Strange Loops - Blog Archive: July 2004
Strange Loops Journal Archive: July 2004

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Salon Interviews Alan Moore
July 21, 2004

Salon has an interview with comics genius Alan Moore (which unfortunately requires registration or watching an ad). He tackles a number of different subjects, including the current political climate and its fascist undertones, but he also has some interesting stuff to say on the future. Here's an excerpt:

I think that complexity is one of the major issues of the 20th and 21st centuries. If you look at our environmental and political problems, what is underlying each is simply the increased complexity of our times. We have much more information, and therefore we are much more complex as individuals and as a society. And that complexity is mounting because our levels of information are mounting.

Information is funny stuff. In some of the science magazines I read, I've found it described as an actual substance that underlies the entirety of existence, as something that is more fundamental than the four fundamental physical forces: gravity, electromagnetism and the two nuclear forces. I think they've referred to it as a super-weird substance. Now, obviously, information shapes and determines our lives and the way we live them, yet it is completely invisible and undetectable. It has no actual form; you can only see its effects. Information is a kind of heat. I would suggest that as our society accumulates information, from its hunter-gatherer origins to the complexities of our present day, it raises the cultural temperature.

I feel that we may be approaching a cultural boiling point. I'm not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing; I really don't know because I can't imagine it, quite frankly. But I think we may be approaching the point at which the amount of information we are taking becomes exponential, and I'm not entirely certain what kind of human culture will exist beyond that point. Except it will happen sooner than we expect, and the difference between us and the kind of people that will exist after such an event will be vastly different than the difference between us and the hunter-gatherer society we've evolved from.

His "boiling point" sounds a lot like the Singularity. Anyway, the interview's worth a read, but more importantly, I urge anyone who can to get their hands on the graphic novel V For Vendetta which is mentioned therein and read it.

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July 18, 2004
Back in 2000, a little-known movie came out on HBO based on real life events back in 1995. The movie, Cheaters, presents a team of high school students from a poor school who are competing in an academic decathlon against a wealthy private school that has won ten years straight thanks to the resources put into their team. The kids at Stienmetz, this poor school, are challenged into joining the team and working hard by a dedicated teacher (Jeff Daniels) who acts as their coach. Against the odds, they manage to do just well enough in the regional competition to compete in the state competition. Yet the night before the big test, a student breaks into an office and gets his hands on the test. It is presented to their coach who then has to decide where to go from there.

As can be guessed from the title of the movie, the tortured teacher eventually decides to provide the team with the opportunity to use the stolen test to cheat, but only if all of the students agree. What makes the movie interesting though is that it is not shown as a black and white issue. In a previous movie, Stand and Deliver, kids from a poor school were falsely accused of cheating - people just could not believe they had done as well as they did, and the movie was about proving those doubters wrong. However, it is easy to make a movie about some falsely accused kids from a poor school out to prove the system wrong. What Cheaters does is take the harder road to exploring the question with more depth.

Here the students did cheat (though they excelled in portions of the competition like essays, speeches and such which they had no 'help' on). The coach from the rich school which had won over and over again for years (and where the academic decathlon offices were located) had no evidence of cheating except that Stienmetz did well and actually won. However, he uses his connections to talk to the officials and get them to investigate. The officials then declare that the Stienmetz kids must retake the test to prove they did not cheat.

When the allegations come out, the students decide that rather than admit what they did, they will fight it. They deny the allegations and enlist the media to present their side of the story as a poor school getting scrutinized unfairly. The team from the rich private academy had never had their success put under a microscope. No one had any evidence of wrongdoing, except unexpectedly high scores from a poor school.

What is cool about this movie is that explores the situation is a way that is not simplistic. Yes, the kids cheated - but then they had been screwed in the first place by a system which favored private, wealthy schools. Yes, the kids cheated - but no one actually knew that, they just assumed it. Whether or not the kids fought the allegations and refused the retest just to save their own asses is almost irrelevant, because they were simultaneously fighting an unfair system that had dissected their performance where the same had never been done before for the rich school. As the teacher says at one point later in the film when he questions his actions - not for the first time - he sees what they did as sort of an act of civil disobedience.

It is an interesting argument, and whether you buy it depends on how pessimistic your worldview is: in one scene lawyers investigating the incident lie to the kids in interrogation interviews trying to force confessions; an epilogue at the end notes that the superintendent who denounced the cheating on television was later that year arrested for tax fraud; among the public reactions shown are some of successful business people who admit that they got where they are by cheating because they had to to compete. Yet whether or not you buy the argument, it at least makes you look deeper at the problem than a movie where you know that the kids did not cheat. Can you still maintain outrage at the public assumption of guilt and the increased scrutiny of a poor, public school even though you as a viewer magically know that the students did in fact cheat?

Is cheating wrong? The movie does explore that, and seems to come from a sort of hard realistic point of view that the adult world, the business world, the real world is harsh and people do need to cheat to survive. You do have to cheat to prosper, and it sucks, but the rich school is doing its own form of accepted systematic cheating and that is just the way the world works, so you have to cheat to keep up. That is one angle the movie explores (in a pretty intelligent manner, I might add), but you do not have to accept cheating as okay in order to sympathize with these students and be drawn into this thought-provoking story. I for one am glad to see a movie present the gray part of life, the truly hard decisions, in an open ended manner, rather than beat the viewer over the head with an easy division of good guys and bad guys where you know who to root for.

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Abu Ghraib Guards Tortured Common Criminals
July 16, 2004 top
I'm sickened. I'm sickened that when the torture story finally broke (after years of people trying to call attention to this sort of thing) and the details emerged, people in the states were actually so lacking in empathy that they didn't see the abuse as a big deal (one wonders if they would consider it a big deal if some Iraqis did it to an American, or to them specifically). I'm sickened that anyone would try to cover this stuff up as simple pranks. But some people took a more subtle route and argued that the torture was necessary to get vital information from insurgents about the rebellion against the occupying force.

Well, that argument has just been destroyed. Remember the Iraqi prisoner who was hooded and forced to stand in a stress position for an extended period of time lest he be electrocuted through the wires hanging from his hands and penis? His name is Satar Jabar and he was in Abu Ghraib not for any sort of terrorist-linked activities, not for any sort of military activities, not for supporting the insurgency in any way. He was accused of carjacking. A woman accused of prostitution was ordered to bare her chest; an accused petty thief forced to masturbate; an accused carjacker forced into sex with another man; a mentally disabled man who apparently got in a fistfight with police had unmuzzled dogs sicced on him.

The monsters who ran and worked at Abu Ghraib were torturing and humiliating mere common criminals - not for some larger good like gaining vital intelligence, but just because they could. Sickening, that's the only word for it.

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Presidential TV Ads From The Last 50 Years
July 11, 2004
The Living Room Candidate has a great collection of basically every presidential race television ad since 1952. Gives an interesting perspective on how the tricks have and haven't changed over the years. Also gives you a chance to pause or go through commercials more slowly and study just how they are put together by people on both sides trick the brain and influence people. Cruise the site and make a fun drinking game out of it: every time a U.S. flag is flashed across the screen, take two drinks. Every time a little kid is shown smiling, take a drink. Every time the candidate actually elaborates on something of substance, finish the bottle - don't worry, it won't actually happen.

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Decaying Freedom Update
July 08, 2004
The Decaying Freedom page has been updated with news as well as many more recent details on Guantanamo Bay.

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A Call To Poetic Terrorism
July 07, 2004
The following was written by Hakim Bey and comes from here:

Weird dancing in all-night computer-banking lobbies. Unauthorized pyrotechnic displays. Land-art, earth-works as bizarre alien artifacts strewn in State Parks. Burglarize houses but instead of stealing, leave Poetic-Terrorist objects. Kidnap someone & make them happy.

Pick someone at random & convince them they're the heir to an enormous, useless & amazing fortune--say 5000 square miles of Antarctica, or an aging circus elephant, or an orphanage in Bombay, or a collection of alchemical mss. Later they will come to realize that for a few moments they believed in something extraordinary, & will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence.

Bolt up brass commemorative plaques in places (public or private) where you have experienced a revelation or had a particularly fulfilling sexual experience, etc.

Go naked for a sign.

Organize a strike in your school or workplace on the grounds that it does not satisfy your need for indolence & spiritual beauty.

Grafitti-art loaned some grace to ugly subways & rigid public momuments--PT-art can also be created for public places: poems scrawled in courthouse lavatories, small fetishes abandoned in parks & restaurants, xerox-art under windshield-wipers of parked cars, Big Character Slogans pasted on playground walls, anonymous letters mailed to random or chosen recipients (mail fraud), pirate radio transmissions, wet cement...

The audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by PT ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror-- powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough, dada-esque angst--no matter whether the PT is aimed at one person or many, no matter whether it is "signed" or anonymous, if it does not change someone's life (aside from the artist) it fails.

PT is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets & no walls. In order to work at all, PT must categorically be divorced from all conventional structures for art consumption (galleries, publications, media). Even the guerilla Situationist tactics of street theater are perhaps too well known & expected now.

An exquisite seduction carried out not only in the cause of mutual satisfaction but also as a conscious act in a deliberately beautiful life--may be the ultimate PT. The PTerrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster whose aim is not money but CHANGE.

Don't do PT for other artists, do it for people who will not realize (at least for a few moments) that what you have done is art. Avoid recognizable art-categories, avoid politics, don't stick around to argue, don't be sentimental; be ruthless, take risks, vandalize only what _must_ be defaced, do something children will remember all their lives--but don't be spontaneous unless the PT Muse has possessed you.

Dress up. Leave a false name. Be legendary. The best PT is against the law, but don't get caught. Art as crime; crime as art.

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Blood Music and Hive Minds (some spoilers)
July 07, 2004
Greg Bear's science fiction novel Blood Music is set in a plausible near-future where the biotechnology industry's years of research is about to pay off with the development of cell-sized programmable bio-machines. These machines can be programmed to fight disease, for example: inject them into a sick person's blood and the programmed little bio-machines hunt down the diseased cells and fix them. The technology - which is on the verge of going public - will be a blessing, and it will change the world.

Indeed, it changes the world much more than expected. One of the head researchers makes a final breakthrough earlier than expected after years of performing his own experiments on the lab equipment after-hours. He manages to unexpectedly create something that is way beyond the bio-machines he had been working on for his company during normal work hours: he invents intelligent cells. These cells have been designed by him with the functionality needed to work together, evolve together, even - he finds - think together.

When his experiments are discovered and ordered terminated, he injects the intelligent cells into his bloodstream to smuggle them out of the lab. But soon they multiply, adapt and take over his body: millions, even billions of them spread throughout his body and develop into a sort of civilization within him, a galaxy of intelligent life within the body of one man. Soon, though, they discover the universe that lies outside of that man, and they spread there too.

This setup is intuitively implausible. Evolution selected a pretty efficient design for our brains, but it still takes a hell of a lot of neurons to get the conscious intelligence we have in our skulls; so how plausible is it that a cell or even a cluster of one hundred cells could be as intelligent as a monkey (which Bear says at one point)? Fortunately he provides a more plausible explanation later on, but I will not spoil the book by getting into that. Needless to say, these 'noocytes' multiply magnificently and pretty soon they make up a gigantic hive-mind of sorts (though full of semi-distinct personalities).

At one point, a character named Bernard is contemplating the offer by the noocytes to have his brain - his memories and mind and personality - copied by them, transcribed into their mode of existence and spread throughout their civilization-mind. Basically, they offer to upload his consciousness into their hive-mind and copy it around, preserving him throughout their civilization even if one copy gets destroyed. Here's an excerpt of his thoughts on the matter which I rather enjoyed:

In North America-what happened to all the bad people whose memories were preserved by the noocytes? They were, to be sure, suspended from the world in which they had been bad just as surely as if they were in prison-far more suspended. But being bad meant bad thinking, being evil meant being a cancer cell in the society, a dangerous and inexplicable screw-up, and he was not just thinking of ax murderers. He was thinking of politicians too greedy or blind to know what they were doing, white collar sharpies who had swindled the life's savings from thousands of investors, mothers and fathers too stupid to know you shouldn't beat your children to death. What happened to these people and to the millions of screw-ups, evil screw-ups, in human society?

Were all truly equal, duplicated a million times, or did the noocytes exercise a little judgement? Did they quietly delete a few personalities, edit them out...or alter them?

And if the noocytes took the liberty of altering the real screw-ups, perhaps fixing them or immobilizing them some way, going into their thought processes and using a kind of grand consensus of right thinking as a pattern for corrections.

Then who was to say they weren't altering others, people with minor problems, people with all the complexes of little screw-ups and errors and temporary nastiness...things all humans have. Occupational hazards of being human. Of living in a tough universe, a different universe than the ones the noocytes inhabited. If they did correct and edit and alter, who could say they were good at it? Knew what they were doing, and retained workable human personalities afterward?

What did the noocytes do with people who couldn't handle the change, who went crazy? [...]

Would there be conflict, revolution?

Or would there be profound quiet-the quiet of the grave, because of a deletion of the will to resist?[...]

Bernard, do you now feel the fear of Big Change? The completely different-sublime, or hellish-as opposed to the difficult, often hellish status quo?

If humans in the future were all to upload their consciousnesses into a gigantic computer to achieve virtual immortality, what would happen when the minds networked together? A giant hive-mind might be created, in which their personalities lived on as neurons in a giant brain, as single voices in a chorus of millions or billions. The normal question that comes up, then, is in regards to the loss of individuality (stereotyped by the Borg in Star Trek). Greg Bear here brings up another interesting question though - even if personalities could somehow be integrated into the hive-mind while remaining distinct personalities, who's to say they wouldn't be altered on the way in, edited in some way so that they are no longer the same person?

This is a problem for those transhumanists who see uploading as a solution to personal mortality. The chance that you could remain you inside a hive-mind of some sort seems doubly slim; even if there is no conscious editing by the hive-mind consensus, surely simply existing in that new way would change the very way you perceive and think and understand. Surely it would change you and you would no longer exist as the same person who chose to upload your consciousness. Instead, you would likely merely register as a slight blip on the hive-mind's internal representation of itself, lead to a few minor changes perhaps, but the hive-mind would balance out soon after, very little changed by your presence; and no longer would you be you.

This is why hive-minds, as cool as the concept is, do not present a solution to personal mortality. The 'Big Change' Bernard is talking about in the excerpt above is not the change of the world as the noocytes spread and reshape it; it is not even the change of his location from a physical human body to a distributed intelligence across a vast network of cells. The change he is pondering is personal death. It is taking the step to a new existence, but by definition he cannot continue to exist as he does after he takes that step. So what he would be doing by joining the noocytes is suicide, but suicide in which somehow his experiences and memories resonate and add to a bigger collective (like memes spreading through a society today). It is a form of influencing the future, of merging into it, into something bigger, but it is not personal immortality.

That, I think, is why we fear the 'Big Change'. Not because the Borg seem to lead such boring lives as drone-slaves, but because when a person joins the Borg, they cease to exist as the person they were before. Hive-mind existence is death for individual minds. But at the same time, something bigger goes on, and contributing to that in some way could be seen as living on in the same way authors can live on through the centuries through their books. The authors may not be around, but they have achieved a different sort of immortality: they have made an impression on the world.

Indeed, we are all doing that each and every day with all of our actions. The littlest action can have great consequence through chaotic effects (like a butterfly flapping its wings and eventually altering weather across the glove). If it turns out that humanity someday goes the way of the Dodo and something completely different (like a hive-mind) replaces us, then perhaps we can take solace in the fact that though we personally die out in 'joining' it, the minor influence of our integration might influence things in unknown, amazing ways. And that seems pretty cool, even if we aren't around to enjoy it, because someone or something will be.

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