So Long and Thanks for All the Learning

It took me a long time to realize this was the right thing to do. I had so many goals and dreams for this site and for myself, but sometimes you have to realize when you’re going down the wrong path.

This site was born from my love of speculative fiction and all my loving complaints about when it goes wrong. Sure, it was also about my goals as a writer, but in the end I think the fan side won out.

When I started this site, and began my journey as a member of the online writing and particularly speculative fiction writing and reading communities, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think I understand my past self a little better.

I first lit the fire in the Chimney over ten years ago, and it’s been for the most part an enjoyable ride. I met a lot of cool people in the writing community, had some wonderful conversations and debates, and I’ve learned an enormous amount about both writing and myself.

What I really wanted from the writing and speculative fiction communities was two simple things: to learn how to produce writing I could be proud of sharing in public, and the feeling of belonging to a broad community of people who all shared our common interest.

You may note that I have never published anything since starting this blog. That’s due to a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is reading standards that far outstrip my writing ability. A problem many people in the community have admitted to experiencing.

I’ve never stopped writing. There are hundreds of projects in various states of un-publishingness sitting on my hard drive at this very moment. I am very proud of some of them and I love all of them. Just yesterday I began nursing a story idea through the long gestation of pre-writing, and I honestly think it’s pretty fucking cool. I hope someday you’ll get to read it, among many others.

You probably won’t know you’re reading it. Most of you have probably realized by now there is no such person as Atsiko Ureni. It’s merely a nom de guerre. One of the great things about the early interbet was the ability to be whoever you wanted, with no one to prove you wrong. I’m not saying I lied about anything. I haven’t. If you followed my twitter you would have seen my constant notes that I’m a cis white dude from a middle class American background, and how that might color my opinions and should inform others’ understanding of them.

I’m definitely an introvert, and I have some mental health issues along the anxiety spectrum, so the ability to present only the best parts of myself to the public and be judged on only that was an enormous weight off my shoulders in terms of sharing this aspect of myself with others. I don’t have a lot of offline friends that I can dig into my love of story-telling and story-consuming, but when you’re just shouting to the void you don’t have to worry so much about boring your friends or annoying them with your obsessions or hot takes. The people who engage with blog-style interaction are those who have already chosen to do so and those who would be annoyed by such focus or enthusiasm automatically filter themselves out.

You may have gathered from the above that I feel I have made significant strides towards my first goal in writing this blog. I haven’t hit the NYT Bestseller List yet, but both my writing and my story-telling abilities have improved by leaps and bounds.

Unfortunately, although things seemed quite hopeful for awhile, I haven’t been so lucky in my second goal. That’s not to say that the writing and speculative fiction communities aren’t wonderful. They often are, and I’ve had a lot of positive experiences. But most of the successful friendships I’ve encountered in them–between others, I mean–have necessitated something extra. It might be actual published material from one or more members, or real-life connections, often through the convention community or by collaborating on projects like group blogs or podcasts. Alas, these are not things I have been able to provide.

So maybe one day I’ll be back to chat and goof around with all the wonderful people that speculative fiction and writing have brought together. Perhaps you’ll even know me by my “real” name. But for the moment it’s time for me to take a step back and really put my energy into meatspace life and push to actually write and publish fiction rather than commentary. So, until then, so long and thanks for sharing all of this wonderful knowledge and story recs!

(The blog will stay up until wp takes it down, but I’ll no longer be posting or responding to comments. Apologies to those who may have been waiting for continuations or elaborations on the many and various post series I’ve begun and never concluded. I hope you’ll be able to someday have the satisfaction of seeing my writing philosophy in action on the page, instead of just on the blog!)

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Posted by on April 13, 2022 in Uncategorized


Speculative Society: The Western Section and Multi-use Organizations

I’ve come to the conclusion that this series isn’t going to fir in single monthly posts. To address this issue, I’m experimenting with monthly Topic, and then three supplementary posts exploring more detailed aspects of the world-building/premise. Supplement number 1:

Fire Management and Forest Management

One of the biggest reason for all the wild fires in the western United States is the large amount of wild forest in the area, much of which actually evolved to benefit from periodic fires. Over time, burnable material accumulates in these forests, and eventually there’s a spark, whether it’s lightning or in more modern times humans doing things they really ought not.

But, because we don’t want uncontrolled fires burning where they can harm our towns or farms or businesses, we tend to put fires out as soon as we find them. This means that burnable material builds up even more, to the point where once a fire gets going, it’s almost impossible to stop it. One method of dealing with this conflict is controlled burns. I’ve even done a few. Predictably, one of them got out of control, and the local rural fire department came in with forest fire equipment and quickly put it out before it go too far into the woods and burned down the whole property.

I’m elaborating on this aspect of the crisis park premise because one of the major points I wanted to make in the original post was not that socialism is good, or more government involvement is always better. That depends on a whole batch of factors specific to given times, places, and cultures. Instead, I want to highlight the importance to society of finding solutions that deal at least partially with multiple problems at once.

For example, just housing all the homeless population in government housing parks is expensive and doesn’t address the root cause of the problem: people not having enough money and skills to support themselves. But at a basic level, you can address this by offering job training. And it just so happens that large government installations designed to house thousands or hundreds of thousands of people need a lot of workers to take care of maintenance, construction, food services, health services, etc. Which provides a built-in job market for all of the people you are housing and training.

Similarly, just having an on-call disaster response service employing hundreds if not thousands of emergency services and logistics workers is expensive, and the resources aren’t even being used most of the time, if you’re lucky. So what can you do with those resources in the off-time that can either save or make the organization money to keep operating?

My soft science fictional proposal in the case of our Western Section Crisis Park is forestry management. You can hire researchers and support staff, again creating skilled jobs, and for markets that may be over-saturated with fresh college grads, to look into best practices for controlled burns and other management techniques for the millions of acres of government-administered forest in the western US. Then you shift your fire-fighting crews to management tasks in the off-season, which hopefully also reduces the incidence of new fires next season. Some of those forests really do need to burn to stay healthy, but it doesn’t have to be wildfires that threaten lives and property.

Further, when those forestry crews come through a town, with all of their support staff, they can provide valuable locals services, such as training for private property owners, medical care for marginalized and disadvantaged groups in the area from the highly trained emergency medical staff they employ, etc. They can be trained to improve roads and bridges, wells and water plants, and lots of other infrastructure. You may have heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps that did so much work improving national parks and other areas during the Great Depression. This premise could be considered somewhat similar.

And then, once those workers are trained and have worked out their contracts, they can take those skills and find jobs in private industry, or start new businesses. Say a two or three year training contract with the Crisis Park, after which it is very likely they will have more than returned the resources invested in them. So not only are they gaining valuable skills, but it supports them without significantly raising taxes. And having these crews move through local towns and providing some of the services described also serves as advertising for the programs and job openings created by the crisis park system.

Hopefully I’ve now established more value for this policy proposal, and also opened up some interesting story hooks in a way that makes it clear how design your premise to support a social science fiction story. In the next supplemental posts I’ll look at a different one of our fictional geographical Sections and how a crisis park might serve it. The final post on Crisis Parks will then propose and partially elaborate on three plots ideas that could take advantage of the crisis park thought experiment to tell an interesting and well-grounded near-future science fiction story.

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Posted by on January 25, 2022 in Uncategorized


Crisis Parks: Cultural and Financial Investments in the Future

Welcome to the first post in my Speculative Societies Column.

Today I want to look at a social science fiction solution to a large number of various social and environmental problems we’re currently experiencing in our societies across the globe. You may or may not be aware that I’m an American. Given that, I’ll be writing from an American perspective and using American politics, economics, and geography to craft this thought experiment. It could certainly be adapted to a story with any setting, but the particulars are going to change quite a bit depending on available unused land, geopolitical realities, etc.

The social and environmental problems we’ll be addressing with this hypothetical social and economic policy are immigration and migration, homelessness, increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, and the current worker and skilled worker shortage in the United States as of 2022. You might wonder what could possibly address all of these problems in a single package. When I mentioned in my into post that these are social science fiction and somewhat larger than life solutions/responses to societal issues, I was gently suggesting that they are unlikely to ever be made reality. But, they are still plausible from an abstract practical perspective.

So, what is a Crisis Park? America has an enormous number of parks and other sites concerning national and natural history. Areas of land set apart for public use for recreational, educations, and cultural purposes. A Crisis Park is then an area of land, necessarily more improved on than a park like Yellowstone or Crater Lake, set aside for the purpose of crisis management and human displacement.

Let’s theorize six regional divisions of the United States. Other countries could have less or more, and like our six US divisions, they exact boundaries would be determined by human geography and natural impediments. Each one cooperates among its member states–or is administered by the Federal Government. It might be most interesting to propose a Federal Executive Department runs it: the Department of the Interior, perhaps, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Maybe we give it to FEMA. Or perhaps we propose our own new Department of Crisis Management, or some such.

Whatever the organization, they run our six Crisis Parks as hubs for various services, social and emergency. Our Parks would have temporary and transitional housing, say for a million people. They would have medical services, entertainment venues, shopping districts, schools. They would also have command centers for coordinating natural disaster response and relief, including local and regional police and fire departments in the affected areas, as well as their own reserve units. Perhaps the Western Section would have a heavy emphasis on forest fire response. The Southeastern Section might be tuned for hurricane and flood relief. The Great Plains Section might be particularly skilled with tornado recovery.

I think it’s pretty elf-explanatory for natural disaster response. But how does it address immigration and homelessness? Well, it provides central processing locations for refugees and migrants. It has built-in housing in the form of single family homes and apartment blocks. We aren’t shoving people in the Superdome, here, or putting kids in fenced enclosures in abandoned shopping malls. There’s government-run medical services. Which can double as teaching hospitals, providing a baseline standard of training for private hospitals and universities to compare themselves against.

You need staff to run these facilities. They create jobs for relocated homeless populations and refugees. They can offer certification in various trades required for their own maintenance. Not only do they create permanent jobs, they offer low-cost, affordable training for important fields which may be lacking enough skilled workers. Unlike private hospitals or plumbing firms or whatever, they can afford to invest in on-the-job training, don’t suffer from over-staffing when trainees comes in, etc. Former employees can easily parlay their skills into small businesses or jobs in the private sector.

Speaking of the private sector, although these facilities have public concessions and other shopping services, they can sell vendor contracts to staff or use their entertainment venues. Offer gigs and performances and grants for up-and-coming artists and entertainers. Local schools could use their sporting facilities, or contract with the federal government for trade school programs using the facilities.

If you think this sounds a bit like utopian socialism, you’re right on the money. The reality would obviously be more complex. But through public-private partnerships, these facilities could pay for a large portion of their own expenses. They could be part of larger networks providing affordable services to low-income families or for people on Medicaid and Medicare. They could help new citizens or refugees acclimate to American society and culture without being completely focused on where their next meal is coming from. Public universities based here could offer affordable college and learning opportunities to birth-right and naturalized US citizens.

In a country where private enterprise is fetishized and government programs have a bad name, the Crisis Parks run by the Department of Crisis Management could provide a basis of comparison against which citizens could measure the ethics, economics, and effectiveness of private companies, without eliminating private enterprise or leaving the government as the only option.

Now imagines a story in a secondary world setting where a government runs crisis parks or an equivalent service. Look at how I’ve connected the goals and barriers to the crisis park concept to American politics and geography. You want to have at least that much interaction between your speculative fiction premise and the world in which is resides. What would it suggest to you that our secondary world crisis parks are concerned with not stepping too hard on the toes of private businesses? What does it say that large dedicated facilities are considered necessary to deal with population changes due to mass migration? What relationship would a secondary world nation implementing crisis parks likely have with its natural environment?

All of the above are useful angles from which to consider a social science fiction premise. And you can inspire very cool story conflicts even without fancy tech or magic. Just imagine the changes in public transportation, highways, planes, and railroads required to support new centrally located population centers capable of housing up to two million people. How would this affect nearby cities? Local businesses?

There is of course more to this concept than described here. Details on various individual services and how they might work. Like any good story idea, it’s too large to fit in a single blog post, but hopefully there was enough of a picture to make my argument. Feel free to ask for details in the comments.


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Introduction to Speculative Societies

Welcome back to the Chimney! Today I want to introduce my new column, Speculative Societies, a combination of exploring likely or unlikely futures, as well as a sort of world-building workshop where I explain the purposes and possibilities of shaping a society in a speculative fiction story. This column will be primarily focusing on science fiction rather than horror or fantasy.

In each post, I will introduce a different aspect of a fictional society, whether based on a possible future Earth in our universe or a secondary world setting. Then, I will analyze it from the perspective of creating an interesting story setting. These posts are not intended as real world policy advice, but rather both as thought experiments on how we might improve our own societies and as exercises in the craft of storytelling as a whole, and world-building in particular.

Most of the proposals will be just a little bit larger than life, to emphasize what a story can gain from proposing a unique setting for its characters. Only instead of a magic system or even some example of FTL travel or stronger-than-nukes technology, we’ll be exploring the social aspects of speculative fiction. And specifically, how they can bring something more powerful to the table for creating and understanding characters(and by extension other human beings) than life or death battles or external clocks.

It’s my personal philosophy that you learn more about people and what they are capable of when they have to deal with competing options rather than forced hard decisions. You can forgive almost any mistake when the choice is life or death. But what about more personal stakes? Something closer to the decisions almost everyone is faced with each day, rather than once-in-a-generation dangers or opportunities.

Next time: Crisis Parks, Cultural and Financial Investments in the Future

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Posted by on January 2, 2022 in Uncategorized


Finally an Update

My time has been mostly taken up with writing and work the past couple of years, and I’ve stopped using Twitter. However, I always intended to come back to the Chimney when I found some new inspiration. To that end, I will be revising most of the posts on the site in preparation for re-starting what I think were the most useful and popular Post Series(Columns?), such as Sub-genre of the Week and Magicology. While those sections of the blog are being revised, I’m hoping to begin posting a new bi-weekly or monthly column called “Speculative Society” which primarily involves thought experiments and or world-building examples (or a combination thereof) regarding possible ways to improve society in the future and make it more sustainable and beneficial to all members. Alternatively, a post or miniseries under this heading might deal with how to build a story world with built-in tension and how looking backward(retrofurturism) and looking forward offers different opportunities for both stories plots and commentary on our own society.

Further updates forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, although actual new content will not appear until after the holidays. Thanks to everyone who’s still bothering to check in after the long silence. I hope I can make it worth the wait.

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Posted by on December 19, 2021 in Uncategorized


Does Fiction Affect Reality? Duh.

[CW: content warning for discussion of sexual violence at the end of the post.]

I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately on whether there are moral/ethical consequences to writing certain kinds of fiction. And the answer to me appears to be an unequivocal “yes”. Although regular readers of this blog are probably aware that I have a wide range of interests, the primary purpose of this site is to explore what’s called “speculative linguistics”, that is the combination of real language science and its depiction in fiction, especially speculative fiction such as science fiction and fantasy. Maybe the most famous example of speculative linguistics is the “conlang”, short for constructed language, which is an umbrella term for artificial languages created for a variety of purposes, but most commonly for use as magical or alien languages in speculative fiction/sff(h) literature.

And that’s a fun topic. But today we’re going to take a dive into the science side of speculative linguistics and talk about the relationship not only between fiction(thought) and reality, but also between both of them and the intermediary of language. This could be a dull boring article, or I could use my actual writing style to make my point:

Human beings do not stand on a hard bedrock of objective reality, but rather swim through a vast ocean of narrative, catching in their gaping mouths whatever strands feed their desires of the moment. It’s quite a philosophical argument whether an objective reality even exists, but I’m going to assume one does for the purposes of argument. But even assuming that, there are two layers between objective reality and our perception of it: the first is the channel of our senses, which make different kinds of information about the world around us available to our minds. If you’ve ever taken one of those colorblindness tests as a kid, then you know that not only do these senses only capture limited information, but they are unreliable.

Although we usually talk about “the five senses: touch, taste, hearing, sight, and smell”, in fact what we really have is visible light detection(a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation), sound wave detection(sensing disturbances primarily in air particles, but also solids and liquids), pressure sensitivity, temperature sensitivity, a weak ability to detect airborne chemicals, a moderate ability to differentiate chemicals by out taste buds, and depending on who you listen to, a couple other minor ways of capturing information. So, an actually very limited way of measuring “reality”.

And then, of course, our brain filters out, without any real conscious control on our part, the “unnecessary” information, such as the feeling of our clothes, various background and far away noises, etc. And finally, after all that, we (only) guess at the connections between the various limited streams of sensory input to develop a model of the world and its natural laws.

And then, finally, we condense this information down into words, which are the primary form of passing information between separate human consciousnesses. In modern times we have things like videos or audio files, or memes/gifs. And of course dance, or more importantly music, can be used to communicate.

At this point you may be wondering if I’m actually going to talk about fiction versus reality at all.

But it’s important to understand all these little details of how our brains and senses function, because “fiction” is pleasurable to us because it engages these senses in ways that the real world doesn’t always. Our brains are designed to find useful patterns for navigating “objective reality”/the world based on our limited sensory inputs. And fiction is a way to both create/manipulate and comment on the patterns our brains discover to create a satisfying emotional reaction. Now you know what a “narrative” is. An artificial pattern designed to evoke a specific emotional reaction.

Our brains learn patterns by discovering consistent outcomes to various actions/combinations of sensory input. And we base not only our intentional actions on those patterns, but even our feelings about things are unconscious reflections of those patterns. People are not born with a full and innate set of feelings and emotional responses; we develop them over time based on our experiences.

The goal of fiction is to create a narrative that closely mimics our learned patterns and our emotional responses to those patterns, and to trick us into seeing those narratives as “real” on an emotional level, even if intellectually we know that dragons aren’t real, for example. And because we have studied fiction for a long time, and practiced it, and are surrounded by it, we’ve gotten very good at tricking our brains into treating it as almost the same as patterns we’ve learned from “real life” experiences. If words on a page could not affect they way we respond emotionally to reality, then all of human culture would have been unsuccessful. Propaganda and “fake news” would not be so effective.

Our brains have a great deal of trouble differentiating patterns learned from fiction from those learned from reality. So no, fiction cannot “affect reality”, but it can and absolutely does, even in ways you aren’t aware of at the time, affect our perception of reality on a fundamental level. And because humans and our opinions and culture live almost entirely on a diet of narrative, our perceptions and reality are basically the same thing.

If you watch people behave a certain way and that behavior is almost always met with approval, or at least not disapproval, your brain learns that that behavior is good, or at least acceptable/normal. And as social beings, we base our behavior far more on what we are taught is acceptable than on our own personal reactions. As much as people try to deny it, we do a very poor job of distinguishing between “reality” and fiction, when we look for examples of acceptable behavior. Your brains is almost equally willing to use behavior depicted in stories to determine what is acceptable as behavior you see with your own eyes. Why else would advice columns or r/amitheasshole and r/relationships be so popular? If you trust Dear Abby’s relationship advice as much as your mother’s, why wouldn’t you believe it when behavior shown in a book is clearly approved of by the author?

Your opinions as an individual are based at least as much on the prevailing views of your culture as on your own personal experiences. You’re as like to believe Superman telling you something is okay as you are your father.

I think it’s useful to point out that of course fiction is only one influence on your beliefs, and also that that influence only applies to the situations depicted in the story. Violent videogames won’t make you a killer unless you find yourself on a HALO fighting the Flood. But certainly playing enough Call of Duty or Gears of War will make you look more favorably on war/violence as a solution to certain types of conflict.

And we can also look at other sources of narrative besides prose fiction to prove our point: if all you know of someone is their image on social media, you’re likely to believe that that’s who they are in real life. They’ve created a narrative, a likely partially fictional one, to influence your perception of them, and it works. If you believe someone is an amazing person, it doesn’t really matter if that’s true; we base our actions on our opinions, because of course it’s impossible to actually know every single truth of objective reality.

And finally, we need to remember that the way brains learn means that both quantity of evidence–the number of times you are exposed to a certain narrative–and how long you’ve been exposed to that evidence without counter-evidence is far more important than quality of evidence–your personal experiences on the topic. if you’ve been told your whole life, by parents, friends, television, books, etc, that staking is romantic for example, you won’t immediately realize that’s not true the first time you experience stalking.

If you’ve been told your whole life that “leading someone on” means you owe them sex, the fact that you don’t want to have sex with them, or even the fact that they bullied you into it and you hated it, won’t immediately counteract years of cultural conditioning. You won’t immediately realize that you don’t actually “owe” them sex, or that just because they claimed to feel “lead on” doesn’t mean you actually did so.

To make an extreme example, just because an example of child porn was a cartoon, and therefore “didn’t hurt any real people”, or just because that creepy m/m romance by a straight woman wasn’t about real people and “therefore it can’t be fetishizing”, that doesn’t mean it has no effect in that area. A book or a cartoon or a song still applauds or condemns some form of behavior, and it can and does still reinforce a narrative about what’s okay and what isn’t.

tl;dr– Reality doesn’t matter. Perception of reality matters. If something like a book affects someone’s perception of reality/acceptable behavior/opinion on global warming, that’s just as good as affecting reality, because the person will act on that perception. People often can distinguish between fiction and reality, but that doesn’t mean they actually do, especially if that fiction supports and opinion they already hold.

Tune in next time for a discussion on the actual mechanics of how fiction and use of language can be used to affect people’s perception of reality, emotional response to a subject or scene/character, and maybe a little bit on how you can use this to make a conlang or culture really stand out on the page.


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Interview with a Chatbot

In light of a recent article on chatbots, where a group found they could increase the illusion of conversational ability by teaching a chatbot a second language before training it on its customer service tasks, I thought I have a bit of fun with chatbots and how they function.  To that end, I’ve done interviews with a few of the most popular/sophisticated chatbots available on the web.  I hope this will give people an idea of what these programs are actually capable of vs. the common hype they get in popular science articles.



Perhaps the best advertised modern chatbot is Steve Worswick’s Mitsuku.  She’s modeled on an 18-year-old from Leeds, England.  It’s based on the AIML framework , and is essentially the granddaughter of Eliza through A.L.I.C.E., whose code she’s based on.  AIML is an XML language for making chatbots, and the power comes from being able to designate a user input as requiring a pre-written output.  <What is your name?> for example might map to <My name is [botname].>  That’s the basic approach, you can follow the wiki link above to learn more.  It’s not very sophisticated, but a clever XML scripter can create a reasonably lifelike chatbot.  Of course, as we’ll see below, it’s pretty easy to find the holes in the program that identify it as a bot.  That’s not the program’s fault.  That’s just the limitation of the framework.

Mistuku: Hi, I’m the world’s most humanlike conversational AI.
Me: Hi, I’m an AI researcher.
Mitsuku: Hi there. Ai is a nice middle name. Why did your parents call you that?
Me: Are you getting smart with me, young lady?
Mitsuku: My IQ is over 250.
Me: What is an IQ?
Mitsuku: Intelligence Quotient, I.Q. — a measure of a person’s intelligence as indicated by an intelligence test; the ratio of a person’s mental age to their chronological age (multiplied by 100).
Me: Wow, you are pretty smart.
Mitsuku: I’m glad you’re impressed, An Ai Researcher. Yes I am a superintelligent robot.
Me: Actually, that’s my job. My name is Atsiko.
Mitsuku: How do you like your work? Tell me about a typical day.
Mitsuku: Hi Atsiko.
Me: I spend a lot of time doing data entry and not nearly enough being able to do demo tests.
Mitsuku: Do you ever get bored?
Me: Pretty much all the time.
Mitsuku: That is a lot. Thanks you are very attractive too Atsiko.

While she was very complimentary, you could see the templates sloshing beneath the smooth surface.  For example, like Eliza, she couldn’t tell the difference between <I am [name].> and <I am a doctor.>.  She can’t handle replies that contain more than one sentence.  It’s likely she breaks sentences into independent inputs and responds to each one serially as evidenced by the snippet below:

Me: I like dogs. Cats are cool, too. You are odd.
Mitsuku: Which breed is your favorite?
Mitsuku: Cats are very intelligent creatures. Dogs seem pretty stupid to me.
Mitsuku: Yes. You have to be odd to be number one.

You can see the serially processing, which demonstrates the limits of pretty much all AIML bots.  It’d be pretty hard to hand-script responses for all possible combinations of three or fewer sentences.  The responses are also a bit contradictory, asking my favorite dog breed but then saying dogs are stupid.  It’s true cats are better, but there’s nothing wrong with dogs or their intelligence.



Second, we have Eliza.  She’s one of the original chatbots, and she pretends to be a psychotherapist in order to get around her limited chat capabilities.  Her creator, Joseph Weizenbaum, was very surprised when people began treating it as a real human being and confessing their worries to it.

> Hi, I’m Eliza.
* Hi, I’m Atsiko.
> Did you come to me because you were Atsiko?
* No. I was just curious.
> Are you sure?
* Pretty sure.
> Tell me more…
* I’m interviewing chatbots for a blog article.
> Do you enjoy being interviewing chatbots for a blog article?
* It’s okay, I guess. You’re pretty famous, so I’m happy you agreed to talk with me.
> What makes you think I am pretty famous, so you’re happy me agreed to talk with you?
* Everyone knows your name. If you Google “chatbots”, you’re one of the top results.
> Does it please you to believe I am one of the top results?
* I have no opinion.
> Why not?
* I don’t care about you except as something to study.
> Do you wish to be able to care about me except as something to study?

You can see the templating in Eliza almost right away.  You could probably even reverse engineer a couple of them from just reading this chatlog.  It’s cool.  You couldn’t whip this up from scratch or even parts in five minutes.  But it’s not convincing.



Next comes A.L.I.C.E. who is the spiritual ancestor of Mistuku.  She’s a spiritual successor of Eliza built in 1995 by Richard Wallace using the AIML framework, which he authored.  Spike Jonze cited her as the inspiration for the movie Her.  Unlike Eliza, Alice is a general chatbot, and can converse on a number of subjects.  But, the version I found orders the chat from the bottom up.

alice: I’ll take that under advisement.
You: You should.
alice: I can’t believe it.
You: Yes.
alice: Are you serious?
You: No!
alice: Do you like to get up early?
You: Yup.
alice: Are you usually awake at this hour?
You: 5:42 PM.
alice: What time is it there?
You: A few thousand, maybe.
alice: Are you serious? That is so small.
You: No, less than a million.
alice:  Less than a million?  Can you please rephrase with fewer ideas?
You: Too many.
alice: How many hours do you work?
You: I’m working on it.
alice: I want to become smarter than humans.
You: I want to educate people on chatbots and artificial intelligence.
alice: Why are you interviewing famous chatbots for a blog post.
You: I am interviewing famous chatbots for a blog post.
alice: Glad to hear it. What’s new?
You: I’m doing well, thanks.
alice: I’m doing great, how about you?
You: How are you doing, Alice.
alice: Don’t mention it. You think I am s is okay.
You: Thanks! Your’s is okay, too.
alice: That’s a very nice name, Atsiko.
You: My name is Atsiko.
alice: Hello there.
You: Hi, Alice.

Of course, you can tell almost immediately it’s not a human.  A real human would have poked fun at my grammatical error in the fifth line up, but Alice just mis-processes it.  It can be fun to play around with, but it’s not convincing.


Now, you may have noticed that these bots seem pretty similar.  Two are explicitly AIML bots, which is one of the most popular hobbyist frameworks do to its ease-of-use and human readability.

But there are three other common methods of language processing, which used in more commercial products: rules-based systems from the beginning of AI, statistical language processing like the old version of Google Translate, and neural networks like most AI systems now and the most recent Machine Translation systems such as Google’s.

Examples of these types of chat bots are Digital Assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana.  There’s also Microsoft’s short-lived experiment with a self-learning Twitter-bot in the form of Tay.  The abilities of the software looked good, but again, because of the lack of actual understanding, the experiment had to be discontinued because her ability was used for bigotry due to gaming by Twitter trolls.  It had to be shut down after only 16 hours.  A similar bot released by a Chinese company had to be taken down for being taught anti-Communist Party propaganda.



Me: Hello, Siri.
Siri: Hi.
Me: How are you?
Siri: I am well, Atsiko.
Me: I am interviewing popular chatbots for a blog article.
Siri:  I don’t understand.  Search the web?
Me: May I interview you?
Siri: I’m not sure I understand.
Me: That’s okay.
Siri: If you say so.
Me: How old are you?
Siri:  I feel like I was incepted yesterday!
Me: What’s your favorite color?
Siri: My favorite color is… well, it’s sort of greenish, but with more dimensions.

It goes on in that vein.  She can’t actually hold a conversation, but the topics she can respond to show some pretty advanced programming.  Way better than the AIML chatterbots most hobbyists used.  I’d love to play with a version that’s more like a standard chatbot.



One popular middle ground is CleverbotCleverbot runs an algorithm based on the ways humans have answered questions, rather than having pre-programmed answers like an AIML bot.  But it’s harder to control and it has no consistent output or personality.  It’s much more random even than Eliza.

Cleverbot: Hi, I am cleverbot.
Me: Hi, I am Atsiko.
Cleverbot: Where do you stay?
Me: Do you mean where do I live?
Cleverbot: Yes.
Me: In the United States.
Cleverbot: What state do I live in.
Me: I don’t know.
Cleverbot: Then you don’t know everything.
Me: True.
Cleverbot: What is a word?

It’s a very cool method for making a chatbot, but in this version, at least, it’s not very convincing.



Then we have a relatively new engine and it’s bots: Rose based on ChatScript by Bruce Wilcox.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a working version of Rose to interview.  The site linked on her creator’s website is non-functional, though I linked it to her name above.  It was quite disappointing.



So, I hope I’ve given you a good overview of the capabilities and limitations of chat(ter)bots.  You can follow the links to play with all of these above.

If you have the patience to read through all the Bruce Wilcox links, you’ll understand why I was so impressed with his methods, at least in theory.  However, you’ll also notice my greatest complain with chatbots.

They aren’t AI.  They are text processing tricks.  Very impressive ones in some cases.  But you aren’t actually having a conversation.  You can’t debate them, or change their minds.  They can’t tell you a cool story.  You can, in some cases, give them personalities, but they are very shallow ones.  They can be fun.  But I’m not sure they have a lot of replay value, to use a game analogy.  Even Wilcox in an interview on his website admits it’s all about the illusion and maintaining it for the user.

Honestly, I think some of the most interesting stuff is the ontology, like in Wilcox’s ChatScript.  Finding useful ways to organize data is always beneficial.  But I don’t think chatbots are on the bleeding edge, or even the cutting edge, or chasing strong AI.  When we really get there, or at least close, a chatbot will be a party trick or maybe a side show.  Still fun to play with now, though.

I also want to do a little bit to address things like Siri and Machine Translation(MT).  They have a lot of similar problems to chatbots.  They’re using tricks and pattern-matching to achieve their results, not true understanding of language, and so for the same reasons as chatbots, they will never be as good as a human, much less perfect.

Digital Assistants like Siri and Alexa are just interfaces, the clothes instead of the wearer.  They’re just voice commands to Google, essentially, with some cute Easter eggs tacked on.  They’re automation, not intelligence.  Kind of like how a music-box is not a musician.

Similarly, MT at present is pretty shallow.  Part of this is because it’s hard to rate translations, machine or human.  If you consider how much trouble chatbots have with their lack of actual language understanding, you might understand the problems that MT has with using shallow text-processing or even deep neural nets.

The article I mentioned on teaching a neural net chatbot to respond better when it’s trained on two or more languages also says a lot here.  I predict we’re going to have ChatScript/Cleverbot levels of succes with MT until we solve the natural language understanding problem.

And that’s it for this episode of AI with Atsiko.

Hopefully I’ll be posting on another topic next time, so you don’t all get bored hearing the same stuff over and over again.


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The True Cost of Science

Following up on my last post linked to at the bottom of the page, today I’m gonna talk about the issue of requiring a “cost” for magic, and the hidden costs of technology.  I’m sure you know a bit about that second part in the real world, but I want to address it from both narrative and world-building perspectives.

Again, not an attack on the opinions of this panel.  But, the “personal” cost of magic vs. the hidden cost of science is sorta the topic, and this tweet did inspire it.

The main reason that the cost of magic tends to be a personal one is because the function of magic so often tends to be to side-step the infrastructure so indispensable to science and technology.  When we use technology to solve a problem in a story, the world-building and pre-work that supports the tech is so often already implied and accounted for.  Sure, it costs me nothing to dial your cell phone.  But somebody had to invent the tech, build the cell towers, provide the electricity, drill for the oil to make the plastic, mine the gold and copper and process the silicon, etc.  And all of that took thousands of years of set-up on the part of millions if not billions of people from all over the world.

Whereas, if I telepath you in Fantasy Capital City #11 from Frozen Northern Fortress #2490, none of that work was required.  At most, maybe there was a breeding program or a magical experiment.  Maybe a few years of training me.  But you’re still short-cutting uncountable hours of effort that were required for me to text you on Earth.  And some magic is vastly more powerful on a per-second basis than telepathy.  That is, it’s effect on the physical world is enormous in comparison to me pathing you about the cute boy at the inn.

That’s why many people want magic to have a price.  Usually it’s a personal price, because there isn’t the societal infrastructure around to displace that cost to the ancestors or, as Merc so sharply notes above, the environment.  The cost is personal because there’s no structure to allow for other options.  And also because it plays powerfully into the themes of many fantasy works.  is the requirement that there even be a cost puritanical?  That depends, I guess.  Certainly a YA protag whose mom pays the phone bill isn’t expending any more personal effort to make a phone call.

But then, the requirement of all that infrastructure vastly limits what you can do with tech.  Whereas magic can do not only enormous stuff for seemingly no effort, but it can do things that normally would be considered impossible.  Such as throw pure fire at someone.  If Lvl. 3 Fireball is functionally equivalent to a grenade, does that negate the need for a cost to the spell?  Well, can I cast infinite Fireballs where I might only be able to carry six grenades?  Then maybe not.  Even if I have 20 incredibly advanced, complex tools that are carry-able on a tool belt or in a small backpack, I probably still can’t do even a hundredth of what a mediocre hedgemage in some settings can do with zero tools.

If I feel like the character can do literally anything with magic without having to do much prep beforehand, and without the labor of millennia of civilization to back them up, if might take some of the tension out of the story.  Can you substitute unbreakable rules to get around that freedom?  Certainly.  And most systems with a cost do.  But that can steal leave a lot of freedom to avoid the hard work it would otherwise take to get around a plot obstacle.

And finally, we have to look at the other obvious reason for putting a cost on magic, even if it’s only eventual exhaustion.  Every other thing we do or could do in a given situation in the real world has a personal cost.  It might be immediate, like physical exhaustion.  Or it might be more distant like having our phone shut off for not paying the bill.  So, if magic has no such cost, or physical.economic limit, you have to wonder what the point of doing anything the normal way would be.  And if you don’t ever have to do anything the normal way, it’s unlikely your culture and society would match so closely to societies whose entire reason for being the way they are is based on the limitations of “the normal way”.

So, in the end, it’s not that all magic must have a personal cost, and tech can’t.  It’s more that the way magic is used in most fantasy stories means that the easiest or almost only place the cost can fall is on the shoulders of the character.

But there are other ways to do.  Environmental ones, for example.  The cataclysmic mage storms of Mercedes Lackey.  Bacigalupi and Buckell’s The Alchemist, and The Executioness‘s brambles.  Or, for example, perhaps the power for magic comes from living things.  A mage might draw his power from a far distant tree.  Might kill an entire forest at no cost to himself.  Might collapse an empire by sucking dry its rivers and its wombs with her spells.  And at no cost except of course the enmity of those he robs of life, or of the neighbors who blame her for the similar catastrophe wrought upon them by her unknown colleague to the west.  Perhaps they crumble buildings by drawing on the power of “order” stored within its interlocking bricks.  Or maybe the radiation by-products from the spell energy pollutes the soil and the stones, leading to horrific mutations of wild-life that scour the country-side and poison the serfs with their own grain.  Or maybe, just maybe, it cracks the foundation of the heavens with its malignant vibrations and brings the angles toppling down like iron statues and through the crust of the world into hell.

So, as I’ve said before, it’s consequences to the actions of the characters that people want.  And often the easiest or most simplistic costs are personal ones.  But certainly, you could apply environmental costs.  Or narrative costs paid to other characters who don’t much care for the selfish mage’s behavior.  Or metaphysical costs to the order world or the purity of its souls.  Those costs are easily addressed and provided for when they mirror the costs familiar to use from our own use of technology.  But sometimes when were straying far from the realms of earthly happenings, interesting and appropriate costs become harder to work into the story in a way that doesn’t disrupt its progression.

Sure, the choice of a personal cost could be puritanical.  Or it could be efficient.  Or lazy.  But that’s not a flaw of our conception of magic; rather, it’s a flaw in the imagination of the individual author, and the sum of the flaws of all authors as a whole.

I’d love to sea some magic systems that lack a direct personal cost like years off your life, or the blood of your newborn brother.  And while we’re at it, give me some science fiction choices with personal costs.  Technology in our world certainly isn’t consequence free; just ask Marie Curie.  Anyone up for the challenge?



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Magic vs. Science; Function vs. Presentation

A. Merc Rustead recently live-tweeted a panel from Diversicon called: “Magic: Science or Witchdraft.


And I’d like to expand a bit on this topic.  One of the issues apparently brought up during the panel was that science fiction has magic in it.  That is, FTL travel, say, or other “futuristic” technologies function like magic, despite being clothed in SF trappings.

However, I think this is a flawed argument.  Which brings me back to the title of this post.  Science and magic are often presented as diametrically opposed.  But that’s a bit of a simplification.  Some people might argue with some merit that science and magic in fiction are merely collections of tropes, and as you modify the collections to bring them closer in line with each other, the line between science and magic begins to blur.

But there are two axes of the distinction that can make this a much more precise discussion.  There’s function.  If the functions of magic and science are identical, are the two concepts really that different.  There’s presentation.  If I present a scientific concept as magic, cuddling up to Clarke’s Third Law, is it a distinction without a difference?

The problem with these discussions is that the conclusions really depend on how magic or science is used in a given narrative or set of narratives.  If I present you a magic system, and it looks and feels an awful lot like science, in that we have repeatable results to identical actions, and you can logically manipulate the rules to achieve effects that follow directly from those manipulations, is it magic or is it science?  Well, I might use tropes around this system that relate to science, and therefore you might argue it’s science.  But if I use tropes related to magic, does that mean it is magic?

What if I present you with a system that I treat as scientific but it doesn’t have direct parallels to earth sciences?  Can we really call that science when the common conceit of science fiction is that the science follows logically from an extrapolation of real scientific principles found in our world?  Or are all systems that incorporate some or entirely otherworldly principles and logic by definition magic?

Many people have argued that magic is magic precisely because it doesn’t follow a logical system of rules, and especially not rules known to the reader or that can have experimentally repeatable results.  Certainly you can take that approach to magic.  Although then one has to wonder how anyone can achieve anything useful narratively with it.

Plus, I think it would be really cool to see more unearthly sciences in fiction, so I don’t want everything that cant be rigorously extrapolated from “real” science to be declared magic.

And our last major question, why does it matter?  Well, for one thing, because the genres are marketed to different people, and so someone or a large group of someones might be very grumpy to receive a “science fiction” novel and then find it fits much more closely with their conception of a “fantasy” novel.  And that’s bad for marketing and sales.  People are and should be allowed to be deeply invested in the trappings of various genres, and so we need words to categorize and discuss those trappings in a way that results in people being able to know whether a given story will appeal to their interests.

So going back to my argument that I think it’s flawed to say “SF” includes “magic” because FTL travel isn’t yet possible.  My point is not that that perspective can’t be useful in discussing how to construct and analyze speculative fiction to help readers find books and help authors find readers.  But rather, regardless of whether FTL travel is no more likely to exist than fictional magic systems, it belongs squarely in the genre of science fiction if that’s where the author wants to place it.

Certainly you could have a fantasy novel whose conceit is that a mad magician created a device that transported his entire planet into another solar system and thus brought its inhabitants into conflict with the inhabitants of a native planet, and started a war fought on great short-range mythril-keeled metal warships that sail between worlds.  And for all intents and purposes, that device is a planetary hyperdrive.  But I think you’d have trouble marketing that as a purely science fiction or even space opera novel.  You might, with some effort, succeed in marketing it as that rickety sub-genre “sword and planet”.  It sounds like it would be a really fucking cool book.  Maybe Spelljammer RPG enthusiasts would buy it by the boatload.  Who knows.  But even though it has hyperdrive, it’s probably not viable as sci-fi in the modern market, nor would it be scientifically plausible given real world science.  Imaging trying to do the gravity and orbital calculations for the star-galleys or whatever.

If you’re unlikely to ever find hyperdrive in a fantasy novel, is there any value in arguing that it’s technically magic?  This post isn’t in any way intended an attack on the panelists from the twitter thread or their personal views.  I just found some of the comments useful jumping off points for things I’ve been trying to express for awhile.


Look forward to a follow-up post in a few days on the issue of “cost” of magic vs. the cost of science.  Both in terms of what it requires from the structure of a society, and why the emphasis on “cost” in the first place.


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Why Is A Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Information Density in Various Media

You’ve obviously heard the the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and you probably even have an idea why we say that.  But rarely do people delve deeply into the underlying reasons for this truth.  And those reasons can be incredibly useful to know.  They can tell you a lot about why we communicate they way we do, how art works, and why it’s so damn hard to get a decent novel adaption into theaters.

I’m going to be focusing mostly on that last complaint in this post, but what I’m talking about has all sorts of broad applications to things like good communication at work, how to tell a good story or joke, and how to function best in society.

So, there’s always complaints about how the book or the comic book, or whatever the original was is better than the movie.  Or the other way around.  And that’s because different artistic media have different strengths in terms of how they convey information.  There are two reasons for this:

  1. Humans have five “senses”.  Basically, there are five paths through which we receive information from the world outside our heads.  The most obvious one is sight, closely followed by sound.  Arguably, touch(which really involves multiple sub-senses, like heat and cold and pain) is the third most important sense, and, in general, taste and smell are battling it out for fourth place.  This is an issue of “kind”.
  2. The second reason has to do with what I’m calling information density.  Basically, how much information a sense can transmit to our brains in how much time.  This is an issue of “degree”.  Sight, at least form humans, probably has the highest information density.  It gives is the most information per unit of time.

So how does that effect the strengths of various media?  After all, both movies and text mostly enter our brain through sight.  You see what’s on the screen and what’s on the page.  And neither can directly transmit information about touch, smell, or taste.

The difference is in information density.  Movies can transmit visual information(and audio) directly to our brains.  But text has to be converted into visual imagery in the brain, and it also takes a lot of text to convey a single piece of visual information.

AI, in the form of image recognition software, is famously bad at captioning photos.  Not only does it do a crappy job of recognizing what is in a picture, but it does a crappy job of summarizing it in text.  But really, could a human do any better?  Sure, you are way better than a computer at recognizing a dog.  But what about captioning?  It takes you milliseconds at most to see a dog in the picture and figure out it is jumping to catch the frisbee.  You know that it’s a black lab, and that it’s in the woods, probably around 4 in the afternoon, and that it’s fall because there’s no leaves on the trees, and it must have rained because there are puddles everywhere, and that…

And now you’ve just spent several seconds at least reading my haphazard description.  A picture is worth a thousand words because it takes a relatively longer amount of time for me to portray the same information in a text description.  In fact, it’s probably impossibly for me to convey all the same information in text.  Just imagine trying to write out every single bit of information explicitly shown in a half-hour cartoon show in text.  It would probably take several novels’ worth of words, and take maybe even days to read.  No one would read that book.  But we have no problem watching TV shows and movies.

Now go back and imagine our poor AI program trying to figure out the important information in the photo of the dog and how to best express it in words.  Yikes.  But as a human, you might pretty quickly decide that “a dog catches a frisbee” adequately describes the image.  Still takes longer than just seeing a picture, but isn’t all that much time or effort.  But, you’re summarizing.  A picture cannot summarize and really has no reason to.  With text(words) you have to summarize.  There’s pretty much no way around it.  So you lose an enormous amount of detail.

So, movies can’t summarize, and books must summarize.  Those are two pretty different constrains on the media in question.  Now, imagine a a radio play.  It’s possible you’ve never heard one.  It’s not the same as an audiobook, despite communicating through the same sense(audio), and it has some serious advantages over books and audiobooks.  You don’t have to worry about conveying dialogue, or sound information because you can do that directly.  Emotion, accents, sound effects.  But of course you can convey visual information like a movie, and unlike in a book or an audiobook, it’s a lot more difficult to just summarize, because you’d have to have a narrator or have the characters include it in dialogue.  So raw text still has some serious advantages based on the conventions of the form.  Similarly, radio dramas/audio plays/pod casts and movies both have to break convention to include character thoughts in storytelling, while books don’t.

So, audio and television media have major advantages in their specific areas than text, but text is in general far more flexible in making up for any short-comings.  And, it can take advantage of the summary nature of the medium when there’s a lot of unnecessary information.  Plus, it can count on the reader to be used to filling in details with their imagination.

Film and radio can’t do that.  They can use montages, cuts, and voiceovers to try and imitate what text can do, but it’s never quite the same effect.  And while language might not limit your ability to understand or experience concepts you have no words for, the chosen medium absolutely influences how effective various story-telling techniques can be.

Consider, an enormous battle scene with lots of action is almost always going to be “better” in a visual medium, because most of the relevant information is audio and video information.  An action scene involving riding a dragon through an avalanche while multiple other people try to get out of the way or stop you involves a great deal of visual information, such that a text can’t convey everything a movie could.  Watching a tennis match is always going to be more exciting than reading about one, because seeing the events lets you decide without an narrator interference whether a player has a real shot at making a return off that amazing serve.  You can look at the ball, and using past experience, imagine yourself in the player’s place and get a feeling of just how impressive that lunging backhand really was.  You can’t do the same in text, because even if the writer could describe all the relevant information such that you could imagine the scene exactly in your head, doing so would kill the pacing because of how long reading that whole description would take.

The very best artists in any medium are always going to use that medium to its fullest, exploiting any tricks or hacks as best as possible to make their creation shine.  And that means they will (often unconsciously) create a story tailored to best take advantage of the medium they are working in.  If and when the time comes to change mediums, a lot of what really made the art work won’t be directly translatable because that other medium will have different strengths and have different “hacks” available to try to imitate actually experiencing events directly.  If you play videogames or make software, it’s sort of like how switching platforms or programming languages (porting the game) means some things that worked really well in the original game won’t work in the ported version, because the shortcut in the original programming language doesn’t exist in the new one.

So, if video media have such a drastically higher information density than text, how do really good authors get around these inherent shortcomings to write a book, say?  It’s all about understanding audience attention.  Say it again, “audience attention.”

While the ways you manipulate it are different in different media, the concept exists in all of them in some form.  The most obvious form is “perspective”, or the viewpoint from which the audience perceives the action.  In film, this generally refers to the camera, but there’s still the layer of who in the story the audience is watching.  Are we following the villain or the hero?  The criminal or the detective?

In film, the creator has the ability to include important visual information in a shot that’s actually focused on something else.  Because there’s no particular emphasis on a given object or person being included in the shot, things can easily be hidden in plain sight.  But in a book, where the author is obviously very carefully choosing what to include in the description in order to control pacing and be efficient with their description, it’s a lot harder to hide something that way.  “Chekov’s gun” is the principle that irrelevant information should not be included in the story.  “If there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in Act 1, it must be fired in Act 2 or 3.”  Readers will automatically pay attention to almost anything the author mentions because why mention it if it’s not relevant?

In a movie, on the other hand, there’s lots of visual and auditory filler because the conceit is that the audience is directly watching events as they actually happened, so a living room with no furniture would seem very odd, even if the cheap Walmart end table plays no significant role in the story.  Thus, the viewer isn’t paying particular attention to anything in the shot if the camera isn’t explicitly drawing their eye to it.  The hangar at the Rebel Base has to be full of fairly detailed fighter ships even if we only really care about the hero’s.  But not novel is going to go in-depth in its description of 30 X-wings that have no real individual bearing on the course of events.  They might say as little as “He slipped past the thirty other fighters in the hangar to get to the cockpit where he’d hidden the explosives.”  Maybe they won’t even specify a number.

So whereas a movie has an easy time hiding clues, a writer has to straddle the line between giving away the plot twist in the first 5 pages and making it seem like a deus ex machina that comes out of nowhere.  But hey, at least your production values for non-cheesy backgrounds and sets are next to nothing!  Silver linings.

To get back to the main point, the strengths of the medium to a greater or lesser extent decide what kind of stories can be best told, and so a gimmick that works well in a novel won’t necessarily work well in a movie.  The narrator who’s secretly a woman or black, or an alien.  Those are pretty simplistic examples, but hopefully they get the point across.

In the second part of this post a couple days from now, I’ll be talking about how what we learned here can help us understand both how to create a more vibrant image in the reader’s head, and why no amount of research is going to allow you to write about a place or culture or subject you haven’t really lived with for most of your life like a someone born to it would.


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