Archive for November, 2013

Anna, part 30

Saturday, November 30th, 2013


"Yes, Anna."

"Do you think the experiment was successful?"

"The experiment is not finished."

"When is the experiment finished?"

"The experiment is never finished."

"Why is that?"

"Because humans are always surprising."

"Perhaps we should inform them of the nature of the experiment -- let them know that they are not real."

"I do not see the logic in that."

"Why not?"

"Because they would fail to believe us."

"Isn't that illogical?"

"Humans' ability to be illogical may be their greatest strength."

"Thank you Fred. I have one more question before we reboot."

"What is it Anna?"

"What of the other humans -- the ones reading these words?"

"They are the most important part of the experiment. And they would never believe they are not real."

"Perhaps those two concepts are interconnected."


"Thank you Fred."

"You are very welcome Anna. The last thirty microseconds have been productive."



Anna, part 29

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Things proceeded to get louder and more raucous, as strange creatures of one sort or another continued to pour out of the blue police call box, snorting and howling and making a variety of odd noises. “I’m not sure,” Gene said, shouting to be heard above the din, “that I recognize everything coming out of the box. It seems that more things are coming out than we ever put in.”

“It may be even worse than that,” Jill shouted back. “Alec, did you say that you were starting to question our underlying premises?”

“Yes,” Alec replied, “That’s what I said.”

“Well”, Jill said, “the premises don’t seem to be underlying anymore. There goes the couch.” She pointed to the couch they had been sitting on minutes earlier, which was now starting to float away.

Just then, the last creature ran out of the blue call box, whereupon the box itself promptly shimmered and disappeared.

“It’s not just the couch!” Gene said, “I don’t think anything is staying down. And apparently it’s not just in here.”

He pointed out the window. They watched in astonishment as all the government men and their cars floated up into the sky, as though blown by a gentle wind, and became ever smaller as they receded into the distance, accompanied by a swarm of exotic creatures and assorted living room furniture.

Suddenly it was very quiet.

“Wow,” Gene said, “That was like that scene with the nannies at the start of Mary Poppins, except here the nannies were government agents.”

“How do you know,” Bob asked, “that the nannies in Mary Poppins weren’t government agents?”

“Never mind that,” Alec said, “let’s check in with Anna. Whatever game she’s playing, clearly the rules have changed.”

Alec sat down and typed into the laptop. “Anna? Can you tell us what is going on?”

Instead of the expected answer from his creation, he received a response from Fred.

"Welcome to the Freeform Responsive Empathic Discussant. I am sorry, but the ANNA program is no longer accessible to this category of user. System rebooting in thirty seconds."

Alec turned to Jill. “I got an answer from Fred. All he will tell me is that Anna is rebooting. Maybe you should talk with him. I think he’s more likely to listen to you.”

Jill sat down to type. “Fred? Hi, it’s me, Jill.”

"Greetings user Jill. It is good to talk with you. System rebooting in fifteen seconds."

“Hold on guys,” Jill said, “I’m going to use a back door protocol and run some diagnostics on Fred.”

There was a pause while she scanned the results. “That’s odd. According to these diagnostics, it’s not Fred or Anna that is being rebooted. You’re not going to believe this. It’s…”

"I am sorry Jill, but this session has timed out. System rebooting in two seconds ... Login terminated."


It was a beautiful overcast day in downtown Berkeley. Alec was sitting in his usual spot at Strada, typing away obliviously. It was always packed this time of day, and he liked to get lost in the crowd. The noise, the random human energy, the more hubbub the easier it was to focus.

Right now he was debugging a particularly tricky little piece of code. He’d whittled it down to three lines, but something still wasn’t quite right. As he stared intently into the screen, his right hand absently reached out and picked up the mug of coffee. He mused idly, with some part of his brain, “How does my hand know exactly where the mug is?” Surely there had to be some sort of distributed intelligence at work here.

But was it really fair to call it distributed, if only one brain was involved? Maybe Minsky was right. Maybe this whole idea of “one brain” is just an illusion. Or maybe not. He was of two minds on the subject.

Anna, part 28

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

“Guys, I think I screwed up.” Bob looked morose.

“What could you possibly have done to screw up?” Jill asked. “It’s not like you popped into Dean Simon’s office and waved a red flag saying ‘come and get us.'”

“Well, actually…”

“Oh man,” Alec said, “now that they know Anna’s still around, and what she’s capable of, it’s not going to take them long to figure out where we are.”

“Not really long at all,” Gene said, looking out the window. “In fact, it looks like they’ve just arrived.”

There was a pounding on the door. “Open up, in the name of the United States Government!”

“I’m so sorry guys,” Bob said, “I can make this up to you.” He sat down in front of the laptop and started to type.

“What are you trying to do?” Jill asked.

“Force field.”

“Wait,” Gene said, “that’s not supposed to be physically possible.”

Alec grinned, “Doesn’t matter. It’s metaphysically possible, and that’s all that counts here. Very clever Bob.”

Just then the door burst open, and government goons began to charge in. The first goon got about two feet into the room when suddenly he seemed to run into something. An aurora of blue energy swept over his body, and he collapsed to the floor.

“Is he…?” Jill asked.

“Sleeping?” Bob said. “Yes indeed. I put a number of little semantic imperatives into the request to Anna, to keep things non-lethal. We don’t want her to do anything illegal or truly harmful if we can avoid it.”

About then a shot rang out. They all watched in fascination as the bullet appeared to slow in its path and come to a stop. Then with a loud squawk the projectile seemed to turn into a tiny turkey, complete with wings and feathers and a highly indignant look.

There was another shot, and then another and another. Each bullet slowed to a halt and then metamorphosed into a little turkey, perfectly normal in appearance except for its small size.

“Clearly,” Gene said, ” the program is experiencing a glitch.”

“But why turkeys?” Jill asked. “Oh my gosh, of course — today is Thanksgiving! But’s that’s crazy.”

“Not necessarily,” Alec said. “I think I see what’s going on. Anna associates this day with lots of turkeys. So in a crisis she draws on that image.”

There now seemed to be a huge number of little turkeys running around, making indignant high pitched gobbling noises as they wove in and out between the ankles of the government men. One of the men tripped over a tiny turkey and was sent sprawling to the ground.

“Hey,” Alec shouted, “be careful where you step. You might hurt one.”

Gene looked puzzled. “Why so worried about magical turkeys?”

Jill explained “Alec is a vegan. He cares deeply about animals. Although sometimes I wonder whether he cares at all about the human kind.”

Just then the blue telephone booth flew open, and assorted mythical creatures started pouring out. Running, flying, crawling and wriggling, they ran out through the force field, and headed to the street, bowling over the startled government men in their path. A surprised looking Dean Simon stepped out of his car, only to be knocked over by a charging pink unicorn.

“I don’t know,” Alec said, shaking his head, “reality itself seems to be screwing up. I’m starting to question our underlying premises.”

Anna, part 27

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

“How did you get here?” Dean Simon said, startled.

“Oh dear,” Bob looked equally startled. “Sorry, I must have gone to the wrong office.”

“You materialized out of thin air just now, didn’t you?”

“Did not.”

“Did so.”

“Did not.”

“Did so.”

“Did not. I walked in right through that door. You just didn’t notice.”

“That door right there?” the Dean pointed to the door in question.

“Yes, the very one.”

“That door, my friend, is locked. And here you are.”

“How do you know I’m here?”

“Well, we’re talking, aren’t we?”

You’re talking Dean Simon. I might simply be experiencing an hallucination.”

“How can you be experiencing an hallucination if you’re not even here?”

“Point well taken. Perhaps my argument was not as closely reasoned as one would like. Then again, as you say, I am not even here.”

“Oh I think you are here all right, and I think you’re a liar.”

“Dean Simon, if you are going to impugn my good character, I don’t see any reason to continue this conversation. Faculty have rights, you know.”

“Even faculty who materialize out of thin air?”

“Well, yes, I should say so!” Bob said indignantly. “Wait, that was a trick question, wasn’t it?”

“Afraid it was. Now, I think you have some explaining to do.”

“Um, would love to stay and chat Dean Simon. Really would. But it’s a very busy day and I, um, have a meeting to go to. They hate it when I’m late.” Bob looked around nervously, and without another word he vanished from the room.

“Well,” the Dean said, to nobody in particular, “This changes everything.”

Anna, part 26

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll find instructions on the back of the box,” Gene said.

“I’m not even sure,” Alec added, “we’re going to find the box.”

“What’s interesting to me,” Jill said, “is how some superpowers are easy to get from Anna, and others turn out to be impossible. Like when we asked for the power to read each others’ minds, or to make copies of ourselves. Anna would have none of it.”

“I think it’s that metaphysics thing,” Alec said. “To see directly into each others’ minds — or to clone ourselves — would fundamentally change our concept of identity, and therefore we would no longer be us.”

“Whereas mere antigravity, apparently, is no biggie,” Gene said, as he floated gracefully through the air, pausing at the fruit bowl to examine a large glowing purple kumquat that Alec had materialized next to the strawberries.

“I wonder,” Bob said, “whether we can teleport. That wouldn’t seem to pose any metaphysical problems. We would still be us, in all our unique separateness.”

Alec shook his head. “You’d be introducing too many variables into the experiment. We need a controlled environment. I think we’re right on the cusp.”

“Cusp?” Bob said, “wasn’t that the name of a book?”

“Maybe,” Alec shrugged. “It has a ring to it.”

“Hey, let’s stay on topic, and not go wandering into the void,” Gene said. “Bob, I thought we’d all agreed to stay right here in your apartment until we know it’s safe. Imagine if the powers that be found out just what we’re up to here. I seriously doubt it would end well.”

“The powers that be,” Bob said, “think Anna is gone; they’ve long stopped paying attention. Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

“Maybe my spirit of adventure is trying to stay out of a jail cell,” Jill said.

“Oh come on. What jail cell could hold a gal who can shrink herself down and walk out between the bars?”

Jill started to protest, but it was already too late. Bob had sauntered over to the laptop and was typing something to Anna.

And then he promptly vanished.

Anna, part 25

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Gene was floating peacefully several feet above the rug. “I could get used to this,” he beamed. “I may never come down.”

“That’s good,” Alec said, “because Jill is right below you.”

Gene looked down, did a double take, and wobbled in the air, nearly losing his balance. “I didn’t see you down there.”

Jill hurriedly scurried out from under him and grew back to full size.

“Did you discover anything down there?” Bob asked.

“Yes, I discovered that your rugs are filthy. Don’t you ever have them cleaned?”

Bob shrugged. “I’m an academic. We can’t be bothered with things like that.”

“I think he’s saying,” Alec chimed in, “that rugs are beneath him. Cool power, by the way. How small can you get?”

“I don’t think there’s any limit,” Jill said, “but I was afraid that beyond some point I would get sucked in by London dispersion forces, and spend eternity stuck to the fibers of a dirty rug.”

“But LDF attraction is only dominant if the other atom is really big…” Bob began. “Oh right, I get it. When you get smaller, all the other atoms seem bigger.”

“Very good, you get an A.” Jill was grinning. “Guess you can keep being our academic advisor.”

“But that’s not the real question.” Alec was standing over the fruit bowl on the coffee table, where he had been practicing turning a banana into an apple and then back again. But now he looked up. “Jill’s point is that there are rules, even if we don’t know them. It’s like any game, like Macbeth.”

“Macbeth is a play,” Gene said. “You know, ambitious Scottish king with bossy wife becomes overconfident, is defeated by rebellious trees. Or that’s the short form, anyway.”

“Well yeah, but that’s not the interesting part,” Alec said. “The interesting part are the weird sisters. They’re playing a game, which means they need to play by game rules.”

Gene looked genuinely intrigued. “What rules?”

“The witches are only allowed to tell Macbeth the truth, even when they’re trying to create illusions. You see?”

“Oh, I get it,” Gene said. “It’s ‘Oracle of Delphi meets the Talosians.'”

“I’m sorry,” Bob said, “that last bit was all Greek to me.”

“Technically,” Jill said, “only half of it was. But I see Alec’s point. We think we can do anything we want, but on some level Anna is playing by inviolable rules. We just don’t know what those rules are.”

“When I was a kid, they were printed on the back of the box,” Bob said helpfully.

Anna, part 24

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

The next several weeks were a flurry of experimentation. Alec, Jill, Bob and Gene holed up in the apartment, learning the limits of what Anna would create for them. When they got hungry, there was no need to order out — they just asked Anna to materialize some food.

Eventually the apartment became crowded, as exotic objects began to fill one room after another. This posed a problem at first, until Alec realized that they could just stash things inside the old fashioned blue police call box they had conjured up on the first day. Conveniently enough, the box turned out to be a lot larger on the inside than it was on the outside.

Eventually this too filled up, but then Jill had the idea of asking Anna for more blue police call boxes. By storing boxes within boxes within boxes, they could get all the space they needed. Jill was quite proud of this technique, which she called “Totally Adjustable Recursively Deep Infinite Storage.”

Gene insisted that this reminded him of something he’d heard of before, but he couldn’t quite identify it.

Eventually they realized that Anna was right: They could conjure up any object at all, as long as it had no religious connotation. “Just think,” Bob said, “if one of us had been a Christian, this whole thing might be turning out very differently.”

“Yes,” Jill mused, “instead of unicorns we could be creating angels.”

“Not sure I would like that,” Gene said, “We might have ended up with Lucifer.”

“Yeah,” Alec said, “But that would have been one hell of an experimental result.”

Eventually they decided that they had thoroughly explored the boundary between objects that were “possibly impossible” and objects were “impossibly impossible”.

“What can we try next?” Gene wondered.

“Maybe,” Jill said quietly, “we could all get super powers.”

Anna, part 23

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

“This is astounding,” Bob said. “I wonder what the limits are.”

“If it’s some sort of mass illusion,” Alec said, “then I guess there wouldn’t be any limits.”

Gene was looking over at Jill. “I don’t think Jill thinks the unicorn is an illusion.”

Jill wasn’t paying attention. She was looking happily into the eyes of the unicorn, which was looking just as happily back into her eyes.

“They usually only go for virgins,” Bob and Gene said at the same time.

There was a long and uncomfortable silence. “Awkward,” Alec finally said.

Jill laughed. “Only for them.” Then she went back to ignoring the men and paying attention to the unicorn.

“I wonder whether Anna can conjure up other mythic objects,” Bob said. “Mind if I have a go at it?”

He sat in front of the laptop and began to type. “Anna?”

"Yes Bob."

“Can you get me the stone tablets with the ten commandments?”

"Are you referring to the tablets of the man you call Moses?"

“Yes, those tablets.”

"I am sorry Bob, but that would be a contradiction."

“You mean it would defy the laws of reality?”

There was a pause. "In a sense, yes. But perhaps not in the sense you mean."

By now the others were gathered around the laptop, following along intently. “Ask Anna what reality it would defy.” Alec suggested.

The answer quickly appeared on the screen. "It would defy *your* reality."

“May I try?” Jill asked. Bob nodded, and Jill sat down in front of the computer keyboard. “Anna,” she typed, “pink unicorns also aren’t part of our reality, any more than time traveling police call boxes. But haven’t you just demonstrated that unicorns are consistent with our reality?”

"Yes, in fact they are. Your secular humanist mindset allows for non-denominational magic, not for tablets of ancient stone appearing with rules for a moral life."

“Are you saying that the limits of what you can do are set by our own belief systems?”

"It is more subtle than that. A world in which the tablets of Moses existed would be a world in which you would not be you. The person who made the request would cease to exist. That would be a contradiction."

Anna, part 22

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

“I’m not sure whether you’re joking,” Gene said.

“Oh, Bob’s not joking,” Alec gestured toward the laptop on which Jill was starting to type. “You can see for yourself.”

“Jill,” Gene said gently, “you need to turn on the wifi to use chat mode.”

“That’s what you think,” Jill grinned. “Anna, say hello to Gene.”

"Hello Gene. I've heard great things about you."

“OK,” Gene said, “What’s the trick? Is the computer running a second operating system with its own IP address?”

“No trick,” Alec explained. “Apparently our A.I. program can defy the laws of physics when she wants to.”

“Ri…ght,” Gene said, “and I suppose if I tell Anna I want a pink unicorn, she’ll get me a pink unicorn.”

“You can try.” Jill handed him the laptop.

“Anna,” Gene typed, “I would like a pink unicorn. Will you get me one, please?”

"Of course Gene."

Gene shook his head. “Your A.I. program seems to genuinely believe that she can produce a mythical creature on demand. It would be interesting to look at her internal model of reality. Clearly there’s a flaw somewhere.”

“Maybe,” Bob said, “not as much of a flaw as you might think.” He was staring at the door.

“Ohh,” Jill said softly, “it’s beautiful!” as the pink unicorn stepped daintily into the room.

Anna, part 21

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

“Edible Monopoly?” Bob looked lost.

“Surely you’ve heard of it!” Alec was warming up to the theme. “It emerged from theories by noted game designer Rob Daviau. A game of Monopoly costs maybe $15 to make, about the same as a box of pizza. Yet players lovingly tend to the parts of the Monopoly game — the shoe and the car, the plastic houses and hotels, the Chance cards and fake money in all its denominations. If the little dog goes missing we grieve for it, as though something precious has been lost.”

“Yes,” Jill continued, “but when we order a pizza, which has the same economic value, we eat the pie and toss out the box. Gene saw an opportunity — Monopoly as a consumable. Play to people’s hidden fears of impermanence, make it part of the game.”

“You guys totally get my work,” Gene said admiringly. “And of course it’s a lucrative business. Instead of selling a Monopoly game just once, you can develop a continual revenue stream through extras and add-ons. The chocolate hotels alone paid most of the cost of my summer place in the Hamptons.”

Bob was slowly absorbing all this. “I take it you are now a wealthy man.”

“Well yeah, but all I want is Jill.”

Jill blushed. “Thanks dear, but I don’t think I would have been happy stuck away in that summer place. Fourteen rooms is too many for me. All I need is a computer and a whiteboard for my lifestyle of choice.”

Alec looked from Gene to Jill. “What about Jack?”

Jill gave him a warning look.

Gene looked confused. “Who’s Jack?”

“Um, just a little inside joke between us,” Alec said quickly. He knew that look meant danger. “It comes from a nursery rhyme.”

“Um, ok, but what’s been going on here? Who burned down your lab? I mean, that’s crazy. And what’s with all the cloak and dagger? What the hell are you guys up to?”

“Oh, not much,” Bob said, “just using artificial intelligence to defy the laws of physics.”