sunnuntai, 17. marraskuu 2019

Prompts for the Versificator

If text generating algorithms keep on improving, we'll soon get all the books we've ever dreamt of but probably no longer the ones we have not thought of. Any crossover in any genre-mix with whatever picky and particular restrictions the reader comes up with, re-done in a matter of minutes of the reader is not satisfied with the first iteration. Writers can all retire, but editors will be more needed than ever. Someone needs to come up with a monetizing plan to benefit editors, and ideators, and shifters looking for gold in the endless flow of dross.

I can come up with a few prompts right away.

1) Neverending stream of new Culture novels. Like printing money if they are any good. But probably just causing a an uneasy sadness. I wonder how it feels to be truly moved by a computer-generated text for the first time.

2) Raven Stratagem series but with less characters and more semiotics. Also, even more textiles. Textiles part should be easy, but coming up with new abstract concepts with any coherence not happening soon.

3) Murderbot in Three Body Problem. I prompted Talk to Transformer with 2 sentences and it generated something pretty plausible for a first try. 

Murderbot listened to the speech about impending attack of the aliens from the far-away, unfortunate planet pulled by merciless gravity from three sides. No more humans, no more telenovelas – that sounded bad. But it was really good because he liked good television. It was good enough, anyway.  There were more telepaths around, so he knew that they would not be too much trouble.  He watched as the robot's eyes narrowed, its head tilted slightly upward, and it looked towards the sky. The aliens had made some kind of distress call to the nearest planetary defense force, a few thousand light-years away, and were in desperate need of help. Kuruk was there, on his way to the planet. Kuruk would help them. Kuruk had always helped others, no matter what. Kuruk was a good man. Good enough, in fact, for a murderer robot to be interested in him.

(not bad, looking forward to reading more about this Kuruk dude, telepaths a bit unnecessary addition but I guess that's where the editing comes in. A proper Versificator should have sophisticated but simple to use interface for removing unwanted content and dialing characters' attributes up and down.)

sunnuntai, 27. lokakuu 2019

Three Neurothrillers and Some Thoughts on Why Brains are Now so Interesting

 

Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker, belongs to a recently emerged genre neurothriller, where the plot and central questions revolve around brains and consciousness. It is also a serial killer story, which I find not interesting, but I persevered because reading about brains is interesting enough I’m willing to tolerate all kinds of improbable set-ups and blaah plot devices. 

 

Near-future USA, where brain scanning has become commonplace. A middle-aged academic dude gets drafted to help FBI to solve a serial killer case. Our dude is an university lecturer and his specialty is neuropsychology’s philosophical and ethical implications. The serial killer is his old best friend, who does gruesome brain modifications to his victims. Our dude has to figuratively get in the head of his friend while friend quite literally gets in the head of several other people. Also, he has to explain several times how brains work what consciousness is, what “self” is, and especially what it is not.

 

What I find either not believable or extremely sinister is the lack of knowledge about brains, consciousness etc everyone apart from protagonist, adversary and this one older professor side character show. In the book, brain scanning and neural manipulation technologies have improved a lot compared to current situation, and I would assume they would be standard background knowledge for example for crime investigators etc., even if just vaguely. But everyone who hears our protagonist explain how consciousness is “just an illusion” etc is deeply disturbed at this new information. Shocked, really. Either worldbuilding falters or then the surveillance state the future USA has become is also actively suppressing information about neuroscience. Internet is in total control of the state so this would be a reasonable assumption… if not for the psychology professor protagonist himself having no idea that his field is shrouded in secrecy.  But perhaps entire troublesome fields of information could be dampened and withdrawn from the collective common knowledge with enough information manipulation power.

 

Some sort of petty/childish glee at shocking people with your radical views pervades this whole book. I ofc don't know what kind of education the expected reader base has, but I knew by age 4 that thinking is done in the brain. While this understanding has gained details and sophistication, and a few difficult philosophical questions have arisen, the basic premise is the same. So it's hard to understand the tone of the book.

 

Reading Neuropath made me remember two other books that fall within neurothriller genre, and certain parallels appear. 

 

Quantum Night by Rober J. Sawyer is marketed as a thriller but it’s actually relaxing, pleasant read about academic researchers figuring out that the world is in a way more complicated we imagined but in practical terms actually simpler. I kind of wish this “you can safely ignore most people as they do not have interesting/worthwhile inner lives” position had been drawn a little further, the radical ethical implications explored more thoroughly. I sure can emphatise with the feeling that many people seem to have not much going on in their heads. But I find it sort of lazy and lowest common denominator under-the-belt strike to use that feeling, which I’m sure many people share, instead of challenging it… kind of “Mary Sue” thing, “just me, you and a precious few other people on this Earth are worth anything, and here’s a witty scientific quantum neuro proof for it”. Like, already there’s a tendency to nonhumanize others than those not belonging in one’s immediate social circle, and a smart writer can of course use that to elicit a pleasurable reaction from the reader, but is it the right thing to do? Esp. given that much of the book deals with utilitarian ethics. 

 

Blindsight by Peter Watts takes human (and vampire) brains with their inbuilt possibilities and limitations into space. Alien contact story where, as traveling and coming into contact with foreign culture often does, meeting aliens actually makes us see ourselves more clearly, our idiosyncrasies, our obsessions, our capacities, our limitations. Of these three books Blindsight is unquestionably the best. It really draws the conclusions as far as possible, it is fascinating and attention-grabbing and terribly effectively written (really goes under your skin), with extremely creepy sense of wonder, and, well, all this without once having a middle-aged academic man giving a lengthy info-dump monologue to educate a strikingly beautiful woman who is eager to listen, and smart enough to grasp his ideas but not that smart as to express any counterarguments.

 

Why has this genre appeared now, when we’ve had brains all the time?

Neuroscience has advanced remarkably in the past few decades, making the age-old philosophic questions of identity, free will, perception etc more tangible and immediate. There’s also another cause for this surge in interest in brains, what they do and our inner experiences, one that does not require intense study of neurones and brain anatomy: It tends to be impolite or weird to discuss one’s mental states in detail, except for certain emotions that are socially approved parts of regular interaction. But the mental processes themselves, or atypical reactions, they just are not the thing to talk about out loud. If someone did, most likely they did not find anyone sharing the same condition and consequently shut about their strange experiences. Until recent years, when the semi-anonymity of internet made sharing these things easy and painless, and made possible finding others with the same condition no matter how rare. For example aphantasia, the inability to imagine visually, has become a recognised phenomenon, as well as trypophobia. And ASMR, which has grown to a wildly successful subculture. Probably also autism spectrum community has solidified and diversified thanks to internet. Oh, and The Dress! That really made clear we literally don’t see the world the same way and that there’s always an interpretative element at play.

 

Who knows what conditions and mental architecture differences remain yet to be discovered by this accidental but thanks to sheer numbers effective crowdsourcing method! Quite exciting, actually. I’m also guessing categorising people according to their method of thought will be the next big thing in self-help industry.

 

I used to assume everyone thinks like I do, ie in abstract concepts that have to be translated into words, the silence of their brains only occasionally disturbed by a stuck melody loop. But then I found out that all that talk about ‘inner voices’ and ‘inner monologues’ was not hyperbole or metaphor, it is the actual way many (if not most) people’s brains produce thoughts. It still feels incredible to me but I have to accept there are many different methods of thinking and that inner voice thing that to me appears a mental disturbance, even an illness, is just… normal. It is so easy to universalise from personal inner experience, since we are stuck in our own minds. So. My unconcern and many others’ concern for this idea that there is no “real” me may also be, instead of hysterizing and ridiculous naivety on the part of those others, pointing out a lack in me. Is there a more sophisticated consciousness, more deep, more subtle, more meaningful, more something, that I’m missing and that’s why I’m not appalled at the idea that the feeling of coherent self is the product of neurons firing? Have I just outed myself as only barely passing the consciousness threshold?

 

sunnuntai, 6. lokakuu 2019

Ad Astra (2019)

Haven’t seen any proof of this, but I would not be the least surprised if it came out that Brad Pitt was sour he did not get the lead role in Blade Runner 2049 and he pulled all strings and threw his Hollywood weight around until he got Ad Astra into production and himself cast in the main role. These two movies share a lot of similarities: visual worship of concrete architecture, male loneliness and emotional disconnect, being reduced to one’s job… but I preferred Pitt’s rendition of the male cyborg (called Roy, to emphasise the link to the Blade Runner movies) over Gosling’s and found Ad Astra more straightforward and less pompous overall. 

 

It is regrettable space is reduced to a metaphor of inner space in so many of today’s ostensibly space movies. This once profound comparison is by now a giggle-inducing cliche. To me the main value of this movie was not the completely predictable journey of self-discovery and relationship trauma disassembly. It was just an excuse to indulge in a visual and auditory feast of architecture and technology. The set designs were amazingly detailed and impressive, and the movie camera practically made love to the various surfaces, angles and control devices. Sounds of gloved fingers gently caressing and pushing buttons, technical fabrics sliding across each other, breath inside a sealed spacesuit helmet, all very intimate, amid Moon pirate car chases and hijacking a rocket about to lift off, create a delightful contradiction. ASMR porn, if one wants to be crass.

 

The whole movie was like arthouse-lite. Silent stares, internal whispered monologue a la Terence Malick, 'external as intenal' symbolism etc., but nothing is left hanging, everything is spelled out, and high-action scenes are expertly dosed along the storyline to keep the audience’s blood sufficiently saturated with adrenaline. Pitt’s character, the abandoned son of a famous astronaut, spoon-feeds his thought processes and their results to the viewer. Indeed, the movie would have been much improved if the monologue had been a tad less obvious. He seems to grasp his own motives already in the beginning of the movie so well there really is no need to go to the ends of the solar system to disentangle them. Pitt’s expression in close-up, all neutral and competent, except for the slight nervous shiver underneath his eyes, would have been much more effective without the monologue: “they are using me”, “was he always broken”, etc. He is a good actor, which the director does not seem to truly trust. 

 

The most touching parts were the recurring emotional self-assessments demanded of Roy. This dragging out, dissecting and measuring of the soul for one’s job, being forced to mentally expose possible weaknesses and imperfections for inhuman scrutiny, while knowing the range of acceptable variation is extremely narrow, explains (and for once without having to spell it out) why Roy McBride is closed off, emotionally stunted, more machine than human. Any outside impulse might endanger the empty calm he has spent years perfecting. That it is at the price of being unable to truly connect with other human beings… well, it is not his personal failing, but a sensible adaptation to the circumstances. Perhaps it was useful to let go of the trauma of being abandoned by his father, but was that really what was kept him and his wife apart? Or was it the all-encompassing and endless demands of total compliance of his job? And what will happen now that he’s in touch with his new-found emotions? Without them, he was superb in what he did. Are thirteen in a dozen emotions that every Dick and Jane have really worth sacrificing his unflinching competence? This guy who can fall off a space elevator, grab the wheel of a Moon vehicle at full speed while his spacesuit is punctured, land a malfunctioning rocket manually, all without his heartbeat noticeably being affected, shouldn’t we celebrate his choices instead of trying to correct him? If we want to go to the Moon, Mars, Neptune and beyond, we very well may need people who are cogs in the machine, and their rewards different from the usual ones. The movie warns of the danger of being engulfed by one’s professional obsessions, and this is certainly something to be watchful of, but surely there are other solutions than averaging everyone to the same emotional input and output.

 

Final verdict: ignoring the trite lesson about the importance of human connection (really if you want this lesson, My Little Ponies Friendship is Magic does it better), the movie is an elegy to technology and pragmatic architecture. Various layers of steel, fabric, concrete and plastic keep us perhaps separated from each other, but also alive in difficult environments. These materials are gently caressed by the camera’s gaze, and the result is strangely but pleasantly sensual. Rarely has the pressing of the launch button of a nuclear device been presented so that is feels physically satisfactory. After watching the movie, one feels heightened appreciation for switches and synthetic materials and perhaps even an unexpected desire to put on thick rubber gloves and run the encased fingers across a concrete wall. If that’s what you want, go and enjoy this uneven but interesting movie.

tiistai, 17. syyskuu 2019

The Green War

From the association of biological weapons manufacturers

 

Contrary to recent slick advertisement campaigns would like to lead the general public to believe, neutron bombs are far from sustainable. It is true that the ratio of kills per kilo of co2eq is fairly high, but to focus solely on that is to ignore the grave harm to biodiversity caused by radiation, not to mention the massive rebuilding necessary at the blast site with high associated ghg emissions. Also remember the necessary transport infrastructure!

Our products are manufactured in artisanal underground laboratories and transported in suitcases.

 

Be truly green, use biological weapons!

maanantai, 15. heinäkuu 2019

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Nah, they said. Don’t bother watching X-men: the Dark Phoenix. It has the emotional intensity of a wet sock. It is soulless and has nothing to offer. And I was chuckling inside, smugly certain I could uncover the soul and emotions from under whatever fluff and dross they were buried, since how could a movie based on the Dark Phoenix Saga be completely useless?


I was actually physically shaking with irritation after seeing the movie. So yeah, in a sense it was an emotional experience, just not a positive one. I really really disliked what was done to Dark Phoenix’s story. Well, I did not like the recent reincarnation of X-Men films to begin with. Not the teenage personas and not the actors. Not the lack of epic feels and not… well, ehh, apparently I only watch these X-men movies because of some sort of misplaced loyalty to my younger X-men fangirl self, who would have been so delighted to hear there are going to be popular superhero movies by the dozens in the 21st century.


As I remember it – though it’s been many a year since I read the Dark phoenix saga – it was a great study in the superhero comics maxim best put into words in Spiderman “with great power comes great responsibility”. We have telepath Jean Grey, who accidentally acquires cosmic powers. But the cosmic powers dwarf the human perspective, and she among other things destroys a planet with a population of millions. A creature of cosmic or even just galactic scale is by necessity rather solipsistic, human and humanoid lives not much registering in their considerations. After various eventually unsuccessful attempts to restrict her powers to a human-compatible level, Jean makes the sacrifice and destroys herself, and we readers know it is a sacrifice and not an escape, because we’ve been shown the alluring si

de of Dark Phoenix’s powers. And she does all these decisions herself, not being led by some mys

terious alien foe / personification of vindictive revenge, as in the movie. This is with bothers me the most in this remake. Jean Grey does not have much agency in her own movie. In fact, to borrow a quote from a friend with whom I watched it, “How the titular character manages to be just a statist?”. 

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Yeppp. The movie is only very superficially about Jean Grey / Dark Phoenix. It is actually all about Professor Xavier. His mistakes, his intentions, his revelation, his redemption. Jean Grey’s story is but an accessory to this end. The pivotal line in the movie, around which it appears to be spun, is Jean Grey telling Prof X “I forgive you. I understand you did it because of love.” (Or something to that effect.) Precisely what the jealous or controlling or abusive person would love to hear, being (in their own eyes) misguided or over-eager but ultimately well-meaning, and if the other one would just see it was love, pure love that made them restrict or lie or hit… 


I’m also rather resentful that Jean Grey does not get to actually enjoy her powers. She gains them, is happy for like 2 minutes – and not that much happier than your run-of-the-mill teenager going to a house party – and then starts vacillating between anger and distress. So many tears, so much anguish, mostly just because she’s experiencing anger. Like that’s the worst, most unnatural thing for a girl to experience! Like she’s completely unprepared for such a perverse emotion! Oh anger, soooo nasty, that’s not very girly at all! 


(I would like to see a superhero movie about some guy superhero who gains amazing superpowers and immediately freaks out, not actually having fun with them at all. Hides and whimpers, terrified of his super-ability. But no-one in their right mind would script such a movie, since it makes psychologically zero sense. And to be fair I would not, actually, like to see that movie. So I take that back.)


It amazes me that some comic industry dudes in the 1980’s managed to create a storyline which does not raise immediate questions regarding their understanding of female agency, while some movie industry dudes – and this was pretty much an all-male panel – in our enlightened times manage to be such idiots and mess the same storyline so badly. Just, how?!?!? And, why?!?! This story does not appeal to woke women after getting a taste of Captain Marvel, and on the other hand also not trad guys, since it’s on the surface level about some weepy girl. 


I did appreciate Dazzler’s well-deserved appearance on the silver screen, I hope she’ll pop up in later Marvel movies. The villain was quite cool, if psychologically near-parodically clumsy. And other than my irritation and these few good points, the whole movie is just fading from my memory, like nightly fog after dawn.