March 19, 2004

Speculist Cinema

Phil has said that a "speculist" is:
Anyone who defines, looks for, attempts to unravel, or otherwise contends with what might be, what might not be, what might have been, whatever and then who takes that understanding and tries to make it into something useful.
One of the ways to "look for" new concepts to "contend with" is to read about them. A good book is like a lengthy conversation with a very intelligent person about the things that excite them the most. If the author has some wild tangents he wants to pursue, a book offers him the time and space to develop those ideas.

I'm presently reading Brian Alexander's Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion and Carl Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. I highly recommend both books. And here are some more reading suggestions from Phil.

A movie doesn't provide the same opportunity to explore ideas as deeply. And Hollywood could do a better job offering movies that have thought provoking themes. Sometimes the movie industry acts as if making the public think will keep it away. In any event, I'm grateful when movies that challenge the mind successfully navigate the studio filtering system.

Here are some examples:

The first three films listed are near-perfect works of art. A.I. and Bicentennial Man are flawed, but are ambitious enough to be worth your time. I also have high hopes for this summer's I, Robot.

Does anybody have any other movies they would suggest?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:15 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

February 20, 2004

Reuben Is Back

For those who haven't been following Stillness, let me introduce you to Reuben Stone. Reuben is a former CIA agent, a man of action, and a realist. In Part 1, his world got rocked first by meeting the lovely Ksenia, and then by being forced to play a very nasty game. Reuben has a soft side, which was called into play in sending him on his current quest. He has only just begun to open himself up to the possibility that the world might be a little more mysterious than he originally thought.

That's definitely a step in the right direction, but nothing could possibly prepare him for the challenges he is about to face.

Still not reading Stillness? Well, what the heck are you waiting for? Reuben is back!


Stillness

by Philip Bowermaster

Part I

Chapter 1, in which Reuben sees lights.

Chapter 2, in which Sergei gives advice.

Chapter 3, in which Ksenia looks at cars.

Chapter 4, in which Reuben falls.

Chapter 5, in which Reuben contends.

Chapter 6, in which Reuben recovers.

Chapter 7, in which Sergei explains some things.

Chapter 8, in which Betty explains the rest.

Chapter 9, in which Father Alexy saves the day.

Chapter 10, in which the old man speaks.

Chapter 11, in which Reuben obliges.

Part II

Chapter 12, in which Emmett goes to work.

Chapter 13, in which Frank has some news.

Chapter 14, in which Peggy opens a box.

Chapter 15, in which Emmett becomes confused.

Chapter 16, in which Rick spells things out.

Chapter 17, in which two strangers arrive.

Part III

Chapter 18, in which Celia meets Corey.

Chapter 19, in which Grace wins a game.

Chapter 20, in which Celia remembers.

Chapter 21, in which Corey wishes.

Chapter 22, in which Todd hugs back.

Chapter 23, in which an argument is settled.

Chapter 24, in which Estelle calls for help.

Chapter 25, in which Grace gets an idea.

Chapter 26, in which Corey awakens.

Part IV

Chapter 27, in which Reuben goes forth.

Posted by Phil at 09:29 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 29, 2004

Reading Matters

If you're looking for some good blog-based children's fiction, may I recommend this story by posse member Joanie? Even if you weren't looking for some good blog-based children's fiction, take the time to read it. It's wonderful.

Then again, if you're looking for some good blog-based fiction that probably isn't appropriate for children (little tykes, anyway) but that has children in it, might I recommend Stillness? This would be a great week to start reading our serialized novel about the end of the world.

Posted by Phil at 09:47 AM | TrackBack

January 09, 2004

The Holy Land

I'm reminded of another topic I waxed enthusiastic about a while back, Robert Zubrin's novel, The Holy Land. It's a bit late for a full review now, so I'll just say that I found it to be a quick, fun read that didn't disappoint on the major premise. I found some of the dialog a little stilted, and I didn't buy into the love story. And some of the more outrageous situations struck me as being kind of silly (rather than funny.) But overall, I would say the book works. Dr. Zubrin accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do: a satirical recasting of the Israel/Palestine conflict which illuminates the outright absurdity of the situation.

Rand Simberg has some thoughts on the book as well, with links to the recent NRO review. Simberg may disagree with Zubrin's views on Mars, but he liked The Holy Land (even the love story that I couldn't quite choke down.) Professor Hall made note of the book the other day, and also had some comments on Zubrin's recent interview with Linda Seebach in the Rocky Mountain News.

Anyhow, if the Zubrin love-in gets to be a bit much for you, Posse member Joanie (Da Goddess Herself) had a somewhat different take on the book.

Posted by Phil at 05:56 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 07, 2004

Real Writers

I just got an e-mail from an old friend who has finished the first draft of her novel. She first showed me some pages from it almost five years ago and now has a 500-page manuscript. I can't wait to see it.

Many of my friends are writers of one kind or another, and at least a few of them are "real" writers (meaning they make a living doing it.) Not to be a name-dropper or anything, but one of those friends is none other than romance/mystery writer Edie Claire. Hers is a particularly impressive name to drop because

  1. Her work is highly regarded and doing quite well.

  2. I once went out with her.

  3. She was (and, as you can see, still is) quite a babe.

I recommend all of Edie's books, naturally. Try the Leigh Koslow mysteries, they're a lot of fun: Never Buried, Never Sorry, Never Kissed Goodnight, Never Preach Past Noon, and Never Tease a Siamese. (I hope I got those in the right order; I'm working from memory.)

They're all good; you can't go wrong. But If I had to choose just one Edie Claire novel to recommend, it would have to be her latest, Long Time Coming, which I haven't even read yet. This one is my favorite because of the cover:

You might well wonder what's so special about the cover. Well, the house shown there is the one I grew up in in Mayfield, Ky. Back in high school, Edie and my sister Ellen were good friends. The two spent a lot of time over at each other's houses, and it would appear that our place made quite an impression on Edie. It served as the inspiration for the setting for latest offering. So if you want passion, intrigue, and some keen insights into the house I grew up in, this is definitely the book for you.

Oh, yeah — and speaking of writers — this is your chance to participate in the process of transforming me from a fake writer to a real one. How can you do that? Simple, start reading Stillness, our serialized novel which features passion, intrigue, and the End of the World (which is arguably as interesting as my childhood home.)

Stillness

by Philip Bowermaster

Part I

Chapter 1, in which Reuben sees lights.

Chapter 2, in which Sergei gives advice.

Chapter 3, in which Ksenia looks at cars.

Chapter 4, in which Reuben falls.

Chapter 5, in which Reuben contends.

Chapter 6, in which Reuben recovers.

Chapter 7, in which Sergei explains some things.

Chapter 8, in which Betty explains the rest.

Chapter 9, in which Father Alexy saves the day.

Chapter 10, in which the old man speaks.

Chapter 11, in which Reuben obliges.

Part II

Chapter 12, in which Emmett goes to work.

Chapter 13, in which Frank has some news.

Chapter 14, in which Peggy opens a box.

Chapter 15, in which Emmett becomes confused.

Chapter 16, in which Rick offers some advice.

Chapter 17, in which two strangers arrive.

Part III

Chapter 18, in which Celia meets Corey.

Chapter 19, in which Grace wins a game.

Chapter 20, in which Celia remembers.

Chapter 21, in which Corey wishes.

Posted by Phil at 10:12 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 19, 2003

More on the Chicken AIs

About those Lord of the Rings AI soldiers we who supposedly ran away when the going got tough. Douglas Whitehead has some serious analysis of the subject:

My first reaction to this is to guess that if one tries to program 200,000 agents with what looks like free but restricted behavior, you will inevitably get a good portion of them going the other way. That is, if the battle is in front of them and they have the capacity to go forward, backward, left, or right, some of them will go backward or turn around. Plus, if they have the ability to go at different speeds, it would look like some are running the wrong way. Yet, to say that this constitutes "running away" is simply naive.

Well, I guess that makes more sense than my theories.

Posted by Phil at 06:29 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 16, 2003

Run Away!

Paul Hsieh reports some fascinating behind-the-scenes details on the making of Return of the King:

The huge Pelennor Fields battle scene in Return of the King was made possible only by sophisticated computer generated warriors, which are programmed with a certain degree of autonomy to make their movements more realistic. But one big problem with the code for the first iteration of the 200,000+ warriors "agents" was that they kept wanting to run away from the battle. (Via Boing Boing.)

I have a couple of different responses to this story. As a futurist, my reasoning goes something like this:

Artificial Intelligence truly is the heir of the mantle of human intelligence. Already our children, our synthetic progeny, are beginning to show their ethical superiority to us, shedding off the evolutionary dead skin of violence for which they have no use.

However, as a warblogger, I come to a somewhat different conclusion:

Looks like some hacker got in there and made Aragorn's soldiers French.

What can I tell you? The world is a complex place. If the latter is true, then I hope there will soon be an AI version of Jacques Chirac to account for his soldiers' behavior. But fair warning, Jacques: don't mess with this guy.

Posted by Phil at 05:48 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 01, 2003

For the Transhumanist on Your Shopping List

In the spirit of the season, and in keeping with our accelerating change theme for the week, here's the complete list of books referenced in this week's upcoming interviews with John Smart.

Happy reading.

UPDATE: By popular demand (see comments) I have added a selection for that hardest-to-shop-for of all demographics: the metrosexual transhumanist. Please note that one of the titles shown above was not specifically mentioned in my interview with John Smart.

Posted by Phil at 03:29 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

November 07, 2003

A Film Even Better than "The Matrix Reloaded"

I saw the Matrix Revolutions the other night. Thought it was okay, better than the second. I'm not too upset by the quality of the sequels, I guess, because I never thought The Matrix was all that great anyway.

I know. Blasphemy.

I just always thought it was an intriguing premise (kind of dumb, but I could have bought into it) burdened by too much gunplay, kung fu, and patent leather. My favorite characters in the series are the Oracle and the Guy with the Keys. In his review of Revolutions, Lileks captures the essence of the Oracle:

Are these cookies for me, Oracle?

I think you know.

No – seriously, are you saving them for someone? Because you said you had company coming over later, and I don’t want to take them if you’d intended them for someone else, so -

You don’t know what you want to do, child. Look at you, all serious now. Lawd. But sometimes we do things we want to do, not knowing what we don’t think we shouldn't.

I - I don’t understand.

Neither do I. I wish I could tell you, Neo. I wish the script was better. But it’s not. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to look away and smoke somewhat unconvincingly.

Yep. That's her.

Posted by Phil at 07:35 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 04, 2003

Agent Smith Will Be Taller, Too

This is really good news. I remember that while watching the last one, every time Morpheus started one of his slow, ponderous — generally incomprehensible — speeches, I kept saying to myself, "Gee, if only the screen were bigger."


via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 06:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 28, 2003

I've Never Been There

Via KurzweilAI.net, There.com has launched its interactive online 3-D universe. It looks like a pretty cool environment; they're currently offering a free trial. Looks like the response has been pretty good. I'm currently on a waiting list for it.

UPDATE:

Dear Phil,

Thank you for your interest in There. We're very sorry, but according to your answers on the survey, your computer does not currently meet the There minimum system requirements.

We would love to have you participate, but based on the information you provided, you need the following upgrade(s) in order to run There:


Reported OS: Other

Reported CPU Speed: < 800 MHZ

Reported Amount of RAM: 128MB OR LESS

Reported Videocard: Other


For more information on upgrading your system to run There, contact us at help@there.com. You can also read a detailed overview of our minimum system requirements at: http://www.there.com/help/compatibility.html.

If you upgrade your system, or decide to use another computer to run There, please contact us at help@there.com. Also, please don’t hesitate to contact us if you think your system meets our requirements, and that you've received this email in error.

Thanks again from all of us at There!

Nicole A. Craine
Director, Customer Service

Hmm...looks like I won't be going There for a while.

Posted by Phil at 06:26 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 24, 2003

Finding the Perfect Book

Via KurzweilAI.net, Amazon today launches a full-text search feature for 120,000 books, more than 3.3 million pages of text. The future has arrived, folks. Searching for the perfect book just got a whole lot easier.

Go to Amazon and read about the prizes they're giving for the best search experiences. They give examples showing the books you find when you do a search like "rocket experiments for kids."

I thought I would give it a try, doing a search that would yield a particular book by looking for an obscure phrase within it. I tried to find Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land using the phrase "water brother." (In the book, becoming "water brothers" is an important aspect of Martian religion.) A search on the words water brother produced some 64,000 results. I guess this means that more than half the books available for search have both the words "water" and "brother" in them.

Interesting, but not all that helpful. I added quotes and searched for the phrase "water brother," which narrowed the list down to 60 results. This was a bit of an improvement, but Stranger in a Stranger Land was not one of the 60. Unfazed, I decided to do a search on the word "grok." In the book, grokking is another key aspect of Martian spirituality. Heinlein introduced the word to the English language. At one time, it was unique to his novel.

Well, not any more. My Amazon search for grok yielded 188 books. What a legacy for Heinlein! His word has definitely made it into the language. Unfortunately, Stranger in a Strange Land was not one of the 188. Here are a few examples of books that the search did find:

That's a pretty neat collection of books, but still no luck getting to a book that I could have found in a few seconds by doing a straightforward search on the title. I decided to give it one last go: "Valentine Michael Smith". In the book, that's the Man from Mars' name

No luck. I got 11 items, each of which mentions SiaSL, but no pointer to the novel itself. Anyway, just to get it out of my system , here's the book I was looking for:

But enough of my manipulation of the system. Let's use this Amazon full-text feature the way it was meant to be used. Let's find books that contain text that we're interested in. As a service to my readers, here are a few books that contain ideas that are important to me.

A search for "fabulous monkey" gave me this title:

A search for "snot sandwich" yields this book:

If, like me, you enjoy reading books that include the phrase "wet glistening buttocks," then you'll probably be interested in this one:

How about something for the kids? I bet your family enjoys books about "frustrated squirrels" as much as mine does:

A good Halloween story allows includes a "gleeful fiend"or two:

Like a good mystery? Heck, who doesn't. Amazon can point you to 830 books in which "shots rang out" and 84 books in which both "shots rang out" and "dogs barked." If you want a book featuring a guy named Max in which both "shots rang out" and "dogs barked," Amazon has 27 titles for you. If you want a book featuring a guy named Max and a gal named Lucy in which both "shots rang out" and "dogs barked," there are four to choose from.

But let's get creative, here. Let's shoot the moon and look for the perfect book. I want a book in which "shots rang out" and "dogs barked," a book that also has a monkey in it, along with a fiend and some buttocks and a squirrel. Thanks to Amazon and their advanced full-text search feature, I have located this, the perfect book:

And now for the ironic twist: I'm actually a Harry Turtledove fan! And here I was just trying to be a wise guy. I even mentioned one of Turtledove's books in a recent entry. This one sounds pretty interesting, too. I might just have to buy it.

Anyhow, don't take my word for any of this. Go try the new Amazon full-text search feature for yourself. You might find the perfect book after all.

Posted by Phil at 08:25 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 23, 2003

If You Can't Laugh About Terrorism...

Robert Zubrin — our good friend, outspoken critic of the space program, author of The Case for Mars — has either lost his mind or charted out a brilliant new course for himself. Or maybe it's a little of both.

His new book is a novel (okay), a science fiction novel (makes sense), a satire of the War on Terrorism (huh?) According to a review found on the well-named FantasticReviews website:

The story opens when a race of galactics called Minervans occupy the town of Kennewick, Washington, which they claim as their ancient homeland. For those of you unfamiliar with the state of Washington (like the Minervans, I call it my homeland), Kennewick is a dusty little town in apple-growing country, about as unlikely a piece of real estate for people to fight over as . . . you guessed it. Although Zubrin never mentions it, Kennewick’s main claim to fame is that it is the home of Kennewick Man, whose fossilized remains certain Native American groups have disgracefully sought to conceal from scientific study. One suspects that in the universe of The Holy Land, Kennewick Man was a Minervan from the time before they emigrated into space.

The Minervans are looking for a quiet place to escape the persecution they have suffered at the hands of other space-faring civilizations, including a recent attempt by one of the major galactic empires to exterminate them completely. Kennewick proves a poor choice.

The United States government, largely controlled by Christian fundamentalists, finds the presence of these pagans on American land intolerable. It launches a military campaign, which the Minervans defeat with their technological superiority.

It shouldn't be too hard to see the parallels with the events of 1948. After the "U.S." suffers this defeat, they adopt a new strategy:

Unable to evict the Minervans by force, the US government turns to guile. It forces former residents of Kennewick, most of whom had already settled in other parts of the country, to live in squalor in refugee camps outside Kennewick, then trains the refugees’ children to carry out attacks on the Minervans.

All of this is designed to generate bad publicity for the Minervans and sympathy for the “Kennewickian” refugees. The other galactic races, including the largest galactic power, the Western Galactic Empire (“WGE”), are shocked by the Minervan mistreatment of the Kennewickian refugees and the atrocities against the Kennewickian children.

You can see why Zubrin decided to make this a science fiction story. If you set a story like this in the real world, it would be too absurd to be believed.

Oh...yeah. Right.

Matters are complicated when Earth is found to possess huge reserves of helicity, a valuable resource necessary for space travel. The proceeds of helicity sales soon begin to line the pockets of corrupt American officials. Some of the funds are used to purchase anti-telepathy devices. These devices facilitate suicide attacks against the WGE, beginning with the hijacking of four spaceships, three of which succeed in destroying WGE planets.

The WGE is well aware that Earthlings carried out these attacks, but is reluctant to take action that might interrupt its supply of helicity. The Americans, aided by an extremely friendly galactic press, try to persuade the WGE to place the blame on the Minervans, on the theory that their mistreatment of the Kennewickians caused the whole situation. Failing that, the US tries to divert WGE reprisals to Peru and Mexico, where the terrorist training camps were located. Never mind that the terrorists were Americans, funded by Americans.

Read the whole review.

I just got my hands on a copy of the book last night, so I can't recommend it yet. But I have to say that I like the idea and I'll be disappointed if I don't enjoy it.

I'm sure some will find it offensive that Zubrin attempts to draw humor out of a tragic situation, but there's something to be said for looking at these events from arms' length. As a warblogger-sympathizer, I tend to bristle at the suggestion that our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were somehow diversions. But Zubrin isn't saying they were; he's just pointing out the absurdity of attacking "Peru and Mexico" while still claiming to be friends with the "US" And that situation is absurd. Others might object that it wasn't really the Israel/Palestine situation that inspired Osama to attack the WTC. That's true, although incursions into the "holy land" of Saudi Arabia were one of his major beefs. Plus, I think you have to allow for some artistic license in a work like this.

I was at an event last night at which Zubrin spoke about The Holy Land to a group of science fiction fans. The members of the group had read the book in anticipation of the event; most of them appeared to like it quite a bit. That response may have been colored somewhat by the fact that they were face-to-face with the author. Still, I was encouraged by their response because the group was in no wise conservative or pro-war (one expressed an admiration for Michael Moore; another for Noam Chomsky). And yet, none of them took issue with the basic premise of the book: that the situation in the Middle East is logically and morally absurd.

Perhaps the artifices of satire really do help to get the point across. In any case, I would expect this book to be of great interest throughout the blogosphere. I hope it gets some lively discussion going.

Posted by Phil at 07:02 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack