Tuesday, October 14, 2008

He's not an Arab...but so what if he was?

Though I have strong political opinions, I usually don't make my blog about this. But I just had to link to a commentary by Campbell Brown on CNN who says something that I have been waiting a long time for someone in the mainstream media to say.

After showing a video of McCain stopping a woman who calls Obama an Arab and saying "No, he's a decent man, a family man," Brown says this:

Now, I commend Senator McCain for correcting that woman, for setting the record straight. But I do have one question. So what if he was? So what if Obama was Arab or Muslim? So what if John McCain was Arab or Muslim? Would it matter? When did that become a disqualifier for higher office in our country? When did Arab and Muslim being dirty words, the equivalent of dishonorable or radical?

Eight years ago a little gang of psychopaths from Arabic countries committed a horrible crime in America, and justified it according to a twisted interpretation of one of the great faiths of the world. We need to get over that and stop equating the terms "Arab" and "Muslim" (which are two distinct things, though you wouldn't know it from the way they're interchanged) with the term "terrorist."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rudy Rucker's new directions for SF?

In a post from about a week ago, Rudy Rucker offered some new directions of "futures" sf can go towards. In response to a profusion of articles like this about the death of sci-fi, I don't think we can have enough posts on this topic.

Mom steal's daughter's identity in order to be a HS cheerleader

For the Stories I Wish I Had Time to Write Dept:

A 33 year old woman has been arrested for allegedly stealing her 15-year-old daughter's identity and going back to high school to become a cheerleader and get a diploma.

Via BoingBoing.

I've been thinking about this, but unfortunately by the time Jeff's old enough it will be too late for me. I have white hairs already.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mad scientists create artificial life!

Finally, scientists start to take the whole 'playing God' thing seriously. Jack Szostak's project at Harvard Medical School makes Craig Ventner's team's artificial bacterium look like an 8th grade science project.

Velomobiles - I want one!!

First thing that came up on BoingBoing to day. Apparently these have always been bigger in Europe (figures), but it's almost impossible to get them here. You have to make your own. . Sometimes I hate this fricking country.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Housewarming party as soon as my house comes out of the printer

This is too cool. If Caterpillar gets its way, we will soon be able to print out an entire house.

It will probably be one of those loss-leader operations. The house-printer only costs 150 bucks. But it's half a million for the cartridge.

This is what a police state looks like

I had promised when I started this blog that I was not going to devote it to my politics. But I can't ignore this. No one can, whether you're conservative, liberal or moderate.

Police in Minneapolis raided the houses of groups of peaceful protest groups across the city, including Food Not Bombs and the "RNC Welcoming Committee." People were handcuffed and told to lie on the ground while their houses were searched.

Yes, I know in a real dictatorship the police probably would have just shot them or thrown them in a gulag. Yes, I know that any arrests will probably be dismissed down the road (as they were in New York four years ago) and maybe the protestors will even win a civil rights lawsuit.

That does not make this okay. The police here knew perfectly well that what they were doing was illegal intimidation and did it anyway. Unless the people responsible are actually punished for their behavior, we're saying it is permissible. And by that I mean not just the cops that did the raid, but the politicians who ordered them to do it.

Let me emphasize this is not just about left or right. If you think it is cute to watch this happen to a bunch of dirty fucking hippies, remember that President Obama could do the same thing in a couple of years to a group of Right to Lifers. If we ignore this, then in ten or twenty or thirty years this country will not be one we want to live in.

Artificial bones now

Wow. Via IO9, researchers at Georgia Tech have now made artificial bone that blends into tendons the way real bones do. Add that to the use of menstrual blood to regrow limbs in mice, one way or another the loss of a limb is likely to become a temporary condition even within my lifetime.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Vernor Vinge in science times

I almost missed it yesterday, but the New York Times' Tuesday science section had an article on Vernor Vinge. Mostly it's about Rainbow's End and the singularity, so it will be old news to most sf people. But this is probably the biggest mouthpiece the singularity has ever gotten (so far...).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Free hydrogen from bacteria?

You hear a lot of people - especially car manufacturers - talking about how ten years from now all the cars are going to be running on hydrogen fuel cells. Of course they've been giving us the "ten years in the future" line for the past thirty years, but still, it sounds nice.

But the issue has always been this: where do you get all that free hydrogen? Hydrogen is not rare, of course; it's by far the most common substance in the universe. But on Earth most hydrogen atoms are hooked up, mostly with a couple of oxygens, making water. That's basically what a fuel cell does, so to get the fuel for the cell you have to separate the hydrogen from the water too, leading to the whole second law of thermodynamics, leaving you inevitably behind in the exchange.

Now, however, scientists are working on getting nitrogen-fixing bacteria to do the work for us. If they succeed, it could be a potentially unlimited source of renewable fuel. Cross your fingers.

Uncanny valley finally bridged?

In movies like "The Incredibles" and other 3d cgi animated flicks, producers found they had to avoid making people too realistic, because the resulting image was creepy and corpse-like. But in The Emily Project Image Metrics seems to have created a portrayal of a human being that I certainly wouldn't kick out of the sheets. It's based on a real person, but it is not done using face-capture over a real acting scene like The Polar Express (a movie that's going to be the historical document scholars use to illustrate what people were talking about with the uncanny valley). Via BoingBoing

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Steampunk backlash is here

Via IO9, this one is for Shane Stone-Shaped Head. It's been a long time coming, and the steampunk backlash is here, in a post by Randy Nakamura on Design Observer.

Friday, August 22, 2008

CBLDF mashup - Cory Doctorow & DJ Spooky

Went to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund benefit last night featuring Cory Doctorow & DJ Spooky. Of course I wanted to say hi to Cory after CW, but I have also been a fan of Spooky for a very long time, thanks to Jen.

The two of them talked about nearly everything, from Spooky's brilliant 'remix' of D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation' to the state of the Internet in Africa. Summarizing the interplay between these two extroardinary minds would be like trying to trace the path of a butterfly.

But one of the things that Cory said that caught my attention was what he said about the relationship of kids today with information technology. Basically he said that for geeky GenXers of his and my age (roughly thirtysomethings), the computer world seemed like the potential for an amazing new world. But that teens today have more in common with the generation before us, who saw IT as the means of oppression and control. He pointed out that kids of today have had their rights trampled on from the day they first sat down at a keyboard, from being blocked arbitrarily from sites by 'filter' programs to big companies tracking their information to turn them into marketing tools.

A slightly older father in the audience commented that based on his experience with his son, the opposite was true. The son did not seem to care what people did with his information, and didn't mind being in a digital fishbowl. When the father tried to interest the kid in Cory's 'Little Brother' books, the kid had no interest whatsoever. Cory acknowledged that in fact, a lot of kids had not yet been burned by having their info hoarded & databased, and did not yet realize how bad it could be. He said that sites like myspace & so on were skinner boxes awarding people for giving up information about themselves.

That made me think of what Charlie Stross once said in his blog about how we seemed to be moving towards a culture in which people tracked their identities from birth to death on cameras, and that it was only a matter of time for such data storage to be available to any individual. This, of course, is the opposite of the kind of suspicion that people like Cory would probably like kids to have more of, probably justifiably.

It occurred to me, however, that there is a continuum of risk and benefits here. On the one hand, the more info there is about you online, the more people can market to, prosecute, manipulate & harrass you. On the other hand, if you are trying to get a job, find a mate, sell a service, publish a novel etc., it benefits you to be as visible as possible. After all, Cory frequently says that the main purpose of the Net is to minimize transaction costs, or more simply to help people do things together. But for that to work, people have to find you.

So if there are a lot of kids who don't fear having their peckers in the air online, so to speak, that says something good about the net. That means more and more people will get in touch and make something happen. On the other hand if more and more people are getting sued by the RIAA, or stalked by the FBI for 'suspicious' language in their posts or e-mails or whatever, the garden of creativity will dry up as people are afraid to take the risk of interacting.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I want a micro-spacecraft for my birthday

Well, my birthday is coming up (sept 3rd). No particular need to get me anything. But if you have millions of dollars at your disposal & would really like to make my day you could get me one of the 10-50 lb. spacecraft that this technology apparently makes available.

I think that this might turn out to be one of the most underrated scientific stories of the year. Imagine the possibility if anyone could launch a tiny little 50 lb. spaceship full of whatever. On the bad side, you could have countless more unnecessary litter & crap in space. But on the good side, this could be a huge step towards privatization of space travel.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Army, DIA says "Wouldn't psychic powers be cool?"

Lots of papers recently put out by the big gun-boys about mind control and telepathy. First the DIA puts out a paper suggesting that they could maybe control enemies' minds using the latest in neuroscience. But from what I can tell that just means make the enemy less motivated to fight. Umm... okay, I guess you could hit them with a massive THC bomb, and then parachute a million lava lamps in there and let them freak.

Now the army has a paper about telepathic soldiers. They call this "synthetic" telepathy, as opposed to, um, you know, the real kind. I guess this would be technically possible, though whether you could do it without a room-sized piece of equipment is another issue.

All of this stuff would be pretty terrifying, but right now these papers seem to be on the level of "wouldn't it be cool if we could do x?" Maybe their next paper will be about flying soldiers that are bulletproof & have x-ray vision.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Take THAT moon - NASA spacecraft will slam into moon

Wow, I really thought our foreign policy was aggressive before.

But this is really going too far.

Evil Editor contemplates alien invasion

For those aspiring authors willing to have the fruit of their painful aspirations and hours of worked generally mocked and trashed, Evil Editor has always been willing to oblige. But today he's let his readers turn their laser beams on him, as long as they're coming from outer space and willing to destroy the rest of the world. Here is my favorite we're doomed story, and I'm sure all my CW friends will appreciate it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Venture Bros. online (via IO9)

One of my wonderful CW TV discoveries, aside from Flight of the Conchords, was The Venture Brothers. This is a hysterical knockoff on Johnny Quest with a bit of The Hardy Boys thrown in.

Since I don't have cable, now I can see a pre-release streaming version of the show at the Adult Swim site

True, I probably won't. I'd like to get some writing done tonight. But it's nice to know it's out there.

YA or nay?

So IO9 has a point/counterpoint about the YA scifi market. This is a huge issue to me, because I am an author who is trying to break in & sell some books. So all other things being equal, if I have the choice of trying to publish something that could sell 3,000 copies and something that could sell 10,000, that's something I'm going to take into account.

From the point of view of a reader, the YA/adult distinction tends to be stupid. Both Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and Connie Willis' DA are considered YA. DA is a fun little 20k-word novella with accessible language about a teen girl who gets sent on a space mission that she didn't even want to go on. HDM is a long, philosophically complex epic with sophisticated language about a girl who is chased across dimensions by an evil priest, ends up killing God & has sex with a boy from another universe. The only two things the books have in common is that the protagonists are kids.

From a writer's point of view, it's necessary to deal with the publishing market as it is. It's equally stupid that Delaney's Dhalgren is scifi and McCarthy's The Road is literary fiction. But even if trying to sell a book as YA increases the sales, could it cut an author off from adult readers? This is important to me, because when I was a young adult, I read scifi that was marketed for adults.

From a purist point of view, you should write what you need to write then figure out how to sell it later. But that's an easy thing to say to someone who hasn't sold a novel yet and is not assured of getting a first book, or a second or third which apparently is even harder than the first.

Back from Clarion West & blogging again

Well, it's been awhile. Just got back from CW, & I am firing up the blog again. I'm going to do a few things different.

Primarily, most of the posts will be much shorter. We got a lot of interesting little lessons at Clarion West, and one of the more interesting ones was Cory Doctorow talking about how to use a blog effectively. For those who've been under a rock, Cory & several friend's blog Boing Boing is one of the most popular blogs out there.

Cory essentially said Boing Boing is his way of keeping track of things that might be interesting to him in his writing (or otherwise). In other words, everything Cory posts on Boing Boing is Cory's "note to self."

What I really like is that he said that one of the best ways to understand something is to explain it to other people succinctly. As a teacher, this is consistent with my experience.

I've also started using Google Reader to keep track of RSS feeds, which speeds things up a lot. So I'm going to figure out how to have an RSS feed going for this one too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My toe in the YA scifi market

I've started a program to familiarize myself with the work of my teachers-to-be at Clarion West. To pick a low-hanging fruit, I just read D.A. by Connie Willis. Apparently both she and Paul Park write a lot of YA stuff. Not that that bothers me; the YA label must be so broad it means practically nothing if it can include Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series.

But D.A. is very YA. Begin with the length; the book clocks in at under 20k words by my count. It's really more of a novella (novelette? I never get that straight). I've written things just a little bit shorter that were supposed to have been short stories.

The tone is also very teen-girl, and the book is focused on the kind of problems teenagers deal with every day. Theodora Baumgarten, the heroine, is surrounded by stuck-up twits who are always saying things like "Ohmigod! Ohmigod!" She is a good student, but she hates all the boring assemblies she has to attend. The first scene in the book involves a teacher trying to take away her cell phone. Speaking as a person whose profession requires him to be surrounded by teenagers I can tell you that whatever else you say about Willis, she knows kids.

Theodora attends a school full of strivers, every one of whom wants nothing more than to be a space cadet. Every one except Theodora, that is, who can't imagine anything she'd like less than to be crammed into a sardine can with a bunch of other people speeding through a lifeless vacuum hundreds of thousands of miles away from any sign of civilization. This makes her a lot like my wife, who has expressed similar astonishment that anyone would actually do that by choice, let alone that I would if given half a chance.

Needless to say, when the school learns that one of their students has been selected to be a cadet, it turns out to be Theodora. And she has to leave in two hours. And no one will stop congratulating her long enough to listen when she tells them that she never even applied, let alone took the exams and the three levels of clearance interviews necessary to even be considered.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to Theodora trying to talk her way off the ship, with the help from earth of her hacker friend Kimkim. There's some good hard sci-fi details in there showing that Willis did her homework, like what the Coriolus effect does to you on a spaceship with centripetal gravity (apparently it makes you think everything's tilting toward you, something I didn't know).

The ending is a little too neat and tidy, with a few pages of exposition-through-dialogue dispelling all the problems too easily. But the reasoning behind the plot makes sense well enough, in the sense that it's disputable but not absurd. In short, I think I can definitely learn something from this woman.

I also got Fight Club from the library. I wish that I had found a different Palahniuk there, or alternately that I had never seen the movie (which I enjoyed, but it's going to taint how I view the story).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Q: Will things get better or worse? A: Yes!

I have made some fun of the mundane SF movement before. So it's only fair to point out that I have discovered a mundane-oriented writer who is making some waves with actual stories, as opposed to blogs, wikis, manifestoes, rants and other substitutes for fiction.

I first saw Paolo Bacigalupi's name mentioned in a flier at Boskone for a panel discussing some of the "up and coming" names in sci-fi. I didn't go to that panel, but I have since seen his name mentioned in a couple of other places, and I finally decided to search out his website.

Luckily he has a few free stories up, and I have read one of them, "The Tamarisk Hunter." I will get to reading the others soon, but I have to write something myself!

First of all, let me say it's a good story. I am a Southwesterner myself, and a future in which California steals the water of the rest of the West is all to imaginable. He's got a great sense of characterization, and is an excellent world-builder. The story is clearly on the dystopic side of things, but there's nothing wrong with that. I am going to look for Bacigalupi's book of short stories, "Pump Six." He is a welcome new voice in the genre, and is covering a field that most other writers out there are not.

That said, I still don't think that Mundane Sci-fi is going to be the salvation of the genre that its champions made it out to be, or even as big as popular sub-genres like steampunk or cyberpunk. There are two reasons for this. One has to do with marketing, and one has to do with a misused word.

Mundane champions often like to talk, correctly to be fair, about how sci-fi is losing its audience. The mundanists' reason is that the star-hopping space-opera future of sci-fi is just too hard for people to believe anymore. The implication is that what people are really aching for is stories that show us how things really are going to be.

Which couldn't make less sense. The best-selling sci-fi books, as I understand, are series and movie knockoffs like Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and Star Trek stuff; ie the least realistic of all. The truth is that sci-fi with a shitty future has existed for decades. It used to be the shitty future was about post-nuclear radiation-glowing wastelands; if all the mundanists can do is update that to a world overwhelmed by global warming, with Lady Liberty in the Atlantic up to her tits, they have not by any means, as they promised to do, "changed the way [I] think about science fiction."

Again this is not a criticism of Bagucigalpi's writing in particular. There has always been a small but steady demand for well-written dystopias; I've tried to play around in that ballpark myself with far less success than Paolo has. But it's just natural that these are always going to be a minority of the market, because when most people buy genre books they're usually trying to escape reality, not have it rubbed in their face. There will always be a small cult market for the more challenging stuff with dweebs like me (and probably you), but it won't outsell the work that's more fun.

That brings me around to another term that's bugging me a bit, that I have seen brought up in various contexts: 'optimistic' sci-fi. This has often sloppily been used as a shorthand for the alternative to Mundane. In optimistic sci-fi we all upload our personalities to computers, hop around with warp drives and go back and time to make out with our great-grandmothers.

The idea that a future with interstellar travel must be optimistic, while a future without must not, is completely ridiculous. Phillip K. Dick, a hero of many of the Mundane sci-fi writers, used interstellar travel in most of his stories, as I've pointed out before. But no one ever called his work optimistic.

On the other side, you can write an optimistic mundane story. For that matter, that's how it was supposed to be. If you look at the manifesto (no longer available online), it was supposed to be about people figuring out how to solve the world's problems without technological magic wands.

But taking it a step further, the whole division between optimistic and pessimistic sci-fi is a bit absurd. Things don't get just better or just worse. Both things happen at the same time. Look at the twentieth century. We cured TB and smallpox, we revolutionized food production, invented the telephone, television, computer, etc. etc. Then there was the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Stalinist purges, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and countless other horrors that made all mass killing that came before look like amateur hour.

I, for one, am glad that Mundane sci-fi appears to now exist as an actual sub-genre of fiction, as opposed to a Borgesian imaginary concept of one. Mundanists could have avoided a lot of the flak they've caught if they had spent more time on their stories and less time dismissing and overgeneralizing about other people's work, as I think Bacigalupi has.

But no matter whether you're writing sensawunda space opera or smog-choked "n"-punk, the stories that are going to matter are the ones that acknowledge the future will hold unimagined wonders and horrors beyond our worst fears. Things will always get better, and they'll always get worse. The fun part is imagining how it might.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Holy #$%^! I'm going to Clarion West!

God an e-mail today from Les Howle telling me that she was trying to call me. I was almost too scared to call back because, well, they wouldn't be calling me personally if I wasn't invited. Les was very nice from what I remember of the conversation. I still didn't believe it 'till I got home & got the official e-mail invitation.

I'll write more on this later, because I need to sleep. But I really needed something to work out right now, because my job is going to hell. This will do!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What blogs are for: My story's finally out!

Just got an e-mail from Jason Sizemore at Apex Digest, telling me that Issue 12 is now available, featuring my story "I Can't Look at the City." See that cover art? That's from my story! Woohoo! Available at all respectable bookstores, including Barnes & Noble.

I wrote ICLATC when I was 25. I am only hoping it will take a little less than 10 years to publish the next story.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Howard Who meets Mr. Bobo

A little while ago at a convention I told a friend that I was interested in seeing Howard Waldrop read, and the friend rolled his eyes. Without trying to discourage me, the friend implied that he thought Waldrop was overrated. I have been reading "Things Will Never Be the Same," an anthology of HW's readings released a few years ago, and I figured out why when I got to "Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance."

The plot, such as there is, of the story is the 20-year reunion of the class of 1969. And unfortunately, the story is exactly what that sounds like. It's a big mishmash of 60s/80s hippie/yuppie cliches practically yanked out of a 1983 Doonesbury cartoon thrown together, and they don't even make any sense. "I'll really put 1969 in a nutshell for you. There are six of you sharing a three-bedroom house that fall, and you're splitting a rent you think is exhorbitant..." But wait a minute. They were supposed to still be in high school. Were they all runaways (with perfect attendance)? In 1989, stuck-up yuppies are taking disabled Vietnam veterans' handicapped parking places and threatening to beat up the narrator for a pack of donuts. But the narrator has never sold out, preserving his status as a hopeless loser passing out to porno videos in the middle of the night. "So this is what me and my whole generation had come down to, people sleeping naked in front of their TVs with empty beer cans in their laps." Um, actually, I think that's just you.

The ending of this mishmash of cliches (spoiler alert, kind of) has something to do with the song that will "save the world," sung be bohemians that have become stereotypically bourgeois. This should have made David Brooks happy. His book "Bobos in Paradise," which I've admittedly only read fractions of and heard DB bloviate about for hours on end, takes the position that the bourgeois are the future of bohemia, with the added implication that this is a new thing. Of course, the bourgeois are the present, past and future of bohemia. If I had any readers, I'd get scores of nasty e-mails saying something to the fact of "hey, I was poor and bohemian!" First of all, it's a class thing, not a money thing; you can be poor and bourgeois. Second of all, I'm talking statistically. In general, the people that have the resources and motivation to fritter away their youth that way are middle class. And most of them end up being what are generally described as bourgeois, or in the modern sense yuppies. 90% chance that guy that wrote "yuppies go home" all over the East Village is going to be a yuppie some day. It's like a tadpole saying "frogs get out."

But that's an oversimplification too. People aren't that simple. There are no hippies, no yuppies, no hipsters and bourgeois. There are people who inhabit different identities in the public sphere for a while, then another, and most of the time just kind of do what they do. And Waldrop has some stories where that's exactly what happens. "The Ugly Chickens" is as good an example of that as anything. But I can definitely see where my friend was coming from.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Tor is sending me free books faster than I can read them.

At least the first one, Scalzi's "Old Man's War," I've already read and blogged about. But I haven't started on Robert Charles Wilson's "Spin" yet before they sent me something else.

I'm not enough on the producer side of the writing market to have a strong opinion on the advantages & disadvantages of giving away content. I'm still mostly a consumer, and therefore my attitude is more along the lines of "cool, free stuff." What I haven't worked out yet is the practical mechanics of reading a whole electronic manuscript. I can't bring myself to sacrifice that many printer pages, reading them on the computer on the train seems lame, and I'm too cheap to buy an e-book reader. Well, maybe Heather can show me how to put it on my Ipod, I've seen her do it. But being the new-media download junkie that she is, I think she's already moved on to a Kindle.

Anyway, you want free electronic books, check out Tor's website. Why not?

Gary Gygax, RIP

Via David Louis Edelman, I have just learned that the legendary Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, has used his final hit point. Let me add my voice to those who honor his contribution.

There just is not going to be enough notice of the pervasive influence GG has had on our culture, to say nothing of the way he practically saved the lives of countless thousands of introverted geeks such as myself with the loopy tomes that composed the AD&D game. To paraphrase what was said about the Velvet Underground banana album, I speculate that only a few thousand people purchased the First Edition of Deities and Demigods (with the copyright-violating use of the Cthulu mythos), but every one of them has written a speculative novel, tv show or movie.

Thanks Gary.

Shakespearian Pie - absolutely brilliant

You absolutely have to listen to this. The Bard and Don McLean thrown in the blender and filtered through the sieve of Tom Lehrer. I was laughing so hard I damn near peed myself.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Paprika and Beowulf

Last weekend I saw the Japanese animated movie Paprika, and I've had a post about it in my head for a week. Because of the way my life's been going, I think up five posts for every one I actually write. I am kind of glad I waited, though, because I saw Beowulf tonight, and it gives me a good opportunity to play them off against each other.

I had every reason to like Paprika more. The movie is hand-animated and trippy. If I was ten years younger I would have watched it stoned, which would have been the perfect way to see it. Many of the images are disturbingly memorable, especially the parade of dolls and refrigerators marching through town, and Detective Toshiba's dream.

Beowulf, on the other hand, is a CGI flick, with the actors rendered as realistically as technologically possible. The poster that I saw when it came out turned me off utterly, one of the bearded hero and the other of an animated Angelina Jolie dripping animated mud. Beowulf is full of reasons to ridicule it, from the mishmash of accents to the battle scene between Grendel and the naked Beowulf in which things keep popping up to hide his genitals.

(Note: potential spoilers below.)

And yet I was surprised to find that I liked the CGI movie better. Being a 37-year-old family man, I saw Paprika stone-cold sober on a 24" television on DVD, which made it too obvious that the movie couldn't follow through on the mysteries and conflicts it set up in the beginning. It would be interesting to explore whether the creation of the DC Mini by the childish, obese Dr. Tokita was invading the last refuge of the human mind, as the bad guy the Chairman claims. Instead we get more of a superhero battle in which the utterly evil Chairman is destroyed. The only character with any complexity is Dr. Tokita, who has a sort of autistic inability to understand people's moral arguments. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the movie, there are a few subtleties I didn't get on watching the film (I guess the figure that grows up and sucks up the Chairman is the psychic "child" of Tokita and Chiba/Paprika), but they don't seem to connect with any of the philosophical conflicts the movie has set up.

By comparison, the story that Beowulf tells is tight and complex, and goes exactly where it set out to, which isn't surprising because it was written by Neil Gaiman. Begin with Grendel, who is made out to be both pathetic and terrifying. The monster is a big vicious baby, driven to destruction not by a lust for evil by the completely understandable desire to shut down the annoying party next door - which by the way seemed to me a perfectly believable portrait of what a 6th century Nordic mead-hall might have been. Then you have the hero, who is portrayed right away to be brave, certainly, but also vain, horny and boastful, inclined to exaggerate exploits that would have been impressive enough if told straight. And then you have the whip-braided naked "hag" of a mother.

Most reviewers I saw described the role of Ms. Jolie in Beowulf as just throwing a little sex into a story that didn't have much. But that's not fair at all. Actually, the sexy turn of Grendel's mother ends up adding a level of depth to a story that, for all its contribution to English literature, has about as much moral complexity as a Michael Bay movie. To be fair, I am not looking at the story now, but I am sure that the curse that Jolie's character puts on Hrothgar, and then Beowulf, was not part of the original. And yet it's a perfect portrait of the kind of compromises those who rule make to get into the position they're in. If that's not enough, Gaiman spiced the story up with a little Nietszche, which almost no one mentions. As Beowulf's soldiers massacre a tribe of barbarians, he says something to the effect of "the age of real heroes is dead, killed by Our Lord Christ Jesus. He has left us with only the wailing of the saints..." It's really straight out of Beyond Good and Evil.

Interestingly, most of what's been written about the movie by lit-people think the modification of Grendel's mom weakens the story. The people who like it tend to be movie critics impressed by the special effects. But then is it so surprising? When you've spent your whole career studying something, you're going to be inclined to defend it as it is. But the age of the heroes is over. If the original Beowulf were written today, it would do two hundred million in the first weekend, and be forgotten as soon as the action movie season was over. No one would, as they kept saying in the movie, "sing his name through the ages," unless we had reason to think he was really a human.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

INTP, Enneagram Type 5, or victim of Forer effect?

I don't know you very well. But I am getting a feeling about you. A special insight into your personality. Wait, it's coming...

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

How close was I? Does that sound like you? Probably not, because you know that anyone who stumbled upon my blog (a selective group, in my defense) is going to read the same thing. But according to studies by the psychologist Bertram R. Forer people who are given this description of themselves - pulled randomly from an astrology column - rate the accuracy of the description on average as 4.26 out of 5 when they are told it's the result of their personality test given by an expert.

In the last few months I've been going through a bit of professional difficulty - painfully coming to a recognition that the career I've spent the last five years building isn't the right one for me. This has led naturally to a desire to analyze myself in various ways and get to know myself better.

First I found a book based on the Myers-Brigg personality test. After a lot of exploring I concluded I was an Introverted Intuitive Thinking Perceiver. Later, a friend forwarded me a link to a test based on Oscar Ichazo's Enneagram (based on a shape that's actually an enneagon), from which I concluded that I was a Type 5, or the Investigator. Of course, in both cases I took the cheapo free version of the tests, rather than the expensive "complete" version of the tests. I have no idea if the results would have come out different had I bought the full deal, and will likely not find out because I don't want to spend the money.

In both cases, the descriptions seemed to fit me perfectly. Here's an Enneagram type 5:

The perceptive, cerebral type. Fives are alert, insightful, and curious. They are able to concentrate and focus on developing complex ideas and skills. Independent, innovative, and inventive, they can also become preoccupied with their thoughts and imaginary constructs. They become detached, yet high-strung and intense. They typically have problems with eccentricity, nihilism, and isolation. At their Best: visionary pioneers, often ahead of their time, and able to see the world in an entirely new way.

And here's an INTP from Wikipedia:

INTP types are quiet, thoughtful, analytical individuals who don't mind spending long periods of time on their own, working through problems and forming solutions. They are very curious about systems and how things work, and are frequently found in careers such as science, architecture and law. INTPs tend to be less at ease in social situations and the caring professions, although they enjoy the company of those who share their interests. They also tend to be impatient with the bureaucracy, rigid hierarchies, and politics prevalent in many professions, preferring to work informally with others as equals.

And yet, perhaps because of my personality type, I was cynical and suspicious. So I did a little digging about enneagrams and quickly stumbled across a description of the Forer Effect, as described above. Essentially, when people are told that a personality type description is specifically for them they are quite inclined to believe it. This is encouraged by other delusions, such as cold reading,, community reinforcement, and selective thinking.

The case for the MBTI is a bit stronger, because originally I tested out as an ISTP, but it didn't sound quite right and I ended up going with Intuitive over Sensing. If the Forer effect was working in full, I'd have taken the first description hook line and sinker. But that doesn't necessarily prove anything.

So here's what I'd like to know: how can I test to see if I'm falling victim to the FE? Does the validation of others count for anything? What about the quality of the tests? A lot of big companies use MBTI; and supposedly the Enneagrams are popular with some Jesuits. I've searched extensively, but I can't find any FE innoculation, except for a large double-blind study, which unfortunately is a bit out of my price range right now. Any suggestions?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Best kids' movie in last decade?

Jeff's grandma just sent him a copy of The Iron Giant - along with a beautiful hand-knitted scarf.

I saw TIG when it first came out, before Jeff was born, and I've seen it a few times since. But unlike most of the other kids' movies I've had to watch a bazillion times (that's how kids are, when they like something they want to see it a lot), I just can't get tired of it.

The story is about Hogarth, the child of a waitress single mother in a small town in Maine during the height of the Cold War, who makes friends with a giant robot from space. Who the robot is or where he came from isn't gone into much. What's more important is who other people think the robot is. Hogarth has to hide his enormous friend from the suspicious world - especially Kent Mansley, an insanely paranoid government agent who makes General Jack D. Ripper look like a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Hogarth has the help of Dean, a beatnik junkyard owner who makes art out of his junk. The portrait of the period is just fantastic. Of course I wasn't actually born yet, so maybe someone who was alive then could contradict me. But the American Paranoid attitude never goes out of style, and the CW was just one of the more famous incarnations of the same attitude that's running our country today.

The movie has some great action scenes when the robot's weapon-like background reveals itself. But in the end the movie is about the struggle (both within the robot and within us) between the inclination to shoot first and ask questions later, and the much more difficult decision to try to accept what we don't understand. Especially for boys, it's got the perfect combination of cool action and the right message.

Whether you have kids or not, you absolutely have to see this. To make it even better, it might be one of the last great big-budget animation movies done with hand drawings instead of CGI. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Late report back from Boskone

I haven't written about Boskone until now because there is something going on in my head that's making it unbearable to stay up past 8:30. It's wreaking havoc with my writing schedule too, let me tell you.

So what happened at Boskone?

Saw a great panel by Matthew Jarpe about new drugs being developed, at which I learned a lot. It's easy to get down on Big Pharma about their business practices, and there's a lot to criticize. But as Matthew pointed out, developing a new drug can take 10-15 years from start to finish, and cost 800 million or more. And at the end, as apparently happens quite frequently, you might end up with a product that doesn't work, or at least doesn't work well enough to sell as a drug. So that illuminates part of why the companies act the way they do.

I also saw a number of panels about story writing by James Patrick Kelly, as well as a reading by him. As a Clarion applicant, it was hard to work up the courage to introduce myself to Kelly at his autographing. As it turned out, there was no reason for fear at all. Kelly is one of the nicest, most laid-back guys I've ever talked to. He asked with genuine concern and interest about my writing career, and was genuinely congratulatory when I told him about the Apex story.

On Sunday, after I saw Kelly read, got to talk to Matthew about writing for a while. He told me a bunch of his story ideas, none of which I will steal :). I wanted to see his second reading on the future of health care, but I didn't want to miss out on Jennifer Pelland reading from her new Apex book Unwelcome Bodies. I am going to pre-order this book and so should you. She read most of the story "Brushstrokes," then teasingly left it unfinished.

Then I saw a reading by Howard Waldrop, a name I've been aware of for awhile but whose work I am only just discovering. No matter how much I read in sci-fi and fantasy, I always find there's more to discover. That's what makes it fun.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Finished Clarion App

Called in sick today (yes, I really am sick) and spent the entire day applying to Clarion. What a nerve-wracking experience. I was most of the way through when I realized that my stories weren't in quite the right format. I tried to go back, but everything froze up. I had to close out and do most of the app over again.

At least Clarion's app is fairly transparent; next I have to figure out how to apply to Clarion West, which has an application faq page, but no apparent link to the page to apply. [Whoops, it's on the first page. I would swear it wasn't there before if I wasn't such a space.]

I am not going to get my hopes up too much here. Everyone tells me that this year is going to be especially difficult. After all, Neil Gaiman is on the staff this year. And Clarion West has Cory Doctorow and Chuck Palahniuk. I really wanted to do Odyssey, but that starts in early June, which is Regents Month at New York Public Schools. Blah. Well, it's not as if I won't have a fun summer anyway; before Clarion we were planning to spend two months in Hood River, and I can still live with that.

Simultaneously, Jen just finished her NEA app. She said she'll give me all the money. I'm recording this now so there's a record.

PS. Matthew Jarpe, if you're reading this I put your name under "List Clarion graduates you know." Hope that's okay. :)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Murdoch's MySpace censors athiests

I usually don't like to make a big deal about stuff like this, but this is absolute crap. (Thanks to Peter Watts for the alert.) What is worse, perhaps, is that it has generated barely a blip in the general news coverage. One can only imagine the outrage if the site had shut down these guys, or these or these or even the self-proclaimed "Mormon Mafia," which appears to be a genuine LDS meeting place.

And what did this group do to be shut down? They merely existed, and talked about the fact that they don't believe in an omnipotent intelligence running the universe. As with these guys at Wilifred Laurier University, all it took was for a group of Christians to get together and complain that the mere existence of an atheist group offended them so much that it could not be permitted. A couple thousand years ago (and a few places in the world even today), Christians were genuinely prosecuted, being thrown to the lions for so much as proclaiming their belief. In America, however, there is this ridiculous persecution complex in which certain Christians wail oppression at the mere fact that you refuse to believe what they want you to. Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly what Tom Jefferson had in mind.

Let me re-iterate that unlike the new "militant atheist" movement (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), I don't have much of a problem with Christianity, though I'm not a Christian myself. Jen is, and I have learned a lot from her. In fact, I am down with about ninety percent of the moral precepts of most of the major religions out there. The stuff I don't like in various religions (the gay-hating, the burkas, crusades & suicide bombers, etc.) tends to be cultural stuff tacked on and given a scriptural justification. I usually say I'm an agnostic, but the whole atheist/agnostic divide means a lot more to believers than it does to non-believers. In my case the word usually means "I don't believe in your God but it's cool if you do and I don't want to argue about it."

But this kind of closed-minded censorship really brings out my inner Dawkins. Not that this is about me personally. I'm a white middle-class American heterosexual male - almost certainly the least-oppressed demographic on the planet Earth. And I have never seen a reason for a MySpace page, since I'm happily married and not in a band. But it frightens me to think that a large power base in our country feels that it shouldn't even be okay for people like me to talk about our beliefs, or lack of them.

I really wouldn't mind if someone told me I had misinterpreted this whole thing and there was some perfectly legitimate reason the group was shut down. Then I'll put a mea culpa in the update and a strikethrough through this whole post. But if not, how can this be okay?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cover art for Issue 12 of Apex inspired by my story!

Jason Sizemore just alerted me that at the Apex Digest LiveJournal page they've just put up a teaser of the cover of Issue 12, a beautiful piece of work by Osvaldo Gonzalez inspired by my story "I Can't Look at the City," which will appear in that issue.

Like any good piece of art should, it gave me reason to look at my own story in a new way. To see a talented artist take inspiration from your own work and view it through his own artistic lens is certainly the most sincere form of flattery I can think of. Good work Osvaldo, and thanks again to Jason for the opportunity!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Trolleys, fat men, and the follies of utilitarianism

Please participate in my highly scientifical, completely experimental scientific experiment:

You are in a situation where there is an opportunity to to [horrible thing X]. You become aware, through a brief moment of unexplained omnipotence, that you can be absolutely certain that if you do not do [horrible thing X] that [even more horrible thing Y] will happen. Will you do [horrible thing X]?

What? You won't? What kind of a moral imbecile are you? Can't you see that according to my highly experimental scientifical and completely realistic situation that I have constructed that the only reasonable thing to do is [horrible thing X]? Boy, what a bunch of idiots you non-scientifical layschmucks are.

Of course, there is now an entire field devoted to exploring similar experiments to the one above with literature that, according to the New York Times book review (sorry, it's not online) "makes the Talmud look like Cliff's notes." The most famous is the trolley problem, and the related "fat man trolley problem." In the simple trolley problem, a trolley is going to kill five people, and you can save them by switching the track, which only has one person on it. Stuff like this happens to me all the time.

Most people are willing to flip the switch. By comparison, in the related "fat man" problem, the only way to save the five people is to throw a single fat man in front of the trolley. He's fat, see, because you know that your skinny self won't stop the trolley, so there's no "out" through self-sacrificial altruism. I assume people who are already fat aren't allowed to participate in the experiment.

A lot of really intelligent people are shocked that experimental subjects who are willing to flip the switch to the single person are not willing to throw the fat guy. Or if not shocked, then patronizingly dismissive, like Peter Watts. Not to specifically pick on Watts; he's a crank in the good sense and we can't have enough of those.

I'd argue that the reason people can't seem to make this seemingly completely logical choice is that our sense of morality has evolved not to deal with completely logical theoretical situations like this, but rather to deal with moral choices we actually might have to make in real life.

The FMT problem assumes that you are somehow able to calculate, in the split-second you have to make the decision, that the mass of the FM will be enough to stop the trolley, but you won't. Also, that you'll be able to overcome the resistance of the FM and that the trolley going off the tracks won't cause even more death and destruction, and a thousand other things that no one could be expected to know. A thousand factors that you must somehow instantly calculate to determine that there is no alternative to going against what the Torah and Bible call the Sixth Commandment, a rule that's pretty universally noted (though not, unfortunately, so universally followed) in every religious and moral system anyone's ever come up with.

But Jim, you foolish literalist you, can't you see that this is a completely theoretical concept? We know that no one is actually going to have to make that choice. It's not like it's going to change what people do in the real world.

Recently enough, however, a completely different exercise in theoretical morality might well have had a similar effect. Alan Dershowitz, the famous legal mind who among other things defended OJ, argued not long after 9/11 that there might be circumstances under which there would be a justification for "torture warrants." His reasoning is based on the "ticking time-bomb terrorist case," in which we have a terrorist and are somehow absolutely certain that there is a ticking nuclear bomb that's going to blow up New York and that this terrorist knows where it is, but we somehow also don't know where it is ourselves. It doesn't take a lot of thought to see the similarities to the trolley problem. Tom Tomorrow had a brilliant cartoon, which I somehow can't find, in which he imagined a possibility that a small baby swallowed the instructions to disable a ticking time bomb. "Foolish shortsighted Congress! They never created a legal mechanism to cut open a baby!" wails a policeman.

The point is, if you think about it enough, you can come up with a theoretical situation under which any horrible action could theoretically be justified. Like imagine if, for some reason, um, if you didn't torture an innocent little girl to death, like, a hundred nuclear bombs would go off all over the world killing half of Earth's population! Would you torture the little girl? Would you? Would you? Come on, it's a completely logical theoretical situation!

A few years after Dershowitz' completely theoretical bit of reasoning, we discovered what was going on at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which of course was nothing like what Dershowitz had in mind. But the moral reasoning here was like a game of telephone, in which all of the reasonable logical parts were lost as it passed from person to person. Once the possibility for torture became open to discussion, the barriers against it washed away like sand in the tides. Yes, I know it's not that simple. Our intelligence agencies have been torturing people for a long time, and Alan Dershowitz didn't open the gate himself, but rather was responding to the gates being opened by other people. The point is, theoretical arguments can have real-world outcomes.

But what about the fat-man trolley argument? We don't have an epidemic of people shoving obese people in front of trains, right? So what's the problem?

But then, for a lot of people, the Iraq war itself was a fat-man trolley type problem. Yes, people argued, a lot of people will die in the war (though in most cases, nobody they personally knew). But as a result we'll get rid of the monster Saddam, as a result saving many more people. That argument doesn't hold a lot of water now, because according to most estimates the number of people killed since the invasion has surpassed even the worst estimates of Saddam's monstrosities. And if you're being a strict utilitarian, you can't argue that it's different because we ourselves didn't kill all the people. The trolley went off the rails and straight through a pedestrian mall, just as anyone who has read much about the history of wars should have anticipated it might. That's why a lot of people preferred we stuck with a special-case variant of C6, one agreed to by all the members of the UN after WWII including us, to the effect of "you don't just go and attack another country that hasn't attacked you."

I'm not strictly opposed to utilitarianism. The most popular alternative view, which is to simply see morality as a bunch of rules to be followed because they're written in a really old book somewhere (or the UN charter, for that matter), has an equal if not greater number of shortcomings. But let's watch out for being really stupid by being too smart.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The future of the novel

According to an an article today in the Times, "of the last ten bestselling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging." Most of these were composed by young women on the subways on their way to work. Of course I'm curious to read one, but of course it's in Japanese, and it would no doubt be untranslatable even if someone were willing to try. What's Japanese for 'LOL' and 'OMFG?'

Of course the chorus of worrying has kicked in. "'Will cellphone novels kill "the author?"'" (that's triple-embedded quotes, and I'm doing this on my Treo!) says a Japanese literary magazine. Needless to say, we've been here before. The first generation of novels, which were widely proclaimed to be the death of literature, were written for, and often by, young women. They were, of course, mostly love stories written in the 'epistolary' style, that is, in the form of the popular style of textual communication at the time.

So will we have a Pride and Prejudice or Tristram Shandy of the cellphone novel that will ‘save’ the genre? Well, historical parallels are not usually that neat. But I think it’s good news to see new shoots sprouting off the great trunk of the long-fiction genre, regardless of the form. Especially when arrogant pricks like Steve Jobs announce that no one reads anymore.

Texting may not seem like fertile grounds for literature to many of us. But whatever form it takes, people are still writing, and people are reading. Let’s not give up hope here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Hofstadter's GEB: Most misunderstood book ever?

When I was in my early 20's, just out of college, I wanted to make an extreme move somewhere, so I went to Chicago to work at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in the commodities business. It was a job and place for which I was ridiculously unsuited, given that my highest ambition at the time was to find the 1990s equivalent of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and hop on whatever contemporary version of Furthur was heading across the country.

The one thing that being alone in Chicago in the dead of winter (what better time could there be to move to one of the coldest cities in America than January?) did for me was allow me to spend some time reading things that I would not otherwise have the time or mental energy to read. I read several of Thomas Mann's longest novels, including Buddenbrooks and Faust and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow among other things.

But the book that affected my thinking the most, by far, was Douglas Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I bought it blind from a cool little used bookstore in Hyde Park; I can't remember what attracted to me but it was probably the psychedelic-looking Escher drawings on the book jacket.

The book, if approached the way that Hofstadter would like you to, is like a college textbook - more like a college course in what appear to be a collection of topics that interest Hofstadter. It's not just a book you read, the book assigns you homework. Though Escher and Bach are an important part of H's thinking about the idea of recursiveness, Godel is really the core. The focus of the first half of the book is really that one gets the best possible understanding that a non-mathematician can get of the principles behind Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. I am the last person to be qualified to explain the I.T. to anyone, but the best explanation of it that I am capable of is this: Godel proves logically that any mathematical system devisable could be jerry-rigged with a logical time bomb of the form "this statement cannot be proved," meaning that no system can be both complete (prove everything that's true), and consistent (not prove anything that isn't). Specifically he was responding to Bertrand Russell's insanely complex Principia Mathematica, which famously took 360 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. (Followed by the comment "The above proposition is occasionally useful." A real card, that Russell.) But Godel went on from plunging the sword of logic into the heart of the greatest work of axiomatic set theory ever to go on and make the general case.


Of course, my mind was blown, and like nearly everyone first exposed to the IT for the first time, I got completely the wrong message from it.

The second half of the book is entirely about getting the reader to understand why the message I and so many other people get ("Mathematics can't explain anything! Two plus two is five! The human soul is impenetrable to reason!") is the wrong message. The more I have talked to people about the book, the more I have come to the conclusion that I am one of about five people who have actually finished the thing. And honestly, if I wasn't stuck in a freezing hellhole a thousand miles from anyone that I had any personal relationship with, I might not have either.

Of course, there are stupid and smart versions of what Hofstadter would call the misinterpretations of the IT. The stupid ones are in the form of the first two examples I wrote above. The smart version, and the interpretation that I think Hofstadter is specifically answering, is best formed by Roger Penrose, a brilliant mathematician and physicist approximately a bazillion times smarter than me I am sure.

Penrose concludes from the Incompleteness Theorem, roughly, that there are certain kinds of problems that logical systems cannot solve, but people can. From there he goes on to conclude that a computer (which is just a really, really complex logical system based on a Turing machine), can never achieve human intelligence, or what scientists call consciousness. Let me restate my earlier warning; if you really want to understand Penrose's strong AI skepticism, you need to read The Emperor's New Mind, as well as the original form of the argument as made by J.R. Lucas in The Freedom of the Will I am only giving you my best interpretation of what he argues.

Hofstadter's case is that consciousness is based on recursive functions, or what he calls "strange loops": functions that repeatedly refer back to themselves. Recursive functions are actually quite common in programming (many timer functions work this way), but Hofstadter's strange loops call themselves in a much more complex fashion. Essentially Hofstadter argues that when such loops get deep enough (we're talking 30 million neurons a second deep), the result is consciousness. In later works he suggests that a certain kind of controlled randomness (sort of Bayesian) helps, too.

What has dismayed me in reading so much about Strong AI since is that, while many people refer to what is sometimes called the Lucas-Penrose Thesis, Hofstadter's answer to it is not so much dismissed as never even mentioned. I would read with interest if a qualified mathematician or logician tore the arguments in GEB to pieces through reasoning, and I'd be curious if they even dismissed them as not worth answering. But it's literally as if the book was never written. It's not as if it's obscure; the book won the Pulitzer in 1980 after all.

I think that the problem with GEB is that the way the book is designed misses nearly all of Hofstadter's intended audience. I once asked a fairly important mathematician about the book, and his response was a somewhat condescending, "yes, well, the world does need popularizations, after all," assuming that the book was nothing more than Godel for Dummies. A former girlfriend, a doctor in piano from Rochester, said that she thought he got some things about Bach wrong (didn't say what), and so she didn't read any further. A third friend, an intelligent but druggy poet type, looked at a few pages that I showed him and said "that makes my head hurt." All three of them, needless to say, never got within a mile of the point that DH was trying to make.

GEB is a rare book because DH is saying "You won't understand the point I want to make about artificial intelligence unless you first understand Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, the form of a Bach fugue, the nature of Escher's art, and some stuff about quantum theory, DNA coding and entemology. So I'm going to them to you, with help from parabolic dialogues by some amusing characters invented by Lewis Carroll." Unfortunately, that calls for a rare type of reader. The people who already understand some of these "prerequisites" stop reading on the assumption, "feh, I already know this." The people who don't stop because it's just too much damn work.

I'm told that DH, realizing the problem, has restated his thesis in a far simpler new book called I am a Strange Loop, which was just released last year. Of course I'll read it as soon as I get my hands on it. But I know it won't be anything like the cerebral-cortex detonation that first reading GEB was. And until some of the arguments that Hofstadter made get the kind of attention and response they deserve, it's just hard to take anything anyone says about strong AI seriously.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Skeptic throws cold water on AI claims

As linked from Ken McLeod, eSkeptic Website rains on the Strong AI hopefuls' parade.

I'm always suspicious about any AI skeptics who don't at least mention the explorations of self-referential semi-random systems by Douglas Hofstadter. His approach seems most likely to avoid the Scylla of Minsky's reasoning-machine approach and the Charybdis of overly imitative neural models that simulate the brain without thinking about what thought is. But I haven't heard of anything new coming out of the Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies team, so that might be a dead end for all I know.

It's just as well. I'd like to start collecting social security before the robot takeover.

The tragedy of the novella

I recently have been trying to read more short fiction in order to find a style that works for me. I'm more comfortable writing at novel length, and trying to write something as short as the modern short fiction market calls for (< 5,000 words ideally, and certainly no more than 7,500) is quite frequently agonizing.

Unfortunately, so much of the short fiction out there just is not that interesting. So instead of trying to go through magazines full of unknown authors, I decided to buy some works of short fiction by authors I already like as novelists, specifically Lovedeath by Dan Simmons and Wall of the Sky, Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem. I figured that since they were good novelists they could give me an idea of how to tell a good narrative in that length.

The joke was on me. Not that the stories aren't good; I'm about halfway through both books and they're amazing. The second story in Wall of the Sky, (now I can't find where I put the book so I don't know the title of the story) is a spectacular exploration of race in America based on an "exosuit" that gives a white guy the basketball skills of Michael Jordan (he takes on the title "Vanilla Dunk.") And I'd go so far as to say that Simmons' book might be better than his best novel that I've read, which is Hyperion. The second story in Lovedeath is the second story I've read in over a decade that does something interesting with the dead horse of the vampire story; like the other one, China Mieville's "The Tain" from Looking for Jake, you don't know that it's a vampire story until you're well past the halfway mark.

Only one problem: none of these are short stories, at least by the current definition of the term. Every story in both books is in the 14,000-20,000 word range. This is the range that some people call a novella, and others call a novelette. (the official SFWA definition lists a novelette as 7,500-17,500, and the novella as 17,5000-40,000). So what's the problem with that?

Simply, none of these has any acknowledgment in the book as having been published anywhere before. Usually if you are going to see a collection of short stories in a book, most of them will have appeared in various magazines along the way, and it will say so. I might be wrong about this, but assuming that this is correct, the only way these stories could have been published is collected in a book. And the only reason that these books of novellas would have been published, I'll go on to argue, is because the authors were already the famous novelists Dan Simmons and Jonathan Lethem.

The current market for fiction is based on completely arbitrary and ferociously insisted-on word-length counts, set entirely based on what is considered printable and marketable rather than what makes a good story. Look at the requests for short fiction in 95% of all magazines, and they will request a maximum length of 5,000 words, maybe 7k if they feel generous. In this length, it's nearly impossible to lay out a real development of a character; a lot of what passes for good short stories today are really just stunts. Meanwhile in the novel market, the expected length for a first-time author is 90-110k words, with known writers honored with the expectation for 200,000-400,000 word "bug-killers" as Lucius Shepard calls them.

Would the current publishing market have room for, among others, "[Steinbeck's] Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness," among the novellas listed at Wikipedia?

To be fair, Analog at least continues to publish novellas and novelettes, though a lot of the 14,000-17,000 word stories they publish could easily shed five to eight thousand words without any ribs showing. I'm not so sure about Asimov's and F&SF. Nevertheless, the places for things that are longer than a short story but shorter than a novel are far too rare. How many potentially great novellas are either butchered to unreadability to fit in the expected short story length, or padded unnecessarily to be turned into novels?

I don't really know what the solution is, and I do know that there are reasons publishers do what they do. But let's admit at least that we have a problem here.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

For all you singularity buffs out there...

There are two ways to look at this. The Guardian's way of looking at it is to say that:
your computer at home doesn't even come close to matching the power of half a mouse brain: researchers at IBM and the University of Nevada have been using IBM's BlueGene L supercomputer - which contains 4,096 processors, each using 256MB of RAM - and succeeded in simulating a small fraction of the power of just half a mouse brain

Another way of looking at it is that in 1990, one of the fastest supercomputers was the Cray Y-MP 8/8-64. According to a history of supercomputers by the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts:
This system had 8 cpus with a cycle time of 8.5 nanoseconds (166 MHz) , and 512 Mbytes of memory.

Right now I can buy 512 Mbytes of memory on a postage-stamp sized chip on my cell phone, and 166MHZ would have been fast for a desktop a decade ago.

The Guardian article quotes researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne to the effect that the human brain has 100 billion neurons, whereas the mouse brain has 8 million.

Of course, the argument can be made that sooner or later Moore's Law is going to bump up against the far firmer Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at some point. Since I don't know anything in particular about quantum computing, I won't make any predictions one way or the other on that.

But assuming everything stays on track, it's reasonable to assume that a desktop will be able to simulate a mouse brain full time in 10-15 years or so, and the power of exponential doubling being what it is, a full-time simulation of a human brain might be as near as 20-30 years in the future, at least on a supercomputer.

The Guardian quotes the same Lausanne researchers as saying that they cannot predict if such a model would develop consciousness. I can't say whether the model of the human brain could in fact be simulated. Being able to update 100 billion neurons a second is different from actually programming them the way the brain works, which I believe remains quite mysterious. But if it could, I think it's ridiculous to assume that the outcome would be any less obviously conscious to us than the brain of any other human. That is, from a Turingesque POV, it would be as conscious as you could prove anyone else to be.

All I want to know is when Google will start allowing us to book our personality backups in advance. Then finally my opportunity to skydive without a parachute into an active volcano will come true... ;)

Does Hollywood Ruin Pullman?

So I just finally saw The Golden Compass movie, after having been warned away from it by every fellow fan of Pullman's novels that I have spoken to about it. I consider Pullman to be the most important fantasy author since Tolkien and Lewis. Nevertheless, I think they were too rough on the movie, and expected too much from it.

What made the movie for me was Dakota Blue Richards, who was exactly how I had pictured Lyra to be. Playing Lyra is really a difficult task to take on. She is a ferociously strong-willed and terrifyingly brave girl, but Richards was nevertheless able to convey her humanity. Lyra is not fearless; rather, she is conscious of her fear and overcomes it. Watching this slip of a girl walk through a hall of armored polar bears, any one of which could rip her head off with a careless bat of a paw, was a terrific scene, as was the way Richards handled the devious trick that Lyra uses to persuade the false king of the bears, Iofur Raknison to fight Iorek Byrnison. The devious look that comes over her face when she is tricking someone is really priceless, because there is always a hint of uncertainty behind it.

The special effects were fantastic as well, but it's a Hollywood movie, and that's what they are good at. I particularly liked the spinning "anbaric" engines that powered the cars and balloons. I would be surprised if the movie didn't get whatever Oscar applies to that.

I assume what makes the fans of the movie angry is the way that it soft-pedaled the theological aspects of it. Specifically, they left off the crucial last scene of the novel, which conveyed the complexity of Lord Asriel's character and the tone and direction of the next two books. Honestly, I don't know what these people expected. In a country as religious as America is, to make a movie of this book is courageous enough. They knew they'd be getting a lot of flak, and since Asriel is treated as a good guy for most of the movie (as opposed to the book), if they put that last scene in it would be a million times worse.

I wanted to write about this trilogy when I first read it, but it was in September and I was too overwhelmed with school. Specifically, I wanted to write about the names that Pullman uses.

Lyra is easy. "Lie-ra." She is a con artist on the order of Frank Abagnale, but driven by a moral principle. Will, her boyfriend who is first introduced in the second book, is also easy. He's driven by will both in the Nietszchian sense and in the simpler sense of pure forcefulness. He takes a straight line between two points, incapable of the lies or deception that Lyra is so good at. Ms. Coulter = colder, as in colder than ice. She's a mother that makes Tony Soprano's mom look like a mother of the year candidate.

It's Lord Asriel's name that's the most provocative. It's just too close to Aslan from the Narnia chronicles, the lion that represents Jesus. The fact that his daemon is a big cat only hints at it all the more. It's practically a gauntlet thrown down in C.S. Lewis' face.

(Note, from here on there will be a few spoilers if you haven't read the books.)

Is Asriel an antichrist? And is Pullman anti-Catholic? This is an important issue, since Jennifer is Catholic and I have agreed to raise Jeff as one.

I am almost certain that Pullman says nothing at all about Jesus in any of the books one way or the other. He might well feel, as I do, that Jesus was one of the most important guides to humanity, regardless of whether or not he's God's son, (or second-to-last prophet, as the Muslims believe).

I am convinced that Pullman's issue is entirely with the corruption of organized religion in general, whether it's Catholic or Protestant, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. I don't think he is prejudiced against Catholics, as some people claim. If her were, there would be "good" Protestants (or Jews or something) in the book. But the Magisterium of the novel represents a unified Christian church that still dominates the whole world, rather than splitting up into different sects as it did in our universe. Other religions are not even mentioned. And if Pullman is specifically answering Lewis, whose apology regarding salvation and damnation is adopted by plenty of Protestants (even if they don't actually know where they got it from, as a lot of them don't), he is naturally going to take him on on Lewis' home turf.

Asriel, to be sure, is not a nice guy, or even a good one. What he does to Roger at the end of the first book is as evil as anything Coulter or the Magisterium does, completely beyond excuse. Asriel is an ends-justifies-the-means guy, the kind of attitude that has created some of the worst evils in history. His attempt in the later books to establish a "Kingdom of Heaven" reminds one of radicals like Mao Tse-Tung or the Jacobins, whose atheism was as intolerant and dangerous as anything that any faith has come up with.

In other words, Pullman does not necessarily sympathize with Asriel's quest to kill God. As writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. have released a flood of anti-religious books, there has been a lot of talk about the dangers of "evangelical atheism." I thought this was an exaggeration until Dawkins came up with that line about how raising a child Catholic is as bad a form of abuse as sexually molesting them. That kind of shit we just do not need. Whether or not you agree with the tenets of Catholicism and Christianity, the fact is that it's a valid moral system that's guided billions of people over the years. It has its strengths and weaknesses, like any way of thinking. If Christians truly follow the principles that Jesus put forward (and in my opinion not nearly enough do) it as good a "system of the world" as anything anyone else has come up with.

Asriel is an evangelical atheist, and it's clear if you read the whole series that's not the right path either. I think they key to Pullman's philosophy is the statement, repeated several places, that we need to "build the Kingdom of Heaven where we are." In other words, there's no apocalypse, no end times, no revolution of the masses, no final salvation that washes away evil and leaves perfection. We have to save ourselves, every moment of every day by doing the right thing.

It's a hard path to follow, and I don't know if I succeed. It's also a lot to ask people to be ready for just to enjoy the movie. So what do you want for ten bucks? I'll settle for some good acting and a great CGI bear fight.