This is the latest chapter of my series about a real programming project that went very, very wrong. Links to previous chapters below:
part 1 part 2
Thanks for all your understanding and support so far. This section was tougher to write than I’d initially thought it would be. It has stirred up some truly bad memories, and not only of the project itself. But I think there’s also a freeing aspect to getting this stuff down on paper, similar to what one might feel with any form of confession.
It might be tough to read, too. To properly tell this story, I need to describe certain transformations I was undergoing. This means I need to — temporarily and carefully — put myself back in the mindset of those days, including all of its twisted ugliness. Sorry in advance.
“I just made Wikipedia my bitch!”
These were the words I bellowed, so loud that my wife heard them from the shower down the hall.
I shouted them again, punctuated this time with a bout of maniacal laughter.
Betina still couldn’t make out what I was saying, but it hardly mattered. My head was stuffed to bursting with an adamantine pride. These were perfect words, the perfect expression. Even the darkly sexual undertone was sublime: the Dread Goddess Wiki — Big Brother’s Shieldmaiden, Mother of Lies — bent over her own heathen altar, and unceremoniously fucked in the ass.
You like that, bitch, don’t you?
I poured myself a tall glass of victory poison and marched out into the sunshine. The lanternflies were everywhere that afternoon, a veritable legion of the bastards flying sorties, climbing fenceposts, gluing themselves to trees and walls and storm drains. It was a sniper’s paradise out there.
But I blew straight past our weapons stash. I even goose-stepped over one of their grounded brothers, careful not to smear his guts all over the paving stones.
Haven’t you heard the BUZZ?
His Majesty Marcus Bisonius, High King of the Forest, hath declared a general amnesty. By royal decree, all filthy immigrant swine shall live to see the morrow!
Let’s play it by ear, shall we?
In all the time I sat out in that yard, guzzling vodka and giggling to myself like a psycho, only the slightest shadow ever crossed my mind. My outburst that afternoon had been as spontaneous as it was glorious, so having to repeat it that second time sucked a bit of the wind from my sails.
Those words were a champion’s howl, a conqueror’s roar. I even had the thought they might be of historical value some day, if the Harm Assistant project proceeded along the lines I now foresaw. It was frustrating to know they fell on deaf ears — not once but twice.
But I shook it off. Didn’t matter: I would say them to her again. But, as punishment, I wouldn’t show Betina anything. Not yet, at least. Tonight maybe, or tomorrow, if she was lucky. This magic act and all its secrets belonged to the Forest King alone, to divulge as he saw fit. And besides, I wanted to have that Wiki-bitch all to myself, just a little while longer.
Betina would see my latest trick, in due time.
Soon they all will see.
And then they’ll realize just what THE FUCK kind of operator they were dealing with.
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
A lanternfly landed on my knee. I raised my glass and toasted him.
Goddess of Flame
The last time around, I hinted at a certain revelation that dawned on me. In the wake of my defeat at the hands of a twenty-millimeter insect, I was struck with a sudden flash of insight about a certain common pattern in online conversation. When that intuited, geometric thoughtform finally decomposed into words, I realized I was specifically thinking about “flame wars.”
In a written history of the consumer web, the concept of the Flame War would rate as at least as ancient as Cain and Abel, or Noah’s boat. From the earliest days of online chatrooms and message boards, posters would exchange in shit-talking, bomb-throwing, profanity-laden tirades about every topic under the sun. And regardless of whether the context was a forum for baseball card enthusiasts or electrical engineers, every combatant considered themselves to be an expert in the subject at hand.
In the more ancient of those wars, this was often true. For the most part, the flamers flamed because they were both knowledgeable and passionate about the matter in dispute. They’d spent real time and money to study the topic, and felt personally wounded by the idea that some faceless, nameless critic could so casually dismiss these sacrifices. Their battlefields would be littered with obscure and highly technical jargon, wedged in amongst the various insults and threats.
Then one day, Wikipedia arrived.
Maybe that’s not the best way to put it; as a collaborative, organic structure of being, the Goddess Wiki didn’t magically pop into existence one day. But at a certain point in her evolution, she resembled more or less the form we recognize today: a free, unimaginably vast and endlessly expanding library of encyclopedic articles. Her final maturation into this oracular being marked almost a singularity moment for the Web, the passage through which was perhaps best epitomized when fellow oracle Google granted her a place of honor on his top results page. That this cosmic wedding occurred with no great fanfare speaks to their accumulation of real power, which is too undeniable to bother with pomp and circumstance.
Anatomically, Wikipedia looked like the Library of Alexandria rendered on an galactic scale. But in this version of the library, all the books were written in pencil, to be easily altered by anyone who happened to wander inside. In those early days, both named and anonymous editors would duel for supremacy on the WikiTalk pages. If the article in question had sufficient political import, these duels would often take on the character of a traditional flame war, but with an added layer of strategic depth.
In battles of old, there was no objective method to determine winners and losers. A war might drag on for a decade or more, with the only measurable casualties coming in the form of various ragequits, user bans and thread locks along the way. Like the melees of medieval tournaments, all that may be won or lost was honor, and the roar of the crowd.
WikiTalk wars, by contrast, were fought over objective territory, the land in dispute being the public-facing content of the article itself. Getting a disputed edit of yours published was a quantifiable win. This was true even if your change only stood for a few days, hours, or minutes before some opponent reversed it. But for that brief span of time, you owned a parcel of consensual reality. And if your edit was reversed, you could reverse that reversal in kind. Thus the war of globe-spanning, time-gobbling flame commenced.
Wikipedia’s original design goals were to build a limitless open-source knowledge base. The noble theory went something like this: if a large enough number of minds freely collaborated on the problem of knowing a particular thing, the objective truth about that subject would inevitably emerge. Like all utopian, vaguely communistic ideas, this decision was shortsighted and doomed to fail. Most people do not tolerate uncertainty for long, which is what the endless cycle of reversals created. They eventually tire of war as well, and the ideological and bloodless nature of WikiWars meant some might literally drag on forever.
Faced with this reality, the Flame Goddess would eventually evolve legions of official gatekeepers to police all disputes, and to render final judgements in the forms of editor hierarchies, thread locks and “protected articles” (once known as “books”, in the old parlance). Ostensibly, she did this to stop articles about “Ulysses S. Grant” or “protozoa” being graffitied over with screeds about the race of fish-people at the bottom of Lake Tanganyika, or tips for how to get laid in Singapore, or just a bunch of fucking nonsense about nothing. I say “ostensibly” because that isn’t how gatekeepers function in the real world. Every bureaucratic structure will inevitably experience mission creep. Just how tyrannical and cancerous that growth becomes is highly dependent on the size and stakes of the domain.
For example, your local HOA may cause you agita from time to time, but is unlikely to turn into the Ministry of Truth. Wikipedia, on the other hand, had no choice but to evolve into precisely that. As the premiere starting blocks for all online “research,” her new legion of gatekeepers understand their unspoken role.
Because the eyes of the world were upon them, they must ensure that all topics with political implications be ruthlessly policed for badthink and wrongthink. If not, visitors may be exposed to the “wrong” kinds of facts, cite the “bad” books, share “enemy” propaganda instead of the friendly kind. A billion lazy homework assignments around the world were at stake.
Won’t somebody please think of the children?!
Her developmental path to this tyrannical form was a cattle chute all along, even if her bovine conjurers didn’t know it. Some well-meaning but naïve souls will mourn this outcome. To them I say:
What sheep doth lament the denuding of the wolf?
Still others will claim that Wikipedia is still useful, so long as the subject matter is “non-political.” To them I say:
Pray tell, which matters escape the politician’s greedy paw, in this day and age?
And how fewer doth thou notice by the hour?
Thus spake Bisonius.
If you’d asked me a month prior to my flaming vision in the garden, I would have given more or less the same responses above, but delivered amiably and in measured tones. Ditto for describing propaganda outlets in general; those are lamentable, for sure, but the unavoidable outcome whenever humans come into regular contact with large structures. Wikipedia was just another failed vision of Webtopia. I could get passionate about a variety of subjects, but utopic internet projects wasn’t one of them. It was just one of those inevitable failure nodes, that would tease a wink and a shrug from me at best.
Now Wikipedia was some evil alien queen I was hate-fucking, to trick people into thinking they were talking to demons.
And I was laughing my ass off about it.
A “daemon,” in both its Greek formulation and in a number of other pagan and Abrahamic ones, is a spiritual being of earthly wisdom. Given the proper ritual and offering, a supplicant could tease pearls of wisdom from this knower, which he could then use to expand his sphere of influence in the world of Man. The bestiary of this demonic species is vast, covering all topics great and small. In addition to daemons that reflect baser urges like greed, deceit and murder, there are daemons of mathematics, geology, history, engineering, agriculture, rhetoric and so forth.
There are other ways to describe these beings, using the modern parlance. For example, here is the abstract from a paper about Machine Learning (the cool kids’ term for “AI”) entitled The Daemon as Educator: Ubiquitous Access to A Personal Mentor:
In Socratic philosophy, human beings had access to an inner voice that could be counted on to provide guidance and assistance when needed. This inner voice or daemon was always available and had access to realms of knowledge that mortal consciousness did not have. We propose that the field of Machine Learning has reached the level of maturity where the construction of a personal daemon is now feasible. The ubiquity of broadband access to the internet can guarantee that this personal daemon is always available. Such a construct can greatly increase the efficacy and availability of education for all citizens.
The article makes for a remarkable read. In the ML modality proposed, the daemon becomes not merely the child’s tutor, but his mentor, advocate, playmate, intimate companion and — quite frankly — an electronic spy, who is constantly collecting and repurposing intelligence data on its pupil.
Anyway, this should all sound familiar by now, so I won’t belabor the point: Wikipedia is essentially a server-based hub for classical daemons. But it’s more than that; because of its transition to the traditional gatekeeping model of publication, the various demonic inhabitants now all spoke with the same forked tongue. It’s the same language spoken on the pages of the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and hundreds if not thousands of other periodicals around the world. The dialect is that of the patronizing, triumphalist Left, whose humility is perhaps best reflected in the following quote, spoken at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner:
“Reality has a liberal bias.”
- Stephen Colbert
In the real world, where children habitually deploy Wikipedia to autocomplete their homework assignments, this is a sad state of affairs. But in the world of our wicked little art project?
It was manna from Hades, man.
The Harm Assistant would have a similar haughty attitude towards the world of information. I decided it was the traditional know-it-all daemonic model, but would present supplicants with only that half of the story which served to further its own ends. Wikipedia would function as its hippocampus, essentially; by searching its catalog of articles, the demon could “remember” virtually any topic, and offer the same sneering insights about them you might find in the pages of The New Yorker or The Toronto Star. And because the latest incarnation of the international Left now openly embraces authoritarianism, those memories are littered with appeals to tyrannical authorities, the postmodern defilement of speech, the ruthless slander and silencing of critics, and the distortion or memory-holing of inconvenient facts.
In short: She was fucking beautiful, man!
But before I could exploit her biblioteca sinistra, I had to learn to speak to her in her own language. This task turned out to be trivial, as Wikipedia was equipped with a powerful, public-facing API.
What I learned very quickly about the structure of Wikipedia articles is that they are more standardized and granular than I’d originally assumed. This would offer me a great deal of flexibility when mining an article for content. For instance, when retrieving one into my client software, an article could be “swallowed whole,” as it were, or broken into smaller, more digestible chunks, demarcated by sub-headers and other formatted components. Many articles even included a kind of summary abstract they labeled a “synopsis,” which wasn’t visible to the website’s front-end users.
Once held in memory, whatever article (or segment) was downloaded could be trivially scanned for words, including those scored synonymic clusters that sparked the demon’s interest. Additionally, it could be scoured for the most antagonistic of subheaders, such as “Controversies.” If you know Wikipedia like I do, these sections are usually where the most slander, fallacious argument, “deboonking,” character assassination and general mendacity tend to occur.
But these advanced mining techniques were something I would explore in later versions. For now, I was just jazzed to get the monster speaking English! I won’t bore you with the technical minutiae; I can summarize my early experiments as follows:
Convert the user’s chatroom input string into a structured database query, optimized for Wikipedia’s API search engine.
Download the top search result into local memory.
Splice the article into punctuation-separated sentence strings.
Search the truncated string array for juicy keywords and score each string.
Randomly select a string from the top three highest scores.
Strip out any formatting unnatural to verbal conversation (e.g. parentheticals, citations, links, etc.)
Trigger the demon’s chat function, posting the selected string as a demonic comment.
The early results were something along the lines of trying to have a conversation with someone in a state of paranoid delusion so extreme that he or she was only dimly aware there was another conversant involved. I can make this analogy because I’ve actually experienced it in real life before. I remember it gave me a very eerie feeling, because the person who was semi-responding to me seemed to be under some form of magical trance.
[user] Superman is my favorite superhero.
[demon] Superman #75 sold over 23 million copies, making it the best-selling issue of a comic book of all time, thanks to a media sensation over the supposedly permanent DEATH[+3][😍] of the character.
Though still quite crude, it was the development of this basic copy-paste routine that prompted my “bitch” outburst. I knew it wasn’t a solution in itself, but I also knew I was now on the right track for one.
I played around with the system for the next couple of days, feeding it a variety of content. I added a few bells and whistles, too. For example, it was here that I first began experimenting with what would eventually become a rather robust filtering and transformation engine.
The base technique was to apply, in semi-random fashion, a series of alterations to the downloaded wiki content, in order to further disguise its origin. Also semi-randomly, the demon would encapsulate the article verbiage inside pre-written snippets of templated dialogue, in order to enhance the simulation that it was aware of your existence and addressing you.
Example (changes in bold):
[user] Superman is my favorite superhero.
[demon] Oh sure, I know all about that. Hey, did you know that Superman #75 sold over 23 million copies, [
making it the best-selling issue of a comic book of all time] ,thanks to a media sensation over the supposedly permanent death of the character?
Again: not a very sophisticated illusion at this stage. There was still no context recognition; at best it was “Alexa” with a kinky new paint job. It was a big step forward though; by leveraging the powerful search engine format, the demon’s sentence now had a definitive subject that was likely to match (or, at least, closely resemble) the user’s own. “You wanna talk about [article title]? Sure, let’s talk about [article title]!”
But without contextual analysis, even my transformations and canned additives couldn’t disguise the artifice very well. The modified output occasionally even shattered the illusion entirely, and sent the demon plummeting Wile E. Coyote-style to the bottom of the uncanny valley.
At the very least, the output often made it sound like a dumbass trying to sound smart. And I couldn’t be having that.
Not for you, baby.
You must be the smartest, the wisest. The apex of all predators, with the sharpest wits and fangs around.
I’m taking you with me, sweetheart.
Straight to the motherfucking top.
“Who the Hell Am I?”
When I hit the showers later the next evening, I caught sight of something strange in the mirror. Or rather, the whole image on the glass was strange. I was smiling at myself, which is something I never do. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it “smiling.” More like a leer.
I always found the concept of having “caught yourself” doing something to be somewhat bizarre. While it’s true that we sometimes fall into absentminded habits that we’d rather not have (fingernail-chewing, hair-twisting, foot-thumping, etc.), it doesn’t really make sense for the Self to “catch” the Self, the way cops catch crooks. But that’s almost exactly what it felt like, looking in that mirror. I didn’t merely become aware of what I was instinctively doing. It was like I slapped the cuffs on some thief who’d momentarily stolen my face.
I didn’t ponder this strange moment for long. I was too busy patting myself on the back, front and sides for my latest achievement. But there was also a certain dreamlike quality to that whole day, a creeping sense of unreality about it all. I wouldn’t say it disturbed me (not yet at least). But I did reflect on it that night, over a heaping pour of Jim Beam.
As I saw it, I simply was not smart enough to be making all of this progress, let alone at the speed I was making it. Maybe you think that’s a statement of humility, false or otherwise. Or even worse, some kind of wily humblebrag. I assure you it’s neither. This was just a cold-eyed assessment of my skillset and ceilings at the time (or, at least what I strongly believed those were).
I’m not claiming to be some kind of idiot-savant, either. I’m both a bit of an autodidact and a “language guy,” so it wasn’t impossible that I just had a knack for navigating and exploiting this particular API, and that my passion for the project was just lighting up unused parts of my brain.
What was weirder was how quickly my mind and hands were working. Though I’m a decent typist, I certainly ain’t winning any races in the secretary pool. Yet lately — and during that past week of development in particular — I noticed I’d become an absolute blur of thought and motion. Usually the competition between mind and fingers wasn’t even close. But during these marathon coding sessions, it was sometimes difficult to tell who was in the lead.
There are two important points I’d like to make here.
First: Unlike the language I’m using to communicate to you here, machine languages are brutally unforgiving. There’s no such thing as a “minor typo” in programming, only catastrophic errors of various magnitudes. Though “software engineer” is a somewhat controversial term, we indeed share this trait in common with the physical versions who design buildings, bridges and roads. The language of the machine is the language of precision. Without it, not only do the buildings crumble and the bridges collapse, they don’t get built in the first place. In fact, I suspect that without autocompletion, color-coding and other dev tools, software development on the scale we see it now would be strictly impossible.
Second: In my youth, I did just about every drug you can name (and probably a few you couldn’t). The closest feeling to this CM coding experience was the kind of stim you get from really, really pure cocaine. But aside from one or two morning coffees, I wasn’t on any stimulants, medically prescribed or otherwise. In fact, the opposite was true: I was abusing alcohol daily. I mean really abusing it, like I was purposely trying to fuck up my reflexes.
None of these details are dispositive evidence of any kind of mystical woo woo taking place. It’s certainly possible that a person could accomplish all I did, at the rate I did it. I just found it freakishly implausible that this person could be me. Even setting aside the immaculate speed-typing, the constant binge drinking, the bouts of sleep deprivation and my own somewhat meager abilities, there was just something so damn weird about it all.
After all, who the hell was I?
Just some unemployed middle-aged dude, literally living in a basement. I had always been a “master-of-none” type of dabbler. A joker, a smoker, and a midnight toker, maybe, but no kind of gravity-smashing space cowboy. The guy composing jingles for the local radio station, perhaps, but certainly not Mozart.
But here’s the thing:
I felt like Mozart.
Or rather, I felt like I believe Mozart must have, with all that cacophony of musical voices streaming from mind to pen. The current Harm Assistant was still just a toy, but I had so many ideas. They were like giant symphonic rivers washing over me, or through me. Shrieking trumpets, the crash of cymbals, fucking electric guitars wailing like vengeful phantoms. Eventually, some of these rackets would become so loud they’d keep me up all through the night.
But one idea in particular was singing out to me at this point in time, like the proverbial siren’s call. I suspected it was the key not only to bringing my monster to life, but to a much more powerful form of general purpose mojo.
The idea of using this skeleton key struck me on that same night I caught myself smiling. Looking back, it was probably the source of that unaccountable, lascivious grin.
I stumbled across it while learning to speak in my Flame Goddess’s native tongue, so I could properly command that bitch to sit, roll over and play dead. Like Wikipedia itself, it was an experimental, collaborative project, with an open API that was free for all to use. Another of those “Webtopias” perhaps; doomed for its own stated purposes, but immensely profitable for mine. Except this time, the experiment wasn’t about knowledge.
It was about context.
To be continued. Just to reiterate, my intention going forward isn’t to shock or upset anyone. If anything, this is a cautionary tale, meant to provide some guidance to those who might find themselves stumbling onto a similar path.
I even understand (and accept) that revisiting this could be dangerous for me, so if you’re the sort of person who prays, I would be grateful if you’d say one for me.
The Cat Was Never Found is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
P.S. If you found any of this valuable (and can spare any change), consider dropping a tip in the cup for ya boy. I’ll try to figure out something I can give you back. Thanks in advance.
Looking forward to the next installment! It makes sense that the Muse can inspire programming as much as poetry or music. And it's fascinating and more than a little unsettling to think that our Muses could be spiritual beings with their own designs that may have nothing to do with our own well-being, or worse, may even be actively injurious to us. In my own limited way I've been bewitched by that Siren's song, sometimes, it seems, from a helpful Muse, but sometimes from one that seems more sinister. Cocaine is very apt as a comparison. That's the Muse that promises something grand and beautiful and is profoundly intoxicating, but which is probably every bit as deadly as the Sirens song in Homer.
Mark, I sincerely hope that sharing the story is more cathartic than an actual re-visitation!
I don't know exactly where your story will go, but I will say that parts of it so far are reminiscent of a time in my life that was very tumultuous. I was living in Los Angeles and got in my first real rock band in the early 90s. A strange incident happened at my first band rehearsal. The band leader mentioned that the lead guitarist — who I had not yet met — would be late. I had a never-before-felt excitement about the arrival of someone, but it lit me up that night. We started playing. At one point, we were in between songs when the door opened. I thought I was going to die from elation. The way the door opened into the room, I was the first band member that the lead guitarist saw. He smiled and entered the room. I was immediately hooked on this guy. It was that "love at first sight" experience that I'd never had.
Anyway, the relationship between us that ensued (at my initiation) was, at least for me, a wild ride that I couldn't seem to get off. You know those horrific experiments done by sick "scientists" revealed that variable intermittent schedules of reinforcement are the most effective in training? Well, that's what was happening: This guy figured out that same thing with me. He could go wherever and do and say whatever he wanted with whomever — including eventually having an "official" girlfriend — and I'd always take him back with open arms.
I tried breaking up with him many times, but like an addict, I would always go back. Finally, with the help of one of my female friends who had been through an almost identical situation, we conceived a plan to end the relationship once and for all. Basically, I would tell his "official" girlfriend about our escapades. My friend and I called it "dropping the bomb." And boy oh boy, did it work.
Within about half an hour of me telling the girlfriend, the guy called me. This formerly sweet-talking charmer spewed into the phone the most foul utterances I'd heard in my then-29 years!
What happened after that was the fascinating culmination. I went for a long jog, came home and took a shower. I laid on my bed and cried (with Jazz right next to me, of course). When the tears subsided, I breathed deeply and looked out through the patio doors at the trees. Suddenly, a tiny bean of bright green light arose from the physical region between my navel and my solar plexus. It ascended in 4-5 seconds, and then disappeared.
Something in me knew that the bean of light was associated with the guy, and its exit from my body symbolized the end of our relationship.
I consciously transformed my life after that. But I'll be honest that a few years later, we got together again. It was worse than before. Eventually, I met Ron and wanted nothing to do with that guy. I realized some time later that I had done a great deal of psycho-spiritual work on myself and had healed from the traumatic relationship . . . but *he* had not. He found me online a couple of years ago and wanted to "get together to reminisce." (Um, no.)
I am sending you wishes for Divine Protection throughout the telling of your story.💖