Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for May, 2007

Private Memories?

Posted by hyperpat on May 22, 2007

Charles Stross, author of Acclerando and Glasshouse, has posted an interesting article on what he sees as the direction of the future. He notes the continuing acceleration of developments in memory storage and bandwidth, and takes a flyer from this to the idea of completely recording every single moment of your life. Now while such a thing may be technically achievable (and he presents a good case that it not only could be done, but done quite cheaply for every single human on the planet), the question I have is would people really want to do this?

Now everyone has some memorable moment(s) in their lives that they’d like to preserve – usually what are considered ‘life markers’, the weddings, graduations, births, etc. And there is some usage for this concept as a memory aid, especially for those suffering from (or who might be prone to) Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive problems. But record everything? Other than a few extreme exhibitionists, I don’t think so. Because once recorded, it’s subject to being viewed by others, and some of those others probably don’t have your best interests at heart: the police looking for whatever crimes you may have committed (and everyone has committed some crime in their lives, even if it’s as pedestrian as jay-walking), crooks looking for ways to relieve you of your wealth, or your spouse looking for lapses in your fidelity. As Stross notes, having this capability would mean the effective end to any privacy, given that to make it happen, recording devices would need to be everywhere.

What’s frightening about this is that the beginnings of this can be seen right here and now. Almost every store you enter has surveillance cameras, more and more stop lights are being equipped with picture-taking cameras, RFID tags are being embedding in more and more products, the mobile phone cameras that everyone seems to possess nowadays, GPS trackers in cars, every key stroke and mouse click you perform on the web can already be recorded (along with complete monitoring of your PC actions at your workplace), and it’s been possible to marry up medical, financial, purchase history, web browsing, and school records to get a pretty complete profile of someone for some time. As one of the commenters to Stross’ article indicated, the US Constitution is silent on the right to privacy – the Supreme Court has often held in its rulings that there is an implied right, but such is not spelled out in the master document. With the future barreling down upon us, and what privacy we have being nibbled away by more and more gadgets, perhaps we need to start lobbying for a constitutional amendment to make this right explicit. Unless you really want everything you do visible to the whole wide world.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Politics, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | 2 Comments »

The $250,000 Bowling Shootout Final

Posted by hyperpat on May 21, 2007

I watched the final round of this tournament on ESPN yesterday, and I must say I was happy to see one of the amateurs,  Sim Dysart , end up with all the marbles. His strike shots weren’t pretty, but they all fell down, and that’s what counts. I also thought the pros, Chris Barnes and Pete Weber, acted very professionally, and accepted their loss as good sports. This kind of behavior does much to make the sport appealing, not a bad thing in terms of attracting new people to try the game, and the very fact that it shows that even someone who’s not great at the game can end up with a large amount of dollars has to be another attractor.

However, I noticed a couple of things about how this final round was run:

1. They required the players to shoot at spares if there had not been a strike rolled in that frame yet. This is contrary to the original rules and all the advertising, which indicated that it was strictly based on the first ball pinfall. I didn’t even take my spare ball with me for this reason, and if I had made the finals, this might have been a real problem.

2. After a tie had been established in a frame, they immediately went on to the next frame, not requiring those who had not rolled yet to finish the frame. Again, this is not how it was done for the rest of the tournament, where everyone had to roll every frame. I can understand them doing this in the interest of saving time for the telecast, but it was not how the rules were published.

3. In the 10th frame, they continued the rule of ‘one tie, all tie’, so that even those who didn’t strike got to continue. During the earlier rounds at Vegas, only those who struck got to continue, and the other players who didn’t were out. However, in the local qualifying at my normal lanes, we followed the rule they used for this final round. Again, there is an inconsistency here.

Now obviously the tournament organizers and sponsors can set whatever rules they want. My complaint is the lack of communication to the participants, about both these rule changes and, while qualifying was going one (for seven months), there was no feedback about who had qualified at what score. For me, this meant that I had no idea if would be going to Vegas until just two weeks prior to the playing date, making it difficult to get vacation time so I and my wife could go. If they plan on running this tournament again next year (and I understand that right now they are planning to do so), this area must be addressed. I think this lack of feedback is part of the reason that they didn’t get nearly as many participants as they had expected. I found that many bowlers weren’t even aware of this tournament or what its rules were, whereas if they had provided continuous updates about how things were going I think that many more players would have noticed, and possibly participated.

Still, this was a fun tournament, and I’m glad I participated.

Posted in Bowling | Leave a Comment »

The Elusive Allusion

Posted by hyperpat on May 18, 2007

I’ve been reading Samuel Delany’s About Writing for the last couple of days. In terms of sound and solid advice about how to write, it is (as is almost constant in his work), excellent. Seeing how this man can take a mundane paragraph or two and with some seemingly minor changes turn it into something that sings and grabs is both incredible and daunting, as he makes it look easy, even though he’s the first to say that doing this is difficult and a lot of hard work.

But he also makes mention of the large amount of allusions he buried in his story Atlantis: 1924. Now I’ve read and appreciated this work, even though I typically do not like works that use ‘experimental’ techniques. But from seeing his words about this work, its genesis, background, and what he was trying to do with it, I realize that when I read it, I missed a very large amount of what was going on, and in fact placed an interpretation on a certain character within it that Delany did not intend. Which brings to the fore the question of how to use allusion, when it’s appropriate, and the even larger question of what happens to a story when the reader doesn’t so happen to catch whatever allusions are being used.

Now for this particular story, Delany structured it in such a manner that the interpretation I came up with not only made sense, it made its climax fully as satisfying as the one he intended. Few writers can do this, and even Delany sometimes falls well short of this mark (there are large chunks of his Dhalgren that fall very flat for me). More common is, when the allusion is missed, the story loses its brilliance, its frission, sometimes it totally fails as a story. Allusion can add depth, color, veracity, and evoke a whole complex of emotions and thoughts that otherwise might take many pages to achieve, if it’s achievable at all, but it is a dangerous tool. If it’s used, then the story really needs to be structured such that it still holds together even if a discriminating and widely-read reader so happens to not notice the allusion.

There’s also a certain amount of gamesmanship in the usage of this tool. Too much of it, and especially if the allusions are to obscure works that no one but literary scholars are likely to be aware of , and it comes across as a form of name-dropping. Some of the works I’ve read by Rushdie seem to fall into this category, and I, as a reader, find it very off-putting.

So: use sparingly, and be prepared to have it missed.

Now, if I can just get my prose to sing half as well as Delany’s, I’ll consider myself blessed.

Posted in Books, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Decisions, Decisions

Posted by hyperpat on May 11, 2007

Writing fiction and non-fiction/essays/articles are two totally different things. About the only thing common to them is the fact that both need to have words impressed on paper (or computer screens).

When I approach writing an essay or something like this blog post, everything is straightforward. I know what I want to say, the facts are there (or at least googleable), organizing the material is something that happens in the back of my head without any great effort on my part, and I don’t need to expend great deal of time in figuring out exactly how I want to say whatever it is I’m talking about.

Not so with a fiction work. Every paragraph seems to require thinking about every tiny detail:

Character: does this sentence not only fit this particular person, does it add to the overall picture of who this person is? Am I really in this person’s head, and can I make it so that any reader can also get in his head?

Scene: Just how much of the environs should I describe? Many times I find that I have a picture in my head of just what the scene is, and it’s often remarkably detailed (from the grain in the oak paneling to the way the sunlight pools bright points along the table…). But if I try and put all that detail down on paper, it will simply overwhelm the story, so I’m forced to pick and choose just what and how much I describe. Which means I’m constantly making decisions with each sentence.

Dialog: This is probably my weakest point. It’s hard for me to ‘see’ conversations the way I do the scenery, even if the characters involved are real people to me. Right alongside of this are vocabulary choices – go with the polysyllable or the Anglo-Saxon four letter version? I know I have a strong tendency to use vocabulary and sentence constructions that are too esoteric or complex; I have to constantly watch my back to make sure these villains are not encroaching.

Background: Just when and how do I introduce all that backstory information – Little Jimmy was in a car accident at age three, and has never been comfortable in a car since – without interrupting the story flow and either totally losing the reader from lack of context or boring him to death with info he doesn’t care about?

Plot: This is usually not too bad. Before starting I usually have a fair idea of each major scene/happening, and where the thing will end up. I don’t normally do outlines, though I have for a couple stories. But there are times when I find my original story arc doesn’t fit how the characters are developing or the whole plot starts to seem trivial or contrived, at which point I’m in real trouble, and all too often I end up shelving the story, unfinished.

And the worst enemy of all: Procrastination. Every time I run into one of the above decision points, and find that I can’t make that decision right that instant, I all too frequently pack it up and wait for another day. Trouble is, that doesn’t get the decision made, it’s still waiting there for me whenever I come back to the story (if I ever do). And that simply doesn’t get the story written.

As someone once said, writing is the hardest non-work you’ll ever do.

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments »

The IQ Bar

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2007

There is a certain amount of respect that we give self-aware intelligence. People are presumed to belong to this category, and as such they are normally supposed to have certain rights: freedom, the right to choose their own course of action, the right to own property, etc, both in the courts and in daily business. This is in opposition to those considered to not meet the intelligence bar, the various animals that populate this planet, both domesticated and wild. Baboons and cows are normally not allowed, on their own initiative, to frequent the local restaurant or china shop; they have no say so in how they are quartered, nor even who their sexual partners will be (at least not for those specimens in captivity).  Then there are those humans, who for one reason or another, don’t have the normal cognitive abilities, and are saddled with caretakers, trustees, or institutions, and have their freedom to do as they please severely restricted. The question is, just where do we draw the line between those who have enough computation power and those who don’t?

Intelligence tests are something of a joke in this context. For one thing, just about all of them are highly anthropomorphic, and trying to apply them to animals is probably doing the animals a great disservice. Note that the whole concept of ‘intelligence’ is slippery: ability to learn, ability to react to changes in the environment, ability to bind time, ability to predict the consequences of actions, ability to communicate seem to be just some of its components, but as the various attempts to devise tests such as the Turing model for determining if computers are ‘intelligent’ have shown, very complex rote actions can mimic what we think of as intelligence so well that we may not be able to tell the difference. For that matter, perhaps the normal human ‘intelligence’ really is no more than this – some very complex rules that a human follows when dealing with the outside world, and nothing more.

But the few tests that have been devised specifically for animals, such as those to determine the ability of some primates to learn and use language and tools, are limited, and still subject to a certain amount of human-oriented perspective on what is important. Dolphins in their normal environment have no need of tools, so why should we expect that all intelligent beings must be tool-users? But even with these test limitations, it’s clear that some of this world’s animals do have a fairly high intelligence level, and, as many animal-rights activists keep striving for, are deserving of some rights and privileges even if they are not given full status.

So just how can we decide who or what should have what level of privileges and rights? This is not an idle question, as somewhere in the future is the prospect of computer artificial intelligences, genetically modified animals, and possible alien intelligences. How will we treat such beings? Science fiction abounds with stories where we tragically get it wrong, and relegate a life form to the category of ‘beast’, sometimes with very bad consequences (for a good example, try Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast, and the whole concept of intelligence and the value of self awareness is questioned in Peter Watts Blindsight). Before such a scenario really comes to pass, I think we need to get cracking on when, how, and why we draw such lines. A formal document that spells out in detail what constitutes a being deserving of respect and what privileges it is endowed with within our society needs to be hammered out. It’s probable that whatever we can come up with today will have errors, omissions, and oversights, and may be laughably too human or legally-centered (at least when looked at from some far future time), but anything would be an improvement on what we have now, a mish-mash of court precedents, a few test results, and various advocacy groups crying for this or that privilege.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

$250,000 Shootout Jitters

Posted by hyperpat on May 4, 2007

Well, I’m back from Vegas, and for a change I return somewhat richer than when I left.

We began the bowling shootout bright and early Wednesday morning, and were allowed 20 minutes of warmup practice – but even that generous number wasn’t enough, as the lanes were just what I feared, very heavy oil, though not down quite as far as they could be – appeared to be something like 39 feet. This meant that it was possible to get the ball to ‘break’, though not a large amount, something like 6-7 boards for anything other than the power bowlers. This, while difficult, was not an impossible condition, and I managed to throw a least a couple of balls that got it right, with good results.

But my main enemy was not the lanes, but myself. I found I was incredibly nervous for this thing; my legs were actually trembling in the first match, and my approach timing was off. So for much of the tournament I watched helplessly as the ball would drift high, then light, and then (once or twice) completely off line. Still, I did manage to win the first round, even though I shot only two strikes in that game – but they were at exactly the right time, the first one allowing me to gather up the points available for the 7th and 8th frames, and the second to capture the 10th, giving me enough points to win the round and collect $500.

The second round was played an hour and a half later, and while for this one I wasn’t as nervous, lane conditions had changed quite a bit, with a lot of carry-down oil from the prior matches, and I spent the entire match trying to find the ‘line’. I had two strikes in this one also (compared to my normal 5-6/game), but this time they weren’t in the right places, and I was eliminated.

I don’t know the results of the final round against Pete Weber and Chris Barnes, as my return plane’s departure time would have made it difficult to go and see the match and still make the plane.  Of course, if I’d made the finals, I wouldn’t have had any problem, if necessary booking another flight. But when my wife and I actually got on the plane, after a fifteen minute delay while they had ‘maintenance come and look at the plane’, we found ourselves sitting on the tarmac for what seemed an inordinate amount of time. Then the captain announced that there was something wrong with the parking brakes on the plane, and we would be returning to the terminal. Another hour and half went by while they fixed whatever the problem was, and we finally got on our way, arriving only two and half hours later than expected. But if I known that things would be delayed like this, we could have gone and watched that final round.

Still, a lot of fun, and some cash in hand. Not bad.

Posted in Bowling, Daily Happenings | 3 Comments »