The Opposite of Censorship

I think it’s wonderful that I live in a country where there are free speech protections where I get to say what I want. The United States is mostly free of censorship, and whatever censorship it has is mostly tolerable. Yet there is something deeply wrong with this unfiltered media environment that we live in.

For one thing, there is an incredible amount of misinformation in the world right now. The Internet has provided a forum for anyone to voice their opinion, even conspiracy theorists, poorly informed people, or shameless liars seeking attention. Perhaps I am being too harsh on the Internet, when television was popular there were concerns about the accuracy of the information provided by the “boob tube”. But certainly, because there are no editorial standards for the Internet, we are constantly bombarded with misinformation. Most of us don’t have the time to fact-check everything we read, so many of us end up taking on faith what we see.

Then there is the whole problematic issue of online harassment. When people send threatening or demeaning messages online it poisons the social environment of cyberspace. But should online harassment or cyberbullying being counteracted with censorship? This is a difficult question to answer, because this type of censorship could easily devolve into violation of freedom of speech. Legally this is not a problem, because the United States constitution only provides freedom of speech from the government, but websites are run by private businesses so they can censor however they like. But ethically it’s much tougher to decide. In the case of cyberbullying, there is a case to be made that if you bully someone online, it makes the person resort to self-censorship. I think there should be censorship, but done with good guidelines to prevent abuse of the system.

Censorship should be like war; something that should never happen in a perfect world, but has to be available as a last resort. Most of us would rather there’d be no censorship, but there are difficult situations where even the most liberal-minded of us would acquiesce. A while back Twitter had to face the decision whether it should take down the accounts of ISIS members who were spreading propaganda and recruiting people. At first it decided not to, but that caused public outrage, and eventually they decided to crack down on the organization. Whether this is ultimately a good thing or not, we can only see through hindsight; but personally I thought it was an appropriate response. Still, I think minimizing the amount of censorship is a good thing.

But what will remain problematic is that censorship is silently slipping back into our world. What I am talking about is that search engines and social media sites can manipulate our search results to filter out certain results it doesn’t want us to see. Famously, Facebook’s trending news section has been shown to have certain biases because it was curated by hand. Currently there are no accountability standards mandated by law or agreed upon by the industry, which is troubling.

The good news is that censorship has never prevented people from finding out the truth. In France during the ancien regime, the monarchy censored many things, everything from the first French encyclopedia to naughty drawings of Marie Antoinette (yes, that was a thing back then). But the people were still able to get their hands on these materials by smuggling them from Switzerland. The Soviet Union did its best to prevent Western movies and music from entering, but virtually everyone had access to them through smugglers. The same thing is happening in North Korea.

The greatest challenge may not be censorship that any authority imposes, but the way we censor ourselves. What I am talking about is the inability for most of us to listen to or engage with ideas we disagree with. The Internet is less of a “global village” and more of a collection of warring tribes stuck in their own echo chambers. Liberals and conservatives occupy different niches on the Internet, only meeting on Twitter or the YouTube comment section to taunt one another. Conspiracy theorists are stuck with their bizarre theories without seriously examining their ideas by looking at facts that contradict their ideas. Metalheads ridicule One Direction fans for their own inane reasons. This is actually the most dangerous form of censorship because it is not imposed above but arises organically from below, and therefore harder to get rid of.

Even though censorship will very likely be necessary to some degree, we should always as an ideal treat it as unnecessary. What stands in the way of getting rid of it are flaws in human nature. We need for humans to be kinder and more reasonable about the world. While human nature may never be perfected, it nonetheless stands as a goal to strive for.

What if Tech Companies Made Potatoes?

Here is what would happen if the tech companies started making potatoes:

Apple: The Apple iPotato has all its eyes removed so you can’t grow your own potatoes. You need to buy a $5 peeler and $10 knife made by Apple that was specifically designed to peel and cut your potato. Every year Apple runs ads touting how great its next version of the potato will be, but all you ever notice are slight changes to the shape and color without noticing any difference in taste.

Microsoft: The Microsoft Potato keeps telling you that the potato you own aren’t authorized copies, even though you have a written certificate of authenticity from Microsoft. Hackers can easily break into your potato and steal personal information, and so much malware infects your potato that you give up and buy a new one.

Linux: There are more than 200 different varieties of Linux Potatoes, none of which you like. They tell you that the potatoes are open-source, and you can change the genetic code of the potatoes to make them look and taste however you like. But you don’t have a degree in genetic engineering and don’t know how to change the genetic code of potatoes.

Google: The Google Potato will monitor every minutiae of your life, including your grocery bill, exercise habits, sleep pattern, sexual activity, tax return, social security number, dress size and your children’s grades in school. After a thorough analysis of this information, it will recommend what products you should buy. At night it will relay all your personal data to the NSA to determine if you’re a terrorist.

Elon Musk: The Elon Musk potato will pack five times the amount of nutrients and fiber as the regular potato, and will make your teeth white and farts smell like perfume. But each one costs $100, and might explode or crash into the side of a truck for no reason.

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Became Popular

When we write fiction nowadays, we tend to think that there are certain rules of style we should follow. One of these is the “Show, Don’t Tell” adage, which says that we should tell a story through the actions and speech of the characters rather than simply narrating or summarizing what happened. But few people are aware how modern these rules are, and that writers in the past never followed them. Take this passage from Pride and Prejudice written by Jane Austen in 1813:

Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again.

The main thing to notice is how lacking in details this particular scene is. What kind of dance were Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy dancing? What was he saying that made Mr. Bingley appear lively? What were all the characters wearing? What expression was on Mr. Darcy’s face when he was dancing? Sorry, but Jane Austen doesn’t show details of her character’s actions, we have to use our imagination to fill them in. Now, compare that with a passage from Fifteen, a novel written by Beverly Cleary in 1956:

“Hello there!” A girl’s voice interrupted Jane’s daydream, and she looked up to see Marcy Stokes waving at her from a green convertible driven by Greg Donahoe, president of the junior class of Woodmont High School. “Hi Marcy,” Jane called back. People who said “Hello there” to her always made her feel so unimportant. Greg waved, and as the couple drove on down the hill, Marcy brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and smiled back at Jane with the kind of smile a girl riding in a convertible with a popular boy on summer day gives a girl who is walking alone. And that smile made Jane feel that everything about herself was all wrong.

This passage reads almost like it was written for a movie, even though it wasn’t. Every visual detail that is required to film this as a movie has been given, and it works quite ingeniously. Teenagers riding in a convertible is a shorthand for hedonism, which the author does not have to state explicitly. Even though the line “[she] smiled back at Jane with the kind of smile a girl riding in a convertible with a popular boy on summer day gives a girl who is walking alone” sounds very awkward, it tells all us the attitude Marcy had towards Jane perfectly.

The story of how we went from the style of Jane Austen to what we have now is an interesting one. I tried to do some research on it but realized it would be too long to put in a single post, but suffice it to say it began with the Realist and Naturalist writers of the 19th century. They believed in describing reality “the way it is” instead of using clichés or formulas. This style of writing can be illustrated by an example from Honore de Balzac’s A Daughter of Eve, written in 1839:

In one of the finest houses of the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins, at half-past eleven at night, two young women were sitting before the fireplace of a boudoir hung with blue velvet of that tender shade, with shimmering reflections, which French industry has lately learned to fabricate. Over the doors and windows were draped soft folds of blue cashmere, the tint of the hangings, the work of one of those upholsterers who have just missed being artists. A silver lamp studded with turquoise, and suspended by chains of beautiful workmanship, hung from the centre of the ceiling. The same system of decoration was followed in the smallest details, and even to the ceiling of fluted blue silk, with long bands of white cashmere falling at equal distances on the hangings, where they were caught back by ropes of pearl.

Notice that every mundane detail, no matter how small, is described in detail. This is a far cry from Jane Austen where she describes the actions of her characters in only broad strokes. Eventually this “showy” style caught on, became adopted by many writers.

This “showy” style has both positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, it makes novels much more vivid and lively. When I watch a movie set in the Victorian era I always enjoy seeing the costumes, elegantly decorated dance halls and so on. But none of that is described in any of her books, making them as dull as the paper they were printed on. Many of her paragraphs are simply exposition, making her books very boring to read.

On the negative side, this “showy” style can be problematic because novels aren’t movies. If a book tries to fill in every realistic detail, it would be boring as hell. Nobody needs to know what the doormat looks like, or how many gray hairs are on a lady’s head. Yet sometimes authors will include these boring details as though they were describing a movie. Sometimes I find myself falling into this trap. But writing in a “showy” style can make a work much more interesting. Take this scene from Heart of Darkness, written in 1899:

The sea–reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

Using powerful visual images to give emotional salience to your story is a very good way to communicate to the reader. The point isn’t to get rid of this style, but to use it judiciously. Unlike Jane Austen, we have a much more versatile toolbox of techniques she didn’t have.

Part 7: Refining Emotions

In order to justify my work I had to write a report explaining my methods and results, but even though I have done much work for the past three years there was little progress to show for it. Alice’s original A.I. software depends on a set of elegant mathematical ideas, while the software I wrote running alongside is based on observations of the tangle mess of axons that is inside our heads. The main problem laid in integrating the two software modules, which was almost like trying to write a calculus textbook in the form of a romance novel, it can be done but it can’t be done well. My intuition was to have certain situations under which she will display emotions, and that will at least demonstrate some of the capabilities of her neuronal networks.

It took me a few weeks to do this, Vera became impatient and one day came up to John’s lab to find me. I was sitting at my desk reviewing some of Alice’s code when she walked through the door with a smile, then walked towards me as I was absorbed in looking at the code and said, “Hi Robbie, how are you doing?”

I looked at at her with indifference and said, “Oh, I’m simply making sure that Alice runs perfectly the way I intended her to.”

“That’s very nice,” Versa said, “but I need your progress report.”

I stood up from my desk and said, “The report is ready, but first I would like to show Alice’s capabilities as of now.”

I walked Vera over to Alice, and said in a loud voice, “Alice, wake up!”

She opened her eyes and looked at me, it was a few seconds before she completely came out of her sleep, then I took a live cockroach attached to a string and placed it on her lap. Even before it had touched her clothes she began to cringe, and when it did she stood up and flapped around her skirt to throw the cockroach off of her.

“I have taught her how to be afraid of cockroaches,” I explained. Vera was delighted to see Alice’s emotional reaction to the insect, then putting the cockroach back into the jar I said, “you can see how realistic the reaction to the cockroach is, the look of disgust on her face looks absolutely genuine.” I then reached for a cage containing a mouse, took it out and placed it in Alice’s hands. She looked at the mouse delightfully and started to stroke it and make clicking noises to amuse the mouse. “I also taught her to adore small animals. It wasn’t very difficult, it seems that she had this instinct already latent within her, all I had to do was to guide her a little bit.”

“Well, it seemed like a success, I’ve never seen a robot display such realistic emotions,” Versa said.

“Unfortunately not all is well,” I said, taking the mouse away from Alice, and as I put it back into the cage Alice showed her displeasure on her face, “while it seemed that Alice can display emotions, there are certainly many gaps in her understanding of human feelings. Alice, look at my right hand!” I raised my middle finger at Alice, she calmly looked at my right hand, then back at my face, then stared away from me as she lost interest.

Vera did not know how to respond, she looked at me with shock and asked, “What was that supposed to demonstrate?”

“You see, Alice doesn’t understand emotions in the same way we understand them,” then showed my middle finger and asked, “Alice, what does this gesture mean?”

Responding calmly, she said, “The gesture you show is called the finger, the bird, or flipping someone off. It is a rude gesture meant to offend the person it is directed towards.”

Still holding up my finger I said, “Alice, do you feel offended?”

In a monotone voice she responded, “No.”

Vera was amused by Alice’s response, then asked, “What was going on with Alice?”

I explained, still holding up my middle finger, “You see, the reason that Alice responds in this manner is that this gesture, let’s call it flipping the bird, doesn’t in itself mean anything intrinsically. It is simply an arbitrary sign that we have attached a meaning to. In order for her to understand what flipping the bird means I have to explicitly teach her or program her to have an emotional reaction whenever I flip her the bird.”

“But Alice herself knows that this was supposed to be an offensive gesture, why wasn’t she offended?”

“It turned out there are two aspects of understanding that are relevant here. The first one is the pure semantic meaning of the sign, such as how it is related to other signs and so on, but the second one is the emotional aspect which doesn’t have anything to do with the semantic meaning of the sign.” I flashed Vera the “OK” sign with my hand and said, “In certain parts of Italy this is a very offensive sign.”

“Okay,” Vera said with a look of confusion.

“Now, knowing what you now know, are you offended when I flash you this gesture?” I asked, flashing the gesture again.

“No.”

I looked at Alice and said, “This is how Alice operates. Not only does she have to know what words and signs mean semantically, but she also has to respond with the correct emotion towards those words and signs. The problem is that we humans have tens of thousands of signs which we react to emotionally, and there are many subtleties in how we interpret those signs as well as experience those emotions. Figuring out how to create the appropriate emotion toward all those signs will be a challenge.”

“This is fascinating, but you still have to give me your progress report for your project.”

“Okay, it’ll be in your inbox in a few minutes,” I said, then walked over to my computer to e-mail the paperwork to Vera.

Part 6: Some Assembly Required

The following is an excerpt from my novel, Girlfriend in a Box

Almost all the robotics engineers and A.I. scientists on the floor of John’s building gathered in his lab to see the unveiling of Alice to the scientific community. Most of them had heard about Alice and wanted to see if the legends were true, and I gladly put on a show for them. As I prepared to assemble Alice a group of about 20 people stood behind me, all of them eagerly looking at the two pieces of luggage in front of me as they all fantasized about the magic contained within them.

I started off by opening the smaller of the two cases to reveal Alice’s torso, nobody except me knew what to expect. I finally broke the tension when I revealed it, which almost looked like the inside of a desktop computer. It was an anticlimactic moment as nearly everybody expected something more anthropomorphic, but then I explained, “This is what the inside of Alice’s torso looks like, I had to strip her skin to fit her inside my luggage, but this is truly the guts of Alice.”

I took a screwdriver and started to point out the important features, “Inside of this titanium rib cage are six motherboards, each of them holding 128 32-core ARM processor, each core augmented by a 32 register 64-bit SIMD coprocessor.” I pointed to two metal boxes outside of the rib cage, then said, “That’s a solid-state drive, which is used more or less like non-volatile RAM for accelerating database searches, and a holographic memory drive which acts more like long-term memory.” Pointing further down I said, “This is the fuel cell that generates the electricity to power Alice, we chose a fuel cell because it is the best power-to-weight power source. This particular one runs at 200 °C, which is why it has all this thermal insulation around it. It uses light hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane, propane or butane.”

“ARM processors, that doesn’t sound like particularly sophisticated hardware,” John said.

I looked back at him and said, “Yes, all of the electronic components in Alice are mass-produced parts. My father’s idea was to create an android that can be mass-produced. Alice may not look pretty now, but that’s because I haven’t put on her skin. But first, since the skin is very tight, I’ll need some lubrication to put it on. John, do you have any?”

John was surprised, he responded, “Do I look like the kind of person who carries lube with me all the time?”

The entire group giggled, I rolled my eyes as I waited for them to calm down and said, “Please, get your minds out of the gutter.”

Someone went to the chemistry stockroom and fetched a solution of polyethylene glycol. I rubbed it onto parts of the titanium alloy frame of Alice, then took the skin of her torso out of the wooden crate and started shimmying it onto her austere-looking electronics. As her skin was being slipped on everybody was surprised by how human-like she was beginning to appear already, but what shocked them the most were the realistic-looking genitalia. As I snapped the vaginal opening of Alice into place I heard John saying, “Holy shit, is that a pussy?”

I felt embarrassed, not only by John’s question but also the bemused look on everybody’s face as they stared at Alice’s naked torso. “If you insist on calling it that, I prefer the term ‘girl thingy,’” I said, causing everyone in the room to giggle, “but if you want to know, yes, it’s a vagina. My dad wanted to create a ‘companion robot.’ What he had in mind is a robot that is designed to take care of the elderly, to feed them, help them move around, remind them to take their medication, turn them over if they are bedridden and so on. Dad thought that sexual activity would help the elderly achieve a longer life, or at least a more pleasurable one. Well, at least it is a great marketing point. My dad also created a male version of this android with fully functioning male genitalia, just don’t ask me where he gets the semen.”

All of the people in the room were either smirking or embarrassingly covering their mouths as I explained all this. When I took Alice’s head, arms and legs from the crate John said, “To be honest I’m slightly creeped out seeing all this. All these naked body parts look so realistic, yet they are all dismembered like some psychotic killer is disposing a body. I bet that’s how Ed Gein got started, he was trying to create a realistic-looking female android so he started digging graves, then decided that he might get realistic skin by killing his victims.”

I further explained the workings of Alice to the crowd as I showed her head to them, “You might think that the head would contain artificial intelligence hardware, but all of the microprocessors responsible for the A.I. are in the torso. The head is filled mostly with linear motors to reproduce the subtle features of human facial expressions, along with sensors such as cameras for vision, gyroscope for balance, and even chemical sensors to detect smell and taste.”

I pushed my screwdriver up Alice’s nose to release a latch securing the top of Alice’s skull to the rest of her head, it popped opened revealing the mechanisms inside it. “Each of these cylinders is a linear motor, they allow for fine movements of the face. You can see a row of tiny switches, these allow for testing of these motors.” I pushed the switches, but the face didn’t move. “Unfortunately since there is no power she can’t move, there’s a test power supply I can attach this to…” and after the power supply was connected I touched the switches again and parts of the face twitched. I noticed that some people were slightly frightened watching Alice’s face coming to life. My guess is this was because in her dismembered state Alice straddled the line between being dead and alive, and when one of the pieces showed signs of life it felt like seeing a zombie crawling out of its grave.

I started to slowly put Alice back together, connecting the wires that allows Alice to move her head, arms and legs, then screwing the head and limbs to the torso she was almost complete. The only thing left to do is to dress her and put propane fuel inside her, and then wait until the fuel cell warms up. Forty-five minutes passed before Alice’s fuel cell reached its operating temperature, but the entire time all of the people in the lab waited in anticipation for Alice to wake up and perform her first action.

When Alice’s power level became adequate she automatically turned on. When she first awoke her eyes blinked three times as usual, her eyes darted around the room making eye contact with everyone, then stopped and stared straight ahead with her trademark intense gaze. I started speaking to her, “Alice, welcome to John’s lab,” then pointing to John, “this is John.”

Alice swiveled her head towards John, then said with her monotone voice, “Hello John, nice to meet you.” The entire lab applauded in amusement for at least half a minute, despite Alice not having done anything useful, then a voice from the back of the group said, “Now, have Alice make us some coffee!”

“It’s not that simple,” I explained, “I have to guide her while she makes coffee.”

“Well, can’t you do that now?” the voice from the back asked.

“Sure,” I answered, then said to Alice, “Alice, come and follow me.” The entire team followed me and Alice to the kitchen.

Honest Titles For TV Shows and Movies

Have you ever noticed that some television shows or movie have secretly very dark premises? Here are some alternate titles I created for popular (or once popular) television shows.

  • Children Practice Animal-Baiting with Mutant Monstrosities (Pokemon)
  • Underage Teenage Soldiers Fight Monsters from Outer Space (Power Rangers)
  • Underage Teenage Soldiers Fight Supernatural Monsters (Sailor Moon)
  • Widower Raises Girls with Former Delinquent and Goofy Man-Child (Full House)
  • Black Nerd Who Gets Constantly Bullied but Remains Cheerful for No Reason (Family Matters)
  • Moronic Buffoon Runs a Nuclear Plant (The Simpsons)
  • Children Who Fight Evil while Surrounded by Adults Who are Too Powerless or Corrupt to Help (Harry Potter)
  • Child Who Has to Deal with the Traumatic Loss of a Parent (Bambi)
  • Child Seeks Revenge for the Murder of a Parent (Lion King)
  • Teenagers Forced to Fight for Survival (The Hunger Games)

I think I could come up with more but this is the list for the moment.