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Sweet Surrender

By mcc in Fiction
Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 02:06:12 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

At the center of the universe is a horribly wounded angel.

Its wings are torn and blackened, its skin plastered with a dull purple blood that never seems to grow totally dry. It is disfigured, mangled, covered in seared, faintly glowing cracks. The face is fixed in an eternal, unchanging expression of pure, limitless joy. The eyes are empty sockets. The arms are eternally outstretched, because they are tied in place.

It is nothing anyone would call conscious, and is only in the barest, barest sense of the word still alive. If anything resembling awareness remains, that awareness consists of nothing but an infinite field of gridded black and white squares, a test pattern scattered with dancing dots that shift and jump and blur into one another. It would be tempting to say this is consciousness, but in fact the angel is not aware of the test pattern. It simply is.

This test pattern is useful.

Records as to the details that begin this story are not available, and it is clear they have been made that way on purpose. What knowledge can be gained-- and it is available to precious, precious few-- consists mostly of assumptions. The assumption is that angels exist. The assumption is that they are, in fact, perfect, or a reflection or aspect or agent of some perfect higher being. The assumption is that from time to time, perhaps as their sole function, these angels are sent out on missions, to perform the will of their creator. The most immediate assumption one comes to is that whatever such tasks could conceivably be, it is possible for them to fail.

The one certainty is that at some point, some ship in the employ of the Altran Corporation-- possibly a pathfinder, possibly a minor delivery ship of some sort, possibly an aggressor, possibly merely a communications satellite identifying a piece of space junk coming within a certain radius-- came into contact with an actual, real, unquestionable angel, floating in the dead, frozen vacuum of deep space. The assumption is that the angel had been sent up against something very, very dangerous. The assumption is that the angel had emerged victorious, as something that powerful would certainly have threatened humanity if left unchecked. The certainty is that the angel never made it back.

After the point at which the angel was retrieved, by whatever means this was done, records began to be kept. Engineers at the greatest level of confidence within Altran were secretly summoned to a highly guarded location, to experiment on what had been found. And they did. Extensively. The initial results held no particular meaning. The flesh was in fact definitely alive, and was in fact definitely not any known sort of organism, but could not be induced to heal, react, or do anything interesting. What was left retained the power to hold itself together, but little more, and crumbled under pressure. Volumes of data were produced during this process. By and large, this data was never used.

In the end the only thing that could be induced to any activity whatsoever was the brain, the last thing to be worked on in detail. And there the last remaining spark of autistic half-life in the creature was found. The engineers carefully cut apart the crushed skull and plowed and cajoled their way in at the molecular level with wires and sensors and probes, pushing past layer upon layer of brain matter that all were black and decayed and clearly dead and liquified upon being disturbed, and took exquisite care to preserve perfectly anything that proved an exception. And in the end, when finally a clear outline of what bits were still living had been formed-- a solid and almost warm block at what in a human would have been the reptilian core, a few island-like clumps of living matter scattered throughout, and microscopic chains of neurons that branched off in a number of directions from that center linking it all-- the engineers connected wires everywhere that wires could be connected to and sent out a single universal gentle, quiet electric pulse, an attempt, in their way, to say hello.

And the angel sent a pulse back.

There was to be no communication. Too much of the brain was dead; the angel was already gone. The engineers found they could send information in certain ways and the brain would react, but the reaction was more mechanical than it was thought. Merely stimulus and response.

With time, and through processes too complex to even begin to attempt to explain here, the engineers formed a clear map of all of the angel's mind that was left. Some fragments of problem solving, memory, visualization remained. They could not get it to answer direct questions. What they did discover was that it perhaps had not utterly died, but merely in some way regressed. They discovered they could get it to respond; discovered they could not harness the mechanics directly, but they could interact with it. They could compose a simulacrum of thoughts and get real thoughts back. The thoughts they could use to interact in this way were extremely simple, and the level of interaction was roughly that one might have with a mentally impaired child one is taking care of.

And in a small bit of sweet, strange childlikeness, the most complicated thing they were able to get what remained of the angel's mind to do, after year after year of attempts, was play the old Japanese game of Go. They could form thoughts which coaxed into being in what remained of the angel's imagination a Go board, coaxed into what remained of its understanding the rules. They could form thoughts that described their moves. The angel, with the distant and inexplicable glow that remained at the center of its skull, moved in return. That was all.

The angel remains there still, eyes empty, its half-open smile of unconditional love still uncollapsed, its burnt and blackened in places but otherwise still almost glowing golden hair still trying to escape out in a wizened mane, pushing out the back of the equipment, intertwined with the hundreds or millions of metal pipes and wires, some visible, some not, that quietly encase all that remains of the angel's brain and flow out, back, spiraling off in thousands of different directions to the layer upon layer of machinery that entomb the angel on every side. The outpost in which all this is kept does not have a name, because it is not spoken of. It is too great a secret.

One of the problems with computing, despite paradigm shifts and advancements over time that one supposes must be literally beyond the imagining of those who worked on the art in its early days, is that there are certain problems that never get any easier. These problems, the so-called NP-hard, drive computer scientists batty because they are so universal, so basic, and yet still so inaccessible. They occur essentially every time there is a large system of decisions in which every decision effects the outcome of every other. Perhaps the most basic version of an NP-hard problem is this: You have a series of arbitrary locations connected by a series of arbitrary roads, and each road takes a specific known amount of time to traverse. You want to know what would be the quickest route that visits every location on your list. On a small scale, perhaps a map on a piece of paper, this is something a human mind can figure out with a fair degree of ease. Computer scientists are not interested in small scales. Most of them, especially these days, are interested in only one thing: as the scale becomes larger, how much harder does the problem become?

And the problem with the NP-hard questions is that their complexity increases exponentially; the amount of time it takes to solve such a problem doubles, or more, with each added decision. We can readily handle this doubling up to a point, but then we quickly reach something where our ability to compute appears more and more futile with each added simple step. Since this issue first appeared some very surprising methods of dealing with this kind of problem, and some very surprising and ingenious specialized devices, have been created, but still, at a certain scale, the difficulty of that simple traveling salesman problem-- when applied to the question of, say, how to effectively route all the messages within a galaxy-wide telecommunications network-- becomes daunting. When it comes to something like modeling the gravitational interactions of the particles within a decent-sized quasar, it reaches the point where one begins to use words like "impossibility" and seriously mean it. Advances in technology since the day of the transistor have not helped the problem one bit. All that we have been able to do is take the the point at which the problem becomes unbearable and push it back a relatively infinitesimal amount; past that point there is still nothing that can be done. It is like the old proverb of the man who invented Chess, and when asked by the Emperor what gift he wanted, he asked for one grain of rice for the first square, two grains of rice for the second, four grains of rice for the third; we can fulfill a decent portion of the chessboard easily, but just to fill that last square we could convert every molecule in the universe to silicon and have each crunch numbers until they all break, and still be nowhere near to solving one of a number of problems that scientists would like the answer to today.

Here is the truly maddening thing about the NP-hard problems: if someone, anyone, could find one really ingenious way of solving an NP-hard problem-- any of them-- where the difficulty with scale became more complicated just polynomially, rather than exponentially, then they could all be solved that way. (One of the oldest unanswered questions in computer science is whether such a thing is possible.) That is to say, every class of NP-hard questions corresponds perfectly with every other class of NP-hard questions, in a sort of shadowy, behind-the-mathematics sort of way, and you can mechanically translate between any two relatively easily. Solve one, it happens, and you've solved them all.

This is not an exact description of what happened. It is, however, something very similar. The essence is this: there exist homomorphisms by which any decision can be described perfectly as a scenario in Go.

With the size of civilized space, and the extreme density of the various markets contained therein, running a fair-sized business venture has become a very difficult thing. There are so many things happening on every side, so many things to keep track of, so many different ways to move, and each interacts in so many, tiny, hard to remember ways. It is much like Go, but there is many, many times more information, and many, many times more decisions to make, than could be made even to fit within the 3361 possible configurations of a 19x19 board. It is more than can be kept within the mind of a single human. It is often more than can be coordinated within a single organization without the difficulty of effective communication between the disparate points making everything break down. When you get into the question of running something like one of the corporations the size of Altran, an entity so large, varied and powerful that there are places where it can hardly be described as anything other than a nation-state, efficient decisionmaking begins to seem so complex one can begin to use words like "impossible" and mean it.

But here is the thing: while decisions of these scales are beyond our ability to solve well by any knowledge or art or technology we possess, we do begin to find that we have the technology to, with great effectiveness, describe the context for these decisions down to the minutest detail. We can master the question. We just have no way to move forward into an answer. But while we cannot answer such questions ourselves, we can rephrase them, analyze them shallowly, shuffle observations around on paper. And one of the things we can rephrase them as is Go.

And so there is a mindless, childlike angel at the heart of the galaxy that eternally, joyfully, plays an endless game of Go. The damage to its physical form has made its mind simple, simplified more than we-- not knowing what that mind was capable of when it was at its full abilities-- can imagine. But it remains an angel's mind. Simplified though it is, it is still infinite. It is still perfect. And it plays the perfect game of Go. It is beyond the rules of our universe, beyond the boundaries of finiteness, beyond the NP-complete requirement that some things just get exponentially harder as they get more complicated. And in its mind, still unblemished somehow, is an infinite Go board, in which a number of dancing white stones larger than one can even really imagine are day in and day out besieged by black stones carefully placed into the angel's mind by a truly staggering volume of computer equipment. And through this unimaginable amount of space, day in, day out (a mammoth frothing tangle of white and black in a seemingly infinite glob at the center, an almost countless number of tiny islands of war scattered out throughout infinity, and for each a real or potential quiet chain of go attacks stretching out toward infinity to connect them all) the white stones are always winning. The placers of the black stones do not mind, as this is by their design. Their intent within the game is not to win. The black stones are being placed by a massive computer network whose purpose is known only to precious few, a network that gathers every single decision, every bit of information, every scenario, every question facing the Altran corporation at that moment in time, laboriously converts the entire state of the universe from the perspective of Altran into configurations of stones on the Go board, and laboriously translates the angel's move back into the answer, the move, the best possible strategic decision for that moment in time. These homomorphisms are quite nasty, and abstraction is limited. Describing a set of decisions that varied and that large into something as simple as stone patterns within Go is not simple, and the amount of board space required to describe the system compounds upon itself with each added question that is a part of it. That does not matter. There is room.

The staggering success of the Altran Corporation has been a surprise to very many, and it has been attributed to a number of things. The most common belief is that their success is due to the complex, baffling, and shifting set of unethical or semiethical anticompetitive tactics that they undertake on a constant basis. This is partially right, but the tactics are only a tool. The real reason for Altran's success is simply and literally this: that at each moment, in every way, for its goals, Altran makes literally the best possible decision it could make given the information available to it.

There is one thing that leads me to believe the Altran Corporation's success will not be limitless. It is that despite all the technology, despite its perfect decisions, the ability of Altran to gather an accurate portrait of the information describing its universe, and the ability of Altran to model that information in an accurate way, is still imperfect and human. The knowledge of this fact comprises my one and sole remaining fragment of hope.


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Sweet Surrender | 115 comments (80 topical, 35 editorial, 0 hidden)
comments. (3.50 / 4) (#2)
by Shibboleth on Tue Sep 09, 2003 at 11:39:31 PM EST

Very original, very clever. +1

This is the first K5 fiction posting that I'm actually saving to my HD for when it gets nuked.

Good work.

Hey localroger (3.42 / 7) (#15)
by debacle on Wed Sep 10, 2003 at 11:35:34 AM EST

What'd you go and steal mcc's account for? He never did anything to you.


It tastes sweet.

This is actually quite good (3.33 / 6) (#19)
by epepke on Wed Sep 10, 2003 at 02:55:18 PM EST

I'll be voting it up when the time comes.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

SF stories about angels... (3.00 / 5) (#23)
by idontgno on Wed Sep 10, 2003 at 07:29:11 PM EST

make baby Jebus cry. +1 sect

--- We are here to protect you from the terrible secret of space. - Pusher Robot

Dude (4.00 / 16) (#24)
by fae on Wed Sep 10, 2003 at 07:50:19 PM EST

That would make a great anime movie. I mean, the angel would have these awesome boobs.

-- fae: but an atom in the great mass of humanity
And, like, no skin. [nt] (5.00 / 1) (#65)
by Koutetsu on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 04:23:29 AM EST

m(y) d.n.e. Me in terms of You does not exist.
[ Parent ]
It's brilliant. Where's the rest of the novel? nt (3.83 / 6) (#39)
by Russell Dovey on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 06:32:47 AM EST

"Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light." - Spike Milligan

Not going to happen. (3.00 / 2) (#96)
by RobotSlave on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 05:10:39 PM EST

A novel would require both characters and a plot, neither of which seem likely to emerge from this thin wrapper around a dubious bit of already overworked CS philoso-wank.

Incidentally, a black box that has won every game of Go it has played to date is not a "solution" to an NP-hard problem in any rigorous mathematical sense. This is a crucial distinction, one that undermines the central premise of this scenario (I can't, in good concience, call it a story).

The fact that the central conceit of the piece can't stand up to scrutiny, however, doesn't seem to have kept the less educated computers-nerds at K5 from slobbering all over it like a pack of deluded trekkies.

[ Parent ]

I want to shake your hand. (4.16 / 6) (#42)
by awgsilyari on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 02:21:44 PM EST

If anything resembling awareness remains, that awareness consists of nothing but an infinite field of gridded black and white squares, a test pattern scattered with dancing dots that shift and jump and blur into one another. It would be tempting to say this is consciousness, but in fact the angel is not aware of the test pattern. It simply is.

You have successfully differentiated between consciousness and self-awareness. This is something that, to my limited knowledge, very few people can do. You are the only person I've yet met who shares my understanding of consciousness.

(I'm not trying to say I have a better understanding than anyone else, but perhaps I have a different understanding.)

Did anyone else find that paragraph absolutely fabulous?

Please direct SPAM to john@neuralnw.com

Please try again. (3.50 / 8) (#43)
by wji on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 02:27:34 PM EST

The central idea is very imaginative, but the writing style is just not there. There are no characters and no narrative. There is nothing to convince me that this is actually in the future (everything is just a present day reference).

And you shouldn't have named it after a fucking country song. Uhhghghg.... country....

So as your self-appointed editor I tell you it needs a complete re-write. And as the world's self appointed culture minister I tell you angels are so cliche and over-used. I am unsure as to whether this is because of Neon Genesis Evangelion or just because people with wings are cool.

In conclusion, the Powerpuff Girls are a reactionary, pseudo-feminist enterprise.

Wow (2.33 / 3) (#44)
by jayhawk88 on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 02:48:11 PM EST

Pardon my French, but somewhere DesiredUsername just creamed his jeans, and doesn't know why.

Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web? -- John Ashcroft
Wow, Fiction on FP! (3.66 / 3) (#45)
by sab39 on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 03:26:50 PM EST

I loved the story when I first saw it in Diaries, and was prepared to vote it up if I happened to check the site while it was in voting. But I have to say, I hoped the author would accept some more of the changes that were suggested during editing.

The story as it stands is a great premise with somewhat questionable execution, leaving something that's merely good. It could so easily have been more than what it is, and that saddens me.

Still, K5ers must think it's really special to have voted it to FP... that's like RMS deciding to run Windows as his primary OS.

"Forty-two" -- Deep Thought
"Quinze" -- Amélie

Wow FP and not even a localroger (4.25 / 4) (#46)
by rhapsody on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 03:32:33 PM EST

Damn fine piece of fiction.....

Why I like this (4.62 / 8) (#47)
by epepke on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 03:37:58 PM EST

This story is rough. You're not going to get a book contract based on this. I doubt any editors would accept it or even be interested enough to reply with anything other than a form letter. The writing is not polished, and localroger has a much higher chance of making it as a writer.

However, I will remember this story until the day I die, long after the most polished stories I have read have faded into a blur, long after I've forgotten your name, perhaps long after I've forgotten Kuro5hin. For what it's worth, I think that supersedes all the rest.

There aren't too many stories I'd say that about. "The Second Kind of Loneliness" by George R.R. Martin. "More Stately Mansions" by Kurt Vonnegut. Some story by a woman in the 50's whose name I don't remember, but it involved a missionary on a planet keeping an alien from being "stretched out." "A Day's Wait" by Hemmingway. Something about aliens that could esfn I once read in Aboriginal Science Fiction. "Just a Little One" by Dorothy Parker. "Das Grablied" from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Niezsche. "They Guy with the Eyes" by Spider Robinson, long before Callahan's became a sickened franchise. The Loren Eisley essay about the dog and the fossil bone, and the one about the star-thrower. "I Sing the Body Electric" by Ray Bradbury. A short film called "The Resurrection of Bronco Billy." The B-sides of some of the old Motown records.

This story is of that ilk. The stories that maybe never make Tom Clancy sales but come out because they have to be told.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

I will remember this story until the day I die (4.80 / 5) (#71)
by MetallicBurgundy on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 10:13:03 AM EST

I read this story right after it was first posted yesterday afternoon. I couldn't stop thinking about it.

I thought about it as I finished my work for the day.

I thought of it while I drove home.

I thought of it at dinner.

I thought of it while falling asleep.

And the first thing I did this morning was read it again.

It is rare that anything makes that kind of an impression on me. There are a few films, some short stories and a couple of novels, but they are the exception. This story made me think.

I love that.

Yet the story is significant only if one has an understanding of NP-hard and cares about such things.

I am not in the habit of forwarding things. I do occasionally send a link out to one or two people that I believe will enjoy the link as much as I do.

I wanted to send this out to everybody. I wanted to say: here is one of the coolest stories ever! I wanted to have my wife read it. I wanted my friends to read it.

But there was only one person I sent it to: the only person I know who would stand the slightest chance of at least thinking it was cool. He is a philosophy grad student. My mathematician cube-mate didn't know what NP-hard was. My Software "Engineer" and Computer Scientist coworkers don't care. My wife, though I am sure the explanation in the story would allow here to understand NP-hard as a concept, would not realize the significance (she might agree that it was an interesting story, but she would not be thinking about it 5 minutes after she finished it, nor would she remember it in a week or two).

The very thing that makes this story so profound to me is the very thing that keeps me from being able to share it.

For me, however, it has enriched my life. I will never have a discussion or read anything regarding NP without remembering this story.

Thank you.

[ Parent ]
I loved your first paragraph. And then you said (3.60 / 5) (#48)
by porkchop_d_clown on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 03:46:17 PM EST

Records as to the details that begin this story are not available, and it is clear they have been made that way on purpose.

After that beautifully executed "The test purpose is useful.", too!

Heinz was quoted as saying: "But the sheep are so soft and wooley," immediately before he was put into custody.

News Flash! (1.38 / 13) (#49)
by xutopia on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 03:57:07 PM EST

This just in :

Angels do not exist.

Now for my question. Why is this on FP?

News Flash! (4.66 / 12) (#54)
by Valdrax on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 06:12:27 PM EST

This just in :

It's a fiction story.

Now for your answer. It was apparently well-liked.

[ Parent ]
Sir, (4.20 / 5) (#50)
by Danzig on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 04:16:00 PM EST

I loved this story. I hope you do not mind if I save it on my hard drive.

You are not a fucking Fight Club quotation.
rmg for editor!
If you disagree, moderate, don't post.
Kill whitey.
Umm... (3.75 / 4) (#51)
by jabber on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 04:24:52 PM EST

Are you suggesting that Microsoft has an angel chained up in the basement? </quip> Brilliant story!

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

Paragraph 14 (3.66 / 3) (#52)
by omghax on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 04:45:57 PM EST

Change "effects" to "affects"

Very Nice [n/t] (4.00 / 4) (#53)
by bearclaw on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 06:05:34 PM EST

-- bearclaw
This story rules... (3.50 / 4) (#55)
by Bone on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 06:57:42 PM EST

...the interlude is possibly a bit long, but nonetheless I really enjoyed it.

The best thing about this... (3.60 / 5) (#56)
by localroger on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 07:18:25 PM EST

...to me, is that it is fiction, it went +1 FP, and it didn't have a damn thing to do with me.

I'd have voted for it myself but I haven't had time to read it until now. Got a bit of infodump in there but it's appropriate when written to this length. Good job mcc.

What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachusetts Indians, that we were wolves with the min

Thank you ... (3.60 / 5) (#57)
by joshpurinton on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 08:18:24 PM EST

.. for this mindblowing story.

NP-hard (4.80 / 5) (#58)
by nyet on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 08:31:58 PM EST

Are you certain the conversion of problems too and from the structure of Go is not also NP-hard?

Oh, maybe they are (5.00 / 1) (#70)
by gazbo on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 09:29:49 AM EST

But maybe the conversion of the converting problem itself into go is in P, thus we can use the same technique and bootstrap.

Topless, revealing, nude pics and vids of Zora Suleman! Upskirt and down blouse! Cleavage!
Hardcore ZORA SULEMAN pics!

[ Parent ]

Deeeeeaaaaamn..... (3.33 / 9) (#59)
by thelizman on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 08:46:41 PM EST

...I mean, that's all I can say....DAMN! Very very good. If you didn't rip this off from a Bradbury, Asimov, Lem, or likewise, then you certainly deserve a spot in their midst.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
Reminded me of... (4.50 / 2) (#60)
by lens flare on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 10:19:18 PM EST

I guess the black eyed angel reminded me of the song by radiohead, which I think has quite possibly the best lyrics ever:

The Pyramid Song by Radiohead

I jumped in the river and what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
All the things I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt

I jumped into the river
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
And all the things I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt

There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt

Reminded me of (5.00 / 3) (#66)
by Scrymarch on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 05:03:18 AM EST

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Especially given that leads to the speech:

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!

That's what it's all about, to me.  Transcendence denied.

[ Parent ]

Brings to mind... (5.00 / 1) (#87)
by pwhysall on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 02:23:42 AM EST

...the song Black Boned Angel by Godflesh.
K5 Editors
I'm going to wager that the story keeps getting dumped because it is a steaming pile of badly formatted fool-meme.
[ Parent ]
NP-Hard != NP-Complete (4.14 / 7) (#61)
by stonegod on Thu Sep 11, 2003 at 11:13:41 PM EST

There is a distinction between NP-Hard problems and NP-Complete problems. An NP-Hard problem just means an algorithm to solve an NP-Hard problem can be used to solve any other problem in NP; it does not mean it is verifiable in polynomial time (on a nondeterministic Turing machine). You need both in order to be NPC, and only problems in NP are potentially (but believed unlikely) solvable in polynomial time on a normal TM. This distinction is important and should be noted in the text.

Go is PSPACE-complete and other ramblings... (5.00 / 2) (#74)
by gary flake on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 11:03:22 AM EST

stonegod is right about the distinction between NP-hard and NP-complete and the relevance of the topic to this story.

Other pendantic CS theory points:

Go is actually PSPACE-complete which means that any problem that can be solved in polynomial space has a corresponding Go instance that expresses the answer to the problem.

Go on an infinite grid (with infinite stones on initialization that follow a regular pattern) is Turing complete. Any program on any computer can be realized as one of these infinite Go games.

All of this computational complexity stuff is better expressed as a decision problem (Does this problem have a solution with this property? Yes / No) and not a solution problem (What are the winning moves for this Go instance?).

Putting all of the above together, a Go game played on an infinite grid may never end with two optimal players.

If the angel is giving full solutions, then it may still take exponential or infinite time to express the solution. If the angel is giving yes / no answers to the decision problem, then it is solving the famous halting problem if done on infinite Go boards. And if the angel is giving yes / no answers to finite decision problems, then it is leveraging the PSPACE-completeness of Go (which is like being able to emulate a computer with finite RAM).

Pedantic comments aside, I really like this story. It's the first piece of fiction on K5 that I've read all the way through.

-- GWF

[ Parent ]

Very interesting... (5.00 / 1) (#93)
by Kadin2048 on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 02:47:09 PM EST

Based on what you've said, an interesting ending to the story would have been if the Angel won.

Just my two cents.

[ Parent ]

Re: the story (5.00 / 1) (#94)
by Wah on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 03:20:15 PM EST

Putting all of the above together, a Go game played on an infinite grid may never end with two optimal players.

You should see what the demon looked like.  Perhaps we'll find out in a follow up.
[ Parent ]

Computational Beauty of Nature (5.00 / 1) (#105)
by mlepage on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 11:30:24 PM EST

Hm, Gary Flake. GWF. Gary William Flake? Did you write The Computational Beauty of Nature? Excellent book, I loved it. Very much on topic for this story.

[ Parent ]
Looks like it (5.00 / 1) (#111)
by Wah on Wed Sep 17, 2003 at 11:51:31 AM EST


Homepage link for interesting topical reading.
[ Parent ]

Actually go is even harder than PSPACE. (none / 0) (#113)
by hearn on Sat Nov 15, 2003 at 03:53:30 PM EST

NxN go was indeed shown to be PSPACE-hard, by Sipser and Lichtenstein, in 1980. However, it is not in fact PSPACE-complete! Due to the ko rule, go with Japanese rules is even harder: it's EXPTIME-complete (as are checkers and chess).

This was shown by Robson in 1984. An open problem is the complexity of go with the superko rule. Both the upper and the lower bounds of the EXPTIME-completeness proof break when superko is introduced; it could be as hard as EXPSPACE. This would make it the hardest game that humans normally play.

See this page for paper references.

[ Parent ]

So... (4.33 / 3) (#62)
by bjlhct on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 12:54:49 AM EST

Was it supposed to be fighting the last Altron?

[kur0(or)5hin http://www.kuro5hin.org/intelligence] - drowning your sorrows in intellectualism
A slight mistake... (4.00 / 6) (#63)
by myrspace on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 01:51:17 AM EST

actually, go originated from China, not Japan while sad to say, go is more popular in Japan than China.

Weiqi (5.00 / 3) (#75)
by mcc on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 11:12:53 AM EST

Actually, that was added in edit. It originally said Chinese, but someone pointed out that apparently "Go" is the Japanese name/version and "Weiqi" is the Chinese version. (I looked around and it seems the only difference between Go and Weiqi is how the stone scores are counted up at the end, but I'm not sure?)

So the options were, say "Old Chinese game of Go" and have that contradiction, say "Old Japanese game of Go" and inaccurately imply the game was invented in Japan, or say "Old Chinese game of Weiqi" and have nobody have any idea what I was talking about. I went with #2, maybe it wasn't the best decision :)

Aside from that, the absurd meta-wankery of k5er-quoting sigs probably takes the cake. Especially when the quote itself is about k5. -- tsubame
[ Parent ]

referentialist solution (5.00 / 2) (#106)
by basj on Mon Sep 15, 2003 at 12:42:14 PM EST

You could go with "The old chinese game called Go". ;-)
Complete the Three Year Plan in five years!
[ Parent ]
Two words (3.75 / 4) (#64)
by arvindn on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 03:47:03 AM EST

As far as I can see, this story is merely an extremely verbose description of a very standard concept in complexity theory: NP-oracle. Am I missing something?

So you think your vocabulary's good?
Sweet Surrender - Sarah McLachlan (3.66 / 3) (#67)
by andr0meda on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 05:39:16 AM EST

It doesn't mean much
it doesn't mean anything at all
the life I've left behind me
is a cold room

I've crossed the last line
from where I can't return
where every step I took in faith betrayed me
and led me from my home

And sweet
sweet surrender
is all that I have to give

You take me in
no questions asked
you strip away the ugliness
that surrounds me

Are you an angel
am I already that gone
I only hope that I won't disappoint you
when I'm down here on my knees

And sweet...

And I don't understand
by the touch of your hand
I would be the one to fall

I miss the little things
oh I miss everything

It doesn't mean much...

Sweet Surrender...

Sweet Surrender...

Do not be afraid of the void my friend, is it not merely the logical next step?

-10000000000 (1.76 / 17) (#68)
by tkatchev on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 08:21:07 AM EST

Learn to write, you nitwit.

You could start by throwing in the trash everything you've already written.

Sorry, but this HTH. Just being honest with you.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.

So it's a little rough. (4.50 / 2) (#69)
by craigd on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 09:14:30 AM EST

It's still a good story, and that's what matters.

A man who says little is a man who speaks two syllables.
[ Parent ]
No it is not a good story. (3.00 / 2) (#72)
by tkatchev on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 10:27:10 AM EST

It is horrible.

Seriously, it is a very, very badly written boring, trite story.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

Subjectivity (5.00 / 3) (#76)
by craigd on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 12:15:42 PM EST

The closest thing we have to an objective measure of quality is whether many people can subjectively agree. Seeing as this got voted up to the front page, your opinion is as close to worng as a purely subjective opinion can be. If it were that bad, it would have been voted down in no time.

A man who says little is a man who speaks two syllables.
[ Parent ]
I agree but I disagree (3.66 / 3) (#84)
by vyruss on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 11:31:46 PM EST

I agree on that I like the story too, but I disagree about your measure of near-objectivity. That would mean Britney is good music. :)

  • PRINT CHR$(147)

[ Parent ]
Britney (5.00 / 1) (#112)
by craigd on Fri Sep 19, 2003 at 01:27:34 PM EST

Britney is popular because the RIAA can make anyone they want a star. K5 is cool because nobody can make a story popular; things are popular or unpopular because they are what people do or don't want, not because Rusty manufactures hits.

A man who says little is a man who speaks two syllables.
[ Parent ]
well perhaps (3.00 / 2) (#86)
by xutopia on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 12:48:59 AM EST

that with enough chance enough people will vote a crappy story so as to make it FP. I think it sucks too.

[ Parent ]
Good effort but not very interesting to me (3.00 / 5) (#73)
by jig on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 10:28:18 AM EST

Personally I don't find Deus Ex Machinas in stories very interesting, not as cop outs in an ending of a story where the author can no longer tie together all the loose ends, and not, worse still, as the fulcrum of the plot as it is here.

So a near-dead (but still perfect!) angel just happens to float by along and ends up solving problems puny humans can't even begin to approach because of limitations of time, brain matter and reality and makes some business filthy rich. Great. And so the world was plagued by famine, war, grief and sorrow, but one day an angel descended from above and healed all that were sick, fed all that were hungry, consoled all that were weary, and pacificed all that were consumed by hatred. Heaven on Earth was thus created. The End.

Having said that, it's not that I hate it. I just find it rather boring. I suppose you could see it as a little fairy tale for captialistic computer scientists to sleep soundly at night and dream about.

And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all

same here (4.00 / 2) (#81)
by sanketh on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 05:04:55 PM EST

I understand the attempt at building a story-like vehicle for some computer science concepts, but it really doesnt get anywhere. Especially for those who knew them already. But then, I dont know, maybe this story is for all the other people.

Even otherwise, it is pretty bland in terms of a plot. Or rather, the lack of a plot. There are lots of things you could have done with an angel like that and lots of places your story could go.

Anyway, still, people seem to have liked it and you deserve some kudos for getting a Fiction piece up on the front page. congrats.

== Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.
[ Parent ]

The Glass Bead Game (3.75 / 4) (#77)
by Wildgoose on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 12:34:37 PM EST

...in the novel of the same name by Herman Hesse is also supposed to be able to model everything from physics to the interactions within human societies.

Was it an inspiration?

Trim it down! (4.20 / 5) (#78)
by rjs on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 12:57:02 PM EST

This would read much better without the clutter. For example:
After the point at which the angel was retrieved, by whatever means this was done, records began to be kept.
After the angel was retrieved, by whatever means, records began to be kept.
Even better would be to take that last chunk and make it active, eg. "[person/people] began keeping records."

the original sentance is better.. (5.00 / 1) (#91)
by Suppafly on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 05:55:22 AM EST

not everyone has problems with sentances over 5 words in length..
Playstation Sucks.
[ Parent ]
Editing shouldn't change meaning... (5.00 / 1) (#92)
by falloutboy on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 10:14:17 AM EST

Your edited version of the sentence has a different meaning. In the original, "by whatever means this was done" refers to the process of retrieving the angel. In your edited version, "by whatever means" refers to the record keeping. The reason is that in the original the word "was" appears, and thus refers to events in the past, not the record-keeping which is just beginning.

[ Parent ]
Writing style (5.00 / 1) (#109)
by Sciamachy on Wed Sep 17, 2003 at 05:38:31 AM EST

The stylistic rules you're trying to bring in there are great for report writing, as they enforce clarity, but aren't necessarily an improvement when it comes to writing fiction. The passive voice has its uses, particularly if a sense of detatchment or vagueness is implied or wanted.

Imagine Pride and Prejudice, with the dialogue the same but the narrative re-done in the pithy, terse style of Elmore Leonard. Actually I may try that just as an exercise in stylistics.
Fides Non Timet
[ Parent ]

Three things (3.00 / 5) (#79)
by trhurler on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 03:00:00 PM EST

First of all, your sentence structure is frequently just downright nasty. Quit repeating things we know, and which you spent entire paragraphs telling us, in every sentence that follows those paragraphs.

Second, search for silicon and molecule and think about the sentence for a few seconds. The army doesn't use molecule bombs, you know.

Finally, give the narrator some reason to dislike the corporation, instead of just assuming one. And haven't I heard that name somewhere before?

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

Actually, they do use molecule bombs, (5.00 / 1) (#97)
by PowerPimp on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 06:44:35 PM EST

They're called chemical explosives.

You'd better take care of me God; otherwise, you'll have me on your hands...
[ Parent ]
Great fiction (3.00 / 3) (#80)
by elvstone on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 03:22:36 PM EST

Makes me want to learn how to play Go.

there is a tutorial here on k5 (5.00 / 1) (#90)
by Suppafly on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 05:54:04 AM EST

Playstation Sucks.
[ Parent ]
Wow. (3.75 / 4) (#82)
by Grand Fromage on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 06:34:48 PM EST

The actual writing isn't that great, but the concept behind it is one of the most original things I've seen in a long time.  Very nice job.  Just learn to write better and you'll be golden.

Good start (3.66 / 6) (#83)
by spammacus on Fri Sep 12, 2003 at 09:33:51 PM EST

Props for an original idea in a genre notorious for repeating itself.  I strongly encourage you to keep working on this one.

Unfortunately, your writing style needs work.  Right now you style says 'look at my wicked vocabulary' rather than drawing the reader in to the story.

Some tips, if I may:

  1. The passive voice has its uses, but you use it too much.  Save it for when you need to express the subtle.  Also, good writing has a mix of long and short sentences, much like good music has a mix of dynamics.  Contrast and articulation are what make all art forms interesting, at least at the technical level.
  2. Long sentences only work if you structure them carefully.  Many sections above are verbose - they collapse under their own weight.
  3. As an excercise, try to make a precis of this story.  By this I mean pick a number of words as a limit, say 500, and try to chop the text down to fit.  Do this by removing extra adjectives/adverbs, by replacing several words with one that means the same thing, etc.  You may trash the trimmed version in the end, but the excercise will help you to find punchier ways to say things.
But please, don't stop working on this one.  Despite the rough edges, I think the concept is fantastic.
-- "Asshole, deconstruct thyself." - Mr. Surly
Very nice and colourful story! (3.00 / 3) (#85)
by chanio on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 12:17:36 AM EST

I can even imagine that angel...

Though people is not that bad, just naïve!
Farenheit Binman:
This worlds culture is throwing away-burning thousands of useful concepts because they don't fit in their commercial frame.
My chance of becoming intelligent!

Ethics and Perfect Solutions (4.66 / 3) (#88)
by Caelum on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 03:10:58 AM EST

Assuming an Altran Corporation has this perfect GO playing machine, and assuming they have perfect or very good systems for transcribing problems into GO moves. Would unethical and semiethical decisions still be made? Would these not hurt them in the long run?

Aristotle's stance in Nicomachean (sp?) Ethics was that once a person understands that an action is evil, he is incapable of doing it. And if Altran corporation is using an angel to make its decisions, would it not be incapable of evil as well?


Perfect Soutions to Imperfect Questions (5.00 / 5) (#95)
by Wah on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 03:36:03 PM EST

Assuming an Altran Corporation has this perfect GO playing machine, and assuming they have perfect or very good systems for transcribing problems into GO moves.

Good assumptions, since they have a perfect filter (the angel) to use to write a perfect program.  Once they get things working, the system could be used to refine itself.

Would unethical and semiethical decisions still be made?

Yes, or at least some would consider them so.  Altran could apply the system to best exploit their own interests which would naturally lead to others, perhaps a majority of others, finding those decisions unethical or worse.

They could, of course, modify the questions and find the best overall action for any given situation.  But again, the questioner's ethics, and ability to fully implement answer's would determine their ultimate ethicality, with hindsight.  However, this could ultimately lead to the necessity of the company's own destruction, so it is unlikely that they would take this path.

And if Altran corporation is using an angel to make its decisions, would it not be incapable of evil as well?

Then, it would be incapable of evil only if it wished to be so.  Having an Oracle doesn't mean you'll ask perfect questions, which are far different than perfect answers.

[ Parent ]

great story.. (2.80 / 5) (#89)
by Suppafly on Sat Sep 13, 2003 at 05:52:41 AM EST

i could see this being a very good anime..
Playstation Sucks.
Regardless of others' opinions... (5.00 / 1) (#98)
by pla on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 12:22:38 AM EST

You've gotten a link from MetaFilter.

Kudos, you deserve it.

Some comments (5.00 / 1) (#99)
by flo on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 05:08:09 AM EST

First off: Nice story, and congrats on the +1FP. Doesn't happen often with fiction around here.

I have some comments about your description of NP-hard problems. It is most likely that P != NP, which means that polynomial time solutions to some NP-problems (and therefor all NP-hard ones) don't exist. But this does not mean that all algorithms need be exponential. There may well exist sub-exponential algorithms (e.g. 2^(sqrt(n) complexity). But those are still not terribly useful for large n. Also, working out the gravitational interaction between a bunch of particles is certainly not NP-hard. If you have n particles, then there are only n(n-1)/2 interactions to consider, so the "size" of the problem only increases quadratically with n.

As an interesting aside, I've just returned from a workshop in Japan, where a guy has announced a proof that "P!=NP" is impossible to prove (even if true). I didn't understand his talk (some rough mathematical logic), but the claim is interesting. But one must be VERY careful - so far this is only an announcement, it still has to pass peer-review. To date, all similar announcements have turned out wrong. Wait and see.

Lastly, even if you have an oracle that can efficiently solve any NP-hard problem (or even the halting problem, whatever), then its usefulness still depends on what questions you ask it. To obtain a perfect business strategy, you must formulate perfect questions, which presupposes a perfect model for the business. This is not much easier than the NP-hard problems that result.
"Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
A good intro (5.00 / 1) (#100)
by wobh on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 08:32:27 AM EST

Strictly speaking this isn't a complete story. Just an introduction to a situation that the narrator is in—and we're not even given his situation, just that of his enemies.

Ironically, this isn't a bad place to leave it. With each further decision you make, you close off whole universes of potential stories that your readers are already inferring from the introduction given. Most humbling is that many of those stories are bound to be better than the one you would choose tell. Right now, being only untold, potential stories, all are equal, and you will never have a reader of your full story who say, "I could tell a better one than this."

See a parallel here?

Anyway, thanks for the story. Good luck.

Short story (5.00 / 1) (#102)
by Daelin on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 03:43:06 PM EST

A huge volume of excellent science fiction short stories read like this.  The plot and characters aren't important.  The premise, the concept, is intriguing.  A classical narrative, a novel, could be written from this premise, but the premise is the fascinating part.

I love it.

[ Parent ]

Short story or long story (5.00 / 2) (#104)
by wobh on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 08:49:56 PM EST

True enough. My point is a story has one or more changes in the state of things as their conclusion. As presently given to us, we only have a conclusion in which it is revealed that the narrator/protagonist wishes a change in the state of this just described.

And the premise is fascinating. There are three backstories given to us.

  1. The story of how the angel was wounded. This is talked about briefly and hypothetically by the narrator.
  2. The story of how the angel was found and used to bring Altran (interesting name, "also ran") into it's position of dominance. This is discussed in much more detail as though the narrator were intimately familiar with the process. I inferred that the narrator was one of the agents of Altran that helped bring it about, probably one of the scientists who, uh, retrained the angel. The narrator was very specific in the process and concepts involved but very vague about the people who did it as though to not bring up his own guilty part in the story.
  3. The story of how the narrator came to feel that Altran needs to fall from its present position of dominance into a more humble one. This current feeling of his probably corresponds to a fall from grace in his own life. His present position in life isn't given to us but it seems reasonable to infer that he is currently destitute and possibly imprisoned or enslaved and that this was not always so.

From here would naturally follow a tale of the fall of Altran and, likely, the rise of the narrator and sympathetic agencies.

I think it's interesting that people have reacted to so many different things in this short introduction. Some like the ideas of mathematics and decision-making; others are intrigued by the set-pieces the angel, the galactic backdrop; others react to the writing style, it's sort of crude and gets carried away with the story it's introducing to us (unlike others, I don't think this a bad thing); but I think all of us are reacting to one degree or another, to the epic potential of it which is expressed in all of these aspects of it. The story is overflowing mythic implications.

One thing I didn't mean to express in my first response was that I don't want to discourage mcc from continuing this if he wants. It's a tall order to fill, but it's better filled poorly than not at all. Which is to say: mcc, don't get distracted with editing this part, move on to the rest. Do not think about style, let yourself get carried away with the ideas, the special effects. the scenery. It's true that enthusiasm is no substite for skill, but, likewise, skill is no substitute for enthusiasm. Don't worry about being original verses being 'cheesy' or meeting other people's high expectations. It's an old story that have never gotten old in the telling in all the thousands of years it's been told. Don't hesitate to add your voice to the choir.

But it's okay if this is as far as you intended to go too. In which case it would be appropriate to clean up and improve what you have presently done and move on to the next thing. Almost all Jonathan Carroll's stories often read like the first chapter of an impossibly fascinating longer work.

One last, tangental, note. I'm intrigued by the idea that the angel even as disabled as he is would still have an intrinsic altruistic bias in picking solutions for the problems it is presented with. Consider: the scope of the problems and solutions is limited to the Altran corporation, and their implementation is limited to Altran's ability to express the problems to the angel and interpret the answers.

But as time goes on, the angel's altruistic selection bias becomes more and better expressed in Altran. Internal problems arising from imperfect implementation would be eliminated or contained, External opposition would also be absorbed, converted, or contained by Altran itself. And as Altran grows in size and influence the material and moral balance shifts until it is materially and morally better (in the utilitarian sense) to join Altran than to resist.

Eventually, the only way to stop them would be to find a powerful agent of corruption and evil, and finish the job on the angel and corrupt Altran from within, turning everything they've done for themselves and their allies into a nightmare.

[ Parent ]
Hrm. (5.00 / 1) (#101)
by Arkayne on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 01:12:49 PM EST

I can tell that a short-story is a good one when I get jealous to the point of being pissed off.

Great story/Fuck off.

Ups and downs (5.00 / 1) (#103)
by cyberdruid on Sun Sep 14, 2003 at 04:56:20 PM EST

I was massively impressed by the introductory paragraphs. The text had good flow and it made me immediately curious. Also it was very poetic.

The idea of the story was less interesting though. If you really want to be blown away by thoughts surrounding formal systems such as Go, I recommend Greg Egan. This theme turns up both in his short stories and in the novel Permutation City.

Really good (5.00 / 1) (#107)
by Niha on Tue Sep 16, 2003 at 11:08:27 AM EST

   I thought the story would be about other subject, as for the intro, but I have enjpoyed it very much anyway.

Obligatory link to a relevant K5 article... (5.00 / 1) (#108)
by TaoJones on Wed Sep 17, 2003 at 01:43:13 AM EST

...which happens to be an excellent introduction to the game would be Go: Life Itself. It's one of the best descriptions of the game I've run across, and it got me hooked.

Nicely written BTW. I wouldn't actually call it a "story" as such, more like an introductory descriptive essay. Now all you've got to do is add characters and conflict and expand it into a novel ;)


"That'd be the Necrotelecomnicom - the Tibetan phone book of the dead." odaiwai

Suspension of disbelief (5.00 / 3) (#110)
by stormfront on Wed Sep 17, 2003 at 07:30:35 AM EST

I am just a simple guy and do not posess half the intellect of the people who have ripped into this story; But I think it is excellent. The style is fantastic with a very good "rythmn" to it, something that RJS by suggesting "better without the clutter" has missed I fear. Don't turn it into a document, keep it as it is, a great story. The bottom line is that I really enjoyed the story. So what if after nth dimensional analysis it has a few holes in it. Damned cynics looking to flex their brains in front of everyone. Look forward to more!

The last sentence... (none / 1) (#114)
by one white audient on Sat Dec 13, 2003 at 02:13:31 PM EST

...is an utter rip-off of the last sentence of Borges' Library of Babel in spirit, if not nearly as well-phrased.

RE (none / 0) (#115)
by lixiangcn on Tue Jun 07, 2005 at 09:41:10 AM EST

As far as I can see, this story is merely an extremely verbose description of a very standard concept in complexity theory: NP-oracle. Am I missing somethingFlash geci mobile shouji info info caixin ling.

Sweet Surrender | 115 comments (80 topical, 35 editorial, 0 hidden)
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