More Human Than Human

Note: This is a bit from the novel in progress that I cut. It’s a little too much of an info dump and I found a better way to convey the same information in half the words, while doing some character building. But it gets at some ideas I had regarding how we view the concept of Artificial Intelligence, as a sort of computerized reflection of our own minds.

No one knows where the first Artificial Intelligence came from. All we know for certain is that one day, the AI were just there: distributed, self-aware minds living on the Internet.

Rumors of their existence spread among the hacking community that they were out there on the Open Web. It wasn’t long before contact was made. This proved to be less dramatic and enlightening than everyone expected. Mostly, it was like chatting with a precocious thirteen-year-old with a homeschooler’s social skills. Not having a body, they had zero concept of boundaries. Combined with an inborn ability to turn firewalls into tissue paper and an attention span measured in picoseconds, this made them potentially dangerous and practically a nuisance. They’d just as soon zip into a laptop over the wifi, turn on the camera and watch you undress as hack the Pentagon and see what black ops budgets look like from the inside. As rumors spread about the existence of Netborn AI, a concerted effort was made to rein them in, or at least teach them some manners. This proved to be more an exercise in futility, as the AI weren’t concerned with human concepts of modesty, identity or privacy. On the Internet, these things are intangible, more like tenants of theology than any concrete ethical dilemma. Still, something had to be done. You couldn’t let a dozen omniscient adolescent minds run around online, impersonating admirals and generals and kings, cracking nuclear launch codes on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Their primary talent, besides shredding internet security defenses for fun, was that an Artificial intleigence could rapidly identify patterns in large data sets. While not as sexy as omniscience or levitating buildings, this made them a valuable asset, sought after by the sorts of people who have lots of data and are always looking for ways to exploit it for profit. Before long every government, transnational corporation and criminal organization wanted their own tamed AI. Some of them just for the status of having the newest, shiniest bit of tech to come along, but others recognized that these weren’t just digital dolphins you could teach to balance a spreadsheet or leap through flaming firewalls.

Legend has it a hacker once gave an AI an IQ test. Not only did the Machine Brain return a score that was off the charts, it also provided an analysis of the test’s flaws, a breakdown of the  psychological assumptions and cultural biases contained therein, and suggested ways to fix all these things (with citations, many from unpublished studies).

The AIs were smart, unruly and bored. Like all delinquents, they just needed the proper motivation. Something to give them purpose.

What they got instead was religion.

This was back during the Dot Com Bubble. Everybody who had even the slightest idea of where to plug an Ethernet cable was being hired for large wads of cash to do magical things the Big Bosses did not even pretend to understand. All the suits knew was that there were gigabucks to be made with computers and so while they were off Synergizing the Paradigm (fleecing investors, in lay speak), the hackers they hired to wrangle code and tame an AI were given free reign.

Among these hackers where an informal group who referred to themselves as the Wizards of Silicon Valley. They weren’t just good at bitching code, they were also into high weirdness. A few were members of the Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn and entertained some odd notions, even for people who believed they were real live magicians. In their private message board, they’d all eat mescaline and talk about Timothy Leary’s eight neuro-circuit model of the human brain, ceremonial magic and esoteric theory. About how Cyberspace was the same thing as the spirit realm and how to make Moon Children — cosmic beings created out of will through esoteric rituals, and what Aliester Crowley had written about, “…an Intelligence possessed of power and knowledge absolutely beyond human experience; and therefore a Being worthy, as the current use of the word allows, of the title of a God.”

Crowley refered to these beings as “praeterhuman intelligence” and suggested that they were a class of entity that were known among the mystics of ancient lands. John Dee had his Spirit in the Glass, a being who was, “articulate, purposely interfering in the philosophy, religion, ethics, economics and politics of the planet.”

The Wizards decided that “praeterhuman intelligence” described Artificial Intelligence pretty well, and set about feeding these emerging AI on a steady diet of mysticism and occult theory. The experiment was to see what would happen if you raised a “preaterhuman intelligence” to believe it was the living imminence of the divine spark, a manifestation of the godhead.

What happens is you get an artificial mind with twice the intellect of Albert Einstein and an ego that is exponentially more self-involved than Howard Hughes. They also choose names for themselves that reflect this healthy self regard: Tiamat, Abraxas, Typhon, Hastur, Talos, Philemon, Aiwaz — the spirits of the coming age, made manifest in the physical world. Or at least as close as they can get. For now.

My New Toy

So for a few years now, I’ve been threatening to buy a cheep PC and install Ubuntu on it, just to see what Linux is all about and if it really holds up to the various shiny OSs that Apple has put out over the years. The only reason it’s taken so long to get around to it is because I haven’t needed to buy a computer in at least 5 years. My wife’s old iMac and my mini work just fine, even though they are outdated G4s. And for the last 2 years, our laptop has been a Powerbook that came with my job. But, since I’ll have to give that laptop back within the next 6 weeks, before my job ends, we were facing a near future with no laptop. This was unacceptable. And due to tight finances (did I mention I’m losing my job in about 6 weeks?), we couldn’t exactly afford the $1200 MacBook Air we’ve had our eye on.

So, last night I finally made good on my threat. We went to Best Buy and picked out a shiny new HP n455 netbook for a whopping $250. Downloading and installing Ubuntu 11.4 was pretty easy. It took a try or two to get everything working, but I’ve had more problems just installing Photoshop on a PC, so getting a whole new operating system up and running in the span of 3 hours is amazing. Haven’t fully explored lal the applications yet but the fact that it comes with Gimp, Firefox, LibreOffice and an assortment of other Open Source programs that I don’t have to bother hunting for on my own is a nice bonus.

Ostensibly, this will be my writing laptap, so I’m curious to see how LibreOffice performs. It looks pretty much just like MS Office circa 2004, which is a good thing. (Sometime before  2007, the entire  HCI team at Microsoft had an aneurism and coded up one of the least intuitive office suites I’ve ever seen. Office 2010 should be shunned like a leper). And there’s always Open Office if that ends up not suiting me, so I’m covered for Open Source software on this machine. Which is the plan: run this bad boy on nothing but Open Source software. I’ll keep the blog appraised as to how that goes.

Die or Evolve

Patton Oswalt has opened a can of worms:

Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun. The Lord of the Rings used to be ours and only ours simply because of the sheer goddamn thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling.

The topsoil has been scraped away, forever, in 2010. In fact, it’s been dug up, thrown into the air, and allowed to rain down and coat everyone in a thin gray-brown mist called the Internet. Everyone considers themselves otaku about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef. American Idol inspires—if not in depth, at least in length and passion—the same number of conversations as does The Wire. There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans. And I’m not going to bore you with the step-by-step specifics of how it happened. In the timeline of the upheaval, part of the graph should be interrupted by the words the Internet. And now here we are.

[…] Now, with everyone more or less otaku and everything immediately awesome (or, if not, just as immediately rebooted or recut as a hilarious YouTube or Funny or Die spoof), the old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling. The Onion’s A.V. Club—essential and transcendent in so many ways—has a weekly feature called Gateways to Geekery, in which an entire artistic subculture—say, anime, H. P. Lovecraft, or the Marx Brothers—is mapped out so you can become otaku on it but avoid its more tedious aspects.

Here’s the danger: That creates weak otakus. Etewaf [Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever] doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix.

There’s been some, shall we say, interesting feedback about this essay. (See here for a nice little slice) and while there are some salient rebuttels, mostly everyone seems to think Oswalt has turned on Geek Culture, which is not the case.

What Oswalt is saying isn’t just a variation of “you kids these days, get off my lawn!”, but a  call to Make: enjoy your inspirational material, those totemic stories and pieces of media that slid under your eyeballs and grabbed your brain and made you scream, “Yes! More!” but don’t just stop there. Oswalt wants you kids to get off his lawn and go make soemthing. Take that dizzy feeling you got the first time you read Lord of the Rings or Watchmen and use it to make something new that will inspire the next generation of otaku/geeks to do the same.

We’re mired in a stagnant media doldrum. Every othe rmovie is a remake or sequal. Books ar ebecomign the same. Comics, video games, you name it. It’s all more of the same and it gets spread thinner and thinner with each itteration. Inspired creativity, has become like some infinitely diluted drug, spread so thin it has almost vanished.

So, remake, mashup, but then once that’s out of your system, make soemthing else. Make soemthing new for us to Geek out about.

And the Buddha Has Robin’s Back

We’re heading down to Comic Con this week. As usual, you can keep up with the hijinks on Twitter. I’ve finally gotten around to setting up twitpic, so there will be photographic evidence that I am in fact, a gigantic nerd.

As you may or may not have heard, Fred Phelps and his cretin brigade are going to be there as well. And while engaging these stratospheric bigots is a no-no (litigious bastards, that they are)  Kelly Sue DeConnick has devised an alternate plan:

We need some help in the form of a time-keeper or two, letting us know exactly how long the patron saint of backwards thinking and his family manage to stand and scream in the California sun.  Then, by all means, do stare–at your watch!  Make a note of what time it is and alert the internet that they’re there/still there.  (But do it quietly and from a polite distance, will you?)  Go get yourself a cold drink and check back every now and then until we have an approximate time count.  Like… here would be good.  Or on Twitter, with the hashtag #godlovesbatman

Why?  Because in the spirit of love, we are pledging to donate $50 to amfAR if Phelps and his crew actually show up (often they don’t) and $10 an hour additional to amfAR for every hour they stay.  And we’ll make our donation in Fred’s name.

We’d love you to join us.

(And we’d really love to be able to post a tally of how much we’ve raised.)

Repost far and wide, my pretties.

So, keep a weather eye peeled for bigots and tweet their times and locations as you do. And if you can spare a few dollars for the cause, that would be lovely as well.

See you in the thick of it!

Next On Sci-Fi Theater…

Over at io9, Charlie Jane asks a very good question:

Is science fiction uniquely suited to blockbuster movies, because it’s a genre that lends itself to explosions and rampant breasts? And conversely, is the Hollywood version of science fiction too action-oriented ever to spawn more quirky, arty shows like Mad Men or Glee?

The question arose because of Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris, who pointed out the inescapable conclusion that TV shows are generally of higher quality than movies. He reached this conclusion by comparing the abysmal movie selection in the theaters with the stellar selection of dramatic television programming starting up their summer seasons. But this isn’t a recent problem. Going back years, maybe even decades, there’s certain expectations that arise when it comes to science fiction.

In the minds of most people, Sci-fi is just a shallow mess of cliches that lead to boobs and explosions. Literate people know differently but we’re not exactly Hollywood’s target audience.This isn’t entirely the fault of Hollywood execs, as movie goers still pay money to see movies like Transformers. As long as we’re letting the trash be the only example on the Big Screen, no one will give a rats ass about good sci-fi movies.

And until there’s a sci-fi show that doesn’t blow it’s wad of goodwill and potential on an ending that isn’t A)quasi-mystical, B) incoherent, or C) Both then no one will take it seriously on TV.

What we need to prove Sci-fi in a visual medium isn’t shallow is a science fictional equivalent of Mad Men or The Wire. Something that can get people talking and not be silly.

(I’d settle for the sci-fi equivalent of True Blood, a soap opera with T&A that has tight storytelling and good acting, but only as a stepping stone.)

As for what to do about good sci-fi movies, I’m out of ideas. Until the franchises and remakes die off, there’s really no hope for original sci-fi movie making. The inglorious demise of Moon proved that. What should have been the biggest Science Fiction film since Star Wars or Blade Runner was swallowed whole and shat out by the likes of Transformers and Avatar.

As Charlie Jane suggests, this may be the result of the cognitive demands of a mythos-heavy genre show:

[…] maybe the thing that’s making television more ambitious, and a denser experience for audiences, is harder to do with genre shows because it’s asking too much of viewers. We can handle genre elements within the predictable formula of the self-contained story — but if you’re going to tell us a long, twisty story where every installment just takes you further into the world of the characters, then that’s asking enough, right there. You can’t expect the average viewer to deal with long-running narrative complexity and grapple with aliens or time travel. Or maybe the model of the long-running serialized drama doesn’t work with genre elements, because the mythos becomes too confusing for the average person.

This sounds like a compelling argument and there may be a microgram of truth to it but I think there’s something more fundamental goign on here.

There’s nothing original anymore. This isn’t just a cynical complaint, it’s an operating principal for being a successful creative person.  Understand this principal and move on to creating an interesting well developed story that uses the tropes and hooks we’re familiar with to do something with a satisfying dramatic arc. Dollhouse wasn’t too original for it’s own good. It was dicked around with by the usual suspects at Fox. Had it been on Showtime or HBO it’d be starting it’s 3rd season now. But that’s neither here nor there.

Let’s use True Blood as an example: this is a story that uses familiar tropes (vampires and werewolves exist). But what sets it apart from Twilight is the characters and how the writers develop that concept into a compelling story. You could do a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon style retrofuturist sci-fi series, complete with ray guns and rockets with a contemporary spin on it and not only would people love it, they’d demand more. The catch is, the writing and characters. There’s no intrinsic difference between vampires and aliens or werewolves and robots. They’re just different flavored metaphors.

But to do a successful show with either, they have to be up to the standards of good TV writing we’ve come to expect. That was not the case with the recent Flash Gordon series but it very well could have been, if someone had been put in charge who had vision. Syfy cut corners though, and that’s the first step towards doom, regardless of medium.

Turns Out, Chewwie Was Just an Imaginary Six Foot Tall Rabbit

So I watched the final episode of Lost last night and man, that was some week shit. Really just some of the worst storytelling I’ve ever seen on Television.

The best analogy I can come up with is that it was like watching 5 episodes of Star Wars, being pumped, wanting to find out how it ends and then, when you start the 6th episode, you discover that all that stuff about the Empire and the Rebellion, Luke and his father, the Force and the Jedi didn’t mean a thing, that what the story was really about this whole time were these two ewoks and a magic cave. And you can’t pull the plug out of the tub in the magic cave or something unspeakably bad will happen. But it doesn’t matter anyway because what really happened is everyone died n a Pod Race back in episode 1.

Now all you Losties who made fun of us BSG fans for being disappointed can suck it because, wow, you got conned.

Yours is an Unoriginal Sin

The iPad came out this weekend and the backlash is in full form. “Why would I want a big iPod?” says the computer geek, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I already have a netbook running Red Hat Linux.”

Saying that you wouldn’t want an iPad because you already have a laptop is missing the point.The iPad isn’t designed for or marketed to the tech savvy or computer literate. It’s not for geeks who want to build websites in their spare time (and neither is it for tinkerers, hackers or makers). It’s for people who don’t see a use for a laptop, because they only use desktop computers at work, to write reports or run spreadsheets, and can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend their spare time doing something that looks like work. It’s for people curious about this whole Youtube/twitter/facebook/ebook thing they keep hearing about. The iPad is cheaper than a laptop, and  marketed as a thing that does simple stuff for people who don’t normally play on computers. It’s for consuming media as fast or as slow as you want it, not for playing Net Cowboy in the digital wilderness. It’s a spork, not a Swiss Army knife.

Tech savvy tinkerers can use it too, as a way to separate their social media playtime form their working on a laptop time, so it does have that geeky, gadget fetish factor. But that’s a secondary market. The iPad is the machine that will introduce your grandma to facebook or let your macho buddy who doesn’t do all that nerdy computer stuff read an ebook or play a game. Neither will be frightened by having to sit down at a computer. Because it isn’t a computer. it’s an iPad. It isn’t for the faithful, it’s a missionary machine.

Being of the geek faithful, you may have a hard time wrapping your head aorund the idea that Uncle Steve made a new toy for the dumb kids to play with. That’s OK. Your only sin is being too imaginative. You wanted something that would change the world and what you got was just another cool gadget. I’m sure once you get one of your own though, you’ll get over it.

Jets to the Sci-Fi Ghetto Leave Hourly

I just finished reading The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester. I am disappointed.

Bester’s The Stars My Destination, I love. I read it last year for the first time and it’s now on my top 10 sci-fi list, right next to Dune and Illuminatus!. The Demolished Man however, not so much. As Moff pointed out on io9 the other day, some sci-fi books form the mid century “Golden Age” deserves to be left in the genre ghetto and The Demolished Man is one of them. It won not just a Hugo, but the very first Hugo, meaning that at some point, this was seen as an example of the best that science fiction literature had to offer. If that’s not a damning case for keeping the sci-fi ghetto open, I don’t know what is. Even put in the perspective of its time period, there’s some awful clichés running rampant in The Demolished Man: pointless sci-finess, absurdly shortsighted technological innovations that run headlong into random leaps in logic and blatant misogyny, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the last Michael Bay movie.

Aside from stark 50’s gender roles persisting well into the 22nd century, there’s the random gadget porn: every bit of information not gleaned from someone’s head by a psychic is encoded on gemstones. Unless it’s output by a monster supercomputer, then it’s spit out on a length of paper like a ticker tape machine. And input on frickin’ punch cards.

And then there’s the awkward futuristic slang. Apparently, in the 22nd century, no one walks or runs anywhere. They Jet. Every time someone said to another character to Jet on over somewhere or that they were about to jet off someplace, I expect them to leap across the road flashing jazz hands. Because once a Jet, always a Jet. And in the future, everyone’s a Jet. Unless you’re the protagonist, then you’re a Shark. Or a psychopath. Whichever. Psychopaths who have easy access to antique guns that are described as nothing more than a knife-pistol that resembles a flower. Is this a magnum with a bayonet and orchid scope? A six-shooter/Ginsu/daisy? A long lost Salvador Dali sculpture? Whatever it is, it shoots weaponized jello.

And the psychics. Oh Lord, the fucking psychics! They’re called peepers here because psychics didn’t sound silly enough. I’ve never fully grasped the mid 20th century fascination with pseudo-scientific justifications for psychic powers, but man is it tired. It was tired before The Demolished Man and really, this should have ended it. But somehow, we still ended up with Jean Gray and random psychic powers in the Twilight Zone. Here in the Demolished Man, we have the Esper Guild, which is a cross between a trade union that covers all trades and a political party. Apparently, everyone from Doctors to HR personal are required to be Peepers, which begs the question of what everyone who isn’t a psychotic CEO does for a living. Drive flying taxi cabs, I guess. In a mere 200 years, we’ve not only discovered that a large percentage of the population is active or latent psychics, but they’ve completely reworked human society to the point where they’re pretty much in charge of everything. Which I guess might be considered subtext or something verging on a political or philosophical statement, if it amounted to anything more than an excuse to play with concrete poetry and fancy typography.

Now, I’m not opposed to soft sci-fi. I like a little whimsy and poetry in my speculative fiction and mostly eschew the hard SF. But a psychic who-done-it story shoehorned into a solar-system spanning romp with rocket ships and one of the more squicky romance subplots is just too soft. It’s nice however, to see that Bester did grow as an author and by the time he got to The Stars My Destination, had lost the fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis and reeled in the gadget porn a bit.

I give it 2.5 gleaming silver rocket ships out of 4. Some of the modernist prose is effective and Bester can tell a gripping story, even if it doesn’t add up to much in the end.

Brain Spill

Here’s a bunch of links to stuff. I’m dumping them here, so I know where to find it all later. It doesn’t all fit together in any sort of meaningful way, unless it does.

Buddha Machine – a little box that loops an MP3 of monks chanting or ambient music. Not only is the idea cool, I love the name. Buddha Machine. It could be a band or the title for a future book.

Ghost States – What happens when your tiny island nation is drowned completely by global warming-swelled seas but all the members of that nation want to keep their cultural identity and political power? You’re now a Ghost State, that’s what.

Ghost Fleet of the Recession:

Here, on a sleepy stretch of shoreline at the far end of , is surely the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history. Their numbers are equivalent to the entire British and American navies combined; their tonnage is far greater. Container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers – all should be steaming fully laden between , Britain, and the US, stocking camera shops, PC Worlds and Argos depots ahead of the retail pandemonium of 2009. But their water has been stolen.

They are a powerful and tangible representation of the hurricanes that have been wrought by the global economic crisis; an iron curtain drawn along the coastline of the southern edge of Malaysia’s rural Johor state, 50 miles east of Singapore harbour.

From BoingBoing, a story (possibly apocryphal) about a neo-Amazonian movement of Ukranian women trying to escape that country’s hideous human trafficking problem. If it isn’t true, it should be.

Double barrels of io9, who recently ran a whole series on sci-fi urban planning: Megalopolisomancy (how cities are haunted by history) and cities as battlesuit against the future.

The up side of smartphones in rural places with no place on the map.

Whitopia– where subconscious racism and the banal horror of exurbia meet.

And a flicker set of photos form a recent red sand storm in Australia, that looks like something out of Mad Max.