Tag Archives: technology

Recovering technophiliac

I use a MacBook Air 2012, second version of the Air line and model for all that follow. It’s a perfect size for serious work, with a screen that usefully shows a half-dozen apps in a single desktop space. It’s substantial yet light, easily portable, fine in a lap or a desk. It has local storage so no need of wifi for work on the go, and cloud backup the moment it connects.
At my desk, it runs two HD+ monitors, a backup drive, and any peripheral I need. Home and away, from apps to settings to bookmarks to the structure of the folders, everything is the same on it, wherever I take it. It’s the most useful thing ever.
Drives me crazy.
I have an addiction. I like new computing gear. I like to get better gear that does new stuff. A perfect computer can do everything – but that.
Every other year, I spend good money on e-trash, some quirky machine with a clever feature like a touch screen or small size. Each time, the affair is short-lived, and soon the device ends up housed in a cabinet, so backlogged with updates that I fear to turn it on. My last one went three days from unboxing to reboxing.
It’s as if I drive a McLaren sports car, every day, but I keep buying new Cadillacs for the bigger cupholders.
It started out innocently enough. I got into computers as a teen, as a writer, at the dawn of word-processing, still a hobbyist’s preserve but even then superior to typewriters. My then-rare comfort with the technology dovetailed with the dawn of online connectivity as a consumer business. I was rewarded with a prestigious international career.
If you bought your winning ticket for the mega-lottery at the liquor store, how would that affect your alcohol abuse?
The same for my success and my need to poke at new gear – even in this new career where (from a gear perspective) I merely key words in empty spaces, and there’s no more technology to master.
Meanwhile my MacBook Air just works. It’s got another four years at least. Four more years of perfection, of comfort and familiarity and a natural flow.
Maybe longer.
The itch is stressful. I am trying to realign it with better pursuits, like the ambulance-chasing lawyer in Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, proud to have a good use for his anger. When my dad’s old desktop needed its final backup, I taught my son the basics of computer architecture. We rebuilt it at modest cost with new drives, cards, and memory. We did such a good job my dad demanded it back.
Of course, I spent two afternoons after thinking through and researching how to build powerful desktop machines for different uses from parts at low cost.
But I didn’t buy anything.
That’s something.

Destroying Budapest

My science-fiction work-in-progress is set in a single city, and I needed to see it to imagine living in it. Welcome to Pest! Only walk on gray parts….
Pest, the White Lake and the Soft Lands
Budapest was a proxy in the One-Day War between Greater Russia and Umoja East Africa. Buda is now the White Lake, a boiling toxic waste of microscopic robots that eat carbon dioxide, and anything else, to make diamonds that wash on its shores. Both embargoed no-person’s-land and boomtown, Pest houses thieves, smugglers, engineers, and skaters, daredevil gladiators who jump and spin over the Lake in maglev boots, just one fall from death.
I suppose I could have done any old thing to ruin a city, but I wanted a dusting of Science! in my fiction. I thought a fractal would make a believably consistent result small enough for microscopic robots to store. I used FractalWorks, a Mac app, to generate a tiny portion of the celebrated Mandelbrot function, and overlaid this on a large screenshot of central Budapest, so its finer arcs and whorls were the length of city blocks.

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver


I didn’t think at the scale of blocks it could ever be so precise – if nothing else, land would collapse – so I cut out the Lake using an image editor’s predictive selection tool, to make the edges sloppy and eroded.
Both the pink and white areas are products of the fractal. The white is the Lake itself, while the pink represents Soft Lands, areas of shifting underground streams through which nanites recharge, around which smugglers tunnel.
It’s been a huge help to have the reference. Putting my characters on a literal map lets me figure out relative distances, and helps me imagine the land and the city that might grow from it.
I also thought further about my mechanical monster’s makeup. Where Lake meets land has always been seductively quiet, since earliest drafts. Instead, let the meeting of Lake and Soft Lands be a place of churn and upheaval, the turbulence of nanites going into and out of dormancy around the buzz of other nanites quantumly-uncertain just where their strange fractal stops. I have a heart murmur too.
It’s easier to name things in the context of the city’s weird sense of humor now, and I’m looking at it as more impressively built than previous drafts. Where before it was falling apart and hastily erected, now I see it as printed and reprinted, strange but regular, by the same artificially-intelligent drone “taxibots” that run the city services. This has new virtues and a very different look. And some rewriting.
If this map gets reproduced in the book, I don’t want the plain line drawing quality of most novel maps. Rather I’d commission a graphic artist to generate a cityscape, degrade that so it looked like a 12th-generation-photocopy of an old image, have all the landmarks written in sloppy marker. At top: “Welcome to Pest where you will likely die.” At bottom: “Wanna know more? Live and learn.”

Robots vs. androids in fiction (go robots!)

Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.
From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.
I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.
It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. 🙂
This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Continue reading

The STEM and the Flower (Education)

Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for his recent column calling out the recent obsession with STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I urge its wide readership.
The issue is not STEM, of course, but obsession — and it’s not really obsession, in the end, but the lazy desire for a panacea. Wouldn’t it be great to think that we could just do one kind of studying to be successful? And we could cut school funding too!
The world doesn’t work that way, alas. Defunding arts and humanities education will not make us a nation of successful technocrats. It will make us poorer in spirit, which will make us poorer in pocket, and make our culture harder to sustain. Without language, music, and art, people literally can’t communicate, explain, teach, and inspire.
It’s that last one which is hardest to quantify, least utilitarian, but most vital. Life is not easy, and even the most successful of us have days on end of meticulous tedium. Most people are hard pressed to give a damn about anything over time if their lives are not enriched by whimsy and beauty – not merely by consuming it, but by engaging with it, in the way one only can with understanding and training. Even Mr. Spock liked to jam with a band.
The stem is vitally important to the plant, but so is the flower. They are parts of a common purpose. Things can survive if they are stunted, but they can’t flourish or evolve. Lose sight of that, and we lose.

The cyborg in a time of prolonged war

A friend recently told me that the old TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, about a grievously-wounded astronaut fitted with human-looking but superpowered prosthetics, was being rebooted. I vented about this a while — I have issues with the constant readaptation of the recent pop-culture past, driven by the marketer’s fear of an unsure product — but a recent panel I had seen at the World Fantasy Convention put me in a kinder mindset.
The panel discussed the rise in European horror fiction after World War 1. Fiction helps us process the world (to a great degree, scientists now think), even the horrors of war, if it can address it. Even today, Outside the Wire’s Theater of War presents Sophocles’s Ajax to communities vulnerable to PTSD. In the US after the Civil War, and in Europe after World War I, horror stories helped society work out the true horrors they had seen and still saw, the desolation wrought around them, and the wounded disabled survivors.
Because of our improved ability to save the lives of the grievously-wounded, our 21st-Century wars are increasing both the number of young disabled people and the public’s frequency and depth of engagement with prosthetic devices. There’s things to say about that, well-suited for telling through a Steve Austin figure.
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Making peace with tablets

Our upcoming vacation is meant to be a nice thing, not improved by a laptop. If I really feel motivated to write fiction, I can write on paper.
But, I would feel just better with a bigger screen and keyboard at my disposal. So I’ve been using my tablet (an iPad mini) for occasional work, as something of an experiment.
I have never taken seriously the idea of tablets as work devices. Wonderful for watching and reading, excellent for play, but they ask too many compromises for productivity.
But, this is another way of saying my productivity has become encrusted with too much stuff. Continue reading

Productivity through multiple logins

I’m wearing my technology hat today, with a productivity column inspired by some weekend discussions.
If you conduct your work and home lives from the same computer, it’s hard to keep them apart. Your home office or studio, carefully landscaped free of distractions, hides its biggest time-sinks on the same screen as your work. It’s hard not to “pop into” Facebook, hard not to pay bills or label vacation photos, when work grows dull — but even a small distraction can cost you a half-hour of good focus.
Of course you could deactivate your Internet, but then you lose a vital research tool and regular backups to cloud storage. And the family photos are still unlabeled.
To promote concentration and avoid distraction, divide the computer like your life, using multiple logins. Continue reading

Science fiction as time travel

I grew up on a solid diet of science fiction, and as a young man in the 1970s and 1980s I had a wide range of style to choose from — New Wave, Old Guard, the Cyberpunks. To read them all at once was like the old Evolution of Man posters, the history of the future all in view.
Like the time-traveler who uses knowledge of the future to succeed, I became a technology early-adopter by reading science-fiction. When I saw it happening for real in the 1980s, as limited and clunky as it was, I already knew what it was going to be. Twenty years ago I even lucked into a job in the field, first learning then explaining to others just what “online” was. That job is done.
I am running out of futures.
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