Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hierarchies of Learning

I saw an article in Nature magazine recently about a ribosome signaling method, used to start the synthesis of a protein, that was common to both prokaryotes (single-celled organisms like bacteria) and eukaryotes (multi-celled bodies like plants, animals, and us).1 I found this fact surprising, because when I worked at the biotech company, one of the lessons I learned from my scientific coworkers is that bacteria have a structurally different ribosome—the cellular component which reads the bases in RNA and uses them to assemble amino acids into a protein—from the ribosome in the cells of plants and animals. This difference is the target of most “antibiotic” and “antibacterial” agents: they keep germs from making proteins, and this kills them, but the chemical doesn’t harm us, our livestock, or the household cat.

That same morning someone posted on Facebook a NASA Hubble Space Telescope photograph of a galaxy which had both the dust lanes featured in spiral galaxies and the globular shape of an elliptical galaxy. So either the image showed the result of a merger of two different types of galaxies, or our notions about galaxy formation must allow for the possibility of a rare anomaly.2

This got me thinking about the nature of learning and how we come to accept statements that are “true” or “real.” As a person delves more deeply into a subject, he or she finds that the initial set of facts learned in the early, introductory courses are … not wrong, exactly, but more like a generalization that needs refinement.

So to say that prokaryotes and eukaryotes have different kinds of ribosome is basically true, but more detailed analysis shows that some chemical features and functions are common to both. Or to say that galaxies are divided into spiral and elliptical types is basically true, but a more thorough survey of the cosmos shows that galactic formation is fluid.

For every subject that’s worth studying, it would appear there are layers to the onion. It’s like saying, “Boston is a city on the East Coast,” which is true. It is even more true to say, “Boston is a city in Massachusetts located north of Cape Cod Bay.” But it is also true to say, “Boston is an urban environment that includes the city proper as well as East Boston, Charlestown, Brookline, and South Boston.” That is, people who consider themselves proper “Bostonians” might actually live as far away as Cambridge, Somerville, and Chelsea.

Reality is complicated. Useful definitions are seldom exact or include all the exceptions necessary to understand what’s really happening. We learn by steps, graduating from one level of truth to another. A different way to say this is that reality has a fractal nature. Big generalizations, big concepts, big shapes are redefined as a series of smaller, more intricate shapes that often share a common pattern with the whole.

In considering this, I’m reminded of the dubious effort to measure the coastline of California. A straight line from Pelican State Beach on the Oregon border above Crescent City down to International Park on the Mexican border below Chula Vista might be a first approximation of the distance—but it’s hardly exact. You get a slightly more accurate measurement if you make one bend in the line at Point Arena north of San Francisco and another bend at Lompoc west of Santa Barbara. And you get an even more useful measurement if you survey your way around every point and into every bay along the coastline.

To measure more accurately than that requires some decision making. Do you want to take your reading at high tide or low? Do you measure around every rock and pier on the shoreline? How about every grain of sand? With each decision, your measurement gets longer. And ultimately, by encompassing sand grains, it becomes for all practical purposes infinite. So what is the real distance? What is the most accurate—as opposed to the most useful—measurement?

In the same way, Newtonian physics and its definitions of time, distance, and the effects of gravity work perfectly well on the human scale of thrown baseballs and dropped cannonballs, as well as on the astronomic scale of orbiting planets and the influence of nearby stars. But Newton’s equations break down at the extreme scale of lightspeed and galactic masses, as well as at the infinitesimal scale of atomic particles. To encompass those realities, we must—in the outward direction—adopt the counterintuitive logic of Einsteinian relativity, with its linking of space and time into a single reality and its suggestion that both are relative and may be curved. In the other, inward direction, we must adopt the sometimes il-logic of quantum mechanics, with its particles that shift their properties, generate invisible fields, and pair off over immense distances in ways governed only by pure mathematics.

As a person who is interested in truth and was taught to believe that some things are absolute, this is all very disturbing. What is a true statement if, a few layers further in, we can find exceptions, differing definitions, and contradictions? What part of the fractal represents its real nature?

Perhaps one has to accept a kind of “conditional truth,” as being true on a defined scale or level of understanding that is neither universal nor infinite.

I state that I am a singular creature. And on the level of people, dogs, and cats, this is a true statement. But on the cellular level, I do not exist in any way that is meaningful to my consciousness. My brain is a collection of one or more types of nerve cells; the bones, muscles, and skin of my mouth and my hands are each another kind of cell. And all of these collections of cells are involved with keeping my heart pumping blood, my lungs drawing air, my entrails processing foodlike chemicals, and my muscles moving me away from danger and toward safety. These collections are far more concerned about these survival functions than with my dreamy and sometimes spurious notions of philosophy, astronomy, or biology. Some of those cells—the damaged or cancerous ones—may no longer support the health of the whole and may be actively working against it. And still another kind of cell—those thousands of species of bacteria that constitute my personal microbiome on my skin and in my guts—are no more “me” than the oxpeckers that perch on the back of a rhinoceros or the remoras that ride along with a shark.

In the other, outward direction, I as an individual body am also part of one or more composite entities. I am a member of a family—a collection of individuals bound by genetics, economics, and affections—and have a specific role in that setting. I am also a member of a profession and in times past have been part of a company and one or more teams within that organization. I am also a citizen of a town, a state, and a nation. Each of these roles imposes the expectations of other people upon my behavior and actions. I may work diligently in the interests of and to achieve the goals of these groups, or I may rebel and work against them because I have a different idea of interests and goals. If my opposition is too direct or abrupt, the organization may reject me like a damaged or cancerous cell. But I can never be entirely free of their influence, just as I can never leave the beating of my heart.

Some of these domains are related, as disease will diminish a my ability to act effectively as a parent or employee, or as stresses from the job or in my family may create a condition of fatigue and sickness. But in many ways, these two worlds are unrelated, as the fact that my stomach is working over my breakfast oatmeal has nothing to do with the way I plan to vote in the next election.

Our lives, our thoughts, and the realities we experience are more like a Venn diagram, with overlapping and separate areas of action and interest, than they are a unified whole. In such a situation, why should I look for a single fact to be true in all cases? As I learn more about a subject—that is, encounter more cases, add more details to my understanding, perceive more rules to be made and modified—the circles of the diagram grow. That forces a redefinition of what fits inside and what may still lie outside.

Reality is complicated and fractal. Why should I expect any true statement to exist beyond its time and scope?3 The world is fluid and change is constant. A mature person must realize this—or be bruised and crushed by the breaking of old patterns.

1. See Initiation of translation in bacteria by a structured eukaryotic IRES RNA from Nature for March 5, 2015. The full article is behind a firewall.

2. See “Hubble Views ‘Third Kind’ of Galaxy” on the NASA website.

3. And doesn’t that question smack of Einsteinian relativity?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Future of Publishing: Brass Ring Syndrome

With past articles in this series on the Future of Publishing,1 I have been most hopeful about the prospects for independent writers and hungry readers in this new world of ebooks and print-on-demand books. Being free of the time constraints imposed by inventory controls and publishing cycles, an author’s works can be made available longer and generally at a lower price. Now I want to address the subject in the back of every new author’s mind: the money.

Short answer: there ain’t any. Long answer: it depends …

If you write non-fiction, especially on assignment, you can make a decent living commensurate with your talent, energy, and expenses. You will write magazine articles, how-to and self-help books, history and analysis of popular or topical subjects, or biographies of recognized and beloved figures. You will be able to test the market and its interest in your kind of work. You will go where the market puts its money. With skill and effort, plus a good marketing plan, you will be successful.

If you write fiction … well, you still have some options. You can—with the right introductions and connections—write as a junior author in collaboration with a senior established author.2 You can also ghostwrite for name authors on an established series or “media tie-in.”3 To get these gigs, you usually have to publish at least one or two books on your own to prove your skills. From there on, you are working closely with and taking orders from others: authors, editors, movie and series producers, and sometimes curious functionaries such as “book packagers”—all of whom have a stake in the project and generally take a larger cut of the proceeds than you will as the mere content producer. Still, with the right collaborator or series, you can make a decent and sometimes an excellent living.

But most of us don’t dream of writing novels as the content producer for a cash cow. We want to be the next Robert A. Heinlein, Norman Mailer, or Scott Turow. We want to be recognized, admired, beloved, and rewarded for our unique talent and insights. It’s happened before. It seems to happen every year or two. So why not with me?

You might think that writing a bestseller—for that is a necessary condition of achieving literary fame and fortune—is a matter of analyzing the current marketplace, figuring out the tastes and interests of readers, and synthesizing a book that checks off all the right themes, memes, and leitmotifs. To do this, you must believe that a perfect novel for today’s marketplace—like Plato’s ideal horse—exists and can be conjured out of marketing reports.4

Writers are not the only people who believe in the “ideal novel” for the current marketplace. Editors and agents are infected with the notion, too. They will quickly assure you that every project is different and that the author’s approach and talent play a big part in the process of making a bestseller. Still, they tell you to bring them a story about “X,” because they can really sell that kind of book right now. Today, “X” is probably the story of “a nice girl trapped in a romance layered with sadomasochism,” or “the unlikely heroine fighting a dystopian future society.” A dozen years ago, it was “a boy wizard with glasses.” Years earlier it was “a detective with a physical or mental handicap,” or—back when I was starting out—“the unknown heir to a fantasy kingdom.”

Whatever the formula, it is based on what’s popular in the marketplace right now. And that’s a trap. The trap is temporal and goes in two dimensions. First, the trap is already behind you, it’s hindsight, because what is popular right now took the author some finite amount of time—possibly decades, but certainly a year or two—to conceive, formulate, and write today’s popular book. Then it took more months and probably years for the author to make that initial sale to an agent and subsequently to an editor.5 And finally, it took a further year at least for the editor to prepare the manuscript, print the book, and perform all the marketing to bookstore and chain buyers through the publisher’s wholesale channels and release advanced press on the retail side.

Second, the trap is still in front of you, and you’re already late to market, because even if you know all about today’s top market trends, it will still take you at least a year to formulate and write your trend-matching book, and then another year for the publisher to edit, prepare, and market it. Taken together, you are now about four years off the cycle. By the time your “X” book appears, the market will have moved on and be wild for “Y.”

With self-publishing through ebooks and print-on-demand services, you can usually cut the cycle time down. And you will have a clear shot with your own trend analysis, because you don’t have to work through the serial filters of first an agent’s and then an editor’s interests, prejudices, and notions about where the market is going. But you are still up against the trap of hindsight and the delay for writing and preparation time. If you are really nimble, you might just make the tail end of the “X” trend, but by then you will be discounted as a “me, too” author on the way to being an “also ran.”

The new marketplace also pits you against a sea of other authors. Where traditional publishing, with its “gatekeepers” in the person of agents and acquisitions editors, might produce only thousands of new books in all categories and genres each year, the current market produces millions. And, without the economics of inventory keeping and returns policies to limit their lifespan, those books will stay in production and be available to readers for much longer—years so far, and probably for decades still to come. That’s good for an author with an established readership but stifling and frustrating for a new author trying to make a name for him- or herself—for anyone, that is, who’s trying to catch the brass ring.

What can a fiction writer do? If you can’t tie into an established senior author or series, I suggest a Jedi Mind Trick. Tell yourself that writing isn’t about the money. This shouldn’t be far from the truth, because most people write their first stories or books without the promise an assured sale.6 In the traditional literary marketplace, writing a book as a first-timer was the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket and had about the same odds of winning the jackpot, which was just getting published. But instead of the ticket costing you a few dollars, you bought it at the price of perhaps a thousand hours of hard work, depending on how fast you could write, followed by a year or two of dogged submissions. In the new self-publishing paradigm, the odds of getting published have risen to near certainty, but the odds of making a monetary success are now much worse.

The Jedi Mind Trick is to tell yourself it doesn’t matter. You have to say, “Oh? … Money? … Well …”

And that frees you. You can stop chasing the market, at least with the goal of making a fortune no matter what it might cost you in terms of personal interest, taste, or satisfaction.7 You can write what you like to read and think others will like in the long run. You can exercise your imagination and find something new and interesting to think, do, and show the world. You can be disruptive and daring and refreshing all at once. You can focus on quality.

Once you stop reaching for the brass ring of bestsellerdom and focus on achieving something unique and powerful, something intended to catch a reader’s mind, only then do you have a real chance at attracting loyal followers and making a new market that will be all your own.

1. For the earlier entries in this series, published about two years and more ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit
        5. Welcome to Rome, 475 AD
        6. How to Survive in Rome, 475 AD
        7. I’ll Survive in Rome, 475 AD
        8. The Best of Times

2. I did four of these novels back when I was publishing with Baen Books: Crisis of Empire: An Honorable Defense with David Drake; The Mask of Loki and Flare with Roger Zelazny; and Mars Plus with Frederik Pohl. See the Science Fiction books page on my website for fuller descriptions.

3. Many famous book series, like the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, were ghostwritten. The author’s name on the covers—Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, respectively—are of people who never existed. Both of these series were the work of publisher Edward Stratemeyer in the 1930s. I’m sure other, more modern series that you would recognize today are published the same way.
       A modern variant of this is the media tie-in market: writing fresh, new novels set in the universe and using characters popularized by a movie or television show. I believe Alan Dean Foster was the first to try this, with a series of Star Trek novels that appeared soon after the original series went off the air. Now such novels seem to cover about a third to half of store bookshelves—at least in the Science Fiction section. The good news is that you usually get your name on the cover. The bad news is that your work must be approved not just by the editors at the publishing house but also by the production company of the original product. But if you can walk the line and take direction, you’ll make good money.

4. In local parlance, this is called “the great American novel.” I once tried to write an intentional bestseller in the thriller category. The result was Trojan Horse, an unsatisfactory book both for myself and, apparently, for my readers.

5. The tribulations that bestselling authors go through, with rejection after heartbreaking rejection of a story that everyone now loves, is the stuff of legend. For a summary, see Literary Rejections. This shouldn’t be surprising: every book that becomes a notable bestseller offers something new and refreshing to a market that’s looking for excitement. Such a book must change or disrupt established patterns, and the best of them establish new patterns of their own. That is always a risk and a gamble for established publishers.

6. I wrote two and a half novels and left them in manuscript before I wrote a book that could attract an agent and make a sale. I think most authors do about the same while they’re learning to write and finding their niche and voice. If you see a successful “first novel,” understand that it’s probably the author’s third, fourth, or fifth attempt. My mantra is that every overnight success is ten years in the making. It’s called learning the craft.
       Of course, for everyone who actually writes and finishes a book, fifty wannabes who are otherwise unhappy with their lives still cherish the notion that if they could just sit down and write their novel or screenplay, they could sell it and make a million dollars. They could also win the lottery, which is a whole lot easier.

7. The money trap is all around us. Maybe it’s a feature of the current American culture, where every Horatio Alger who studies hard, puts in the hours, and remains cheerful and persistent can grow up to be President of the United States, or CEO of his own company, or in some other fashion catch the brass ring. But the reality is that only two or three Presidents get elected in each generation, as only a couple of dozen people will rise to the C-suite of the major companies in each industry. But all of this striving does keep legions of local politicians, salesmen and –women, or engineers at work, and a fair number of them will eventually move up to become senators and congressmen and –women, regional sales managers and heads of marketing, or vice presidents of product development and design. In the same way, a lot of writers will eventually get a following and make a modest mark in the world—and some might even make a modest living.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


I was chatting with the manager of my local motorcycle dealership1 while waiting for the shop to finish my service call, and we got onto the subject of the sales process. As a salesman himself, he recently had a good experience when buying a new car, and we both started telling stories about the people who make for bad experiences.

You know the type of person. He has to drive the hardest bargain, get the dealer to give him a price below invoice, and haggle until the other person is ready to just walk away. He forces every contractor to make concessions on rates and pricing, or offer extra services, then demands the highest level of service and performance, requires extra meetings and site visits, and finally complains about shoddy workmanship.

In the living world outside of business and retail sales, this is the driver who won’t let you pass him or merge into his lane. This is the man—for it seems to be a male trait, although not unknown among women—who has to win, who crows about it when he does, and either pouts or makes excuses when he doesn’t. This is the person who is obsessive about price and quality—not just in matters of work or art that are dear to his heart, but in every category imaginable—and lets you know his exact calculations, too, with the understanding that he never accepts anything less than the best.

Every encounter with this person is a struggle, an abrading of his or her ego against yours or someone else’s. Life for this person is a matter of continuous testing, with myriad acts of judgment both large and small. He or she practically declares personal superiority, conquest, and one-upmanship as a matter of principle.

Please understand that I’m not against seeking value, because the search can lead us to experience quality. I don’t despise saving money, because the quest can lead us to habits of thrift. I’m not against competition, either, because only when people strive against each other in situations that really matter to them can we achieve excellence. But for the type of person I’m describing, quality, thrift, and excellence are secondary or tertiary goals—if they are remembered at all.

A person who is really concerned with quality adopts an outward, almost selfless focus. The search is for the thing itself: a beautiful painting, an entertaining book or movie, a lovely symphony, a fine meal that one can enjoy by oneself but also appreciates simply knowing that it exists and meets some ideal of perfection. One does not absolutely have to possess or consume the object in question and can take pleasure in the joy it will bring to others.2

A person who is concerned with saving and thrift also has an outward appreciation. These are elements of a simpler life, shorn of extravagance, mindful of available resources. Thrift can reflect a yearning for efficiency, for incurring the least amount of waste energy and excess motion. One who values thrift also admires controlled processes, tight systems, and clean exchanges of quality for value, of result for effort.

A person who strives for excellence in competition is pleased to find it, no matter who might have achieved it. Yes, a competitor wants to win, and feels disappointment if the fastest time, the highest score, or the best performance does not accrue to one’s own efforts or team action. But the focus is on the quality of play and a clean result. The true striver abhors a cheat, a shortcut, or unfair advantage as a violation of the rules and spirit of the contest.

The sort of person who makes life a struggle is acting from inwardly focused ego rather than any outward focus on quality, thrift, or competition. He only cares about competition if he can win at it. He argues about price as a matter of pride, not thrift.3 And he mentions quality only when he can possess it to the exclusion of others, as a mark of his singular superiority.

The Zen master would say this attitude is a distraction. The Godfather would call it a waste. It engenders strife where none is necessary. It brings out bad feelings where we should strive for harmony. It creates losers—intentional, hurt-filled losers—where we should work toward mutual satisfaction.

The person who practices this kind of ego-driven one-upmanship is striding the road of bad karma, because he is raising bruises and blisters on all sides. And even if one doesn’t believe in mystical forces of retribution, it should make anyone uneasy to know that he or she is littering the path behind with people who now feel no sympathy or charity, will offer no benefit of the doubt, and will gladly pay back rudeness and bad dealing in kind.

It’s a push-me–pull-you universe out there. The person who rides through it recklessly on a wave of ego has yet to learn this.

1. BMW Motorcycles of San Francisco—a good place to do business, by the way.

2. Certainly, anyone can see how the act of looking at a painting, reading a book, or hearing a symphony can be a shared pleasure and not reduced through consumption. Food is a little harder to understand—until you think how much pleasure people take in sharing with friends their discovery of a new restaurant or a great wine, or reading about it in a positive review with enticing pictures.

3. It should be obvious that someone who is driving a hard bargain on something beloved but nonessential to continued life—like art, books, music, wine … or a new motorcycle—is haggling in the wrong bazaar.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Why Human Beings Are Special

I’ve been publishing my weekly blog—except for the number that specifically address the publishing world1—under the rubric of “The Human Condition” since the beginning. Now, as I move beyond 200 posts in four years, I guess it’s time I defined that term.

First, let me say that the human condition is the concern of all novelists and storytellers. We may choose science fiction or romance or history as our personal bailiwick. As a science fiction author I may have characters who are aliens, time travelers from the distant future, or artificial intelligences.2 But even when I write from a non-human viewpoint, using characters who would seem to have solved most of what current humanity conceives to be problems or mysteries, my concern is still with the bases and consequences of being human.

I think Shakespeare said it best with the soliloquy from Hamlet, even though that’s not one of my favorite plays:3 “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither …”4

It has been said that human beings are at the median point in the universe, halfway between the realm of the infinitely small, of atoms and subatomic particles, and that of the infinitely large, of stars and galaxies. Within the past century, we humans have been able to invent instruments that sharpen our view in both directions. We are now plucking apart matter to examine its tiniest fractions along the boundary between mass and energy. We are also seeing out to the edge of the cosmos and back along the red shift to the first seconds of its birth in a particle explosion.5 The human mind extends to both extremes while the human body in its dimensions stands midway between them.

We are, by cell type and biological definition, animals, and yet we have brain functions, intelligence, and self-awareness unlike any other creatures on this Earth. We share some dimensions of this intelligence with all mammals. And we may share self-awareness and something approaching our unique spiritual condition with dolphins, whales, and elephants. It may even be that these particular creatures might have developed technologies such as radios and rocketry if they hadn’t lived in an ocean environment that makes electrical experiments impossible, or if they had possessed opposable thumbs for manipulating tools. Still, try as we might with our great brains, we cannot determine the exact nature of their communication systems or the capacities of their brains, and we can’t reach real communion with them—just interact through signs, spoken commands in human language, and rewards of food. Until we can establish a common language with these mammals, real understanding of our comparable natures is out of the question.

We are, by imagination and desire, a kind of creature that had never before existed, except in human thought. Call them gods, angels, faeries, or superheroes, they are beings that are near-perfect in their physical strength and innate understanding. Such beings know without having to study and memorize. They are capable without having to practice and suffer through trial and error. They command changes in their environment without having to form teams, negotiate goals, plan cooperative actions, and strive and sweat together. They harness energies and forces without having to build contraptions of wood and metal driven by strings under tension, springs in compression, exploding gases, falling weights, or carefully managed electrical discharges. Where gods and superheroes can think their world into being, we human beings must scheme and make and scrape and do.

We are the animal that dreams—not simply the nocturnal ramblings which discharge the day’s burden of useless half-formed memories, but the soaring visions of things that are not but might be. We live in a dream world of hopes, fears, expectations, disappointments, triumphs, and frustrations of which a dog has no conception and for which a god has no need. We are creatures of our own mind.

We inhabit the past in our memories and the future in our imaginations. So many of us live inside these unreal worlds of the brain’s creation that we must be jolted out of our insistent schemes, grievances, mutterings, and musings by some sight like a sunset, sound like a bell’s chime, or other fragment of the immediate senses so that we can appreciate the instant of now. We take courses in yoga just to teach our bodies to rest and appreciate gravity. We take courses in meditation just to teach our minds to stop and appreciate the moment.

In our perceptions, the instant in which the future becomes the past is also in the nature of timelessness, of infinity. We think the future stretches on through infinite time, but we know or suspect that it doesn’t. We know that one day we will die, our bodies will cease to function—we’ve seen it happen to others, and we’re not fools—and yet we can see through our imagination so far into the future that we actually believe in our current condition going on “forever.” But we don’t stop to think that an infinite future would be infinitely boring. Our minds, our hands, our interests, and our imaginations were not made to last so long.6

We know that the past does not stretch out forever behind us. Although we cannot remember our own beginning, the instant of conception, our time in the womb, the moment of birth, or our earliest years as a helpless blob, we’ve been told about these things, seen them in others, and we’re not fools. We know that everything has its beginnings, whether it was Rome as a village of Trojan refugees—or were they simply brigands?—on the banks of the Tiber, or Jerusalem as the place of Abraham’s sacrifice. We look for the headwaters of the Nile. We seek to identify the seed’s power of germination.

We are the creatures of the cleft stick. We have a godlike appreciation for the infinite and everlasting but are trapped in bodies that seldom endure longer than a hundred years. When we are young, we have strength and energy but not the knowledge and skills to use them wisely. When we are old, we have visions and desires but not the physical or mental ability to achieve them. When we are young, we yearn to be older. When we are old, we yearn to be younger. We anticipate death—the major event in our singular lives, toward which each of us moves ever more certainly day by day—by putting it out of our minds. We invent or accept stories that make death merely a transition to a higher and better state, one that will last for an infinity of time, when all along death has us caught by the ankle like a rabbit in a snare.

If we were any other kind of creature, this would be tragedy. We would live under a black cloud, moan daily in our despair, and wait to die. But we can put that cloud aside, inhabit the world of our dreams and imaginings. We can concern ourselves with friends, family events, career ambitions, paying bills, acquiring mortgages, saving for retirement, planning for our children’s success, buying objects of beauty and experiences of pleasure—all the minutiae of living, either in the moment or for the future—and give our lives and our energies to these imagined values and treasures.

We are the creatures of contradictions and distractions, almost infinite in our comprehension, almost pitiful in our limitations. And yet man delights me most, because his stories are infinite and varied. And woman delights me even more, because she not only shares in all this confusion but must also nurture the little polliwogs that will become tomorrow’s children.

If there is a study more fascinating than the human condition, I have yet to find it.

1. See most recently The Future of Publishing: The Best of Times from August 31, 2014.

2. For example, see ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery, and The Children of Possibility.

3. The boy is timorous and indecisive; he manages to insult everyone during the course of the play; and in the end he gets everyone killed. How wonderful is that?

4. You see? Such a delicate appreciation of the human condition, and yet he delights not. I know that Hamlet is feigning madness with this and his other pithy observations at the court of his uncle, but to quote another great character: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

5. That is, if you believe the Big Bang to be something more than just another creation myth. Personally, I am of two minds about this. See Enigmas of the Big Bang from August 18, 2013.

6. We also talk about “forever” when the world around us continually demonstrates its instability. We know that climate changes, oceans rise and fall, ice advances and retreats, stars explode, galaxies spin apart from each other, and that one day the universe will disappear into a cold, thin void. Yet we can dream of a house on the beach, facing a perpetual sunset, in a moment that will last forever.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Computers and the Totalitarian State

“Everyone that doeth evil hateth the light,”1 meaning that they really want to keep people in the dark. In the imagination of those who lead totalitarian states, all information and all interpretations of reality must come from the state itself, either by public pronouncement or through control of the supposedly independent media. If you can’t put everyone in a physical jail cell and watch them all the time, then you must put them in a psychological cell and control access—the flow of information, as well as hopes and dreams—both into and out of their minds. That’s the only way to tamp down and put a lid on the pervasive human need to question current realities, find interpretations, create stories, and imagine a different set of circumstances.

This is why totalitarian states have such a problem with people owning computers and the means to connect them. Computers—and with this term I include tablets, smartphones, and any device that gives you sophisticated, integrated access to the world wide web—are inherently uncontrolled. A magazine or newspaper can be reviewed and censored before publication. A library can be combed through and purged of undesirable books. But the internet is a jungle full of trailing vines, creepers, underbrush, and root systems that spread in all directions in chaotic profusion.

Like a jungle, not everything on the internet is good for you, not mentally, morally, or financially. And as the jungle is permeated by strange cries and spooky shadows, the internet contains—in addition to much real information, including earnest endeavors to commemorate and communicate—layer upon layer of fantasy, fabrication, intentional falsehood, and daunting amounts of poisoned software. So the watchwords of trafficking on the internet are “Buyer beware” and “Don’t believe half of what you see or read.” … But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the freedom to say what you think and believe and to post about the things you love is also the freedom to bamboozle, deceive, and cheat the unwary. I believe it’s up to each one of us to be mindful of surroundings, exercise good judgment, and pay attention to our own interests. It’s the only way to be safe.2

The People’s Republic of China believes it can reap the financial rewards of computer connectivity and online marketing while keeping their population inside that psychological jail cell. We’ve seen them essentially erect their own quarantined internet inside China, with word filters to block access to concepts like “democracy,” “human rights,” and “dictatorship”; secondary forms of internet search services like Google, but under government control; and outright banning of certain websites. Many other countries would like to have the heft to do this on their own, or see that international accords are put in place to accomplish the same thing for their populations.

Such censorship will work for a while—even work well in small places for a limited time—but all efforts at censorship are a leaky boat that needs constant maintenance and attention.

Probably the most extensive attempt at censorship took place in the Soviet Union in the latter part of the 20th century. The masters of that state understood only too well how they had used revolutionary propaganda and an underground press to bring down the Tsarist autocracy in 1917. So they made it illegal to own an unregistered printing press or even a mimeograph machine, let alone modern inventions like photocopiers and computers. The internet had not grown much beyond its origins as a DARPA-inspired reference resource3 before the Soviet Union collapsed. And for most of that state’s lifetime, computers were still large chunks of hardware confined to the basements of government ministries and institutes. But Soviet Russia intentionally turned its back on the microcomputer revolution that began sweeping the developed world in the 1970s and ’80s.

It could be argued that trying to squelch the connectivity of small computers helped bring down the Soviet government. Consider that during this period from the 1970s to the ’90s the rest of the developed world underwent a massive change in financial and commercial activity. At the beginning of this period, charge cards were becoming popular but most transactions were still paper based. The store clerk took your card, put it into a lever-activated rolling machine that imprinted the raised letters from the card face onto a multiple-copy receipt. The clerk then filled out the rest of the information, including all charges, by hand. You signed the receipt, and it went into a box for later manual processing, which presumably included keying into a computer at the card company. It was clumsy and clunky and not much better than writing a check—except that the purchase could be backed by credit rather than cash on hand.

As computers became more common and nodes on the network more distributed, the raised lettering on your charge card became merely decorative, and the real business was conducted with the magnetic strip on the card’s back. With one swipe it transmitted to the card company your intent to make a purchase and obtained access for the store owner to a narrow slice of your credit information: the fact that you had enough remaining credit to make the purchase. And then, as the internet grew into a commercial highway, you no longer needed the physical card, just the sixteen-digit identification number, its expiration date, and that security code printed in eyes-only characters on the back.

It has probably been a hundred years since a bank held any kind of real, spendable money—gold, bills, or certificates—to represent some fraction of the deposits that customers kept with them. For a long time, the dollars in your account have simply been entries in a ledger, first on paper, then in the memory banks and disk drives of a mainframe computer. But the microprocessor revolution and the connectedness of small computers opened the field of finance immensely. Rather than creating a paper billing slip that the store had to send physically to the credit card company for processing, the transaction became immediate and interactive. The bits and bytes representing money in your account could flow in and out practically in real time. Business transactions became faster by an order of magnitude, greased by the medium of instantly available credit. Commercial activity in the developed Western world boomed.

But the Soviet Union, for fear of its citizens passing treasonous remarks and sedition in the form of private publications called “samizdat,” refused to allow or enable any of this commercial activity. All transactions and their accounting remained paper bound and manually processed. And the irony is that a centrally controlled economy could almost have become practical if the flows of currency and the logistics of providing services, transferring goods, maintaining inventories, and ordering supplies were tracked and adjusted immediately in real time.4

But the genie is out of the bottle and loose in the system now. Countries like China that want to keep their populations in psychological prison cells will find that the effort of maintaining control gets more difficult and time consuming as the amount of connectivity—devices, nodes, and players—increases as technology advances. A large amount of internet traffic is already carried internationally by satellite, although the signals are still received by a central earthside downlink and distributed through fiber optic or wire. But what happens when direct satellite transmission from a sender in one country to a receiver in another becomes practical? Then the repressive government will have to outlaw satellite-based smartphones the way the Soviets banned mimeograph machines.

Maintaining the information barriers against treason and sedition not only becomes more trouble than they’re worth, but the measures required also hamper and slow the transfer of useful information and business transactions. At a certain point, the system slows down and stops, mired beyond its capability to cope.

The internet, the web, and the flow of information are with us now and growing exponentially. To undo the connectivity that we enjoy today would take an act of immense destruction—a meteor strike or similar global catastrophe—that would put us back at the technological level of the steam engine and the telegraph wire. A simple recession or even a financial collapse in one trading sphere or another wouldn’t do the job. To lose our present state of connectivity, we would have to travel so far back in technological time that small computers and personal handsets which double as voice and messaging services, cameras and videos, music boxes and tiny theaters became mere legends of a bygone age. That’s beyond the apocalypse.

People want to be free to question, explore, explain, imagine, and dream. It’s as much a part of human nature to resist the psychological jail cell as it is to resist a physical cell and the servitude and external control which it implies. People just won’t be put in a box. That is our defining feature.

1. That’s in the Bible, John 3:20. As I’ve noted many times elsewhere, I’m not religious. But a text that has lasted a long time and satisfied many people’s psychological wants and needs must contain elements of truth.

2. Life is not safe, not on this planet or any other. And if you look for others to provide you with safety and security—after, that is, you have left the protective nest of family—then you are putting yourself at their mercy. You can hedge your bets by contracting for security services, engaging their personal loyalty, and paying them adequately, but then you have to read the contract, treat people fairly, and still expect to get burned occasionally. For the rest, you look to your own defenses. To quote from Duke Leto Atreides in Dune: “Let us not rail about justice as long as we have arms and the freedom to use them.”

3. The original internet was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a number of university campuses to speed up the publication and dissemination of research papers. It worked well. As an early computer user, I can remember that contact with “the web” was mostly in text format and limited to serious, scientific discussions. Commercial activities, like advertising goods and services for sale, were frowned upon by purists and routinely “flamed” by other, infuriated users. But just look at the web now! To use another Dune quote: “Business makes progress. Fortune passes everywhere!”

4. Almost, but never quite. The most efficient way to manage a marketplace is still by individual choice and action. Let buyer and seller meet directly or online to establish a mutually agreeable price and make the exchange of goods for value on their own terms. Putting a third party like the government in putative control of all such transactions only gums up the works.