Friday, 18 October 2019

What? No hoover on the Millennium Falcon?

I was going to blog about how distracting and off-putting in general references in fantasy to things rooted in the real world are, and specifically a reference to 'French sleeves' in a recent (to me, that is - I think it may have been season 3) episode of Game of Thrones.  However, I've decided against it as a) it's already out there, b) apparently it's a mishearing - like hell, it is!, and c) I'm six years behind the curve.  As ever.

So, instead, I'll stick to news hot off the press that my story 'The Root Canals of Mars' has gone live on Harbinger Press website.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Regular readers will be aware that few of these posts relate to my so-called writing career, for the simple reason that I tend to only blog narcissistically when I have something to announce, such as the publication of a new piece.  Which leads to a distinct paucity of postings of that nature.

I thought I'd make the punchline clear to save you the bother.

If you're in the short genre fiction game you have to be resilient.  It's a school of hard knocks - or, rather, frequent, short, bland rejection emails.  I'll cover the numbers in my end of year report, but I'm currently running at 4 acceptances for 154 submissions.  And that's off the back of a year when I tried to average a submission a day, so there was a surge of pitches from me in 2018 that were only ever due to fall back to earth, regardless of their fate, in 2019.

Most of the time I'm sanguine about the knock-backs, and philosophical about the scattering of successes - even they don't always bear fruit.  (God knows what's happened to James Gunn's Ad Astra.  It was slated for March, then August.  It's now October, and the home page is just a banner and a blank screen.  I've been paid for my story, which went through innumerable rewrites, that's due to appear there, but that's not the point.)

But, I'll be honest: I'm having a difficult October.  Seven rejections already (it's only the 2nd as I type), plus another than can be assumed as rejected according to the guidelines in a day or so.  AnalogAsimov's, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Escape Pod; all apart form Analog and DSF within a day or so.  Throw in rejections from Clarkesworld and Fantasy & Science Fiction in the last few hours of September and you have some macabre professional-rate royal flush.

I'd make the classic error of getting my hopes up.  I'd just had my second consecutive silver honorable from Writers of the Future: a 14,300 word tale of the madness that can be caused by innocently taking a cutting of an unfamiliar plant; a triptych set in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries.  I'd written it to win Writers of the Future, and I know that I should take heart in being in the top 25 out of thousands, but all I sense is missing that rope that coulda pulled me up by my fingertips and falling back into the abyss.

I completely hold my hand up to the fact that that length of story is a tricky sell.  The Grinder only lists nine markets for sci-fi that pay over $0.03 per word at that length, some of which don't fit the story.  A lot of investment for very few tickets in the lottery.  And suddenly three are already used up - Asimov's and Clarkesworld both passed in a day.  It clearly didn't even pique their interest. 

It's enough to make you wonder why you bother: statistically, the chance of my laughing about this posting in a year with Letterman, Corden or Noah is remote.  But, to give up is to guarantee failure.

To quote Beckett, "No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better."


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Sunday, 22 September 2019

Plate me up something vernacular

I've recently returned from a most excellent holiday piloting a narrowboat at sub-walking speeds up and down a small sliver of Yorkshire, before continuing North by road as far as Newcastle.  About as far from sci-fi as it's possible to get.

One small disappointment was that this did not constitute the first step in my proposed 'offal tour of the North'.  It's long been my plan to sample traditional bovine or porcine innards served up by plain women with ham hock arms and flat vowels in their proper place - partly as a gastronomic mission, but mainly as a way of scaring the kids.

I'm sure just a few years ago you could sample the tripe at market stalls (maybe I was hallucinating myself into an LS Lowry painting?) but, a stottie cake in Newcastle apart, I discovered the cuisine was almost exactly the same as down south.  I did try hard at a baker's stall in Halifax, asking what she had that I wouldn't find outside Yorkshire, but she just looked at me as though I'd asked her to check the structural calcs on the first elements of the International Space Station replacement before it gets blasted up there.  I immediately changed my order to a Danish, the irony striking home a moment later, like the pain after you've hit your thumb with a hammer.

I find it sad.  We're losing a granularity that made for a rich variety, a tapestry of different accents, foodstuffs, architectures, dress styles, proverbs, ways of doing business.  Wind the clock back five hundred years and every English town, every Welsh valley, every Scottish glen would have had something that set it apart, even if it was just a preference for pie crust or a way of calling your neighbour an idiot.

But now, the heterogeneous has become homogeneous, and I'm not even sure how well differentiated the UK is from the USA or many other English-speaking (imposed homogeneity again!) parts of the planet.  Competition gives winners scale and scale gives winners dominance and then we all find ourselves wearing Nike on our feet and eating Big Macs because there's no other choice.

But back up a bit there!  There's a flaw in this argument.  

Five hundred years ago you wouldn't have found yourself casually travelling from one corner of the country to the other.  You probably wouldn't have made it very far out of your English town or Welsh valley or Scottish glen.  Unless you went to war, you would have spent your life around the same accents, foodstuffs, architectures, dress styles and proverbs.  You probably wouldn't have realised that there was any other way of doing business.  You would have replaced your clogs with identical clogs from the one clog maker within walking distance, and bought your offal and bread from the never-changing village monopolies.

What we have is a problem of scale.  I'm not seeing any less vernacular than I would have seen centuries ago; I'm just seeing less differentiation spread over a vastly larger area.

We'll, that's okay, isn't it?

Unfortunately not, methinks, because life's rich tapestry is woven on a frame that's limited by the size of the planet.  There's only so much room (about 500 million square kilometres, since you ask) to display all the colours of the rainbow of human culture.  And we're turning a life-affirming mosaic into grubby dentist's waiting room wall of pastel ordinariness - pink or pale green, with a few smutty bon mots biro-ed on to break up the monotony.

Until we find ourselves in a sci-fi future where we flit from planet to planet, from alien culture to alien culture (I'll lay my cards on the table: ain't never gonna happen), which will provide a bigger loom onto which to weave our myriad differences, we're going to have to accept that we're turning Earth greige.  We've explored every corner of the world; there's nothing new to see.  And pretty soon we'll have put a McDonald's and a Starbucks there too.

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Tuesday, 3 September 2019

A funny thing happened on the way to the Kremlin

God bless America, and all the things that it's given us.  Like the computer, and the world wide web.  Although, turns out, that has a lot more to do with Tommy Flowers, Alan Turing and Sir Tim Berners Lee.  Whoops.

Putting that aside, one of the ways that all this joined up communication has changed our lives is through blogs just like this one.  Not that I couldn't just sound off previously; that was what that stool in the corner of the pub that the regulars would avoid was for.  Or, I suppose, I could pin my opinions to a wall, and come back a few days later to to see how abusive the graffiti was.

But what the tree wouldn't be able to give me was chapter and verse on who was reading my missive, where and when.  Which is what a site like blogger, and many more, does.

A few weeks ago I was heartened to see a spike in my readership (yes, gentle reader, you are not alone.  I wouldn't book a big venue for a get together, but you are not alone).  But there was something odd about it.

Being a blog in the English language, you wouldn't be surprised to find out that the majority of my readers are in the US of A, with about half as many again on my side of the pond in Great Britain.  After that it's a mish-mash of nations, although Ukraine seems disproportionately high up the rankings (greetings Kyiv!).  But all of my new readers - or, possibly, a single reader making a lot of hits - appeared to come from Russia.

Now, why should that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up?  Russia has a great history of science fiction, even if I found Tarkovsky unmitigated arse.  Why shouldn't this be some Soviet sci-fi maven having stumbled across a recent story or my novel 2084 and wanting to know more?

Because Russia, in the eyes of the West, is associated with hacking, cybercrime and data theft.  That's why.

Now, that may all be a product of media-led groupthink, but it did lead me to wonder just how exposed I am.  I am, quite deliberately, a light user of social media.  I don't tweet or facebook (is that a verb? with or without a capital?) or pin, regardless of interest.  It's been pointed out to me, despite denials, that I have a YouTube channel, not that much gets channelled.  But I do have this blog.

And from this blog you can locate my email address, and it wouldn't take a lot of work to find my company, which would give you my home address and date of birth.  The bio from my earliest stories gives my place of birth, although I'd lied to create more interest and said I was from Zanzibar or Sierra Leone or somesuch, so feel free to use that at your leisure to hack into my life.  I like to think that's where the trail goes cold: there's nothing on this blog to suggest any passwords, not pet's names or favourite animals or teams supported or roads grown up on, but can I be sure I haven't left a nugget on my digital trail at some point?

A simple record of who's been looking at me gave me cause to worry, and I have a far smaller digital footprint than many, including my teenage children.  Dwell on that a moment.  And as we move to a cashless society am I the only one who can see some time in the future when we all wake up one morning to find our accounts wiped?  Am I the only one who wonders whether the criminals already have the means out there to empty our digital wallets and they're just waiting until some scale is reached?

Just think of what that would mean (although I think Mr Robot already has).  If you were robbed, that's one thing, but what if everybody were robbed?  What if money were simply removed from the equation?  Nobody had anything.  And that includes the banks and businesses.  We'd have to find another way.  Bartering or battering?  Social equality imposed deus ex machina, or anarchy?  I don't know.

But what I do know is that you don't see the edge of the cliff until it's too late.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Mark Zuckerberg, you total cnut

The BBC's popular science strand, Horizon, recently covered Facebook and its struggles with the monster that they have created, following "teams across the globe as they attempt to tackle a string of issues from hate speech to scams".

It was an impressive piece, with the behemoth coming across as human, caring and genuinely wringing its hands over the unintended consequences of all the good that it has brought to the world.  And now slap yourself good and proper with something twentieth century and physical, like an encyclopedia or a shovel, to remind yourself that you're seeing exactly what the avaricious bastards want you to see.

That said, I have sympathy for what they're having to do, what they've been forced into doing.  However, I'm not sure as the whole approach isn't wrongheaded.  

Although I have no recollection of it, at some point in my life I signed up to Quora.  It's a brilliant rabbit-hole to get lost down, particularly because my feed seems to consist of hilariously patronising nuggets such as "Are the doctors in the United Kingdom as skilled compared to doctors in the United States?", "Why doesn't the British monarchy become a democracy like America?" and "How do people travel around England?"  

It also brilliantly illustrates the slippery slope that ranges from cultural differences, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions, often based on rumour, myth or newsworthy outliers being taken as representative (I mean, not all Americans can be that fat and stupid, can they?), through cultural gaucheness, linguistic faux pas - even when nations share a common language - to full on offence.  And this is just from the people minded to ask out loud.

And now that intention doesn't seem to come into it, you can no longer use what the speaker intended in the definition; it can still be hate speech even if the only thing you hate is hate itself.  It also puts a great deal of British comedy in a difficult position, particularly with the majority of the planet too dumb to get it (for a rather inelegant example, see previous clause).

If the game is to find the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, then it's a game with no winner because there is no single objective line.  I have my line and you have yours.  What's acceptable, even trivial, for me may be deeply offensive to you.  My Quora examples compare two very similar cultures.  Try the democratic west versus the fundamentalist Islamic world.  There are areas with very little overlap; necessary rights here are basic transgressions there.

The only way to play the game is to pretend that we (or you, from whatever cultural or religious point of view you're reading this from) have a monopoly on what's right and what's wrong.  That assumes objective ethical truths and deplores cultural relativism.  But even that fundamental basis of the whole exercise will be, by definition, offensive to those who don't sign up to that philosophical point of view.  What to do?

And, anyway, who's the 'we' here?  I posed it in the trappings of a generic western, democratic, market economy-leaning society.  As if the west can have a common set of standards that those in the west, at least, are happy with.  But I've just said that no two individuals can share the same lines in the sand as to what is offensive or not.  And, I'm not sure as mine don't shift according to context - mood, even.  So, it would have to be up to government, 'society', whatever higher power, to set the standards.  Which is what is happening.  Hello groupthink.  Welcome back, Stasi.  Your Orwellian hell is ready and waiting.  God help you if you think at all differently.  And doesn't progress rely on people thinking differently, thinking the unthinkable?

Like King Cnut holding back the waves, I think Facebook is being asked to attempt the impossible.

Here's a minority view - just thinking it probably means that I've crossed the line already - but perhaps the real issue is our ability to hide behind anonymous usernames and cartoon avatars.  If you can't see me and I can't see you then I can say what I really think.  That's freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, nothing apart from the fact that we seem to be reduced to a primal desire to scream from the trees, display our genitals, throw shit.  Perhaps it's human society's dependence on relationships that keeps things offline in check, a dependence that social media does away with.  What if our posts, our comments, our views had our real names, our actual faces, our telephone numbers attached?  Our addresses?  What if we could see exactly which bridge the trolls live under?

Polite thoughts and comments only, please, with your real names.  

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(I was contemplating entitling this post 'Mark Zuckerberg, you total cunt' on the grounds that, whilst studying the Vikings at the age of six or seven, I unthinkingly wrote reams and reams on 'King Cunt'.  Years later, I found my lower school exercise books, my feelings a salad of of disbelief, incomprehension... and hilarity.  However, I thought the tale may prove difficult to bring across as a defence against defamation on the stand of some Californian court...)

Monday, 22 July 2019

I am second generation - and you’re not even first

A bold claim, but I would wager, in the majority of cases, an accurate one.

I refer, of course, to doorbells.  Wireless, internet enabled, internet-of-things doorbells.  Not those simple press-a-button, hit-a-bell arrangements.  Or a Neanderthal, one-moving-part door knocker. 

Oh no, a proper lights-up-your-smartphone twenty-first century visitor-alerter.  Space age, if the space age wasn’t all gas guzzlers with phallic fins and gills, buzzcuts and pork pie hats, church burnings and lynchings.

Buy cheap, buy twice, as the saying goes.  Which is exactly what I did, hence the need to buy my second whizzy doorbell.  The first was a £70 or so Amazon purchase.  The instructions appeared to have been translated via Martian and needed to be pondered over like deep poetry to extract meaning.  It worked well initially, even if speaking to visitors was somewhat fiddly – by the time you’d worked out what to press and whether to keep it pressed when talking or listening (still can’t remember) they’d invariably have gone, leaving you with a summons to the sorting office.  I did manage a conversation whilst wandering around a harbour with a person looking to buy the car parked outside my house.  Which wasn’t my car.  I was happy to negotiate, nonetheless.

But it drained our batteries, and at some point the ability to converse fell off; when it rang we’d simply go to the front door rather than ‘answer’ it on our phones.  When we were out we rarely had the app on.  It had evolved back into a simple press-and-it-rings doorbell.  And then, after our teenaged IT department decided to unilaterally reset our router (or do I mean hub? how are they different? or are they the same thing?) it stopped working altogether.

I did a lot of research into a replacement.  There are a few more providers out there than previously.  My doorbell, which appeared in almost identical guise under a number of different names, is no longer on the market.  Nest and Ring dominate, as they did before, but I didn’t like the need to subscribe to services to get full functionality out to them last time and nothing had changed on that front as far as I was concerned.  The one genuinely new bell or whistle out there seemed to be facial recognition software.

Let’s just pause and unpack that for a moment.  Facial recognition software.  Your doorbell’s pressed and your smartphone rings and shows you the view from a camera at your doorstep.  And at the same time, it uses software to measure distances between eyes, mouth, nose, whatever, to tell you who’s at the door.  Even though you’re looking at the image that it’s seeing as well.  Even though you’ve evolved over aeons to be able to recognise faces.  It’s something the average human is stunningly good at.

I don’t think it tells you who it is if you don’t know them; it’s not plugged into Langley or the Pentagon or anything.  That could be genuinely useful.   Neither does it pop the locks when it recognises your phizog, though that would be a small step away.  As would be getting cleared out by that twin that you fell out with and no longer talk to.

My understanding is that it uses your previous visitors, who you have to tag or identify somehow, presumably, to tell you who’s here, now.  Even though we can tell just by looking.  It’s like a dog standing on its hind legs.  Why do we need it?

I've come to a number of alternative conclusions.  One is that it's not about Langley telling you who's at the door, but you telling Langley.  Facial recognition is the facet of the informational revolution that people are only whispering about.  You've heard of Facebook, but have you heard of DeepFace?  The Chinese government plans to be able to identify “anyone, anytime, anywhere in China within three seconds”.  Think about it, your own private property is where they can't scan your face.  Unless you do it for them.

But, perhaps, even more fundamentally for the species there’s a working assumption that we’re all going to give up recognising faces.  Yes, it’s a skill that we’re so adept at that we’ve virtually forgotten how great we are at it.  But, hey, there’s an app for that, so free up some bandwidth and hand over the responsibility for facial recognition to Apple, Google, Huawei or whoever.  I know that I’ve written on the theme of outsourcing mental abilities if not common sense to the machines in our hands, on our laps, on our desks before.  But this is plain silly.  We’ve arrived at a genuine, full–on reductio ad absurdum.

I’m willing to concede that the view from the top of a slippery slope is likely to be magnificent.  And the journey may be initially pleasant before the speed builds up and you see yourself hurtling towards the edge of the abyss.  Hold on tight, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

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Tuesday, 9 July 2019

It's the end of the world as I'm genetically incapable of knowing, and I feel fine

Two things happened in the last few weeks that even the most tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist will find hard to link.

Elon Musk caused an alien invasion panic after launching 60 mini satellites to give us better access to porn.  Sorry, I mean the internet.  And I finished reading Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Kahneman's book is not new, and elements have been well covered elsewhere; various pop science documentaries spring to mind.  But, even so, you really should read it if you haven't already.  It covers a great deal of ground in breadth and depth, and shouldn't be mistaken for a Malcolm Gladwell-style thinking person's beach read.  It's denser than that, and a modicum drier as a result.  Which makes it sound overbaked Dundee cake.  Without marzipan and icing.  Or a plastic reindeer on top.

But it isn't like that at all.  Think more of a quality bakewell, or a cheesecake, but not one of those foamy ones.  A real cheesecake, with some density to it.  Raspberries.  Maybe clotted cream on the side.

I may have wandered off topic.  Sorry.

One of Kahneman's opening plays is the idea of your brain having a System 1 and a System 2.  These aren't separate parallel processing units, like the petrol and electric motors in a hybrid car; this is your brain employing two separate strategies simultaneously on the same wetware.

(His book also covers loss aversion, which tallies with what I was stumbling towards in my proposal for an anti-bezzle, but enough of that).

Don't think these are options at your disposal; they're not.  You can't help triggering System 1, it's innate; whereas System 2 is the 'If you think about it' bit of your brain.  And you need both.  System 1 is constantly seeing a tiger in the shadows, because one day there will be one, and only by seeing the tiger all the time do you get to live to tell the tale.  System 2 plays chess, but it's System 1 that jumps when a spider drops from the ceiling and lands on the board.

It's System 1 that people are employing when they see aliens in the, admittedly alien, sight of SpaceX's 60 Starlink satellite's entering orbit.  (Except in the case of those with the tin foil hats, who verify it to themselves through complex conspiracies involving the lizard people who really rule us, who have also employed System 2 in their thinking.  I'm not going to take the piss too much; may turn out that they've been right all along). 

My point is this.  The idea of alien invasion is relatively new, at least in evolutionary time.  We're well past the point of seeing tigers in the shadows.  We've tamed the world.  System 1 should have become redundant, the information-processing equivalent of the appendix.  But, no: we're simply applying System 1 to new paradigms.  It's hardwired in.  

We're bright enough to design the world we want, but not to spot the unintended consequences.  We're bright enough to invent plastics and the internal combustion engine and derivatives, but not to map out the rabbit holes down which they could take us before it's too late and we're falling down them.

This is one of the ignored aspects of Mankind's re-engineering of the world, that threats are no longer predominantly blink-and-you-miss-it.  Our influence is long term and strategic.  And, with it, the risks, personal and species-wide, move from here-and-now, claws-out and screaming, to silent, creeping and glacial in pace.  Yes, there are still in-the-moment threats against which System 1 protects us.  They still get us as individuals.  But it'll be the biggies that we need System 2 to combat that'll get us as a species in the end.

The greatest threat to humanity (let's stop saying 'to the planet'; the planet will recover) is global warming and the various flavours of eco-disaster that'll come with it.  That's not news, but it was never newsworthy, because it's System 1 that decrees newsworthyness.  It's not a spider dropping from the ceiling or a tiger in the shadows - or, it's modern equivalent, aliens in the sky.  We don't jump.  And, because we don't jump, we think the biggest threat to humanity is the Chinese, or the Americans, or Islam, or terrorism, or the stock market crashing.

And because it doesn't make us jump, we won't do anything until Attenborough tells us that the bees have all gone.  And, even then, what we'll consider first is the lack of bloody honey for breakfast.

Most days I think this is everybody's fault.  But, today, with Kahneman's ideas front and centre in my mind, I'm inclined to think the whole thing is inevitable.  We've simply evolved to a point at which our physiology cannot keep up.  We're trying to run Grand Theft Auto 6 on an Apollo Guidance Computer, blindsided to the fact that we're sub-optimal by all the smart things we can do (like land on the Moon in the case of the AGC, or, for us, invent plastics and the internal combustion engine and derivatives).  We don't know the level we're failing to operate at, because if we could think in those terms we wouldn't be failing.

This may be the end point of evolution.  We've hit our limit.  And it's our operating system that makes it a self-limiting point.  What protected us from tigers in the shadows will bring our ultimate destruction, because we're watching the skies for aliens instead of recognising the scale of the real threat.

Time to give the insects a chance, methinks.  In the meantime, could I suggest a book to read?


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