Monday, May 27, 2013

Transhumanist Blither

It's late but I'm going to get this down anyway, before the bees kill me.

First of all, from Wikipedia: "Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal at fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities." Ref: the Cybermen, Khan Noonian Singh, Ghost in the Shell, and Transmetropolitan (God help us all). A lot of people got interested in it thanks to Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity; I got interested in it thanks to Charles Stross.

io9 pointed me towards The Transhumanist Wager, a book that is apparently the Atlas Shrugged of transhumanism. It follows Jethro Knights, a man obsessed with obtaining eternal life through biological and technological improvements to his own person, up to and including brain uploading. The Randian bits come in from repressive governments and religions that are cracking down on the Movement and Knights's radical Libertarian philosophy.

Fair enough. And I checked the book out on Amazon, read through the first few pages, and decided I wasn't going to go any further, if only because I've got a list of epic fantasies on my plate and I don't have time. But I did read Jethro's Transhuman equivalent of Asimov's Three Laws, which are:

1) A transhumanist must safeguard one's own existence above all else.

2) A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible - so long as one's actions do not conflict with the First Law.

3) A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe - so long as one's actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.



My brain is imploding!
I'm going to assume these weren't written for the same reason Asimov wrote his Three Laws of Robitics, namely to abuse every loophole possible to write some cracking fiction. So are these three laws really the sort of thing transhumanists should obey?

Let's take Law One, which boils down to "Fuck the women and children, I'm getting on the boat!" Should it really be an ideal that preserving one's own existence comes before preserving the lives of one's children? It's fine if you're a sociopath, I suppose, but not great for people capable of normal human emotion. (I am, granted, ascribing human emotions to beings who might not be technically human.)

Then there's Law Two: "Become God." This is problematic on a ton of levels. First, an omnipotent being isn't likely to maintain "existence" as we would define it, so fulfilling Law Two might very well be mutually exclusive with Law One. Second, omnipotence is generally considered to be a singular attribute, possessed by only one entity (read: God), with members of a pantheon necessarily being vulnerable to other members of the pantheon. So transhumanist values must necessarily result in a Highlander situation: "There can be only one!" Finally, omnipotence is not necessarily a desirable state for a transhumanist, when a post-scarcity culture would suffice. Why be God when you can just be an immortal Superman with infinite wealth?

And then there's Law Three, which seems to be nothing more than a veneer of morality over some pretty messed up values. Screw that! If you're going to seek to be a sociopathic god, go all out. Don't limit yourself! Destroy planets, devour suns, harvest stem cells from newborns - whatever it takes! You've got to look out for Protogod Numero Uno.

Anyway, that's my science fiction allotment for the evening. Now I have to go figure out how many gods it takes to make up a decent magic system. I'm thinking ten...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

This is What Goes On Inside My Head

INTERIOR, OFFICE. The author, ME, has just sat down at his desk.

ME: Okay, here we go! Second draft of the novel. I've gone over the whole manuscript, made notes for every chapter and scene, even got myself a nice slice of time to work in.


ME: Well the prologue went well. Good rewrite of existing material, fits in with the new plot structure I've come up with. On to chapter one! Harald is climbing up a cliff...

INNER EDITOR: What the fuck are you doing?

ME: Wait, what are you doing here? I'm not done drafting yet!

INNER EDITOR: This is your second draft, asshole. Why is your main character climbing up a cliff? He was working in the woods with his brother last time.

ME: Yeah, but that was boring. This cliff is where the last battle of the book is going to take place, so it's like... bookends. And this way I can have him look out to sea and talk about how he wants to leave home, 'cause I'm going to give that to him in spades.

INNER EDITOR: Hrm... yeah, okay, go ahead.


ME: So Harald yells at his older brother to wait up, and goes running down the trail...

INNER EDITOR: Trail? What trail?

ME: The trail back down to the village.

INNER EDITOR: There's a trail from the top of the cliff to the village?

ME: Yeah.

INNER EDITOR: So why the hell did you open with Harald doing some death-defying climb up a sheer cliff?

ME: Well the thing about this cliff is that it's a widow's walk. If somebody gets lost at sea their wives or friends go up there to pray to Suibhne for their return...

INNER EDITOR: What's a Suibhne?

ME: He's god of the sea.


ME: Shut up. The point is, if Suibhne doesn't answer the people who go up the cliff jump have to jump into the ocean to their deaths.

INNER EDITOR: Why don't they just walk back down?

ME: Because Suibhne will get pissed and kill them anyway.

INNER EDITOR: With what, fucking Air Sharks?

INNER EDITOR: So let me get this straight, anyone who goes up to the top of this cliff either gets a loved one back or dies, no exceptions, right?

ME: Right.

INNER EDITOR: And your boy Harald can just climb up there with impunity?

ME: It doesn't count if you climb up the cliff.

INNER EDITOR: It doesn't...

INNER EDITOR: And this Death Cliff is just there? The villagers don't have a guard up in case some dumbass kid goes up there on a dare?

ME: Well I don't know! There's like these... arches along the trail, and if you go up there to pray to Suibhne they try to scare you off so only serious people try it.

INNER EDITOR: But if you go up the cliff by climbing he's totally fine with it.

ME: Yeah. Suibhne respects strength.

INNER EDITOR: Brilliant. Hey, genius, do you understand how stupid that sounds?

ME: Ahh...

INNER EDITOR: I mean it's bad enough you named your main character Harald. Everyone's going to end up calling him Harald Fucking Potter, the Boy Who Ripped Off J.K. Rowling.

ME: Shut up! It's a meaningful name! For reasons!

INNER EDITOR: Sorry, sorry. Hey, different topic, remember you've been reading Mistborn lately?

ME: Yep. Great book.

INNER EDITOR: Love that magic system, right?

ME: Oh yeah.

INNER EDITOR: So how does yours work again?

ME: Uh... well, there are eight gods, and you pray for the power to cast spells...

INNER EDITOR: Any particular kind of spells?

ME: You know, spells... associated with each god's, uh, domain...

INNER EDITOR: And that sorcerer you introduced in the prologue, he uses what kind of god's magic, exactly?

ME: Ahh...

ME: Okay, I didn't think through the magic system as well as I thought.

INNER EDITOR: Or the cliff.

ME: Or the fucking cliff, yes. These are not crippling problems, I can still push forward on this draft.

INNER EDITOR: Suuure, you can do that. Hey, you want to talk about how Harald Potter's gonna hike across an island and back before his father dies of dehydration praying on the Death Cliff?


Thursday, May 9, 2013

HabitRPG: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

In my ever-continuing quest to keep myself on track, I've been experimenting with HabitRPG, a website that promises to help you build good habits and track your tasks by treating your life like a roleplaying game. Earn gold and experience points (EXP)! Level up! Lose health because you hit snooze on your alarm clock for the fifteenth time! And so on.

Welcome to the world of task lists.
I've been using HabitRPG for nearly a month now, and here's what I know:

The Good

The system works. The basic premise of HabitRPG does a great job of modifying your behavior. Good habits give you EXP, so if you add "Take the stairs" as a habit, you'll damn well take the stairs, because if you don't take the stairs you're going to lose hit points and your little sprite man might die. Daily tasks act the same way, except on a timer. You can also tweak your version of a "day" to start and stop at, say, 3 a.m. to cover staying up past midnight on a spontaneous writing jag. To-dos, tasks with no time limit, will gradually become worth more EXP as they age, which counter-intuitively manages to train you to complete overdue tasks when you get a chance. And once you've done enough tasks, you can treat yourself to a simple reward for a small (or large) amount of gold.

You know why World of Warcraft is so addictive? HabitRPG knows, and it's using that power for good.

It looks good. The user interface is clean, simplistic, and does the job in a pixelated style. Your character is roughly customizable to fit a variety of appearances, and you can upgrade him to wear cooler gear and hang out with pets as you progress. There are ads on the page, but they're as unobtrusive as possible and can be dismissed if you donate to the development team.

It's free. As noted, you can donate to the developer, but it's not required. Enjoy the full features of the site for absolutely no money.

It's social. If you feel up to that sort of thing, you can form a Habit Adventuring Party (patent pending) or spend some time chatting with other HabitRPG folk in the tavern. Another plus: while you can log in with Facebook, HabitRPG won't spam your wall for no reason.

The Bad

The system is easy to cheat. If you play by the rules, you'll find yourself making new habits, but it's very easy to avoid any consequences. Check off your dailies! Ignore your bad habits! Basically if you can't stick to the honor system, this website is useless.

Tasks are tricky to organize. You've got habits, dailies and to-dos, which is fine, but the to-dos can be hard to organize, especially if you build up too many to fit on one screen. It's not great to find out you were supposed to bathe the dog two weeks ago, but the task ended up five screens down on the list. Some sort of folder system (perhaps based on the recently-introduced tags) would help make it easier to keep tasks organized.

The Ugly

The user interface ranges from unstable to broken. I'm not sure what code base HabitRPG uses, but the GUI is tricky at best. Simply marking a task complete might require refreshing the page three times, and moving a task entry can send it flying across the screen for no reason. These aren't things that should be happening in a modern user interface, even one that's still technically in development. I'm hoping the planned mobile apps for HabitRPG will be an improvement, but they need to get these things fixed regardless.

Overall, HabitRPG has some kinks that need to be worked out, especially in the user interface, but it's still a worthy tool to help you increase your productivity. Especially if you like EXP.