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.
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