Friday, April 23, 2010

Concerning Robert Heinlein... socialist or libertarian?

In some other places, the topic of legendary science fiction author Robert Anson Heinlein has repeatedly come up, along with shouting matches -- "He was a libertarian!" "No, a socialist!" "No, a fascist!"  I finally had enough and weighed into one of these discussions, with a comment I'll append below... along with more snippets of science.

doubleRobert Heinlein was hard to classify.  If one had to make a political caricature, I’d say he was a compassionate libertarian, in that he believed that humans have an obligation to be both competitively independent and generous.

Think of Ayn Rand with a soul…and with some historical perspective. (Yeah, that’s hard to picture, at a fundamental level. But Heinlein proved it needn't by an oxymoron.) Alas, while this label came close, he evades it as slippery as Schrodinger's Cat.

Heinlein was a loyal member of the American branch of the Enlightenment, a believer in democracy, markets, science, etc… but far more the rule-constrained competitive spirit of positive sum games that underlies all those arenas.

He distrusted government as a sole arbiter--but recognized the need for it.  For example, after disdaining politics in many books, he dared himself to make politicians the heroes, in DOUBLE STAR.

After disdaining socialism in many stories, he praised anarcho-socialism in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and became a hippie icon.

BeyondHOrizonSee his prescriptive utopia, BEYOND THIS HORIZON.  Usually, the 1st half of a Heinlein novel is dynamite and then (alas) the 2nd half kind of devolves into turgid lectures.  But in this case the action-packed 1st half is a silly-ass homage to J. W. Campbell’s loony “armed society” cliché… but the 2nd half is what turns into one of the most brilliant musings on social and biological matters ever written. Future generations may refer to the "Heinlein Solution" for how to manage human self-improvement through genetic engineering, for example... a way to get the benefits without doing crazy things.

In this brief, future speculation, clearly his favorite prescription, we see a future wherein all things creative are flaming competitive (as they should be) but “of course, food is free!”  Does that fit into any simplistic dogma?  I think not.

No, the real misunderstanding is in trying to pigeonhole RAH at all.  Because, above all, Robert A. Heinlein was a science fiction author.

I do not mean the mere profession but the religion.  I refer to a basic personality type that was probably recurrent as a fluke in most human generations, but quickly garroted or burnt at the stake in most other cultures (e.g. Giordano Bruno). Until, at long last, a society came along that would pay us, instead of burning us, for our madness.  For our ornery, contrary, inbuilt need to say “yes... but what if...?”

Stranger in a strange landTo those of us born with this affliction, there is something far more important than any and all political views or polemics. That thing is summed up by Einstein's word gedankenexperiment.   The thought experiment that fully utilizes those marvelous organs -- the "lamps on our brows" -- the prefrontal lobes, the things that most make our brains unlike any others.  It is this honest eagerness for the What-if that makes Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson modern blessings and that transforms guys like Bruce Sterling and Jerry Pournelle from mere offensive blowhards into men with real and impressive value to their era. (At times, seemingly, despite themselves.)

To us, "What-if?" is like prayer. We do have doctrines, opinions, political and polemical views.  But they all take second place to the itch. A sci fi author (a true member of the breed) who is deeply conservative will be more curious than hostile to a smart Marxist, and pester her with questions while buying drinks, not heckling her with simplistic/smug insults... much to the disappointment of his allies on the right, who will (rightly) suspect that his heart is not in the take-no-prisoners version of politics. And it goes both ways, I've seen it.

GlorySeasonI know about this.  I consider myself a feminist and GLORY SEASON had some pretty strong feminist premises... in some ways far more honest and bold than anything by Tepper or Charnas. So why do  polemical feminists hold that novel (and me) in deep suspicion? Because to me the Thought Experiment was more important than any polemical point.  And they could sense my priorities; I followed the implications, and did not force them to follow dogma.  First, above all, I am a science fiction author.

And it was the thought experiment that was most important to Robert Heinlein.  In fact, the only person I knew who was more devoted (and a far better storyteller) was Poul Anderson.  But more on that elsewhere.

TheMoonIsAHarshMistress_2505People who understand Heinlein know that “fascist” and “socialist” are silly terms.  They apply to people who are so weak they must clutch onto simplistic nostrums.  The kind of oversimplifying stupidity that we see on both the left and right and that is now tearing America apart.

But not us.  Not we who love a complex and weird and wonderfully surprising world.  When the prefrontal lobes function with mutant, superhero power, that is when you get people like Robert Heinlein, who did not dwell on left or right wings, but in the future.

To support the ideals and memory of Robert Heinlein, support the Heinlein Society, an organization devoted to Paying It Forward.

For more: See Speculations on Science Fiction

= MORE SCIENCE =

Argh...  Study suggests more people willing to believe in esp when told it's been scientifically disproven.  In fairness, it looks like a pretty small-scale test.

Any of you who love the notion of asteroid mining, see this amateur but enthusiastic paper by Dr. Michael Montague. Frankly, I am not at all sure the world’s public would put up with anyone targting Earth for a very near miss (for aeocapture) of even a small asteroid.  Alas, this is not an era of can-do daring and ambitious guts. 

The Biracy Project seeks to use fan-generated crowd-sourcing to make and distribute a new science fiction film.  Sounds daring and fun.  

See the latest cool gedanken-fiction from Eliezar Yudkowsky... a cute riff on Harry Potter.

This fascinating paper argues that neo-classical economics is clueless about fraud, and gives several real-world examples of global-scale harm. The examples reinforce one (of many) interesting points in the paper: that in the early stages of fraud, the faked results appear to support the neo-classical economic policies. Alas, what had been an interesting theoretical set of economic conjectures has mutated into something deeply delusional, threatening the health of the republic and the world.

Julie Korenberg has identified a gene, STX1A (which helps control electrochemical processes at synapses), whose expression can be linked to intelligence.

Fascinating article about human endurance and people who go beyond.

73 comments:

Catfish N. Cod said...

Even if people were willing to aerocapture asteroids for mining, there would still be the extra danger and expense of that enterprise being _hacked or hijacked_. (See the first few chapters of Varley's _Red Lightning_.) Accidents can be prevented, but deliberate acts...?

Here's a perhaps better idea: can the Moon be used to gravity-capture asteroids into Earth orbit? Put it on a lunar-grazing trajectory, let the Moon's gravity pull it out of solar orbit, and let a passive or semi-passive system (solar sails, ion drives, etc.) do the rest?

I'm pretty sure no one will care if an asteroid hits the Moon...

Ian Gould said...

Speaking of Poul Anderson: there's a wonderful short story which I'm 99% certain is by him bu which I haven't read for 30-odd years.

It's set roughly fifty years after a nuclear war - long enough for a new society to start to emerge.

An old man comes to a small town, he's a communist, trying to spread revolution in a society where his ideas are simplt irrelevant.

In the town there's another old man, a self-styled American patriot and capitalist whose ideas prove equally irrelevant.

The ending is wonderfully evocative and quite scary - the old ideologies have died but that doesn't mean new ones haven't taken their place.

Tim H. said...

I think of R. A. H. as a humanist with few illusions about his fellow creatures.
"thitiiong" a new style of lingerie that hopefully won't catch on.

Rob Perkins said...

That's interesting. I thought of Stranger in a Strange Land as a kind of examination of the lives and reactions to the lives of people like Joseph Smith, Jr.

No question, the man was a matchless talent with words, and his ability to capture visions of future technology without geeking out about them should have cemented his place in every American English Lit department by now. Podkayne of Mars has a particularly brilliant scene with a cell phone in it.

Alas, this is where they burn him at the stake.

And, his books are gradually becoming anachronistic, which is unfortunate. He's not to be found in any of the local school libraries, and the public ones don't maintain a collection.

Captain Button said...

I remember the Poul Anderson story Ian Gould mentions above. It is "The Last of the Deliverers" from 1958.

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?41229

atomicsmith said...

Here's an interesting bit of science: The Earth is probably not a nuclear reactor. An underground neutrino observatory looking for Geo-neutrinos hasn't found enough to be consistent with the Earth generating a significant amount of internal heat by radioactive decay.

Robert Synnott said...

> In this brief, future speculation, clearly his favorite prescription, we see a future wherein all things creative are flaming competitive (as they should be) but “of course, food is free!” Does that fit into any simplistic dogma? I think not.

This sounds like a sort of a post-scarcity economy, an idea which has been explored elsewhere. In Orwell's 1984, it is mentioned as something that the ruling system is frightened of, because it isn't clear how a power structure could work under it; they waste vast resources on war deliberately, to avoid the issue. It's also been speculated that the open-source software movement encompasses it to a degree in a specific area (software); where the resource is free, people are judged not on what they have, but what they give.

Carl M. said...

I'm surprised you made no mention of his first novel, "For Us, the Living," which was posthumously published a few years ago. It's not good fiction, but it's stunning how many themes found in later works were crammed in his early attempt at doing a "Looking Backward."

The early Heinlein was a believer in Social Credit economics. He turned rightward after visiting the Soviet Union. The nudism, free love, distrust of bankers, anti-racism, and grasp of the consequences of natural selection held fairly constant. His belief that socialism could be benevolent did not. He and alternately celebrated and was skeptical of democracy.

And don't overlook his Biblical influences. Allusions are scattered all over his works. He knew his way around the Bible more than most preachers today.

mythusmage said...

I skimmed through the Potter TW (transformative work) and most every line I read made me go, "EXACTLY!" I can't tell you the number I've told some self-described skeptic, "That's not how science works." When you have a mystery you investigate it, you don't reject the mere possibility because you just know it's impossible. That's authoritarianism and I say it's lazy.

Patricia Mathews said...

Robert Synnot said: "where the resource is free, people are judged not on what they have, but what they give."

That sounds like the potlatch society of the Pacific Northwest, sustained by salmon fishing. It is also a feature of Heroic Age societies in general, when what is given generally is loot - which comes as a byproduct of the casual warfare of such cultures.

David Brin said...

Dang . The responses were HUGE to my cross posting on Daily Kos.

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/4/24/41938/4254?new=true


http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010
then
/4/24/41938/4254?new=true

rewinn said...

"Double Star" IMO still works very well today; with only minor revisions to accommodate advances in technology (and siting the Martian Nests elsewhere) it might make a good SF/political thriller.

Whether it or any other of RAH's novels capture his personal philosophy is beyond my knowledge, but I hope he was not in the hell of having to write to please his fans rather than himself, nor in that other hell of not allowing himself to play with ideas that he may not have agreed with but were worth pursuing. I imagine a lot of sword-and-sorcery writers don't REALLY want to live in heroic age barbarism but it's fun to read about!

@Rob - I read "Stranger" as RAH's take on "What if Jesus were here today", complete with love and miracles. I don't see the Joseph Smith angle except, of course, that all three were religious leaders that were killed; neither Jesus nor Valentine Smith had ever declared martial law and mustered an armed militia. Perhaps RAH was just drawing upon the broad Western traditions of mystery cults that fed many branches of Christianity including Mormonism.

Robert said...

One of the more amusing moments I noticed in the science fiction computer game Mass Effect 2 was a call-out to the novel Berzerker Base, with a vessel named Quib Quib. For anyone unfamiliar with this classic series of short stories, Quib Quib was a ship with an artificial intelligence running it that was found derelict. The protagonists eventually realized that the word "Quib" meant "Berzerker" - the Quib Quib was a Berzerker Berzerker, or literally a Machine Killer.

Of course, at its heart Mass Effect utilizes many of the concepts of the Berzerker series. The Reapers are massive robotic starships that periodically enter the Milky Way Galaxy and wipe out all life in it... and the story focuses on the efforts of one person's efforts to stop this from happening once again (that being the game's protagonist). It also comes up with an interesting method by which these "Berzerkers" avoid the biggest problem with wiping out all life: what do you do when you're done? (The Reapers go into the intergalactic void and go into stasis, returning to the Milky Way periodically to wipe out the new species that arise. At least, from what I can gather.)

I must admit I've felt some amusement over the reactions of some of my associates on Mass Effect 2; one complained that the game was unsure of whether it was a first person shooter or a RPG. I on the other hand saw it as something better: it was a constrained RPG with sufficient action elements to keep people's interest up. While a "pure gamer" might be more likely to play an RPG ME2 all the way through, someone without much experience with RPGs might get bored and give up fairly early. By refining the RPG aspects to a more limited aspect (allowing for intelligent choices that have genuine impacts in not only the game, but in the sequels - decisions in the first Mass Effect have a direct bearing on ME2's setting and humanity's place in it, and it's likely this is the case with ME2 as well), people are able to play the game and enjoy the story while not getting lost in the sea of possibilities.

What's more, as I mentioned earlier, there is genuine thought put behind the science and background for the ME universe. While the average player may view much of the science in the ME universe as "technobabble," people with a more scientific background can still suspend their disbelief because science is treated with respect in the game. Well, at least in my viewpoint. ^^;;

One of the problems inherent in science fiction lies in writing it so that the lay person can read and enjoy it. Often this is done at the expense of the science behind science fiction... to the point that much contemporary science fiction is more fantasy than science. ME2 avoids that path while still telling a story that will hopefully inspire people to enjoy more science fiction... and perhaps even enter into the sciences as a career.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Rob Perkins said...

@rewinn -- Joseph Smith was a huge influence on the early history of the Kansas City area, where RAH grew up and where a small offshoot of the Mormon movement still thrives. There's too much of Joseph Smith in Valentine Michael Smith to miss, for anyone who knows more about him than that he mustered an armed militia. Jesus also never founded a town, and Joseph Smith never invaded enemy territory like Muhammad.

Even the fact that the idea "what if Jesus were here today" resonates more with the book (if we're going to give it a "theme") doesn't erase the parallels I've seen with Smith and other charismatic leaders. Perhaps we're both right!

Marino said...

@2: the story about the Communist and the US patriot was titled iirc The Last Deliverers (I remember reading it in an anthology of Poul Anderson's stories, translated in Italian)more than twenty years ago.

Marino

Ian Gould said...

Thanks to Captain Button and Marino for identifying that story for me.

Tim H. said...

A politically insensitive way to offend theocracy....

http://www.blaghag.com/2010/04/in-name-of-science-i-offer-my-boobs.html

David Brin said...

Yes I have seen that Hawking has joined the chorus decrying "messages" beamed into space. And yeah, he's on our side in the most general sense. I have found it hard to get journalists to see that what really bugs you and John and me is the deliberate isolation of the SETI/METI community. Their refusal to make this a joyful, raucous, fun and detailed argument, involving a wide spectrum of humanity's best minds and questioning every assumption.

Oh what fun the argument would be! That's what I begrudge Seti folk, in their insularity. Sigh.

Jacob said...

To revisit an older topic... Dealing with Ostrich Uncles.

Last Wednesday, I say down to talk to the 'conservative' wing of the family. I set up a full day from lunch until after dinner. My goal was to better understand where they were coming from and see where inroads were possible. Although I found a few points of actual disagreement on the way the world works, it seemed like most things where due working off of different information.

The talk went well and I did learn a few things. We have a good dialog going as I made great efforts to be open and understanding rather than being confrontational.

We are currently emailing back and forth on follow ups to that meeting. I have been making mostly fiscal responsibility arguments which some (not too many I hope) numbers to back up my point of view.

One of his points is that the conservative media has 'just' found its voice. He is a believer than anyone but Fox or Rush represent a Liberal perspective. I am trying to counter this outlook by saying that anger and hostility is driving me away from them. I argue that point and (empathy if not agreement) with counter point is a better way.

I'd like everyones thoughts and suggestions. I've read the older Ostrich posts but thought a current revamp might be healthy.

Robert Synnott said...

David: While it's unfortunate that the SETI folk are isolationist, a lot of it possibly stems from what happens these days to scientists who attempt to engage the public. The general pattern seems to be that they are jumped on by actual mad people, and, possibly due to the strange current media view that every argument has precisely two sides, each of equal validity, they have to spend half their time just refuting crazy claims to retain any credibility; not answering them would be seen as a sign of submission.

This has recently happened to the climate scientists and the biologists (over evolution), and it now looks like it might even be spreading to the vulcanologists; there is a small but increasingly vocal minority of crazy people who believe that the Icelandic ash cloud didn't exist, or was not a danger to planes, and that the whole thing was in fact an EU plot to deter people from travelling for a week... And that's not to mention the people claiming that the recent perceived increase in tectonic events is something to do with the apocalypse...

I can only imagine what the usual suspects would make of the SETI disclosure guidelines, the threat rating scales for contact incidents, and so on.

David Brin said...

Jacob. No time, but a few points.

1) Where were the tea partiers "fiscal responsibility" passions under Reagan, Bush and Bush? And if they aren't hypocrites, why don't they acknowledge that the only fiscally responsible presidents of our lifetimes were Carter and Clinton?

Everybody says their opponents are deluded. An honest person goes to great lengths to ensure he is not the deluded one. You don't accomplish that by wallowing in the world of one perspective...

...that is pushed by organs partly owned by Saudi and Russian petro-oligarchs. (Fox News.)

Nothing demonstrates the worngheadedness of being a Limbaugh dittohead more than the FACTS about illegal immigration. That dems double the border patrol and GOPs always cut it in half... while talking the opposite. That's a plain fact, and if he's unwilling to at least ponder the very clear reasons WHY the parties talk one way but act the other, then he is beyond hope.

I could go on endlessly. But the core is this. Freedom has had LOTS of enemies across 4000 years of recorded history. Liberal government is a pretty recent enemy and a tepid one, at worst. (I am libertarian enough to agree it CAN be an enemy, and I am not asking conservatives to stop being skeptical about government, as the answer to all problems!)

But it was a very different enemy who suppressed freedom for 40 centuries. The enemy Adam Smith hated as the destroyer of free markets. The enemy we rebelled against in 1776 and had to beat back in the 1860s. It's an enemy that has come roaring back, with trillions in its pocket to use in propaganda to destroy our republic, with Culture War.

It is the enemy that just recently almost ruined our economy. That enemy wants him to stay an ostrich.

But I have no time for his ilk, anymore. They seldom awaken. All we can to is fight for America and civilization without him

David Brin said...

Robert that is the SETI guys' excuse... and it doesn't explain why they avoid open discussion at scientific conferences.

TCB said...

Re: Yudkowsky's Harry Potter fanfic: I've read other of his writing before and he never disappoints. That Potter piece, of which I just read about the first 1/4, is as good as JKR's original.

Re: Berzerkers. I remember that story. Quibbian Quibbian Quell! Maks Quibbian! (For some reason I have a good recall for the oddest little bits from SF stories. Vorga-T-1339, you know.)

Re: Hawking's take on SETI, I repeat what I said over at alt.fan.rawilson:
As for Hawking's ideas on aliens, well... nobody nose. Another poss is
that tech civilizations always self-annihilate by trying, as it were,
to take over gut functions. Look at us, arguing over how to regulate
CO2. Easiest way would be to just not burn fossil fuel and not cut
down rain forests, but seems we can't not do it. Yet another poss is
that maybe one in a thousand do survive themselves but the qualities
to do that are bodhisattva ways. Under that last scenario, either they
studiously avoid us, so as to do no harm, or they will actively help
if they can.

But it's quiet out there.

Too quiet.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Re "boobquake": My self-admitted femi-nazi roommate was deeply offended by the idea. I'm neutral on it (I can see where she's coming from, though I know that she has a tendency to (imo) over-react on such things, and I find the idea more amusing than anything else, though couched in terms of a scientific experiment, I'm finding it more and more attractive...).


Re HP fanfic: IMO, I think it's much better than the original. A few points could be polished, I think, and part of the superiority of it comes from having the original to compare to and contrast against, but it is just a fanfic. Nevertheless, I have very much enjoyed it so far, and wish this guy had written the original story.

I also spent an hour this morning hitting the snooze on my alarm in a half-awake daze (I set it early partly so I can do just that), running through all manner of fun experiments and "Look what muggles can do/have done!" scenarios before getting out of bed for work...

Robert said...

The one problem I have with Hawking's little warning is that any species that has gotten to the stars would likely harvest ice and minerals from other planets first rather than deal with the possibility that some upstart lifeform might either exploit a weakness and destroy them. A more likely scenario of a hostile lifeform is something that is xenophobic and deliberately hunts down other intelligent life to kill potential threats before they can grow into genuine threats. This could even be religious in nature: my friend Brian Lacki wrote up a fantastic online novel loosely based in the Homeworld universe, called Nagarrok's Children (which I posted a link to back in September of 2008, actually). I rather wish Brian would start writing stories again; I suspect RL (last I knew, he was going for a dual major in astronomy and physics, though I don't know if he's in a Master's program at this point as it's been a bit since I last chatted with him) has gotten in the way of writing. Which is a shame. He's talented, and we need more good science fiction writers (as opposed to romance and fantasy writers who slap in a couple spaceships and call it "science fiction").

Rob H.

Stuart said...

Re: Ostrich arguments

If I were conservative - that is, if I were fundamentalist, traditionalist, and a proponent of very small government - I think I would be open to the following arguments:

To be consistent, one must choose between small government and the legislation of morality.

Siding with small government and personal liberties you may not approve of will add left-libertarians to your ranks, which will help you actually achieve your small government goals.

Every weapon you give government - censorship, victimless crime laws, the power to decide which religion should be taught in schools - is a weapon that can be turned against you one day. (And BTW, you will one day belong to a minority.)

The phrase "Separation of Church and State" is not in the Constitution, sure enough. It was coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists. The Baptists were requesting it, because in those days they were unpopular - as they may be again.

Far-right religious conservatives are not as popular as you think. As we speak, Roy Moore (the Ten Commandments judge in Alabama) is the only Republican candidate for Alabama governor that Rasmussen Reports polls predict would lose to a Democrat - and they predict he would lose to any Democrat. Point being, you have to decide what is most important to you and compromise, because you need the allies.

If you insist that governments should recognize the religious institution of marriage, don't be surprised when they recognize gay marriage. If you don't want them to befoul the religious institution of marriage, then you should apply some separation of church and state. Have every union be a civil union in the eyes of the government - or just have everyone draw up a standard contract with a lawyer!

A government made powerful under a Republican for one set of reasons will be powerful under the Democrat that follows him for another. You can't have it both ways.

A small government means a government that can't promote your moral or religious views. If you want a government that promotes your moral or religious views, the government you're asking for will not be small. For instance: Enact a law against lewd or immoral media, and you create a bureau that 1. Watches every movie and reads every book on the taxpayer dollar, 2. Gets to decide what is lewd or immoral - it's out of your hands now!

Summary: It is not in your power always to decide what the government should advocate. It is in your power, should you seek allies, to get government out of the business of advocacy.

Jacob said...

Speaking along the lines of smaller government. My ostrich believes that government exists mostly only to protect the people. Military, Police, Contracts, and the like. While I don't agree with it, the right wing has been teaching people that rights they don't agree with damage society. Gays, Liberals, etc hurt 'us' and therefore need to be protected against.

It is logically consistent to advocate small government & your own morality. The problem is their morality is both flawed and largely unexamined.

I've thought about using the Bible itself as an example of transitioning to new times. The Old Testament worked for its times. The New Testament after the ground work had been laid. Therefore it goes to reason that we should examine how things might work two millennium later. Unfortunately, I think it would be stepping into a nest of vipers. Besides a book I'm reading suggests that conservatives don't believe that people ever have or ever will change. Thus, the old rules still apply.

My Ostrich follows this logic, but does believe that our current society. Technology and the like allow us to be more humane/civilized than ever before. I'm not sure how to leverage that to promote change.

Tony Fisk said...

Maybe all those other races weren't slain so much as harvested. (Thinking 'Childhood's End' here)

Maybe the reality show doesn't include that level of detail (Version 2 should be installed real soon now, though)

Maybe the AEsir *are* coming.

Trouble is, all the reasons I'm coming up with involve a disconnect of some sort.

polusl: Oh! Of course! That's the reason!

Jonathan S. said...

Heinlein's "For Us, the Living" was pretty forgettable for the most part - I'm not surprised it's the one work he never tried to get published - but it did contain the earliest reference I've yet found to hyperlinking. (When the hostess is explaining to the protagonist how to read the historical documents she's gotten him, she shows him how to press a special point on the page to get other information linked to a given term, and return to the same spot he left in the original document.)

I thought the character that more resembled Joseph Smith was Foster - his church gained what legitimacy it had by being willing to descend in force upon anyone trying to oppress it, which is somewhat reminiscent of the history of Mormons in what became the state of Utah...

As for the Berserkers- er, I mean Reapers in ME2:

SPOILER WARNING! IF YOU ARE PLAYING/WANT TO PLAY ME2 AND HAVE NOT REACHED THE END YET, SCROLL PAST TO THE NEXT ALL-CAPS PORTION! SPOILER WARNING!


The Reapers come to harvest organic life, because using their DNA in combination with a mechanical matrix is how they reproduce. That's why they're abducting entire human colonies in the Traverse - it takes several million humans to make one Reaper. And in the end, they still haven't been "defeated" - all you've managed to do is keep Harbinger from making a human-based Reaper. The rest are still coming...



SPOILER WARNING ENDS - YOU MAY NOW RESUME READING AS NORMAL. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION, CITIZEN. THE COMPUTER IS YOUR FRIEND!

Rob Perkins said...

That's probably the most inaccurate statement about the history of Utah that I've ever seen.

Robert said...

@Jonathan S.: Well, I suppose in that regard the Reapers might be considered almost a mixture of Great Old Ones from H.P. Lovecraft, rather than Berzerkers. Especially when you add in the whole "Indoctrination" aspect related to Reaper artifacts. (I won't go into further detail so not to spoiler the game for anyone interested in playing and who's not found out about that yet. Though I found out about it on the Mass Effect wiki site. ^^)

Rob H.

Ilithi Dragon said...

***Contains some spoilers***

To bring up the sheer amount of variation that you can get in Mass Effect (because it can't be mentioned enough), your actions in ME1 effect a wide range of things in ME2, and will also effect a wide range of things in ME3, along with your actions in ME2. But to really demonstrate the sheer breadth of variety in what your actions can create, in one of the actual successful end-game scenarios in ME2 (i.e. not a game-over ending but an actual successful completion of the game), you and everyone on your team, and the Normandy's entire crew save for the helmsman, Joker, and EDI, the ship's AI, die. And it's not a game-over. The end-game cinematics show Joker and EDI picking up the torch on the bitterly empty Normandy, suggesting that you may be able to continue ME3 as Joker or possibly some other character.

In the end-game scenario I prefer, I bring my entire team through alive, rescue everyone in the Normandy's crew, and blow up the Collector base (and also telling off The Illusive Man afterward). And then you have the two or more different base potential outcomes from each of your teammates' loyalty quests (some with multiple subtle variations), and the multiple different outcomes of the core campaign missions, and the various outcomes of the dozens of side-quests and missions.

Mass Effect is not just a work of art as a guided story, it's also a work of art as a player-controlled story, not just in the sheer variety of outcomes the player can create, and paths to those outcomes, but also in how thoroughly those choices and consequences interconnect and effect each other, and are meshed together.

THAT is the true glory of the Mass Effect series. The excellent gameplay (a solid balance between the complexity of an RPG and the action of a shooter) is just icing on the cake.

Robert said...

Off on a brief tangent here: I found an article on the use of new government websites that show what government spending is going to. I actually didn't even know these sites were up and running yet, so I found this rather nifty. And promptly send the article link to a couple of my conservative friends who grouse about "waste" in the stimulus package and the like.

----------

Back to Mass Effect 2, another rather fascinating aspect of the game is how they worked in dialogue and a "Paragon/Renegade" alignment system - literally, your dialogue options and how you respond to various comments garner you "Paragon" and "Renegade" points. These in turn increase dialogue opportunities and even in-game interrupts that can get you even more "Paragon" and "Renegade" points.

This is a significant refinement of the Light/Dark Side choices that were found in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games, and is far more realistic in how it runs. KOTOR was... very flat with how they utilized their "alignment" system. With ME2, there is considerable latitude... to the point that you can become both a Paragon AND a Renegade with your decisions and actions.

While the roleplaying aspect may be "light" compared to the original Mass Effect, I have been enjoying it. Of course, I've not played the original game (yet), so I cannot give an honest comparison of the two... but too much complexity can be a bad thing as well. I suspect ME2 has managed an excellent balance of its various aspects.

Rob H.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Meh... The only 'lightening' of the RPG aspects have mostly been streamlining of the leveling and item/inventory systems. Some aspects I'm not happy with (mostly the near-complete lack of item management and inability to customize your weapons/equipment beyond squad-wide 'upgrades', and the inability to change your squadmates armor), but most of the changes were improvements that filed down some rough edges in the ME1 system (such as the problem with constantly running out of inventory space and having so much extra credits from all the useless loot sales late-game). The core RPG aspects, though, the actual story content and character interactions, are just as much there in ME2 as in ME1, and more so if you load an ME1 char in to play the game with.

But, then, I started RPGs with text-based freeform RPGs on forums, so I don't see a leveling/inventory system as being particularly attached to 'RPGness.'

ThoughtCriminal said...

Time to find that copy of "The Great Silence..." that I saved for many years. It remains a classic.

I suspect that if there were a really advanced and xenophobic civilization out there, they would have found us and exterminated us many years ago. They would not wait for radio signals to travel tens or hundreds of light years. Every star system would have a Beserker waiting and watching.

BCRion said...

"I suspect that if there were a really advanced and xenophobic civilization out there, they would have found us and exterminated us many years ago. They would not wait for radio signals to travel tens or hundreds of light years. Every star system would have a Beserker waiting and watching."

It's a big galaxy and such a race may think on far longer time scales than we are accustomed. If you are a billion year old civilization whose species have achieved virtual godhood, what is a few millennia to you?

An a fun line of speculation is that our star's Berserker malfunctioned earlier than expected or failed to reach its destination when it was sent out so many eons ago. Indeed, our system may be atypical for this reason.

Ian Gould said...

Or maybe they think we're so clearly doomed that it isn't worth the effort.

Tim H. said...

If they're sufficiently advanced, they could be out in the oort cloud, completely unconcerned with whatever planet-bound civilization might exist.

John Kurman said...

1) I'm surprised at Hawking's lack of vision. But then again, his show was produced for the Discovery channel...
2) I would think that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be pretty much independent of planetary surface existence. We shouldn't worry overmuch upon Hawkings' concerns about rapine tendencies of aliens.
3) A more realistic view of advanced aliens would be Stanislaw Lem's H.P.L.D.s. Maybe we should be looking for cubical planets orbiting cubical suns, or better still -
4) The glaringly obvious Type III civilization doing interesting things to the cosmos at large, such as piloting galaxies around like starships, or making black holes do peculiar things
5) But there is something sad and pathetic about listening to radio waves, kind of like keeping an ear out for the sound of drumming on hollow wooden logs.

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Ilithi Dragon said...

Do you guys think it would be possible to create a sentient program using Object Oriented Design, with the program being able to create and modify the Objects within its own code? Obviously, it would require a LOT of Objects to achieve full sentience, and you'd need an extremely powerful computer to run it, but do you think you could at least simulate accurately, if not outright create a sentient program in such a way? With Objects able to contain Objects containing Objects, etc., so that you have large data structures interacting with each other directly, and containing smaller data sub-structures interacting with each other inside the larger structure, and connecting with sub-structures inside other data structures, which all may contain their own sub-sub-structures, interacting in similar ways, etc. Also with routines, which can also be modified, to create new and modify existing data structures.

Do you think such a system could model, and create sentience? Not necessarily human sentience, as in an accurate model of the human brain, but just sentience in general. I was discussing this with Corey recently (again), and he is convinced that sentience requires a system that can re-write its own hardware, and that you could not create a sentient program on any kind of computer such that we have now, even if you could build one powerful enough to run a program that complex. I disagree with that, and after further thought, I am fairly certain that you could create sentience with a sufficiently complex, self-modifying program developed with Object-Oriented Design.

What do you guys think?

Jacob said...

Hi Ilithi,

I would want to know more on your idea of sentience. Has science in general figured out consciousness yet? I think of decision making as a factor of how much we are positively and negatively stimulated towards responses and options. While introduced to new ideas we (might) deeply consider a matter, but after that initial introduction we normally consider that idea/option first based on how well we liked or disliked it in the past. My understanding might be wrong, but it is the context of my response.

It would be fairly easy to program logic nodes to respond positively, negatively, or neutrally to an idea/option. It would also be easy to introduce an idea to many such nodes. The program could get a general approval rate for an option/idea. It could then compare that approval rate against others relative to each one's ability to answer the question. Say 40% approval for an option that 75% (mostly) solves a problem.

Memory is easy to introduce which has options stored for any given stimuli. Does this match your idea of sentience? Response contingent on personal learned (or programed) preference?

Ilithi Dragon said...

Well, sentience is more than just a response to stimuli, even a complex response to stimuli. Responses based on learned behaviors/preferences is part of it, but not all of it.

What I am talking about is a program that can think on its own, with or without directed stimuli, and even create stimuli of its own. A program that is also aware of itself, and of its own awareness.

Creating such a program is especially difficult given that we don't yet fully understand our own consciousness, but I don't think that actually creating a program capable of becoming sentient is the real challenging part, nor building a computer powerful enough to run it. You'd probably need to create a new programming language to write it in, but that's nothing particularly special. Nor is building a super-powerful computer. Developing code to collect and analyze data, and developing a program that consists of multiple layered data structures and that can re-write itself wouldn't be that difficult, either (we already have complex programs consisting of multiple, highly-layered data structures, and programs that can modify themselves at least to a limited degree). It would be a challenge, but I don't think that part is beyond our software engineering capabilities.

What I think will be the most challenging part is designing a program that can interpret data like we do. Part of that is the sheer complexity that would be required by that kind of system, and part of that is because we don't yet fully understand how our own system works. The challenge basically comes from trying to recreate hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary pressure towards a system that works, without the hundreds of millions of years part, and without fully understanding how the system does work.


Dr. Brin previously described human consciousness as basically a collection of 'programs' running experiments on everything, including each other, themselves, and the collection of simulations as a whole. I think that a similar collection of data structures, designed to run predictive and analytic algorithms, could create sentience within a computer program. Add in an additional 'overseer' data structure(s) that define the collection of data structures of the program as a single entity, a single structure/object, and that also direct the simulations and analysis to center around that entity, and you have the foundations for the concept of self/'I.' Curiosity could be created by designing algorithms to analyze and try to predict the unknown, with the overseer program(s) given a weight discover the reality so as to be able to compare the predictions and analysis to it, and measure the accuracy of its predictions.

Algorithms to develop predictions wouldn't be all that challenging, either.

The challenge comes in translating our higher-level concepts that are the product of hundreds of millions of years in evolution, into source code that can produce and function according to those concepts, without taking hundreds of millions of years to get it right.

Stuart said...

We don't even have a lead on sentience yet. When we get a general theory for consciousness, that will mark the beginning of the Official Singularity.

As far as programming languages go, I'm pretty sure Lisp allows you to write self-modifying code, and sure enough, it's popular among AI researchers.

However, there's something mysterious going on with consciousness that I think (though some disagree) is much more than the sum of stimulus and response, however complex. For the current thought on this, see Philosophical Zombies.

Jacob said...

Don't humans screw up pretty quickly when they don't have stimuli? I wonder what the implications are for a computer which spends the vast majority of its time waiting.

David McCabe said...

All Turing-equivalent systems can self modify.

There are some who believe for philosophical reasons that consciousness must be due to some feature of our brain's physical hardware. However, I have not been able to understand their arguments well enough to paraphrase.

Personally, I would be astonished to find that such a violation of the principle of mediocrity were true.

The other option is that any information-processing substrate, even marble-machines, can in principle host a sentient system.

However, "Object-Oriented Design", which is pre-invention-of-the-arch architecture, would probably have nothing to do with it.

Gilmoure said...

@BCRion

Maybe the berserkers have already been here and wiped out anaerobic life? Who knew something would come along that could handle active oxygen and corrosive water?

ThoughtCriminal said...

@Gilmoure
"Maybe the berserkers have already been here and wiped out anaerobic life?..."

That's a good one! But I don't see any reason for the Beserker to ever leave or stop monitoring the Solar System. It would stick around, make backup copies of itself and wait just in case something emerged from Europa, Mars, the Oort Cloud or some other upstart.

Tony Fisk said...

Whilst on the subject of berserker apocalypse from the heavens, Patrick Farley has been successful in his funding drive. (message to apokemon berserkers: please keep off the grass so that sheep may safely graze)

Jonathan S. said...

As an aside, I ran across a lovely quote in that Harry Potter fanfic Dr. Brin linked us to, in Chapter 7, "Reciprocity", in the second meeting between Harry and Draco Malfoy:

"But make no mistake, Draco, true science really isn't like magic, you can't just do it and walk away unchanged like learning how to say the words of a new spell. The power comes with a cost, a cost so high that most people refuse to pay it."

Draco nodded at this as though, finally, he'd heard something he could understand. "And that cost?"

"Learning to admit you're wrong."

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi
That Harry Potter fanfic Dr. Brin linked us to is superb but it kind of stops at chapter 17
I don't know about this type of thing is it continued somewhere else? or are we waiting for the writer?

Dr Brin as somebody who knew Poul Anderson there is a question I wanted to put to him
One of his Dominic Flandry adventures "A Stone in Heaven" features a Cairncross as the villain,
I would love to know if he had encountered one of the clan to base this on.
Robert Heinlein was one of my favorite writers, as a socialist leaning Scotsman sometimes the politics grated - but more often it seemed totally pragmatic
The one thing I do believe he did get wrong is the armed society
IMO that would only work if we could find somewhere to hide the 13 - 25 year old males

Ilithi Dragon said...

It appears the author of the HP fanfic has been updating regularly, chapter-by-chapter. The last update was on the 24th, this past Saturday, and it appears that it has been running since the 28th of February, so 17 updates in 8 weeks suggests that a new update should be appearing shortly (unless the updates are more distantly-spaced, with multiple chapters per update).

Stuart said...

@ David McCabe

All Turing complete systems can self-modify, but Lisp is one of a handful of languages that are special in that they don't distinguish between data and code. Normally, a program compiles down to a non-changing executable that takes data and transforms it. Lisp (and some other languages) provide built-in support for having the program transform itself.

In order to support this kind of thing, a language at the very least has to be interpreted as it is run rather than compiled to machine code beforehand. Now that I think of it, I wonder if Javascript would be a good choice. It's an interpreted language, it can generate and run some code on the fly, and it has a less-clear-than-usual separation between functions and data. For instance, you can pass a function as a parameter to another function.

I use Javascript frequently for web UI, but I've been meaning to become proficient at it. I know that it can do a lot more than I have been doing with it. Also, there's a strong possibility that Javascript plus HTML5's canvas tag will eventually replace Flash. I think it's pretty cool that such a flexible language is included in every browser. I plan to teach it to my kids so they can hack around in their browsers the way I hacked around on a Commodore Vic 20.

Stuart said...

I just realized the answer to my own question in an earlier post: The comment spams are probably meant to make the sites they link to appear more popular in the eyes of Google, so the spammers have an incentive to keep posting even if not one person ever clicks a link.

rewinn said...

Perhaps the advertizing spambots are primitive forms of Berserkers.

They certainly are immicable to any form of intelligent life! The big question is whether they are not only self-replicating, but make imperfect copies of themselves, so that natural selection will lead to the evolution of Malware Filter Resistent Spambot Activity (MFRSA)

David Brin said...

"Learning to admit you're wrong."

Jonathan, wow, that sounds like a terrific piece of fanfic! Is that Eliezer's? Someone else's?

Duncan, sorry, I don't recally such details from Poul Anderson stories. Only that he was the best natural storyteller I ever met.

Heinlein's BEYOND THIS HORIZON followed the typical pattern, lively, action packed 1st half and endless jabber in the 2nd. Only here, the gun-obsessed 1st half is lame and skippable, while the talky 2nd half is amazing!

Robert said...

Sentient machine life will be realized by mankind once we learn that a growing number of spam and malware creators have had their finances drained mysteriously and their machines crippled... along with each new bit of Malware to be created.

I mean, really. It's an immune response, and I suspect a machine intelligence would find spam and malware even more angering than us fleshware types. =^-^=

Rob H.

Jonathan S. said...

As I said, Dr. Brin, it's in Chapter 7 of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, while Harry's trying to turn Draco to the good-guy side, and impressing him with the power of Muggle science (after all, no wizard had ever been to the Moon - you can't Apport to someplace you haven't been, you know!).

Being me, obviously, I had to read the entire thing at one sitting. Now I can't wait for the next chapter!

(Amusingly, my verification tag for this post is "ratio".)

Stuart said...

Chairman: In Conclusion, the Kansas Board of Education has decided to...

Harry Potter: Ratio Pontificus!

Chairman: Teach the pursuit of scientific truths, which are common to American taxpayers of any religion, to public school students.

David McCabe said...

Lisp is routinely compiled to machine code.

Functions-as-data is simply the mark of a language designer with any kind of taste.

JavaScript as the next lingua franca: Could have been a lot worse.

Posting links to get google-juice is no longer effective, since Google introduced a special attribute which tells their spiders not to follow a certain link -- and blog sites apply this attribute to links in comments.

Stuart said...

@David McCabe

Should have checked your profile the first time. Looks like I just explained programming languages to someone with a "Google Summer of Code" blog. :-/

Is there a way for a compiled language to modify its own code at runtime?

rewinn said...

Still relevant today (I hope) is an observation from "Beyond This Horizon" to the effect that a society with a reasonable amount of merit-based upward mobility is reasonably safe from violent revolution because it co-opts people who are good at leading & organizing.

Not (as Heinlein's mouthpiece explains between the bullets and Coagulator beams) that a lot of people won't get hurt in the process of flushing out the "parlor pinks" (in RAH's phrase). But it's worth noting that the McVeigh Memorial Rallies in Our Nation's Capital last week were smaller by an order of magnitude than pro-tax-increase rallies in the MidWest, even through one got a lot of corporate press and the other didn't ... for some reason.

David McCabe said...

The Summer of Code is a great opportunity, by the way, and easier to get into than you'd expect. The key is to schmooze the project mentors before actually applying. Presenting a working prototype with your proposal also helps.

The main reason that Lisp is associated with AI is that Lisp is the oldest high-level programming language: it was the only one available during the AI hayday.


> Is there a way for a compiled language to modify its own code at runtime?


Yes: computers (except for DSPs and other specialized hardware) are von Neumann machines; this means that they store their programs in ordinary, writable memory.

Unfortunately, this leads to security problems, as a buggy program may be tricked into overwriting parts of itself with code provided by an attacker. Using memory-managed languages remedies this.

Anyway, actual self-modifying code is only used in very specialized cases, because it's hard for us poor humans to comprehend. More common is runtime generation of new code; in some production-quality Lisp implementations, the runtime includes an incremental compiler, so newly-generated code runs at machine speed. However, this is no longer such a high priority, and newer languages simply use increasingly sophisticated interpreters.

Anyway, if you know how to write a general artificial intelligence, none of this stuff will worry you. We're talking about limestone vs. travertine in the building of pyramids, and the applicability of pyramid-building techniques to a hypothetical hundred-story tower with vertical sides.

David Brin said...

on to next hurried posting

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