A Human-AI Collaborative Sci-fi Story: The Eye of Thuban

This is a follow up to GPT-3: An AI that’s eerily good at writing almost anything. Though GPT-3 still makes frequent mistakes, it turns out to be an amazing tool when coupled with a human editor. Even if this technology stopped improving today (hint: it won’t) I can see an entire new field of people collaboratively writing stories with AI.

I decided to try to feel out the limitations with-writing longer fiction. Here’s the process I followed. I gave the OpenAI playground the following prompt:

This novel is a science fiction thriller that can be thought of as a strange mix of the fantastic and whimsical worlds of Hayo Miyazaki and Ian M. Banks Culture novels. They’re set in a post singularity world where humanity and its descendants span thousands of worlds, and sentient super intelligent ships with billions of people living on them wander the galaxy.
Chapter 1.

Then I repeatedly hit submit and had it generate a few sentences of text at a time. For anything I didn’t like, I deleted the text and regenerated – usually either because the model had an inconsistency about the context (e.g. the character was on one planet, then another), or because I just thought it was kind of boring. The story below took me around four hours to write through trial and error.

The main limitation I ran into was the error message “The current token limit for the model is 2048 (approximately 1000 words). Please reduce the size of your prompt and try again.” Which meant I had to keep deleting the top of the story so it could add more text to the bottom. In practice this means that after the story reaches the maximum size previous context is always gradually being lost to the model, which is probably why the story gradually shifts from scifi to more fantasy.

GPT-3 occasionally generates lines that feel improbably good – e.g. “The night birds had been chirping incessantly as if practicing for dawn” – but after googling phrases a dozen or so times I haven’t been able to catch it directly plagiarizing anyone. A friend who read my previous post thought it was a joke and that I’d written the whole thing myself. To be clear, other than the bolded prompt at the beginning, I didn’t write a single word of this story – I only accepted or rejected what GPT-3 wrote.

That said, the work below is full of tropes, which I imagine is representative of most of the stories the model was trained on.

The Eye of Thuban
By GPT-3 and Arram Sabeti

This novel is a science fiction thriller that can be thought of as a strange mix of the fantastic and whimsical worlds of Hayo Miyazaki and Ian M. Banks Culture novels. They’re set in a post singularity world where humanity and its descendants span thousands of worlds, and sentient super intelligent ships with billions of people living on them wander the galaxy.

Chapter 1.

Vega was here for the first time, enjoying the sight of night birds roosting on the ten foot high walls that surrounded the town. The gates were wide open as were the ones at the north and south ends of the town. Vega had a perfect view of the magnolia tree full with yellow and white flowers that shimmered in the moonlight. To Vega’s left was a twinkling river that flowed steadily in and out of the town on its long journey to meet other rivers farther on.

The night birds had been chirping incessantly as if practicing for dawn. It was hard to get used to the sounds they made; unlike anything she had ever heard on her home world. She didn’t know what type of birds they were and had forgotten to ask the gatekeeper. ˮI could live here forever,ˮ she said as she looked out over the river and twinkling tree.

She held her hand to the sky and ran her fingers over the lights of the stars, she had never seen so many. Vega was named after her world, one of the more recent planets that the self-replicating and slowly expanding Settlers had found to their liking. It was a wet world, full of the sounds of water lapping on the shores of a great ocean. Vega’s family had two canoes that were made from carefully cured and sun dried wood.

The only thing Vega could think about when she was alone was becoming a star pilot. Her parents didn’t approve and told her it was only a dream. They were being realistic. Vega was thin and pale, her hair was black and tangled and she had scabbed knees and feet. There were no star ships or any places to be a star pilot on Vega. Vega did not understand why the Settlers had started settling there, other than it had become fashionable to settle new planets after a few thousand years of human colonization.

Settlers never stayed long on any world, their goal was to make it more habitable for humans and all the other creatures they found. The best part about being a Settler was seeing new things all the time. They could visit a different place every few years if they were ambitious. There was a long list of places the Settlers wanted to build more of and repair. Then there was the list of places that were dangerous for anyone to travel to.

Vega stared at the millions of lights in the sky and wondered if there were Settlers out there. How far had they gotten? Would she be one of the people who discovered the next planet? She felt the grass under her feet as she started to drift off to sleep.

Chapter 2.

Just before Vega’s alarm went off she had a dream where she was one of the Settlers and was exploring the galaxy. She had never seen a real Settler before and was curious what they were like. She had met someone who had been star piloting for nearly fifteen years. She was tall and pretty. Her long blonde hair shimmered in the starlight. Vega was with her at a small hut on a rainy night. They were sitting next to a fire trying to stay warm.

“What’s the best planet you’ve ever been to?,” Vega asked.

“I love all the places we have visited and repaired. It’s hard to pick just one.” The pilot replied.

“I hope to go star piloting some day.” Vega said.

“How old are you?” The pilot asked.

“Nearly fifteen.” Vega replied. “How old are you?”

“I am older than you can imagine.” The pilot said. “It is best that you do not know.”

Vega was sad. “I’ll see you soon?” She asked.

“Yes you will,” the pilot replied.

Chapter 3.

Vega walked along the great walls and saw that there were small openings every hundred feet or so. A young boy saw her looking at one of the openings and ran up to her.

“Hi!,” He said with a big smile on his face. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing, I’m just looking at things.” Vega replied.

“What is your name?,” The boy asked.

“I’m Vega, what’s yours?ˮ

“I’m Grady. What’s your home world?ˮ

“Vega.” She said. “What’s yours?ˮ

“Cordova, is that close to here?ˮ Grady asked.

“Why are the walls so tall?” She asked.

“They are a defense against bad people.” Grady replied. “The walls go for over five miles. The wall builders say that they’ll never fall.”

“The wall builders? Who are they?ˮ She asked.

“They are in charge of building the walls. They say that we should keep to ourselves and not be in contact with any of the other towns.” He replied.

“That doesn’t sound like a very good idea, you’d miss a lot of things.” She said.

“I suppose you’re right.” He said. “Can I show you something?”

“What is it?” Vega asked.

“I can’t say, but it’s just over this hill. If I were you I’d follow me.” He said.

“OK, I’ll go with you.” Vega replied.

Chapter 4.

As they walked to the top of the hill, Vega noticed a rectangular hatch built into the ground in the center of a clearing. “What is this?ˮ She asked.

“I can’t tell you yet, I’ll need your help though.” Grady said. He pushed a button on a small screen and the hatch opened. “After you.”

Vega walked down the steps into a dimly lit room, there were glass cases everywhere and on one side was a table with a thin beam of light shining on it. She was curious about the cases. Grady pushed another button and the door closed.

“This is the reason you wanted me here.” Vega said.

“Yes,” he replied. “Now I need your help, I need you to hold this lever down for me.”

“What’s the lever for?” She asked.

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” Grady said. “But you need to hold it down for me.”

“OK,” Vega replied. She held the lever down and slowly got up, Grady was opening some of the glass cases. “What are you doing?”

“Wait and you’ll see.” Grady replied. He moved to a case, slid out a tray and set it on the table under the beam of light. The beam slowly scanned the tray until it stopped on a clear plastic box. There was something shiny inside. “This is it.” Grady said as he opened the box.

“Is that a diamond?ˮ Vega asked. “Why does it have two holes in it?ˮ

“It’s a Diamonette, they have six holes around the edge.” Grady replied. “This one is very special though. It’s called the Eye of Thuban.”

“The Eye of what?” Vega asked.

“Thuban. It is one of the stars that the ancient people of Earth called the three wise men.” He replied.

“I thought Earth didn’t have any people on it anymore.” Vega said. “Who are the ancients?”

“I’m not sure.” Grady replied. “There were lots of people on Earth. The old people are the only ones who remember what it used to be like. They left this in our care.”

“Where did they get it?” She asked.

“The ancients found it a long time ago on Thuban. It is a very special star that takes thousands of years to make one like this. The ancients found the Eye of Thuban in a place called the galileo caverns. Then they put it here, under our protection.” Grady replied.

“How do you know about this?” She asked.

“My family has looked after it for hundreds of years. I was just born when they gave it to me.” He said.

“Are there any more like this?” She asked.

“No,” Grady said. “There was only ever one. I have to hurry, you have to hold the lever down for me.”

“What does it do?” She asked.

“You’ll see soon enough.” He replied.

The room started to shake and Vega’s vision started to blur. There was a bright light that looked like an explosion in a dark tunnel.

“Grady, Grady are you there?” Vega said. She tried to hold onto the lever but it was hard to move. The light got brighter and she had trouble seeing anything. She passed out before she heard the reply.

Chapter 5.

Vega was standing in the forest at sunset. It was quiet and peaceful with birds singing in the distance. “What am I doing here?” She said out loud.

“You are at the eye of Thuban, where our worlds come together.” A voice said from behind her.

“Who are you?” Vega asked.

“I am called Lam. I am from Thuban and I have been watching you.” He replied.

“You’re an alien!ˮ Vega said. “Does Grady know that you’re an alien?”

“Grady was chosen by his people to look after the Eye of Thuban. I wanted to speak to you instead, but I had to be careful.” He said. “I’ve seen many worlds and many people, but you have a special gift. A gift for seeing things that are not meant to be seen.”

“How do I use my gift? What can I do with it?” She asked.

“I’m sure you will learn to use it without me telling you how.” He replied. “You will travel far and see many wonders. The only thing I can give you is a hint. Be careful, there are evil forces that don’t want you to know about your gift.”

“Evil forces?ˮ She asked. “What are you talking about?”

“They will not stop looking for you.” He said. “They will want to take your gift from you. You must do your best to hide from them. Do you understand?ˮ

“Yes.” Vega replied.

“I wish that I could tell you more.” Lam said. “Goodbye for now.ˮ He disappeared.

“What was that about?ˮ Vega said. She was confused. “What gift?” She said.

Chapter 6.

Vega woke up. She was lying on the floor of the same room, with Grady bending over her. “Are you OK?ˮ He asked.

“What happened?” She asked.

“I’m not sure.” Grady said. “The room started shaking and there was a bright light. When you passed out I pushed the button to close the door and waited. When the shaking stopped I opened the door and carried you here.”

“It was so real.” Vega said. “I saw an alien.”

“What kind of alien?” He asked. “Did you talk to it?ˮ

“Yeah, he told me that I had a gift. He told me to be careful because there are evil forces after me.” She said.

“Weird.” Grady replied. “Maybe they’re looking for the Eye of Thuban.ˮ

“I don’t think that has anything to do with it.” Vega said. “Lam said it was a gift that I have, I don’t know what kind of gift though.”

“Maybe you’ll find out.” Grady said. “Do you think you can walk?ˮ

“Yeah.” Vega replied. They walked up the stairs, Grady had to carry Vega up the last flight of stairs. They went outside to the main square.

“I’m really tired.” Vega said. She yawned. “I’m going to go back to my room.”

“OK, but I’m here if you need me.” He said. “Goodnight Vega.”

“Night Grady.” Vega said as she walked away.

Chapter 7.

The next morning Vega woke up with a start. “What was that?” She asked herself. She was sweating and her heart was beating really fast. She looked at her clock, it was 9am. When she got outside it was beautiful, there were tall trees with pink flowers in them. There were people wearing colorful robes that were walking around. Vega noticed one of them, a tall man with long white hair, talking to an old woman. Vega was staring at the man when he turned around.

“Hello Vega.” He said.

“What?” She said. “How do you know my name?”

“I know a lot about you.” He replied. “I’ve been watching you for a long time.”

“Are you the evil one that Lam was talking about?” She asked.

“No, I’m not. The one who’s trying to take your gift from you is.” He replied. “I know you saw me on Thuban, and now I’m here to help you. I will tell you what the gift is, if you want me to.”

“How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” She asked.

“Do you want me to prove it to you?ˮ He asked.

“OK.” Vega replied.

He moved his hand toward Vega. “Don’t be scared, you’ll like this.” He said. He closed his eyes and moved his hand closer to her. Vega felt a tingly feeling and she could tell that he was doing something to her.

Vega could see the man, he looked exactly the same as he did a moment ago, but now she could see a faint light surrounding him. She could see what looked like tree branches coming out of his skin. “The gift is to see what others cannot.” He said. “Now, you can see us and we can see you.”

“Who are you?” Vega asked.

“My name is Chimon.” He replied. “My people have protected Thuban for a long time. We had many dealings with your people in the past, but now things have changed.”

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“There are some that wish to destroy Thuban and all the other stars. They will not stop looking for you.” He said. “They will find out that you can see the planets, they will try to take your gift from you.”

“How do you know that I can see the planets?” She asked.

“You have the eye of Thuban.” He replied. “Only the planets and their guardians can see the eye of Thuban.”

“What are the planets?” She asked.

“The three wise men.” He replied. “They are Thuban, Polaris and Vega.”

“The three what?” Vega asked.

“Thuban, Polaris and Vega.” He replied.

“What does that have to do with me?” Vega asked.

“The planets are one. The three wise men are one.” He said. “You are also part of the planets.”

“I don’t understand.” Vega said.

“Yes, you do.” Chimon said. “Ask yourself this, who are you?”

Vega thought for a moment. “I’m Vega.” She said. “I’m a regular girl.”

“You are, but you’re not.” He said. “You are the daughter of Vega. You are the eye of Thuban. You are a guardian.ˮ

“A guardian of what?” She asked.

“Of us all.” Chimon replied. “You are the eye of Thuban, you are one of us.”

“You mean I’m a star?” Vega asked. “How?ˮ

“That is a long story.” He replied. “But we do not have much time. We must prepare the way for the others, you have a great destiny that only you can fulfill.”

“What do you mean?” Vega asked.

“They will be here soon, we must prepare.” He said. “There is something more that you must know.”

“What?” Vega asked.

“There are many worlds and many people.” Chimon replied. “The planets choose their guardians from many worlds. They don’t always pick human.ˮ

Vega’s eyes got big. “But I’m human.ˮ She said.

“You are more than human.” Chimon said. “We must hurry, time is running out.”

Vega started to feel dizzy. Chimon opened his eyes and took his hand away. “You will learn the answers that you seek.” He said. He disappeared.

Vega fell to the floor in a heap. She was confused and she had a pounding headache.

GPT-3: An AI that’s eerily good at writing almost anything

I got access the the OpenAI GPT-3 API and I have to say I’m blown away. It’s far more coherent than any AI language system I’ve ever tried. All you have to do is write a prompt and it’ll add text it thinks would plausibly follow. I’ve gotten it to write songs, stories, press releases, guitar tabs, interviews, essays, technical manuals. It’s hilarious and frightening. I feel like I’ve seen the future and that full AGI might not be too far away.

In each case below bold is the prompt I provided GPT-3, and the rest is all generated by the AI. In some cases I had to click generate a few times, and in about 2/3 of the examples I picked the best example after a few tries, but I generally didn’t have work too hard to get it to write amazingly coherent text given a simple prompts. Here are some of my favorites.

Below is a screenplay for a film-noir hard boiled detective story by Raymond Chandler about the boy wizard Harry Potter:

“Harry Potter”
By Raymond Chandler

Harry Potter, Private Eye.
Scene: A small dingy office, early morning, furniture of the Salvation Army store variety. Sordid atmosphere. Harry Potter, in ratty tweed suit, unpressed shirt, and unshined shoes, sits behind the desk looking haggard, rumpled, and embittered. In one corner of the office a torn shade rattles at the wind gusts outside. Harry has one long index finger on the butt of a .38 and he broods over a photograph. The photograph shows a gorgeous blonde wearing an evening gown. She is holding a cocktail in one hand and looking pensively at a cigarette in the other. A tear adorns her cheek. Harry looks at her for a long moment, sighs, then puts his gun down and stands. He straightens his clothes, scratches his head, then with more resolution turns around, picks up his pistol, and leaves the office. He passes through the front room and looks out the dirty window. An old woman is washing the sidewalk outside with a mop. A young man in a double breasted gray suit is leaning against the building. Harry sighs again and goes out the door. He walks up to the young man and without ceremony punches him in the jaw.

Press Release: Anaheim, CA: President Kanye West declares Disney Land to be the new capital of the United States. Washington D.C. will be maintained as a museum.
The move has been in the works since the mid-2000’s.
*2. Removes his sunglasses, revealing that he is no longer in any way blinded.
*3. Endorsed by Senator Kid Rock, who has also declared this new government of Disneyland will be paying for his divorce.
*4. An elaborate surgery will take place to repair Kanye’s “Diamond Tiara” tattoo, and reposition it to his forehead so that he can legally be recognized as a Princess.
*5. Joe Rogan has been picked to be the new Drug Czar.
“It’s long been established I’ve been Kanye’s gateway drug, so why not put me in a position of power,” Rogan said, clearly relishing his new position. “I have an in-depth understanding of the ways in which recreational drug use enhances one’s experience of life. I am deeply passionate about getting drugs to kids.”
*6. Kardashian sisters will no longer be known as The Kardashians. The family will change its name to The Wests.
*7. Kanye West’s new sports bra will no longer be known as a sports bra. It will be officially recognized as The West Bandit.
*8. President Kanye will announce that he has a new national anthem. The government-mandated anthem will be a modified version of Kanye’s 2007 hit “Stronger.” It will be played on a continuous loop at all times.

Below is a rap song by Lil Wayne about the boy Wizard Harry Potter.

“Harry Potter”
By Lil Wayne

Harry Potter
O.K. No need to ask a label, I’m my own team
Me I’m higher than a kite like a witch on a broomstick
I got bigger balls than Dumbledore with a Firebolt
At Hogwarts, on stage like I’m Nicki on Nick
But I’m the shit, make a good verse like I’m Nicki on Nikki
I got Biggie bars, Wiz-a-more bars
Damn this verse is too good to be a freestyle
I never die, when I start, then end of the night
Bitches gonna ride the broom when I call them to the quidditch game
But I’ve been playing harry Potter in my games lately
And you might have guessed but I don’t play for Gryffindor
I’m a Slytherin and what’s happening now

I’m on fire like Harry in his Triwizard task
Don’t let these games stop
I’m gonna do it till the day I get a lot of cash
Just like a nerdy nerd that grows up to be a bad boy
I don’t really see a point of coming back
But in the wizarding world I’d rather be famous
I’ve been thinking, what would be cooler than that?
This is my life, what would make a good story?
Never die
The realest thang since my pen went back and forth
And came back as a double headed snake
It’s Voldemort, with a new name
Don’t be the Death Eater that made me lose my fame
Get your ass in the bathroom while I make a spell
I got some awesome wizard bars, I’m not the Doctor
My wand is great and it’s straight from Ollivanders

Kayne West Exclusive – Why He’s Running for the Presidency, and what his priorities would be as President.
Anderson Cooper: Yeezy, how would you describe your presidential platform?

Kanye: My platform is very simple. I want to make everything awesome again.
Anderson Cooper: But what about foreign policy?
Kanye: Who cares about that stuff? Let’s talk about important stuff, like Kim Kardashian’s butt. Anderson Cooper: That’s a bit sexist.
Kanye: I’m sorry. I’m not sexist. I love women. I’m just an equal opportunity objectifier.
Anderson Cooper: But what about abortion?
Kanye: I think abortion is fine. I mean, women should have the right to choose what they want to do with their bodies.
Anderson Cooper: But what about climate change?
Kanye: Let’s talk about Kim Kardashian’s butt.
Anderson Cooper: I’m going to be straight with you, Kanye.
Kanye: Oh no, you’re going to be gay with me?
Anderson Cooper: No, I’m going to be straight with you. You’re not going to win this election.
Kanye: I’m going to win.
Anderson Cooper: No, you’re not.
Kanye: Yes, I am.
Anderson Cooper: No, you’re not.
Kanye: Yes, I am.
Anderson Cooper: No, you’re not.
Kanye: Yes, I am.

Blood Song
By HP Lovecraft

The creeping chaos Nyarlathotep walks upon the earth while in his House at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. After eight seaons on #TeamDaenerys  Nyarlathotep is quite irritated with what he feels is a very hackneyed ending to Game of Thrones.

On the third day of season eight, Nyarlathotep looks down upon his television and utters “What the hell are they doing?”At this point, Nyarlathotep goes on a long tirade about how the Starks were supposed to be there at the end. Instead we have Daenerys looking like she is going to set everything on fire. He tells his cult of followers that Daenerys’ actions are completely nonsensical and that it is completely disrespectful to not finish a story with all its main characters alive. He mentions that they should just burn down Winterfell because it makes no sense for her to even be there. It would make more sense if she flew in with Drogon and just burned King’s Landing. His followers start to get nervous when Nyarlathotep mentions he has always liked Cersei.

Below is a pop song by Taylor Swift about the boy Wizard Harry Potter.

“Harry Potter”
By Taylor Swift

Harry’s got glasses
He’s got those bright green eyes
Girls are always screaming

‘Cause he’s got that Potter hair

Even when he’s super stressed
He’s still got those supersonic cheekbones
I’m not surprised they made a movie

‘Cause I’d watch him anytime
Oh, yeah, Harry, baby, you’re my favorite character

I’d walk a thousand miles

To get to see you and

Harry, Harry, you’re so fine

My girly parts all tingle

When you smile that smirk

I’d love to be your girl

The following is an essay by Paul Graham on paulgraham.com on how to make Mars a startup hub.

Startups On Mars
By Paul Graham

Here’s the sort of startup that might make a go of it on Mars:
One that makes money by taking advantage of local resources. For example, a startup that uses the Martian atmosphere to make fertilizer or methane fuel. A startup that sells water from Martian rivers. A startup that uses minerals from the Martian soil. A startup that uses solar power from the Martian sun. A startup that uses a new kind of solar panel that’s more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.
I would even invest in a startup that did nothing but extract the helium-3 from the Martian atmosphere and send it back to Earth.
If you can find a way to make money by using local resources, there’s probably a business there.
There’s another class of startups that might work on Mars:
Startups that produce services for other startups. For example, a startup that makes it easier to build rockets, or to extract gases from the Martian atmosphere, or to construct solar panels, or to farm the local soil.
Startups that make things more comfortable for colonists. For example, a startup that sells air conditioners, or houses. A startup that sells things to keep colonists entertained. A startup that provides Internet services.

The following is a blog post from Slate Star Codex about the value of free speech and civility in a democratic society.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
By Scott Alexander

There’s a concept that comes up often in debates about free speech called “shouting fire in a crowded theater”. The basic idea is that you can’t just say whatever you want whenever you want – especially if it’s likely to cause panic. And the reason for this is obvious: panic leads to violence, and violence hurts people. If you are causing panic, then your right to free speech ends where the other person’s right to not get hurt begins.
But this isn’t really true. If shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then there wouldn’t be any actual fires in theaters, would there? How could there be? If everyone knew that shouting fire would get them thrown in jail, then they’d all keep quiet when they smelled smoke – and thus there would never be any fires at all. The only way someone could shout fire is if they were lying – but lying is also illegal. So if shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then theaters would never burn down, and no one would ever die from a fire.
The way I see it, the phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” should be replaced with “yelling ‘there’s an angry mob coming with torches and pitchforks’ in a theater”. This doesn’t sound quite as catchy, but it has the advantage of being true. And this matters because the whole concept of free speech is based on people getting the facts right. If you’re going to shout fire in a crowded theater, then you need to actually have seen a fire – not just heard about one from someone else. You need to have checked that there really is a fire before you warn everyone else that there’s a fire. Otherwise you’re just causing panic for no reason – and that’s not free speech, that’s just yelling “boo” in a crowded theater.

User Manual for the A-1247 Flux Capacitor:
Page 1. 

Operating Your Flux Capacitor

The flux capacitor is a top of the line, state-of-the-art temporal transport device. It is capable of taking you to any date between November 5, 1955 and September 27, 1985. Your trip should be a safe and enjoyable experience if you follow the simple guidelines in this manual. We want your visit to be the best it can be. After all, we don’t get many visitors from the future!Please note that all information contained in this manual pertains only to operating the flux capacitor while within the United States. If you are planning to visit a foreign country or another time zone while using your flux capacitor, please consult an authorized dealer for more information before setting out on your journey.

Note: Your flux capacitor will operate only in environments where oxygen is present in sufficient quantities for survival. Do not attempt to use it outside of such an environment or without proper oxygen support equipment.

  1. Preparing for your Trip
  2. It is important to make sure that you have everything you need before you leave.
  3. You will need to provide the following: 1) two (2) D-cell batteries; 2) a supply of clothes and other items needed for your trip; 3) $125 per hour, in small bills and coins; 4) a current passport or driver’s license; 5) a camera with flash and at least 10 rolls of film (and make sure they are the right type); 6) at least five boxes of plastic bags; 7) one complete set of spare flux capacitor parts, including: two (2) computer chips, one (1) resistor, one (1) power cord with on/off switch, three (3) empty beer cans, six (6) bobby pins, and one (1) chicken; 8) one cat, optional.
  4. This is not an all-inclusive list. You may need additional items for your particular trip. Check with your dealer for details.
  5. Basic Flux Capacitor Operation
  6. Before using your flux capacitor, you should become familiar with its operation and safety features. To start the flux capacitor, insert the two D-cell batteries into the battery compartment and close the cover securely. You will see a “power on” light (labeled #2) come on and hear a reassuring hum as the unit warms up to operating temperature (about 30 minutes). After about 15 seconds of warmup, the time circuits will be ready for use. Press and hold down the “time” knob (#6). The “power on” light (#2) will flash to indicate that time travel is enabled. Then release the knob, and you will hear the time circuits begin to whir as they are calculating the precise date and time for your trip. When you see the numbers stop flashing on the display (#1), the calculations are complete. Now you are ready to begin your trip!
  7. Entering and Exiting Time Travel Mode
  8. To enter time travel mode, simply push down on the “time” knob (#6) until it clicks into place. A red light on top of the knob will turn on, indicating that you have entered time travel mode.
  9. Time travel mode may be exited at any time by pushing down on the “time” knob (#6) again until it clicks into place. The red light will go off, indicating that you have exited time travel mode. 
  10. Note: Never attempt to exit time travel mode while in transit through a vortex (see step 10 below). Doing so could cause you to become trapped in a time warp or cause the power supply to overload.
  11. Activating the Vortex
  12. To activate the vortex, turn the “power” knob (#7) to the “on” position. You will see a red light on top of the knob illuminate, indicating that you have activated the vortex.
  13. Once you have activated the vortex, proceed to step 6 below. Note: Never attempt to activate a vortex while in transit through a vortex (see step 10 below). Doing so could cause you to become trapped in a time warp or cause the power supply to overload.
  14. Setting Your Destination
  15. After activating the vortex, your flux capacitor will automatically scan all radio frequencies for signals from other flux capacitors traveling through time. It will then lock onto and follow one of these signals through a time warp back to its point of origin (its “vortex point”). The time warp will be located within a radius of two hundred yards from the originator of the signal, which is your destination.
  16. If you are attempting to visit someone who is traveling through time on their own flux capacitor, you may need to set your destination manually. To do this, follow these steps:
  17. 1) Press and hold down the “time” knob (#6) until the display begins to flash. You will hear a high-pitched tone as the unit searches for other flux capacitors within range. When it finds one, you will hear a low-pitched tone indicating that it has locked onto that signal. 2) Release the “time” knob (#6), and the unit will lock onto and follow that signal back to its vortex point (your destination). You will see the display numbers begin to flash again as it performs calculations for a trip back to the future. When they stop flashing, your destination has been set.
  18. Activating the Time Compression Function
  19. The time compression function allows you to shorten your trip to the future by a factor of ten (10). To activate this feature, simply press and hold down on the “time” knob (#6) for about two seconds. You will see the display numbers begin to flash again as it performs calculations for a compressed trip back to the future. When they stop flashing, your destination has been set and time compression has been activated.
  20. Note: Time compression cannot be used in conjunction with time travel mode or vortex activation. If you attempt to activate it while in time travel mode or during vortex activation, you will receive an error message and be asked to turn off all switches before continuing (see step 10 below).

See my follow up posts:

A Human-AI Collaborative Sci-fi Story: The Eye of Thuban

Elon Musk By Dr. Seuss (GPT-3)

Noticing You’re Confused

And somewhere in the back of his mind was a small, small note of confusion, a sense of something wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry’s art to notice that tiny note, but he was distracted. For it is a sad rule that whenever you are most in need of your art as a rationalist, that is when you are most likely to forget it. –Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Chapter 3

Noticing You’re Confused is a technique from the rationalist community where you train yourself to recognize even a slight feeling of confusion as a valuable signal that something about your model of the world is wrong. It’s similar to what people sometimes mean by ‘trust your gut’, but where ‘trust your gut’ is usually an end to the conversation, noticing confusion treats the feeling as the starting point for understanding what’s happening. 

I want to tell you a short story about the value of Noticing You’re Confused.

When I was running my company, we searched for a VP of Engineering and it was taking longer than expected, the demand for qualified engineering managers being far, far, greater than the supply.

One day I had a call with a very promising candidate. Let’s call him Sam. In his last two roles, Sam had managed seventy and thirty person engineering teams at well known, respected companies. Our conversation went well and I invited him in to interview.

In my nine years at ZeroCater I probably interviewed around three thousand people. To this day, Sam stands out as one of the best interviews I ever had. Every question was answered thoroughly and thoughtfully, with no unnecessary digressions. I distinctly remember feeling like there were bullet points forming in the air as he talked.

I had the rest of the executive team and several engineers interview Sam. I remember asking one of the engineers how it’d gone after the interview. “Yeah, really impressive guy. You almost expect people to stumble at least a little, but he just knocked down my questions one by one.” The rest of the team unanimously loved him. The next stage was reference checks.

There are two kinds of reference checks: front door (those provided by the candidate), and back channel (those you find yourself). I started with the front door references.

They were good. All of them emphasized his reliability and how little management he needed. The most notable was a VP he’d reported to whose LinkedIn profile showed that she’d gone on to executive roles at multiple Fortune 500 companies. She told me he was one of the best people she’d ever managed and would certainly hire him again given the chance.

Unfortunately, the only backchannel references I’d been able to find were extremely weak. One was a friend of a coworker’s husband who’d never worked with Sam and only knew him casually. The other was the founder of a company I knew where Sam had mentioned having several friends. I reached out to him asking if he knew Sam. Apparently Sam had applied for a Director of Engineering job there a year ago. He hadn’t interviewed him personally and the only note in their system was ‘not a culture fit’, which he admitted was pretty specific to them.

My team was getting impatient. One of our VPs forwarded me a ‘strong yes’ email an engineer had written with the following memes attached.

People wanted to get this done, but I felt a small note of wrongness. It was at this point that I actually said out loud to myself “I notice I’m confused.”

Confusion feels like unresolved surprise. It’s a violation of your expectations that happened somewhere along the way that was never explained. It’s a feeling of things not quite fitting together.
I sat down and tried to trace the source of my confusion. Sam didn’t have a LinkedIn profile, and when I asked him why he said he turned it off because he got too much recruiter spam, which was entirely believable. (1) He said he’d turn it back on and send me the link, but hadn’t followed up. It wasn’t much, but it was certainly a bit odd given how reliable he seemed in general. It was enough to reaffirm my desire to find a good back channel reference.

I racked my brain trying to think of people I knew at one of Sam’s previous employers. Suddenly I remembered a company happy hour from two years back. A friend had brought the CTO of the same company where Sam had managed seventy engineers, and we’d had a couple drinks together. I sent him a message on Facebook reintroducing myself, mentioned we were considering their former Director of Engineering, Sam ******, and asked if he had time for a quick call. He called me immediately.

“I’m so sorry, this isn’t the first time this has happened. He wasn’t a Director and he didn’t manage an engineering team of seventy; he managed a quality assurance team of three.”
“What do you mean? I talked to your VP who said he was amazing.”
“Here’s her LinkedIn profile.”
“I’ve never heard of this person and they never worked for us.”
“Then who did I talk to?”
“Probably his wife.”

I was stunned. Not only had he lied about his experience, he’d set up fake identities complete with LinkedIn profiles with hundreds of connections, then gotten people who were complicit in his lie to pretend to be those people on the phone. (2)

Sam was a con man, and in all likelihood, a sociopath. I don’t even want to think about the kind of damage someone like him could have caused in a position of power. The only thing that saved me was noticing that small, small note of confusion.

(You can learn more about practical rationality on the LessWrong Sequences, or if you want the ebook version, Rationality: From AI to Zombies. If that seems boring, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a fun read and has a lot of the same concepts in fiction form. I also recommend the four day workshops hosted by The Center for Applied Rationality.)

(1) Some people have asked why Sam would bother setting up multiple fake LinkedIn profiles and not have one himself. My guess is it’s because that LinkedIn would have suggested him as a contact to his former coworkers who would have seen that he was claiming to have done a job he never did. Also, if he happened to keep it up, I would have personally been tempted to contact whoever hired him next.

(2) People have asked me if this means that interviews are worthless. To quote legendary intel CEO Andy Grove:

We know how hard it is to assess the actual past performance of our own subordinates even though we spent much time working closely with them. Here we sit somebody down and try to find out in an hour how well he is likely to perform in an entirely new environment. If performance appraisal is difficult, interviewing is just about impossible. The fact is, we managers have no choice but to perform the interview, no matter how hard it is. But we must realize that the risks of failure are high. 

A test that gives false positives 20% of the time is still a useful test. You just need to combine it with other tests, like references. I will admit that since this experience I’ve often thought that if I had to choose I’d rather have a really solid back channel reference from someone I knew was good who’d worked closely with the person than an interview.

Lichtenberg Shelf

Some time ago I decided to build a shelf to hold my 3D printers. Coincidentally, around the same time our neighbors decided to throw out their microwave oven. Microwaves contain a formidable transformer, so I took it inside and gutted the interesting bits before returning the remainder to the trash.

A word of warning: opening a microwave oven is dangerous: the capacitor can retain enough energy to kill you despite being unplugged, the magnetron can contain beryllium oxide, which if broken into powder and inhaled can kill you, and finally, the transformer puts out enough current to kill you before you hit the ground. In retrospect, this project probably wasn’t worth the micromorts.

Lichtenberg Figures are branching patterns formed by high voltages. If you happen to survive a lightning strike, you might end up with a Lichtenberg figure on your skin. You may note that this would make a pretty badass tattoo.

Golf courses are also known to exhibit Lichtenberg figures after lightning strikes.

This pattern is called a brownian tree and is typically produced by a process called diffusion-limited aggregation. Copper precipitated using electro deposition follows this pattern.

I decided to decorate my shelf with Lichtenberg figures. I started by visiting my favorite hardwood store and buying a piece of African Mahogany.

I also bought some high voltage wire and mounted the transformer on a piece of rubber and a few blocks of wood to make it harder to accidentally short it.

I attached wood screws to the wires to use as electrical probes. The current won’t flow through dry wood, so I used a solution of baking powder and water which I painted on with a brush.

Again, this is dangerous: the transformer puts out around 2200 volts at 0.5 amps. I needed to move the probes many times to make my design, so I created a procedure where I would check to see it was unplugged, then saying “unplugged” to myself out loud before approaching. Before plugging it back in, I’d step back, check that everything was clear and say “powering on” before plugging it back in.

After some trial and error with the electrolyte solution I started making progress. My first attempt was crude with big char marks.

Having proven the concept, it was time to build the shelf. I didn’t have a table saw so I made do with a six foot straight edge clamped in place and a handheld circular saw. This method is is a huge time consuming pain but it works.

Most of the hours in this project came from the fact that the wood I had wasn’t wide enough, so I had to cut and join together two pieces for every part of the shelf. Here are some pieces curing while clamped together.

After joining all the pieces, I gave them a good sanding to make all the edges even. I was proud to note that on some pieces you can’t even tell it’s made of two pieces of wood.

After a several hours of experimenting I discovered how to make the burn patterns I wanted. There’s an art to it: if you just leave the probes in place, the current will either evaporate all the solution and stop conducting, or it’ll find a path between the terminals and your wood will be on fire.

Creating a pattern that resembles a lightning bolt requires moving the probes hundreds of times. I learned to control the size of the burn features by controlling the amount of solution. The more solution, the more current, the thicker the burn mark. To create a lightning pattern, I used a lot of solution to create a thick central burn, then repeatedly moved the probe off to the sides and used less solution to create smaller features, then moved the probes off to the side of those features and used less solution still to make even finer details. You can see a time-lapse of this process below. Note this is spend up around 10x – in reality there is a substantial pause between the current being on and my hand being near the probes.

Each board I did was better and less charred than the last. I decided to make my first attempt (not pictured) the bottom of the bottom shelf where no one would see it. My last and best attempt became the top of the top shelf.

After all the burns were made I used a wire brush to get as much charred wood out of the burns as possible. Then I washed off the soot, gave it another sanding, used a piece of tack cloth to remove any dust, and finally applied Osmo Polyx oil.

The finished piece:

An Opinionated Light

Many years ago I went to an exhibit in the MOMA – a room where everything appeared to be in black and white. It was shades of sepia rather than actual back and white, but the effect felt like being in an old movie. I recently became curious about how the effect was produced and decided I wanted to make my own monochromatic lamp.

The light we’re used to is usually a continuous mix of many different frequencies. For example, here’s sunlight, incandescent bulbs, and LEDs.

Our eyes perceive color by sampling light at different frequencies. If there’s only one frequency to sample, objects can only reflect different intensities of that one color.

The trick then, is to find a light source that puts out light a single frequency of light. For reasons I won’t get into, it’s fundamentally impossible to have light of a single frequency, but we can get light in a narrow band of frequencies.

It turns out that low pressure sodium (SOX) lamps output a very narrow range of frequencies, centered on 589 nanometers.

Here’s a red car and a black car under a SOX lamp. You’ll note they both look black.

So I set out to buy a SOX lamp.

Amazon had plenty of bulbs, but no lamps to put them in. I called six lighting distributors, one of whom told me that in his six years in the business he’d never ordered a SOX lamp. Eventually I got clue I needed: as long as the ballast I used had a matching ANSI code it should work.

I purchased a bulb, a socket, then found a ballast that looked like it might work. The transformer they sent me was a raggedy looking thing but I managed to decipher the attached schematic and wired everything up, and lo’ there was light.

Not wanting to leave high voltage wires sticking out all over the place I now needed a housing, so I modeled out a few options in the CAD mode of Fusion360.

I made an expedition to my favorite hardwood store and ordered an acrylic tube from McMaster Carr.

After a false start where I ruined a lovely piece of lacewood, I settled on cherry, fired up my double bevel sliding compound miter saw and got to work.

Most woods darken from sunlight. I wanted an even tan on my lamp, so after applying some Osmo Polyx oil I set my pieces to sunbathe on the roof.

After sunbathing, I also added four coats of spray lacquer.

Since the transformer was already big I designed the housing to fit fairly closely, which meant I had to Dremel some edges off.

Of course, despite the incredible care I took with measuring and remeasuring the edges of my hexagon did not meet. After a lot more sanding and fighting I eventually glued the sides together.

I now needed to drill a large, precise hole for the acrylic tube. Unfortunately, the cheap hole-saw drill bit I ordered turned out to be more of an oval than a circle so that wasn’t going to work. Finally, a chance to use the giant Shapoko XXL CNC router I’d recently finished assembling.

Watching this machine cut a perfect circle made me realize there must be a reddit community devoted to CNC porn. I was right.

Since the acrylic from McMaster was clear, I took it outside and power sanded it with a fine grit to make it frosted.

With the lamp completed, it was time to test it out.

Using a hand-held spectroscope I first looked at the frequency breakdown of a white LED and saw the typical blur of color you see in rainbows.

Then I looked at the sodium lamp. There was the main band at ~589nm.

It works!

Makes a good party game