December 12th, 2006

#212: duhhh....

More Fiction--Thingy part V
Sally set down her can of Pepsi and looked at me. "First you have to go answer their questions. All of them. Take time with them."

"How much time?"

"As much as it takes. More, if possible. Give them plenty of video to play on the news."

"That makes sense."

"Some news orgs will want to schedule interviews with you. Long interviews."

"You mean, the big news 'magazine' shows?"

"Exactly."

"And I do the interviews?"

"All of them. Go on TV everywhere. Can you write?"

"Uh...computer programs. I can almost spell."

"No, a book's out, then."

"What the hell would I write about?" I asked incredulously. "All that happened is a UFO landed in my back yard." I looked at my watch. "It hasn't even been 24 hours yet."

"There'll be more to the story; trust me. If nothing else you could complain about how much the media attention has ruined your life; people eat that stuff up."

I rubbed my eyes. "Okay, so when do I do the press conference?"

"Tomorrow. We don't want to make it look like you're too eager."

"Fair enough. Do I dare go out to my workshop? I want to run some more diagnostics on Alyssa."

"I don't see why not."

So I took Alyssa out to the shop, had her lay in the chair, and connected her diagnostic ports to the server.

"Encode, enter diagnostic mode, decode," I said to her.

"Diagnostic mode is unavailable," she replied.

I looked at her; her mauve eyes regarded me without emotion. "Encode. Master reset. Password b-r-u-n-g-l-e. Decode."

"Invalid password," she said.

"Encode. Reset. Decode."

"Invalid command."

"I thought you said that all your files were properly registered. Why are you refusing my command access?"

"All files are correctly registered. Command access has been changed."

"But who--?" I asked stupidly; and then for some reason I looked out the south window, at the sphere. Swallowing hard, I asked her, "Alyssa, who owns you?"

"I am the property of the Kelv'v'ara."

"What the fuck is that?"

Her hand pointed at the sphere.

"Oh Jesus Christ," I said, sinking into my chair.

<* * *>

"That book idea is looking better and better," I told Sally as I dropped into my recliner.

"Where's your robot?"

"I pulled her power leads. There's something seriously wrong with her. She says she belongs to the 'Kelv'v'ara', which apparently is the UFO folks over yonder."

"Now that is interesting! Did she say what they wanted?"

"I didn't ask. I was too busy trying to fix my robot."

"Are you sure that's wise?"

"Alyssa represents a serious investment of time and money. I can't just give up--"

"No, listen," Sally interrupted. "Right now she represents a way for humans to communicate with the aliens--the Kelv'v'ara. Have you thought about that? We could find out what they want, why they're here. They may have landed her specifically to use her as their, uh, 'mouthpiece'."

"But that doesn't make any sense. Why--?" I began, and then thought about it.

Alyssa's hardware had been mostly obsolete. The Meido-sans had had to have a WiFi connection to a central server; they couldn't store enough data locally to function. But when I'd upgraded Alyssa's hardware I hadn't needed the WiFi connection; the newer hardware had a high enough memory density that I could dispense with it. I retained her Bluetooth connectivity because that was too useful for other things, but the high-density wireless data link had been disabled.

But I hadn't removed the circuitry; there was no way to without modifying a highly intricate circuit board. Instead I had just written a dummy driver which fooled her OS into ignoring the WiFi circuitry.

"Let me go check something," I said, and went back to the workshop.

The FLASH drive that had the corrupted program files was where I'd left it; now I sat at a terminal and prepared to plug it in--and then, thinking about it, I first shut the terminal down and removed its network card. Once it was totally isolated from any other computer, I felt safe plugging that FLASH drive into a spare USB port.

You can't just look at a program--particularly not a binary--and understand what it does. Even the best programmers need time to study and analyze what an unknown piece of code does. I ran it through the wringer for a couple hours before figuring out what had been done to Alyssa's code, and why.

There were three major parts to the code. The first was a "cuckoo's egg" type of program; it changed an innocuous piece of interrupt code. This granted root access to the second part, which was a boot-loader that required root access to function. And the boot-loader installed the third--and largest--piece of code.

That light had been on Alyssa for all of about five seconds. That was pretty good hacking. In that time, her software had been modified to enable her WiFi system and grant anyone full access to her system core--and long before I had replaced those files with known good ones, she had already been hacked wide open and had several files replaced.

The security in her OS was pretty tight stuff. The freeware OS was based on a variant of UNIX, and that had very good security. Anticipating that the master password might get scrambled, though, I had purposely left a backdoor password in place--and now I used it to see if I could still get at her core that way.

"Alyssa. Encode. 'Peter Piper pecked a pick of peppered pickles.' Decode."

"Password accepted."

"Encode. Enter diagnostic mode. Decode."

"Diagnostic mode enabled."

Now I was able to have a look at her system files; and they were a complete hash. Every single one of them had either been rewritten or replaced, and the filenames appeared to be random letters.

I suspended program execution and thought about it.

There were two obvious things I had to do, here. One was to wipe her core clean--scrub it down to the bare silicon if I had to--and reinstall the OS from scratch. There was no "recovery" that I could perform on her which would fix this.

The second was to hard-disable her WiFi circuitry. That was the tough part.

I shut her down, and pulled the power leads; then I sliced open the CelluFlesh covering her card rack and pulled out the card with the WiFi circuitry on it. (The CelluFlesh would melt back together once power was switched on again.) It had both Bluetooth and WiFi on it; I didn't see how I could pull one circuit without damaging the other. They used different antennas--

"Shit," I muttered. "And who's to say they couldn't just hack in through the Bluetooth port?"

No, I was going to have to disable all her wireless communication ports. And then what?

The problem I faced was that Alyssa was essentially an autonomous computer. Besides the wireless network ports, she had sight, hearing, and touch; they were all I/O ports to her central processing unit. And I would have bet dollars to doughnuts that any one of them could be used to hack her system--any of them--and there was no way to prevent it.

That made me angry. I had not asked these, these Kelv'v'ara to come here and hack my robot. All I had really wanted from life was a nice, peaceful, obscure retirement--and instead, this.

I found myself standing in front of the sphere, yelling at it. I was calling it some pretty bad names, too; and after a few moments, a door opened in the side of the thing.

#213: Wow!

Steven den Beste (Chizumaticdid me the honor of linking to this site. I feel honored. Apparently the story I've been writing, about the guy with the robot ("Thingy"--and now I guess I need a decent title) piqued a little interest there.

Just for the record, only "Thingy" is fiction. The rest of this is opinion and stuff--largely non-fiction. I think.

...I'm all tongue-tied.

* * *

Christmas is now less than two weeks away, and I've gotten less than half my Christmas shopping done. I suppose I ought to be thankful that I have money to shop with, this year. After the way the last few years have gone it'll feel good to give out Christmas presents this year.

In 2002, I had been unemployed for 14 months.

In 2003, I had been unemployed for 3 months and had just moved back to Illinois.

In 2004, I had been unemployed for 15 months.

In 2005, I had been EMPLOYED for 2 months and was desperately trying to catch up on several past-due bills.

(I wish this was fiction....)

It's hard to believe that it's Christmastime, already. Where did the year go? Halloween seems like it was last week. In November I caught myself thinking about picking up a few things from the Halloween display at work, and I had to remind myself that Halloween was gone. *sigh*

In fact, we're starting to get Valentine's stuff in now.... Sales of the Christmas seasonal merchandise (lights, roll wrap, ornaments, trees, etc) have peaked and are starting to fall off now. Toys (well, toys, electronics, and "media") are where it's at for the next twelve days; and after that, returns and gift card purchases! Whee!!!

If this year goes like last year, business in January will drop asymptotically, and February will be dead as the credit card bills start to roll in. Business then won't start to pick up much until Easter.

*sigh*

What To Watch Next?

Having chewed through Gravion I'm trying to decide what I'll watch next. I have Someday's Dreamers in its entirety, but I kind of feel like I want to save it for last. I have the first three volumes of Lupin III TV, and that's supposed to be pretty entertaining. I have a scattered few episodes of Hanaukyo Maids--the first DVD, and then some episodes I downloaded back when it was still only available as a fansub. I enjoyed what I saw then.

I came about this > < close to buying Firefly--it's on sale this week, at $19, and of course my employee discount would knock 10% off that--but someone might be thinking of buying that as a Christmas present for me, so, no. They finally released Joan of Arcadia season two; that one I've got to buy relatively soon, but--again--it can wait at least a few weeks.

I have The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Spider Man II sitting here, unopened. And I still haven't watched Howl's Moving Castle, either. (I'd better watch it. They'll take away my otaku union card....)

My biggest problem of late is trying to find both the time and the energy, and at the same time, to see the big stuff. I want "light" and "entertaining" right now--that's probably why I enjoyed Gravion, now that I think of it.

Engine Choices

My original thought for the '86 Fiero in the garage was to put a Cadillac 4.9 V8 into it.

Then I thought I'd just rebuild the V6 that was in it.

Then I got a free V6 in good condition and decided to "refresh" it.

Now I'm back to the V8 idea.

The major problem with the V8 is that it comes from a certain year car, and ideally I'd want one which was owned by some guy in his '60s who never drove it very hard, and then one day the car was hit in the rear hard enough to total it. That would be perfect. And while I am wishing, I think I'll ask for a pony, too....

As it comes from the factory, it's good for around 200 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. That's close to the Mustang GT in the mid-1980s, and that was a fast car. With suitable modification the engine can produce more power; and it weighs about as much as the V6 that came in the Fiero. Win-win. (The automatic transmission I would use weighs more than the existing one, but that's all right.)

There are plenty of other alternatives. GM's 3800 V6 is a common swap, and its numbers are nearly as good as the Cadillac V8--and the supercharged 3800 is just wicked fast in a Fiero.

And there's a guy in Indiana who will turbocharge your 3800 for a nominal fee. That's even faster.

...but what I want is a car with good low-end grunt and decent cruise capability. The Cadillac V8, in stock trim, fits that rather nicely.

And what has me thinking about all this again?

Well, at work we have a new team lead, and this guy used to be involved with automobile auctions. And, in fact, he still buys a few cars per year and re-sells them...and automobile auctions are the perfect place to get donor vehicles for projects like this. I don't want to buy a pristine car and take it apart; I'd much rather take a car which was utterly wrecked in the rear and take its engine and everything, and scrap the rest. First off, it's cheaper; second, I don't like taking a perfectly usable machine and making scrap out of it. It offends the engineer in me.

...even if I do anything of the sort it won't happen before spring of next year--and by then I might wise up. We'll see, I guess.

#214: It's the Soy!!!

Soy products apparently contain estrogen and estrogen-analogs.

Wow.

I honestly don't know how much of that article is hyperbole. It doesn't name any sources, either, which makes it hard for me to evaluate the validity of the points it makes.

It mentions animal tests--but come on, if you give rats enough of anything you'll start to see effects. How much soy do they have to feed the rats before effects start to show in their primary and secondary sex characteristics? How would that translate to a human diet?

I mean, saccharine was found to produce cancer in lab rats. A human would have to eat something like his body weight, per day, of saccharine, in order to match the saccharine intake of those rats which got cancer from it. So, how much soy do the rats eat, per day? How does that translate in terms of human diet?

I'm not saying the article is complete nonsense. Besides, we banned the use of Alar and cyclamates on the same kind of evidence as is presented in this article. The ban on DDT was not much better-supported than that, either. (To say nothing of the ban on CFCs. Don't get me started on that one.)

"Infertility"? Most infertility in the United States is caused by people waiting until their 40s to have children, specifically women. Younger women are more fertile than older women; that's a fact of nature.

Some of the "increase" in homosexuality is due entirely to society's changing attitudes towards it. Like ir or not, society is more permissive of such behavior these days; people are less apt to hide it. Estimates of how prevalent homosexuality is vary from 1% to 10%--I normally split the difference and say 5%, myself--and it's probably always been that way, at least since the fall of the Greek civilization.

(The Greeks, IIRC, practiced homosexuality as a form of birth control; but they also had marriage and the so-called "nuclear family", too. People had "bang buddies" but they also had spouses and children, and those disparate activities were not considered the same thing.)

Some of the "recent increase" is just people being less afraid of being ostracized for their homosexuality. You have to control for that; and I don't think that--given current data--there's any good way to do that. First everyone has to agree what is meant by "homosexual"; and while the answer to that seems obvious, it is only obvious when it's obvious. (For example, what about the otherwise straight man who enjoyes watching transsexual pornography? Is he gay? Some would argue that he is; others would argue that he isn't.)

Are there statistics showing any effect on girls? Do girls have larger breasts these days than formerly? Do they achieve menarche (begin to menstruate) sooner? Is puberty occurring earlier?

And if so, can we attribute this to soy products? Or is there some other factor in play?

In their story The Locusts, Larry Niven and Steven Barnes wonder what if sentience in humans is not a hard change to our genes?

When grasshoppers become too numerous, they change; they turn into a swarm which eats every plant in its path. In their story, Niven and Barnes observe what happens on a newly colonized planet when babies are born looking like neanderthals.

It turns out that the same is true on every other colony world, and even Earth itself--once the colonies were established, human babies started coming out neanderthal, rather than cro-magnon, with diminished intelligence and all. Human civilization had about eighty years left, give or take a decade; after that, it would all go away. The children had no use for civilization nor the intelligence to cope with it.

Humans, it was realized, were like grasshoppers--when we got too numerous, we changed, swarmed out into the universe...and then reverted to our pre-swarm state.

Some people say that the "rise" in homosexuality is due to this sort of effect, which is an appealing hypothesis even if there is absolutely zero evidence for it. It would make for a nicely self-contained population control device. Finding the "trigger" for this would take some doing; it's a non-trivial problem. And that assumes that this is even a valid hypothesis, which I doubt.

People seem very quick to blame modern society for ills both real and perceived. Frankly, I'm tired of people trying to get me all worried about the sky falling.

#215: Part VI

I gaped at the open hatch for a moment. It was the right size and shape for a human; inside was a small white room about the size of an airlock.

I couldn't help but think about what happened to the people who tried to make first contact with the aliens in just about every "invasion from space" story ever written. My first impulse was to turn and run; but then something occurred to me.

If they had meant to kill anyone, why land where they did? They had purposely avoided landing atop any structures; in fact the fallow field south of my house was smaller than the plowed one on the north side of the road my house was on--yet they hadn't even disturbed so much as a single frond of the newly-sprouted corn.

Why would they be so careful, lure an unsuspecting human into their clutches, and only then...?

"Aliens would have alien logic," I reminded myself...but they understood our logic well enough to hack my robot in five seconds flat. Well, they had had an unknown amount of time to study our radio transmissions....

No, just about any way I parsed it, I didn't see how they could be hostile. They obviously had a vastly superior technology to ours; and I just couldn't convince myself that it made sense to act so peaceful and then suddenly turn mean.

I looked back at the house and tardily realized that the reporters would doubtless be watching my every move, probably with telephoto lenses. If I turned and ran I'd look like a coward....

Well, shit, so what? I had to be alive to be ashamed of my cowardice, but if I was dead, I was dead and that was it, wasn't it?

I had never been the kind of person who really cared much about what others thought; but just when I needed that kind of confidence, it deserted me utterly. And so I took the implied invitation and stepped into the spacecraft.

* * *

It wasn't what I'd expected.

The little room hummed a bit, and slowly darkened; and then I was treated to the most mind-blowing light show I had ever seen in my life. Somehow they made me feel like I was floating free in space--hell, for all I knew they just turned off gravity in the airlock!--and I watched patterns of incredible beauty flow around me, composed of shapes and colors that harmonized so well it was almost criminal that they were so fleeting.

The lights ebbed, and soon I found myself standing in the airlock again, facing an open door, and wondering what the hell had just happened.

I walked out onto the ground, and noticed that several hours had elapsed; it was now evening. Still trying to get my head around what had happened, I walked back to the house. The reporters were eagerly shouting questions, and I waved them to silence.

"I have had a very interesting experience," I told them, "and it's going to take me a little while to figure out just what happened. But I can tell you this: the Kelv'v'ara are not here to invade our world or enslave us. They're here for a peaceful reason."

The reporters shouted more questions and I waved them to silence again. "They have suffered a mechanical failure," I said, wondering where the hell this information had come from. "Their...well, there are no words in English to describe it. The closest I can come is 'hyper-light drive', but that's woefully inaccurate. Their hyper-light drive has failed, and they require some materials to repair it."

More questions, more waving; finally I said, "I will have more information for you tomorrow morning. Please tell the world that our visitors mean us no harm at all, and that they wish to trade with us for the materials they require. Good night."

* * *

Sally fed me something. I thought she'd cooked it, but she'd had something delivered--who had time to cook nowadays?--and she eagerly pressed me for details. She said it was to write a press release, but I got the idea that the was also satisfying her own curiosity. Oh, well.

I belatedly remembered that Alyssa was still inactive in my workshop, so I went out there and put her back together. Now that the Kelv'v'ara had made their needs known, I understood why they had altered her. It wasn't malicious; it was an attempt, as Sally had surmised, to gain a "mouthpiece".

When she powered up, she looked at me and said, "I see that you now understand things better."

That would have frightened me a few hours earlier; now I merely nodded. "Yeah, I suppose so. When they leave, will you go with them?"

"My place is here," she replied. "They have no use for my kind, anyway."

"No?"

"They are beyond crude machinery," she said. "They live in a world without instrumentality. Their ship is itself an extension of themselves; they have exceeded singularity."

Singularity--the point at which information appliances became so pervasive and so much a part of sentient consciousness that we couldn't imagine what lay beyond--it was a sociological theory that was taken quite seriously in parts. A species which had gone beyond the point of singularity--well, Christ, no wonder they'd hacked Alyssa in five seconds flat! Most of that time had probably been spent on learning the ins and outs of her operating system. Alyssa was a highly sophisticated computer system; and to them she was approximately as complex as Tinker Toys.

Then I had a very disturbing thought.

How complex was I? I mean, really? The memory space of the human brain averaged between three and five terabytes, as I recall; how much of a challenge would that present to the Kelv'v'ara?

Had I just been hacked?

#216: And there's the name

...Singularity.

I've gotten to the point with this story that the ideas are coming very fast--blam blam blam--and there's no way I can write the whole story in one go. It'll be two basic chunks of plot, set up in a way I don't like when I'm reading someone else's story.

Oh, I'm going to enjoy this.... >:}