To me, the only thing more surprising about the current scandal about government spying on US citizens has been the surprise of US citizens about government spying on US citizens. Of course the government is going to spy on us, it does that to gather information about god-only-knows-who-or-what (presumably terrorists, but others are caught up in the spy net too). It does it because it can, because the technology exists for electronic records to be kept which can be sent around the world in a few seconds with a few keystrokes on a computer. It’s unlikely Verizon is the only company to supply records to the NSA; almost certainly a lot of other companies are too. We have a marvelous system for transmitting information. Call it the web, the internet, the cloud, whatever you want, whenever you go online, what you write or access is stored somewhere, on your own computer or a server, ready to be accessed by those whom you want to see it, as well as by those you don’t. Even this blog is a part of it. It’s most likely stored at the WordPress server somewhere in the US. (Based on the time difference between where I am and the time given by the WordPress clock, I assume it’s in the Eastern time zone). I have no doubt someone somewhere could access this blog without the information showing up on the visitor’s log which tells me how many people visited the site and what stories they looked at. Whether they really are or not, I don’t know. (How could I?). That might require WordPress’s complicity and approval, though. The FBI, the NSA, the CIA, the White House, Congress, all could be reading this surreptitiously. (Actually, I hope they do. That would be more than the known visitors I get.)
In any event, the ability is there. I wouldn’t be surprised if not only the US government but other governments and private companies across the globe are accessing private data of their citizens and customers which we know nothing about. The Verizon-NSA files are likely only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is computer, cell phone, and internet security. The computer is a powerful instrument. It transmits a line of code in a millionth of a second and it’s hard to stop. That makes it absurdly easy to collect data. It’s also difficult for people who have a vested interest in some aspect of the global economy to ignore the vast amount of information available by mining the internet and your phone records. Just look at all the targeted ads you’re getting. Oh, yes, you are getting targeted ads. I could call for better internet security, but that’s a rather naïve plea, unlikely to be taken seriously. No one is going to stop collecting information just because it offends someone’s sensibilities. Keep that in mind when you log on next time. Some one is watching and/or listening.
Sorry, I don’t usually do a blog on current events, but because the topic involves a certain amount of scientific acumen–after all, the computer, the internet, etc., were developed largely by scientists–I felt justified. What the heck, I have a vested interest in the internet too.
This may not be my own invention, but I’ve never seen any concept like it in all the study of writing I’ve done over the past fifteen years or so, so I may not be able to take credit for it. What I’m talking about is the notion of a character in a story, usually a short story, though a novel could be written this way, who is the narrator of the story, but is not affected by the outcome. That is to say, this is a person through whose eyes we see the action and hear all about the other characters, but we are taken into that narrator’s head only. His function is merely to describe what is going on. This “detached” narrator takes minimal if any part in the action and does not influence the outcome, and–most importantly–is not changed or influenced in any way by the events of the story. We, as reader, watch the story unfold, brought to life by the narrator, yet our focus is on the other characters. We root for the protagonist and boo the antagonist, yet we’re not privileged to know what they are thinking. We discern what the characters say, see what they see, smell what they smell, hear what they hear, and so forth, but we have to infer for ourselves what they think. Even the narrator doesn’t know what they are thinking (unless one of the characters tells him). Sort of like the narrator in the stage play, “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder.
However, that comparison is not complete. In fact, in any stage play, or even movie, the audience is always watching the players from “outside.” Usually there’s no narrator at all. Each member of the audience has to decide for himself or herself what the characters are thinking and what their motivation is for the actions they take. In a similar manner, the concept of a detached narrator is to bring to life a story in the way we would see it on the stage or the screen but without the physical presence of either. I’ve written a few stories this way, and stumbled on the concept by accident. In my fumbling around for a new way to write something, I began giving an outsider the narration and allowed that person to chronicle the story. It doesn’t always work, and I’m suspicious that it may not be a very effective way to write a story. The limited access we have into the minds of the main characters reduces the story to one of description. The narrator has to be damn good at revealing to the reader the motivation behind the characters, not just the actions. In today’s fiction market, we are so used to seeing a character grow and evolve in some visible and well-defined manner that I think the presence of a narrator who doesn’t change will be looked on as unsatisfying and incomplete. Might be hard to get such a story published.
Anybody got any comments?
Most of you who read this blog know that I write science fiction, and that includes short stories as well as novels. Many of my stories involve aliens that either come to Earth or find themselves face-to-face with humans on, say, another planet. And many times I will write the story either wholly or in part from the point of view of the alien. That’s right, from the alien’s point of view.
This isn’t too unusual, a lot of stories present part of the story from an alien’s POV, but it does bring up some unusual challenges for the writer. What I’m specifically referring to is, how objective does the writer have to be when it comes to describing the humans and the other animals and Earth-related objects as the alien sees them? Suppose an earthling is wearing blue jeans. From the alien’s POV, he/she/it probably wouldn’t know what jeans are. But would he know what pants are? Would he even know what clothing is? Or would it be appropriate for the author to go into exquisite detail and describe the blue objects covering the lower half of that persons body? An alien may not even recognize “coverings” in the sense we use the term. The reader would certainly grasp the idea immediately, and a substantial description of “blue jeans” might be boring and superfluous.
Likewise, actions of Earthlings. Say an earthling is digging a hole in the soil on an alien planet. Would the author describing this scene need to describe the actions–from the point of view of an alien–in serious detail? Again, that might be boring and superfluous. Should the author even describe the implement (i.e., the shovel) and go into detail describing a simple object the reader already knows about? Would the reader understand the author’s intent in this situation? It may sound like a relatively simple and easily solved problem to a non-writer, but it requires the author to walk a fine line between over-describing and insulting the reader on the one hand, and having the alien be knowledgeable about facts that he/she/it wouldn’t actually know if, in fact, the situation were real that is, if the alien really did come from another planet. How many aliens out there know what blue jeans are? Or a shovel?
Anybody want to attempt a comment?
For this week’s post, I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, the presence of life in the rest of our galaxy: where is it?
On the one hand, with around fifty billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy (of which we are a member) and an average of eight or perhaps ten planets orbiting each of those stars, plain ordinary common sense should tell us that at least one and probably hundreds if not thousands or millions of them should harbor intelligent life. (I’m talking intelligent life here, not just jellyfishes swimming in a primordial sea.) By intelligent life I mean a civilization capable of understanding that there must be other life besides them in this galaxy, and capable of reacting to a signal sent their way. That is, someone just about as scientifically literate as we are on Earth. That’s not unlikely.
So, where are they?
SETI people have been listening for signals from outer space for as long as I’ve been alive (almost), and haven’t heard anything that could even remotely be called a definite signal. Every few years or so they remind us that it’s only a short time, they believe, before they will hear a legitimate signal that will prove someone out there is trying to reach us, long distance. But nothing has happened and no signal has arrived.
Some physicists tell us that time-travel is possible, though no one really knows how to do it. Going faster that light is one way, but Einstein’s theories absolutely reject the possibility of faster-than-light travel and Einstein’s theories have held up to scrutiny time after time. Other ways to travel in time may be possible, though, but if time-travel is possible, however unlikely, then where are the time travelers? No one has ever convincingly demonstrated he/she has ever met a time traveler, fans of Dr. Who notwithstanding. Several possibilities exist. Either the time travelers have decided–for one reason or another–not to come to this region of our timeline, or, if they have, they’ve been damn good at not making themselves known. It’s more likely, I believe, that time travel is not and never will be possible, except in fiction.
Then there’s the search for earth-like planets surrounding other nearby stars. The latest attempts to identify planets around other stars has been remarkably successful, identifying over a thousand candidate planets in just the past few years. This in itself is a fantastic scientific achievement, and I consider myself lucky to be living in the dawning age of extra-terrestrial planetary discovery. (So should you.) The number of planets discovered, scaled up to the size of the galaxy itself, implies a huge number of planets total, as I mentioned above. And a few of the planets discovered have been found in the “habitable zone,” where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface, essential for carbon-based life. Yet, none of them, for one reason or another, are really likely. Earth-like planets just haven’t been found. Will they ever? Perhaps.
In short, we seem to be alone in this arm of the galaxy. At least so far, we haven’t demonstrated the presence of even a planet that could hold extra-terrestrial life, and we may never. I’m willing to believe the latter, though it doesn’t bother me as much as it does some. If we’re alone, then so be it.
The face of publishing is changing. At least that’s what they tell me. As an unpublished author I guess I don’t have much say in how things change or stay the same, and I’m taking a risk here of annoying or upsetting or just plain pissing off possible agents, editors, and publishers, but I thought I’d make a few comments on the subject. From reading articles on this topic, hearing people talk about it, and talking to those who’ve gone down the publishing road, I’ve found authors are being required to do more and more of their own promoting, marketing and selling of their finished product. That’s the way it is, so you’d better get used to it, they say. Publishers don’t do that anymore. Authors are even supposed to work up a marketing plan with their book proposal or fiction submission.
Fair enough. But I’m not a marketer. I’ve never studied marketing or selling or public relations and don’t know the first thing about any of those subjects. I’d have to take time off from writing to study marketing in order to figure out how to devise a marketing plan.
Writers are, as I’ve also been told over and over, solitary creatures. That’s my experience too. Sooner or later, even the most extroverted, outgoing, gregarious author has to sit down in a quiet room and write. He may be an absolute marvel at marketing, have zillions of friends on Facebook, produce YouTube videos by the dozen, Tweet a hundred times a day (and be followed by everyone in the known universe), but he’s got to write something to begin with and send it out there.
Now, I’m not saying I’m against marketing, just that I don’t know much about it. I’m not against Facebook and other social media, just not very good at it. I’m not against selling my own books, though I’m willing to try. I doubt that I could produce a decent YouTube video; it might repulse more people than it induced to buy. I do have a blog (well, if you’re reading this, that’s obvious). I’ve got about the bare minimum foundation for an author in this century of exploding social media, but that doesn’t allay my concern. My problem is related more to the fact that I’ve been required to do it because no one else will. With the big publishers abandoning marketing and promoting, it falls to the author to do it, and he/she is, in the main, one of the least qualified. It’s like asking Homer Simpson to run a nuclear power plant.
Some authors are great at social media and make a decent living selling the books they’ve written. More power to them. But not all are, and requiring them to handle all of it themselves makes no sense whatsoever. My biggest fear is that authors will eventually be judged more by the quality of their marketing than by the quality of their writing. That so many lousy books will be sold because they were promoted (as Lisa Simpson would say) so shamelessly.
I find myself wondering what the famously reclusive Harper Lee would do if she submitted To Kill a Mockingbird to a publisher today. I can’t see her doing a YouTube video.
I just returned from the 2013 Pikes Peak Writers Conference. (Here’s a question for trivia lovers: Why is the name is spelled Pikes Peak? Shouldn’t it be Pike’s?) Great place to go for a writer in almost any stage of his/her career. For the first time at any writers conference I’ve been to in quite some time I got to meet agents and editors and hear them talk about the craft of writing. Granted, I’ve read magazines and books and websites and blogs about writing and publishing, but in none of those venues can a person ask questions of the author (except perhaps in a blog where occasionally an expert will answer a question). Getting feedback directly from someone is much better, like being in class at school. Talking directly to someone allows you to hear the nuances and shadows within the answer, not always apparent in a written response. I strongly recommend a writers conference to anyone who is serious about his/her writing. Especially if that person has never been to one.
I can’t give a complete overview here, there certainly isn’t time or room. The conference was divided into seven concurrent sessions on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday so I couldn’t begin to attend every session. I picked only those that seemed to offer something that might help solve my particular writing problems. I learned how to hone your voice, which is your signature way of telling a story; I heard how to talk about your book, how to pitch it, how to write a log line (a short 1 to 2 sentence summary of a book); I heard how to build a world for fantasy and science fiction stories; and I heard one author talk about how to write a protagonist that is really a bad person at heart even though he’s the “hero” of the story. All that was on Friday.
Saturday was my day to pitch my novel to an agent. Unfortunately, that didn’t go as well as I’d planned (but then, when does it?). The agent wasn’t too excited about the story line and had some criticisms of it, but she did ask me to send her a synopsis and the first chapter. I did that as soon as I got home. (I’ve heard rumors, not only at this meeting but at others, that many people who are asked to send something to an agent, don’t. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.) Later Saturday, I attended sessions on detailed point of view and how to stick to it; on short story structure; and on the various genres and how they are divided into larger categories.
Sunday I heard about character building; about plot structure and characters; and about pacing. The information and ideas came at me so fast and thick I’m not sure I caught everything that was thrown my way. I took notes as fast and furiously as I could, and I learned a lot. Now, however, is the time to try to put some of those ideas into practice. That will be (if you’ll pardon the last in a series of clichés) easier said than done.
When it all comes down to improving my writing, the meeting was certainly worth it and I have no regrets on spending the money. As to whether I’ll return next year, that will depend largely on how things turn out over the rest of this year. If I can con an agent into taking me on, perhaps I’ll skip. But who knows, the muse is fickle and time is running out. Time to get back to work.
I finished reading Michio Kaku’s book, Physics of the Future, a few days ago, and I thought I’d make a few comments on it here. Dr. Kaku, a theoretical physicist by trade and a futurist author (see also Physics of the Impossible and Visions) likes to look into the future and describe what he sees. Granted, his idea of the future may be different from that of others, including you and me, but what he has to say is instructive. In this book, he takes a look at computers and artificial intelligence, medicine, energy, and space travel, even looking briefly at wealth and humanity, estimating how they will change in the next 100 years. There isn’t room here to comment on all the major topics in the book, but I would like to make a few observations.
Most of us, especially when we look at computers and other scientific instruments, probably feel we can predict what’s likely to come. I’m not so sure. Dr. Kaku takes a logical approach to this predictive effort. He’s interviewed many people in the computer and information industries and makes his predictions based on what he’s learned. Computers will be miniaturized substantially, and eventually your computer will be small enough to be visible on a contact lens. The universal translator of Star Trek will be a reality, and instant translation of any language will appear at the bottom of your lens or glasses immediately. So, if you travel to, say, Russia, you won’t have to suffer through several years of study to learn the language. And so on and so forth–other mind-bending spectacular things lie in store for us in the next 100 years.
But what I like most about Dr. Kaku’s book is the fact that he takes a sober approach to prediction. He’s not predicting all sorts of wild ideas about how life will be. This isn’t Star Wars and the intelligent robots that populated it. His caution is most evident in looking at artificial intelligence. We all seem to feel that by the year 2100, computers will be able to have an intelligent conversation with us, and we’ll be able to talk to them as fluently as we do among ourselves now. That’s not likely, however.
Back in 1968, when the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, many people I talked to felt that the computer HAL would be a reality by 2001. It’s just a matter of time, they said, because computers are progressing rapidly. I disagreed. I couldn’t see a computer that smart by 2001, and it’s still a long way off. Dr. Kaku explains that by examining the computer and comparing it to the human brain. Computers do only what they are told, and they can’t get away from their programming. The human brain by contrast is a growing and evolving organism. It can store information and make new connections within itself all the time. This is called learning. The brain has common sense; a computer has none. Even the computer that beat humans on Jeopardy! could do no more than look up answers faster than a human (two humans, actually). It didn’t think; it merely responded. A long time past 2100 will elapse before we have computers as sophisticated as HAL, or C-3PO, or Data on Star Trek.
In short, I highly recommend the book. Dr. Kaku’s view of the future is realistic and recognizable. The one aspect he fails in, though, is in talking about the elimination of poverty, which he says little about. It’s not likely poverty will be erased by 2100 unless we humans, and without our computers, decide we are going to do something about it. Poverty has been around for millennia. It has survived wars, famine, plague and death, and it won’t go away just because we have faster and smaller computers. It’s a human problem and only we humans can conquer it.
There, I’ve had my say. Comments?