Friday, December 20, 2013

Brain Worms

If there's one thing I hate, it's brain worms - those little fragments, snippets, tiny crumbs of thought that stick in your mind and burrow and bait.

For me, those brain worms are often bits of story, bits of poem that just won't grow. They're like malaria: infesting my mind but often hidden, rising every once in a while to be obsessed over in a fever of impotent creativity.

One such brain worm I am infected with (I am a veritable Typhoid Mary of literary parasites) is a fragment of poem that has been hounding me since the mid-90s:
Bright Orion striding 'cross the sky
Looks down upon the fields all white with frost [1]
This fragment seems to emerge nearly every year right around mid-winter, and I have at least a dozen discarded efforts at completing it to prove it.  I love the image, and I like the cadence, but sadly it will not grow. And yet, it demands attention.

When I was in Canada, the persistence was perhaps understandable - winter is the best time to view Orion, and of course Manitoba winters are an excellent example of the land being frosted over with white - those crusty layers of wind-sculpted snow and ice...

But here in Japan? Particularly here in Tokyo, where a couple of centimeters of snow can bring things to a screeching halt, the horizon is obscured by a forest of sky-scrapers, and the sky is so hazy with pollution and heat that I can rarely see more than ten stars at once? (whoops - nine: that one was a plane) 

Short of assuming that the very fact it's winter triggers the brain worm's emergence, I'm at a loss. There's no explicit connection to Christmas, for example, and Orion is not particularly easily observed in this part of Japan even in mid-Winter.

So what triggers the brain worm episode?

I have no idea. And this is pretty much the definition of brain worms for me: little fragments that rise up, obsess me, and then disappear seemingly for no particular reason at all. And the worst part?

When the worm is active, it becomes difficult to work on other creative projects - and yet the worm itself never seems to go anywhere.

It just gets in the way for a while, then hides until the next time.


1. I sometimes wonder if the seed (egg?) for this particular brain worm was planted by exposure to Virgil:
Then wakeful Palinurus rose, to spyThe face of Heav'n, and the nocturnal sky;And listen'd ev'ry breath of air to try;Observes the stars, and notes their sliding course,The Pleiads, Hyad, and their wat'ry force;And both the Bears is careful to behold,And bright Orion, arm'd with burnish'd gold. (Aeneid - Book III)
But it's not as though I have been saturated with Latin classics - even if this is the seed, it's strange that it would have such a long-lasting (and unproductive...) influence.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thoughts on Singularity

This is heady stuff.  Vinge predicted that the singularity would probably be achieved by 2023 – so we are now less than a decade away from the transformation of our society into something unrecognisable.

The question, though, is whether it will really happen. There are many enthusiastic explanations for why it’s inevitable that I will not bother to elaborate here – I’m sure that singularity proponents will not hesitate to put me right if I’m completely off base with my reservations [7] but basically I’m with Steven Pinker, who in 2008 said:

"There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible. Look at domed cities, jet-pack commuting, underwater cities, mile-high buildings, and nuclear-powered automobiles—all staples of futuristic fantasies when I was a child that have never arrived. Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.” [8]

Now, I don’t think I’d put it quite as dismissively as this – but then I’m also not a professional psychologist, so perhaps he knows things I don’t. Basically, my objection to the predicted singularity revolves around three points:

First, it assumes a unified definition of intelligence – this is certainly not wise.

What is intelligence? Is it raw processing power? In that case, by some definitions computers already outpace us since they can perform so many calculations so quickly. Clearly this isn’t what singularitarians[9] mean, or at least isn’t all that they mean. So what do they mean by intelligence? From what I have read on the subject, it appears that the central idea is a dualistic conception of intelligence – there seems to be an assumption that “intelligence” is something separate from and existing within the boundaries of the thing that has it – a sort of mystical substance that makes us intelligent. This is the core, this idea that there will be intelligent entities that emerge within the data streams of the world. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think that dualism is a viable concept when it comes to consciousness [10] so any theory that seems to depend on dualism in this sense is suspect.

Second, it seems to assume that these theorized intelligences (granting the concept to start with) will spring fully formed into the world. 

In reality, capacity for intelligent action is one thing but actual intelligent action appears to be another – one that requires experience. This is an issue for something that is expected to interact with the real world, because no matter how quickly “experience” might be accumulated in a digital space, there are limits to how much this can accelerate learning regarding the real world, which steadfastly resists our attempts to speed things up.  While artificial intelligences might well emerge in the future, it seems unlikely that they will be able to achieve the kind of explosive development and evolution that is predicted as a result of simple physical limitations.

Finally, and by no means the least of my objections, is the concept that it is in fact possible for an artificial intelligence to approximate a human being.

There have been some amazing advances in AI over the last few years, and I’m as enthusiastic as anyone regarding the potential for this field. But I think we need to be realistic.  What we call intelligence and consciousness refers to what we ourselves experience. There’s really no way for us to know whether a given AI construct is really experiencing consciousness [11] or just successfully simulating the outer appearance of it. More importantly, we have to consider what results in consciousness among human beings – and again we get back to the issue of dualism.

If we assume we can strike the spark of consciousness in a machine, then in essence we are ignoring the fact that there’s (apparently) no magical consciousness organ in humans – what we call consciousness can only reasonably be seen as encompassing the whole organism, including not only the brain but the various branches of our nervous systems and probably even various other dimensions like hormonal signalling and maybe even interaction with the non-human elements of our bodies. [12] While it’s easy to see some ways in which this kind of dynamic system might be simulated in silicon, since we don’t really have any idea how it works in ourselves – and there’s no clear indication that we will soon have a breakthrough in this area – it’s hard to see how it’s possible to predict whether, let alone when, we will be able to achieve the same sort of effect in an artificial “mind”.

So I’m sceptical, to say the least.

Singularity, as far as it goes, is a very interesting concept for science fiction, but for the time being at least it seems to go no further than that.

But perhaps I’ll be proven wrong in 2023. [13]


1.     At least according to Stanislaw Ulam, who reported on a conversation with Von Neumann in a retrospective published in the May 1958 issue of the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society (Vol 64 No 3)

2.     Yes, that Vinge

3.      Read it here:

4.     In 1993 he specified 30 years, but I suspect he didn’t intend that estimate to be taken as gospel.

5.     He was thinking mainly of computer artificial intelligence, including machine enhancement of human intelligence, but one wonders - might there be other avenues that would lead to a similar singularity? Biological engineering, for example? (not in the sense of enhancing human intelligence, but in the sense of creating a runaway technology in the same vein as Vinge’s ideas regarding computing)

6.     An interesting fictional exploration of what the singularity might be like is Charles Stross’s Accelerando which is available online through his website/blog (please consider buying an official copy) – I first came across this in a fragment that was published as a stand alone in Asimov’s (I think) which I really liked, but my feelings on the whole book are mixed. Say what you will about it, though, it’s a stimulating read.

7.     I cheerfully confess to being little more than an interested amateur – my arguments against are purely armchair musings. If you have hard, scientific arguments that contradict me I want to hear them!

8.     This was for his participating in the IEEE Spectrum special report on the singularity in 2008 – I have no idea whether he still holds this view.

9.     Yes singularitarians – that is a real word.

10.  Indeed, I’m not completely convinced of consciousness – but that’s another discussion.

11.  I take it back, let’s sort of discuss it here: can we really detect consciousness in each other? And if not, does that call into question our ability to detect consciousness in ourselves? An investigation into the concept of the philosophical zombie can raise serious questions.  See here for a bibliography if you’re interested in reading further.

12.  Yes, really.

13.  Or perhaps 2045, which is the other date being bandied around. How the heck do they come by these numbers?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Doppelganger - another fragment

Lest you fear I've forgotten it, Doppelganger is one of the projects that was interrupted by the intrusion of my little cyberpunk/noir piece. When the muse strikes you have to get it down, but the truth is that (for me at least) most pieces take work and grow slowly like crystals in a cave. The seeds come hard and fast, but it can take years for me to have anything much to show for it. It seems to be Doppelganger's time, as I have been making steady (if slow) progress. I thought I'd share another scene from it as it progresses - caveat: obviously this is a work in progress and there will be editing and revision before I'm done. There are parts I'm not entirely satisfied with, but I plan to avoid doing too much detail work before the whole thing is done.

As the afternoon relaxed into streams of golden honey in the west, Atys stood before the mirror in his chamber trying vainly to arrange the traditional new suit of clothes that his father had presented him to wear at the masque proclaimed for his eldest son’s naming day, along with the even more traditional advice and admonitions. He was struggling with the laces of his doublet, trying to force them to tie evenly and fall perfectly against the green velvet as he imagined they should. He was failing even as he had failed to straighten the seams on his hose, and to buckle his baldric with the properly debonair flourishes he had seen on other young gentlemen, and the frustration of knowing that he would look a fool on his first foray into society had slowly risen to burn in his dry eyes.
Atys cursed in a manner his father had specifically forbidden not an hour before and jerked at the lace he had been gradually working into an irretrievable knot. In the mirror, he examined himself critically and his frustration puddled into despair. Looking up from his misarranged clothes, he met the eyes of the Other staring out at him, lips curled in a sneer.
“Are you going to cry now?” the other asked, and Atys swallowed heavily to stop from doing just that.  The bark of laughter the Other had swallowed sounded uncomfortably close to a retch of disgust, and seeing the curl of his lip and the wrinkle of his nose in the mirror was too much: Atys blinked and the tears brimmed over, burning the shame into his cheeks.
"Oh, how manly," the Other sneered. "No doubt father will be very proud."
"Shut up!" Atys snuffled as he scraped the tears away with both hands.
The Other's sneer twisted into something more ugly: "What did you say?"
Atys looked away for a moment, unwilling to face what he saw in those eyes. Rough fingers caught his cheeks, squeezed painfully. "Did you dare something, boy?" He looked back at the mirror, and winced as the Other's fingernails dug deep for a moment before releasing him. "Do you actually think you're worth something?" Atys's shame grew as he saw the hunch of his shoulders, watched himself creep:
"No, please, not today - it's my name day." His voice trailed off as he saw a sneer join the rage on the Other's face.
"Not today? Especially today you pathetic whelp. Today you make your debut as a gentleman." He spat to show what he thought of that. "Gentleman! Hah! And your father has spared no expense for his precious boy. An infant who stands here weeping because he can't tie his own laces." Atys cringed when he saw the terrible grin on the Other's face - hungry and implacable. His voice was soft and dangerous:

"Oh yes, my lad. Especially today."

A cyberpunk fragment

[edited for readability - the Blogger Android app is hopeless]

This is a fragment that intruded as I was working on another project and then kept me up last night. It's the beginning of a story that has been simmering at the back of my mind for a while but hasn't really gelled - suddenly the plot seems to be spooling out, so maybe I'll take a stab at outlining it and fleshing out the scenes that I already have in mind once I'm done with what's on my plate. It seems to want to be a cyberpunk story, or at least noir SF, which is a bit of a divergence for me. Should be an interesting project if it doesn't die on the vine like so many other ideas.

For now, I hope you enjoy what there is:

I could tell you to the minute when I fell in love with her.

Her face was painted in flickering green from the monitor, eyes flashing like the LED telltales all around us. She pounced in a sudden flurry of activty, fingers flying across the interface. Then just as suddenly she slumped back, relaxed.

"We're in." She was whispering as though they could hear us - echoes of primal hunting instincts.
I hunched forward to peer at the code as though I knew what I was looking at. I felt more than saw her knowing smirk. She shook her head almost imperceptibly and I found myself intensely aware of how close she was. Suddenly awkward, I straightened.

"Good," I said, trying to sound official, trying to retain a bit of professional dignity.

She grinned at me, teeth and the ports on the side of her head gleaming in the half dark. "Thanks," she replied brightly, running one hand over her scalp in a self-mocking parody of preening.  I turned away to hide my flush in the half shadows.

"How long before we can activate?"

She shrugged, white shoulders twitching up and pulling the matte black vest tight in ways I found myself uncomfortably aware of. "Could go any time - we're plugged right in. Depends on how you want to play it."

I nodded, shrugged on my jacket, straightened my tie.

"There are other parts to this - I'll be in touch when we're ready to make our move."

She shrugged again. "I'll be waiting."

I turned back at the door, meaning to offer some trite bit of advice or a stuffy admonition just out of reflex, but the words died on my tongue. I'd caught her stretching. The way she lounged there among the boxes and lights, like a tiger in a cable jungle, dangerous but captivating.

We'd been working together for weeks on this strike - me sneering at her street tough pretensions, while she poked at my stuffy suit demeanor searching for the sore point that would make me blow my cool. We'd been this close before - closer when I'd squeezed into the cable conduit to help her braid in a tap - but it had always been just business, just another contract. But in that moment it washed over me all at once and I knew I wanted to end with more than just a phone call to say "go."

"You drink coffee?"

The question hung there out of place while she blinked at me over one of those smooth, white shoulders. She was frozen in the act of reaching for something, as startled by the invitation as I was. She cocked an eyebrow:


I scowled, sure this was another set up, that she was going to slap me down like a hundred times before. "On what?"

Her teeth flashed in a grin that for a fraction of a second seemed shy. "You buying?"

I relaxed. "Yeah. You coming?"

The grin grew: "Yeah." She winked at me, then pushed her chair out from the console, plugged herself in, and rolled to join me at the door.

Watching her cross the room, I somehow knew it was the start of something. But if I'd known what, maybe I would have had coffee alone.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

That Golden Age

Today I came across this article in Reuters blogs about the amazing amount of free time enjoyed by our peasant forebears. It's tempting to think of this past in comparison to our own lives and marvel at the opportunities they had back then to participate in cultural events, to gather with family and friends, to make art, to think, to discover the world around them.  Indeed, there are many, many people around who idolize this golden past and would love nothing better than to abandon the modern rat-race to return to the languid lives of our ancestors, who apparently got hours and hours every day to pursue "cultural work".

Sadly they also often got:

- a multitude of plagues [1]
- famine [2]
- incredible infant mortality [3]
- young deaths due to injury from heavy labour [4]
- wartime atrocities (limited time offer not available at all locations)
- bandits
- owned by their lords [5]

But hopefully they enjoyed their time off.

Yeah, that Keynsian [6] future is definitely the better option.

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes proposed a model of development in which he predicted that by 2030 properly developed economies would be populated by people who could achieve everything necessary for life in 2 or 3 hours of labour each day. [7] The idea was endorsed by some other thinkers of the period and has since resulted in parody, serious political movements, and general complaint against the grinding drudgery of the modern world. 

A number of possible approaches to achieving this wonderful state of affairs have been proposed over the years.  Most prominent, perhaps, are the "refuseniks"[8] who yearn for the golden ages of yore in which work didn't dominate your life and there was plenty of time for activities that were culturally enriching. The exact age considered "golden" varies a little from person to person, but the typical theme is "back to nature" and fairly unapologetically Luddite in its philosophy.

I will admit, the sylvan scenes their depictions of the golden age (whenever it might have been) are very attractive. Unfortunately there are two basic problems with the proposition of turning back the clock as they suggest. 

The first problem is that their vision of the golden age in question tends to be incomplete. As already mentioned, far from being the idyllic life depicted in addition to plenty of free time real life also included (literally) backbreaking labour just to break even, famine, oppression, disease, and crushing poverty. [9]

The second problem is their assertion that people "back then" [10] were better able to participate in culturally enriching activities because of their abundant free time.

Let's allow people their fantasy for a moment, and presume that peasants of the past were generally happy sorts living in harmony with the land and taking advantage of their largely seasonal duties to produce as much of cultural value as they could. [11] Of course, they would still need to perform some work daily just to keep things working - milking gentle-giant cows, gathering eggs from chuckling hens, basic home maintenance, hunting and fishing, food preparation etc. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that outside the busiest times of year (harvest, sowing, etc) every waking minute not required for unavoidable daily chores was dedicated to arts, crafts, learning, and other sundry cultural engagements.

Here's the trouble with the idea that the average folk of times long past had far more opportunity to engage in cultural pursuits than we do, and thus we are (intellectually) poorer than they were: this blog.

You're reading it. You are (hopefully - at least at some level) being culturally enriched.

OK, putting aside the question of whether this blog has any cultural worth [12] the fact of the matter is that because of the nature of the society we've built, and despite the number of hours and the effort we need to put into keeping it running we have hitherto unknown opportunities for enrichment.

There are those who look back at 19th Century London and the tradition of "Christmas Lectures" and other events where the average man [13] could for free or at most a token fee go to hear experts speak on the latest developments in science, technology and other topics, and they deplore the lack of such events today. Oh sure, we have occasional events of a similar nature but it's not like the old days they say.

For these people I have really only one word of rebuttal: the internet. [14]

Seriously, the average denizen of our modern world can learn more in 15 minutes in front of a web browser than any 19th Century middle manager could have learned from an entire season of lectures at the Royal Society.

Similarly, while peasants of ages past may have benefited greatly from the opportunity to gather around the fire in the evening and chat, tell stories, exchange news, the simple fact of the matter is that our technology makes it possible for us to do these things in little bursts of activity all day...with people from all over the globe! 

The sheer scale at which we can now exchange ideas and opinions [15] is incredible, and it's only getting better. 

The very idea that we live in an age that isn't experiencing an unimaginable level of cross-fertilization and stimulation, an age with amazing levels of cultural engagement, is laughable.

That said, I do wonder where my Keynesian 3 hour work day is. 

There are organizations who are working toward a four hour work day, but unfortunately I don't see any sign that they have a concrete plan for how we keep the wheels of our civilization turning properly with everyone putting in that little actual labour. Yes, automation can do wonders but the fact of the matter is that first we need to make sure the necessities are taken care of, then we need to make sure that there's some way to make sure that the economy will continue to function when everyone decides to take half the week off. [16]

I look forward to having even more time to devote to the things I love without undue concern over how I will pay the rent - but for now I'm just glad that dysentery is very, very low on my list of concerns.


1. Pneumonia (caused by various diseases, including influenza), measles, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever, meningitis (again caused by all sorts of things), whooping cough (also known as pertussis) - all known as leading causes of death in the mid 1800s.  If you want a chilling view into the medical reality of our fairly recent past, I suggest perusing the Wellcome Library's archive of the London Medical Officer of Health Reports.

2. I leave full documentation this as an exercise for the interested (or skeptical) reader, but suffice to say that I know of more than 20 documented famines in the 19th Century. A simple starting source is Wikipedia's List of Famines.  I warn you now: the list is depressing reading. If you're not shocked by the number of entries you need to scroll through to find the entries for the 19th Century, then you should be shocked to see how much is left of the page once you reach them. And if that doesn't do it, consider this: it's Wikipedia - therefore probably incomplete - and in any case this is a list of famines listed in written history. Those that occurred in areas with no writing at the time, or that were small enough in scale not to get noticed in the big cities are missing.

3. You know, because of things like those listed in [1] & [2]

4. Contrary to many who idolize the virtues of doing things "the natural way" one of the biggest killers right up into the early 20th Century was injury sustained during heavy labour - the combined toll of direct death from the injuries and deaths from complications such as infection. 

5. Reportedly not much different from some people's relationship with their employers today - and admittedly not a real issue of the 19th Century in most of the developed world of the era. But note that "most" - there were quite large populations of people officially referred to as peasants and serfs in parts of Europe, particularly in Russia. Add to this the survival of slavery in the Americas until very recently (in fact, there are arguments to be made that officially sanctioned slavery didn't end with the US emancipation proclamation of 1862 - and some might argue that even the civil rights movement of the 1960s didn't completely eliminate it) and the continuance of official serfdom in other parts of the world until quite recently and the window of "times it would be good to live in" becomes quite narrow.

6. I mean this one, not that one.

7. Read his idea in detail here.

8. Unexpectedly, I discover that although the current usage of refusenik refers to someone who refuses to do something out of protest the term actually originates as a reference to people who were refused exit visas by the former Soviet Union.

9. And to forestall the inevitable "but they were rich in spirit!" or "poverty is created by the capitalist net we're trapped in!" sorts of arguments, I'll point out that I don't just mean poverty in the sense of not having two pennies to rub together - until very, very recently the vast majority of people were illiterate, unaware of anything happening outside the borders of their own small communities, and largely without the energy or for that matter education needed to either learn more or to create for creation's sake. The poverty, I assure you, was very much pervasive.

10. For the various values of "back then" that have been proposed.

11. As opposed to languishing in debt because they had no income outside of the season in question, or chafing under the yoke of some petty noble's whim, or perhaps wondering fearfully where the next meal would come from and whether plague would strike before or after that.

12. No, really - put it aside. Let me have some fantasies.

13. Women apparently also attended, but were not - generally - encouraged to do so.

14. OK, so it's two - but only if you count the article separately.

15. And amusing cat videos, to our everlasting shame.

16. Contrary to the claims of many anti-capitalists it seems that no society of any scale can work without some kind of abstract means of representing the exchange of labour. I won't say that I'm necessarily convinced that fiat currency controlled by governments is the only - or even best - way to do this, but it seems self-evident that as much as we'd like to think that direct exchange and barter would be more fair I for one have never seen an example (theoretical or concrete) of how this would work in a large scale, highly interconnected society such as ours.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Does this ever happen to you?

As mentioned, my writer's block finally ended and last week I did a bit of work on the projects I have had going for a while now.  Nothing special, but I was making progress - and not very much of that either due to real life interruptions etc.

Then it hit me.

I woke up at the usual time (or maybe a bit earlier) on Friday, and was poking through the news while drinking my coffee as I usually do.  I came across a reference to this story:

The tale seems obviously related to some gangland violence and I was just about to dismiss it as tragic (horrific actually) but a few days old with no new details - so probably not that important in the wider scheme of things - when a voice in the back of my head said "what if..."

What if it wasn't a gang hit? What if the world was more interesting, and the explanation was more mysterious...more sinister?

I popped the URL into an email to my brother (with whom I often exchange commentary on interesting news stories) along with a speculative paragraph proposing the scene of a burning man stumbling into a church as the opening to a movie, with the tag line "imagine a movie..."  Then I hit send.

Boy, was that a mistake.

Ten minutes later, I'd already written a sketch of the first couple of scenes in "replies" to my first email. Half an hour later I had another scene sketched and sent off, with more bubbling in my head - I couldn't stop thinking about it!

On the train, I sketched out a couple more on my phone, emailed those too so that I could be sure they wouldn't be lost.

At work, I used my morning coffee break to add to it.  At noon I wolfed my lunch, closed my office door, and spent 45 minutes pounding out a couple more scenes. Now I was starting to get a good sense of the characters, their back stories and their names (which just came to me!).   In fact, all morning I stole a minute or two here and there to open the growing file and just pop in a couple of bullet points, a fragment of conversation, etc.

Sadly, circumstances kept me from doing any more on it for the rest of the day and evening, but I still couldn't get the story out of my head.  I zoned out during a meeting and had to ask the presenter to repeat something because something about a photo in his presentation slides forced me to start thinking about what the villain looked like, which made me think about his role, which made me think about his past...

Again, life intruded and prevented me from doing anything significant with the story over the weekend, though I did manage to splice the fragments together and clean them up a bit.  In the roughly 6 hours I was working on it I got 9 pages of sketched out screen play, which I think would probably make about 40 minutes of movie.

The ideas are still coming fast and furious.  I already know in general terms how the story unfolds, how it ends, and even how it might continue after that. I already have vivid images of the villain and the wise mentor (both of whom have yet to make an appearance in what I've written).

The tale has taken over my mind and my life.  If this momentum continues, I'll be done the first run through by the end of this week and be ready for fleshing out - at which time I'll have to decide whether it will stay a screen play or transform into ordinary prose.

So, does this ever happen to you? Do odd stories in the news, or events in life suddenly take over and consume you - compelling you to write them?