Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Matrix Revisited

Amazon recently added the Matrix trilogy to their Prime Video lineup (disclaimer: this is not a sales pitch, but they do carry my books).
Image may be subject to copyright. Reproduced
here under fair use doctrine.

I hadn't seen any of these films in a while, and I wanted to see if they'd held up in the 20 years that have passed since the first film was released. I was not disappointed. The action, dialogue, camera work, and special effects are still first rate. I had forgotten some of the story, so there was enough suspense to keep me absorbed in the plot.

The Matrix is one of the more influential films of the past 20 years. So much of it has become imbued in our culture. Everyone knows what you're talking about if you say "I wish I'd taken the blue pill." Morpheus's "What if I told you..." line has been adapted to hundreds of memes. And the reflections in those pince-nez shades – pure cinematic genius.

All in all, it was 5+ hours well spent. 20 years on, I'm still awaiting Neo's return. Yet in spite of the durability of the films, I found them dated. The late 1990s were a time of great optimism, the ascendency of the digital age. Home computers had become commonplace, and everyone knew about the Internet. Computers amazed people, and there seemed to be no limit to what they would be able to do in the future.

Moore's law was well-known in 1999, and 20 years in the future, it has held up. The computers of today are hundreds of times faster that those of the late 90s. They have become far more accessible, far more affordable, far more ubiquitous. Link speeds are also hundreds of times faster, fast enough for me to stream the Matrix films in 1080p HD on a 10" tablet computer. I keep up with such things, and I can say truthfully that we are still nowhere near the limits of computing capacity that can be brought out of silicon. Computers, however, can still do no more than what they could do in the 1990s. They just do it a lot faster.

In the films, The Matrix is a construct of sentient programs, used to deceive the world's population into thinking they are alive in a civilization modeled on the world of 1999. The programs have conquered and enslaved humanity in order to provide the electric power the machines need to survive. I won't go into the absurdity of this idea as it's essential to what is otherwise a great story. To people actually living and breathing in 1999, it might have seemed plausible. But it isn't power generation that trips up the plot. It's the idea that somehow computer programs could become sentient.

Most people had, however, already accepted this idea. It is a familiar theme in science fiction dating back to 1950s, perhaps farther. 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey features a malevolent machine intelligence named H.A.L. who decides the secret he carries is too important for meat intelligences to be trusted with. Many other films, such as 1984's Tron feature sentient programs as both sympathetic and malicious characters. In the Terminator films, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays both. And who can forget C3PO and R2D2, among the most memorable machine intelligences in cinematic history. Indeed, the idea of machine intelligence has become so essential to good storytelling that folks like me dare not even challenge it. Fortunately, we do not have to.

Last night, I had a rather frustrating "conversation" with Alexa. The Echo Dot I keep on my nightstand had a flashing yellow ring that I wanted to turn off so I could go to sleep. I asked Alexa to turn off the yellow light and she told me she could not find a device called "the yellow light." I asked her "why do you have a yellow light?" This time, she told me it was because I had notifications from Amazon shopping. Earlier in the day, I had posted a question about a film scanner I was considering, and a few people had answered it.

I could not pose a command that would get Alexa to turn off the light. This was irritating, but I thought all I would need to do was go on the Amazon website and read the answers I'd gotten. Nope. She still had a yellow light. After some time, I figured out that the only way I could get her to shut it off was to let her read the answers I'd already read, one by one. Now, she does a remarkable job with text-to-speech synthesis. The vocalizations were intelligible, and even her inflections were good. She really sounded like a human woman reading the answers to me. That bit of amusement mitigated my frustration somewhat. But it was a lot of trouble to go through just to get her to turn off that annoying yellow light.

Alexa was, of course, just executing a program. It goes a little like this:

   The Amazon cloud says Bob has notifications. To inform him he has notifications, I'll make my ring flash yellow.

   Bob says "notifications." I'll retrieve them. I tell him he has four notifications from Amazon Shopping.

   I'll read the first one.

   Bob says "notifications." I tell him he has three notifications from Amazon Shopping.

   I'll read the first one.

The loop continues until all of the notifications have been read. Only then does the yellow ring go out. In retrospect, I should probably just have unplugged her and dealt with it in the morning, but it presented me with a computing problem to solve, and I can't resist that. Now I know how to turn off the yellow ring. I also know how to disable the notifications so I don't get more yellow rings – but this is something Alexa cannot do by herself. You have to do it with the Alexa app.

Now, by referring to Alexa as "she" and "her," I am indulging in anthropomorphism (but I talk to and have names for my bicycles, too). A great deal of computing went on during my exchange with Alexa, but that occurred because a team of programmers coded it. Alexa was bound by the extent of her programming. It is thus with all computers. Without the work done by programmers, they won't even turn on. In my 37 years of working with computers, not counting the 5 that have passed since I retired, I have yet to encounter a system that is not bound by the limits inherent in its programming. Those limits are ultimately defined by the laws of discrete mathematics, and those are not going to change even unto the entropic death of the universe.

The Star Trek franchise mostly got this right. The Enterprise computer could operate the machinery of the ship, and could answer questions posed by the crew, but it could do little else. They went a bit off the rails with Veejur (the first Star Trek movie) and especially Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation), but the Enterprise mainframe remained comfortably predictable. To the extent that Alexa, Siri, and other voice-interactive systems become more "intelligent," that will be the direction they take.

Now, I like Alexa. I have five Echo devices located throughout my house. She wakes me up to my favorite Internet radio station, she turns lights and appliances on and off, and plays an almost infinite selection of music on demand. As a person who has trouble getting around, this capability is a godsend. I do not, however, fear that she is going to hijack my brain and insert my body into a power plant any time ever.

This is supposed to be a blog about my writing, not technology, so it may seem that I digress a bit. I am, rather, just being long-winded. I have mentioned in prior blog entries that the authors who have most influenced me include the greats of science fiction's golden age. This leads to the question of why I am not writing science fiction. It would seem the most natural thing. My Spike Bike stories take place in a dystopian future, but this was just a backdrop I needed to give the stories a modicum of credibility. I was not writing about a future society, I was writing about the one I lived in.

The problem is that I am unable to sufficiently suspend disbelief when I write. All fiction requires suspension of disbelief, but not to the degree that science fiction demands. I bill myself as a writer these days, but I am still an engineer. As such, I solved real world problems using real world science. I tried to be creative with it, but I was always keenly aware of the constraints. I cannot ignore those constraints when I write, so I cannot bring a computer to life or make a ship fly through space faster than light. This does not cut me off from the genre entirely, but it does impose restrictions that I don't like.

As a kid who cut his literary teeth reading space opera, I realize I could never do it justice. A writer must be unbounded in the creation of a story, so that the story can go where it needs to go. Math and physics would bind me as such, so it's easier for me not to go there.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Why I Have Been Writing

I retired in 2014 after a professional career spanning 37 years. I did not plan to retire at that time, but I had health problems that prevented me from doing full time work. When you are not well enough to work and your FMLA runs out, you don't get to keep your job. If you are old enough when this happens, you get to call it a retirement. For the period immediately following this event, I had to focus most of my limited energy on recovering from spine surgery. The surgery relieved pressure on my spinal chord that was taking away my ability to walk. I never made a full recovery, as there were other factors, factors related to aging, that the surgeons could not fix. I have chronic pain that is sometimes debilitating. I walk with a cane now, but at least I can still walk.

The lengthy recovery served as a kind of buffer following the end of my working life. At the time, no longer having a job was a lesser problem than spending half the day in bed, trying (and succeeding) to get myself off opioid painkillers. Eventually, my condition improved enough that I was able to take long walks and ride my bikes again, and to do many other ordinary things that are so taken for granted by most people that they nearly pass from awareness.

I was by this time 66 years old, collecting Social Security and two small pensions. My wife, 13 years my junior, was working full time, and my daughter was in her last year of elementary school. Once my wife left for work and my kid was in school, I found myself with some time on my hands. It was not until then that the vacuum that had taken place of my career really hit me.

I was and am unfit for regular work. With a condition like mine, there are bad days, not-so-bad days, and kinda good days. I never know what kind of day I'm going to have until I'm midway through my second cup of coffee. Holding down a job requires a commitment I cannot make, even though there are days when I can do quite a number of things. It's possible I could do some kind of gig work, maybe a little programming, but even at that there are commitments.

There are always things to do, mind you. My wife and daughter think of such things daily. There are more than enough little home improvement projects I could take on, things I can do on the not-so-bad and kinda good days, but none of them can occupy my mind for any appreciable amount of time. A ding in the drywall, a leaky faucet, a drafty window – all of these things take some thought, but not much. Sometimes a chore will challenge me, compel me to learn something I don't already know how to do, but there aren't many things that take any real effort.

What I miss most about my job was that it required a great deal of thought, for lengthy periods of time. There were always many problems to solve, and most importantly, I always ended up with something that wasn't there when I started. This is the engineer's calling. Engineers look at a problem, then think about what they need to create in order to solve it. An engineer thinks about something and turns those thoughts into something tangible. I love being an engineer. I use the present tense here, because it isn't something I used to do for a living, it's something I am. It's what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I can no longer ply my trade in this world because I'm incapable of putting in the long hours, and I cannot commit to the frenetic pace of the work that I once found exhilarating. I'm certain you've all seen those movies where the hero has to defuse a bomb or solve some complex problem when time is running out and the fate of the world is at stake. Engineers live for that. The realities of an engineer's working world are, however, that there's always a bomb to defuse, the world is always at stake, and after you've saved it, you are running out of time to save it again. I can't realistically do those things any more, but I still dream of saving the world.

I still can, and I can still do it over and over again. This is possible because as a writer, I have the luxury of creating a world and saving it at my leisure. If I don't like something, I can go back and change it. If I find myself in a world that is not worth saving, I can just hit the delete key and start over again. There are some bugaboos in this process, of course. It's easy to fall into a trap where you're never satisfied with what you've created. You can find yourself in the digital equivalent of staring at a blank piece of paper, sitting next to a wastebasket full of discarded ideas.

There is a way out of this trap: it is the realization that your objective is the process of writing itself, not the finished product. As an engineer, I never had this luxury, but as a writer, I can become absorbed in what I am doing, and this is an end in itself. Indeed, I find that when I am finished with a story, when I know there is little more I can do to make it any better, I feel sad that I have to let it go. This is true whether or not I think it's worth publishing.

For so long as I still have ideas, however, the end of one project presents the opportunity to start something new. There is a magical moment during the creation of a new manuscript when you realize that your story has enough momentum to take you somewhere. Your characters take on lives of their own, and from there, they lead you to somewhere new, somewhere exciting. When you reach this point, the writing can take your mind off anything that's bothering you. Even on the worst of days, I can write a few paragraphs that I may or may not keep, but if writing can make my life enjoyable for even a few moments, I know I can keep going no matter how things are otherwise.

At the time of this writing, I don't know if I will ever garner enough fans to be considered a successful writer, by whatever standards are used to measure that success. I have two titles in print, but I don't know how well they are selling, if they're selling at all. Time will tell. Nevertheless, I will still have accomplished great things if my writing has gotten me through even one bad day. This is why I'll keep doing it even if I never sell a single book.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Why I Wrote

I've already explained why I prefer writing to talking, but I might have added that it's something I just like to do. It's a great way to take your mind off the things you aren't writing about, particularly if something is troubling you.

I got off to a rough start. Through my first few years of elementary school, I struggled with both reading and writing. It was a painful experience, one that stayed with me, and one that I incorporated into my novel Joshua. I don't know why I had so much difficulty, especially with the reading part. I do know that throughout my K-12 years, and even into college, I would often shut down if the material was tedious and uninspiring, preferring to daydream instead. It's possible that I had dyslexia and dysgraphia, but it's more likely that I just didn't have anything that was interesting to read and to write about.

By the time I entered the fourth grade, things took a rather radical turn. At that age, I started reading anything I could get my hands on. My parents subscribed to a number of magazines, and they were both readers, so we had a lot of books lying around. Reading factual material opened my eyes to what was going in the world around me, but fiction, especially the science fiction my dad liked, fueled my imagination.

Dad subscribed to a magazine called The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction, which showcased the works of some of the most enduring authors ever to work in that genre – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison – the list goes on and on, and this excellent magazine is still in print today. When Dad was done with an issue, he passed it down to me, and I read it cover to cover every month.

As my reading improved, my writing followed. My teachers began to compliment me on it – even though they continued to chide me for my poor penmanship – and they would sometimes put the things I wrote up on the bulletin board as an example for others. It was flattering, but I soon made a discovery that would spur me on to write more and more: I could make other kids laugh.

Now, kids had been laughing at me for some time, as I was socially awkward and something of a klutz. Most of the time I did not care for this, but at some point, I began to write stories that made people laugh because I wanted them to. The formula was simple enough: create a ridiculous character and put him in a ridiculous situation, then let him make a fool of himself or perhaps someone else.

I don't know how many stories I wrote or when I wrote them, but I do remember one quite well. I'd seen some movie or TV show in which a criminal used a violin case to conceal a Tommy gun. I thought to myself that it would be amusing if some character could actually use a violin as a weapon. I wrote a story in which some cops catch a burglar who's carrying a violin case along with a sack full of stolen goods. They order him at gunpoint to open the case, and he does so to produce an ordinary violin. The police are dumbfounded, especially when he puts it under his chin and starts to play. The screeching hurts their ears so badly that he incapacitates them and gets away.

When I wrote these stories, I passed them around to my classmates, just the boys because I was too shy around girls. They always drew a few snickers, and they sometimes drew scorn from my teachers. I never got into any real trouble with them, because they were just silly – nothing provocative or disturbing. I think that my teachers were secretly happy that some kid in their class was actually writing stuff instead of goofing off in some less scholastic way.

This continued throughout my formative years and into college. I had learned to use a typewriter by then, so it was easier for me to circulate my stories. The availability of Xerox machines made it even more so. Nothing had really changed. I still wrote for the same reasons, to get a few chuckles out of my friends. I never considered myself to be a serious writer, and how could I? I never wrote anything serious. Writing was just an occasional pastime, of which I had many.

Besides, I had already decided what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was very good at it. I studied electrical engineering and computer science in college, and by the middle 80s, I was in the prime of a successful career. I still wrote stories, for the usual reasons, but something came along that would give me a way of reaching people far beyond my circle of friends and colleagues. It was called the Internet.

At that time, there was no such thing as a website. Although people use the terms World Wide Web and Internet interchangeably, the Web would not come along until the 90s. There was a good reason for this: link capacity. Virtually all Internet traffic was sent and received over telephone lines, at link speeds no greater than 9600 bits per second. This is between 1000 and 10,000 times slower than a typical home Internet connection of today, and most terminals worked at speeds even lower than that.

Relatively few people had access.  The only users at the time were people at colleges and universities, research labs, big companies, and government agencies. Users congregated in virtual public forums called newsgroups to exchange information, argue with one another, or tell ROT13 jokes (look it up).  This early core component of the Internet was called Netnews, and later, Usenet. Although there was some content policing, it was mostly unnecessary because there was no anonymity – anything you put on the Net could be traced back to you – and if you said something offensive or just plain dumb, you would get a deluge of "flames," that were very effective at putting you in your place.

Nevertheless, the newsgroups were read by tens of thousands of people worldwide – minuscule compared to today, but still a much larger and much more diverse reader population than I'd ever been able to reach before. At first, I was only reading and responding to what others had posted, but soon I began writing articles about things I was interested in, such as cars, music, electronics, and especially bicycles. Inevitably, I started writing stories, and to my astonishment, they became quite popular. Given the limited nature of the Net at that time, however, I suppose they reached, at most, a few thousand readers before they scrolled out of view.

In 1988 and 1989, I wrote a series of stories called, collectively, The Adventures Of Spike Bike in the rec.bicycles newsgroup. Spike Bike is a bicycle rider with a terminal – for his adversaries – case of road rage. Armed with combat skills and an array of armament befitting a Navy SEAL, Spike shoots and shreds his way through a dystopian future where heartless corporations control everything and vicious motorists think they can run down cyclists with no consequences. Spike provides the consequences.

I wrote and released them a few weeks apart. It was all a big joke, but the stories struck a nerve in the cycling community. People with Net access ran off copies to pass around to people who didn't have it, and all of a sudden, I found myself with a large fan base.

A lot of people encouraged me to get the stories into print. I knew nothing about publishing, but at the time, I subscribed to a magazine called Cyclist that encouraged submissions from readers. I sent a couple of the stories to the editor and he loved them. He ran one of the stories, along with an unrelated story I'd also sent him, and all of a sudden I became a published author.

The experience was exhilarating and a little frightening. I wasn't a serious writer, but I knew that many people who really wanted to be writers often tried and failed for years on end to get something into print anywhere. Cyclist went out of business before they published any more of my stories, but the experience made me think about my writing in a different light. I always wrote for fun, but I never expected or tried to reach a lot of people with my writing. In a way, I was kind of glad Cyclist went under. I didn't want to be famous in any way; I was content to have a job I enjoyed, one that paid well enough for me to have a few hobbies on the side.

The demise of Cyclist was not, however, the end of the story. Long after I wrote my very last Spike Bike story, people continued to read and circulate them on the Internet. As the Internet grew, they were read by more and more people all over the world, and for years on end I got requests from people, e.g., webmasters for bike clubs, who wanted to publish them on their websites. I granted permission for this so long as my byline and copyright notice remained intact. If you look for the stories even today, you can find them. I recently used such sources to reconstruct the collection, which is available here.

After Spike Bike, however, my life took a very serious turn. My father took ill, and I spent six months watching helplessly as he lost his battle with cancer. When he passed, I was devastated, and I threw myself into my work to try to cope with the loss. I lost my muse for story writing. I still did a good deal of mundane technical writing for my job, but laughs were hard to come by and even harder to elicit in others.

The Internet was changing rapidly, too. The old newsgroups were still there, but they had been largely supplanted by chat rooms and forums hosted by one special interest website or another. Now even those have receded into near-obscurity because of the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I had not only lost my muse for writing, I had lost my outlet. By the late 1990s, I was married and well into a midlife crisis that resulted in a brief foray into teaching before I returned to technology in the mid-2000s. I also had a child, at an age when many people are doting on their first grandchildren.

In 2006, Amazon launched an online community called Askville. The first contributors were by invitation only, and I was selected to be among them. Askville was a site where people could ask questions about just about anything, and contributors would select questions they had the expertise to answer. Those who answered were rewarded with star ratings and a valueless currency called Quest Gold. I enjoyed the diversion, and I answered a lot of questions about the very same topics I once subscribed to in the newsgroups.

Each question spawned a discussion area. Some of these soon became quite lively. Contributors, as well as the people asking the questions, could interact with one another in much the same way as we did on Usenet. It was fun, and I got to employ my penchant for snark and satire to get some laughs out of the friends I made there. It was not a suitable platform for writing stories, however, and after a few years, Amazon abandoned the project altogether. Nevertheless, it got me back into creative writing after a dry spell that had lasted 17 years.

I started making up stories again, too, but I was not writing them down. My daughter liked to be read to at bedtime, but she also liked it when I would make up little stories on the fly to help her get off to sleep. She still liked being read to well into her elementary school years, and we graduated from children's books to what is euphemistically called young adult fiction – stories targeted at kids in the later elementary grades and middle school.

We started reading the sardonic novels by Jeff Kinney and James Patterson about kids coming of age. I liked the stories, and it occurred to me that the genre would make good fodder for satire, my stock in trade when I was actively writing. That idea was to rattle around in my head for a while.

In 2014, I retired because of health problems. Although I no longer worked, my family obligations took up most of my time, but not all of it. I devoted my free hours to various household projects and a bit of personal enrichment, but by the summer of 2018, I decided to take a crack at story writing again. Using my ideas about coming-of-age books, I started to write stories about a 12-year-old kid I named Joshua Miller. My aim for Joshua was to get him into all kinds of outrageous predicaments, but the stories did not turn out the way I'd planned. I was writing again, but Joshua and his supporting cast took me in directions I never expected to go. Even though I was pushing seventy, I could still surprise myself. I guess that things like this make me appreciate being alive despite the problems I'm trying to cope with.

I've rambled enough in this posting, so I'll pick up that story next time. Since the story is ongoing, I expect to be here for a while.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Why I Write

People who know me will tell you I don't talk much. If you meet me, you will likely say the same. I don't know why that's how I am, but it's always been that way, and I'm okay with it. It makes things better for me. A couple of things come to mind as to why this is. These are best expressed in quotes from people who are far better known than I can ever hope to be:
Once the words are spoken, something may be broken. – Stephen Sondheim
and more famously,
The moving finger writes and having writ / moves on nor all your piety nor wit / can call it back to cancel half a line / nor all your words wash out a word of it – Omar Khayyam
 Maybe I mouthed off to my father or something, when I was so young I cannot remember it now, or maybe it's just something innate. Whatever the reason, it's true; when you speak and somebody's around to hear it, you can't take it back. I suppose that's enough to make anyone think before they shoot off their mouth, but there are far too many people who don't get it. Maybe I just get it.

I learned how to write when I was six or seven. It was a struggle, and my handwriting has always been crap. To this day, I cannot write legibly in cursive, but I do pretty well with printing. I do even better with a keyboard, but no matter what medium I choose, any time I say something in writing, I can stop and think about it. Thanks to the invention of erasers, correction tape, and the backspace and delete keys, if I think I've said something I shouldn't have, I can fix it.

There is, of course, a catch. If you shoot off your mouth, there's no way to disown it, but once someone reads something of yours, and has the means to preserve it, there's no way to disown it, either. Ever. As such, if you do write something down, you had better be damn sure you wanted to say it, and you'd best know what you are talking about. Regrettably, the same people who like to run their mouths constantly fall into this trap. Spend ten minutes looking at social media, and this becomes evident.