Thursday, October 26, 2006

A click of recognition comes from an unexpected place

I saw this message a few days back on one of email lists I am on. A guy asked how to do a certain thing in Linux. His question wasn't all that interesting: it's the P.S. that attracted my attention:

If you want to know *why* I want to do this, google "my life bits
gorden bell" or just go strait to...

MyLifeBits is a project to capture, digitize and organize all the information a person comes across or generates in his/her lifetime. Ambitious, to say the least. And I find this idea very tempting. Many times I have wished that every piece of information that ever crossed my horizon, every thought that ever popped up in my mind, was searchable and accessible. I feel this most acutely while writing. I know I forgot too many metaphors and dialog bits by not writing them down on time. It would help to have a digital map of brain. A brain equivalent, if you will. A brain dual. The latter word came to my mind when I read somebody's response to the above-quoted email:

This reminds me of the story "Learning To Be Me" in Greg Egan's collection Axiomatic: "I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to be me." An interesting story if not about Linux.

In this story, the term "jewel" is a bastardization of "dual". The jewel/dual is a little device that carries an exact copy of its owner's personality. It creates that copy over a period of time, by recording its owner's every thought, emotion, memory, or sensation. It takes decades, but it winds up containing a mind that's indistinguishable from the one contained in a brain in which the jewel lives.

Then, when copy is considered to be complete, the owner undergoes surgery to remove his or her brain and to enable the jewel to take over all the functions of the brain. The owner doesn't notice the difference, because the copy contained by the jewel is identical to his/her brain down to the tiniest detail. Nobody else notices a difference either. The owner still looks the same from the outside -- no one can tell that his/her brain has been scooped out and replaced with plastic filling. Most importantly, he/she still acts like the same person. There's no way to tell a person with a jewel from a person with a biological brain.

These "jewels" are enormously durable and indestructible; for all practical purposes they exist forever. Hence, the human lifespan has been extended into centuries and millenia. (I don't remember, though, if other parts of the biological body are similarly replaced by indestructible equivalents, or if not, what is done to prolong their lifespan. But that's not very important. If the humankind has figured out how to extend the longevity of the brain, one can assume they would have solved the problem of longevity of other body parts.)

Replacement of brains with jewels has been deemed safe; pretty much everyone on Earth has undergone this operation, and no one has complained. But... a lot of things have unintended consequences, and potential problems with brain replacement can lead to some of the most chilling consequences one can ever imagine. While this story probably does not belong to the genre of horror, it is one of the most viscerally scary stories I've ever read. The horror lies not just in the circumstances experienced by the protagonist -- although the situation he ends up is definitely very disturbing -- but also in the fact that his situation follows logically from the setup, yet is nearly impossible to predict or prevent.

Consequences that are logical, yet hard to predict, are to me the Holy Grail that any SF story should pursue. It's very hard to achieve. But "Learning To Be Me" achieves it brilliantly, and in the process disturbs you so profoundly that for a while you just want to push it to the back of your mind and not think about it. (Or maybe I'm just being hypersensitive. :-)) All this makes "Learning To Be Me" one of the best SF stories I've ever read.

How interesting, then, it was to hear about it from a stranger in an unexpected context. And how interesting that some stranger on the mailing list tied this story to something that has been one of my innocuous pet fantasies -- digitizing the contents of my brain. Not that I ever dreamed about having it replaced with a "jewel". :-) MyLifeBits is a far cry from what Greg Egan's "jewel" was supposed to accomplish, but my pet fantasy has suddenly revealed a much darker facet. :-)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick: FACT group discussion and my own opinion

On October 3, 2006 the FACT reading group discussed "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick. Of 6 people who attended the discussion, only 2 people finished reading, or rather re-reading it. Some others had read it long ago when it first came out. One reader commented that he enjoyed "A Scanner Darkly" back then, but it didn't seem as good the second time around. This change in perspective was attributed to the reader's head being in a different place than it was a couple of decades ago. :-)

Two readers said they liked this book because they like books about paranoia. One reader could really relate to the paranoia, experienced by the protagonist; in her view, paranoia was inseparable from the 1965-75 drug era that she thought Philip Dick portrayed so well. (Actually, "A Scanner Darkly" is set in 1994, but I guess its "real age" is the 1960s, in the same way that the real era in which Ray Bradbury's novels are set is the 1930s, regardless of what time period the author claims they are set in.) Paranoia pervaded her childhood in the 50s (House Un-American Activities Committee); she was also forced to go to a very strict fundamentalist church and could not speak to anyone forthrightly about her concerns. Every idea in her head had to be kept hidden from adults. So she said she could relate quite well to the paranoia the protagonist is experiencing.

One thing she found missing in the book's portrayal of the drug subculture of the 60s was the musical motif. This time period was intensely focused on music, but there's no mention of music in the book. However, Philip K. Dick captured a lot of the realities of the drug era really well. As an example, she said, "there were people who were a little on the speed-freaky edge, who would really start motormouthing, and you have big chunky paragraphs full of blathering on and on, which was really typical of some people."

Another member of the group disliked this book for pretty much the same reasons that caused the previously mentioned reader to relate well to it. He said, "I found this book difficult to read. It was dealing with a culture that's completely not optimistic, and so nothing good was going to happen in the book. It was very depressing. The book has occasional humor in it, for example, the story about the older brother who was a bug. Philip Dick does a good job of getting into people's heads, but I did not want to get into these people's heads. I could not sympathize with them. I didn't want to think like them. " That's despite the fact that he liked some of Philip K. Dick's earlier books like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" As far as portrayal of a split personality, there have been better books on that, too, in his opinion.

The group universally agreed that "A Scanner Darkly" is not a science fiction book, and that it was chosen for reading only because it was written by an author who is known for writing science fiction. :-)

My opinion of the book can be found in this post in my "official" science fiction blog, but beware -- it's laden with spoilers.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My battle with comment spam

Crap. Spammers have discovered my SFragments site and flooded it with disgusting spammy comments. I had previously made it so that only registered users would be able to comment, but that didn't help. Spammers have been registering with impunity. And why shouldn't they, if Geeklog, the CMS my site runs on, does not even present them with captchas? At least that was the case two years ago, when I installed Geeklog. For all I know, Geeklog may have captchas now, but I wouldn't know, because I have not upgraded it since then. So in a way I do deserve what I get. :-) It's just that back then, caught up in the enthusiasm of creating my very own site, I did not figure in the time it will take to maintain the software that runs the site. Such as to execute periodic upgrades and deal with breakages that typically follow the upgrades. :-) And captchas are not a panacea against spammers. I've heard spammers have tools for solving captchas.

The reason I chose Geeklog in the first place was because a certain technically-oriented group of very 1337 people had chosen it to run their website. So I concluded it must be a Good Thing. Since then, the webmasters of that organization found out there were security holes in Geeklog, and migrated their website to a different CMS. I've been thinking of doing that too for more than a year, but have been paralyzed by the mind-boggling multitude of CMS'es that exist out there. I did not even know how to begin to evaluate them.

Now that I got a taste of dealing with spammers, I have formulated at least some of my requirements.

1. It should allow the administrator to either disable creation of new users, or set it to where the administrator must approve all new users before they can do anything. (Geeklog claims to have this feature, but it doesn't really work.)

2. It should allow one-click batch-editing of comments. By editing I mean mostly "deletion", because I don't expect any comments other than spam.

3. It should allow the administrator to "close" a particular story for comments, so that neither registered nor unregistered users would be able to post new comments.

4. It should allow one-click batch-editing of users. An admin should be able to "select all" newly registered users and delete them. Because I don't really expect any other users than spammers to register on my site.

5. It should allow the administrator to batch-delete the submitted articles with one click. Because I don't really expect any non-spammy articles to be submitted to my site (except by me, of course).

Geeklog does not seem to live in this century, because it does not have any such functionality. Comment spam was well known even back in 2004 when I first installed Geeklog, so I don't see why this hasn't occurred to its developers (or they didn't think it was a priority). It adds insult to injury to have to delete every spam-user or every spammy comment by hand. After discovering there is no such batch-delete functionality, I had to login directly into the database my Geeklog installation uses and whack all the comment rows, and set certain fields to disable comments. It's a shame you have to go directly into the database for that, instead of doing it from Geeklog administrator's user interface. Fortunately, Geeklog design seems robust enough so that whacking those rows did not create constraint violation elsewhere in the database. As far as creation of new users, I decided to "cripple" my site by commenting out the new user creation function, so that anyone who tries that would get a PHP runtime error. Radical, and ugly measures, but, gee... I really hope spammers won't find a way around THAT! :-)

And now, to shake off the analysis paralysis, and go find CMS that meeets my requirements.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Chinese and their dead

Chinese customs regarding the dead are a treasure trove of ideas for science-fictional world building, I tell you.

First, there was an article a while ago on about strippers performing at Chinese funerals. The kin of a deceased person would invite strippers in order to attract more people to the funeral, because one of the key measures of a person's status in the Chinese society is how many people came to his or her funeral.

Many science fiction conventions have discussion panels on building alien cultures. For a SF or fantasy novelist it is important to describe an alien culture that would be different from us in interesting ways and challenge our assumptions about how things should be. It's difficult to create an alien society that's both sufficiently alien and yet understandable to us. I've heard it said that a science fiction writer can find inspiration for creating alien civilizations simply by observing other human cultures. I thought an article about strippers at funerals provided some interesting society-building material.

And now, by way of New York Times, more inspirational weirdness from the Chinese.

Dead Bachelors in Remote China Still Find Wives

For many Chinese, an ancestor is someone to honor, but also someone whose needs must be maintained. Families burn offerings of fake money or paper models of luxury cars in case an ancestor might need pocket change or a stylish ride in the netherworld.

But here in the parched canyons along the Yellow River known as the Loess Plateau, some parents with dead bachelor sons will go a step further. To ensure a son's contentment in the afterlife, some grieving parents will search for a dead woman to be his bride and, once a corpse is obtained, bury the pair together as a married couple.

This custom isn't mind-blowingly weird, but it is... promising. It has the potential. And like any fantasy novel worth its salt, the article duly explores this potential. Only, of course, it's not fantasy. It's real life. But let's look at it from a perspective of building an alien culture for our novel. This article hits all the right world-building points. It's clear that our imaginary novelist has thought through the implications of the customs and beliefs he has introduced into the culture he's creating.

For example. Where there's a demand, there will be a commercial opportunity.

People say parents of a dead son depend on an informal network of friends or family, or even a well-connected fixer, to locate a family that has recently lost a single daughter. Selling or buying corpses for commercial purposes is illegal in China, but these individual transactions, usually for cash, seem to fall into a fuzzier category and are quietly arranged between families.

And when the demand is hard to meet (as it must be in a society with the gender ratio skewed in favor of men), some traders may put aside their scruples. For some people, the end justifies the means.

"There are girls who have drowned in the river down there," [said a farmer in a remote Chinese village]. "When their bodies have washed up, their families could get a couple of thousand yuan for them."


The existence of such a market for brides has led to scattered reports of grave robbing. This year, a man in Shaanxi Province captured two men trying to dig up the body of his wife, according to a local news account. In February, a woman from Yangquan tried to buy the remains of a dead 15-year-old girl, abandoned at a hospital in another city, to satisfy her unmarried deceased brother.

Now let's add a sympathetic touch to the alien culture we're building. Let's say the parents of dead single daughters have more than commercial considerations for selling their daughters' corpses. Doing that satisfies their cherished beliefs:

[...] parents with dead daughters, like those with dead sons, were also carrying out an obligation to their child. They will sell their bodies as a way of finding them a place in a Chinese society where tradition dictates that a daughter has no place on her father's family tree.

"China is a paternal clan culture," said Professor Guo, who did postdoctoral work in anthropology at Harvard. "A woman does not belong to her parents. She must marry and have children of her own before she has a place among her husband's lineage. A woman who dies unmarried has no place in this world."

So in a strange way, the girls benefit from having corpses traded away after death. Perhaps they die in the comfort of belief that they won't end up forever as outcasts, having no place in anyone's family and therefore in the world. Perhaps they trust that their parents will find them a match after death. That's a nice concept that underscores the alienness of this alien culture we are building, but in a way that makes sense to a Western reader. On one hand, we may not identify deeply with this desire to belong to someone's family tree after our death, hence we get a feeling that these epeople think differently from us. On the other hand, such a wish is understandable even to us, so we, the reader, may start to see this culture in a more sympathetic light.

Still, if the heroine of my story belonged to this culture, would I make her desire to find a place after death a motivating factor for her actions? Would I let it dictate her critical choices? Probably not, since I don't think a Western reader would find this motivation sufficiently convincing.