Monday, December 11, 2017

Spells dreamed by machines

The last time on this desolate, near-endless path you saw a face without a muzzle or a snout or a beak was three nights back.  Cold mist alternates with chilling drizzle. The terrain has become very rough, but there still is a trace of a beaten trail to follow up the mountain.

The weathered wooden door of an unmortared fieldstone hut built against the cliff face creaks open and the priests emerge.  They are dour and unsmiling, but they offer you a dry sheepskin to throw over your shivering shoulders.  They remind you of the necessary preparations before consulting the oracle:

Fast for 3 days, perform the ritual ablutions in the mountain stream each day at sunrise, whisper the sacred palindromes in nine sets of nine repetitions into the darkness after nightfall.

There is a narrow cleft in the side of the mountain; the stream trickles forth from the bottom of the cleft and down the mountain.  At the top of the cleft, between boulders slimy with lichen, a hole only as big as a man's shoulders leads into the mountain.  Water rushes and echoes somewhere inside.

Are eldritch whispered words and phrases tangled in the echoes?

After three days of shivering, cold washing, and palindromes in the dark, you are ready for the oracle. The priests cense you with poppy and sulfur, and slide you, feet first, on your back, across the slick boulders toward the small dark hole. You stretch your feet just inside, feel them dangle over a wide void.  The moving water sounds and scraps of voices are loud as you lie on the stone so close to the hole.

Something- not human hands- yanks you swiftly and entirely into the cold, wet void.

Twenty minutes later, some force in the mountain abruptly spits you out of the hole again: wet,  blue, babbling, gasping, sobbing, shivering, shrieking.  The priests have been waiting nearby, and cover you in the warm, warm sheepskin.  They listen intently as your raw, nonsensical ululations gradually resolve into weird sentences, many of them palindromes and rhymes.  They have trained themselves to remember and reproduce verbatim what pilgrims bring back from the oracle.

When you are calm enough, and can finally stop yourself from vomiting words, they will hand you a bowl of broth, and begin to tell you what you said when you emerged from the mountain, and what their interpretations are.


More to read about this ritual (minus my fictional details) is in Tony Perrottet's excellent Route 66 AD, which in turn follows Pausanias's Description of Greece book, which was the 2nd Century Lonely Planet guide for early tourists/pilgrims emboldened by the relatively safe travel conditions of the Pax Romana.

Speaking of oracles and interpreting the results...

A scientist with a great sense of humor is blogging about her experiments with training "neural networks, a type of machine learning imitate human datasets."  In more of her words: "Letting neural networks be weird."  She inputs human-created data like recipes, My Little Ponies, and D&D spells and the machines twist these things into really weird and off-the-wall humorous results.

I found out about this scientist from reading Swamp of Monsters, whose author Nate L. does an excellently poetic elaboration of spell descriptions and effects from the neural networks' spell names, for example:


Duration: 8 hours
Area: Up to a 50 foot cube

The lelent warder appears as if lit by moonlight. It generally takes the form of falling dust, though sometimes it will be a cat that stalks the area, and sometimes will be a young boy who watches carefully. The spell is simple and cruel [...]"

For more, visit the Swamp

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