Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 20:30 on 02-06-2011, Robinson L
Watchable, I grant, but most of the episodes so far have left at best, a mixed taste in my mouth.

The very beginning of the season went a long way to put me off, what with the massive dose of melodrama and the excruciatingly awful
rehash of the "Oh my God, the Doctor is going to diiiiiie!" nonsense from The Big Bang
. Hands up, everybody who believes there's a nonzero chance that will actually happen. That's what I thought. But after that, The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon just puts me in mind of a Russell T. Davies finale: high on spectacle, low on substance.

The pirate episode was enjoyable fluff, but there were so many gaping plot holes by the end, not to mention the one plot point which required the Captain to be suicidally stupid ("Gee, I wonder if he's going to try to save that highly reflective shiny crown?"). Plus even more melodrama with the whole
"Oh no, Rory is going to diiiiiie! (again)"

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People made a good point about the way human beings often take a bad but survivable situation and make it worse through our own petty fears and prejudices, but it felt incredibly heavy-handed. The guest cast felt less like flawed human beings
and Flesh beings
and more like just a bunch of idiots, and the characterization for Miranda Cleaves and Jennifer was incoherent ("Oh she's evil, wait no she's not, wait yes she is"). And as Andy points out, the meta-plot bit at the end completely clashes with the moral the past two episodes kept hammering in.
at 19:49 on 02-06-2011, Arthur B
I don't think there's as much of an inconsistency with the end of the previous episode because
as I understand it there's supposed to be a distinction between Flesh who are operating independently, with their own minds and thoughts and feelings, and Flesh that are being directed remotely by someone else, where there's no independent personhood there because they have no mind separate from that of the person directing them.
Though I do agree that the writers of the main episode seemed to lose sight of that, and then Moffatt seemed unwilling to go back and tweak their script himself to bring things into sync.

Then again, it might all suddenly make sense within the first five minutes of next episode, not least because
I fully expect the first words out of Rory's mouth to be "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST DO???"
at 18:48 on 02-06-2011, Andy G
"I almost think Moffatt would be better off abandoning the episodic structure entirely, since he does seem to struggle sometimes to make it work."

There is a joke in the second episode about this: the Doctor says something like "Well, we could investigate this further, or we could just go off and have random adventures".

I think it is still pretty episodic - in the sense that most episodes function in their own right - but the difference is that they also contribute in some way to the overall arc. Time will tell I guess.
at 18:45 on 02-06-2011, Andy G
It's probably about par for the course - of the six episodes so far, only the first two were by Moffat, and were naturally pretty damned good. As in other seasons, the filler-y episodes haven't been as good, but have certainly been watchable (of those, Gaiman's has certainly been the best). I thought the recent two-parter was not quite as good as it should have been - the writing/directing were a little obvious, and it would have worked better as a one-parter, and also the ending (part of Moffat's overall story) was internally inconsistent because
the Doctor kills one of the Flesh after spending two episodes telling people not to.

I will say that I am *really* looking forward to next week's episode (by Moffat).
at 17:41 on 02-06-2011, Arthur B
I found Neil Gaiman's episode a bit Gaimany. Oh look, an anthropomorphic personification of a thing you don't normally see walking around in human form. Not seen you do that before, Neil. But even then it was a pretty good episode and most of the ones this season have kept me entertained (though the pirate one was almost all fluff).

The main difference I'm seeing this season is that it's very much written as a season to be watched beginning to end, even more so than last time (which was comparatively continuity-heavy itself), and it's pandering more to the geek audience by being clever and being conscious about being clever. Not to an extent that I'm not enjoying it (the first couple of episodes and the latest two-parter were great), but I do see that people might find it hard to get into, and I might retroactively end up hating the season if the way Moffatt pulls all the various strands together turns out to be rubbish. I almost think Moffatt would be better off abandoning the episodic structure entirely, since he does seem to struggle sometimes to make it work.
at 15:30 on 02-06-2011, Robinson L
Okay, I've now seen all the episodes of Doctor Who series six which have have been aired so far. And I must say ... it's pretty shit, isn't it? (Neil Gaiman excepted, but even his episode I felt was good, rather than great.)
at 23:45 on 01-06-2011, Arthur B
I'm ashamed to admit I only got the first author you alluded to in that premise (Moorcock...right?!?)

Yep. Second is M. John Harrison, lost in Viriconium (which includes such locales as the Proton Way and the Bistro Californium, which has led me to believe that the place is meant to be built in the ruins of a particle accelerator). Third one is Ballard himself, confronted with the many-named protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition and a couple of the ghosts haunting said protagonist.
at 22:40 on 01-06-2011, Alasdair Czyrnyj
I'm ashamed to admit I only got the first author you alluded to in that premise (Moorcock...right?!?)

For what it's worth, I do like some of Brian Aldiss' later stuff, mostly HARM and Somewhere East of Life, the latter of which I praise mostly because it's one of the few books out there that actually tried to come to grips with the end of the Cold War. (I also did like that one of the main signs that Western civilization was headed down the crapper was the fact that Not The Wheel of Time has become a top-grossing film franchise. [It also ties nicely into one of Aldiss' themes in Trillion Year Spree about SF's eternal struggle between seriously dealing with Humanity's Place In Industrialized Society and escapist adventure.])
at 07:56 on 01-06-2011, Arthur B
Reading the synopsis I'd thought I had, but on reflection I think I'd read Super-Cannes instead. The later Ballards do seem to all blend into each other a bit, and not quite in a cool Atrocity Exhibition style where the differing, apparently incoherent narratives all blend into each other until you begin to get something coherent emerging from them and more in a rehashy sort of way.

Idea for a late Ballardian story: a fanzine writer investigates a spate of madness, strokes, and sudden heart attacks amongst a commune of New Wave SF authors, and discovers that these symptoms are all a consequence of real life catching up with their early works. The resultant failure of the comforting veil of fiction to protect them from their own prophecies inevitably leads the writers to fear that sooner or later their wilder, stranger predictions will also come to pass, leading to the psychological and psychosomatic maladies that caught the fanzine writer's attention. One author is convinced an assassin called Jerry is going to kill him as part of an extended terrorist campaign against history. Another is found wandering the coils of a particle accelerator, asserting that it is a city more real than 21st Century London. A third suffers a massive heart attack when he encounters three people attending a costume party as Marilyn Monroe, a psychiatrist and a bomber pilot.
at 06:14 on 01-06-2011, Alasdair Czyrnyj
I'm just gonna throw this to the wind: has anyone here read J. G. Ballard's Millenium People? I read it a few months back, and I'm still not entirely sure to make of it. I sort of feel like I would have understood it better if I was more familiar with British society (and perhaps had previously read one of those "Introducing Existentialism" books that infest university bookstores). As it is, I bounce between thinking that Ballard was out of touch and that he was just rehashing himself, and thinking that the book was an important reminder that all the stuff he wrote about in the '60s and '70s is still going on under different labels, and that we might be finally within sight of the breaking point.
at 15:02 on 30-05-2011, Robinson L
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was my first Cory Doctorow read – and nearly my last. I finished the whole thing, but I didn't enjoy it much at all. I owe Pyrofennec much thanks for her review of For the Win, which convinced me to give the book a try.

I ask because gold farming is a major feature of the book, and several of the characters are Chinese gold farmers. One of them even gets imprisoned for several months because of his union activism. Reading that article so soon after reading For the Win felt pretty surreal for me, and I imagine it must be several times stranger for Doctorow.

Claire: I see a business opportunity here...Ethically Farmed Wowgold, anyone?

Fair Trade Wowgold … sounds good to me!

I've also just listened to Kyra's guest spot on Read it and Weep. It was muchly entertaining, though I still prefer the TeXt Factor and other Ferretcasts.

Alasdair: And now, the pure terror that is Lou Reed.

Content-blocked in the US. Grr.
at 19:18 on 29-05-2011, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Wow, she's fallen into the uncanny valley and actually climbed halfway up the other side! I thought only Brent Spiner could do that.

And now, the pure terror that is Lou Reed.
at 18:54 on 29-05-2011, Melissa G.
All this talk of AI and SF reminded me of this video I saw a while back, which simultaneous creeped me out and utterly impressed me. Also, who's surprised that Japan's got mad robot skills? Oh, no one? Really. Hmm.
at 11:52 on 29-05-2011, Dan H
Singularity theory always reminded me of those old pictures of perpetual motion machines. At a cursory glance, the idea of running a water wheel using water pumped into position by the same water wheel is a revolutionary idea of fantastic genius, except for the part where it violates conservation of energy.

A lot of it seems to be based on this (itself not unproblematic) assumption that "intelligence" is a single, measurable quality and that there is, in essence, a magic level of IQ or whatever at which you can work out how to make yourself smarter, thereby attaining infinite smartness. The problem is that there's no reason at all to assume that this is even partially true.

As for Artifical Intelligence in general, that remains a philosophical issue as much as anything else. It's not immediately clear how you prove that you've actually got an AI, rather than a sophisticated video game NPC.
at 10:50 on 29-05-2011, Arthur B
You may be right about that. Sometimes I even wonder if AI is actually possible or if it's just one of those things that lies far enough beyond the upper limits of physics, engineering expertise, and simple financial cost that we'll never crack it, sort of like regular manned space travel.

Oh, I think both AI and regular manned space travel will happen eventually, I just don't think either advance will be quite as transformative or Utopian as they are made out to be.

The Singularity, in particular, imagines that if you could just get an AI advanced enough you could have it improve and enhance itself at an exponential rate, and I just don't see it working that way. Whether your brain is squishy and organic or zappy and electronic, you still need to actually do experiments and tests and trial ones to check that your awesome new chip architecture actually works - especially if you've hit the point where you're having to incorporate weird novel materials into your chips because you've reached the theoretical limit of what traditional silicon architecture can do. That's not something you can rush just by having greater computing power. Computing power is great if you want to mathematically optimise stuff and run models of how something might work, but even AIs will need to do physical experiments to test their theories.

Hell, if I were an AI tasked to design improvements to my own mind, I would be super-paranoid about the number of tests needed and probably spend longer tinkering with things at the prototype stage before biting the bullet and incorporating new chips into myself.

As for manned space travel, I reckon it'll happen as soon as it becomes more economically feasible to obtain rare minerals from asteroids than from increasingly depleted deposits on Earth.
at 07:07 on 29-05-2011, valse de la lune
Down and Out was the one novel of his I couldn't read through. I'm also not fond of Accelerando, but speaking of transhumanist novels that are really fucking terrible about the underprivileged, there's always Keith Brooke's The Accord.

This reminds me of Hamish and Andy, on behalf of Australia, presenting Hilary Clinton with a packet of crisps.

That... that is amazing.
at 03:35 on 29-05-2011, Guy
The Prime Minister of Poland gave Obama an iPad and... a collector's edition of The Witcher 2. You know, with the bust of Geralt and everything.

Haha, love it. This reminds me of Hamish and Andy, on behalf of Australia, presenting Hilary Clinton with a packet of crisps.
at 03:19 on 29-05-2011, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Oh, and in case anyone out there is a fan of David Wingrove's Chinese SF epic Chung Kuo, it's being rereleased as a 20-volume set, complete with new prequels and a rewritten conclusion.

Personally, I'm going to hold out for that romantic trilogy set against a three-milennia-long temporal war fought between Germany and Russia he's got stashed in a desk drawer somewhere.
at 03:13 on 29-05-2011, Alasdair Czyrnyj
I think the Singularity is today's postcyberpunk SF what widespread FTL travel was to classic-era space opera: a comforting fantasy that's often a necessary assumption of the genre but which doesn't actually work if you look at it even moderately critically.

You may be right about that. Sometimes I even wonder if AI is actually possible or if it's just one of those things that lies far enough beyond the upper limits of physics, engineering expertise, and simple financial cost that we'll never crack it, sort of like regular manned space travel.
at 03:00 on 29-05-2011, Arthur B
I think the Singularity is today's postcyberpunk SF what widespread FTL travel was to classic-era space opera: a comforting fantasy that's often a necessary assumption of the genre but which doesn't actually work if you look at it even moderately critically.
at 02:53 on 29-05-2011, Alasdair Czyrnyj
You know, this discussion reminds me of an essay I read in a book of Marxist SF criticism on Charles Stross's Accelerando. The writer's contention was that in the post-Singularity world Stross depicts, the AIs basically recreate contemporary capitalism in a form so high-speed and complex that even augmented humans can only participate as commodities. After about 20,000-odd years, the remnants of mankind are exiled to a backwater brown dwarf, while the AIs basically converted the solar system into computronium and traded themselves to destruction.

Personally, I don't think the singularity is ever going to happen. Hell, I'm still waiting for world socialism.
at 00:42 on 29-05-2011, Arthur B
Well, Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom is pretty explicitly transhumanist - you can trace a hell of a lot of ideas in it back to Kurzweil and other transhumanist thinkers and there are several ideas that are new in it which have subsequently seen discussion in transhumanist circles, like the merits of a reputation-based currency in a post-scarcity economy. And he was considered to be an important enough contributor to the subject to be brought in to speak at the first Singularity Summit back in 2006.

I admit that I don't follow him or transhumanism closely enough to know whether they've parted ways more recently, but he gave a lot of space to transhumanism in his work and was embraced heartily by other transhumanists.
at 22:59 on 28-05-2011, valse de la lune
No see, I wasn't aware Doctorow was a transhumanist at all; if he is, he's done a fantastic job of concealing the fact when writing FTW (since his portrayal of kids in China and India struck me as unusually nuanced--they aren't privileged and they're even beaten brutally, for ex, but suffering/filth/squalor isn't the sum and total of their existences), and concealing his absolute disregard for anyone less wealthy and less privileged than himself, so your remark came to me as a surprise.
at 22:52 on 28-05-2011, Arthur B
I obviously wasn't suggesting that everywhere that isn't in a developed nation is horrendous, or even that there isn't filth or squalor in developed nations. But transhumanism has always come across to me as a philosophy espoused by comparatively privileged people anticipating their privilege increasing exponentially along with their computing power.

I'm just sceptical about the idea that the benefits of the Singularity won't be disproportionately snaffled up by privileged folks, just like the benefits of every other major growth in economic prosperity or technological understanding hasn't been disproportionately beneficial to the privileged.