NaNoWriMo 2007

That’s right: National Novel-Writing Month is upon us again. For the entire month of November, thousands of intrepid (“foolish” might actually be a better word) writers will be attempting to write a 50,000-word novel. In thirty days. No, I’m not kidding.

It can actually be done. I managed to bang out my first novel Wormhole, Wormhole in thirty days. Don’t look for it in bookstores, though…just because you write the 50,000 words doesn’t mean you’ll actually produce 50,000 publishable words. Hopefully, this time I’ll actually get around to the vital revision stage.

Wish me luck! Anybody who wants to watch my progress (I can’t imagine why, but I won’t ask questions) can find my profile here.

Messing With the Mind: Linguistic Experiments

I’ve always been fascinated by enormous impact that language has on the mind. I’ve discovered that a change in writing style can, temporarily, produce an enormous change in mood, attitudes, and even perception for the writer (I’m certainly not the first to discover this, the Internet is ripe with other examples). So, I thought it might be informative (and amusing) to make myself a guinea pig for some linguistic experiments.

  1. “Question your data”: If the thing-I-call-myself performs the action-I-have-labeled-writing in a manner such that the-thing-I-call-myself makes no assumptions about the items-I-call-facts, then perhaps the thing-I-call-myself will begin to doubt these things-called-facts, or perhaps enter the state-I-call-openmindedness.
  2. “Efface the self”: Write without ever referring to “yourself.” Do not use the words “I”, “my,” “our,” or any other such words that imply that the writer has a “self.” It will very rapidly be discovered that one who adopts such a writing style will begin to feel very strange, and to lose their sense of the thing they formerly called “themselves.” It’s a very Buddhist way to write.
  3. “What nouns?”: In reality-ing, us-process discover that thing-processes are impermanent, and thus probably do not deserve such constant, stable label-entitydecays as noun-namings. Although writing in this manner-labeling can be rather confusing and disorienting, it-entitydecays is at least an interesting exercise.
  4. “The direct approach”: Do not use Adjectives. Capitalize Nouns. Do not clutter the Sentence with Words. Replace Adjectives with Verbs. Minimize Sentences. Lose Mind.
  5. “Do like the Germans”: Germanpeople are unafraid of wordcombinations. They willingly wordcombine separate rootwords unfearfully. Although admittedly the practicalresults of this in the Englishlanguage are somewhat confusingdisorienting, it makes an interestingexperiment.
  6. “Don’t be specific”: Another Buddhist experiment in language. Never refer to a specific “object.” All is one. All is all.
  7. “Be way, way too specific”: Use as many descriptive adjectives as your descriptive task requires. Be as mechanically and clinically precise as the current descriptive task warrants. Be coldly and exactly logical in your writing, whether descriptive or otherwise. Leave no room for linguistic ambiguities to enter into your descriptions. Although this particular method may be somewhat difficult to read quickly and easily, it at least leaves no room for errors to be inserted.

Try it! You might be surprised at just how dizzy, disoriented, dissociated, discombobulated, or deharmonized you can get.

Life Imitates Art: A Somewhat Twisted Look at Parasites

Everybody knows the story. It shows up in a lot of sci-fi movies: a secondary character gets attacked by some sort of creature that latches onto their head and forces them to do its nefarious bidding. Well, as it turns out, this isn’t science fiction. Such phenomena are actually observed in nature (thus the lame “life-imitates-art” reference in the title). As it turns out, there actually exist a few species of insect and virus that alter (and sometimes control) the host’s brain. As a service to those warped-minded individuals (such as myself) who find this kind of thing fascinating, I present to you, dear reader, the List of the Most Disgusting and Interesting Parasites I Could Find:

AUTHOR’s NOTE: I take no responsibility for any vomiting or nightmares resulting from reading through this list…

  • Emerald Cockroach Wasp (Ampulex compressa): This nasty little insect mounts the back of a cockroach, jabs its stinger through the back of the roach’s head, and using a precise set of sensors, guides the stinger, brain-surgeon-like, into the part of the cockroach’s brain that controls the escape reflex, injecting it with a venom. The wasp then — and this is the part that really blew me away — leads the now “zombified” cockroach around by the antenna, until they reach the wasp burrow, where they, in the standard fashion, lay an egg inside the cockroach, which eventually hatches, and the cockroach gets eaten from the inside out. As usual. Credit for the article upon which this bullet point is based goes to this site.
  • Hairworm (Spinochorodes tellini): This was the first of the creepy brain-parasites I learned about. This diabolical little nematode enters a grasshopper’s body, and steadily grows until it occupies nearly all of the space within the grasshopper’s exoskeleton. Then, when it’s time for the worm to escape and mate — which it can only do in the water — it forces the cricket to drown itself in a puddle, thus freeing the hairworm to frolic and breed. You can learn more here.
  • Rabies: All right, this one’s not as obscure as the others, but I still find it fascinating, in a macabre sort of way. I mean, rabies is practically the perfect parasite: it induces violent behavior in those infected by it, which leads to biting and scratching, which are the perfect methods of transmission of the virus! It’s hard to get much more direct than that. I’ve always though that a form of rabies that could spread more easily (perhaps even through mere close contact) would make a great basis for a horror film.
  • The Ichneumon Wasp: This wasp is the creepiest, in terms of sheer gore. The female wasp stabs her ovipositor (that’s such a cool word…an ovipositor is basically a tube that a female insect uses to insert or deposit eggs) into a caterpillar, and injects some eggs. Before long, wasp larvae hatch and eat the caterpillar from the inside out. This, too, would probably make a good horror movie.
  • Lancet Fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum): This fluke loves mammalian livers. In order to spread to a new liver, the parasites, excreted in the host’s feces, must be eaten by a snail. Then, when an ant drinks moisture from the snail’s trial (why it would do this is beyond me; snail slime is nasty), it becomes infected with juvenile flukes. These spread into the tiny little bundle of neurons the ant calls a brain (all right, it’s actually called a “ganglion” if you want to be specific). There, they lie in wait, controlling the host ant’s actions until nightfall, when they force the ant to climb a blade of grass, and latch on, waiting to be eaten by a liver-bearing herbivore. Creepy. Thanks to Carl Zimmer’s article The Return of the Puppet Masters for information about this one.
  • Toxoplasma gondii: This nasty little parasite lives in cats, and spreads from cat to cat mainly via rats and other small mammals. The creepy thing is that, although otherwise normal-seeming, T. gondii-infected rats are completely unafraid of the smell of cats, a scent which normally terrifies them. Kind of makes you wonder: who among us might at this very moment be under the influence of…the parasites. Heh…silly idea…the parasites are our friends…the parasites want to help us…Hm…I don’t know what compelled me to write that… Credit for pretty much all of this bullet point also goes to Carl Zimmer.

I’ll amend this list if I run across any other interesting additions.

Memorizing the Periodic Table

Partly out of boredom, and partly out of irritation at never, ever knowing the atomic weight of a particular element, I have decided to embark on the journey to memorize the entire periodic table (well, all the elements up to and including Uranium, at least). But what would even give me such a peculiar idea? Well, blame Oliver Sacks. I was reading through his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (excellent book, by the way, for those who haven’t read it), and I was particularly intrigued by his discussion when talking about numerical savants’ familiarity with numbers: Dmitri Mendeleev, the developer of the periodic table, carried around a deck of cars with the elements’ properties listed on them, and looked them over until he knew them by heart. I’ve always wanted to learn something this thoroughly (and, in fact, I had a set of cars like this myself when I was younger). So, there you have it. I’ll keep my reader(s?) abreast of my progress.

Helium Shortage

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Nothing in this story is made up. I swear, this is pulled right from the news.

Perhaps, if you listen to the news for long enough, you’ll hear about this most unusual state of affairs. But for those who haven’t, then brace yourselves for some terrible news: the world is in the grip of a helium shortage! No, I am not kidding. This is not just a test. We really are getting dangerously low on the buoyant gas. Party stores have been forced to limit sales of balloons. All over the world, voices are slowly dropping an octave. Okay, I made the last one up.

Still, one might think “Well, so what? What’s helium good for, anyway?” Well, as it turns out (to my surprise) it’s actually rather important. While its most public use is for balloons, funny voices, and irritating dirigibles, helium in its liquid form has proven to be an incredibly effective coolant, and one of the only ones which can get metals cold enough for them to become superconductors. And superconductors are vital in MRI scanners.

But how the hell could we possibly be running low on helium? It is, after all, the second most abundant chemical element in the Universe. I wondered that when I first heard the report, but the newscasters were kind enough to explain it. You see, most of the world’s helium is produced as a byproduct of the extraction of natural gas. The problem is that the demand for helium isn’t really rising fast enough to justify the expense of reclaiming it from the crude natural gas. So, we may be teetering on the brink of a global disaster.

But even if global helium production dries up completely, fret not! For, apparently, America has some sort of massive helium stockpile, something like three years’ worth of global demand. I’m not even going to ask why.

So, things aren’t as bleak as they look in the world of balloons and MRI’s. And there will be one bright side, if the world’s supply finally does dry up: we will never again have to listen to some fool at a party inhaling the balloon and doing the Munchkin Land joke.

Portal Continued…

Well, by accident, I managed to finish Portal in a single day. Sure, I would have liked to go through it slowly and have a look at all the scenery, but when you get immersed in a puzzle like that, you become like a lab rat in a maze: the cheese doesn’t even matter anymore; all that matters is the goal.

Still, despite that, Portal turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s definitely the best first-person-shooter-like game I’ve ever played. The environments were perfectly designed, the puzzles were challenging, but not brain-hurting, and it was incredibly, incredibly immersive. It was so immersive, in fact, that when I became trapped in a room filling with poisonous gas, I realized that my heart was actually hammering. (People who have played Portal will agree with me…for everybody else, that’s just a cruel teaser).

So, my previous conclusion stands: you should buy Portal. If you can’t buy it, or don’t want to, find someone who has (and no, you cannot come to my house. Don’t even try it. I keep vicious attack ostriches).

And one last note on Portal (this may be a semi-spoiler, so don’t read it if you want to keep all the mystery intact):

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Portal

This morning, I woke up at 8 A.M. Willingly. I didn’t have to get up that early. I could have chosen to sleep in. The fact that I didn’t must mean that today is a special day. And it is. Today, Portal was released.

I have been awaiting this game since last year. For those who don’t understand why, you can learn more about the game here.

It is, as I expected, Portal is one of the most original FPS-style games that I’ve ever seen. After all, what other first person shooter allows you to bend spacetime? And the way the designers incorporated this bendiness into the multitude of puzzles is absolutely brilliant. My waiting, it seems, was not in vain.

But perhaps even cooler than the ability to step through a wall and drop out of the ceiling is the psychological aspect of the game. I won’t give anything away, but I’ll just say that this game, more than any other game I’ve ever played, will mess with your head. You begin to get the distinct impression of being a lab rat. Add to that the confusion of popping through one portal and ending up somewhere you hadn’t intended, and it becomes a disorienting (but incredibly amusing) ride.

If you don’t own Portal, buy it. Unfortunately, you can’t buy it separately from the Orange Box (the game set that also contains Half Life 2: Episode 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2), but Portal alone is worth the US$49.95.

Given all the effusive gushing praise I just heaped on Portal, one might wonder why I have not slipped entirely into a disoriented, game-induced trance. Well, as much as I enjoy it, I’m not always very good at puzzles…so, before I started babbling to myself and pulling my hair out, I thought I’d give my weary brain a chance to rest and work out all the cramps I just caused it.

Many, many thanks to Valve and the other producers/distributors of Portal.

A Debate

 Author’s Note: These are my personal (and sometimes inaccurate) ruminations on the idea of a simulated universe. I don’t claim to know anything about the philosophical treatment this idea has already been given, nor do I know much about any of the arguments. If I’ve stolen someone’s idea, I apologize…I didn’t do it intentionally.

Bob sat on the great stone platform atop the mountain, gazing down over the endless convolutions of the Great Valleys below him. His face bore a look of the most intense concentration. His brow was furrowed, and his eyes were distant and contemplative. It was in this state that Alice found him. She ascended the great staircase and seated herself next to him.

“So there you are.”

“Yes.” It was nothing more than a pleasantry, for Bob was far too lost in thought for any real communication.

“What on Earth could you be thinking about with such intensity?” Bob did not answer, but instead maintained his tense posture for another minute or so, then relaxed, and looked up at Alice.

“I’m sorry, what did you ask?”

“What are you thinking about with such intensity?”

“Oh, well…I’ve just been considering something.”

“Well, what?” A look passed across Bob’s face, and Alice realized with concern that he could very easily lapse back into mute contemplation.

“I’ve just been wondering…it seems to me that we are living in a simulated world?”

“What? What do you mean by that?”

“I simply mean that the Universe that we see is really just an assemblage of data in a computer somewhere, and that the physical laws we observe – and their consequences, such as our own sentience – are simply processes within that computer. You know, program instructions.” Alice rolled her eyes surreptitiously, then crossed her arms.

“Not this subject again!”

“Well, I believe it deserves consideration!”

“Why? It’s an entirely foolish idea!”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, how could we possibly find ourselves in a computerized Universe? No computer could ever manage such a feat of simulation, and even if it could, it wouldn’t be able to produce the robust world we observe!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, I believe.” Bob had now turned fully towards her, and had fixed her with the challenging gaze that was his trademark.

“Oh, really? And have you any evidence of my wrongness?”

“Of course. You know – you should know better than anyone else – that I never make a claim without having a good argument to support it.”

“Well?”

“Okay. Since I am going to base my argument on the idea that a computer likely simulates the universe we live in, I’ll make my argument from a computer-based standpoint, even though essentially any suitable substrate could simulate our Universe. Now, consider a simple electronic circuit.”

“All right.”

“Right. This circuit consists of a small mathematical processor, a few registers for storing data, and all the other necessary equipment for a circuit to work properly.”

“I’m with you so far.”

“Now, say this circuit, on every tick of its internal clock, performed the following calculation: take the value stored in the data registers – call it x – and squared it, then multiplied it by some constant k, then subtracted from the result the value j times x, j being another constant, then stored all of that back in the data registers, and repeated the process ad infinitum.”

“I don’t quite see your point here, Bob. I must confess that I’m rather confused.”

“That is because you’re not thinking about things correctly. Okay, I’ll give you a hint. What would a system such as the one I’ve described represent?”

“Some mathematical function, I think.”

“Go up one more level of abstraction.”

“What do you mean? There are no other levels of abstraction in this system. Either it is a system consisting of electrons darting from atom to atom in a silicon circuit, or it is an abstract mathematical system. There is nothing else!”

“Ah, but you’re wrong on that account! For, think about physical laws!”

“What about physical laws?”

“Are they not just a higher level of abstraction than pure mathematics?”

“Hm…no, I don’t believe they are.”

“I think our definitions of ‘abstraction’ may differ. For now, I’m defining ‘abstraction’ to mean ‘representation,’ or something to that effect.”

“Ah, I see. Well, given that definition, I suppose I’d have to agree: physical laws could be seen as a third level of abstraction.”

“Right. Now, back to my imaginary circuit. Think about what its third level of abstraction would be.”

Alice thought for a moment, and then her face lit up.

“Aha! It seems to be the equations of motion for an accelerating projectile subject to air resistance!”

“Very good!”

“But what was the point of the whole exercise?”
“Be patient! I was coming to that! Now, couldn’t one argue – rather convincingly – that in many ways, the creation of this circuit has also brought into existence an accelerating projectile subject to air resistance?”

“No, I don’t think so. The projectile is not real, it’s merely an abstract representation, created by us, its conscious observers.”

“I’ll ignore your little play on the definition of ‘abstraction’ there, for the moment. So, you say that the circuit’s ‘higher-level’ meaning as an accelerating projectile exists only in the minds of us, its conscious observers?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Well, you’ve stumbled right into my philosophical trap, then! For, is not the mind itself little more than a circuit, similar to (but, of course, infinitely more complicated than) the circuit we are discussing?” Alice looked blindsided for a moment, then recovered.

“The mind is something different. Your little circuit is fixed in time. It cannot observe itself nor rewire itself. The brain can.”

“Ah, yes, but, still, on the cellular level, is not the brain only a ‘system of electrons darting from atom to atom in a biological circuit’, as you said before?” Alice looked as though she had been physically struck.

“Oh, dear…I believe that’s checkmate…Hm…”

“Yes, you see? There can exist such abstractions, the mind being the primary one!” Alice knitted her brow while her toe fidgeted with a pebble.

“Okay, I concede that such abstractions are possible in our Universe. But since our observation is necessary to bring these abstractions – such as the one of the projectile in your nice little argument a moment ago – to light.”

“Ah, I was hoping you’d try to wiggle free in that way, for I have the perfect rebuttal!”

“And what’s that?”

“Imagine a computer, a huge computer. As big as the Earth, if you like, or bigger. It has memory cells for the storage of data, and processors for the computation of the effects of physical laws. Now, furthermore, let’s say that this computer is running a program that simulates the interaction of a huge number of elementary particles, based on physical laws that are the same as those in this Universe.”

“All right, I follow you so far.”

“Right. Now, let’s further suppose that this computer was allowed to run long enough that the Computed Universe experienced the Big Bang, the formation of ‘normal’ matter, the coalescence of stars and galaxies, and the formation of planets, and all the requisite molecules of life. And then, let’s assume that life does indeed begin in this Computed Universe, and that it evolves to the point where it has developed something like a complex nervous system – what resemblance it actually bears to a nervous system is immaterial, it just must fulfill a very similar function. Then, through the slings and arrows of Darwinian evolution – you don’t disagree that Darwinian evolution would necessarily take place, do you?” Alice shook her head. She knew that evolution was a principle based merely on the idea that the more fit an organism is for its environment, the more likely it will be to be represented in the next generation, and this principle is completely ignorant of the material composition of what is actually evolving. “Good. Then, we have Darwinian evolution, and let’s assume that it produces self-aware organisms. Now, do we not have that ‘secret ingredient’ necessary to allow the universe to be viewed in an abstract way?” Alice was at a loss for words, and she had to work to keep her mouth from falling agape.”

“Oh dear…I seem to have argued myself into a corner…if I allow for the existence of conscious minds, then it seems that I must inevitably fall to your argument…” Bob looked rather satisfied with himself, but then Alice took on a very resolute expression. “Wait! Would not this giant computer still require the observation of its operators in order to see the abstract things – the conscious observers – that it represents?” Bob smiled knowingly, and Alice realized that he would soon deliver his finishing blow.

“No more than our Universe requires a godlike figure to observe it in order for ourselves to exist.” Alice nearly fell off the rock. Then, she steadied herself, and a smile crossed her lips.

“Ah, but you have forgotten your original claim! How can you claim that we live in a simulated Universe? All you have done is to prove that it is possible that we might be, not that it is inevitable, or even likely!” It was Bob’s turn to grin.

“I was waiting for you to recover, so that I could philosophically knock you down once more.” Alice feigned offense.

“Oh, you philosophical sadist!” They both had a good laugh, then Bob suddenly grew serious.

“Now, for the final blow!”

“I’m ready.”

“Let’s assume that some species in some Universe – simulated or not – created a computer simulation of a Universe. Suppose furthermore that that simulation was rich enough that observers – conscious entities – could arise within it. Then suppose that these Computed Observers created their own Computed Universes – for it seems inevitable that any such Universe-Computing race would compute more than one Universe – and within these Computed Computed Universes, Thrice-Computed Universes arose. This would continue until the ‘Nth-Time-Computed Universes’ became too small – for any Computed Universe must necessarily be smaller than the Universe in which it is computed – for conscious observers to arise. Despite this limitation, is it not obvious that there would be an immense hierarchy of simulated Universes for every ‘real’ Universe?” Alice nodded gravely, her defeat seeming imminent. “So, given the laws of probability, since there is such a hugely larger number of Computed Universes, compared to the original few ‘real’ ones, isn’t it much more likely that we find ourselves in a Computed Universe.” Alice sighed loudly, but then a glimmer of hope touched her countenance. After a few moments’ introspection, she smiled.

“Unless, of course, some of the current findings of cosmology prove true, and there is an infinite number of ‘real’ Universes!”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, consider it! If there is an infinite number of ‘starter’ Universes – that is, ones that are not simulated – there would then be an infinity of Computed Universes, too, but only an infinity, since the mathematical laws of infinite numbers are so slippery. Then, the probability that we find ourselves in a Computed Universe is only one-half, since there is an equal number of both.” Bob looked flabbergasted.

“Oh, dear! I hadn’t even considered that! Excellent riposte, Alice!”

“Thank you!”

“But, wait! Suppose that instead of a finite hierarchy of Computed Universes, the hierarchy was infinite!”

“How would that even be possible.”

“Well, suppose that the infinite ‘starter set’ of Universes was itself simulated, and the Universe in which they were simulated was also simulated, and so on out to infinity!” Alice laughed. It was now her turn to be sadistic.

“But, Cantor showed that an infinity is an infinity. Even if an infinity of initial universes produced an infinity of simulated ones, their numbers would still be equal!” Bob seemed almost to deflate.

“Well, one could get around that by supposing that there is only a single Universe.”

“Not really.” Alice was now philosophizing at full steam, ready to make the kill. “Since, in an infinite Universe – which ours appears to be, based on telescopic observations – there will be regions too far apart to communicate, which are separated by the insurmountability of the speed of light, so that no information can ever pass between them. These regions might as well be separate Universes. This position would only be strengthened if the physical laws could vary from one such region to the next. No matter what you do, unless the Universe is closed and finite – which seems unlikely given the data – then we only have a fifty-percent chance of finding ourselves in a Computed Universe after all!”

Bob was silent for a long time, his head bowed. Then, he began to emit a peculiar rhythmic sound, a little repetitive squeaking. Concerned that he might actually be weeping, Alice leaned in to comfort him, but then the squeaking erupted into chuckling, then into uproarious laughter. Alice was confused.

“What’s so amusing?” Bob stopped laughing, shot her an impish grin, and extended his hand. In his palm was a coin. Alice joined in his laughter, and said, “If it comes up heads, we’re living in a real Universe…otherwise…”

Ranting & Raving: Episode 1

In view of my tendency to spend most of my blog posts ranting about different things, I’ve decided to collect and condense all of my rants, that’s right, all into a single series of posts. From now on, readers will be able to tell right away when a major whine is about to begin, and get out before it’s too late.

So, I bring you: Ranting & Raving!

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