In the Middle of Writing a Novel…

I’ll be back!

Actually, writing a novel is a weird experience. Just writing fiction is a huge difference—I’d say 90% of the writing I’ve done before, mostly for school, was nonfiction. Fiction feels strange. It’s almost a different subject.

The novel is called Mirror, and should be under science fiction and disaster, though in this case, science is stopping the disaster and not being the disaster (or maybe it is, *wink*). And the main disaster, having some relevance to the modern world, is global warming. Also: from the title and the label of science fiction, you might be able to guess a major technology in the story.

The tentative opening:

A dark and sweltering city, where light shined from only one cluster of buildings: the chief luminosity came from a circular structure of steel and glass, rising twenty-two stories into the sky. On the roof was a grid of solar panels that, in the daytime, rotated to the Sun. Inside the structure, a maze of plants freshened and purified the air. The building, like most around it, was completely sustainable, running on its own power grid, producing not a breath of carbon dioxide. It was, in every sense of the word, environmental.

Yeah, it’s also a dystopian story, the dystopia caused by environmental disaster. Hmm.

So, I probably won’t be blogging regularly. Probably won’t finish the novel either, but it’s been a good experience so far. 🙂

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A great work of imagination, with some very intriguing questions. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future: owning animals is a sign of social status though many animals are fake, i.e., electric; a radioactive dust cloud envelopes Earth, causing many to emigrate; and bounty hunters find and “retire” illegal androids. The novel focuses on the day of one bounty hunter, Rick Deckard.

The Will to Live

Yet, the dark fire waned; the life force oozed out of her, as he had so often witnessed before with other androids. The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled itself to.

An android coldly accepts death. It is programmed. A human fights to live. It is evolved.

But does this alone mean an android is less alive than a human? Is the will to live a prerequisite to life? It seems not. Androids, we learn, are capable of committing suicide via holding their breath. But human beings at times, when the cause is sufficient, sacrifice themselves as well. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow (parallel of Ender’s Game), for example, we learn that the only reason Ender is able to defeat the Buggers is that the Bugger queen thought humans, as sentient beings, were incapable of self-sacrifice. His final attack was a mass sacrifice.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the androids die for different reasons, however, than humans. Some androids, on learning they are to be retired, give that “mechanical, intellectual acceptance.” They don’t fight back or argue for the truth. It would be analogous to a criminal being ordered the death sentence. Rarely do they immediately accept death.

“Will you kill me in a way that won’t hurt? I mean, do it carefully. If I don’t fight; okay? I promise not to fight. Do you agree?”

“I can’t stand the way you androids give up.”

Artificial Intelligence, and the Turing Test

The Turing Test is an abstract, hypothetical test on artificial intelligence. If a computer can successfully pass off as a human, it passes the test. If not, it fails.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, two such tests exist. The more prominent is the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test. The tester asks the subject various questions drawing emotional responses to determine whether the subject is an android. More specifically, it measures response times in the eye. A human responds much faster to emotional stimuli than does a android. This is how Rick determines whether Rachael is an android.

The other is the Boneli Reflex-Arc Test, which is only mentioned, not used. According to another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, this test is “simpler” in that it does not require a tester to ask questions. It is fairly automatic and tests the inner biology of the subject. In a way, it almost cheating, and is not truly a Turing Test.

Intelligence

Right now, humans are still far more intelligent than computers. Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach points out that we humans are able to “jump out” of our thinking, thus starting a process of meta-thinking. For instance, we might be in the middle of calculating an 3-digit by 3-digit multiplication problem in our heads, and half way through, we suddenly realize, why don’t we just search the answer on Google? A computer calculating this problem, however, would never (at least our current generation of computers) think of doing that; it would simply go through the calculation. But at least it can do it in a split second.

Perhaps a more relevant example is the game of chess. A human grandmaster can look at a position, pick out three or four moves that seem good, analyze a few moves deep into one line, and then based on intuition, decide that the line is not worth analyzing any further, and then switch to analyzing a different line. The computer isn’t so smart. It has to go through EVERY possible move in the position, calculating EVERY possible reply to that move, and then EVERY possible reply to that too, and so on. The number of positions to calculate rises exponentially with each step, and eventually the computer is forced by programing to a stop. The computer, when analyzing an unpromising line, doesn’t say, “Oh, this looks bad, I won’t analyze it any more.” Instead, it will do as it’s been programmed to. The human will. The human can jump out of the current thinking process (analyzing one line) into a higher level of thought (this line is bad, so I’ll look at a different one).

In the same chess example, humans can jump out even further. Supposing the game is lasting very long, the human might need to go to the restroom at some point. At that point, the human’s subconscious, which machines don’t yet have, will tell him to do something other than stare at the chessboard. What if a fire starts? Our current machine won’t even notice. It’ll just continue analyzing the position. The human player would have long been gone. The human has jumped completely out of chess thought. The computer can’t.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the androids are often distinguishable from humans by this trait, that they cannot think at higher levels as humans can. Only one time I remember does an android demonstrate this human-like feat (correct me if I’m wrong):

“When I used the word ‘human,”‘ Roy Baty said to Pris, “I used the wrong word.”

Roy Baty realizes that by using the word “human,” he has betrayed the fact that he is an android, he catches himself. But other than that, androids seem to be characterized by their straightforward, mechanical thinking.

What is Deckard?

Is Rick Deckard himself an android? We have no idea. I strongly suspect he is. At one point, he asks himself a question from the Voigt-Kampff test and tells the other bounty hunter, Phil Resch, to watch the degree of the emotional response but not his reaction time. And as we know, Rick earlier used the method of measuring reaction time on Rachael to determine whether she was an android. Plus, Rick does not show much emotion in the book. The androids he retires seem to be more lively than him.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982) is the film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It’s brilliant. 9/10.

It keeps the spirit of the book but changes much of the story, completely leaving out some themes. But that was necessary, and the filmography is excellent—they’ve created a convincing new world. Screenplay isn’t supposed to be the same thing as the original (I’m reading Syd Field’s Screenplay right now).

Blade Runner makes the question of whether Rick is a human or android even more prominent. It does so via an origami unicorn that Rick remembers from his dreams. In the end he sees one in front of his door. If he were an android with implanted memories, it would make sense how somebody knew about the origami unicorn dream.

I actually watched the film first. The book is Cornell University’s summer reading assignment, and the first time, I believe, I have ever read a science fiction book for school. Anyway, both the book and the film are outstanding.

A Reasoner’s Observations on China

So far I’ve been in China for 23 days. This post is about some basic differences I see between the United States and China.

1. There are SO many people.

This is straightforward: at 1.3 billion, the Chinese population is more than quadruple that of the United States (300 million), and the land areas are very, very close (each at about 9.6 million square kilometers). This means the population density is four times as high. So Americans, imagine a busy street in the United States. Now multiply each person by four. That’s China.

Actually, it seems even worse. This is because most of China’s population is concentrated in cities on the eastern seaboard and inlying plains; if you take a look at a topological map of China you’ll see why. The USA, however, has cities near the West and East coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and many others.

2. Lining up means forming a blob and rushing as close as you can to the front.

This is almost a consequence of the first observation. My main evidence for this is the Beijing subway system, wherein I traveled for about an hour. I certainly do have precedence for the comparison, since I’ve used the New York City subway system as well. Now, in the United States, the subway train doors open for a sufficient amount of time, and there is usually enough space on the trains. Not so much is the case in Beijing, where the doors open for about 15 seconds at most. At one stop a lot of people needed to both exit and enter, so after about 10 people exited in 7-8 seconds, about 25 people, myself included, needed to enter in the remaining half of the time window. I was near the front as I had waited for a while, but almost as soon as the last person exited, I felt a large force on my back: it turns out that I was being pushed—or rather, shoved—onto the train.

There were also a couple of American tourists on the train: one who was already inside the train when the mass shoving happened, and one among the shoved. They were obviously unacquainted, but exchanged that look—you know, that eyebrow raise with a forced smile when something awkward happens. Being my first-time experience with the Beijing subway, the incident caused me to join them in their expression.

In all, it’s a culture difference. I suppose I’ve been too accustomed to Western culture—public behavior in China seems in comparison so rude. Out on the streets, it’s just as bad, only instead of just people fighting for space amongst themselves, they have to compete with motorcycles and cars.

3. Driving—think chase scene.

What I mean is that traffic laws are much more lenient than in the United States. Imagine the subway crowding above, only instead, put everyone in cars, on a three-lane highway. If you think you know the definition of aggressive driving, and have only lived in the United States—then you don’t know aggressive driving at all.

In China, the only real rule of driving is: Get to your destination as fast as you can, and don’t hit anything. There are so many violations of American rules, which I am used to, that I don’t know where to start. Here is an incomplete list:

  • When changing lanes, roll a die. If it lands a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, change to that lane no matter the situation—if there happens to be a car alongside you in that lane, try to edge it out, or speed up and cut in front of it. If it lands a 1, then signal your blinkers first, then proceed as above.
  • When the person in front of you is driving slowly, tailgate within two inches of their car, honk, and flip on your floodlights. Even if they speed up, change lanes anyway.
  • The sign on the bus lane that says “Buses Only” in reality signifies: “Drive here to pass the car in front of you.”
  • The center marker (equivalent of the double solid yellow lines) means: “Cross over to pass the car in front of you.”
  • When someone tries to cut in front of you, speed up as to deter them.
  • When trying to cut in front of someone, and they speed up, you speed up more.
  • When a pedestrian is crossing the road in front of you, speed up as to force the pedestrian to make up his mind.
  • When passing into a pedestrian-crowded area, tailgate the car in front of you so that no pedestrians can cut directly in front of you.
  • With the exception of highway and one-way road driving, spend 20% of the time on the opposite lane.
  • Sometimes a traffic officer will show up at crowded places to control the flow. Listen to him, unless his advice has a negative effect on your overall average speed.
  • Pass as many cars as possible.

The only continuity is that a red light means stop, and people do stop. Unless nobody is around.

A motorcycle seems to be the preferable method of travel. It is much easier to navigate through a crowd of pedestrians that way.

4. The Tiananmen Square Protest never occurred.

Of course it did. But I’m referring to the Great Firewall of China, which blocks many sites and censors many other pages of otherwise unblocked sites. Some things to know about China and the Internet:

China is good. Communism is good. The Chinese Communist Party is good. Any site that says otherwise or has contrary evidence is clearly false—I mean, what sites?

Some notable blocks and censors:

  • Facebook is completely blocked. The https workaround doesn’t work. The ping hack doesn’t work either—it won’t even let you see the IP. And most proxies don’t work, because they themselves are blocked.
  • You can, however, access Facebook and other restricted sites by using a VPN server that routes outside the country. You must pay money for the good ones. Anyway, back to sites.
  • YouTube is blocked.
  • Twitter is blocked.
  • Tumblr is blocked.
  • The above sites though seem only soft-blocked, not as much as Facebook. Several proxy sites can access YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr, but not Facebook. The Chinese government seems to hate Facebook with a passion.
  • Google works, but is blocked on most searches relating to China, the Chinese Communist Party, or the history of either. For example, if you google “tiananmen square protest,” the page fails to load and you will not be able to connect to the Internet for another 10-15 seconds. Heck, even if you google “tiananmen square,” you get blocked.
  • Bing suffers the same blocks as Google.
  • Wikipedia works, but is similarly suppressed. Even Mao Zedong’s wiki page is inaccessible. Sometimes a page will partially load, but then trigger China’s blocking system, which prevents the rest of the page from loading and blocking your Internet for 10-15 seconds.
  • Many, many other sites are blocked.

If there is one thing about China I could change, it would be this. Most Americans take the First Amendment for granted, but many countries do not have it. China still has far to go.

5. For every 200 Chinese people, there is 1 ethnic foreigner.

I don’t know the actual ratio, but it certainly SEEMS like over 99% of the people in China are Chinese. It’s not at all like the melting pot of America.

For instance, in a 20-minute journey in the Beijing subway stations and trains, I counted 19 non-Asians. And 5000 Chinese, I’d estimate, and that’s a way, way on the low-end estimate. That’s also relatively dense for a non-Asian crowd, as Beijing is a tourist city. In the past 20 days at Suzhou, Anhui, which has a population of over 5 million, I’ve not noticed a single non-Asian.

6. It’s not the cleanest country

This might seem like a weird thing to say, but relatively speaking, the US is a very clean, modern-looking country. China seems to skip the maintenance of everything. In the US, a 20-year old building will often look two years old; in China, a two-year old building will almost certainly look 20 years old.

Not only are structures old-looking, but streets are indescribably unclean, at least in Suzhou. I’d take a picture if I could take one. On any street you can find mounds of dirt, mud, plastic, scraps, waste. When it rains it is not uncommon to see fish overflow from rivers and into puddles in the streets. Not that you should try to catch any—river water is incredibly polluted. I passed a river earlier today that was completely green, and nothing in it seemed to move, not even the water.

The air smells different too. The instant I stepped out of the Beijing airport, I was hit by a mix of what smelled like smog, car exhaust, and cigarettes. Quite unpleasant. After a while the smell becomes unnoticeable.

7. (Almost) Everything is extremely cheap.

The exchange rate now is 6.8 yuan to 1 US dollar (USD). You’d expect prices and salaries in China to thus be 6.8 times as high as in the US.

Fact: It’s nowhere near that high.

Take the basics. In the US I could probably get a satisfactory breakfast for $2 to $3. In China, if I buy from a street vendor, of which there always a few on each corner, I could get a big breakfast for one yuan; or about 15 cents. Half a yuan would probably suffice for a more conservative meal—7 cents.

Another example: The place I go to for haircuts in the US charges $12 per cut. So in China, for a haircut I brought with me 200 yuan just in case, as I had no idea how much it would cost. The place was fairly nice too, clean and well air-conditioned. At the end, however, I was shocked that the haircut plus a wash cost 10 yuan, or a dollar and a half. I told this to my cousin, and she told me that 10 yuan is actually high. A haircut should be 3 yuan. Woops.

Anything imported, on the other hand, costs a fortune. Especially American brand name clothing. Much more than the USD amount. For example, there was a panel of Nike shoes that each went for 600–700 yuan.

8. Miscellaneous

A list of other things:

  • Saw an American tourist in Beijing subway station reading 1984. A somewhat ironic read.
  • Engrish: “Please to bake properly” on a sign at the bread section of a supermarket
  • Saw someone wearing a shirt with “NERD” on the back. He didn’t look like one. I wonder if he actually knew what that word meant.
  • Someone’s karate uniform had the karate school’s initials: “W. T. F.”
  • My blog becomes randomly banned and unbanned, i.e., sometimes it’s accessible and other times it’s not.
  • Scariest moment: Our taxi driver is on the left-most lane going forwards, and to pass the car in front, crosses over to the other side, i.e., crosses over the double yellow lines. (By the way, China drives on the right, just like the United States.) Eventually the car that we were trying to pass switches to the right-most lane, so there is a space of one lane between us. We’re on a head-on collision course with the car in front of us going the OTHER way, and that car also crosses the double yellow line, to get through in the one-lane space. That car flies by on the RIGHT hand side of us.
  • I was not amused at the fact that China is on the opposite side of the world to South Africa. World Cup games started at 2:30, a.m.
  • Chinese TV commercials are extremely uncreative, at least compared to American ones.
  • The food is good! But you have to watch out—try to avoid packaged food. Reliability is really an issue, and I speak from personal experience. Go to street sellers or fancy restaurants instead.

Full Circle

You see, in first grade I liked astronomy a lot. I knew all the planets in order by size, distance from sun, and even number of moons. Well, back then, Saturn had only 18 moons, and Pluto was a planet.

Throughout elementary and middle school I liked math and science. Mostly math, because I was good at it. I was also spending a lot of time on chess.

But in high school, a few things changed. In ninth grade I somehow got obsessed with the issue of global warming: against the conventional theory. But that interest subsided. In tenth grade I found at a $1 book sale Martin Gardner’s Ambidextrous Universe. This tuned me into theoretical physics. In eleventh grade I read the play Waiting for Godot and started enjoying literature, which would be my primary obsession for the rest of high school. By graduation I had attempted writing a play in the spirit of Lewis Carroll. That was a month and a half ago.

Since then, this summer I’ve read a few more literary works. In like spirit I’ve watched a lot of movies. Ironically, after first trying to watch some old movies for historical interest, I got hooked onto the sci-fi genre. A list of sci-fi movies I watched this summer: Alien, Aliens, Alien vs Predator, Aliens vs Predator 2, Predator (but not yet the recently released Predators), Star Wars (Episodes I–VI, yeah, all six), Star Trek, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, if that seems excessive, compare to the list of literary works I’ve read so far this summer: Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut), The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas), The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde), Lady Windermere’s Fan (Wilde), A Woman of No Importance (Wilde), An Ideal Husband (Wilde), SalomĂ© (Wilde), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Phillip K. Dick), and currently reading Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). Both lists are in chronological order, though there is overlap. Now, it happens that the last two books in the list are both sci-fi. So guess what I’m doing now? Planning a sci-fi story. And although most of the story happens on a futuristic Earth, a key point in the plot takes place in space. Oh yeah, astronomy.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey

Rating: 10/10

“What the HECK did I just see?” was my first reaction to this film. Its bizarre visual effects, classical music, philosophical design, and surreal scenes make it one of the best movies I’ve ever watched, and certainly the most mind-boggling.

I had just viewed (not for the first time) the Star Wars saga—all six episodes—less than a week before watching this film, so, needless to say, it vastly changed my expectations of a great science fiction film. Even though Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) was released nine years after 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), both are very compelling.

The main shock is the focus on art rather than action. The first half hour is a very slow, creative one: something that a viewer would either love or hate. There’s no dialogue or any speech until the second section of four. Director Stanley Kubrick truly understood the meaning of “A picture is worth a thousand words.” A slowly moving picture with music is worth even more.

The film becomes more conventional when we encounter HAL, the supercomputer and main antagonist (though it is revealed in 2010: Odyssey Two that HAL’s malfunctions in the first episode were caused by its faithful following of contradictory human orders). Here is a nice philosophical, future-predicting moment—even with today’s technology, HAL is science fiction and not a real machine.

HAL

That. I had definitely seen it before, but hadn’t the slightest idea what it was until I watched 2001.

At the end, i.e., from the Star Gate scene onwards, the film becomes extremely mind-boggling. The best to which I can compare it would be this Magritte painting:

Magritte

That’s a pretty accurate representation of the ending without giving away anything.