Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ted Chiang speech on lifelogging

Lifelogging is an emerging trend of recording every, or nearly every moment of your life. A simple example of lifelogging would be wearing a video recorder that records continuous video and audio of everything you see and do. Ted Chiang used this example to speculate about how lifelogging would change our society. He made carefully balanced points both for external-recording-as-memory, and against. In the end, I think, he is for it. Here are the highlights of his speech.

Even as we might think that a video of our life would never be used as a memory substitute but only as aid, it won't be so. We have been outsourcing our memory for millennia in every way we could. Ancient Greek philosophers complained that writing has corrupted people by weakening their memories; no one could recite thousands and thousands of lines of Iliad or Odyssey anymore. Since then, outsourcing of memory has only picked up pace. We don't remember phone numbers, because we rely on having them stored in our phones; we are less inclined to commit facts to memory, because we can always Google them. So if we have a continuous video of our life, we will come to rely on it instead of our internal memory; it will become, in fact, our memory.

But our memory is not a documentary; it is a web of narratives that get edited every time we remember something. Recalling past events adds layer after layer to our memories, and also distorts them. Most of our memories contain a version of events that pleases us, or lets us see our lives as having a narrative arch. Maybe it lets us to hold on to a thought that our life is getting better in one way or another -- for example, that our love for our spouse grows deeper over time; and that can be useful, because without this illusion we might not have the strength to go on. For example, in a certain study the female participants said they shared as many interests and spent as much time with their husbands as 10 years ago; but the researchers, who had asked the same question of these same women 10 years ago, noted that it wasn't true: the number of shared interests and the amount of closeness had declined.

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2014 are in my photo gallery.

As we edit our memories, we are also eliminating those memories that are inconsistent with the way we see ourselves. Ted Chiang gave two examples of famous science fiction writers who had been on the giving or receiving end of it. One of them had misremembered the year of his father's death by 2 years, until fact checkers found an old obituary for his father in the newspapers, and pointed out the inconsistency. The writer provided a hypothesis for that: since his father died just a few months before he started college, and the freshman year of college was a very exciting time for him, his memory simply refused to put those two events in one year. The emotional "tone" of those events was much too dissimilar for them to have happened just months apart.

The other writer in Ted Chiang's example found out, as an adult, that his mother didn't remember beating him with a rope as a child. She denied ever doing that. Again, the way this could be explained is that back in the early 20th century (the time of this writer's childhood) it was acceptable to beat children, but a few decades later it was far less so. So his mother, thinking of herself as a good mother, unconsciously edited out of her memory the episodes of beating her child.

But if we edit out our memories in which we have hurt others, then we are not doing justice to those people; we are denying them their experiences. Similarly, the ruling elite of a nation might be denying the acknowledgement of suffering to the groups in the nation that they had oppressed. The notion of justice -- both interpersonal and on world scale -- requires that we remember our wrongdoings. This was Ted Chiang's conclusion, and this is why he thinks, after all, that lifelogging would be a step in the right direction.

Questions and discussion with the audience

Audience member 1. Forgetting can be very helpful in getting over a trauma; especially forgetting violent events. If we can't forget anything, if our video is there, we might be tempted to go back to those traumatic moments and never make progress in healing.

Ted Chiang responded that these days researchers are working on medicines that help us selectively forget, allowing one to heal from PTSD. (This doesn't quite address the question that selective forgetting won't do you much good if you'll be tempted to go back and revisit the record of violent events. -- E.)

Audience member 2. A certain amount of forgetting goes a very long way in maintaining good relationships with your relatives. When you meet and talk with them only a few times a year, it helps if you had forgotten things they did that made you very angry, or hurt you.

Ted Chiang responded that it would be even better if that person remembered how they wronged you, and be motivated not to do it again.

Audience member 3. What if having a video of all moments of our life would prompt us to live our life as if we are creating a story? When I was in college I deliberately went and did things, had experiences, to have something to write home about. Friday afternoon would come and I would think, oh, I haven't done "anything" this week yet (out of the ordinary) -- I should go be interesting for a couple of hours now!

Ted Chiang responded that this wouldn't be the same as how people these curate their Facebook profiles, posting only those activities that form an image they like. If we don't have to worry about anyone seeing our video, we won't be motivated to appear a good person on the tape.

That last statement hinged on a pretty big assumption, which Ted Chiang stated upfront at the beginning of his talk: that privacy and security issues had been solved, and we don't have to worry about our life record being viewed by the eyes it wasn't intended for. I think Ted Chiang made this assumption only to keep the scope of discussion manageable, not because he thought it would be easy. Still, it was near impossible to discuss lifelogging-as-memory without getting tangled in the issues of privacy, as is evident from the audience's questions.

Audience member 4. What happens when a hacker hacks into the record of your memories? Surely it will happen, because any and every technology that has ever existed has been hacked into.

Ted Chiang. Even if hackers modify your own memories, that wouldn't be the end of the world for you, because any kind of public event would be recorded by at least some other people. So you could compare your memories with theirs, and restore the truth. (This doesn't address the cases when the event is private and nobody else has a record of it; or what if a hacker makes your most private moments public? Or what if you don't even know your memories were tampered with, and thus have no reason to compare them with others' memories? -- E.)

Audience member 5. If everything you do is recorded in the continuous video of your life, then any movie you've seen will also be in it. So who will own that part of the video -- you or the movie studio? If you want to rewatch a movie, would you need to pay to get access to your own memories? If you don't pay, is it piracy?

Ted Chiang pointed out that movie studios are already dealing with similar issues even today, because you can download a movie from the torrents as soon as it comes out on the screen. This won't be that different.

Other audience members asked more questions without good answers. For example, 5th amendment. Police can confiscate your computer records, video records, or any kind of records if they are needed in an investigation of a crime; but if the recording is literally considered to be your memory, they might not have a right to confiscate it, as that would be the same as forcing you to speak. How would the laws, or constitution need to be rewritten in such a case?

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Book Review: James Cambias "A Darkling Sea"

This book was praised by more than one of my acquaintances who are not writers. It is an important distinction. I have been increasingly disappointed by new books recommended by science fiction or fantasy writers, and have come to suspect that those books are hyped because of something other than good storytelling. But I know that if my nonwriter friends enjoy a book, it must have an engaging plot and characters; and if they are techies, it probably has well thought-out, science-based (or at least systematic, even if magic-based) worldbuilding.

"A Darkling Sea" has a lot of that. The worldbuilding is superb, and it has plenty of intrigue, as its human protagonists deal with not just one, but two very different alien races. Yet I was ambivalent about this book. It left me with a strange feeling that the majority of the plot was just the setup for something that didn't quite happen. But it is not true, of course: the plot arch arched satisfactorily, and was properly resolved in the last couple of chapters. So it must be that my expectations were different.

While this book shows a clash between two technologically advanced races, it is positively NOT a space opera. The action is carried out guerilla-style at the bottom of the sea on a distant planet. There, a group of human researchers observe Ilmatarans -- underwater, bottom-dwelling intelligent beings -- until another alien race, Sholen, tells them to quit or else. It is really about a conflict between human and alien psychology. But it rather lacks intensity and sharpness of psychological conflicts that such a claustrophobic setting could -- or should -- provide. Then again, my measuring stick for similar themes -- humans living in close quarters, isolated from civilization, facing the unknown -- is Peter Watts' "Blindsight". Few novels live up to the intensity of "Blindsight", so perhaps it's not fair to measure "A Darkling Sea" against it.

Still, when the driving force of the plot is a conflict between human and alien mentality, the book needs better characterization. As it is, the characters in it (the humans at least) are likeable, but bland. There aren't any strong, quirky characters through which such a conflict could manifest.

The worldbuilding in this novel, however, is excellent. It's not an easy feat to create two credible, different, nonhumanoid races, but this novel did just that. Between the Ilmatarans and the Sholen, Ilmatarans are definitely a more completely fleshed-out civilization. The name Ilmatarans is the only thing incongruous about it, because this name brings to mind J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. That's unfortunate, because the lobster-like, underwater-dwelling Ilmatarans couldn't be more unlike Tolkien's elves. Other than that, their culture, mentality, customs, even speech idioms follow from the physical conditions of their world. Living at the bottom of the ocean, they don't have eyes (which would be of no use in the perpetual darkness), and instead perceive the world and communicate via echolocation and taste. As with every alien species, a writer has to straddle a careful line between making them boringly human-like, and making them too alien for us to understand. With Ilmatarans, the author fell back on a tried-and-true method of making them a pre-industrial race, akin to a medieval, feudal society on Earth; they were starting to engage with the world scientifically, but their societal structures were quite primitive. That way, as alien as they are, they are still simple enough for us to understand.

What especially intrigued me about Ilmatarans was their number-speech. They assigned non-obvious semantics to numbers, and considered not just factorization of a number, but also its decomposition into a sum of integers; from that they inferred something about a person's character. Too bad it didn't play a big part in the book; I would have liked to know more about that. Even though there is no scientific basis for such a cabbalistic approach, it could tell us a lot about a culture.

But an even more interesting race was Sholen, the spacefaring civilization that clashed with humans over the sphere of influence. They were a spaghetti ball of intriguing contradictions. They had a self-proclaimed "hands-off-the-universe" attitude, which meant they wanted uncontacted alien races to remain so, and especially to stay free of influence of humans -- yet they enforced their peace philosophy rather aggressively. Their social structures and modes of interaction were a bit like bonobos', but they were nothing like the friendly, frolicky apes. My impression of them was more like hulking, menacing, six-limbed monsters. Despite all that, Sholen did not seem to be a poorly thought-out heap of inconsistencies, but a complex race with its own internal logic.

While the novel was enjoyable, it wasn't exactly groundbreaking, and that's why I will only give it 4 stars. I like to reserve 5 stars for books that do something innovative, such as develop an original scientific or philosophical idea. (Yes, like Peter Watts "Blindsight"). The setup, storytelling, mood, and characters of "A Darkling Sea" strongly resemble classical science fiction. An comparison that comes to mind is "Dragon's Egg", which also has primitive but smart creatures living in an extreme environment (super-high gravity of a neutron star). It is classical in the sense that science and technological resourcefulness takes precedence over character depth; the human characters in the book are not especially interesting. But the book is at least modern in the sense that female and male characters are equal in skill and courage.

I also have one minor beef with this book. The ending reveals a surprise whose impact can only be fully understood if you kept track of tiny, insignificant pieces of information scattered throughout the book. At least that's my guess. When I read the last sentence, I thought "huh"? What's that have to do with anything? Is the object mentioned in there referenced anywhere earlier in the book? If it was, I quickly forgot it (it was no more than a minor detail), and I don't even know how far back I would have to go in the book to find earlier references. Or is there an implication that this object could only have been left behind by yet another, ancient, long-lost civilization? If so, it must be a setup for a sequel, because this object played no role in the book that I could tell. Luckily, the plot had already been wrapped up at that point, so the ending was just a bonus "huh".

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ArmadilloCon 2014 interview with Ted Chiang

Jayme Lynn Blaschke interviewed Ted Chiang, one of the two ArmadilloCon 2014 writer Guests of Honor. They talked about linguistics and time travel, story length and starting from the end, and obsolete scientific theories as story material. Here is a condensed version of the interview.

Why, despite the plans to make "The Story Of Your Life" into a movie, Ted Chiang does not consider himself a Hollywood bigshot.

Until the cameras start rolling, there is no guarantee that the movie will get made: many movies had been canceled at the last minute.

About the process of writing "The Story of Your Life"

Originally Ted Chiang wanted to write a story about someone who knew the future, but was unable to change it. What sort of emotions that person might experience, knowing that both good things and bad things were going to happen, and not able to do anything about it? Linguistics came into the story later, as Ted Chiang tried to figure out how to grant this protagonist ability to know the future. Meditation or mind-altering drugs didn't seem very interesting possibilities. Then he remembered Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines our perception of the world. The notion of being able to know the future by learning an alien language seemed very interesting, and only then the story became about linguistics.

At that time he didn't know a lot about linguistics, so he spend the next several years reading books about it and working on his writing, so as to become a good enough writer to tackle this story.

More about his writing process

He first comes up with the ending for a story, and works backward from there to determine what needs to happen. That way the stories don't "get away" from him like they do for many other writers who work without a plan.

About story length, and the [un]likelihood of writing a novel

Though he turned down a Hugo award for the story "Liking What You See" because it was too rushed (under the publisher's deadline he could not expand that story into the length he originally wanted it to be), Ted Chiang is content with how it turned out, and has no plans to rewrite it. He doesn't write novels, because each of his stories takes up only as much length as is required to develop the idea of the story. That's not to say he wouldn't write a novel if he ever got a novel-length idea; it just hasn't happened.

And while some audience members thanked Ted Chiang for "resurrecting" short story, he doesn't think short story is on the way to become a commercially viable art form. Though e-readers enable people to read in short bursts, they haven't lead to short story renaissance.

Ted Chiang (left) and Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Ted Chiang (left) and Jayme Lynn Blaschke. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2014 are in my photo gallery.

About Ted Chiang's early writing days

His first story, written at the age 15, was an disaster-in-space story about an attempted rescue of astronauts in a spaceship. Even so, the adventure stories he wrote were science-based. One of them involved research the wavelength of gamma ray emitted when electrons collided with positrons. In other words, as Jayme Lynn Blaschke pointed out, he was writing for Analog.

What influences helped his transition from adventure stories to more philosophical ones?

John Crowley, Gene Wolf, and Ed Bryant. Ted Chiang highly praised Ed Bryant as a currently forgotten author who won a couple of Nebula awards in the 80s for his science fiction short stories. He especially recommended Bryant's story collection "Particle Theory". Ted Chiang credits him for opening his eyes to the ways you could use science as a metaphor for human experience.

Ted Chiang's story "72 Letters" where the concept of preformation, meaning that all living beings contain microscopic, but fully-formed versions of their future children, happens to be true. What appeal do obsolete, discredited scientific theories hold for Ted Chiang, at least as story potential?

People believed in those ideas because they were not self-evidently false: it required some experimental results for them to be discredited. So you could imagine a universe where they were true. As far as preformation goes, a human being or any organism is incredibly complicated, so it's not obvious that it could come from a single cell like an ovum. We still don't completely understand the details of how a fertilized egg becomes a human being. So a theory that we are fully formed on a scale too small to see is not unreasonable; though if you take it to its logical conclusion, that Adam and Eve's sperm and ova contained the entire human race in them, it starts to seem less plausible. In any case, you have to perform the right kinds of experiments to determine that it's wrong.

Ted Chiang is also interested in what are the things we take for granted now, not knowing that they are based on an incorrect scientific theory.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

What can go wrong at a hackathon, or Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The application I worked on at SheHacksATX was called Groove. It is a fertility tracking app that's primarily mobile, but its owner Jennifer wanted a few features to be added to the Groove website. One of the features was an image with clickable parts, each of which produced a different text explanation; another was a rotating image slider with captions for each slide, that would pause when a mouse hovers over it, and resume when the mouse is moved off of it. I took the task of creating the slider, and the other developer in our team took the image. Of course, I didn't create the slider completely on my own: similar Javascript widgets already exist out there on the web. I found one on Github, and adapted it to our application's needs. But even that wasn't trivial. I had to find ways to customize the layout of the captions, and to implement the pause-on-mouseover / resume-on-mouseout functionality. It may sound like a piece of cake to you front-end gurus, but I'm a backend developer after all. I have to spend precious minutes or hours brushing the rust off of such bits of knowledge like how do I make two <div> tags to appear side-by-side, or to climb out of the rabbit hole of nested callbacks in asynchronous function calls.

But programming challenges wasn't what posed a threat to our team's chance of accomplishing our tasks. It was development environment incompatibilities. It turned out that certain technologies are difficult to get working on Windows. I'm looking at you, Jekyll. Jekyll, a website generator, lets you write HTML pages using a certain system of shorthand tags, as opposed to actual HTML tags; Jekyll runs on the server, parses those template files and turns them into HTML.

Well, it turns out that Jekyll on Windows is more like Mr. Hyde. Trying to run it I got an uninformative error, and a cursory Google search made me think that perhaps I need to run it on a higher version of Ruby than the one on my laptop. (Jekyll is written in Ruby.) Jennifer was running Jekyll on her machine with Ruby 2.0, whereas I had Ruby 1.9. So I decided to see if upgrading Ruby fixes the problem. Except there turned out to be no quick way to upgrade Ruby on a Windows machine. On a UNIX-based operating system you would do it with various package managers; on Windows, Google suggested to use this package manager or that, some of which were reported to work on Windows with a few tweaks; just trying to install those package managers caused a cascade of incomprehensible errors. I could see that if I continued down this route, I would spend all day just trying to upgrade Ruby on Windows.

I consulted with Jennifer (Groove founder), and the other developer, and we decided that I won't try to run Jekyll. Indeed, all that Jekyll did in this application was to insert some common HTML sections into HTML pages. I could simply insert those sections myself. So I did. I made a copy of the original file for myself, and replaced Jekyll tags with HTML that was generated from them.

The Groove team at work: Jennifer (left), the founder of the Groove app, and the other developer in our team
The Groove team at work: Jennifer (left), the founder of the Groove app, and the other developer in our team. More pictures from SheHacksATX are in my photo gallery.

At the end of the day we, the two developers, finished our parts. There came the moment of truth when we each had to push our code to the Groove Github repository. I copy-and-pasted my code changes into the original page (the one with Jekyll tags), and pushed it to Github. My push triggered a build, which Jennifer had set up on Github to run automatically when new code is committed. That's when Mr. Hyde struck again. It said the build failed because the file I committed wasn't in the right encoding. It was already 6 pm in the evening, only 1-1.5 hours until the demos where all the hackathon teams were supposed to demonstrate what they had accomplished, and way too late to figure out why it was complaining about encoding. (I suspected that it was the Windows-style line endings in my file, while Jekyll might have expected Unix-style line endings, but I really don't know.) What to do?

So I committed my code "by proxy", i.e. via the other developer's laptop. She had a Mac, a Unix-based system, and I was pretty sure that a file committed by her would not be corrupted. I emailed her my files, she copied-and-pasted the changes into her file, and pushed it to Github. That's cutting a long story short. The long version of this story involves dancing the Github "dance" two people have to do when the other person's Git branch has fallen one or more commits behind the Github repository. It was also complicated by the fact that the other developer had made her own code changes to the same files. But after just an hour of copy-pasting and white-knuckled Githubbing, we fixed the build, and successfully pushed our changes to the repository. The day was saved, just in time to the pre-demo sushi and cheese snacks.

I have been primarily a Windows developer for a long time, and never understood why someone would need a Mac, except people who find Windows computers too difficult to use -- but surely that's not the case with developers. But this hackathon made me seriously consider that if I want to program outside of Windows stack, I need a Unix-based system. Ruby and Jekyll were just two examples; my earlier failure of getting Python to interoperate with Heroku toolbelt on Windows was another. Yes, I know, I can run UNIX on a virtual machine, but my Windows computer is already too slow even with what few programs I'm running on it. It's food for thought for the future.

But yes. This last part yet again highlights the importance of preparing for a hackathon -- at least setting up development environment for your project ahead of time, and testing it. But that's not possible not knowing what project you'll be working on. Perhaps it would be better if team / project assignments were determined at least a day or two before the hackathon, although that's not practical for every hackathon. I don't know of a good solution that would both preserve spontaneity, and allow people to prepare. Myself, I would err on the side of preparedness, because your day as a developer could be otherwise completely ruined if you waste it to find workarounds for configuration problems instead of coding.

It's a good thing that my years of programming experience enabled me to find those workarounds. Which brings me to my final observation. It's been observed time and time again, and this hackathon was no exception, that many women developers underestimate their skills. Some women who have been programming in the industry for 2+ years had wanted to sign up as beginners (the hackathon had separate pools of beginner coder and experienced coder tickets, so that every team could have a balance of both), but signed up as experienced because the newbie ticket pool drained faster. And that turned out to be the appropriate designation for them. At the end Girls Guild founder Diana remarked: many of you ladies signed up as newbies, but you are not new!

Monday, June 09, 2014

SheHacksATX: a hackathon done right

Hackathons can be a good change of pace for us developers because they force us to experience software development in a different way. At our day jobs we often work on a feature for weeks, because it needs to meet complex requirements that are often subject to many unknowns and last minute changes. But a hackathon can make it possible to implement not just one feature, but an entire prototype, or minimal viable product, in a day. It depends on how the hackathon is run, and just as much on preparation of the teams.

If your team has the right skills, or at least has researched in advance how to implement various moving pieces (for example, OAuth authentication using your chosen programming language), then a hackathon can give you a concentrated dose of accomplishment you often don't get at work. But if you approach a hackathon unprepared, and have to research those technologies as you're trying to use them, you will just spin your wheels. You might waste that day just scratching the surface of technologies you may or may not ever use. (I doubt that most projects started at hackathons ever get worked on again.)

Developers socialize in the morning before the coding starts. Left to right: Kathy, Stephanie, Ruby, Dallas, Nari
Developers socialize in the morning before the coding starts. Left to right: Kathy, Stephanie, Ruby, Dallas, Nari. More pictures from SheHacksATX are in my photo gallery.

At SheHackATX, a women-only hackathon that took place on April 26, 2014, teams had not been formed upfront. Developers were matched with projects at the beginning of the hackathon. Each project was a woman-run startup (most of them local to Austin) that needed programming help, such as to add some features to their app or website. In the morning, developers wrote down their preferences of apps to work on, and the owners picked programmers they wanted on their team. Hopefully everybody got at least their 2nd or 3rd wish.

Since the teams were formed on the spot, they could not coordinate and learn complementary skills in advance. So it was all the more impressive that half of the teams were able to accomplish the tasks that startup founders wanted in the the time provided (from around 12 to 7 pm of one day). Those startups were Girls Guild, Groove, Yoga Recipe, and Bound Round. In my opinion, they were successful because their founders were able to correctly estimate tasks that might take about a day, and went with small'ish, manageable enhancements for their applications; nothing grandiose.

An example of that would be Girls Guild, a website that matches girls who want to learn hands-on skills (e.g. chocolate making, jewelry making, leather working or photography) via apprenticeship, with "makers", i.e. experts in that area. Both the makers and the apprentices are girls or women. One of the features Girls Guild founders wanted to have added to their app had something to do with being able to delay a payment until another event occurs (the details escape me). They also wanted ability for a maker to schedule interviews with a prospective apprentice through the website, as opposed to a manually emailing back-and-forth. The Girls Guild team succeeded in implementing both features.

Girls Guild and Hearth teams at work
Girls Guild and Hearth teams at work. Sitting at the table, left-to-right: Bethany (developer), Diana and Cheyenne (Girls Guild founders). Standing behind them, the Hearth team: Nari and Monisha (developers) and Florence (founder). More pictures from SheHacksATX are in my photo gallery.

Bound Round coders didn't have time to implement a 3D spinning globe (in Javascript, I guess) that the owner wanted, but they implemented a zoomable map that shows different levels of info depending on the level of zoom. Quite impressive for such a short time. Yoga Recipe wanted to integrate their website with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; "integration" meant ability for yoga instructors to share the "recipes" (sets of instructions for yoga classes) on social media. They succeeded with Facebook and Twitter. They also implemented ability for yoga teachers to put together playlists for their classes using Spotify.

My team also did well with our application, Groove. More about it in the next blog post, where I'll talk about what we did and how we did it, highlighting the obstacles that a programmer might experience during a hackathon.

Some other startups set their deliverable for this hackathon to be not code, but ideas. The founders of Our Desired Future and Hearth came here with just some ideas for their websites -- some better hashed-out than others -- and asked for technical advice on how to best implement them. Our Desired Future wanted to put together a series of multimedia presentations to tell interactive stories about water usage and water resources of Texas; in case of Hearth, what the owner really needed was to winnow down a number of her eclectic ideas about promoting volunteering through gamification, to something that could serve as minimum viable product. The result of her brainstorming with her team was a landing page for the website. In the process, one of the people on her team concluded that her calling in life was product management. So in these two last cases the product wasn't tangible; the real product was refinement of initial notions into more concrete ideas.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Michael Bishop "Close Encounters With The Deity": book review

Encounters with mystical, supernatural, or otherwise incomprehensible beings and forces are the topic of Michael Bishop's story collection "Close Encounters With The Deity". Some of those beings are gods, some are aliens, and some are not even creatures, but metaphysical notions. The results are... mixed. These stories might cause you feel a little let down by lack of satisfying endings, but they might also stay with you long after you finished them. They make a good case that a solid ending isn't necessary for a story to have lasting power.

These are not plot-driven stories: in many of them, the main thing that happens is the protagonist's inner transformation. An exception is the story about people who are forced to watch movies, which has a lively plot. Sometimes an inner transformation is accompanied by an outer one, like the story Dogs' Lives. The incomprehensible, mystifying being in it is the protagonist itself, or rather who/what he becomes in the course of his life. His life is shown through his memories of various dogs he shared it with; so in other words, it's about dogs' encounters with a (semi-)deity. Perhaps they were a thread connecting him to the humanity as he became transhuman.

But most commonly the characters do nothing but talk (or merely think) about inexplicable things that are happening to them. Yes, they feel profoundly affected, but they don't take any action. In fact, many times they let themselves be lead "off a cliff" by mysterious forces, at which point the story falls off the cliff as well. The protagonist does not understand, let alone accomplish, anything. Such are the stories Alien Graffiti, and A Spy in The Domain Of Arnheim. In the latter, a guy wakes up in a 19th century hotel room without knowing who he is, and starts taking orders from a voice coming from a gramophone. In some other stories, like Voices, the protagonist's adventure culminates in an encounter with a deity, but hardly anything changes for the protagonist. Well, he may become a tiny bit different inside. Maybe he wanted to meet a deity, and he got it. But what of it? No epiphany follows.

Yet even those stories are interesting in a way, because the characters are interesting people, and their adventures, though disappointing the end, can be intriguing while they last. Nevertheless, both I and the other person who attended the book club where we discussed this book (yes, this was a sparsely-attended meeting) thought the most enjoyable stories were those that delivered a payoff at the end. The examples are:

-- the puzzlingly titled Storming The Bijou, Mon Amour: a story about people who are forced to spend their own lives watching movies. If they dare not pay attention, their souls are erased when law enforcers take a picture of them. The protagonist sets out to investigate what or who is behind the movie projector.

-- A Gift From The Graylanders: a story revolving around childhood nightmares and a threat of nuclear annihilation. As a side note, nuclear annihilation or its possibility is a common thread in this whole collection. That's not surprising, considering the era they it was written in.

-- And The Marlin Spoke. The last one contains both a personal transformation AND a plot. The plot does not tell us what exactly happened, but the suspense in it is resolved so nicely, and the protagonist's quest is achieved in such a fulfilling way that I didn't feel let down.

The last story in the book, "The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis", deserves a separate mention -- we spent more time discussing it than any other story. It was singled out in the foreword as a kind of tale that might seem risky for an editor to publish, as it might alienate the audience; but that nevertheless needs to be published, because religion shouldn't be beyond criticism or examination. This novella mimics the Bible in its format, down to numbering of the verses; only the savior this time is an insectoid, female alien named Mantikhoras. She acquires four disciples, and they go about spreading her religious teachings much like Jesus and his apostles.

But... like many stories in this book, it leaves you wondering both what was the point of this particular messiah's coming, and of writing a "remake" of the Bible. It wasn't written for the shock value, because it's told in a sympathetic, non-parodying way. Nor does it say, here is how things would be different if a messiah were an insectoid and the event was set in modern times; nor does it make a compelling case that things would always play out the same. Basically, this story does not try to make any point. I'd say that if you are offering your take on a universally known story, you kind of need a point.

On the other hand, most of these stories are best enjoyed if you don't expect them to have a point. (Love's Heresy may be the only one with a clear message, and the only one that takes a clear stance on religious matters.) Mostly they just show humanity's wish for divine revelations as if in a warped mirror; humans assume that supernatural forces have certain agendas, perhaps to teach a moral lesson, to enact what their holy books say they should enact, but inevitably those forces act in ways that are often cruel, pointless, and incomprehensible to us -- perhaps because there is no secret meaning to comprehend.

I would recommend this collection to a reader who does not expect a plot, but enjoys a different, puzzlingly skewed view of religious and supernatural matters. The stories are highly atmospheric, and the characters really come to life. An example of that is Bob Dylan in The Bob Dylan Tambourine Software story. The image of Bob Dylan that comes through in this story is much like an image of Bob Dylan one can glimpse from his song lyrics (I never heard him speak, so I don't know if there is any correlation with the real person). In this imaginary, alternate-universe interview he explains his motivation for quitting music and instead writing software to facilitate people's religious experiences.

So: peculiar mood, bizarrely imagined situations, well-drawn characters, a view of religion that does not judge or take sides, but calmly observes how weird people's religious leanings can be, to what counterintuitive places they may lead -- all of those are reasons to read this book.

Friday, February 28, 2014

"Computer Chess" movie: come for the 80s tech nostalgia, stay for the weirdness

The movie "Computer Chess" passed largely unnoticed in the big theaters (it didn't even play in Austin), but I greatly enjoyed this mockumentary about a computer chess tournament in the early 1980s. At first I didn't think that it would have much value beyond nostalgic or historical. A nostalgia trip for those who were computer nerds in the eighties, I thought it might be educational for someone like me, who never saw a PC up close until the early 90s. It must have been harder to be passionate about computing in the days when computers didn't fit in your pocket; the really devoted computer scientists, such as the ones portrayed in this movie, put their machines on dollies and wheeled them from room to room when they wanted to play them against one another.

But what drew me in for historical value made me stay for the character study.

At first, the players seem pretty ordinary college students as they get together in a hotel room in the evening and "debate" big questions, such as plausibility of artificial intelligence, or the nature of consciousness, with all the banality of a young person discovering those questions for the first time and not yet having done their intellectual homework. But as the tournament progresses and their programs start to go astray, their personalities blossom into bouquets of quirks.

The movie juxtaposes the players with an "officially" weird group of people: the attendees of a wacky couples retreat that goes on in the hotel the same weekend. Barking at each other like dogs is just one of the ways the New Age'y couples attain some kind of transcendence and deepen their connection. Ostensibly, the computer chess tournament and the retreat could not be more different, but soon they become more similar than one could guess. As it turns out, smart people who are deeply absorbed in, even obsessed with their work, quickly veer into outlandish beliefs. A tired, overwhelmed, razor-focused-on-one-thing human mind is unwilling to accept natural explanations when things don't go the way it wants. The movie does not ridicule anyone: human weirdnesses are portrayed in a loving, non-judgmental manner. It merely observes as the two polar opposites -- computer geniuses and New Age'y quacks -- move closer together. It's fitting that the final match between a human chess master and the computer takes place side-by-side with the woo-woo practice in an accidentally double-booked conference room.

Speaking of conference rooms: this movie has a feel of the lowest-budget-movie-ever. It takes place entirely in a nondescript Ramada Inn. Who would have thought that you could shoot a movie in Austin, and not even have Austin cityscape anywhere in the backdrop? On behalf of my adopted city I might be a little offended. :-)