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November 12th, 2006

07:49 am - I Wish The Alchemists Would Leave Us Alone.
I've been Reading Neal Stephenson, who is a brilliant, brilliant author, and thinking about Alchemists. I wish they'd leave us alone.

I might be saying something stupid because of my lack of familiarity with the subject, but Chemistry might be the science that has done most for humanity. Fire was one of our first and most powerful tools to manipulate the environment. In turn, fire gave us bronze, iron, and eventually steel. The industrial age was basically made possible by various interactions of iron and carbon. Today we have fertilizers and pesticides to produce enough food to freakin' feed all of us, we synthesize our medicines, we build impossible things out of plastics and polymers, and we rode to the moon on chemical rockets.

So, we owe a lot to the people who got us started down that road, and quite a few of them were Alchemists. This was in the days before double-blind controlled experiments, before safety precautions, before a formalized notion of objective evidence, before accurate clocks. What the Alchemists had were the inexact tools of the day, and a variety of techniques to try on whatever they could get their hands on.

Chief among these was distillation. Now, distillation is great: you can produce clear water, extract interesting chemicals from silt or pee, and it's an important part of the process for producing Vodka. However, the Alchemists didn't have a sound way to construct theories; and I think the ease and usefulness of distillation and similar techniques led them to naturally assume certain things in their metaphysical worldview. I'm going to call it the Alchemical Fallacy: "For a given X, there is something extractable in it that 'makes' it X, that is not present in Y." There is something in this water that is making people sick, and I can take it out. There is something in beer that makes people drunk, and I can isolate and concentrate it. Wood burns because it contains elemental fire (Phlogiston, it came to be called,) and ashes and stones, say, don't. There is something in gold that I can extract, and mix with lead. There is something unique to living things, as opposed to inorganic matter, that I can isolate, and drink to become immortal.

I call it a Fallacy here, because it's obviously recursive (What is elemental fire made of?) and it's also... well, wrong. Science eventually got invented, along with better instruments, and we learned that wood actually gains mass when someone sets it on fire. We built X-rays, and explored the atom, and learned (more or less) why it is that gold and lead are so different. The Alchemical Metaphysics turned out to not be the right way of thinking about science, and it more or less got peeled away. But the Alchemists weren't just scientists, they were philosophers- and in places where there aren't double-blind experiments, the Alchemical Fallacy sticks around today.

I'll start small. Take the Lie Detector. Now, the polygraph test has (believe it or not) been rigorously debunked. You can train someone to produce false positives and false negatives at will; it can't tell the difference between a lie and a sex act, it's well documented. When pressed, law enforcement types have said that its mostly useful for the psychological edge during interrogations. They're building more complicated machines, on different principles, but I believe the flaw is on philosophical grounds. A Lie Detector assumes something inherent to the human speech patterns, pulse/sweat rate/state of mind, something extractable from a lie that makes it differentiable from a truth. And that may or may not be the case, but what *really* makes a lie is context: The facts are different from what you just said, and you know it. A lie is, I think, only properly understandable in terms of the outside world.

In the same vein, while listening to Dad swear at the computer one day, I once idly wondered if there were a way to build a machine that would respond to cursing. Would it accept swears any language? Filthy words mumbled in a perfectly neutral intonation? If I can't build a lie detector, than this machine is obviously wrong, but this particular application of the Fallacy has societal repercussions as well. Is there something intrinsic to obscenity or pornography that can be recognized by a judge? That is intrinsically harmful to children, that society needs to be protected from? If a swear word can't be intrinsically defined, it can't be intrinsically toxic- but if we called it based on it's intended response in a listener, say, then maybe there is somewhere to stand to call to prevent deliberately hurtful language. I'm not sure.

Consider the IQ test. People talk about Intelligence and Creativity as if they were 'things' possessed by intelligent and creative people. It's supposed that these are things you can observe, isolate, and test. Is this right? Does the SAT test anything more than your ability to do well on the SAT? Is creativity a thing you have, rather than a thing you do?

Here's where I get political, and you knew it was coming, but part of the reason the Gay Rights movement is having difficulty in the states (Aside from the unholy alliance between Big Business and Crazy Christianity that the Republicans created) is actual philosophical disagreements on the nature of the beast. Is Homosexuality genetic and therefore can't be helped? Is it learned, and can it therefore be manipulated, or stamped out entirely, through cultural engineering? Can it be repressed in an individual, or does that necessarily have disgustingly unhealthy results? In a way, these are all arguments that assume that homosexuality is a 'thing', something that makes gay folk different from straight folk, something that can be boiled out into a metaphorical test tube and given to the fangirls to sprinkle on, say, Johnny Depp. And that might not be the way to think about a group of people that exhibits variations on a set of behaviors at all.

Take abortion. Whether the procedure is murder or surgery depends on whether or not the zygotic cell cluster is a human being. The law of the land says the third trimester. Some want to say that life begins at conception; and various religious sects disagree as to when the soul enters the body. (There's a jewish tradition that holds the body does not become ensouled until it takes his first breath- as Gd breathed life into Adam, etc.) But a lot of this debate talks about when life begins, when potential begins, what Humanity truly is, and it all sounds as if we have the Philosophic Mercury in our veins; as if being human were a thing that people have and stem cells don't.

And I just want it said that we may be completely freaking wrong. That there are a thousand examples, trivial and scandalous, where we've absorbed the Alchemical Fallacy into our culture, our society, our philosophy, our personal way of looking at the world. And while I don't know what there is, if anything, to replace it, it is starting to ring completely false to me.

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September 5th, 2006

03:18 pm - No, Seriously. Fuck 'Em.
What the fuck is up with those K-selectors? What the goddamn-bloody-fuck is wrong with them? You do everything you can to understand 'em, and you know what you get to show for it? Fuck all, that's what!

Goddamn K's.

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July 4th, 2006

09:30 pm - Maybe if I call it a 'homage'...
Let's write some high-concept scifi, and try not to steal from anyone! Woo!-

Our protagonist is an intellectual/academic type, in some obscure field, that I haven't decided yet. Any branch of science can be made future-and-awesome soundy by the prefix 'crypto-', btw. Maria is a crypto-geneticist. Jane is being studied by the crypto-zoologists. The Da Vinci Code features a crypto-art-historian. Fischer is a crypto-sociologist, or a crypto-linguist, or a crypto-cultural anthropologist, or something.

(Unless his name isn't Fischer, because I think I stole that from Starfish. Damnit.)

Anyway. Someone close to Fischer commits suicide. Haven't decided if it's friend, family member, peer or wife. He's already slightly nutty, but being unable to deal with the event in an emotional manner, goes crayons and newspaper insane.

(I seem to be imagining his behavior pretty much exactly like A Beautiful Mind. That's not a good sign.)

Suicide, you see, doesn't make sense to him. Not just this specific instance, which he's not even capable of dealing with, but the concept in abstract. It's a concept that pretty much everyone in the civilized world is familiar with: Shakespeare knew about it, Imperial Japan had it, Socrates was a fairly major proponent of it, and no one seems to have come up with it on their own.

Fischer forms the theory that the only people at risk of taking their own lives are the ones who have been exposed to the 'suicide meme', which seems to be floating freely around in our culture. This then, is an idea that kills a proportion of the people who think it. And to him, that doesn't make any sense. Where did it come from? When did it start?

Fischer goes digging, investigating psychology and prehistory, and the more he researches, the more he convinces himself that the suicide meme, universal interconnectedness, maybe as few as a half dozen but possibly uncountably many ideas have an external source, that there is a security hole in the human psyche. Whether it be aliens, or God, or demons, or something beyond human understanding (Oh no, Arthur C. Clarke's Monoliths, damnitall), someone or something has haxx0red humanity.

I suppose I'm allowed to be vague about what the breach is, but I ought to come up with specific rules for what the breach does. Something simple, like a technique for implanting an idea into a listener's brain, or a page of poetry that will destroy any chance of future happiness, or... Hmm. Details. Later.

Now, when you find a security hole, there are a few things that you can do. The Hacker community is actually in arms with itself over what is ethically called for.

1) You can contact the makers of the software, inform them of the hole, and then shut up, sit on your arse, and wait for them to devote time and resources to fix the problem, if they are even able to, or give a damn.

This approach, for various reasons, is not an option for Fischer.

2) You can shut up about it, and use your knowledge to crack security systems, destroy lives, and make millions.

Fischer isn't interested in this, but perhaps there are others who know about the breach, and have been quietly making their fortunes off of it. (Or, fuck me with a shovel, because that's the plot of Vitals.)

3) You shut up about it, and close the breach yourself. write the necessary code, and either pass it to the people in charge, or write your own virus that installs the fix on every machine that runs the bad code.

This, of course, requires incredible technical knowledge that Fischer doesn't have. Wouldn't put it past him to try.

4) Tell the world, publicize the breach, even and create a 'sample' that demonstrates the destructive potential. Let the whole world know, and everyone will put their resources behind finding a fix.

Everyone except for the 'script kiddiez', of course. These are the punks who delight in destruction, have no technical knowledge for themselves, but will download a pre-made virus, worm, or other black-hat code, and use it to create random chaos, simply because they can.

If Fischer goes public, if he tells the world that there's a way to sabotage the human mind, well, the vast majority of his listeners will think he's bugfuck insane. (Maybe he is.) Some will refuse to believe in the breach, because they've been programmed not to believe in the breach. Some will be well meaning, but won't believe until they try it out, first. And some will use that knowledge to piss their names in the metaphorical snow.

I think these will be fun scenes to write, and might not have been done before. Still have to read Snowcrash and Neuromancer, just in case.

More on possible fixes and the ethical/moral debate surrounding them later. I think it's time to write some smut.
Current Mood: Creative. I hope.

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July 3rd, 2006

02:16 pm - Haxx0red.
I've been thinking, a lot, about memes and suchlike. Maybe this will go into my novel, or a propaganda pamphlet, or maybe it will just live here. Either way, better on the page than in my head.

Here we go.

Computers store memory in a remarkably simple way. Essentially everything is stored in one giant line; a linear array, they call it. To look up something in memory, perform an instruction, or do anything at all, all the computer uses is an address, indicating where on the line it is.

The easiest way to hack a computer is what's called the 'buffer overflow attack'. Find a poorly written bit of code, and throw more input data at it than it can handle, and you can overwrite things that are nearby in the linear array. Then, simply hand the computer the address of your 'garbage', and the machine will execute literally whatever you want.

An external source, going through normal input channels, implanted data into the machine, and forced it to run. This is the ultimate goal of hacking, and after that first step, you can compromise that machine however you'd like. That is Power.

Enough about machines. How would you hack the human brain?

The buffer overflow doesn't work, for obvious reasons. When it's receptive, the computer writes any input it receives into its memory, but hand a person a page full of ones and zeroes, and he will look at it for a moment and then forget.

As best as we understand them (Unless I've missed a breakthrough in psychology somewhere, which is possible), human minds aren't arrays, they're networks. each memory doesn't have a fixed address, it has a web of connections relating it to other thoughts and ideas. Memories that connect to more memories are reinforced more often, memories that have no context and are never reinforced simply fade away. Even if it were possible to crack open a brain (drugs, torture, sleep deprivation) and shove something in there, if it's not reinforced, it will evaporate. So, how to go about it?

This is speculation at this point, but here's how I'd hack a human.

What you want is something I call a 'sticky thought'. In abstract, almost mathematical terms first, a sticky thought is something that can be stored in human memory that can and will relate to anything else that can be stored there. Once it is in, therefore, it is constantly reinforced- subject thinks about penguins, subject is reminded of the sticky thought. Subject thinks about golfing, is reminded of the sticky thought. It goes in the same way any other idea is absorbed; verbally, through books, a certain smell, any perfectly normal input channel, and in principle, can be extracted by nothing short of brain death. It permanently warps the subject's world-view and thought processes. A recursive loop like that would render a computer useless, but human brains are more durable, flexible and better capable of multitasking. It's a guess, but a human could probably carry around a sticky thought and still be functional.

What the sticky thought does, though, is act as a security hole. Once someone has been marked with the thought, he will accept any idea whatsoever, as long as it has a strong and explicit attachment to the sticky thought. It will go in, and even if it has no other context, even if it's completely insane, it will still be reinforced. Subject thinks about penguins, subject thinks the sticky thought, subject thinks What You Tell Him to Think. You've won.

What does the sticky thought look like?

This is speculation on top of speculation, but I think I might be right, and I believe it is important to say.

The simplest, easiest and most logical sticky thought, the idea that connects to all things, is the idea that all things can be connected. Subject looks at a tree, thinks about trees, and starts thinking about ecosystems, the interconnectedness of trees and all other things, universal harmony. You can dress that up however you'd like. Subject thinks about Penguins, about Merciful God who created the penguins and all other things, subject thinks about donating 10% of his money to the Church. Or patriarchal monogamy, or beating on faggots and jews. Subject thinks about tables, about the universal-life-spirit that suffuses her table and all things with its energy, subject thinks about her disdain for modern science.

What if our spirituality is a security breach in our brains?

It's a natural enough thought- but of course we'd think that! It might have occurred naturally in our culture, fueled by our pattern recognition, and our evolutionarily-reinforced drive to find connections between things, but it has the form of everything I would use if I were to sit down and deliberately compromise a mind. It honestly makes me a tiny bit paranoid.

What if, sometime deep, deep in the history of our culture, all of us were haxx0red?
Current Mood: spooky

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December 19th, 2005

10:38 am - Today on: Belligerent, Bile-Fueled Hatred,
Korean farmers!

I want to be sympathetic to the plight of the poor, I really, really do. I think the WTO has done a lot of things in absolutely the wrong way, and a whole lot of people are getting screwed over.

But you know what? If you're earning $50,000 a year, are putting two kids through college, and are able to buy a plane ticket to Hong Kong at the drop of a hat, you're not one of the victims of the new economy. I'd like to refer you towards Africa, Indonesia, and the homeless everywhere.

That's just fine though, I'm not going to invalidate the worth of your opinion. You're entitled to one, even if it's one I disagree with, and especially if its one the people in power disagree with. Even if it's an oversimplification, or if it's just plain wrong. It's absolutely your right, and I will defend it to the death.

You're allowed to express that opinion. You're allowed to demonstrate, rally and protest, pull together as many people as you can and try to get someone, somewhere to listen to you. Also a right.

You know what you're not allowed to do? Rip apart a fence and use it as a battering ram on a line of policemen. Chuck giant bits of metal at security workers and our boys in blue. Steal their motherfucking riot shields.

That is what completely invalidates your opinions. In the modern world, violence is not an acceptable means of expressing your opinion, and sure as hell not violence against the police of another fucking country. You are guests here, and these are the people who protect our city, fight our crimes, and save our lives. And if you beat on them, you will be tear gassed, yes. Why are you surprised? Also, nine hundred of you have broken the law, so yes, they will go directly to jail, do not pass motherfucking Go, do not collect 200 motherfucking dollars. And if the rest of you want to protest and demand their immediate release, you're going to be disappointed. And if you vow to stay, well, we'll wait until your visas expire and deport your asses.



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December 1st, 2005

02:14 am - A Parable
This happened a while ago, but it felt relevant today.

It was a cold morning, and the bus had been idling at the stop for a little while now. The driver was a gruff, middle-aged man, bundled up in a coat that sort of fused with the seat under him. He didn't talk much, normally, but scowled a lot, and had a tendency to jump through the tail end of yellow lights. The clock on the dashboard turned to 10:16, and he shifted a little in his seat. He reached for that awkward looking lever that controls the doors- and someone called out from a little behind him: "Sir, somebody's running."

And sure enough somebody was. Everyone in earshot on the bus turned to look out a window, and saw one last kid running down from the entrance to the doors, coat flapping in the cold air. I'll never know who he was, where he was going, or what had made him late, but I know for sure that he was tearin' up pavement. He didn't make it though. The bus driver said three words, pulled on the lever, pressed down hard on the gas, and we were off.

"Somebody's always running."

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October 29th, 2005

02:35 am - Fuckin' K-Selectors.
Fuck them, man. If it weren't for K's, everybody's life would be so goddamn easier, amiright? I mean... Jesus!

K-selectors. Fuck 'em.

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August 26th, 2005

01:37 pm - Screw it, time for some Beatles.
Paperback Writer!

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
Based on a novel by a man named Lear
And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer!

It's the dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn't understand.
His son is working for the Daily Mail,
It's a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer!

*Instrumental break! Tambourines!*

Paaaaaaper-baaaaack wriiii-iteeeeeer!

It's a thousand pages, give or take a few,
I'll be writing more in a week or two.
I can make it longer if you like the style,
I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer!

If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer!

Paperback writer- Paperback writer, etc.

((In a later interview, when asked about this song and its obvious symbolic value, they shrugged and collectively confessed that they didn't think anyone had ever done a number about a paperback writer. Rock unapologetically, ladies and gents.))

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August 24th, 2005

01:53 pm - "They went to their maker impeccably shaved!"

So... I ran into this article through Google News. The discussion is being bounced around between reporters, pundits, scientists and 'scientists,' and... well, it just got my wheels turning.

Pain and Death a la Babbling Pseudointellectual. I'm so Gawth!Collapse )Also, a PunCollapse )

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August 22nd, 2005

12:39 pm - Pop Culture 3/3
Before we begin, I'd just like to take a moment to say that Quidditch is a silly game. I'm sure it's fun to watch, but 14 players are flying around, essentially wasting time until one of the Seekers does his thing and, all together now, Wins. The soccer/basketball element is a distraction from the 150 point game of Golf going on. Or possibly Catch.

Spoilers for Half Blood Prince, naughty words, and rampant speculation for book 7. Don't look! Avert your eyes!Collapse )

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