meow, cat, Siamese, catty

On the Road Again -- Visioncon edition

We're busy setting up for Visioncon in Branson, Missouri. We've done this show several other years in the past, and are looking forward to a great convention.

If you're in the area, please consider dropping by to say hi. Day memberships are quite reasonably priced, and get you into the entire convention for the day. We'd love to meet you!
  • Current Location: Branson, Missouri
  • Current Mood: excited excited
  • Current Music: "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Opening the Black Box of AI

Artificial intelligence, like robots, have often been used in storytelling as a symbol of human hubris. In a lot of science fiction, they seem to run amok at a key point in the story arc because Of Course that's what happens when humans forget their place in the universe and create something that oversteps the proper limits of human technological prowess. So there's a strong element of fear in the popular consciousness when the subject of AI comes up. If people's images aren't drawn from historical imagery of slave revolts, they often involve Sorcerer's Apprentice visions of the AI turning the entire world into paperclips, or reducing human suffering by exterminating humanity, or otherwise following its programming straight over a cliff by some absurdly literalistic interpretation of some phrase.

However, scientists and engineers actually involved in the development of AI have some serious concerns with the most promising pathways to AI that are currently being developed. Neural networks are computer systems that learn by reinforcing the digital pathways that produce successful results -- but because they grow organically from the original seed conditions, they can develop in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

As a result, there's considerable hesitance about giving such devices control over vital systems such as power generation and distribution or health care. Can such systems be trusted to develop within the parameters that we would consider acceptable, or might one develop in some odd direction that is not obvious until something horrible happens as a result of a development pathway that is logical to a computer but was unthinkable to its programmers because of taboos so deeply seated in human consciousness that we are not even aware of them?

One possible solution is creating that can explain its reasons for acting in a particular way. By making the development of a neural network architecture less of a black box, scientists and engineers hope to be able to recognize problematical lines of development before they result in disaster.

AI's that can explain themselves may also have uses in the legal field, particularly when it comes to matters of product liability. As systems based upon neural networks and machine learning go from laboratory project to commercial product, there will be questions of who should be held responsible for the inevitable failures. By being able to query the AI's reasons for taking a particular action, it may be possible to determine whether it is a design flaw for which the manufacturer should be held responsible, or a failure in implementation or maintenance, for which the end user should be held responsible.
  • Current Location: parental abode
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "Mr. Roboto" by Styx
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Reuben's Ash Wednesday Challenge

lindahoyland also issued a writing challenge for Ash Wednesday, and I would really like to get this done before it becomes so hideously late that there's no point bothering.


The scent of pancakes filled the parish hall kitchen. Ligonier Rafferty had lost count of how many flapjacks he'd flipped on the big gas griddle, but he was sure someone had taken a count of how many people had gone through the line. He could always ask after they wound things up.

Even here the carnival atmosphere made this hot and sweaty work light. Mardi Gras, his friends in the Swamp Kingdom would call today, Fat Tuesday. However, he rather doubted that the Archbishop of Ste. Genevieve would spend the evening flipping pancakes for a meal open to all and sundry, where homeless people and down on their luck gamblers lined up with business executives and captains of industry, and all rubbed elbows with students and workingmen at the long tables.

The tradition that the Archbishop of Codytown should be at the griddle for the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner at Holy Cross Cathedral had been established by Bernardin, first Heir to Cody. And Ligo had no intention of abrogating it, especially after illness had sidelined his predecessor last year.

Ligo paused to finger his pectoral cross as he recalled that time. The nation had been torn apart by the 708 Rebellion, with O'Casey determined to cling to power in spite of all the evidence that the people wanted him gone. Although Ligo had managed to navigate a path through those shoals to a settlement that had put an acceptable Boss in the Four Deuces, he knew that his homeland remained traumatized and uneasy. They needed moral leadership as well as political, which meant he needed to be seen upholding the traditions of his role.

Tonight he would meet with his confessor for Reconciliation and be shriven of his sins. Tomorrow he would kneel before the altar of Holy Name Cathedral like any other penitent to receive the ashes, the visible sign of commitment to the season of repentance in preparation for the celebration of the death, burial and resurrection of the Savior.


  • Current Location: parental abode
  • Current Mood: creative creative
  • Current Music: "Time" by Pink Floyd
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Valentine's Day Writing Challenge

lindahoyland had a Valentine's Day writing challenge. I've been meaning to do something for it, but between recovering from Kanpai!Con and getting ready for Visioncon, each day I'd run out of time before I could get to it.

All day long Tara had tried to keep her mind busy with work and studies. Yet it wasn't possible to completely ignore the hearts and roses that seemed to show up everywhere, whether as icons on her phone or holograms projected into the moonglass doors of the dining commons. Or the couples who kept slipping off to secluded spots for an embrace and a kiss when the boss wasn't looking.

Today was the holiday of love, but not for her. Any of a dozen Sheps would've been happy to scoop her up, but she could not forget her obligation. When the Chaffee Artilect had brought her to this timeline, they had agreed upon a bargain. Her promise to wed a clone of Roger Chaffee left her no room for romance with clones of Alan Shepard.

Although she got along just fine with the eight Chaffee clones who were in her age bracket, they seemed to view her more like a sister than a potential girlfriend. And while Rand might be sweet on her, in a puppy-love sort of way, she couldn't see him as anything but a kid brother.

  • Current Location: parental abode
  • Current Mood: creative creative
  • Current Music: "Rocket Man" by Elton John
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bricks Without Straw Redux: Words from Someone Who's Lived It

I wrote a while back that home cooking is not a magic bullet for poverty. That it assumes a certain collection of resources, including staple supplies, equipment, skills and time, and that for people who lack one or more of them, the advice ends up becoming a variant on "let them eat cake."

Today I discover an article in my Facebook feed that addresses the problem of treating home cooking like a magic bullet, but with a lot more experience than I can bring to the table on this matter. She's a blogger who's specialized in recipes that can make a good meal of a random selection of unpromising ingredients, the sort that a struggling person might have sitting around the house or get in a food-bank box. By her accounts, she's gone through a lot worse times than I have, and had to make do with a lot less.

What annoyed her was discovering that one of the local political bloggers was pointing to her blog as "inspirational" material, as if all that poor people needed to do was get off their lazy butts and cook for themselves instead of eating prepared food. She cites many of the major obstacles to even minimal cooking, including the lack of kitchen facilities in so many temporary accommodations that many of the most poor but not quite homeless are put up in. When there's barely room for a bed and a chair or sofa, it's simply not safe to try to squeeze in anything to cook on, because anything to heat food needs enough space to keep it away from flammable items.

She also found it annoying that the blogger in question seemed to treat such poverty with an attitude of faux nostalgia for elders' stories of the tight times during and immediately after WWII, when almost everything was rationed and everyone was exhorted to make do with less. The notion that poverty is somehow uplifting to the soul, with that whiff of the notion that the poor should be grateful for their suffering as an opportunity to praise God/practice detachment/whatever.

One note for US readers: the writer is living in England, and at several points I had to mentally translate from the Queen's English to Noah Webster's. Yes, the US and UK remain two countries divided by a common language.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Money" by Pink Floyd
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meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: Exploring the Moral Gray Area

This is going to be my last actual Bittercon post for Capricon, thanks to unanticipated time pressures. However, I'm going to hang onto the other topics I'd wanted to Bittercon on, and I'll use them as springboards for future posts.

I'm a bit surprised by the description of this topic, because lack of gray areas really isn't a big problem in current speculative fiction. Yes, there was a time when sf and fantasy tended to simplistic black and white hats with little nuance.

These days it seems more like the problem is how to write gray areas without them devolving into gray goo, in which nothing matters and there's nothing worth standing up for. Or worse, worlds in which all hats are gray in the dark and readers feel forced to figure out which is the lesser evil. As if you always had to choose one or the other side, and there was no option to say "why can't you both lose?"

For me at least, one of the most interesting -- and poignant -- exploration of gray areas is when a character's principles are in conflict with themselves. Where keeping one principle means breaking another, and taking no action simply isn't an option. Not the contrived little "ethics problems" you find in textbooks, but the sort of complicated problems that grow organically from trying to live in a world full of other moral actors, some working at cross purposes for reasons that may not be clear to themselves.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Cast No Shadow" by Oasis
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: Are Corporate Villains Overdone?

This is another interesting one from Capricon. We see a lot of villainous business executives, especially in cyberpunk. However, they are by no means confined to that subgenre -- in comics, we've seen Superman nemesis Lex Luthor transformed from a mad scientist to a corporate villain who happens to be an inventor of crazy stuff on the side.

Sometimes it seems like the minute a senior corporate official is introduced in a storyline, we can immediately peg him as a villain. And oftentimes it seems as if very little thought or effort was put into that characterization, as if the writers simply presupposed that Of Course any head of a major corporation has to have come by that position through shady machinations.

That can often be a major weakness, because it means that the villain's motivations end up being simplistic and cartoonish. Mr. Big is a greedy jerk because he's a greedy jerk because he's a greedy jerk. He'll walk right over grandma to make a buck. He'll work his employees to death if he can squeeze a few more percentage points of profit out of his factories. Whatever it takes, he'll do it.

Some of these characters feel like unthinking translations of the worst of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age into the present, without any thought for how a modern corporation works within the present-day social ecology. Other times, these corporate villains seem to be someone's experience with a bad boss as a line manager, but translated into the corner office without any thought of how differently senior executives and low-level management works, so you've got a petty character without any of the vision that it takes to succeed at the top.

Also, there's often little or no acknowledgement of how corruption in business executives almost always involves collusion with government entities. And in contemporary settings in the US, that almost never involves overt bribery. Instead, it almost always involves an intertwining of interests that is going to take some research to understand, and some thought to portray in a way that does not bore the audience to tears.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: Accessibilty in Futuristic Societies

Here's an interesting Capricon panel. I think the warning about the answer not being just "prosthetics" is particularly interesting in another way -- by reminding us that we tend to think in terms of physical disability and accessibility, and forget that there are other kinds of disabilities.

In particular, the ones that affect the function of the central nervous system, and not just the obvious (cerebral palsy, epilepsy, etc). We live in a world made by and for neurotypicals, and persons with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and the like often encounter significant obstacles in ordinary social interactions, the sort that are often invisible to the neurotypical person. Neurodiverse individuals are substantially more at-risk for job loss, unemployment and underemployment, homelessness, and the problems that come with those situations.

For instance, persons with high-functioning autism often have trouble parsing social boundaries, particularly when it deals with such things as humor, in which part of the point of the activity is creating tension with expectations, but not too much or in the wrong direction. Because there is often a very fine line between hilarious and offensive, and this line is apt to shift unpredictably as time goes by, we have people who are intellectually brilliant but struggle with giving a presentation before an audience because they can never be sure whether their joke to lighten the mood will be well received or get them in massive trouble. One college professor with ASD finally committed suicide because of the continuing and ever-increasing strain from the difficulty of anticipating how his odd perspective on life and offbeat sense of humor would be received.

People with ADHD may not have such dramatic difficulties connecting socially, but their troubles with focus, organization and time-management often lead to others viewing them as lazy, selfish, careless and generally lacking in moral fiber. While there is growing evidence that people with ADHD have fundamental neurological differences which lead their minds to operate differently, most schools and workplaces are still organized on the assumption that paying attention, staying organized and being on time are a matter of buckling down and applying willpower. As a result, people with ADHD often end up trapped in a cycle of failure, unable to maintain employment and relationships.

Which raises the question of imagining a world in which neurodivergence is more successfully accommodated, not treated as a fault or failing but a difference that has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. What would a world like that look like?

In This Alien Shore, C. S. Friedman imagines a future in which an early FTL drive caused strange mutations in the gene plasm of those who traveled by it. Some of the mutations are somatic and often viewed as grotesque -- whole societies are stigmatized as a result of these changes. But on one planet, the mutations were subtle changes in the organization of the nervous system, including subtypes that we would recognize as forms of autism and ADHD. And the culture that developed on that world developed some interesting ways to acknowledge the strengths of those differences while being strong for those people in the places where they were weak.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "She Blinded Me With Science" by Thomas Dolby