Lisp, Programming

Tutorial: Running Hunchentoot on Webfaction

Lately I’ve been playing around with the Lisp web framework Weblocks that runs on Hunchentoot, and it seemed like time to test it in a deployment environment. There are not many web hosts that officially support Lisp, however, so short of setting up my own local server machine and getting a dedicated connection to the internet, it was not immediately obvious whether I could accomplish this.

Luckily, my hosting account from Webfaction—that I use for testing web apps under development before deploying them on my clients’ servers—allows me to install basically whatever linux software I want from source under my home directory. So I installed CLISP and SBCL on my server, followed by Quicklisp, set up a custom app (listening on port), forwarded a domain I wasn’t using for anything else, and installed Weblocks and CL-Prevalence through Quicklisp. Et voila! I didn’t even have to run Hunchentoot through Apache. If you’re looking for a powerful and flexible web host, WebFaction is definitely the way to go.

That being said, there were a few catches along the way, which some of you might like and/or need to know about up front.

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Lisp, Programming

Meditations on Lisp

Lisp is a fantastic programming language, one which I’ve toyed with for many years, but have been taking far more seriously in recent months.  One of the more interesting secrets about Lisp is that singular moment of clarity that hits every aspiring Lisper, where they finally begin to ‘grok’ Lisp, the universe unfolds about them and even the toughest programming challenges suddenly become a mere macro away.  Then they start thinking about all programming languages in terms of Lisp.  Then they start dreaming in Lisp.  Then they see their own mind unfold as a Lisp program in endless recursion.  The world and the mind become more beautiful and intricate as they dance among the cons cells to the rhythm of cadaddr and lambda calculus…

Well, unless you’re already a Lisper, I’ve probably lost you.  Even if you’re a professional developer like me, it’s unlikely that you’ve communed with your code so deeply that you’ve found yourself reduced to self-referential software.  This is normally an exclusive gift of functional programming languages, such as the Lisp family (including Common Lisp, Scheme, Clojure, Arc, etc.), Haskell, and OCaml.

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H±Topia, Kettle Creek, SPQS Universe

A Tale of Two Novels

Six months have gone by since my last blog post—but I’ve been writing every day, even if all I could squeeze in around work and my personal coding projects was the refinement of a sentence or two.  Immediately after I completed the final draft of Placeholder and sent it off to be edited, I jumped right into my next writing project—and it quickly became obvious that there was only one way to approach it.  I had to write two novels at the same time.

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Placeholder, SPQS Universe

Psychoanalysis of Konrad Schreiber

Konrad Schreiber is an incredibly complex character, hence why it took me so long to create him. That being said, certain aspects of him were obvious to me from the very beginning: I knew he would have to be a quantum programmer, I knew he would have to become a killer, and I knew he would have to be a schizophrenic. Everything else evolved over time.

Somewhere along the way, I decided it would be better if he didn’t simply snap out of nowhere from a single trauma and become a schizophrenic overnight—sure, there are a few legitimate cases of paranoid schizophrenia which were trauma-induced, but normally trauma-spectrum disorders are separate from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders—so I thought, what if he developed it along the way, and it was simply exacerbated by a traumatic event?

I started doing some digging on schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, and made some interesting discoveries. If you have an appreciation for psychology, I think you’ll enjoy what I found and how I implemented it into his character.


(Spoiler Alert! The rest of this post discusses technical details of Placeholder’s plot and primary characters.)

Konrad Schreiber’s psychological state before Operation Storm Cloud:

These days, if you have an indicator of poor health or mental illness, you don’t stand a chance of getting into the military or a space agency. In the SPQS Universe, it’s the same, only much stricter—if you have even the slightest whiff of abnormality about you, your gene pool will be carefully bred out. And even though the SPQS is a social climate of total observation, everyone who’s taken first year psychology knows that most mental illnesses (the way we currently classify them) don’t show up until late adolescence and early adulthood. Now, the SPQS starts the recruitment process for the Armed Forces as early as they can, at twelve years of age—as far as IQs and aptitudes and personalities are concerned, everything you need to know about an individual has already developed by that age. Whatever they may experience later in life, whatever they may turn into as adults, it will most likely be an extension of the person they decided they wanted to become then (the funny thing is that most people don’t realize that their so-called talents and natural abilities are usually a product of conscious choice; they decided that something interested them, and applied themselves to it enough to find some pride or personal satisfaction from doing it—alternatively, some people are fine with and gain enough personal satisfaction from applied disciplines that their parents forced them into as children, but that’s rarer… most people, even as children, are determined to find their own way through life).

So that’s fine—the SPQS organizes society into a rigid class system based on individual potential, insofar as that individual potential is useful to them: there are civilians and the armed forces. Basically, anybody of real use is automatically recruited for training in the SFAF, but there’s a class-system within the SFAF too—it pretends to be a meritocracy, and on very rare occasion a big spectacle is made out of ‘exceptional individuals’ from ‘humble backgrounds’ for the purpose of propaganda, but normally, you’re stuck in the rank class you’re first assigned to. This is especially true for the civilian class.

Civilians are basically treated as peasants. Right from the outset, they are denied an education beyond elementary school—they are sent to a trade-school instead of high-school, but their courses are short and entirely applied. They are allowed to engage in small business ventures when it doesn’t interfere with their state-appointed job after trade-school, but the economy of the SPQS is ultimately transnationalist; private business ventures are kept small and uncompetitive, corporations don’t exist, and no individual civilian actually owns their own property. The civilian governments are limited to the production and distribution of goods under the auspices of some figurehead that represents the national identity—but they have no real control, no real political value. But they do feed the people, so obviously they have a valid economic value.

The military seems more fair at the outset. Most recruits will enlist as Privates and have the potential to work up to Chief Petty Officers if they have the ability and skill to handle such a task. Some recruits may qualify for an instant promotion if they do well enough in Basic, and show a finesse for military protocol and leadership (inasmuch as leadership means obeying orders without question and convincing a group of people who have a lot more to lose than you do that the orders are worth following, even when obviously dangerous). Those who qualify for Officer candidacy have other perks. They get to go to university, but get a much better education at the military Academies (the SPQS’ equivalent of high-school) to begin with, better than the Enlisted ranks, anyway. So that means the entire intelligentsia of the human population is entirely contained within the SFAF, and all knowledge taught by the universities is classified material—in other words, even as an Officer, you only have the right to know what you need to know for your assigned role in the Armed Forces.

The Officer class is further divided into Junior and Senior (or Commanding) Officers. Being promoted from Junior to Senior Officer is much more common than other promotions within the SFAF. Basically, nobody is initially assigned to be a Senior Officer; if the SFAF thinks you have the potential, they will make you a Lieutenant first and see how you fare with a bit of power. If you abuse it or let it get to your head, well then that’s as far as you can go. You’ll never get any real power because you can’t handle it (according to their standards).

There are then the Fleet Officers, the Admiralty. The Officers are led to believe that you have to prove yourself as a Senior Officer to be promoted to the Admiralty (as it is now), but in actuality the Admiralty is chosen on political grounds and usually are directly recruited from the universities. They may be given a few initial assignments, to infiltrate the Junior Officer ranks to get field-ready, but they are already far higher up the social ladder than Officers. They are also the real politicians. Most of the Admiralty operates out of SOLCOM HQ, which is located in Antarctica.

And then there’s Ordo A.R.S. To be initiated into the Ordo, you have to become a General. They do recruit from amongst the Senior Officers, but they usually have their candidates in mind from a very early age. The only reason they wait in the shadows, watching, is to test their candidates to see if they live up to their exceptional potential. For example, it’s suggested in Placeholder that Konrad Schreiber may have been a candidate for Ordo A.R.S., but he did something in grad school that made the Ordo change their minds and put him on Operation Storm Cloud instead. He doesn’t know this—he thinks that it was his little stunt, aka ‘the Alpha Centauri’ incident, that cost him his promotion and his future, but in actuality it was something much earlier, a trivial little thing that he just glossed over in his autobiography. But to the Ordo it wasn’t trivial. It was enough for them to write him off completely and stick him on a suicide mission. Go ahead and try to find it. ;)

So then, Konrad Schreiber was obviously sane and healthy enough to pass all the way to Officer Cadet without raising any flags; as with all Officer Cadets, he was trained as an astronaut too, which means he also passed the psychological assessments that approved him for duty in confined spaces and extreme environments for extended periods of time. He was, so far as SOLCOM was able to determine, completely fit for duty as an Officer, posing no risk to the command structure or to the success of the mission. His personality was also compatible with the rest of the crew of the SFS Fulgora, so there was no reason to assume that he, or any of the other crew, would endanger the mission. And yet, he wound up killing them all and hijacking the ship, so obviously SOLCOM missed something.


Konrad Schreiber’s first diagnosis:

After the so-called Alpha Centauri incident, where Konrad got a little too excited by the power of the MRD and programmed a REZSEQ that he thought would bring the ship into a distant orbit around the Andromeda Galaxy, SOLCOM had him carefully reassessed by the onboard physician and psychologist, his friend Dr Hannah Kaplan.

You might want to stop me here and say, “What the hell? Hannah and Konrad weren’t friends, he hated her.” Sure, you may be right when you’re talking about the time-frame of the narrative. He’s writing his journal entries retrospectively, since he felt unable to write down his true thoughts and feelings about the early years of the mission when the SFS Fulgora still had its crew (even when his thoughts and feelings were innocent enough to be ignored). But you’ll notice that he often depicts Hannah in a variety of ways. Sometimes he talks about her quite fondly, sometimes objectively as if she’s just an object and not a person, and sometimes he presents her as the bane of his life. The fact is, from an objective third person perspective presented simultaneously with the events being depicted and not as retrospect, Konrad was quite fond of Hannah in the beginning, slowly began to dislike her, and then was hit by a sudden and unforgivable betrayal—and I shouldn’t have to point this out, but I will anyway for the sake of completeness, you can’t be betrayed by someone you don’t trust, don’t like, don’t care about and consider a close friend. You can really only be betrayed to the degree that Konrad felt betrayed by your closest friends and confidants.

Now, as the ship’s medical officer, Hannah was in a unique position of trust. But it wasn’t always that way. Hannah and Konrad came through the selection process for Operation Storm Cloud together (unlike the Captain, his wife, and Major Jeanville, who were pre-selected specifically for the mission and also an integral part of the mission planning and selection process), so initially they were on equal footing. He even mentions in his journal how much she stood out to him right from the get-go, and they clicked instantly. He even quotes some of their conversations from memory, and by his voice you can tell he got on really well with her in the beginning—they even had their own little inside jokes and ongoing private discussion topics. Had he not specifically contradicted that line of reasoning, you would normally assume that they were also close enough and friendly enough to be sleeping together. You might even say it was suspicious that they weren’t. And the really interesting thing, even once she did get chosen as Chief Medical Officer, and thus became senior in rank to Konrad, she still treated him as an equal and not a subordinate. She showed him favouritism—maybe not overt favouritism, but in the military treating a subordinate as an equal is odd enough.

She was also strangely patient with him, which suggests that she also thought of him as more than just an acquaintance. But in the end, he was unnecessarily cruel to her, which was completely and totally out of place. For what he pulled the last time they took a walk together in the North Gardens, she had every right to be mad at him, spiteful even, but you may be surprised to find that she wasn’t. She was just hurt, but not hurt enough to be cruel.

This is an important point, because it brings us back to her initial diagnosis of him immediately after the Alpha Centauri incident. Now, Konrad pulled a pretty big stunt, hijacking the ship the way he did, convincing a subordinate to obey unauthorized orders, dismissing protocol, etc., etc. SOLCOM was already convinced that he had suffered a major mental breakdown, simply from the way he had behaved towards Hannah in response to a sexual advance; so this further instance of instability merited a full investigation. As far as Konrad was concerned, he was being analyzed by Hannah; but the medical staff at SOLCOM HQ was observing the entire process, giving her suggestions and such, with the intention of coming back together at the end with their final diagnosis. She had to diagnose him with something that explained his sudden change in behaviour and disregard for rules, and couldn’t get away with a simple “it’s just mission stress” or “overexcitement.” Normal emotionally and mentally balanced individuals don’t get panic attacks, major mood swings, or sudden unstoppable compulsions to misbehave. And furthermore, it takes so much effort to fake a mental illness, most people just can’t commit to the task unless they’re desperate.

Now, a really good psychiatrist would pick up on a few of the subtler points of Konrad’s condition. The problem is that a tyrannical society actually encourages behavioural patterns eerily similar to certain symptoms of a few interesting mental illnesses (although theocracies and fundamentalist religions are the worst for that). But even though Hannah was supposed to be a pretty good doctor and psychologist, and had the benefit of working with SOLCOM’s top medical experts, she misdiagnosed him. So you’re forced to assume that she misdiagnosed him on purpose. She was hurt by him, but not spiteful, because she had accurately identified his mental illness—but if she put down his real condition in a report, that would be the end of him. So she came up with an alternate diagnosis, something that wouldn’t guarantee the end of the mission and the end of his life; and she even convinced the Medical Experts at SOLCOM HQ that their assessments were skewed because they were too far removed to see how well he functioned on a day-to-day basis. She convinced them that all he had was a minor case of borderline personality disorder, that was triggered by an unexpected separation anxiety from leaving the Solar system behind.

Now, if you’re reading Konrad’s descriptions of his own experiences, you’ll have a really hard time believing that diagnosis. But without that perspective, you could readily believe it if you ignored the subtle hints floating behind his actions as subtext. But of course, psychology depends on subtleties and nuance of behaviour. So again, a really good psychiatrist would see past what’s presented on the surface, and focus on the subtext, the context of the episodes. They would need to get to the heart of the matter before they came to any conclusion. But an academically strong psychiatrist does not mean a good one—to be good at psychology or psychiatry, you have to have insight; you have to be able to see into people no matter what mask they wear, and really understand why they are acting out or unable to control their behaviour.


Konrad Schreiber’s real diagnosis:

Initially this was discussed within the narrative, but it was in one of the sections that didn’t make it through the final edits. In a way, it worked out better as an implication within the narrative, instead of explicitly being said. It adds more satisfaction for the reader, who gets to try and figure out Konrad for themselves as his mind spirals into madness and oblivion. So if you do want to figure it out for yourself, you should probably stop reading here.

Let me start by pointing out certain key symptoms that Konrad had before the Alpha Centauri incident.

  • total aloofness, inability to display genuine emotion, thus forcing him to fake them to blend in
  • having to fake behaviour he sees as normal by copying others
  • overelaborate and stereotyped thinking, bizarre speech patterns, consistently tangential thought-processes and speech
  • ‘magical thinking’ (despite being a scientist)
  • tendency for social withdrawal and solo-activities
  • minor auditory hallucinations, depersonalization, derealization
  • pathological fear of sexual intimacy

These are most of the symptoms of Schizotypal Personality Disorder (although to be diagnosed Schizotypal, one must not meet the additional and/or differing criteria of Schizophrenia). Interestingly enough, Schizotypal disorder is highly co-morbid with Borderline personality disorder, so you can see how it would not have been so difficult for Hannah to prove it in her report to SOLCOM.

Some other symptoms of Schizotypal disorder, which are not specifically addressed for Konrad before the Alpha Centauri incident, but come up as a part of it and become much worse after, are:

  • Obsessive ruminations without inner resistance
  • Poor rapport with others (in particular, Konrad finds it extremely difficult to behave in accordance with Kiko’s and Maj Jeanville’s expectations)
  • Odd and eccentric behaviour or appearance (appearance is less of a concern for Konrad since the SFAF has strict guidelines about uniforms to follow)
  • Occasional transient quasi-psychotic episodes occurring without external provocation
  • Suspiciousness and paranoid ideas

There are other symptoms to Schizotypal disorder which can manifest, but don’t in Konrad.

So Konrad starts out with Schizotypal Personality Disorder, but the initial symptoms don’t stop him from being highly functional and actually add to his apparent strength as an officer, until he feels cornered by a sexual advance from Hannah and panics. He brushes it off as a panic attack, but strictly speaking it was a triggered schizotypal depersonalization episode. When Hannah doesn’t give up on him, but tries to make him more comfortable, he instead feels more threatened. This starts his paranoia about Hannah, making him believe the delusion that she is being malevolent to him when in fact she is simply attempting to express her affection, and going about it in the best way she knows—slowly and carefully. After her last attempt, Konrad is triggered into a pretty wild demonization of Hannah, and accuses her of all sorts of negative properties and intent. And despite this, she still tries to do him a favour by limiting his diagnosis to the absolute minimum believable condition—one that doesn’t require medication, and won’t necessarily interfere with the mission.

But his paranoid delusions take over, and he gets inquisitive. His minor episode of impulsive nonconformity turns into a habit, and he starts using the skills he already knows well to break through various security measures in place on the SFS Fulgora. Naturally, because of his paranoia, anything he found would confirm his delusions, even if it specifically denied them—but Hannah’s report was middle-ground. It did state that he had been diagnosed with a mental illness, and was therefore unsuitable for promotion; but even though Hannah should have either had the mission cancelled or Konrad euthanized (according to mission regulations enforced by SOLCOM), she actually managed to convince them that what he had was no big deal.

Now this is really funny, because if she had given him a diagnosis, she would have told him about it to his face. But when he found the report, he acted as if it was some big surprise. So what did Hannah tell him? She would have had to have told him something, because SOLCOM was watching—but she may very well have been extra careful in her wording, because she herself didn’t want Konrad to think that she herself believed in the report she was forced to submit; she couldn’t say what she actually knew either, because then SOLCOM would know she filed a false report. What was she to do?


The Evolution of Konrad Schreiber’s Mental Illness:

By the time Konrad gets back to the SFS Fulgora, you really have to ask yourself if he’s really just Schizotypal. The fact is, by that point in the story he isn’t. He’s already transitioned entirely to Paranoid Schizophrenia. Now, the transition to Schizophrenia is a feature of Schizotypal disorder, but it can’t be said to happen all at once. Certain factors can contribute to the transition process speeding up, but it still happens over time, a bit here, a bit there, until the transition can be said to be complete.

I leave little nuggets throughout the narrative, showing the process of transition. One of the most obvious things is when he becomes sexually attracted to Nadya, a feeling he is very much not used to. He also has no trouble becoming intimate with her, even though otherwise you can tell he is still emotionless. Then of course there are his actual killings. At first they are carefully plotted and methodical, as if he couldn’t stop obsessing over the plots until they measured up to his unreasonable standard of perfection. But after the first two killings, he allows his plans to be interrupted, sidetracked, derailed, and even starts to improvise. By the time he gets to the Sergeant, you have to wonder where his obsessions went. And after that, it’s total mayhem. He was obviously having psychotic fits for the rest of them, because he can’t even (or maybe chooses not to) remember how they actually happened.

There are actually many instances of him rewriting his own memory. But you have to wonder if he did it intentionally or if it’s a symptom of his illness. That’s a funny feature of schizophrenia; you can’t really call it memory loss, because there are memories, but they aren’t memories of what actually happened. They are modified, purged of the distasteful psychotic behaviour, and ultimately made to conform with the schizophrenic’s limited sense of rational, appropriate behaviour.

And then of course there’s his number of growing hallucinations, delusions, and delirium. He has several complete breakdowns and goes on an adventure to a non-existent and fairly childish planet; not only does that all-encompassing hallucination represent delusional thinking, but it also contains a reversion to his childhood personality, spattered with random fluff mixed in his unconscious mind.

Finally, you can no longer doubt the transition is complete when after completing his retconned autobiography, he starts interacting with a particularly malevolent demonic alter-ego that takes the form of the Norse god Loki. Loki first appears to him as a hallucination of Hannah, just to spite himself. But there are a few other forms that his alter-ego takes before coalescing into a singular Alter.

His state of mind is ultimately captured by the Placeholder Theory. As I said at length in my post yesterday, The Science of Placeholder Pt.9, the whole pseudo-theory is a (purposeful) mess, something that you would expect from a Schizophrenic, yet nevertheless strangely seductive in its presentation. And he caps it all off with the ultimate delusion, thinking that he can find eternal life through suicide (schizophrenics don’t usually kill themselves unless it will feed into their delusions).


That about covers the most important points of Konrad Schreiber’s mental condition. If you want to learn more about the Schizophrenia-spectrum disorders I was working with for this story, the Wikipedia articles have some interesting info and list all the main psychologists and researchers to read up on.


Schizotypal personality disorder


And of course,

Borderline personality disorder (so that you can compare it for yourself against Schizotypal personality disorder to see how Hannah could have gotten away with her purposeful misdiagnosis)

— the Phoeron

Placeholder, SPQS Universe

The Science of Placeholder, Pt. 9

Along with today’s post on The Placeholder Theory, I’m happy to announce that Placeholder is now available in Ebook in all major formats (ePub, Mobi, Palm doc, Sony LRF, PDF, RTF, Plain Text, and HTML/JavaScript versions for instant online gratification), and of course, you can read a free sample of the book right there on the website (no sign-in required).  Check out my twitter feed for a limited time half-price coupon code, too. also distributes ebooks to all major vendors, so keep an eye out for it in the coming weeks on the Apple iBookstore, Amazon Kindle store, Barnes & Noble Nook store, and even from Kobo.  If you haven’t already checked it out, now’s the best time.

There isn’t much in the way of preamble when it comes to the Placeholder Theory, since its creation by Konrad Schreiber is the main point of the novel.  To understand it, you have to know the context—so pay special attention to the spoiler alert below if you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet.

The only thing I want to say up-front is this—I was seriously tempted to follow the convention of the novel and wait for “The Science of Placeholder, Pt. 11” to discuss the Placeholder Theory, but the number 11 felt overused.  Yeah, it’s an important magickal number, and it’s also highly significant in M-Theory (it’s the number of dimensions needed to unify all variations of Superstring Theory into one model).  But enough’s enough.  Enjoy the post where it is.


(Spoiler Alert!  The rest of this post discusses technical details of Placeholder’s plot and primary characters.)

The Placeholder Theory:

While Konrad set out to unify physics and mysticism under one simultaneously qualitative and quantitative system, I just want to say up-front that I’m fully aware that the very idea is a fallacy.  And even Konrad, in his own special way, acknowledges this with the BS equation that caps the “theory” off.  An actual scientific theory, to be accepted as a theory and not simply random speculation, has to be entirely quantitative, and most importantly, your results have to be reproducible.  As soon as you start talking about ‘qualitative theories,’ you’re entering the world of (bad) philosophy and metaphysics.

So clearly, there are a few problems right away with “the Placeholder Theory.”  Konrad identified his 11 postulates as a theory without having it peer-reviewed or reproduced: problem.  No matter how complex the math, when you start using quantitative reasoning to represent qualitative ideas, you are spinning up a monstrous effrontery to the scientific method: problem.  When you have to purposely misuse said quantitative reasoning to make your qualitative ideas fit into a pseudo-mathematical model, then you are also insulting the very foundation of logic: problem.  If you feel that you have to force your qualitative ideas into said pseudo-mathematical model to make the premises seem rational and logically derived, there is obviously something wrong with those premises to begin with: problem.  Lastly, if you come up with your premises by way of random ‘inspiration,’ and stick to them blindly even when what little experimental data you do manage to drag up obviously contradicts them, then you’re not a scientist, you’re a fraud: big BIG problem.  And yes, Konrad is guilty of them all.

This is extremely important to remember: I did this all on purpose, to illustrate some interesting points about human nature, as well as to drive home just how far Konrad fell from genius and sanity (but the specific psychoanalysis of Konrad Schreiber will be detailed in its own post).  And yeah, there’s a deeper mystical message in there too: keep science and philosophy separate, don’t try to find meaning in the Universe, just accept it for what it is, for what you can explicitly measure; but most interesting is the idea within the converse—turn that perspective on yourself.  Don’t think you can escape the Void by turning your back on it, like Konrad, because it will always catch up with you.

There are some other interesting sides to “The Placeholder Theory”; from the Notice at the front of the book, you may have realized that the subversive publishers of The “Placeholder” Report in my future history identify a state-sanctioned cult supposedly dedicated to the work of Konrad Schreiber, including such activities as the public worship of his image and pilgrimages to the landing site of the SFS Fulgora crew on Vega b, with the original inflatable surface habitations serving as a shrine and memorial to “the Sixteen Martyrs.”  In other words, somebody in the already corrupt and obviously evil military government decided to take the work of Konrad Schreiber and turn it into a religion.

If you’ve already read Placeholder all the way through to the end, or you’re well into Sec. X-A.2 at the least, you should have a pretty good idea at just why this is so effed up.  Konrad is first and foremost a psychopathic killer, so why would anyone sane be sick enough to base a religion on his pre-suicidal ramblings?  Well, that’s an interesting question actually, and one that happens to have consequences for religion in general.  Every once in a while, a particular psychopath and his ramblings just so happen to make enough sense to enough people to start a movement; as the murmuring whispers throughout the people, those in power often have a simple choice to make, that is an extension of the consistent dilemma of power (to try and keep it)—to suppress the movement with brute force, or to accept it in a clearly redefined form that stops it from being subversive.  It’s a numbers game, really—if the majority of any given sample population are more likely to turn against those in power in favour of the new movement, then those in power need to adopt a non-subversive version of the movement to survive and maintain their power.  But if it curries little enough favour amongst the population to safely allow them to crush it with violence, they most certainly will if they feel the ideology is dangerous to them.  Of course, both approaches come with certain dangers.  If as a person of power you too readily jump on any new movement that comes your way, then you’re perceived as a weak, floppy, weaselly, fish-handed ruler who’s trying far too hard to please the people (and by so doing, failing miserably).  And of course, if you stick too firmly to your principles when something the people feel is better comes along, you’re considered a tyrant.  Social change is inevitable, but it’s the responsibility of those in power to know when the right time for a change is, if they intend to stay in power.

A good historical example is the founding of the Roman Catholic Church (as it exists now).  It goes without saying that its origins are suspicious at best… especially how they claim a direct line of authority from a person who didn’t historically exist.  The Roman Empire was crumbling from within, riots and civil unrest were spreading throughout, the state Emperor cult was seen as a farce, and it’s very unlikely that many people still believed in the old Roman gods (although they certainly found it strange when the Christians refused to participate in public pagan festivals—they said all the same things about the early Christians that Catholics would later accuse neo-pagans and satanists of. ha!).  Politically, socially, religiously, Rome was on its knees.  And then somehow, Emperor Constantine found a solution.  He realized that Christianity—the radical Jewish sect that was spreading like wildfire throughout his Empire that happened to also be one of the main reasons for the decline of Rome, and also conveniently the very sect that he had spent most of his rule actively suppressing through the most vicious forms of persecution available—could be commandeered.  Of course, he had tried to destroy it first, as several of his Imperial predecessors, but that had proved fruitless.  The people wanted Christianity, and they were going to get it no matter what it cost.  Well, they got it alright, but not before Emperor Constantine had it thoroughly revised to acknowledge the divine authority of Rome.

Fine, that’s a gross over-simplification that certainly paid in accuracy for the sake of brevity—if you care about the details and complexities, there are many decent, unbiased presentations of the history of Catholicism (but the Wikipedia articles on Constantine I and the Catholic Church aren’t amongst them, just to warn you now).  The only point I’m making that ultimately matters is that Catholicism is a very particular kind of fraud—the same kind of fraud as the Placeholder Cult is to the writings of Konrad Schreiber.

That being said, I’m obviously drawing another parallel between the fictional Konrad Schreiber and the mythical Jesus of Nazareth—at best, they were both ‘off their meds’ and showing it.

Alright, fine, I’m inviting criticism by comparing my fictional psychopathic killer astronaut to a wandering hippie of antiquity.  Joseph Smith, jr., the so-called prophet and founder of Mormonism may be a little closer to Konrad—who knows what Joseph Smith was thinking in the early days as an illiterate, lazy, gold-digging Upstate New York farm-boy; one thing is for certain, he didn’t write the Book of Mormon by himself (but that’s a discussion for another post).  Anyway, the best examples are contemporary.  Take a look around at all the wild apocalyptic suicide cults and doomsday soothsayers.  It’s spooky how many people honestly believe the world is going to end within the next two years.  The basis for all of these ideologies are definitively on the side of delusion, yet somehow they suck people in—people who are otherwise not nearly that stupid yet nevertheless get sucked in by their need to believe in something, anything, so that they don’t have to face the one horrific truth about themselves: that in their hearts, the virtual core of their being, they are an empty and meaningless void.


The Void:

Other than the Placeholder Theory itself, the central running theme of Placeholder is The Void.  It is both a spatial non-dimension and a metaphor for the true nature of conscious beings like us humans—you might call it the Nihilist State, or when it is hidden behind horror and non-acceptance, an Existential Crisis.  Under the name of “ABSU,” it is also a central theme of Phoeronism (and yes, what this very blog is named after).

Now, everyone goes through an ‘existential crisis’ eventually (although many people don’t experience it at all until lying on their deathbeds, so to speak).  Typically, existential crises are used as an excuse to turn to religion by individuals who have given up all hope in themselves; they may not even be weak people, per se, but they no longer believe they can make it through life without some kind of help.  Why that help often takes the form of a religious calling is a mystery to me, but eh, “there’s no accounting for taste.”  What’s interesting to me is how few people simply accept the Void for what it is, and embrace it.  After all, what is meaning?  As I said in my post, The History of Placeholder and the SPQS Universe, the signifier and the signified are really the same thing, what we consider to be meaning and representation are arbitrary abstractions we’ve come to accept, but there is no reality to them.  Thoughts themselves are just associations—actually, “water feels wet, so anything that feels wet is like water” seems like a really simple association, right?  Well, it’s not.  Nobody even knows the exact amount of ultimately meaningless mental associations of sense and observation we had to make to even get to that simple of a conclusion.  It just keeps going and going, until ultimately, all words and thoughts are representations of all other words and thoughts.  We maintain our sanity and our ability to communicate by ignoring the infinite meaninglessness of associative understanding: we assume, incorrectly, that the core conceptualizations of our languages are ‘facts.’  The real problem comes from the misrepresentation of the word ‘facts,’ though.  In every day usage, it is equated with ‘self-apparent truth’ or ‘undeniable self-representative evidence.’  The fact of the matter is, ‘facts’ are just trivia, inconsequential pieces of information that nobody in the public forum has bothered to contradict; but that doesn’t make them true.  There’s only one ‘truth’ that everyone experiences eventually—the meaninglessness of the universe and their own existence.  Everything else is just fluff caught in the web of associations that form our perception and understanding of ourselves and the world.

Back to Placeholder—Konrad almost makes it to this realization, but doesn’t quite pull through, doesn’t really accept and embrace the Void.  You may notice, for example, his hallucination/vision of the Temple of the True Self.  If you explore that as a meditation after finishing the book, you’ll realize that Konrad got no further than the first of the eleven gates; and his last hallucination/vision before death makes you wonder if he even passed through that one.  Yet, he clearly adapted the Placeholder Theory on that vision.  He stood on the threshold, peered in, got a brief glimpse of what lay at the end, and considered that enough.  My point, therefore, is that even if the Placeholder Theory wasn’t a (purposely) fallacious jumble of psychonautics, zen buddhism, and theoretical physics, it was guaranteed to fail from the beginning, because Konrad Schreiber didn’t see the process he started through to the end.  And that’s also why humanity keeps failing, keeps getting sucked into ridiculous and delusional nonsense posing as religious truth.

I created the Placeholder Theory to be a mirror held up to the world.  It is a particular kind of fallacious jumble, designed in the same style as many other religious ideas that should make any rational person question the sanity of the creator—but you have to wonder, what will people see in it?  Will they see the world, will they see people they know?  Or will they just see the Void laughing back at them as they stop frozen in horror at the black truth of their own reflection?

Here’s hoping.


— the Phoeron

Placeholder, SPQS Universe

The Science of Placeholder, Pt.8

We finally arrive at quantum computer programming.  The thing you have to understand about quantum computers is that they aren’t just an improvement on technology, they are part of a whole new science of computing.  Being able to harness quantum states and systems as data and operators will allow us to accurately and precisely model all knowable aspects of quantum systems (inasmuch as ‘accurate’ and ‘precise’ serve as reliable descriptors of quantum phenomena).  And as a whole new science of computation, new low-level and high-level languages will be needed to program these quantum computers, because classical data types and operators are simply incompatible with quantum systems.  But there’s more to it than that—quantum computers also give us unique new approaches to computing that a classical system cannot even fathom.  That’s why Feynman suggested a quantum computer be built in the first place.

This topic is also an essential aspect of Placeholder, and of the story’s development, because right from the beginning I knew that Konrad would be a quantum programmer and he would need a quantum computer to program any sort of feasible ‘jump’ drive.  But he would also be able to use the quantum computer to turn the ship on his crew, which was essential to the plot right from the beginning as well.  In this post I will cover where high-level quantum computer programming stands today, but I will mostly focus on the approach I took specifically for Placeholder.


(Spoiler Alert!  The rest of this post discusses technical details of Placeholder’s plot and primary characters.)

Quantum Programming in the SPQS Universe:

Quantum computer programming is Konrad Schreiber’s assignment aboard the SFS Fulgora.  His task, as limited as it might seem on the outside, is to program the ship’s MRD via the Quantum core.  He has to coordinate this task carefully with the ship’s pilots and science officer, because a REZSEQ is an extremely complicated program and all the spatiotemporal variables need to be accounted for.  Of the ship itself, mass, trajectory, velocity.  Of spacetime, vector of system exit manoeuvre, relative time dilation (even if ultimately negligible), modelled warping of local spacetime due to gravity, distortion from plasma wake beyond the heliopause, and of course, all the predicted conditions at the terminus coordinates of the REZSEQ.

As the mission progresses, Konrad sets up various systems and programs to collect all this data automatically and feed it live into his REZSEQ programs.  But in order for him to have been able to accomplish that, he needed the experience of building it himself to show him what environmental data was really needed, when it was needed, and how it should be applied within the REZSEQ program.

So in this brief summary of his mission assignment, you get the impression that both quantum computers and quantum computer programming are sufficiently developed to use as tools in an applied task.  Obviously, in real life as of today, the state of quantum computer science is nowhere near that level of sophistication.  Nevertheless, there have already been several attempts made at building a high-level quantum computer programming language, and a few of those attempts have yielded excellent results, in my opinion (for whatever that’s worth).


Original Concepts for Quantum Computer Programming Languages:

When I first conceived of Placeholder in the spring of 2007, I initially drafted a high-level quantum computer programming language called Quantum C that was loosely derived from Objective C.  I liked how clean-cut Objective C was, especially when compared with C itself, C++, or C#.  Also, it seemed to me that the rigorous application of objects in Objective C suited the needs of quantum computer programming quite perfectly; they could be adapted into Fields and/or Systems, so that the programming of a quantum computer could remain completely in harmony with Quantum Mechanics (which is essential for some of the more advanced concepts in quantum programming).

I thought I had a winner, until I started writing code in my Quantum C for use in the novel.  It got messy fast, and I had accidentally lost the clean-cut perfection of Objective C—given more time and effort, I’m sure I could have kneaded it back to some state of orderly, presentable code, but I decided to set my language aside and research other people’s approaches to quantum programming.

That’s when I stumbled upon a very poorly written paper on QCLs and discovered that somebody else had already ‘invented’ Quantum C, and had done a worse job at implementing the idea than I had.  But the really annoying part was how they claimed trademark over the name “Quantum C”, and even several of the applied concepts that I was intending to use.  You can read the sloppy joke of a language definition here—Quantum Computers and Quantum Computer Languages: Quantum Assembly Language and Quantum C.  The PDF link at the top of the page is the paper itself.  Brace yourself, it’s truly awful.

Over time the Wikipedia article on quantum computer programming improved substantially, to include the work of real quantum computer scientists such as Bernhard Ömer and Peter Selinger.  Summaries of all the serious efforts into quantum computer programming languages are available from Simon J. Gay (University of Glasgow); the bibliography is useful, but in particular check out his article linked to in the first paragraph, Quantum Programming Languages: Survey and Bibliography (PDF).

I liked Ömer’s work the most, which you can read more about on his webpage: QCL – A Programming Language for Quantum Computers.  You’ll have to scroll down to the bottom to get at his “documentation,” ie., his masters and PhD theses.  His language is known simply as QCL (Quantum Computer Language), and allows quantum and classical operations and data-types to appear side-by-side (which is a very useful feature right now, as we continue to experiment with quantum computers, and will be even more useful when we have fully functional quantum computers working side by side with classically modelled optical computers).  QCL as it stands now appears to be procedural, however, so within Placeholder (even though it’s only ever referred to as simply ‘QCL’), Konrad Schreiber is actually using a fully object-oriented implementation of QCL, probably best called Objective QCL, or for those insistent on keeping things weird, “Flux-system QCL” (since the quantum objects are actually fields or quantum systems always in a state of flux).  The point of this system is to harness the fluctuations in quantum states, instead of trying to force a hard, definite value on them.


Applications of QCL Concepts in Placeholder:

Now, I make an interesting point in Placeholder in regards to the capabilities of this Flux-system QCL.  In a classical computer, data is data and operations are operations.  End of story.  You have a fixed and limited method of computation to work with, and quite frankly that seems to work out just fine.  You can approach Quantum Programming the same way, or, you can take advantage of certain unique properties of quantum computers that makes the line between data and operations a little fuzzier.  For example, a qubit can be just a 1 or a 0, but it can also be in a superposition of both values, which is something the classical bit cannot do.  And you can also treat the entangled system that is a logic gate as a type of data, while treating the qubit data as the operator that will act on the logic gate.  “But that will break the logic gate and cause unpredictable changes to the quantum system!” you might say.  Well, actually no it won’t.  As far as the quantum system is concerned, both the logic gate and the passing qubit are already both data and operator.  The outcome is probabilistically the same for both approaches.  But what that does allow you to do differently, is consider other quantum states of the qubits and logic gates within your programs, not necessarily as data or operators, but simply as what they are.  So if you start meddling with the other quantum states of your qubits, naturally, that’s going to introduce a change in the value of the state that is supposed to be measured because the probability of knowing the correct value of the qubit for the purposes of data is exponentially reduced.  If you know what you are doing, and work out the probabilities, you can introduce very specific changes to large systems completely under the radar.  And that’s exactly what Konrad does to hijack the ship, introduce major security holes, network the quantum core to all the other ship systems, and turn the ship on his crewmates.

Pretty wild, eh?  And maybe now you have a better idea of why I made the SPQS consider Quantum Computers to be more dangerous than nuclear weapons.  If you know what you’re doing, you can use a quantum computer to hijack any classical system.  And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can completely destroy a quantum core with one errant line of code.

Lastly, it may be worth mentioning why I left out the page-long excerpts of code from Placeholder in the end.  I decided, first of all, that long excerpts of code would detract from the narrative.  Secondly, I would be opening myself up to a particularly dangerous kind of criticism by committing to a specific syntax that might very well be deprecated within the year—programming languages change and evolve as systems do, and we don’t even have a fully functional quantum computer yet.  Thirdly, as funny as it would be to include the code for a REZSEQ in a novel, the plot carried along better without the interruptions.  The occasional use of Unix-commands in-line with the narrative was enough tech-talk, and since I did go to the trouble of working out the actual quantum programs ahead of time, the summaries of them were suitably evocative.

Truth be told, I would like for a deluxe edition of Placeholder to be released, where I reintroduce everything I had to strip out to clean up the narrative (including the long redacted sections).  There were also some sketches that I didn’t have time to reproduce in illustrator—component designs, compartment plan of the ship, the map of Vega b and their camp on the surface, those kinds of things.  That would be a suitable edition to include the Flux-system QCL programs, and maybe even more details about the 11-dimensional spatiotemporal coordinate system I worked out.  I guess we’ll see.


I thought I would have more to say today, but that about covers it really.  And now that I’ve dealt with all the main weird scientific concepts from Placeholder, in my next post I’ll be getting to The Placeholder Theory itself.  Exciting times.

— the Phoeron