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Neal Stephenson has a new book out. I discussed it briefly with him at Scifoo — he was remarkably modest in his description, given the ambition and scope of the 900 page novel, which early reviews compare with classics like Dune and the Foundation Trilogy.

Check out this video trailer (complete with jiujitsu-inspired combat sequence :-), and this bibliographic list of influences, which include J.S. Bell, many worlds quantum mechanics and Kurt Godel…

Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside “saecular” world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent’s gates—at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious “extras” in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was “collected.” But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros—a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can oppose—as, one by one, Erasmas and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmas finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world—as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet . . . and beyond.

I can really grok the appeal of isolation from the booms and busts of the outside “saecular” world, especially as we enter the climax of election season 😉

Avout = Caltecher!

Written by infoproc

September 10, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Blade Runner returns

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It’s the 25th anniversary of Blade Runner! Interestingly, Blade Runner was a money loser; the summer of 1982 was dominated by the Spielberg blockbuster E.T.

The director’s cut came out 15 years ago. This new release is a lovingly crafted digitized version with improved special effects.

Wired Q&A with director Ridley Scott. Full transcript (long, with audio). Apparently Scott never finished the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the screenplay was based.

Deckard is a replicant (Wired interview):

Scott: The whole point of Gaff was — the guy who makes origami and leaves little matchstick figures around, right? The whole point of Gaff, the whole point in that direction at the very end, if Gaff is an operator for the department, then Gaff is also probably an exterminator. Gaff, at the end, doesn’t like Deckard, and we don’t really know why. And if you take for granted for a moment that, let’s say, Deckard is Nexus 7, he probably has an unknown life span and therefore is starting to get awfully human. Gaff, just at the very end, leaves a piece of origami, which is a piece of silver paper you might find in a cigarette packet. And it’s of a unicorn, right? So, the unicorn that’s used in Deckard’s daydream tells me that Deckard wouldn’t normally talk about such a thing to anyone. If Gaff knew about that, it’s Gaff’s message to say, “I’ve basically read your file, mate.” Right? So, that file relates to Deckard’s first speech to Rachael when he says, “That isn’t your imagination, that’s Tyrell’s niece’s daydreams. And he describes a little spider on a bush outside the kitchen door. Do you remember that?

Wired: I don’t remember the — oh, the spider. Yeah.

Scott: Well, the spider is an implanted piece of imagination. And therefore Deckard has imagination and even history implanted in his head. He even has memories of his mother and father in his head, maybe a brother or sister in his head. So if you want to make a Nexus that really believes they’re human, then you’re going to have to think about their past, and you’re going to have to put that in their mind.

Wired: Why didn’t the unicorn dream sequence appear in either the work print or the original release?

Scott: As I said, there was too much discussion in the room. I wanted it. They didn’t want it. I said, “Well, it’s a fundamental part of the story.” And they said, “Well, isn’t it obvious that he’s a replicant here?” And I said, “No. No more obvious than he’s not a replicant at the end. So, it’s a matter of choice, isn’t it?”

Wired: As a fan reading people’s comments about this, I’ve come across statements of Harrison Ford saying that he was not a replicant.

Scott: I know.

Wired: And watching the director’s cut, it seemed to me when Ford picks up the origami unicorn at the end of the movie —

Scott: And he nods.

Wired: The look on his face says, “Oh, so Gaff was here, and he let Rachael live.” It doesn’t say, “Oh my God! Am I a replicant?”

Scott: No? Yeah, but then you — OK. I don’t know. Why is he nodding when he looks at this silver unicorn? It’s actually echoing in his head when he has that drunken daydream at the piano, he’s staring at the pictures that Roy Batty had in his drawer. And he can’t fathom why Roy Batty’s got all these pictures about. Why? Family, background, that’s history. Roy Batty’s got no history, so he’s fascinated by the past. And he has no future. All those things are in there to tap into if you want it. But Deckard, I’m not going to have a balloon go up. Deckard’s look on his face, look at it again now that I’ve told you what it was about. Deckard, again, it’s like he had a suspicion that doing the job he does, reading the files he reads on other replicants, because — remember — he’s, as they call them, a blade runner. He’s a replicant moderator or even exterminator. And if he’s done so many now — and who are the biggest hypochondriacs? Doctors. So, if he’s a killer of replicants, he may have wondered at one point, can they fiddle with me? Am I human, or am I a replicant? That’s in his innermost thoughts. I’m just giving the fully flushed-out possibility to justify that gleaming look at the end where he kind of glints and kind of looks angry, but it’s like, to me, an affirmation. That look confirms something. And he nods, he agrees. “Ah hah, Gaff was here.” And he goes for the elevator door. And he is a replicant getting into an elevator with another replicant.

Wired: And why does Harrison Ford think otherwise?

Scott: You mean that he may not be or that he is?

Wired: Well, he is on record saying that, as far as he’s concerned, Deckard is not a replicant.

Scott: Yeah, but that was, like, probably 20 years ago.

Wired: OK, but —

Scott: He’s given up now. He’s said, “OK, mate. You win, you win. Anything, anything, just put it to rest.”

Written by infoproc

September 30, 2007 at 2:36 pm

A modern Borges?

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As you can probably guess, I read a ton of science fiction when I was a kid. There was a time when I could walk into a book shop and recognize every title in the sci fi section. But I stopped reading it about the time I reached high school, and, except for the occasional guilty pleasure (e.g., stuff by Vernor Vinge), haven’t kept up since. Being a physicist makes it tough to read science fiction — I particularly hate it when the sci fi assumptions or their implications aren’t self-consistent or at least treated in an sophisticated way. It’s also true that there is very little new under the sun (I suppose this applies to all literature). Every time I pick up a new title I can more or less recall several stories of which it is derivative. Sometimes I wonder if the author knows this.

Recently I came across the short fiction of Ted Chiang. It’s the first really good science fiction I’ve read since I was a kid. I guess others agree, because Chiang has already won 3 Nebulas and a Hugo, despite having only published a dozen or so stories. (Read the reviews at Amazon for his one published collection here.)

This is probably over the top, but he reminds me of Philip K. Dick and even Borges. Some will violently disagree with me, but I think Chiang really understands the scientific or metaphysical concepts that appear in his stories, while at times I feel Borges is just alluding without deep understanding.

Here are some of his stories, available online.

Division by Zero. A mathematician has a mental breakdown when she constructs formal machinery showing the internal inconsistency of mathematics. The theme is eerily reminiscent of these comments by Greg Chaitin!

Understand. A shorter, updated version of Flowers for Algernon?

What’s Expected of Us. A brief meditation on time travel and free will 🙂

Written by infoproc

June 19, 2007 at 1:29 am

Games gone wild

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A great article in the Times Magazine on the current state of online gaming. Millions of people now spend a significant fraction of their waking hours immersed in a virtual gameworld. The numbers will only continue to increase, along with the richness and complexity of the worlds. Just as gaming drives the development of graphics cards and even CPU chips (see Sony’s Cell processor), it may eventually come to drive AI development, as designers seek more realistic and complex interactions between game characters and players. (Other drivers of AI development: search, human-machine collaboration, cat and mouse security competition between malware/spam automatons and security systems, …)

Why anthropic “typicality” arguments (all the rage in the current nutty world of theoretical physics) are meaningless without an assumption about the possibility of virtual worlds.

A slideshow of game players and their avators, like the one below.

NAME Jean-François de la Fage BORN 1979 OCCUPATION Journalist LOCATION Paris AVATAR NAME Dark Freeman AVATAR CREATED 2005 GAME PLAYED City of Heroes HOURS PER WEEK IN-GAME 21 CHARACTER TYPE Natural hero SPECIAL ABILITIES Invincibility

NYTimes Magazine: …More than eight million people around the world play World of Warcraft — approximately one in every thousand on the planet — and whenever Li is logged on, thousands of other players are, too. They share the game’s vast, virtual world with him, converging in its towns to trade their loot or turning up from time to time in Li’s own wooded corner of it, looking for enemies to kill and coins to gather. Every World of Warcraft player needs those coins, and mostly for one reason: to pay for the virtual gear to fight the monsters to earn the points to reach the next level. And there are only two ways players can get as much of this virtual money as the game requires: they can spend hours collecting it or they can pay someone real money to do it for them.

…In 2001, Edward Castronova, an economist at the University of Indiana and at the time an EverQuest player, published a paper in which he documented the rate at which his fellow players accumulated virtual goods, then used the current R.M.T. prices [R.M.T. = real money trading] of those goods to calculate the total annual wealth generated by all that in-game activity. The figure he arrived at, $135 million, was roughly 25 times the size of EverQuest’s R.M.T. market at the time. Updated and more broadly applied, Castronova’s results suggest an aggregate gross domestic product for today’s virtual economies of anywhere from $7 billion to $12 billion, a range that puts the economic output of the online gamer population in the company of Bolivia’s, Albania’s and Nepal’s.

Not quite the big time, no, but the implications are bigger, perhaps, than the numbers themselves. Castronova’s estimate of EverQuest’s G.D.P. showed that online games — even when there is no exchange of actual money — can produce actual wealth. And in doing so Castronova also showed that something curious has happened to the classic economic distinction between play and production: in certain corners of the world, it has melted away. Play has begun to do real work.

Written by infoproc

June 16, 2007 at 2:38 pm

Posted in ai, games, sci fi, technology

Tannhauser gate

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Philip K. Dick was a creative genius–full of tremendous and deep ideas. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which became the movie Blade Runner) is a meditation on identity, free will and artificial intelligence. (The main character can’t be sure whether he himself is android or human, and, ultimately, whether there is any difference. Director Ridley Scott was true to this idea, making it clear that Deckard (Harrison Ford) is, without knowing it, indeed a replicant!) The Man in the High Castle is one of the best alternate history stories I’ve read–it takes place in an America which has been partitioned in half at the Rockies by the victorious Japanese and Germans. Some of the characters are dimly aware that things might have been otherwise… Dick’s life was almost as interesting as his fiction. A serious intellectual, he dropped out of Berkeley, struggling financially and with psychological problems his entire life. He did not live to enjoy his fame.

Dick really was an unappreciated genius of his time.

From the final soliloquy of the android Baty (Rutger Hauer), after he spares Deckard’s life:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.

That quote popped into my head a few years ago while I was at dinner with some other theorists at a conference in Seoul. We were discussing my recent return from running a startup in silicon valley. Someone leaned over and asked, somewhat dubiously (suggesting that anything but theoretical physics was a waste of time), “But would you do it again?”

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September 24, 2005 at 4:50 pm