Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted's formula is this:

  1. Arrive at an interesting era, event, myth, legend, etc.
  2. Come up with an interesting conceptual twist on it.
  3. Research the hell out of the above.
  4. Write a super engaging and interesting short story, focusing more on the human aspect than the technology (soft sci-fi).

Tower of Babylon Such a great concept: what was the tower going to be like, according to the semi mythical Babylonians? That there would be inhabitants of the tower, regions of intense heat next to the sun, areas where the sun might shine upward, or shooting stars might hit the tower, all require an incredible imagination and intimate knowledge of the ancients worldview. All written in a tone of biblical knowledge: cubits, references to the recent deluge, and the proper use of the Lord's name. Tim also displays impressive knowledge of ancient building and mining techniques. This ability to pack all of this imagination, history, and credibility into a short story, and make it incredibly entertaining to boot, is very impressive.

Understand superintelligent humans? Also interesting and totally original. Lots of overla with rationalist obsession with superintelligent ais. Chiang convincingly describes the sorts of discoveries a superintelligent being might make. Physics unification, broad psychological insights, hacking ability, fundamental number theory advances. Also interesting is the protagonists (teds?) fascination with physical self control through mental means which has become an interest of mine recently. The whole story is incredibly cinematic especially the last part involving a psychic battle between superintelligent brains.

Division by Zero A very experimental format which is presented in triads: 1. A mathematical fact, 2. A’s prepsective on being terminally depressed due to a mathematical discovery, 3. B’s perspective on falling out of love with A. My take from talking with Sarah was this isn’t effective, especially for non-mathematicians, especially since A is so hard to relate to. But my reading of the story was that normal people are supposed to relate to B’s experience (3), and try to infer that the now lost love B had for A mirrors the now lost love A had for Math. Overall interesting but not my favorite.

Story of Your Life The basis for Arrival, which I saw and enjoyed when it came out. The short story is significantly different from the film, in plot and feeling. It is much more contemplative, much less action oriented. There is no global military crisis, no scary alien ship with a mysterious gravitational field, just quiet contemplation and a lot of Heptapod linguistics. Again, great concept, and an interesting foray into the complex relationship between language and thought, where the Sapir wharf hypothesis is taken to an insightful extreme. I think there’s a lot to find for the free-will skeptic as well. Again, I think the experimental format (alternating between raising her child, and her work) had more to offer than I could gleam on my first reading. Definitely worth a re-read in the future.

72 letters

  • What is Chartist reform? A British working class movement dating to 1838.
  • What’s a cucurbit? A sort of gourd, similar to a cucumber.
  • Der Zauberlehring? This is Goethe’s poem “The Sourcerer’s Apprentice”, which is the basis for Disney's Fantasia.

Very clever integration of the significance of names and Jewish themes: Kabbalah, Golems. Again, Ted’s writing is very convincing, as if he is well studied in the fields he references. Is there a thing called “method writing”, as in “method acting”? In one interpretative mapping, this story comes off as transparent. Stratton, the young sculptor (roboticist) is more interested in the nomenclature (software) of golem-like automata (robots) than he is in the sculpting (hardware, manufacturing). By the time he grows up, he gets a job at Coade Manufactory (heh, Code Manufactory! Google?), and is able to automate the practice of sculpting, by creating automata that can sculpt. His goals are noble: to make it very cheap to do menial labor and make ordinary people’s lives better (modern automation). This also gets him noticed by the government, or perhaps some higher order think-tank (Lord Fieldhurst), who sponsors his research, but also has a goal of his own: to ensure the survival of humanity (lots of X-risk problems). Simultaneously, Stratton has to wrangle with sculptors (manufacturers), who are concerned that automation will take their jobs away (sound familiar?), and eventually plot to kill him. Lord Fieldhurst ends up having a darker motive, which isn’t just the survival of humanity but also to ensure the quality of the human race (harkening to eugenics). An unexplained element in this view is Roth, a Kabbalist (academic? Religious leader?), who dies but leaves Stratton a piece of the puzzle to solving his riddle (general AI?).

Hell is the Absence of God the Christian God definitely exists, and this is constantly re-affirmed when angels come down and meddle in human affairs. Ultimately this turns out to be almost mundane, since there is no room left for uncertainty, and thus belief. A Job-like hero is born with a deformity, and loses his wife to an angelic intervention. Yet he still cant bring himself to love God enough to be sent to heaven, where he would be reunited with his beloved wife. In an odd twist, hell ends up being just like the regular world, except there is no godly intervention. In other words, hell is like our world.

Liking what you see: a documentary We have developed neurostat, a technology that lets you block certain neural pathways completely, or developing an “agnosia”. This is being used for blocking the perception of beauty (mostly facial) in children and young adults, to make them “beauty-blind”, and accept people for who they are underneath, and not judge them by their appearances. This is called “calliagnosia”. The story is fascinatingly written as an actual documentary, with various actors taking their turn to say their piece. At the center is a college aged girl and her ex-boyfriend, both of whom grew up with cali. At college she decided to turn it off and realized that she was beautiful, and her ex-was ugly. Despite this she loves him and wants to get back together by convincing him to also turn off Cali and seducing him through her beauty. This ultimately fails, as after turning Cali off, he decides that he isn’t happy with his own appearance and opts back into Cali. Their love story is punctuated with a plurality of other voices, from classmates to university presidents to neuroscientists who provide unique perspectives, explain technical details, etc. Overall I think the format is effective, presenting the complexity of the issue, and I’m not left with a strong opinion favoring one side or another. However my prior is against mental manipulation...