Monday, January 31, 2011

Evaluation: 4-Vurok 1

Well, new story in the works. Title-less so far, but it's the 4th in the Vurok canon, hence the name.

While the first couple of pages were easy, now I've hit the point of bloackage, so to speak. I came up with plenty of ideas about how the plot moves froward from now on since I finished Ananke, but as luck would have it I forgot most of them. Stupid, I know. They weren't too detailed out, anyway, so it's not like I would've sent them straight to paper (word processor) the moment I remembered them, but still. Knowing more about what I had decided sure would come in handy.

But I'll remember eventually and recreate what I can't. I'm more concerned about what I have written than by what I will write, by which I mean past stories. It's becoming increasingly obvious that some things in Void, Reflections and (to a lesser extent) Ananke should be reworked to make more sense and fit in with new things. How much, I'm not sure. Will I actually do it, I still don't know. It should be kept in mind that, however much I speak of "finishing" stories, they are rough drafts. I don't have a loyal fanbase that will be offended if I change them, that I can be sure of. I don't think anyone who isn't me has read more than two psychflares, let alone have any emotional attachment to the state things are now. But I am lazy, that much is evident. So getting motivated enough to rewrite and reupload is not going to be too easy.

About the writing itself... not terrible, I suppose. Managed to make work a few things I couldn't for a while, so that's good. More about Void's powers is revealed, and the Spirit of Darkness makes her first appearance (as something other than a part of Void himself, that is). A bit more on the Ana/Void relationship, which is glaringly absent from past issues. I suck at writing romantic relationships, maybe I should retcon them into fuckbuddies rather than a couple. We'll see.

Will be away from civilization and thus writing and blogging starting next Sunday. That might mean an early evaluation this week, or simply nothing until I get back. I'll work more on Project Tapir then (since I write that on good ol' pen and paper), that might see some notes here as well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Further thoughts on morality

Earlier, I discussed my view of morality as a massive multiplayer prisoner's dilemma. Recently, I read quite a fascinating paper on something called Timeless Decision Theory. I knew a bit about it from Less Wrong, but extensive reading about it, in a more complete format, both helped me understand what it's about and prompted more reflection on the subject.

Warning, TDT's suggestions in, amongst other things, some instances of the prisoner's dilemma, go against the predominant views in decision theory, which follow something called causal decision theory. While I find the arguments for TDT extremely persuasive, do keep in mind this is not (yet) settled science.

The relevant version is something called the Twin Prisoner's Dilemma. In it, the person you're playing against is not another prisoner, but rather an exact copy of yourself. As usual, you both have the option of cooperating or defecting, and you must make your decisions without any interaction. Both cooperate, 3 years of sentence each. Both defect, 4 years of sentence each. If one defects and the other cooperates, the defector gets only 1 year and the other one 6. Presumably, you both want to minimise the time you spend in jail.

Now, according to CDT, making the other player an exact copy of yourself changes nothing. No matter what the other player chooses, you get less time in your sentence by defecting, so the "rational" choice, they argue, is defecting. And of course the other guy reasons similarly, both defect and both hit the globally worse situation.

Now, I argued when I first thought about this, if the other player is an exact copy of yourself you can expect, with reasonably high probability, that whatever decision you'll come to, the copy will decide the same. This rules out the "one cooperates-one defects" scenarios, meaning you're left to choose between both cooperate and both defect. And since both cooperate is better, globally and individually, the rational choice is cooperating.

This is exactly what TDT says. Specifically, when dealing with a problem which contains an element that outputs the same as your decision algorithm, you should decide as if your choice determined the output of that element. For example, your exact copy who will decide the same as you do, or a sufficiently advanced brain scanner which can determine what you will decide before you do.

CDT says that, if you making your decision doesn't cause your copy to act as you do, then you can't decide as if was determining. I think CDT is wrong about this, but you really should read the paper linked above for an exhaustive analysis of why TDT works better.

Now, in day-to-day life you aren't going to find exact copies of yourself, so this might seem like a silly thought experiment and nothing else. Some might argue that human thought is so random they are unpredictable. I strongly disagree with that idea. If the way humans make decisions is actually unpredictable, then how the hell do we manage to make correct decisions?  Surely people, being thinking beings and not dice, actually base their ideas on something? If I offer you a million dollars vs a thousand, I can predict that you will very likely take the million. That's not random. Sure, we make mistakes, more so the more complicated the problem becomes, but it is possible to approach a systematic way to make correct decisions. That is, in fact, the whole point of decision theory.

So, suppose you are in the real world, where we cannot have exact copies of ourselves yet. What we can have, though, is people who approach decisions more or less rationally. Suppose two people who both implement timeless decision algorithms, and are each aware have common knowledge of that fact. Put them in a typical prisoner's dilemma scenario. They both know that their decisions are the result of the same algorithm, so they each know that they are in the same situation as in the twin dilemma, and TDT says cooperate in the twin prisoner's dilemma. So they both cooperate, for both individual and global maximum utility.

Now, if that doesn't blow your mind with meaningfulness, pretend you're me and that you see the prisoner's dilemma as one of the big things that get in the way of a good society. Think about it. A society of rational timeless decision theorists cooperates naturally, without the need of an outside enforcing authority, because they know the choice is between all cooperate and all defect. I cannot properly emphasise the meaning of this.

I realise that you can't reduce humans to simple decision algorithms. But the point is not suggesting that we are, it's showing what rationality really means. It's about dispelling the myth that selfish rationalists will take the path of everyone for themselves and collapse civilization.

It's about how, as always, if your smart choice predictably and systematically underperforms another, stupider choice, then it's probably not that smart.

Edit: I noticed I made a mistake in the setup of the problem. It's not enough that both parties know that the other implements a timeless decision algorithm, since the guarantee that they'll arrive at the same conclusion only matters if they both know this fact. Which is to say, they have to not only know that they are both TDT, but also that their knowledge of each other is identical (in the aspects relevant to the decision). I think, anyway, the moment the problem hits enough levels of recursion I get lost.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Psychflare: Golden Sky

[Reading Graduality might give you more context for some things, but it can be read on its own. See comments for notes]

Golden Sky

I woke up in what appeared to be a desert, my body mildly hurting all over. I was having trouble remembering how I'd been knocked out, but it all signs pointed to having lost the fight. Duh. She'd become much more powerful since the last time we'd met, which I suppose meant she was right about at least one thing. Not that it was particularly reassuring, that wasn't the part of her theory I was worried about.

Briefly, I considered what I should do. She wanted me alive, of course, but then she wasn't a killer. Far from it. Still, I probably had a small part to play on this, left on a particular strategic spot. Not that it made any difference to me, I wasn't going to stop her no matter where I was, so I might as well get moving. I was almost over my injuries, now, maybe two or three minutes more and I'd be good as new, so I started running.

The heat wasn't going to hurt me, but it was damn annoying, so I cast a shadow wall over me and cooled the air around me. Yeah, I'm not exactly a regular human being. Regular humans aren't left in the middle of deserts if you want them to live. Though that might all change soon enough. If it hadn't already happened, I didn't have my watch on me. But I expect it would have woken me up, at least.

Two hours later, I was still running and hoping I was close to somewhere. The landscape was awfully boring, the odd animal passing by every once in a while but little else to remark. I wished I knew what timezone I was in, maybe I'd know how long there was left by looking at the sun.

I heard a car engine, nearby. Nice. I dismissed the shadows, and started waving my arms. Soon afterwards I was travelling with two very nice gentlemen who were quite puzzled as to why I was wondering alone in the middle of nowhere. They were also kind enough to let me know there was half an hour left until all went to hell. Should I leave them? They'd be far more exposed around me. But that was never the problem, one or two people could even be a good thing. No, the problem was everyone at once. Chaos. Too late for those reflections now, I'd lost.

Maybe it wouldn't work. Maybe she was wrong, maybe there wouldn't be enough people to trigger it. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I couldn't keep myself from watching around anxiously, for the first hint of what would happen. It was time now, it had already begun, though I didn't know how long it would take to work. The answer was about twenty minutes, it turned out.

I saw it. A tiny glimmer at the distance, at first, but it was enough. I remembered the light, what it felt the first time I saw it, all those years ago. I don't look it, but I'm old, very old. That light made me feel as young as the first day, when I saw things as they truly were. It was enough to provoke my own light to shine.

My companions weren't glowing (yet?), but they were disturbed, understandably. Soon enough they'd have something else to be concerned about. As they stopped the car and we got out, they started yelling at me. My own light was expanding, joining with a much brighter one coming from the nearest city, and flying upwards. The sky was bright gold.

* * *

But maybe I should go back some. The story begins... well, my own story, more than a two centuries ago, when I was Illuminated. The world's a riddle, y'know. A decent part of, well, I suppose you'd call it “philosophy” is just a riddle, with one and only one answer. I won't tell you what it is. It's not something you can simply tell people and expect them to understand.

Few people ever find the answer. It takes courage, and wisdom, and a special kind of insanity. And luck. I happened upon the first steps of that path by pure luck, I was smart enough to follow them, brave enough not to run away, and crazy enough to make sense of what I discovered. And, when I did, I saw the light. Literally.

When you solve the riddle, you shine. Looking straight into that light, and understanding what you're seeing, is Illumination. Those that achieve it are not quite mortal, in a way. We can heal from anything given enough time, if we're not killed first. At first, it's just halted aging and faster recovery from illness, as you progress you can do things like grow an arm back in a day. I can do it in an hour, if I focus. There's more, controlling temperature and blasting things apart and making a kind of matter appear from nothing.

After I was Illuminated, my old life seemed empty. Staying put in one place when there's a huge world out there was not an attractive possibility, particularly once I realised I didn't need to worry about eating, or sleeping. I could just walk, and walk, and walk, never tired. I stopped wherever I wanted, learnt whatever I wanted, then left when I felt like it. It's a good life, let me tell you. Not for everyone, perhaps, but perfect for me.

Well, no, not perfect. I fucked it up a few times. Very much so. Y'see, one thing humans tend to need is social interaction. Companionship. And a nomad-tribe-of-one lifestyle doesn't help with that. I met people wherever I stopped, but I simply couldn't stay in one place long enough to have a real close relationship. And trying to solve that was the most common way to fuck something up.

I tried befriending other Illuminated. We're not hard to find, if you know what to look for, and we're rarely hostile to each other, but for some reason or another we can't live with our kind for long. It usually ends up with dead innocent bystanders and one or both fleeing the city under the cover of the night. I've seen a handful of exceptions over the years, but still, if I meet another one of us, I find it wiser to say hi, talk every now and then, and get the fuck out for a month or two.

It's no coincidence that this particular clusterfuck, much like all the others, started when I met an Illuminated. She was the youngest I'd ever heard of, younger than I'd have thought possible for someone to see the light. A 10-year-old girl, for fuck's sake, wielding one of the universe's greatest secrets. The rumours had been slightly intriguing, but, I admit, I dismissed them as exaggeration at first. But still, I was in the area, so I chose to pay her a little visit, and separate what was fact from what was fiction.

It was the middle of the night, of course. I'd followed a double trail, a signal telling me two of us were frequently walking around the area and were close by. Two. That never boded well. One of them might be the young genius I'd heard about, the other, who knows. But still, I followed, and came across a house. They lived there, that much I knew, though it wasn't clear if they were there presently. Now, courtesy dictated that I announce my presence to them, preferably in the least threatening way, which usually means cranking up my own signal until they noticed it and had a chance to blast me away if they wanted me gone. I figured I'd be polite this time, so that's what I did, and almost immediately a little girl opened a window. She really did look ten.

“Hi. You're one of us, aren't you?”

“The word's Illuminated. And yes, I am.”

At that point, the girl jumped out and walked towards me. She had a strange calm, as if this was routine for her.

“You heard about me? From The Eagle?”

Illuminated rarely go by their birth names. I have no idea why The Eagle called himself that, he probably just liked the sound of it. I knew who he was, at any rate.

“No, a friend of his. Copperhead, they call her. So Eagle's the one who found you?”
“Yes. He said he'd never known a child who had seen the light, that the youngest had been in his mid-twenties”

“Heh. Of those he'd met, maybe, but I know for a fact there's been a few younger than that. Anyway, I'm... well, everyone calls me the Great Old One, but I prefer Jack”

“I'm Anna. He mentioned you, said you're the oldest person alive”, she said as she sat on the grass and gestured me to join her.

“I probably am, though you never know for sure, there might be someone who's been lurking in a cave since the time of the Greeks or who knows what else”

“So, how old are you?” she asked. Bold little girl.

“More than two hundred, less than three. More precise numbers, I'd rather keep to myself, if you don't mind”

She seemed surprised by that, like she couldn't think of a reason to hide it. I've found many, over the years. I'm not sure any still applied. Of course, she was also surprised by something else...

“How come there aren't any older people around? I mean, what kills them?”

“Illuminated can technically live forever, or until the planet explodes, but we can be killed if we get hurt bad enough. Mostly by each other.”

“What? I mean, we've all seen the light! We should be smarter than that!”

I always fuck it up in the same way. I should've left, then, but I continued that conversation. Maybe she'd had thought of it by herself if I hadn't dropped by. It's actually very likely, being who she is. Still, though, I can't shake the feeling that there's something I should've done different, back then. But I didn't. Instead, I decided to stay in town. To be honest, I missed having someone to talk to.

So we talked. I mentioned I'd felt someone else living nearby, so she told me about her mother. She had become Illuminated at the same time she did, she had looked at the light her daughter had summoned. It was the first time I'd heard of such a thing. I wasn't even sure the light was something that could be seen by other people, as far as I knew back then, it could've been something that happened purely in the mind.

It made me curious, to be honest. Nobody knew much about the light, and this was the first new thing I'd learnt about it in who knows how many decades. Still, there's a reason I never went about experimenting on the subject. A reason my young friend didn't seem to care about much.

“What are you so afraid of?”, she asked me one day.

“Every time I try anything involving Illuminated, it ends in blood and blasts.”, I replied. “Friendship, discussion, business, anything. From what I hear, it's the same for everyone else. Experimenting can only end one way, and it's not a pretty one.”

“But don't you want to know why? Why you can't be friends with others, why people who should know better kill each other?”

“Sure. But I also want to stay alive.”

“Don't take this the wrong way, but you're kind of a coward”

“No, I just know about how violent things can get. ”

“OK, but don't you care about what we could do if we understood why we heal so fast? Medicine would change forever”

“If I thought it was possible. But I don't.”

“Fine. What if we could Illuminate lots of people, then? We could save millions of lives!”

And there it was. The idea that threw everything to Hell. Once it got in her head, there was no way of taking it out, the possibility to cure everyone of everything was just too appealing. Understandably so, but I knew it couldn't end well.. I tried everything to dissuade her, but there was no point, she would dedicate her life to that idea.

The last day of my visit, I was talking to her mother. Trying to explain what exactly her daughter was proposing, why it wasn't the going to turn out as she thought. Truth be told, I wasn't too worried it was something that could be done, at the scale she pictured. I just thought she'd keep chasing that dream and get killed. Her mum disagreed, she wouldn't help me stop Anna. She said she knew her daughter was meant for great things, and she would never get in the way of that. It ended the predicable way, blasts in the night and me running away.

* * *

Years passed, a decade or so. I'd moved on, visited new places, met a few people, read what I could find, that much was not new. I did change my usual routine, though, as part of a more general pattern.

Why? Well, it's simple. People are stable in their change. People always think their generation is exceptional, when they're young and when they're old. No generation is like the last, and that's something they all have in common. Funny, isn't it? Perhaps not. But it has a curious conceptual poetry, and that should be enough. In the last few centuries, people have taken a liking for changing ever faster, like they're afraid they'll get trapped in the past if they don't. Keeping up is easy, though, if you bother to learn the tricks.

Every once in a while, I settle down and catch up with whatever's happening in the world. Watch people, see how they act, what they do and why they do it. Learn whatever new tricks they have developed and what society thinks is right and wrong now. It alternates between tedious and fascinating, depending on my mood and what in particular I'm looking at. But I won't bore you with the details.

It was in this process of cultural acclimatisation that I came across something unexpected. Really unexpected. A philosophy, so to speak, becoming more known, more quoted and repeated and practised. Not a new one, mind you, this one's been around since forever in one way or another, just not prominently. But it has a disturbing similarity to certain parts of the path that leads to the Light.

It was puzzling, to say the least. For millennia general consciousness stood unaware of such things, what could make them surface like this? They aren't the kind of ideas that become popular, they aren't intuitive or nice to contemplate, they don't hit the usual buttons of ideas that become popular. Perhaps I had underestimated my species.

Tracing the origin of this memeplex was trivial, and surprising. Apparently, television. One show known as Perspectives that seemed to be dedicated to “exploring alternative belief systems and seeing in what ways they are alike and in what ways they differ”. It all seemed to be the latest syncretic fad, this whole “Oh, there's some truth in everything, even diametrically opposite ideas” thing. Wouldn't be worth my time, if its output wasn't what it was.

I admit I did consider I might have been overly harsh in my judgement. Cynicism has this way of gripping you hard after a while and colouring your vision and maybe, I reflected, it was time to allow for a bit of optimism. So, I decided to take a closer look and see what truths they might have uncovered, re-evaluate my mental picture of humans in general.

But it was quite peculiar. While I watched a group of gurus derive conclusions from whatever belief system was the focus of the day, it all felt just a bit forced. Like they were merely using the beliefs under consideration as a stepping stone to promote something entirely different.

A subtle trick, no doubt. I wouldn't have noticed if I wasn't already sceptical of the idea. I certainly would have missed how, when they summed up and correlated several episodes together, they did so in such a way that what remained was mostly their original additions and very little obtained from the alleged source. My earlier cynicism was right, after all, I had just been contemplating the problem from the wrong angle. Syncretism wasn't the method, it was just the stage.

I wasn't the only one to notice this, as it turned out. There were multiple voices around noticing how many ideas seemed to come from nowhere. Problem is, these were all people who opposed to specific ideas promoted by the Perspectives crowd. People only question thoroughly that which they already disagree with, and that makes it easy for the believers to ignore criticism. It also helps that the manipulators were right, just dishonest about how they got there. And thus, the cult had grown worldwide, they had books and websites and whatever else.

I had dark suspicions about this whole business, you might imagine. This seemed so novel, so outside my usual realm of experience, it appeared unpredictable and that slowed me down. Stupid. I had more than enough information to act immediately, but I didn't realise it until later. And thus I waited, and observed, expecting some signal of approaching events to tell me what to expect.

The form it took was the simplest one, nothing at all. Nothing broke the pattern for weeks, and I got bored. I'm not as stupid as I could be. I know enough to tell that waiting rarely accomplishes anything, it's a tactic to delay the unpleasant, not to improve your odds against it. It was that alarm bell in my head that told me sitting on my ass was not productive and to go engage reality. So I did. I found an address, and paid a visit.

There were Illumined inside the building, I could tell even before arriving. Maybe a dozen, more than I've ever seen coexist for any long period of time. A normal person, knowing what I know, would've gotten the fuck out of there real quick. Hell, a normal Illuminated would shit his pants at the prospect of dealing with a dozen. But I'm the Great Old One, am I not? The motherfucker stubborn enough to keep on living after a quarter of a millennium. I didn't get this old by losing fights, and I didn't learn to win fights by running from them. So I'm an arrogant bastard, what d'you expect.

And thus I walked in, without hiding, without showing off. Just taking a casual stroll through a nest of vipers, passing through hallways and climbing up stairs. The entire place looked nothing like you'd expect of the headquarters of a growing sect, no blood on the walls nor mysterious artwork. Just a regular building with mostly regular people walking by. The normals ignored me, as expected. I expected different from the others, and I wasn't disappointed.

The first one I came across had obviously been looking for me, my presence was noticeable. I hadn't met him before, but from his expression he knew my face. He was young, I soon noticed. Not young in years, perhaps, but young in the Light.

“How kind of you to join us, sir” he greeted me. “If you would please follow me, the boss would like a word with you.”

An Illuminated with manners. By the gods, what's the world coming to.
“Someone told you I was dropping by?”

“Not as far as I know, sir”, he replied. “The boss just gave us general instructions, should someone matching your description visit us.”

I followed polite boy to the elevator, top floor. A trap? Possibly probably, but I could take him easy. Maybe use him as a hostage or meat shield. I'd improvise. In the meantime, I made small talk.

“So, my description, eh? You just grab any old man to pass through the doors?”

“Oh, not at all, sir, no mistaken identities. Unless you are not who the boss had in mind, of course.”

A sense of humour. Marvellous.

“Must've painted a vivid picture. Care to share?”

“Uh, of course” He visibly winced. “The exact words were 'an old, surprisingly fit man with a stare that looks like he's about to kill you and an aura that says it wouldn't take him much effort'”

I smiled, but it probably had a psychopathic quality to it that didn't calm him down. Poor kid. He was quite relieved a few moments later when we reached our destination, he pointed me to a large and imposing door, and then vanished into the elevator again.

Ah, the moment of truth. I savoured it properly, it is not every day that one gets to face unknown past acquaintances enacting cryptic plots. I've grown fond of drama over the years, I find. So there I was, contemplating possibilities and admiring the décor, while walking slowly yet resolutely towards the office of my mysterious host. I stretched my hand towards the handle, and...


The door flew open, and a young woman tackle-hugged me. So much for the atmosphere.

“I didn't think you'd find out soon enough, you know, with all your wandering away from populated areas. But there was always a chance, so I told them not to bother you if you showed up, just in case”

My brain had been thrown off-rails and was having trouble catching up. I hadn't seen her before in my life. Or had I? Wait, age her down ten years...


“Of course! Who else?”

“Sit down, sit down” She pointed to what seemed a very comfortable chair off to the side, next to a bookshelf. “We have lots to talk about!”

As I tried to figure out what the hell was going on, and an obvious trail of thought started to seem awfully inviting, she offered me a cup of tea and sat down right in front of me.

“So this is your little project, kid?” I said at last. “Spreading the word far and wide?”

“Yup. Well, a part of it, obviously, what's been going on behind the scenes is much more interesting. I told you before you left, I wanted to do some research on Illumination...”

“Yes, you did, and if I recall I repeatedly warned you it would go badly.” I paused “I see you're still alive, though, so my fears were perhaps overstated”

“Just a tad, to be perfectly honest. There were a few close calls here and there, especially at the beginning...”

And so she rattled off about what she'd been doing for the past decade. It alarmed me, to say the least. So many times she could've gotten killed, and yet she marched on, as excited as ever. What she discovered was quite astounding, as well, detailed measurements and interviews and whatnot had made her more knowledgeable in the Light than I had thought possible. She had managed to induce people into the light, talked them into the revelation, and not only once but dozens of times. But if that wasn't enough to scare me...

“... and then I noticed how big the Light had gotten when I tried two at the same time, and it got me thinking.”

“Some sort of feedback effect, perhaps?” I guessed. She'd gotten me curious, damn it all.

“Something along those lines, yes. So I tried awakening three and four and five at took me months but I've gotten pretty good at figuring what people need to hear to make the connection. The resulting effect was huge, it attracted a bit of attention even when I'd been so careful. But I got great data from that, I have a few equations on size based on the distribution of people. They are not exact because they depend a lot on the individual, but I can make some rough guesses for that. I almost perfectly predicted the 8 people experiment!”

“That's fascinating, really, “and it was, no sense in lying about it, “but you can understand how that would make me a bit... concerned, about your plans, whatever they are.”

“Well, that's the best part! This whole Perspectives is based entirely on that research, and I'm fairly sure it could work.”

“It's a massive Illumination, isn't it?” Of course it was “Based on this feedback thing, couldn't it get too big”

Too big? Don't be silly, Jack, the whole point is making it as big as possible!”

Well fuck. It was Anna, all those years ago, that had shown me that you don't need to provoke your own light to reach Illumination. Well, actually, her mother.

“So, if I might make an educated guess... you plan to use this TV show of yours to coordinate as many Illuminations as possible, and create this massive Light. Then, all the people that couldn't invoke the Light on their own see it and Illuminate themselves. Chain reaction.”

“Almost right” She smiled “Just seeing the Light isn't enough, if you aren't prepared mentally to understand quite a few things. But, again thanks to the show, many people will be, even if they couldn't do it on their own. In two days, the season finale will air, you know. Based on viewer numbers and how people seem to be grasping the ideas, it'll probably cover the entire world. It won't awaken everyone, but it will be a good start for doing this more openly”

“I... I can't let you do this, it's too dangerous, it will be chaos...”

“Jack, you can't be serious. Think about it, millions of people immune to ageing, diseases cured, average lifespans of centuries. Centuries! You of all people should know the appeal of that.”

“And I of all people know what happens when Illuminate get together! It's the story of my life, Anna!” I hadn't noticed getting off my seat. I was desperate, I had to make her see what it would really do to the world... “Happened when I met you, even! We don't get along, we fight, we kill!”

“I know more about it than you, Jack. I've been doing research, remember? Seventeen Illuminated live in the building, and we get along fine. Many more visit every now and then. I have the data if you want it, it's got something to do with seeing the same light rather than your own..”

“And what if you're wrong? What if you make a mistake, and after your philosophical nuke goes off we fight each other to death?”

“We won't”

“Are you willing to bet millions of lives on that?”

“Are you? Every day that passes by without my Illumination, people die, Jack. People die all the time and I can do something about it. I won't leave them because you're scared”

“And I won't risk them because of your megalomania!”

“Jack...” She was pleading. She was almost crying. “Please don't make me do this. I know more about our powers than you do, and my people will rush into this room in a second. I don't want to kill you”

“You'll have to”

And I blasted away half the room.

Not that I even scratched her, she had a shadow shield up in a split second. She was strong, and the reinforcements were rushing right now. But if I managed to get rid of her quick, maybe....

Maybe nothing. She froze off half my leg before I realised, and I knew I had to focus on the battle. Speculate later.

Blast off and protect, cool down and heat up, destroy and regenerate. I don't know how long we fought, but it was hard enough against her alone. When her friends showed up, my best hope was using them as distractions and hope she would hesitate.

I knocked out the two that seemed weakest before they even blinked. I'm the Great Old One, and age counts for something in this game. One in each arm, the blasts stopped flying around in my general direction and started to get more careful and more focused, which means slower. I danced and dodged, got rid of the pests early and dealt with the major players. Three decent fighters in the lot of them, plus little Anna who was as good at the rest combined. God knows what tricks she's learnt over the years with her “research”.

Hostages didn't last in my hands, of course. Somehow one of the fighters got right next to me while I fenced off the rest and tried to blast their heads off. Suddenly, my right arm was gone. Hurt like a motherfucker, let me tell you. I couldn't hold to one without an arm, and the other I probably dropped in the pain. They were unceremoniously kicked away from the battle area and then it got a whole lot harder.

I'm not entirely sure how the battle looked to the normals, all that light and explosions should have attracted some attention. All I know is that, from the inside, it felt like Hell's bullet-dodging chamber. It went on and on, everything being set on fire only to freeze the next moment. I'm still not sure how she pulled the liquid-nitrogen-to-the-face trick, but that's probably when I lost.

I don't know how it ended exactly but I obviously lost. And thus I woke up in the middle of the desert, healing from wounds and awaiting the end of the world.

A sky that wasn't a sky, but a light of gold that hides secrets of life and death. That's what I saw, at the end. If she's right, so did everyone else in the world. And if I'm right, that's what's going to kill us all. Or most.

I always fuck it up the same way, and now she has the chance to share that fate with the world. Lovely. I hope against hope that I'm wrong, that the sky will unify is and not divide us, but I cannot ignore what I've seen. A lifetime of killing friends before they kill me has left me drained of optimism.

If worst comes to worst, as it probably will, I can at least hope to survive it all. I'm still the oldest and the best, though she's catching up fast. Maybe she can forgive me for trying to kill her, and we can work on solving this. She seems like she might be capable of peaceful coexistence, even if nobody else can.

So I'll still walk the world to see how this turns out. I admit, a small part of me is excited. Not every day you can wake up, find out you're alive, and wonder if the sky will bring Hell on Earth.

Evaluation: Golden Sky 7

Yay, progress! I got back on track and the story is moving forward at a respectable pace. It could be finished by this time next week. It could be finished by this time tomorrow, probably, if I took the time to write it. But oh well, I can't write and dick around on the 'tubes and read papers on decision theory all at the same time. OK, I already finished that paper. But it was long, ok? Fascinating and long and is this sounding suspicious to anyone else?

My reprioritization trick is still not working out, but I'm not giving up yet. I just found myself a treasure trove of useful resources that could be bumped to priority status, and while that might mean less writing time, it means more self-improvement time. Well, one specific kind of self-improvement, namely absorbing knowledge, but it's one I like anyway.

So, on the story itself. I like what I wrote today and yesterday, not as crappy as I'm used to on first impression, but that might just be that I haven't re-read it yet and found the stupid errors and annoying style and bare descriptions and poorly formatted dialogue and oh ungod I'm depressing myself already. Fuck that, I'm happy. I got stuff done, that's the important part.

So, it's all setting the scene for a big confrontation. I'm not exactly sure how this goes from now, the original plan called for splitting this in two scenes but I think it'll flow better if it goes all together. Make more sense, too.

And... uh... there's a building. And a minor character whose entire personality is being polite and scared of people who look like crazy serial killers. Also he has magical powers but that's not really relevant.

So, see you next week, imaginary readers! Unless I finish it before, in which case see you then. Or some of you become real and pay me a visit. I don't know which absurd scenario is more improbable (yes I do).

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Yesterday's post was but a long-winded introduction to the idea of prior probability and how even after seeing a piece of evidence that, by itself, favours one hypothesis, you can still prefer another one. I promised I'd get to the point today, and I occasionally keep my promises, so...

The point is thus. A few weeks ago, I came across a paper on ESP, which can learn more about here or read here. Now, I don't believe in ESP. In fact, I find the idea ridiculous. But I also find the idea of dismissing an idea due to its apparent ridiculousness without considering the evidence ridiculous. I do try to be rational, and recently, as you may have read about in older posts, I've realised that I'm not as rational as I thought. And learnt quite a few new things relevant to that, including the concept of Bayesian probability which is rather central to this series of posts.

When first faced with this paper, I'm ashamed to admit I lapsed into old ways of thinking, fell right into the grip of confirmation bias, and started to poke this paper in ways I wouldn't poke one that agreed with me. Not because of any real reason, just because it disagreed with me. That lead me to some rather idiotic conclusions which I, fortunately, decided not to share with the world. 

Later, thinking more clearly and reminded of my commitment to question ideas equally whether they agree with me or not, I basically slapped myself in the face (metaphorically) and said, ok, let's stop for a second and think. Am I really proceeding with this the right way? No.

And thus I now accept the reality of psychic powers.

Nah, of course not. ESP is still bullshit. And the concept of prior probability is quite relevant as to why.

This is actually touched upon in the article I linked, one that I hadn't really taken a good look at before today. Basically, after I sat down, stopped try to rationalise, and cleared my thinking, I remembered what little I know about prior probability, and the concept is quite relevant. Given what we know about how the human brain and the laws of physics work, it is absurdly improbable for information to travel backwards in time in the manner proposed by the paper's author. Special relativity says that it is impossible for information to travel faster than the speed of light. Physics is not complete, of course, so it's not impossible that new quantum effects will show some minor possibility of time-travelling information. But it is very unlikely, and it is incredibly unlikely that the first piece of evidence for that would come from human brains looking at pictures and not, say, particle accelerators. Human brains are hardly ideal environments for quantum experimentation.

The article brings up the example of casinos which is less compelling but more approachable. Basically, if ESP worked as reliably as the paper indicates, it'd be trivial to beat the house, and yet casinos make a profit. There's also the fact that James Randi still has his million dollars. And many other things you could probably think of on your own. Before reading the paper, the prior probability of the ESP hypothesis was so low that basically any hypothesis that fit the data and wasn't ESP would have a huge advantage. Not because of bias, but because of the fact that, based on virtually every observation, reality doesn't seem to work that way.

In fact, based on that knowledge, I made an advance note to myself. I should have taken the effort to write down a proper prediction and test my beliefs, and I did not, but, when considering what the new evidence would led me to believe my conclusion was that ESP was almost certainly not the correct answer, and very probably it would be some methodological error in the experiment. I could not clarify which one, I am not strong enough in the ways of science yet. But, if you trust the rationality of the author of this, they can.

So, I was right, somewhat, which makes me feel a little better over my irrational collapse. I still need to watch out more carefully. But that is not the conclusion I had in mind, since I only read that today and the series was started yesterday. 

Some accuse science of limiting itself to naturalistic explanations, or say that science requires an assumption of naturalism to work. They are wrong. Naturalism is not an assumption, it's a result. Richard Carrier defines naturalism as the idea that every mental phenomenon can be reduced to entirely nonmental ones. I agree with him on this, and it underlies my point. There's nothing preventing science from working if, in fact, nonreducible mental phenomena exist. If there is actually some sort of fact about the human mind that makes it defy physics, that is not beyond the purview of science. Science has pretty convincingly piled the evidence in favour of naturalism, giving it an enormous prior probability. That is why science prefers natural hypotheses to supernatural ones. Not bias, simply Bayesian probability.

Prior probability

Suppose someone flips a coin thirty times, and it comes up heads every time. Suppose, further, that you are asked to choose between several hypotheses regarding the coin. Now, one usually starts by assuming a coin is fair, or close enough, but the odds of thirty heads in a row with a fair coin are roughly one in a thousand million (one in a billion, for you short-scale users). It's not impossible, of course, but one might consider other hypotheses. For example, the "two-headed" hypothesis, which would predict heads in every flip of the coin. With a fixed coin,  you would expect heads at every turn with probability of almost 1 (1 is probability talk for what's most commonly called 100%. You never assign anything probability of exactly one).

While the fixed coin hypothesis is not the first one you consider, the evidence (the observed results of the coin-flips) favours it, so you might decide you venture a guess that you think it's the best hypothesis so far. But, imagine that soon afterwards, your friend comes up to you and says: "Aha! I have conceived a new hypothesis!" (your friend has a love for drama). "The coin is fixed so that it shows heads for thirty flips, and on the flip number thirty-one it shows tails! The evidence of the coin flips supports this hypothesis just as well as your two-headed one!"
You might be tempted to simply ask the coin-flipper to flip the coin again, and yes, that would be a way to test that hypothesis. It is in general a good idea to test that which is testable, after all. But what if you no longer had access to the coin? What if your friend had said a thousand flips, instead of thirty? Would both hypothesis be equally likely, since they are equally supported by the observed coin-flips?

The answer is, rather obviously, no. There's a reason we don't go about suggesting stuff like grue and bleen. Well, those of us that aren't philosophers, with them all bets are off. Anyway, that reason is called Ockahm's Razor, and it says that we should prefer simple explanations over complex ones.

That is, of course, a rather vague definition of Ockham's Razor. You can look up stuff like Kolomogorov complexity and Minimum Message Length for an understanding of what complexity is and how exactly the Razor tells us to avoid it. You could also look up overfitting to see why we prefer simpler explanations to more complex ones that might even be slightly better at fitting the available data.

So, as you would have noticed if you had read all that stuff I told you to last paragraph, "Thirty heads and then one tail" is a more complex hypothesis than "always heads" ("always heads" is in turn more complex than "fair coin", though that is less obvious). Ockham's Razor, amongst other things*, tells us that when you have the same evidence, the less complex hypothesis is more probable. That applies to preferring "always heads" to "thirty-then-one", but it also applies to preferring "fair coin" to "always heads" at the start. That is, we can use Ockham's Razor to tell us which hypothesis is more likely before we gather the evidence. This should give you an idea of what is meant by the concept of "prior probability".

I could define "prior probability" in Bayesian terms, but I'm not good enough at explaining that. I'd just tell you to read this and come back, except that if you already read that I have nothing else to say here. So, I will attempt a brief description of the idea and hope I don't fuck it up too much. Essentially, prior probability is how likely you consider something to be, before weighing a relevant piece of evidence (for or against). After weighing the evidence, your new probability estimate is called "posterior probability". Your posterior probability after one piece of evidence become your prior probability for the next piece. Which means that prior probability is not always calculated without any evidence, it only reflects how your beliefs look at one point in the process of examining new evidence.

So, to combine both concepts discussed so far, Ockham's Razor affects your prior probability. In fact, if you're perfectly rational (you're not) and find yourself in a state of no evidence at all regarding something, Ockham's razor determines your prior probability. Not that you are likely to find yourself in a state of literally no evidence, which is why I emphasise that "prior" in prior probability refers to before the evidence to be considered, and not before any and all evidence. 

Before you knew the result of the coin flips, you had reason to favour fair coin over fixed coin, and not just due to Ockahm's Razor, because you weren't without evidence. You know about coins, for example. You know that, most of the time, coins aren't fixed, that most coins are close enough to fair. If someone had asked you to predict the number of heads and tails, you'd have gone for 15-15, not 30-0, and that would have been the best bet you could've made given the evidence. Similarly, you also had very strong evidence against the thirty-then-one hypothesis, and not just the fact that there are more two headed coins than thirty-then-one coinds. A coin that can somehow manipulate itself to fit into such a specific pattern is very unlikely given the laws of physics. If both hypotheses were equally complex, you'd still have strong evidence to prefer two-headed, and this evidence went into your prior probability. The further evidence, the coin flips, don't favour one over the other, so your posterior probability doesn't favour one over the other any more than your prior did. Indeed, for comparing two-headed vs thirty-then-one, the coin-flips evidence changes nothing. But it doesn't have to, because your prior probability very much favoured two-headed over thirty-then-one already.
This was going somewhere, I swear. But this post is already too long, so the story is to be continued tomorrow. I'm sure all zero of you can't wait.

*It is a common misconception that the Razor only applies with equal evidence.It is not one I wish to perpetuate, so I'll take this footnote as a chance to clarify that formalizations of the Razor also show that a hypothesis that is more accurate (fits the evidence better) can lose out against less accurate but simpler hypotheses. Again, look up overfitting to understand why.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It gets better

The It Gets Better campaign is an admirable effort to raise awareness about  homophobic bullying. The idea is to let LGBTQ teens know that not all life is like school, that when you're an adult you can choose who to be around and give a big, hearty fuck you to everyone who made you miserable.

And a small part of me wonders if the fundie community has thought of making an It Gets Worse campaign, telling those damn sodomites that they'll spend their life tortured by AIDS and gay demons and then they'll go to Hell and fondly remember the suicide-inducing homophobia of their youth. Or something. The idea is simultaneously enraging and hilarious, though the latter aspect would be somewhat diminished if it was an actual campaign and not just idle hypothesising.

It could be worse. It could be Monty Python references.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Evaluation: Golden Sky 6

So... yeah. Lately, I'm in this "work -> check forums, blogs, webcomics, and other internettery -> holy shit it's midnight -> sleep -> work" cycle. I'm not sure why, but I'm having less free time that I used to ("free" time defined as time not spent in activties part of my daily cycle, which means forum time is not free time). And writing time is a subset of free time. Plus, I'm trying to teach myself Python, which eats into my writing time even more. And then I'm unmotivated and blah. So shit like this happens, when I don't write for weeks. The obvious solution is restructure my daily activities to give writing higher priority, but I'm terrible at implementing obvious solutions that cut into my easy recreation time. I'm working on it.

At least, Saturday I managed to get my ass properly geared and write at least a few paragraphs (from which the last post came, you may have noticed).  Writing some more now, though a part of it was a rewriting of Saturday's stuff. So, not as much done in net wordcount, but at least better in quality. Some parts of what I wrote were so ad hoc they deserved to be killed.

So there's where I am right now, fixing a mess into slightly better mess. I'll do that reprioritising thing, if it works I should have this finished soon, if it doesn't, time to find something else.

One day I'll find a way of self-improvement that doesn't rely on piling hacks after hacks. Maybe. Then again , maybe not, the human brain was not exactly built to be reworked from the inside into something better. Hope them AI scientists hurry up so I can both upload my mind to computer and rework it into something functional. Maybe someone else would approach something more structured that doesn't involve turning into a cyborg, but virtually anything on that front seems to come from a consortium of snake oil pedlars and woo fluff-bunnies (Both sell you bullshit that doesn't work, but the former charge more and know they're lying)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Conceptual Poetry

Ah, the scourge of misleading titles. I thought of this phrase to describe something in Golden Sky (yes, I'm still writing that, no, I don't have any excuses for the skipped evaluations). It seemed a decent fit, it still does, but I'm fairly sure the naked phrase will evoke ideas far different from those intended (the context should make it clear, but I wouldn't trust my judgement on the matter).

As I supposed after a few minutes of reflection, and a quick Google confirmed, the phrase is already in use to describe a kind of poetry that is in some way related to concepts. Shocker, innit.  I would attempt a more exact definition, but it seems a riddle the poets in question don't seem too given to answer. Never trust an artist to give you anything concrete on their art (said a crappy writer, bitter voice filled with contempt). But in any case, I do know it is not what I meant by it.

What myself and Jack who is the one to use the phrase wish to express by it, is an actual concept, or relationship between concepts, that appeals to an aesthetic sense. If an idea by itself is conceptual prose, then conceptual poetry is finding a way to look at an idea through which you notice something curious, paradoxical, or self-referencing within it (that's what hits my concept-aesthetic buttons, at least). I find it, well, a fun exercise, though not generally  a source of enlightening. At this point, I should be giving you examples, probably. But, as it turns out, the only examples that come to mind are those within the story, and I don't wish to share them yet. Not even because they're spoilers, I just want to leave 'em there. If I find any better, I'll try to keep track of them.

I wonder if I'll get any mistaken googlers from this.

2011/03/15, mistaken googler count +1