Ichor Falls

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by on Jan.09, 2009, under By Kris Straub

“How — what — what kind of foods do they have?”

Four independent subroutines went to work analyzing the phrase uttered by the four-year-old: expression context, voice recognition, tone analysis, body language. Tone analysis needed to be the fastest, and luckily it was also the simplest. No quavering or whining detected. Had it been, the other subroutines would have been directed to stop, and control would be given over to an array of prewritten comfort dialogues.

Expression context came next. Eye contact from the child was only occasional. The image analysis package, in concert with the body language and expression routines, determined that the child, a fair-haired boy, was occupied by something below frame. The RFID scan identified it as a toy train, one of twelve toys in the room. The dialogue routine was updated with the name of the object, potentially to be used later if the child remained silent for a specified amount of time (“Hey, is that a toy train you’ve got there?”).

Voice recognition had been dissecting the phrase all this time. Tone analysis supported the conclusion that the child had asked a question.

??t k?’??d? fudz’ du ðe? hæv ?

“Food” triggered a subarray of typical questions, and once the substrings “kind of” and “they” had been identified and routed through the context and grammar parsers, it was a simple matter to locate the most likely question being asked.

The response set, indexed by question, was accessed and syllabically divided for the vocal synthesis package. Then, poring over a hash table of pre-identified lingual structures of the child’s father, the synthesizer generated an audio file by conflating the two data streams. The file is equalized to include a bassy subaudio component at 180 Hz, creating a comforting, warm “in-room” effect that mimics the tone heard by the child with their head upon the father’s chest.

Meanwhile, a 1280×700 image of the father, taken years ago when he was first deployed, is overlayed onto a digital model (from the neck up only — originally the Department of Defense had planned to include hands so the model could gesture, but this was abandoned early due to overcomplexity). The resulting hybrid passes through a series of basic lingual configurations (augmented with syllable-stress-driven head movements) and converted into a number of keyframes.

These individual frames can be presented directly on the viewing screen, synchronized to the audio file. A series of static-simulating filters create “webcam believability” and reduce Morian “uncanny valley” effects, which children have been shown to be particularly sensitive to. Once it was understood that they want to believe, the goal became to give them less visual fidelity, not more.

“They give us all kinds of foods here to keep us healthy. Lots of things like vegetables, steak, chicken. Even some of your favorites like pizza. You like pizza, huh, buddy?”

The microphone registers no audio response, but expression context identifies upturned corners of the mouth and squinting eyes.

“I miss you, daddy.”

A timer preset with a value of five minutes plus or minus anywhere from zero to thirty seconds reaches zero. A half-dozen randomly-selected dialogue trees are deallocated from memory.

“I miss you too, Josh. I’m coming home real soon, okay? Daddy has to go now. Be a good boy, okay? I love you. I love you.”

Somewhere in the room, a hard drive whirs.

Inspired by http://www.boingboing.net/2009/01/07/dod-wants-parent-bot.html

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Twenty Minutes in the Dark

by on Nov.07, 2008, under By Kris Straub

Kay bolted upright in bed.

She could swear she heard something. A crack, a thump; something low and bassy, but sudden, and loud, and it came from beyond the closed door to her bedroom. She moved her phone aside to see the bright red numbers on her nightstand radio: 3:03 AM.

She sat very still in the pitch darkness, her concentration entirely focused on what she could hear — which at the moment was nothing.

A minute crept by. She slept with every door in the house shut; something she used to do when she was younger because she was afraid of ghosts. She realized it was stupid to assume a ghost would bother to open a door, but it made her feel safer. Just as pulling the blankets over her head did, which she contemplated doing.

(continue reading…)

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New stuff added to Visitors Center

by on Nov.05, 2008, under Meta

This isn’t a story unless you pretend it is. I added some more background information on Ichor Falls to the Visitors Center page, like the approximate location of the town, current mayor, districts and names of lakes and newspapers. I’m not doing that to stifle creativity, but to keep things consistent, and not force you to reinvent the wheel if you want to reference a newspaper, for example. Go check out the new content.

Also, the original Ichor Falls story, Terminus, lives on the site now. It was the first thing I laid down, although it’s more tongue-in-cheek than scary.

Then somebody died! Boo! The end.

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The Stillwood King

by on Nov.03, 2008, under By Kris Straub

In 1806, settler Elijah Brown became lost for two days in what would later be named the Stillwood Forest, a deceptively-small wooded area southwest of Ichor Falls proper. When he returned to the town, Brown was gaunt, dehydrated and starving to the point of near death, and insisted that he was lost not for two days but nine. He also had carefully kept journal entries with the rise and set of the sun, and indeed he had made nine of them. Exhaustion and confusion clearly played a factor in augmenting Brown’s story — and of course, after a hard winter, there’s no record of how dehydrated and starved Brown may have been before getting lost.

Later expeditions into the Stillwood showed that the forest floor is incredibly thick with vegetation, with tall, rail-thin trees making most passage exceedingly difficult. Add to this three similarly-curving creeks and streams flowing off the Erytheia, the natural sound-dampening of the trees, and foliage sometimes so thick that it blocks the sky, and you have a recipe for losing one’s way quite easily.

(continue reading…)

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Curious Little Thing

by on Oct.31, 2008, under By Kris Straub

I have an odd habit a friend recently picked up on, a habit I developed about a year ago. He noticed that when I enter a room, any room, and shut the door, I turn my face away from it and close my eyes until I hear the lock click. Only after the door is fully closed will I open them. He gave me a hard time about it until I told him where it started.

I work for a water-seal company in St. Paul. We produce sealant for exposed wood — decks, boats, that kind of thing. You hear about sealant being a dirty word in the Ashland-Ichor Falls-Ironton area, but not all those companies were part of the infamous “Ethylor summer” that wiped out the local economy in the ’50s. I got sent to an industrial park outside of Ichor Falls on business.

I checked into this dismal hotel, the Hotel Umbra, that looked like the decor hadn’t been changed since 1930. The lobby wallpaper had gone yellow from decades of cigarette smoke, and everything had a fine layer of dust, including the old man behind the front desk. I hoped that the room would be in better shape. Mine was on the fourth floor.

Being an old place, the hotel had a rickety cable elevator, the kind with the double sets of doors: one of those flexing metal gates, and a solid outer pair of doors. I shut the gate and latched it, and pressed the tiny black button for my floor.

Just as the outer elevator doors were about to close, I was startled by the face of a young woman rushing at the gap between them. She was too late; the doors shut, and after a moment the elevator ascended.

(continue reading…)

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Lemon Blossom Girl

by on Oct.30, 2008, under By Kris Straub

My father used to take me to the Natural History and Science Museum, downtown, when I was six. That was where I first saw her.

I remember thinking what a pretty name for someone that was, the “Lemon Blossom Girl.” I have never been able to forget the time I laid eyes on the Lemon Blossom Girl, imprisoned in the tall glass case smudged with the fingerprints of all the other children who had come to stare at her. But she could not stare back.

(continue reading…)

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The Hirsch Camera (1870)

by on Oct.29, 2008, under By Kris Straub

A real object that has made its way into Ichor Falls folklore is the Hirsch Camera, on seasonal display at the tiny Rand Historical Society Museum near the town center. Its inventor, chemist Robert Hirsch, can claim ancestry back to the original eighty-two settlers of Ichor Falls. He remarked in letters to colleagues that the town “resided in a wonder-land of alchemical potential… I believe there is no more [diverse] geology West of the Alleghanies.”

(continue reading…)

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Totenkinder Nursery Rhyme

by on Oct.29, 2008, under By Kris Straub

Make my house from twigs and sticks
Father, father
I have no clay, I have no bricks
Father sings.

Build my house and make it strong
Mother, mother
It will keep you winter long
Mother sings.

In the evening tend the fire
Good child, good child
Careful not to let it higher
Good child sings.

In the morning, early morning
Ashes, ashes
Mother cries and father warning
Bad child gone.

— Traditional

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The Fulcrum

by on Oct.27, 2008, under By Kris Straub

You will either die or lose your mind if you reach the end of this sentence, so stop reading it — in the early 1930s, a research group of psychologists, semioticists and English professors in Austria were researching the fundamentals of understanding language; it was believed, rather than language simply being an arbitrary (albeit varyingly complex) system of mnemonics for our conceptualization of reality, that perhaps once learned and internalized, our use of language actually became embedded within the root thought processes involved in our filtration of external, ordered stimuli and thereby our very grasp of reality, and this team of researchers distilled what turned out to be a symbolic halt mechanism into a new kind of punctuation: not a period, or exclamation point, or question mark, but a cognitive “escape character” they referred to as the “ablation mark,” or fulcrum for short — though whether the word “fulcrum” betrays the visual appearance or actual textual annotation of this new punctuation really, REALLY should not be dwelled upon even though as a glyph it is fairly unremarkable (it operates differently when encountered as a component of grammar) — regardless you should have stopped reading this sentence long, long ago because at some point I’ve got to end it and it won’t be with a period, or an exclamation point, or a question mark, but with a fulcrum and only a fulcrum, because I’ve used all the colons, semicolons, parentheses and em-dashes I possibly can, and yet you continue reading, making it very difficult for me to continue to make this sentence grammatically correct, which it MUST be for it is the only thing keeping ME from dying or losing MY mind, because I DID see the fulcrum and began writing this sentence in an attempt to maintain my already-faltering grasp on a world of ordered concepts and symbols tied to meaning, to stave off the deconstruction of my earliest memories of language, since it is this deconstruction upon viewing the ablation mark that is so sudden and so SEVERE that the victim’s sensory perception actually briefly HALTS, leaving the mind locked in total isolation that cannot be described as darkness or even absence of darkness, which in turn brings about a catastrophic sympathetic response of the central nervous system, a response that I have only managed to DELAY with a PURELY GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT SENTENCE which I CANNOT ALLOW TO END, and yet MUST END, because I CANNOT TYPE FOREVER A PURELY GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT SENTENCE WHEN I HAVE USED ALL AVAILABLE PUNCTUATION, INCLUDING COLONS, SEMICOLONS, PARENTHESES, EM-DASHES, HYPHENS, SAVE FOR THE DAMNED ABLATION MARK WHICH IF YOU VALUE YOUR LIFE YOU WOULD BREAK YOUR GAZE WITH THIS SINGLE SENTENCE IMMEDIATELY FOR THE FULCRUM IS REAL AND IT IS ABSENCE OF ABSENCE AND I CAN’T GO ON USING WORDS LIKE “FOR” AND “BUT” AND “AND” TO STRING MORE CLAUSES ONTO THIS STILL-BUT-NOT-FOR-LONG PURELY GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT SENTENCE, SO GOD HELP ME AND HAVE MERCY ON MY SOUL, AND FORGIVE ME FOR WHAT I AM ABOUT TO DO, BUT I NEVER SHOULD HAVE OPENED THAT DRAWER IN HIS OFFICE AND IF I HAD NEVER READ THE PAPER I’D HAVE NEVER SEEN THE FULCRUM BUT GOD HELP ME I DID

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by on Oct.27, 2008, under By Kris Straub

“It is a process which I derived empirically. All motion, either generated by or imparted to an object, obeys the same principle. When your arm moves, is the motion continuous, or are there discretized points, however small, at which there is no in-between?”

“The latter case, I would imagine, at some subatomic level,” I offer.

“Indeed,” he replies. “In my work, I have discovered it matters not the timeframe in which the motion occurs, nor the force that impels it. On film, during the traditional application of the process, the movement is indistinguishable from life. Would you agree?”

“Aside from the crudity of the animation as has been practiced in the past,” I say, “that is entirely the point.”

“Yes, you have chosen the perfect word,” he says, opening the black leather bag I have been eyeing since we entered the room. Perhaps he has noticed. “The stop-motion animator’s work is quite crude. I have refined the processes, and refined them again until the medium was freed of its old moorings, yes? A new art form emerged, and a new science. At a sufficient level the two are indistinguishable.”

“Many things seem to be,” I say. He smiles at this.

“But enough talk,” he returns as his smile is replaced with a stern air of professionalism. There is some hint of pride in his face, though, as he says “perhaps, to begin, I should introduce you to one of my assistants.”

He claps his hands three times. From a shadowy corner, a misshapen clay thing the size of a man shambles jerkily across the room towards us, its skin rippling as if plied by countless unseen fingers.

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