I tried to do a different thing, but I couldn’t do the thing I wanted to do that was different from the thing I did, so I did the thing instead. Then I did the other thing, too, so…things got done.
It started yesterday morning, when I woke intending to post a new episode of the Skeptical Pervert podcast, this one looking at sex work in different cultures. But what to my wondering eye should show up, but a database server error at my webhosting provider. As I waited for them to fix the problem, I…amused. Yes, that’s the word we’ll use. I amused myself by writing a quick and crude web page that generates random horror poetry and pairs it with a random tentacle image generated by a Stable Diffusion AI generator.
It’s still quite primitive, but it looks like this:
You can, if this strikes your fancy, check it out here:
Well, technically, I suppose, it’s a drawing of a tooth. (ce n’est pas une dent.) Still, it gets across the idea. A tooth has a particular shape vaguely like this, and, as all fools know, a tooth (at least the ones in the back) has two roots.
So gather ’round, it’s time for a story.
Let’s set the Wayback machine to, like, 1999 or so. I had a root canal done on one of these. A root canal is a rather unpleasant procedure in which a hole is drilled in the top, the nerve inside and down the roots is reamed out and then filled in with…well, I don’t know what it’s filled in with. Concrete, maybe. Something. And then a crown is stuck on the top.
Anyway, I had this done, and for years afterward every visit to a dentist was kind of a variation on the same theme:
Dentist: *takes X-rays.*
Dentist: *looks at the X-rays*
Dentist: “Ah, I see a root canal. Wait, hang on, there’s a weird shadow. It looks kinda like…hmm, not an abcess, it’s just…what is that?”
Dentist: *hammers on my tooth with a little metal thing*
Dentist: *Touches my tooth with an ice cube*
Dentist: “Does that hurt?”
Dentist: *shrugs* “Huh, weird. Whatever.”
That’s our backstory. Our tale takes place yesterday, when I’m in an office working on having a crown (a different crown) replaced because it’s failed. Cue the normal X-rays, “hmm that’s strange,” only this time, something changes.
This time, I have a dentist whose mind is fueled by the desire to Know. A dentist not content to shrug and say “weird, whatever.” A dentist illuminated by the blazing light of curiosity that dragged our ancestors from the trees and sent them across the savannah to invent tools like spears and slings and particle accelerators, all because “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” isn’t a good enough answer. He’s like, weird, something strange here, let’s look further.
Now, molars have two roots. Everyone knows this. One tooth, two roots.
Except that he does a bunch of X-rays from different angles and guess what? Fuck me dead, that tooth I got the root canal on, it has three roots.
And the dentist who did the root canal, he missed that.
Loooong story short, over the past twenty-something years, that unfilled third root has been quietly accumulating cruft like old FORTRAN code, and now they need to fix it.
But apparently they don’t want to remove the crown—not sure why, but for whatever reason they have to leave the crown on, which is made of metal by the way, drill through it, and re-do the root canal.
Anyway, my dentist was all “This is way above my pay grade, you’re gonna need a specialist for this. Oh, if they can’t drill straight through the crown, the other option is to go at it from underneath, which means they drill a hole through your jaw into the bottom of the tooth, fix the root, then put a bone graft in the hole.” Which, I mean, I’m no medical professional, but that sounds straight out of a Stephen King novel. “The Toothening,” something.
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to December of 2004. My then-partner Shelly, at the time a big fan of video games, said “hey, there’s a new MMO out, we should play!”
“Cool!” said I, “what’s an MMO?”
The new MMO was, of course, a game called World of Warcraft, in a genre I’d never before heard of. (A video game you play online with thousands of players? Whoa!)
Since I knew exactly fuckall about MMOs, I said I was in as long as I could play a character with a mohawk. I had no idea what kind of character to try, so Shelly said “Play a warrior, they’re usually pretty easy.” And thus was Ragnarokkr born: a troll warrior with a Mohawk.
I’m not sure how I ended up in a guild. I think Shelly knew someone who knew some folks who’d started it, something like that. Anyhow, we ended up joining a guild called Clan BOB on a server called Medivh, and spent countless hours over the next year or so running through dungeons and walking the endless desert of the Barrens.
To this day, this music still transports me back to a certain very specific place and time
It took the better part of a year to get to the highest level, though part of that was we didn’t realize if you log off in an inn you get double XP for a while.
We spent so many hours, so many hours, running through Blackrock Depths with the rest of the guild, just generally having a blast. I rolled a hunter alt named Margath just to see what this whole notion of a “pet class” was all about, but Ragnarokkr (or “Rags,” as the guildies affectionately called him) was me in this weird new world.
Then the worst thing that could have happened, happened: success.
The co-founders of Clan BOB created what was one of the first, if not the first, World of Warcraft Webcomic, “Life of Riley.” It turned into a runaway hit, and some kind of Drama ensued. I never got the full story, but there were server problems and, I’m told from sources that may or may not be reliable, fights over money the comic was bringing in.
Anyway, the founders quit, on (again I’m told) bad terms, there was bad blood all around, the guild collapsed, I rolled Alliance characters on Eonar, and that was that.
Years later, I moved to Atlanta while Shelly went off to Tallahassee for her graduate degree. She got in touch with me to say she’d moved her undead healer to a different server, and would I like to play WoW with her again? I said sure, paid to move Rags to her new server, and joined her new guild.
We played for a few months before she quit the game again, so I went back to my Alliance characters.
Fast forward to 2019. World of Warcraft has its fifteenth anniversary. Characters who logged in got special bonuses, including a “15th anniversary” balloon.
I logged on to all my old characters, including poor forgotten Margath. I was astonished to find he was still a member of the Clan BOB guild, and even more astonished when I opened the guild registry to see if any old friends were playing and saw a message saying the guild leaders hadn’t logged on for an extended period of time, would I like to take over the guild? I clicked yes, logged off, and went about my day.
World of Warcraft is in a kind of lull period between content updates right now. I’ve raised several characters to the highest level, run my main (a worgen boomkin named Ortin) through the current highest-level raid dungeon, and the leader of my raiding guild isn’t running raids at the moment because of some sort of personal family thing he’s dealing with.
So I turned my attention back to Rags, my old, old, character from way back.
I transferred him back to Medivh, brought him back into Clan BOB, and brought him up to max level—something that only took a week of casual play rather than the year it took the first time round, as Blizzard has drastically streamlined the leveling process.
Then I geared him up and ran the current top-tier raid a few times, just for old times’ sake.
When I look at the Clan BOB character roster, it’s a sad and tragic thing:
Last login: 15 years ago, 13 years ago, 10 years ago. Ah, how the past crumbles into dust.
So I now find myself in the weird position of being the owner and sole active member of a once-legendary World of Warcraft guild with a long history. I can’t even find out if the original owners still play the game at all; a search for their character names on the WoW character database turns up nothing, suggesting they have deleted their characters or possibly deleted their accounts.
And I’m not sure what to do with it. A part of me wants to resurrect the guild again, maybe build it into a raiding guild once more, but that’s a lot of work and I don’t have time. (That’s the thing about being a full-time writer; it’s not an 8-hour-a-day, 5-day-a-week job. Eunice and I are currently, as of mid-December 2021, on track to have written three novels this year.)
But I still want to see this once-proud guild rise again from the ashes, like a phoenix from Tempest Keep.
I’ve been thinking a lot about machine learning lately. Take a look at these images:
These people do not exist. They’re generated by a neural net program at thispersondoesnotexist.com, a site that uses Nvidia’s StyleGAN to generate images of faces.
StyleGAN is a generative adversarial network, a neural network that was trained on hundreds of thousands of photos of faces. The network generated images of faces, which were compared with existing photos by another part of the same program (the “adversarial” part). If the matches looked good, those parts of the network were strengthened; if not, they were weakened. And so, over many iterations, its ability to create faces grew.
If you look closely at these faces, there’s something a little…off about them. They don’t look quiiiiite right, especially where clothing is concerned (look at the shoulder of the man in the upper left).
There are ways you can spot StyleGAN generated faces. For example, the people at This Person Does Not Exist found that the eyes tended to look weird, detached from the faces, so the researchers fixed the problem in a brute-force but clever way: they trained the Style GAN to put the eyes in the same place on every face, regardless of which way it was turned. Faces generated at TPDNE always have the major features in the same place: eyes the same distance apart, nose in the same place, and so on.
Okay, so what happens if you train a GAN on images that aren’t faces?
That turns out to be a lot harder. The real trick there is tagging the images, so the GAN knows what it’s looking at. That way you can, for example, teach it to give you a building when you ask it for a building, a face when you ask it for a face, and a cat when you ask it for a cat.
And that’s exactly what the folks at WOMBO have done. The WOMBO Dream app generates random images from any words or phrases you give it.
And I do mean “any” words or phrases.
It can generate cityscapes:
On and on, endless varieties of images…I can play with it for hours (and I have!).
And believe me when I say it can generate images for anything you can think of. I’ve tried to throw things at it to stump it, and it’s always produced something that looks in some way related to whatever I’ve tossed its way.
War on Christmas? It’s got you covered:
I’ve even tried “Father Christmas encased in Giger sex tentacle:”
Not a bad effort, all things considered.
But here’s the thing:
If you look at these images, they’re all emotionally evocative; they all seem to get the essence of what you’re aiming at, but they lack detail. The parts don’t always fit together right. “Dream” is a good name: the images the GAN produces are hazy, dreamlike, insubstantial, without focus or particular features. The GAN clearly does not understand anything it creates.
And still, if artist twenty years ago had developed this particular style the old-fashioned way, I have no doubt that he or she or they would have become very popular indeed. AI is catching up to human capability in domains we have long thought required some spark of human essence, and doing it scary fast.
I’ve been chewing on what makes WOMBO Dream images so evocative. Is it simply promiscuous pattern recognition? The AI creating novel patterns we’ve never seen before by chewing up and spitting out fragments of things it doesn’t understand, causing us to dig for meaning where there isn’t any?
Given how fast generative machine learning programs are progressing, I am confident I will live to see AI-generated art that is as good as anything a human can do. And yet, I still don’t think the machines that create it will have any understanding of what they’re creating.
That feeling when you wake up one morning to find a book you’ve written is featured on a TV show about serial killers…yes, that’s a thing.
I don’t watch TV shows about serial killers. I honestly didn’t even know the TV show You existed. If you’re similarly unaware of the vagarities of popular entertainment, it’s a show about a serial killer who stalks and murders women. In the third season, he marries another serial killer and they stalk and rape women together. Yes, that’s also a thing.
So imagine my surprise when I woke to learn that a recent episode featured my book More Than Two, and the most hilariously awful attempt at group sex ever imagined by Hollywood, which has a long history of pretty flippin’ awful depictions of group sex.
The episode isn’t as big a trainwreck as you’re probably imagining. Oh, no. It’s worse.
Anyway, I have a lot of complicated feels about this, which I talk about here:
I was out on the porch enjoying the lovely Portland weather this morning when the postman came by with the advance review copies of my new novel, Black Iron,, straight from the publisher.
No, it’s not about polyamory. Not at all.
So what’s it about? Well, that’s kinda hard to say. It’s a bit steampunk, if you interpret “steampunk” very loosely. It’s about a heist, kind of. Well, it’s really a murder mystery, sort of. No, wait, that’s not quite it. It’s a story of political intrigue, in a manner of speaking.
Think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books or Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only set in an alternate 19th-century London where there’s no British empire and the British don’t drink tea. (Joreth read the first draft and described it this way: “Imagine if Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman had a love child who grew up on a steady diet of George RR Martin.”)
It’s the same kind of loopy, over-the-top humor that you see in books like Night Watch or Hitchhiker’s Guide, the sort of absurdist comedy that’s really social commentary.
There’s a petty thief and a princess, of course, because if you have a 19th-century heist political intrigue steampunk murder mystery, you have to have a petty thief and a princess—it’s required by law. There are undead things, after a fashion. There’s a cameo by Doctor Frankenstein; in this world, his experiments worked, but not quiiiiiiiite the way he expected them to.
There are airships. The New World colonies are still colonies. Oh, and people die, because we now live in a world where Game of Thrones is a thing, so gone are the assumptions that sympathetic characters are immune to being killed.
Cathy is a long-running comic strip that premiered in 1972 and has graced the pages of American newspapers for the last four decades. In all that time, the entirety of the strip has revolved around five jokes: Cathy is insecure about her weight, Cathy is insecure in her job, Cathy is insecure in her relationship, OMG gender roles, and Cathy likes to shop.
But what if…
What if the insipid innocence of the strip hides a dark secret? What if the world of Cathy is a more dangerous and dramatic place than it seems? What if Cathy lives a secret life of sinister plots and awesome goth music? What if…Cathy is really the heroine of every Sisters of Mercy song?
It turns out it works rather well.
I blame Eve for all of this. We were talking about Sisters of Mercy, my favorite band from back in my goth days, and whether Cathy was still a thing, and…
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: Sisters of Cathy.
As many folks who read me probably know by now (and goodness, I’m doing my job wrong if you don’t!), I’m polyamorous. I’ve been polyamorous my entire life, I’ve been writing a Web site about polyamory since the 1990s, and I recently co-wrote a book on the subject.
A lot of folks ask me if I get negative responses from being so open about poly. And the answer is, no, I usually don’t. In fact, it’s extremely rare that I hear anything negative about polyamory, all things considered. I generally encourage folks who are poly (or in other non-traditional relationships) to be as open as they feel safe in being, both because stigma is reduced when many people are open about non-traditional relationships and because, almost always, the pushback is nowhere near as great as people are likely to think it will be.
But that’s not to say I never hear anything negative. Like this, for example, left as an anonymous comment to a post I made about dating and relationships on a social media site recently:
“This is what a woman had to say about you “Let me put this franklin, frank is a user/manipulator. I am sure he tells the women he is with that by being in a relationship with him and 4 other women that he is “empowering” them. You have to realize that there is a new “modern” type of feminism, these women misconstrue the term femism. The original feminist wanted to feel equal to men, they wanted more opportunities that we (women) are now given due to thier efforts. Nowadays women are empowered in a completely different way, women are mislead (in my opinion by manipulative men such as franklin) to believe that being overtly sexual is empowering, so that is why you see these women bending over backwards for men. I dont know exactly who is misleading women of our generation to believe polyamory is empowering or being overly sexual is but its someone, perhaps the feminists in the media but the question who is behind the media in the first place? I just feel bad for young feminists because they have no true understanding of what it means to be empowered and they are very confused. Franklin is smart and manipulating each girlfriend he has and he most likely a sociopath.””
Formatting, quote marks, and spelling as in the original.
So now you know, the media feminists are pushing women into the arms of sociopaths like me. Curses, my secret is out.
Should you ever find yourself in Las Vegas, I suggest… Well, to be honest, I suggest you don’t find yourself in Las Vegas. It’s a sad, desperate place, filled with people trying much too hard to convince themselves that this thing they’re having is indeed fun, and not some other thing, like not-fun (which, I must say, is more often the case). And they don’t much cotton to guys wearing bunny ears there.
But if you do find yourself in Las Vegas, one of the places on the very shortlist of places I suggest you check out is Harry Mahoney’s Erotic Heritage Museum. It’s quite a bizarre place, part museum, part Vegas festival, part…well, I don’t really know what.
It’s not terribly impressive from the outside, to be sure. It’s in an obscure corner of an industrial park, and from the outside, it looks like this:
We went there, Eve and I, not quite sure what to expect. We certainly didn’t expect the Erotic Heritage Museum wedding chapel, the first thing a visitor encounters when walking through the door. It’s billed as the only wedding chapel in Vegas where you can have your ceremony and also consummate the union, and given how uptight Las Vegas is with its Puritan morality, I believe it. It’s a bit Caligula meets Penthouse Letters, though to be fair the movie Caligula was also a bit Caligula meets Penthouse Letters, so I imagine that makes it about two-thirds Caligula and one-third Penthouse Letters.
I want to do…things in this place. With, and to, lots of people.
Also on the main floor is this…err, sculpture. Artwork. Thing. It’s carved from a solid block of limestone, and weighs something like two thousand pounds and change. It too makes me want to do…things.
Moving downstairs, one finds a large museum space filled with everything from antique vibrators (natch) to a collection, billed as the world’s largest such collection, of antique, ancient, and prehistoric dildos.
Including this rather fetching fellow, a proto-Hello Kitty design in carved stone.
There are a lot of carved stone dildos on display. Stone has, apparently, been a rather popular medium for sex toys for quite a long time.
Eve and I have discussed, for reals, teaming with a museum like this one and creating a line of high-quality replicas of various ancient stone dildos, each of which would come with a little insert that described the particular example of the art, along with historical information, information about where it came from, and so on. What do you think? Do you think there’d be a market for this sort of thing?
The exhibits also include props from the Star Wars porn parody (because of course there was a Star Wars porn parody) and, more inexplicably, this sculpture of a cock and balls, made of $4,000 worth of pennies.
If you find yourself in Vegas for whatever reason, and you’re unwilling to gnaw your own arm off to escape (possibly because you are the Kwisatz Haderach), definitely check it out. It’s a fascinating place.