Saturday, December 31, 2011

One Sentence Book Reviews, 2011, pt. 3

This is the third part of a three-part series. Part one, part two are available for perusing. I finished up the last book of the year at 10:20 PM on 12/31/2011, just barely meeting my self-imposed goal of sixty books for the year. I did National Novel Writing Month for November, which slowed me down a bit, so I've read another five books in the last week to make up for the deficit. Thankfully, I made it. This post will give a brief one-sentence review of books 41 to 60. Look for a number-crunching post in a couple of days.


A Matter of Time by Glen Cook - This book is rooted a little too much in its time (Vietnam), and the plot doesn't wrap up as nicely as it could have. It's basically a police story with a little bit of time travel thrown in.
If I Did It by O.J. Simpson - Despite the awful prose and the fact that much of the book is taken up by pointless details, I loved this book for how incredibly meta it was.
"Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!" by Richard Feynman - A well-written series of vignettes that manages to capture some of the wild energy and intelligence that Feynman projects.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman - This is a science fiction classic for good reason - though it was written in response to the author's experiences in Vietman, everything in it still holds true.
The Magician King by Lev Grossman - This enhanced everything that I liked about The Magicians but it either has an incredible downer ending or is an obvious setup for a completion of the trilogy, depending on how sadistic I think Grossman is.
For The Win by Cory Doctorow - Infused with Doctorow's unique brand of techno-optimism, but it's a little bit too much like he was just adding in things that he saw on his RSS feeds. I also don't really like it when rich white guys write about third world problems.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow - A much, much better book than I For The Win, and one that seems much more timeless, or at least will age as a reflection of the period rather than a reflection of the moment.
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville - Nicely textured, and a good introduction to "weird" fantasy.
Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks - My last Culture novel of the year, and probably one of my favorites, though the War in Heaven is much more interesting than the other plots.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - A full burst of geek culture that manages to try very hard at saying nothing. Only read it if you're not a cynic.
Machine Man by Max Barry - Read this book if you're a cynic. It's bizarre and sometimes frightening, and you can only sort of tell that it was a serial.
The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry - I got suckered into reading this book because I thought that it was a full auto-biography, when in fact it only covers about six years. Fry is long-winded, in a good way.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks - This is the best piece of non-fiction that I read this year, though the title essay is much better than most of the others.
Reamde by Neal Stephenson - This is much lighter fare than Stephenson usually writes, which is to say that it has all of his trademark digressions with none of the meaty ideas in it.
The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge - An entertaining book, but very obviously needs a sequel to round out the trilogy that this and A Fire Upon the Deep will form, so much so that the whole book is pretty much worthless because it lacks a proper conclusion.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson - This was my first taste of Sanderson, and I liked it. Tightly knit, with interesting ideas and a formalized rule set that is sometimes sorely lacking in fantasy.
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson - Some of the characterization seems a bit off when this book is placed in context of the previous book, though it avoids the plague of being a "middle book" in a trilogy.
The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson - This is the conclusion to the Mistborn trilogy, and the ending - where many, many things are wrapped up - is very good.
The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson - A continuation of the Mistborn world, which is entertaining but needs a sequel so as to wrap up some loose plot threads. It also fails to answer some questions that I have, but that's more due to the author not wanting to have page upon page of exposition.
Toward a Truly Free Market by John Medaille - This was an "alternative economics" book, which suffered from the classic flaw of correctly describing the problem but giving a poor solution. It also runs into some worldview problems that make it seem like it would be more at home in the 1950s than present day.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Data-Mining My Reddit Comment History

Alright, so I was cruising reddit the other day and found a python script that mines through your comment history and pulls all that information into a text file. I immediately did so. One small downside of this is that only the last three months of comment history are stored for access from your comment history page (the rest being archived into a different database, or different section of the same database), so this is just a snapshot of three months of comments. Once I had the text file, I stripped out all the metadata that the script put in, stripped out all the URLs I had linked in comments, and started on trying to see what I could do with this corpus.

Let's get the boring statistics out of the way: the corpus contains 378,294 characters and 67,979 words. The Fleisch-Kinkaid Grade level is 11 (that is, the corpus as a whole is understandable only if you've reached 11th grade), while the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is 52 (fairly difficult, good for those at the end of high school).

Top Five three word phrases:
  1. "a lot of" - 50 times
  2. "be able to" - 37 times
  3. "one of the" - 34 times
  4. "I don't think" - 29 times (possibly there because I like to contradict people)
  5. "problem is that" - 27 times
Top Five four word phrases:
  1. "in the first place" - 16 times
  2. "the problem is that" - 13 times
  3. "aabb aabb aabb aabb" - 10 times (this comes from me making Punnett squares)
  4. "would be able to" - 8 times
  5. "is going to be" - 8 times
Here's a word cloud of my most commonly used words (generated with the help of Wordle):
From that, you can see that "people" is my most commonly used word. Note that the word could excludes the most commonly used words in the English language; for fun, here's a table which compares my use of those words to that of the Brown corpus:

Brown CorpusMy Reddit Comment Corpus
THETHE
OFTO
ANDTHAT
TOA
AOF
INAND
THATIS
ISI
WASIT
HEIN
FORYOU

For fun, I ran it through a parts-of-speech tagger which has about a 97% success rate; here's a table that shows the various categorizations and frequencies of speech. I'll skip past the part where I had to enter a bunch of information into a spreadsheet and just show you the colorful pie chart:
You have to admit that it is quite colorful. Go on, click to make it larger; I'll wait. It's not shown there, but the verbs BE, DO, and HAVE make up about 30% of the total verb usage. Verbs (and nouns) used have a Pareto distribution, (with BE at the head of the tail) which is quite hard to show in a meaningful way, and usually doesn't tell you a lot more than simply knowing that it's long-tail distributed.

I may add a second part onto this post later which does some actual analysis, but first I have to read a couple of linguistics papers and see how the above data deviates from normal (if it does). Then I'd have to make some conclusions about what that actually means, if anything.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On The Pros and Cons of Brain Uploading

First, some definition of terms. When I talk about brain uploading, I mean making a copy of the brain with virtual neurons, virtual chemicals and virtual chemical receptors. I'm also starting with the premise that this virtual copy contains that nebulous quantity I'll dub "youness", though obviously that's up for debate. I consider it to be basic continuity of self, similar to how most people consider the same physical body to be consistently the same person across decades of time, even though the cells and molecules that make up their body are different, their personality is probably different, and their life experiences, outlook, etc. are all different. With uploading, the discontinuity happens all at once, rather than being spread out over time. One last assumption: we're talking about non-destructive uploading; your physical brain will continue living.

Pros
  • Immortality. If your brain is virtual, you never have to die. Your virtual brain can be built to be more fault tolerant than your physical brain ever was, with error-checking built in.
  • Low costs. A physical brain and body requires a home, three meals a day, and clothing at a bare minimum. To go different places, you need a car or public transport, both of which cost money. A virtual brain just needs a computer to live in, and bandwidth to interact with the world (if that's considered desirable).
  • Full access to virtual worlds. I'm sort of working on the assumption that if you're able to upload your brain, the technology is at the point where we can make fairly accurate simulations of the world in general. To have full immersion into a virtual world, you need haptics, audio, visual, smell, taste, and physical feedback. Alternately, you would need someone to directly manipulate the brain, which either requires ultra-godlike levels of technology or invasive surgeries and merely godlike technology. If you're virtual, it's as easy as hooking up your virtual brain stem to virtual nerves in a virtual body. You'd be able to live in a perfect paradise, go on amazing adventures, and fulfil your wildest fantasies.
  • Extra-human experiences. Would you like to experience what it's like to be a dog for a couple days? Go right ahead! Change genders, make up your own gender, live as a tree for a couple of years! Experience the wonders of five-dimensional living!
  • Time control. If your brain is hardware independent, which it arguably should be, you would be able to speed up or slow down your subjective experience of time. The speed up factor would be limited by hardware, but even a conservative factor would allow you to experience two minutes for every one minute your physical brain would have experienced. At the higher end, you could spend a hundred years playing games while waiting for a friend to come over. Slow down isn't limited by hardware at all; once you got bored with life, you could take in a decade every few hours to see how human history ends up playing out, or you could set up the equivalent of Google Alerts to bring you into realtime when something happens (the invention of time travel, extraterrestrial contact, birthdays and anniversaries, etc.).
  • Full control of your emotions and thoughts. This is a bit further down the road, and admittedly you'd be able to accomplish some of this with a physical brain once the tech improves. However, it would still be easier and faster in a virtual brain. If you're feeling depressed, you could just adjust your serotonin levels. If something bad happened and you don't want to remember it, you could just delete the memory. You could give yourself ambition, willpower, and whatever other quality you deem lacking in yourself. You could choose to live your life in a constant adrenaline high, or awash in a pure, non-addicting pleasure.
  • The ability to fork your consciousness. If your brain is virtual (and hardware independent), you can freely make copies of it. Instead of "the road less travelled", you could take both paths, and talk with your other self to see how things are going. You could spin off a bunch of copies if you wanted to run a company with all the employees being you. Don't know whether you want to break up with your girlfriend? One copy stays, the other goes. That brings us to ...
  • The ability to merge consciousness. You could merge the copies back together, so that you had both sets of experience. This would make it easy to learn new things and have different experiences, assuming that you didn't want to (or weren't able to) just edit those things in later. Or, if there's someone you like a lot, you could merge together with them and become one person.
Cons
  • Identity theft. Imagine how fucked you would be if someone stole a copy of your brain. I don't normally use profanity on this blog, but that's pretty much the only word to describe what you would be: fucked. They'd be able to rip every secret out of your head, from passwords to crushes to things that you never wanted anyone to know. If you're lucky, the person who stole your brain only wants it to take all your worldly possessions and tell everyone about all the awful things you've ever thought. If you're slightly less lucky ...
  • Eternal slavery. If someone got a copy of your brain, it wouldn't be too hard to construct a partitioned reality for it brain so that you didn't have access to the greater world. From there, they could get you to do anything they wanted to. Even if you only have a high school education, they could put you to work answering phones, running the AI in a videogame, or whatever else. Think of any current job that you don't really need a body for; they could have you (and lots of other copies of you) doing that for basically free. The virtual brain doesn't need to sleep or eat, and the cost to run it is the same as running a server. Because you're just a brain, they could cause you an infinite amount of pain, and reward you with small, sporadic doses of pleasure. But at least that's just for the purposes of conditioning and getting you to do something useful. It could be worse ...
  • Hell. You know, being tortured in fire forever? Now, you might be thinking to yourself, "What kind of sick person would put a virtual brain into a virtual body in virtual hell?" 4chan, that's who. Or maybe just anyone who doesn't like you and has a different view about whether or not a virtual person is actually real. Or a religious group that thinks that virtual people don't have souls, and uses their hell as a way of dissuading people from uploading. The point being, there are lots of reasons for people to put you in a hell.  All the wondrous possibilities of virtuality take on a darker tone when someone is using those features to keep you in agony.
  • Lotus Eating.  All the fun and games of the virtual don't actually affect anything in the real world.  So while you're sitting inside the machine having a wonderful time, there's no longer any purpose to your life.  Would you personally be able to resist a life of limitless meaningless pleasure, especially when you can delete the nagging part of you that wants more from existence?  Whether or not you would even consider this a downside is dependent on personal philosophy.
  • Uncertainty. Once your brain is virtual, you have literally no way of knowing what is or is not real, and your ability to discern truth becomes seriously impaired.  From your perspective, you go to sleep inside the MRI and wake up with your entire reality attached to something that you don't really understand (unless you're one of the few people involved in developing the technologies, in which case you don't really need this guide).  In the real world, there's a possibility (no matter how remote) that everything you see is being controlled by some near-omnipotent entity that alters your memories, moods, thoughts, and perceptions.  If your brain is virtual, that possibility becomes several factors more likely.
  • Self-competition.  The continuity of consciousness argument would basically say that the physical you and the virtual you would be logically bound to following a heightened version of the golden rule.  However, physical you and virtual you won't necessarily have the same goals, and could possibly see some benefit in screwing each other over - especially if the virtual you isn't under the direct control of the physical you.  So as soon as you create this virtual copy, you'd have to worry about it competing for your job, or for your girlfriend's affections, or trying to get legal ownership of all the things that belong to the physical you.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What I Want Out of Superman

Superman has always bugged me. The idea of dressing up in a special outfit and going to fight crime I can sort of understand, but it makes more sense for Batman than for Superman. Batman devotes nearly his whole life to fighting crime; even those token times spent as Bruce Wayne serve mostly to provide a cover (and income) for his crime-fighting. Batman needs a base, equipment, and intelligence gathering. And after all, it's not like Bruce Wayne can just disappear - if he did, all of the nice gadgets that makes Batman a real threat to the underworld would disappear too.

On the other hand, look at Superman. He's super-strong, super-fast, has laser eyes, X-ray vision, super-breath, flight, and invulnerability. He doesn't need money or a base. In most iterations, he doesn't even need to sleep. There's no reason for him to have a secret identity, from a crime-fighting perspective. The reason for Clark Kent must, therefor, be personal.

One of the biggest things I hate about Superman is kryptonite. To me it always smacks of a cheesy plot device. Authors and screenwriters seem to feel that Superman is too powerful, so kryptonite is needed to add in some element of danger, so that the audience actually feels suspense. They actually do the same thing in some of his rescue scenarios - Superman is almost always just barely strong enough, or just barely in time. But to me, that seems the wrong way to go. It should never be a question of whether Superman will succeed.

Superman should be at risk for failure not because his powers don't work, but because the situation doesn't call for the application of brute force. He should have trouble fitting in with human society, wanting desperately to be accepted but not really knowing how to interact with people. The only reason that people adore him as Superman is because he saves their lives; as Clark Kent, he has no power, and without the grand deeds his attempts at charm just look weak and pathetic. Add to that the fact that he's kind of a uncompromising zealot, and you can see how he'd have problems when he can't hide behind having incredible powers.

And think about how tortured he must be. His super-hearing, depending on which version you go by, spans the whole world. With his super-vision, he can see through walls and watch the whole city at once. He knows that every second he spends as Clark Kent is a second that he's not saving someone from death. He can hear suicides screaming as they plummet to their death. He can hear women being raped, children being beaten. And the Clark Kent persona is so valuable to him that he stays in it, and only rushes off when there's a bigger emergency. Let's assume that Metropolis is like New York City. That means per day, there are 1.4 murders, 2 forcible rapes, 59 robberies, and 66 aggravated assaults. Those are just the violent crimes - that doesn't include all the fires, accidents, suicides, burglaries, natural disasters, etc. And yet Superman still spends a third of his time at playing human as Clark Kent. How did he come to that decision? Why does he choose to let people die?

One of the most common arguments against God is that there's still evil in the world. If there's evil, and God has the ability to stop but doesn't, then God must not be good. To my mind, the same applies to Superman. Especially after he has an interview with Lois Lane, wouldn't the public hate him for all that he doesn't do? Can't you just see the angry mother crying through an interview? "Superman stopped the train from derailing and then flew off, fast as lightning. Not three minutes later, my son was shot to death in an alley by a mugger. Superman was the only - theonly - one that could have saved him, could have stopped the bullets, and instead he just flew away. Where did he go? Why was my son less deserving of life than those people on the train?"

Or let's say that Superman actually does try to stop every crime in Metropolis. Even he isn't sufficiently powerful to stop them all, so he'd have to invent some kind of sorting algorithm (such as "If I have to choose between saving a life and saving property, I will choose to save a life"). And how would he decide? He'd be utterly crucified by the public, pretty much no matter what he chose, and it probably still wouldn't help him with the grey areas. People would write letters to the editor asking why Superman doesn't stop abortions from taking place, or they'd complain that his super-hearing and super-vision are tantamount to panopticon surveillance, or they'd complain that he's not doing anything about the prostitution problem, or they'd complain that he's exacerbating the plight of the poor, or they'd complain that he's contributing to the overpopulation of the prisons. A city with Superman working at full-speed, all the time, is one where he becomes the de facto police, and the policies that Superman enforces become far more important than the ones that are made by politicians.

You know what I think Superman feels when he comes across supervillains? I think he feels relief. Because here, finally, is something big and unambiguous, a true evil that can be stopped for good instead of a systemic problem that doesn't have a good solution. When he punches Luthor into the ground, he can forget about the liquor store robbery he stopped a few days before, and the man he put in jail whose children will grow up without a father. When Doomsday comes down, Superman can stop thinking about whether delivering food to starving people in Africa is depressing the demand for local crops and perpetuating the cycle of hunger, and just solve a problem by using his fists.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

One Sentence Book Reviews, 2011, pt. 2

I've gotten through another twenty books since last time. This puts me about a month ahead of schedule in my reading, which means that I might just have time to read Infinite Jest after all.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman - Cynical and somehow still wondrous, and offers a nice variety of emotional impacts.
Bossypants by Tina Fey - Comes from the "collection of anecdotes" school of autobiographies, but still manages to stay entertaining and have small moments of insight.
Transition by Ian M. Banks - My least favorite book by Banks so far, mostly because it seemed florid to the detriment of coherence, which I've found to be one of his most common authorial sins.
The Family Trade by Charles Stross - Doesn't really offer anything new. It has all the technical grit of Stross with none of the usual charmingly original ideas.
The Hidden Family by Charles Stross - Sequel to the above, and ideally (since this is a six book series) shows some promise of how he'll expand the central premise into something better.
Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde - Fforde seems to write the Thursday Next books in trilogies, and this first one was somewhat aggravating because it doesn't resolve anything.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - A book steeped in a deep and abiding anger, and which retreads so many arguments I've heard over and over. I'd recommend it for someone who knows nothing about atheism, but not anyone else.
The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde - Somewhat better than Lost in a Good Book, mostly because it's more whimsical and fleshes out BookWorld a bit more.
Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde - The culmination of this Thursday Next cycle, and for that reason probably my favorite. It also offers a lot of twists (and time travel!), which I dearly love.
First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde - ... And we get right back to the start of a new cycle, with too many plot hooks hanging. I also think one of the problems with whimsy (the defining feature of Fforde's writing) is that eventually things start to get too crowded.
Guns, Germs, Steel by Jared Diamond - Very interesting, but he labors a little too long on proving himself, which tends to be a problem with books which are attempting to present novel science theories (as opposed to books which present pop science that already has sufficient backing from the community).
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - This was my first reread of the year, and I liked it much less than I did in high school, mostly because the narrative seems too disparate.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Micheal Chabon - Despite (or because of) the fact that I had to keep consulting a Yiddish dictionary, it was interesting and atmospheric.
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson - World War Z, but this time with robots and worse porse!
The Company by K.J. Parker - This book is so multi-layered that I'm not sure what the ultimate message was, which I think works to its benefit.
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin - An improvement over A Feast For Crows, but only by a little bit, and Martin hangs too many cliffs.
7th Sigma by Steven Gould - It unfortunately looks like Gould will never top Jumper. There are too many hints towards a central plotline that never comes to fruition.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino - More like reading a book of poetry than an actual novel.
Rule 34 by Charles Stross - This is the Stross that I know and love, with a fast pace and interesting ideas at every turn. It's only slightly marred by being written in the second-person - I understand why he did it, but I think it hinders immersion more than it helps.
If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino - I can't decide whether this book was brilliant or completely masturbatory, but I'm leaning towards the former. There are books within the book, and a series of events that get continually more absurd.

Monday, July 11, 2011

When Life Begins

Let me be upfront: this whole blog post is about how much I hate the phrase "Life begins at conception".

The problem is twofold. First, it's incredibly ambiguous. "Life" can mean a whole bunch of things. I believe when pro-life people use the term, they mean it in the sense of "continuity of identity". To them, the single cell (zygote) is equivalent to a person that you see walking down the street. It's an interesting question of identity that I'll address later. The real problem is that life can also just mean "something which is living". No one can deny that the zygote is alive - that's an objective, scientific fact. The problem is that it's only alive in the same sense that the rest of our cells are alive, or in the sense that a cat, cow, or mosquito is alive. Clearly living doesn't confer any special benefits to any entity. What counts is personhood. "Personhood begins at conception" is a much worse slogan though.

The second problem is a bit more serious. If we take the clarified phrase "Personhood begins at conception" to be the intended meaning, what do we do with all the weird complicating issues?

Take identical twins, for example. They both come from the same zygote, and share the same DNA, but we consider them to be different people. There are a couple of different ways that you can deal with this, and still maintain that personhood starts at conception.
  • Identical siblings are actually just one person. This is logically consistent, but you'd get laughed at by nearly anyone you said that to.
  • Identical siblings follow a special rule for personhood wherein they don't become people until the split happens. The original zygote was probably not considered to be a person in its own right. This is a poor explanation, because it's a partial concession that there are other factors for determining when personhood begins. Needless to say, "Personhood begins at conception, unless you're an identical sibling in which case it begins at division" makes the slogan pretty much unusable.
  • A zygote which will eventually become identical siblings was actually two (or more) people all along, we just didn't know it. This is sort of logically consistent, but it defies the whole continuity of personhood argument a little bit.
Here's weird complicating issue number two: chimeras. What happens with a chimera is that two different zygotes (from two different sperm/egg combinations) fuse together, and then that combination goes on to make one person who has some body parts made from one set of genetic code and some body parts made from the other. Here are some solutions:
  • A chimera is actually two people. This means that legally, marrying one would be considered polygamy and murdering one would count as two homicides. This is stupid, and I doubt anyone would be content with this logic.
  • Chimeras follow a special rule for personhood whereby they don't count as people until the merge happens. This has the same problem as with twins above, where it doesn't make all that much sense.
  • The two zygotes that make up a chimera were each only half of a person. But that wouldn't make sense, because it would be a tacit admission that not every zygote is a full person, and introduces the whole concept of "personhood calculus" into the mix, which most people are quite eager to avoid. (I am too, mostly because the results of personhood calculus leads to things which are politically incorrect, but which I still believe to be true.)
All this is leaving aside the fact all of these concepts like "life", "personhood", etc. aren't clearly defined in the first place. It's sort of puzzling to me that the legal definition of "person" is so murky - but then again, not really, because there are so many corner cases that making a clear distinction on what's what is just too damn hard (see above). From everything I've read about law, this is a bug inherent in legal systems.

It's usually at this point that someone would ask me, "Well, if personhood doesn't begin at conception, then when *does* it begin?" Unfortunately, I don't know, mostly because it's a problem with really poorly defined subjective terms. It's my feeling that personhood would be better understood as a gradient rather than a binary, but that raises a whole host of other issues, most important of which is how you determine where an entity sits on that gradient. I should also note that I'm including in these thoughts things that are more exotic than the timeline of human reproduction: animal consciousness, artificial intelligence, genetically modified humans, extraterrestrials, proto-humans, etc., the idea being that a proper theory of personhood would be all encompassing. I'll let you know if I ever figure out a system that works without kinks, but don't count on that being forthcoming anytime soon.

All of this is basically my way of saying that anytime you see a slogan being thrown around about a contentious political issue, you should immediately start thinking about the ways in which they're simplifying a complex issue. Due to my unbounded faith in humanity, I think most of the time they don't mean to be deceptive, they just haven't given things much thought.

(A word on souls: it's the position of some (ex. the Catholic Church) that the thing which defines personhood is the presence of a soul. Leaving aside how unscientific that idea is, this still leaves pretty much all of the same issues, and raises a few more. Do the two zygotes which form a chimera each have half a soul? Do twins only have half a soul each? Are souls imparted to zygotes which (it's debatable) are not human by virtue of chromosomal disorders? If the soul is immaterial, how can we possibly answer these questions? What reason is there to think that the soul isn't imparted at birth, but at quickening or when the fetus was "formed" (which was the position of many people, including the Catholic Church, for centuries)? Again, this is leaving aside the fact that I think the concept of a soul is incredibly stupid.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

One Sentence Book Reviews, 2011

Okay, so this year I'm trying to get through 60 books, which I think it a reasonable goal that will keep me reading without getting sick of it. At year-end, I'll throw the list up along with some graphs about what my genre tendencies tend to be, authors I read, etc., but for now here are one-sentence reviews of the 20 books that I've read so far, because by the time January comes around I might not be able to remember some of these all that well. These are in the order I finished them. Also, I don't hew very closely to "one sentence".

The Peace War by Vernor Vinge - This is the kind of hard science fiction I like - a premise is set up, and then the author runs through all the implications of that, sometimes at the expense of other things.
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - It had a good amount of British humor, though a number of the references were lost on me.
Blackout by Connie Willis - I thought that this book was at its best when it was giving a history lesson; I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not.
All Clear by Connie Willis - I liked this much better than its sister book, mostly because it had an actual (bittersweet) ending.
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross - I'm amazed by how much range Stross has.
The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross - This book is bound a little too tightly to its pastiche.
The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross - By this point, Bob Howard is getting a little too badass.
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge - The tines are one of the best realized fantasy/scifi races I've ever had the pleasure of reading.
A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge - Vinge proves his skill by writing a prequel that stands alone; there's something that I love about different cultures discovering things.
Consider Phlebas by Ian Banks - I can understand why people don't recommend this as an introduction to the Culture novels.
The Player of Games by Ian Banks - The hinted descriptions of the game of Azad were amazing, and I wish more of the book had been like that.
Excession by Ian Banks - Personal problems get in the way of an entertaining thriller.
Use of Weapons by Ian Banks - This is probably the best book written by Banks that I've read so far, but it seemed artsy to the point of distraction sometimes.
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman - My dose of meta for a couple of months.
Halting State by Charles Stross - Highly entertaining, with a plethora of twists.
Glasshouse by Charles Stross - Takes place a little too far into the future, to the point where I wasn't really sure that I bought into the reality being presented.
Brainiac by Ken Jennings - This is my first non-fiction book of the year. It ranges quite a bit, and stays consistently interesting.
Halo: Cryptum by Greg Bear - An passive main character makes this only worth reading if you're really into the Halo mythos.
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder - I prefer my steampunk to be scientific, not mystical.
The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman - Reminded me of a Heinlein juvenile, with all that implies.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Other Ending of Pulp Fiction

I keep having this same dream where there's an alternate ending of Pulp Fiction which everyone hates and I find absolutely hilarious. The actual details of this alternate ending aren't important, because like most dream stuff, they don't actually make sense in the context of reality. Just imagine me laughing my ass off in a movie theater while everyone else is leaving in disgust. The alternate ending of Pulp Fiction basically turns its back on the themes the movie originally had. People know the movie, and if they go to see it in an art house showing (which is what this was), they expect to see the real deal. In my dream, this is done by some grad student who's trying to make some kind of statement, but when he tries to hold a discussion afterwards, people are just cussing him out as they leave the theatre - except for me, because I'm laughing uncontrollably.

So when I woke up this morning, I realized something: this is a great idea.

I wouldn't actually do it with Pulp Fiction, because I don't think there's any way that you could destroy the whole movie with a single additional scene, but it would definitely work with some other movies. The trick, I think, would be to get movies that people actually know the ending to, and that are at least somewhat beloved. Here are some examples for your consideration. Some spoilers follow, but if you don't know these by now, you probably don't care that much.

In the alternate ending to Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader lives, everyone forgives him, and he and Luke have lots of happy times together.

In the alternate ending to American History X, the protagonist's brother doesn't get shot, and they final scene features the two of them tearing down the white power propaganda in his room together.

George Bailey realizes that even though he's made life better for a lot of other people, that doesn't change the fact that his own life is still completely miserable, and exactly a year after coming back, he takes his life on Christmas Eve, this time for good.

Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't change his ways at all; seeing his own imminent death and all the things he's lost makes him even more spiteful and petty. This one would actually be pretty easy to pull off, because new versions of A Christmas Carol are made every year (for some reason).

Planet of the Apes ends with Heston running to the beach, where he sees a spaceship light up its landing thrusters; the rescue mission has finally arrived to bring him back to Earth.

Beatrix gets back together with Bill, and they set aside their differences to raise their daughter together.

The new ending to Watchmen features Rorschach and Night Owl stopping Ozymandias in the nick of time.