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The Toynbee Convector (wikipedia.org)
76 points by PaulHoule on Oct 18, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments

If you want a potential wiki rabbit hole to go down, be sure to check the "toynbee tiles" link at the bottom.

I remember seeing a Toynbee tile in the street in the Wicker Park / Logan Square area of Chicago sometime in the 2000s. I think it was on Milwaukee Ave. It was strange and weirdly interesting, only later did I find out it was connected to a larger phenomenon.

some were in Detroit but I believe they've all been paved over now.

I’m surprised no one has been talking about the story itself.

I think I was first exposed to it in Ray Bradbury Theater form, and it’s very much stuck with me, the idea that we in principle could have a better world if we had more hopeful messages and weren’t fed what to think and what to allow and what to feel powerless against by the powerful.

(Although of course my interest is in honest hopeful communication and not fabricated "evidence".)

I counterpoint it to the video game/visual novel Danganronpa which is a literal battle between Hope and Despair in which these emotions are held to be contagious.

Another is the musical "The Music Man" in which the "Music Man" is a huckster who brings out the talent latent in the community.

Interesting that the male lead of "The Music Man," (film and stage versions) Robert Preston, also starred in a film where he brings out the talent latent on Earth. In "The Last Starfighter" a huckster named Centauri places an arcade game in various places as a sort of "Excalibur" test to find twitch-game experts who could defend the Star League's Frontier against Xur and the Kodan Armada.

For your further pop culture enjoyment: fans of stories like these may enjoy a more modern version -- Ernest Cline's "Armada" shares many similarities. You might remember Cline from such films as "Fanboys" and "Ready Player One." I imagine "Armada" will get its own film adaptation someday.

Surely it can go both ways though; if everyone believes everything will naturally get better forever there's absolutely no reason to act now to bend the curve for the better.

The story in full as a PDF: https://kwarc.info/teaching/TDM/Bradbury.pdf

“This is a reference to Arnold J. Toynbee,[1] who proposed that civilisation must respond to a challenge in order to flourish.”

A recent work that I love which uses this idea is the Dark Forest Trilogy, where detecting the existence of aliens stimulates human progress.

Couldn't agree more, anything and everything by Liu Cixin. Although now that I think about it Three Body / Dark Forest / Deaths End are the only works of his Ive read where theres any serious amount of quasi time travel. But its just done so incredibly well.

Just have to give Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson a shoutout too, could definitely use some time travel though...

Sorry, spoiler alert?

Interesting. The name "Toynbee" immediately reminded of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toynbee_tiles

that's exactly where my mind went.

well, with the addition of convection making me think it was a faster/better way of sticking the tiles to the road.

Same, I love the mystery surrounding the tiles too.

Ray Bradbury was one of my favorite authors when I was in High School. What novel(s) by him would you recommend now that I'm in my 30s?

Dandelion Wine is one I bounced off of during my initial Bradbury infatuation around age 11 or 12, but in my 30s have found to be excellent. It is, in part, about experiencing the world as a child, but is probably not something most (to put it mildly) children can appreciate, if that makes sense.

I did have a fair bit of exposure to small midwestern town & country life as a kid, and a lot more second-hand via my parents, and I can't discern how much of my appreciation of the story is due to that. To someone with—for example—only urban, coastal experience, would it hit anywhere near as hard as it does for me? Will the next group of people turning 30, who've never seen a house in the US with actual you-have-to-go-work-a-pump-by-hand-to-get-water well water, with a wood burning stove in the kitchen that sees daily use, et c., be able to relate to it as I do, which relation may itself be far weaker than people who grew up like that full-time? I'm not sure.

His short stories are great. There were two thick hardback volumes published, each collecting 100(!) stories, that'll give you plenty to chew on. Widely available used, pretty cheap. Unless you dove really deep on Bradbury in high school, odds are much of it will be new to you.



No repeats between the two volumes. 200 total stories. Does include most or all of The Martian Chronicles, which I prefer to read on its own, personally, though these might be useful for filling in gaps since IIRC they contain a couple stories that weren't in every printing of The Martian Chronicles.

There is this TV series


which is a unique SF show in that it is not based on characters and settings the way 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘳 𝘛𝘳𝘦𝘬 or 𝘎𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘮 or even 𝘘𝘶𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘶𝘮 𝘓𝘦𝘢𝘱 are. They are free to tear down the world each time and take the imagination far and they did most of it when Bradbury was still alive.

Characters of all ages from young children to old men and women are represented. There is artistic input from the writer but also the director, actors, casting, music, etc. I can't think of another anthology SF series that is this successful.

OT: You can get real italics on HN by surrounding words in asterisks. No need for Unicode chicanery like the "Mathematical Sans-Serif Italic" characters you're using.

He has a lot of greatest hits (Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, Martian Chronicles) but if you're looking for something different, I really enjoyed his murder mystery trilogy (Death Is a Lonely Business, A Graveyard for Lunatics, Let's All Kill Constance). They are all kind of loosely based on (and playfully parodying) the noir detective style, and a lot of fun.

Something Wicked This Way Comes. Perhaps Dandelion Wine.

SWTWC was the scariest book I ever read.

Which part? The meditations on growing up and losing your childhood and growing older and the resulting loss of agency? Or the scary circus?

My personal favorite was "Something Wicked This Way Comes".

I'm reminded of a great little short story I read a couple years ago called "Noise Level." I'd be very surprised if Bradbury hadn't gotten the idea from there. I guess it's a bit of a spoiler to reference the story here, but it's still worth reading if you haven't.

Or perhaps the same idea was in the air in the same sense that Think Like a Dinosaur and The Prestige had the same plot twist?

Loved the plot from wikipedia. Never heard of this writer or this story before. Definitely makes you think. Whoever controls the narrative, controls the future.

I was surprised by this though...

Published in Playboy.

Is this correct?

Playboy publishes tons of serious writing (the list of published authors includes Nabokov, Nadine Gordimer, John Updike, Vonnegut, John Cheever, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, Borges, Calvino — even Roald Dahl), including quite a lot of sci-fi (J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin) and non-fiction. I've never read it, and don't know what the quality is these days. But it used to be a joke that men claimed to read Playboy for the articles.

>Published in Playboy.

>Is this correct?

I can attest to the plausibility, at least. I own several science fiction short-story collection books published by Playboy and branded as such.

> Never heard of this writer [...] before.

Oh my. Wow. That's... huge for you. How exciting!

He's famous enough that IIRC The Simpsons once made a joke about "The ABCs of Science Fiction" where the gag was that the really nerdy kid (I'm forgetting his name—not Millhouse, the other one who wasn't as prominent a character) subverted it by swapping the usual "Bradbury" for "Bester"—as in Alfred Bester, another very-well-regarded author who's not nearly as well-known outside of sci-fi as Bradbury is. Bradbury's one of those rare crossover authors who also gets claimed by the "literary" side of things. (the A is Asimov, and the C is Clarke, of course)

His most-referred-to work is the novel Fahrenheit 451, which has had a couple film versions made, and inspired a ton of other works—see, for a very direct example, the Christian Bale film Equilibrium. The contraband-burning "firemen" and full-wall TVs from F451 are often referenced, but it's got a lot going on. It's also one of those books with a very famous opening sentence.

[edit: a couple examples of references include the first in-game numeric code in some games—I think several that Looking Glass worked on, but also sequels to some of them by other studios—being "451". The Deus Ex series likes to do this, for instance. Then there's the unofficial but somewhat widely-implemented HTTP status code "451", which denotes unavailability for political—i.e. censorship—reasons]

Other major novels include Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine.

He wrote a fairly famous short story collection that functions something like a concept album—it's sometimes classed as a kind of structurally-unconventional novel, in fact—in that all stories are related by a setting (Mars), usually have a similar mood, and exist in some kind of rough shared universe, you might say, though they don't exactly form a single, solid narrative. It's titled The Martian Chronicles. Which stories it includes vary slightly with different editions, but any of them would be fine for a first read. It had a point-n-click adventure video game made, based on it (the game's not exactly an excellent example of the genre, and is probably not worth tracking down—and yes, I played it a lot back when it came out).

He wrote tons of other short stories, largely, but not exclusively, sci-fi. I've elsewhere on this page linked to a pair of anthology volumes which, between them, contain 200 distinct short stories, and those are not all the ones he wrote.

He's unusually literary for a sci-fi author, which you may or may not consider to be a good thing. There's not much action in The Martian Chronicles, for instance, and the emotional climax of one story comes when a character recites a Byron poem (text reproduced fully in the story). Much of what's so great about his work is what an outstanding crafter-of-sentences he was, and how well he communicated sensation through language. The mood-pallete he works with features emotions mostly in the longing and melancholy spectrum, which he uses with such facility that the sly bastard can make you feel homesickness for a future—that will never exist! His prose is, to say the least, uncommonly good for genre fiction, and especially for sci-fi from the time period his most well-known works come from.

> > Published in Playboy.

> Is this correct?

It's not unusual for well-regarded sci-fi stories—among other kinds of literature—from a certain time span to have been first published in Playboy. The "I read it for the articles!" joke had some truth to it because, for a long while, that could semi-plausibly be true. A quick check finds that, for example, the title story of the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House was first published in Playboy. A little surprising that that was the case, for those who weren't aware of Playboy's role in fiction publishing, but actually not uncommon.

Stopped in for Tomcat Connectors. Slowly walked back out.


Funny to see this here as the book was sitting on the kitchen table this morning. Hmm…

I don’t know why, but it reminds me of Roko’s Basilisk: https://slate.com/technology/2014/07/rokos-basilisk-the-most...

Roko's Basilisk is not a thing. It's just a repackaging of the idea that God or Jesus or whatever is watching over you at all times, so you better please him or you will burn in hell for all eternity. But this time with AI instead of spirits because it originates from a community that considers themselves highly rational, and therefore rejects using religion as a foundation for decision making. But an all-powerful omniscient AI, now that's something they can get behind because that's not religion, that's technology!

Yudkowskyist rationalism is a prime example that what you simply banish out of hand may percolate back up through your ideas -- unless you know enough about whatever it is you're trying to banish to recognize it.

The thing they tried to banish is religion: it simply morphed into another form. "Those who do not learn about religion are doomed to repeat it", as it were.

I'm always mildly surprised when I encounter people on the internet talking about Roko's basilisk as something that Eliezer Yudkowsky / "the rationalists" believe in. Very few people ever took it seriously, and Yudkowsky wasn't one of them.

Another one that comes up a lot is the idea that "AGI ruin is vanishingly unlikely, but it would be so bad that we should be worried about it anyway". I don't think I've ever seen anyone make that argument with a straight face. Yudkowsky himself thinks that AGI ruin is very likely indeed. (As in, it has a >50% chance of ending life on Earth within a century.)

Of course that group does hold many wacky beliefs. Things like the entire universe splitting into pieces billions of times a second, people's brains being a kind of generalized refrigerator, the wisdom of not taking a free $1000, and the possibility of bringing sufficiently well preserved dead people back to life. Also, thinking that there's a high chance of AGI ruin is, if anything, an even wackier belief than thinking it's very unlikely. So there's still plenty of room to make an argument that Yudkowsky and many of his readers have ended up believing wacky things despite their disdain for religion.

I do find it very odd, though, that those two misconceptions are so popular. It's like Gell-Mann amnesia: If people can be so wrong about this particular internet subculture that I happen to know something about, how can I trust anything said by anyone about a culture they aren't a member of?

I didn't say the community at large believes in it. I did say that it's a repackaged idea that originated from their community, and that's 100% true.

Maybe you're interpreting when I said they could "get behind" the idea as to mean I was implying that the entire community endorsed it, but that's not what I had intended to convey. What I meant to say was that some members of that community came up with this idea and then engaged with it in a way they would not engage with God or Jesus and Hell solely because of the framing of the deity as a technology instead of a spirit, and Hell as a simulation instead of another dimension.

Classic Chesterton’s Fence.


Your thoughts are very well articulated. When you put it like that, it finally makes sense to me as to why I subconsciously avoid that community.

People on LessWrong like to suppose probabilities. Saying that the probability of a hypothetical situation is such and such. Ie: people argue "simulation theory" must be true because the the probability of this and that blah blah blah means that one of their suppositions is true. But that's all just baloney as they have no way to actually quantify their assumptions.

Therefore it's not science backed by experimental evidence, but rather hypothetical scenarios backed by leaps in logic - which they justify has having such and such probability if some other precondition is true/false, blah blah blah

You're under the impression that anyone on RW actually takes Roko's Basilisk seriously? It's a mildly amusing thought experiment, precisely zero people have ever changed their behaviour because of it.

It didn't seem like the person you're responding to was saying "Roko's Basilisk is a real thing".

... in that a sweeping ostensibly prophetic message is a lie intended to manipulate?

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