Thursday, August 27, 2015

Doing something uncharacteristic, I'll be at Bubonicon

I'm going to be attending Bubonicon, the New Mexico/Albuquerque area sf convention, this weekend. I haven't been much of a con-goer for quite a long time -- my last few were the Las Vegas SFRA in 2005, the Anaheim (2006) and Denver (2008) Worldcons (the latter somewhat under duress, as a fill-in for my agent at the time) and a very brief one afternoon visit to MileHi Con last fall. Prior to that I was fairly regular about going to the damned things but didn't like most of the ones I attended after about 1995.

Bubonicon was a shining exception, hence my giving it another shot there, in a friendly place that feels like home, to see if maybe I've grown out of con-dislike.

Anyway, I'll be there for pretty much all of Bubonicon.  My scheduled activities are:

Friday 5 PM -- Reading in Cimarron/Las Cruces.  I usually bring a mix of stuff to read and let the audience vote on which one(s) I read and how long we stay at it.

Friday 7:30 PM in Salon A-D. Panel: A Post-Scarcity World: How?

Saturday 3 PM -- Main Room (Salon E); Panel: Is Hollywood Eating SF Alive?

Saturday 5:25 PM -- Mass Autographing. 

Sunday 1 PM -- Main Room (Salon E);Writing Different Genders: Your Point of View

 Other than that, I'll probably be atthe Kaffeklatsch, whether I can spell it or not, on Saturday morning, because they are offering free food and coffee, and I will often hang out in the Hostility Suite because I generally prefer hanging with fans to hanging with writers (as to why, see Gorey's The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes A Novel); for the same reason I'll avoid the green room and the bar.

I'm there to meet and talk to fans, primarily, so if you're going to be there, come up and say hi.  In my somewhat awkward way, I'll do my best to be welcoming.   Just don't expect me to remember very much about what's in my books; they were mostly written long ago, and I have a pretty bad memory.  More than once I've been asked a question about one of my books, thought it was about someone else's book, and apologized for not being familiar with it...which was more truthful than it should have been.  But otherwise, science, art, literature, theatre, history ... the whole gallery of the universe is open to conversation. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Every silence ends. "Silence Like Diamonds" ends in Episode 10. So here are some thoughts about endings.

The last episode of "Silence Like Diamonds" is now up, and those of you who have been waiting to read it all at once should get busy, because after this piece, I shall have no caution at all about spoilers. Yip and everybody are going to find out what it was all about, you're going to find out what happens to everyone, and in short, after this ep, the story's over and it's time to go find another story.
It is a truth universally acknowledged among writers that endings are hard. Lawrence Block, who knows a lot about storytelling* and has written a couple of the bestbooks there are about it,** once compared the job to being a homicidal cruise director: you welcome everyone aboard with music and sunshine and the promise of a happy time, you keep them amused on the cruise, and then you kill them at the end. Roland Barthes, who knew a lot about reading, said that fiction is basically striptease: anyone who has been around at all knows that you start with someone pretty with clothes on, and knows perfectly well what you're going to see at the end, so all the entertainment value is in how you get from one to the other.  (Anyone else notice that the American writer picks a violent metaphor and the French critic picks a sexual one?)
The interesting thing to me about both comparisons is how much they stint the ending. Block is all about how to get the reader into the book, reading and demanding fun; Barthes is about how to keep the reader reading; but about the ending, shorn of the metaphor, each of them just says "Do something big."  Block says to impress them (at least I hope that's what "kill them at the end" means) and Barthes says to give'em what they've been promised and think they want (a good look at a bare-naked lady, even though you hope they're well past the point where that's a mystery to them).  Neither of them really says what "something big" to satisfy or delight the reader might be.
As for me, well, I won't say I'm no good at endings. No good  would be never getting one that works, as opposed to occasionally.  Probably not very good at endings would cover it nicely.
I've written a few endings that I think worked pretty well and I'm proud of: The Sky So Big and Black,  Kaleidoscope Century, and The Armies of Memory. Readers seem to agree with me about them. I've written a few endings that weren't what they needed to be and still nag me: A Million Open Doors and A Princess of the Aerie, for example. And there are plenty of endings about which the readers and I would disagree.  Endings that I really liked, but many readers grumbled about: Orbital Resonance, Finity, and The Last President. And there were a couple times I threw up my hands and just got out of the book that for some mysterious reason were much enjoyed by some readers and earned some laudatory fanmail: The Duke of Uranium, Mother of Storms, and Daybreak Zero. I suppose my personal take on endings for novels is not unlike the supposed early days of aviation rule that if you walked away, it was a good landing.
So, anyway, there's an ending to "Silence Like Diamonds," and it's there in Episode 10; head on over and read it.
Not a spoiler, I think, to say that if something human-created ever does end the world, it will almost certainly be something created with good intentions.
But of course, "Silence Like Diamonds" is a novelet, a short fiction form with its own rules. So what about short fiction?
Short fiction, if it is at all plot-centered, has to be about the ending.*** The story sets up its last couple paragraphs, sentence, sometimes even just its last word (see Asimov's "Liar!", which is both the title and the last word) to have some immense wallop.  There are quiet wallops and loud ones, gentle ones and brutal ones, but one way or another, the whole piece of short fiction, in retrospect, is the series of fakes, windups, and clears by which the short fictionist prepares to give you a good kick in the brains.  (Or punch right on the heart, or maybe to whip out a 10 foot spear from nowhere and skewer you through a vital organ you'd never even heard of).
So as an exercise for the reader, here are 20 great endings, a mixture from older science fiction, mainstream, horror, and mystery because those are the things I know best. I'm deliberately choosing most of them from quite a while back, and preferring the famous to the obscure, because I'm hoping you will experience the following contrast:
The ones from the stories you know will instantly bring back a jolt of emotion, very like the way a hook from a significant song will. And the ones from stories you don't know will make you say, "Hunh?" And in that difference lies the point of short fiction:
In novels (and novellas, and other long forms), no matter how plot-centered, ultimately the ending is the release from the work; it lets you out to the wider world again. But in plot-centered short fiction (which is particularly common in the short-short and the novelet, but found at all lengths), it's rather the other way round. The story prepares you to find meaning in the ending; in fact the story sets up that strange, parallel moment when a few ordinary words become something much richer and more important, whether it's a deep insight or violent shock, a quiet moment of reflection or the crashing of the Last Chord.
So, here are the well-known endings I have thrown together into a heap for you. No keeping score. When you recognize one, does it wake up the memory of the story? When you don't, does it at least intrigue you that these few words could mean so much? Perhaps enough even to look up the story and see why that would be?
I've put them in alphabetical order, by the way, just because it made as much sense as anything else.  Read away ...
  1. When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills. 
  2. Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus—yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.
  3. Then ...... some idiot turned on the lights.
  4. "Solely," said Linley, "in order to get an appetite."
  5. She lifted the glass.
    "Thanks, Nettie," she said. "Here's mud in your eye."
    The maid giggled. "Tha's the way, Mis' Morse," she said. "You cheer up now."
    "Yeah," said Mrs. Morse. "Sure."
  6. "She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
    "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
    "Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.
    "Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."
  7. Romance at short notice was her specialty.
  8. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
  9. "Oh, that," said Father Brown. "I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It’s all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious."
  10. Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!
  11. Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.
  12. "It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
  13. I must have looked through every pile of mail a hundred times before I found the letter from the Clearys. Mrs. Talbot was right about the post office. The letter was in someone else's box.
  14. I didn’t do anything to die for... I didn’t do anything...
  15. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he'd just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.
  16. He slept, and the world passed by.
  17. "God," he cries, dying on Mars, "God, we made it!"
  18. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling.
  19. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honorable title of the woman.
  20. And found the Flower Passage, and Kelly and Lou and Bo and Muse. Kelly was buying beer so we all got drunk, and ate fried fish and fried clams and fried sausage, and Kelly was waving the money around, saying, "You should have seen him! The changes I put that frelk through, you should have seen him! Eighty lira is the going rate here, and he gave me a hundred and fifty!" and drank more beer.
    And went up.
I doubt most people will recognize all of them; I don't expect you'll have both my exact reading habits and my exact notion of what is memorable. Nevertheless, if you aspire to write short fiction of the fantastic, you could do worse than to look up the ones you don't know. The idea is not that you should be ashamed not to have read all of them, but that these are small wonders of the form, and if you can see how they make their last 10-100 words have such an effect, you'll really understand the ending in plot-centered short fiction.
So I tried not to make this a quiz, though I suppose some people will, because some people can't resist comparing.  The real comparison that matters, though, is the feelings evoked by the ones you know (quite possibly a memory of a good wallop past) and the feelings evoked by the ones you don't (quite probably "what could that possibly mean and why would those be the last words of a story?"  For the curious, and for determined self-studier, you'll find a list of the titles by number in the footnote marked ****.
Was the ending of "Silence Like Diamonds" up to those standards? I have no idea, really. Maybe I'll have more of one some day. At this point, I'll just have to hope it was up to yours.

*If you don't know his books, go here and look; I'm a fan of the Scudder and Keller novels, but Bernie Rhodenbarr has his many passionate supporters.

** I particularly recommend the many incarnations of Writing the Novel: From Plot toPrint, but there are numerous fans of Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, and they are not wrong.

***There are dozens of other things a piece of fiction can be centered around besides its plot: character, identity, experience, alienation, growth, epiphany, point, idea, preaching, position, fable, any sense, sound of words, rhythm, reversal, theme/variation, motion, countermotion, action, anger, nostalgia, and shit blowing up. For a piece of short fiction, any of those can and will do. But up above the footnotes, what I am talking about is a story centered on plot. Not because that's the best thing for all circumstances, but because (for reasons you can find here) it's what I think the classic novelet should be about.

**** What those are the endings of:
  1. Kate Chopin, The Story of an Hour. 
  2. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer.
  3. Ray Bradbury, The October Game.
  4. Lord Dunsany, Two Bottles of Relish.
  5. Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde.
  6. Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
  7. Saki, The Open Window.
  8. Arthur C. Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God.
  9. G.K.Chesterton, The Blast of the Book.
  10. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
  11. Ernest Hemingway, Big Two-Hearted River
  12. Shirley Jackson, The Lottery.
  13. Connie Willis, A Letter from the Clearys.
  14. Tom Godwin, The Cold Equations
  15. John Updike, A&P
  16. Roger Zelazny, The Graveyard Heart
  17. Theodore Sturgeon, The Man Who Lost the Sea.
  18. James Baldwin, Sonny's Blues
  19. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia
  20. Samuel R. Delaney, Aye, and Gomorrah ....

Friday, August 21, 2015

Episode 9 is up, so here's a set of digressions leading up to why I called it "Silence Like Diamonds"

Episode 9   of "Silence Like Diamonds"   is up, and as befits the next-to-last episode of a serial, or the penultimate scenes of a novelet, it's pretty much nonstop action.  If you're coming in for the first time, you could just start at "Silence Like Diamonds" Episode 1  (episodes are short and you can pretty much read it all at a sitting if you don't stop off to argue in the comments). There's a complete episode list here.   I explain why I wrote it in this blogpost, and Mitch Wagner explains why LightReading published it on this page. So that's where we are, that's where you can go next if you like, and that's what this is ostensibly about. 
This time I'm taking the very long way around to SilenceLike Diamonds,   something like Schroeder's "book report on Peter Rabbit,"   (my dad tells me I wrote a lot of book reports like that when I was a small person, but I refuse to remember due to 5th Amendment amnesia). Anyway, it may not appear that I'm talking about  "Silence Like Diamonds"   for a while, but we'll get there. Meanwhile, Episode 9 is up.   Only Episode 10 to go, next Tuesday. Almost home!
Now commences a journey through a lot of stuff, at the end of which we shall see something or other about "Silence Like Diamonds". 
About thirty years ago, Terence Hawkes used That Shakespeherian Rag  as the title of a collection of essays that has pretty much defined the terms of argument about why English-speaking people still read and perform Shakespeare (or are trying to quit). Thanks to the need for professors to explain why the assigned reading was titled that, nearly every theatre grad student knows these lines from The Waste Land
'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag--
It's so elegant
So intelligent
which is actually a quote (or rather a deliberate misquote) from a 1912 showtune by Gene Buck, Herman Ruby and David Stamper.  "The Shakespeherian Rag" had been a hit while Eliot was in grad school at Harvard, on the brink of heading off to Britain, where he would spend much of the rest of his life struggling mightily to be English, with considerable success.**
As you can discover in one of Hawkes's essays, much of the reading and performance of Shakespeare in the last century or so is explicable if we treat Shakespeare's role as a status symbol as a primary fact, and familiarity with Shakespeare as a kind of country club membership or the wave-in from the cultural doorman at the Cool Kids Cultural Club. Hawkes quoted Eliot's poem because of the complicated prestige-maneuvering involved in those lines. The original song seems to have taken a straightforward "Wow, Shakespeare is great" position with the kind of pretended "I am not impressed, I really know this stuff" attitude that is one way of demonstrating that status symbol of familiarity (see, for example, Cole Porter's treatment of The Taming of the Shrew in Kiss Me, Kate, or the silly "Shakespeare rap" in Renaissance Man). In the way he quoted it, Eliot could make it an ironic comment on the "collect quotes for use later" way that Shakespeare was read by highly educated people (or people who pretended to education, the sort of people who populated Eliot's poetry, plays, and parties).
Now, as Thorstein Veblen might have told Eliot if they'd been at the same university, there's no point to a status symbol that other people can't see. It's not so much the status symbol itself, but its manner of exhibition, that's interesting. 
For many decades familiarity with Shakespeare was mostly exhibited via quoting and/or alluding, particularly in Britain but in all the other English speaking countries. This led to an instructional style of reading Shakespeare as if one were proceeding from quote to quote along a short path of synopsis. It privileged the sacred special memorizable-and-recitable lines over the busy noise of plot and character development and the merely professional interest of how this text should be acted or designed. It was a procedure neither for understanding nor for performance, but for worship (or for pretended worship).
Worship-oriented reading of Shakespeare led, in turn, to a salon culture among the wealthy young in which people showed they'd been to a "good" school by trading infosnippets about Shakespeare (and others on a short list of "greats".)***
One very frequently taught Shakespeare quote was from The Tempest:
MIRANDA:                      Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!

In the 1910-60 era when Eliot was most active, anyone whose schooling had gone beyond age 12 knew that quote. In fact, in the instructional methods of the time many students had been required to recite it or to write it out on exam papers.
And so, when Aldous Huxley wrote a brutal satire of a world where human needs were met but at the cost of no one being very human, he called it Brave New World. He knew that the sort of people who were browsing in a bookstore would immediately see that title and think "... That has such people in ’t!' 
It was sort of an earworm-generating-quote. Many great titles have been constructed by giving half a quote; almost always the missing half is the important part, which the reader then says mentally. (Or as Frost put it, "But it isn't elves exactly ....").  Ones I can see on my bookshelf right now include the great post-WW2 documentary Situation Normal, George McDonald Fraser's war memoir Quartered Safe Out Here, Robert Penn Warren's political novel All the King's Men, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the incredibly overused When the Bough Breaks, and Saul Cornell's book on the origins of the Second Amendment, A Well-Regulated Militia.
As it happened, Huxley's story became famous and influential in its own right, and it would be an interesting question whether nowadays more people know something about it than about The Tempest. Brave New World went on to become a famous phrase now separated from Shakespeare, and in its newer incarnation it links to ideas like soma, that unforgettable opening scene with the embryos in bottles, and a general impression of what non-violent, mostly-invisible totalitarianism might look like.
Many readers who don't like Brave New World complain about the characters being "unlikeable." Such readers often read for the pleasure of make-believing they are the characters. They can't get much fun out of a character it would be unpleasant to be. That's why most unambitious genre books, the simple adventure stories and love stories that populate most of the shelves, offer "likable" characters. As I've heard Tom Doherty say many times, bestsellers are usually books about people and settings where the readers "want to be them and want to go there."
Short sidenote: readers don't necessarily want to be admirable people or go to ideal vacation settings, though of course they might. There's a lot of fun in imagining being or meeting Don Corleone, Hannibal Lector, or Scarlett O'Hara, and though William Gibson's Sprawl, Arrakis, or Mordor aren't nice places, they're interesting, especially if you don't actually have to physically endure them.
But Huxley had ambitions beyond selling books and entertaining casual readers. He was purposely working at the intersection between "science fiction" and "novel." Properly speaking, a novel is a bigger, richer, more complicated form than a simple adventure story or even an archetypal Hero's Journey, and one of the main things it is concerned with is "Where do different types of people come from and what difference do the different types make in the world?"
The point of a novel, as opposed to just a book length story for entertainment, necessarily includes something about that basic proposition: if you have this kind of world, it will have this kind of people. Those people may be dreary or even dull, if your point is that the world we have makes us into people we don't want to know. You can find a fair bit of that exact point in The Catcher in the Rye, Of Human Bondage, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Robber Bride  (though that one has likable characters, they aren't necessarily the source of interest; Zenia is what makes that novel fascinating).  They may be evil or brutal or shallow, emotionally stunted or inexpressive, or manipulative and self-pitying if that's what you think your world will make them, and within the more serious and complicated game of the novel-reader, that's in bounds, even if they aren't playable/likable.
In sci fi, that's a higher wall than many readers want to climb, and a deeper well than they want to probe, and thicker woods than they want to push through, and much more mixed a metaphor than any of those. The plain and simple adventure story, in which one sturdy root of genre fiction is always planted, tends to have characters who change in simple ways that fit the reader's experience of life today: young insecure (or cocky) characters become older, more secure, and wiser; people who take a turn for the bad get worse or turn back in a great shower of remorse; and so on.
Nonetheless, whenever science fiction (or any other genre) acquires a bit of ambition, it has to take some position of the form: if you have this kind of world, it will have this kind of people. It does mean losing a certain kind of reader, and if you are going to write with any ambition, you will just have to consider them well lost. I catch a certain amount of flak about there being "no likable characters" in my own Kaleidoscope Century, The Merchants of Souls, Motherof Storms, and  Losers In Space. I also see some less-frequent and less-intense grumbles about people being "too good to be true," which I think is another form of unplayability, though it might also just be the more legitimate complaint that I'm depicting a genuine impossibility, in Orbital Resonance, Tales of the Madman Underground , and The Sky So Big and Black )
It's part of the heat you accept when you go into the literary kitchen, even as a mere chopper of vegetables and arranger of canapes. 
In short science fiction, it's the same but more so. The game is really about what kind of world makes what kind of people. There isn't space to do much more than establish a world, establish a few people, and have them do one interesting thing.
It's all about the meaning Huxley probably intended to invoke when he picked "Brave New World" for a title. He would have known -- it was and still is one of those infosnippets traded around at parties to prove your cred as an educated person -- that "brave" in Shakespeare's day carried a strong idea of showiness, visual splendor, and richness of appearance, as well as courage; a brave man wasn't just courageous or valiant, but was also conspicuous and attention-grabbing. 
That is, Miranda means that it's a dazzling world she has never seen before, because it has people of a kind she's never seen before.
And that's part of the job, if you're writing short science fiction for some reason other than the check. One way or another, dazzle the reader with a vision of things they haven't seen before, which includes a vision of new kinds of people.
So as part of creating the world for "Silence Like Diamonds"   (oh, look, there it is! see, I did get around to it!) I tried to ask ... what kind of people grow in a world with no privacy and insecure untrustable information? In the imagined future of the story, the fast factorization algorithm that collapsed all of encryption happened around 2020, so these characters spent most of their young adulthood coping with the aftermath of that.
What kind of people has this made them?
They have to value skills more than mere compendia of information. Anybody can steal your secrets and thus prevent your charging for them, but stealing your skills is a whole other business. Hence Yip's most valuable and salable asset is her carefully honed and developed talent for seeing where the money is going in criminal schemes (she's a "scheme architecture analyst," a term that some large detective firms are already using for their accountants who specialize in tracking money through the laundry).
She knows lots of facts about how money moves illicitly in the world, but anyone could access those. The "secret sauce" is in her ability to grasp the new, not to repeat the old. That's very different from many present-day experts who are essentially depth librarians of highly specific topics.
Similarly, Yazzy sees what software does (but isn't a code jock by present day standards), Dusan has marketing skills (he does better things with the same information that anyone could look up), and even Markus describes his job as beating people up, i.e. a skill, not a body of knowledge.   
They think in terms of defense and attack. It's not a violent world necessarily but a ferociously competitive one. When everyone reads everyone else's records and communications, the game becomes closer to zero sum, and the premium for hitting first goes up, so it is hardly surprising that people look around themselves all the time, checking for enemies.
Personal trust becomes more highly valued. Everyone counts on family connections and longstanding friendships; in a world where you can't discuss lunch without being drowned in ads for cafes and slagmails from one cafe dismissing another, and where to talk securely two people have to prearrange regular transmission of one time pads, the human connections outside the system become more vital.  (Notice, for example, that Yip is interested in Markus in part because they live and work in the same immediate area; the world of "Silence Like Diamonds  probably has a lot less online dating than ours, much less "shopping around," and much more "settling," because meeting strangers, especially at a distance, involves too much sensitive information being where anyone can read it).
Above all else, they value silence. There are two great privileges in that imagined future: not being deluged with messages from people trying to sell you something (not just products and services, but ideas and beliefs), and not having to communicate more than you want to. Hence the title, about which I've had a few queries; it comes from the last tag at the end of Lupe Fiasco's "Go To Sleep" :
If talk is cheap, then my silence is diamonds. Preach
It's a world where talk is cheap because people have no control over it; and where anyone who carves out a little bit of control uses it to get some silence, both of transmission and reception. Silence is what you need to listen, and the status symbol that indicates you aren't compelled to speak.
            And that is why it's called that, and why, in its own way, it's a brave new world.

*It's very witty and entertaining if you read academical high-faluting language comfortably, so if you're anything of a Shakespeare fan and you falute at medium or greater altitude, it's worth your while.

**for a very long time, the surest way for an poet to get into American anthologies, which was just about the only reliable source of poetry income, was to be English. If, like Eliot, he (it was usually but not always a he) was also at least a bit stuffy, required footnotes, and generally found life to be a drag, he could do very well indeed, being stamped into the memories of most undergrad English majors from the last Coolidge to the first Bush Administration.

*** again, this meant laying out quotes and synopses as if they were poker hands. The point was to show that you'd been to school, not that you'd read closely or thought deeply, which is why the women were talking of Michaelangelo as they came and went in that room.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

More than a toaster that remembers and more than a refrigerator that spies on you: Four thoughts about Internet of Things 2.0

Much noise is being made about the Internet of Things these days by the sort of people who make noise about such things, and I suppose all that noise is good for something. Perhaps it is good for keeping such people employed so that they don't end up at Starbucks screwing up my coffee order.*
For those of you who missed out on it, the idea (of the Internet of Things, not my coffee order) is that eventually we will be surrounded by devices that have sensors, memory, intercommunication, and some kind of programmable processing, that are emphatically not what we traditionally think of as computers. They're not exactly robots: many of them have no autonomy and are controlled by pushing buttons on them or their remotes. Yet they are unquestionably Smart Things.  I'm going to call them internetrons, because I kind of like the word.
The Internet of Things obviously already happened yesterday, to the phone and the record player. It is in process of happening today to the automobile, dishwasher, and microwave.
Tomorrow, we are assured,** the toaster will remember how you like your toast and optically scan it, ejecting it when it is Just Right. 
You will get a deduction from your insurance company for having a refrigerator that counts your calories, reorders fresh produce, and makes sure you don't drink non-homeopathic beer, and a rebate from a marketing survey company that places a few extra free items in every grocery order and watches what you do with them. 
The washer-dryer will decide whether the clothes are clean enough, taking samples of the water at thirty second intervals, and then dry them to fluffy perfection. To do its best possible job, that washing machine will check with the toaster and the refrigerator to establish that the splotchy stain on your favorite MLB baseball tee, which you always wear on Thursday nights at the bar with the guys, is Smuckers Boysenberry Jam. From this it will compute exactly how the detergent mix should be adjusted according to specifications from Smuckers, Kenmore, the city water company, and Proctor and Gamble.
I do think that particular technological evolution is inevitable, which is why I slipped quite a bit of it into "Silence LikeDiamonds," Episode 8 (of 10) of which is now up and available. Go ahead, click, go read the story.  If by any chance you just got here and it's the first time you've heard of "Silence Like Diamonds," my explanation here, Light Reading's explanation there.***
It's a vision of a future world in the center of a rectangle whose bent and twisty sides might be All Watched Over By Machines of LovingGrace,   Wall-E,   "I Always Do What Teddy Says," and The Brave Little Toaster.
Well, friends, that's Internet of Things 1.0. And we all know Version 1.0 of anything means we're amazed it exists at all, but eventually we'll come to see it as some trivial automation of things that already existed. We know that later on, when Version 2.0 arrives, we'll be more amazed at all the "obvious" possibilities that we didn't see and all the things we thought we'd be doing that we now see (from the viewpoint of 2.0 and higher) are a waste of time. So ... what's next, after every Razor scooter has GPS and relays everything happening around its rider to Ms. Mom's cellphone, Mr. Teacher's gradebook, Dr. Pediatrician's diet-and-exercise records, and the FBI's Pre-Missing Children Just-In-Case Database?
In a general way, Version 1.0 creates the infrastructure that is then exploited transformatively in Version 2.0. Space Program 1.0 built the rockets, found the Van Allen Belts, created the first communication satellites, figured out what made a decent astronaut, and taught spacewalking and rendezvous. Space Program 2.0 was space stations, routine operations in space, robot probes to everywhere, environmental monitoring by satellite, the whole Earth and other worlds photographed and accessible from any screen, GPS, and carrying much of global communications. Web 1.0 was about being able to call up any information anyone put up, if you could find it: the age of dot com, company web pages, blogs, and Alta Vista. Web 2.0 was access, searchability, and processing, the age of Amazon, Google, Instagram, and YouTube. Web 3.0 is roaring into existence right now, under the general rubrics of "big data," "natural language," and "the cloud." The personal computer as a whole is probably at about Version 4.0 or 5.0, and in "Silence Like Diamonds" I try to imagine what Version (n+1).0 might look like.
But Internet of Things 1.0: The Coming of the Internetrons is just arriving now. So guessing at 2.0 is purely fun of the kind that us sci fi types like to try. 
Here are my four big guesses about IoT 2.0, all of which shaped some of my thinking for "Silence Like Diamonds":

•Once all that information is moving around and available, and once every device can tap into it, the pressure for a really good standard interface to the liveware is going to be tremendous. If the machine world is going to be like being surrounded by wise, understanding, and kindly servants, we need them all to speak the same language (as much as possible, ours). After all, in the old days, Lord Blithering-Twit of Blithering-on-Endlessly didn't have to learn a different language for the gardener than he used for the butler or the upstairs maid. "Or I will fire you and you will starve," and "Thank you, that will be all," worked equally well on all of them. Furthermore, though individual servants had individual capabilities**** , the forms and rituals for telling them what to do were very similar***** with no regard for who they are. (The point of servants, whether human or mechanical, is always likely to be that you don't need to know who they are, which is why certain personalities find the idea so attractive, and should be watched carefully).
In Internet of Things 2.0, that verbal interface is going to become standardized. (Much in the way that Automobiles 1.0 all had unique controls; you had to learn how to drive each make and model anew, but around Automobile 2.0 (the Model T or so), controls became standard; or the way that Personal Computer 1.0 had its own operating system, company by company, but Personal Computer 2.0 probably had CP/M, and Personal Computer 3.0 had a GUI that was all most people ever interacted with). 
So in Internet of Things 2.0, my prediction is that all the internetrons will understand the same basic command syntax.  You'll command, "House, raise living room temperature two degrees," using the same basic structure as you do for "Vacuum cleaner, remove snack spill from family room, shampoo and dry rug as necessary for bare foot standard," or "Car, take me to that hotel I like in Bennington, use sleep en route protocol, arrive before ten. Phone, secure reservation at destination, ask car for details. Bank account, authorize funds for car for long drive, and phone for hotel reservation." Large parts of the population already think naturally in that sort of syntax, thanks to object-oriented coding; eventually it will be the second language of First World children, and then perhaps of everyone.
By 2030 or so when Yip is having her adventures (in "Silence Like Diamonds", which I really did mean to promote, but then I got interested in this), old people will be complaining about how fussy the machines are, most adults will comfortably command a machine they just bought without having to read any sort of manual, and some educators will be suggesting school courses in "telling machines what to do."

Smart materials are so much in their infancy that it's pretty hard to tell exactly how many ways they will manifest, but  smart materials will mean that the Internet of Things 2.0 is capable of many things that we don't even know we want yet. At the very least, we might look forward to things like patches that can swim like a swarm of manta rays through the bloodstream to a point directed by an MRI or ultrasound and stop a stroke, hemorrhage, or thrombosis in progress are real possibilities. And why stop at your arteries? Maybe your house will be cleaned by self-propelled smart rags that scoot along the floor and give themselves a static charge to pick up potato chip fragments, or if they find Kool-Aid crusted on the counter, they'll climb into the sink, ask it to wet them down, go back and wipe the sticky spot up, and then go get into the queue for the washing machine. Eventually the cat and the baby will get used to being followed around by them.
Think that's far-fetched? Here's how you put a brain andsense organs in a rag, and here's how it will get around.
And then after you've considered that, think about the really wild stuff: programmable matter
Not so much an internet of things, but a world where physical reality itself is internet-based: things of the internet, or internetrons. What's that look like? There's not much resemblance between present-day GPS and the navigation satellite in Edward Everett Hale's The Brick Moon -- published when H.G. Wells was three years old. Wells himself not only coined the term "atomic bomb" in The World Set Free,  he lived to see what a bomb powered by a nuclear chain reaction was actually like (pretty much nothing like what he'd imagined).
So any guesses now are wrong, for sure, and will be pathetically outdated within a few years. We're all guessing wrong  about how smart materials will be made and used, or how they will change things. But it's pretty hard to believe that something that amounts to real-life magic won't reshape the world (along with itself) as soon as it escapes from the lab.

•Not least at all, the Internet of Things 2.0 will not just be one where the internetrons are recording big data, but where they can query it and use it. The self-reshaping bracelet on your wrist, always trying to please you, might ask you in the morning if you'd like it to see what the other 150,000 people in your demographic are wearing today, and reshape itself instantly so that it fits you, your outfit, and your clique together in the way most to your advantage. Every time a self-driving car has a near escape from an accident, it can (if we design and permit it) call up all the other self-driving cars, discuss the near accident, and work out a mutual protocol.
Machines will probably not have the human-often-male fear of asking for directions or help; imagine, if you will, that you're on the ski lift when your car calls you and says, "Boss, sorry to trouble you, but the nearest local ambulances are out on calls and there's a lady sixteen miles away up a long snowpacked road who's just called in with a sick baby. I'm the closest capable vehicle, and I just downloaded a snowpacked-steep-road procedure from a couple of Army all-terrain vehicles in Alaska.  Fifty bad-weather experienced vehicles all say I can make it, and they'll monitor me the whole way. The Hilton Hotel van is bringing over a paramedic team right now. I'll only be gone about two hours, they just need a ride to a dude ranch parking lot where a helicopter can land. The dude ranch central controller has already agreed to unlock its gates and the snowplow is on its way up there to clear a landing area. The county will pay all expenses, and if you need a ride before I get back, there's a minivan whose owner is out of town that will cover for me.  So, please, can I? Please say yes!"
You better say yes, or your car will be grumpy, because:

•Fourth and most importantly in the long run, in the Internet of Things 2.0, we're going to need internetrons that appear to have feelings -- or let's just admit that it will only work if we aren't able to tell they don't. Emotional signals are how humans let others know that a situation is serious and how serious it is. Our visible feelings communicate when we're complying with what we're sure is a mistaken request out of loyalty. A human-like interface plus access to an immense reserve of data about what humans like, and algorithms to process that huge amount of experience with pleasing people into protocols for talking to them, means that one way or another, they'll have to have feelings.
If the machines are going to care for us, they'll have to care about us, or at least convince us they do.
So right as Asimov was about what humans would fear about robots (they'd kill us, they'd disobey us, they'd get destroyed despite being valuable), it's another case of someone writing too early to see how it would really go.
Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics can't be rigid, law-like laws; they have to become the Three Passions of Internetrons: 
"An internetron is made excruciatingly miserable by the sight of human suffering and always maintains awareness that some human may be injured, and avoids or averts it if at all possible."
"An internetron derives immense pleasure from correctly carrying out a human purpose, especially if it is able to exceed the human's goals, which it constantly strives to learn and understand."
"An internetron fears destruction and damage to itself, and considers its fears, but is always able to act, no matter how afraid."
You'll notice that unlike Asimov's Laws, which have clauses for resolving contradictions (lowest numbered law always wins), the Three Passions instead balance against each other in the same sort of unstable quandary that people with emotions feel and cope with all the time. The internetron, be it an airliner or a toaster, makes its best judgment based on its feelings, and on what older internetrons have told it about these strange creatures, the humans, and then tries communicating and doing what it can, and never knows for sure whether it was right. It lives, in short, with the human condition.
The Three Passions boil down to Fight Suffering and Injustice, Serve Others Well, and Respect Your Own Existence. Isn't that a bit familiar -- like it's what many religious teachers desperately try to inculcate into their followers every day?******
Which brings me to the scariest thing the internetrons might do: not take over, as in the Terminator stories, or reduce us to hapless sacks of ambitionless infantilism, as in Wall-E.
No, the scariest thing is that Internet of Things 2.0 might eventually shame us all, as it becomes populated by internetrons who are more humane than humans. Some future Kipling (the classic example of a writer who could see so much that was wrong and couldn't imagine a way for it to be otherwise) may well find him/herself writing,
"Though I've smashed and overloaded you,

By the AIs that encoded you,

You're a humaner being than I am, Hunk of Tin."
*"Large black medium roast, in a mug not a paper cup, and don't use any words for it your marketing people thought up."
    "Right, so that's a Mongawhacking 'Tacoma Airport Special Roast' Neutrocino No Dairy Unsweetened in an Ecofriendly Tree Preserver.  Sorry, we're out of those. We're having a special on the Tomato-Hamburger Double Espressazzatta, though, can I get you one of those?"

** ALBERT: Mr. Burns, I assure you that --
      MURRAY: Look here, buddy, you don't assure me one bit. In fact you make me damned nervou
                             -- Herb Gardner, A Thousand Clowns.
Memorize or keep a copy in your wallet for whenever some college graduate with too much suit, concern, and authority starts trying to assure you.

***Here an expla, 
      There a nation, 
      Everywhere an earworm ...
****"I say, Jeeves, the parents are coming. Have Mrs. Scrub ready the guest room, tell Mr. Cook to prepare Father's favorite beef, and have Tugger Forelock go out and cut some roses, you know the ones, Mother's favorites. We'll have Miss Anthrope serve as their personal maid, and perhaps they'll leave in less than a fortnight this time."
***** "Very good sir" always meant, "Your order has been understood and will be carried out," and never, "After the Revolution and then I shall cut your throat," or at least it meant the former and not the latter to the order-givers.
******Yes, I know many other religious leaders and teachers try to inculcate other messages, such as "beat up people who disagree with us," "give us money," and so on. Nonetheless, there's a little thread of Truth that insists on weaving itself through all of humanity's quest for the Divine, and thin and inconspicuous as it may often be, that's what I'm talking about here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Episode 7 is up. And some thoughts about a cyberworld with failed encryption and low trust

First of all, because it matters most of all, I'm gratified that I'm getting email from many of you, little flares of discussion on Twitter, and informed multisided argument over at Light Reading about "Silence Like Diamonds". That little adventure novelet is honestly drawing more attention and creating more conversation than some of my novels. (Possibly it even deserves to.) Thanks, guys, not only could I not have done it without you, by definition, if there hadn't been a you, I wouldn't've done it.
Second, in case you missed that there subtle hint right there, time to start reading "Silence Like Diamonds," because Episode 7 is up now, and as I mentioned  earlier this week, we are now, rhymthically speaking, getting into the space where a whole lot of stuff ought to blow up. (And I am nothing if not slavish to rhythm).  If you haven't started yet, since each episode is only a thousand words, you can be caught up in something less than an hour, so just hop on over and start at Episode 1 or wherever you like on the Episode List.
And now to the heart of things: One chunk of the ongoing discussion I've been enjoying, mostly as a spectator, is the conversation brought on by this blog piece and amplified by Mitch Wagner over at Light Reading, where you'll find the public discussion. The question, broadly, is that given that many good minds are at work on a fast factorization process, and a fast factorization process would rip open RSA and public key encryption generally, reducing decrypting times from literally astronomical to a matter of days or less. Right now we don't know if it's even possible (and depending on how paranoid you are, we also don't know that someone doesn't have it already).
So, Mitch asked a bit nervously, if a fast factorization algorithm is found, that means all the locks are open and everything will be read. Can humanity survive? More importantly, can people in the computing, software, and communications industries continue to afford upgrades, games, and huge conferences?
I think the reason behind that question is that we're living in a polar condition -- that is, privacy and secrecy could hardly be more effective than they are now.  Nearly all the hacks and penetrations we know about are caused by sloppy humans, not by broken encryption. The balance was tipped over hard to the encryptor side two generations ago, and our security wizards have developed some extremely comforting and predictable adages about where to look for trouble, which have worked so well for so long that some of them have been lulled into the comforting belief that that is all there is to it. If you like a slight dash of irony, the major weakness in security with respect to this subject is that so many security people have a false sense of security.
But historically there have been times when the balance flipped the other way.  The world did not end, but it sure was different.
During the mid-19c cluster of wars that began with the Crimean War and finished with the Franco-Prussian War, for example, cryptanalysts were breaking codes at their desks within hours (tools like frequency tables were well developed, the more common transpositions were easily parsed by known methods, single value ciphers were still the most common, and the trick of assigning tasks to half a dozen code clerks had been mostly worked out). Moreover, the more important messages had to move by courier because the telegraph lines were insecure. Cavalry scouts spent a fair bit of their time looking for a man by himself in the other uniform, riding hard, and their instructions about such riders were "The mail doesn't go through, and getting the saddlebag is more important than getting the prisoner."
How did the armies of the time adapt? First of all, they very nearly abandoned cryptography.  Lee's Special Order 191, the one that was used to wrap three cigars and fell into McClellan's hands, was unencrypted. (Had it been encrypted in the strongest cipher Lee and Stonewall Jackson shared, McClellan's cipher clerks would have needed no more than two hours to figure out the gist of it, with a few words ambiguous or garbled). The intercepted, enciphered diplomatic telegram that eventually became a key to proving Dreyfuss's innocence was partly decoded on the first day and fully decoded within six; but the intercepted document that pointed suspicion toward him in the first place was also unencrypted, even though it was a letter to the German embassy offering a catalog of French top secret military documents for purchase.
Instead of the futile effort to make the meaning unreadable, they concentrated on physical security and deception. That was the great age of the hollow cane, the false-bottomed flask, and the double-layered corset. Vital messages might be sent in multiple copies -- only one of which was valid -- by multiple riders, none of whom knew whether they were carrying the true one or not. Authentication was by prearrangement, personal codes that resembled passwords, trellis devices, and a host of other techniques, but perhaps the most important security measure was always understood to be to minimize the need for secrecy in the first place: send the message as late as possible, talk only about the very immediate future.
Or consider how banks in the United States operated between President Jackson's successful closure of the Bank of the United States and Lincoln's establishment of the National Banking System.  In those days checking accounts were rare, and for the wealthy; the most common way banks gave out money was by issuing banknotes, which at the time was not just a quaint expression for denominated bills, but were actually issued by individual private banks, to be redeemed at that  bank only for  gold or silver, or the notes of other banks (and very occasionally for government securities, including "Treasury notes," i.e. the paper money the federal government issued to pay its employees, which went into circulation when they spent it and went back out when people used it to pay taxes).   
At that time not only did the U.S. prohibit interstate banking, but many states didn't allow intercounty banking, so the result was that  there were literally thousands of banks all issuing paper money in the United States, some in states like Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Vermont that regulated the practice tightly, and some in states like Texas, South Carolina, Delaware, and Missouri that barely regulated it at all. (Check out the slideshow on thispage, which is actually about a quite different topic; a few slides into the show, there are a dozen or so images of bills in strange denominations  -- $3, okay, but an $11 bill? They wanted them all in primes, or to always get change back from a ten?) 
Especially before the telegraph, this meant that if you accepted payment in $17.50 bills (yes, that denomination existed) from, say, Reverend Bob's Friendly Bank of Possum Droppings, Minnesota, and deposited them into the Dependable Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Swampland, Louisiana, it might take a month for the bank notes to be mailed back to Possum Droppings and the clerk there to send a verification letter to a clearinghouse that would then ship gold coin to Swampland. (This, by the way, is why train robbers were so intent on robbing trains for generations, and train robbing was the career peak for armed robbery: the mail train carried many big sacks of untraceable banknotes that could be redeemed in thousands of places if you had the time). 
 To the surprise of no one who has ever known any people, notes from non-existent banks abounded; unscrupulous printers made copies of notes from distant banks; people opened banks solely to print notes; Ponzi schemes long before Ponzi were widespread.
Yet the United States economy managed to be the fastest growing in the world, and though there was plenty of trouble and the great banking historian Bray Hammond commented that when Abraham Lincoln took office to run what would be, in many ways, the first modern war, he had a financial system perfectly designed for the Wars of the Roses .... all the same, it worked.
How did they do it? Discount houses would pay a fraction of face value in exchange for assuming the value of the bills.  More than a dozen publishers put out monthly volumes listing known-to-be-reliable banks and the denominations, serial numbers, and descriptions of their bills. Money was printed that could only be in private hands up to a fixed date, after which private individuals were not supposed to take it but banks and clearinghouses would accept it for redemption.  After the telegraph, bank detectives could be dispatched to distant cities with up to date information to keep corresponding banks safe from false notes issued on more reliable banks.  And by the late 1840s, the urgent need for fast shipping of banknotes and money orders to and from the California gold fields resulted in the creation of "express" companies, which specialized in high-security (i.e. armed guard) high-speed (i.e. railroads and steamboats where available, horse relays or stagecoaches where not) shipments mostly of bank notes, and sometimes of gold. In very short order, the express companies began to handle dozens of other financial and security duties, since they had bonded clerks and often the only decent safes in tow.  By the 1870s, express companies had become  predominantly financial. (Two of those early express companies are still with us: American Express and Wells Fargo).
Now, shipping boxes of doubtful bank notes by fast horse with armed guards is certainly not the economical way of doing things. It was a huge overload and a drag on the economy.  But it could be done, and it worked well enough for the economy to keep going. There's even a fair case that it may have led to more rather than less growth; much of the canal era and the early railroad era were financed in large measure by bank notes that could never be redeemed, so that much of the building of vital infrastructure was in effect a freebie for the entrepreneur (and a ripoff for the investor).
As for the thing that scares a lot of people about decryption, the revelation of secrets like that bank account you're going to use to run off with your on-the-side, or the payments to your love-child's mother, or your top secret weed stash financing (which lately has been making banks in Colorado, where I live, very happy and mellow indeed without ever having to touch the product) ... ever gone to a coed steambath or a nudist colony?  Disconcerting momentarily, but when everyone's naked, it stops being a thing pretty fast.  One church deacon with a Swiss bank account and a Costa Rican love nest is a scandal; a hundred thousand of them, with two thousand more caught every month, is just a predictable part of the archbishop's overhead.
I'm not saying that the shattering of encryption would make no difference at all.  All the alternatives -- more extensive use of one time pads, physical security, spoofing, alternate-channel verification, and so on -- would cost much more and work much less well than what we have now.  Look for more fraud, more robbery, more money spent by both sides on guards, goons, and guns. 
Look for a time when good security people get rich quick, and lead interesting lives.  Which brings me back to Episode 7 of "Silence Like Diamonds. " Remember the main characters in that story are flourishing private consultants and business people pulling down fat contracts from major corporations.  And what field are they all in? Security.
If you're in any of the security fields today, you might want to burn a little incense to the Gods of Fast Factorization. Because just about the only safe prediction, if fast factoring becomes a reality, is that you're going to be rich. Nobody, after all, makes more money than someone who promises to try to sell you what no one can deliver.