Saturday, March 28, 2020

A world-changing month

It seems utterly unreal that only three weeks ago, the COVID-19 outbreak felt similar to SARS a few years ago. There was concern, even fear, and precautions especially around foreign travel. There was heightened awareness of risk and reasonable containment measures, but the expectation was that life would go on more-or-less as normal.

Three weeks ago, most of the cases (about 80%) were still in China, with what seemed to be fairly isolated pockets elsewhere. The curve in China had already flattened out, and the unfolding tragedy in Italy and elsewhere hadn’t yet impinged on global awareness.

Three weeks ago, there were no general restrictions in place. National governments were following up positive cases to trace contacts, test for infection, and contain the spread. It felt like we’d have a few rough months ahead, but providing the healthcare system held up and people were sensible, the situation felt manageable.

Three weeks ago, Ali and I were still making travel plans for my 60th birthday in July.

Three weeks ago you could still buy toilet paper.

Now, we are hunkering down for a protracted battle. Borders closed to international travel, shortages of some items, and social distancing has become the norm in all walks of life. New measures are popping up almost daily. Pubs, restaurants, beaches and parks closed. Grocery stores are limiting the number of people allowed in at any one time, with lineups outside the doors to gain access, and hired security controlling the flow and disinfecting shopping carts ready for use. Duct tape on the floor shows where to stand in line at a safe distance.

Just by way of comparison, think back to the public attention SARS gained in 2002. And yet, by the end of the SARS outbreak there were in total just over 8,000 cases worldwide, and 800 deaths. Compare that to today’s figures to get an idea how serious COVID-19 is. And the curve worldwide is so far showing no signs of flattening out.

I am a generation removed from WW2, but was brought up on stories of wartime rationing and deprivation from my parents and grandparents. We are still a long way from those kinds of stories, but we are also a long way from the “normal” we’ve grown used to.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Emergent intelligence and misinformation

Sometimes I see strong parallels between my own writing, and either events in the real world, or in other stories that I read. Once in a while the spooky sensation is made all the stronger when multiple parallels crop up in a short space of time.

I’ve recently finished reading Watch, a story about an intelligence that emerges spontaneously in the vast flow of information across the Internet. The fundamental basis (spontaneous emergence, and the struggle to make sense of a wider world from a perspective inside the network) is the same as in my own novel, Tiamat’s Nest.

Of course, Watch is a vastly different story from Tiamat’s Nest. In Watch, Webmind is curious, benevolent, and wants to interact with people. Tiamat, on the other hand, is secretive and malignant - if that word even applies to an intelligence that has no concept of right or wrong, only of self-preservation. Webmind actively avoids altering content on the web and works to reveal truth where it would do most good, while Tiamat’s approach is to actively manipulate information to steer public opinion and policy to her advantage.

It’s this latter aspect that brought in the other coincidental strand of thought through several news reports over a short period of time.

Despite my efforts to resist, I find myself ghoulishly drawn to news stories about Trump’s latest behavior, and to the comments sections. It’s a bit like slowing down on the highway as you pass a multi-car pile-up on the other side.

And I can’t help noticing the active misinformation that is repeated time and again, despite it being so easily debunked with the simplest of research.

While I was reading Watch, in response to reports of Trump awarding Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an angry commenter stated that Obama gave the same medal to Bill Cosby. Setting aside the usual refusal of Trump supporters to engage the actual issue and instead deflect with “what abouts”, the claim is absurdly false! Bill Cosby was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush in 2002.

The following day, again in response to criticism of Trump ordering the assassination of Iranian general Soleimani on Iraqi soil without involving Congress, trolls compared this to the action of Obama bringing down bin Laden. Obama did it, so it’s OK for Trump. Again, this ignored the checkable fact that Obama acted under a formal declaration by Congress authorizing the president to act against those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. This was passed in 2001, again under GWB, but was still ongoing in Obama’s time.

On a lighter note, the day after that I saw a BBC video debunking a long list of cooking hacks that look amazing but which simply don’t work. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make tempting videos of recipes that are useless in practice.

The scary thing is, outright and obvious falsehoods simply won’t die!

But of course, truth isn’t the point. The point in politics is to discredit opponents by repeating the same lie over and over until people start to believe it. That’s effectively how Tiamat in my novel steered the world into catastrophic climate change, and made people’s survival dependent on increasingly sophisticated computation to plan everyday activities around accurate predictions of extreme weather events. The point of the more mundane lies is simply to garner clicks for profit. But they are still putting out things that are not true that will nevertheless take on a life of their own.

As we head into another US election, people keep talking about voter ID and election fraud. But that is missing the point. The real war is already being fought in the news feeds and social media, framing people’s views before they even reach the ballot box.

Campaigns of misinformation are no longer mere inconveniences, they have real world and long-lasting consequences on public policy, on justice, on health and safety, and on elections. In an era when events are shaped by the loudest, most strident, best funded voices, what chance does truth have?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Valentine’s Day

We don’t go in for the smooshy celebrations, or consumer spending that seems to accompany any vaguely plausible excuse to sell cards, gifts, flowers, chocolate, pink ribbons artistically tied into the shape of a unicorn ...

Valentine’s Day happened to see all of us at home for one reason or another. Regular day off shift, school pro-D day, and I took a day of vacation to extend the weekend.

All in all, it was a satisfying day for me. Got the car serviced (the original impetus to take the day off and have done with it), helped Megan secure a towel rail in her bathroom (try putting up anything into drywall that has to take any weight - her earlier attempt started out OK but eventually pulled the screws out under the weight of a towel or two), got a lot of editing done on The Long Dark, and cooked a celebratory curry for me and Ali.

Now, back to the regular weekend ...

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Why writer’s block?

Everyone has heard of writer’s block. And I don’t just mean other writers, I mean pretty much anyone you meet will likely have heard of the term.

A random thought occurred to me, though. Why writer’s block? Why do we never hear of painter’s block, or sculptor’s block, or trombonist’s block, or any of a number of other artistic blocks? Is this affliction unique to writers?

It seems it’s not. Looking into artistic blocks, creative people all over the place complain about dry spells, about lack of creativity, lack of inspiration. And there’s a lot of advice on how to deal with these ailments, and much of it has parallels with techniques I wrote about in Breaking the Block. So it seems it’s widespread, it just hasn’t got a name.

Except for writers.

So why writers, in particular?

I wonder if it has anything to do with another oddity about writing.

Least likely conversation to hear at a dinner party: “Oh, you’re a concert pianist! How interesting. I thought of doing that too, just haven’t got around to it yet.”

Substitute “writer” for “concert pianist” and it suddenly turns into a frequently-heard conversation. So many people admire the talent of painters and musicians because so many people happily profess to being useless at art, or tone deaf. And yet everyone seems to be a budding novelist, as if writing is the easiest thing in the world.

Now, all the creative arts acknowledge that practitioners go through rough patches, where output dries up. They acknowledge that creativity and capturing creativity in a tangible form is darned hard work, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. But along with that, in all the other arts learning the craft comes first. Claiming your musical creativity has dried up kinda lacks credibility if you’ve never played a note before in your life.

But writing is different. With so many people thinking it’s easy, that they can casually “give it a go”, they look for a reason when it turns out not to be so straightforward. So I wonder if writer’s block emerged as a fallback for people who tried, but got stuck. Because nobody can really admit to not being able to write, but they can say they are actually a writer, really, but the lack of output is because they are suffering from the dreaded writer’s block.

What do you think? Plausible? Or bunkum?

Sunday, February 2, 2020

So, that was January!

The first month of a new decade seems to have flown by double quick!

I guess a large part of that sensation is down to having so much going on in all parts of my life right now.

On the “life in general” front, the weather has featured strongly. My last post talked about high winds - very unusual around here, and even more unusual for those conditions to persist for a couple of weeks rather than a couple of hours. They brought a couple of lengthy power outages. Then that week we had snow. Lots of shoveling, and my body knew by the end of the week that it had had a major workout. Then rain, and more wind. And more rain. Yes, I know this is actually a rainforest, but the downpours last week were exceptional. Floods and mudslides blocking highways and disrupting telecommunications.

Work-wise, we’ve been leading up to a big IT upgrade which brought a series of issues that had to be sorted out. That, thankfully, is now out of the way and has had all last week to stabilize, but the upgrade itself took over the whole of the previous weekend.

Things have been equally unusual this month in the writing world. I’m now in the thick of editing The Long Dark, and at times actually enjoying it! This is a novelty. I enjoy editing and revising about as much as dental work, but this time feels different. In part, I think it’s because I started the month writing a number of new scenes to flesh out a couple of themes more fully. This made it feel a lot more like writing than editing. But that has given me a boost to keep up the momentum through the longer slog of reviewing existing chapters.

So, yeah, busy. Not necessarily in a bad way, but definitely in a way that calls for a slower and more relaxed February. Here’s hoping.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Was it windy last night?

I don’t know what gave me that idea!

Ever since moving to Victoria fifteen years ago, Ali and I have often commented on how still the air is here. We were used to constant air movement. Prevailing winds sweeping off the Atlantic, sometimes so strong it was a struggle to stay on your feet. Checking the wind direction before deciding which beach to go to. The ferries thought nothing of crossing the Channel in a Force 8 and heaving seas.

Here, the trees are still most days. We could play badminton with the kids on the front lawn - something we could never do in Guernsey on even the calmest of days.

So it’s a bit unusual to find wind warnings now for several days running, ferries disrupted, and furniture tossed around like paper.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

What’s in a name?

When I’m writing, I place a lot of importance in names. People, places, ships, technology ... I find myself at a standstill until I choose the right-sounding names for them. And once chosen, they stick.

I’m starting in on editing The Long Dark. Alongside the small localized edits - typos and clarity issues - there are a few strands of heavier revisions. A couple of stories to flesh out more fully, and a significant re-structuring of the opening scenes. And all weekend I’ve been grappling with one of the major character’s names.

I hadn’t noticed until critique partners pointed it out, but two of my major characters had very similar names and that was causing confusion. I hadn’t spotted it because the characters themselves were so distinct in my own mind, so whenever I wrote a scene with one of them I knew exactly who I was talking about. But once I was made aware of it from a reader’s perspective, I realized this was going to be an issue.

One of them had to change.

This is a first for me.

I knew immediately which one it had to be, and oddly enough I found I wasn’t truly wedded to the name I’d been using for an entire novel. That was another first. Normally I choose names with such care that I can’t see them as anything else. Clearly not in this case.

But what to change it to?

That was a tougher problem. I tried out a number of possibilities but wasn’t happy with them. I thought I’d chosen one, and went as far as substituting it in a few chapters. I read and re-read them, trying to settle into the new name, but it didn’t quite click.

It was starting to feel a bit like the scene in Mrs. Doubtfire where Robin Williams’s character is trying on a series of personas for his invented housekeeper.

Finally I hit on one which seems to work. It’s got some of the same sound as the original, but is very distinct from the other character that was causing confusion. I’ve now gone through the whole manuscript with a careful find & replace, and I think we’re there now.

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