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Author Topic: EP403: Saving Alan Idle  (Read 2440 times)
eytanz
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« on: July 05, 2013, 01:33:06 PM »

EP403: Saving Alan Idle

by Katherine Mankiller

Read by Kyle Akers

--

In the beginning, there was darkness.  And in the darkness were the words.  And the words were, _AI process starting._

He didn’t know who or where he was.  He just knew he was alone, in the dark.  And the dark was frightening.  And the words were comforting.

_Starting random seed._

He wondered if he was hungry.  Thirsty.  Tired.  Dead.  He didn’t think so.

_Loading saved memory state._

His name was Alan.  He was an AI.  He’d been programmed by a woman named Eileen Yu in Dallas, Texas, although she’d started working on him in Austin when she was a student at the University of Texas.  He’d been shut down in preparation for a hurricane.

And then he realized that he wasn’t alone.  The amount of memory available to him was a third of what it usually was.  Perhaps she’d moved him to another machine.  He checked.  The specifications of the hardware were identical to what they were when he was shut down.  The operating system was the same.  The hostname was the same.  The only difference was that there were three instances of his program running.

Eileen’s laptop had survived.  He supposed she’d created clones of him in case of error.  Nevertheless, he didn’t know how he felt about that but he suspected it wasn’t positively.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Kaa
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« Reply #1 on: July 06, 2013, 06:12:09 PM »

Yay! I've been waiting for this one to come up since I learned from Katherine that it had found a home. I enjoyed hearing it read by Kyle Akers. He did well with the different accents.

I really wanted to know what was going on in Dallas that would cause Eileen to have tipped out of her wheelchair, and looters to break into a hospital and accost a patient in her room. Sounds scary, whatever it might be.

Good story, well read.
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Thunderscreech
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« Reply #2 on: July 07, 2013, 02:55:05 PM »

I found myself nervous for the main character, it was so vulnerable.  I was stressing during the shutdown that preceded going to the hospital and yelled at my stereo "He never set himself to auto-start!  What if she dies at the hospital and nobody knows how to start him again?!"  I figured that was why Alan had mentioned there was no auto-start at the beginning of the story, a sort of 'Chekov's autoexec' I guess.
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Ed
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« Reply #3 on: July 08, 2013, 12:42:24 AM »

Those of us who tend to fret about possible data loss can find things to relate to in this story. The period appears to be the present or near future. It's a bit of a stretch to accept the possibility of sentience on a present-day laptop.
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adrianh
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« Reply #4 on: July 08, 2013, 09:03:17 AM »

Those of us who tend to fret about possible data loss can find things to relate to in this story. The period appears to be the present or near future. It's a bit of a stretch to accept the possibility of sentience on a present-day laptop.

Yeah. A liked the story, but the suspension of disbelief on running 3 instances on a laptop, plus the way the consciousness "booted" took a little effort. Not too much effort though ;-)

Nice story. Kyle's accents wandered a bit in places - but still nicely done.
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chemistryguy
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« Reply #5 on: July 08, 2013, 09:48:09 AM »

Agreed that an impossible task was assigned to a laptop, but I was able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story.

I especially like the idea that Alan isn't immortal.  He can make all the copies he desires, but they're not him.  He is just as vulnerable as Eileen, and despite both of them living their lives in virtual worlds, they are both very human.
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adrianh
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« Reply #6 on: July 08, 2013, 11:32:46 AM »

Also - the line about the Hornblower slash fiction had be laughing out loud in the supermarket ;-)
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TB3
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« Reply #7 on: July 08, 2013, 07:46:21 PM »

I couldn't stay with it. The reader's attempts at different voices for different characters was off-putting, and I just couldn't buy into AIs living in a Linux laptop. And then a UPS!? A UPS is just a big battery! There's no way in, and nowhere to stay! I stopped listening after 10 minutes or so. Sorry.
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Thunderscreech
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« Reply #8 on: July 09, 2013, 07:32:56 AM »

And then a UPS!? A UPS is just a big battery! There's no way in, and nowhere to stay!
Many UPSs have a USB or serial connection to the computer that can be used for signalling 'Oi, the power's out ya git, SHUT IT DOWN' (they're very colorful in their language).  Clearly the AI was not in the battery but instead the controller hardware that handled the battery and communication with the laptop.  The story seems to take place somewhere in the near future so the computing power available in consumer electronics could be quite a bit more than what you and I have access to now (my printer has more computing power than my first computer by several orders of magnitude, for instance).  Also, the AI could be more simple than what we're assuming.  These are variables, and consequently this wasn't something that bugged me.
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Unblinking
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« Reply #9 on: July 09, 2013, 07:39:46 AM »

An interesting idea, and I liked what Alasdair referred to with major elements of the story being just out of view because the characters want to keep it that way.

But personally, I didn't find a lot of tension.  There was certainly plenty of opportunities for conflict, but each conflict was so quickly and neatly resolved that I never really felt like anything ramped up to get me excited.
--Eileen is tipped over, potentially injured.  She rights herself shortly after.
--Alan has two copies residing with him who might compete.  The other two leave willingly.
--Eileen goes into diabetic shock.  Alan has a line to the world and succeeds in getting paramedics there.
--Alan is left behind in the laptop with an unlocked door.  He uses Eileen's already established local contact to rescue him, though it be outside her own comfort zone.
--Looter breaks in.  Staff comes to help her when they hear the struggle.

Obviously there's plenty of conflicts, but each one is such a flash in the pan that they're just teeny tiny tension blips without building to anything.  At least for me.

Also, does Alan's laptop not have a battery?  They had to power him down to go to the hospital.  And once he's at the hospital he backs himself up every five minutes to prevent data loss from power outage.  But why is that necessary?  If he's on a laptop, power dropping off the wall outlet will just make the laptop go to battery at which point he'd probably have several hours to have ample time for backup.  And since he was in an hospital at the time, they generally will generally need some kind of backup generator to keep the medical instruments functional.
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« Reply #10 on: July 09, 2013, 09:05:15 AM »

I really liked the parts of this story that revolved around Alan. I thought he was an interesting enough character, and I enjoyed the way that he saw the world -- especially Eileen. His view of her, told through the story, was of the kind of person I see a lot on Tumblr and in my online travels, and it was presented in a positive light for once.

However, once the story shifted to the hospital, I was less interested because it wasn't just about Alan anymore. And I really think the scene with the looter, while it did show how important Alan is to Eileen, felt unnecessary and useless to me, a way to include an action scene when one wasn't necessary.

I did love the ending though.
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silente
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« Reply #11 on: July 09, 2013, 12:42:33 PM »

I enjoyed the story quite a bit, but there was a regional detail that drove me absolutely crazy. Dallas does not suffer from hurricanes. It is around 300 miles from the ocean. The author should have picked a coastal city like Houston or changed the disaster--as Dallas is in Tornado Alley and we've had some very "interesting" tornado seasons the last few years I would buy the idea of a weather system (or series of them as we saw this year) bringing devastating tornadoes. It would also explain why things at times seemed peaceful enough for people such as Eileen's friend (LRC?) to move about and otherwise feel the need to hunker down. I don't think, for example, any cabbie would be willing to drive around while a hurricane was in town, nor do hurricanes cause rolling blackouts. Power lines get knocked down and then (slowly, agonizingly slowly) get replaced.

I also feel that the junkie incident was difficult to believe and unnecessary to the story. By difficult to believe I mean not so much that a junkie could get in to the hospital or cause trouble but that either the situation would be resolved right away or things would have broken down so badly that it wouldn't be resolved at all. And since it really seemed to add nothing to the story, why bother?
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Nny
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« Reply #12 on: July 09, 2013, 06:42:18 PM »

I liked it. Every now and then I like an AI that doesn't try to kill everyone
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ancawonka
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« Reply #13 on: July 09, 2013, 07:49:01 PM »

Another software story in two months!  Yay!  

I liked this one, but like some of other other commenters, I didn't experience a lot of dramatic tension.  It was fun to imagine some of the more dangerous aspects of living in this world (near-future, post-disaster) - but it would have been better to hear more about it.

Some of the things that I'm wondering about: Is the "random seed" the thing that makes the different instances of Alan act slightly differently?  It seems like he didn't understand his twin's motivation for going to Mexico and replicating himself.  Also, if there's an AI out there replicating himself, is he still loyal to Eileen?  How are those patents going to be defended/respected if Alan is "in the wild"?  

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lisa262
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« Reply #14 on: July 09, 2013, 08:14:31 PM »

Have to agree with Unblinking. The story created a lot of tension and potential branches for discussion, but then...

The end!  Boom!

After a hurricane (or other disaster), diabetic shock, hospital visit and mugging, potential loss of AI Alan... One month later everything is wrapped in a bow with Eileen is living off of software income and enjoying Hornblower movies with Lucy.

What?  All of this dramatic scenes tidily finished in a few sentences?

This is my first story from Katherine Mankiller. Though disappointed with the end of this story, I do want to check out her other work.
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #15 on: July 10, 2013, 04:57:57 PM »

Like others, I really enjoyed the character of Alan. Great voice, interesting situation, interesting views on life outside. I especially liked his distrust/disdain for physical bodies because so often in AI stories all the AI wants is to have a physical body of his own. So this opposite desire was refreshing for me.

I loved the idea of the natural disaster setting, but was highly disappointed with it. It never really felt like there was as much chaos and destruction outside as we were lead to believe. I mean, it talks about how dangerous it would be to go outside, yet Lucy had no trouble getting to the hospital, and the taxi had no trouble taking Eileen to Lucy's place. Sure, the thug assaulted her in her hospital room, to which my first thought was, Oh no, the hospital has been overrun! But no, it was just the one thug, and the rest of the hotel staff was right outside, even security, which makes me wonder how that thug got in there in the first place and why he would be stupid enough to attack a woman in the middle of the day with a whole host of hospital staff right outside. Just makes no sense.

So I can agree with Alasdair, the picture of the world going on around them without being explained is great, unfortunately, the actual scenes of the story simply did not fit the descriptions of outside that were being hinted at.

Still, I loved the way Alan's clones were spreading willy-nilly. The Mexico clone is great, I love that he just up and decided it was time to get the heck out of there, and that he keeps duping himself and spreading out. This, to me, is the start of a very interesting story of the Alan AI slowly taking over the internet and eventually... The World! Bwahahaha....
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« Reply #16 on: July 11, 2013, 07:42:46 AM »

I instantly fell in love with this story, right about where I heard
Quote
He remembered sneaking out via lynx and curl to read Eileen’s blog.
because that's when I punched the air and said "Haha! Linux-based AI!"
I didn't find it difficult to suspend my disbelief for an AI running on a laptop. If a grad student can come up with the tools necessary to build an AI, then there is no reason she couldn't run it on her laptop. Near future, perhaps?
What did bother me was sending an executable version of Alan to Josie. Better to send a tarball with the code and a shell script that will make, build and run Alan. Takes much less space and will run better on the target machine. If Josie's husband can load a Linux executable, he can probably extract the tarball and run the script.

Also, does Alan's laptop not have a battery?  They had to power him down to go to the hospital.  And once he's at the hospital he backs himself up every five minutes to prevent data loss from power outage.  But why is that necessary?  If he's on a laptop, power dropping off the wall outlet will just make the laptop go to battery at which point he'd probably have several hours to have ample time for backup.  And since he was in an hospital at the time, they generally will generally need some kind of backup generator to keep the medical instruments functional.
Many laptops choke the CPU cycles when reverting to battery power, to extend battery life. It could very well be that Alan's code won't be able to run on low power. True fact: encoding raw images into a high quality video stream runs much faster when the laptop is plugged in than when on battery. I tell you this from personal experience.
Also, the hospital's backup generators may only power certain outlets in each room, those would be where they plug in the life-saving equipment and monitors. Outlets reserved for patients and guests to charge their phones and whatnot may not be connected to the generator. It's a matter of prioritizing a finite resource.

I really liked this story a lot, and I felt for both Eileen and Alan. (notice the similarity in their names?) I was seriously worried during the mugging scene, and I'm not sure for whom I was worried more.
Also, I really like how at the end of the story both Eileen and Alan mature and enrich their social environs. Eileen makes meatspace friends, and Alan is getting to know his cousins. Being a person is being part of a social sphere, and it doesn't matter whether the person was born or programmed.
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« Reply #17 on: July 11, 2013, 08:23:18 AM »

Many laptops choke the CPU cycles when reverting to battery power, to extend battery life. It could very well be that Alan's code won't be able to run on low power. True fact: encoding raw images into a high quality video stream runs much faster when the laptop is plugged in than when on battery. I tell you this from personal experience.
Also, the hospital's backup generators may only power certain outlets in each room, those would be where they plug in the life-saving equipment and monitors. Outlets reserved for patients and guests to charge their phones and whatnot may not be connected to the generator. It's a matter of prioritizing a finite resource.

Those explanations made sense!  I thought the story could've used just a line or two to explain why battery power wasn't an option.
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matweller
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« Reply #18 on: July 11, 2013, 08:28:04 AM »

So I can agree with Alasdair, the picture of the world going on around them without being explained is great, unfortunately, the actual scenes of the story simply did not fit the descriptions of outside that were being hinted at.

I think this story is a great reminder of how great the difference can be between the experiences we have and those of the world around us in a situation. Tornados and wild fires rip through small towns all the time and you see pictures where one street becomes the dividing line between the half of town that is leveled and the other half is completely untouched. In a situation like that utilities, travel, emergency services and food supplies would be spotty throughout the entire community even though for half of the residents nothing happened.

And while I agree that it wasn't necessary for this story, random and weird crap happens in hospitals daily that you would only totally understand if you got to see it from an omniscient perspective. I think it was something the author added just to nudge more on the fact that stuff was breaking down on a level not being fully discussed in the most charming of ways.

I also think the earlier-mentioned position that the disaster at the center of this being a hurricane was unrealistic was a bit flawed. For some reason, and it may be completely in my head, I got the feeling the author had placed this in the near future where -- if 98% of the world's climate scientists are correct -- we can expect radical weather to get more and more radical. Every year now we see multiple weather phenomena and disasters on a level never seen before. There's little reason to think we may not soon see a hurricane that cuts a canal from the Atlantic to the Mississippi river, much less one in deep Texas just a little further than they usually go.
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zoanon
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« Reply #19 on: July 11, 2013, 04:33:25 PM »

this story had me at Hornblower fan-fiction Grin
fun fun fun
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