A Bit Of An Aside

As scary as it is, it’s been (almost) two years for this blog.  This all started as pure whim; as a place to write and think…and to work on my short-form skills.  I had no idea, two years ago, just what actually was involved with regular blogging, let alone how to go about doing it right.

IMG_0162Originally, this whole experiment was intended primarily to “live blog” the process of writing a novel.  I never really did that…mostly because it just wasn’t all that interesting.  Not to me, and not to you.  That “vision” was too confining, and too boring, to actually work.  Instead, I’ve done a few “pure” writing posts in between a whole LOT of random squirrel moments.

And, honestly, it’s been waaay more fun that way.

Some of my posts have resonated with y’all, and some have been abject failures.  Some I cringe at having written, while others have been satisfying and fulfilling in deeply personal ways.

None of that is likely to change, but…

As I’ve said before, there’s always a but.

will.write_.4.food300.jpgBut, I have to make a living, too…and I much prefer to do so writing.  I would much rather be a poorly paid writer than go back to the world of office cubes and staff meetings…

To that end, I am going to (slowly) start linking this blog with freelance writing, as well as other projects I have going, or am planning.  Oh, the novels are still in the mix — the “ghosts” of Connor & Oz most definitely see to that — but they aren’t the only things on the table.  For very, very few writers are novels the only thing on the table.*

*By the way — if you’re interested, John Scalzi did a blog post several years ago in which he “opened his books” to show just how long, and how many bestsellers, it took to make writing novels his main/only source of income.  Very interesting, and (pardon the pun) valuable, reading for new writers…

It’s important to note that I’m not going to try and turn this blog itself into a “money-making opportunity.”  Quite simply, that would put too many restrictions on what and how I could write.  No, I like the honesty of just writing whatever-the-hell-I-feel-like three times a week too much to change that part of things.

I also like the honesty of my connection with you who read these posts.  If I start scrambling for ads and pimping my SEO rankings, that honesty and that connection goes away.  Would I love to see a hundred thousand views a month?  Sure…but it ain’t gonna happen.  And I’m okay with that.

With that said, I do want (and need) to drive some more traffic this way, especially if I am going to link the blog with other projects.  Your shares and recommendations help –they help a great deal, in fact — but I have to do my part as well.  That means getting off my social media “high horse” and actually, well, using Facebook and LinkedIn and Goodreads and the like.

That also means, in the end, actually marketing myself…and this blog.  Any changes and additions I make to that effect will be slow — probably over the next six months or so — as I work to find the right balance.

As a last thought: I appreciate more than you know your visits, and the time you take to read these posts.  I’ve said a couple of times that I write this blog for others, but a better way to say that is that I write this blog for you.

Thank you, all.

The Test Of Time

I did some Netflix & iTunes binge-watching the other night.  Mostly new stuff, but I did light into a few older shows, as well.  Those old shows got me to thinking a bit; a bit about nostalgia, and a bit about just how much “recycling” of old material happens today, but mostly…mostly they got me to thinking about standing the test of time.

Not just shows, or movies, but also books, music, plays, poems, art…

At first it was just an easy stroll through those things that have stood the test of time for me: writers I still love, musicians, and the like.  But that stroll led to more pointed thoughts: what actually makes certain people and works stand the test of time?  Just what is it that makes them continue to resonate twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred years later?

Keep in mind, when I talk about “standing the test of time,” I’m not talking about popularity.  There are plenty of best-sellers and blockbusters that are now nothing more than forgotten footnotes in a few almanacs.  Books like Coma, movies like Backdraft, bands like Dexy’s Midnight Runners*…they’re not bad, just completely forgotten.

*Actually, “Come On Eileen” is still a cool song…and still a staple in many bars.

No, I’m talking about works that are still enjoyed no matter how much time has passed.  Works that still communicate their voice and vision and reality regardless of time’s passage.  The Godfather is almost FIFTY years old…M*A*S*H ended thirty-five years ago…it’s been almost forty years for Downbelow Station, almost thirty since The Wheel of Time was started…almost a hundred and fifty for Tom Sawyer

So what is this “sin” that leads so many books (and movies) to be “forgotten”?

Pandering.

Or, more accurately, catering excessively — exclusively, even — to the idiosyncrasies and trends of the moment.  There is always that urge to be “cutting edge” and “topical”, but that urge needs to be tempered and controlled.  Yes, you have to be up-to-date and current, and yes — very much yes! — you need to tackle the issues of the day, but you have to do so in a way that speaks to more than current trends and fashions.

You have to write honestly and openly…and you very much have to create characters that are open and honest, and that transcend those issues of the day to connect across the years.  Why do Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn still work as characters?  We don’t live in anything even close to that world…we’re a century and a half past that world.  So why do they still resonate?  Why do they still speak to people?

Because they are authentic. Because Twain captured the magic, and the honest feelings, of young, rural boyhood…no matter the time or place.  He captured that magic, and still wrote to the issues of his day in a voice, and in a way, that matters just as much now as it did then.

Why is A Wrinkle in Time perennially one of the most-read children’s books?  Why is it being made into a movie today? Because Madeline L’Engle wrote about issues and problems that her nine-, ten- and eleven-year-old readers STILL struggle with.  That book was influenced by the world of 1960, but not defined by it.  No, it is defined by themes and messages that matter just as much today as they did sixty years ago.

That is how you stand the test of time.  More important, that is how you move past writing a story and move into the realm of writing a story.

Screw You, HAL

2001

“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Wait…what?  You can’t start my damned coffee maker?”

“I’m sorry, Dave, but coffee is bad for you.  According to the First Law, I cannot allow that to happen.”

“Fuck you.  Siri, where’s the nearest Starbucks?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that, Dave.”

Oh yeah, the AI of the future is gonna suck.  Look, I’ve thought for a while how to do a post on AI.  I’ve had friends and family ask me about the topic.  Hell, I’ve even done research on it, for god’s sake!  I NEVER do research for these posts!  I look for stupid pictures to add, and that’s about it…

I am not, by nature and experience and long thought, an optimist about what the future will be like.  Roddenberry’s vision is just too naive and insipid to be anything other than adolescent dreams that will soon be broken on the very real rocks of reality.

No, the future is gonna be a lot more Mal Reynolds and Firefly, and a lot less Jean-Luc Picard and Star Trek.

So, back to AI.

Okay…let’s be honest: in spite of the breathless news reports, we are NOT talking true AI here — true AI, as in “self-aware intelligence”.  What we are talking about, at this moment in time and technology, is a confluence of cheap, massive computing power and increasingly sophisticated “expert systems”.

I cannot, by the way, actually dive into the distinction between “AI” and “expert system”, not if I want to keep this post under 20,000 words.  If you don’t understand that distinction — and want to — just Google “AI” and start with the (surprisingly) not-terrible Wikipedia article, and keep reading from there.

At this point, I do suppose it is time for a reminder that I’m a libertarian.  I’m also pretty damned private.  What (or who) I do is nobody’s business.  Not the government’s, not my family’s, and sure as hell not Facebook’s, nor Google’s, nor any other evil mega-corp.

But, that is exactly what today’s “AI” systems are out to do: learn every single thing they can about me.  They are out to learn everything because there is money in that…the more they know, the more they can sell.  I find that repugnant and distasteful, but not evil, so what’s the problem?

Oh, the problems are just beginning…SharePoint blue

It is a real short step from “knowing everything” in order to sell useless, random shit, to “knowing everything” in order to monitor and enforce everything.  Police and prosecutors are already turning increasingly to the various social media companies to “help solve crimes”…which is lovely PR speak for “Big Brother is ALWAYS watching!”

How long, I have to wonder, until the IRS is running an expert system to scan Facebook and Instagram for “evidence” of money you have not declared?  Or the Customs Bureau for evidence of something purchased abroad that wasn’t declared?  Or the Justice Department for…well, anything they want to turn into a crime?

If they ain’t doing it right now, I give ‘em another six months or so…

Unfortunately, the irresistible fall towards a life of full surveillance is not the worst thing.

Nope, humans being humans, shit manages to keep going downhill, even after that.

In addition to Clarke (the source of my opening joke, if you are…umm…sci-fi challenged) Isaac Asimov wrote about it, in the collection of short stories called “I, Robot” (NOT the Will Smith movie).  Frank Herbert wrote about it.  Phillip K. Dick wrote about it.  Shit, Karel Capek wrote about it, in the freaking TWENTIES…

What they wrote about?  Just how fucked we are when computers start to think for themselves…and how even-more-fucked we are when we hand them the reins.  To this day, the most chilling one-line thought comes from Herbert in his Destination: Void series.  If you haven’t read that series, by the way, correct that mistake:

In the first book* — Destination: Void — mankind fears AI, but still wants to experiment, so the attempts to create one are restricted to ships sent out of the solar system.  When one of those efforts finally succeeds in creating a true AI, the first demand this new “entity” makes is, “How will you worship me?”

*This summary is a VAST simplification of a book that is as much philosophy and theology as it is sci-fi…

All of which brings me back to my opening thought: “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that.”

 

p.s.

I am, by vocation, a writer.  I am, by training, a historian…and also a linguist.  And the very, very deep roots of intrinsic and natural language, and how that relates and translates to machine systems, is actually pretty damned fascinating to me.  If you ever REALLY want to nerd out — and get very confused — start looking into the realm of psycholinguistics.

The Olympics? Err, No Thanks

4947999_700bOh, Winter Olympics, why can’t I love you?  Summer games, you are a lost cause, I know…but winter?  We should be so good together!

I’m a hockey player and fan.  I ski (quite poorly).  I snowshoe and hike in the snow and ice.  Hell, I live in the frickin’ mountains!

But the Winter games are still dead to me.

Part of it — a very big part, admittedly — is due to the sheer level of corruption and insanity that go along with putting on the games.  The money involved passed stupid a long time ago, blew right past ludicrous, and has moved well into the realm of silly.  For no host city or country are the games even remotely “worth it”.

The Games have become, sadly, nothing more than an uber-expensive exercise in nationalist chest-thumping.  Why on Earth would you ever want to spend the tens of BILLIONS it costs to host one?  And spare me the BS about tourism and marketing: you could pick twelve million people at random, give them each a thousand dollars to come visit you, and STILL spend less than the Pyeongchang games are costing…

And if the games cost too damned much to put on, so too do the athletes.  The games cost billions just to put on, but sending the athletes ain’t much cheaper.  And then you get into paying those athletes…and, no, “amateur” most definitely is not a thing anymore.

A gold medal isn’t about excellence, or pride, or competition — a gold medal is about money.  And that, I think, is my real problem with the whole thing.  Well, that and the raw nationalism…

I don’t give two shits how many medals the US won in comparison with Canada, or Norway, or freaking Lichtenstein, for that matter.

“Wow, that skier is really good…but they’re fucking British, so they can burn in Hell.”

One of my best friends in the hockey world is Polish…and, you know what?  He’s still my friend.  I still root for whatever team he is playing for…

I very much am a US patriot, but count me out on pointless-nationalism-thing.

Err…sorry about the squirrel-moment-rant — I just happened to read a story this morning about how “bad” the US team is in these Olympics, and about how the whole thing was a failure because of that…and about how the athletes themselves are failure, and miserable people.  Yep, you guessed it, that article drove me freakin’ nuts.

The Olympics were supposed to be about individual and team competition and achievement.  They were supposed to be about sport, not politics on skis.  Unfortunately, for most of the commentators and many of the viewers/fans, they are not about the sport…and all about the chest-thumping politics.

And with many of the athletes, that doesn’t get much better: they are about the dollars and sponsorships, not the sport.

Oh, there are still examples of the “true spirit” of the Olympics (“true” if you believe the old Chariots of Fire image), but they are all too few and far between.

Previews - Winter Olympics Day -1If I watch anything at the Peyongchang games it will be one thing: the Jamaican women’s bobsled team.  Not because of Cool Runnings, but because their coach quit and took their damned sled…and they stayed.  Red Stripe beer bought them another sled*, and the team is still trying.

*Brilliant damned marketing, by the way.  Even I’ll go buy a six-pack of a beer I don’t like for this one…

The Jamaicans won’t win, and they won’t make shit for money, but they’re still trying.  And THAT is what the Olympics are supposed to be about.