July 2013


PZ Myers has a posting where he makes a short argument against transhumanist uploading.  This was relevant to my interests, because I think uploading is bonkers.

He has two arguments, really.  Unfortunately one (using entropy) is just wrong: entropy doesn’t prevent complex systems; it only requires that more entropy be generated to offset them. So long as you convert only a tiny fraction of the universe into computronium, entropy won’t stand in your way.

His other argument was better. but sketchy: uploaders prefer “what is good for the individual over what is good for the population”.  As he was arguing with Eliezer Yudkowsky among others, this is probably a misfire– judging from his Harry Potter fanfic, Yudkowsky does consider it an imperative that technology benefits everyone.

Still, there’s the germ of an actual good argument in there: that the uploaders think way too much about personally not dying, and way not enough about how to make what life we have worth living.  Morally, it’s hard to argue that our biggest problem is that people don’t live 1000 or 1,000,000 years.  If humans keep on with the sort of behavior and morality and economics they have right now, such lifetimes would be hellish.  Even if you have a wildly optimistic view of how well we’re doing, prolonging lifetimes even to a couple hundred years would be horrible for 90% of the population, and that’s assuming we can even keep our civilization going.  (If you want to live forever, climate change is not your grandchildren’s problem, it’s yours.)  So even if you want immortality, you’d better prioritize, well, almost everything else.

But that’s a discussion for another day.  I was caught up short by this comment, by one Gregory in Seattle:

There is a growing belief among memory researchers that the brain relies on “archetypes.” You actually have only one or two physical memories of the taste of bacon: all of the apparent memories of bacon link back to them. REM sleep is when the brain recompiles, tossing out actual memories from short-term storage and integrating the day’s experiences into long-term storage with heavy object reuse (pardon the computerese.)

According to this model, children learn faster because they have fewer archetypes: they are building a “library” and links into them are pretty straightforward. As we get older, though, the ability to store and link novel information becomes more difficult and memory begins to ossify. Someone who pursues life-long learning can stave this off, but not completely. To use another computer example, the problem does not appear to be one of storage so much as the storage becoming fragmented. The ability to link begins to suffer, and memories begin to get lost in the shuffle.

Without a major redesign of how the brain stores memories, very long lifespans will probably bring us to a point where novel experiences cannot be integrated at all. We see this sort of slow down in people who are 90 and 100; I cannot imagine what it would be like for someone who is 200, much less 500 or 1000.

I’d never heard about this theory, but then I don’t know anything really about memory research.  But it’s a fascinating idea, and one that makes a lot of sense as a way for a creature of limited brain to organize the reams of sensory data that swamp it daily.

Though it’s not so much an argument against long lives as an argument that if we want to have them, we’ll have to change some basic facts about ourselves.  That’s why, in the Incatena, I have people doing a kind of brain reboot every century or two: throw out a bunch of memories, loosen the connections, re-adolescentize the brain.

To put it another way, your basic personality, attitudes, ideology, politics, etc. are generally pretty well firmed up by the time you’re 30.  You can adapt to new things after that, but with increasing difficulty– by the time you’re 80, you’re a curmudgeon who hates the kids’ music and clothing and votes for reactionaries.  That’s acceptable when lifetimes are 90 years, but not if they’re 900.  If you refuse to die, then you have to do something to regain your adaptability, for your own benefit and for that of society.

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Matt Yglesias has a snarky column today about how the printed book is an obsolete technology whose only plus is “a nostalgia-soaked experience”.

He mentions some advantages of e-books (quick access, less bulky), but fails to think about any disadvantages.  Here’s a few:

  • Low resolution.  I read a lot on my computer, but it’s still a fraction of the resolution of print, and it’s bad for high-res graphics: comics, maps, diagrams, art books.
  • Screen size.  Not a problem for reading a novel, but a double-page spread can provide a lot of information, and it’s just not the same thing to thread that data through the small screen of an e-book reader.
  • Price.  I don’t have a Kindle because I can’t afford one.  At $199 for a color Kindle, it’s a significant loss if you lose it on a trip or drop it in the bathtub or whatever.  There’s much less sense of loss if you misplace a printed book.
  • Eyestrain.  Print is still the most comfortable way to read long texts.  (If you don’t think so, wait till you have middle-aged eyes.)
  • Reliance on dubious megacorporations and changing technology.  I’m still using books I bought 40 years ago; Random House can’t do anything to interfere with my enjoying them, plus the NSA is certainly not checking which parts of what physical books I’m reading.

Edit: Alert readers Carsten and JDHarris offered two more points:

  • It’s easy to put several books next to each other, hard (or at least very expensive) to do the same with e-readers
  • Books will never stop working mid-story because you forgot to plug them in last night
Searchability works differently for e-texts and physical books, and each has its advantages.  I’d hate to have to consult the OED in physical form: it’s way too big, and some types of searching (e.g. by language) would be impossible.  On the other hand, a book you know well, as a physical object, affords quick access you can hardly even define for an e-book.  You can flip immediately to a dog-eared page.  You know that a certain passage is this far into the book, top of the left-hand page.  You can make marks on the edges to point to often-consulted pages, and make notes in the margins which themselves become searchable by riffing the pages.

Plus, I’d say a bunch of people agree with me, because my print sales are pretty healthy.  For the LCK, this year, my sales are 57% print; for APAF, 42%.  Given that the print book is twice as expensive, I’d say that indicates that people still find the format valuable.  It’s probably significant that for the novel, the majority prefers the Kindle: genre books are a good match for e-books.

Yglesias is no doubt correct that print books are not likely to be a growth industry.  But print is far from disappearing, and people are going to continue to make money off it.  Especially that Jeff Bezos fellow.

Cartoonist, writer, and man-about-town John Leavitt, known to Interpol as The Whelk, noted on Twitter his intention to create a doodle for the first person who replied. No one had, so I have a doodle!

It was supposed to be my favorite TV/movie character. I actually spent a bit of time deciding… did I want the immortal Bogart, the immortal Tommy Perfect, the immortal Tank Girl? I ended up with the immortal Dante:

I'm not even supposed to be here today!

I’m not even supposed to be here today!

It’s harder to explain why I like Dante. Maybe because it’s actually a little difficult to make an everyman character who’s actually likeable. If you make them too bland they’re forgettable, and if you make them too virtuous they’re annoying.

I picked up this Dishonored DLC recently.  It’s pretty good!

Rats planning to enjoy some whisky and cigars

Rats planning to enjoy some whiskey and cigars

Or maybe I just understand Dishonored now.  I think the way to play the game is low chaos, completist.  That is, accept it as a pure stealth game, ignore all the combat options, and try to find every last coin, bone charm, rune, and elixir.

It took me awhile to remember how to play– this kind of playthrough relies heavily on Blink, and Blink doesn’t always give you great feedback on whether you’re going to make your teleport or plunge to a quick death.  But once that was under control, I took my time on the maps, exploring nooks and crannies.  Can I climb way the hell up there?  Omigod, I can.   There are a lot of guards, and finding ways to take them down one by one is great fun.  (There’s still a lot of moving slightly, alarming everyone, and either reloading or hiding.  But you can hide, for the most part: blink out of range, and don’t get too far from a safe spot anyway.  That’s one positive difference from Deus Ex.)

Where the main game has about nine missions, the DLC has three.  But they’re big complex areas, interesting to go through.  The first one, set in a whale oil factory, is a pretty dark exploration of the basis of Dunwall industry, and only reinforces my view that Empress Jessamyn was by no means as benign as she’s portrayed.

You play the DLC as Daud, the assassin who actually killed the Empress, but who is finally reconsidering his career path.  Daud has (what are the chances?!) virtually the same skillset as Corvo, and as you rarely see or hear him, there’s not a huge difference in the character.

The one problem is that the DLC, though a good tasty size, feels like about 3/4 or 3/5 of the game it should have been.  You don’t get enough missions to really play with the runes (all I got was fully upgraded Blink and Void Gaze), and the story doesn’t quite resolve… though this turns out to be because there will be another Daud DLC, The Brigmore Witches.

(I do kind of worry that they’ve written themselves into a corner for Dishonored 2, if they’re going to do one.  The net effect of the two games, even in Low Chaos, is that Dunwall is pretty damn ruined as a country.  It’s corrupt, nasty, totalitarian, and rats have eaten most of the population.  What’s Act II?  Alien invasion?)