Monday, June 30, 2014

The Long -- Boring -- Earth

Authors strive for that signature style: That voice that helps them stand out from the crowd and that screams out “THIS IS ME” to their readers.

So should it concern me that I got to page 128 of “The Long Earth” by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett before I encountered the first real thing I thought was Terry Pratchettesque?

Maybe not concern me. But it should concern Terry Pratchett.

Now, I don’t know how involved Baxter and Pratchett were in their collaboration on this book (part of a series, I understand). Maybe Pratchett was more of a consultant? That’s certainly what it feels like, because there’s little of the Pratchett wit or style in this rather dull tome. Round about page 128, we run into an old war veteran who wounds vaguely like Sergeant Jackrum from Pratchett’s “Monstrous Regiment,” and there for a moment I had hope about this novel. But I’ve read on and the hope has faded quite a bit.

Again, I don’t know how this collaboration worked. But given that Pratchett has top billing on the book’s cover, I was hopeful. Maybe my warning should have been that the book came from the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. The only more telling spot this book could have come from would have been Dollar Tree (though to be fair I have found some well-written books there, so location isn’t everything).

But here’s a more important question: Is an author with a voice as unique as Pratchett’s doomed to having to inject that voice into everything he writes? Perhaps it’s too much for a fanboy like me to ask that everything with the Pratchett name have that same Pratchett signature. Maybe Sir Terry decided he wanted to take his writing down a different road – The Long Earth is science fiction, not fantasy, after all. Perhaps he decided the genre and the idea contained in sci-fi called for a different writing style?

Yet I wonder.

John Steinbeck, another favorite author, kept his voice consistent throughout his major works. Even in my least-favorite Steinbeck book – Travels with Charly – it’s clear as you read that the book, a travelogue, is written by Steinbeck. Anyone familiar with Steinbeck’s style could pick up a copy of Travels, read it, and without glancing at the cover, know it was Steinbeck. The same can be said for the likes of Hemingway.

So it’s a bit of a letdown, even allowing for a writer’s freedom, that The Long Earth feels so unpratchettesque. And that’s a problem. Many people picking up this book with Pratchett’s name displayed on the cover so prominently are bound to be disappointed – particularly as, contrary to what the SFReader reviewer says – the story is particularly dull and far, far away from the vividness of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to which the reviewer compares this novel.

I think where the greatest disappointment lies is in the characters themselves. They’re dull, interchangeable, and rather forgettable. There is ample room to make the main characters – the artificial intelligence Lobsang – a reincarnation of a Tibetian motorcycle mechanic; and Joshua, a natural “Stepper” able to visit the parallel earths without aid of technology, potato-powered or not – far more interesting than they are. As it is, they’re set aside and left rather one-dimensional in favor of the idea of having unlimited Earths to explore. Even the magnificent airship Lobsang creates to accomplish the journey is dull where in Pratchett’s hands alone it would have been more magnificent. And we’d have a memorable explanation as to why the ship is called The Mark Twain.

Pratchett’s strength as an author is what he shares with Charles Dickens: An inexhaustible capacity for creating characters that compel the story. There is a reason, for example, that every Watch novel in Pratchett’s Discworld series becomes a Sam Vimes novel – because it’s the character of Sir Samuel that makes up the Watch and everything about the watch, with lots of interesting characters along for the ride. Each subplot of a Watch novel is character-driven, but driven in a way that keeps the overall story going.

There is no such thing in The Long Earth. And it’s clear I’m not the only one bothered by that.

So this is a good cautionary tale for me as a writer – again, clear evidence why writers who want to be good ought to be voracious and observant readers, ready to deconstruct what they like and don’t like about what they read. As I re-read my own work, I have to take into consideration: Where am I failing my own potential audience? And where am I failing myself as a writer as I analyze the writing of others?

This Study Makes Me Angry [In A Futurama Kind of Way]

So it appears Facebook, back in 2012, manipulated some users’ news feeds to show them, for the period of two weeks, more negative news than they would otherwise have seen.

Hands up anyone who noticed. Anyone. Truthfully. And I want proof from your Facebook feed that you were manipulated. And that the manipulation was harmful in any way.

CNN Money tries to explain the manipulation thusly:

Toying with people's emotions is always a potential byproduct of A/B testing, but it's a step too far to intentionally make some users feel negative emotions. That distinction might be subtle, but it's important.

For example, most people would be fine with an Amazon experiment that manipulated search results that drove us to make healthier food purchases. But there would be an uproar if Amazon drove a group of customers to make less healthy choices for a week. 

To that, let me say this: Hahahaha.

Additionally, let me add: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

An uproar?

Has the author of this piece actually looked at any type of, for example, television advertising since the 1950s? Tell me television advertising hasn’t been – and still isn’t – rife with manipulative drivel that makes us want to make “less healthy choices.”

An uproar? Really? We’re so used to advertisers urging us to make unhealthy, unwise choices do you think we’re even going to blink if an Internet company is going to offer us more sad news than usual during an experiment?

Maybe we should be upset. Maybe there should be an uproar. But taken in context, this Facebook manipulation is small, small, small potatoes.

And what, exactly, did this “manipulation” discover? This deep, dark Facebook secret: When Facebook users see more negative news in their news feeds, they tend to post more negative news of their own. And when they see more positive news in their news feeds, they tend to post more positive news.

Feel manipulated?

Here’s what the study paper says, from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive scale [emotional] contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and non-verbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

So what Facebook did is to determine what should already be mostly obvious: We tend to reflect the emotional states of the people we associate with. If we associate with gloomy people, we’re going to trend gloomy. And if we surround ourselves with more chipper fellas, well then, we’re going to be happier.

(PDF of the PNAS paper.)

Of course, who cares about the science of it all when there’s the whaarrrgarbl to be had over the fact that Facebook didn’t let these anonymous users opt in to the experiment, but instead buried text letting them conduct testing and research using content posted on Facebook in those dreaded End User License Agreements that absolutely none of us read. (Add to that the fact that the study uses the scary word “contagion” which freaks out anyone who doesn’t realize they’re just talking about the spread of positive or negative vibes, not some scary virus.)

I know there are legalities and such that must be met for studies to go forth. I don't know all their ins and outs. PNAS does -- and they published the study. If there's ethical concern there, then that's PNAS' kettle of crazy to stir.

Let us opt in to such experimentation, they say. That’s more fair.

It’s also weaker science.

Put a bunch of drivers on the road and they’re going to drive like they always drive. Until they see a cop. Then all of a sudden that normal everyday behavior changes. People drive more cautiously. They put away the cell phones and surreptitiously put on their seat belts. Nobody speeds, everybody behaves. But as soon as the cop pulls off the highway, all that normal behavior returns.

What information is more valuable in determining whether roads are safe, whether speed limits could be increased, or whether seat belt laws are being followed?

So please, spare me the drama. And go back to posting mysterious posts of your own in which you emotionally manipulate your friends into posting that you’re pretty, you’re manly, or random bits of encouragement to your post which merely says: Bad mood.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Post FY15 Hijinx at the Idaho Cleanup Project: Four Contracts?

Rumors had been that the Department of Energy would combine contracts for both the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project and the Idaho Cleanup Project into one contract.

Today, however, DOE announced the work currently being done under two contracts will, through 2020 (and in one case, 2024) be done in no fewer than four contracts.

Still scratching my head over the whole deal.

DOE’s announcement is here.

At the core, it means work will continue in some sort on the cleanup side of the Idaho National Laboratory into the mid 2020s. But on the surface, I’m still trying to figure out what it all means.

At a glance, it appears that the ICP Core contract is the one that most closely mirrors the work I’ve been doing at the Site for the past eight years, with the addition of AMWTP work under this contract (the contract consolidation that was rumored):

The ICP-Core post FY15 EM mission work encompasses ongoing Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP) and ICP work scopes that must continue into the future: stabilizing and dispositioning spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste; dispositioning transuranic waste; retrieving targeted buried waste; closing the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC) tank farm; maintaining CERCLA remedial actions; miscellaneous D&D work incidental to ICP-Core scope; and operating and maintaining the INTEC and RWMC facility infrastructure.

The other three contracts are a bit of a noodle-scratcher. Calcine Disposition and Spent Fuel will be in one contract, with NRC-Licensed facilities under another, with D&D and construction of ARP 9 under a third contract. Having ARP 9 built on a small business contract isn’t that much of a surprise, as past ARPs have been done in the same manner. But seeing the D&D work fall into a different contract than the core work is something new, as is dividing out the other cleanup work being done principally at INTEC (with a little at TAN).

It’ll be interesting to see which contracts ICP’s current contractor will go after. I expect exciting, yet unsettled times in the year ahead. I feel confident, however, there’ll still be a job for me once the contractual dust settles.

Something for the Cellar of Iapetus' Mind

There exists at the heart of science fiction the IDEA.

The IDEA must be expressed in bold letters -- for the IDEA is that  big something, that enormous root filled with flavor and sustenance and bulk and fiber that nourishes the characters through the story.

But they forget the gas.

The idea that the IDEA is, at its fundament, entirely stupid. Oh, a new planet to colonize. A million earths, filled with riches that will make the value of gold, of diamonds, of property plummet so that Humanity with the capital H can pursue higher ideals of love, of trust, cooperation and truth.


I've seen it. I am the sole inhabitant if a world, such as they strive for. No government or potentate or corporation put me here. I put myself here using tools as common as sticks and blenders.

Yet no one joins me.

I am a man of modest means and only average intelligence. There are many more capable. More worthy. Yet here I am. And I do not seek riches or fame or the things the IDEA tells me to leave behind. But I do not find truth. Or cooperation. Or love or trust. I find vast emptiness that I long for yet a vast emptiness that will kill me or worse, extend the distance from my archipelago of thought to the teeming shores. And the only freedom I find comes from the oblivion of sleep, which I could have far more comfortably without the IDEA hoping to use me as a tool for the hope of fools.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rectangle America Megaphone Monday Butthole Kind of Writing

I am kind of a numbers freak.

And by numbers, I mean the number of words I write on a given project and the number of pages I read in a given year.

Beyond that, numbers are boring to me. Tell me a number – a phone number, an address, anything you want – and it’s highly likely I won’t remember it. Unless the number has real meaning, I’m not going to remember it.

Besides, most numbers are arbitrary anyway – even the few I track.

 Did I read at least 12,000 pages a year, 1,000 pages a month? I hope so. That’s my target. Why? I don’t know. 1,000 pages a year is a nice round number.

Same for the 75,000 words I aimed for in the current draft to DOLEFUL CREATURES. I hit that number. Does it mean the book is done yet? No. Will it be done at 100,000 words? I don’t know. That depends on how many words I add and how many words I end up cutting out of Revision No. 5.
And how many times do I need to revise the novel before I can say it’s done? I don’t know. Ask me when it’s done.

So to read Jamie Todd Rubin’s Daily Beast piece about the painful amount of data he’s collecting on himself just leaves me wondering: Why?

He points to a Stephen Wolfram blog post in which Wolfram babbles at length on the number of emails he’s sent or received and the number of meetings he’s attended and the number of phone calls he’s fielded or made as justification for tracking all the little numbers in his life.

And Wolfram’s post leaves me wondering: Why?

It’s fine if you want to collect and analyze that kind of data.

But is doing so going to make you a better writer, or is it just busywork?

Rubin does say this:

For me, the results have been remarkable. I’ve sold stories more quickly and with fewer rejections along the way—a sign that the practice has helped to improve my writing. The volume of writing has allowed me to branch out into nonfiction articles as well.

So, okay, that’s great.

But there are no numbers to back it up. How much more quickly? And by how much have you reduced your rejections? And how many articles and short stories and books have you sold? And given that you wrote over 400,000 words in the year you tracked your data – more than in the 20 years prior to 2013 – could it be the quantity of writing is what put you over the edge, not the tracking of the data?

Additionally, if he’s tracking the type of writing that’s giving him the most return on investment, I’m not seeing the numbers here. You’d think a guy who wants to become a full-time writer would be analyzing the hell out of the type of writing that gets him the most cash. Maybe he is – and again, if he is, that’s great. But wouldn’t you think touting those numbers would be central to an article in which he advocates tracking numbers and says it helps him improve as a writer?

And his writing tips (and his writing) are pretty pedestrian, given the number of numbers he’s collected:

  • Content, not word count (I’d like to see him write a script that tells him how good his writing is versus how much he’s pounded the keyboard).
  •  Flexibility in when and where you write.
  • Making work accessible from anywhere.
  • Tuning out surroundings.
  • Plan writing even on busy days.
  • Have multiple projects.

None of that is earth-shattering. You just have to do it. And I guess if tracking an insane amount of numbers is what motivates you, that’s fine. But until I see the numbers for the Amigo Money, all the numbers you toss out just aren’t convincing enough.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This Doesn't Bode Well. But it Tropes Nicely.

I’m eight pages into “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, and can already tick the following off the long list of science fiction clichés:

Displaced protragonists.
Socially-anachronistic displaced protagonists.
Multi-dimensional planetismals.
Technobabble meant to explain the multi-dimensional planetismals.
The absent-minded professor spouting the technobabble and other little tid-bits meant to advertise hey, Absent-Minded Professor.
Comically disguised superintelligence.
A shadowy pseudo-corporation bent on taking advantage of the multi-dimensional planetismals.

I will continue to read, because TERRY PRATCHETT. Who wouldn’t continue reading? But I’m leery. Co-authoring. That typically doesn’t bode well. Sure, Stephen Baxter also brags in the liner notes that he co-write a book with Arthur C. Clarke. But so has Gentry Lee. Remember Rama II? If you like turning down the volume on Clarke’s typical with wondering awe jaws-agape science fiction with a Michael Crichton let’s-inch-up-the-terror killfest, then you probably do remember Rama II.

You have to expect a certain amount of trope and cliché from any novel, but sci-fi is a genre that unfortunately lends to them more readily (second only to fantasy). Some of the tropes and clichés are handled quite well, while others, well, are there because they’re expected, not because they’re artfully done.

I suspect, unfortunately, that this book will be much of the latter.

Good sci-fi is about the IDEA – Clarke’s 2001 was about extraterrestrial intelligence forming, and then re-contacting, life on Earth; Azimov’s Bicentennial Man was about artificial intelligence becoming self-aware; Chevalier’s Cyborg Harpies trilogies was apparently about an android that discovers feelings. And I love the IDEA behind sci-fi. Character is secondary to the IDEA – note the complete interchangeability of the characters in Rendezvous with Rama, totally overshadowed by the IDEA.

Sci-fi doesn’t need quirky characters – or if it does it’s for window-dressing. But the curtains shouldn’t conceal the IDEA. We’ll see what happens with the IDEA here.