Sunday, March 30, 2014

In Defense of Denial

People make a big point these days of feeling superior to those around them whom they believe to be “in denial.” What they mean is that the poor fools can’t see or bear to acknowledge their obvious faults, the crap in their lives, or the avalanche hanging over their heads. Denial is a bad thing, according to popular mythology. Denial is a weakness. Denial is cowardice.

I would maintain that the ability of the human brain to know something at a basic level and yet set it aside from active consciousness is not only a strength but a survival trait. Absolute honesty, in life as in etiquette, can be a dangerous thing. It can hurt your feelings and those of the people around you. It can keep you from achieving your potential. And sometimes it can kill you.

And the question always arises: What is truth? Or, whose honesty is the one that matters, anyway?

How many people would make it to the end of a bad day if they had to gauge the quality of their experience or their performance every minute and reach an honest and final judgment of either “This is going well” or “Well, this sucks”? Such honesty usually requires a broader view—an Olympian overview—and consideration of many and varied factors. Who has time for that in a busy schedule, doing productive work, or in the midst of conflicting stresses?

Worse yet, how many of us could afford to say—like some kind of sitcom character—“This job sucks! Shove it!” We would then be in that place of cold and windy freedom, with dozens of new and exciting options before us but not a lot of security. No paycheck to pay the rent, buy food, or put something aside for a rainy day. Every day we’re offered the opportunity to throw it all away like this in a fit of blazing honesty and make the rain come down … Now!

For most of us, who live outside the drama and excitement of a television series, the greater act of bravery is to put on emotional blinders, adopt the short-range view, put aside the grand questions, and get on with the job: meet another customer, write another report, or grind another ax blade. Most jobs have more of what we used to call “scut work” than the exciting and creative action that drew us to that kind of work in the first place. The only way to deal with boring and menial tasks is to put your head down and chug through them. This is not properly called denial but survival.

Sometimes, denial comes in handy when a person becomes aware of imminent death. In that moment, between seeing the avalanche bearing down on you and deciding what to do, you can become frozen with the realization “I’m gonna die” and preoccupied with the end-stage scenario of entertaining your fondest wishes and deepest regrets. Or you can choose to move sideways, crouch and create an air pocket, or do whatever will get you through the experience and prepare yourself for the life that comes afterward.1

And it’s not just in the moment of approaching death that we exercise positive denial. I remember reading in one of Robert A. Heinlein’s books,2 that the working definition of an adult is someone who has come to grips with the knowledge that he or she is going to die someday. Children at first assume they’re going to live forever, because that’s all they know. Then, when they understand about death, they believe that somehow they’re special and will cheat the hangman. An adult knows that death comes to all life forms—that the possibility of death practically defines the idea of life—and that he or she is not different or immune.

This is a liberating thought, in the sense that the adult has a yardstick with which to judge personal action and necessity. If a person were going to live forever unless brought down by unnatural causes, then life itself would become too precious. No sane person would take the slightest risk, knowing that he or she was gambling future eternity against any possible gains from the present action. But knowing that the choice of dying is merely between now and later, and that “later” might come after long years of shame, regret, disability, isolation, slavery, or some other unworthy condition, while “now” might achieve something useful and worthwhile for family and loved ones, the thoughtful person would have grounds for making an intelligent choice.

All adult, thinking persons have this awareness and can bring it to bear at appropriate times of choice. But most of the time it’s useful to put that black dog back in its kennel and get on with the business of living. Otherwise—and with the wrong admixture of depressing chemicals in the brain—it can be an invitation to despair, to giving up, letting go, resigning, and fading away. That is not the act of a hopeful adult, and sometimes hope springs from simple denial, if from nowhere else.3

Sometimes, denial in the face of death can get a person through the transition4 without a wave of personal anguish. As the state of shock can be a friend, allowing the body to experience great trauma and even death without immediate, crippling pain, so denial can permit the person to die in a state of relative hope and peace.

And finally, every thoughtful person who is trying to achieve something beyond his or her station must face inevitable doubts. Anyone who sets out to write a book or a symphony, paint a picture, perform in some sport or entertainment at a professional level, or otherwise set him- or herself apart in the public eye, must acknowledge the inevitable limits of talent, energy, ambition, and nerve. Any human being must face the possibility of having committed to more than he or she can deliver and question whether failure is indeed a possibility. Only a fool is steeped in limitless self-confidence.

Whether the work of one’s mind or hands will be great or not is for others to decide. And the yardsticks those others will bring to the judgment may not be the ones the artist used in creating the work. That external judgment might be replete with truth and blazing honesty, but it might also be off the mark. Working from the inside, having followed a set of personal principles and exercised a measure of talent, the artist has no special place in the judgment. So, to continue with the work at hand or in the practice of one’s talent, it helps to be able to put aside questions of worth and greatness, exercise selective denial, and simply go ahead with the best will and effort available.5

The ability to willingly enter a state of denial is a useful aspect of the human condition. It lets us function in the face of drudgery, despair, and doubt. It lets us go on when a blinding spasm of honesty might bring down the end of our efforts.

1. I’m reminded of the story of the test pilot—it might have been in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, but maybe somewhere else—who was asked what he would do if his plane were falling out of the sky and he only had sixty seconds to live. His response was that for the first fifty seconds he would think about the best course of action to take and then take it in the last ten seconds. No room for Kübler-Ross–style stages of anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Bang! Do the denial up front and figure a way out.

2. Don’t ask me which one—I’ve already tried to find it and failed.

3. To quote another Heinlein character, this one in Glory Road, “While I breathe, I hope”—in Latin, Dum spiro, spero—which is about the most positive attitude toward life that I know.

4. To what? One wonders. That is the question to which only the truly dead—who don’t come back—know the answer.

5. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis notes that a man is not often called upon to have an opinion—good or bad, one way or another—about his own talents or his place in history. That thought sometimes brings me great comfort.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

In these days of tension, when everyone wonders what will happen between the Ukraine and Russia—will the U.S., NATO, or someone step in and save the one from the other?—I find myself adopting a cold and rather pitiless attitude. In my view, everyone is responsible for his or her own karma, destiny, and earthly situation. In my world, small countries that live next to large and aggressive neighbors should not take the moral position of Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers.

In this world of unstable alliances and fallen human souls, there are three countries I really respect, two of them small and one of them large.

I respect the United States, because after the false start at the beginning of World War II, which ended in a good finish for us, we determined as a nation to make ourselves strong and keep ourselves strong. We try to be a good neighbor, a solid ally, and a kind stranger. But all good intentions have limits. We cannot be the world’s policeman and project power onto the other side of the globe into other people’s backyards. We tried that in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq with mixed but often disappointing results. We are strong but perhaps not invincible.

The small countries are Switzerland and Israel. Both are positioned in harm’s way. Switzerland takes a position of armed neutrality, going it alone, making accommodations where necessary, but avoiding “entangling alliances.”1 Israel is surrounded by sworn enemies and precarious non-allies like Jordan and, for the moment, Egypt. Both of these countries have determined to make their own way. Both have near-universal military service. Both have solid doctrines about defense of their land and people.2 Neither attacks its neighbors without provocation, but they will not suffer credible threats. These are serious people with serious attitudes toward survival.

I believe in the doctrine of “peace through superior firepower.” Love everybody—so long as they remain lovable. Trust everybody—up to a point. But be ready to defend yourself with crushing force if you meet up with a bully or a bad character. That’s one of the reasons I learned karate at the university. Yes, there was the mystique of spies and superheroes like James Bond and Derek Flint, who were skilled in commando tactics and the mysterious art of jujutsu. But deeper down, I knew I was a peaceful individual who might one day get pushed around in this rough and tumble world—even though I’m an imposing figure at six-foot-six. I wanted to be able to back up that demeanor with some serious capability.

When you practice a karate kata, you begin with two non-fighting moves that are supposed to precede any honorable action. One is the bow, to show respect for your opponent. But unlike the formal social bow, where you look down at the ground, in the martial bow you keep your eyes on your opponent. Trust everybody—up to a point.

The other move is the salute, performed with one hand closed in a fist, the other hand open and covering it. The meaning is something like: “I don’t want to fight, but I can if I have to.” This is both a salute and a warning of personal determination. Peace through superior firepower.

Of course, I realize that not everyone has the time, the inclination, or the ability to become a master of self-defense. To achieve success at that, one must make the training, practice, and attitude of self-awareness, threat-perception, and calculation into ingrained habits of mind and body for the individual—or for the nation. The self-defense ethos shapes a person’s spirit and a nation’s culture. To take the position of the Godfather—to “refuse to be a fool, dancing on the strings held by all those big shots,” meaning those around you who are bigger, stronger, and more established—is to become, at least in part, an outlaw. One must make law for oneself, rely on one’s own sense of justice and fair play, rather than depend on the church, the government, the police, and the courts to look after one’s welfare and future.

The alternative is to find good friends and allies and make common cause with them. That is what the European Union is trying to do after a millennium and a half of tribal and national strife and warfare. That is what the thirteen British colonies on the North American continent tried to do with their Articles of Confederation and then with the U.S. Constitution after a prolonged war with the British. That is what NATO and the Warsaw Pact tried to be after the horrors of World War II. And, on a personal level, that is what humans have always done when they formed lodge groups, business associations, trade unions, clans of extended families, and ethnic affiliations. They seek protection through identity, combined forces, a common voice, and consensual watchfulness. Each gives up a bit of individual freedom, agreeing to dance on some of the strings held by fellow members, neighbors, or family relations.

To come back to the Ukraine’s situation, what no one—no person and no nation—can safely do is try to stay in the middle and remain weak. The Ukraine was still within the sphere of the old Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, yet tried to reach out to the more distant and less cohesive European Union for support. That was always a tenuous position to adopt—depending on the kindness of strangers. And yet, in the 1990s, the Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons left inside its borders from the breakup of the Soviet Union in exchange for security pledges from the United States, Britain, and Russia. That showed a willingness to dance on the strings of the big shots.

I feel sorry for the people of the Ukraine. I feel sorry for any person or group that carelessly puts itself in the path of history. Such action suggests a failure of vision: to think that the current situation is stable, that today’s arrangements will always pertain, and that a freedom won through happenstance—such as sudden release from the faltering Soviet grip—will endure through inertia or luck or an imminent increase in human enlightenment.

To think this way is to be a bit of a fool. Sensible people do not depend on luck and the kindness of strangers.

1. To quote from George Washington’s farewell address.

2. I strongly recommend John McPhee’s La Place de la Concorde Suisse for insight into Switzerland’s defense philosophy.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Magical Thinking and Engineering Insight

The difference between fiction based on reality and that based on fantasy has much to do with the difference between what I call “magical thinking” and what could be called “engineering insight.”

Engineers know, as fantasists do not, that almost everything in the universe—and certainly everything having to do with human beings and their endeavors—is bound by limits and moves in cycles. Magical properties are endless in space and time. Physical properties are limited by principles like the inverse-square law for their extent in space and characteristics of stability or instability for their duration in time. The nature of God and the power of love may shine forever, but a broadcast electromagnetic signal dissipates in a precisely defined way over a particular distance, and inertia of a body in motion will decrease or increase depending upon its encounters with a gravity field.

Getting to the Stars

It’s surprising how much science fiction is based on magical thinking. The starship Enterprise courses around the galaxy and never stops for fuel, because it is powered by matter-antimatter annihilation, supposedly the strongest interaction in physics. Well, it may be pretty strong on a quantum level, but it’s also extremely rare. Antimatter is hard to find and synthesize and takes a considerable amount of energy just to create and then contain inside a strong magnetic field.1 So it’s an unlikely candidate for fueling starships.

Ah, but followers of the television series will explain that “warp drive” actually saves energy. Rather than crossing the entire distance between stars, a starship so equipped moves a much shorter distance, because the warp field compresses space ahead of the hull and expands space behind it. The ship travels at normal sublight speeds and still covers vast distances because of this compression and expansion. Maybe … with the right mathematics and a true understanding of the inherent structure of the empty void we call “space,” it might be possible to compress and expand that structure with a mere whisper of energy. But I’m betting against it. Bending space over distances large enough to affect a starship’s travels will probably require more energy than the amounts required to simply move the ship’s mass through unaffected space. Going the old-fashioned way will take longer but probably be more efficient.

In fact, the claims for matter-antimatter reactions and their uses remind me of the early days of atomic energy. Back in the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission was expounding energy from fission reactions to electric utilities and the general public as being “too cheap to meter.” And so America and other countries began building full-scale reactors over the next dozen or so years. Only then did they discover that the energy cost of mining, processing, and concentrating uranium was a net energy drain.2 That is, it would have been cheaper and more efficient to take the diesel and other fuels that went into processing the uranium and burn them directly in a boiler, rather than invest them in making rod bundles. And then the capital costs of these nuclear plants caught up with the economic equation: building facilities to handle such inherently dangerous materials under safe conditions was simply outrageous compared to fossil-fuel plants burning mundane coal, oil, and natural gas.

If we are to cross the gaps between the stars, we are not going to do it with any kind of fuel we have to carry inside the ship. The distances are too great, and the fuel will be too heavy to move efficiently. Instead, we’ll have to do it the old-old-fashioned way: sail or surf on some kind of energy or gravity wave that already propagates outside the ship from natural causes. Harnessing the winds is the way sailors crossed vast oceans from the earliest Phoenician traders to the 19th-century clippers. Or we could gather starship fuel along the way with some variation on the Bussard ramjet or light sails driven by stationary lasers.3

Getting Through a Full Cycle

Magical thinking usually occurs anytime people get on one side or the other of a natural cycle. Back in my university days, as part of a loosening of the curriculum,4 I took a course on the future—specifically, dealing with past, present, and potential ways to predict it. One of the points I remember was a fallacy called “If this goes on …” which addresses the human tendency to pick a current trend and extend it indefinitely into the future. “It’s like this now. Nothing will change. And so it will go on and on …”

We’ve just come through a period of fallacious prediction about the housing market: “Home prices will go up and up! Nothing can stop them! We’re all going to be rich! Whee!” We went through the same thing in the late ’90s with tech stocks. The Dutch went through it in the 17th-century with the price of tulip bulbs. And we’re all going through something similar now with temperature projections and climate expectations. If this goes on …

What most people forget—and, at certain periods, everyone forgets—is that systems which have been around for a long time, like national economies and planetary climates, tend to go through cycles. They are stable. Not inert, mind you, because they all have fluctuations. And sometimes, with a bit of help, those fluctuations can be fairly wild. But the cycles tend to center on certain set points of stability, adjusted by positive and negative feedbacks.5

Systems that are not stable tend to converge on either positive or negative feedbacks without the balance of their opposites. Unstable chemicals tend to break down, each molecule releasing energy into its immediate neighborhood, which in turn upsets nearby molecules, which release more energy, and the process builds from there. It’s a chain reaction that usually ends in Boom!

Instability can go the other way, too. In corporate finance, for example, a company that needs cash quickly may issue a type of bond or preferred stock that the buyer can later convert to the company’s common stock. And, to make these bonds attractive to the buyer, the company sometimes sets the conversion at a rate that increases as the stock’s market price drops: the more the price goes down, the more stock the conversion will buy. That looks good for the bond buyer, because he or she can’t lose in the marketplace. Except that, when natural market fluctuations cause the stock price to dip, bondholders have a natural incentive to sell out and convert their holdings to larger and larger amounts of stock. This creates more shares in the market—an effect called “dilution,” because it dilutes the company’s value as represented by each original share—and drives the stock price down further. To survive, the company may issue more and more of these quick-money bonds. The original stockholders lose control. And the result is a death spiral.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s early novel Cat’s Cradle, the plot revolved around an unusual form of frozen water called Ice-9, which is solid at room temperature. The trick is not letting it touch any other liquid water, which it will then immediately freeze. Drop a crystal of Ice-9 in the sink, and it freezes the water there, followed by the water in the drain, then in the sewer, the nearby river, the ocean into which that river runs … and finally the whole world freezes solid. Of course, in a stable system with positive and negative feedbacks, local effects like this die out rather than build up.

People worry about induced genetic effects in animals and plants that have been created with induced mutations within the confines of a laboratory. If they were ever to get out, critics say, they might take over the world. But these worriers forget that chimeras are usually less hardy than plants and animals which have adapted to life in the wild. Monsters take a lot of nurturing in the rough and tumble of nature and its inevitable cycles.6

One of the hallmarks of unstable systems is that they tend to oscillate beyond the control of any positive or negative feedbacks, go out of whack quickly, and expire. If a system has been around for a while, that’s pretty good evidence that it contains opposing feedback mechanisms and will eventually find a point of equilibrium. One volatile chemical does not ignite the world like a match head. One radioactive element does not make the whole world glow in the dark. And one stock trade does not send the market spinning out of control.

The prices of houses, tech stocks, or tulip bulbs may rise to unbelievable numbers of dollars or guilders, but eventually they come back down. People stop believing, or they stop being able to pay, or the fetish good moves from being something people need and use to something speculators hoard. The market eventually collapses, stays low for a while, and then stabilizes at a more realistic price. But for a while, magical thinking holds sway.

Getting to the Apocalypse

A whole genre of science fiction has grown up around the notion of the apocalypse.7 It’s an attractive thought for many people: “If civilization falls, I won’t have to go to work on Monday, won’t have to pay off my mortgage, won’t have to obey speed limits and ‘No Fishing’ signs. Whee!” Of course, we all assume that we’ll be the ones to strap on the big guns and survive by strong-arming the neighbors, not that we’ll be a snack for the people who have studied violence all along.

So we have fantasies of nuclear apocalypses, where the bombs have shattered civilization; climatic apocalypses, where rising oceans, searing deserts, or fast-growing glaciers have devoured the land; and zombie apocalypses, where a virus has turned all the hoi polloi into brain-dead marching morons. We believe this because we’ve seen civilizations fall before. Greece met up with Rome and became enslaved. Rome met up with the Goths and Visigoths and collapsed. People suffered through the Dark Ages. It happened before, so it can happen again.

What most people tend to forget is that these fluctuations tend to be slowly evolving, local where they’re sharpest, and temporary. Rome may have been sacked in 410 AD by the Visigoths, in 455 by the Vandals, in 546 by the Ostragoths, and then in 476 when the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by the German chieftain Odoacer, who became King of Italy. But those were just the significant humiliations, when people with better arms and worse natures came inside the city walls and practiced “a bit of the old ultraviolence.”8

Actually, Rome started going downhill a hundred years before this, when Constantine split the empire and moved the active administration to Constantinople in the east. For the average Roman in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as for the average Greek in the second century BC, life was pretty normal, just lived on a lower economic plane and with less fanfare than in the stories told by their grandfathers. For a Roman of the second century BC, or a German or Goth of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, life was looking up considerably. And Charlemagne thought he was the light of the world in 800 AD, at a time we think of as darkest night.

Civilizations run in cycles, from barbarism to sophistication to decadence and back to barbarism. And usually, when someone somewhere is up, someone somewhere else is down, and vice versa. We’re living high now, but our time of decadence and decay will come—then it will be time to move on to someplace else with better lighting and a more reliable water supply.

Magical thinking is to forget the great truths of engineering and of history: Space is much larger than we think, and our energy resources are still puny. Time moves more slowly than we expect, and—catastrophes like incoming comets and asteroids aside—effects build more gradually than we can perceive. The world is a wheel, rolling through its cycles, and we can see from personal experience only part of the greater picture.

1. See Status of Antimatter and Warp Drive, When? from NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

2. The only way to make fission technology into a net energy producer is to reprocess spent fuel rods to recover the newly bred fissionable isotopes, Uranium235 and Plutonium239, and add them to the fuel in new rods. That’s the way France and Japan make nuclear work. Just stacking up spent rods as decaying nuclear waste creates a net loss.

3. See Ideas Based on What We Know from the Glenn Research Center.

4. In hindsight, not always a good idea.

5. Right now, people worry about the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human burning of fossil fuels. But the positive feedback from this minor greenhouse gas on global heat retention will tend to be countered by the negative feedback of it being absorbed into plants through increased photosynthesis. The cycle won’t run away in chaos. However, we might be helping to establish a new global equilibrium which may not be to our liking. We may also be unconsciously sustaining global temperatures in the face of a countervailing cooling period brought on by a decline in peak sunspot cycles.

6. I remember a media brouhaha about twenty years ago regarding a certain bacterium that scientists were supposedly developing which would keep water from freezing at 32°F. When sprayed on vineyards in the autumn, it would protect the developing grapes from frost damage. People were concerned this material would have a reverse-Ice-9 effect and damage the environment.

7. From the Greek apokalypsis, or “revelation.” This harkens back to Revelation of St. John in the New Testament, which speaks of the unraveling of the world, the end of time, and the destruction of humankind.

8. To quote from Anthony Burgess’s apocalyptic novel A Clockwork Orange.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Do You Like Your Characters?

When I was working on my novel of time travel, The Children of Possibility, one of my beta readers objected to the main character, Merola Tsverin. This reader found her unattractive, cold and manipulative, and couldn’t find enough of interest in her to care about the character or what happened to her.

I agree that Merola is coldly manipulative, even dangerous, because of her circumstances. She is a woman from the far future, where manipulating genomes is as common as programming computer chips or amplifying radio waves in our own time. Although Merola is old in years and experience, her genetically modified body presents as that of a vulnerable, prepubescent girl. And when she loses her time ship and her main defense and ally against our barbaric 21st century, she is thrown back on her wits, living among people she has no reason to love and rules she need not respect. In this situation, she is something like the German spy Henry Faber in Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle: trapped on dangerous ground and fighting to get home.1

But my beta reader raises a serious question: Does a reader have to “like” a character and “care about” him or her in order to remain interested in the story? And does an author have to create “likable” characters with friendly dispositions, big hearts, positive motives, and sympathetic natures? Do all the people you meet in books and movies,2 other than the villains, have to be people you would want to spend time with, perhaps fall in love with, and maybe relate to as next-door neighbors?

First, let’s agree that there’s a lot of negative ground to cover here. Many characters in the hands of less-than-skilled writers are simply repulsive. Vicious and mindless behavior, lack of personal purpose and self-restraint, untreated psychopathy—all make for unpleasant characters. Worse, they’re boring and predictable. They’re dull when portrayed as villains, repulsive when portrayed in the story’s main role.

An author’s job is to show us the inside of the character’s mind through revealing dialogue and action. If we can understand why the character has to be cold and ruthless, we can begin to sympathize with his or her plight and motives. We might not want to hang around with that person in real life, or want to get in that person’s way as either obstacle or victim, but we can remain interested enough to see what happens next. With understanding can come admiration for the character’s intelligence, persistence, and resilience. And with admiration, in a reader who is broad-minded enough, can come a measure of liking.

An author also has to work to make the character appear and feel, from inside and out, “real.” By that I mean the representation on the page and in the role must offer the reader a mix of consistent—and sometimes inconsistent—clues, quirks, beliefs, and blind spots similar to the complexity that comprises a living human being. The character must offer stated intentions and hide areas of deceit and mystery, must display both caring and coldness, and suggest a depth of psyche, all of which are in the nature of real human beings. Characters cannot be saints, all knowing, perfectly resourceful, invincible in the face of death and destitution, people we can wholly admire and hope to emulate, offered as model citizens—except in comic books of the lesser sort.

My own preference is for characters who have quick wits, intelligence, insight, imagination, resources, experience, and resilience, blended with a sense of humor, sense of proportion and justice, and sense of personal honor. These people are usually just one dimension bigger than the situations in which they find themselves, confident that they can discover a path forward but not cocky about it. I naturally tend to make my characters more “doers” than “done to.” In some ways, this is a legacy of my early immersion in science fiction and fantasy: it’s a hopeful genre, full of people who have embarked on a quest, walking bravely into the future, or sailing out among the stars. But such characters also must be tempered with those blind spots and personal flaws, live with a bit of rue and regret, hold some measure of self-doubt, and have memories of roads not taken and loves lost. They must exist in a real world, which is a place of sadness as well as hope.

I try to grow my characters, like orchids, out of enveloping situations, fragments of their imagined pasts, and bits of dialogue. Before I can write them, they must become alive in my mind, begin speaking to me, telling me what they want to do, and warning me about the things they won’t be made to do.

An author has to respect the characters he or she builds and take care not to violate their natures. In the reader’s mind and active understanding, a character will have acquired from past actions and ascribed experiences certain traits, tendencies, likes and dislikes, and limitations that the reader or viewer will instinctively recognize and recall—even if he or she cannot name them aloud. An author cannot plausibly make characters do things against their natures just because the plot requires it. If that’s the temptation, then the author needs to rethink the character or rethink the plot. This is a mark of craftsmanship.

In that respect, I recently saw the DVD of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine for the first time. The movie brought something into focus for me: Allen’s characters are too often caricatures, types created for their obvious strengths, weaknesses, and flaws. They may be smart, clever, and well-meaning, or foolish, bumbling, and small-spirited. But almost uniformly Allen’s characters are without real self-awareness and emotional depth—or not of the sort that Allen has obviously enjoyed through years of intensive psychotherapy. Allen’s writing gets inside their heads only to show what he thinks of them, but not to see how they think of themselves. They are foils for the purpose of telling his stories, not actual people. And he himself doesn’t care for his characters. If the author of a work is like a god to its universe, then Allen is a despising god. They are little people he pushes around with his plots to make a point.

To the extent that characters are “types”—readily identifiable by their opinions, enthusiasms, and actions—they cease to be complex, living human beings. To a certain extent, all fictional characters are types, because it is impossible to portray a real-time, 360-degree view of an actual person through the hundred thousand words or so of a novel or the hundred and twenty minutes of a screenplay. But still, the closer the novelist or playwright can come to this broad and unique view, the greater credibility the characters will have in a reader’s mind or to a viewer’s senses.

Of course, while an author must not despise his or her characters, they still have to engage in real conflicts and struggles, and usually at some point in the story they will suffer. Readers and viewers require that the stories to which they lend their minds be about something. That means the characters must make bets, strive to win their desires and dreams, risk and sometimes lose their stakes. Living is a gamble, and living sometimes hurts. But the careful author conceals his or her hand, like a subtle god. If the game is too obviously rigged, the plot workings too small and easily traced, the characters too easily snared by their own obvious faults, then the book or movie won’t satisfy the reader or viewer. And I’m saying Blue Jasmine and too many of Allen’s other recent works have this tintype, unrealistic nature.

Ultimately, through the treatment of his or her characters, the author is showing the kind of world he or she believes in or wishes would exist. Writing, like most other activities that come from the heart, is a test of the author’s own character. It exposes for all the world—or at least to the thinking and feeling reader—just who exactly you are.

1. I also admit that I am sometimes drawn to characters who are somewhat cold, practical, calculating, and a bit ruthless. They are able to suppress their surface emotions in order to pursue a deeper purpose. I find this skill or trait admirable. And I’m betting that fans of such diverse characters as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and Marvel Comics’ Natalia Romanova, the “Black Widow,” feel that way, too.

2. Here and throughout, I consider short stories, novels, graphic novels, plays, and movies all branches of the same art: storytelling. Even though plays and movies are created by teams of professionals who set up locations, dress stages, create digital illusions, and act out roles wearing makeup and period clothing, the action still begins with a playwright or screenwriter who must create characters in the old-fashioned way, through dialogue, circumstances, and the character’s reaction to them.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The ’Bots Are Coming!

I recently saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about researchers at Harvard University who designed a team of fist-sized robots, operating under limited instruction sets, that will assemble blocks into a specified shapes like a wall, pyramid, or even more complicated structures. None of the individual robots is very smart: it can move forward and back, climb up or down one step on little pinwheel-shaped rollers, pick up a brick or put it down, and see where the next brick is needed in the developing shape. Together, four or five of the robots swarm about on the growing structure, apparently fiddling around, occasionally putting down a brick, or moving it from one place to another … and eventually what they’re building takes shape. The researchers call it “swarm intelligence” and liken the way these robots work to termites building a nest.1

Indeed, it took the researchers four years to design these mechanical termites. And, yes, they are wholly impractical in the real world, unless you want a toy that plays with blocks while a child watches. But I found the image of these simple, mechanical swarms going about their tiny tasks riveting. They are the first physical generation of the cellular automata postulated by John von Neumann and others. And yeah, these toys took four years to bring to life, but we are only at the start of this learning curve, which is always the steep end. Future versions doing different and more complex tasks will come along faster. Scaling up to jobsite size will be no difficulty, either. And once future engineers know the principles of reduced instruction sets, they will be able to step easily from robots that pick and place blocks to robots that dig holes to specification, construct forms and pour cement, position steel beams and weld them in place, add floor and wall panels, and lay out piping and wiring circuits.

In the future, an architectural engineer will only need to decide on a pleasing design, consult a civil engineer for the technical details, and discuss a few of the job’s unique aspects with a computer assisted software engineer.2 All that will remain is paying out the bucks for renting and reprogramming a team of constructions ’bots and buying the raw materials they’ll use. Then everyone will sit back and let the termites get to work.

Erecting a building this way might take a little longer than having human workers with their vastly superior—even excessive—brain power show up each morning, study the drawings in the construction office, and decide how much concrete they will pour today or which floors they will finish off with drywall. And all those humans are working under a gang boss, a construction supervisor, who fills in progress on a Gantt chart3 and holds the keys to the tool room. Termite ’bots stumble around because each of them holds just a fragment of the design in mind, and the master plan is built into their tasks. But when you’re not paying the crew actual, time-based wages, plus overtime when anything unexpected happens, you can afford to take the extra week or two that using the ’bots will require.

Of course, the mechanical termites will at first need some watching, at least until human programmers get the hang of this new technology. Even the simplest programming error, replicated through a swarm of busy ’bots, can lead to a remarkable jumble and waste of materials. If you doubt this, go watch The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—the one with Mickey Mouse—again. But in time, we’ll perfect this way of working as we’ve perfected others.

We already have factories filled with relatively mindless robots, as anyone knows who has watched the Science Channel’s How It’s Made series. Stationary machines pick up a blank piece of sheet steel from a pallet, run it through a hydro-forming press to give it a particular shape, trim the excess with a cutting laser, and dump the finished automobile fender or frame part into a bin. Later, maybe in another factory or at the assembly plant, other machines pick these parts off pallets, position them inside a jig, and smack them with a couple of hundred precisely placed spot welds. Out comes the basic body of a sedan or truck, missing only the paint job, engine, critical systems components, and four wheels—and all of those except for the paint dip are already being made by machines somewhere else. The only human hands involved seem to be moving the bins and pallets of semi-finished parts around on the factory floor.

All of these factories manage their inventories and their just-in-time deliveries with computers. Yes, human beings look up facts on their computer screens, then lift the phone to call the suppliers, place orders, and arrange payments. But the banking behind the verbal authorization to pay is all computerized. Above a certain scale of business, no one writes checks, puts them in an envelope, and mails them anymore. All the backroom functions are managed by computer with human beings keeping track, reporting trends, and taking responsibility for the results.

How soon will it be before these factories start “eliminating the middleman”? Eventually, they will replace the human who picks a part out of a bin—either the bin attached to the maker-machine’s output slot or the bin storing the part in the warehouse—takes it across the factory floor, and puts it within reach of the robot performing the next operation. Instead, conveyor belts will link the two operations, and small robots with optical scanners and a preference for seeing a certain image will turn the parts just so, ready for intake by the next machine. That conveyor will be managed by the same software that now accounts for inventory, using just an add-on module that actually moves the inventory from place to place. And that same piece of inventory software will be given authority to perceive when stocks are running low and make the call to the supplier—another computer program, of course—to replenish them.

Humans used to make things as master craftsmen. One gunsmith poured the metal to cast his own gun barrels, shaped wood for his own stocks, cut his own screws, and assembled and finished all the parts by hand. No two of his weapons were quite alike, and none could match parts or interchange them with the guns made by another craftsman. If a part broke on a gun held by a soldier in the field, he was simply out of the action. Unified designs, modular assemblies, interchangeable parts made to micron tolerances—all were necessary for the soldier to be able to take the broken trigger mechanism from his own weapon and swap it for the trigger on a comrade’s weapon whose barrel was plugged or bent. Modular assembly of precision pieces made to specification moved us into the first stage of the Industrial Revolution.

Now—or very shortly in my estimation—we will move into the second stage. Human hands are too slow, too inefficient, require too many coffee breaks, rest periods, and five o’clock closing whistles for really efficient manufacturing. And our products are becoming too complex, the parts too small or delicate, the assembly steps too intricate to turn them over to big, clumsy human hands in the first place.

It won’t take an artificial intelligence on the scale of IBM’s “Watson,” able to play and win at Jeopardy, to run a factory, coordinate the individual robots and the conveyors between them, keep track of inventory, order parts, and pay the bills. A couple of smart accounting systems, an articulated barcode scanner, and the authority to make payments is about all it would take.

Traditional economics makes a vast distinction between capital and labor. One is the cost of the tools, equipment, and materials; the other is the people who use them. We are fast coming upon a time when factories will be all capital and no labor—not even a night watchman or a janitor, because a security camera can do the work of the one and a glorified Roomba the other. And given that good mechanical designs are easily replicated by other machines, and good software is easily copied, the second, third, and fourth generations of these factories will cost much less than the first. Machine labor will push down not only the price of products but also the capital cost of their production.

For a while, these automated factories will make us all rich in goods and services. Running around the clock they will easily make more products than any human population can buy. Eventually, the machines will have to be throttled back to just-in-time manufacturing, on order and to specification. But then, it won’t take much of a leap in machine intelligence before automated factories can handle personal preferences and made-to-fit sizing. Those are just choices, involving a bit more inventory and a few adjustments along the production pathway. So the factories will not necessarily turn out boring, one-size-fits-all sameness but be responsive to customer needs, demands, and dreams.4

The ’bots will make us all wealthy beyond the dreams of kings and corporate titans of even a generation ago. They will also free us from the drudge jobs, the boring jobs. If you expect to go to work and spend your day picking up parts and bolting them onto something, you will be out of work. If you spend your day looking at columns of numbers and making changes or writing reports about them, you’re out of work, too. Work—defined as “some boring thing I need to do for a paycheck”—will simply go away.

What will people do then? They will be surrounded by a wealth of products, made at virtually zero cost,5 but which they cannot buy because they have no paychecks. Some people—maybe a great many, maybe just a lucky few—will find those jobs that robots can only do badly or not at all: sing, dance, paint a picture, tell a story, cradle a child, train a dog, comfort the dying. Some will find niches making beautiful objects that other people will value for their craftsmanship, uniqueness, and handmade qualities. But the mass of people, those who have not the talent to be great artists, poets, and craftsmen, nor the compassion to work with people on a personal level, will not fit into the new, machine-made paradigm.

The dystopian view says that a few extremely wealthy people will end up owning all the factories, making all the products, and laughing at the rest of the human population in its poverty and misery. But that’s the stupid view. Economics doesn’t work that way. Factories without customers are a bad investment, not worth the land they’re built on.

Another view might be that we should simply pass laws to stop development of the new machines, throw our wooden shoes into the gearboxes, and celebrate the glories of boring drudge work. We can all spend our lives doing the 21st century equivalent of bolting steam boilers onto cart frames to make entry-level horseless carriages. Then there will be plenty of work making a small selection of old-fashioned, clunky products.

The better view—although not so simple to frame as an answer—is that our society will have to redefine the concepts of work, ownership, participation, and the social contract itself. If we play our cards right, it can be a golden age of leisure and ease for everyone, with time to love, explore, learn new wisdom and talents, and become whatever we might dream of being. Of course, we’ll then need a new “science of contentment” to give the people who don’t already have goals or ambitions their own sense of purpose.6

Teaching and counseling—offered as personalized, hands-on service—just might be the growth industries of the future.

1. If you’re a WSJ subscriber, see the online article, including a fascinating video, at “Termites Teach Robots a Thing or Two”, from February 13, 2014. A more detailed article and simulations can also be found at “Designing Collective Behavior in a Termite-Inspired Robot Construction Team” from Science magazine for February 14, 2014.

2. Computer assisted software engineering (or CASE) is the principle that a programmer no longer needs to write out software line-by-line in longhand, being mindful of where the commas and the semicolons go, and checking every program call and its referent. So much code has been written over the years that most of the definable tasks for a computer to do have already been formulated and perfected as preferred modules in each language. The CASE expert figures out what the overall objective of the project should be, determines what language it should operate in, then picks and arranges modules to achieve its goals. Essentially, he or she is playing with groups of code as if they were building blocks.

3. The Gantt chart, named for its inventor Henry Gantt a century ago, is a bar chart that tracks job tasks down the side and dates across the top, showing the duration and dependency of each step in a project. It’s a core tool of any project manager. Figuring out the dependencies between the steps—e.g., “we can’t pour concrete until we finish laying out and tying the rebar, and we can’t lay rebar until we finish digging the hole for the foundation”—is the key difference between a human project that gets done in a predictable amount of time and one that finishes up “whenever.”

4. Go online sometime with GM, Ford, or Chrysler, select the model you like, and click on “Build Your Own.” You’ll find that every basic car or truck model comes in about fifteen colors, four different engine variations, six transmission and drive wheel combinations, three levels of interior, three kinds of sound system, and a hundred other packages and options. The dealer gets a range of the most popular choices assigned from the factory to offer on his lot, but if you want something special and are prepared to wait while the factory programs it into the production line, it can be yours. And this is not because some human will hand-build the car especially for you; someone is just punching choices into a computer.

5. Not even the raw materials will enter into the cost equation, because those busy little ’bots will be swarming out across the land to mine metals, drill for oil and gas, harvest trees—if materials science hasn’t already given us a biotech alternative to woods and fibers—and till the soil. The rest is must machine processing.

6. This is not a new theme for me. See also The Coming Robotics Age from January 8, 2012, and Automation, Work, and Personal Meaning from February 27, 2011.