Friday, March 30, 2012

Anti-Turing tests

One of the least-expected things the Internet has taught me is to ignore Spambots. It's pretty easy to spot the offering for male enhancements or the like. The filtering software is getting better at pulling weeds, but still some gets through. Sadly, Spam has spread to every form of online messaging such as Twitter.

While weeding spambots from my Twitter account I noticed something disturbing: The amount of humanity in a Twitter update could be very low. Some humans can act like spambots and often do so. I don't want to their posts cluttering my Twitter feed any more than I want to see offers for male enhancement.

What I've been thinking through is a sort of Anti-Turing test to judge how human my interlocutor is. If you weren't trained as a Computer Scientist, the British Cryptologic-Mathematician, Alan Turing, proposed a test for machine intelligence. Instead of figuring out how to program IQ tests and administer them to machines, he suggested putting a person in the room with a teletype and the other end of the teletype would either be another person or a computer. He suggested that when the computer could be programmed to be indistinguishable from the person, that would constitute a human level of machine intelligence.

(It's interesting that intelligence is an aspect of a Turing test, but I'll come back to that.)

Consider this conversation:
"Buy my book"
"How are you doing today?"
"Buy my book"
"Did you know a meteor is about to destroy the planet and we'll all die?"
"Buy my book"

There's zero humanity in the responses, but suppose you added some social fluff. The minimum necessary to not seem rude. There'd be some humanity there, but not much. So consider the following conversation:
"Hello. Nice to hear from you. Did you know I've got a book out?"
"How are you doing today?"
"I'm feeling a chill--I should get a sweater and curl up with a good book."
"Did you know a meteor is about to destroy the planet and we'll all die?"
"No. That sounds horrible. Do you want to buy my book so you won't think about the meteor?"

That sounded pretty much like a human, but a cheesy one.

I used an exhortation to buy my book as a dehumanizing element in these example, but it applies equally well to other exhortations: Trusting Jesus, Electing Whigs, Ending Childhood Hunger, or Ending Childhood Obesity. Humanity is can be seen in concern for a larger cause, but the cause often demands human sacrifice.

This is why when you advertise that you're an activist, there's a risk I'll mistake you for a spambot, or worse a zombie whose soul has been sucked away by The Cause.

This goes for name-calling. If you dislike some public figure, you don't need human-level intelligence to call him a poopy-head. That's why Rush Limbaugh apologized for calling an activist a slut. Maybe this woman's demand for birth-control did not indicate fornication or otherwise betoken sexual promiscuously, but he had no knowledge of her sex-life. His rhetoric was mere name-calling and I disapprove.

I think a much more damning indictment of the woman would be to call her an activist.

As mentioned above the Turing test was devised as an intelligence test. Humanity is a broader concept than mere intelligence. Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes as an inhumanly brilliant intelligence. The way he and other players have depicted Holmes' extreme intelligence was to act rudely and insensitively. (Anyone in grade school should know that this isn't smart.) In movies, this rudeness is a mere device to convey to the audience that here's a smart guy. It is like talking very fast and using big words like the Architect in the second Matrix movie. (Did he say anything? No, but he sounded smart.)

In real life, this rudeness is often low social skills. I trained as a mathematician and I was in class with a lot of smart guys with low social skills. I make wider allowances in such cases.

This brings us to people with undeniable humanity who are nonetheless unpleasant? Intelligence makes a person see things more quickly and grow impatient with someone who more slowly comes to that point--or grow enraged by someone who seems obtuse about missing the point. Combine this with low social skills, and someone can come off as a jerk.

I don't want to be a jerk, but I don't want to listen to jerks. I don't watch House because I can't believe anyone would be stupid enough to voluntarily associate with him. When Jean-Paul Sartre said "Hell is other people" he must have been a jerk and was forced to work with jerks.

Humanity has other negative aspects in addition to being a jerk, the Internet has taught me the concept of a troll. The troll wants nothing more than to see people lose their cool. This is evil and I won't voluntarily associate with evil.

In sum, I have three principles of associating with Internet entities:
  • Manifest your humanity
  • Don't be unpleasant
  • Don't be evil.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading and Writing Manifestos

Some years ago I happened upon an essay in The Atlantic that became a standalone book, "A Reader's Manifesto." It lamented the sorry state of American contemporary literature: What respectable authors wrote as serious, respectable literature was just awful, pretentious, and affected as far as readers are concerned.

I'm sorry to say that though this essay resonated with me and most of my writer friends and all of my reader friends, the Brahmins who decide what shall be published and who give out MFA degrees did not take any deliveries from the clue bus.

Now we are hearing that the publishing industry is doomed, doomed I say because of ebooks. Or something.

Doom is what happens to any business when those who decide upon the products to be offered make their decisions based upon ideology, politics, and group-think instead of based upon market demand. The jargon term is Market Failure and it happens when customers cannot acquire the goods they desire from providers. When this happens, the consumer Goes Somewhere Else. (If the market failure is caused by a government regulating prices or censorship, Somewhere Else is called a black market.)

Disruptive technologies are God's gift to humanity, because their disruptions often undermine formerly unassailable monopolies, creating opportunities for small, agile mammals to raid the nests of big, stupid dinosaurs. In this context, the disruptive technologies of the ebooks plus Internet booksellers, enable the unsatisfied reader to go Somewhere Else.

When I was a child, there was exactly one dystopian novel of any note. (Atlas Shrugged didn't seem dystopian, because I knew John Galt was going to stop the engine of the world and remake it in Ayn Rand's image.) 1984 was a young adult novel only because every high school student was required by Mrs. Grundy to read it in English class.

Why waste time with Big Brother when there are novels with rocket ships and space suits written by fellas a boy could identify with--featuring protagonists who were escaping danger and helping friends out of danger--or better--hunting for and finding treasure. They weren't filled with angst about who would bite them on the neck and suck the life out of them.

Heinlein's protagonist in this novel worked in a pharmacy and lamented his oversight of failing to stock his space suit with amphetamines. Let's see someone try to get away with something like that in today's YA market. Granted, times change and the American culture changes what it finds acceptable.

Hard work, initiative, and resourcefulness characterized Kip Russell (pictured above), not drug use. Readers of 1958 understood that. They saw NASA putting up satellites and would soon see men in orbit and then go to the moon. The future was full of hope and opportunity that could be exploited for everyone's gain.

Editors of 2012 have tended to steer book deals to Yet Another Dystopian story. (Remember when Star Trek made the Enterprise drive 55?) Is the present bleak and the future hopeless? Are there limits to growth?

Maybe. But I won't spend money buying books about it. None of this is new. I've made some of these observations before.

I believe reading is not punishment. The reader is primary and delivering value to the reader is the writer's duty and the reader--not the writer or the editor--defines what constitutes that value. I hope that my writing as it provides that value can also illustrate some of the wonder and beauty of the universe and human nature, but that can't get in the way of the story.

What is new this week is news of a subversive group of revolutionaries (or reactionaries) who are standing athwart history crying stop. Sarah Hoyt has invited fire by articulating certain principles that she thinks characterizes Human Wave Science Fiction writing. And she's put together a manifesto for Human Wave Science Fiction. She names names of writers producing prose that fits this label and manifesto. And she names my favorite SF authors in the process.

I have always thought the future might hold great tribulation, but things will improve as we get smarter about how the universe works. This optimism is probably the most subversive thing that Mrs. Hoyt, et al. is manifestoing.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Confusing Heroes and Villains

I have a dirty little secret that I keep very poorly: I am an American. If you are a foreigner, you may use the word Yank--or Damn Yank before I get done with this note. Last night I was perusing Instant Netflix and I saw an episodic television show that looked interesting, Outcasts. I started watching. It seems the story concerns a colony on a planet in the near future. OK, I like the sound of that.

The first thing after the cool spaceship-establishing shot was the guy walking out of the wilderness into the community of Carpathia. Then the guy gets hassled because the town now is a gun-free zone. This show must be written by and for Brits--there's no Second Amendment. We quickly discover two things about the guy: He wants to move out of the Green Zone and into the wilderness he's charged with exploring on foot.

In the future, they've forgotten how to make ATVs.

Did you notice Green Zone? Yeah, that. This planet they're colonizing appears to be a verdant Afghanistan with allied troops holed up in quarters with air conditioning and television while occasionally sallying forth into the surrounding countryside, but not living there.

And not learning to live there. Too much like the British Raj and not enough like the Old West. I'm not just dumping on the Brits here. The US followed the same pattern in Vietnam. And that worked out so well, didn't it?

Contrast the settlement of the North American continent by Europeans. We moved here and we spread out.

The fellow in the establishing shot appears to hold American attitudes of Guns and Manifest Destiny. Thus, he's obviously insane. His psych profile says he suffers from multiple personality disorder? It's a TV show--that happens all the time on TV. And he's paranoid. He thinks people are out to get him.

Coincidentally, it happens that his wife is part of this little community's Stazi and she has been tasked with spying on him. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean everyone's not out to get you.

The irony got me wondering where the script writers are going with this thing? a) They are stupid and didn't see the irony. b) They're smart and they're giving good motivation to those who desire to leave this Gulag. I fear the former--it's not as if Joss Whedon is writing this thing.

So, the Stazi chick and her co-worker are patrolling the settlement and they encounter a couple idlers engaging in a business transaction. As policemen are wont they commence to hassle said idlers--and bring accusations of Black Market dealing.

(Black Markets happen whenever a state over-regulates trade through price-fixing or the outright prohibition of goods or services. The State's central planners are so much better at regulating an economy than free markets. Ask any Soviet.)

Suddenly, a blinding dust storm envelopes the place and the idlers run off with Stazi chick in hot pursuit. Then Bam! Someone hits her. She is badly wounded. The idlers are accused of the assault. At this point, I figured the script writer would proceed to take 45 minutes to establish alibis for the idlers and to pin the assault onto her husband. I turned it off.

Does Carpathia deserve to survive?

I think it not. A state governs with the consent of the governed--not the script writer. A frontier town does not have the power to compel unwilling compliance from people who can walk away. Or when people have the guns to answer force with force.

England is a beautiful country with stone fences around everyone's garden and high hedges along the roadsides. The policeman is called a bobby and he doesn't carry a gun. They don't have to. The land has been tamed by two thousand years of civilization. A powerful government can rule with a heavy hand.

But an unsettled planet has no stone fences. A government that is not powerful must rule with a lighter hand or it risks its own stability. This fairly easy to understand notion has apparently escaped the writers of Outcasts.

It's not as if Joss Whedon is writing this thing.

Firefly told the tale of the losers of a war of rebellion against another heavy-handed government. But I identified with Captain Mal and his crew. Outcasts set up a similar conflict between heavy-handed government and rebels and they clumsily made me hate their heroes and love their villains. The same thing happened in the movie First Blood. Sylvester Stallone had the good sense to pivot from Rambo as crazed Vietnam vet to super-warrior.

I fancy a notion that the most restless and independent left Europe for the New World. As the US has become a tamed land, the most restless of America have fled to its wildest places. I believe that space colonies will be started by restless and independent people--not compliant sheep who tolerate tyrants--even petty ones. I would suspend disbelief no further.

Thus I abandoned Outcasts to watch Macbeth instead.
Do we but find the tyrant's power tonight,
Let us be beaten, if we cannot fight.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Truth And Pornography

I'm going to blog about politics. Rational, coherent discussion of politics in the US is impossible: There are just too many cannibals and whores filling both parties. I'm going to try to say nothing at all on any political topic during an election year. And I will fail. Nevertheless, this is why I'll try.

Reading classics is a Good Idea. The political axe grinding of Pliny can be ignored because it is irrelevant today. Let's suppose you're a Whig Party faithful. While I'm discussing demonology, I make a snarky comment about Daniel Webster--the Whig statesman of two centuries ago. You will NOT BE thinking about the things I write about the Devil because you're thinking about what I said about Daniel Webster.

Now, substitute the word Whig with Democrat or Republican, and replace the name Daniel Webster with whoever the other party's leaders are demonizing this week. This is why I don't want to say anything at all about anyone except Whigs this election year.

I believe that Art tells the Truth.

The truth is complicated. There are aspects of the truth that support or undermine any partisan political camp. If you make any assertion, and you keep looking, you'll find exceptions to that proposition. 2+2 is 4? Yes, but what if you're working in a mathematical context called Galois Field 4? Then 2+2=0. OK, that's an exception.

In anything non-trivial there are exceptions to exceptions--like the turtles that hold up the world, there are turtles all the way down.  The Mandlebrot set has little balls sticking off the sides that in turn have smaller balls sticking off the sides of the little balls. And tiny balls sticking off the sides of the smaller balls. The truth is complicated like the Mandlebrot set is complicated because of those exceptions to exceptions.

People are more complicated than mathematical objects. And this means that in every person you'll find a mix of good and evil. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that the line between good and evil passes through the heart of every person. This means your protagonist must have a dark side, and your antagonist must have some redeeming qualities. If you fail to do that, you aren't telling the truth about a realistic character.

Fail to give your hero that dark side, and you'll probably be accused of creating a Mary Sue character. Your most convincing antagonists will be good people who are pursuing good ends that just happen to have evil means. E.g. "Terribly sorry, Mr. Hero, but I must stick a knife in your back for the greater good." You can't tell the truth about people without relating their flaws.

Ayn Rand would disagree. If you've got a hero with a wart on the nose, don't show the wart or else all the good of the hero will be undermined by the wart. Because that wart will be taken out of proportion. She has a point. When young Hugh Hefner published photographs of Marylin Monroe, he airbrushed them. We're not talking about Eleanor Rigby, he airbrushed Marylin Monroe!

The truth is that the girl is not the Platonic ideal feminine form, but a realization of that form in an Aristotelian world of particulars. You can always find something wrong with the girl if you look close enough. (If you're in a relationship right now, it's wise not to look too closely for that person's faults.)

I believe that Pornography is Airbrushed.

Pornographers airbrush the parts of the truth that are complicated--the parts of the truth that undermine the message they're sending. For Mr. Hefner, that message was "here is feminine perfection." For Ms. Rand, that message was "here is objectivist heroism." I'll let others critique Ayn Rand's writing, except to note that John Galt and Dagney Taggart never evinced self-doubt or uncertainty such as is common to all mankind.

A filmmaker recently said that the subject of his biography--a politician--had no flaws. Really? Pliny's Panegyricus Traiani finds no flaws in the Emperor Trajan, but many flaws in former-Emperor Domitian. The truth is that both men were imperfect leaders who succeeded and failed in mixed measure as do we all. Airbrushing failures off of Trajan and on to Domitian is just as pornographic as Playboy magazine. Corollary: All propaganda is in this sense pornographic.

I advise that you write the truth--warts and all. If you're a Whig writing about a Whig protagonist, then you'll know some facts that support and some facts that undermine the Whig platform. A pornographer/propagandist will write only those things that support and make a strawman of what undermines the party platform.

I happen to have a political viewpoint that you can determine, but I believe I have an obligation to write the things that undermine both partisan positions--particularly my own.

Those more worthy than I: