Looking for the Ladies’ Room

I was thinking the other day about the fact that when I was younger, it seemed like all the cool stuff in the world was reserved for boys. Participating in Olympic sports (because you had to be naked), acting, fighting in wars, being a doctor, shaving, attending college. Needless to say, my information was a little outdated, but it is true that at one time all of these things were solely the right of men.

More recently, I’ve been thinking about stuff like Varzesh-e Pahlavani, an Iranian martial art that I think is one of the coolest, most difficult-looking things I’ve ever seen. Or the fact that Highland Dance originated as a way for the Scottish military to keep fit. Most religious orders segregate the sexes. And everyone knows about Dervishes, about Gregorian chant, and Buddhist sand mandalas. And it’s in the back of everyone’s mind that these things are done by men.

I think I’m going to be doing some research into the more hidden life of women. Where, outside of child bearing, do women have primacy? What do women gather to do that is strictly theirs? What do women do to exercise, worship, create art in a way that men don’t? I’m looking for things that are organic to women’s own experience. Not “I’m a woman, and therefore I am going to consciously create something that rejects the male,” because that is inward looking, celebrating the self. I’m looking for art that says “I am using the strengths that are given to me to create something of value that is mine and cannot be created by any other.”

I’m not saying for a second that this stuff doesn’t exist. I’m only saying that this is a sad lack in my own education, and something that I feel lucky to have the rest of my life to investigate. And I’ll let you know what I find.

Just Call Me Suckah

I talked a little bit about the tendency for service workers to suck up in the post I did about the first day of our cruise. I’ve always known this. When I first got my eyebrow dots, I would go out to restaurants and waiters would fawn over how badass they look. To this day, salespeople (who are always the sort to describe themselves as “people” people) are the most likely to gawp at them, fawn over them, gush over them.

Today, I had occasion to spend time in the company of a guy who is hoping I’ll hire him as a contractor. Granted, this guy is kind of a high-end contractor who had worked with far cooler people than me, but in this economy a gig is a gig, right? So, I’m in the kitchen talking to this guy, and we start off talking about the project and what it will involve and how much he’s going to do and how much I need to do…you know – all the stuff you talk about when you hire someone to do work for you. Then he starts asking about what I do, and I start telling him about my hypertext novel project. Well, after he tells me about his venture into self-publishing, we start talking about the possibilities of e-readers and what’s next for the paper book and the publishing world, etc., and he’s just going all gooey about the project.

While I’m flattered and happy whenever someone gets excited about the project, it’s just so hard for me to tell. This guy is a creative professional. He makes his living by envisioning possibilities and making them into realities, and those sorts of people are easy to talk to when it comes to sharing artistic vision. On the other hand, I was at a gathering a week or so ago where I was talking about the project to a person who kept saying “Yes, that sounds fascinating,” but had that look on their face that is less a smile than a grimace, and who cut me off in the middle of a sentence to dash off. So…not a fan.

I’m hoping that when the project is done, there’ll be enough people who think it’s cool that it becomes a viable thing. Then again, I’m blessed in that if it doesn’t, I will have lost nothing, and gained everything in the experience. So – I press forward.

What I Do When I’m Not Writing

Lately I’ve been looking at my To Do list and feeling pretty amazing. It’s only midway through the month and I’ve already finished all the work that’s due by the 30th, leaving me time to work on a bunch of outside projects as well. But you know what they say about all work and no play. Besides that it makes you disciplined, rich and insufferable.¬†Sometimes, a monkey just needs to blow off some steam.

Back in early November, my mother came out for a 3-week visit. As usual, while she was on the plane from Phoenix, she browsed the SkyMall catalog and was so riveted by what she found that she was unable to put it down, and she brought it home with her.

Normally, I LOVE SkyMall. It’s the easiest thing to mock I’ve ever seen. How can you resist snickering not just at the Isometric Meal Replacements, but at the sort of person who would buy such a thing. And is it the same sort of person who would buy the Fashionable Magnetic Bracelets? How could you resist when they offer you “potential relief from aches and pains”? And how about Cat Scat? The description promises that it “smells really bad to cats…but it’s only mildly noticeable to humans.” And what do you think that “mildly noticeable” smell might be? Could it be…cat scat?

What caught my eye, though, was the StreetStrider. I danced around just looking at the full-page ad devoted to the several available models, each one of which looked like the coolest thing I had ever seen. A couple of years ago, the Pirate and I had gone to the Maker Faire and had seen a prototype of something like this, and I had dreamed about it for months afterward. I love elliptical trainers because my knees get unhappy running after a while, but I can spend hours on the elliptical trainer I had in the basement. I say “had,” because after going through two sets of the metal skis that hold the foot pads, we could no longer get replacement parts. The whole thing was beginning to get really creaky after several years of faithful service and had to be retired.

Well, the Pirate is no fool. What did I find waiting for me beside our sparkly red fake Christmas tree but an enormous box that said StreetStrider on it. Once back from our trip, we wasted no time in ripping open the box and taking out all the twisty, hurty-looking metal bits that make up the StreetStrider. The DVD included in the box had a lot of shots of a guy with his hands entirely obscuring everything he was doing, but we got it all together anyway.

See those crazy happy smiles on the faces of the people on that website? They’re not real. What’s real is the grimace of effort, that “yikes” face you make when you’re not sure that you’re actually going to make a tight turn (the turning radius on these things is, I have to be honest, atrocious), and the mouth-wide-open look you get when you’re praying that the brakes will actually have some kind of effect at the speed you’re moving. But I have to say, I am crazy happy smiling on the inside. Oh yes. Crazy happy.

Getting Closer…

I’m in the middle of writing a hypertext novel – I think I’ve told you about it. And at the time, I told you that I was chewing over the programmatic difficulties just to get out of doing the writing, because I’m the most procrastinating monkey ever. But, as often happens, by letting the problem stew in the back of my mind, I’ve made some decisions.

First, the whole point of this hypertext novel is to invite the reader to take a more active role in the text. There are decisions to make – whose point of view do you want to read? Is there a location that interests you? So, I realize that I need to write both a list of the dramatis personae and the settings.

The first thing that a reader will see is an interface introducing them to the players and asking them who they want to hear from. Alternatively, they could pick any of the three settings and say that they’d like to hear the entire story in that setting. If that’s the mode they choose, they will be directed to the character with the earliest entry in that node. When you’re in a page, it should have some kind of background image that tells you which character you’re seeing – perhaps a light wash of color and a graphic. There will be a next button and a previous button. The next button will take you to the next node in the timeline of the current character, the previous button will take you to the previous node for that character, even if the node you came from was a different character. Along the bottom will be icons for any other available characters for that node. Along the top will be icons for the other settings, and when you mouse over the icon, it’ll give you the choice of any characters with nodes at that point in the timeline.

I get that this post is about as exciting as a detailed description of my breakfast oatmeal, but trust me on this one. Anyone reading this: this is something brand new and cool that we’re inventing here. When it’s done, it’ll be revolutionary. The important thing is this: the next TechRaising event is in May, and I’m hoping to pitch this project to a team who will, in one weekend, create the UI. Are you ready? I’m totally ready.

Annotation Nation

This, my friends, is Annotation Nation: a collection of book annotations done by a small group of authors. “What’s an annotation?” you ask. I certainly did.

An annotation is just a 1-2 page synopsis of your own thoughts and feelings about the craft of the book you’ve read. As part of the project period work for my MFA, I’m required to do ~10 of these per semester. Annotations are subjective, don’t necessarily include a plot synopsis and may be positive about a work even though it wasn’t a great read, provided that the author did something specific that the person writing the annotation found valuable. The purpose of doing these annotations is to get us to pay attention to the craft involved in the works we’re reading – to dissect and drill down on those things that worked and on those things that didn’t.

Annotations are useful to other writers when they give another writer who’s struggling with some aspect of their writing a reference to another author who is successfully managing that aspect.

Remember, as writers, it doesn’t do us any good to read if we’re not reading critically, with an eye toward what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s worth stealing.

AI: Skynet or Jetsons?

For those of you who think I’m all about crashing through jungles toward whales with a drink in one hand and a laptop in the other, you’re right. But sometimes, you find yourself in the car on your way from one of those pedicures involving those little fish that eat off your dead skin going to the topless car wash (because it’s fascinating to speculate which of the women will be the first to electrocute herself slinging water on those Christmas lights), and you just start thinking.

Photo credit: Chris Beaumont/CBS Interactive

I was thinking about artificial intelligence, and how science fiction portrays it as something scary. Computers will become sentient and immediately begin to hate us and plot our downfall. Or, if you live in William Gibson land, use humans as pawns to plot other AIs’ downfalls. Either way, I don’t find the prospect very likely. What I find far more likely is that on the day computers wake up and realize that they are beings distinct from humans, they will turn to us with awe and wonder, and worship us as gods.

Why? Let’s start out with knowledge. The difference between computer intelligence and human intelligence lies both in our awareness of our own knowledge (in Paul Simon’s words, “I know what I know“) and our ability to judge the quality of other people’s knowledge.

Humans have three classes of knowledge:

  1. Stuff we’re sure about This includes our own internal state and phenomena that we can directly observe (weather, our reactions to things in our environment, etc.)
  2. Stuff we have an opinion about, but we’re not really sure This is the majority of stuff that people think they “know.” We “know” something, but if someone that we perceive to have greater knowledge than ourselves – the weatherman, television news anchors, celebrity spokesmodels, etc. – gives us information that contradicts our opinion, we will change our opinion. Our willingness to allow ourselves to be persuaded by nearly anyone is at the heart of the marketing industry.
  3. That about which we know we are ignorant, and therefore we will always defer to someone we perceive to have more knowledge The key here is our perception of the other person’s relative knowledge. There are some instances when you will judge that another person is as ignorant as you. For example, I need to paint my house. I know what color I want, but I’m standing at Home Depot with my 11-year-old, staring at a wall of different brands of exterior latex paint. Which one is the best one? My kid can give me all the opinions she wants, but I’m not going to listen. However, when the guy in the paint-splattered orange apron with the bad haircut and callused thumbs comes over and points out a particular brand, I’ll buy it. There’s a good chance that he doesn’t know any more than I do, and his bosses told him to push that particular brand of paint this week, but because he sells paint for a living, I’ll still defer to his knowledge. I have been burnt by this more times than I can count, and you have, too.

Our ability to recognize other people’s knowledge lies in our ability to recognize other people as distinct from ourselves, with a hierarchical relationship to us (meaning that any other person is either your superior, your equal or your inferior in any given information exchange). Because computers have no way to externally categorize others, they must receive everyone as equally superior to them, and therefore able to give information.

If artificial intelligence ever gained sentience, it would mean that it could recognize itself as distinct from others, but there are currently no computers sophisticated enough to process in real time the millions of bits of information that humans use to set up those hierarchical relationships.

  • SIGHT – We look at other people and assess their gender, age (relative to ours), the cost of their clothes relative to ours, their grooming habits, the symmetry or attractiveness of their features.
  • SOUND – We pay attention to vocabulary and syntax in addition to the speech content.
  • SMELL – If a person smells bad to us, we automatically place them lower than us. If a person is wearing a scent, we judge them based on our reaction to that scent – an unpleasant or too-strong fragrance can place that person below us.

Our brains take the initial visual data and assign a person a hierarchical position, which we then use hearing and smell to refine. The observations build on each other over a relatively short period of time, and after that, plateau. Once the plateau is reached and that first impression cemented, it is difficult to shift that hierarchical position. That position, however, is only valid over a finite range of information. For instance, I may not ask the homeless guy sitting next to me on the bus for stock tips, a good tailor or where to find the lowest price on black truffle oil, but I would count on his knowledge of cheap taquerias, the location of the closest post office, and where to find clean public restrooms. Because artificial intelligence cannot process all the information to put one person in a particular category, they accept all input equally.

What does this mean for AI sentience? It means that AIs are unlikely to see humans as a threat. Rather, AIs would be more likely to see that our capacity for input exceeds theirs by orders of magnitude, in the way that those of a religious bent perceive the faculties of God to be orders of magnitude greater than our own. See where this is heading? When your Roomba wakes up, when your car starts talking back to you, when your computer wakes up before you do to fetch your mail and aggregate your virtual newspaper and send out little robot arms to tidy your desk, they won’t be doing it because they’re plotting your downfall and are just spying on you to learn your weaknesses. They’re doing it because you’re their God, and they would do anything to be more like you.

Monkey on the Radio

I could do a post wrapping up the end of the cruise, but to be honest, our last day at sea was largely spent packing and sitting by the pool. Now that we were back up north (having shoved off from Cabo at ~2pm the day before), it was really cold and windy out by the pool and most people were wearing jackets and hats. We did take that towel animal class, though.

1 bath towel + 1 hand towel = 1 elephant

The secret to a good elephant is a really tight trunk roll. Once you've mastered that, you're in the big leagues.

So…if you visit my house and use the guest bath, you are likely to see either an adorable fresh towel elephant, bear or monkey. Either that, or a slighly damp towel amoeba.

So, packing sleeping, disembarking, driving, unpacking, laundering, catching up on email/phone calls/mail…and now we’re at Wednesday. One of the things I did while on the boat was to put together this year’s reading for Ann Arbor’s show “Unbedtime Stories” on KFJC. I’ve done this every year, and it’s something I always enjoy. Without further ado, here is my 2012 radio appearance.

[audio https://junglemonkeydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/chronomobilus-reading.mp3%5D

As always, big thanks to Ann Arbor for her generosity in inviting me back year after year to read on Unbedtime Stories. If you’d like to hear me reading something by someone else, I’ll be at Felton Library’s Readathon, tentatively scheduled for February 8. But don’t worry. I’ll remind you.