meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Books for the Convention's End

We're winding things up at Visioncon, hoping for a strong finish for the convention. All too soon we'll start having to pack the fiddly fragile stuff and hoping that people won't decide they shouldn't bother us with something we'd like to buy.

But once all the heavy work is done, it's a great time to head back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest. And that's a wonderful time to pull out a good book and do some reading.

An Alternate World War II by Joseph T Major

From Book 1: "There are bitter weeds in England." The Dunkirk Evacuation was a great deliverance. But some of the soldiers did not make it. If someone had only known . . . A troubled man, a man divided between two nations and several natures, delivered from the continent, pursues a twisted course in a wilderness of mirrors to serve his masters. A woman staging a great pretense that is almost true finds herself in the heart of darkness, seeing the advance of evil. Their relatives and connections each struggle with his or her own burdens as the horrors of war spread. The simple kindness of stopping to give the dead some small dignity begins a wave of change that will wash across the world, in this first volume of a series highlighting the great and the petty, the powerful and the victims, and finding both pain and hope.

(I love this series because of its themes of family ties and of how small choices can make a big differences).

The Atlantis Grail by Vera Nazarian

From Book 1: You have two options. You die, or you Qualify.

The year is 2047. An extinction-level asteroid is hurtling toward Earth, and the descendants of ancient Atlantis have returned from the stars in their silver ships to offer humanity help.

But there’s a catch.

They can only take a tiny percent of the Earth’s population back to the colony planet Atlantis. And in order to be chosen, you must be a teen, you must be bright, talented, and athletic, and you must Qualify.

Sixteen-year-old Gwenevere Lark is determined not only to Qualify but to rescue her entire family.

Because there’s a loophole.

If you are good enough to Qualify, you are eligible to compete in the brutal games of the Atlantis Grail, which grants all winners the laurels, high tech luxuries, and full privileges of Atlantis Citizenship. And if you are in the Top Ten, then all your wildest wishes are granted… Such as curing your mother’s cancer.

There is only one problem.

Gwen Lark is known as a klutz and a nerd. While she’s a hotshot in classics, history, science, and languages, the closest she’s come to sports is a backyard pool and a skateboard.

This time she is in over her head, and in for a fight of her life, against impossible odds and world-class competition—including Logan Sangre, the most amazing guy in her school, the one she’s been crushing on, and who doesn’t seem to know she exists.

Because every other teen on Earth has the same idea.

You Qualify or you die.

(Another series I love because of the warm, loving family. So many dystopias seem to have either viciously dysfunctional families or characters who have no apparent family at all. But the Larks stick together through thick and thin, helping each other and even risking their own futures for a sibling. Which makes the ending of Book 1 particularly poignant).

Over the Sea by Sherwood Smith

When Sherwood Smith was eight years old, she had dreams about a girl queen who traveled between worlds, looking for girls who loved adventure. Clair came to Earth, where she found CJ, and adopted her as her princess best friend. One of her jobs was to serve as leader for Clair's gang of girls, as they encountered villains who thought it would be easy to take a kingdom away from a mere kid. From the shadowy Kwenz, a powerful mage with a very wicked past, to the usurper Glotulae and her son Prince Jonnicake, who in their ridiculous way were just as determined to boot Clair out, there were plenty of chances for adventure. And mystery, like why did kids from other times and worlds show up every now and then? These are the early stories, how Clair found her gang of girls, and how "the M girls" developed the fine art of the Duel to the Pie.

(There are the families we're born into, and there are the families we create. The M Girls are one of the latter, brought together by Clair and forming bonds of sisterhood through shared trials).

Starlight Running by Leigh Kimmel

Eight lives depend on Kyle's desperate trek across the Moon to get help. But someone -- or something -- intends for him to fail. Can he defeat it in time?

(How far would you go if your family depended on you?)
  • Current Location: Branson, Missouri
  • Current Mood: busy busy
  • Current Music: "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Don't Run with the First Idea that Comes to You

One of the interesting features of the latest version of Firefox is a default homepage which suggests online articles that you might want to read. Among it's recent offerings was an article on how your first thought is rarely your best thought. How so many people dislike mulling over an idea, thinking about it, turning it over and over in the mind and considering other possibilities for it. To them, such ruminations represent wasted time, so they seek the straightest possible path from idea to finished product. But in doing so, they often overlook the potential of the idea and end up with something pedestrian instead of something wonderful.

As I read, it made me think of the concept of "creative discomfort," and in particular, Tom Simon's article on how creative discomfort made the original Star Wars great. As George Lucas went from tyro to Phenomenon, he had to spend less and less time confronting creative discomfort, both his own and others' -- and as a result, the later movies in the series, particularly the prequel trilogy, became increasingly lightweight, even half-baked and trivial.

And I got to thinking about my own work, and how my writing process has changed since the development of a viable indie publication channel. Now I no longer need to go through the long process of sending manuscripts off to one after another publisher or magazine editor, with their attendant enforced periods away from my words (especially true back in the old days when all submissions were still by postal mail and reply times were routinely measured in months). I am now free to offer my work to the public as soon as I feel confident in it, with no gatekeepers to satisfy.

And that means it's easy to ignore that little nagging voice of creative discomfort, or mistake it for perfectionism. We know that something's not quite right, but we don't want to be the endless fiddler, so we go ahead and put it up, not realizing that our subconscious is telling us we need to rethink something at a fundamental level. Even if we send our work to beta readers, even if we pay for professional editing, we don't have to act on anything they say, especially if it's not to our liking.

Maybe that's one benefit in being busy and having to fit writing into the spaces between the other things in your life. You're forced to slow down, and that gives your subconscious time to turn that twinge of creative discomfort into a nagging itch that you have to address.

I've been working on a story off and on for several months, picking it up and putting it down in between conventions and other activities. And I've noticed several times when I'd come back to it and, while re-reading the existing text to remind myself of what's going on, I'd notice a major gap in the story logic. Things that been so vivid when I first saw them in my mind now proved to make no sense. So the images couldn't possibly be right, or at least couldn't be telling the whole story.

And thus I was forced to dig deeper, to sort out who was where at what time and why, and I think that the story will be better for it. And all without someone demanding that I change things "Because I Say So," and the attendant spinal reflex that comes when faced with an exercise of naked power for its own sake.
  • Current Location: Branson, Missouri
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

The Shared Office Space Productivity Paradox

If you're a freelancer or other small entrepreneur, you may be wondering whether it's time to rent real office space. Working out of your home has its upsides in convenience, but also has its downsides, including maintaining a work-life balance when there are no clear boundaries between work and home, and being able to present a professional appearance when you need to deal with clients.

However, you may want to think carefully about what kind of office space you want to rent. Recently, companies such as WeWork have been pushing their shared office spaces as creating a collaborative atmosphere which makes all the individual members more productive.

But it may not be as good as the hype suggests -- behind all the cool, trendy swag of the hipster sharing-economy ethic, it turns out that it's not all that easy to do actual productive work in these environments. Yes, it can be useful to get out of your home office and work alongside other adults at least some of the time. But all that cool swag comes at a price, and after a while you really have to ask yourself what kind of return on investment you're getting out of that $500 desk in a building with a hipster atmosphere.

Maybe some other arrangement would work better to give you a place where you can "go to work," especially if you find you need a firm boundary between home and work to be productive, or if you need to meet clients and your home office just doesn't make the grade.
  • Current Location: Branson, Missouri
  • Current Mood: disappointed disappointed
  • Current Music: "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

On the Road Again -- Visioncon edition

We're busy setting up for Visioncon in Branson, Missouri. We've done this show several other years in the past, and are looking forward to a great convention.

If you're in the area, please consider dropping by to say hi. Day memberships are quite reasonably priced, and get you into the entire convention for the day. We'd love to meet you!
  • Current Location: Branson, Missouri
  • Current Mood: excited excited
  • Current Music: "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Opening the Black Box of AI

Artificial intelligence, like robots, have often been used in storytelling as a symbol of human hubris. In a lot of science fiction, they seem to run amok at a key point in the story arc because Of Course that's what happens when humans forget their place in the universe and create something that oversteps the proper limits of human technological prowess. So there's a strong element of fear in the popular consciousness when the subject of AI comes up. If people's images aren't drawn from historical imagery of slave revolts, they often involve Sorcerer's Apprentice visions of the AI turning the entire world into paperclips, or reducing human suffering by exterminating humanity, or otherwise following its programming straight over a cliff by some absurdly literalistic interpretation of some phrase.

However, scientists and engineers actually involved in the development of AI have some serious concerns with the most promising pathways to AI that are currently being developed. Neural networks are computer systems that learn by reinforcing the digital pathways that produce successful results -- but because they grow organically from the original seed conditions, they can develop in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

As a result, there's considerable hesitance about giving such devices control over vital systems such as power generation and distribution or health care. Can such systems be trusted to develop within the parameters that we would consider acceptable, or might one develop in some odd direction that is not obvious until something horrible happens as a result of a development pathway that is logical to a computer but was unthinkable to its programmers because of taboos so deeply seated in human consciousness that we are not even aware of them?

One possible solution is creating that can explain its reasons for acting in a particular way. By making the development of a neural network architecture less of a black box, scientists and engineers hope to be able to recognize problematical lines of development before they result in disaster.

AI's that can explain themselves may also have uses in the legal field, particularly when it comes to matters of product liability. As systems based upon neural networks and machine learning go from laboratory project to commercial product, there will be questions of who should be held responsible for the inevitable failures. By being able to query the AI's reasons for taking a particular action, it may be possible to determine whether it is a design flaw for which the manufacturer should be held responsible, or a failure in implementation or maintenance, for which the end user should be held responsible.
  • Current Location: parental abode
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "Mr. Roboto" by Styx
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Reuben's Ash Wednesday Challenge

lindahoyland also issued a writing challenge for Ash Wednesday, and I would really like to get this done before it becomes so hideously late that there's no point bothering.

The scent of pancakes filled the parish hall kitchen. Ligonier Rafferty had lost count of how many flapjacks he'd flipped on the big gas griddle, but he was sure someone had taken a count of how many people had gone through the line. He could always ask after they wound things up.

Even here the carnival atmosphere made this hot and sweaty work light. Mardi Gras, his friends in the Swamp Kingdom would call today, Fat Tuesday. However, he rather doubted that the Archbishop of Ste. Genevieve would spend the evening flipping pancakes for a meal open to all and sundry, where homeless people and down on their luck gamblers lined up with business executives and captains of industry, and all rubbed elbows with students and workingmen at the long tables.

The tradition that the Archbishop of Codytown should be at the griddle for the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner at Holy Cross Cathedral had been established by Bernardin, first Heir to Cody. And Ligo had no intention of abrogating it, especially after illness had sidelined his predecessor last year.

Ligo paused to finger his pectoral cross as he recalled that time. The nation had been torn apart by the 708 Rebellion, with O'Casey determined to cling to power in spite of all the evidence that the people wanted him gone. Although Ligo had managed to navigate a path through those shoals to a settlement that had put an acceptable Boss in the Four Deuces, he knew that his homeland remained traumatized and uneasy. They needed moral leadership as well as political, which meant he needed to be seen upholding the traditions of his role.

Tonight he would meet with his confessor for Reconciliation and be shriven of his sins. Tomorrow he would kneel before the altar of Holy Name Cathedral like any other penitent to receive the ashes, the visible sign of commitment to the season of repentance in preparation for the celebration of the death, burial and resurrection of the Savior.

  • Current Location: parental abode
  • Current Mood: creative creative
  • Current Music: "Time" by Pink Floyd
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Valentine's Day Writing Challenge

lindahoyland had a Valentine's Day writing challenge. I've been meaning to do something for it, but between recovering from Kanpai!Con and getting ready for Visioncon, each day I'd run out of time before I could get to it.

All day long Tara had tried to keep her mind busy with work and studies. Yet it wasn't possible to completely ignore the hearts and roses that seemed to show up everywhere, whether as icons on her phone or holograms projected into the moonglass doors of the dining commons. Or the couples who kept slipping off to secluded spots for an embrace and a kiss when the boss wasn't looking.

Today was the holiday of love, but not for her. Any of a dozen Sheps would've been happy to scoop her up, but she could not forget her obligation. When the Chaffee Artilect had brought her to this timeline, they had agreed upon a bargain. Her promise to wed a clone of Roger Chaffee left her no room for romance with clones of Alan Shepard.

Although she got along just fine with the eight Chaffee clones who were in her age bracket, they seemed to view her more like a sister than a potential girlfriend. And while Rand might be sweet on her, in a puppy-love sort of way, she couldn't see him as anything but a kid brother.

  • Current Location: parental abode
  • Current Mood: creative creative
  • Current Music: "Rocket Man" by Elton John
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bricks Without Straw Redux: Words from Someone Who's Lived It

I wrote a while back that home cooking is not a magic bullet for poverty. That it assumes a certain collection of resources, including staple supplies, equipment, skills and time, and that for people who lack one or more of them, the advice ends up becoming a variant on "let them eat cake."

Today I discover an article in my Facebook feed that addresses the problem of treating home cooking like a magic bullet, but with a lot more experience than I can bring to the table on this matter. She's a blogger who's specialized in recipes that can make a good meal of a random selection of unpromising ingredients, the sort that a struggling person might have sitting around the house or get in a food-bank box. By her accounts, she's gone through a lot worse times than I have, and had to make do with a lot less.

What annoyed her was discovering that one of the local political bloggers was pointing to her blog as "inspirational" material, as if all that poor people needed to do was get off their lazy butts and cook for themselves instead of eating prepared food. She cites many of the major obstacles to even minimal cooking, including the lack of kitchen facilities in so many temporary accommodations that many of the most poor but not quite homeless are put up in. When there's barely room for a bed and a chair or sofa, it's simply not safe to try to squeeze in anything to cook on, because anything to heat food needs enough space to keep it away from flammable items.

She also found it annoying that the blogger in question seemed to treat such poverty with an attitude of faux nostalgia for elders' stories of the tight times during and immediately after WWII, when almost everything was rationed and everyone was exhorted to make do with less. The notion that poverty is somehow uplifting to the soul, with that whiff of the notion that the poor should be grateful for their suffering as an opportunity to praise God/practice detachment/whatever.

One note for US readers: the writer is living in England, and at several points I had to mentally translate from the Queen's English to Noah Webster's. Yes, the US and UK remain two countries divided by a common language.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Money" by Pink Floyd
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meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: Exploring the Moral Gray Area

This is going to be my last actual Bittercon post for Capricon, thanks to unanticipated time pressures. However, I'm going to hang onto the other topics I'd wanted to Bittercon on, and I'll use them as springboards for future posts.

I'm a bit surprised by the description of this topic, because lack of gray areas really isn't a big problem in current speculative fiction. Yes, there was a time when sf and fantasy tended to simplistic black and white hats with little nuance.

These days it seems more like the problem is how to write gray areas without them devolving into gray goo, in which nothing matters and there's nothing worth standing up for. Or worse, worlds in which all hats are gray in the dark and readers feel forced to figure out which is the lesser evil. As if you always had to choose one or the other side, and there was no option to say "why can't you both lose?"

For me at least, one of the most interesting -- and poignant -- exploration of gray areas is when a character's principles are in conflict with themselves. Where keeping one principle means breaking another, and taking no action simply isn't an option. Not the contrived little "ethics problems" you find in textbooks, but the sort of complicated problems that grow organically from trying to live in a world full of other moral actors, some working at cross purposes for reasons that may not be clear to themselves.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Cast No Shadow" by Oasis