Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Isaacson on a New Paradigm for Artificial Intelligence

In the September 27-28, 2014, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Walter Isaacson (The Innovators) talks about code cracker Alan Turing, thinking machines, and a new paradigm for artificial intelligence. Excerpts:
These questions [about free will] came together in a paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," that Turing published in 1950. With a schoolboy's sense of fun, he invented a game -- one that is still being played and debated -- to give meaning to the question, "Can machines think?" He proposed a purely empirical definition of artificial intelligence: If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, then we have no meaningful reason to insist that the machine isn't "thinking." ...

At Applied Minds near Los Angeles, you can get an exciting look at how a robot is being programmed to maneuver, but it soon becomes apparent that it has trouble navigating an unfamiliar room, picking up a crayon and writing its name. A visit to Nuance Communications near Boston shows the wondrous advances in speech-recognition technologies that underpin Siri and other systems, but it is also apparent to anyone using Siri that you still can't have a truly meaningful conversation with a computer, except in a fantasy movie. A visit to the New York City police command system in Manhattan reveals how computers scan thousands of feeds from surveillance cameras as part of a Domain Awareness System, but the system still cannot reliably identify your mother's face in a crowd.

All of these tasks have one thing in common: Even a 4-year-old can do them.

Perhaps the latest round of reports about neural-network breakthroughs does in fact mean that, in 20 years, there will be machines that think like humans. But there is another possibility, the one that Ada Lovelace envisioned: that the combined talents of humans and computers, when working together in partnership and symbiosis, will indefinitely be more creative than any computer working alone.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). For years, the idea of the sentient computer has permeated science fiction. (Think William Gibson's Wintermute or Arthur C. Clarke's Hal 9000.) In fact, I'd argue that it's moved from trope to cliché. What's more, few genre writers have ever stopped to critically consider the concomitant concepts of such a view, such as how the increasing physical complexity of the material brain can ever result in an immaterial mind or why focused thought sometimes seems to reshape gray matter. Here's to hoping Isaacson's paradigm of computer/human partnership gains popularity not only for creativity's sake, but so that more people can start considering big questions.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Saad Faruque)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Small Sorrows and Everyday Joys Roil Ocean

The danger for a novelist in finding repeated success lies in the increased probability that readers will eventually get wise to his formula. The more distinctive the style, the greater the danger, and few modern fantasists are as distinctive as Neil Gaiman. His mystical stories often feature young protagonists traipsing into faerie (Stardust), being raised by dead people (The Graveyard Book), and finding their mothers replaced by an unnamable horrors bent on their destruction (Coraline). I've generally enjoyed Gaiman, but I have to admit that descriptions of his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, made it seem somewhat lacking: A boy living in the British countryside discovers that his mysterious neighbors, the Hempstock women, have access to a world beneath the world. Okay, nothing new so far. But Gaiman keeps things fresh in an unexpected way: For the first third or so of the book, his trademark fantasy barely gets a nod.

How to explain the way in which The Ocean at the End of the Lane unfolds? Frankly, it reads a lot like Ray Bradbury. Gaiman spends a ton of time on the texture of the unnamed narrator's childhood, a narrator one suspects has quite a lot in common with Gaiman himself. You know how Bradbury liked to go on and on about apple pie and carnivals and the delights of Midwestern summers? Well, Gaiman does much the same here, but instead of zeroing in on youthful joys, the book focuses on its small sorrows. The death of a favorite cat. A father's inability to make toast without burning it. Never quite fitting in and fearing you never will. The narrator's only constant comfort seems to be books. "I liked myths," he says. "They weren't adult stories, and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were. Adult stories never made sense. They were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?" The effect isn't a straight draught of sadness, but a subtle, permeating melancholic tincture.

Well, at least until a housekeeper named Ursula Monkton -- who is not at all what she appears to be -- shows up. Then it becomes an adult version of Gaiman's own Coraline, a version tinged with cosmic horror. You'll notice that I haven't described much of the plot, because a lot of the joy of reading Ocean comes from discovery. Suffice it to say that Lovecraft's peculiar blend of science fiction and terror pops up more than once, with creatures from the beyond the veil of space and time shredding the thin barrier that separates our plane of existence from theirs. But those aren't the scariest parts. No, Gaiman reserves the real horror for the misunderstood clutch of adult bodies spied through parted drapes, for the strength of a father's hands that reach out in anger rather than love. Amongst the cosmos-spanning revelations, the book keeps drawing us back to little pains and tiny joys, the stuff of universal human experience. It's a masterstroke to meld the miraculous with the mundane, and for that The Ocean at the End of the Lane deserves attention.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Graham Richardson)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Music To Write By: Flyleaf's "City Kids"

Why Listen? For a collaborative use of form that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts; an example of the importance of contrast.

Bands have a hard time replacing charismatic frontmen -- or, in the case of hard-rock quintet Flyleaf, frontwomen. While helmed by manic pixie screamo grrrl Lacey Mosley, the band managed to crack the Billboard charts, propelled in no small amount by her ability to sound entranced, ecstatic, fragile, and downright aggressive all within the space of a three-and-a-half minutes. So how does a group compensate when a singer with such range suddenly chooses family life over the rigors of the road? You pick the best replacement you can (in the case of Flyleaf, Vedera's Kristen May) and alter the form of your art to adapt to your new competencies.

Though hardcore fans of Flyleaf have kvetched over the switch, the song "City Kids" shows the effectiveness of the band's sonic strategy. A coming-of-age anthem penned by guitarist Sameer Bhattacharya, it muses over lost love and the transmuting power of time, buoyed by delicate chords, pulsing percussion, and May's pure tones:
Walking through the city we grew up in.
Everything has changed again.
I remember fighting to believe in
Truth and how the good will win.

But we were young, almost in love,
Too scared to reach out for what was.
The sweet, steady sound, though, gives way at the end of the chorus when the amplifiers kick into overdrive and bassist Pat Seals looses a raging hardcore scream that slowly fades into a tortured wail. A jarring contrast? You bet. But it also fits both the disenchanted subject matter and the sound the band's former siren helped foment. It's an instructive approach. Few writers can tackle all areas of the crafts in every way they want to. Perhaps Flyleaf's creative use of form could serve as a model.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Atrocity Compounds Something All Its Own

Pop quiz, dear readers: What's the difference between a mixture and a compound? Yeah, I know, you came here for books not basic chemistry, but stick with me. That logophile's authority Merriam-Webster calls a mixture "a combination of different kinds of things," while it dubs a compound "a distinct substance formed by chemical union of two or more ingredients in definite proportion by weight." Remember the difference? In a mixture, the various ingredients retain their properties and can be relatively easily separated; in a compound, the components bond together to make something entirely new that can only be split apart by its destruction. Think of raisin bran, trail mix, and Earth's atmosphere as examples of the former. And for the latter, consider water, salt -- and Charles Stross' wonderful melding of horror, spy thriller, and Lovecraftian horror called The Atrocity Archives.

The question, of course, is why would one call call an ultra-secret U.K. agency (an agency dedicated to warding off eldritch destruction from beyond the bounds of our very universe) the Laundry? I mean, the Americans get to call their analogous organization the Black Chamber, which is ever so much more menacing. Alas, the Laundry owes its moniker to the fact that its original offices once perched over a Chinese laundry. That's bureaucracy for you, and the Crown's most clandestine organization isn't above auditing the number of paperclips in your desk drawer. That drives Laundry computer geek Bob Howard nuts. He knows that all it takes to draw a squamous evil into our plane of existence is the right arithmetic formulae, some arcane geometry, and a little shed blood to collapse the quantum wave. (Seems that magic and math have quite a lot in common.) Any fool with an advanced degree can do it, which is why so many of them get drafted by the Laundry -- including Bob. Well, thanks to some quick thinking in applying a fire extinguisher to the cranium of a possessed coworker, Bob's about to get drafted again, this time into field service. And that field service will involve everything from Middle Eastern occult terrorists to a CCTV network rewired to act as a modern Medusa.

Any speculative fiction author worth his salt can come up with a cornucopia of ideas from the genre's grab bag, and Stross has certainly seized more than his fair share. The first line of The Atrocity Archives is "Green sky at night; hackers delight," and an allusion to the most recognizable line in William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" rounds out the collection. (The book contains a short novel and a novella.) But among the technobabble appears skull-and-dagger spycraft worth of John le Carré and a special forces operation that recalls Tom Clancy. Those tough military types, though, aren't hunting run-of-the mill terrorists; they're after sanity-shredding horrors from beyond the veil of space and time. Throw in some super-advanced math and gadgets reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, and you've an idea of how The Atrocity Archives reads. Only not really, because it's difficult to convey how smoothly the book unfolds. You'd expect lumps and pacing problems in a title with such diverse influences, but it feels entirely natural when Bob steps through a transdimensional portal in an Amsterdam hotel and lands in an airless alternative earth where Nazi holdouts have carved a portrait of Hitler on the moon. Making that work takes writing chops, and Stross certainly has them. With The Atrocity Archives, he's compounded something all his own.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Ares Nguyen)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pinker on When Being Too Bright Ruins Writing

In the September 27-28 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Steven Pinker discusses why a surfeit of smarts can destroy an author's writing. Excerpts:
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. ...

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The term was invented by economists to help explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they possess information that their opposite number does not. Psychologists sometimes call it mindblindness. ...

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). At the beginning of his piece, Pinker addresses the oft-repeated claim that Ivory Tower types and various other elites pen opaque prose because of an innate sense of superiority. Goodness knows I've implied as much about the literary set. But Pinker wisely draws attention to a little maxim known as Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Perhaps one ought to add the clause "or to lack of empathy," because that's what Pinker really addresses here. Rarified types aren't necessarily mean or stuck up or smitten by superciliousness. They simply haven't placed themselves in the audience's shoes. Perhaps this explains why literary fiction and hard SF alike both struggle to acquire new readers. They've forgotten that sterling style and technically proficient predictions don't necessarily draw everyone's delight.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Chris Goldberg)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tragedy Is More Than Simply Sad (Bullhead)

Note: This post contains mild spoilers.

"Tragedy" is one of those terms whose true meaning has warped over time. Crack open Merriam-Webster and you'll see it defined as "a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone's death" or "a play, movie, etc., that is serious and has a sad ending (such as the death of the main character)." Such definitions prompt a yeah, but response. Yeah, they're true, but tragedy involves so much more, particularly when talking about stories. For example, Holman and Harmon's A Handbook to Literature draws on Aristotle's Poetics to define the term, saying that "tragedy recounts a causally related series of events in the life of a person of significance, culminating in an unhappy catastrophe, the whole treated with dignity and seriousness." It secondary definition deals with "hamartia: the error, frailty, mistaken judgment, or misstep through which the fortunes of the hero of a tragedy are reversed." So tragedy needs more than sadness, needs a cogent rationale for why the protagonist slides from happiness to horror.

You may wonder why I am mulling over all this. Well, it's because I just got done watching Michael R. Roskam's 2012 crime drama Bullhead.

Jacky Vanmarsenille is a big slab of meat. No offense intended, the man simply bulges with muscle, as broad and rippling as the steers his family raises. Both the bovines and Jacky have secrets, though. For years, the Vanmarsenille family has illegally dosed the herd with a hard-to-detect growth hormone that boosts mass by as much as 10%. As for Jacky, he knows about hormones, owing his physique to a constellation of bottles that line his medicine cabinet. It's the only choice he has if he want to look like a man. Why? A maladjusted bully emasculated Jacky with a brick when he was only a child. Jacky has done his best to hide both his physical deformity and criminal activity over the years, but the murder of a policeman investigating the hormone trade is about to bring all sorts of ill deeds to light.

Bullhead has a sad ending. No surprise there. You can tell from its grim palette and frequent close ups of Jacky's alternately befuddled and enraged face that Roskam wasn't trying for a light tone. It might surprise genre fans, though, to learn that Bullhead focuses more on Jacky's tortured psyche than the crowd-pleasing crime elements of its plot. Roskam has sketched a harrowing portrait of man denied the comforts of a family through no fault of his own, a man subject to subtle scorn from others and crippling self-doubt. Gazing out over a holding pen, Jacky says, "I've always felt just like these bulls here. Never knowing what it's like to protect someone. Calves, a herd, like a wife, children. Really having to protect them, because you have to and it's in your nature."

Downbeat stuff, but can you really call the movie a tragedy? Maybe. Jacky makes a mistake or two, no doubt about it, but wrongdoings don't exactly bring to mind Macbeth or Lear. His primary problem is that he lacks the biochemical cocktail of which 49% of the world's population partakes. "I haven't got what I'm supposed to have," he says simply enough at the film's climax. It's certainly sad, but hardly centers on a heartbreaking hamartia, the stuff of high moral drama. Crooked chemistry just doesn't seem to make for compelling tragedy.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Ferran Jordà)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Strong Story Sets the Course for Voyager

In science fiction, strange is good. Think about it: This is the genre that features honor duels fought with guns guided by advanced geometry, ninja deliverymen schlepping pizza about dystopic neighborhood-states, and ape-like hominids cavorting around an intelligence-boosting alien monolith. Yes, SF certainly goes in for the bizarre -- but typically just when it comes to content. Aside from the occasional neologism or off-the-wall speculative flourish, most authors in the field appear to prefer straightforward composition. C.J. Cherryh, though, isn't most authors, at least if her 1984 deep-space abduction novel Voyager in Night is any indication.

"Hardscrabble." That's the word that best describes the lives of Rafe, Jillian, and Paul, a trio of void-sailing miners struggling to make their mint. Every penny the three managed to beg or borrow has gone into a pitiful little ship dubbed Lindy. A tiny tug-like vessel, Lindy has barely been retrofitted for asteroid work, held together with solder and spit and the prayers of its crew who hope it will bear them into a better life. Bear them it does, but not to wealth and fortune. Instead, it takes them into terror and pain when an impossibly massive generation ship jumps into the system, snatches up Lindy, and jumps out. When Rafe comes to, he finds himself all alone in a cavernous hold covered with an almost fungal growth. But is he really by himself in the deep night? Seems not. He has vague memories of pain beyond imagining, and the lights strobe in odd patterns. Then a mirror image of himself appears as if out of thin air ...

Voyager in Night doesn't sound particularly weird in description, but it certainly is when it comes to reading it. Just consider the following a conversation among the generation ship's inhabitants. (You knew it had to have inhabitants, right?) Excerpt:
"Move us," said <^>, anxiously, from elsewhere in the ship. <^> feared the Cannibal and stayed far away. "Move us from this place. Others of this species may come."

"No," <> said "not yet."

<^> raged and wept, fearful for <^>self. <^> was very old, and very fond of <^>self, besides being slightly mad, and <^> skulked off, with |||000||| slinking after in growing despair.
A few pages into Voyager in Night, I felt like launching into a long-winded diatribe about pretentious, award-winning writers (Cherryh has received both a Hugo and a Locus) with more style than sense. It's difficult to keep track of what's going on when the players are named ((())) and ====. You know what, though? Cherryh performs something of a compositional magic trick by book's end, managing to make move those awkward interludes into intelligibility. Despite the fact that the ending is a good deal less surprising today than it doubtlessly seemed during the eighties, it manages to make a mélange of high-concept speculation, deep psychological character development, far-flung worldbuilding, and a bit of body horror into something deeply poignant. In other words, Voyager in Night succeeds remarkably well. Sure, parts come off as a little overly artsy beginning and some confusing sections crop up where -- what shall I call them? -- multiple iterations of the three main characters start appearing. However, Cherryh never lets them go entirely unexplained. She apparently knows that story must ultimately set the course.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Sweetie187; Hat Tip: /r/printsf)