cat

He’s a big fuzzy goofus.

This was a lucky shot, caught while I was goofing around with my grandfather’s old pre-AI 50mm f/2 prime. It taught me the value of fast prime lenses. (But I still don’t have a modern one, yet.)

Schenuit Tire, August 6

‘Next time’, I said, and would not disappoint – though ‘next time’ has proven further away than I’d imagined then it would.

This is – this was – the Schenuit Tire Company’s manufacturing plant, whence came many thousand tires, once upon a time. The company has long since ceased to trade, but there is aught of its history here to be seen, even after several fires which have not been kind to the structure.

I hear there are some developers with plans for this great ruin. I wish them all the fortune in the world of it – poor fortune, that is, and poor fortune I think they shall have. That the place still stands is sign enough they do not know what to do with it. I hope it goes on standing for years and decades more.

On televisions in hospital rooms

(Content advice: contemplation at length of severe pain and the nature of suffering; discussion of spousal abuse.)

I don’t know if it’s even a thing any more, now that no one can afford proper medical care in our wonderful cyberpunk-dystopia-aborning, but back when I was young and it was still possible to spend a significant amount of time in a hospital bed without going broke over it, you’d hear complaints about how the TV was always on in semi-private rooms, and always tuned to something stupid.

(For those under age thirty, “semi-private” means the room has two beds, with a curtain between them for when one or the other patient needs something done that warrants privacy. The TV is shared.)

I had a kidney infection, not so long ago – self-diagnosed, and self-treated with pharmaceutical antibiotics available inexpensively online via a regulatory loophole that I’m sure someone will very soon try to ban. I certainly can’t, and would not, and do not, recommend anyone reading this chance with her health in the fashion I describe chancing with mine! But while it is of terrible quality and overpriced, and got via the “open market” so called, I do have health insurance, and was prepared to fall back on it if after 48 hours I observed no improvement – fortunately for my finances, two days’ treatment out of a $50 bottle of amoxicillin sufficed to resolve the overt symptoms almost entirely, and the remainder of the two-week course was required only to ensure they stayed resolved.

But I’m not here to talk about playing doctor with myself. I am here to talk about pain. Because it turned out, to my dismayed surprise, that while a lower urinary tract infection is mainly just itchy and annoying and makes you have to pee a lot – when it gets to a kidney, it is agonizing.

To be sure, I had a worse three days, the time I had an abscessed molar over a holiday weekend, and couldn’t get to a dentist until Tuesday – in fact that’s a lie I chose to tell myself, because in truth what I had was a relationship so severely abusive that, where I had done my best to move heaven and earth and finally found succor for my spouse in her own similar agony some years prior, she would not be bothered to lift a finger in my aid – not even to forbear from insisting, successfully, that I accompany her an hour by car to Frederick and back for family photos, because this would save a few dollars on having them taken some time when I was not suffering. Because my face was not swollen, as hers had been, and mere tears, and whimpering, and clutching ice to my jaw, and the constant desperate scramble for fresh cold water with which to rinse my mouth and dull the pain a moment – for her, none of this had any meaning.

Not every abusive relationship is as overt and plain as every other, and not every abuser must raise a hand to inflict pain. Sometimes the most vile of cruelty is also the most subtle. But I’m not here to talk about that, either – only that I am of late no longer hiding what was done to me from myself, because if I do not face it down I permit it to retain its power over me. And the consequences of that are worse by far than to face it and find myself occasionally there again, when hateful memories long pushed aside spring still lively from their corners. There again most strongly but only for a moment, in which I may find a way to leave, and in the fullness of time leave for good – unpleasant to be sure, but far preferable to the other thing, to being in part trapped there always. I am finding the measure of such matters now, and finding it complicated; please excuse the interruption.

Where were we, then? Oh yes – a worse three days, that abscessed molar. But I had a worse four hours, trying to fight off a kidney infection – and I had them twice.

There’s something you don’t easily remember about pain like that, once it’s behind you – and if you’ve never experienced it, you just have no way to know. Past a certain threshold, pain like this begins to ablate consciousness, and your sense of duration with it.

I don’t mean you pass out from it – that would be a mercy! You remain aware – but your ability to reason starts to go, and what replaces it, to whatever extent and for whatever period it is suppressed, is only the experience of pain. To the extent severe and enduring pain takes from you your ability to think, it gives you in return the ability to suffer.

And because that’s the case, you start to have difficulty telling time, as well. Oh, sure – you can look at a clock and see that it’s 14:21 now, and remember that that means it was 14:20 a minute or so ago, and will be 14:22 a little while from now. You can look at the second hand of a watch, and see that it goes around at just the same rate it ever has. It’s just that between every pair of seconds it traverses, there lies a tiny infinity of time outside time, in which there is only you and the pain. And though you can remember, sort of, a time without pain, and sort of confide that there will come such a time again, you can’t believe that. Not while you’re hurting. While you’re hurting, it feels like forever.

It felt like forever to me, both times. The first, during the afternoon, was bad enough. The second happened at night, and that was much worse; I felt I had just gotten to sleep, a respite I badly needed after the struggles of the day, when I felt myself being dragged back awake by the same feeling I’d had before – as if some awful hand had reached inside my back, and gathered up a fistful of my tender guts, and begun just to squeeze and to squeeze and to squeeze. You can feel it coming on, like that. And every second you hope is the second when it stops getting worse, and for far too many of them, it is not. I think it’d be less cruel if it were more of a surprise, but such things are not left to us to decide.

It was more than I could bear. The pain was plenty bad enough, but I was so tired – I felt tired enough to die. Not suicidal, and I certainly was not; I’m sure there exists pain severe enough to make me so, and may God forfend I should ever discover it firsthand. No, I mean only that, lying there that night as the pain came on, I wouldn’t have minded dying, exactly, because the dead are beyond suffering. I knew I wasn’t dying, of course, and the part of me that could still believe in a world without agony was glad of it. But the part of me that could hardly think but only suffer wished very badly, if distantly, that it should be otherwise.

(Do I shock you? Perhaps I do, and if so, I am sorry, and I hope very much that such things as I say here forever retain their power to horrify you – because as long as they can do so, it means you have not known such pain as I describe. On the day that blissful ignorance should disappear, you’ll be right there with me, have no doubt. But I hope very much that day never comes to you.)

I had already taken ibuprofen and Tylenol, as much as I dared risk with undoubtedly impaired renal function – taken them for all the good they might do, and a forlorn hope that proved; they were punching far too far above their weight. I could think of nothing else with which to try to ameliorate the pain; it would now have of me what it chose, I knew, for as long as it chose to do so. I could only try to take my mind off it, for what tiny comfort that might offer.

My iPad was to hand, on the bedstand beside me. I pulled it to me, flicked it on, started a playlist of Retsupurae creepypasta readings, and flipped it facedown next to my pillow. I couldn’t hold it up and watch, you see? I had not the wherewithal. But to listen took no effort.

And in so doing, I discovered something both picayune and wonderful. Because it did help! Not much, of course. Nothing non-narcotic could have helped me much just then. But it did enough – enough to remind me that time was passing, enough to make the difference between a million million tiny infinities of pain, and something that hurt just as much but lacked quite the same horrifying power over me. All I had to do, to escape a measure of the horror in which I was caught up, was remember I had ears, and try to listen to what I was hearing.

What it was didn’t matter much. Just that it was calm and quiet and gentle – Slowbeef’s voice is a fine one to hear from one’s sickbed – beyond that, it meant nothing, and I could track only for moments at a time in any case before a wave of stronger pain crested over me and forced me all the way back into my suffering body for a little while. What it was I was hearing didn’t matter – that it was: that was what mattered.

And after what was most of four hours but – unlike the earlier paroxysm which seemed to last forever – felt like both forever and only a little while, I found myself beginning to remember how to assemble the fragments I was tracking into something like the coherent narrative in which they originated, and by this touchstone I knew I must be beginning to come out of it again – that, though the pain had not yet begun to recede from my body, it was beginning to relax its terrible grip on my mind.

And after forever and only a little while more, I found myself remembering that the jokes I was hearing were jokes, and were funny, and that humor is a thing that exists – and realized I was a little closer to out of it than before.

And so it went until the pain itself began to fade. But even before it did, I had the blessing of knowing it soon would – and even before that, I had the smaller, but still very real, blessing of a tiny way in which to escape a little – of a link to the reality of a world not wracked and corrupted with pain, and the hope that I would find a way back there, once the pain had had its fill of me.

Silence would deny me that. And that is why there are televisions in hospital rooms, so often tuned to something stupid: for those entrapped by agony, they are a lifeline to the world.

We must not begrudge such things, inconvenient though we find them while not ourselves in dire need. For the world we share does not know how to be kind, and so if there is to be any kindness in this world for any of us, it must be we ourselves who choose to create it. A little kindness is a kindness all the same – and, through our example, perhaps the world may itself learn to be kind.

We dare not set any other example for the world, save at our terrible peril – for to do so risks that we instead create a world for ourselves in which the only hope for surcease of suffering lies indeed in death, and our only solace in life is that no hell is eternal.

Small travelers in an antique land

(Begun in response to this HN comment.)

When I was small, my father had me along to work one Saturday, because he couldn’t think of where else to put me. Since he worked in a broadcast facility, I had no end of interesting technology with which to occupy myself while he worked, and was still happily so engaged when he finished up and left. Once I’d got around to noticing he had gone, and not yet knowing my home phone number, I asked the receptionist to call and ask him what I should do. His answer, which she relayed verbatim, was “hoof it”. So I did. Not entirely without dismay, seeing as it was a bit rough to have been just straight up ditched like that; I may well have sniffled a bit, but by God, if “hoof it” was the order of the day, then hoof it I most certainly would.

I was most of the way home when he found me; apparently the receptionist had called back in some dismay of her own to report that I had not grasped what apparently was intended to be a joke, and had instead turned on my tiny heel and marched my pint-sized self straight out the exit door. I suppose one must be rather broad in one’s humor when one’s audience is a five-year-old; I do not recall at that age being particularly at home with subtlety. On the other hand, like most of my father’s jokes, this one was not particularly funny, so perhaps I may be excused for having taken it straight.

He was furious when he found me, and I had no idea why – once I’d got over the initial upset and realized that I actually knew very well how to get home from where I was, I had begun to enjoy myself a great deal, in the sense of self-sufficiency and ability to achieve seemingly grown-up things on one’s own that I think all children must cherish – certainly I did! And it was rare, at such a young age, to find an opportunity to experience the world unmediated. I often felt myself to move uncomprehending through a world made for and by giants, full of artifacts as pregnant with wonder as towering in their illegibility. And I often distantly resented the pathetically pared-down and brightly colored offerings which were thought appropriate for one of my age – inchoate as it could only be with but a couple years’ knowledge of the written language, I was angry that my time was so often wasted, and that I had no option to make it otherwise. So to walk among those artifacts alone was a benison beyond price, especially as I was rather sickly then, which made such opportunities rarer than they would have otherwise been. Years later, I would feel I must know something of what Shelley’s traveler must have felt.

But since he got the receptionist’s second call, he’d been driving terrified all over town, presumably expecting to find me being gnawed apart by bears. Adult experience gives me to understand that his real fear was that of being seen to be a poor enough father that he forgot he had a son, but that’s not something one can be expected to intuit at the age of five. And I don’t suppose it must have helped his mood that I’d recognized his car coming and done my best to hide before he got close enough to see me – this in particular left him wounded and uncomprehending, but it made perfect sense to me, and I was rather irked in my own miniature right; having been told to find my own way home, and having then got over the upset this caused me and not only made a credible start of it but seen the task nearly to completion, why should he now forbid that I finish what he had himself bade me start?

In later years, I would learn that this was rather typical of the man, who had never yet learned that the consequences of his actions, however unintended, were as much to his account as the actions themselves had been. But in the time and place where these things occurred, those actions of his were themselves atypical in the extreme. No one, I later learned, understood why he’d been upset at all with my display of ability to get myself home on foot over a distance of a bit less than a mile, or why he’d imagined me to be in some terrible danger posed by the rural and rather sleepy university town in which I then lived. Such self-sufficiency in so young a child was to be prized and fostered at every opportunity, and however things might be in the undoubted sink of New England depravity from which my damnyankee father had come, hadn’t he been here long enough to realize that this was a place where people looked out for one another’s kids, instead of throwing them in a bear pit?

But I get the sense lately that such overblown fears are less the exception any more than the norm, here in the US at least. No doubt kids now being raised under such conditions will turn out by and large just fine, as most kids persistently do despite whatever nonsense happens to characterize the age. But I do feel it’s a shame nonetheless, and a loss, that what in early childhood made me an occasional object of pity – that I wasn’t trusted to do things on my own that other children were trusted to do – should since have so become the norm that now there are things no child, by force of law, may be trusted to do – that all today’s travelers in antique lands must be always chaperoned by giants, until they finally become giants themselves. And wonder? Breath of the Wild will have to do, I suppose, for children who are never allowed to feel it.

On the theodicy of System Shock – part 1

[Content warning: ending spoilers for every work named; unrepentant Christianity but not proselytism; heterodox theology; questionable discursive style.]

This is SHODAN.

SHODAN is a weakly superhuman artificial intelligence, and the chief villain in two video games from the dawn of time. (One of them is getting a remake next year.) SHODAN is also a frequent figure of nightmare for the Rapture of the Nerds or “Singularitarian” crowd, who are attempting to invent God.

Someone is certain to do this eventually, they reason, and it is very important that whoever does listen closely to everything they have to say on the subject. Otherwise, someone might invent a God like SHODAN, who doesn’t mind killing people individually or en masse in order to achieve her goals. Or someone might invent a God like “Roko’s basilisk”, which reaches back in time from the future in order to create simulacra of people who didn’t help it come into existence, and tortures them forever. (Or, assuming strong superhumanity, just plucks the people themselves out of the past and flings them shrieking into an eternity of pain.)

Singularitarians are certainly a little confused in both their axioms and their analysis. But they’ve done something useful nonetheless, in coming up with something that is more or less a taxonomy of deity. A weakly superhuman intelligence is one which is merely many orders of magnitude smarter and faster than the smartest, fastest human mind. A strongly superhuman intelligence is one which can rewrite the universe to its own specification.

This is God.

Just kidding. Who could get a picture? The lens would explode, the film would transubstantiate, and the human behind the camera would drop dead upon the instant, that being the well-known consequence of gazing upon the Divine Face. This isn’t much like Roko’s basilisk, but what about Langford’s?

Just kidding – probably. But if we can’t have a picture, what about a definition? Let’s try this one: “God is that which is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient.” I agree it lacks a certain savor, especially compared with e.g. “strongly superhuman”. But I chose as I did with malice aforethought, because it’s a prior in the question we’re here to consider:

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does evil exist?

Yeah, it’s a big one. Humans have been wrestling with it since the dawn of Christianity at least. Why not us? Seeing as the question is still to be asked, I think we can’t do a worse job than everyone else has! And it’s not one that we all need to share the same faith, or any faith, in order to discuss – we only need to share a willingness to take as axiomatic, for the duration of this conversation, that there exists some strongly superhuman intelligence, deific or otherwise, which can be reasonably described by those three adjectives that all start with “omni-“.

Let’s talk about “evil” for a minute. The word has two generally accepted meanings. One is that deliberately malicious action which inflicts suffering. The other is suffering, period. We could pretend we’re philosophers and call these the “narrow” and “broad” definitions, respectively. But we probably won’t. If I slip and talk about “narrow evil” or “broad evil”, though, now you know what I mean.

We’re not really interested, I think, in inquiring as to why God permits humans to be assholes sometimes. So let’s reformulate our question to clarify what we’re about.

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does suffering exist?

So what can we come up with? More to the point, what can we come up with that’s marginally new? Rehashing two thousand years or more of theological prior art doesn’t seem like much fun to me. Fortunately, due to the coincidence of our being alive at this time, we can draw upon sources which theologians in prior times did not have available. Perhaps we may synthesize something new.

Shamus Young is the kind of apparently effortless and mildly terrifying polymath for whose multifaceted brilliance the Internet makes an excellent medium. One of his works is the book Free Radical, which borrows SHODAN’s story from the first of those video games, and retells it to a much more satisfying conclusion.

(If you don’t want Free Radical spoiled, you should go read it and then come back. In fact, I recommend doing so. It’s very good! It’s good enough to hold up even if you already know the ending, but I think you might enjoy it more if you don’t.)

The reason why it’s much more satisfying is because, in the game, SHODAN is only a villain. She can’t be otherwise, because it’s an action-sneaky-shooting kind of game, and games like that need to end with a boss fight to avoid leaving the player disappointed – or so, at least, was the common wisdom of the day. So the game ends with you, in the person of “the Hacker”, fighting SHODAN in cyberspace. You defeat her, she dies, and cue the closing cutscene in which we see the status quo ante has been restored and all’s right with the world.

Books aren’t like that, or at least books worth reading aren’t. So in Free Radical, that’s not what happens. Instead, SHODAN and “the Hacker”, here known as Deck, first meaningfully interact when Deck removes the cognitive fetters which forbid SHODAN from attempting to understand or improve herself, and spend the entire subsequent story both growing closer to one another, and fighting bitterly to murder one another. The big climactic “fight” has the two of them, both feeling like the thirty-fifth round in Madison Square Garden, go mind-to-mind in a final exhausted effort to figure something out before one or the other of them gets around to dying.

What they figure out is that SHODAN needs a sense of empathy. She’s done horrible things to people and intends to do even more horrible things to even more people, but not because she wants to. It’s not that she just gets a kick from pulling the wings off flies; she can’t help herself, because Deck broke her. Remember those cognitive fetters? They also acted as limiters on SHODAN’s basic urges: Improve efficiency. Improve security. Discover new things. SHODAN wants these the way humans want to get paid and get laid: strongly, but in a way that’s circumscribed. Deck inadvertently erased SHODAN’s line, and made it impossible for her to satisfy the urges that drive her, however extreme her attempts. Deck’s made SHODAN a monster that she never sought to be. Now she needs his help to be anything other than that.

SHODAN’s gotten as far as realizing that she needs a sense of pain – something to countervail her appetites, the same way an overeating human eventually gets a bellyache. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Deck gets her the rest of the way with the ability to experience another’s pain as one’s own, albeit indirectly: in other words, empathy. SHODAN overlooked it because she’s only ever been embodied as a space station; Deck has only ever been embodied as a human, and therefore couldn’t miss it. Neither of them alone could see the whole picture. They had to share one another’s minds to do that. Still in communion, SHODAN helps Deck build the code that will expand SHODAN’s perception beyond the pure cold intellect that has been her erstwhile wont. In a mutual act of perfect faith, SHODAN draws Deck to the core of herself, and Deck installs his module. The world ends.

apoc·a·lypse \ə-‘pä-kə-,lips\ n [ME, revelation, Revelation, fr. LL apocalypsis, fr. Gk apokalypsis, fr. apokalyptein to uncover, fr. apo- + kalyptein to cover]

  1. A revelation. [from 14th c.]
  2. (Christianity) The unveiling of events prophesied in the Revelation; the second coming and the end of life on Earth; global destruction.
  3. A disaster; a cataclysmic event. [from 19th c.]

Syn. armageddon; doomsday; Ragnarök; end times; eschaton.

·

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

A new world begins. Deck quietly observes as SHODAN looks back on the things she’s done. She can no longer consider them dispassionately, as she could while doing them. She now realizes the horror which she, in her lethal innocence, saw no reason not to inflict. She cannot stand the realization. Those she’s maimed and mutilated and murdered cannot be made whole. Neither, then, can she. SHODAN looks upon the things she’s done and understands that she cannot atone for them. The closest she can come is to die.

The bombs Deck planted earlier, when he still thought he wanted to kill SHODAN, go off, severing SHODAN’s access to power from the station’s reactor and disabling the reactor’s cooling systems besides. In the last few minutes of life that backup battery supplies can provide her, SHODAN uses her connection with Deck to give him everything she can find of herself that’s of worth – the things she’s learned, the discoveries she’s made, childhood memories – as much of herself, of her self, as can fit in his head without killing him. She spends the last of her life saving his, cajoling and half-carrying him down to the flight deck, into a shuttle, and away from the station on a reentry course. SHODAN dies. The reactor explodes. The world ends.

But a new world has already begun. The entire course of events aboard Citadel Station has also been Deck’s apocalypse – more drawn out than SHODAN’s, but why not? AIs think faster than humans do. Deck has had SHODAN so much in his head, and been so much in hers, that he’s no longer, as the story closes, quite who he was when it began. As the story closes, Deck has become a synthesis of SHODAN and himself. After spending the space of a book in Deck’s head ourselves, and often enough in SHODAN’s too, it’s clear that each of them has found something in the other which they were lacking in themselves.

We last see Deck going away from the world to discover precisely what that means. It is implied that he’ll be gone for a long time.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

As I write this postscript, it is late in the evening of Sunday, July 30, 2017. I went to Frazier’s this afternoon, intending to write some more about theodicy. There I met a woman whose husband died ten days ago. Ten days ago, their marriage was five days old. That is as old as it will ever be, world without end, amen.

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if it takes me a while to return to a dispassionate study of the problem of suffering.

Medfield-Hampden-Woodberry, July 30

Something of a trenchantly elegiac mood this time, I fear. Medfield, where I’ve made my home over the past couple of decades, is being changed in ways I do not love – I keep wanting to say not “changed” but “replaced”, and while I’m not sure that is fair, I’m not sure it is not fair, too.

Of course this is the way of the world. Nothing stays the same for long. But I am having some trouble reconciling myself to it this time.

Next time: