Monday, December 31, 2007

The Eternity Artifact Review

I mostly don't review the books I read. Most are simply not worth the effort, for me at any rate, of writing down what I feel about them. They're sorta . . . average, hehe. But every so often I read something that is so good or bad that I feel motivated to comment about it.

I'm most of the way through The Eternity Artifact by L. E. Modisett. On Amazon it has four stars. It makes me wonder the criteria that people use to review books.

Roughly speaking, the book is a waste of paper. It's bad in a complex and multi-faceted way that I'll try to get across. I'm going to say what the book is about, now, so this is a spoiler alert. Stop reading now if you don't want to have the plot sketched out for you. The book is about four people, an artist, a pilot, a professor-slash-commando who has kept up with his "commando moves" and a fundamentalist Christian spy and assassin who are part of a mission to outside of our galaxy because there's a stray planet that has an ancient alien city on it. Humans are the only known sentient life in the universe, and their culture is riven by conflict between secular and religious societies.

Calling it "slow paced" isn't accurate. The word is "boring". The story is told from four different first person perspectives, each perspective obviously and consciously attempting to give a different and distinct voice to the characters. Which, I guess, is successful (tho' I'll be talking a bit more about that later), but it means that almost everything that happens in the book is repeated four times. So, for instance, there is a space battle. It is first narrated by a shuttle pilot who is tangentially involved in the fight, but at least has a good seat for it. Then, in the next three chapters, the battle is narrated by the other characters, none of whom are involved on any level, and none of whom have even a good seat for it. It is literally them sitting in couches fiddling with controls or doing something else to distract them from the fact they have nothing to do during the battle. This is not a joke. This happens in a variety of ways with a variety ways, such as finding an alien city with nothing in it it is nevertheless important for three different characters to describe the various details of this alien city with nothing in it.

Indeed, whole chapters pass by, the upshot of which is they find nothing in this alien city. When something "exciting" happens it is literally finding out how the alien windows work for finding a shallow depression in the floor. But many of the chapters are quite literally the characters finding nothing of interest, but doing it from multiple perspectives!

I wonder at the narrative justification for this. I understand the urge to describe things, but he's open that nothing is happening, which makes me wonder why he's writing it down, then.

Part of the problem is, of course, the multiple and redundant points of view. Fairly recently, I posted about one of the cheap tricks writers will use to pad books is multiple points of view. This book is the patient zero of that behavior. One would think that the point behind having multiple points of view would be to illustrate different aspects of your story, and with one of the character's that's almost true, and the characters do, largely, have distinct personalities - but there's nothing to really illustrate because nothing happens. I mean, it's hard to say how little happens because it isn't happening! That the book takes a hundred and twenty pages to even start the expedition to the focal point of the story, that they spend another hundred and twenty pages finding nothing, with a couple of brief action scenes. For the differences of the characters to illustrate different things the story would have to have things happening. It doesn't. Those distinct voices have nothing to say.

Or, more precisely, very little to say. At a number of points the characters make absolute pronouncements. With writers it is, of course, often difficult to tell when it's the character or when the author is using a character to express a personally held point of view. But in any event, these pronouncements are often silly to the point of being juvenile. One of the more remarkable ones is the false dilemma that Modesitt brings up with education. One of the characters is a college professor and he says that individual computer education was a dismal failure, even as he teaches in a lecture class. His justification is that computers present a one-size fits all educational paradigm. This is downright goofy in two different ways. The first is that computer education is already as good as teachers in some subjects, and is rapidly improving. So it's observationally wrong. Second is the notion that a computer teacher would only have one educational strategy, which is nonsense. Different students would be able to use different programs and models to get results, and with even modest levels of learning the robotic teacher would become increasingly better at teaching a particular student. But what really, really made me laugh is that Modesitt's character praises lecture hall. More than any other kind of education, lecture hall is one-size-fits-all education, and it's pretty much the worst way to teach a given subject - indeed, it's often worse than no formal education at all. So, to say that computer learning has failed (when the evidence suggests the contrary) while praising what we know to be the worst system of education that there is . . . it's daft, and shows that author is sounding off when he should be shutting up.

I mean, to say it differently, the characters are just dumb. For instance, the book revolves around finding this "eternity artifact", the product of a highly advanced civilization that is no longer around, in the form of a city that is abandoned. The characters all seem to believe, for instance, that the aliens that created the city are "gone" because they haven't found any "evidence" of them in the centuries of human colonization of the galaxy. And I found myself thinking, "If they're able to build artifacts that work after billions of years of inattention, why are you presuming that they're gone? I'm pretty sure that if they don't want you to find them, you won't." All of this while the characters are even guessing that that aliens are from a different galaxy. OK, then you're basically saying that, yeah, you have no way of knowing if they're around or not. But then they turn around and make these presumptions about them. (It turns out that that the aliens left because the universe had changed. So they made a new one and went there.)

Annoyingly, it's also obvious that whenever a character admits that they're making a wild, specious guess that they'll be almost 100% right. Ugh. But, generally, if you're going to have your characters make absolute pronouncements, it might be a good idea to have at least basic reasoning skills, which the book does not demonstrate.

The book is also flawed with those individual first person voices of the main characters. In particular, one of the characters really leans on his thesaurus and his first person voice is this pretentious and stilted narrative. The character never uses a small word when a big one will do. The upshot is that one of the voices of the narrative is downright ugly. One-fourth of the book is quite intentional uglification of language in order to create an individual voice for the character. Well, okay, success in the sense that the voice is immediately identifiable. But like fingernails on a chalkboard, there's no compelling reason for it. It would have been splendid if instead of wearing out his thesaurus that Modesitt had instead insured what the character said was worth saying. (The character is also supposed to be quite clever, but when a person uses big words on one hand and fails repeatedly at basic reasoning skills on the other hand, what comes across is very far from intelligence, but idiotic pretense.) So, bad literary decision. It's generally a good thing to avoid making 1/4th of your book ugly to read.

The author also has the (fairly standard, alas) sci-fi praise for the military. "Military" as short-hand for "competence" is pretty vexing. Military training isn't better than other training (and in some ways it's worse - military education is . . . I mean, if viewed in terms of educational theory, pretty much the worst of possible models - long, authoritarian based lecture sessions is basically anti-education). Military people aren't any more moral, or responsible, or "honorable" than civilians (indeed, poverty, crime and rates of mental illness are lamentably higher amongst soldiers than the general population). But, again and again, sci-fi authors treat the military like the best depository for a society's cultural values, and as a short-hand for honest, honorable and competent, and it vexes me.

In particular, the military sci-fi shorthand of "commando" for "invincible in combat" is annoying. Elite soldiers are, of course, going to be pretty tough, but they're trained for fairly specific sorts of combat - small unit tactical combat with advanced weapons against military targets. You know, go behind enemy lines and blow up a bridge scenarios. It is what they train to do. (I won't opine about the effectiveness of commandos, generally. I know that there are two schools of thought on the subject - one is that they're absolutely necessary and the other that they're a waste of resources. I suspect the latter is more true than the former, but it's only a suspicion, hehe. I do know that their effectiveness, itself, is in doubt by experts in modern military theory. Even in the real world the correlation between commando and unbeatable badass is questionable even for those situations for which they are trained.) Most commandos are not martial arts experts, for instance. Martial arts plays, at best, a tangential role in commando actions. They have guns. The Rangers, for instance, during training spend two hours practicing what could broadly bet termed "martial arts" during their training. But inevitably these commandos are expert martial artists, tho' that style of fighting has almost zero place in a modern (much less futuristic) battlefield.

The professor-slash-commando character is problematic for me on a lot of different levels. Not only is he given the absurdly pompous voice, and commando is used as a generic term for competent (ugh, literally in the last twenty pages the author invents a new commando competence for the character as a pathetic deus ex machina, it is just magically revealed, so the author can now explain the parts of the plot that made no sense rather than having them be revealed over the course of the novel, which is a bit of crappy writing right there, but to have his explainer explain things the commando has to magically get another complex and technical skill which really has nothing to do with being a commando; it turns out that in addition to everything else, commando means "computer hacker" - no kidding, in the last twenty pages it's revealed he's a computer hacker, ugh). But the character is also involved, in a banal and predictable way, with the female pilot of the story. The romance between the two characters is . . . terrible. It is dull and neither of the characters show anything like real human emotions. But the most frustrating moment is when the characters realize that his arrogant langauge and her terseness are a way to keep others away from them, that they're defense mechanisms to protect their hearts. I started to get interested. A good turn could make me completely re-evaluate the characters. In particular, the awful langauge of the professor-commando needed to come apart. At some point in the book, in battle fury or lust, his voice should have changed into something barely human, I felt, because it was obvious that all of his exercise and mental discipline was to control himself. The ugly language might have been justified if it broke down, if the character cut loose or was torn apart. And then, in this banal romance, the pilot asks the professor-commando, "Why did you stop being a commando?"

I thought, this is it! Here's where he breaks down! But . . . I was wrong. He went on a scholarly tirade about how effective violence encourages power structures to more violence, which is true, but it isn't a human emotion. I waited for him to say, "They turned me into an attack dog. I left because I hated kill people" but it never came. And then they "made love", by which I mean they literally held hands and started into each others eyes. So, in addition to being emotionally retarded, they're also eunuchs. (I'm not sure they actually have sex in the entire book. They hold hands and gaze longingly at each other, and they cuddle, but I don't think they ever actually have sex.)

So the character, who is supposed to be the hero of the book, breaks down on every level. It's rather sad that this is the standard of characterization of award-winning science-fiction novelists.

The book is also supposed to be about fundmentalist religion, in part. But it's not. All the religious characters, so far, have been either literal suicide bombers (and Muslim, at that, ugh) or hypocritical murderers. It presents a powerful false dilemma. You go out of your way, on one hand, to emphasize the honor, egalitarianism and fairness of secular society by presenting the best of that society, while on the other hand show their foes as being little more than orcs. Holy false dilemma! I mean, it is legitimate, of course, to talk about the narrowmindedness and violence of religiously fundamentalist societies But it sort of ignores that even in most fundamentalist societies that the overwhelming majority of the people are, themselves, victims of the religion and the leaders. That most of them accept it because they literally have no other choices than obedience to their theocracy or death. (Which is a far greater horror than the violence they externally impose, I feel.) It's like . . . to make the point that "religions are bad" he has to create these straw men that are virtually caricatures of what they are supposed to represent.

You might want to think about what I said in that previous paragraph - think about it is that it is I who said it. Even fairly casual readers to my blog must get it that I'm not particularly religion friendly. But the way that Modesitt represents fundamentalist theocracies is downright childish.

The other major theme of the book is the dangers of any single-mindedness. When the professor-commando is revealed to be a crackerjack hacker to compel the explainer to explain things, it's all supposed to be dramatic and cool and demonstrate the author's political awareness or whatever. It ends up being pretty goofy. I mean, any time there's an explainer . . . that's generally a bad sign. If you've got to have the last twenty pages filled with a character filling in the plot holes, you're doing something wrong, and when you've got to whip out a deux ex machina to get the explainer to explain, and have the character spew out his plot like he was a comic book supervillain, you might want to rethink your profession. But, anyway, the explainer is a spy who has manipulated the fundamentalist religious forces to attack this alien world and seek the alien artifact knowing that it would destroy the fundie's fleet and provoke a big war with them that the secular forces could win. Wow. Something actually interesting. Too bad it happens only in the last twenty pages of the book, and then instead of being revealed it's just explained. Then there is some tsking and the explainer gets to go free. After all, as he points out, he did nothing illegal. Which is true. He didn't make the fundies attack anything, he just let them know that their enemies were going to make a discovery which they author believed would COMPLETELY CHANGE THEIR SOCIETY FOREVER . . .

Oh, yeah, the discovery of aliens is predicted by the characters to utterly and forever change fundamentalist society or something. It was pretty stupid, and one of those cases where the author doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about. The reasoning here is that if becomes common knowledge that aliens exist, technologically superior ones at that, religion could collapse because of the evidence that humans weren't special. Because, as we all know, that's what happened when science proved that life evolved naturally, or the universe was created without divine intervention, religion just collapsed and died off. Right? Religions would not merely form specious arguments to justify away the find, nope, while maintaining all the cherished religious truths. Ugh. It's idiotic. Long before we start exploring outside of our solar system, religions are going to have in place all the arguments they'd use if we find a technologically advance alien species.

After all, the Bible contains numerous non-human intelligences, already - angels and demons. Islam has angels, demons and djinn, who are capable of being good Muslims; Islam already has a position about aliens, functionally. They should be Muslim, hehe. Which is what universalist Christian religions would agree on, too, once they agreed the aliens had a soul, which would almost certainly happen because they'd be technologically advanced and at least as smart as we are. Dead aliens, like in the book, might keep the question up in the air, but fundies would go, "So what if there was life before humans? It says in the Bible there was. Humans were created last. Next question." It wouldn't be much of a big deal. But it gets invented into this HUGE, ENORMOUS THING and I'm scratching my head about it because it isn't that difficult a question to address, theologically speaking.

But . . . I'm done. The book is actually worse than this. There's the whole business with the fundie spy that I won't get into, tho' the upshot is that the character is meaningless. Just . . . meaningless. The whole story that involves the character sputters out to a stupid conclusion. The character could have been totally removed and the book would have lost nothing. So, it's worse than even my review suggests. It's bad. Don't read it. And I'm going to smack the guy who gave it to me, hehe.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Defending Christianity and Christmas

Part of the reason I wrote Simon Peter is because a lot of atheists have this respect for the person of Jesus that I find bizarre. Even when they reject the supernaturalist claims of religion, they often think that Jesus is this wise man, or legitimate social reformer, or all these high sounding positions with all these lofty goals. In my reading of the Gospels, Jesus is just another fake as liar pretending to have supernatural powers to satisfy his ego, who (like most other "messiahs") committed suicide by challenging the state to a contest of wills. And when atheists and those opposed to the inevitable excesses of Christianity then turn around and support Jesus they're supporting Christianity.

Now, the same seems to be true with Christmas, too. If a person actually rejects Christianity, why do almost all atheists I know, usually without any real comment, celebrate the chief religious holiday of the Christian faith?

When pressed, the only even semi-good answer that is given is that Christmas is actually pretty secularized. (The answer that it is tradition is nonsense. At one time, for all atheists, all of religion was traditional, and there are lots of things that were traditional - slavery, monarchy, whatever - that we're better off without. The answer of "it's tradition" is, to me, deeply . . . ill-considered.) Of course, to some extent that is true. But it's like atheists who take Jesus "seriously". Sure, you can secularize the message of Jesus, claim he was a wise man social reformer against Jewish and Roman corruption who spoke in religious terms because that's the paradigm he existed in. And, yes, Christmas can be secularized to be about . . . whatever it's supposed to be about. Honestly. I can't take seriously that it's about anything other than greed once divested of religion.

But at the same time that we're secularlizing Christmas, Christians are using that as a justification to intrude their religion into public social spaces, for instance. Because Christmas is for "everyone" - because non-Christians have bought into it being "secular" - you have public nativity scenes, Christmas trees, a complete barrage of religious themed music that permeates every level of society, and a whole month where religious people are allowed to shove their faith down everyone's throat.

It seems to me that if atheists are serious about rejecting Christianity, they should be serious about not celebrating the primary religious holiday of the Christian faith. And I think that this is a no-brainer. I've even got some suggestions about the subject.

First, tell your friends and family about your disinterest in celebrating the holiday. Second, suggest an alternative. Say . . . New Year's. It's as celebrated as Christmas is, in the same season, all that.

Some people will argue that it's about "family". It's a time for family to get together. That's an argument of emotional blackmail, I think. And, let's not forget, that just a month earlier there was another family holiday in the US, Thanksgiving. And a week after Christmas there is another holiday that could easily be turned into a family holiday, that being New Year's. It would be trivially easy to make any one of another holidays about the same bonding issues that happen in Christmas, say Labor Day. I like Labor Day. People could get together in a spirit of solidarity with their friends and family to exchange gifts, emotionally bond, all that, in peace and harmony. There is no good reason, I think, for atheists to continue to celebrate this overtly religious holiday that, even when secularlized, gives Christians a justification to thrust their religion onto our public life and society with atheists aiding and abetting them.

Down with Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas is a lousy time of year - objectively!

I don't like Christmas. Not just because I'm an atheist and I dislike, intensely, how often this holiday gets shoved down my throat - even by non-Christians and other atheists - but because it objectively sucks. There. I said it. Christmas objectively sucks.

Two words: Christmas depression. Rates of depression skyrocket at Christmas. Two more words: Christmas crime. Crime rates also skyrocket during Christmas. Two more words: Christmas accidents. Lots of boozed up motherfuckers are on the road getting into deadly accidents. Every year, "Christmas cheer" is bought in the lives and blood of other human beings, makes others madly depressed, and also creates the environment for seasonal crime sprees.

The cheer of Christmas is forced. It's a stressful, ugly time marked by increased fighting, mood swings, recriminations, theft and bloody accidents. Everything that Christmas is "supposed" to be about, well, it is about none of those things. It is not a time of happiness and joy for large portions of the population, and the brief joy it does bring is attended by misery.

Equally frustrating is the denial people are in about these simple truths. OK. It's merely fact that Christmas is a time of depression, crime, auto accidents, family arguments, money stress, blah, blah, blah. But it is my experience that when you bring this up, people still cling to Christmas. It boggles me. If we stopped "celebrating" this season - or at least changed the way it was celebrated - people would be happier, there'd be less crime, fewer accidents on our roads, less money stress and things of that nature. Weirdly, this is at least as true of most of my atheist and agnostic friends as the religious people I know. I mean, I know why Christians won't abandon the holiday, it's one of the key holidays of their religion. Sure. I get that. But even people without religion, who have no religious connection to the season, almost inevitably defend the holiday - even tho' it objectively sucks. Which I admit to finding somewhat frustrating.

Anyway, that's my yearly "I hate Christmas" post. I don't hate it merely because it is shoved in my face, though I hate that, but also because because even amongst those that celebrate it it is a season of misery.

Conflicts between science and religion - bring 'em on!

Adrienne said something particularly clever about religion and I'm going to pass it on. We were talking about the touch of flames on this post, the fiery touch being about, unsurprisingly to those who read my blog, intelligent design. Which I, of course, think is deeply stupid and a pretty pathetic attempt to insert supernaturalism into science.

For my part, I was opining why intelligent design folks decide to take on the best scientific theories. In the above discussion, the point wasn't evolution, but cosmology. The gent with whom I was talking was making some bizarre points like . . . because physical laws are uniform throughout the universe that's proof of intelligent design. Which is a bizarre argument. I mean, also false, but additionally bizarre. Even if it was true - and it's not, say, inside a singularity, or in the very early universe, or the differences between quantum effects and relativistic effects, there's plenty of reason to think that the universe isn't the same everywhere - I don't know why that's suggest an intelligent designer. I mean, couldn't the same reasoning be applied regardless of how the universe is? But one of the specific things that the person said is that there is no scientific theory, even a bad one, that explains the origin of the universe. This is very wrong. Not only does science have a theory about the origin of the universe, the big bang, but it is amongst the strongest theories in science. The big bang theory is science working very much how science "should" work - the theory of general relativity suggested that far enough back in time that all matter and energy would achieve infinite density and there would be a beginning to space and time. From that reasoning, there have been numerous experiments that validate the big bang. There are few scientific theories with the level of proof we have for the big bang, both theoretical and observational. The same is true of evolution. The proof for it is staggering, overwhelming. If supernaturalists want to challenge science these are not the theories they should be challenging. I mean, much better would be . . . gravity. We don't know what the fuck it is, hehe. It's downright confusing and there is simply no connection between quantum gravity and relativistic gravity theories, and gravity behaves in certain unique ways that make it the odd-man out of physics. Or electricity. Or turbulent motion. All these things science is having trouble addressing. But, no, they always go after evolution and cosmology, which are particularly strong as theories go. Adrienne opined, certainly correctly, that the reason they go after those two is because they challenge the narrative of religion.

Then Adrienne said, and this is the clever thing, that some religious apologists will try to reconcile religion and science by saying that they cover entirely different subjects, different parts of the human experience, but that's a lie. And it is. The reason why science and religion are brawling is because both of them talk about . . . how humans came into existence, how the universe came into existence. No major religion lacks a creation myth. But this isn't discussed very well, that so long as religions have creation mythology there is going to be considerable antagonism between religion and science. Because, y'know, science says that the universe came into existence because of quantum flux in an instanton around fifteen billion years ago causing the big bang, and religious folks say that a supernatural being that transcends time and space willed the universe into existence. These are conflicting narratives, mutually exclusive, so the people who say that religion isn't about the same things as science are wrong. They are, and evidently so, and people don't much talk about that as being the essence of the conflict, because it is a conflict. Science says one thing, religion says another.

And even beyond cosmology and the origins of life, there are still conflicts. Religious people all make supernatural statements. Even if you're the species of religious person who says that the big bang and evolution are the way that god created the universe, almost all of those people will still cling to supernatural events to justify their belief. So a Christian might say that evolution is the method that god created life, but what about Jesus rising from the dead and physically ascending into heaven? Even religious folks who are willing to concede the creation myths are allegorical or whatever nevertheless make statements of fact. They say, "Jesus rose from the dead". They say, "He physically ascended into heaven." Even when they avoid the biggest issues, they make all these statements that simply cannot be physically true. They still are saying that supernatural agents are at work amongst us.

Which is back to intelligent design. That's what intelligent design is - saying that supernatural agents work amongst us, but do so invisibly. In the case of ID, the invisible is the bogus concept of irreducible complexity. Otherwise, it is invisible amongst the annals of history - which are, of course, woefully incomplete. A Christian says that, you know, supernatural events are only recorded in religious texts because they are otherwise lost to history. Sometimes they can sorta get away with this, like the census that supposedly took place at the time of Jesus' birth. We know the Romans did a number of censuses whose records did not really survive. It becomes less plausible, of course, when you're talking about the graves giving up their dead and zombie prophets walking around Jerusalem, or the Nile turning into fucking blood, or the destruction of two large cities by angels, or . . . you see the point by now, I think. That the only records of the innumerable supernatural events that occur in all religions seem to be recorded only by members of that religion. So, we entirely lack Babylonian accounts of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or any other of these supposedly supernatural events (save when one religion copies a story from a second religion, like with the Biblical Flood).

(Yes, I know there are a smaller section of Christians who believe all supernatural events in the Bible are allegorical and treat Jesus simply as a wise man or whatever, but this isn't really addressed at them and they are a very, very small portion of Christians and most other Christians would say that they're not Christians, so even calling them Christians is fairly problematic.)

I think that non-religious people should stand up more to religious people who are trying to slip it in, then, that "science and religion aren't about the same things". They are. Religions have creation myths that explain the origin of the universe and of life, and these are in direct contradiction to scientific theories. Religions also include supernatural events which also contradict science in a number of ways (being that science, by definition, can't have supernaturalism in it). The people who say that religion and science are about "different things" are ignoring the cases when science and religion do discuss the same topic and are at odds.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Stew over at A Night on the Tiles tagged me for this, like, two months ago. I am slow, but I get there, hehe. ;)

Eight things I am passionate about

1. My wife. I love her with a deep and abiding passion.

2. Writing. It's the about the only thing I'm really good at, which is OK because I'm really good at it. It's one of the few things that I can keep up with, including finishing big projects with it. In some fashion or the other, I'm really writing all the time. Even when it is about some of the other things I'm passionate about, I often do it, or over-do it, through writing.

3. Role-playing games. We're being honest here, and this is my oldest hobby, and I'm still strong at it. Between writing and role-playing games you might have an idea that I've got an involved fantasy life. Oh, wait, there's more, there's more, hehe.

4. Reading. Which kind of goes with writing if you think about it. I can get really worked up about books. I was going around in a daze for days after I finished A Deepness in the Sky because I knew that there was something I was missing and I needed to work out what it was. (As it turned out, what was working me up is that it wasn't really a very good book, but it wasn't a very good book in a complex way. I had to think it out.)

5. Politics. Adrienne knows I'm actually up when I start to bitch about politics. I have to limit how much news I read or I'll spend all day getting upset over the crap I read in various papers.

6. Weight lifting. All these other things I'm passionate about take a great deal of mental energy, and I can obsess and dwell on them. Weight lifting is how I clean out all that crap. A few minutes with the weights and all I'm thinking about is the next set. And between workouts there's all this planning and such to do! New exercises to sort out, new routines, all that fun stuff.

7. Comic books. Boy, I spend a lot of time reading comic books, and talking about comic books, and generally doing stuff related to comic books. Not "graphic novels", comic books. The medium has created some of the most enduring icons of American culture - more people know who Batman is than know Santa Claus. Mmmm. Comic books.

8. Cooking. I am a goddamn good cook. I used to be a pretty lousy cook, but when we were in Maine I often wanted Indian food and there was no place around that made Indian food, so I started to make Indian food. Now I can pretty much make anything, but prefer, like, this band of food that starts in Greece, goes through the Middle East, picks up India and Southeast Asia, zooms across the Pacific to get Mexico, the Caribbean and the American South. Also, Russian food. Russia has really great cuisine, hehe.

Eight things to do before I die

1. Live long enough not to die. No, seriously! There's a pretty good chance that people that are alive today will see every medical advance that extends their life to the point to the next medical advance that extends their life! I want to be one of those people.

2. Get a goddamn novel published. I'm working on that one - indeed, I'm doing this as a break from doing that - but it'd be nice if it actually happened, y'know? In the end, I write for myself, but some recognition would still be pretty spiffy.

3. Settle down. It'd be nice to be part of a community and know you were gonna stay for a while, hehe.

4. Learn to make efficient use of my time. Ohmygod, I'm so mentally disorganized it hurts.

5. Travel extensively. I mean, there are so many things I want to see but haven't. And things I've barely seen that I want to see more of. Glaciers and mountains and monuments and architecture, you name it, I probably want to see it. And I want to eat their food. Food is very important to me. See above.

6. Write something that will last the test of time. Now, I know that the "test of time" is largely determined by a bunch of white middle class guys for whom I have more than a trivial contempt. But it'd still be nice to write something that people, centuries from now, will still talk about. They'll say, "Oh, but Bradley" - you always talk about writers using their last name like that - "added a quivering nuanced realism to the art" or something like that. It'd be cool.

7. Calm down! I can get worked up. I've made good strides towards calming down, but I have many yet to make.

8. Tell a head of state - preferably a monarch - to fuck off. I really want to do this. You have no idea. I plan for it in my head. ("Why are you talking? Kings are about as useful as tits on a bull. The decadent remnants of a pathetic and discredited political system with no use or meaning in the modern world, childishly clinging to archaic titles. Fuck off, 'your royal highness'." Like that, hehe.)

Eight things I say a lot

1. "D'oh!"

2. "Fuck off."

3. "Well, really . . ." Followed by how absolutely wrong the other person is. Probably about something that's deeply important to them, hehe.

4. "I'm bigger than you." One of my humorous arguments of last resort. We should do what I want because "I'm bigger than you". Meant as a joke.

5. "I'm right because I'm a philosopher." Another humorous argument of last resort, usually ironic because I think most modern philosophy is pretty cowardly.

6. "In [insert place I used to live] . . ." I am always comparing where I once lived to where I currently live. So, I'm always, "In Las Vegas" or "In Maine" or "In South Carolina" or whatever, hehe.

7. "You suck."

8. "Don't make me kick your ass." I have several humorous arguments of last resort, and this is another one of them, hehe.

Eight things I have read or am still reading

1. The Legion of Superheroes. Who doesn't love Braniac 5?! If you don't who Braniac 5 is, you suck! See? I told you I said it a lot.

2. Probability Sun. By Nancy Kress. That's the list of things I'm currently reading, so I guess I'll just list my favorite types of books, then, hehe.

3. L. A. Confidential by James Ellroy.

4. Dune by Frank Herbert.

5. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

6. Watership Down by Richard Adams.

7. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

8. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I could go on this vein, but I shall stop, hehe.

Eight songs I listen to over and over

An ever changing list if there ever was one! But I shall name the eight that come to my head.

1. Heavy Horses by Jethro Tull.

2. Fly by Blind Guardian.

3. When Will They Shoot by Ice Cube.

4. Shut 'Em Down by Public Enemy.

5. One by Metallica.

6. Veteran of the Psychic Wars by Blue Oyster Cult.

7. The Anvil of Crom by Basil Pouledoris.

8. Battle Without Honor or Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei. Preferably the extended remix.

Eight things that attract me to friends

1. Humor.

2. Intelligence.

3. Contempt for religion.

4. Ability to endure my whacky political and intellectual digressions.

5. Laughs at my jokes.

6. Shared hobbies.

7. Being a geek.

8. Likes eating my food.

Eight people who should do this

Oh, golly gee, I don't know eight people online anymore! Hehe. I will leave it up for people who read this to just assume that they're selected. This does mean you, hehe.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

NaNoWriMo and me!

J. M. F. Grant has something of a rant about NaNoWriMo. So I figured I'd weigh in about the phenom of National Novel Writing Month.

For those of you who don't know, and don't care to read their site, NaNoWriMo is a largely online event that gets people from all over the world, but mostly America, hehe, to spend a month writing a novel (for these purposes defined as any prose text 50,000 words or longer, which is more likely a novella than a novel, but, hey, what the hell, right?). What NaNoWriMo attempts to get people to do is write. I first read this in an essay by Ray Bradbury, and as I've gone on I've increasingly realized it's truth, that an author's greatest barrier is their critique - many people don't think they're good enough to write a novel, or publish one, or whatever, so they don't give it an attempt.

So, in that vein, I'm a fairly large supporter of the concept of NaNoWriMo. But, to be honest, when you read their statement of intent it's . . . pretty awful. They say stuff like, "Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft . . . It's all about quantity, not quality." Ouch. If that doesn't sound sufficiently like inveigling against "painstaking craft" here's another little bit, "To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work."

On, that's the context of Grant's rant. He has, apparently, published several books (he did not say if they were novels) and he seems offended that there's this program that gets people to do what they do at the expense of what he does - that planning and craft is somehow a . . . barrier to writing a novel, instead of a way to write a better novel. And I have some sympathy for this. I also fall fairly strongly into the pain-staking craft department. Both Condotierri and Simon Peter are about BIG, IMPORTANT things, and I want to say a variety of things and use the medium of a novel to do that. In some ways it's difficult to even say how long it took to write them, because they both arose from years of thought about social, technological and theological issues. In many ways, they are the culmination of everything I've learned since I was ten years old and wrote my first story, and I'm guessing my next novel will also be all that . . . with the greater knowledge and experience I've gained writing my first two novels.

One of the other things that NaNoWriMo says and this is . . . this is terrible, because it's very much a lie, is that writing the first draft is "the hard part". In some ways, for me at least, finishing Condotierri was the hardest thing I'd ever done. I was nearing the end and I realized that, right here, right now, I've got to make the previous 100,000 words make sense. All lose ends must be tied off, all conflicts resolved, it's got to end. In other ways, that was also immensely satisfying. As opposed to re-writing and editing? I'd rather end a novel every day of the week than edit, hehe. Editing isn't hard, mostly, but it is deeply dull. It's easy to keep energetic about the creativity of the first draft. But the second time through? Well, that's satisfying because you can do it and go, "Yeah, this came out pretty cool." The third time? It's just boring. The fifth time? You want to die.

But even that isn't the hardest thing. Because, after that, there's seeking publication. Which is where you beg people you don't know to deign to publish your book, using standards that are designed to weed out 999 in 1000 manuscripts. The odds are wicked stacked against you, you have no clear way of knowing what they're looking for any given day (or even if they're looking for anything at all), you have no way of knowing what magical combination of words will catch the eye of a publisher. (Indeed, the mood of the publisher, agent, editor, etc., is probably a bigger factor than anything you can write; whether they liked they lunch or not is probably a bigger factor than the objective quality of your work once it has reached the stage of being polished.) And then there's the deep and abiding pleasure of getting the FOAD letters, those politely, and distantly, worded rejections to your life's work.

Compared to all that? Writing the first draft is easy. And fun. It's all creative. After that? It becomes a slog through work you're already over-familiar with, and then the walk of shame that is getting published. The way that NaNoWriMo gets around this is by . . . don't mention doing that! Say that they're done writing the first draft, which is like saying that the food is read after the reaping is done. There's still a long way to go between "first draft" and "completed work".

So, while I understand why someone might be bothered by the cavalier attitude that NaNoWriMo evinces for the ideas of painstaking craft in writing, at the same time it's pretty clear their tongue is in their cheek in the first case, and in the second they're trying to get people to write. Where I have trouble with the project is that they encourage people to stop immediately after the first draft but nevertheless encourage people who are successful to call themselves novelists. Which is akin to running a mile and calling yourself a marathoner. A first draft is a necessary condition for being a novelist, but it is far from a sufficient condition. There's definitely more to it! And NaNoWriMo wholly ignores these other things, handwaving them away as merely devotion to craft and foolishness other writers do.

So, I guess I'm somewhat ambivalent about NaNoWriMo, hehe. But that's the extent of my thoughts on it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Manna and Robo-Burger

Something sort of weird happened. In the comments of this post, one of the people who fairly regularly posts - and I deeply appreciate his posts because he often disagrees with me, but does so intelligently and respectfully, which is the perfect kind of disagreement for me! - and he said this, "I've seen other articles and books on the topic - including a novel/screed by a futurist that posited automation happening first in a fast-food joint and spreading globally at the speed of light. The title escapes me but it's on the tip of my tongue."

The weird thing is, I thought he was talking about me. Several years ago, I wrote a short story called Robo-Burger. You can go read it! It posits that automation starts in fast food and spread rapidly creating widespread social upheaval.

In truth, what Brian was talking about was the online novella Manna. (Calling it a novel is an exaggeration. It's eight short chapters.) It is in part about how automation starts in fast food and spreads rapidly creating widespread social upheaval and a second part that is utopian, the same technology used benevolently. Oh, there are lots of differences, but the similarities were sufficient to make me check to see if the author, Marshall Brain, could have plagiarized me. (The answer is "no". I actually wrote Robo-Burger after he wrote Manna; I wrote Robo-Burger after learning that the US Army was deploying robot soldiers in Iraq back in 2005 and was still struggling with science-fiction writing prior to writing Condotierri. I actually considered Robo-Burger a failure as a story, but you decide. Re-reading it, I liked it reasonably well.)

Now what's interesting to me, and I find this utterly fascinating, is that we both decided that a labor crisis would follow in the wake of fast food automation! I'm really geeking on that! I have been thinking all evening about why we might both come up with so similar ideas. That fast food is symbolic of low wage, low prestige work. That fast food is nigh universal in our society. Fast food would be (and will be) reasonably easy to automate, as it is largely doing a number of easy tasks without creativity or innovation. And, mostly, really, who hasn't had the experience of have your order wrong after dealing with a rude employee in a filthy restaurant? But you're on this schedule, on your own pathetically short lunch break, and it's either eat what's in the damn bag or not eat at all. Who hasn't dreamt of fast food restaurants always being clean and the service always being accurate and friendly?

But I've never been this much, so immediately, part of thinking the same thoughts that someone else has been thinking at roughly the same time! What I am wondering, now, is if fast food chain CEOs are thinking these thoughts about total automation of their restaurants. The problems, even at this point, would be largely engineering; the technology already exists.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tricks to make books long

Now, a unpublished or barely published novelist is expected to write books that are 100,000 words long. However, once you're successful, you're expected to write quarter million word tomes. So, recently, I've been thinking about how to change a book from a hundred thousand words to three times that length. What I've ended up identifying are, well, they're really just two tricks authors use to make the book longer - I feel (tho' I suspect many will disagree) that these tricks add virtually nothing to the actual narrative in most cases, save to make it longer. (Some people will think that length, in a good book, is always or almost always a desirable end. If you like the writing, a long book provides more "book value" than a short book. I disagree. It's like saying that a novel is "better" than a short story. They're not. Short stories can have a precision and elegance that a novel can't, really, possess, but I think most of the people reading this agree with that, already.) I should also go on to say, like with all things artistic, presentation is everything. They can be done well, and they can be important to the story, but largely they are not, I feel. But, here are the tricks:

Multiple point of view characters. Why write a book about one person or event when you can write a book about two or three! Like I said, this is largely a trick. You're functionally writing two or more stories that only tangentially have anything to do with each other, only becoming unified somewhere down the road - often quite a bit farther down the road. The reason that this is a trick, and rarely provides for good narration is that it . . . really spoils suspense! Because you are going back and forth, you almost always know everything there is to know! It also nearly completely destroys foreshadowing - because you know. It's an easy way to make a novel longer with making less good, diminishing suspense and often making foreshadowing irrelevant.

Flashbacks. Put some terrible secret or other back story on your protagonists and you've got good chapter fodder. If you give all your POV characters elaborate back stories, you can do this again and again. This is a trick because, mostly, the audience just doesn't need to have that many details about the past event. Sure, the character might be a super-bad ass commando ninja cyborg - but going back for length origins is usually irrelevant to the plot.

Like I said, they can be done well. But I think what has largely happened is it's become simply a way to write longer books without a lot of consideration of what it does to the overall structure of the narrative. How changing POV really distorts other techniques a writer might use, like foreshadowing and suspense, and how flashbacks are often simply irrelevant to the pacing of the narrative. That both are, well, filler. Or, perhaps more accurately, both are employed as filler in a great number of cases.

Still, I'm curious what people think.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Robot Drivers, the US Army and . . . You?

In most ways, Forbes is a horrible magazine, who's sole purpose is to make rich people feel good about being rich. It's pretty sad, really. But this story about the DARPA robotic vehicle contest I found interesting in a couple of ways.

First, it said that the US DOD wants 1/3rd of it's fleet of vehicles automated by 2015. That's eight years away, folks. I don't know if they'll get a full third of them automated, but I'm sure that the technology for automated vehicles will be pretty robust by then. Indeed, I suspect robot drivers by then will be better than human drivers.

I went and looked at a number of other articles about the subject. Most of them, like the Forbes article, are of the "ooooh, robots are cool" school of journalism. And, well, yeah, robots are cool. Not a single article mentioned any possibility of, say, social consequence because of this. Such as, in industrialized countries, in the next ten years or so the entire industry of long distance driver might be completely wiped out. Once it is demonstrated that these vehicles are safer than human drivers . . . well, I'm pretty sure that it's already the case that it'd be cost effective to replace human drivers with machines. They're just not good enough yet, but they will be in the next several years.

There are around 1.3 million long haul truckers in America. In twenty years, I'd be surprised if any of them have jobs. Robots will just do what they do better and cheaper than they could ever do it. Many short haul jobs will also be totally automated, too.

Sometimes I feel like I'm talking science-fiction when I say, "The biggest labor problem that industrialized countries are facing is that in the near future there will simply be no jobs." Already, three in four of American jobs are service jobs, most of them low end, near minimum wage jobs. I mean, screw artificial intelligence as the technological singularity. I mean, maybe at some point AI will also make intellectual human labor wholly obsolete,but the day is nigh when most people will simply . . . not be needed for labor purposes. Just not needed. Most low end service industry jobs will just be done by machines. (Even for many interaction jobs, you won't need real artificial intelligence to do them - just enough verbal skills to negotiate specific problems. Like tech support. When you're calling up to troubleshoot your TV, the robot doesn't need to be able to talk about the weather, just identify what the problem is and clearly tell the person how to fix it. The automated menu systems that some tech support places have is a crude form of this, of course. So even jobs where direct communication is important can be automated without invoking some possibly mystic goal of artificial intelligence.)

Is there anyone beyond a couple of sci-fi writers and futurists who are even talking about this? Seriously. I want to know. Because this is not some hypothetic possible future problem, but something that's very much right around the corner - the US military wants 1 in 3 of it's drivers automated away in eight years. But I can't think of a single politician who is even tangentially addressing what is likely to be the biggest labor problem of the 21st century. That most of us won't be needed.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Intelligence Singularity, Futurism, Some Rambling Thoughts

A fair bit of my science-fiction work has to deal with, broadly, issues of futurism. I just got done reading A Deepness in the Sky, and I liked it tolerably well (in the long run, I suspect my biggest problem with Vinge is his anarcho-capitalism; I sorta like it because he's addressing what is one of my biggest pet peeves amongst sci-fi writers - that while they'll spend a hundred thousand words on technobabble most can't be arsed to talk about what post-democratic governments look like . . . indeed, my sci-fi settings have political systems that are actually backwards, stuff like monarchies; the problem is that I think anarcho-capitalism is so deeply and obviously stupid that anyone can take it seriously, and, yet, many in the sff set do precisely that) and the writer of the book, Vernor Vinge, is one of the proponents of a technological singularity.

It's an interesting bit of futurism (to the extent it is futurism), but I think that Vinge is doing what many futurists have done before (and many will continue to do, no doubt also including myself), which is basically attributing to the future the qualities of the present but merely in a more energetic form. So, in the 50s, when futurists (which is a term almost identical with "science-fiction writer" at the time) discovered lasers what they did was project that technological innovation into existing technology - the future would have ray guns! Of course, what actually did happen with lasers is nothing like that. We found that, instead, that lasers were much more useful as sensors, information storage, things like that. Many of us use lasers every day! In CD players, video game consoles, DVD players, blah, blah, blah. Lasers as ray guns? Still waiting on that one, and are likely to be waiting quite a while.

So, the idea behind an intelligence singularity is that some day a computer will be so powerful it'll be smarter in every meaningful way than any biological human. Since it is more intelligent by definition, it'll be able to make even more intelligent machines that we can, and those machines will make even MORE intelligent machines, etc., etc. The scenarios on this range from doomsday-esque Terminator-like scenarios (except the computers win because they will be, then, by definition more intelligent than humans) to Utopian fantasies where super-intelligent computers see to our every need.

I think that's, basically, doing what folks in the Fifties did with lasers but with computers, instead.

I mean, I'll out the first flaw - that human intelligence is singular, itself. Well, human intelligence is now, and always has been, a network. A technological singularity won't start until a technological system is more intelligent than the then existing human intelligence network. It is still, of course, an open question if we're smart enough to make seed AI in the first place. But, those little caveats aside, I suspect we are.

But, y'know, I think the idea of an intelligence singularity is a very crude sort of futurism. Like with lasers, or computers, or the radio, what ends up happening with them will likely be pretty . . . different than what we imagine. For instance, and I think this is non-trivial, as I said, human intelligence already exists in a network. Right here, right now, I'm actually using that network. The network started before we were even human - what animal species does not have some form of communications network? Artificial intelligence will merely be adding onto the system of which we're already a part - and it'll be designed to do that. The technique that the IS people are using seems to me analogous to the laser-ray gun situation: that the future will be like the present, just faster and with more energy. We are thinking that the goal of AI is to have computers . . . engage in human style thought, just do it much better than we do.

I doubt that'll be the case. Technological development goes into weird places. No ray guns, but dig that shiny new HD-DVD player. I suspect it'll be that way with AI. Rather than just doing what modern intelligence does better than modern intelligence, I suspect it'll go over in interesting tangents, and I've said the main one: it will be used to augment the existing human information network in novel and interesting ways. (Furthermore, AI will pick up the biases of their creator's behavior. A fundamentalist religious AI might not be the first AI ever made, but it's likely to be the second, with stuff like literal interpretations of religious work built into its architecture and low-level programming. AI might well be constrained by the irrationality of human belief system . . . like I said, tho', it's an open question if we're smart enough to pull this off!) I don't think that just proposing that machines in the future will do things that happen not much better and faster than happen today is very useful, because it is likely to be wrong.

On the other hand, we need to talk, I think, about futurism. This is a current and quite awful problem. I mean, for instance, right now the lack of intelligent futurism is creating a world wide global climate change event. Since almost no one bothered, at the early stages of the industrial revolution or, really, at all very seriously until recently, to talk about the climatic changes inevitably wrought by world-wide industrialization we're now on the verge of a very nasty, possibly Black Death-like problem. If people had been interested in accurately forecasting the changes wrought by industrialization and the like, global industry would look much different than it does. The same should be true of any new technology! But it isn't. So, with biological engineering, virtually every corn plant in the world is now genetically altered as pollen from genetically modified plants go to unmodified plants. Great going. We have permanently modified the DNA of corn. That was not, I should add, the plan, but it's what happened, and even though some people did try to stop it, it went ahead anyway. And there are some fairly intense technologies that could happen in the next couple of decades - AI, radically improved genetic engineering, and the unlimited promise of nanotechnology.

Of course, some people are working on it, like The Singularity Institute of Human Intelligence. The trick here is we need to start listening. But more than that, I am calling for more ingenuity in talking about futurism. I think we need to go beyond the idea that the future will be like the present with more horsepower! We need to create learn the hazards (particularly) of a given technology before we unleash it on the world. We need to ask ourselves questions like "what will seed AI mean to us?" Not just in the sense that they might become our computer overlords (benevolent or not), but also in the sense of, say, what will a post-labor world look like? What happens when machine intelligences destroy all human labor value?

I am, of course, optimistic about these things. I think our computer overlords will be benevolent. Indeed, because I suspect that they'll be part of the information network we already possess, I suspect we're just going to merge with them. We'll think what they're doing it so spiffy that we'll want to do it, too, and we'll suss out a way to do it! I don't think it'll be the computer overlords caring for us like we were children, or controlling us like we were cattle, or destroying us like we were rabid dogs - I think they will be us.

I also think that we should - and this is certainly what organizations like the Singularity Institute of Human Intelligence is involved in - take steps to guide, thoughtfully and with some care, where we want our technology to go. We do not, after all, want to create a computer tyrant by accident! More than just trying to predict the future, I am calling on people to understand that we are also making the future. And if we want human beings to have a meaningful say in this future, we will have to make a future where they have a meaningful say. Which is, I think, something that we don't really want to address, but it is perhaps the biggest social problem facing the developed world: advances in travel, communication and automation are are showing more and more clearly that there is less and less meaningful work to be done. In the US, for instance, three in four people work in some service industry. It won't take a seed AI to replace most of those workers, too. (I suspect that most of them could be efficiently replaced right now, if we had a mind to do it - the problem would be an engineering problem, not a theoretical or technological one.) But rather than the future filled with hypercompetent people that one sees in, say, most science-fiction literature, what we are instead creating is a huge body of poorly trained servants. Not precisely a shiny future. But, like with global warming, this is happening because no one is bothering to seriously consider the consequences of technological development or try actively to guide human development into a world where we, in fact, all are the hypercompetent future people seen in sci-fi novels.

So, as it developed, this post is two-fold. The first is to call on futurists to think beyond the concept of the future being "the present by harder and faster", and in the second case for people to take futurism seriously - because we need to do it! Because we have not done it, we're on the verge of a huge labor problem, a huge energy problem and a huge environmental problem. We really need to start planning for the future now, and we need to be aware of the extent to which we actually get to decide what kind of future we will have.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bill O'Reilly - Rap Star!

From Illdoctrine, a hip-hop video blog, comes this splendid video that compares Bill O'Reilly to a gangster rapper because of his grandiose self-promotion, his vicious attacks of his peers, and generally getting paid for spreading hate and bigotry. It's good stuff!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Observations on Internet Publishing and Distribution - Radiohead, Trent Reznor, Madonna, etc.

There's been a fair bit of Internet buzz about how Radiohead and, apparently, Nine Inch Nails and Madonna are "dumping the record industry". Some have called it the "last nail in the coffin" of the record industry. I have a couple of points to make about that, as well as some comments about Internet distribution replacing traditional distribution channels.

First, all these bands that are getting this news have the record distributing business to thank for their traditional commercial success. They are all reasonably mainstream (mainstream for their genre?) acts that have reputations built on the many, many years that they recorded and were distributed under major labels. In many ways, their ability to do this is dependent upon the advertising and promotional work that they benefited from during the early years of their careers. So, the music industry as it exists made them. We wouldn't know that these people existed if not for the record industry. Their success away from labels is BECAUSE of the record labels. I think it's important to remember that.

(Generally, the only people who can successfully get away from traditional distribution systems are artists who have a following because of their success in the traditional distribution system. Not just musicians but artists in all media.)

Second, saying that the Internet will magically cure the problems of traditional distribution also ignores the realities of getting successfully distributed and promoted on the Internet. What it does is externalize all the labor of production, promotion, advertising and distribution. It's basically saying to the artist, "Well, in addition to mastering the extremely demanding skills of creating art, you have to not master a bunch of additional skill sets that have nothing whatsoever to do with artistic creation. Now, you've got to prepare files for download, create websites and master the arts of promotion and advertising - all without any real help" or it says, "You've got to have substantial capital investment to hire the people to create your website, promote you and advertise your work."

I mean, this is what I struggle with. I have two skillfully written, interesting novels, but to be successful outside of traditional media distribution channels requires mastering a lot of skills that have nothing whatsoever to do with writing. To be financially successful as a novelist would require convincing thousands of people to buy a book that I wrote. I mean, I have a number of stories and a screenplay up on my site. The feedback I've gotten from my writing is overwhelmingly positive - recently someone told me that my screenplay for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is one of his favorite pieces of literature. But my site statistics do not show me having anything like thousands of people downloading my stories - much less being willing to pay me for it. Even when I included a way to have people pay me for my material, in over two years, no one bothered to do so.

And far from being an apocryphal story - I mean, maybe it's my own fault, maybe my website sucks, maybe I don't do enough promotion or the wrong kind of promotion, whatever - it is typical for artists in all media. It requires the success that comes from being distributed to get to the point where you don't need their distribution in all but a tiny handful of cases. I mean, take Cory Doctorow who has managed to become a successful novelist under alternate systems of distribution. He has an amazing resume, with access to organizational skills and social networking far, far outside the reach of the average (or even quite talented) writer. (It isn't a particular secret that skillful artists often have poor organizational skills in many areas, I think.) Almost no one has the kind of organizational, social skills, contacts and education of someone like Cory Doctorow.

And that is . . . that's really the bar. You have to have skills, contacts and education similar to Cory Doctorow's to make it as a writer without support from the traditional distribution system. This is, I believe, similarly the case with other artists who have managed to make it outside the traditional distribution system - they have these amazing resumes, tremendous organizational skills, social skills and contacts that make it possible for them to succeed.

I don't think a world where, in order to succeed as an artist, you've got to have a skill set like Cory Doctorow's or Immortal Technique's is superior to the one we currently have. It is externalizing the production, distribution, promotional and advertising skills and it also means that almost no artist will "make it". The system that seems poised to replace the traditional distribution system is at least as effective in keeping out artists as the one it seeks to replace.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Back from camping!

Adrienne and I got back from Redwood National Park. We took pictures! But what was best about the park could not be photographed. In Fern Valley the were "fairy waterfalls". Fern Valley is a narrow ravine - calling it a valley is excessive, really - with sheer sides fifty feet high and the whole place is covered with ferns, all up and down the ravine. It was dim and quiet and fey. It was so dim that taking pictures was . . . problematic, and fairy waterfalls simply can't be photographed. At points in the ravine, tiny rivulets of water cascaded over the edge of the ravine so it came down in tiny droplets that glistened like diamonds in the wan light, and the wall behind was covered with tiny, bright green moss like tiny leaves where the droplets clustered. It was magical, and tiny, and beautiful. The ferns, too, were strikingly green against the black of the ravine walls, forming incredible patterns. None of those pictures came out, either, hehe. It was beautiful. We also visited the mouth of the Klamath River, and there are pictures of that, as well as some elk! I saw elk! I'd never seen elk before.

Indeed, the park had Elk Radio. All elk, all the time! No kidding! It was 1610 on the AM dial. There were signs for Elk Radio! Tho', in truth, it was a looping recording telling people that, y'know, elk are dangerous wild animals, and not to approach them. PLUS, fall is mating season, so unless you want to be gored by a rutting bull elk it's extra special important to stay away from them. But, still, Elk Radio!

We also have a new (for us) car, a 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. The trip was also an excuse to put the car through it's paces. It's a very nice car! It also gets very good gas mileage, even on hills and in town. It's a little weird to drive, though. It's a stick shift, which is fine, I drive stick shifts quite well, but because it has an electric motor assisting a lot of times where in another car I'd downshift to accelerate (like, to pass), you don't need to. Also, and this was fun about passing, after you pass and slow down, again, you can watch the power going back into the battery! Neat! Still, I'm really loving the Civic. It's a great little car and I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a good hybrid and finds the cost of a Prius just a wee bit too expensive.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Simon Peter is done and plans for the future

It's been a while! The big news is that I have finished the first draft of Simon Peter. Unsurprisingly, it ends shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. I had wanted to go on a while more establishing a power struggle between Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene, but in the end I decided that would lessen the narrative impact of Simon Peter's role in Jesus' execution - which is obviously the focal event of any book that includes the Passion, it being one of the central narratives in Western Civilization.

I even have an idea for a sequel - a book about Paul and the struggle between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians which is the focal point of Acts and, certainly, an event at least as culturally important as the story of Jesus, himself. Without the early decision to actively seek Roman converts, Christianity would have just been another sect of Judaism and probably destroyed in the events following the Bar Kochba Revolt. Hell, it's actually even more pivotal than the Jesus story. That had been around for a couple of hundred years. But the struggles of Paul against the Jewish Christian church has lots of points I could make, especially about how Paul of Tarsus was from the very place that Roman Mithraism was formed and how Christianity is really just a Judiazed Roman Mithraism (yes, incorporating elements of other Roman faiths, too, such as Magna Mater, not to mention Judaism itself, hehe). So, I think that has good sequel potential.

But I won't be starting it immediately. What I'll be spending the next year or two doing is . . . getting published. I have two completed novels. Not one. Two. They are both good books. I want to get published, so I'm going to have to work on doing that. It is . . . I am not good at this part. Self-promotion is something I have never excelled at for a variety of reasons, even when I can look at the work I've done and say, "This is really good material. As good as anything published in America today." And I can say that about Condotierri and Simon Peter. But, even knowing this, I have trouble advancing myself in that way. Indeed, it's easy for me to use writing as a way to avoid having to do what I need to do to get them published. Advice and assistance is both welcome and appreciated. ;)

I will be doing short writing projects. When I can look the characters from Simon Peter in the mouth, again, I'll be writing additional material about them, like I did with Immaculate Conception, about which I've gotten generally glowing feedback. However, before that, I have decided to master the art of writing comic book scripts! I like comic books. You should, too, hehe. American superhero comic books have incontestably produced the most enduring American cultural icons.

It also is fitting into my developing plan about getting published. Maybe it's wacky. But I realized that Simon Peter and Condotierri are two different kinds of novel in the minds of publishing firms. Simon Peter is historical fiction. Condotierri is science-fiction. I'll be sending material to two entirely different groups of people, rather than going to the same people with different material. With comic books, it would be another entirely different group of people.

But, that's my post. I should be posting more now that Simon Peter is written.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Papua New Guinea Cannibal Descendant Apologies Plus Yet More Religious Guilt

I am not pro-cannibalism by any stretch of the imagination, but this story in the BBC News really got me scratching my head. A village where murders, and cannibalism, happened literally over a hundred years ago are apologizing for the murder-cannibalisms. Thousands attend.

Then, from the article:

The head of the mission, English pastor George Brown, avenged the killings by taking part in an expedition that resulted in the deaths of a number of tribespeople and the torching of several villages.

But, then:

PNG's Governor-General Sir Paulias Matane praised the early missionaries for making the country Christian - and called for more people to follow its guiding principles.

So, the villagers killing the Christian missionaries, who were Western imperialists, is bad and you need to have a reconciliation ceremony a century later but the Christians who enacted reprisals to those murders, which killed an unknown number of people but is recorded as having destroyed whole villages, are to be praised for, ironically, bringing the Ten Commandments to the island. The same commandments those missions honored more in their breach than their observance.

And where are the Methodists to come forward and say, "Golly, uh, maybe . . . village destroying reprisals was wrong." Why aren't Christians taking any responsibility for the vast suffering their cultural imperialism has inflicted on the people they "converted"? I'm not just talking cultural damage, either, but stuff like murders and villages burned -- the actual material cost of the horrors of this missionary work, work that continues to this day? Where are the Christians coming up and saying that it was a terrible thing what their ancestors did, that the work was attended with huge violence, and it was vicious and arrogant to go into other people's societies and through fraud, force and intimidation change their societies -- often, at the same time, extracting both cheap labor from the people and resources from their land? I'm not going to hold my breath for that one.

Still, it caught my attention of the fundamental hypocrisy of Christianity. The people who were viciously colonized by Christians are apologizing because they violently resisted colonialization, they praise the people who invaded them, killed their people, destroyed their culture, but Christians are silent about what they did to the people they attacked, killed and whose cultures they destroyed.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Masamune Shirow, Hierarchy and Science-Fiction

Masamune Shirow, Cyberpunk and the Big Man

In many ways, Masamune Shirow, the Japanese manga artist who writes such titles as Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, is the finest living cyberpunk author. More than just about anyone, he envisions a world where the awesome organizational skills of computers are interleaved in real time with physical action. In all obstacles the characters face, they are addressing both a hyperspeed information battle between their electronic brains and highly organized physical action.

But there's something that has long bothered me about Shirow's futurism, and I just thought out what it was -- it is a trait that is shared by many cyberpunk authors and, more generally, many science-fiction authors. The problem is the problem with the hero.

In Shirow's books, the protagonist is almost always a person who is the apex decision maker in the multi-layered confrontations I was talking about above. The underlaying proposition is that computer technology will further centralize decision making processes in powerful authority figures, that we'll become increasingly hierarchical by advances of computer technology. Perhaps this is merely a decision that Shirow (and other science-fiction authors) make to highlight things narratively, but it I think the facts bear out that technological innovation, broadly speaking, decentralizes decision making processes -- even extremely technical ones.

What this reminded me of is the nature of technological innovation in the United States. After World War II, the government built several huge laboratories to develop military technologies. But these highly centralized facilities were inefficient at creating better scientific information -- they decentralized scientific development to universities.

One of the key things to keep in mind that decentralized does not mean disorganized. Science, broadly speaking, is a highly organized endeavor and the decentralization of science was made possible by increases in organization. You're reading this very article on one of the key technologies that allows decentralization without disorganization -- the Internet. The deepening penetration of information technology into all levels of society allowed people to operate both independently but in an organized fashion, more rationally distributing workloads across more and more people. The speed with which consensus forms is shocking when the pressure is on.

So, for instance, in the disaster of 911, the people who survived were not those that followed instructions but those that used various wireless technologies -- such as Blackberries -- to create their own escape strategies. So, what I'm talking about isn't merely on the level of speculation. In a real world hazardous environment, decentralized decision making strategies lead to a better physical survival rate than obeying a centralized authority.

But Shirow, and most other science-fiction authors, don't even try to address this. Rather than decision-making being a consensus effort of many different elements, decision making is always a tightly controlled endeavor done by a powerful authority figure.

Going hand-in-hand with this is the believe that the people "in charge" have better and more reliable information than we do. Even today, for those of us who are online, that's not actually the case in most things. At one time, yes, centralized authority figures had a better overall picture of things than most people. In 14th century France, the king had ministers who were responsible for being knowledgeable about things of national importance, who learned what they knew, generally, through letter writing campaigns with various aristocrats. It took a tremendous amount of energy to get even general information to the King of France, and impossible to get everything the King of France knew to all of his subjects. Now, it is easy for a person to say something and have it be available to millions . . . to anyone that wants to get it. And, increasingly, we have comprehensive indices of information, allowing a person to more and more easily find relevant and concise information about whatever questions they want to ask. Additionally, of course, everyone can just talk to everyone else, now. It's trivially easy to strike up conversations with people all over the world, completely circumventing any hierarchical information networks entirely. I want to know what the situation on the ground in Baghdad is, I can write a Baghdadi, read their blogs and community news services. And that information will be at least as relevant for an understanding of the news as anything I read in The New York Times (indeed, considering how politically compromised newspapers are, I'd consider a blog of a Baghdadi to be considerably more relevant than the NYT or any other traditional newspaper). Lateral connections produce at least as good of information as hierarchical information providers. (I would even go so far as to say that, on whole, they produce much better information because they lack the institutional agendas of big news organizations.)

Indeed, I question the validity of all secret information because it passes through so few hands. The very value of secret information is, theoretically, that no one knows you have it -- but there's a flip side to that. You can't really check it out too well, either, because to do so reveals what you're looking for. So who corrects the data? Who knows! We don't even know the criteria for checking it. But when that same information is make public, everyone can check it, it can be debated, discussed, analyzed, proven or disproven. Indeed, this is the traditional model of scientific progress, which has been wonderfully successful -- by putting information out in public, it improves because people can either refute or support it. Secrets? You can't do that.

So, given that horizontal, lateral information connections are at least as valid as hierarchical information channels, the untrustworthiness of secrets, and the ability of decentralized by highly organized units to create meaningful consensus more swiftly than a top-down hierarchical command structure, the whole premise of Shirow's work, to my eyes, teeters. Perhaps it is merely the legacy of traditional narrative structure, where a key protagonist does everything. But I think the evidence is overwhelming that technology is decentralizing information and decision making processes, not embedding them in a hierarchy.

This is a common trend in science-fiction, though. How many science-fiction works have literal monarchies as the preferred government of the future? I understand that most people view their own culture as being the pinnacle of human achievement and never even try to imagine a superior form of government, but saying that in the future that monarchy will a viable form of government is akin to saying that in the future people will be using wood burning spaceships! Wood! The energy of the future!

And even when they don't have that sort of absurdity, the story almost always takes place around some tight hierarchical organization. So, even in the original Star Trek the socialism of the setting was undercut by the overt militarism of Starfleet. It's like . . . if you don't belong to some sort of top-down hierarchical organization, science-fiction writers (as a whole) aren't interested in writing about the characters or situation. Which doesn't seem to be the actual trend. The actual trend is for less hierarchy.

Still, that is my science-fiction observation for the day.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pacifist Bashing and Violent Political Fantasies

One of the more interesting things that happens from time to time, is when someone . . . picks on pacifists. In this case, it's fantasy writer Steven Brust who for some reason bashes pacifists.

Me, I don't get attacking pacifists. Mind you, I'm not a pacifist (because I believe in immediate self-defense), but, man, I really, really want to live in a world where pacifism works. I think that pacifism should be part of the goal of any sane political and social order, because of the obviousness with which war and murder are horrific. I think it's a great shame that I can't be a pacifist and I think pacifists are a shining example of much of what is best with humanity. If they ere, they ere on the side of love and peace . . . and I do not think they ere. I think they are simply before their time, but I think their presence helps to create the time that will suit them.

Almost all people who attack pacifism use some of the same arguments. One of them is that, sometimes, you need to use a little violence to stop a greater violence. Inevitably, what is brought up is World War II. Hitler would not have been stopped with non-violent confrontation. The . . . nuttier amongst them will bring up the sorts of things Brust does. Allow me to quote:

Had the social democrats used the violence of the state that was put into their hands in 1918, Hitler could not have come to power. Had the Stalinists not withheld arms from the Spanish working class in Madrid, Franco would have fallen early and the Spanish Civil War would not have dragged on.

The "if someone had used violence against Hitler, or the fascists, early on then the bad person couldn't have come to power and the world would have been a better place". This reasoning I've always found to be intensely childish, but common. It is a slight variation of the "if we'd stopped Hitler in Munich" argument, but it requires a hell of a crystal ball.

Who is to say that if the social democrats used violence in 1918 that they wouldn't have killed even more people than Hitler. I could pretty easily invent scenarios where this would occur. The social democrats, reacting to the anti-German sentiments of England and France, turn to Stalinist Russia to find a political ally. Disgusted with their mistreatment due to the Treaty of Versailles, a German-Russian military alliance forms that throws the world into an even more murderous war -- indeed, probably possessing the same anti-semitic elements of Nazism as Hitler didn't invent German anti-semitism and Stalin was, himself, quite the sponsor of Jewish genocide. Why not that instead of "and they lived happily ever after"? I know that a lot of historians feel that World War II happened, in part, because of unresolved issues of World War I and it was part of the time, unfortunately, to ethnically cleanse populations. A military intervention in German would not have addressed those issues, because they were embedded in the international culture of the time. Or, perhaps, the government of the social democrats would have been as unstable as the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Party would have come into power, anyway.

More directly, often these little violent insurrections don't turn out as planned. I'm almost 100% if Lenin hadn't started the communist revolution in Russia, and the democracy it supplanted turned out to be tyrannical that Brust would be saying amongst his examples, "If Lenin had taken the chance offered to him . . ." It was impossible to tell at the beginning of the Russian revolution that Stalin would come out on top. Lenin was cut from an entirely different cloth than Stalin, after all. Indeed, the same is true of the Weimar Republic -- there was no way to tell that it would, eventually, produce Hitler. But the assumption that is made is if, y'know, the social democrats had gained power in Germany then everything would have been peachy keen. We don't know that. The history of various revolutions suggests that a large part of the time, things are worse after the revolution.

And it's just that the history of "liberal" military interventions is so . . . bad. They almost never go well, whether it be in the Philipines, Vietnam, Iraq . . . Haiti is a virtual study in the malevolence of supposedly humanitarian interventions. Eventually, it becomes clear that these violent interventions don't help the damn situation. They are the problem, not the solution! But the improbabilities of successful liberal military intervention actually producing peace, and the frequency with which it creates untold horrors, is never touched on by the people who think that mass murder helps a situation.

But, y'know, to justify military intervention it's impossible for someone not to bring up Hitler. They justify their love of violence by saying, "We could have stopped Hitler!" But they never say, "But what would have happened? How do we know that what happened wouldn't have been just as bad, or worse?" The answer is, of course, we don't.

(Indeed, I feel the argument depends on the demonization of Hitler. Hitler was a monster, obviously, but he has been built up into being a monster so bad that we can't imagine a world where there would be a worse monster or more horrible situation. This ignores that, in the 20th century, Hitler was the third biggest mass murderer, not the first. The one and two slots belong, respectively, to Stalin and Mao. And there are other monstrosities that are always left out -- such as the roughly two million Southeast Asians killed during the Vietnam War . . . but I never hear people saying that, you know, if the Republicans had taken the opportunity after the death of JFK, then millions in Southeast Asia would have been saved. But the idea is that Hitler was so bad that anything would have been better, but that's not true, the truth is that we don't know what would have happened and that if a person tries it's pretty easy to imagine more horrific scenarios, such as a war being deferred until Germany had nuclear weaponry.)

For me, well, it seems to me that the real way we should have stopped Hitler is instead of subjecting Germany to a humiliating treaty that stripped them of dignity and all their wealth, we could have tried rebuilding the German economy and included Germany fully in the international community, allowing them to keep their dignity. (One of the things that people forget is the extent to which Germany was ravished by the Treaty of Versailles. During the 20s and 30s, Berlin was an international sex tourism destination, for instance. Fathers were pimping their wives and daughters in the streets! It's the sort of thing that engenders bitterness.) Which is my last argument about the stupidity of saying that Hitler could have been prevented to coming to power through violence. It never addresses the reasons why Hitler was popular in the first damn place! That Hitler's rise to power was because of social conditions that could be predicted and ameliorated non-violently. (Indeed, many people were opposed to the Treaty of Versailles on the grounds that it would merely lay the foundations for a new war.)

Or, people like Brust act as if there was no viable peaceful solution in the years working up to WWII that could have avoided the war, and that any violent option would have avoided the war. Which is in addition to being untestable, barbaric. It is vile to think that violence would have honestly improved the situation and it is vile to not even consider non-violent options as being legitimate. And they never put as much effort into trying to imagine peaceful solutions as violent ones.

But, y'know, pacifists are the problem. *grits my teeth*

Monday, August 6, 2007

Religion and Funerals

It occurred to me the other day how . . . opportunistically religions use funerals. How it's part -- a very important part -- of the scam that religion is. Think about it. Right when a group of people are particularly emotionally vulnerable a priest comes forward and promotes their faith. They cast the life of a human -- frequently a person they don't know at all, I should further point out, save perhaps in the limited context of religious observances which is a very distant and formal association, really -- in purely religious terms. The value of the person's life, and death, rests in the "next world". Isn't that really wicked ghoulish?

Now, obviously, religious people are going to say that, even beyond the existence or non-existence of god or heaven or whatever, religion at a funeral with its pablum about better worlds and eternal life is comforting. First, this is a false dilemma. The argument is that the comfort that religion provides can't be provided, and better, without religion. The choice isn't between no comfort and religion.

Second, it assumes religion is actually comforting. I, myself, do not find it to be comforting, not in the lease. The pablum of a priest and a bunch of sacred words ignores that, well, in virtually all religions that paradise is far from assured. Even as we all tell each other that so-and-so is in heaven, religiously speaking, we are also fearing that they're in hell. After all, we don't know. But I know that, for my own part, even when I was Christian that funerals always were difficult because the same grief that makes us grasp for concepts of non-physical immortality also make us consider the alternative. So, the comfort of religion is, itself, pretty thin -- offering, as it does, both heaven and hell. That your loved one might be roasting in the fires of hell isn't precisely comforting.

Third, there's the predatory element. If I came to a funeral and started preaching politics, saying that so-and-so might have lived if we had public health insurance, most people would think I was really tacky, using that moment to preach politics. But isn't that precisely what happens? Churches are very human institutions. By their presence at a funeral, they're doing what they can to insure the continuation of both their church and religion, generally, by stressing that religion is what's really important when someone dies. To my eyes, this is viciously opportunistic, a kind of sick promotion. And that stuff about grief and comfort is just the mask that religion uses to tart up it's intrusion into people's private grief.