Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sci-fi mania

Greetings to one and all! Yeah... so that thing about being back. Turns out that breaks are great times to start up on pet projects. It's something I highly recommend; though I warn that having multiple projects can be quite hazardous to actually getting one of them achieved. A few that I'm still sustaining are:
  • Some JDBC familiarity. Over the summer, I had some lessons in interacting with a MySQL database through Python using the MySQLdb library. However, I didn't get to get a taste through interacting with Java, which has a much more mature and standardized interface through the JDBC API. So here's the plan: food shopping is an awfully complex endeavor, especially when you haven't quite figured out which stores tend to be cheaper for what types of food. If you're like me, and can't remember what the price of a head of lettuce is from week to week, and what an expected sale price is, keeping records might help us sift through all of that information. While keeping receipts and drawing up tables might help get a general idea of what stores are better deals, a computerized approach would be more thorough (though I have to admit, likely overkill). However, if you have a need, and a means to reach it, why not get some practice programming while you're at it! So here was the plan: set up a relational database (PostgreSQL. MySQL is too closely associated with the red insignia of... killing Sun. Plus, variety is always a virtue), and write a client that provides an interface for inputting all of the price/location info automatically into the database. Java would be the language of choice this time because... Python was done already, and I don't think I'd know enough math for database interaction in Haskell; the concepts behind Hello World were hard enough (Look here for some taste of Haskell thinking). Right now, the database has been built (automatically through a script), and the client interface is being worked on. I'll try to give updates as they come in.
  • Keeping up with the newspaper. Current events are always a source of entertainment and conversation fodder (if you can remember them). Of course, when it's school time, there's no time at all to thumb through the newspaper (not to mention having to buy the paper yourself). Yesterday featured an article vocalizing farmers' opposition to the California High-Speed Rail Project taking a route through their farmland, with cityfolk complaining about noise, and farmers complaining that the rail will butcher their land plots. The way the issue lies now, the city dwellers have a very vague sense of "noisy" that they're basing their complaints on. The farmers, I empathize with; having a state-owned rail cutting through your farmland would make watering and harvesting much more difficult. I think we'll just have to see the environmental report to get confirmation of whether the "noise" for the cities will really be that unbearable.
  • The title hobby of reading up on some science fiction classics. Of course, others may debate as to whether these are "classics" or not, but they're pulled from the list of 10 best sci-fi novels to be banned from io9 (Stumbleupon leads to something actually productive, for once). The ones that I both haven't read yet and were at my local library were Shade's Children (Garth Nix), Stranger from a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein), Slaughterhouse-five (Kurt Vonnegut), and Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). I was planning on talking about Shade's Children in this post cause I pretty much devoured it entirely the very day I checked it out. Stranger from a Strange Land is currently on my nightstand. It's very long, but also very good; and the last two I hope to get to in the next week.
Unfortunately, there are a bunch of other projects I meant to get on over the winter that are pretty much on hold. One is finding something to do over the summer (I should get on that soon). Hopefully either something to do with exoplanets or transient phenomena (read supernovae), but work on that will probably get started when the academic atmosphere (and adrenaline) is back. Another unfortunate consequence of the mere 24-hour day is some maemo development. While C/C++ (Languages too practical to learn) dominate the League of Maemo development, Python is still on the field as a minor player. While you may argue about the sustainability of Maemo, since Nokia is the only manufacturer that uses it, and even supports it for only a fraction of its devices, it might be useful to know how to program for a portable device. It's fun to try new things, don't you agree? And stuff that had to do with getting in touch with my roots/heritage/language all went completely down the toilet. Those will have to find another opportunity to be reviewed *sigh*.

Anyway, on to Shade's Children. I'm gonna try not to give away spoilers, but I can't guarantee anything. I highly recommend the book, so if you're looking for a good sci-fi thriller, you might want to stop reading right now and pick up Shade's Children. Otherwise, feel free to read on.

First of all, I would have to admit that one of the statements I made above was a lie. It turns out that I had read Shade's Children a few years ago; I just forgot that I had read it when seeing the Sci-fi list. However, once I read the first few pages, it was like, "This seems really familiar... Oh! I read this before *smirk*. But I have to say, the book means quite a bit more when it's read as an older person, and a lot of foreshadowing became apparent. So yeah, I reiterate that I highly recommend this book cause it's gripping even on a second read. Anyway, for those who still haven't read it after all I've said, the basic setup of the book is that aliens arrive from God-knows-where and make everyone over the age of 14 vanish by God-knows-what (Aliens can do ANYTHING, right?). However, despite managing to exterminate the entire population, they decide to carry out all of their operations in a 30 square mile area. This involves harvesting up all of the remaining children, raising them, and breeding them. When they finally turn 14, the aliens use their body parts to make hideous creatures which patrol the area looking for escapees (and also have other purposes, which will become clear upon reading the book). So the children are raised in dormitories where they dread their fourteenth birthday since those that turn fourteen are taken away and never seen again. However, some lucky children manage to escape the dormitories before then, but most are found and are killed off by the patrolling creatures. The more fortunate ones who manage to evade these creatures for long enough usually end up under the wing of Shade, an entity who assembles escapees to fight to overthrow the alien overlords. Now, Shade is not a person; it's no secret that he is in fact, an artificial intelligence programmed with the personality of his creator.

Now Shade is my favorite character (if he can be called that); despite being a program, he has the most interesting conflict out of all of the characters. It also raises a few ideas about safeguards in future AIs. While Shade has a seemingly human and outgoing personality, deep down he is presented as this cold, calculating being, with no qualms about sending children to die for the opportunity for a greater good (usually for more knowledge about the aliens). He's also very badass in that he learns very quickly how to outsmart the aliens (being a computer and all helps with that). However, his logic leads him into a position where he feels he must betray the children and hand them over to the aliens. He does this unsympathetically, but soon afterwards an interesting thing happens. What the novels calls a "personality conflict" occurs, where a new, one could argue more "human" personality of the creator emerges. This personality has sympathy, has emotion, and most importantly, has morals. This personality argues with Shade that the ends do not justify the means, and that the children should be saved. Thus begins an internal conflict, whose instability is linked to that of software.

Now, the question that this situation seems to explore is: Where did the "human" personality come from? On one hand, it might have been a safeguard programmed in by the creator to act in case of severe ethical quandaries. This seems unlikely, since it would seem like adding emotions to Shade would have been a good idea since the very beginning. That would avoid the whole selling out children situation in the first place. There is also the possibility that Shade worked out how to program emotions, and he himself set it as a safeguard in case of a moral dilemma. Shade was a very smart being, and was troubled by the fact that he had no emotion (as odd as that may seem, it's true). This might have been a mechanism concocted by himself to protect the children from... himself. Likely, the biggest obstacle to this reading would be that while Shade knew what it meant to be sad or happy or angry, he didn't feel any of it. This is elucidated by his explanation that he has all of his creators memories, so he remembers being sad and frustrated and all of the emotions, but feeling them again is something he cannot do. Now, since Shade didn't understand emotions, it would be highly unlikely that he would be able to program them, despite knowing about what they are. And if he did, it'd probably be so swamped with bugs and imperfections that it would be mainly useless. No, the new personality was not handicapped at all in its emotions.

Probably the most uncomfortable origin for the new personality, but the most supported by the text, is that it was simply a bug, an unwanted, unexpected behavior resulting from imperfections in the software. That's kind of a dark message: that all that we call the pinnacle of humanity and venerate as our exclusive gift above all life on earth, so complex that no man can even replicate it, arose from a mere corner case in an artificial being. However, this explains the sudden appearance of the personality, and its severe clashes with Shade himself. In fact, to further develop the idea of unwantedness, the conflict even leads to software failure so severe that Shade must boot himself up again to recover from it.

Another possible scenario, which kinda works, but I think comes from way left field is that the new personality was not a program at all; rather it was the creator's soul. Now, Garth Nix pretty much avoids the discussion of religion entirely (as far as I can tell) in the book, so bringing in the soul seems highly out of place. However, it would explain quite a lot. First of all, the personality to conflict with Shade identified itself as the programmer himself. Not as some moral angel to sit on Shades shoulder, but as Robert Ingman. This contrasts with Shade because Shade presented himself as an independent being from Robert; he had Robert's memories and personality, but fundamentally was not Robert. This identity issue is why Shade has a distinct name. Since the new personality identified itself most strongly as Robert, it would seem to be safe to assume that it actually WAS Robert, despite the fact that Robert had been long dead. Another soul reading was just that Robert's personality was so human. It sympathized like a human, it calculated like a human, and even swore like a human. The human match is just too perfect to come from a bug. The personality may have seemed human because it was, in fact, human. Probably the third manifestation of the soul was that when Shade died (yes, his hardware was destroyed), Robert lived on in the computers of the aliens. Now, how Robert got into the alien computers was just some digital hocus-pocus, but the meaning seems clear. Since this Robert personality was human, it was eternal, and not to be phased by the mere destruction of its silicon body. Through the alien communication network, this Robert left to save the children and help them lead the alien downfall. Now, as I said, this reading seems entirely out of place, and I probably won't buy it unless there's some deeper religious allegory hidden within the novel of which the soul is but one manifestation of. But this is the reading I personally would prefer, and I think would fit most nicely with the ending. However, that's literature, it's difficult to resolve something for sure.

Anyway, thanks for staying with me this long. Writing this post was a wild ride, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I'll try to post more regularly, but I learned that I can't make any promises. But hopefully, something more interesting will pop up!


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