Tuesday, May 12, 2009

a tangled issue

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating opinion piece on the legal issues surrounding same-sex marriage and transsexuals:


It's hard to think of a more omnipresent dualism than gender. It's almost impossible for most people (I know it is for me) to interact with other people in any way at all without classifying them as either male or female. In the majority of cases of real-world interaction, the classification can be made fairly easily, though, as the article points out, not always consistently or coherently.

It's equally complicated in the case of online interaction. When the only clues one receives are written text, and possibly an avatar which may be genderless or intentionally different from the person it represents, the decision becomes very arbitrary. I've convinced people that I'm of the opposite gender before on the internet, often without even trying (is that an embarrassing thing to admit? I'm not sure). And people tend to attribute gender even to genderless constructs like AIs, based on clues that in this case are completely spurious.

So, what's my take on all this? I'm really not sure. I'm as deeply tangled in it as anyone. Part of me wants to say that gender is another irrelevant distinction that'll become obsolete with the advance of technology. Another part sees it as an important part of our culture, albeit one that should be under our control rather than used to control us. And of course there's the backwards-looking part that keeps pointing out that this distinction has a biological basis. For now, the most I can say is that it's something that merits further thought. Oh, and if you're interested in this sort of thing, my good friend ekblack often writes about gender issues and other fun stuff. Check it out!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

a story

I woke up one morning and there was a little man at the foot of my bed. I've never seen a butler, but he was dressed like a butler, in a tuxedo and a top hat. He said, "Good morning, sir."

I wasn't sure what to do, so I just sat there for a bit. He cleared his throat, and then asked me: "Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"Huh? Destroy the world...?"

"Yes, sir, that's correct. Do you want to destroy the world today?"

"Uh... no... not really...."

"Very good, sir." And he disappeared.

It was a weird dream. I don't usually remember my dreams, but this one was pretty memorable. I kept thinking about it all day. "Do you want to destroy the world?" It isn't really the sort of question you'd expect a butler to ask.

In school that day, I asked Alexa about it. "Hey, have you ever thought about destroying the world?"

"Of course! I've told you this already. My army of giant robots will bring the world's governments to their knees, and they'll be forced to acknowledge me as their leader. Then everyone will have to do what I tell them to."

"No, I mean, like, destroying it. Not just taking it over, actually getting rid of it."

"That's stupid. There wouldn't be anyone left to do my bidding. What would the point of that be?"

"Ah, yeah... I guess so...."

"Hey, come on, eat up. Lunch's almost over."

I went home, did my homework, read for a bit, went to sleep. The next morning, the little man was there again.

"Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"Why would I want to destroy the world?"

"That's not for me to say, sir. Do you?"

"No! Stop asking me! Of course I don't."

"Very good, sir. I'll come again tomorrow." And he disappeared again.

The harder I tried to put it out of my mind, the more I thought about it. So I asked Daniel about it during computer lab.

"Hey, Daniel, have you ever thought about destroying the world?"

His eyes lit up. "A good question! Actually, the world is destroyed all the time. At every timestep, the current state is erased, and a new state is determined. It's the connection between them that gives the illusion of continuity."

"Uh, sorry, I tried really hard, but I have no idea what that meant."

"Okay, okay, I'll give you an example. You know the Game of Life?"

"You mean that dumb board game with the little cars and little people?"

"No, I'm talking about Conway's Game of Life. Look, I'll show you." He pulled up a website with a grid of white squares, and clicked on some of them, turning them black. "Here we have a world. Some cells are on, some are off." He clicked a button, and the patterns started moving. "And here we have life. Some patterns fall apart, some sustain themselves, some even produce more of themselves. But in reality, at each step, each cell's state is determined by a few simple rules. At every step, the grid is wiped blank, and new cells are filled in based on those rules. Nothing moves or changes at all; it's constantly destroyed and recreated."

"Okay... so, you're saying the real world's like that too?"

"Exactly! I knew you'd catch on. Matter never changes; it's only created and destroyed."

"If you say so...."

It was pretty cool to watch, though. When I got home, I played around with the game for a while, trying to see what kinds of patterns would survive and what kinds would disappear. I almost forgot, but before I went to sleep, I set my alarm for a bit earlier than usual. I wanted to wake up and have some time to get things clear in my head before the little man appeared. As soon as I woke up, though, he was there again.

"Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"This is some kind of riddle, right?"

"I couldn't say, sir."

"Well, I figured it out. I already destroyed the world. Every time I go to sleep, it disappears. Every time I wake up, it's there again."

"I see, sir. Do you want to destroy the world today?"

"I just told you! I already did!"

"As you said, sir. Does sir want to destroy the world today?"

"It doesn't matter, does it? It'll happen whether I want it to or not. That's how things work."

"That may be, sir. Nevertheless."

"...no, I don't. Go away."

"Very good, sir." And he was gone. I felt... I don't know... disappointed? Frustrated? Here I thought I'd worked it all out, and now I didn't understand it any better than I did before. Thinking about it, it didn't make sense; why would he ask me whether I wanted to destroy the world? What did what I wanted have to do with it? I was feeling pretty down, so I decided to hang out with Jake after school.

"Hey, Jake."


"I was wondering...."


"I know it sounds weird, but... have you ever wanted to destroy the world?"

"...yeah. Sometimes."

I thought he was just going to leave it at that, but just as I was about to change the subject, he started talking again.

"You know, most of the time, the world's a great place. And even when it's not so great, it's gotta be better than nothing, right? But I don't always feel that way. Sometimes I really do think that we'd be better off with nothing at all. So, yeah. Sometimes I feel like I want to destroy the world."

"Oh... huh. Yeah. I guess I see what you mean. That's pretty heavy stuff, though."

He smiled a bit. "Yeah, I know. Don't worry. Things haven't been that bad for a while. And even when I feel that way, I know I'll feel better before long. So I wouldn't really want to destroy the world."

"Yeah, me neither. Thanks, man. For some reason, I feel a lot better now."

This time he actually laughed. "You're so weird. But I'm glad I could help."

I went home, suffered through my homework, and then just sat and thought for a while. I could see how someone might want to just get rid of everything. I can imagine some poor kid whose life has been nothing but miserable, like Oliver Twist or something, wishing it all away. But I didn't have it that bad. I didn't have any reason to want the world destroyed. It sounds depressing, I know, but it cheered me up, and by the time I went to sleep I felt pretty confident.

Of course, the little man was there again when I woke up. "Good morning, sir. Do you want to destroy the world today?"

"No, I don't."

"I see, sir."

"And I'll tell you something else. You don't have to come tomorrow, either. Or ever again. I don't want to destroy the world, and I'm not going to, no matter how many times you ask me."

I felt pretty sure of myself, but he just stood there and nodded. When I finished, he smiled, ever so slightly, and said, "very good, sir. I'll come again tomorrow" and disappeared, just like he always did.

He didn't seem bothered at all, and that bothered me. Didn't he get it? There was something about that smile, like he knew something I didn't. I could hardly concentrate during school, I was so busy worrying about it. Alexa and Daniel asked me if I was okay, but I couldn't really explain it to them. After all, I couldn't even explain it to myself. By the time I got home, I was a nervous wreck. So I finally gave in and talked to my dad about it.

My dad's a psychologist. This means, among other things, that I can't hide anything from him. Whenever I ask him something, he keeps asking questions, trying to understand why I feel the way I feel. Some of the things he says are hard to believe, and some of them make me really uncomfortable, so I usually just make sure not to get him started. This time, though, I really needed his advice. So I started from the beginning and told him everything.

"Hmm, I see. A desire to destroy the world is often the projection of a desire to destroy oneself." He gave me a look. "Have you been having suicidal thoughts lately?"

I don't know, have I? Was that what all this was really about? "I don't think so...."

"A healthy answer. We can't control our subconscious minds. Freud wrote that everyone has, at some level, an inner drive for destruction, whether of the self or of the other. What's important is that you remain in control of yourself. You're empowered to make your own decisions, irregardless of any subconscious desires."

I wasn't really sure what he meant, but there was something reassuring about the way he said it. "So... I should ignore what I feel and do what I think is right?"

"Hrmm... yes, I suppose that's a reasonable way for you to think of it."

"Okay... thanks, Dad. That really helped."

"I'm glad you feel that you can talk to me. Communication is important, you know."

"Yeah, I know. Goodnight."

I headed up to my room and lay there for a while, thinking about it. Eventually I feel asleep. The next morning, the little man was there again.

"Good morning, sir."

"Good morning. Hey... are you a part of me?"

"I couldn't say, sir."

"Yeah, I guess not."

"Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"Not really. You know, you don't have to keep asking me."

He cleared his throat. "That's as may be, sir."

"Why? What's the point? I don't want to destroy the world, I don't want to kill myself. There's no reason for you to be here anymore."

His face never showed a hint of emotion. "Very good, sir. I'll come again tomorrow."

And he was gone. I sighed. I thought I'd finally figured him out, but nothing had changed at all. I didn't even know whether I'd been right or wrong.


I don't really remember what happened next. This was three years ago now. I don't think I talked to anyone else about it; I didn't want my friends to worry. I'm sure the little man appeared at least a few more times, and I said no to him each time. Then eventually I forgot about him. Maybe he stopped appearing, or maybe I stopped remembering him.

I'm not sure why I thought of him now. Maybe now that I've remembered him, he'll come again, and ask me that same question. If he does, I'll say no.

Whew. This is a story I thought of today. I don't write very often, but sometimes an idea gets into my head, and won't leave until I put it into words. I should probably add that the main character of this story isn't me or anyone I know, and that I'm neither depressed nor more than usually delusional. In the words of the late great Kurt Vonnegut, "all persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental and should not be construed."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: Dennou Coil

Yes, that's right, two posts in one day! In one hour, no less! It's extreme, I know, but sometimes it just has to be done. The circumstances are this: today I finished watching one of the best anime series I have seen, a show called Dennou Coil. My first impression of it was something along the lines of "Miyazaki does cyberpunk": an elementary-school girl and her little sister arrive in a new city, are left to their own devices, follow their strange pet, and end up having mysterious adventures. In other words, My Neighbor Totoro, except that the pet is a (adorably ugly) virtual dog that only exists in cyberspace, which they perceive by means of Shadowrun-style image-link glasses. (Note: while the show merits extensive comparisons to the great Miyazaki Hayao, it's not actually by him, and as far as I know he had no involvement in it.)

On further inspection, if one of its parents is Totoro, the other is the cult classic Serial Experiments Lain. As in Lain, the focus is less on the wonders of modern technology than on its effect on everyday life. Don't let the comparison scare you, though; it's much more accessible and considerably less creepy. And there are no little gray aliens, I promise. (On a side note, Serial Experiments Lain is also an awesome show, ranking up there with Evangelion in emotional impact, brilliant writing, and incomprehensible weirdness.)

The virtual worlds here and the creatures that inhabit them are fully as imaginative and charming as any of Miyazaki's work. As the children adapt to their new home, they various mysterious incidents related to the glasses and cyberspace. Interspersed are occasional self-contained episodes surrounding the fuzzy black animal-like entities called Illegals (which, again, bring to mind soot balls and dust bunnies). The asthetic isn't as smooth and perfectly proportioned as most anime, and is that much better for it, taking full advantage of the cuteness of ugly things. The storyline is compelling, the character design charming, the characterization spot-on, and the rare interludes that don't contribute to the main arc are wonderful in their own right. The basic premise of the glasses is a bit pseudoscience-y, but the writers keep the awkward non-explanations to a minimum, and it makes for such a good story that I had no problem forgiving them. It combines the sense of wonder and adventure of the best kids' movies with a fascinating fully realized near-future world, and neither the cuteness nor the technobabble ever become grating.

Megane-moe aside (sorry, couldn't resist), Dennou Coil is quite simply an amazing show. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either; my research indicates that last year it won the Japanese equivalents of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards (the biggest awards for science fiction writing in the country, in other words). If Lain showed the power of anime to depict abstract, amorphous concepts like cyberspace, Dennou Coil shows its power to connect them to (semi-)ordinary human lives, and tells a great story in the process.

Worlds in my head, take 2

It might be obvious by now, but it often occurs to me that my favorite entertainments, chiefly science fiction and fantasy, derive much of their charm from their depiction of alternate realities. Whether it's through books, games, movies, or webcomics, I enjoy imagining (and, if what I've said so far is true, to some extent living in) other worlds. This could easily be described as escapist, and prompts (but does not beg) the question: what's wrong with this world? My first instinct is to get defensive, but that's never a particularly convincing approach. Actually, thinking about it, a better response would be: what do you mean by "this world"?

One of the great triumphs of human society, perhaps even its fundamental purpose, is to convince us that we all perceive the same basic reality. It's obvious why this is generally desirable: we can't work together or communicate if we don't believe that what we see somehow correlates to what others see. Whether this is true or not, as I've said before, is out of my scope for the moment. What's important here is that reality as it's conventionally thought of is just cyberspace on a larger scale, a consensual hallucination including nearly the entire human species. Each of us has different perceptions, but despite this we nearly all believe that we're perceiving the same things. Then to me, what we call "the real world" is the region in which my mental space overlaps with that of (what I believe) most other people think of as real. That is, rather than thinking of the "virtual worlds" I've talked about as alternatives to reality, it makes more sense to think of reality as just another one of these worlds. We each have our own constructed reality, and insofar as we divide it from fantasy that's a constructed division; if we were taught from birth that everything we imagine is real, there'd be no difference to us between reality and fantasy.

Again, it's obvious why this distinction is desirable; a common perspective seems (from the common perspective) to be useful if not necessary to a productive life. Nonetheless, even from within the bounds of our constructed reality we can feel the desire for other interpretations, and can even see it as useful as well, working the idea, if not the reality, of alternate worlds into our own.

So, why fight the status quo, even though it leaves space for the worlds I so cherish? To a certain extent, it's a game; I enjoy thinking about these things, for many of the same reasons that I enjoy science fiction and fantasy. There is, however, a part of me that believes that some serious reenvisioning of reality is going to be required sooner rather than later. The internet has already brought virtual worlds to the forefront to an unprecedented extent, and if developments in any of various technologies continue, including telepresence, AI, and the awkwardly named VR, we'll soon enough have "real-world" issues that can only be discussed coherently by recognizing the proper place of "unreal" worlds. The current debates over intellectual property might well be one of these problems, and of course speculative fiction began to delve into these issues long ago. At any rate, if the future isn't here now, it may well be soon, and if and when it comes this sort of mental exercise will no longer be purely academic. Or so I believe. You have to take anything I say with a grain of salt; after all, I read a lot of science fiction.