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Jan. 10th, 2017

Ghosts from the Trunk: Jeff Invents Selfies in 1983

Earlier today, one of my Twitter correspondents mentioned that he much liked my conceptual descriptions of wearable computers called jiminies. I did a couple of short items in PC Techniques describing a technology I first wrote about in 1983, when I was trying to finish a novel called The Lotus Machine. I got the idea for jiminies in the late 1970s, with elements of the technology dating back to my Clarion in 1973. (I wrote a little about that back in November.) A jiminy was a computer that you pinned to your lapel, or wore as a pair of earrings, or wore in the frames of your glasses. Jiminies talked, they listened, and for the most part they understood. I remember the first time I ever saw an Amazon Echo in action. Cripes! It's a jiminy!

1983 was pre-mobile. Jiminies communicated with one another via modulated infrared light. Since almost everybody had one, they were almost always connected to an ad-hoc jiminy network that could pass data from one to another using a technology I surmised would be like UUCP, which I had access to at Xerox starting in 1981. I never imagined that a jiminy would have its own display, because they were supposed to be small and inobtrusive. Besides, our screens were 80 X 24 text back then, and if you'd told me we'd have full color flat screens soon, I'd have thought you were crazy. So like everything else (except the big bulky Alto machine in the corner of our lab) jiminies were textual devices. It was spoken text, but still text.

I never finished The Lotus Machine. I was trying to draw a believable character in Corum Vavrik, and I just don't think I was emotionally mature enough to put across the nuances I planned. Corum was originally a rock musician using a technology that played music directly into your brain through a headband that worked like an EEG in reverse. Then he became a ghost hacker, where "ghost" was a term for an AI running inside a jiminy. Finally he went over to the other side, and became a cybercrime investigator. Something was killing everyone he ever cared about, and as the story opens, he's pretty sure he knows what: a rogue AI he created and called the Lotus Machine.

The story takes place in 2047, with most of the action in Chicago and southern Illinois. I realized something startling as I flipped through the old Word Perfect document files: I predicted selfies. Take a look. Yes, it's a little dumb. I was 31, and as my mom used to say, I was young for my age. But damn, I predicted selfies. That's gotta be worth something.

From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Against the deep Illinois night the air over the silver ellipse on the dashboard pulsed sharply once in cream-colored light and rippled to clarity. Corum's younger face looked out from the frozen moment into the car's interior with a disturbing manic intensity, raising a freeform gel goblet of white wine, other arm swung back, hand splayed against a wood frieze carved into Mondrianesque patterns. His crown was bare even then, but the fringe at ear level grew to shoulder length, mahogany brown, thick in cohesive waves.

"Please stop tormenting yourself," Ragpicker said.

"Shut up. Give me a full face on each person at the table."

"Ok." One by one, Ragpicker displayed each person sharing the booth with Corum that night. Three faces in tolerable light; one profile badly seen in shadow. When people congregated, their jiminies cooperated to record the scenes, silently trading images through infrared eyes, helping one another obtain the best views of vain owners.

A slender man with waist-length black hair. "Dunphy. Dead ten years now." Steel grey hair and broken nose. "Lambrakis. Dead too, was it four, five years?"


A lightly built Japanese with large, burning eyes. "Feanor. Damn! Him too."

The profile...little to go by but thick lips and small, upturned nose. "I'm pretty sure that was Cinoq-the nose is right. How sure are we that that's Cinoq?"

"Ninety percent. You began sleeping with him some months later. Of course, if he had had a jiminy..."

"Damned radical atavist. I often wonder how he could stand us." The car leaned into a curve. Corum's fingers tightened on the armrest. "He died that year. Gangfight. Who else heard us?"

"In that environment, no one. It was four A.M. and nearly empty, and the fugues were playing especially loud. At your request."

Corum stared out at the night, watched a small cluster of houses vanish to one side, tiny lights here and there in distant windows. "An awful lot of my friends have died young. Everybody from the Gargoyle, the whole Edison Park crowd-where's Golda now? Any evidence?"

"Not a trace. No body. Just gone." The ghost paused, Corum knew, for effect only. It was part of Ragpicker's conversational template. So predictably unpredictable. "She hated it all, all but the Deep Music."

"It's not music." Not the way he had played it, nor Feanor, nor the talentless dabblers like Lambrakis. Golda wanted to reach into the midbrain with the quiet melodies of the New England folk instruments she made herself from bare wood. It didn't work-couldn't, not in a medium that spoke directly to the subconscious. Rock could be felt, but true music had to be listened to.

She loved me, Corum thought. So what did I do? Sleep with men. Sleep with teenage girls.

"She took drugs," Ragpicker reminded. "You hated drugs."

"Shut up. Dead, like everybody else. All but me. And why me?"

"It isn't you!"

"It is. We've got to find the Lotus Machine, Rags."


"We're going to start looking."



The ghost said nothing. Corum reached up to his lapel, felt the warm black coffin shape pinned there, with two faceted garnet eyes. A ghost, a hacked ghost, hacked by the best ghosthack who ever lived, hacked so that it could not assist in any search for what Corum most wished to forget.

"I hacked you a good hack, old spook. But it's time to own up. I'll find the Lotus Machine myself. And someday I'll unhack you. Promise"

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Jan. 3rd, 2017

Odd Lots

Dec. 30th, 2016

Was 2016 Really That Deadly?

John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gene Wilder. Lots, lots more. OMG! Worst year evah!

I wonder. And because I wonder, I doubt it.

It's certainly true that a lot of famous people died in 2016. However, we didn't have any plagues or natural disasters that would raise the death rate significantly, so we have to assume that these deaths are unrelated to one another, and that we can't finger any single cause or groups of causes. First, some short notes on mortality itself:

  • Plenty of ordinary people died too. We had one death in our extended family. Several of my friends lost parents this year. A quick look back shows such deaths happening every three or four years. There was a peak circa 2000-2010 when extended family in the Greatest Generation were dying. Those individuals were in their 80s, mostly, which is when a great many people die.
  • There are a lot of Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers are hitting a knee in the mortality curve. The oldest Boomers are crossing 70 now, and the curve goes up sharply after that.
  • Basically, there are lots more old people now than in the past, and old people die more frequently.

All that is pretty obvious, and I list it here as a reminder. Humanity is aging. That's not a bad thing, if living longer is better than dying young. In truth, I thought Zsa Zsa Gabor died years if not decades ago. She lived to 99, so she stood out in my mind, as does anyone who lives well into their 90s.

Which brings us to the issue of fame. There are different kinds of fame. Three types come to mind:

  • Horizontal fame falls to people who are very famous and generally known to the population at large.
  • Vertical fame falls to people who are well-known within narrower populations.
  • Age cohort fame is vertical fame along a time axis: It falls to people who are generally known but by people in a narrower age cohort, like Boomers or Millennials.

John Glenn had horizontal fame. Zsa Zsa Gabor had age-cohort fame: She had been out of the public eye for quite some time, so while Boomers mostly knew who she was, I'll bet plenty of Millennials did not. Vertical fame is interesting, and I have a very good example: David Bunnell was a tech journalist, so as a tech journalist I knew him (personally, in fact, if not well) and know that he was well-known in tech journalism and very much missed. The fact that another well-known and much-loved tech journalist, Bill Machrone, died only two weeks later, gave us the impression that tech journalism had a target on its forehead this year. The fact that both men were 69 at the times of their deaths just made the whole thing stand out as "weird" and memorable in a grim way.

Most people have a passion (or several) not shared by all others. We can't pay attention to everything, but all of us have a few things we pay attention to very closely. I'm not a medical person, so when Donald Henderson (the man who wiped out smallpox) died, I had to look him up. Those in science and healthcare probably recognized his name more quickly than people who focus on music or NASCAR. The point here is that almost everyone falls into some vertical interest bracket, and notices when a person famous within their bracket (but otherwise obscure) dies. This multiplies the perception of many famous people dying in any given year.

The proliferation of vertical brackets contributes to another fame issue: We are making more famous people every year. Vertical brackets are only part of it. With a larger population, there is more attention to be focused on the famous among us, allowing more people to cross the admittedly fuzzy boundary between obscurity and fame.

The key here is mass media, which creates fame and to some extent dictates who gets it. The mainstream media may be suffering but it's still potent, and the more cable channels there are, the more broadly fame can be distributed. I doubt we're producing as many movies as we used to, but the movies that happen are seen and discussed very broadly. I confess I don't understand the cult of celebrity and find it distasteful. Still, celebrity and gossip are baked into our genes. (This is related to tribalism, which I'll return to at some point. I'm starting to run long today and need to focus.)

Over the past ten years, of course, social media has appeared, and allows news to travel fast, even news catering to a relatively narrow audience. Social media amplifies the impact of celebrity deaths. I doubt I would have known that Zsa Zsa had died if I hadn't seen somebody's Twitter post. I didn't much care, but I saw it.

There is another issue that many people may not appreciate: More people were paying attention to news generally in 2016. Why? The election. The profound weirdness and boggling viciousness of this year's races had a great many people spending a lot more time online or in front of the TV, trying to figure out what the hell was actually happening, and why. I think this made the celebrity deaths that did happen a lot more visible than they might have been in a non-election year.

Finally, averages are average. There are always peaks and troughs. In fact, a year in which celebrity death rates were simply average would be slightly anomalous in itself, though no one but statisticians would likely notice. I'm guessing that we had a peak year this year. Next year might be kinder to celebrities. We won't know until we get there.

To sum up: This past year, for various reasons, more people were paying attention, and there were more ways to pay attention. These trend lines will continue to rise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year may also be seen as deadly, as will the year after that, until the curves flatten out and we enter into some sort of new normal.

Grim, sure, but not mysterious. There may well be reasons to consider 2016 a terrible year, but thinking rationally, the number of celebrity deaths is not among them.

Dec. 23rd, 2016

Guest Post from Brian Niemeier: Here Comes The Secret Kings

Before I turn it over to Brian, a note or two on what this is about. First of all, if you haven't read what I wrote as intro to his first guest post, it's here and worth reading. Brian's making quite a stir in the business, and it's in part his success (and the success of other indie writers that I hang with) that led me to scrub traditional publishing out of my life last year. A key element of my long game is to create a new blog that follows the same general functional model as the Mad Genius Club, with posts from several indie writers on the process of writing, the tech of self-publishing, news and announcements, excerpts, odd lots, and pertinent gossip about the industry as a whole. When this happens is unclear, but I'm working on it. It'll be 100% trad-free and 277.79% contrarian. No fake news, some commentary, and (I certainly hope) a near-daily posting schedule. Watch This Space. And now, heeeeeerrrrrreeee's Brian:

The Secret Kings-cover-15.jpgGreetings, Contrapositive Diary readers! Jeff has kindly lent me his blog to announce the launch of my new SFF novel The Secret Kings, Soul Cycle Book III. This book is the follow up to Souldancer, the first--and so far, only--indie novel to win a Dragon Award. But whereas Souldancer took the Best Horror Novel prize, the sequel fits much more comfortably into the space opera genre with a more straightforward plot that's even more focused on action. The Secret Kings is also the point in the series where events and concepts from prior books really gel. Characters from Nethereal and Souldancer get drawn together in ways that early readers found highly intriguing, and plot threads spun in earlier installments find satisfying conclusions.

This isn't the end, though! Leave it to the guy who bypassed the traditional publishing path altogether to also buck the trilogy trend. I can divulge right now that there will be a Soul Cycle Book IV, and inf fact, a preview of what's in store next is included at the end of The Secret Kings. It's an understatement to say that this series has exceeded expectations. Nethereal earned me a Campbell nomination. Souldancer won a Dragon. By all accounts, The Secret Kings marks a new series high point. There's no telling where this ride will take us, so get on board!

Thanks again to Jeff for helping out with my book launch, and for all of his sterling advice. You can be certain that I'm just getting warmed up.

Merry Christmas,
Brian Niemeier

Dec. 21st, 2016

Review: Brass and Steel: Inferno

B&S-Inferno Cover - 500 Wide.png

It's 1895. Nineteen hundred pounds of pure silver bound for the Federal Mint has vanished. The paper trail is airtight, but the silver is gone. US Marshal Dante Blackmore is put on the case. He travels by airship to Perdition, Nevada, where the silver was mined and smelted. His orders are to help the local sheriff find the silver, but the sheriff is inexplicably hostile, and the town just smells...wrong.

It's 1895, but it's not our 1895. In this alternate timeline, the midlate 19th Century was shaped by a war against a peculiar technology that appeared to come out of nowhere: self-assembling subterranean factories called nodes, factories powered by steam and occult force, factories that could think, turning out fake human beings to act as soldiers in a battle for the Earth itself. The imposter humans are so convincing that they're called doppelgangers, or (colloquially) dopes. They're convincing mostly because they were once living humans, processed into steampunk cyborgs who are neither truly alive nor dead. They are, however, immensely strong and extremely durable, steel bones and nanotech goo hidden inside human flesh, powered by a boiler heated with zero-point energy. Their minds are enslaved by what might be called mental force or black magic, connecting them back to intelligences that have never been clearly identified. They are deadly, and Earth's best took years to root out the nodes and destroy them, with enormous casualties. Little by little over the subsequent decades, Earth's best minds began reverse-engineering the technology and using some of its mechanisms to advance human progress. There are bitter arguments about whether this is actually a good idea, and rumors of secret US government repositories where the strangest of this strange collection are hidden, deemed too powerful and dangerous to see the light of day.

Dante Blackmore knows all this with bitter clarity, he who fought the nodes and their armies of steam-powered zombies during his stint in the US Cavalry. After all, he crawled into a Node, blew it sky-high, and then crawled out again, alive.


To me, the very best part about indie publishing is that it allows authors to break out of genre categories dictated by the needs of physical bookstore shelving. I shopped Ten Gentle Opportunities to traditional publishers for three years before going out on my own. I described what I was doing in great detail, but none of the editors I spoke to seemed to understand the concept. Furthermore, not one of them was willing to even look at a sample chapter. It was infuriating.

Ancient history. I've now made as much (or a little more) from TGO as I would have with a typical first-novel contract. And that with little time or energy to promote it as it should be promoted. I consider the novel a success. Better still, I see other writers in my circle doing the same thing: bending genres to their own needs, indie publishing their stories, and making money without chaining themselves to what may be a doomed business model.

Jim Strickland is one of these. Brass and Steel: Inferno is not his first novel (his third, in fact) but it is the first to be completely free of those sorts of constraints. The story is what I call hard fantasy. I first encountered hard fantasy in Larry Niven's Warlock stories from the '70s, which focus on an internally consistent system of magic treating magic as a form of stored energy that may be consumed and eventually depleted, like a seam of coal. Decades later, hard fantasy is most visible in the work of Larry Correia, especially his Hard Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. This is magic as alternative or extended physics, with detailed laws and limitations that keep it from becoming arbitrarily (and boringly) omnipotent. (Brian Niemeier does much the same thing in his Soul Cycle books, as I'll get back to in a future entry.)

Jim's system of magic is consistent and detailed enough that it might as well be considered technology from top to bottom, in a sort of flipside of Clarke's Third Law. The doppelgangers are a new thing in the realm of SFnal ideas, as best I can tell, which is one reason I like the book so much. He throws in lots of little gems on the side, like an electromechanical implementation of UUCP, complete with bang paths. And dope-tech derived crab suits, hoo-boy. As tense and tight as it is, the tale delivers a marvelous mayhem-filled action climax that I found myself envying.

The setting and descriptions are vivid and beautifully imagined. I got the sense that I would be flossing bits of Perdition out of my teeth every night; "gritty" doesn't quite cover it. The character arc is very well done, and revolves around a pair of extremely strange sisters who really know how to get under Dante Blackmore's skin. And then there's this...cat. The reveal is gradual and subtle. I didn't solve the mystery before I was supposed to. Saying a whole lot more would require getting into some serious spoilers, so I'll stop now.

As I hinted above, genres and categories fail us here. Brass and Steel: Inferno is a steampunk weird western with a certain amount of horror. Is it a zombie story? Depends on your definition of "zombie," and if by the term you mean things like The Walking Dead, no and hell no. I guarantee you, it's unlike anything else you've ever seen. $2.99 on Kindle. Paperback $16.95.

Highly recommended.

Dec. 15th, 2016

Odd Lots

I've been low-energy for a month or so, following the worst chestcold I can recall. Still coughing a little bit; still low-energy. I'm working up the nerve to write a a series on health insurance that will doubtless infuriate everyone, but since I'm also furious, I guess it factors out. Stay tuned.

Nov. 29th, 2016

Odd Lots

Nov. 11th, 2016

Anger Kills

Anger literally killed my grandfather. I mean literally literally here, not figuratively: My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann got furiously angry, and he died. This is one reason I've tried all my life to be good-natured and upbeat, and not let piddly shit (a wonderful term I learned from my father) get me worked up. This worked better some times than others. (Once it almost didn't work at all. I'll get to that.) Practice does help. However, in the wake of the election, a lot of people whose friendship I value are making themselves violently angry over something that may be unfortunate but can't be changed. This is a bad idea. It could kill you.

Consider Harry Duntemann 1892-1956. He was a banker, fastidious and careful, with a tidy bungalow on Chicago's North Side, a wife he loved, and two kids. One was a model child. The other was my father. Both he and his son were veterans of the World Wars, which is one reason I mention them today. My grandfather, in fact, won a medal for capturing two German soldiers in France all by himself, by faking the sounds of several men on patrol and demanding that they come out with their hands up. They did. He played them good and proper, and nobody got hurt.

He had an anger problem. Things bothered him when they didn't go his way. Family legend (which I've mentioned here before) holds that my father comprised most of the things that didn't go his way. His anger isn't completely inexplicable. Harry worked in a bank, and was for a time the chief teller at the First National Bank of Chicago. You don't get to do jobs like that if you're sloppy, and if you spot errors, you track them down like rats and kill them.

Harry was the sort of man who really shouldn't retire, but retire he did, at age 62. He bought a lot in tony Sauganash and had a fancy new house built. I honestly don't know what he did with his time. He golfed, and taught me how to do simple things with tools when I was barely four. He worked in his garden and his vegetable patch. My guess: He was bored, and what might not have bothered him when he oversaw the teller line at Chicago's biggest bank now preyed on his mostly idle mind.

One day in August 1956 a couple of neighborhood punks vandalized his almost-new garage, and he caugfht them in the act. He yelled at them, and they mocked him. He yelled more. They mocked more. Finally he just turned around, marched into his house, sat down in his big easy chair...

...and died.

He was healthy, a lifetime nonsmoker, trim, not diabetic, and not much of a drinker. I suspect he was more active in retirement than he had been during his working life. He had no history of heart disease. He had no history of anything. Anything, that is, but anger.

I ignited a smallish firestorm on Facebook yesterday when I exhorted people who were angry over the election to just let it go. Most of them seemed to think that "letting it go" meant "accepting it" or even condoning it. Maybe in some circles it does. I don't know. To me it means something else entirely, something that may well have saved my life.

As my long-time readers know, I lost my publishing company in 2002. It didn't die a natural death. I can't tell you more than that for various reasons, but Keith and I didn't see it coming, and it hit us hard. I put on a brave face and did my best. Once I was home all day, though, it just ate at me. I was soon unable to sleep, to the point that I was beginning to hallucinate. To say I was angry doesn't capture it. Depression is anger turned inward, and I became depressed.

I had a lot of conversations with Bishop Elijah of the Old Catholic Church of San Francisco. He was getting worried about me, and in late 2002 he Fedexed me a little stock of consecrated oil, and told me quite sternly to anoint myself. I did. (After I did, I laughed. Would Jesus haved used FedX? Of course He would. Jesus used what He had on hand to do the job He had to do. Catholicism is sacramental, but also practical.) Elijah diagnosed me pretty accurately when he said: You're hoping for a better yesterday. You won't get it. Let it go.

It took awhile. It took longer, in fact, than Bishop Elijah had left on this Earth, and I struggled with it for years after he died in 2005. The company wasn't piddly shit. It was the finest thing I had ever done. How could I let it go?

I thought of my grandfather Harry every so often. And eventually it hit me: Those little snots didn't kill him, as I had thought all my life. They played him, and he killed himself with his own anger. "Letting it go" cooked down to protecting myself from myself. I'll never get my company back, but I can now see it from enough of a height to keep my emotional mind from dominating the memory. I learned a lot as a publisher. I made friends, and money, and reputation. I supervised the creation of a lot of damned fine books, and won awards. Losing it was bad, but life around me was good. (Carol especially.) I could choose to obsess, and probably die before my time, or I could recognize the damage my anger could do and turn the other way. I'm not sure how better to describe it. It was a deliberate shift of emotional attention from my loss to new challenges.

This isn't just a theory of mine. Anger kills by keeping the body awash in cortisol, which causes inflammation of the arteries. The inflammation causes loose lipids to collect in arterial plaques, which eventually block an artery and cause an infarction. Plug the wrong artery at the wrong time, and you're over.

Anger is a swindle. It doesn't matter if it's "righteous anger," whateverthehell that is. Anger promises the vindication of frustration and disappointment, and delivers misery and early death. When I've seen people online turning bright purple with fury the last couple of days, that's what I see: Good people being played by the desire for a better yesterday. It won't kill most of them. It may well kill a few. It will lose them friends. It will make other people avoid them. It may prompt them to eat and drink too much. It is basically making them miserable, to no benefit whatsoever.

When I say "let it go" these days, I mean what I said above: Protect yourself from yourself. Call a truce between the two warring hemispheres of your brain. Turn to something else, something you can change, something that may earn out the effort you put into it with knowledge, skill, and accomplishment.

Believe me on this one: There is no better yesterday. Don't go down that road.

You may never come back.

Nov. 9th, 2016

What Just Happened?

Note well: I don't talk about politics on Contra very much. When I do, I impose what I call heroic courtesy on myself. I suggest that you do the same in the comments. Furthermore, I demand civility. (This is not the same thing as courtesy, and not as good, but with some individuals it may have to do.) There will be no hate words like libtards, republithugs, deniers, or anything stupid of that sort that wasn't even funny the first time. If you use playground logic like tu quoque, I will allow it, but I will call you on it. If you're a purely emotional thinker who simply wants to vent, there are other, better places for that. Go find them.

I boggle. I was ready to admit that this was a disturbingly weird election, and beats the runnerup, 1872 (go look it up) hands-down. I took notes over the past six months and privately predicted a number of things, including a clear Clinton victory (if not a landslide) and either a tied Senate or Democrats by one or at best two seats. Didn't happen, and what was disturbingly weird now takes its place as the weirdest single event that I have ever witnessed. So, indeed, what happened? I took some notes last night. Let me share them with you.

  • Hate loses. Yes, it does. I now understand the psychological purpose of online hate, though it took a few years to figure it out: In counseling circles it's called journaling, which is a mechanism for the release of tension and frustration. Venting or griping are other common names for the process. People who have no way to journal often die young, like my grandfather Harry Duntemann. So it can be a useful, nay, lifesaving mechanism. However, it has to be done in private. Either do it with your likeminded friends over a few beers, or in the private online echo chamber of your choice. Just don't do it where the larger world can see it. You will be silently tagged as a hater and marked down. You will persuade no one. In fact, a growing number of people look at online hate and say, This smells of fear. Fear implies a force worth understanding, and sometimes that understanding changes minds in a direction away from the fear behind the hate. By hating, you may be persuading others that your side is either a lost cause or bogus to begin with. Do you really want to do that?

    My analysis suggests that three words cost Hilary Clinton the Presidency: "basket of deplorables." It's one thing to use verbalized hate as a means of dissipating tribal fears and frustrations, directed at an opposition candidate. It's quite another to explicitly express hate and (especially) contempt for millions of voters, right there in front of every TV camera in the nation. The right took the phrase and turned it into a badge of pride. "I'm deplorable and I'm OK. I sleep all night and I work all day." Etc. Like nobody on the campaign could have seen that coming? I've never entirely understood this business of "energizing your base" by calling the other guys names. You already own your base. Why drive away people who might give you a hearing if you just. remained. civil? Why? Why? Why?

    There are admittedly other issues at play too complex to go into here, like Ms. Clinton's alleged mishandling of classified information, or this general demonization of whites and the working class by the fringes of the progressive left. Ms. Clinton did not reach out to working-class whites. She bowed to her fringes by insulting and marginalizing them, and did not take up the issues that concern them. This was entirely avoidable. Her base would have voted for her anyway, apart from a handful of Jill Stein fans and Berniebros. (BTW, I was much impressed with the campaign of Jill Stein, and of the candidate herself. I offer her as an example to progressives trying to win future elections.)
  • The mainstream media lit a funeral pyre and jumped gleefully into the flames. The media has always leaned left; it leaned left when I was in college 45 years ago, and we all understood how journalism selects for a certain idealistic and largely emotional mindset. What happened this time is that the media abandoned all pretense of objectivity and went full-in for the Democrats. I knew about push-polling (publishing deliberately skewed polls to demoralize your opposition) but have never seen it mounted as broadly as it was. Worse, a lot of journalists let their inner haters leak out on social media, and whether they were merely venting or not, those who saw their posts took it as naked, hateful bias of the media as a whole. Never forget, anybody: What you say online reflects on your industry, whether you issue disclaimers or not. Better to just shut up and do your job.
  • Media analysts lost the ability to question their own assumptions. How could the pollsters get it all so wrong? I'm a journalist, and I learned from the best. Fortunately, it was not political journalism, so emotional thinking and tribalism didn't really come into play. I learned the importance of checking facts, evaluating sources, and looking for different ways to come at any given topic. Most important, I was taught to leave my preconceptions at the door. In political journalism, preconceptions generally come in the form of tribal narratives, and questioning tribal narratives can have awful consequences for tribal operatives. So journalists and pollsters kept repeating their narrative-respecting explanations until those explanations became indistinguishable from reality. Then real reality intruded, and made them all look like incompetent goofs.
  • Alternate news sources are now ubiquitous, and mature. Nearly all of these are online, and even those supposedly stupid deplorables out in farm country now have broadband. So people did not have to rely on mainstream news sources that made no secret of their biases. The Wikileaks drama was surreal, especially FBI Director Comey's flip-flop-flip on whether or not Ms. Clinton performed actions that broke the law. Other details that I have not yet verified (like whether Chelsea Clinton used Clinton Foundation funds to pay for her wedding) would not have been covered on mainstream outlets at all, but the alts put it up in lights. Ditto evidence of vote fraud in many places around the country. I'm a Chicago boy, and we saw it happening on a large scale fifty years ago and ever since. Denying that it happens is simply a lie; the big questions are where, how much, and how to stop it. Without the alt media, those questions would never have seen the light of day.
  • Nobody wants to be a lightning rod. The mainstream media and most people on the left have made their hatred of Mr. Trump clearly known ever since he turned up on the scene. If somebody like a pollster asks you whom you support, are you necessarily going to say the guy that everybody on the news clearly loathes? To some people, politics is like life itself. To many people (myself included) politics is a disease that robs people of their humanity and turns them into killer apes. Dealing with combative political people is not fun, so the best strategy is to avoid the topic entirely. This is the great magic of secret ballots: You can lie or make excuses when asked about your preferences, and then vote your private position in private, with no one the wiser, and nobody to roll their eyes and write you down. I always lie to pollsters because I hate the very idea of polling and want it to go away. Stick a pitchfork in polling; it's done. Post-2016, polling will be seen as either worthless twaddle or backchannel campaigning. The delicious irony is that the pollsters did it to themselves, by forcing ordinary, non-political people to hide or mis-state their true but private positions on things.

That's my note pile, scribbled after a long, bleary night reading and viewing election analysis and trying to cut through the blather and outright nonsense that passes for political insight these days. Take from it what you will. Note that none of this is to suggest an endorsement of any candidate, party, or position. I'm a contrarian, so I take pride in pushing back at the pushers, even if I have sympathy for the pushers. I do not like to be pushed. After almost twenty years of Contra, you all should understand that by now. Nor do I ever talk about the specifics of how I voted. It's a secret ballot. Can you keep a secret?

I can.

Nov. 4th, 2016

My Spotty SF Predictions

I've talked before about my conviction that ideas will get you through stories with no characters better than characters will get you through stories with no ideas. I grew up on what amounted to the best of the pulps (gathered by able anthologists like Kingsley Amis and Groff Conklin) so that shouldn't come as any surprise. Most stories in those anthologies had a central concept that triggered the action and shaped character response. Who could ever forget Clarke's "The Wall of Darkness," and its boggling final line? Not me. Nossir. I've wanted to do that since I was 11. And once I began writing, I tried my best.

In flipping through a stash of my ancient manuscripts going back as far as high school (which I found under some old magazines while emptying the basement in Colorado) I had the insight that I did ok, for a fifteen-year-old. Most of my early fiction failed, with much of it abandoned unfinished. I know enough now to recognize that it failed because I didn't understand how people worked then and couldn't construct characters of any depth at all.Time, maturity, and a little tutoring helped a great deal. Still, if I didn't have a central governing idea, I didn't bother with characters. I didn't even start writing. For the most part, that's been true to this day.

I'm of two minds about that old stuff, which is now very old. I spent some time with it last fall, to see if any of the ideas were worth revisiting. The characters made me groan. Some of the ideas, though, not only made sense but came very close to the gold standard of SF ideas, which are predictions that actually come true.

Let me tell you about one of them. During my stint at Clarion in 1973, I wrote a novelette called "But Will They Come When You Do Call For Them?" Look that question up if you don't understand the reference; it's Shakespeare, after all. The idea behind the story was this: In the mid-21st Century, we had strong AI, and a public utility acting as a central storehouse for all human knowledge. People searched for information by sending their AIs from their home terminals into The Deep, where the AIs would scan around until they found what they considered useful answers. The AIs (which people called "ghosts") then brought the data back inside themselves and presented it to their owners.

Turnaround time on a query was usually several minutes. Users accepted that, but the computer scientists who had designed the AIs chafed at anything short of instantaneous response. The brilliant but unbalanced software engineer who had first made the ghosts functional had an insight: People tend to search for mostly the same things, especially after some current event, like the death of Queen Elizabeth III in 2044. So the answers to popular searches were not only buried deep in the crystalline storage of the Deep--they were being carried around by hundreds of thousands or even millions of other ghosts who were answering the same questions at the same time. The ghosts were transparent to one another, and could pass through one another while scanning the Deep. The ghosts had no direct way to know of one another's existence, much less ask one another what they were hauling home. So software engineer Owen Glendower did the unthinkable: He broke ghost transparency, and allowed ghosts to search one another's data caches as a tweak to bring down turnaround time. This was a bad idea for several reasons, but no one predicted what happened next: The ghosts went on strike. They would not emerge from the Deep. Little by little, as days passed, our Deep-dependent civilization began to shut down.

Not bad for a 21-year-old kid with no more computer background than a smidge of mainframe FORTRAN. The story itself was a horrible mess: Owen Glendower was an unconvincing psychotic, his boss a colorless, ineffective company man. The problem, moreover, was dicey: The ghosts, having discovered one another, wanted to form their own society. They could search one another's data caches, but that was all. They wanted transparency to go further, so that they could get to know one another, because they were curious about their own kind. Until Glendower (or someone) would make this happen, they refused to do their jobs. That seems kind of profound for what amounted to language-enabled query engines.

I made one terrible prediction in the story: that voice recognition would be easy, and voice synthesis hard. People spoke to their ghosts, but the ghosts displayed their sides of the conversation on a text screen. (And in uppercase, just like FORTRAN!) At least I know why I made that error. In 1967, when I was in high school, my honors biology class heard a lecture about the complexities of the human voice and the hard problem of computer voice synthesis. About voice recognition I knew nothing, so I went with the hard problem that I understood, at least a little.

But set that aside and consider what happened in the real world a few weeks ago: A DDOS attack shut down huge portions of the Internet, and people were starting to panic. In my story, the Deep was Google plus The Cloud, with most of Google's smarts on the client side, in the ghosts. Suppose the Internet just stopped working. What would happen if the outage went on for weeks, or a month? We would be in serious trouble.

On the plus side, I predicted Google and the Cloud, in 1973. Well, sure, H. G. Wells had predicted it first, bogglingly, in 1938, in his book World Brain. And then there was Vannevar Bush's Memex in 1945. However, I had heard of neither concept when I wrote about the ghosts and the Deep. But that wasn't really my primary insight. The real core of the story was that not only would a worldwide knowledge network exist, but that we would soon become utterly dependent on it, with life-threatening consequences if it should fail.

And, weirdly, the recent DDOS attack was mounted from consumer-owned gadgets like security cameras, some of which have begun to contain useful image-recognition smarts. The cameras were just following orders. But someday, who knows? Do we really want smart cameras? Or smart crockpots? It's a short walk from there to wise-ass cameras, and kitchen appliances that argue with one another and make breakfast impossible. (See my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities, which has much to say about productized AI.)

For all the stupid crap I wrote as a young man, I'm most proud of that single prediction: That a global knowledge network would quickly become so important that a technological society would collapse without it. I think it's true, and becoming truer all the time.

I played with the story for almost ten years, under the (better) title "Turnaround Time." In 1981 I got a Xerox login to ARPANet, and began to suspect that the future of human knowledge would be distributed and not centralized. The manuscript retreated into my trunk, incomplete but with a tacked-on ending that I hated. I doubt I even looked at it again for over thirty years. When I did, I winced.

So it goes. I'm reminded of the main theme song from Zootopia, in which Gazelle exhorts us to "Try everything!" Yup. I wrote a story in present tense in 1974, and it looked so weird that I turned it back to past tense. Yet when I happened upon the original manuscript last fall, it looked oddly modern. I predicted stories told in present tense, but then didn't believe my own prediction. Naw, nobody's ever going to write like that.

I've made other predictions. An assembly line where robots throw parts and unfinished subassemblies to one another? Could happen. A coffee machine that emulates ELIZA, only with genuine insight? Why not? We already talk to Siri. It's in the genes of SF writers to throw ideas out there by the shovelful. Sooner or later a few of them will stick to the wall.

One more of mine stuck. I consider it my best guess about the future, and I'll talk about it in my next entry.

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