feral1's blog

Gordian Knotes

The problem of the parable of the Gordian Knot is that it's stated badly: We have a knot that nobody can untie, and Alexander solves the problem by cutting the knot.

When I encountered that parable (in a book about management theory, as it happens), I thought the meaning was obvious: Alexander was a man with a sword, and to a man with a sword everything looks like -- well, something you cut. He had either been frustrated by the task, or had thought it was silly, but he clearly didn't take it seriously.

As I read on, though, it became clear to me that I was supposed to see cutting the knot as a good thing. It was an example of "lateral thinking."

Here's the thing: Anybody can change the rules. It's not hard. The real question is this: What's more important, the rules or the solution?

One way of looking at it: people who are ends-focused will cut the knot. People who are means-focused will try to untie it.

Another way: people who value the integrity of the rope will untie the knot. People who don't care about it will cut it.

I usually prefer to be left with as much sound, un-frayed rope as possible.

Sexy Steampunk Whore is Sexy

The Procuress, oil on canvas

Image via Wikipedia

In a perverse mood I might suggest that the reason for the existence of stories like The Women of Nell Gwynne's is so that people can refer to female characters as "whores" without guilt or overt irony. I haven't read this book; it just won a Nebula, though, so I assume a lot of writers have read it and I assume it's well-written. I see that it's also part of a series of books that feature this bordello where "whores" are presented as "powerful" by virtue of the fact that they use their "privileged" position to spy on their Johns (let's just call a spade a spade on that last one, shall we?).

(Memo in aside: The vast, vast majority of prostitutes are not powerful in any meaningful way. Publishing a successful series of stories about ones that are is quite a bit like publishing a series about happy, attractive people who happen to shoot heroin for fun, with no negative consequences. You might be able to use it as a platform to make an effective statement about responsible drug use, but the odds are against it. In this case, all you're liable to communicate is an apologia for existing power relationships.)

What's interesting to me right now is that in the first two pages of hits on Google, not one of the reviews makes the tiniest bit of effort to look critically at the hidden premise buried in books about powerful whores: That not only is female sexuality a wonderful way for women to exercise power, but also that it ought to be. That seems to be in line with a common contemporary American attitude toward sex work: That if you're not making money off your body, then you must be a fool or ugly (or a straight male).

I take that back: One does make the tiniest effort -- if you can call a rank apologia for Heinleinian misogyny a critical examination.

Now how do I actually write anything with this, again?

I'm perpetually looking for better tools for writing long-forms, or just better organizing the medium-forms. Word processors require that you create a structure and maintain it -- in a novel, you spend as much work maintaining that structure as you do actually working on the novel. There's a surprisingly large number of tools to help with that.

On my mac, I used to use Scrivener. I really liked it. It was a great general-purpose tool for longer projects, not just for fiction. There was a lot of structure baked-in, but you could create your own structures as needed. The content was stored as RTFD files, which are mostly compatible with RTF. In Scrivener it's obvious how you do things, and that obviousness has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that it's Mac software. The UI is a little boxy, sometimes, sometimes felt cramped on the screen of my 12" PowerBook, but I could make it work for me.

Now that I've moved back to Windows, it's really hard finding something that will do the same job. I've been using yWriter, which does some of the same things: The content is stored in RTF files, structure is stored in a human-readable XML file that I could hack if I needed to. If the system crashed tomorrow I could take the project folder and use it to resurrect the book so far with no loss of content. The UI is a little fussy, though. (For example, I spend ten minutes today, before giving up, trying to figure out how to delete a scene.) The big problem is that yWriter isn't really a commercial product. The author is pretty clear that it's not his top priority, and since you don't really pay for it, you can't really make demands for features (not that they would do any good anyway, what solo software author wants to hear demands from punters in another country?). Still, it's the best balance I've found so far between power, simplicity and portability.

So I'm always looking. Today I looked at and rejected three tools:

  1. The demo version of WritersCafe is too restrictive -- you can only create a few scenes, which really isn't enough to tell if it's going to work out. Beyond that, though, it's really difficult to figure out how to use it to do any actual writing. It's easy enough to create a scene, but quite opaque to figure out how to actually write the scene. Supposedly there's an editor, but there's no apparent way to invoke it. Probably it would be simple to read the help document and figure out that you just need to select "actuate the widget" from the Fulginate menu, but I really don't want to be using something that's designed by people who don't think to make it obvious how you actually put the text into a scene.
  2. WriteWay Pro has the same issue as WritersCafe, in that I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to actually write anything with it.
  3. PageFour looks promising from what I can see on the website, but again, the demo is too constrained: 20 pages. Huh? I'm at 60K words on Paladins right now. I'll probably go back and take a look at it when I start my next project, but until then I don't see how I can tell anything useful about a piece of software that's supposed to handle hundreds of pages by looking at how it handles 20.

I've looked at other tools in the past. Liquid Story Binder looks incredibly powerful and sophisticated. So much so that I gave up in frustration after a few hours: I don't want to spend two days just figuring out how to organize a basic novel project. (Mind, there are some really impressive things about Liquid Story Binder, and I may well check it out again before I look at PageFour.) RoughDraft has a really appealing simplicity (you supply the structure in the form of file folders and filenames, and he gives you a way to leverage that and a half-decent RTF editor, to boot), but it's at the end of its life-cycle as the author has made it clear he doesn't intend to do any more work on it. (Nevertheless, it's so compact and fast that I'm tempted to use it for journaling. But that's another story for another time.)

P. K. Dick as an Idea Writer

The other day I happened to be looking for the exact text of a recurring phrase from Ubik. I stumbled across a Metafilter thread about some P. K. Dick speeches and essays that very quickly settled into the usual dichotomy of Dick discussions: On the one side, "he was a crappy stylist who wrote the same story over and over again, and besides he was insane"; on the other "he was a visionary mystic who looked at the same issue a myriad of ways, and besides, what does 'insane' really mean, anyway?"

Recurring again and again was this notion that Dick was not an "idea writer": Not someone who thinks up new cool gadgets or really extrapolates where things are going. Visionary, yes, but not about society or technology.

I personally think people who dismiss Dick as a writer are missing out. But I also think that people who focus on him as a mystic are seriously missing out. I used to look at the Technovelgy newsfeed as often as I could find the time -- it's a great place to trace back new technology to the treatment SF writers gave to it when they first described it, usually 50 or more years ago. And one thing that I noticed quickly was that Phillip K. Dick stories seemed to be cited more than those of any other writer.*

Here are a few examples, off the top of my head and with some help from Technovelgy:

  • Ubicomp (Ubik in a particularly annoying form, but all over the place in his work).
  • Smart-missiles (The Zap Gun, and many other places).
  • "Electric" pets (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
  • Personalized newspapers ("homeopapes") (Ubik and elsewhere).
  • Insect-sized spy robots/cyborgs (Lies, Inc. and others).
  • Insect-sized advertising robots/cyborgs (The Simulacra).
  • Customized presentation of advertising in general (all over the place, it was one of his memes)
  • Doors, weapons, etc. that are keyed to "cephalic patterns": They recognize you by recognizing the thing about you that is most uniquely you, your thoughts. (Lots of stories.)

Some themes emerge: Most notably for me is that he re-uses things relentlessly. It could be to save effort; more likely, it's because he's still exploring the idea and wants to put it into different situations. Note how he uses the fly as a spy in one setting, and as an advertising delivery vector (a meme-infection vector?) in another. Those aren't just different uses, they're diametrically opposed in one aspect; seeing them both here forces you to understand what they have in common: The idea of sneaking something up on you, whether it be for the purpose of theft (the spy-fly) or infection (the ad-fly).

So for my money, Dick is probably one of the better idea-writers to have worked in SF. I don't see this as separate from his mysticism (or paranoia). Some of these ideas (like the concept of being recognized by something and presented with a pitch that's specifically tailored to you) seem like attempts by technology to mimic a god -- or perhaps (and you have to think this would enter Dick's head, knowing Dick) intrusions of God into the machine. (In terms of his later thought, it might be the Demiurge revealing himself in moments of everyday life.)

*Please, don't go and count, this is just an impression, not science.

Methane Plumes off Spitsbergen

One of the nightmare climate change scenarios involves the sudden release of methane due to the decomposistion of methane hydrate beds in ocean sediments at northern latitudes. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, and there's some geological evidence that large-scale methane hydrate decomposition played a significant role in at least one previous warming event.

Well, it looks like it's happening.

"250 plumes" makes it sound big (and true enough, that's just what they saw, and that in only a small part of the ocean and a short period of time with limited equipment), but it's not that big, yet, really. And most of the gas is dissolving into the water before it gets to the service. So it's not such a big problem, right?


  1. It's just the beginning. Who knows what happens as the sea ice degrades further and the ocean warms still more.
  2. When methane dissolves into seawater, it makes the seawater more acid, which reduces the ocean's ability to buffer CO2.

This may be one of those moments you normally need hindsight to see.

China Miéville on Crime Novels as Quantum Narratives

China Miéville on why crime novels end badly. This has particular resonance for me, because both my I and my wife are in-progress on crime novels. One reason is that...

... crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not, for a start, realist novels. Holmes’s intoxicating and ludicrous taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other ‘deductions’, are necessarily ‘illogical’, or don’t make sense of the evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim, vice versa.) The various manly Virgils who appear ex nihilo to escort Marlowe through his oneiric purgatories are not characters, but eloquent opacities in man-shape: much more interesting. Dalgliesh’s irresistibility to hyperrealised moral panics du jour – the poor man manages to contract SARS – is an elegiac opera of Holland Park angst, rather than any quotidian gazette of a policeman’s unhappy lot. Detective fiction is a fiction of dreams. Not only is this no bad thing, it is precisely what makes it so indispensable.

Of course this is even more true of speculative fiction as it is of crime novels (and of course Miéville knows this, in this context that's obviously part of his point).

Miéville goes on to say something else that's very interesting:

Secondly, detective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ – which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing -  but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be? We’ve been banished from an Eden of oscillation.

And yet, and yet, the crime novels that end without a solution -- that let us stay in our 'Eden of oscillation' -- are almost universally reviled. As are the ones that mess too much with the conventions. I wonder if we feel a need to retreat from candyland; or perhaps it's the driving force of the deeper quest narrative that Miéville alludes to above.

When I first encountered Sherlock Holmes as a child, I took lovers of Holmes at their word and took it seriously as 'scientific detection.' But even at the age of 10 or 11 I could see how ridiculous it was at that level. All you have to do to turn it into parody is change the name of the protagonist to, say, Herlock Sholmes, and the very idea of somone publishing monographs on the taxonomy of cigar ash instantly acquires enormous comic potential.

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The Playwright Must Die In the Director, the Director Must Die in the Actors, the Actors Must Die in the Play

Theatre director Natasha Williams on theatrical interpretation:

"The idea is that everybody dies," she says. "The playwright has to die in the director. And then actors have to die in the play because they have to let go their ego to create a world that is a world of its own. And then of course [the] play goes into [the] audience's mind, and everyone understands it their own way.

"So, you know, it's a food chain. It's a theatrical food chain."

If Chickens Could Re-Invent Eggs...

... then the riddle would be easy to answer. Transhumanism and particularly extropianism have long seemed to me to be mostly about technophilia. About love of the product: Maybe even loving it so much that you want to make yourself more like it. 'Other proposals include a ridge in the nose developed for wearing glasses, ears moulded to accommodate earphones, a thumb with an extra joint for sending SMS messages more efficiently and a foot adapted to create the same posture as wearing high heels.'In one sense, it's of a piece with gun-nuttery: You can have my Blackberry* when you pry it from my cold, dead, extra-jointed thumb. 

On the other hand, I've always felt that people might be a little too attached to the present, so I find it hard to quarrel with designer/artist Marcia Nolte:

If we look back into the history of evolution, we see that our body adapts to changing circumstances. Today we see that these circumstances often adapt to our body. In this case the design is usually reacting on the individual needs and less on surviving.

Well, she's got a point. For better or worse, we're driving our own evolution, now, and while I'm really skeptical about our ability to make design decisions that don't bite us in the ass a hundred (or even fifty) years from now, letting the changes accrue randomly as an aggregation of consumer designs makes even less sense.

I'm not really sure what Nolte is trying to do with these images. As quietly disturbing as they are (and that ill-ease springs as much from the gestalt of the photos as from the strangeness of the body modifications), I suspect that they are meant to provoke thought. So let's think about it. 

What does it mean to alter ourselves to suit our products? Arguably we've done that, as part of a long, slow process that was initiated when we picked up a stone and threw it at prey or predator. But it was a truly slow process, and there wasn't really anything conscious about it. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find examples of selective breeding for desirable traits -- it should be easy to find them in slave populations, but you could almost certainly find them in general populations, as well. It would happen just as surely through social constraints on marriage suitability as it would through selective breeding among slaves.

What we have not had the capacity to do before now -- what we will soon have the capacity to do -- is to change ourselves to suit our environment. In its most extreme forms, this kind of extropianism (or is it transhumanism?) forces us to contemplate where the boundaries of humanity lie. James Blish pushed the edges of this envelope in his 'pantropy' stories, which were driven by a seeding metaphor: We "normal" humans "seed the stars" with beings more suited to the places we land. Is it a largely arborial world? Make them like monkeys. Aquatic? Seals. No large scale life yet? Make them near-microscopic.

The gauntlet hasn't often been thrown as forcefully since. But the extreme cases can make us think it's an easier problem than it really is. Body mods like extra joints in the thumb are trivial compared to actually changing the way the brain works, for example, and that's the big missing link, from my perspective. For me, the key human thing about humans has always been how our brains work. (I'm not a human-exceptionalist: This is also, to me, the key fox-thing about foxes or bat-thing about bats.) One of the things that extropians miss is that changing the brain in even small ways is liable to fundamentally change our human-ness.

Most people don't really have any grasp of what a homeostatic balancing act the brain-mind really is. Tweak the serotonin a little bit, for example, and you can turn a stable and solid person into a basket case in a heartbeat. So imagine if we were to throw off the timing by adding more efficient nanotech-driven neurons, for example. We might throw the recipient into a massive feedback loop that crashed their brain.

Some people are going to get seriously messed-up by all this. I suppose evolution requires casualties.

[via Dezeen]

*Gotta be a Blackberry. Extropianism is too hard-core for an iPhone. Anyway, if he were modified for an iPhone, the tip of her model's thumb would be really, really tiny.

Vernor Vinge: Cheating at the Turing Test

Vernor Vinge on cheating at the Turing Test:

As with past computer progress, the achievement of some goals will lead to interesting disputes and insights. Consider two of [Rodney] Brooks's challenges: manual dexterity at the level of a 6-year-old child and object-recognition capability at the level of a 2-year-old. Both tasks would be much easier if objects in the environment possessed sensors and effectors and could communicate. For example, the target of a robot's hand could provide location and orientation data, even URLs for specialized manipulation libraries. Where the target has effectors as well as sensors, it could cooperate in the solution of kinematics issues. By the standards of today, such a distributed solution would clearly be cheating. But embedded microprocessors are increasingly widespread. Their coordinated presence may become the assumed environment. In fact, such coordination is much like relationships that have evolved between living things. [link added]

I don't think Vinge goes nearly far enough. I've thought for at least twenty years that our standards for machine sentience (or any non-human sentience, for that matter) were hopelessly anthropomorphic. For most purposes, "Artificial Intelligence" should have been called "Artificial Human-Like Intelligence."

I lack sympathy for the idea that we have only ourselves to judge it by. People have been dealing with beings of different intelligence for as long as there have been human beings. (We call them "animals.") I'd like to think we've figured out something by now -- or at least figured out how to figure it out -- about how to judge intelligence without provoking the shades of Alan Turing and G. B. Shaw to peals of ghostly laughter.

To Vinge's immediate point: If we require of the machine that it be like us, we are placing an irrelevant constraint on our evaluation of its intelligence. Imagine if machines were evaluating us -- think how short we'd fall in their estimation with our slow electro-chemical communications network, the lossy construction of our visual apparatus. And how slowly we caluclate!

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