Sunday, November 30, 2008

A superman story

That night, when all the excitement was over, I asked him the question that's been bugging me.
"Clark, I'm not quite sure how to put this, but, today, the thing with Lex Luthor? It's not the first time he's taken me hostage."
"It's the first time he used extra-terrestrial technology," Clark said with a smile. "That was a switch."
"Why don't you do something about it? Why don't you stop him once and for all?"
"I did take him to the highest security prison in the country, Lois," Clark said.
"Oh, come off it. Shall we make a small wager on how many days it will take him to escape? As I recall you still owe me for guessing who was behind that whole rat-people thing."
"He does seem to get out of those places fairly regularly."
"The only reason he spends any time in prison at all is because behind bars is the only place he can really get away from other people. It's his Fortress of Solitary. But I was talking about you, not Luthor. One of these days, someone's really going to get hurt."
"The thing about Lex is... it's complicated."
"So? We've got time. I love a good story."
"Off the the record?" Clark asked.
"Hmph. All right."
When I was a kid, in Smallville, Lex was pretty much my only friend. I guess you don't really know, growing up here in the city, but in Kansas, I don't know, it seemed like pretty much all anyone was interested in was TV and football. Or football on TV. But Lex, he was different. When he was really young he had this long red hair, down to his waist and curly. He didn't seem to care what anyone else thought about it; he liked it and that was what mattered to him. I thought that was cool, that he didn't care. Later, I realized that the not caring went a little too deep, but that was later.
Plus, he was really smart. He's probably the smartest person on the planet, I'm not kidding. And he thought all the time about things that really matter, not just about science but about how people think, how societies work, why the universe is the way it is. About right and wrong. Every time I'd talk to him he'd have something new to say, something I'd never thought of before or something I had thought of but had never met anyone else who had thought of it.
But that wasn't really it. I mean, I would have liked him, but what really made us close was how interested he was in me. I guess that sounds self-centered. But he was always asking me questions about what it was like to be me, to see things the way I did. He really wanted to know. Most people don't. You do, and I guess that's part of why I like you, too.
X-ray vision, for example. It's not like people think, where things look pretty much the same to me as to everyone else, except when I stare really hard. (What would happen if I stared hard is the layers really would burn away, it's the heat-vision thing.) But for me, I see all the layers, all at once. I see the blood pumping through the chambers of your heart and the way your clavicle bends and the food making it's way through your system, all of it, all at once. My mother figured it out. When I was about five, maybe six, she took an apple peel (she was doing some canning) and she put it together very carefully with her fingers, just barely touching it, holding it together. And she said, "Clark, this is how the rest of us see an apple. Just the surface. This looks the same as an apple to the rest of us. But you see through to the heart of things."
Anyway, I was talking to Lex about this, how I see people as kind of like ghosts, made of layers of tissue, so fragile, just a breath away from blowing apart in the wind. And he really seemed to understand. He couldn't see them that way, but he was good at imagining. He wanted to know whether I saw the same colors as he did, and figured out that I have five primary colors, drew up a kind of color cube, even I didn't understand all of it, but Lex did, even though he couldn't see it. He wanted to see it, so, so badly.
We talked a lot about how I should use my powers, what he would do if he could change the world for the better. I always was arguing for leaving well enough alone, fixing things as they cropped up, but he thought the ethical thing to do was to radically change the way the world works, to throw out the whole broken system and start over from scratch. It's something I've never really settled for myself-- I could save a lot more people from death than I do, if I set about it in a systematic way. I could prevent a lot more suffering than I do. That disagreement was really the beginning of the trouble between us.
Somehow he got some Kryptonite, and that was my first experience with it. You know, there's a whole world of sensation that I'm usually cut off from. Pain, fear of death, fatigue, I know they sound like bad things but they're all part of being human. I couldn't really understand people, why they acted the way they did, until he shared that with me. I feel like, when I'm exposed to Kryptonite, that that's s the only time I'm one of you. The only time I'm like you, I'm human. That's something only Lex has ever given me.
As we got older, became teenagers, he got more bitter, more cruel. Bad things happened with his family, I don't know the whole story. He got into Neitzche, was fascinated with the idea of the Ubermensch, who has transcended all the rules of humanity and society. And then the whole thing came to a head. He had worked out some kind of artificial life that was supposed to give him super-powers, some chemical drink, and it hadn't worked, and as the bugs began devouring him he called for help. And for just an instant, I hesitated. I knew, by then, what he was becoming. And I was scared of him. He's the only one I'm scared of. It shames me to say it, but there it is. It's possible, one day, he will be my death. He knows so much about me, all the ways to hurt me, and it would have been so easy to just let it end there. It was just an instant I hesitated but in that instant our eyes met and he knew.
I worked harder to save him than I think I ever have with anyone else. I blew on him so that he would freeze while I worked, so that I would have time. I heated up a thousand cuts to help them heal faster. I did everything I knew how. I can see tiny details, all the way to the bone. (I would make a good surgeon. I think, from some of the messages he left, that Jor-El expected I would be a surgeon.) I didn't have time to get sutures so I used strands of my own hair. But when he had recovered, he had lost his hair, and a lot of his strength. And everyone thinks it's about that.

Friday, November 21, 2008

light echo

A nice Hubble image you might not have seen. There is also a video of the light echo expanding.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

group intelligence

There are some jobs where people earn more than twice the median income. This means that the employer thinks that the one person is more effective in the position than two average people would be. For some jobs, like CEO of large businesses, the pay is hundreds or thousands of times the median income (when you include bonuses.) Could we make a system where a hundred people could break down all the tasks of a CEO into parts simple enough for each of them to do and reassemble the results quickly enough to respond on the timescales a CEO needs to?
My guess is that it could be done, but that we don't know how to do it yet. (One big problem is that people can't transmit information to each other fast enough or accurately enough.) We don't understand intelligence well enough to divide it into a hundred subtasks, each done by a human. That's a big part of the problem with creating human level AI: even if we had subcomponents as intelligent as an average human, we wouldn't know how to arrange those components to make an exceptional human. But the AI problem deals with components that are roughly as smart as bugs, maybe really stupid fish. So we really don't know how to put those together into an intelligent system.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A pre-history of live action role playing games

Later gladiator battles were often fought with dull weapons as reenactments of historical battles, in appropriate costume. But it wasn't just a drama; the outcome wasn't predetermined. It also points out that commedia dell'arte uses sterotypical characters in stereotypical situations to make it easier to improvise; the connection to how fantasy RPGs are usually played is pretty clear. It also mentions the educational role-playing games that Mrs. Haggart used to use.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Swords from Meteoric Iron

"In a 1923 article in Scientific Monthly, Arthur M. Miller asserted that there "is little doubt but that the human race first learned the use of iron from sideritic masses of celestial origin" – in other words, iron meteorites (438). Meteoritic iron has been found in numerous ancient archaeological sites, ranging from Sumerian artifacts dating back more that 4500 years, to the tomb of Tutankhamen (Bevan and De Laeter 2002: 12). It was alleged that Attila the Hun "and other devastating conquerors had swords from heaven." According to "Averrhoes, an Arab philosopher of the twelfth century… excellent swords were made from a meteor weighing 100 lb that fell near Cordoba, in Spain" (Rickard 1941: 55). The Prambarian meteorite of Indonesia was used to manufacture a number of blades circa 1800, including "superbly fashioned kris daggers" (Bevan and De Laeter 2002: 17). A decade later, James Sowerby forged a sword from a meteorite taken from Cape of Good Hope, which was presented to Czar Alexander of Russia (Burke 1986: 232-3). The famed Damascus blades (made of patterned steel) have alternately been claimed to have originally been made of meteorites or merely made in mimicry of distinctive pattern found in meteoritic iron. Such blades were said to have the ability to slay dragons (Cashen 1998). "

Also of interest:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Proofs and the future affecting the past

Retrocausality is where the future affects the past. I've noticed before that this happens in novels all the time: events happen early in the novel so that other events later in the novel are possible. I noticed today that the same thing happens in proofs: the mathematician often proves theorems he will need to make use of later to prove what he really wants. It's just like how Q gives Bond the very gadgets he will later need to escape from this mission's particular trap.