Month: September 2014

Oh, ‘Ello

There’s been a lot of noise about Ello in the last few days, triggered specifically by Facebook’s missteps on requiring real names but powered by a deep undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the social behemoth.

One Tool To Bind Them All

Facebook wants* to be not only the primary social network for the entire world but the primary method of accessing the Internet: if Amazon wants to be the Everything Store, Facebook wants to be the Everywhere Site. This motive makes a lot of sense, because if everyone uses Facebook then Facebook can deliver the attention of everyone to their customers, the advertisers**.

Where Facebook’s model breaks is that as they seek to deliver user attention to their customer’s advertising, they introduce barriers to communication between users. This reduces the value of Facebook to the users, making it more likely that they will look for other ways to keep in touch with their contacts.

What Facebook needed to do was to make themselves indispensable before they brought down the monetisation hammer, and they don’t quite seem to have managed that. They’re trying to balance the value their users get from the site against the inconvenience they need to inflict on them in order to deliver user attention, but even though so many people continue to use Facebook because of the social network it captures, that use is tainted by unhappiness that they feel forced to use something that doesn’t actually do what they want any more.

Poisoning the Well

What is Facebook doing wrong? With so many users, how could it fail?

Facebook is not the only manically agglomerative Internet corporation – Google is doing basically the same thing in terms of trying to deliver attention to the advertisers that actually pay the bills, but their business operates alongside the web rather than trying to replace it: Google provides services to its users that are still of value to those users. Many people are unhappy with Google in principle***, but Google’s services enable people to use the Internet more efficiently.

Facebook’s service is getting in the way.

The obvious comparison for me is with Twitter – Twitter is a firehose, if you choose it to be: an unmediated flood of information, which you filter by being selective in what you consume. Facebook mediates – it filters on your behalf, without your explicit input or approval – which means you don’t always see the things you would expect to see. Worse than that, it posts things into your timeline which you would never choose: sponsored links, invitations to play crummy games, likes and proxied posts. What you get in your stream is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unusable.

The immediacy of posts is what Twitter does very well****, and it is exactly where Facebook fails.

Making Choices

Facebook is not the only social tool, though. There are a number of options for users, depending on what it is they want to achieve. All of them have their problems, but all of them have their place.

The following are personal observations of tools I have used extensively. Other social tools are available.

  • Facebook – good for keeping in touch with real-life friends. I have contacts there with friends from school I would not otherwise talk to, and with former colleagues and family members. But Facebook has really broken the front page stream: its curation makes it unusable, and the lack of any kind of content search means that finding a post you saw before (or even a reply you made to someone else’s post) is functionally impossible.
  • Twitter – good for keeping real-time tabs on subjects and people. Less personal than Facebook but with less mediation so you can make direct contact more easily than in FB. I’ve already alluded to Twitter’s most pressing problem: dealing with the flood of information. There is also a risk that Twitter will move to exactly the auto-curation and proxy post model that makes Facebook so disliked.
  • Google+ – part of the Google collective, so that is be a problem for some. G+ did some things exactly right out of the gate: the circles were brilliant and were only faintly echoed in Facebook, and the introduction of Twitter-esque hashtags helped a lot. But they missed a couple of tricks on search and filtering, and they could have recovered a lot of the ill will lost when Reader was killed by incorporating RSS feed ingest into their stream model. G+ isn’t the ghost town that many claim, but it’s about half as useful as it should actually be. Still, you can search for posts rather than just people and that counts for a lot.

There are a couple of collaborative tools I use in the day job which should really be measured as social network tools, but they are not really of general interest so I will omit them here.

Pinterest? Instagram? Snapchat? I don’t use those much, if at all, so I have few meaningful opinions on them.

Why Ello?

Ello came to public awareness in the wake of Facebook’s misguided “real names” policy, although I wanted to look at it because I thought the idea of a more focussed tool that was only about social interaction rather than posting more crappy memes and manky games was attractive. As of this writing it is spare to point of unusability, but the features it has are pretty solid: it’s alpha-level features with beta-level stability, as one acquaintance put it, which is almost exactly the other way around from most tools like this (yes, Jive, I am looking at you).

It is simple, and it really does mostly work. I like it.

Will it become the next Facebook? I doubt it – I expect Ello to become one of a constellation of social tools which interoperate rather than becoming a dominant player – but I also think Ello will be genuinely useful when Facebook is a pile of faintly glowing blue dust.

Why Facebook?

After all of that, I still use Facebook and I don’t especially expect to stop.

Why?

Because of the people.

That’s the killer feature that Facebook has: the people on the tool that aren’t anywhere else. Until and unless we have a federated social landscape, that will be Facebook’s advantage to lose.

Although they seem to be working pretty hard at doing that.

Find Me

My Facebook profile is friends-only because it’s a personal presence rather than a professional one.

But, I can be found on Twitter and Ello at @dunxiswriting.

Say ‘ello.

[*] Facebook is a corporation without actual desires or motives, but it has behaviour so as a shorthand here I am going to impute motives based on the corporation’s actions.

[**] you knew this, didn’t you? You maybe a user, but you are not the customer. If you are not paying for the use of a service, then you are the product.

[***] I don’t mention privacy in this post, but this is where I would.

[****] at least for now.

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Sharing wiki, part 2

I wrote last week that I couldn’t share a TWiki instance between machines. In the comments, Brian Enigma pointed me at TiddlyWiki*.

This tool is about as close as I can get to what I want:

  • I can share the data via a cloud drive
  • I can setup a distinct file for each cluster of data
  • bonus: I can view the wiki contents on any device I can install Firefox and the cloud drive onto**

Setting Up

The setup instructions for TiddlyWiki are pretty simple:

  1. install Firefox
  2. install the TiddlyFox plugin
  3. load the wiki file into Firefox

If this is the first time you’ve used TiddlyWiki you can download a blank file from the site, or open up an existing file such as this one: world-book.

Once it’s loaded up, go to the Control Panel icon (the cog) and look around for things to change.

  • name
  • subtitle
  • colour scheme

Workflow

The workflow for making a world book with TiddlyWiki is the same as for any wiki: make a root page and type in links to pages you want to create.

I will write more about using this particular tool for building up a world book another time. In the meantime, experiment with this file: world-book

Glitches

This has been going pretty well for me so far after a few hours of use, but I’ve tripped over a few issues.

  • editing colour schemes is fiddly.
  • synchronisation of the saved file content is seamless from the computer, but pulling it down onto the phone. Forcing the page to reload is not as easy as I would like either.
  • Dropbox supports access to previous versions of the file, but the whole file is versioned: there’s no reverting an individual wiki entry
  • linking to existing pages requires remembering the names of those pages. There are tools in the UI which help (in fact, more than in TWiki…) but there’s still a lot of error potential

Still, this is a usable little tool with lighter requirements and simpler setup. It won’t do for a collaborative wiki, but for individual data where there’s only one author but multiple authoring locations it seems pretty likely.

At least I don’t feel like I need to take six months off writing to develop DataFrame any more.

[*] which is a name I love just because of the tiddlywinks reference.

[**] I can do this on my phone, but not on my Kindle Fire since there’s no Firefox available on there (at least not through the Amazon app store).

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Beating the Blerch

One of my goals for this last period* was to train for and participate in the Beat the Blerch half marathon on 21st September, which was this Sunday just gone.

Why This Race

This was supposed to be a big race year for me, mostly built around running Hood To Coast. The timing of the Beat the Blerch run was perfect as a post-HTC run to close the season.

More to the point, my brother-in-law lives pretty close to Carnation, WA where BtB was being run, so it ended up being a nice family weekend with a trip up the Space Needle in Seattle and a delicious brunch high in the sky. It was all very civilised.

Getting There

number on shirt

number on shirt

Another very civilised thing about this weekend was the timing of the race. Most races that I’ve run have begun at eight in the morning or earlier, but the BtB start was 9:30 for the half marathon. This lulled me into a slightly false sense of security around getting to Carnation on time, but I was well set when I left: fully hydrated, properly fed, and generally in a good place.

going the right way

going the right way

I landed lucky when I got to the venue, too – I snagged one of the last parking spaces at Tolt Middle School which was only a short walk from the start.

This was all good, but I was still very nervous. The training that I usually do for a half had been truncated because it took me so long to recover from June’s stomach flu: the longest run I had done in training was only a little more than ten miles – hilly to be sure, but still shorter than I usually aim for. And I was tired. My taper for the race had only really started a few days earlier and I had continued to cycle through it. I was really quite worried going in as to how well I would manage to run the distance.

lots of happy people

lots of happy people

Fortunately, the atmosphere at the race start was very soothing. There were two thousand people registered to race for that day, and it was a joyous collection of people. I had my Blerch technical T on but that was more or less a baseline outfit: there were Bob Cats, and Blerches, and cake fairies, and one particularly excellent outfit where the runner had a cupcake on a stick fixed to his head, and the words “the cake is a lie” written on his shirt.

The weather could not have been more cooperative. There had been some early morning mist further up the valley but that had entirely cleared and the sun was warming the air.

So, yeah. A great place to be.

The Oatmeal in his amazing suit

The Oatmeal in his amazing suit

time to take a load off

time to take a load off

where the race began

where the race began

Racing

ready to race

ready to race

Two thousand people might sound like a lot of racers, but it’s much smaller than most of the runs I’ve done. The Portland Shamrock, for instance, has 35,000 runners taking part in several different events. Splitting that couple of thousand BtB racers fairly sloppily across three distances gives something like 700 runners in each. Still, small trails meant they still did a staggered start for the half marathon.

When my cohort lurched across the start line my immediate thought was how sunny it was: I hadn’t put any sun screen on (because it had been misty when I left the house…) but the full sun didn’t last. Once you were past the paved section, the trail dived into woodland.

The route was a mostly flat out-and-back along the Snoqualmie Valley trail, an old railway bed that had been converted into a mixed use path. This was the first run I have done where the majority of the route was unpaved and it was a little difficult because of that. Paved roads are in some ways more tiring to run on, but they also return your energy more efficiently whereas the gravel just soaks up your footfalls. I also found that I had to stop three times to get stones out of my shoes.

It was beautiful, though – really calming to run along through this gorgeous woodland. And it was highly entertaining.

Let me tell you about the aid stations.

me, a yeti, and a Blerch, who had Netflix on her phone.

me, a yeti, and a Blerch, who had Netflix on her phone.

Usually, aid stations have water and some kind of electrolyte drink. Sometimes you’ll get gel shots or gummy bears**. Well, the BtB aid stations had water, and weird purple drink***, and gel shots. But they also had birthday cake, and Nutella sandwiches.

And they had sofas, and Blerches. And a yeti.

Blerches, Blerches everywhere!

Blerches, Blerches everywhere!

The actual running part went fairly well. Basically, I ran the whole of the first ten miles, chatting with some of the other runners and trying to be witty in between gasps. I especially enjoyed the runner in the bunch of grapes costume. I eschewed the blandishments of the aid stations since I was carrying my own water and some salt capsules****, but that last aid station is where I had a bit of a sit down, and a nutella sandwich.

Gosh, that is a delicious thing to eat after ten miles of running.

After that it took me a while to get running again, and at the eleven mile mark I was pretty sure I was done. I texted my wife to let her know that I was probably walking the last two miles and while I did in fact get up to something close to running speed at some points along the last section I was pretty much wrecked by the time I got to the finish.

But I did get to the finish.

Final time: 2h30m24 – about 25 minutes slower than my fastest half marathon two years ago.

I look about as desperate as I felt

I look about as desperate as I felt

the medal, in less sweaty surroundings

the medal, in less sweaty surroundings

A Very Sad Closing Note

In the last half mile I saw where someone had collapsed by the side of the trail and was being assisted by about half a dozen people, other runners and volunteers alike. I didn’t stop because I would just have been in the way at that point, but I do remember hoping that he would be all right. I overheard someone else say that there was a doctor in the race who had stopped to help.

I heard this morning that the poor fellow died. He was only 28.

Very, very sad, and a sobering reminder that these races are not risk-free no matter how experienced a runner you are.

There is a fundraiser to help his family.

[*] and I really do need to find a more suitable term for this. The reporting dates are sabbats, so intersabbat perhaps?

[**] the section of road after the gummy aid station in the Portland Marathon was so sticky, it really slowed you down. It was a gummy apocalypse.

[***] as described at the end of the fifth section of The Wonderful and Terrible Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.

[****] I need electrolytes during a race, but I cannot stomach electrolyte drinks after more than about an hour of running. Salt capsules get me through.

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2014 Goals Post: Mabon Edition

It’s been an interesting few weeks since my last goals update, although (stop me if you’ve heard this before…) not necessarily as productive as I would have liked on fiction.

Summary

GoalImOsBeMiLuMaSaYu
Finish Songn/a1/2n/an/a4/121/2
Complete Shapesn/a3/3n/an/a1/2n/a
Look for an agentn/an/an/an/an/an/a
Be productive in fictionn/a1/3n/an/a1/21/2
Run Hood To Coast Improve Fitnessn/a1/4n/an/a2/44/4

Nice to see a green and no reds, although I also have more holes appearing from goals with no targets assigned for the last period. In other words, better results but on fewer things.

1. Finish Song

Here is the plan:

  1. To complete the outline.
    Last action: complete detailed outline.
    I did a lot more work on character goals and plot details but I then realised that I was stalling by trying to build the perfect outline rather than just making words when I actually have the material I needed to forge on with the writing – hence my reopening the word mines.
    So, calling this done.
  2. To complete the second draft in line with the outline.
    Last action:
    continue second draft process.
    I started in on the drafting, and then hit a wall because of time lost to other priorities. I will witter on about this a bit more in discussing fiction productivity below, but I am still nominally working on this draft so this counts as a worked-on-but-still-incomplete goal.
    Next action: continue second draft process.
  3. Edit that second draft. Pending completion of steps (1) and (2).
  4. Make submission materials. Pending completion of step (3).

I am making progress, although not as quickly as I would like.

Goal Assessment

Goals from Lughnasadh were:

  • complete detailed outline – five acts
  • restart draft of act three – half of the outlined scenes

Total: I declared the outline as complete as it needs to be and I stand by that. The drafting I have done is of 6/15 scenes, which is 40% – not quite the 50% I was looking for. So, call this a yellow – a pretty greenish yellow, but still yellow.

Goals for next update: the next six weeks are all about drafting: I need to get to the end of this draft so I can write something else in November. If that fails, then I will write my 50k on this draft instead…

My goal for the Samhain update is:

  • complete draft of remaining acts – nine scenes in act three, twelve in act four, plus two in resolution.

Metric: Yellow for finishing act three, green for all of them.

2. Complete Shapes

Here is the plan for Shapes:

  1. finish reading of draft – once for readability, once for errors.
    Last action: complete draft reading and markup.
    Complete!
  2. apply corrections from draft read.
    Complete!
  3. give it to my wife to read.
    Complete!
  4. restructure outline. Pending feedback from step (3).
  5. second draft – make existing material match outline; add new material. Pending step (4).

Goals Assessment

No goals set for this period. At this point I am expecting to start editing in the new year, although I may come back to the outline in December.

3. Look for an agent

Last action: finish a novel so I have a manuscript to query.

This goal is pending having a manuscript I can shop around.

Having said that, I have been doing more reading lately, especially in near future SF, which I think can reasonably be considered as market research.

Still, I think I have to call this goal abandoned for this year since there’s no reasonable way that I will have a novel to shop in the next three months.

4. Be productive in fiction

I am feeling very frustrated that I have not been more productive in words, but there are lots of things which have been pulling me away from the keyboard:

  • blogging – this blog keeps me writing, but sometimes it is all that I write.
  • roleplaying – between A New Dawn with my gaming group and the fantasy dungeon I have started for my boys, there’s more writing time gone.
  • cycling – I like running but I love cycling. Unfortunately, if I ride to work then I don’t write on the bus, and I have done a rotten job of writing a lunch time – especially because not all lunchtimes are available.

I have the nagging feeling that I can achieve only a limited number of things, and that writing fiction is too far down the stack. How can I increase its priority level?

Goals Assessment

  • write early in the morning – I’m going to call this achieved since I have been getting up early in order to do most of my blogging, although it has not been fiction writing.
  • write at lunch when I ride – I started riding to work again in late August and think I have managed to write at lunchtime roughly twice in all that time. So, mark that a fail.

Total: 1/2 – yellow

Goals for next update: keeping both of these goals but adding a third – writing some fiction, let’s say at least a thousand words a day. This was the word mining goal for September.

  • write early in the morning
  • write at lunch when I ride
  • write 1,000 words a day of fiction
  • plan for NaNoWriMo – because it’s only six weeks away now.

Metric: Yellow for two or three of these, green for all four.

5. Run Hood To Coast Improve Fitness Level

Here is the plan for the original goal, although the goal itself has changed:

  1. lose some weight.
    Last action: lose more weight.
    Remarkably enough, this was actually achieved! My weight went up a bit at the beginning of August, but with eating (slightly) better and exercising more I’m back down to post-stomach flu weight. So, hurrah! Now I just have to keep this going…
    Next action: continue weight loss trajectory.
  2. figure out a team training plan.
  3. races.
    Last action: ride to work a couple of days a week.
    Last action: train for Beat the Blerch
    I have been riding to work two or three days a week since the middle of August. Hurrah!
    I also trained for, and completed, the Beat the Blerch half marathon. I’ll write a post about that a little later.
    That’s it for races this year, so this goal is complete.
  4. injuries.
    Last action: no new injuries.
    Success! I have not had any more injuries! Which is actually a good thing, because the existing ones have been nagging at me – my right ankle is always weak for a day or more after a long run, which is distressing. What I really need to do now is get less injured in this period between race seasons.
    Next action: nurse my injuries so they can heal.

Goals Assessment

    • lose another five pounds – I lost five pounds! Admittedly not actually from the point where I was after the last update, but still. This was a more healthy loss, based on diet and exercise rather than gut-churning illness, so I am going call this one achieved.
    • train for Beat the Blerch – achieved, although in truth the training was marginal.I still feel the ghost of June’s stomach flu.
    • participate in Beat the Blerch – achieved. I ran most of it, although things fell apart rather in the last couple of miles. Still, I got to the end and got my medal.
    • ride to work a couple of times a week – definitely achieved.

Total: 4/4 – green!

Goals for next update: since all my races are done for the year (the next one is likely to be Shamrock in March) my goals now are focussing on losing weight and maintaining or improving fitness levels.

    • lose five pounds – five pounds in six weeks is something I should be able to manage.
    • ride to work until it’s too wet or cold to continue – the dark doesn’t worry me and the rain is only a minor concern, but when we start to have a risk of ice on the roads I get much more concerned.
    • nurse injuries – I would really like my ankle and foot pain to go away.

Metric: yellow for 1-2, green for 3

Risks

Things that may sabotage these goals –

  1. bad writing choices – again I come back to doing the blogging when I should be fictioning, but social media and other time-wasting do not help.
  2. roleplaying – and speaking of non-fiction writing… there is going to be a new season of A New Dawn in October, as well as my boys’ game. AND will only be one or two sessions over the next few months due to collisions with Thanksgiving and the like so the impact should not be large, but “should be” is often a long way away from reality.
  3. kids’ sport – Saturdays and one or two evenings a week are going to be largely blown with supporting my kids and helping at practice until the end of October. In point of fact, I am writing this post on what should have been a practice evening, but the boy was injured and so did not go. Normally, Monday would not be a writing time in the evening at all.

I am glad the fitness goals have been achieved, since a stronger body will lead to a more productive mind, but I’m still not doing enough writing – close on Song, which is cool, but not quite enough. Having said that, if you make all of your goals then maybe your goals aren’t challenging enough.

Time to make those fingers fly.

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Wiki, the Unsharing

I was hoping that this would be a triumphant post where I explained how to share a wiki installation between multiple computers, but I couldn’t make it work.

So this post is a series of markers on what I tried and where it failed.

I was operating on a TWiki instance I had running on my day job Mac.

Making Wiki Work Again

In my instructions for installing TWiki on Mac OS X, I noted that they are for versions 10.6 and 10.7. My day job Mac is now running v10.9, and the wiki didn’t work any more.

First of all, Apple removed control of web sharing in v10.8. To activate it again, download this plugin.

Unzip it and move it somewhere sensible (I put it in /Applications/Utilities) then run it. You will be asked whether to install it for all users or just the logged in user – for a single-user computer it doesn’t really matter which.

Then click on the big slider switch, and you should be back in business.

Secondly, TWiki uses RCS for versioning of the pages, but Mac OS X v10.9 doesn’t include RCS any more.

Fortunately, it is available through package managers like MacPorts and Homebrew.

  1. install the package manager of your choice. I use Homebrew because it doesn’t require sudo.
  2. install RCS, eg brew install rcs
  3. configure TWiki to use the newly installed RCS rather than the one which is now missing.

The Easy Bit: Making the Wiki Run on a Shared Drive

  1. copy the TWiki data – copied the entire twiki directory to the cloud drive. Important here to preserve permissions.
  2. pointed the web server directory at the cloud drive – made a symbolic link to point the existing TWiki install location at the cloud drive.
  3. modify cloud drive permissions – need to loosen permissions on the cloud drive to allow the web server to read it.

With this approach, you don’t even need to restart Apache. I was browsing and editing wiki pages on the original computer in short order.

The Hard Bit: Making the Wiki Run on a Different Computer

Again, I was operating on an existing TWiki installation on another Mac.

  1. wait for the cloud drive to sync – need the current TWiki data!
  2. repeat the same trick with pointing the web server directory at the cloud drive – again, used a symbolic link
  3. loosen the cloud drive permissions – again, need to allow the web server to access the cloud drive

This got me to the point where I could browse the wiki, but modifying it would not work. I ended with these classes of failures:

  • incompatible data – I couldn’t log in with the wiki user from the original machine.
  • permissions issues – Dropbox could not sync all the files because the permissions were too close for it to read them. This particularly applied to working files (session data, error messages). I could modify those permissions so that Dropbox would actually finish its sync, but any new files are created with the tighter permissions.

So, overall, an interesting experiment but not a good result.

What Next?

I still like wikis as tools for worldbuilding, but I need to share the wiki across multiple computers with inconstant network access which means I need to find a different wiki implementation than TWiki, which makes me a little sad.

Or I may actually have to write DataFrame.

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Consciousness, Artificial and Otherwise

Since I write science fiction, I often have characters who are artificial beings of one kind or another. Sometimes their sapience is taken as read, but in other instances there’s more of an opportunity to consider what minds are and how they could be created artificially.

Made How?

There have been stories of artificial beings of varying levels of intelligence for millennia, going back at least to tales of golems. These stories are usually of some magical technique which instils the essence of life.

But “the essence of life” doesn’t really cut it when considering artificial consciousness*.

For these purposes, I will say that an artificial consciousness is a self-aware mind that did not arise through spontaneous evolution. So, a human or other ape mind is not artificial, whereas the latest winner of the Turing test most assuredly is.

So, there seems to be a continuum of origins for artificial minds.

  • made by man – human understanding of the mind is deep enough that it becomes possible to program an artificial consciousness.
  • instigated by man – the initial conditions for a mind are setup by humans, but the mind itself is formed through some kind of training. In this model, our knowledge is enough to understand what makes minds possible rather than how minds actually work. This type of mind origin would also cover artificial consciousness that emerges from another system.
  • made by machine – artificial minds make other artificial minds.

Most of these origins require some degree of learning or training for the nascent mind, but that seems desirable to me: if the only thing a mind can know is what was programmed into it on its creation, then how can it adapt and change to different circumstances? What actual use would it be?

Are Natural Minds Different?

But at this point I have to note that if artificial minds need to learn and be trained to be functional, then how is this really different from teaching a child?

I’m not a dualist: I do not believe that we have souls. I think that our minds are software running on the hardware of our brains. It’s custom software, annealed to operate on and take advantage of the specific idiosyncrasies of our cranial contents, but it’s still software: the mind is shaped by the brain and the brain is where the mind resides, but the mind is not the brain itself. In those terms, I think that copying our mental state into another medium should be possible**, but running it might be hard since the runtime for the mental state would need to be the same as the original hardware.

This is an idea which Greg Egan explored very thoroughly in his anthology Axiomatic. One of the central concepts is that people have implants which replace their brains – the implants are much tougher than brain tissue and a constantly backed up – but those implants have to be trained to replicate the personality over many years.

So while artificial minds and natural minds may need some of the same inputs to become effective, they have different properties once established: artificial minds might be copied to run on standard hardware, while human minds have social advantages which might not be afforded to artificial consciousness.

Real Artificial Consciousness

People have been trying to build artificial minds for decades, and so far the only consistent truths which have been found are that it’s always ten years away, and that if you know how it works then it’s not intelligent***.

Still, it’s coming. At some point we’ll have artificial minds amongst us.

Let’s hope that artificial consciousness has a real conscience.

[*] note that I am consciously avoiding use of the term artificial intelligence, because intelligent behaviour does not require self-awareness. Are chess playing programs self-aware? Yet making a computer play chess was a key benchmark in early AI research.

[**] assuming there are no issues with observation changing the system.

[***] eg, chess.

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DataFrame

Last year I mentioned a tool called DataFrame which I wanted for my worldbuilding on a story, but then my attempts to try to build the tool derailed the making of the story.

What was DataFrame? Why would I want it, and what do I use instead?

The point of DataFrame was to have a frictionless tool for creating linked text fragments: I wanted to be writing something and to be able to create a connection to a related note without having to jump through any hoops – indeed, I really wanted some terms to be linked automatically, or at least to be able to apply a link after the fact using a search tool.

I also imagined having multiple windows to navigate through the network of, as I termed them, frames – open a link in a new window, or have a secondary window which would display the connected text as the cursor passed through a linking term.

All of this sounds very similar to the idea of a hypertext authoring tool. I was familiar with the idea of hypertext from Douglas Adams’ documentary film Hyperland, but the web was barely in existence and I didn’t really know what I had or how to build it.

Unfortunately the hypertext authoring tools I’ve used have been anything but frictionless. The closest thing to DataFrame that I have found is a wiki, but:

  1. the editing and the viewing modes are distinct
  2. switching from one to the other is painful
  3. linking to existing pages requires that you remember the name you want to link to*
  4. changing the name of a linked to page is painful**

So, I promote wikis not because they are perfect, because they are the easiest route to something like DataFrame.

I tried writing DataFrame a couple of times: once as a text-mode editor on my Acorn Archimedes (I got as far as having a basic text editor), and once as a plugin for the Eclipse IDE (I got as far as labelling some things on the screen as links, as well as making up a small presentation to explain the idea to colleagues at the day job at the time***).

What I should probably do is work on an emacs plugin. emacs can basically do anything, and the fact that it can render a web page as either raw HTML text or as clickable text should be an indicator that DataFrame should be something that could be supported. And it’s a Lisp environment, which would be a good thing for me to work on.

But then I would end up spending what little creative time I have on programming, which is not the worst thing in the world but won’t get the book written.

I really can’t let that happen again.

Are there any tools you hanker for to smooth your writing process?

[*] there are a lot of things wrong with the business social tool Jive, but its UI for linking to other pages is pretty good.

[**] this is an example of where maintaining the use-mention distinction would have been a good idea.

[***] the presentation was to be given on the same day I found out I was made redundant, so it was not in fact presented.

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The Books I Miss

Have you ever owned a book but then lost it? Or given away a series because you were tired of it at the time but then regretted that decision for years afterwards?

That’s what this post is about: the books I once owned but still think about.

Why? Why Would I Get Rid of Books??!!!??

I only get rid of a book because I’ve run out of space.

Physical books are pretty substantial items, and I do not have infinite space to store them. Some of these books went to friends, some of them went to Powell’s book buyers. I mean, it’s quite likely I would have kept even the books I did not care for if I had had unlimited shelf space but sometimes the one particle board bookcase is full and there are new volumes in continuing series to fit on there. Space must be made!

Sometimes I will discard a book because I don’t really like it very much. This reason captures why I no longer have many literary works such as Finnegan’s Wake, Wuthering Heights, or The Return of the Native. I never got very far with the Joyce but read the other two. They were worth reading but did not engage me that deeply.

Then there are other books that fell by the wayside because I made too fast a decision which I have regretted ever since.

The Regrets

These are in the order I thought of them rather than any meaningful sequence.

  • Greg Egan – a writer of hard science fiction, rigorous and compelling. I had two of his books and I still don’t understand why I got rid of either of them.
    • Diaspora – humanity mostly lives in virtual environments, but Earth can still be threatened by large enough stellar events. Epic scale story of interstellar and interdimensional exploration.
    • Axiomatic – an anthology of short stories mostly themed around personality backups and how their introduction would change society.
  • Spellsinger (Alan Dean Foster) – a story about a college student and part-time janitor who is summoned to another world by a wizard who also happens to be a tortoise. There were five books in the original series and they were a lot of run. I think I gave these away because they were too derivative to be worth keeping, but I miss the raw entertainment value.
  • The Lords of Dûs – a member of an outcast race, the Overmen, travels the civilized world seeking fame, fighting old gods and awakening new ones. It’s a plo coupon fantasy series, but still one I think about a lot.
  • Ayuamarca: Procession of the Dead – first book in a trilogy which I never collected the rest of, it’s a dense and initially confusing read. I tend to put this mentally in the same bucket as Jeff Noon’s Vurt, but that’s mostly because of the dream-like quality of some of the sequences.
  • Sheri S Tepper – Blood Heritage and The Bones. I still have Tepper’s The True Game, but these two books are bone-shuddering horror. I’ve got rid of a lot of horror novels over time because I lost interest in most of it but these still haunt me.
  • The Star Fraction, Ken Macleod – back in the early days of my Iain Banks collecting I started collecting Ken Macleod books too. He and Banks knew each other and I liked the idea of reading more books from that literary constellation. This is one I moved on because I had read it, but I would like to read it again.
  • William Gibson – The Difference Engine, Virtual Light, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Idoru. Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy are formative books for me and I still have those, but I always felt like Virtual Light and its sequels were not quite futuristic enough to be interesting. The Difference Engine is rather splendid and I regret losing that one.
  • Darwin’s Radio (Greg Bear) – I don’t like all of Greg bear’s books, but I regret selling on Darwin’s Radio. It’s a story about the next step in human evolution and it has lots of interesting ideas about the co-existence of multiple human ancestors.
  • Dune, Frank Herbert – I got rid of Dune! Aargh! I don’t especially regret getting rid of the five sequels that I had since they were mostly unreadable, but Dune… well.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison – another one where I wonder what on this green Earth I was thinking, but I had read it and all its sequels several times so I think I was just bored of them. I’d like them back now, though.

Are there any books you’ve given away which you regret no longer having?

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On Independence

I have little standing to write about the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. I mean, I used to live in Britain but I have not lived in Scotland nor am I likely to any time soon. I have an even less meaningful connection to the debate than Sean Connery.

But on the other hand I am half Scottish, and that makes me feel like I have some connection to the decision.

The case against Scottish independence seems to mostly boil down to how much better the UK is with Scotland in it rather than how much better off the Scottish would be as part of the UK (here’s one particularly flippant example). And I think this really goes back to the roots of why Scotland joined the Union in the first place.

Scotland and England have had a common monarch since the early seventeenth century when James succeeded Elizabeth I – he was James I of England and James VI of Scotland – but the two countries remained distinct (and the Scots rebellious) until the early eighteenth century and the time of imperial expansion. It was a time when all the European powers were starting international empires, and Scotland wanted one too.

Unfortunately, none of their efforts went well, and it finally came down to one last gamble: Scotland self-funded an expedition to build a trade route between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans in Panama, a prefiguring of the Panama Canal. The funding for this expedition consisted of a fifth of the money in Scotland.

Think about that: a country decides to fund an expedition with a fifth of the money in that country. That’s a lot.

Needless to say, it failed and Scotland was left in dire financial straits. The option available was to join with England in a new country called the United Kingdom. And ever since there have been depredations upon the Scottish populace, from the Clearances onwards.

There are going to be teething troubles in a newly independent Scotland, but as Charles Stross suggests in his analysis those troubles should be sorted out relatively quickly as these things go. The alternative is continuing governance from a remote and unrepresentative parliament in London.

Flee, Scotland, while you have the chance.

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Wired for Story

I read this book over a few weeks, working my way through it a chapter or a few pages at a time, and using some of its ideas in my outlining and goal-seeking work for Song. Despite mentioning it before, I wanted to post a more comprehensive discussion since it’s an interesting concept for a book which deserves some more specific consideration.

The premise of the book is that neurological research can inform us both about the origins of our deep love for story, and some methods to write more engaging and compelling narratives. There are many bibliographical footnotes attached to the text* which provide citations to support the arguments.

These neurological insights are presented within chapters covering separate aspects of storytelling, from how to make your protagonist engaging (which is not the same as sympathetic, to be sure) to how to keep the reader reading, to common mistakes that naive writers often make when presenting mysterious plots. They’re used in three ways:

  1. to substantiate the chapter structure
  2. to puncture common misinformation about how to write well
  3. to bolster arguments in favour of more effective writing practices

I’m not entirely convinced that Wired for Story really delivers on the promise of neurologically justified writing advice. The neurology is used well when describing the effects of stories – both good and bad – on the behaviour of our brains, but it seems to fall a little short when it comes to deriving writing advice from the technical literature. It’s better to think of the neorology as framing for the writing advice laid out.

Because the writing advice itself is good, to my eye. There is concrete analysis and substantive counsel, as well as helpful checklists which serve as reminders of the book’s content at least as much as definite lists to be followed. There is certainly more here than I can keep in my head at one time, and I am thinking that the chapters would provide a good starting plan for editing passes.

Ultimately, this is a concise and well-organised collection of writing advice, often distilled down into immediately usable gobbets of information. Recommended for what it is rather than for the neurological presentation.

[*] these footnotes are collected in a reference ghetto at the end of the book, which makes reviewing those references in concert with the text quite irksome.

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