Archive for March, 2012

What Are You Working On?

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

There’s an open call for comments at a post on Write to the End for people to list the current creative projects you are working on. My entry:

Hey, I’m Anthony Francis, and I’m a writer of urban fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. My day job involves the Search Engine That Starts With A “G” and my background is in artificial intelligence and emotional robotics.

I’m working on a steampunk novel called JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, which is aaalllmost ready to send to beta readers. I’m also working on an interactive fiction and a screenplay in the same universe. I’ll be participating in Script Frenzy this April to get the screenplay done.

I’m almost done with the rough draft of LIQUID FIRE, the third urban fantasy novel in my Skindancer series featuring magical tattooist Dakota Frost. I’m excited about this one and hope to have it out to beta readers this summer. The first two novels in the series, FROST MOON and BLOOD ROCK, are doing very well.

I’m halfway done with the rough draft of HEX CODE, the spinoff YA series in the Skindancer universe featuring weretiger and math prodigy Cinnamon Frost. I’m also excited about this one which is going in an interesting new direction.

I’ve got the first third of a YA space novel called MAROONED out to the editor. We’re breaking it into 3 novellas and the first one, called “Stranded” we hope will come out this year. This will hopefully be a seven book series.

I’ve got a stalled webcomic called f@nu fiku I’m trying to restart, but while that’s going on I’m working with Nathan Vargas on BlitzComics.com, a project to help blocked comic writers and artists make progress on their dreams.

I’m writing a monthly column on writing on Write to the End called “The Centaur’s Pen” and I’m working on another column for my own website called “Getting Traction”, both as a part of trying to get into nonfiction writing.

I have many more projects in partial states of completion: novels, comics, artworks, webworks, computer programming investigations, games, and so on. But I’m comfortable not making a lot of progress on my side projects, because I’ve got enough main projects to keep me gobstackingly busy.

Just how I like it.

-the Centaur

Just how I like it, indeed. Do I agree with myself? Yes, I agree with myself. I am large, I contain multitudes, but we get along.

It’s a surprisingly useful exercise to remind yourself of all that you’re doing. So drop in on Write to the End and tell everyone what you’re up to!

-the Centaur

Too Many Projects … or an External Memory?

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

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Anyone who knows me in detail knows I’m a pile person. You can see the all the windows open above, but that’s not the half of it: I had 14 tabs open in Firefox, 3 windows with 17, 13, and 3 tabs open in Chrome, and ten windows open in Finder, Mac OS X’s file browser. I hammer my operating systems, loading them with as many windows, programs, files and fonts they can take.

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But it’s not just operating systems. I’ve got a huge folder of todos in my jacket pocket, a pile of books in my bookbag, on the table, in my car. My library, office, spare office and even kitchen table are filled with piles, as is my desk at work.

On the one hand, this could simply be because I’m a hoarder and need to learn to clean up more, and maybe I do. But most of the piles are thematically organized: in the shot above you can see (slightly overlapping) piles for a young adult and urban fantasy series, an art pile, a pile of bills, CDs being organized, and so on.

Some of this is, again, a product of mess, but the rest of it is a deliberate strategy. A collection of books on a topic serves as an external memory that augments the goo we have in our heads. This is part of the theory of situated cognition, which posits that our memories are elaborated through interaction with the external world.

William Clancey, one of the founders of situated cognition, puts it this way: his knowledge of what to take on a fishing trip isn’t in his internal memory: it’s in his fully stocked tacklebox, which represents the stored wisdom of many, many fishing trips; if he was to lose that tacklebox, he’d lose a portion of his memory, and become less effective.

My toiletry bag for flying serves the same role. Its contents have been refined over dozens, maybe even hundreds of trips. It doesn’t just have a toothbrush and toothpaste, contact lens solution and hairspray, it has soap, shampoo, cough drops, nail clippers, bandaids and more. If I forget it, and try to recreate the toiletries that I need for a trip on the fly, I almost always have to go back to the store.

Situated cognition has been challenged, and I couldn’t find the perfect reference that summarized what Clancey said in the Cognitive Science Brownbag talk I attended at Georgia Tech so many years ago. But I know how I work, and I know how it’s influenced by that framework.

When I’m tackling a project, I build a pile. It might be a pile of tabs in a browser, folders of links in my bookmarks, files in a directory, books from my mammoth library. These serve as references I use to generate the text, the material I use to generate my writing, but they also serve as something more. They serve as a pointer to return me to an old mental state.

If I have to close my browser, reboot my machine, put a project aside, switch to another book, I can keep the pile. I have mammoth collections of files and bookmarks, and a mammoth library with something like 30 bookcases (that’s cases, not shelves). And when I’m ready to reopen the project, I can start work on it again.

I’ve done that recently, restarting both my work on the “Watch on a Tangled Chain” interactive fiction and an exploration of programming languages – one project I hadn’t worked on for a year, and one maybe for several years. But when I found the files, I was able to resume my work almost effortlessly. With physical piles of books, the process is even more joyful, as it involves reading snippets from half a dozen or so books until I’m back into the mindset.

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So thank you, my poor processor, my crowded browser, my packed library. You make me more than I am on my own.

-the Centaur

The Future of Warfare

Monday, March 12th, 2012

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Every day, a new viral share sparks through the Internet, showing robots and drones and flying robot drones playing tennis while singing the theme to James Bond. At the same time we’ve seen shares of area-denying heat rays and anti-speech guns that disrupt talking … and it all starts to sound a little scary. Vijay Kumar’s TED talk on swarms of flying robots reminded me that I’ve been saying privately to friends for years years that the military applications of flying robots are coming … for the first time, we’ll have a technology that can replace infantry at taking and holding ground.
The four elements of military power are infantry, who take and hold ground, cavalry, which break up infantry, artillery, which softens up positions from a distance, and supply, which moves the first three elements into position. In our current world those are still human infantry, human piloted tanks, human piloted bombers, and human piloted aircraft carriers.
We already have automated drones for human-free (though human-controlled) artillery strikes. Soon we will have the capacity to have webs of armed flying robots acting as human-free infantry holding ground. Autonomous armored vehicles acting as human-free cavalry are farther out, because the ground is a harder problem than the air, but they can’t be too far in the future. Aircraft carriers and home bases we can assume can be manned for a while.

So then soon, into cities that have been softened up by drone strikes, we’ll have large tanks like OGREs trundling in serving as refueling stations for armies of armored flying helicopters who will spread out to control the ground. No longer will we need to throw lives away to hold a city … we’ll be able to do it from a distance with robots. One of the reasons I love The Phantom Menace is that is shows this kind of military force in action.
Once a city is taken, drones can be used for more than surveillance … a drone with the ability to track a person can become a flying assassin, or at least force someone to ditch any networked technology. Perhaps they’ll even be able to loot items or, if they’re large and able enough, even kidnap people.
It would be enormously difficult to fight such a robotic force. A robotic enemy can use a heat ray to deny people access to an area or a noise gun to flush them out. Camera detection technology can be used to flush out anyone trying to deploy countermeasures. Radar flashlights can be used to find hiding humans by their heartbeats, speech jammers can be used to prevent them from coordinating, and face detection you probably have on your phone will work against anyone venturing out in the open. I’ve seen a face detector in the lab combined with a targeting system and a nerf gun almost nail someone … and now a similar system is in the wild. The system could destroy anyone who had a face.
And don’t get me started on terminators and powered armor.
Now, I am a futurist, transhumanist, Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, very interested in promoting a better future … but all too familiar with false prophecies of the field. Critics of futurism are fond of pointing out that many glistening promises of the future have never come to pass. But we don’t need a full success for these technologies to be deployed. Many of the pieces already exist, and even if they’re partially deployed, partially effective mostly controlled by humans … they could be awesome weapons of warfare … or repression.
The future of warfare is coming. And it’s scary. I’d say I don’t think we can stop it, and on one level I don’t … but we’ve had some success in turning back from poison gas, are making progress on land mines, and maybe even nuclear weapons. So it is possible to step back from the brink … but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater the way we seem to have done with nuclear power (to the climate’s great detriment). As my friend Jim Davies said to me, 99% of the technologies we’d need to build killbots have nothing to do with killbots, and could do great good.
In the Future of Warfare series on this blog, I’m going to monitor developing weapons trends, both military systems and civilian technologies, realistic and unrealistic, in production and under speculation. I’m going to try to apply my science fiction writer’s hat to imagine possible weapons systems, my scientist’s hat to explore the technologies to build them, and my skeptic’s hat to help discard the ones that don’t hold water. Hint: it’s highly likely people will invent new ways to hurt each other … but highly unlikely that Skynet will decide our fate in a millisecond.
A bright future awaits us in the offworld colonies … but if we want to get there, we need to be careful about the building blocks we use.
-the Centaur
Pictured: an OGRE miniature. This blogpost is an expansion of an earlier Google+ post.

The Rules Disease at Write to The End

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

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I’ve a new essay on writing at the Write to the End blog, called “The Rules Disease.” A preview:

Anyone who seriously tackles the craft of writing is likely to have encountered a writing­ rule, like “Show, Don’t Tell,” or “Never Begin a Sentence with a Conjunction.” “Don’t Split Infinitives” and “Never Head Hop” are also popular. The granddaddy of all of them, “Omit Needless Words,” is deliciously self-explanatory … but the ever baffling “Murder Your Darlings” is a rule so confusing it deserves its own essay.

This is part of my ongoing column The Centaur’s Pen.

-the Centaur

GDC 2012

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

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The Game Developer’s Conference 2012 … it begins:

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GDC is an amazing conference for game developers. Imagine a film conference where Steven Spielberg’s keynote is likely to be followed by an indie filmmaker roundtable discussing how you could shoot on the cheap without a license, where almost everyone at all levels is hobnobbing on the same floors. Translate to games … and you get the idea.

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I come for the AI Summit, which is generally of very high quality. I won’t post any pictures of teh slides, except the one above, which gives you a flavor of the kinds of talks they’ve had over the past few years (not just at the AI summit, of course, but usually in the programming tracks). Ok, wait, I will post one more to give you a little more flavor:

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A lot of the people in game AI say “they don’t do AI”—one of them said today Academic AI and Game AI share only two letters—but I’m afraid I can’t agree. I’m interested in Game AI because it’s AI that has to work, which is refreshing after years of arguments between symbolic/neural fuzzy/scruffy mathy/empirical logical/architectural oh would you all please shut up about how you’re better than each other and make something that WORKS and get back to me thank you very much. Not a problem at GDC!

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On the first two tutorial days (Monday and Tuesday) it isn’t so bad (oh and hey there Apple logo! Nobody’s fooled that you’re trying to horn in on our event for free publicity), and it never gets like Comic-Con … but by the end of the week it becomes a zoo. Here are a few tips to surviving it. First, if you want lunch at Chevy’s, sneak out during the Q&A of the pre-lunch session before it ends up looking like this:

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Second, park in the 5th and Mission garage, and if you do, it has many food options. Skip the uber-long lines at the Starbucks in the morning (sorry, guys!) and either hit Mel’s Diner (with the fastest bussers in the West) or grab a bite inside the Moscone Center itself. Also, note the excellent ‘wichcraft sandwich shop across the street as another food option.

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While the snacks in the Moscone Center are good, my kerfinicky stomach does not leave me able to recommend the (actually not bad) lunch they provide on site, so I usually forage for food, at Chevy’s, ‘wichcraft, Mel’s, the restaurants of the Metreon next door, and if you parked at 5th and Mission, note the Bloomingdale’s across the street? That’s actually part of a huge Westfield mall, with an excellent, giant food court hidden therein that somehow I’ve missed all these years.

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There are more tips … like hit the GDC Bookstore the first day to pick up t-shirts and schwag, but wait until the Exhibit Hall opens later in the week to score deals direct from the publishers and only go back to the GDC Bookstore if the publishers are missing something (they will be) … like make sure you give yourself four to six hours to hit the Exhibit Halls, that you check out the Independent Games demos, and be sure to hit the AI Roundtables if you’re into that sort of thing, which is a gateway into the AI Programmer’s dinner, which led to me being able to ask the developer of some of the software I use a question today because she knew me from previous years. So be sociable! That’s half of what this conference is for!

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But the biggest tip for someone like me, who lives an hour and ten minutes away in no traffic, or two hours in morning traffic?

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Get a hotel right up the street.

More news as it happens. The AI Summit has been very quoteworthy so far and I’ve taken a lot of notes.

-the Centaur

Scientific Citations in Popular Literature

Sunday, March 4th, 2012


Lightly edited from a recent email:

Here’s the revised version. Rather than just including linked references [in that middle section as you suggested], I actually expanded that section so that it was clear who I was citing and what I was claiming they said.

Citations work for science types but I want to learn (create? promote?) a new way of including references for popular literature in which, rather than saying something like, “Scientists think it’s OK to start sentences with a conjunction [Wolfram 2002].” I instead want to say things like, “In the foreword of his mammoth tome A New Kind of Science, computer scientist Stephen Wolfram defends starting sentences with conjunctions, arguing forcefully that it makes long, complex arguments easier to read.”

Yes, it’s longer, but it’s more honest, and the [cite] style was aimed at scientific papers with enormously compressed length requirements. Tell me what you think.

What do you think about the use of citations in non-scientific literature? I think we can do better. I’m just not sure what it is yet. Textbooks have generally solved this problem with “info boxes,” but that’s not always appropriate.

-the Centaur

Is Spam out of Control?

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

I don’t know, you tell me.

According to reports, somewhere between 75% and 90% of all email is spam, and if I read the numbers right, over 99.5% of all comments on this rather minor blog are spam.

Yeah. That’s extraordinary. That beats it all.

-the Centaur

How Crazy is Comic-Con?

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

How crazy is Comic-Con registration? I logged on at 8:00am this morning to get in the waiting list and by the time I cleared the “waiting room” for the signup page (at 9:10ish) it was completely sold out. This is what I saw when it finally “let me in” to register:

I hate to do it, but I have to lay the blame squarely on Gmail. Comic-Con sent me a registration form, I clicked on the link at 8:00am, just like they told me to …

The wait is over! Comic-Con 2012 badges will go on sale at 8:00 a.m. PST on Saturday March 3rd, 2012. To access the EPIC online registration website, click the following link: (link deleted for security reasons)

.
The link kept timing out, as one might expect from an overloaded system, but after 5 or so minutes of click … timeout, click … timeout, I started to get suspicious.

But the problem wasn’t in the site … it was in something Gmail was doing to the URL. Clicking on it didn’t work; copying the link location didn’t work. Copying just the text and pasting it … got me in at 9:10AM.

Too late.

Ah, Gmail, can’t live without you, but every once in a while…

BANG! ZOOM! To the moon.

Oh well, here’s hoping I get in as a professional like I did the last two years … this year I have even more claim, I guess, as I have a second book out, appear in two more books, and am involved with Blitz Comics.

Crossing my fingers!

-the Centaur
Pictured: Lots of stuff. Fair use and whatnotparody, informative commentary, transformative and educational uses, and so forth.

Involves politics, but not really political

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

Andrew Breitbart is dead at 43. He was apparently a conservative commentator; I wasn’t too familiar with him except for some of the scandals he broke.

But the point, as John Scalzi said, is that he was 43. I’m used to hearing about accomplished people who are much younger than I am … Larry Page, Britney Spears, Christopher Paolini, that last born when I entered high school.

Occasionally people in that age bracket die. It’s a damn shame, everyone says, they died so young. But when Andrew Breitbart died, while it was clear that he died young – to the point of spawning (what at first appear to be ridiculous) conspiracy theories – no-one is too surprised.

Because a male’s chance of dying of a heart attack triples when you move up to 35-44 year age bracket, and triples again when you roll over into 45-54. I’d enter some snark about white males like myself being worse off, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

So Andrew’s about the right age where people should start worrying about dying of a heart attack. So am I.

God speed, Andrew. And may God be with us all.

-the Centaur
Pictured: a memento mori featuring my cat, Caesar, curling up in the lap of luxury next to the skull of one of his less evolutionarily successful distant relatives. Looks like Caesar had an easier time taking down that giraffe than his buddy there.

Can you conceive of a situation where you wouldn’t vote for Obama?

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

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I try to avoid too much of the politics here. My experience of blogs that dip political is that they’re often shrill, partisan, and most likely to make mistakes about the things they’re most likely to post – the same trap I usually fall in when I post to my friends’s shared mailing group. When you’re engaged enough to respond, you’re enraged enough to gaffe.

But a friend and I were discussing the recent election, I said something complimentary about Romney “even though I wouldn’t vote for him” and my friend responded: “Can you conceive of a situation where you wouldn’t vote for Obama?” And that gave me pause.

I try to be open minded. I currently vote liberal, but I was a College Republican, with deep admiration for President Reagan and President Nixon (no that wasn’t a typo), and even though accepting reality forces one to lean to the left (and trying to be moral leans one even moreso), there are very important values on the right we can’t just throw out with the bathwater. Economic freedom. Gun rights. Lower taxes when possible. Limits to the size and reach of government. Promoting the needs of families, businessmen, farmers, soldiers. I’d call myself a libertarian, but that’s not a good descriptor either. Short story, i try to keep an open mind.

The last election cycle was ideal for me: a Republican I admired and had supported up against an eloquent technocrat who finally broke the color barrier. I couldn’t lose. I printed out Obama and McCain’s political positions and went through them with a fine tooth comb, and found myself on the fence, 50-50. I was undecided right up until August 29, 2008, when McCain selected Palin as his running mate. I take running mates very seriously, especially with an older headliner, and while McCain had earned my admiration and reflected my values, Palin … hadn’t, and didn’t. So (big surprise) I voted for Obama. A Democrat.

Fast forward almost 4 years, and our conversation about Romney. I saw this article, and was impressed enough to write:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mitt-romney-im-not-willing-to-light-my-hair-on-fire-to-win-conservative-votes/2012/02/28/gIQADDk9fR_story.html

“I’m very pleased with the campaign, its organization. The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, and so I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across,” Romney told reporters during a visit to his campaign headquarters here. “In the final analysis, I anticipate becoming the nominee.”

Q: Candidate Romney, where does the buck stop?A: Where does the buck stop? The buck stops here. Next question.

But (based on other conversations) my friend’s a bit bitter, as he thinks there’s nothing that’s going to stop Obama, and was probably frustrated to see me say I’d never vote for him. That lead to the question: “Can you conceive of a situation where you wouldn’t vote for Obama?” … and this (correcting a few typos) is what I wrote:

TL;DR: No.

Conceive of? Sure. He’s unmasked as a space alien or secret Communist plant or something. Or contrafactually, had McCain selected almost anyone else with real credentials combined with appeal to a moderate base (Pataki? Powell? Rice?) it could have happened in 2008.

Realistically? No, for three reasons.
  • The Republican establishment has moved too far to the right, becoming deliberately obstructionist (you can verify this with their public statements) turning their backs on even hardline conservatives (you can also verify this with their public statements) and now see “moderate” as a dirty word. When you vote for a President, you vote for his party, and I cannot in good conscience vote for the Republican party. When the current conservative movement implodes and the party once again is open to a variety of opinions then I’ll reconsider.
  • Obama’s values, governance and style reflect my values, understanding of the facts, and preferred way that politicians should operate. He’s not a Dukakis, or Carter, or LBJ, or one of the scarier people the Democrats have waiting in the wings … he’s more like a Clinton or JFK. SO he’s not a bad choice to have up there, regardless of the Republican opposition, with the possible exception of his positions on space and domestic spying.
  • You don’t change horses in a river … or a President in wartime.

Put another way, from the perspective of a liberal moderate, Obama is one of the most successful presidents in history, so no, too much would have to change. The Republicans would have to radically shift to the center, and Obama would have to turn into some kind of monster.
In 2016, however, who knows? Bloomberg? Romney? Christie? Could it be … Jeb Bush? (And yes I looked up their political positions before making that statement, though I reserve the right to change my mind if they have diarrhea of the mouth in the 2016 campaign).

Partisans may pshaw at this, evidence free as their reasoning is, because I’m not even a RINO (Republican in Name Only). If you have to put a name on what I am, I’m a left-leaning moderate. I haven’t voted for a Republican President since Bush’s dad. But Republicans are doing nothing to sell me on their party. I listen carefully to their positions. I’m trying to learn from their wisdom and defend their important values: the steering wheel of state needs to turn both ways.

But they’ve been drifting to the right since Bush lost to Clinton, since Bush violated his campaign promises and drifted to the right, and people like me ended up voting for the other guy. I still remember that day when a conservative shopkeeper, who had in front of him a voter telling him he switched parties because Bush went too far to the right, stood up enraged and told me that the reason Bush lost was because he wasn’t conservative enough.

Keep telling yourselves that.

In the meantime, the left of us are going to vote for the guy who passed healthcare reform, repealed don’t-ask-don’t-tell, ended the war in Iraq, repaired our relations with the world, and made a good-faith effort to close Guantanamo, and the moderates among us are going to vote for the guy who saved the auto industry, passed the stimulus, refused to prosecute those who were prosecuting the war on terror, repeated Bush’s surge trick in Afghanistan, piffed Osama bin Laden, and finally put the smackdown on Gaddafi the way Reagan wanted to oh so many years ago.

I’m sure if I went through and extensively fact-checked this article I’d have to blunt some of my criticism and praise; the real story is always too big to fit in the boxes that we want to fit it in. In particular, I know Obama’s not perfect. But I’m going to go with the guy who’s willing to take on ideas from the other side, if not their votes, because all the other side is trying to do now is make him fail – even if it means turning on their own ideas … or turning on their own. There’s a lot of good on the right … but right now, on many issues, the right’s in the wrong, and is extraordinarily resistant to accepting facts, reason, or even their own history, even in areas where Obama’s choosing to follow firmly in Bush’s footsteps to the point some of the left want to tear their hair out.

In the end, it’s not about parroting the current set of litmus positions to establish one’s group identification.

It’s about being effective at doing what’s right.

-the Centaur

P.S. For the record, while I admire Ron Paul’s clear moral compass, and would love to see Newt Gingrich debate Obama just for the fireworks of seeing two powerful minds clearly articulate their conflicting ideals, if I did have to pick a Republican candidate I would pick Mitt Romney because I think he’s the most experienced, levelheaded, and dare I say moderate of the current pack. I agree with my friend: he is the best choice out of the Republican field, even though I have the option of selecting a different candidate from a different party that better reflects my personal values. Best of luck, Mitt, though I will be voting for the other guy.

Pictured: White Flag by Jasper Johns, currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.