Oct 302014

The very first illustration of Frankenstein and his creature, by Theodor von Holst, published in 183By Mary Shelley

Synopsis: The original 1818 Frankenstein.

Book Review: Ugh. Frankenstein has been called the first work of science fiction. But the person who called it that defines science fiction as “hubris clobbered by nemesis,” (at least if I’m to believe Neil Gaiman) which really should have been my first clue. But I was really excited to get to my roots, so I wasn’t paying much attention. And it started out great. All gothic and dramatic and Lovecrafty (yes, I know it predates Lovecraft by a century). The language is extremely pretty, as is the case for most things written around this time.

Unfortunately it seems that writing technique hadn’t yet been well developed. I’ve said before that this isn’t really the author’s fault. We can’t fault pre-Renaissance painters for not knowing of perspective and proportion, those techniques just hadn’t been invented yet. But it’s still painful to read. Do we need to have the same piece of “The maid is guilty!” “No, actually she’s innocent!” dialog repeated THREE TIMES IN A ROW by six different characters? The second and third repetition added nothing. Furthermore, the past seemed to not know that Showing is preferable to Telling. I can’t count how many times Shelley basically wrote “I was really really really upset” rather than showing us the emotion in some way we could feel it ourselves. And speaking of superlatives – good god, she went through the entire list and started again from the top, twice. Frankenstein’s monster was never really described – I still don’t have a very good idea of what it was supposed to look like, aside from being eight feet tall. What we got instead was line after line after line of “Very, extremely terribly, indescribably, superbly, ultra-extra-mega-UBER UGLY!!” Which helps me not at all.

Getting away from technique though, Miss Shelley also fails to deliver a believable world. It seems the universal human reaction to seeing a really ugly super-tall guy is to IMMEDIATELY ATTACK HIM MERCILESSLY AND BEAT HIM WITH STICKS UNTIL HE RUNS AWAY. Without any good reason, and without exception, regardless of how gently the monster tries to approach them. I may not know a lot about 19th century Europe, but I’m pretty sure there were at least a few ugly motherfuckers walking around, and I believe most of them managed to exist in society somehow. As far as I can tell, “evilness” and “goodness” in Shelley’s world are native characteristics you get at birth that are unalterable, and are immediately obvious to others at a glance. It’s very much a Disney-esque “pretty is good, ugly is bad” philosophy. It’s reinforced multiple times across multiple characters, and is most striking when our lame-ass and objectively vile protagonist is repeated described as one of the “greatest examples of humanity, that all strive to emulate” by everyone in the novel, including the monster he treated like shit.

But let’s set aside nit-picks and get to what really sucks about this book.

I’ve mentioned on a few occasions that I can’t stand plots that only exist because the protagonist is completely idiotic or pathetic. If your story is about someone lamenting how awful it is to be starving to death who is inside a room full of food but is too lame and pathetic to reach out and put some in his mouth, I have nothing but disdain for your inability to write an interesting story. There are amazing stories about people doing their best to get calories by any means necessary and STILL nearly starving to death! Write something like that! Don’t waste my time because you’re too lazy to figure out how to put non-idiotic/pathetic people in tough circumstances.

Victor Frankenstein is the worst kind of pathetic. His every action is whining and shirking responsibility. I would not trust him with a pet rock. Seriously, every pregnant teenager you’ve ever seen on Jerry Springer has orders of magnitude more responsibility and self-control than this wanker. He goes about bringing a new sapient life into this world, and upon awakening it he realizes that it’s really very-super-ultra-ugly. So he abandons it. That’s right – a few minutes after it wakes up in a confusing and hostile world, without any experience or knowledge or ability to talk – he walks out on it and leaves it to die, because it was ugly. This would’ve been a simple story of infanticide if Victor hadn’t been unlucky enough to create an 8-foot tall infant that managed to feed itself on nuts and berries. And he doesn’t even think twice about it. A few hours later Victor runs into a friend and they return to his apartment. The monster has left by then and Victor says “Whew! He’s gone. Guess I dodged that bullet!” and never once feels any sense of remorse or worry, either for his monster or for his neighbors who now have an 8-foot-tall unsocialized infant unleashed upon them! Good thing that’s not Victor’s problem anymore!

This continues throughout the book. Later, when Victor finds out his monster is killing people, he resolves not to tell anyone about it, because… reasons. And when an innocent girl is accused and convicted of the murder, instead of standing up and saying “Look, she didn’t do it. I know exactly who did it, why he did it, and what he looks like. Release this poor innocent girl!” he decides to just shut up and let her go to her death because, look, being a decent human being with a smidgen of responsibility just isn’t the sort of thing Victor does! He’d much rather let various other family members and friends of his be killed instead, including his new bride.

Also, here’s Victor Frankenstein’s reaction to first re-encountering his monster after it had killed his brother:

“Devil! do you dare approach me? and do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust!”

That’s the extent of his action. Bluster, and contradictory bluster at that. W.T.F??

Seriously, the monster should be the protagonist of this piece. It survives without any guidance, teaches itself language, and pursues its goals successfully across multiple countries and several years.

One good thing did come from reading this. If anyone ever again says that Frankenstein is about the dangers of scientists “playing God” I will immediately know that they’ve never read the book and have no idea what they’re talking about. Victor’s scientific achievement is creating a new human life. The same “playing god” that nearly every post-pubescent woman since the dawn of history has been able to do, and which most of them do actually do. This isn’t a story about playing god; this is a simple story about a negligent parent abandoning his child, with an SF twist, and the wrong protagonist.

Needless to say, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Everyone else seemed to enjoy it a fair bit, and there was a decent amount of discussion. Plus it’s historic, and you’ll get to say you read it. And it’s short and very skimmable. If you can stomach child-abandonment stories that try to make the abandoner the hero, you may want to check it out. Very Mildly And With Great Hesitation Recommended.

Oct 282014

GeorgeCarlinI’ve run into a weird form of selfishness lately.

Anyone who knows a writer can attest that writers are neurotically insecure about themselves. I don’t know if the following is the case for other writers, but my every act of creating something and putting it out is a plea for attention. “Look at what I did. Affirm my existence. Validate me.” I am unapologetically narcissistic – I write because I want attention, and I strive to write well because I want a lot of attention.

As such, I consider writing to be a fairly selfish activity. I’m not doing it to better the human race, I’m doing to feed my own ego. I feel that if I really cared for the human race I’d go back to college and become a research scientist.

But working for myself on something no one else will see triggers selfishness feelings as well! Right now I’m building a chicken coop with my SO (OK fine, she’s doing most of the work, I’m just helping). It feels good to be bringing something new into the world. We are literally creating wealth. Huzzah! But who will be the beneficiaries of this labor? No one but ourselves. No one else will enjoy it or get use out of it. It is, again, something I’m doing for myself. And despite the fact that it’s making a new thing, it feels tainted.

Our house renovation feels similar. Who, right now, benefits from this house being fixed up? Who will enjoy this new beauty? Primarily just us…

Oddly, I consider going to work somewhat altruistic. I’m doing something unpleasant for someone else. Or if not unpleasant, at least something they can’t do for themselves. The fact that they are willing to give me money to do it means they value what I’m doing. I wouldn’t do it without that bribe, so it’s obviously not something I want to do. Unpleasant, and for someone else – fits the basic criteria for altruism. Furthermore, since I’m working at a for-profit company, they are making some amount of money off of my labor (no point in going through the trouble of employing someone if you aren’t making money in the process). Whatever that extra amount may be, it is wealth I’ve created and not taken for myself – thus an altruistic contribution.

At some point, either in the school system of middle-class suburbia, or the Puritan churches of middle-class suburbia, or perhaps a mixture of both, I managed to internalize an ethical system that works out really really well for good ol’ American Capitalism, by keeping the working class solidly working for others and non-bootstrapping.

This is kinda fucked up.

I will take solace in my 40-hour-a-week communion.

Oct 222014

berlin-wall-flagMy parents escaped from communist Poland when I was a wee baby. And there was a level of actual “escaping” involved, the country was trying to prevent their leaving. Preventing one’s citizens from leaving a country, despite their wishes, is a pretty infamous characteristic of totalitarian regimes, especially communist ones. Our media still criticizes North Korea for it.

How are the Western countries trying to stop people from leaving their state any different?

For that matter, can anyone figure out why the UK (and other countries) are trying to prevent their citizens from running off to the middle east to join IS? Shouldn’t that be encouraged? It’s gets dangerous radicals out of your country, and it makes them happier. AND it makes all their former neighbors safer and happier as well. What is the downside? Everyone wins. And you aren’t faced with the bad publicity of attacking your own citizens within your own borders, which has always been a red flag of totalitarianism. Do we really want to become more like the very societies we’ve been taught are evil for so long?

What am I missing here?

Oct 212014

warhammer-40000--art---858846I. PvE vs PvP

Ever since it’s advent in Doom, PvP (Player vs Player) has been an integral part of almost every major video game. This is annoying to PvE (Player vs Environment) fans like myself, especially when PvE mechanics are altered (read: simplified and degraded) for the purpose of accommodating the PvP game play. Even in games which are ostensibly about the story & world, rather than direct player-on-player competition.

The reason for this comes down to simple math. PvE content is expensive to make. An hour of game play can take many dozens, or nowadays even hundreds, of man-hours of labor to produce. And once you’ve completed a PvE game, you’re done with it. There’s nothing else, you’ve reached “The End”, congrats. You can replay it a few times if you really loved it, like re-reading a book, but the content is the same. MMORGs recycle content by forcing you to grind bosses many times before you can move on to the next one, but that’s as fun as the word “grind” makes it sound. At that point people are there more for the social aspect and the occasional high than the core gameplay itself.

PvP “content”, OTOH, generates itself. Other humans keep learning and getting better and improvising new tactics. Every encounter has the potential to be new and exciting, and they always come with the rush of triumphing over another person (or the crush of losing to the same).

But much more to the point – In PvE potentially everyone can make it into the halls of “Finished The Game;” and if everyone is special, no one is. PvP has a very small elite – there can only be one #1 player, and people are always scrabbling for that position, or defending it. PvP harnesses our status-seeking instinct to get us to provide challenges for each other rather than forcing the game developers to develop new challenges for us. It’s far more cost effective, and a single man-hour of labor can produce hundreds or thousands of hours of game play. StarCraft  continued to be played at a massive level for 12 years after its release, until it was replaced with StarCraft II.

So if you want to keep people occupied for a looooong time without running out of game-world, focus on PvP

II. Science as PvE

In the distant past (in internet time) I commented at LessWrong that discovering new aspects of reality was exciting and filled me with awe and wonder and the normal “Science is Awesome” applause lights (and yes, I still feel that way). And I sneered at the status-grubbing of politicians and administrators and basically everyone that we in nerd culture disliked in high school. How temporary and near-sighted! How zero-sum (and often negative-sum!), draining resources we could use for actual positive-sum efforts like exploration and research! A pox on their houses!

Someone replied, asking why anyone should care about the minutia of lifeless, non-agenty forces? How could anyone expend so much of their mental efforts on such trivia when there are these complex, elaborate status games one can play instead? Feints and countermoves and gambits and evasions, with hidden score-keeping and persistent reputation effects… and that’s just the first layer! The subtle ballet of interaction is difficult even to watch, and when you get billions of dancers interacting it can be the most exhilarating experience of all.

This was the first time I’d ever been confronted with status-behavior as anything other than wasteful. Of course I rejected it at first, because no one is allowed to win arguments in real time. But it stuck with me. I now see the game play, and it is intricate. It puts Playing At The Next Level in a whole new perspective. It is the constant refinement and challenge and lack of a final completion-condition that is the heart of PvP. Human status games are the PvP of real life.

Which, by extension of the metaphor, makes Scientific Progress the PvE of real life. Which makes sense. It is us versus the environment in the most literal sense. It is content that was provided to us, rather than what we make ourselves. And it is limited – in theory we could some day learn everything that there is to learn.

III. The Best of All Possible Worlds

I’ve mentioned a few times I have difficulty accepting reality as real. Say you were trying to keep a limitless number of humans happy and occupied for an unbounded amount of time. You provide them PvE content to get them started. But you don’t want the PvE content to be their primary focus, both because they’ll eventually run out of it, and also because once they’ve completely cracked it there’s a good chance they’ll realize they’re in a simulation. You know that PvP is a good substitute for PvE for most people, often a superior one, and that PvP can get recursively more complex and intricate without limit and keep the humans endlessly occupied and happy, as long as their neuro-architecture is right. It’d be really great if they happened to evolve in a way that made status-seeking extremely pleasurable for the majority of the species, even if that did mean that the ones losing badly were constantly miserable regardless of their objective well-being. This would mean far, far more lives could be lived and enjoyed without running out of content than would otherwise be possible.

IV. Implications for CEV

It’s said that the Coherent Extrapolated Volition is “our wish if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished to be, hard grown up farther together.” This implies a resolution to many conflicts. No more endless bickering about whether the Red Tribe is racist or the Blue Tribe is arrogant pricks. A more unified way of looking at the world that breaks down those conceptual conflicts. But if PvP play really is an integral part of the human experience, a true CEV would notice that, and would preserve these differences instead. To ensure that we always had rival factions sniping at each other over irreconcilable, fundamental disagreements in how reality should be approached and how problems should be solved. To forever keep partisan politics as part of the human condition, so we have this dance to enjoy. Stripping it out would be akin to removing humanity’s love of music, because dancing inefficiently consumes great amounts of energy just so we can end up where we started.

Carl von Clausewitz famously said “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  The correlate of “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” has already been proposed. It is not unreasonable to speculate that in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war continued by other means. Which, all things considered, is greatly preferable to actual war. As long as people like Scott are around to try to keep things somewhat civil and preventing an escalation into violence, this may not be terrible.

Oct 152014

open-doorContinuing from yesterday, there is nonetheless a bit of fear when one first opens up a relationship. Intellectually you know it’s silly, but on an emotional level there’s still that hesitation, that worry that you’ll lose the one you love. It’s a lot like the first time you’re going to jump off the high diving board into a pool. At some point you just gotta trust your reasoning and jump.

One of the biggest steps forward in my current relationship was when I wasn’t scared of losing my SO anymore. Like, she can go and have fun, and I know she loves me, and I don’t worry about losing her to anyone else. They might be a fun lay, but they aren’t me. I’m not worried she’ll leave me for people she enjoys shopping with, or gardening with, or whatever. This is just another activity, and I’m not gonna lose her to someone else she does it with from time to time either. Having that trust is really what makes it easy.

The thing is, the openness is what builds that trust. The first time you don’t really know, right? You have faith, because you love the person and you think they love you back. But it’s just faith, it isn’t knowledge. And then once it happens a few times and you still love each other and the world didn’t end, that’s when it really sinks in. “Oh, yeah. This is real. I can totally trust her, and she’ll stay with me anyway” It’s kinda cool.

The level of comfort that sort of trust brings is awesome, and it makes the relationship better in every other aspect. The guarding, drama, and fear/uncertainty of monogamous relationships? Ugh – no. Would not buy again.

Oct 142014

Emperor's New ClothesI was just talking with someone interested in monogamish relationships and the looming specter of Jealousy (insert ghostly “oooOOOOoooOOooo” sound). As far as I can tell, jealousy is an entirely invented social construct. It’s like God, in that we all have to pretend to believe in it, and act like we believe in it, when we don’t really feel it at all. But we see everyone else acting as if it exists, which convinces us that it is real, and so we have to play along as well or risk being the one weirdo freak. And no one realizes that everyone is faking it.

When I let it go I found that it was complete BS. Maybe it really does exist for some guys? But I think more than anything it’s just that we’re told over and over “You have to be jealous and beat up anyone who looks at your girl, or you aren’t a real man!!” And losing your man cred in this society is fucking TERRIFYING.

I think that’s what the real motivator is. Everyone knows the patriarchy is shitty for men as well as women, but they don’t mention it too much because it’s a lot shittier for women. Well, here’s one way it’s shitty for men. You have to pretend to be jealous, and bluster about and say you’ll attack anyone who touches your mate, because if anyone sees someone other than yourself engaged in sex play with your mate you are automatically less of a man. You lose status, you can’t be taken seriously, you are something to be pitied.

Fuck that. I’ve powered through status-shaming several times already in my life, and every time I’ve been better, freer, and happier for it. Now I respect people who are in open relationships far more than those still stuck in the social straight-jacket of enforced monogamy. With the limited number of years we have here, why would you do that to your life? It’s kinda sad.

And once I let that go, and said “Fuck society, this is bullshit” I actually found that the opposite of jealousy happens. I was happy to see my girl getting that sort of pleasure. Why wouldn’t you want to see the person you love happy? And more than that… it was a complete turn on. It’s really fucking hot. At least, that’s been my experience.

Oct 102014

Golem and JinniBy Helene Wecker

Synopsis: An unlikely love story in turn-of-the-century New York.

Book Review: This is a solid story about two fish-out-water characters who come to rely on each other in a strange world. It hooks you early with a fairy-tale style, then builds slowly, establishing all the major characters firmly before it brings them together. The more you read this book the more you want to keep reading it, but it never feels unbearably urgent. It is an altogether pleasant read, it wraps up everything well, and it features strong characterization and an interesting plot. While all this is good, it’s not entirely enthralling either. If this was all there was to the book I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I don’t have a ton of free reading time, and simply being good isn’t quite enough IMHO.

Fortunately, there is more. The Jinni is a fire elemental, with exactly the personality to match (passionate, flighty, irresponsible); whereas the Golem is an earth elemental with the matching characteristics as well (solid, dependable, conservative). At first one thinks this is simply good writing, but the more I read the more I became convinced that these two characters represent the male and female genders and the book is about gender relations and the chains of biology in a pre-reproductive-control society. The men can be reckless, they do not have to suffer the consequences of their actions. This allows them freedom to pursue their whims and passions. The Jinni does what he wishes, often carelessly destroying lives without knowing he’s doing it, without a care in the world. He is unconcerned with the trouble he could bring to his immigrant community, he doesn’t understand concepts like limiting yourself out of concern for the unfair ways the world may punish others. He behaves as if the world is fair, because he’s never the brunt of any injustice. The women, OTOH, must bear the fallout of men’s bad choices. They are expected to be always restraining the men, and always policing their own actions, because it’s their lives that are ruined by a mutual decision. And society reinforces this, doubling down on the pressure put on women and freeing the men, in a sick game of piling-on.

It’s a very effective metaphor in multiple ways. The Golem starts out the property of a man. Her father-figure tries to find a kind, new master for her when the first man dies. Her destiny is always to be bound to a man. Interestingly, she even desires this – when she’s free she’s uncomfortable. And even while she’s free she’s always serving others, and always tailoring her actions to comfort and appease those around her. Both out of desire and out of fear. The claustrophobic feeling of being a woman in an institutionally sexist society is palpable.

It isn’t all roses for the Jinni either. When he’s wounded and his fellow Jinni arrive he’s very concerned about hiding his weakness, which is an aspect of male culture you don’t see engaged very often – the constant fear of showing any weakness and always having to project a strong front can be very isolating. Particularly when you actually need help.

This aspect of the book increases my enjoyment of it a good deal, so yes, Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not surprisingly, this book makes for some fairly good talking. In addition to the gender themes there is some commentary on both religion and free-will/determinism which allows for further discussion. Plus portrayal of immigrant culture and ghettos in the early 1900s. Combined with the book’s natural charms and a very comfortable length, it is likely this will get a good percentage read-completion and involvement from everyone attending. Again, Recommended.

Oct 082014

snob1Up until yesterday I completely agreed with Bad Horse’s assertion that art has been caught in a spiral of self-isolation.

>The elite learns to associate inaccessibility with quality, and criticism with amateurism, and produces more and more inaccessible works

The song linked at the top of his post sounds to me like cats walking across untuned fiddles, rather than a masterpiece of “the greatest living composer”.

Then yesterday I was introduced to Mike Oldfield (thanks to Floornight). And while this isn’t something I would play at a party or recommend to most people, I enjoy large parts of it and find them quite musical. Which seems to me like I’m not applying consistent standards across Oldfield and Ferneyhough.

I’m reminded of the RadioLab episode that informed me of the riot following the 1913 debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s a good story, but to sum up – it appears people most enjoy music that is similar to what they know, but different enough to challenge them a bit. The brain naturally predicts what is coming next in a song based on melody, beat, experience, etc. And when that prediction is wrong in a way that is surprising but still seems “fair”, the brain is delighted. Rite of Spring was slightly too different for its time, thus causing the pain/hate.

This explains why as I’m getting older, less and less new music appeals to me. I’ve heard much of it before. Humanity has been rewriting the same basic songs for generations. Which is OK, the young kids coming up need their own version of Madonna or whoever. Everyone needs that foundation to build on, there’s only so many variations on those basic building blocks of music, and using your parents songs about Vietnam certainly isn’t gonna cut it. (Seriously, watch the Pachelbel Rant video, it’s great and makes this point better than words can)

We get bored as we become familiar with the basics. This is the instinct that makes people say things like “The best music/video games/whatever came out when I was a teen.” They still had new and interesting things to discover and be delighted with then, before they’d become familiar with what was widely available. I remember when the new X-Com: Enemy Unknown came out, and all I could think was “I liked this a lot better back when it was called Shadow Watch” But no one else had played Shadow Watch, so everyone else loved it. /shrug

Which brings me back to Oldfield. I suspect that if I hadn’t listened to a lot of modern music, I would consider it noise. But as it is, I’ve been swimming in rock/alt music for 30 years, and so I recognize a lot of musical tropes and habits in Amarok that draw me in and have me guessing about what’s happening, before screwing with me a bit. And it’s kinda fun. Either I haven’t listened to enough rock, or else the song is still partly crap, because some parts of it just sound jangly and awful to me. But I’m starting to see how with another decade of being submersed in rock music even those bits might begin to take hold.

I never listened to much classic. I can identify maybe a half-dozen orchestral songs (Beethoven’s 5th, Flight of the Valkyries, Oh Fortuna, Canon in D, the William Tell Overture, Fur Elise… what else? Not much.) So I don’t have any of the foundation needed to appreciate Ferneyhough – assuming that there’s anything there to appreciate. Point is, I wouldn’t know either way.

In a way, I’m sad for humanity. We are stuck on the entry-level of music appreciation, as we keep dying every few decades and the new generation has to start from scratch. But it gives me hope for the future. Various people have said they can’t imagine living for eons, that they’d get bored of everything. These people probably are stuck listening to what is being played on the radio, or re-listening to their formative albums. There ARE people digging deeper into the minutia of music, creating things that sound bad to new listeners, but which appeal to the hardened genre-savvy antediluvians. The more esoteric it gets the smaller the listenership, so it doesn’t seem like something that could support many people. But fortunately, art isn’t always driven by monetary concerns.

Oct 032014

real magicWhen younger I often longed for the ability to use The Force (ala Star Wars). If only I could flick that light-switch from a distance! With time I realized I could, at a distance of ~2.5 feet (the length of my arm). All I had to do was think about it, and expend a tiny bit of energy. From what I saw of Star Wars, it took me far less energy to do it this way than it would have taken by concentrating and using The Force. It didn’t look as cool, since anyone could do it, but it kinda was a form of magic.

This led to my observation that Industry is much like powerful Ritual Magic.

Lately I’ve been renovating an old, trashed house. At times this can get very tedious. But thinking of myself as a wizard really helps the process along. And I don’t mean one of these new-fangled wizards, that just waves a wand around and says a few words and gets exactly what he wants. Kids these days are lazy and spoiled! Back in my day (of AD&D 2nd Ed) you had to do some work to get your magic! You had material components to carry around, which were consumed upon casting, and physical actions that had to be correctly performed, some of which got rather complex. Plus we walked to and from school, through six feet of snow, uphill both ways.

But doing anything that manipulates the physical world isn’t that different. To paint these kitchen cabinets I gathered my material components (gallons of paint of the desired color), my wand-substitutes (paintbrush and roller), and repeated the somatic components (hand moving back and forth inches from the surface to be altered, occasionally returning to the paint container) for a long period of time. This particular spell didn’t have any verbal components. Eventually the Change Color of Surface spell was completed, and now the kitchen looks quite a bit different. I have the power!

The downside of this particular spell is that it’s slow, and can take hours to cast on large areas. On the plus side – it works. It’s hard to overstate how useful that is.