Descriptions of the Nondescript

Starting But Not At the Beginning

"Just because it's the beginning doesn't mean you have to write it first."

Finding this story is timely for me. I'm contemplating a short story I've wanted to write for a few years. It's mostly fully fruited in my head, but getting started at the beginning has been stymieing me.

This inspired me to just fucking start.

Urbanization Benefits Via Ruralification?

There is a lot of talk these days about the economic power that seems to derive from the movement toward urban population density. There are also many theories attempting to explain the reasons for this benefit.

Let's say the benefit isn't because of some statistical selection process in which those who choose the urban life are somehow more productive because the sort of person who chooses urban life is simply a more productive animal. Let's say it derives from something like the excitement of urban living, the variety of cultural stimuli and the nearness of people to fall into random opportunistic conversations.

If we could achieve these same good things without the attendant disadvantages of density, wouldn't that be an even better outcome? We could all live in some sort of Asimovian Utopia diffused throughout the countryside while still benefitting from the density dividend - at least from the intellectual part of it.

To get this we need quick and easy access to each other, fast delivery or creation of arbitrarily diverse cuisine, and random opportunities to engage people of unique background in conversation.

How can a resident of this parkland paradise get these things? One good way is instant cheap transportation anywhere in the world as Larry Niven's Known Space universe presumes.

Are there communications media or enhancements that might give most of this? The cuisine requirement, while maybe a bit capricious, is actually a serious example of something that enriches a person's perspective.

Maybe superb virtual reality with the addition of quick nano-assembly to make food would work. People could feel like they were in a busy and rich urban setting without the pain.

This is the basis of at least a short story. Hmm...

Writing in a Straight Line

Systems thinking: linear and non-linear.

When I write, I write like an engineer solves a problem. I start with the problem, introducing it with as much "hook" as I can, hoping to grab the reader's attention while she's perusing the book on a shelf so she'll buy the damned thing. I then move forward to reveal the other aspects of the story: characters, their relationship to the problem or its solution, the various aspects of their shared dilemma that weren't obvious at the start, more details of the setting, etc.

From there, I'm some fraction of the way along and I start thinking about how to get through to the resolution. The characters work on their problem, slowly revealing its hidden facets, unveiling their character traits to either aid or thwart their working through it and the other ingredients introduced by new actors or its new facets.

Even describing this process here in this post shows me my internal thought processes are goal directed, where the tacit goal is to solve the problem rather than to create a tangled and engaging story containing human drama and twists and turns and beauty along the way. I'm writing stories like I write computer software --- direct, to the point, deliberately, but my deliberacy isn't directed toward what I now perceive as the real goal. I'm writing a problem statement and then proceeding with a solution rather than writing a story.

In writing my two big works to date, my process has been the above. But I'm reaching a point in my development as an author where I see this can only result in stories that may be interesting to some readers but are far from riveting to all. As in many things in life, things get much simpler if only one can focus on the true goal rather on the shallower, obvious one.

Does this process come naturally to some, even as a beginning, but not so much to the type of beginner I am? Probably. Someone like Stephen King or John Grisham might have started out thinking of their story as a story rather than as problem → solution as I seem to have been doing. Or did they have to learn this vital lesson themselves at some point? I would love to be able to ask them some day.

In the meantime, regardless of the path taken by others, mine is leading me to this lesson having written some hundreds of thousands of words while still traveling along what I now perceive to be the wrong path. I'm not saying viable and readable stories can't come from my original, instinctive way of working. But writing linearly and then going back to try to add interest, twists, and misdirection later leads to an inferior result.

I might be turning myself into the centipede who's asked how he can possibly coordinate all of those many legs to walk, leaving him frozen in analytical self-doubt. I hope not.

A Man, a Woman, and an AI = a Super Hero?


The story I'm working on now is the first in a series of stories, or so I imagine. It revolves around three main characters. First is Ross Reynolds, an aging and burned out divorced man who writes software for a living and experiments with genetic algorithms and neural networks in his free time.

Second, Helen Crosley is a talented NSA agent who is a member of an elite task force created by the President of the United States to combat a a global cyber hacking threat that is first seen in US Government systems. Nobody can figure out how to combat this threat, and the situation is getting to be desperate as the attacker soon flexes his muscles in public by changing payroll systems to make every member of the US Congress' paycheck be computed based on their hours worked paid at the current Federal Minimum Wage. Needless to say, this stunt receives world wide attention, and it proves that cyber attacks against the American government can be successful, which is very bad for the American government and its people.

Third, we have A.N.G.E.L., an artificial intelligence whose "mental" integrity arises accidentally through emergent behavior from Ross' little hobby project, immediately getting out of his control and learning and building itself up without real constraint using all of the resources of the Internet. ANGEL takes on more human characteristics once it realizes that its interactions with humans --- primary Ross and Helen --- will be much simpler if they can relate easily.

The first story, which is the genesis story of the series, is entitled Emergent Patterns. It is already fifty thousand words, and I expect it to round out at about seventy thousand before I'm done. I have another story already plotted and partially written, and I hope to make more if the series is successful.

I think this concept has great possibilities!

Whither an Agent?


My lovely wife submitted an excerpt of my first book to a few literary agencies as I lay gasping with exhaustion having just completed my first book and self publishing it. I knew self publishing was not likely to yield many sales. What I don't know about marketing and the publishing industry could fill volumes --- and it has, as anyone who has looked at books on these subjects can tell you. There are many.

Wonderfully, as I was traveling on business last week, a reply came from one of the agencies, asking for the full manuscript. I sent them a copy of my book in manuscript form this morning with fingers crossed and a few other superstitious observances for additional luck. I have high hopes to take this young man's advice and guidance and connections and turn them, along with my stories, into a successful publishing partnership.

For me, this is something that needs to happen. I want this, and badly.

Now we wait.

Space the FINAL Frontier

We have no frontiers. This is bad for humans. We need to strive, to live for something more than constant satiety of our needs. We need to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Imagine an economy where stuff you need to survive is basically free. Food, clothing, shelter, furniture, entertainment. All of that. Imagine this comes true in your lifetime. The only real things that stand in the way of this are lack of almost free energy and almost free raw materials.

Suppose the exploration and exploitation of space provides both of these missing things. We're set, right?

There are already people who know this is how it will go down. They're slowly gathering capital, influence, the power they need to make it so. They will literally be the ones that provide us all with our salvation.

We can stop moldering in our complacency, fighting over things that don't matter. If we only had challenges.

We will.

Anachronisms and Prejudices Are Automatic

If we continue to advance technologically, we will certainly create anachronisms that have lasting visibility. A common example is the floppy disk icon which is used to signify the "save" operation in many applications even today. Many young people have no idea what this is a picture of when they first start using computers or computing devices, but they quickly learn it means "save" nonetheless. Eventually, someone older tells them that strange square is a picture of a floppy disk --- a storage medium from the Days of Yore, and they both chuckle about how quaint those old computers were.

Technology won't stop doing this to us. In fact, we're going to be seeing this more and more frequently. It will soon seem absurd to adopt an anachronistic icon like this for any purpose, because we'll all have this silly floppy disk icon as a symbol to remind us what happens when people think only skeumorphically when they're considering the design of an icon for a common operation. This sort of thing --- icons for software applications --- isn't the only example, of course. Airplanes have icons for various features of the cabin like restrooms and smoking and seatbelts that are already seeming aged but not yet outmoded. Cars definitely have images of some already obsolete devices icons: an oil can for the oil pressure, for example.

We're living in a world that changes faster than any of us can actually incorporate into our thinking, no matter how proactively we embrace change. We have habits of behavior, perception, and reaction that aren't appropriate for the world we actually live in. Some of these are deeply ingrained by our thinking, often by childhood and youth experiences. I grew up in Southern Mississippi, where many people have built in innate reactions to various racial stereotypes, for example. Even though most know they're wrong and want to eliminate those reactions, they persist as remnants of learning that was inappropriate at the time, but nevertheless is still stuck in their minds.

I have encountered this over and over as I move through my life. I see young boys standing around on a corner with jeans halfway down their asses and backwards baseball caps on their heads. My reflex is to be wary of them --- to assume they're up to no good. What they're doing there on the corner is collecting money to help pay for the cost of a medical treatment needed by a little old lady in their neighborhood who has no ability to pay. I'm constantly ashamed of my prejudice, but I have it nonetheless.

We do the best we can with what we have. Humans evolved in hostile situations that ingrained in us quick reflexes based on judgment that bypasses conscious thought. If you see someone who is very large and exhibiting a scary body posture coming toward you in a dark alleyway at night, you're going to be led by these ingrained reactions to flinch or even try to fend of the coming attack --- only to discover that you're seeing someone's silhouette who is wearing a dark hat and cape, moving quickly to get to a taxi they see behind you.

Our ethical bankruptcy is going to kill us, not a virus.

One thing science fiction does is imagine a future where large technical advances have brought change. We as the science fiction community rarely address the real issues of change at a societal level other than to pick some random event like a nuclear war over oil or environmentalism or something and run with it.

Maybe it's time someone extrapolated the effects of the problem this article is showing so starkly. Maybe I'll add it to my bucket of story ideas...