Category Archives: Jaundiced Futurism

PK’s jaundiced futurism: Am I crazy Or Is It The Rest Of The Freaking World?

This io9 article  got an instant two letter answer from me, in a loud enough voice to disturb the librarian. I wasn’t actually in the library at the time, but she climbed the 1 in 3 hill to my house half a mile away just the say, “shhhhhhh”.

The answer was of course…

NO!!!!!!

A thousand bloody times no.

But that makes for a very short blog post so let me explain my gut reaction.

First, at the risk of upsetting Godwin’s law, ever heard of eugenics and the Nazis. Yeah, look them up, they took turn of the last century science and used it in a viciously nasty way. Do you really want to go down that route again? Do you think that if we start eliminating certain genes from the gene pool (via designer babies, abortion, or god knows what…post partum gene therapy maybe?) and make the culling (because that is what it is) a legal requirement that it will end there?

You give governments that sort of power at your peril. They should not even be allowed to look at your genetic code…ever. Not with your consent or without. DNA evidence at a crime scene (which is not the same as fingerprints. Fingerprints merely identify someone. DNA is the code used to build someone’s entire physical form—a slight difference there) does not mean the government should be able to go digging around in that code to find out stuff about the criminal, or at least it shouldn’t (they use the lovely term ‘genetic profiling’ for using the DNA to build a picture of the criminal—here’s a hint, they decide to make Jaywalking a criminal offence that requires a genetic swab being taken and bingo: you is being profiled, bruv) but they do.

It should not be legal to do this. We know that they will do it anyway, they’re governments, they don’t give a damn about your privacy or your rights, but they should have to do it under the counter not out in plain sight and if they get busted you should be able to sue them for the—frankly—disgusting invasion of privacy.

Why? Because they’re governments. What other reason do you need? Pick up a history book, read it, any period you like. See what governments will do if given the chance.

Don’t give them the chance.

Ever.

Okay, that’s one reason why I disturbed the librarian. Now onto the more philosophical reason.

Posit: we don’t bloody understand evolution fully and you buggers want to start playing around with the genetic code of the human race. What are you? Freaking crazy? (Hmmm…maybe philosophical was a bit of a stretch).

We have no idea what the genes that seem to point to a tendency towards psychopathic disorders are for, other than they seem to point to a tendency towards psychopathic disorders. So we go all snippy snippy on them and maybe we end up with an outcome we didn’t expect and that we can’t put right without genetically altering the entire human race. I’m not sure that is a particularly smart thing to do. It’s kinda like deliberately pumping tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere because you’d quite like to buy beachfront property in Alaska.

There is a law called “The Law of Unintended Consequences” because we live in a chaotic world. Start messing about with what makes us human (that’ll be the genes, and the expression of those genes, and the proteins that those genes produce, and the way those proteins fold, and methylation which leads on to epigenetics—which suggests that what your ancestors did in life affects how your genes are expressed. Grandmama lived through a famine, you have a propensity to put on weight. A good starting point for why we shouldn’t be futzing around with the human genome. And there are a whole host of other factors that I didn’t mention) and we don’t know where it will end up.

Start messing around with the human brain and there’s no way of knowing (at all) where we will end up. The human brain is the most complex organ in the world. We’re not really sure how it works. We’re not sure if the brain/mind duality exists or if the mind arises out of the brain through understandable process, we don’t even know, or are even close to understanding, how consciousness works. Evidence of this is shown by scientific papers using being awake as a synonym for consciousness, which technically in a writing sense it is, but it is not a synonym for mind.

I’m not against genetic medicine, but I think we should draw a line at germline medicine until we have more idea of how the germline actually works (and yes, eliminating psychopaths from the population will most definitely affect the germline).

It is not: plug this into there and that happens. It is: change this one thing in an individual and then let him/her loose to mix with all these other six billion individuals and then let their children mix with their children, and then let those children… It’s turtles all the way down and all of them can snap your bollocks off.

So, in conclusion, any chance of not screwing around with things you don’t understand just because you think you are doing it for the greater good?

Any chance at all?

No?

Didn’t think so.

But there will be soma, right?

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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PK’s Jaundiced futurism: A Cloudy Culture

I intended to do a post on the ‘rule of three’ which is a rhetorical device, but then  I saw this.

And I changed my mind.

The reason that media streaming companies are bullish about cloud computing, despite the outage, is really very simple. It allows them to maintain control.

There is no real need to stream films, or any other media for that matter. Smart phones, tablets, and laptops have more than enough processing power and storage to hold and playback movies, TV series, and anything else. The amount of bandwidth required to stream a movie means that there is more than enough for relatively fast downloads.  Also, streaming ‘requires’ the bandwidth to remain high for the entire duration of the film, which means broadband drop out can destroy the viewer’s experience.

Granted, films are a high-bandwidth, high processing power (and high storage as a download) medium, so you could argue that, at the moment, streaming is the best way to supply these products. But as mobile devices become more and more capable, these arguments will fade—within the next year I should think.

So let’s look at some things that really don’t need to be streamed and yet are streamed: eBooks.

There is no earthly reason why eBooks should be streamed. They are tiny files, very quickly downloaded, that take bugger all space on hard-drives or any other long-term storage medium. They take up less room than music files, picture files, program files, any other sort of file. They are simple text files. They download in seconds even on a dodgy broadband connection.

Okay, an eBook will have covers and other bells and whistles that might bloat the file a bit, but they still do not need to be streamed.

So why are they? Why sell a product to a customer that can be compromised by a simple internet outage, when there’s no need to stream the damn thing? Why sell a license to access the file to the customer rather than the actual file?

As I said, it’s about control. If they sell you the file then you own it. It is yours to do with as you will. If they sell you the license to access the file via their streaming service however, then you have to maintain your connection to the provider of that service.

Let’s say you have a library of 1,500 books, all on one provider’s service—it really doesn’t matter which one, A or A or K or B&N, or any other, this is not bashing a particular company—and these are streamed files. You open up your e-reading program, it sends a request to the cloud, the servers whirr into action, and the text appears on your screen as if by magic.

If, and only if, you have an internet connection. No internet, no access to your library. So you need to keep your ISP happy, you need to keep the streaming company happy, and you better not be in an internet ‘not’ spot where you can’t get a signal.

The company can delete a book from your library, can alter the text of a book in your library, can—if they so choose—charge you to maintain access to your library.

No wonder companies are not put off by the internet outage. No wonder they are bullish about cloud computing. It makes the perfect business model. The customer owns nothing except a right to access a file. You can take that access away any time you feel like it. So long as you have written the T&Cs properly (and they probably have, because most people don’t even read them—I don’t) you can change the pricing structure whenever your business model changes.

The cloud is an incredibly powerful tool for data-intensive processing. If you need to access some large, powerful, program when on the move, then the cloud is a great way to do it. Don’t crunch the numbers on your own device; let a massive server farm do the heavy lifting.

But the cloud is a dodgy retail tool. By accessing cloud services for entertainment needs you are giving all the power to the providers. They can cut you off, change the content, remove it from sale (and claw it back from your device) at any time. It ties you into a walled garden. It can tie you into a particular device.

And if they decide to no longer support that device, you lose access to everything unless you upgrade to the new one. They don’t need to make new devices backwards compatible to old ones, as anybody with a PS3 and PS2 will tell you.

There will be more of these outages and I say, ‘good’. People should be clamouring for the file not the license to access the file. Otherwise, culture will exist ‘in the cloud’ and the cloud doesn’t exist.

Just saying, your mileage may vary. One man’s opinion. I may be wrong. I hope I am, but I doubt it.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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PK’s Jaundiced Futurism: On Enhanced E-books Alternate Endings

Enhanced e-books will be a boon for non-fiction. Video, interactive diagrams, the ability to update in the light of new information or research. The possibilities are endless.

Fiction…umm…not so much.

I can see hypertext novels coming back into fashion, though they will have to do away with those bloody irritating links — not very conducive to immersion having every character name and artefact highlighted. I can see illustrations becoming prevalent, though there is a point beyond which the novel becomes a graphic novel. I can even see interactive databases for the more extreme world-building; think of Tolkien’s appendices as a searchable database.

All that I can see being useful for storytelling.

But I’ve read a few posts recently, on blogs and writing news aggregation sites, where high muckity-mucks in the publishing industry also mention ‘Alternate Endings’ as an enhancement.

Why? How does betraying the story count as an enhancement?

There are essentially three forms of storytelling now current in our culture. Interactive games, the media (films, television, graphic novels, radio, audio books) and text (novels, shorts, twitter, blog-stories, and so on. There are slight differences in distribution, but the medium is still text-based).

In games, alternate endings are a great idea. The player is the protagonist in the game, he or she is the one making decisions about how they play, so it’s not a bad idea to make those playing decisions affect how the game ends.

Play the game through, shooting everything with the biggest gun you can get. Not a bad way to play a game for the first time: while you work out how the game engines work. Play it through again, but being kinder to the game environment and to all those realistically detailed creatures you can kill. Some people claim to play Grand Theft Auto while going out of their way to avoid running down the virtual pedestrians the game designers place all over the virtual streets. I have no idea why you would do that, it isn’t supposed to be a simulation of driving in the city, but some people are just strange.

Between those two extremes, there are a multitude of possible choices that the player can make and each choice could affect the ending of the game. All good. All useful. All enhancing the experience and making you want to play the game again. If only to collect all the endings in the same way you used to collect gold rings when playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Obsessive, yes, but games can make you a tad obsessive — that’s part of their appeal.

In the media, mostly films it must be said, alternate endings are sometimes DVD extras. Twenty-Eight Days Later is the one that immediately springs to mind. No spoilers, for those who have not seen it, but I preferred the bleaker ending. I remember watching the film and feeling cheated by the ending they actually used. It felt forced. Please note this is before I even knew the alternate ending existed; once I found that on the DVD, I was even more irritated by the Hollywood ending they chose.

But, and this is important, films (and I suspect TV) are created in the editing suite. They are not created during principal photography. The actual filming simply gives the director options when the film is finally cut together. So much so, that many fine movie actors deliberately avoid giving the same performance in every take. They ‘wilfully’ (as Ian McKellen said about Ian Holm — when making Lord of the Rings) vary what they do to give the director options in the cut.

This is where the alternate endings that end up on DVDs come from. From this exact same process. The director may film more than one ending, because they don’t know how the story is going to play out, they don’t know if the pacing will work, they don’t know if the producers will accept a bleak ending, they don’t know until they have made the film. And since the ending is filmed and done and dusted, well you may as well stick it on the DVD as an extra. That’s a no-brainer.

In text — well novels really, yeah…look, I know these publishing execs have a great deal of experience and are, obviously, very smart people, but…um…have they any idea about how a novel actually works?

Just in case they need a heads-up, I’ll explain.

This is how a novel works. Every scene, every scrap of dialogue, every piece of action, every bit of fore-shadowing, every character interaction, every bit of weather, every setting, every damn thing that survives the editing process and ends up in the finished novel does service to the plot and make the ending of the story emotionally satisfying to the reader. That is a novelist’s duty. We don’t always manage it, but that is our aim.

Alternate endings will destroy what we have tried to create. They will make whole sections of dialogue nonsensical or irrelevant. They will make action scenes seem trite and unrealistic (because if we need alternate endings we can’t kill off characters that need to be killed off because we need them for the alternate ending). They will make foreshadowing a series of red-herrings that are never explained. They will make character interactions bland and boring (because everything will have to be left open to allow for different endings). Even the weather may have to be moderated so there are no extremes just to help keep the ending open. And of course settings will have to be rendered either very sketchily indeed or in so much detail that every single possible interaction between the character and the environment is possible.

Most importantly of all, we will be breaking our trust with the reader. Clever is not the same as honest. A writer seeks honesty, honesty to the prose, to the plot, to the characters. We seek to show the truth through the prism of our own understanding. Readers know this, that is why they read books instead of watching a film or playing a game.

Alternate endings are clever, even philosophical profound. Hmmm. Would they be nihilistic, existential, or solipsistic? I suppose that would depend on the author.

I’m not saying that a genius writer at the top of their game could not write a novel where the different endings actually enhance the story, where they alter the way it is read, where they change the way the reader understands the world. But I seriously doubt there will be many novelists of that calibre alive at any one time.

So, publishers, please, for the sake of the art-form I love, and the craft I have learned, and for my own sanity, stop talking about alternate bloody endings for novels.

Unless of course, you want to write the damn thing yourself.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Jaundiced Futurism: Interfaces

This is an interesting thing at the moment, because designers, technologists, and manufacturers are throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

I’m not a technologist, I’m not a publicist, and I am not a fanboy of any particular company or brand. I’m just a writer of SF&F and have spent my entire life, since the age of about twelve, trying to work out what the future will be like. It’s Science Fiction, it’s about technology as well as blowing the heads off aliens — though that is always fun too.

I’ve also read an awful lot of SF over the years and developed a pretty good bullshit detector along the way. The best SF doesn’t just come up with an idea, it then works out how it will change the world.

It’s not enough to think ‘we can communicate mind-to-mind’ you also have to think, A: why on earth would we want to do that? B: Can you switch it off? C: can anybody else listen in? and, most importantly, D: can somebody hack our minds?

So, interfaces: the boundary between human and machine.

At the moment the boundary between human and machine is the touch-screen. Tablets are not that useful if truth be told, they are too bulky. They don’t fit into your pocket, and they are fragile. The smart-phone is also only a step on the path, they are not an end-point. They fit in your pocket, but they are fragile and too small. Flexible touch-screens will be the final form-factor of this line of development, but not as simple sheets of e-paper.

Think about it, do you carry a single sheet of paper around with you, for any reason at all? No, it is flimsy, it can be blown away by a gust of wind, it is really quite hard to interact with in any meaningful way (try writing on a single sheet of paper without any other supporting structure underneath it).

Some form of scroll will be the final interface for tactile interaction with machine via a visual display. It may be a sheet rolled up in the edge of a robust smart-phone, so you don’t have to unroll the sheet just to have a quick glance at what is happening or it might be a pen-shaped object with a screen rolled up tightly within it. The screen itself will have memory materials of some sort, which will allow it to become rigid when you need to interact with it directly.

Though there will always be a place for keyboards too, unless of course a stylus and handwriting takes over — which it might. But I suspect a keyboard gives an edge in creation, it’s simply more flexible than a pen. However, this will have to be a proper keyboard of some sort, because anything else is just asking for RSI.

Keyboards need to give under you fingers. This is not for feedback purposes, this is to protect your hands. A keyboard on a touch-screen is like tapping on a plate of glass, an even worse idea is a keyboard projected onto a hard surface. So keyboards will be around for a while yet, at least for producers of content.

Speech recognition software like Siri, is an interesting development, but it isn’t exactly private. If you are talking to your machine and it is answering you then anybody within earshot knows what you are asking — and the answer. Maybe some form of sub-vocalisation married to a earbud might be the answer here, but it’s a pretty intrusive answer. It’ll have its place though. It is after all hands-free.

Net-linked glasses are even more intrusive. Augmented reality? Seriously? You want to walk around with a filter between you and the visual world, all the time? You want adverts pumped straight into your eyeballs as you walk down the street?

Really?

Nah, I call bullshit on that. There will be uses for net-linked glasses, but wearing them all the time, always being on the net, always having to put up with spam and adverts. Nope. Ain’t going to happen.

Also, these glasses will come with built in cameras, which is a major league invasion of privacy issue. I can see a time, in the not too distant future, where wearing net-linked glasses will get you punched. Each generation reacts to the one that went before. Privacy is going to be a big deal in a few years time because there will be so little of it to go around.

And I am not entirely sure that having a screen right in front of your eyes all the time will be good for your eyes. As for contacts instead…yeah, that’ll be even worse. People have freaking lasers cutting open their eyes to avoid wearing contacts (because they don’t like wearing glasses) so the idea that people will willingly place contacts in their eyes just as an interface is a non-starter.

But for the emergency services, for the military, and other specialised occupations, augmented reality is going to be a real boon.

Then we have gesture-based interfaces, which are touch-screens without the screen. They’ll be useful, but limited. Too much noise in the environment, too much clutter, will make them unreliable. Speech and gesture interfaces have an added problem…other people can interface with your device without having to touch it. Daddy wants to watch the Rugby, Mammy wants to watch the news, and Junior knows that if he waves his hand just so and makes this low buzzing noise, he can turn off the set. Fun for all the family.

And finally, linking your mind directly to the machine. Yeah…okay…you first.

As an SF writer I will, and have, used all these sorts of interfaces in my writing, but I have to create a world where such things can exist.

It isn’t this one.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

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