Worlds & Time

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lex and Lia: Capture and Control

Bliss showed up with four sisters in two SUVs. At six fourteen they were alone in front of the adobe building. At six fifteen there was a sixth person.

Bliss was the first one to approach the body on the blanket. It was Lex. He was naked and unconscious.

There was the raised bump of a spider bite on the side of his neck. In a few days that would be gone like it had never been, even though it had been red and raised for a long time.

Bliss rolled him over. Along the skin over his spine was a red tattoo. To Bliss it meant nothing, but she knew what to do with it.

They rolled him up in the blanket and lay him in the back of the SUV on a foam mattress that they’d just bought at Target.

Justina Bybreak sat by the boy’s side in the SUV. She’d been Maiden in her coven near San Francisco, but had given up that position after her mother died and moved home to Las Vegas. Her father had been outraged, first to find out that Bybreak’s will excluded him and that his daughter was dropping out of medical school to join his mother’s business.

Bliss smiled at the girl as the car started to move. She was in her early twenties and everything that a good witch usually wasn’t: tall, blond and stunningly beautiful.

Bliss had told her how her mother had died. And then forbid her from hurting the boy.

Justina was already stroking the side of his face with a sharp fingernail.


As soon as Lia penciled in the last answer to her homework she stood up and changed into some comfortable clothes.

At first it had been very nice to wear beautiful dresses all the time. They were such beautiful clothes that wearing them made her feel like a movie star and they’d only gotten nicer in the last few years. Annabelle’s selections had been nice for a girl that looked eight but it turned out that Miss Chi-Wong had a surprisingly sophisticated sense of fashion and one of the few ways that she was willing to spend time with Lia was to buy her clothes.

But the dresses were limiting. They were made to stand out and she realized after a while that they were not much more than prison uniforms.

Even the “regular” clothes that Miss Chi-Wong bought her though were very nice. The jeans that she was wearing were from a private label and up each side were embroidered flowers. Her white fuzzy blouse was one of the softest fabrics that she’d ever felt and over that she’d pulled a sweatshirt with a brilliant flower on it.

There were werewolf guards at the doors to her rooms, not to mention throughout the building. Ever since she’d been escaping Mohan had been putting a guard on the roof too although that was the easiest guard to evade.

She went to the door and put her hand up on it and concentrated.

Most of the wolves were just normal humans when they hadn’t shifted. A few had improved senses, or could shift part way between wolf and human, but most of them were just ordinary people.

Mohan wasn’t. Michael wasn’t. Lia suspected that Chi-Wong wasn’t. Neither was Lia.

She thought of bubbles and fuzz and fog and anything else that came into her head and pushed them through the door and into the guards on the other side. They wouldn’t see the images, or understand exactly what was happening, but it worked.

After thirty seconds of concentration she opened the door and slipped through the oblivious guards. She still had to move slowly and quietly while the guards daydreamed.

The elevator had a camera and so did the stairs. Mohan was serious about his security.

She had a couple of routes out of the building but the easiest by far was the kitchen window.

There was a much larger and more impressive kitchen down on the main floor of the building that could cater to large groups and meetings that Mr. Mohan sometimes held in the conference rooms on the first floor but the little kitchen up on this floor was what normally fed Lia and provided snacks and lunches for the guards.

Usually the evening guy was a jerk and Lia would have had to fuzz him out as well but today was a Sunday and the weekend guy was a thin Hispanic werewolf named Jaime. He was wearing a white apron and looked up in surprise as she came in.

She nodded to him. “Hola Jaime. ¿Como esta ustedes?” she said. Spanish wasn’t one of her lessons, but even among the servants of the werewolves Spanish seemed to dominate. She’d learned a few words out of self defense.

“Bien, Senorita,” he replied and then said something quickly and sighed.

“Yeah, afraid I need to use the window again,” she said.

She moved toward it, and he moved between her.

“No, Senorita. Senor Mohan no quiere que te vayas.” He doesn’t want you to go, he was telling her.

“Yo quiero.” I want to go.

Jaime looked at her, as though he couldn’t believe that she had desires other than what Mohan wanted. Yeah, Mr. Mohan was scary, but he wasn’t that scary.

“I’m sorry, Jaime,” she murmured and then remembered how to say it in Spanish. “Lo siento, Jaime.”

He bared his teeth for a moment, but she didn’t flinch. She tensed her muscles and things slowed down a bit, and she reached out her hand and touched his face, along his jawline. There was a spark and he was hers.

He was trying to change, and she told him not to. There was a growl in his throat but it was just a human growl.

She relaxed and time went back to the way that it was supposed to be. Jaime flinched at her hand on his face. He looked confused for a moment, then surprised and then scared.

“Lo siento, Jaime,” she said. Go over and stand by the wall for a moment, she said in her animal voice. It was easy to command something like that, it wasn’t even words or language she just had to picture it. Jaime moved back, suddenly aghast and she continued. If they ask you, I never came into the kitchen. She frowned. That was a more complicated image and she couldn’t say that in Spanish.

Well, if she had to hope that he’d understood. She shifted into the raven and fluttered the counter before she realized that she’d forgotten to open the window.

Well, there was Jaime now. She sent and image and he came over, unlatched the window and she flew out into the daylight.

Continued next week . . .


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving and Family History

For Thanksgiving I went down to spend the day at my Grandmother’s apartment in an assisted living community. Well, I suppose I should say that I came down. I’m still here and it’s the evening of Thanksgiving, but I won’t get to post this until I get home tomorrow, so I want to slip into the past tense.

She’s been in this community for something like seven or eight years and although she’s been in the “independent” section of the facility it’s getting to be too difficult for her to get around in her own apartment without some more serious care.

The problem is that my Grandmother seriously doesn’t like having people that she doesn’t know coming into her apartment every day and taking care of her like she's an infant. She wants her independence to some extent and she at least wants to know who is taking care of her.

Thus, my mother wants to take Grandma down to New Mexico to live with her. That means that this is probably the last time that she’ll have a holiday with her friends there.

Anyway, I sort of got roped into being here because I still haven’t found a job in NYC and I’m really the only person in our family who isn’t going to be either traveling or working.

I took the bus down yesterday (or I tried, but the stupid bus only got me half way before I had to call my cousin to drive me from Albany, yarg) and Grandma was surprised to see me. I think she’d forgotten that I was coming.

I didn’t sleep well last night so I slept in this morning and then we went to her “dinner” which is the midday meal that’s prepared by the staff and held in a large dining room. Grandma doesn’t eat much so most of the time she only eats that one large meal every day.

They did the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans. It was better than I remember it. I actually liked the green beans, and I usually hate green beans. I guess that’s like my Great Uncle’s retirement facility which had the only cooked spinach that I’ve ever liked: people that cook for old people know how to cook vegetables.

They also had pumpkin pie, which was okay. I’m probably going to steal Grandma’s apple cobbler from the fridge. That actually looked much better. (Added note: I had the Pecan Pie the day after this was written. It was excellent.)

If I were you, I’d probably be wondering why on earth I’m going on about the food about my Grandma’s retirement facility, and that’s a perfectly valid complaint. I’m bored out of my mind just reading it back to myself.

I’m leading up to a conversation that I just had with my Grandma. She decided that she wanted some soup (probably to trick me into eating more like she’s always trying to do). So, after a negotiation with her I made the soup and we sat around the table and ate it.

She started talking about her family, not just her kids and grandkids but her parents and grandparents. I just want to get some of this down before I forget it because it’s interesting to me.

The first thing that caught my attention when she started talking about her dad was brought up through her nightly cup of wine. She told me that it was a tradition passed down from her father, who had always had a cup of wine when he got home from work.

“He used to brew it himself,” she said.

I didn’t know that actually.

Apparently every fall he’d go down to the farmer’s market and buy a carload of grapes from the local grape farmers (there are local grape farmers in upstate New York? Apparently there used to be) and take them home. He’d pick them off the branches, clean them up, and then pack them in barrels where they were ferment all year.

Grandma reports that it used to smell horrible, and she wrinkled up her nose to underline her statement. A friend of mine fermented mead one time and I remember that smelled bad but there weren’t barrels and barrels of it.

I think it might make a bit more sense to readers at this point if I point out that my Grandmother is ninety seven years old. She didn’t say exactly how old she was when this was going on but I think that if it was going on when she was around ten that would put it in the same general region of American history as prohibition.

This vision of my Great-Grandfather as a scofflaw during prohibition was sort of discordant to me. This side of my family has always seemed a bit traditionalist and conservative and very much law abiding. The great-uncle that lived with the delicious spinach that I mentioned above is a priest. One of his brothers used to be a priest, and their sister still is a nun. No one in my Grandmother’s generation knows that I’m gay, for example.

So, I asked her what her father used to do. He worked in the turbine section of GE (GE is a big deal to my family for this and more reasons, see below), not as a laborer or an engineer but as the time clerk.

He apparently had three siblings, two sisters and a brother: Fred, Elizabeth and Ann. Fred took advantage of the GE apprentice program and became an engineer. I think it was Elizabeth that became the secretary for the head of GE’s international division. On days that her boss was out of town on business she would sometimes bring my Grandmother into the office with her and let her play with the typewriter.

Then she told me about her Grandfather, my Great-Great-Grandfather, who was a butcher. He used to buy the animals and kill them and distribute the meat in the city where he lived but the thing that she remembered most about him was the fact that when he came over to their house for Thanksgiving he would bring a bag of nickels with him and hand them out to the kids.

She looked at me when she said that. “That was a lot of money back then,” she said, just checking to make sure I understood that. I thought of the fact that I considered a scarf from a street vendor at $10 as very cheap but didn't say anything.

All of this is repeated several times, of course. Grandma’s short term memory is about three minutes, so if I’m looking for more information on something then I have to repeat various parts of the conversation.

So, here are things that I learned from various iterations of this conversation: 1. Her Grandfather was a bit unsociable; 2. He would come over to her father’s house for Thanksgiving. 3. Her Grandmother lived with one of her aunts.

You may already see where this is going, but I didn’t. So during another iteration of the conversation it came out: “She finally couldn’t deal with him anymore. She moved out.”

In all the rest of my family, there were pretty much no divorces except for my mom and dad. It always sort of weirded me out that it was my parents that split up out of dozens of couples in my family. What made them so different?

I guess in those days there wasn’t much divorce, but my great-great-grandparents were separated too. It sort of grounds you when you realize that maybe your branch of the family tree isn't quite that crazy.

Then we moved forward again. Grandma talked about how she couldn’t believe that I was living in NYC. She didn’t think that it was a very good city in which to live but she mentioned that she liked to visit for the shows.

It turns out that she used to take “excursions” from where she lived into NYC. They were like planned tours and they would have planned times to go shopping and eat dinner, and then they would go see a few plays.

“This is back when I had money. Back when I had a job.”

Again, I guess this is something that I should have known about my Grandmother but didn’t. I asked her about her job.

It turns out that she’d used to work in the GE corporate office. She started in payroll and then moved to the government contracts office on the second floor of the GE offices. That was how she met my Grandfather: she worked on the second floor and he was a factory foreman that had an office on the fourth floor.

When she married him she left her job and became a housewife.

I don’t know my extended family extremely well. I grew up thousands and thousands of miles away in New Mexico while most of them were in the Northeast. Only the daughters were outside of driving distance, my mom and my aunt, moved away. Even my great aunts and uncles lived in stretch from upstate New York to the Baltimore area.

So my family was usually just my mom, my dad, and my brother.

I don’t know exactly what to do now that I’m out here. I don’t know how to really interact with my extended family as well as a lot of the people out there that I see. The “normal” extended families are usually people that have deep long term connections to other people, but I barely have that connection with my immediate family. I only saw my cousins and my uncles and my aunts once in a blue moon. Less often, perhaps.

So this chance to connect a little bit more with my Grandmother was appreciated and I definitely learned some interesting things about my family history.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Were the World Mine

So, I finally got the apartment internet hook up the other day. I'm pretty sure that I mentioned that. One of the things that I did in the glorious rush of high speed internet access was to watch all of the movie trailers on the Apple site, including the few that I'm especially looking forward too: Milk, Watchmen, Star Trek (Chris Pine is dreamy), and the next Harry Potter. I also discovered a few others that look good. Up (I mean, it's Pixar), My Name is Bruce and JCVD. There was also some crap like Yes Man (why is Jim Carrey doing that movie again?) and Valkyrie and Angels and Demons.

Among all of these big deal movies I found something that you could say that sort of uniquely appealed to me. It was Were the World Mine and although it looked a little bit campy, it also looked like it appealed to me on two levels. The first, obvious level was "cute guys" and the second level was "Why yes, the power to make people gay has been a personal fantasy of mine."

So I went to the offical website and found it to be a flash monstrosity. Not only that, it was a nonfunctional flash monstrosity. So I did the obvious thing and went to the wikipedia page about it where I found out that it was opening in NYC a week after I watched the trailer. Nifty.

Ben decided to visit that same weekend, so it seemed natural enough to drag him out to the movie.

I bought tickets online, we went out to dinner and then we went to the movie theater. It was packed. I mean, for this little indy film in it's second day of release in NYC there was a line stretching down the block. Which was very confusing. Yeah, it's NYC and all but I didn't think that the second day of release was still a big deal. It's like camping out to get an iPhone on the second day. People don't do that.

So I was standing in the line to pick up the tickets, and the guy behind me says: "After the 7:00 p.m. showing of 'Were the World Mine' the director and cast will have a Q&A."

And I turned to him, and sort of challengingly said, "What?" Because I didn't believe him because I had bought tickets to the 7:00 p.m. showing. Inexplicably cool things don't usually happen to me.

He pointed, and there it was, taped to the box office window. He hadn't even paraphrased it, he'd just read what the sign in front of me had said.

So I picked up the tickets, and hyperventilated a bit as I digested the fact that yes, something completely unplanned and cool had just happened to me, and then we went into the theater.

The line that stuck with me from the giant set of reviews (here's the NYT one) which were pasted onto the outside of the theater was from the SF Chronicle's review: "Tom Gustafson's queer-centric take on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream teeters between banal conceptualizing and inspired execution."

Ben agreed with that line. If you press me I'd have to admit that I do too but I really came down on the inspired execution side in the end. It was everything that I wanted it to be. It was a little campy and the ending had some writing issues, but overall it was well acted, well written, and well produced, especially considering the ~300k budget and 24 day shooting schedule (as revealed by the Q&A).

The male lead played by Tanner Cohen was just gorgeous and it doesn't hurt that he's a decent actor. I'd love to see him again in more movies but I'm pretty sure he's also gay, which means that he'll never get a major role ever again.


The other guy, Nathaniel David Becker, is also cute but also less overtly gay which makes me hopeful that we'll see him again.

I think the girls actually stole the show though. Zelda Williams was phenomenal as the best friend, in a Chloe from Smallville way. Judy McLane and Jill Larson as the Mom and the Mom's Boss were both excellent, especially playing off against each other. Wendy Robie had some (very) flat lines at the end of the movie but near the middle her character's bliss at the chaos is quite beautiful.

So the movie ends (happily and without death, thankfully) and the audience clapped. Then Tom Gustafson, the director, Tanner Cohen, Zelda Williams and one of the other guys (Sorry, I don't remember your name!) came down and did a quick Q&A during which I learned the above mentioned facts and for a bunch of gay guys the audience showed an amazing lack of creativity coming up with questions.

Tanner looked thinner in person and was wearing a sort of lumpy orange sweatshirt, but he was still breathlessly cute. I found him and Zelda hanging out in front of the theater after the movie and shook his hand. And asked him how old he was. 21. Too young for me but I'll still dream when I buy the movie on DVD.

One thing on his age; I figured he was actually older than that. Usually the guys that play high school guys are in their thirties. I thought that since he was such a good actor with an amazing voice, he must be older that I am. Surprise. Of course, this only serves to make me feel old.

Anyway, I enjoyed the movie thouroughly. It was a great experience and I had lots of fun. If you like fun gay musical movie romps through Shakespeare, and you can locate a showing/DVD I highly recommend this.

Okay, so that was the movie review. Today I also got on the subway and rode it all the way to the end of the line out in Queens. Which my mother probably doesn't want to hear, but it's the truth.

Once there, I walked along the beach for a bit. I got a really bizarre "You're on candid camera!" stone from a nice lady, but I don't think I did anything that wasn't unfailingly polite so I'm hoping that's the last I hear of that. I took a few pictures with my phone of the shore, and then turned around and came back home.

Sometimes I seem to blend oddly well with everyone. I passed homeless people, Russians, Jews, and (when I got back to Soho) I passed rich Asians, pampered white girls, and guys in suits.

One of my friends would probably call this the comfortable annonymity of big cities, but I can't help but imagine how much he would have stuck out like a sore thumb walking through the neighborhood of Queens that I was in. Even I would have been starring at him.

If Ben and I had held hands in that neighborhood, we probably would have been in danger.

And yet people ignored me. With my lumpy black hat, my old gray A&F jacket and jeans, I just became another in the backdrop no matter the neighborhood that I was walking through.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

But Mr. Card

OSC: "What is odd is that in every case they called me intolerant. They misunderstood the meaning of 'tolerance.'"

You are intolerant. You say that Mormons have a long tradition of rejecting the social customs of the surrounding culture. Great! Wonderful! Congratulations!

But now you and your church have intervened to change the law to match your beliefs even when the particular cultural issue had nothing to do with you. So much for being able to go your own way, no?

You've imposed your beliefs on your neighbors.

That is what the problem is.

We don't care what you teach. We really don't. You can teach your children that I'm a demon that drinks blood and tortures small animals and breaths black clouds of sin as long as you give us the right to get married.

Once you've interfered with the way that we interact with other gay people in the ways that we choose, that is when we start to get upset.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Lex and Lia: Deals and Politics

So yeah, I'm trying to get to writing again. I know I always say that though. In order to resolve my writer's block, we're fast fowarding a bit. The gap between the last installment and this on the order of two years. I'll probably get around to explaining that break in the next installment.

Bliss left the dessicated collection of animals and insects in front of the door of the small adobe house. They weren't required, and they weren't part of her current bargain, but they couldn't hurt either. There didn't appear to be anyone home but that was deceiving; it never looked like anyone was home.

"Grandmother?" she called out. It would have been rude to try the door and Bliss didn't particually want to touch the house if she didn't have to, so she just stood there in the cool evening.

There was no response and no movement in the little home except for the swaying of the grasses that grew right up to the walls. Sometimes Spider Woman was in the mood to talk to Bliss and some days she was not.

The old spirits, the ones that were written about in legend, were always a fickle bunch. Some were touchy about the fact that they'd mostly been supplanted in the modern world but some had learned to get along.

Some were dead. In fact, most were dead.

Ideas had power, swirling around in people's brains, and when enough people all had the same ideas, they could give birth to things that were not human but alive and powerful. If the people stopped believing though, the spirits would die. Humans were the special case: they would keep living if whether you believed in them or not.

Spider Woman was amazingly resilient. She'd not only lived long enough to set her foot in with the new agers, she'd managed to keep some of her powers. In this area of the world there weren't many spirits that could say that truthfully.

So Bliss used her when she could. There were some things the spirits could do that the "mortals" could not, and vice versa. What Bliss could arrange through a few telephone calls or an internet search was often enough for surprisingly complicated bits of knowledge or powerful magics. The price for this particular assistance had been unusually difficult.

After five minutes, Bliss pulled an envelope out of her purse, went over, and stuck it in the door frame. It wouldn't get lost, she was sure of that. Spider Woman would get the envelope even if she had to chase it across a hundred miles of Nevada desert. Bliss smiled at the image.

But this resolved her debt, finally.

She turned to walk back to the car where Iron Dog was waiting but before she took more than four steps she heard the door open and turned.

Spider Woman stood there, holding the envelope. Considering the trouble that Bliss had gone through to get what was inside Spider Woman looked unmoved.

"This is it?" The spirit woman asked.

Bliss nodded.

Spider Woman slowly and carefully opened the top of the unsealed envelope and pulled out the paper inside. There was just one and she unfolded it carefully.

"You've fulfilled your end of the bargain, Bliss," she said at last, putting the paper away and holding the envelope gingerly. "And my lawyer?"

"I sent him a copy as well," Bliss said. "And the developers won't bother you again. My sisters and I have made absolutely sure of that."

"When do you want delivery? Now?"

Bliss shook her head. "We can arrange for tomorrow. No mistakes this time."


"Lia's run away again," said Annabelle to Miss. Chi-Wong.

Chi-Wong sighed. "Have you notified Michael?"

Annabelle nodded. "Mohan's not going to be happy."

"No, of course not. But he won't be surprised. What happened this time?"

"She'd been good all morning, I swear I'd been watching her like a hawk nearly since she'd woken up, but she seemed to be enjoying her lessons and she doesn't usually try to run when it's the middle of the day, you know that, so I went to the bathroom and left one of Michael's pack to watch her--."

"Is the guard hurt?"

"Just unconscious."

"Moon be damned . . ."

"She didn't hit him. I don't know how she managed it this time."

"She's getting to be completely uncontrollable. True, the fact that were have her is an important continuing bargaining chip with the Ladies but we can't keep. . . ." Chi-Wong paused. "I will tell Mohan. You know some of the places that she goes, join the hunt. If we can find her before the markets close, he may be willing to overlook your negligence."

Annabelle nodded and excused herself. Chi-Wong arched her fingers and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

All the different shapeshifters were linked through their shared human side. Werewolf, Weretiger, Werellama, they all eventually fit into the hierarchy. You dominated them once, they stayed dominated. If you were at the top of a pack, those under you were nearly completely loyal.

Mohan seemed oddly reluctant to break the girl though, and Chi-Wong had absolutely no idea why. That was what you did with new wolves. You put them in their place and they became quietessent.

Wereravens were rare, and the gift used to create them was rarer. In Chi-Wong's opinion whatever insane shapeshifter had thought it was a good idea to infect a child with lycanthropy, especially wereravenism, should be slowly boiled to death over the course of years by the witches. The problem was that the only person that she knew that could offer the "pure gift" of species undifferentiated lycanthropy was William Mohan.

She'd seen him use it to create Weresnakes out of rattlers. It wasn't a particuarly pleasant experience, and Chi-Wong had only been an observer. For the participants it was extremely painful and sickening, even for the giver.

Considering that the girl had shown up at Mohan's doorstep, it was hard to believe that he hadn't had something to do with her creation, but he still maintained that he hadn't. He pointed out that of all things, why would he have created a wereraven? Even two months before they'd found her their relationship with the Ladies hadn't required the sudden addition of a threat. They'd even considered killing her in her sleep since then to try to win the support of Bliss back.

If the old witch hadn't been such a caniving bitch, they might have gone through with it even.

So now they were left with what amounted to an toxic waste covered wild animal caged in the house. Lia didn't want to be kept, couldn't be easily dominated, and was constantly trying to run away. The Wolves as a group couldn't just let her go because that would permanently fracture their relationship with the Ladies. And, despite their reputation for random violence and as much as Chi-Wong hated to admit it, none of the Wolves really wanted to murder another shapeshifter, especially a child.

So why didn't Mohan want to just dominate her and be done with it? At least then he could tell her to stay put and she wouldn't have a choice in the matter. It was if he thought that her usefullness in negotiations would go out the window if she was broken but how would the ladies even know that if he didn't tell him? Chi-Wong had no idea.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Good Things

The NYC Marathon

The New York City Marathon was on the second, and Elliot ran it in 4:32. I was feeling a bit under the weather, but still came out to cheer him on. I missed him at the agreed upon Elliot rally point on 1st Ave, but caught up with him in the park during and then waited around with his beautiful, intelligent and unbelievably dedicated wife after the race for him.

I'll never be able to do that but I'm so proud of Elliot. He's an amazing guy, as long as he doesn't kill himself with all of the running.

Election Night

For the election I went up to Ben's place in Boston. I don't have a TV and I didn't have internet in my apartment yet, so it seemed like the best plan.

Ben went all out, with two televisions (split for most of the night between CNN and NBC, although we did watch a lot of the live Comedy Central coverage) and a laptop streaming MSNBC. Also, since he's a genius, he knew all of the races and had been tracking all of the polling (he was helping to compile the DKos synopses of the various Senate races).

There were, over the course of the evening, about ten people that stopped by and for the most part things went swimmingly. Really, it seems like the result was about dead between's predictions and Ben's, and only the passage of prop 8 in California seemed to bring a downer to the night.

At this point, eleven days later, things still seem to be going our way, what with the run-off in Minesota and Sen. Ted Stevens looking like he's lost the seat in Alaska. I can only hope that our luck holds and they throw Lieberman out of his chairmanship on his ass.

The party eventually started to wind down and finally some people went to go downstairs to smoke (yes, winning an election is just like having sex to some people).

After a bit, a few of us in the apartment got a call from the people downstairs to come down and revel in the good mood with them.

Now, I said Ben lives in Boston but really it's Cambridge. People were driving down the streets near us and honking, and people were standing out on the streets in little groups. When someone honked, they would cheer. This was late, after midnight, but I've never seen people so happy and enthusiastic after an election.

We stood out there for a while, and the feeling never went away, so eventually we got the idea to walk to Harvard Square, and by mutual aclaimmation we found ourselves doing just that.

So it's 1 a.m. an we're in Harvard Square on Massachusetts Ave and we find that there are thousands of people there. Many are holding Obama signs and wearing Obama shirts (I certainly was under my sweater). The were climbing on roofs and spilling out into the street blocking traffic along Mass Ave.

Someone even brought a life size cardboard cutout of the president-elect, and while many people were waving American flags one guy was waving a Kenyan flag (I didn't find out about the celebrations in Kenya proper until the next day).

The level of energy was absolutely intense; people were doing Obama chants such as "Yes We Can!" and "Si Se Puede!" but they also did "Yes We Did!" (someone stopped that one with shouts of "There's works just beginning!" which got a cheer) and at one point people started singing the national anthem. Off key, but we sang it with pride and honor.

After we'd been there for about forty minutes, things started to wind down and somehow the idea was spread to walk to Central Square (also on Mass Ave). So a thousand people or so flowed out into the street like a swarm of locusts and down the street, completely blocking traffic in both directions.

Cars that we passed were still honking with support, and people were still cheering back. Someone had a pair of bongo drums and marked a cadence. Oh, right, taxis and buses were also honking their support even when we were blocking the street. At one point, we saw people in a building maybe ten stories up watching us fill the street.

About half way there, the police (who had been with us all the way from Harvard Square) decided that they need to reopen the street lanes. They honked at us, corraled us, and one of the cars stopped in the middle of the group. Then, suddenly, there's cheering. The cop is hugging us and cheering with us, which was probably a good thing since it prevented any hard feelings by the marchers.

We got to Central Square about two a.m., and we decided that it was time for us to head back, but it was still just an amazing night. I would never have imagined seeing people dancing in the streets after an election if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. Also, being in a place like Cambridge probably didn't hurt.

Opera At Lincoln Center

A friend of mine from San Francisco was visiting on the 5th. At first I thought we were going to miss each other, but then he called to let me know that his pseudo date had canceled on him, and he had an extra ticket to the Metropolitan Opera and would I like to attend in his place?

Yes I would.

The Opera was "Doctor Atomic" and it was about the Manhattan Project, which is an interesting topic to me because I'm on the periphery of science geekdom and I'm from the area in which the Opera was set (large chunks are set in the town of Los Alamos, which is where the ice skating rink I went to as a child was).

At first I thought the writing was crap, until my friend pointed out to me that it was adapted mostly from unclassified Manhattan Project documents, personal notes, and poetry that Oppenheimer was interested in. The music itself was beautiful though and one song (Three Person'd God, I think it was called) was especially magical.

The set design, lighting, and the various performances were quite impressive as well. It was a great night.


Also been to a few movies with Elliot and friends of his this week. Zack and Miri was cute and although I love Katie Morgan she looked . . . not great. I was also attracted to the guy that plays Jay in "Jay and Silent Bob" and I'm still really confused about that.

I don't remember anyone saying that Quantum of Solace was part two to Casino Royale's part one, but Elliot was right, it is. Without seeing Casino Royale, I would have been completely lost through large sections of QoS.


Finally on Friday I got reliable internet service in my apartment. Yay! I also badly twisted my ankle but that doesn't conform to the title of this blog entry, so I'm not going to think about that until the next time I have to stand up.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Connie Willis Musings

Connie Willis is a freaking genius. I think that's three of four books that have left me crying, and the only reason that I don't think it was four for four was that the first one I read was sort of a comedy.

Bellwether was the first book that I read (I had it lying around in a stack of books that I didn't intend to read and then noticed that the author was the same as some of the ones on my "Award Winners" buy list, and it's the book that I now recommend to my scientist friends because to me, a non-scientist, it seems like the closest that I think I will ever come to understanding the life of a scientist. When B. talks about his work I flash to that book.

It was funny too, with the few sensible characters in a world of madness that's a theme of Willis'. In the strictest of senses, it wasn't so much science fiction as it was fiction involving scientists. There's the problem with that tag; it's impossible to differentiate between the genre and the latter with those words without a sentence to explain.

And then I read Doomsday Book, which left me crying for the sheer overwhelming pain expressed therein. I mean, really, it's been years since I can remember crying at the end of the novel. I think I cried at the end of The Dark Is Rising sequence and I may have cried at something that David Eddings wrote, but in recent years there aren't many books that I can point to as tearjerkers.

Doomsday Book won the Hugo, Locus and the Nebula awards and it deserved them. Indisputably, in my opinion. It was a work of art and it's one of the reasons that I think that relegating genre to the back of the bookstore is freaking criminal.

And then I read To Say Nothing Of The Dog . . . ah. I forgot To Say Nothing Of The Dog in my count in the second sentence. I didn't cry at the end of that one, but that doesn't reduce the number of Connie Willis books that I've cried at down to two. Now that I think of it, the real number is five, two that I haven't cried at and three that I have.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog is another one of those books that I saw labeled as science fiction comedy but I can't remember where I saw that. And it's not really laugh out loud ha-ha comedy like Asprin's Phule and M.Y.T.H. Inc. books or Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide or Terry Pratchett's Discworld. In a sense it's a bit comedic and I guess it could be considered to be funny, but it's more of a comedy of errors, where the character of the father is played by the space/time continuum. All sorts of little strings come together to get the lead man to come together with the lead woman and it really revolves more around the cat than the dog.

Those two books, read in succession, are what convinced me that Connie Willis was British. People write what they know and both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing Of The Dog are set in England (always a good place to base time travel). They also convinced me that sometimes the books that win Hugo's or Nebula's are not only technically very well written but they're absorbing as all hell.

Just before I left, I guess this would have been in late August or early September, I went to Bubonicon, where I got to hang out with Steve Gould and Laura J. Mixon a bit. I also discovered that the Sci-Fi retailer down from Boulder (I'm sure I've got one of their cards around somewhere, but I don't remember their name) had a stack of Connie Willis books signed because she was actually from Colorado and apparently will sign just about anything that you stick in front of her. So I bought five signed books from them and my only regret is that I didn't buy more, such as signed copies of the books that I already had. I just tell myself though that maybe I'll be able to get my already purchased copies signed and maybe even personalized someday. There's a huge hardcover and I'm seriously thinking about buying it the next time I see it, regardless of its $40+ price. It's worth it. Or I bet it will be.

So then I read Passage by Willis and It seemed like one of her earlier works (although without the internet I have absolutely no idea if it's one of her earliest works or latest works, or possibly even middle of the career works. The characters didn't seem as polished and the plot seemed to struggle at time (that's the problem with comedic plots: if you don't play them just right the constant stream of misunderstandings and he said/she said and walking past each other can get old fast.

I kept thinking of Doomsday Book as I read Passage though. It had echoes of it, with the heavy themes and the constant treatment of death but I kept telling myself that it was different, that I wouldn't cry at the end.

Mrs. Willis made a liar out of me.

Doomsday Book and Passage are sad. Technically, Doomsday Book even has a bit of a happy ending but at the same time they drag you down and point to something sad and say "grok" and you're forced to do so. That's impressive in any genre.

The last one, the one that I just finished as my third book for the day (finished Mother of Storms, read a cute gay fluffy mystery, and will start Zoe's Tale by Scalzi after I finish this post) was the novella Remake, which wasn't really sad. The water in my eyes was probably more something of joy than something of sadness. It was bittersweet at the end, but still hauntingly sad. Willis knows how to write damaged characters that don't know what they want in the same vein that I want to write.

She also knows how to write characters that want things. If you write what you know, that's something that I think I'd probably have trouble with.

She also researches her books into the ground. If I went back in time to look at the locations described in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing Of The Dog I suspect that I would be able to recognize them without too much trouble . . . those that can be researched in the 20th and 21st centuries that is. Bellwether, Passage and Remake were full of references to things that I know must have required hundreds of hours of research with a notebook. I can't even imagine what her notes look like though because sometimes I would see an offhand comment and think to myself that one line must have required dozens of hours of research by itself. How she planned everything at that detail out ahead of time so that she could read the medical journals and the histories and watch all those old movies marking out instances of alcohol, tobacco and drug use is beyond me.

If I was half the writer or researchers that Willis is, I think I'd be in a much better position with my life.

I have to wonder if she'd be interested in a cheap assistant, perhaps someone that she might be able to mould into a good writer. Yarg. I don't understand sometimes why apprenticeships are dead. Seems like a perfectly valid way to learn a trade to me.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Brain Simulation and Hacking

Happy Birthday Bro.

Spoilers for: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, Accelerando by Charles Stross, The Android's Dream by John Scalzi, the Otherland quartet by Tad Williams, and Mother of Storms by John Barnes.
Warning: Very Long.

I've been reading books recently in which the humans sometimes exist as simulated brains in simulated digital environments. Off the top of my head, this encompasses the Hyperion Cantos by Simmons, Accelerando by Stross, The Android's Dream by Scalzi, and the Otherland quartet by Williams.

In order of technological complexity those books are in reverse order and so the world in which Otherland is set has the most difficulty simulating the human mind, while in the AI universe of Simmons or the computronium of Stross the process is fairly easy.

There are a few problems with modeling the staggering complexity of the human mind that I haven't see addressed yet, and I'd like to consider that for a moment.

First, none of the books go through the painful phase in which a human mind has been adequately mapped but the computational power required to process even a few simulated moments takes a distributed computer network minutes to produce.

Let's consider The Android's Dream for a moment. Scalzi suggests that the only way to model a human brain is through a capture at the subatomic level, at the level where quantum uncertainty provides the unpredictable nature of human thought. Thus, the boys go in, scan themselves, and leave.

Years later, when the simulation of Brian Javna is compiled on a supercomputer the brain runs incredibly quickly. In fact, it turns into a super-program, able to rewrite, exploit, and interact with computers at a superhuman level.

Why would it run that fast though?

We're talking about a simulation of a human brain in which not only is the behavior of every electrical impulse through a brain is mapped, but the behavior of every molecule and atom in every molecule is accounted for.

To get some idea of how complicated this is, remember that the question of how proteins "fold" (i.e. how atoms fit together to create the complex organic molecules that form the building blocks of living creatures) requires huge distributed computing networks made up of thousands of machines. If you've got a PS3, you might be part of this effort through Folding@home.

To model the brain is worse. The chemicals that surround each neuron modify the electrical impulses of thought to provide memory and emotion. Which means that for every thought that occurs in your head not only do you have to account for the very complicated path that the thought travels through, but you have to know what molecules surround the path and what effect they'll have on the thought.

Neurons are connected in sequence, true, but not in direct linear or binary sequence either, which might have made it easier on the computer. If an electrical impulse has four potential paths in a human head the computer will have to attempt to figure out where it goes in binary questions (Does it travel through path one? No, so it continues on. Does it travel through path two? No, so it continues on. Does it travel through path three? No. Does it travel through path four? Yes, and now there are another four possibilities that need to be accounted for). This means that for the work that the neurons sitting in the grey goop on your head can do relatively easily, a computer has a much more complicated path to travel.

There are problems on the other side too: Assuming that the computer can accurately run the physical simulation of a human mind, how does it know what all those chemicals and impulses mean? So now the computer has to figure out what all of those slight changes mean in terms of mood, thought and memory and convert all that meaning into binary again so that the artificial human intelligence can express itself.

So I found that it strained credibility in my mind when the character in The Android's Dream woke up in a computer and found that he processed information faster than normal. In a world with binary electronic computers the electronic modeling of a human brain would require so much computer processing power that it's highly unlikely that it could be simulated as a whole without serious latency between sections.

I would have expected instead to find that the character woke up in a fog, in which part of his brain was simulated first, and then another part, and then another part, and then all melded together in stages as the computer struggles to process all that minutia. In the end, the artificial mind might think that it was alive, but each moment that passed for it would actually be several "real" moments.

Imagine what that would be like for the brain; you receive a stimulus, perhaps a bang. Instead of being able to flinch from the sound, it would require the computer program to figure out that you would want to flinch from the sound, and then figure out what your response would be . . . in sections. Instead of being able to access memories and parts of your mind all at once, your memories might lag behind your current thoughts for a moment while the computer struggled with a particularly complex chemical reaction, or vice versa.

That previous paragraph is a bit vague so let me try to lay this out even more clearly. If the sound I mentioned before were a voice instead of a bang, the computer program would have to figure out how the voice affected the ear, which in turn affected the auditory nerve, which in turn would communicate with the brain. The brain would access voice and try to interpret it by accessing memory of voice, and so the computer would have to track each of the chemicals as the memories were accessed and then back as the voice was decoded. Each of these would be processed separately, and so would your reaction to it.

Do you know what it feels like to realize that different sections of your brain are operating at different speeds? I can't imagine that the feeling is pleasant.

So, to hide the fact that your brain is running at different speeds, the computer simulation will have to slow the entire process down to the lowest common denominator. For something that's already running slowly, this is only more time passing that the computer simulated brain can't work with.

The end result is that not only do you have a mind in a fog, you have a mind running very slowly until you have nearly incomprehensibly fast computers, and elegantly written simulations to run on them. I'm not a computer guy, but I suspect that this is currently beyond the horizon in any form, even assuming that Moore's Law holds up for the next twenty years.

This leads to the next two major problems that I have with simulated humans. These came to me while I was reading Accelerando, and they're obviously related.

The first of these two questions that occurred to me was, what prevents the brain from being hacked?

You might be able to tell the brain that it is a brain floating in a jar, but it can't be self aware of that fact. Due to the fact that the computer is simulating meat for the brain to run on, it feels like meat. It doesn't feel the computer processing it's every action. So this opens the possibility of major security problems related to the way the simulation is run.

For example, if someone manages to change the simulation a little to prevent something like the dissolution of serotonin, you'll get a happier simulated brain. Another change might result in a brain with migraine headaches. Another might lead to certain kinds of memory problems.

You could also narrow the "visible" band of light so that a simulated brain could only perceive things in blue. Or yellow. Or so that it was constantly stoned, or high, or on PCP.

These could all be from slight programmer error but the scarier thought is what if they were intentionally inflicted on people? Stross addresses this slightly in Glasshouse but he doesn't go as deeply as I would have liked. What if your simulation was rewritten to make you feel good when you taste Hershey's candy simulation and bad when you taste Nestle's candy simulation? Pretty soon you're probably going to like Hershey's better than Nestle.

With even subtler rewriting you could be changed so that you (as a simulation) would desire buying products only from certain companies, or have crushes on specific people, or even desire to give your confidential data to another person. And this doesn't take into account the thousands of people that live on a planet of seven billion people and want to cause random destruction and chaos.

And that's on a subconscious level, where the simulation might be completely unaware of the changes. On the conscious level, there are even more problems. In a computer, the computer controls all of your input, all of your sensory data from the touch of a wooden door to the buzzing of a bee nearby.

A few hours of simulated pain would be a pretty effective torture method, especially since in a virtual simulation you wouldn't need to actually damage the person physically, just convince the computer to stimulate their pain nerves.

At the point where the computer can easily run a mind simulation like I mentioned before there is an even greater problem. A human mind was designed to run on a closed system without direct interface. Computers today aren't closed systems (and if Stross is writing them, they certainly aren't). The human mind has no software protections against intrusion, corruption, or even piracy (if you think that DRM is a pain in the ass, just think about what Memory Rights Management is going to be like).

The assumption that we have a simulation also assumes that the memory encoding problems have been solved, so what's to stop someone from breaking into your mind and stealing your secrets direct? They don't even need the whole brain, just whatever bit of the digital database contains chunks of memory.

Related to this little bit is Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash plot, in which there is a programming language for the brain. If you've got a direct connection to a brain via a simulation, you can throw certain symbols and words and stimuli at it to hack the meat brain just as easily as you can hack the computer side. If nothing else, you could certainly run DNS attacks on a simulated brain that would serious impair it's ability to function.

The brain is not secure, and the likely probability is that an simulation complicated enough to handle simulating one is going to be full of more holes than all of the Microsoft products combined have ever had.

I can only think of one way to keep the human brain secure: keep it meatware.

Then there's the final problem. Which for me stemmed from the previous issue, and that is compatibility with the native life forms. Not that there are any right now, but that might eventually change.

On meatware, we are state of the art, but because of the complexity of simulation when it comes to brains, in a computer we'd be massively unwieldy and clunky.

In both the Accelerando and Hyperion universes, there are artificial intelligences that are not human, never were human, and don't particularly like humans. Particularly, I'm thinking of the cat (what is her name again?) in Accelerando.

I'm going to quickly sidetrack for a moment and then tie this all together and point out the Economics 2.0 zone in Accelerando is what happens when a whole bunch of sentient corporations take over the economy and everything crashes as the supply and demand architecture falters and then fails (or at least, that's the way I understand it). But no matter how much computronium there is, there will always be a lack of processing power because use will expand to fill availability. Thus, Stross has his sentient corporations attacking each other with a space for digitally simulated humans on the sidelines but the corporations are more likely to expand to fill the volume.

No matter how big the capacity of a system like that, full of actual binary beings living their self destructive little lives, there will never be enough space for a human simulation to easily exist on the edges. There will always be a race for one AI computer program to have more processing power than it's neighbors so that it can more adeptly defend and attack those same neighbors.

Further, those AIs are going to be better adapted to the environment that they exist in. They are written in binary and can interact with their environment on a much more basic level than the simulated human mind can. Instead of requiring a complicated simulation to think, they can use their binary brains to get the same usage without the intervening necessity of calculating the serotonin levels inside a human brain.

Why would an AI, no matter how simple, want to share the same space with a gigantic slow brain sim? It's apparently a dream of ours, but I can't imagine that they'd see the need to run an emulator for legacy software that can't even protect itself in a digital exchange. How likely is it that the AIs in Accelerando are going to respect a human mind when they've already taken the economy to shreds?

It's a values things and the AIs probably won't have our values.

And let's say that they do have our values to some extent and believed that humanity was worth the space, would that change anything? Wouldn't it be easier for them to keep the meat brains running than to have to put up with meat brain sims?

Again, let's look at it from the opposite perspective: say that we brought dinosaurs back from the dead. Would we allow them free access to Los Angeles? No, because it might cause untold damage and they'd eat resources (and people) uncontrollably. We'd probably do just what Crichton did in the Jurassic Park books: find a nice secluded island somewhere and visit them for special occasions.

So the question becomes, what humans want to live in a zoo for the entertainment of computer programs?

I'm sure there are lots of other problems with digitally simulating a human brain but these are the ones that I don't think the writers that have done it have addressed yet. I'd ask if anyone has any other problems, but that would assume that someone had the stamina to read twenty five hundred words to get to the end of this post.

Update: The day after I wrote this, before I even had a chance to post it online, I read the later two thirds of Mother of Storms by John Barnes in which two people become weakly god-like computer programs. Oddly, I have fewer problems with their method of ascension than I do with those in Accelerando's or The Android's Sheep even though Mother of Storms was written back in 1994. Given the assumption that the little programs running around the net are benevolent and can make significant judgment calls (which you must do to accept the ways computers are used in the book), it seems to make sense.

At the time that I wrote this, I didn't even know that Mother of Storms was going to touch on these themes. The coincidences are eerie sometimes.

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