Sunday, October 29, 2017

Scott Aaronson at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup

We have heard that quantum computers are supposed to be much faster than classical ones. But what exactly does that mean, and why can't computers based on some other exotic physical models of computation be as fast? Scott Aaronson examined other models of computation and dispelled some popular myths about quantum computing at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup in May of 2017.

His talk might not have had a whole lot of new stuff for those who read his blog. It was a tour-de-fource of the topics he often addresses on his blog, and a synopsis of what a layperson needs to know about quantum computing. It was about what makes quantum computing so fascinating, but also how to keep your expectations of it realistic.

Scott started his talk with a look at some hypothetical alternative forms of computing. What physical models of computation would be alternative enough to violate the Extended Church-Turing thesis?

Church-Turing Thesis is closely related to the definition of computability: it says that all the computable functions are those and only those that could be computed by the Turing machine. Extended Church-Turing Thesis says that a Turing machine can simulate all other computers with at most a polynomial overhead. Are there forms of computing that challenge the extended Church-Turing thesis? On what kind of physics could a computer possibly be based to overturn it? Scott examined hypothetical computers based on exotic conditions where everyday laws of physics break down.

Relativity Computer

Scott's first example was a relativity computer. How come no one talks about relativity computer, he asks. The idea is simple: you start your computer working on some really hard problem, maybe NP-hard problem, and leave it on Earth, while you take off into space. From the computer's perspective, billions years have passed, the civilization has collapsed. But from your perspective, thanks to the relativistic time dilation, only ~ 20 years have passed. You come back and miraculously find your computer in the rubble, still connected to a power source, and you can read out an answer to your hard computational problem. So why hasn't anyone tried it? If you're worried that your friends will be dead in the distant future, just bring them on the spaceship with you.

Humor aside, the question is, would such a "relativity computer" (well, in this case the computer is ordinary, it's you travelling at a relativistic speed that makes the answer appear quickly) provide a fast solution to NP-complete problems? Would the problem be solved in polynomial time from your perspective?

The answer to that, Scott says, has to do with the amount of energy that would take to accelerate to relativistic speed. If you want to get an exponential speedup in only polynomial amount of time as experienced by you, you would have to accelerate so close to the speed of light that would take exponential amount of energy. So before your spaceship takes off, just fuelling it up would take exponential time.

It can sometimes seem like you could achieve exponential speedup for some problems by exploiting certain physical processes, but to really evaluate any such possibility you have to look at everything we know about physics, such as the energy involved in such a calculation.

Zeno's computer

Zeno's computer is a hypothetical computer in which each operation would take only half the time that it took for the previous operation. This scenario could occur at the so-called Omega Point. Omega Point is a theological notion, but according to some physicists, it could occur under some highly debatable conditions. (I don't think Scott mentioned Omega Point in his speech, I just remembered this trope because it seemed fitting.) For example, the founder of quantum computing, David Deutsch, envisions Omega Point happening near the time of the Big Crunch, as the universe oscilates faster and faster. By the time the universe collapses, the computations have achieved nearly infinite speed, and if you simulate the whole universe on the computational power of those oscillations, the world will never end for you. The closer the real thing comes towards the end, the faster the oscillations will go, the longer "subjective" time you'll be able to simulate. Here is a quote from the David Deutsch book "Fabric of Reality" where he discusses Omega Point. Scroll down to the paragraph "The key discovery in the omega-point theory...".

On the Omega Point computational substrate you would be able to solve NP-hard problems fast. But according to our best cosmological models, the universe is not going to end in the Big Crunch. Even aside from this particular scenario, Scott points out a fundamental problem with Zeno's computer. Zeno's computer relies on infinite amount of computational capacity, but any space-time region has only a finite number of information storage capacity. He says so in his own comment on his blog:

"Rahul #50:

Does Nature (or an existing proof) prevent undecidability in statements involving finite times / spaces / lattices & precision?

Mathematically, if we know that a problem only requires enumerating a finite list of possibilities, then essentially by definition that problem is computable. This is why, any time you see a new problem that's been proved at least as hard as the halting problem, that problem will always involve some element that goes to infinity (if the title and abstract aren't forthcoming about this, read the main text and see! ?? ).

Physically, it's conceivable that we could have lived in a universe where an infinite amount of stuff could get done in finite time (e.g., by what I call the "Zeno Computer," that does one step in 1 second, the next in 1/2 second, the next in 1/4 second, and so on). In such a universe, of course the halting problem could be solvable in finite time.

But the current conjecture in theoretical physics -- primarily because of the work of Jakob Bekenstein on black hole thermodynamics, which I blogged about before -- is that we don't live in such a universe. Rather, we seem to live in a universe that can be modeled as a quantum computer where each finite region of space stores at most ~1069 qubits per square meter of enclosing surface area (with the bound saturated only by black holes), and where those qubits are operated on at most ~1043 times per second. In such a universe, of course the halting problem would not be solvable."

Also, he says in an excerpt of his talk Big Numbers


While no one has tested this directly, it appears from current physics that there is a fundamental limit to speed, and that it's about 1043 operations per second, or one operation per Planck time. Likewise, it appears that there's a fundamental limit to the density with which information can be stored, and that it's about 1069 bits per square meter, or one bit per Planck area. (Surprisingly, the latter limit scales only with the surface area of a region, not with its volume.)

What would happen if you tried to build a faster computer than that, or a denser hard drive? The answer is: cycling through that many different states per second, or storing that many bits, would involve concentrating so much energy in so small a region, that the region would exceed what's called its Schwarzschild radius. If you don't know what that means, it's just a fancy way of saying that your computer would collapse to a black hole. I've always liked that as Nature's way of telling you not to do something!

One of the few things about quantum gravity that everybody agrees on, says Scott Aaronson, is that it places fundamental limits on how much computation you place in a bounded region.

Other models of computation based on physical world

Sometimes people suggest that soap bubbles could solve NP-hard problems in polynomial time just by finding the minimum surface when they are connected. Finding the minimum surface for connected soap bubbles is an NP-hard problem, but humans have observed that soap bubbles form a minimum surface very quickly, thus prompting the idea that a polynomial-time algorithm for finding the minimum surface does exist. And if we could encode an NP-hard problem as a soap bubble problem -- in effect "feeding" it to a soap bubble computer -- then we could solve them in polynomial time.

Scott Aaaronson giving a presentation at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup
Scott Aaaronson giving a presentation at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup

The problem with it is that bubbles do get stuck in local optima, says Scott. In other words, the surface they settle into is not guaranteed to be the absolute minimum but some kind of local minimum. Scott talks about it in more detail in his paper "NP-complete Problems and Physical Reality" (PDF).

In his teens, Scott experimented with the surfaces soap bubbles form. That was the closest in his life that he had ever been to an experimentalist. And in his experimments the bubbles got stuck in local optima. "But I haven't tried every possible brand of soap," Scott quipped.

Same is true about using protein folding for solving NP-complete problems. Finding optimal configuration for a protein can be modelled as NP-complete problem, and yet every cell in our bodies does it every second. Despite having been under enormous selection pressure to not get trapped in local optima, proteins still sometimes do that, and that can lead to prion- and amyloid-related illnesses.

That's the basic problem with all physics-based computations: systems in nature do get stuck in local optima. "This may sound silly," says Scott, "but every few months I get calls from popular science writers and they ask me, what about this? This violates Church-Turing thesis! But the things they suggest usually have the problems I mentioned."

When Scott Aaronson first heard about quantum computing as a teenager, he was similarly skeptical. He thought some physicist didn't understand Church-Turing thesis. So he had to find out about quantum mechanics for himself.

Does quantum computing bypass Extended Church-Turing thesis?

Does it? Skipping ahead, the smart people of the internet think it very likely does.

But back to Scott Aaronson's story. Setting out to learn quantum mechanics, Scott found out that quantum mechanics is not as hard to learn as it is commonly assumed. As he says, Quantum Mechanics turns out to be incredibly simple once you take the physics out of it. And no, he doesn't mean in a woo-woo New Agey sense. He adds: "The way I see it, it's a level below physics. It's an operating system that the rest of physics runs on as application. And what that OS is is probability theory with minus signs."

Scott Aaaronson's slide on quantum mechanics as probability with minus signs
Scott Aaaronson's slide on quantum mechanics as probability with minus signs. It shows the double slit experiment with a smiley-faced photon going through two slits and interfering with itself.

Probabilities with minus signs" is the concept of probability amplitude, which Scott has written about in more detail in this Quantum Computing Since Democritus series article. Here, Scott shows how the concept of probability amplitude (which is an entity that can be negative) explains the phenomenon of quantum interference. Interference is what causes some "paths" that lead to an observed outcome (e.g. photon going through either slit in the famous double-slit experiment) to cancel each other, because one has a plus sign, and the other has a minus sign.

"Probabilities as complex numbers come up in the double slit experiment," says Scott. "If I close off one of the slits, the photon appears in places where it doesn't want to appear before. By decreasing the number of choices, I can increase the likehood of an event. Physicists were eventually forced to say: the photon has some amplitude for going through the first slit, and some amplitude for going through the second slit. And amplitudes are complex numbers. You have to add the amplitudes of all the slots, and then take a square. That's a positive number."

This approach to quantum mechanics leads you to learning enough quantum mechanics from the "right angle" to understand quantum computing -- and you don't need differential equations and Schrodinger's wave equation to understand it. The latter is the traditional approach to teaching quantum mechanics, and, according to Scott, it scares people away from it. "Richard Feynman in his book "QED" doesn't even mention complex numbers. He says that each path has an arrow attached, and to compute how likely that path was, you stack those arrows together. So that's a perfect example how to boil it down to a bare minimum but not lower than that," says Scott. "I've given talks about this stuff at high schools. The smarter high school students can understand a lot of it without much difficulty, part of it because there is less they have to unlearn. To get into this field you don't have to take years and years of physics, you don't have to known how to do integrals or solve differential equations. But you have to understand vectors and matrices and complex numbers. So that's the bare minimum. But that bare minimum is accessible to a much larger population of people than the people that had been traditionally thought of as being able to understand quantum mechanics."

(To be fair, not all quantum physicists agree that quantum mechanics can be taught as "probability theory with minus signs" without first introducing the wave equation and such. Here is a discussion on Quora about what is lost when you approach it that way. -- E.)

Understanding interference will also inoculate you against the biggest fallacy that's being thrown around in the popular press when explaining quantum computing. A quantum computer does not "try every answer in parallel" to arrive at the right answer. If there is one thing Scott would like you to take away from this or any of his quantum computing presentations, it is this. The quantum computer does not try every answer in parallel. It's not a massively parallel classical computer.

It is interference that lets you get the right answer out of a quantum computer. You rely on the fact that amplitudes behave not like probabilities because they can cancel each other. For every wrong answer, you hope that each path leading to the answer to have equal positive and negative amplitudes, so they could cancel each other. For the right answer we want all the paths leading to it to have either all positive or all negative amplitudes. We need to to do something to boost the probability of the right answer, and quantum interference does that. That's one new tool quantum mechanics puts in our toolbox.

This is also his bare minimum standard for popular science articles explaining quantum computing, also known as the minus sign test. The article needs to mention interference.

Applications of quantum computing

Though we are used to thinking about quantum computers as something that would let us solve hard problems fast, the first application of quantum computing that its pioneers conceived wasn't that at all. Their initial reason for building quantum computers was to simulate quantum systems. "In the 1980s, Feynman, Deutsch, and others noticed that a system of n qubits seems to take ~ 2^n steps to simulate on a classical computer, because of the phenomenon of entanglement between the qubits. They had the amazing idea of building a quantum computer to overcome that problem," Scott says. And now, decades after Deutsch proposed that idea, Scott Aaronson still thinks that quantum simulation is a major, perhaps the biggest and most promising, application for quantum computing. It could have huge applications for energy.

For Scott personally, the number one application is to disprove people who come to his blog and argue that quantum computing is impossible.

What about cryptography?

When people say "quantum cryptography", they typically mean one of two things: (1) Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) -- a process that lets two parties exchange cryptographic keys while guaranteeing that the keys won't be intercepted by an attacker in transit, or (2) quantum-safe cryptography, that is to say, classical encryption algorithms that can't be broken by quantum computers any faster than they could be broken by classical computers. I'm not sure which one Scott meant when he said that quantum cryptography already exists today, but there is almost no market for it, because it's a problem that's already solved by private key encryption.

As far as public-private key encryption, it relies on computational difficulty of factoring large numbers, and that is actually vulnerable to Shor's factorization algorithm, but there are many symmetric encryption algorithms (that use the same key for encryption and decryption) that don't rely on factorization and thus can't be cracked by quantum computers.

(Here is a more detailed overview of quantum-safe encryption algorithms and QKD.)

But when it comes to using quantum computing to solve any kind of problems faster, as anyone who reads Scott's blog already knows, he is very doubtful that there will be real, practical applications for quantum computing in that respect. At least not soon.

Can quantum computers actually achieve exponential speedup? What about any other kind of significant speedup?

"If we were physicists, we would have declared P != NP to be a law of nature," Scott says. "But we use different terminology. Where physics have laws, we have conjectures."

Popular press sometimes states that quantum computers can solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time, but anyone who reads Scott's blog knows that's not true. The integer factorization problem that Shor's algorithm solves is not known to be NP-complete, and is suspected not to be. But can quantum computers do it at some point?

Scott Aaaronson's slide of the BQP problem class
Scott Aaaronson's slide of the BQP problem class

There is a complexity class called BQP, or bounded-error quantum polynomial time. Those are problems for which exists a bounded-error polynomial time algorithm for quantum computers. "Bounded error" means that the algorithm will give a wrong answer no more than a certain percentage of times -- that percentage probably being sufficiently low, or can be brought down to be sufficiently low for practical purposes. This class of problems is bigger than P, the class of polynomially-solvable problems, but it definitely does not include the NP-complete problems -- at least nobody at present thinks that it does, and there is a lot of evidence that it doesn't. So most likely polynomial-time algorithms for NP-complete problems, even on quantum computers, don't exist.

But it's not known yet where the boundaries of BQP lie. While it includes some problems in the intermediate zone of NP problems that are not known to be P, but not known to be NP-complete either, some of these problems are very special problems. We don't even know if BQP is contained in NP. So there may be problems that quantum computer can efficiently solve, but a classical computer might not even be able to verify the answer. For that you would need another quantum computer.

What about D-Wave's claims of exponential speedup?

D-Wave is a company that builds adiabatic quantum computers and that has claimed to achieve quantum supremacy, that is, made a quantum computer that achieves significant speedup over a classical computer for some type of problem. Scott has long been skeptical of their claims. Even if you were able to build a perfect adiabatics quantum computer, we don't know how well it would do. The quantum adiabatic algorithm was described in a 2000 paper by Farhi and other authors, and the general idea is shown in this slide by Scott. Farhi suggested that maybe it solves NP-complete problems in polynomial time, which would put NP in BQP. The iffy part is that the amount of time you need to run adiabatic algorithm depends on something called eigenvalue gap. As you vary the Hamiltonian, what is is the smallest gap between its first and second eigenvalues? If that gap becomes exponentially small, you need to run it for an exponential time. "And some people were able to construct problems for which this gap becomes exponentially small," says Scott.

"After you've seen problems with NP-completeness, you are tempted to elevated [computational] hardness as a fundamental physics problem. You would ask, what implication it would have for physics? And now we know some examples: for example, in condensed matter systems spectral gaps would have to become exponentially small," says Scott Aaraonson.

For the last some number of years D-Wave has been trying to find problems for which adiabatic algorithm would be exponentially faster than a classical algorithm. Scott is quite skeptical that they have found any. In the previous quantum computing meetup, though, Brian La Cour from UT Austin said he thought it wasn't so clear-cut, because the recent D-Wave advancements make it less apparent that there is a classical algorithm that would do just as well. But it's not that Scott is skeptical about adiabatic algorithms altogether. "We may not understand the potential of adiabatic algorithm until we have a real quantum computer," he says.

Scott Aaronson's areas of research

Scott's own research area is quantum supremacy, that is, finding quantum algorithms that for some types of problems provide a definite speedup over any classical algorithm. And by the way, he got a lot of comedic mileage out of that phrase during the Trump campaign year.

A year ago Scott wrote this paper connecting quantum computation to the black hole firewall problem. He briefly mentioned it and said that there wasn't enough time to discuss it at this presentation. This left me and some other people in the audience with a cliffhanger feeling. Just when we got to hearing something we had not heard about before, the lecture was over! Some of us asked Scott about that paper later after the talk, and he pointed us to more information about the paper on his blog.

Questions from the audience

Unfortunately, the questions were nearly impossible to hear, because the audience members didn't have a microphone. So I could only guess the general topic they asked about.

Q1. About quantum entanglement.

Scott Aaronson. I didn't say much about entanglement in this talk. In quantum mechanics entanglement is not a separate rule you have to postulate. It's just something that's there for a ride. It's just that entanglement means that in QM you can't write a state of a qubits as a product state.

If qubits are not entangled, you don't have a quantum computer. You can simulate it easily with a classical computer. Entanglement is a necessary but insufficient condition for QM.

Q2. About decoherence, the problem that makes quantum computing so hard to implement in practical terms.

Scott Aaronson. A crucial discovery from the nineties was that you don't have to get your decoherence rate down to 0. You just need to get it down to very very low rate. So even if some small number of qubits will leak out into environment, the quantum information that you care about is still there.

Q3. About machine learning and quantum computing.

Scott acknowledged that quantum computing might seem like a natural fit for quantum computing. "In a way, machine learning is all about linear algebra in high-dimensional spaces, and so is quantum computing. But you always have to ask, if someone can simulate a quantum machine learning algorithm with a classical approach, would they really a get a speedup from the quantum computing algorithm?"

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Advances in quantum computing: presentation by Dr. Brian La Cour

Dr. Brian La Cour from University of Texas at Austin gave a presentation on the latest state of quantum computing to Austin's Quantum Computing meetup in March of 2017. Here are some prominent points from it.

Several big companies are getting into quantum computing now: Google, Microsoft, IBM. There are significant differences between their approaches.

Google plans to solve a problem with 49 qubits, a problem that would demonstrate quantum supremacy (getting a clear speedup with a quantum algorithm over a classical algorithm), but is completely useless in real life. The problem with that is that when you progress to the quantum supremacy frontier, you can no longer check the answer with a regular device. Or it would take a very long time. So Google's argument will probably be based on asymptotic trend, with how they are doing with more qubits. But overall this problem of how to check the results will be more difficult in the future.

Brian La Cour talks at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup
Brian La Cour talks about Google's race to quantum supremacy at the Austin Quantum Computing meetup

We are a long way from solving Shor's algorithm and breaking internet's encryption. But quantum simulation is a near term application. It goes back to Richard Feynman's discussions of quantum computing. We can simulate things on a digital computer, but it's not very efficient. When you want to add another spin, another atom, you have to double the memory. What better thing to simulate a quantum system than a quantum system?

There is a difference between gate-based quantum computing (like what IBM and partially Google does) and quantum annealing, like what D-Wave does, and partially Google.

Gate-based device (that operates on gates, similar to classical gates) is a universal quantum computer. D-Wave's computer is specialized, it is only useful for certain optimization problems. And so far those problems have been pretty contrived, not necessarily corresponding to anything in real life. Even so there is no definitive evidence that the D-Wave's computer is advantageous for solving specific practical problems, as compared to classical solvers. There is a professor somewhere who, every time when D-Wave claimed that their quantum computer was solving some problems more efficiently, took it as a challenge to find a classical algorithm that would beat it. And so far he has been successful. But lately this has become less clear, because he has been, in Brian's words "exploiting what he knows about the problem". (Mathematicians and computer scientists can make it sound like it's a bad thing. But perhaps he means that while the professor is exploiting special knowledge about a problem, the quantum annealing computer can't make use of that knowledge, thus he is not comparing apples to apples? -- E.)

IARPA -- funding agency for intelligence community, analogy of DARPA -- is focused on developing next-generation quantum annealing, a universal quantum annealer. Their goal is, can you take benchmark projects and scale them to the thousands of qubits that D-Wave has?

Microsoft is looking at high-level languages for quantum computing. They are designing high-level languages that optimize what low-level languages do. They also do their own research into topological quantum computing, which is a very different approach than the qubit-based QC, but Brian thinks that's technologically so far away it's probably never going to happen.

This brings us to another Brian La Cour point, which is that now is a good time even for ordinary software developers to get involved in quantum computing, and you don't have to be a researcher to do it. There are people who are building interfaces in conventional programming languages to QASM, IBM's Quantum assembly language. This is where you as an individual can make a contribution: figure out how to do things in QASM and implement an interface to it in your favorite language. Also, individuals can play around with the IBM's Quantum Experience, a web interface to the IBM's quantum computer, and familiarity with it could put you in a position to get a job at some company that does quantum computing (not that there are many of those currently -- E.).

According to Brian, quantum gamification is also a trend. However, he used the word "gamification" not the way it is typically used (to incentivize certain user behaviors by making them seem like a game). He meant it more literally in the sense of games that teach you something about quantum mechanics. In some of those games people perform actions that help quantum researchers. Here are some examples:

  • qCraft -- a "mod" to the popular Minecraft game. It uses "quantum blocks" to teach superposition, observation, and entanglement.
  • There are even games that have been programmed on IBM Quantum Experience, such as Quantum Battleship.
  • Decodoku was developed to help researchers with quantum error correction. You are protecting researchers from errors.
  • cat-paper-scissors game (I could not find it by googling -- E.)
  • Quantum Cats from University of Waterloo, Canada. It's like angry birds, except cats can be in superpositions.

Brian La Cour noted that not only quantum computing research is strong in Canada, Canadian QC scientists also do a lot of educational outreach. US scientists don't do nearly as much, but they should.

As always, the least predictable part of any presentation is the audience's questions, and Brian got a few of those.

Audience member. Have you heard of neuromorphic computing?

Brian replied that he has heard about it, but that there wasn't any connection there to quantum computing. It was just another unconventional way to compute. Apropos of unconventional computing, quantum computing in a way is a throwback to analog computing: encoding information in continuous variables, except what comes out is still digital.

Audience member. Can quantum computing be used to mine bitcoins?

Aside from currently existing quantum computers being nowhere near powerful enough to mine bitcoins, Brian also noted that the value of bitcoin is based on the fact that bitcoins are computationally difficult to find. So if you find an algorithm to mine them fast and reliably, it will devalue them.

Audience member. How big a leap is it to go from classical programming to quantum programming? Is it a totally different beast?

Brian. It is a totally different beast. If you try to do things like conditionals and loops, you are doing it wrong. Instead of conditionals you have control gates, where value of one qubit controls what happens to another qubit. Which is sort of like conditional, but linear. A qubit in a superposition of 0/1 controls another qubit which is also in superposition.

The way you think about quantum computing is taking your entire data space, or state space, and think about it all at once.

You initialize all to 0 and apply Hadamard gates all at once. It puts them in superposition of all possible states, and then you do operation on them. You are looking at the whole haystack and apply operations to the whole haystack until you find a needle. You don't examine each value and look whether it's a needle.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Stumbling into BodyHackingCon on the last day

You walk into the BodyHackingCon on an early Sunday afternoon, and you are not sure if it's really still going on. You expect it to have a bigger, or at least flashier presence: shouldn't there be people with highly visible body modifications milling about? Instead, you see people in business casual whose name tags say "superintendent", and the hallways are plastered with signs for Texas School Boards convention. But you persist and walk around a corner, and then down a city-block-long corridor around another corner (that's Austin Convention Center for you), and you are finally rewarded by a hand-scrawled sign pointing towards an open door of a huge, warehouse-style expo room. But this is the last day of a 3-day convention, so naturally most of the vendors are gone.

Neosensory vest that is supposed to let you perceive words as vibrations on your skin, seen at BodyHackingCon 2017 in Austin
Neosensory vest that is supposed to let you perceive words as vibrations on your skin

There is still a thing or two happening; at one of the booths a visitor is trying to pull together the edges of a peculiar-looking vest around his torso; it clearly is not going to happen, since the vest is 3-4 sizes too small. "I'm sorry. We are planning to have larger sizes in the future," says a vendor at the booth, even though the guy is merely average size. But apparently the vest does not need to close to work. It is studded with small metal circles that make up some kind of haptic language interface. That's only my guess based on what I could glean from the snippets of conversation. Because who needs to ask how it works when you can speculate?

"Whip. Angle," says the booth guy. "Whip. Angle." Then he turns a phone screen to the guy who's trying out the vest. There are two circles on it, and he asks the guy to pick one to tap on. Apparently the booth guy made the dots convey some kind of haptic stimulation (e.g. buzzing?) -- and asked the wearer to recognize the word encoded in it. He praises the wearer for answering correctly. "So you see, it's not just the length of the word," he says. I guess he was saying that the vest made it possible, with some minimal training, to distinguish the actual word pattern, not just a longer word from a shorter word?

A jacket with a ribcage headpiece (?) from BodyHackingCon
A jacket with a ribcage headpiece? This would make a splash at a science fiction convention.

Then you look around some more, and even with most vendors gone and large patches of the expo hall square footage reverting to its post-convention beige bleakness, you still see something unusual. At another exhibitor's booth, flanking it on both sides, two women are lying on the tables, looking for all the world like wax statues. Their eyes are covered with something that could be a sleep mask or a VR headset. You glance at the vendor's name -- bio- or healing-something -- and think it's more likely to be a mask. By the way, the name matches a definite pattern: half of the exhibitors' names here have "bio", or "quantum", or something vaguely medical in a New Agey way. Which is fitting, given that half of them sell nothing more than nutrition drinks and supplements.

You stumble upon exhibits of clothes that wouldn't be out of place a goth or punk store, except they have patches with wires sticking out, like something that's placed on you right before a surgery. Some also light up. Many would make a stunning costume at a science fiction convention, if you could spawn off a third or fourth alter ego to explore your mild interest in costuming. Overall, this is the bodyhacking you could get behind -- the kind that stays entirely outside the body.

Most of those clothes are art projects. One dress claims to simulate dark matter: "Dark Matter inflates and deflates against your body to simulate the universe expanding against you, and the buzzing sculptural universal necklace, "Dark Energy", buzzes against your skin to simulate movement through the universe in time in accordance with events happening in VR". But you have read enough science fiction and imagined the vast cosmic space enough times that you know if you put on that dress (not that it's an option) the experience would fall very short of feeling at the center of the expanding universe.

A cape that goes over some sensor with wires that's placed on your chest, seen at BodyHackingCon 2017 in Austin
A cape that goes over some sensor with wires that's placed on your chest, resembling uncannily of surgical preparations.

Some of the clothes have VR content associated with it accessible through your phone; and perhaps you could spend some interesting minutes with it, but just downloading the app would take some time, and the WiFi connection in this building is iffy, and the event is winding down and you are sure vendors are anxious to pack up and leave.

Finally on the way out you get a glimpse of a more radical kind of bodyhacking: a guy you pass in the hallway has small, but prominent devil's horns under the skin of his bald forehead.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book review: Lauren Beukes "The Shining Girls"

This is a book about a time-travelling serial killer and a woman who survives her own murder attempt and sets out to catch him. The most interesting part is that she doesn't even consider time travel as a possibility (the book is set in the conventional reality), but gradually comes to accept it, based on evidence.

The weakest chapters of the book were the ones written from the killer's point of view. Those parts have a detached, distancing quality. I didn't get any clue as to the killer's motivation. At some point he feels forced by the House itself (a house where he lives that serves as a portal to different eras) to go murder all those women. But he does not respond like an ordinary person would if they felt compelled to murder someone. At the very least s/he would be upset and conflicted about it. Even more so if the urge was planted directly in their mind by a mysterious force. That should make anyone question their own sanity, but the murderer does not seem disturbed. He is very nonchalant about all that.

If the killer had been portrayed in a way that readers could connect with him (and yes, to enjoy a book you have to connect with the villains too; you need to get into their mind and understand why they do what they do, even if you don't find it justifiable), I would have added another star to the review.

It is in the victims' plotlines that the storytelling really picks up. Each of the eight murdered women were interesting, different, and vivid. They made the book worth reading. It quickly became clear why they were called the Shining Girls. Each of them was ahead of her time in some way, breaking the mold of what was expected from women of their time. In that way perhaps the House could be viewed as embodiment of evil reactionary forces of the world. But if so, that metaphor isn't developed in the book very well.

The story really takes off when one of the women survives the attempted murder and gets on the killer's trail; as level-headed as she is, she is eventually forced to accept the evidence that the killer might have traveled in time to commit murders. I really liked that she applies every ounce of skepticism to examine all the other possible explanations, and only after exhausting them settles on the seemingly impossible.

I will not reveal the ending, except to say that it was a quite confusing. Perhaps that was deliberate: time travel stories are very difficult to resolve in a satisfactory and logical manner. Once you start dealing with time paradoxes, there is no good way out. So even though the ending felt handwavingly dismissive and intentionally obscure, it doesn't detract from the story that much; its essence was about the journey, not the destination.

Rating: approximately 3.5 or 4 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 24, 2016

ArmadilloCon 2015: New Feminist Science Fiction

Beside book and story recommendations, this panel on the best recent feminist science fiction and fantasy involved a discussion on what the panelists would like to see more in the feminist SF/F.

Feminist speculative fiction writers, recommended by our panelists

Stina Leicht recommends:

Kameron Hurley, Elizabeth Bear, Ann Leckie, Nisi Shawl, N. K. Jemison, G. Willow Wilson.

Katherine Sanger mentioned science fiction written by men that has awesome female characters, but it went by too fast for me to write down the names (-- E.)

Nancy Jane Moore recommends:

Andrea Hairston -- her work "Mindscape" really plays with gender stuff. Jennifer Marie Brissett "Elysium". Also, Aqueduct books. If you need a reading list of feminist SF, just go to the Aqueduct books page. And anything on the Tiptree awards page.

Kelley Eskridge's collection Dangerous Space. It has a character named Mars, and I defy you to tell me whether Mars is male or female.

Going into fantasy world -- Laurie J. Marks, whose Elemental Logic series starts with Fire Logic. Gender politics, war and peace, you name it, it is covered in the Elemental Logic.

Caroline Yoahim recommends:

Nicola Griffith Hild -- historical fantasy. She is a really intelligent female character. There is a freedom for her to explore sexuality in the way that was not available to women.

Tina Connoly: IronSkin, Copperhead, and Silverblind: steampunk Jane Eyre with fairies.

Nnedi Okorafor Who Fears Death

Nalo Hopkinson writes fantastic feminist stuff, such as Brown Girl in the Ring.

Short fiction

Caroline Yoachim recommends the Crossed Genres magazine. Of the notable stories there she recommends these:

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley "Space travel loses its allure when you've lost your moon cup".

Rachael K. Jones "Makeisha in Time" -- story of a black woman who lapses backward in time.

Alyssa Wong "The Fisher Queen" is up for a Nebula this year. It is a mermaid story, and some themes in it require trigger wanings. Cost of not speaking up against injustice.

Sofia Samatar "Selkie Stories are for Losers".

Amanda Downum recommends:

Kij Jonhson short story "Spar";

Catherine Valente's Fairyland series for children that starts with "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making".

What they would like to see more in the feminist science fiction

Amanda Downum. I am a fan of playing with subtle things, instead of bringing a hammer. I like Trojan horses. I like books with an array of women doing an array of interesting things. Not just having one special woman, because then it becomes a token.

Stina Leicht. I'm like you. I don't like having one special, kickass token female character to who nothing bad can happen. (She refers to Arya from Game of Thrones as an example of a female character that's singled out for special treatment.) Arya is great! She's never going to be raped!

Amanda Downum. I like the normalization of women doing things.

Caroline Yoachim. I like a wider range of cultures represented in SF.

Amanda Downum. I also have hard time pulling feminist out of broader range of cultures. (Perhaps she meant that it is impossible to dissociate diversity of cultures from feminism. -- E.)

Caroline Yoachim. The broadening of feminism in science fiction is a good thing.

Nancy Jane Moore. [I like that] We finally moved away for the reality where white male is the default, and anyone else's existence needs to be justified.

Stina Leicht. Minorities and women are historically not permitted anger. You're supposed to have a sense of humor, laugh it off.

Nancy Jane Moore. The same issue as with Sandra Bland dying in a jail cell. She was not permitted to get angry when she got pulled over.

Stina Leicht. When the Hunger Games movie was made, a lot of people got upset, because they were convinced that Rue was white. They thought it was not OK for her to be a person of color.

Amanda Downum. You can describe your character very clearly, and some readers will still sail past what you're trying to do. (I think she means that some readers will visualize your character as white even if you described him or her as a person of color, simply because white is the default to them. -- E.)

Caroline Yoachim. It's tricky. I'm half Japanese, and I write a lot of Asian characters. But you don't want to bludgeon people with the character's race. When you're writing a modern Japense American character, they don't have to have a traditional Japanese name. And people will automatically whitewash it.

Stina Leicht. It happened to Ursula LeGuin, the Earthsea wizard -- people assumed he was white.

Left to right: Caroline Yoachim, Nancy Jane Moore, Katherine Sanger, Amanda Downum, Stina Leicht.
Left to right: Caroline Yoachim, Nancy Jane Moore, Katherine Sanger, Amanda Downum, Stina Leicht. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2015 (37) are in my photo gallery.

Amanda Downum. One of the things that frustrated me in science fiction is that people stop questioning. They have their speculative idea, their fantasy world, but then they don't question and push -- they just stop. They found one thing they wanted to write about, and they don't think that anything else can be different. You have a world you are creating from scratch, so why don't you push yourself to imagine more? Why your gender relationships are like from the 1950s America?

Nancy Jane Moore. Academic book "Brain Storm" by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young -- most of research that find brain differences between men and women are bad science. When you look at differences among people, they don't break down along gender lines.

Amanda Downum. When you're a shallow writer, you're a shallow writer. It manifests in more than just not being able to write female characters.

More book recommendations

Caroline Yoachim recommends:

Collections of short stories: "Women destroy SF", "Women destroy fantasy", "Women destroy horror".

Nisi Shawl "Filter House" -- another Tiptree winner.

Amanda Downum recommends:

Jacqueline Koyanagi Tangled Axon books. The first book is "Ascencion".

Caroline Yoachim recommends:

Maureen McHugh: short story collections "After the Apocalypse", "Mothers and Other Monsters".

Nancy Jane Moore recommends:

"Necessary Ill" by Deb Taber. Her main character is a neuter. The neutter people go by "it". They are neither male nor female. They don't have genitals. They do very disturbing things. It is a disturbing book , and that's the greatest recommendation I can give for a book.

Amanda Downum. Talking about characters doing unpleasant things: I would like to have a discussion about female characters doing unpleasant things, and how audiences respond to them.

Stina Leicht. Women are people, and part of being people is making terrible mistakes. It happens, and it needs to be OK in the books.

Questions from the audience

Q1. How do you like the treatment of those issues in film?

Nancy Jane Moore. 10 minutes of Fury Road was a great movie. Overall I think film is way behind fiction.

All the panelists agree.

Amanda Downum. Marketing constraints, etc.

Stina Leicht. And there are very limited roles for women once they hit 35.

Caroline Yoachim. Also, other contraints like race, sexuality. When we celebrate the broad range of female characters in the books, that's totally not true for film.

Nancy Jane Moore. The only SF movie I liked last year was "Her". It is not feminist, but it is going someplace really interesting science fictionally. And the best feminist film of the last years is "Obvious Child", which is not science fiction.

Q2.Do you have high hopes for Ghostbusters?

Stina Leicht. I really don't, sorry to say. What does it say that our best feminist movei hope is a movie that's completely lacks in plot? It is just explosions. A woman driving a monster truck. I don't like what Hollywood is doing where we rehash everything. Hollywood caters to the established audiences, and they don't take chances.

They mention Geena Davis institute for women in film, and it is doing good work.

Q3 (not really a question, but a remark). A movie that was very interesting from feminist perspective was "The Age of Avalon" -- about a woman who doesn't age, and the difficulties she's going to have. She comes across one of her former lovers, who is 65, but she still looks 29. And she's dating his son.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Heina Dadabhoy speaks at the Atheist Community of Austin

At her pre-atheist-bat-cruise lecture, an ex-Muslim and atheist activist Heina Dadabhoy was rather critical of westerners stereotyping Muslim women. Her tone was gentle and playful, but the message was sharp.

Heina gave many examples of how Westerners like to fetishize Muslim women's presumed powerlessness and oppression. That doesn't really help the women, just like the memes that compare burqa-covered women with garbage bags don't either. It's not just conservatives: progressives do it too. And they should know better.

Western people like to not acknowledge that Muslim women have agency. It comes across in patronizing comments, such as when little old ladies would come up to Heina back when she wore a headscarf, and say "Dear, you know you don't have to wear that here." Heina was tempted to answer, "Here? Where else would I wear it? I haven't lived in any other country than US."

When she first got on the internet as an adolescent, and some men online found out that she was a Muslim, with a headscarf, trapped at home (I don't know if she meant that last part sarcastically or genuinely), they objectified her as an oppressed princess that needs to be saved. And there was an undercurrent of "you better be grateful and keep your bitch mouth shut". Heina pointed out that it happens in the atheist movement to, cough cough (I guess she meant Richard Dawkins, though he is not alone in that). She had people say to her: it's so great you left Islam! Are you still pure? Do you still have your headscarves? Can you wear one for me? The weirdos just keep coming out of the woodwork.

But Muslim women are not without agency, and Heina bristled against being portrayed as a helpless, isolated girl in need of rescue and liberation. Even as a teenager, growing up in a very strict fundamentalist environment, Heina and her friends found ways to have fun. For example, they used religious phrases to rate boys by hotness, e.g. "Look what the God has created!"

Heina Dadabhoy gives a lecture before the Atheist Community Austin bat cruise in September of 2015
Heina Dadabhoy gives a lecture before the Atheist Community Austin bat cruise in September of 2015. More pictures from the 2015 Atheist Community of Austin bat cruise are in my photo gallery.

Heina pointed out that all societies have patriarchal structures oppressing women. While there is no "law" in the West that women should shave their legs, the societal pressure is there nevertheless; the fact that no one is going to throw you in jail for refusing can make this norm even harder to get rid of. Whether you think that the less clothing a woman is wearing the more immoral the country is, or the freer it is, it's the same thing: you define women's sexuality as only in relation to men.

Later in her speech she gave a bunch of trivia about Islamic rules that govern dating, sex, relationships, and marriage. Not surprisingly, most of them don't take women's wishes into account. Oh, and she assured us that the myth that "virgins" (as in 72 virgins that await a man in heaven) is mistranslated "raisins" is completely wrong. The guy who said that just didn't understand language. Speaking of which, what do women get when they get to heaven? Apparently, in some corner of Islamic mythology it is written that women will be reclining on couches, eating, and they will be served by beautiful clear-eyed servant boys. There is a lot of discussion between Muslim women to what extent those boys are used. "So there is kind of some forward thinking there," says Heina.

(I already forgot if all women were supposed to get these boy servants in heaven, or only particularly virtuous ones, or maybe just the ones who died as martyrs.)

Some people from the audience asked her how, with all the gender segregation, are you supposed to meet a person you're going to marry? She replied that it could be someone you met at a mosque, or it might be someone your parents knew all his or her life. There is also a lot of halal flirting going on in the hallways of Islamic association gatherings: "Can I have your dad's email?" Oh, and Islamic men and women who are unmarried are called boy and girl, even if they are in their 40s.

As a takeaway message, she said we should champion an attitude of female agency. We should not buy into Islam's erasure. We should not agree when Westerners say, oh, Islam women are oppressed and have no agency. The most important thing, the most pragmatic thing is harm reduction. We should not try to deconvert them all, its not going to happen. A person from the audience asked her for ideas on how to support progressive Islam. Heina replied: "For one thing, western people should not be smartass and condescending: 'ha ha, you are a Muslim feminist? How do you do that?' Progressive Muslims are eager to get involved, but nobody even notices that they exist." When Heina points out to someone that she is an ex-Muslim, someone inevitably tells her that all ex-Muslims are dead.

(People from the other side tell her she's been bought and paid for, but she is still waiting for that check.)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Short Fiction You Should Have Read Last Year: ArmadilloCon 2015 panel

For starters, panelists K. B. Rylander (moderator), Eugene Fischer, and Rebecca Schwarz list their favorite short stories of the year.

Rebecca Schwarz. Ken Liu "Cassandra".

K. B. Rylander. Eugie Foster "In the end, he catches her". It was published the day she died, just by coincidence.

Best sources of short stories

Rebecca Schwarz. I listen to a lot of stories. There are lots of great ways to listen to them, such as the podcasts by Clarkesworld, Cast of Wonders (Young Adult fiction), Beneath the Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons. Tor is on and off with their podcasting, but sometimes you can discover great stories there, like Kij Johnson. Escape Pod -- they do a lot of reprints. (It also exists in the print form.) Starship Sofa also does a lot of reprints. Bourbon Penn.

Eugene Fischer. Lightspeed, Strange Horizons. Oddly, the best publication for finding new authors these days is Twitter. Follow authors, they will recommend a lot of stories. This year majority of the stories I found is not because I read Asimov's cover to cover, but because I follow authors, and when they have a story out, they'll tweet a link. You can harness social network effects to curate your reading for you.

Short Stories You Should Have Read This Year panel, left to right: K. B. Rylander (moderator), Eugene Fischer, Rebecca Schwarz.
Short Stories You Should Have Read This Year panel, left to right: K. B. Rylander (moderator), Eugene Fischer, Rebecca Schwarz. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2015 (37) are in my photo gallery.

K. B. Rylander. When you think about stories you loved, what makes a great story? What makes them stand out?

Eugene Fischer quotes Kevin Brockmeier, who said that every great fiction owes its greatness to fidelity to one of 3 things: fidelity to language, fidelity to lived human experience, or fidelity to authorial obsession. An example of fidelity to language would be Ursula le Guin. An example of fidelity to authorial obsession -- J. G. Ballard. His writing is off the wall, but the images were strongly felt to the author. If a story doesn't bring at least one of those things to the table, says Kevin Brockmeier, then it won't work.

Rebecca Schwarz. I like stories that play with form, such as "Five Stages of Grief After The Alien Invasion" by Caroline Yoachim, who hangs the story on the traditional five stages of grief. Another example would be "Noise Pollution" by Allison Wilgus in Strange Horizons. It's punk as in cyberpunk. It's a young rebellious kid narrator telling a story.

K. B. Rylander. The way I approach story, the story needs to elicit emotion from the reader. Even in hard science fiction there needs to be emotional interest for that reader.

Eugene Fischer. "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology" by Theodora Goss, published in Lightspeed, resembles Borghes: it's about how reality actually works. Lorrie Moore, in an introduction to "Best American Short Stories", said that a novel comes to us already half-ruined by its length, but in short story we can experience something pristine: a single moment. It is not necessarily in time, but a single esthetic moment. In "Cimmeria", students go to a field study in a country that exists only because they made it up. One of them falls in love with the daughter of a king. In this country there are strange cultural differences that they invented when they designed this country. One of them is, twins are actually the same person. The esthetic moment is, a shift from viewing cultural experience as an outsider, to viewing it as an insider. It's not a moment in time, but a moment in cognition.

K. B. Rylander. A lot of time in a story there is a very visceral emotion that people can relate to: loss, love, revenge. Those strong emotion stories are often ones that become the big stories for the year.

Rebecca Schwarz. Annie Bellet "Goodnight Stars": it was nominated for Hugos, but she withdrew.

Eugene Fischer Sam J. Miller "We are the cloud".

The panelists mention that they've found many notable stories that draw from global mythology, such as Chinese or Pakistani. An example would be Carmen Maria Machado "The Husband Stitch", nominated for the Nebula Award.

Humor stories

Rebecca Schwarz. Daily SF publishes a lot of humor. Also, Alex Shvartsman publishes humor anthologies, Unidentified Funny Objects.

K. B. Rylander. Two flash pieces: "I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galexies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything." by Laura Pearlman. It's a Reddit with an alien who has came to earth. Oliver Buckram "Half a Conversation, Overheard While Inside An Enormous Sentient Slug".

Eugene Fischer. Alice Sola Kim "Mothers, lock up your daughters because they are terrifying" -- a ghost story of Korean adoptees loking for the biological parents with the help of Cthulhu.

K. B. Rylander. Kris Dikeman "Madhouse on Aisle 12" -- a woman goes to a grocery store, and the food talks to her. It's hilarious.

Great stories that didn't get much attention

K. B. Rylander. What stories were great, but didn't get a lot of attention?

Eugene Fischer. Guernica magazine published a story by Anna Noyes, "Becoming", from a point of view of chimpanzee who grew up in an 1950s experiment of raising a chimp in a human family to see if it grows up like human. It's not going to get attention in genre fiction awards, and there's no such thing as realist fiction awards.

K. B. Rylander. Story by William Ledbetter, "That Other Sea", publsihed on Escape Pod (available in both podcast and text versions). It takes place on Europa, on the theory that there is life under ice on Europa. It's a first contact story from the point of view of the aliens. What drew me into the story is that the alien has overwhelming curiosity about the world, the yearning for what's out there.

Rebecca Schwarz. A story in Strange Horizons, Kate Heartfield, "Limestone, Lye and the Buzzing of Flies". It leans a little literary, it's a little interior. It's a fantastic coming-of-age story with magic elements.

Must-read short story writers

K. B. Rylander. Do you have any must-read writers?

Eugene Fischer. Carmen Maria Machado, Ted Chiang, Alice Sola Kim, Kelly Link, Meghan McCarron.

Rebecca Schwarz. Karen Russell, M. Bernardo (she recommends his story in Beneath the Ceaseless Skies, possibly "The Penitent" or "After Compline, Silence Falls"), Kevin Brockmeier.

K. B. Rylander. Sarah Pinsker, Caroline Yoachim.

Controversial, influential, wave-making stories

K. B. Rylander. What stories do you think were very important to the industry as a whole, that really made waves, that were controversial?

Rebecca Schwarz. Cruel stories well done are just perfect. Chuck Palahniuk wrote a story "Loser" in Neil Gaiman anthology, it's aboujt a guy on The Price is Right, he's tripping on acid, and he gets called on the stage.

Eugene Fischer. Kij Johnson "Spar". Kij Johnson experimented with stripping as much as possible from the story. It produced incredible winners, including "26 Monkeys". Rachel Swirsky "If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love".

Rebecca Schwarz. "Dinosaur" became politicized in the Hugos, and that had nothing to do with the story.

Eugene Fischer. "Dinosaur" became a token, a symbol for people for who stories with emotional load is not sufficient. People who think they have ownership over what the speculative fiction genre should be.

Trends in short fiction

K. B. Rylander. Do you want to talk about any trends in short fiction? Do you see it evolving recently?

Eugene Fischer. Last year it shifted to digital publication. Print is fully an afterthought. Charlie Finley's new regime in Fantasy and Science Fiction produces very good stuff. Print venues are continuing to do good job, but the critical mass of attention has shifted online.

Rebecca Schwarz. I'm seeing more diversity. Ken Liu has now translated several short stories from Chinese.

Eugene Fischer. Chris Brown two years ago co-edited an anthology "3 messages and a warning" of Mexican science fiction stories translated into English.

Then Eugene Fischer asks the other two panelists: What's out there that people should read of yours?

Rebecca Schwarz. "Black Friday". It is a story of a future dystopic Thanksgiving that has become codified, football game to the death, in a big box store, that everybody watches. It is in Devilfish Review.

K. B. Rylander. "We Fly", about trying to find life in Alpha Centauri system. It's based on real science. The story opens when an uploaded human mind, a woman, wakes up in a spaceship. She wakes up, and something is completely wrong, but there is no external damage. It's her trying to work through these things.