Feb 18 2017

Shutting the Door on the Future

The concept of a Technological Singularity is becoming current again, with various pundits and techno-billionaires warning us of the potential consequences. Science Fiction writers, in particular, have quite a hard time with the whole thing.

Charles Stross and Jo Walton both famously referred to the Singularity as “the turd in the punchbowl of Science Fiction.” It’s the thing that takes all the credibility and much of the fun out of writing in the genre – at least if you want to set your story anything more than fifty years in the future. In fact, if you go by Vernor Vinge’s original formulation 2030 is the magic year when trends go vertical. (Yeah, that’s right, Ray Kurzwiel and Hans Moravec didn’t invent the idea. Vinge didn’t either, he just provided a concise description and gave it a catchy name. For the origins you have to go all the way back to I.J. Good and Turing.)

Why? Simply because a plausible Technological Singularity means you can’t claim your story is anything other than fantasy with space ships. Hard SF? Hardly. Space Opera? Don’t make me laugh. If the whole point of a Technological Singularity is a rather sudden rise of intelligences orders of magnitude smarter than we are, how can we even imagine what it would be like? We become ants writing books about beings who live in houses and drive cars. How would an ant even envision a house or a car?

Continue reading

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Dec 05 2016

Command Prompting

The soul of your computer lies under it’s flesh. Nay, not the bones beneath the windows and icons–for those are just the scaffolding of the Graphical User Interface. Nor is it the circulatory system of wires and drives pumping data about. Nor even the CPU and memory making up the brain and nervous system. I’m speaking of the soul. The only part of the computer that can speak directly to a human being without hiding what it is.

Have you read Neal Stephenson’s paean, In the Beginning was the Command Line? If not, I recommend the digression. It’s a long way ’round to the same thing I am saying here, but a better one all the same.

The computer programmers reading this mostly understand already. But this isn’t for them, I preach not to the choir. Let me tell you a secret you could never learn at Hogwarts: should a muggle learn the command line, the muggle becomes a wizard. It is true. Full command of your computer is yours, anyone’s. But it comes at a price…

The cost isn’t money. And the only pounds of flesh are the ones you will add sitting in front of a computer screen. No, the price is time. You cannot become proficient at the command line overnight. Yet you can get started easily with little fuss.

Try it now! If you are on a Microsoft Windows machine, look for ‘Command Prompt’. PowerShell is the real wizard’s tool here, but not required. If you are on an Apple Macintosh, look for ‘Terminal’. If you are on Linux . . . never mind, if you are on Linux you already know what to do.

Now, there you are. Go ahead. Use it. What are you waiting for?

OK, I lied. There is a great deal of fuss involved. Using a command line is a pain in the ass. It gives you no help at all, although some command lines allow you to type ‘help’ and get some kind of semi-useful response. On a command line you are left alone in a digital wilderness without a map or a compass. Even experts spend a lot of time searching the web for clues and reading documentation to discover which command they should use or configuration file they should tweak to some particular end. Or, more likely, what they are doing wrong in their commanding and tweaking because it seems like there is no end in sight. By their nature command lines are damn hard to use; this is why we invented Graphical User Interfaces, even if they really are rather useless in furthering a human’s dialogue with the computer. At least they let a regular person get basic tasks done.

Of course there are those working on Artificial Intelligence designed to create an actual dialogue. Making it so you simply discuss your need with the computer until you arrive at a solution together. But, in truth, this is a long way off; and even if we manage to make a conversation between a human and a computer more clear than that between two random humans it will still fall short of the ideal.

Why? Because we will be making the computer talk like a human and understand like a human. It doesn’t give you the wizardly power over the computer a command line can give you; it simply means you will be arguing with your computer because it did what you said and not what you meant.

There is no such confusion on the command line. There you speak directly to the soul of the machine and it does exactly what you say. You can get it wrong, certainly, but it’s always you getting it wrong. Not the computer. You. Yet get it right and your computer will always do exactly what you want. The only problem is that time thing I mentioned. Only someone obsessed with computers would spend the time and effort and directionless anger required to master the command line. People like me.

Here’s where I admit I lied again. I really am talking to computer programmers, my sisters and brothers in code. Those who know of what I speak because they too have screamed in frustration when something that ought to work just isn’t working. Over and over, not working no matter what we try. Pounded the desk because we searched and found hundreds of people complaining about exactly the same problem, but no one posting a useful explanation of why. Maybe you find some cryptic incantation that fixes or at least changes your problem, but you don’t know why. And not knowing why means you haven’t gained the conceptual framework required to avoid other classes of the same problem. It means you haven’t gained a better understanding of the computer’s soul.

There are lots of things we could do to fix the command line, yet we do not do them. We could add a basic ‘help’ command everywhere; a command that when entered without an argument or option assumes you are lost and need a map. We could write better documentation and we could make it easier to find. We could even come up with a lingua-franca of commands sharing similar arguments and options so we don’t have the extra cognitive load of knowing the meaning of ‘–foo’ is always entirely different depending on context. We could do many things to improve the command line experience, but it won’t be enough.

Not until we add one more option. Like ‘–help’ (or ‘-h’ or ‘-?’) this option has the same meaning for every single command. But this option doesn’t describe a command or sub-commands or arguments or options. No, it does something different–it tells you why.

And that is why I’m begging those creating or maintaining command line software to add this new option: we need ‘-e’ or ‘–explain’.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.jackwilliambell.com/?p=4143

Oct 09 2016

I’m not saying vote for Hillary Clinton–I’m saying you don’t spray gasoline on a house fire

If there is one lesson to take from this year’s political season it is this: just about everyone is sick of this shit. Fed up. Tired of being lied to. Angry about the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else. Feeling like the America we were all promised is slipping through our fingers like sand. Feeling like we are being taken advantage of.

This is key. I’m going to come back to the theme of ‘being taken advantage of’ over and over in this essay.
In the meantime, let’s focus on the current situation. We are being asked to make a choice for President of the United States between two of the most disliked people to ever run for that office. How the hell did that happen? How did the major parties both nominate such deplorable candidates?

How? Simple: the Democrats used their political machinery to engineer a victory for Hillary Clinton while the Republicans failed to use theirs to exclude Donald Trump. It really boils down to that. On both sides you had outsiders running on populist platforms speaking to the concerns of the disenfranchised, but one side used every trick in the book to exclude the outsider and the other put its fingers in its ears and went, “Na, na, na, na.” Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.jackwilliambell.com/?p=4125

Oct 25 2015

Turkish Airlines considered hazardous to your mental health

Sometime during the night of October 17th British journalist Jacqueline Sutton took her own life in an airport restroom at Istanbul’s Attaturk airport after, and apparently because of, missing a flight.  ‘Apparently’, because that is the evidence and the official story; although there are those who think something else may have occurred and the official story is a cover up. Sutton’s family, however, does believe the incident was a suicide.

So do I. I entirely believe Ms. Sutton was driven to suicide by the simple act of missing a flight.

Why? Well, I have some special information most people reading this do not have: I know what happens in Attaturk airport when you miss a flight on Turkish Airlines

Continue reading

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Jul 23 2015

Review: Mr. Holmes

I’ve often said I would go to see Sir Ian McKellen read his shopping list. I’m also a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. Put those two together and Mr. Holmes looked like the perfect movie for me.

Sure, I heard it was a bit slow paced. No action at all. Just a drama about an aging detective, with no murder to be solved. But that didn’t stop me from going. Remember? I would go see the man, “. . . read his shopping list?” I wasn’t expecting much, outside of some marvelous acting from McKellen.

And I got that. Oh yeah, I got that in spades. I also watched excellent performances by every single supporting character. A nice surprise. And the script by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen, was top-notch; another nice surprise.

But what really boggled me was the extent to which Mr. Holmes seemed like custom crack designed just for me.

What am I talking about? I like books and movies that make me work a little bit. Straight murder mysteries are right up my alley, but so are stories where the mystery is more about what is really happening underneath the obvious to and fro of the characters. Where every action, every nuance, are clues to a more existential riddle relating to the why and wherefore of the story. Where the story leads to a surprise ending, all the more surprising because only when you get there can you see how that ending was inevitable.

These kind of stories are really hard to write. I should know, I’m working on one of my own right now. And to make that story still lead to a very human and very satisfying denouement; while making that ending the last thing the audience expects? Hardest of all and the kind of ending I dream of writing myself.

Mr. Holmes delivers that kind of mystery and that kind of ending. And it does it while hanging a hundred Chekov’s guns on every wall and then firing each and every one in succession in the last few scenes of the movie. There was not a wasted word, not an extraneous moment here. Every frame worked as part of the whole to deliver a great ending.

And that is why I can’t tell you anything that happens in the movie. This is a film where everything is a spoiler.

I can only tell you this; the Sherlock Holmes written by Cullen and delivered by McKellen is the classic Holmes. A curmudgeon. A lonely man made all the more lonely by the fact that, outside of a recluse brother and his own greatest enemy, he must live in a world nearly bereft of intellectual equals. Certainly that Holmes has an attachment to Watson and to others, but more like one would love a dog than anything else.

This is the Holmes originally created by Doyle, not one of the more modern versions and most certainly not the Holmes made famous by Basil Rathbone. No, this is the Holmes that, until now, was best played by Jeremy Brett.

Only, instead of catching murderers, Cullen and McKellen’s Holmes is dealing with the unpleasant realities of encroaching senility and impending death. And with the weight of the great failure that forced him into retirement at his isolated house with only his bees, his housekeeper, and her son for company.

One can only wonder how McKellen felt, playing a 94 year old Holmes. At the age of 76 himself, putting on the persona of a man only a few steps closer to death must have been wearing. To move with obvious difficulty, displaying the slack expressions of age and the memory of a failing brain. It must have felt a bit like tempting the Reaper.

But play that ailing and infirm Holmes he did, masterfully. And he made the complex and wonderful ending of this movie work on every level.

As I said, this seemed like crack made just for me. Your mileage might vary. But if you are willing to bring something to your entertainment instead of having it passively delivered to your brain, I think you might like it too. Give this slow, quiet, amazing movie a chance. It might turn out you like the same kind of crack.


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Jul 17 2015

Chapter 10 of ‘Closing the Circuit’

Chapter 10, Meditation: Worth.

If you aren’t already reading CtC, start with Chapter 1, First steps are the hardest.

Restarting my Clarion West Write-a-thon project for 2015! Please sponsor me.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.jackwilliambell.com/?p=4064

Jul 09 2015

Another year, another Clarion West Writeathon

Yeah, it’s happening again. The Clarion West Writeathon. A major fund raiser for Clarion West every year; where writers set goals and you help to support Clarion West by sponsoring those writers. As always, the list of participating writers is long, but in it you will find some famous names and more than a few not so famous.

Clarion West has an important mission: helping to train the next generation of Science Fiction writers by putting them through an intensive six week ‘boot camp’, designed to give them the tools they need to blow us all away with their creativity and passion. These are writers who are already good, the goal is to make them great. And it is a process that works, just take a look at some of the things Clarion West alumni are up to!

So, if you like to read Science Fiction, support Clarion West by sponsoring a writer or three. I will be.

I will also be participating. Writing and trying to raise money to continue Clarion West’s mission.

If nothing else, it’s an excuse to write. And I have been writing, Since the start of the writeathon I have posted two new chapters of my serial novel Closing the Circuit here:

For the writeathon my goal is to post a new chapter of CtC a week. I don’t expect to maintain that pace afterwards, but I do intend to keep working on it. In the meantime that is six new chapters for you to read.

So, please sponsor me in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Let’s make this the best fund raiser for Clarion West ever!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.jackwilliambell.com/?p=4033

Jul 08 2015

Chapter 9 of ‘Closing the Circuit’

Chapter 9, Like the turning of the night.

If you aren’t already reading CtC, start with Chapter 1, First steps are the hardest.

Restarting my Clarion West Write-a-thon project for 2015! Please sponsor me.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.jackwilliambell.com/?p=4023

Jun 27 2015

Publishing, Copyright, and the Economics of Abundance

If you love books you should read this long article on publishing by Richard Nash: ‘What is the Business of Literature’. In it, Nash postulates that publishing was the first industry in the world to confront the realities of post-scarcity economics, due to advances in printing presses lowering the cost of entry.

Nash says:

“Advances in printing itself (bigger, faster, more colors), along with allied manufacturing and advances in distribution (faster, higher, further), meant that books were able to penetrate deep into society, woven into the fabric of the everyday.”

The publishing industry responded with artificial scarcity. First by gentlemen’s agreements, then by Copyright law, they enabled themselves to continue printing books at a higher rate of return than would have otherwise been the case.

But, you say, Copyright law protects the author! Well, yes. But that wasn’t always the case. And the modern formalization of Copyright law still protects the publisher disproportionately. Why? Well since an author can not sell a book without access to a printing press and a distribution mechanism, the publisher retains the upper hand.

As Nash puts it:

“Copyright, though nominally instituted to encourage the creation of a work, has as its only logical purpose the encouragement of the reproduction of the work.”

You see, any system dependent on scarcity creates two classes of people: those who have something and others who want it. The class of those who have the thing naturally want to maximize the value they can extract from it.

Artificial scarcity is no different. It requires a class system and generates elites. In the end it consolidates power with the elites. In this case the elites are not the ones creating the thing in question! (The writers) Instead they are the ones standing between those who create and those who consume. (The publishers.) And they use the power of law to arbitrage that position.

They decide what is ‘literature’ and what is not. They decide what is ‘publishable’ and what is not. They are the ones controlling access to the reader, so the writer must apply to them for that access. Copyright, therefore, acts in the favor of the publisher even when it is bestowed upon the author!

All well and good, so long as the people making those choices truly are the elites. So long as their personal tastes allow them to honestly pick the best of those manuscripts arriving over the transom. In that case the reader benefits from the winnowing and the artificial scarcity it creates.

Fast-forward 200 years? You end up with publishing empires. Seven companies producing most published books. Outside there exists a rebel alliance of small publishers and indie publishers and self-publishers. But inside the accountants became increasingly more powerful than the editors. The winnowing became less about what is good and more about what is marketable.

These are not the same things.

And the rebel alliance? Well, it isn’t really allied. Instead it is a mixed bag of individuals and small companies each looking towards their own success and not to how they, as a group, can resist the empires.

But, you say, what about digital publishing? What about ebooks? What about the web? What about the Long Tail?

Well, what about them? Things have changed a little, but mostly in terms of which empire is controlling access to the reader. (A battle is still being waged on that front.) Even the explosion of blogs on the web petered out as blogs themselves became commercial enterprises.

It is apparent the economics of abundance tends to encourage the creation of artificial scarcity.

Think about that for a minute. Ever read Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels? One of the features of The Culture is a post-scarcity economic structure. In many ways this economic structure is the final triumph of the proletariat, as no one controls access to anything. Even drugs can be produced by glands in each individual. Nothing is scarce.

So, ask your self this: Would The Culture allow Copyright? Or would allowing any kind of artificial scarcity collapse the system?

I suspect the latter. Yes, we are talking about an imaginary anarchist utopia. But the imperatives are such that it can only work if everything, except reputation, is free. Free as in liberty, not free as in beer. In the end it is about people making choices for themselves.

In Nash’s article, he comes to a similar conclusion:

“Richard Stallman has argued that the central bargain in copyright is that the public gives up a right they couldn’t actually use. Until recently, it was more expensive to make a copy of a book than it was to simply buy the book. So when society agreed to grant authors and publishers the monopoly, it was a good bargain. Now that the public can make copies of something, they are giving up a right they could in fact enjoy—or, rather, the public has proceeded to make copies anyway, regardless of the previous bargain, a kind of jury nullification. As with any law that loses the consent of the governed because it no longer reflects the logic of society, the law is not overturned, just ignored. It recedes into the past, like laws forbidding pigs to enter saloons or alcohol sold on Sundays or adultery or interracial marriage.”

Nash then goes on to discuss how new manufacturing technologies are tending the same way. This then leading to the entrenched empires fighting back with every tool at their disposal. (Mostly lawyers.) He even quotes Shirky’s Rule: “Institutions will try to preserve the problems to which they are a solution.”

Unfortunately Nash’s solution is essentially more of the same:

“Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up.”

Why is that more of the same? Because he still assumes the reader needs an editor to decide what is good and what isn’t. So far as I can tell, providing a role for the acquiring editor means continuing to provide for some level of artificial scarcity.

I’m not sure where that goes, even if we ignore the question of how the author gets paid. Is it possible to redefine the role of the editor to not include the publishing step? (There are a lot of ‘lone gun’ editors and story fixers out there, so that might be a start.) And even if we do, shouldn’t there remain some kind of filtering mechanism to make it easier to separate the gold from the dross?

So there needs to be some kind of way for people with tastes similar to yours to recommend or simply rate things. Some way for the reader to easily find that other ten percent of Sturgeon’s Law.

Because the other thing that is abundant is opinions. And short of either a complete collapse of civilization or a crushing dictatorship sending little old ladies to jail for forwarding cat pictures, the economics of abundance will take precendence over the law of the land.

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Jun 21 2015

Campfire Stories

Two of my grandkids have been staying with me for the last few days. Friday night I started a fire outside and we looked at the stars when it got dark. (Seeing the moon, Jupiter, and Venus all in the same part of the sky right before sunset was really cool!)

I didn’t have any smores makings, which saddened the kids, but they wanted to tell scary stories. As each took their turns trying to be the scariest I noticed a couple of things about how children tell stories. First, there was a tendency to rely heavily on Deux Ex Machina, Macguffins, and other plot devices. Take, for example, this conversation while my six year old granddaughter was telling a rambling shaggy-dog story:

A____: “And then a dinosaur came up.”

Me: “Wait. Where did the dinosaur come from?” (There had been no dinosaurs in her story up to that point. Not to mention any story reason why a dinosaur should take part in the narrative.)

A____: “The east.”

Next, there is the whole rambling thing. When the above conversation occurred I was already confused about what was happening in the story. Even her older brother was all over the map with his story. I’m guessing this is because both of them were making up their stories as they went along. No plan. No real plot, but plenty of plot bits cribbed from other stories they had heard.

(Plot Bits, the breakfast serial cereal of best-selling writers!)

Finally, lacking an understanding of how to increase story tension through scary moments where the audience’s fear arises from the protagonist not knowing what is going on, they both tried to raise tension by introducing scary things. Which, given the previous problems with plot devices and rambling meant they tended to keep introducing more scary things and/or amplifying the scariness of the scary things already introduced. After some discussion about this we came to the following conclusion:

Resolved (by me & 2 grandkids): the perfect scary campfire story has a zombie cyborg bear with a chainsaw for one paw. It goes ‘rawr, rawr.’

From all of this you might conclude that kids, my grandchildren in particular and maybe children in general, suck as storytellers.

I disagree. Certainly they could improve their storytelling abilities. If they did this every night, I’m sure their stories would get better over time as they told them over and over; keeping the parts that worked and abandoning the parts that didn’t. That’s how we humans get better at anything. It’s why there is that whole ‘one million words‘ thing for aspiring writers.

Yet what those kids were doing was the oldest and purest form of storytelling: sitting around a fire in the dark and trying to frighten each other. An activity as old as humanity and, possibly, one of those foundational traits separating humans from whatever we were before we got all homo sapiened out. (I believe gossip is another such trait and very much related to the first. I sometimes think stories of any stripe, whether about bears or about your neighbors, are the reason we turned language from something useful for describing where the good hunting is into something useful for creating art.)

You see, there are no rules for campfire stories. No acquiring editor is going reject a campfire story because it over-uses a stereotype or lacks dramatic tension or has uneven pacing or the characters aren’t interesting or the first paragraph is proof the writer has no idea what they are doing and there is no reason to read further.

At its core a campfire story is only about three things:

  1. The storyteller
  2. The audience
  3. The context of sitting outside, in the dark, around a flickering campfire with who knows what lurking outside your insignificant circle of light

There is nothing else there. Nothing else that needs to be there. Each campfire story is a moment in time. A moment of being, and then it is gone. The story no longer exists after the storyteller says, “The end.”

No one can ever tell that story again. If you try, you will end up telling a different story. This is because campfire stories are an improvisational art form. Making it up as you go along. Certainly there are some storytellers better at doing this than others, but it is a game anyone can play at any level of proficiency. (Unlike music, where it can take you years to get to the point you can make it up as you go long.)

I’ve often said we are our stories. I mean this on an individual basis; that each of is, to some extent, defined by the stories we tell others. Whether true our not, those stories are how we choose to expose our inner selves to the world.

Campfire stories are different.

For campfire stories the ‘we’ is collective. Campfire stories define everyone who has ever sat there in the dark wondering if maybe, just maybe, there really is a zombie cyborg bear with a chainsaw for one paw waiting out there.

Wait! Listen? Did I just hear a “Rawr, rawr?”

Permanent link to this article: http://www.jackwilliambell.com/?p=4002