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Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ex Machina vs. Westworld

I just finished watching Ex Machina last night, and while I thought it was an interesting exploration of themes like free will and the ethics of artificial intelligence, I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the ending.

Oh, but first, let's trot out our old friend:
To be honest, today I'm spoiling not just Ex Machina but also Westworld, so consider yourselves lucky!

Now, jokes aside, the first thing to say is that both Ex Machina and Westworld deal with humans encountering artificial intelligence. While the Turing Test is explicitly mentioned in Ex Machina, there are scenes in Westworld that also play into it - for instance, when William appears in the second episode and asks the woman who greets him whether she's one of the robots or not. Her response is along the lines of, "If you can't tell, does it matter?"

Both works also ask the question of who owns the artificial life, or if it has the same right to self-determination that a human intelligence does. In Westworld the question comes down to the power struggle between Anthony Hopkins's character and the Evil Corporation who funds the park, whereas in Ex Machina it ends up being slightly more subtle, as the AI, Ava, appears to make common cause with Domhnall Gleeson's character, Caleb, in order to escape the Evil Corporation.

I think the problem I have with Ex Machina is that it ends up being a lot more straightforward than it could have been. Caleb wins a week at the estate of his reclusive boss, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (who really seems to be everywhere these days); when he gets there, he has to sign an NDA and then meets Ava, for whom he's supposed to be the interlocutor in a set of Turing Tests. Caleb discovers some unpleasant stuff about Nathan, plots to break Ava out, and then when he does so she locks him and Nathan in the compound and escapes.

I'm not going to go into all of the stuff to unpack about the movie (but you can read the AV Club's review to get an idea). But that ending...

I think the problem with the movie is that as soon as you meet Ava you know she's going to escape. Or more accurately, as soon as you see the glass enclosure where she lives, which has impact fractures. The minute you meet Nathan, you know he's going to be evil and sociopathic. Both assumptions are accurate, and while they don't have to be proven wrong for the movie to work, the road there is disappointingly straightforward.

But there's no indication of why it had to be Caleb - there's some business about him not having a family or girlfriend to miss him, but while it works in Ava's favor, there doesn't seem any reason for Nathan to care about that - unless he was planning on killing Caleb, but we never find that out.

Ava's escape is also overly simple - she stabs Nathan, wraps herself in other the other fembots' skin and clothes, and leaves via convenient helicopter. The pilot takes her away without asking why some woman he's never seen before is leaving the place, or without asking what happened to Nathan or Caleb. From interviews and comments I heard, I'd assumed more twists and reveals.

It all felt rushed, which is why I'm hanging this post off a comparison with Westworld. That's another kind of flawed work, in a lot of ways, but it has the advantage of teasing its ideas out over ten hours, rather than just two. I suspect Ex Machina could have worked better with more time to explain Caleb, Nathan and Ava - to say nothing of all the other fembots that Nathan built over the years.

Instead the viewer is left feeling a lot like Caleb, trapped in that compound and not knowing why things played out the way they did.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

5 Things I've Learned About Writing

Writing is such a personal thing that it's hard to come up with a list that'll work for everyone, or for every type of writing. Some people plot things out exhaustively, for example, and others have to feel their way through a story.

I was struck by this a little last night while out with a friend, and he was surprised that I make lists of 10 or 20 things that happen in each of my stories as a way to plot out where I want them to go. I've seen this mentioned in various places, although I haven't used it for every story I've worked on - but my friend was a little skeptical about the numbers.

So with that in mind, I thought nevertheless that it would be useful to list five important things I've learned about writing, or at least my own working habits over the years:

  • I need to plot, or at least have a general idea of where I want to end up.
    • As I mentioned above, I'm one of those writers that needs to plot stuff out. The extent to which I need to plot depends a little on the length of the story, of course - a novel's so much more complex than a short story, and a movie treatment is somewhere in between.
    • Oddly, I'm plotting the hell out of a short story right now, mainly because it's a pretty complex idea and because I'm adapting it from an idea I was turning into a movie script last year. The plotting has taken a number of forms, from the axiomatic list of 10 things that happen, to simply writing down a bunch of questions that I feel I ought to know the answers to, even if I don't resolve them in the story. 
  • Walking does help to jar ideas loose. 
    • While banging my head against that story last weekend, I went out for a quick walk around the block twice, and found that on both walks I resolved a question that had been bugging me. In doing so, I was able to move ahead with it, and get to the impasse I'm at as of this writing. Success!
    • More seriously, it's probably a cliche, but it's also true that letting your mind drift to some other topic, or at least changing your setting, can dislodge ideas. It's similar to when you have something on the tip of your tongue while talking to someone, but you don't remember the term you wanted until much later.
  • Stuff you learn writing one type of story does transfer to other types.
    • This relates mainly to how I've transferred ideas about three-act structure from my movie ideas to prose, but it's gone the other way too, in that my technique for proofing a novel has proven kind of helpful in proofing short stories and (perhaps to a lesser extent) movie scripts.
    • But it's also a deeper point, in that good writing is good writing, and practice in one type of writing helps in others. Writing poetry helps with word choice and concision, prose helps with visualizing a scene, and movie writing helps with dialogue.
  • It's helpful to know my own style of productivity.
    • By style of productivity, I mean how long I can devote to a task, and what kind of environment I need for it. When I'm writing prose, music is great but podcasts aren't, because the speech distracts me from what I'm writing, and vice versa. If I really need to focus, something instrumental, or even ambient is perfect. Or for a hit of perfect productivity I'll listen to a binaural beats video on YouTube.
    • Time-wise, I've found it helpful to devote an hour each night to writing, from 8 to 9, during which I aim to get something done. It has to be a concrete goal, like finishing a certain number of words or pages, and if I accomplish that in less than an hour, I have the option of taking the rest of the hour off, or forging ahead.
    • The one caveat is to not use this as an excuse not to be productive. Maybe I've messed around for twenty minutes and am sitting down later to write? Maybe I'm spending too much time looking for something to listen to? It's not very fashionable but at a certain point you need to sit in your chair, open whatever you're working on and do the work - your brain will rationalize why you shouldn't, but sometimes you need to shut your brain out.
  • Writing stuff by hand is helpful, except for when it isn't.
    • To be honest, any of these points could come with this caveat, but it feels most relevant to put here, because it really doesn't seem to work every time.
    • Specifically, I was listening to a podcast where Joe Hill talked about how he keeps a notebook to write in, by hand, which allows him to work out the story and then create a second draft automatically when he transfers it over to the computer. I tried it out a little with the story I'm working on now, and in this case I've found it pretty hard to make it work.
    • Of course, that's probably because I didn't plot the story out as well as I could have. Again, detailed plotting isn't always necessary for a short story, but it seems to be with this one, and writing by hand might be easier if I'd had a better sense of where I needed to end up.
This list isn't exhaustive, of course. I've learned a number of other things over the years (e.g., writing workshops are good in small doses, but if they become a commitment then they take away time from your own writing), but some of them have been covered elsewhere (get good beta readers, learn to revise a story) or are so axiomatic as to be unhelpful (do it every day, or keep a journal, or whatever). But these five are the big ones for me, which I've road tested over the years.

That said, they're always in flux, too. I've developed these habits over the years, and I expect them to evolve as I get more practice. But that's fine too - you can't expect to approach writing (or any endeavor) the same way you do at 37 as you did at 27 or at 17. What I look forward to is seeing how my habits change once I become a professional - here's to 47!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Super Bowl 2017 Is Not the 2016 Election

Like a lot of people, I was watching the Super Bowl yesterday, and like a lot of people, I was having a hard time separating the action on the field (or screen, in my case) from the results of the election. After all, we all know about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick supporting Donald Drumpf, and the MAGA hat that Brady has in his locker, etc etc.

In the end that was fine, it was a bit cathartic (except for the Patriots winning, of course), but I hope nobody was taking the "narrative" too seriously. Is Belichick awful? Sure - but we all knew that long before the endorsement, and frankly, we knew that long before Deflate-Gate. Is Brady a douche? I think Bridget Moynihan has a privileged viewpoint on that.

To be honest I couldn't find it in my heart to be mad at Tom Brady about that hat. I don't know if he's a racist or not, but I can imagine he's met Donnie a couple of times, someone gave him the hat, and he just held onto it. Who knows or cares how Brady voted in November? America's pretty great for him whatever happens, isn't it?

I guess you could say that the Falcons didn't have it in them to hold onto the win, but it's also true that the parallel with Hillary Clinton ends there - she didn't have the lead in the election at (hardly) any point. And we can't blame third-party candidates on the Falcons losing, either (though it would be funny if someone could have blamed the Raiders for last night).

The point, in the end, is that the country's definitely fractured, and in a dark place. I arrived at my friend's house early enough to catch this week's episode of Saturday Night Live, complete with that Sean Spicer impression by Melissa McCarthy. More to the point, we had ads constantly assuring us that corporations like AirBnB, Coca-Cola and Budweiser don't share the ideals being espoused at the moment by this "administration". No matter what happens on the field, that shows that those of us who don't choose this dark path aren't alone.

And let's be honest, I like the idea that those ads offended all the people who like to throw around the term "snowflake" as if it were an insult. We're a long way off from seeing Coke come out in support of Black Lives Matter, but seeing supporters of the "President" following his example and throwing tantrums at the thought that not everybody agrees with them is pretty satisfying.

So let's all have a Bud, or a Coke, depending on your poison. Let's all enjoy some guacamole and stay at AirBnBs and remember that it was just a football game. If the Falcons had won, we'd still have woken up to the same people occupying the White House and the legislature. We don't get the moral victory, but we do get to keep working for the world we want - and the opportunity to do so is even better than a Super Bowl ring for Matt Ryan.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

2017: I Am Not Pleased So Far

Well, that didn't take long, did it?

You have to say this for ol' Drumpfie, he's motivated af. Obamacare? No thanks. EPA? Let's just shut their communications down. National parks? Don't want them talking about stuff. Muslims coming to America? Nope. And, oh, people on the national security council who know stuff about security? Nah, let's put some racist twatwad on instead.

It's a brutal time, folks. The mind, parsing all of this, asks two questions: how much worse can it get? And how does someone even as monstrously narcissistic and unhinged as "Shut the Fuck Up, You're Out of Your Element" Donnie maintain this level of intensity for the next four years? Yet, having asked those two questions, the mind realizes that it maybe doesn't want to know the answer - it would rather retreat to those halcyon days of, let's say 2006, when the world was full of possibility and the previous worst president ever (who also only got into office because the electoral college is fucked) found himself having to change his mind from time to time as things got bad in Iraq.

Admittedly, the other stuff swirling around is kind of getting annoying too. Senate Democrats, in particular, seem to think that wagging their fingers is a dangerously provocative move, and so, for all their outrage, haven't considered blocking any of Donno's cabinet picks. They have reservations, of course. These picks aren't remotely qualified, even Elizabeth Warren admits that. But blocking them? Gosh, you guys, I don't know - I mean, there's this lovely high road here, and it leads to... I think that sign reads "Irrelevancy", but I can't be sure. Why don't we go up there and check?

In the meantime, all the cool kids are deleting Uber from their iPhones, which I feel slightly vindicates my principled stance in not taking it (seriously folks, I've only ever ridden in an Uber twice in my life, and one of those was paid by my boss). Although it's unclear whether Travis Kalanick ordered an end to surge pricing as a way to profit off the taxi strike in NYC, or as a measure of solidarity. Or... could it be both?

Meanwhile, every right-wing dickbrain out there seems to think that calling protesters "snowflakes" is the height of cleverness. Well, I don't want to be rude, but which side just spent the last eight years getting butt-hurt over how people would throw facts and logic at them? I think all the "special little snowflakes" are on the Republican side here.

Sigh. I spoke once about wanting a hard reset for the political class. I didn't mean tearing the system down or anything, I just meant that it might be time to redesign certain parts of the system. Now I'm not so sure - Plato's Republic is looking better and better, tbh.

Things don't seem to have moved on so far this weekend, but I wait with bated breath to see what horrors will be unleashed tomorrow. In the meantime, here's the website for the ACLU's donations page: https://action.aclu.org/secure/donate-to-aclu

And remember, this isn't a left-versus-right thing - it's about respect for the rule of law and for the Constitution. If you think this is just a bunch of whining lefties protesting - you're on the wrong side of history, snowflake.

Monday, 23 January 2017

What Makes Space Opera Tick?

I've been thinking lately about space opera.

Specifically, I'm wondering if there's a formula to it, the way there is for epic fantasy. Both are forms or genres that seem to prefer large, sweeping stories spread out over multiple books. Epic fantasy is perhaps more known for multi-book storylines, but I can equally point to epic space opera stories, like Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos or Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy. There's also the notable case of Stephen R Donaldson, who's known for both the Thomas Covenant books (epic fantasy) and the Gap novels (space opera).

Admittedly, I've read very few of those books above - I loved the Hyperion books, but was less taken with Night's Dawn, and have never gotten around to the Gap books, though I keep meaning to. My experience of space opera revolves more around other media, specifically TV (Star Trek), movies (Star Wars) and video games (Mass Effect), which tend to skew more toward the mystical elements that epic fantasy also shares. Heck, Star Wars even has magic in it, and features a farm-boy toppling an empire.

But there are enough similarities to begin to move toward a unified definition of space opera, and chiefest of these seems to be multiculturalism (or at least politics, since alien races aren't present in much of Hyperion or Battlestar Galactica). Even the Ender/Shadow/whatever else novels by Orson Scott Card mix characters of different (Earth) cultures and find narrative momentum by examining how they interact.

Another common theme is hyper-specialized Earth analogues. Hyperion's setting is full of planets that are based on one specific aspect of Earth culture, and so is Night's Dawn - in fact, that's one of the things that put me off about it in the first place, as one of the planets in question has recreated Victorian-era British culture, an idea I found stretched credulity far more than the idea of the dead rising and invading human space. Go figure.

Star Trek leans less in this direction, though there are some notable episodes that glance at this kind of idea (like that early episode of TNG with the African-derived culture). Likewise, Star Wars doesn't have much in the way of Earth-cultures, but its equivalent is the array of landscapes it uses to show alien planets, from Tatooine to Dagobah to Endor.

The intersection of politics and business is another big theme, though not in Star Trek, where business doesn't really exist (a fascinating idea on its own, and one that seems to have been explored only there and in Iain Banks's Culture novels). Or if not politics and business, then the politics behind certain galactic corporations' misbehavior seems to be another favorite theme. It feels like a more recent addition to space opera, but timely, as the role of corporations in our own politics grows ever-larger.

Fantasy, meanwhile, seems to have started to embrace talking about business only in the last few years, the main example being the books of Daniel Abraham (whose favorite theme seems to be economics in general). It's probably less relevant to that genre as a whole, but does provide some thematic tension in the form of modernity versus tradition, similar to how it must have played out in actual history.

Daniel Abraham, in fact, is one reason why I'm setting my thoughts down like this. He famously held a discussion on how epic fantasy works with a number of other New Mexico-based SFF authors a few years ago, and the result is his series, the Dagger and the Coin, the last book of which I'm currently reading now. I'm fascinated by looking at the themes in common of space opera, not just because I like it but because it's a form I'd like to try my hand at, and I think an understanding of the tropes and themes is a good starting point.

So let me throw the question out to anybody reading: what space opera stories should I read? And what themes or ideas have I missed?

Sunday, 18 December 2016

2016 Recap: Gosh, what an awful year

The theme of how bad 2016 has been has made its way all across my social network/filter bubble, particularly in the past couple of months, so I'm not going to recap all of the ways in which it was bad (I've touched on it in my blogs about various celebrity deaths, and in talking about Brexit). But it's interesting to me how for once I feel in lockstep with the prevailing view of how bad the year's been.

Other "bad years", I haven't necessarily felt the same way, possibly because things were going better for me personally, or because I wasn't in the US and so I couldn't relate to the feeling on the ground (at least in places like the Bay Area or New York; presumably in Arkansas or the Rust Belt people are happy about how this year's gone, who knows?). Even 2001 doesn't stand out for me as a year that was shit from start to finish - without sounding callous, the attacks on the World Trade Center were awful but I didn't have that visceral reaction to them that a lot of people seem to have had, even those who weren't in New York at the time and didn't know anyone directly affected.

But this year was just a bad'un, from start to finish - the fact that David Bowie essentially dropped dead, and that a load of other celebrities followed (some had been ill, some were old, some were apparently finished off by the macro-currents of politics), seems to have really set the tone. The one thing that seemed universally positive this year was Leicester City winning the Premier League, but I can't shake the feeling that such a long shot coming through led to Brexit...

(FYI, no, I don't actually believe that, I have a general understanding of what happened behind both of those events. But allow me the artistic license, okay?)

Apart from one or two things, it wasn't that awesome a year for me at a personal level either, which I think is why the stuff happening worldwide (including what's going on in Syria right now) seems to be affecting me so much. It's hard to say it was a particularly bad year, personally, but there's a sense of not moving forward the way I was in 2013, just as I prepared to move back to the US from London.

At a writing level, I did move forward with a couple of things, which I'm pleased about. I finished (and revised) a full movie script, for instance, a thing I've never managed before. And I finished revising a novel, and started sending it to agents, which is more than I've done for most of the novels I've written thus far.

Most notably, one of my short stories, which I've actually been shopping around for quite a long time, got accepted to an anthology (which is on sale now!), so that feels like a positive development, and one that hopefully I can build on. If nothing else, that shows the importance of actually sending stuff out - I managed a few more story submissions than last year, which clearly helped for getting this one placed. The hopeful thing is that I'm starting to get ideas for new short stories, which means more stuff to send out - and considering that I haven't written a short story since 2013, having more in the pipeline is actually a great development.

On the fitness front, there's been a severe lack of progress, though. I wonder how much is down to the fact that I didn't manage to sign up for a race this year, even though I've logged as many miles as in 2015. I'll be the first to admit that my diet hasn't always been as great as it could have been, but it's hard to draw any conclusions based on my food diaries from last year. Still, in the last couple of months I've done a better job of policing certain things (like my sugar intake), so hopefully there's a foundation to build on there.

Dating was an area that seemed to show some promise, but then fizzled out again. I did meet someone cute (through an app), and went out with her a number of times (previously I hadn't gone on more than two dates with anyone since moving back to the US), but then on the eve of our fifth date she cancelled, saying she was going to see someone else exclusively. So I end 2016 pretty much as I started it - at square one. My idea is to try and meet more people organically, but I'm not sure how successful it'll be, as my friend circle is pretty comprehensively married off and short on single females. And most frustratingly, here as in other areas where I'm not satisfied, it's hard to find silver linings or lessons to be drawn going forward - which is what really makes 2016 a bad year, in my opinion. But I have to be positive, because what's the alternative...?

Money-wise, I've actually managed to accomplish all of my goals, for once, and am hoping to achieve something a little more ambitious. But I've been plagued by two realizations: first, that I simply don't make enough money to live in the Bay Area, unless I'm being subsidized by one or more parents; and second, in September I learned the scale of how badly I'm being paid, in comparison to a new starter who's very junior to me and has fewer qualifications. The answer to both problems is to find a new job, but that's easier said than done, and I'm concerned about how much I'd be giving up by leaving my current job - five weeks of vacation, for example, and the free time to work on my own interests outside of work. But we'll see, I guess.

For other types of goals, it's also been a pretty good year - I got out to New York, and to Argentina, as well as my yearly trip to the UK and Italy. I'm hoping for another visit to Asia or Australia this year, and would love to get out to other parts of the US, or even just other parts of California. And I've taken advantage of a lot of the cultural stuff on offer here in the Bay Area (which reminds me, I need to sign up for Sketchfest). So the plan is to make more aggressive goals for 2017.

The question, of course, is how any of this will be affected by what's happened in the rest of the world. I'm not planning any trips to the Middle East, but frankly I expect the rest of the world to become a lot more dangerous during a Trump presidency, especially for Americans. At the very least a lot of right-thinking people in the rest of the world are going to have that automatic suspicion of me because of my passport and accent, which is a shame. And I'm not hopeful about my own country turning safer or saner over the next four years - in fact, I expect it'll become a libertarian/objectivist nightmare. It remains to be seen how that'll affect individual people, but expect that it will.

But I think John Oliver summed it up best in the final episode for this year of Last Week Tonight. Here's hoping 2017 is better (because it really can get worse, you know):


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Why Third Parties Aren't an Awesome Idea

The 2016 election cycle is mercifully arriving at its climax, which is good, because for the first time ever I'm pretty much sick of it all - politics, horse-trading, handicapping, etc. It occurred to me a few days ago that obsessively checking Nate Silver's 538 and worrying about what those numbers mean is bad for my sanity - I've voted, and my ability to affect the result ends there.

So what have I been thinking about? Well, for one thing, that it would have been nice to have a Democratic candidate untainted by the cozy relationship the party's had with big business since her husband was president. And that, even though I'm not particularly a follower of Bernie Sanders, it would have been nice to have a president who pays lip service to my brand of left-wingery.

(Also, please no comments on how far left Hillary Clinton's voting record is - that's as may be, but she did still vote for the Iraq War, so...)

I've thought long and hard about the Green Party, too, but I've just been really unimpressed with them. I'm satisfied that Jill Stein isn't an anti-vaxxer, but I'm not satisfied that she hasn't addressed that more forcefully - y'know, being a fucking medical doctor and all - and I'm furious that her first reaction to Brexit was to say what a good thing it was that it happened that way.

Add to that the fact that the Greens resolutely haven't made any inroads into state or local politics (apart from the odd mayor or council member here or there), and I can legitimately ask why I should waste my vote on them.

But there's another problem with the Greens, that I don't know if anybody's really thought of: if they were to become a major national party, perhaps winning a state here or there, that would essentially hand the field to the Republicans. All of the left-wing Democrats would move there, leaving the centrists to either shift right to the Republican party, or become a regional irrelevancy.

This is essentially my problem with the oft-quoted idea among some Americans that we need more than two parties. I look at the situation in Europe, where multiple parties are quite common, and am not convinced it's the right answer for America.

Take Britain, for example. Labour and the Conservatives are the two main parties, and the Liberal Democrats are generally on the outside, looking in. In the years since the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats merged, the Lib Dems have been close to power only once, when they joined David Cameron's Tories in a coalition, after the results between Labour and the Tories were too close for either to form a government. The Lib Dems effectively made themselves irrelevant, failing to honor any of their promises or enact any of their key policies, and were punished for it at the last general election, leaving only two credible parties to contest power in Westminster.

(Now, that said, they seem to be the only voice of reason in the midst of Brexit, so there may be hope for a resurgence, but for the time being they've done themselves in)

Italy is another example of the multi-party system not working - there are so many parties, that each general election requires them to form coalitions, which become more and more precarious as the number of parties involved increases. You end up either with a group of unruly junior partners who can leave at a moment's notice and cause your government to fall, or you find yourself having to join a coalition with unsavory or ideologically incompatible parties (such as the xenophobic Lega Nord).

There have been two results for Italian politics: one is that this constant jostling means that the government is relatively unstable, and since World War II there's been an average of a new government each year. The other is that the parties effectively coalesce into unions of left and right - leaving us back where we started. And this trend is present all over Europe, not just Italy and the UK.

So to liberals or progressives (I prefer to term myself a liberal, because I find "progressive" to be wishy-washy) who are thinking of joining the Green Party after this election, my suggestion is to stay within the Democratic Party, and actually work to turn it into a sensible, non-ideological but clearly left-wing party. When I say non-ideological, I mean tuned to the concerns of its base without imposing ideas on them that they clearly don't want - in practice, this means reducing the power of corporations and simply leveling the playing field for everybody, regardless of color, social class or other factors.

I'm not saying working within the Democratic Party is the only way to build a credible left-wing party in the US - but I think that strengthening the Green Party (or other left-wing parties) will mean years of being in the wilderness for the left-wing, liberal agenda. And America can't afford that right now.