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.