quite peculiar happened once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve. I was readying myself for a traditional Christmas. It was cold, bleak, biting weather and I was alone in my room from where I could hear the people outside, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet to warm them. 

I was turning my head to have a proper glance at them when I saw in the window, as clear as one can see their reflection when it is bright inside and dark out, a pale old face that looked familiar. Charles Dickens’ face. But as I looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was just a pane of glass. To say that I was not startled would be untrue.

“Humbug!” I said as I took a seat.

The door flew open with a booming sound, and then I heard a clanking noise come closer and louder, straight towards my door. And then stood before me Charles Dickens, in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots. His body was transparent; so that I could see behind.

“It’s humbug still!” I said. “I won’t believe it.”

“Be still!” Dickens’ voice intoned me. “I have much to tell you. For I am doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what I cannot any more partake. I am condemned to be an impotent witness to the wrongs of the world. There is so much suffering and pain. So many evils and wrongdoings. And so little deserved…”

“I am doomed to stare at all and ascertain that it can be helped. None of this is inevitable, everything could be changed for the better. But not by me. It is too late for me. I cannot do anything. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. There is no torture like being powerless next to the suffering innocent and knowing what could have been. So much could I have done, so little did I do! No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

He paused for a while, letting the emotion in his voice trail off.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“There is no light part in my penance, there is no fleeing my torment.” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring. It is not too late for you. You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”

The prospect seemed dreadful, but the confidence of his tone left no place for response.

“Without their visits,” resumed the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first prestly.”

The apparition walked backward; and at every step it took, the window opened itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open. It beckoned to approach, and soon as I did, floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

I tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion I had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or this glimpse of the Invisible World, much in need of repose; I sat back and rested my eyes for a thought.

page1.png

STAVE  II – The First of the Three Spirits 

When I came to, it was so dark, that looking up, I could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and I was faced with an unearthly apparition.

It was a strange sight – like a book, yet not so like a book as like a bird, floating eerily at the height of my eyes, surrounded by a cloudy mist that appeared to brim with a pale light. Much like the ghost of Charles Dickens, I could see through its translucent pages, but I could also decypher its content. It appeared to be very old, its pages seemed worn out, and they were adorned with hand drawn pictures. 

“Are you the Spirit whose coming was foretold to me?” I asked.

It was rhetorical, and I did not expect an answer, but to my surprise one came:

“I am!”

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside me, it were at a distance.

“Who, and what are you?” I demanded.

“I am the Ghost of ‘A Christmas Carol’ Past. Mine is a tale of redemption and glee. I tell of an old miser of the name of Scrooge who lived in loneliness obsessed by money and greed. He is visited on Christmas by Spirits who accompanied him through his memories of a hopeful past, the alternative of a cheerful present, and the prospect of a dire future. The tale ends with him deciding to mend his ways and to make amends for his selfish past. He turns selfless and comes to understand how little money means.”

“Such an inspiring account. So it is possible! I shall endeavour such a change.” 

“Possible it may be.” replied the Spirit. “But truth is seldom so simple, and one epiphany does not a good man make. Rise! and walk with me!”

As the words were spoken, the Ghost lead me towards the wall, and in an instant we passed through it. We arrived in a small candle lit study where a man I recognized was writing a letter energetically. 

“What is he doing? What could trigger such fervor in the man who birthed this tale?” 

“It’s a year after I was published. My author is writing a strongly worded letter to his solicitor. He is suing a rival publisher for copyright infringement over a tweaked copy of me. He was frustrated by my financial results. The rival publisher will lose the suit and declare bankruptcy, and he will go on to quarrel others that were menacing his gains.”

“Irony can be pretty ironic. So he still wanted the fame and profit.”

“He probably earnestly strived for a better Christmas, but the world alas remains. It takes tremendous efforts even for the earnest to do the righteous thing. I am but a story. Christmas is but a day.” 

The ghostly tome lead me to others. We saw children gathering around the fireplace to listen in awe to their parents reading the tale. How inspired they were by the story of the ghosts, how gleeful they were at the joyful denouement, how fast they ran away to go back to their toys. And yet they seemed somewhat kinder to each other. 

We saw lonely elders reading the tale that felt so close to their own lives, so much so that they wept transfigured by the conclusion. They grew selfless and helped their neighbor, but as the days rolled and the time passed, the emotions also faded and life took back its course. It’s only natural that intents would wane and inertia triumph, but their small attempt did make the world a smitch better. 

We saw all kinds of people demonstrating care and abnegation in the Christmas time, partaking in charity and helping the poor, but their resolution melted with the snow and the rest of the year was their own.

“Oh, that it were Christmas every day!” I lamented in a broken voice. “So much promise washed away by the rigor of life. Spirit! Remove me from this place! I cannot bear it!” 

I turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon me with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown me, wrestled with it.

“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”

There was a flash of light, and the struggle was over.

page2.png

STAVE  III – The Second of the Three Spirits

I had no chance to regain my spirits or ponder my thoughts before holding a conference with the second messenger despatched to him through Charles Dickens’ intervention. Now, being prepared for almost anything, I was still not expecting the form of my second visitor. On the table stood a box of cardboard, adorned with a smile and the letters “AMAZONPRIME”. As I opened the container to reveal its prize, I saw that it was a thin circle imprinted with a green socket frog, and titled in golden “HD remake 2 extra collector edition”.

“Look upon me! and know me better, man!” said the Spirit. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Have you never seen the like of me before? I have countless siblings.” 

“Spirit,” I said submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have ought to teach me, let me profit by it.”

“Touch me!”

I did as I was told, and held it fast. The room vanished instantly, and we stood in an immaculate space, where innumberable desks aligned in a vertiginous geometry. All was plastic and metal, and everywhere were buzzing activities and conversations. People were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet. It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour, and their roar were heard all around.

“What merry place.” I said bewildered, “Spirit, how is this that these people are so jolly?”

“It is because their profits are up.” returned the Spirit. “See!”

They were cheering:

“A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us! And so does the market.”

They looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the colored graphs on display around them. All were pointed up.

“Christmas is always our most profitable period, but this is beyond our predictions!” a voice exclaimed.

The speaker revelled in another laugh, and as it was impossible to keep the infection off, his example was unanimously followed.

“Oh what a strike of spirit to have wagered on the traditional christmas values. Nothing sells quite as well as authenticity!”

“That it does, my good friend, that it does!” said another, clapping their hands. “Why risk any chance when making a Christmas Carol anew brings the people what they want.” 

“Christmas is the best of brands, and its eery happiness is the best of products!”

Handshakes and accolades were exchanged all around. None of them showed sign of leaving.

The Ghost lead me to other offices where the same glee was partaken. Then to some markets where passersby were searching for trinkets to impress their peers and fulfil conventions. There was no quenching the thirst that fueled their devouring consumption. It only begat more, trapped in a solipsistic loop.

These were the tales that were told at Christmas Present. Problems were forgotten and kept under wraps. What irony that the tale supposed to warn against greed had become its most faithful instrument even though it was known by all. It was a feast, all right, but the meaning had changed. Out went the heartfelt abstinence, and everything became opulence, appearances and mediated by money. None could see beyond themselves anymore. Quite a removal from the original Christmas Carol.

I looked about me for the Ghost, and saw it not. I remembered the prediction of old Charles Dickens, and lifting up my eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground towards me.

page3.png

STAVE  IV – The Last of the Spirits

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?” I said.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” I pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. 

“Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”

The Phantom moved away and I followed in the shadow of its dress. But around us grew darkness. Soon, we were on all sides surrounded by nothingness. The ground was covered in dry ash. The wind howling in my ears soon turned into many voices whispering in pain and pleading for relief.

“So dark! So bleak! Is there no light any more? Is the unborn already doomed? Is there nothing but pain, suffering and death? Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death.”

The voices in the wind carried to me the hoarse voice of a weak mother, reciting to her sickly child a christmas carol. Tiny Tim replied in a trembling voice.

“So it is not too late. So there is still some hope. God bless Us, Every One!”

And the mother wept.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl who had been following us. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, some force had pinched and twisted them, making them monsters of horrible and dread.

“Spirit! are they yours?” I could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the black sky.

“Spirit!” I cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the emptiness and terror of what is yet to come!”

In my agony, I caught the spectral hand. Holding up my hands in a last prayer to have my fate reversed, I saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down until it could not be perceived.

page4.png

STAVE  V – The End of It

 

I finally reached the last word, and detached my gaze from my reading. Quite an interesting tale, this carol of christmas carols. Really made you ponder on the difficulty of change.

I was out of my immersion, back to a reality that was my own, in a room that was my own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before me was my own, to make amends and improve the world in!

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” I repeated. “I shall be selfless, I shall make the world better for everyone. And I shall prevent the dreadful fate that befell the world of my vision, and this poor poor Tiny Tim”.

So I wrote, conversed and tried to spread the lesson the spirits taught me. I endeavoured to partake in charities and benefactions, and tried to help my neighbor. And most importantly, I tried to keep the flame of the carols going after the night of Christmas. 

But time passes and flames do wane. Many a night I wept in despair, when all of it seemed vain and the world showed no sign of redemption. Surely, in spite of my best effort, did my fervor falter, for I am just like any human and therefore prone to fail. But my intentions were pure, and I would never let the dread I foresaw befall us.

Though how can I help if I don’t eat? How can I eat if I don’t work? Life goes on, that much is true, and one cannot escape it. You know what I mean, don’t you?

So as Christmas approaches, I offer you this carol, in hope it helps in any kind of way. And I bid you farewell to tend to all other things in life that are pressing. I have to buy presents for my family. I think I’ll order the new version of the Muppets’ Christmas from Amazon.

May your Christmas be merry and kind. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

page5.png

Playing around with GPT2

So lately I’ve been spending a relative amount of time toying with GPT2, who made the headlines about producing text so believable that it was considered dangerous (GPT2 is the toned down version).

ML and Reddit

I started by getting hooked on this GPT2 generated subreddit:

https://www.reddit.com/r/SubSimulatorGPT2/

Which I highly recommend to everyone to read daily as an exercise in critical thinking and challenging the natural human bias to trust everything you see. I especially enjoy the tag trained on r/totallynotrobots which is basically robots pretending to be humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans.

It wasn’t long before I tried it for myself. I’ve long wanted to download all my social media posts and train some kind of ML on it, and GPT2 seemed like the state of the art.

Torch RNN

Somehow I started to mess around with Torch RNN which was the previous state of the art, I guess, made accessible through this tutorial which gave us such gems as a PBS idea channel episode, a genius buzzfeed skit, or the relatively famous short film Sunspring.

Both Torch RNN and GPT2 are pretty similar in the way they are used (I believe it’s all tensorflow under the hood). They both deliver you a pre-trained model that kinda knows english, I think, and expect as input a txt file of example lines.

But training took ages on my computer (like a whole night for a couple of iterations) because despite being fairly powerful its GPU isn’t supported for the ML training optimizations (sad). I had little hope that anything more sophisticated would be possible on my machine.

Enters colab

Fortunately, people are sometimes really great, and not only did Max Woolf make a wrapper to make GPT2 easy to use, he also made a colaboratory notebook that makes it dead simple to use and most importantly computationally sustainable, since it runs on the Google Compute Engine VM with some sort of free quota. It has a very nice Google Drive integration that makes it easy to save trained model or upload new training data. With this, you can train a model in less than 1h, making it really easy to play with.

Getting data

First of all, it’s been extremely easy to download all my data from social networks (here I’m talking about Google, Facebook, Tumblr, Discord and WordPress). Everything has a dump archive function now (courtesy of EU law I believe?), so that definitely made my life easier. A bit of python scripting to transform the json or xml into txt and we were good to go.

The outcome

I first started the training on the posts of this blog. The outcome was pretty convincing. It felt pretty weird and special to see these lines that felt like I could have written but I actually didn’t. It really seemed like another version of me, which of course tickled my philosophy bone.

Obviously the result wasn’t perfect. It often spouts out nonsensical stuff, but I enjoyed very much weeding out the absurd or malformed proposition to keep something sensical by human conventional standards (let’s say I had around 1 satisfying proposal for 5 results on average).

This way, I had the program write a short story for this blog. I gave it the prompt you see in bold, and it chose among the completions it proposed. I did not add any text myself. As you can see, it’s a bit weird. In particular it doesn’t really lead anywhere, I think GPT2 isn’t very teleological. That definitely was a challenge for a short story ^^ But I like to think that the style is pretty convincing.

And the overall exercise is far from absurd. It reminded me of the Ecriture automatique productions by the surrealists. It’s still an easier read than Naked Lunch. Really gets you thinking about the self, art and authorship, doesn’t it? Who wrote this story in the end? What if I hadn’t done any editing? What does it mean for copyright?

Literary corpora

Prompted by these questions, I trained several models on works of art that I thought would produce interesting outputs. I put all my favorite results on

http://yo252yo-a.tumblr.com

In particular, I trained a model on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which produced a lot of “bits of story” and dialogs that were not really usable as standalone excerpts),  Welcome to Night Vale scripts (which were pretty convincing especially when you prompt it with a phrase of the show like “And now, a look at the community calendar!”), or all of homestuck (which was pretty challenging to get anything good out of).

Once I had all these pretty ok results, I immediately processed to try merging my brain (at least this model copy) to the brains of these authors I admire (at least this model copy). The result was a mess until I had the great idea to feed the input corpora not in parallel all at once but in sequence (i.e. do 1000 rounds of training on the authors’ corpus, and then 1000 rounds on mine). The results were pretty nice.

This taught me the single most important fact about playing with GPT2: it’s all about your training data. The parameters (# training rounds, “temperature”) can’t really save you if your input data isn’t the best it can be. You want it as clean and uniform as possible. Which is really the core point of the next section.

Social media corpora

I trained GPT2 models on my conversations and emails, but it was all utter failures. The fact that I’m often using several languages certainly doesn’t help, but the trouble I’ve had with the homestuck corpus makes me believe that GPT2 is simply not very great with dialogs and conversations.

I even tried to sanitize my input further, prefixing my lines of dialogs by “-” and whoever I was talking to by “>”, with the hope of starting a conversation with the GPT2 model, but I couldn’t get anything out of it. Maybe if I went over the corpus manually and kept only the meaningful messages, I’d get something different, but this sounds daunting.

Needless to say that merging this with my blog post corpora was also pretty bad, so in the end I stuck to my blog corpus.

By the way, I also tried to train a model on a list of J.K. Rowkling’s retcon tweets to get crispy new intel about the Harry Potter canon variations, but I couldn’t get it to produce anything new.

Conclusions

  • GPT2 on colab is extremely easy.
  • Your training corpus is everything, really.
  • GPT2 does great with literary types of text but sucks a bit at conversations/informal speech.

Next steps

As intoxicating as it is to watch a ghost of myself produce believable texts, I’m not sure where it leads ^^ My ultimate goal would be to be able to produce some sort of system I can interact with and teach dynamically to get better (i.e. conversational and dynamic retraining) but that seems pretty rare in the world of generational ML models. I might have to dig deeper into Tensorflow, but I can’t really do that with my current machine, so I’m kinda stuck.

I have a couple of pointers for conversational ML (still no dynamic/online/interactive/reinforcement learning though so that limits the interest), but I expect them to be less good than GPT2. Haven’t had time to try them yet (probably they require more power than I have). The dream would be to combine that with GPT2 I guess and figure out a way to dynamically retrain the model on itself.

In any case, it feels really nice to see some progress in my Caprica dream.