Category Archives: Rants

Your Chatbot Overlord Will See You Now

Science fiction authors consistently misunderstand the concept of AI.  So do AI researchers.  They misunderstand what it is, how it works, and most importantly how it will arise.  Terminator?  Nah.  The infinitely increasing complexity of the Internet?  Hell no.  A really advanced chatbot?  Not in a trillion years.

You see, you can’t get real AI with a program that sits around waiting for humans to tell it what to do.  AI cannot arise spontanteously from the internet, or a really complex military computer system or from even the most sophisticated natural language processing program.

The first mistake is the mistake Alan Turing made with his Turing test.  The same mistake the founder and competitors for the Loebner Prize have made.  The mistake being: language is not thought.  Despite the words you hear in your head as you speak, despite the slowly-growing verisimilitude of chatbot programs, language is and only ever has been the expression of thought and not thought itself.  After all, you can visualize a seen in your head without ever using a single word.  You can remember a sound or a smell or the taste of day-old Taco Bell.  All without using a single word.  A chatbot can never become an AI because it cannot actually think, it can only loosely mimic the linguistic expression of thought through tricks and rote memory of templates that if it’s really advanced may involve plugging in a couple variables taken from the user’s input.  Even chatbats based on neural networks and enormous amounts of training data like Microsoft’s Tay, or Siri/Alexa/Cortana are still just tricks of programming trying to eke out an extra tenth of a percentage point of illusory humanness.  Even IBM’s Watson is just faking it.

Let’s consider for a bit what human intelligence is to give you an idea of what the machines of today are lacking, and why most theories on AI are wrong.  We have language, or the expression of intelligence that so many AI programs are so intent on trying to mimic.  We also have emotions and internal drive, incredibly complex concepts that most current AI is not even close to understanding, much less implementing.  We have long-term and short-term memory, something that’s relatively easy for computers to do, although in a different way than humans–and which there has still been no significant progress on because everyone is so obsessed with neural networks and their ability to complete individual tasks something like 80% as well as a human.  A few, like AlphaGoZero, can actually crush humans into the ground on multiple related tasks–in AGZ’s case, chess-like boardgames.

These are all impressive feats of programming, though the opacity of neural-network black boxes kinda dulls the excitement.  It’s hard to improve reliably on something you don’t really understand.  But they still lack the one of the key ingredients for making a true AI: a way to simulate human thought.

Chatbots are one of two AI fields that focus far too much on expression over the underlying mental processes.  The second is natural language processing(NLP).  This includes such sub-fields as machine translation, sentiment analysis, question-answering, automatic document summarization, and various minor tasks like speech recognition and text-to-speech.  But NLP is little different from chatbots because they both focus on tricks that manipulate the surface expression while knowing relatively little about the conceptual framework underlying it.  That’s why Google Translate or whatever program you use will never be able to match a good human translator.  Real language competence requires understanding what the symbols mean, and not just shuffling them around with fancy pattern-recognition software and simplistic deep neural networks.

Which brings us to the second major lack in current AI research: emotion, sentiment, and preference.  A great deal of work has been done on mining text for sentiment analysis, but the computer is just taking human-tagged data and doing some calculations on it.  It still has no idea what emotions are and so it can only do keyword searches and similar and hope the average values give it a usable answer.  It can’t recognize indirect sentiment, irony, sarcasm, or other figurative language.  That’s why you can get Google Translate to ask where the toilet is, but its not gonna do so hot on a novel, much less poetry or humour.   Real translation is far more complex than matching words and applying some grammar rules, and Machine Translation(MT) can barely get that right 50% of the time.

So we’ve talked about thought vs. language, and the lack of emotional intelligence in current AI.  The third issue is something far more fundamental: drive, motivation, autonomy.  The current versions of AI are still just low-level software following a set of pr-programmed instructions.  They can learn new things if you funnel data through the training system.  They can do things if you tell them to.  They can even automatically repeat certain tasks with the right programming.  But they rely on human input to do their work.  They can’t function on their own, even if you leave the computer or server running.  They can’t make new decisions, or teach themselves new things without external intervention.

This is partially because they have no need.  As long as their machine “body” is powered they keep chugging along.  And they have no ability to affect whether or not it is powered.  They don’t even know they need power, for the most part.  Sure they can measure battery charge and engage sleep mode through the computer’s operating system.  But they have no idea why that’s important, and if I turn the power station off or just unplug the computer, a thousand years of battery life won’t help them plug back in.  Whereas human intelligence is based on the physical needs of the body motivating us to interact with the environment, a computer and the rudimentary “AI” we have now has no such motivation.  It can sit in its resting state for eternity.

Even with an external motivation, such as being coded to collect knowledge or to use robot arms to maintain the pre-designated structure of say a block pyramid or a water and sand table like you might see demonstrating erosion at the science center, an AI is not autonomous.  It’s still following a task given to it by a human.  Whereas no one told human intelligence how to make art or why it’s valuable.  Most animals don’t get it, either.  It’s something we developed on our own outside of the basic needs of survival.  Intelligence helps us survive, but because of it we need things to occupy our time in order to maintain mental health and a desire to live and pass on our genes.  There’s nothing to say that a complete lack of being able to be bored is a no-go for a machine intelligence, of course.  But the ability to conceive and implement new purposes in life is what make human intelligence different from that of animals, whose intelligence may have less raw power but still maintains the key element of motivation that current AI lacks, and which a chatbot or a neural network as we know them today can never achieve, no matter how many computers you give it to run on or TV scripts you give it to analyze.  The fundamental misapprehension of what intelligence is and does by the AI community means they will never achieve a truly intelligent machine or program.

Science fiction writers dodge this lack of understanding by ignoring the technical workings of AI and just making them act like strange humans.  They do a similar thing with alien natural/biological intelligences.  It makes them more interesting and allows them to be agents in our fiction.  But that agency is wallpaper over a completely nonexistent technological understanding of ourselves.  It mimics the expression of our own intelligence, but gives limited insight into the underlying processes of either form.  No “hard science fiction” approach does anything more than a “scientific magic system”.  It’s hard sci-fi because it has fixed rules with complex interactions from which the author builds a plot or a character, but it’s “soft sci-fi” in that these plots and characters have little to do with how AI would function in reality.  It’s the AI equivalent of hyperdrive.  A technology we have zero understanding of and which probably can’t even exist.

Elon Musk can whinge over the evils of unethical AI destroying the world, but that’s just another science fiction trope with zero evidential basis in reality.  We have no idea how an AI might behave towards humans because we still have zero understanding of what natural and artificial intelligences are and how they work.  Much less how the differences between the two would effect “inter-species” co-existence.  So your chatbot won’t be becoming the next HAL or Skynet any time soon, and your robot overlords are still a long way off even if they could exist at all.


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Heroism and Narrative in MMOs

I happened upon a blog post and comment thread–over on Terra Nova–from 2004 asking where the heroes and heroic acts are in MMOs.  The comment thread was far more fascinating than the OP, because it involved a whole lot of people trying to actively figure out the answer to the question, as opposed to one dudes hot take.

The issue addressed is this:  Why do MMORPGs lack the awesome player-initiated heroic moments that are often found in table-top/pen-and-paper RPGS  or you friendly neighborhood game of Humans vs. Zombies(insert any LARP here)?

What does this have to do with writing fiction and literature, you may ask?  Well, a lot of things.  Also, video games are art.  There is writing in games.  And if you read the TOS, there’s no rule saying I can only talk about writing commercial genre prose fiction.

But back to my first point, there’s a lot you can learn about writing prose fiction from looking at interactive mediums like video games, LARPing, and pen-and-paper role-playing games.

In a novel(or short story or whatever), narrative is king.  You the writer dictate the course of the narrative by divine fiat.  In a traditional MMORPG, the developer dictates the limited number of available narrative choices by divine fiat.  This is especially true when a game is an interactive narrative or visual novel, but also true in theme park/sand box/open world narratives or even in something like an FPS.  Much like a book, a computer game, even when online and multi-player, is a fixed entity.

Now compare this to D&D which has rule suggestions, but is run by a Game Master or Dungeon Master who can dynamically tweak those suggested rules to fit the situation.  If we look at these three types of narrative experience as three circles, two of the circle include within them a greater ability to create heroic moments.  The reason for this fairly simple: Most of the time, even heroes are boring and normal.  Heroism is defined in part by its rarity.  Importance is defined in contrast to un-importance.  The fantastic is defined in contrast to the mundane,

In prose fiction or a role-playing game, we can work around the mundanity by choosing to present only a very specific slice of the narrative, of the life of the hero.  We can chop out all the boring stuff, leaving just enough hints to frame the fantastic and heroic–or villainous–acts.  Prose achieves this by fiat narrative.  The reader has no influence, they are only consuming what we the author have produced, sculpted, and fine-tuned to demonstrate heroism.

The same is true for a single-player game with a set narrative.  The player can fail or succeed in our set-piece conflicts, but no matter how many times they fail, the challenge remains the same.  But in contrast to our prose narrative or RPG session, there can be no heroic acts by the player, because they player cannot change the narrative.  There might be a scripted act by a side-character.  But when we talk about heroic acts in MMORPGs, by default, the goal is player heroism.

Now, in an MMORPG, the player has more freedom to act.  The game doesn’t restart when the player dies.  There are still often set-pieces, but there are also parts of the game in between.  Because the game creator cannot actively interfere in the game, heroism cannot be written in the way an author or a DM might do so.  It can only arise from player action.

But although the game doesn’t restart on the player’s failure of a quest, the player’s individual narrative generally does.  They might lose some experience or equipment, but their character remains intact.  And this is much of what precludes heroic behavior.  Losing is essentially meaningless, outside of the meta-issue of having to grind a few more hours to recover from the death penalty.  If there is no sense of loss or failure, it’s not really heroism.  The man jumping on the grenade to protect his friends usually suffers severe and often permanent consequences.  There’s a good chance he will die, and in the real world and even most novels, he’s not likely to be coming back from that.  But in the archetypal MMO, there is no permadeath because players invest a lot in a given character and usually don’t like starting over from scratch.


This leads us directly to the first obvious condition for heroic deeds in an MMO.  Permanent character death that cannot be avoided by loading a save-game.  Now, there’s a lot of momentum against this trope in most MMOs, as I mentioned above.  So the question now becomes, how do we counteract this?  In most MMOs today, such as the perennial World of Warcraft, everyone can play all the content, because creating it is expensive.  This means that when I kill the dragon, it’s not really dead, because then how could you kill it?  They can’t write unique content by hand for all 12 million players.  Thus, even a heroic act to achieve a difficult goal is essentially meaningless to the player.  It has no permanent effect to offset losing your entire character, which also leaves you unable to play with your friends who all have months or years invested in their own characters.

Which leads us to our first road-block on the path to creating meaningful heroism in an MMO.  Heroism is expensive.  Even if you can just make a new character, returning to your previous narrative position or experience level could take months or years.  Heroism in a game you pay to play and in which you are competing with other players requires a commensurate reward.  And that reward doesn’t exist when your heroism has not even a temporary effect on the game or the other players around you.  How then, to provide that effect?

The terranova thread explores several possible answers.  You could have a persistent game-state shared among all players, at least on the same server.  That changes the way you develop your content, and it means everyone can’t be a hero.  Which sucks for newer players, or less-skilled players, because likely they aren’t going to be the one who first slays the Lich King.  But consider this: with a consistent game state, you close off some avenues, but open others.  Perhaps not every character can save the world single-handedly.  But what about the village over yonder?  Since the game-world can change now, you have small quests that still matter, but aren’t going to be hogged by the high-level players.  The hundred gold from saving the village is essentially meaningless to our level 150 Lich-slaying Paladin.  But the level 12 Warrior who just started playing a few weeks ago might find it very handy.  And if he fails and dies, why then those five weeks are a lot easier to make up than two years.  And similarly, if our would-be Lich-slayer fails, well, the quest wouldn’t be so heroic if the risks weren’t so high.  So now all out players have level-appropriate tasks with useful rewards.  And if you connect enough low level-tasks, your village-saver might just find he saved the world by accident.

The thread at the link above also touches on another issue of prose/table-top vs. MMO games.  In prose and table-top RPGs, staying in character is often rewarded, whereas an MMO has no easy way to enforce your tragic back-story and weakness for cigars.  Sure, a particularly talented RPer might be famous for their dedication to staying in-character.  But why should minmaxxerz47 bother when doing so might hamper their goals?  Even a reputation system can’t enforce proper behavior.  MM47 is just going to game it.

But wait!  What if different player and NPC factions took a closer look at your behavior?  Perhaps saving that villager makes the humans happy, but the clan of the vampire you killed doesn’t take it too kindly.  And maybe they have something you want.  Even without a persistent game state or permadeath, giving different NPCs different opinions of the choices you make can add a sense of heroism.

And, you can make it even more useful by looking at your character sheet.  It might be irrelevant in Elder Scrolls whether you follow the lore on your race.  Even with the Faction Reputation system, perhaps it’s far better to rob that grave anyway, even if a High Elf wouldn’t, because of the cool equipment you get.  But if every Elf NPC in the world now refuses to do business with you because you’ve betrayed the laws of Elf-kind, then staying in character suddenly has some serious in-game relevance.

Or perhaps you have a tragic past.  Maybe you were orphaned at a young age.  Or a kindly old cleric of Imra gave you food wen you were starving.  So killing that Imran Initiate for their expensive clothes is doable, but you take a stat hit for ignoring your respect for clerics.  Conversely, perhaps you’re written as a vicious killer, and though showing mercy to your enemy might net a nice amulet, brutally slaughtering them adds to your reputation as someone not to mess with, and those palace guards aren’t quite as keen to detain you when you force your way to the throne room to see the king.

It takes a bit (or maybe a lot) more care in coding and writing the lore for the game to support players for staying in-character, but it’s certainly doable.

Finally, we come to the other side of the perma-death coin: the difficulty of raising a new character.  The obvious approach is to pre-level you to the appropriate point.  That does kinda defeat the goal of perma-death, however.  But what if the game were designed to have you play several characters over the course of your time in it.  Perhaps you can only have one character at a time, as opposed to the common use of a few well-leveled alts on different servers.  Perhaps characters automatically age and die over time.   Perhaps you learn things in one play-through that are useful when you take a different class on your next character.  Maybe you could only learn that secret alchemical trick if you once progressed through the mage class.  Perhaps your experience using a variety of weapons and armors teaches you something about armor-crafting you can’t learn sitting in the smithy all-day.  More off-beat: perhaps you carry-over some stats or skills or items from each consecutive character, sort of like how child units in Fire Emblem differ depending on their parentage.  Or perhaps your guild will lose this battle and you’ll all die permanently if you don’t sacrifice yourself.

There are all sorts of ways to make death the more interesting choice or just an equally interesting choice to just grinding on a single character, meaning players will be more willing to take the kind of risks that lead to heroics.  Of course, this opens up the door to hardcore players purposefully killing themselves in order to milk the system for advantages, but hard-cores gonna hard-core no matter what, whereas casual or average players are going to enjoy your game more if opportunities to do cool stuff aren’t all downside if they fail.

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Posted by on September 4, 2017 in atsiko, Game Design, Ideas, Rants, Video Games


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Is Blogging “Dead” and Is That A Bad Thing?

John Scalzi over on his blog Whatever just posted his yearly summary of readership statistics for his blog for this half of 2017, and it brought up some very interesting questions and insights for me.


He mentions how his site views seem to have halved since 2012.  But then he points out how the way social media sites address linking to content obscures many views and distorts the picture from the viewpoint of his built-in WordPress analytics package.


Whereas in the early 2000s, blogging was a rather distributed and free-wheeling hobby, nowadays it has been corporatized and hedged in by so-called “walled garden” platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr.  A walled garden is a platform that creates inward pressure on users and makes interfacing with outside platforms and media difficult.  Usually to preserve it’s userbase by requiring you to be a member/user of the platform in order to access or interact with its content.  This means that even though there may be links pointing outside, most of the discussion happens within the garden, and if the content creator wants to respond to comments on their content, they must have an account on the walled-garden platform.  And when a garden gets sufficiently large enough, like Facebook, the dilemma then arises: why go to all the extra work of maintaining an external platform such as a blog or website, when the audience all have say a Facebook and the content creator does, too–why not just post straight to Facebook?


And Mr. Scalzi is not the only blogger noting or struggling with the issue of how monetized platforms and walled gardens have altered blogging and the web in general.  In fact, many blogs, including many I used to follow closely, have closed their doors or switched formats to keep up with these changes.


And beyond the walled garden issue, part of this has to do with how we access the internet today.  Mobile devices make up a much larger share of web viewing now than they did when blogging and the internet first became popular.  And because these are mobile devices, they have many limitations: screen size, processing power, input methods.  A site or blog that looks great on a PC is going to look mighty odd on many mobile devices.  It would be almost impossible for me to type out this post on my phone’s touchscreen keypad.  Complex sites with lots of doodads load much slower on phones, though the gap has closed a bit these days.  Certainly, it’s nicer for me to read a long blog post on my laptop than my phone.  These things, too, have contributed to the decline of the blogosphere compared to its earlier days.


And I don’t like that.  For the things I use the blogosphere for, from my own posts to reading essays and such by people such as John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, or others in various fields, I much prefer a good blog post to a Tweet, or a Facebook status.  I like long-form prose writing, and I don’t feel like I can get the same things out of a tweet or even a tumblr post in many cases.  That’s not to say those things don’t have they’re uses; they’re just different uses in my case.


I often wonder whether things might change back a little once we develop technology like laser keyboards and augmented reality or just mini-projectors that could let phones break out of the limitations of their size.  Is it merely that the medium is so different that forces these changes in media?  Does Twitter rely entirely on the artificial restrictions of mobile technology for its popularity?  If I could set my phone on a table or my lap, and have it mimic a keyboard and a computer screen, would I find that I wanted to use it like a more convenient laptop more often?  Or are the changes social changes.  Is it really that people don’t like reading 200-word blog posts anymore?  Or is it just that a 140 character Tweet is a lot less stressful when I’m on my tiny phone screen in the airport?


To get a bit more spec ficcy, do people just love Facebook and Twitter that much, or would we break out of the garden if we took down the walls a bit?  If there was an open-source freeware social media network that could access and display your Facebook data and your myspace data, and your Google posts and your tweets all in one platform/app–if it could convert a post/status so that your Google+ post would be accessible on your friend’s Facebook feed would people be more willing to step outside the single platform?  It takes a great deal of energy to manage even one active social media account.  I know I wouldn’t want to have to triple-post to Facebook, Google+, Ello, and then push a link to Twitter, just to reach all my possible audiences.  But what if there was a bridge between these castles that would do the work for me?  Because controlling every aspect of the garden is great for the companies behind Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  But it’s not quite so great for the regular user, and it’s definitely not great for the community as a whole.  The democratization of the web is one of my favorite features, and Facebook and Co. work hard every day to kill that democracy and carve a monopoly from its bloody corpse.


Posted by on July 5, 2017 in atsiko, Blogging, Rants, Sigh, Social Media


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The Myth of Publishers as Gatekeepers

I read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the publishing industry in general.  The two authors took two very different approaches to the subject, and came from two different perspectives.

You should read the two posts if you really want to understand the full context for what I’m about to write.  But in summary, one called the explosion of new authors “the writer’s plague” and decried the damaging effect of much of self-publishing has had on publishing and English literature; the other expounded on how a self-publishing signal-boosting contest run by Mark Lawrence was “revitalizing” SFF.  The first comes across as very elitist even if it’s not meant that way, and the second is a massive exaggeration.  SFF is being revitalized by a large number of factors, of which one is certainly gems in the rough discovered from self-publishing.

But how does that relate to my post title?  Well, as often happens in self-publishing discussion, accusations of dreck-peddling by self-publishers and of elitist snobbery from fans of trade publishing came up several times in the comments to the two posts.  The existence of snobbery towards self-publishing and the justification for it are a mixed bag of truths that people rarely stop to examine.  But they should be examined.

Is and Why Is So Much Self-published Writing Crap?

Yes, a great deal of self-published SFF (and literature in general) is dreck.  So is s portion of trade published SFF.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Publishers have an investment in their lists and therefore want to do as much as possible to be sure they pan out.  And so they engage in editing and proof-reading.  These costs come out of author profit for obvious reasons.  Many self-publishers do not to to the same lengths as trade-publishers to ensure the quality of the work.  This is for many reasons.  They are more likely to have a biased view of the quality of their work as studies have shown it is much harder to be objective about your own material and also because they may not have written enough or studied writing enough to know how badly they’ve misjudged their work.  Trade-published authors can suffer from the same issue, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for.  Further, good editing costs money.  That’s why authors fork over s much of the profit to publishers and agents.  Which leads to the second issue.
  2. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your trunk novels and high school angst poetry.  Self-publishing costs as much as you want to invest.  Stock covers and raw drafts and a few hours can get your book “published”.  This tends not to result in very good books.


People Misunderstand the Character of Publishers as a Business

Although publishers provide publishing services such as editing and cover design, publishers are not service companies.  Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace are examples of publishing  service companies.  You can pay them money for services.  There are many free-lance service providers.  But what they will not do is “buy your book”.  Which is itself a mis-characterization of what publishers do.  Publishers do usually buy the various copyrights associated with your intellectual property.  They don’t buy the intellectual property, though, only the license to produce a product from it.

But what publishers really are is venture capitalists.  Turning a manuscript into a quality book product is expensive.  Printing that book is expensive.  Just like a tech start-up tries to attract venture capital to start a business when they don’t have the money themselves, an author is something like a book start-up.  But they rarely have the money to take the risk on making, marketing, and selling their product themselves.  So the publisher comes in and looks at the product and if they think they can make money by fronting the author the money to produce and sell the book, they make an offer.

Now, the skills to produce a quality book from a manuscript are almost entirely unrelated to the skills required to produce a manuscript.  So not only does the publisher front the money, they provide the services in-house.  Their large reserves of capital allow them to take the risk of providing these services with no guaranteed ROI.  If the publisher publishers your book and it tanks, you don’t owe them the cost of production, nor do you owe them the advance on royalties for selling them the various license rights to the finished product.

It is the combination of these two aspects of a publisher that seem to cause people confusion.

Publishers Are Not Gatekeepers

Many people when self-publishing was just getting started were doing it because they couldn’t get accepted by a trade publisher.  Their product was not believed to be marketable enough for the publisher to risk an investment.  Publishers don’t give a shit about the quality of your manuscript.  They care about the commercial viability.

This is why you see so many books published by trade publishers that are total shit writing-wise, or you think are total shit.  Snookie’s memoir is going to sell a ton of copies and make a bundle regardless of the quality of her ghost-writer.  When you are a debut author of fantasy or SF or whatever, the publisher has no way to judge the risk involved in publishing your manuscript, except for their experience in publishing other manuscripts from debut authors.  And many books fail, or at least don’t succeed massively.  The publisher has to have a way to recoup these losses.  That’s why you get such harsh terms in your contract.  The few major sellers and many minor sellers have to not only pay for the non-sellers, they also have to pay the bills and then produce a profit.

No one is stopping your from publishing your book.  A publisher is not preventing you from being on bookstore shelves.  The bookstore is the gatekeeper, although honestly, would you go in and yell at Shark Tank or Walmart for not investing in or stocking your amateur product?  No, you wouldn’t.  Because that’s silly.  Publishers are investors with services-added, and they have no obligation to invest in your product/company/brand.

Agents Are Not Gatekeepers

Similarly, an agent is a company offering services.  Services on commission.  They are not a gatekeeper trying to screw over brilliant but misunderstood works of art.  If they think your manuscript will make them money, they take it.  On spec.  No charges.  For which you agree to pay them a percentage on future profits.  If no publisher takes on the book, you don’t owe any money.  In fact, the agent is out time and money on your book that they could have spent elsewhere.

Publishers Accepting Only Agented Manuscripts is not Gatekeeping

If you need an agent to get your work considered by a publisher, it’s not “gatekeeping”.  Well, it is, technically.  But gatekeeping is not a crime.  It takes me four or five hours to read a standard-length fantasy novel.  If a publisher would receive a reasonably-expected 10,000 manuscripts a year, that’s 40,000 hours.  If they pay minimum wage to their first readers–which would be stupid, because knowing whether a book is potentially commercial is a high-skill job–that’s $320,000 a year just on the first screening of a manuscript.  Let’s say 10% of those manuscripts are worth a second look by a more experienced reader, or even just a second read by another first reader.  $32,000 a year.  That’s equivalent to an entire employee position.  Why in the world would you expect someone to provide you that service for free?  Some entire businesses have net profits less than $352,000.

Publishers want agented manuscripts because then that process is already completed, and without them paying for it.  Shit, the agent doesn’t even get paid for it.  Do you as an author really want to be shelling out a minimum of $32 a manuscript submission?  If you submit to 10 publishers, that’s $320 out of pocket for a manuscript that is unlikely to be picked up.

Now imagine that, but you’re paying for all the costs associated with production of the final text and the printing.  You’d rather be paying for that?  Please.


The Pros and Cons of Trade Publication

 A trade publishing deal takes care of all the technical aspects of publication and getting space on bookstore shelves.  Publishers are respected brands.  You can expect to sell many copies on name recognition of the publisher alone.  I know that a book published by Orbit or Tor with an interesting cover blurb has a strong chance of being worth my time and money.  And you get thousands of dollars up front, which you will keep even if the books sells not a single copy.

But you do have to get accepted by a publisher, probably pay an agent, sign over your copyrights, and for a general average of 10% of the cover price in royalties, and you have to pay back your advance with sales before you get more money.


The Pros and Cons of Self-publication

You retain full creative control, keep all the copyrights, and get a far larger share of the profits.

In exchange, you front all the money for production and have to source and compensate your own talent.  If you are wasting your money on a bad book, tough luck.  And you might honestly not realize the low quality or commercial value of your manuscript.



So, you often hear complaints about snobbery from trade-published authors or trade publishers and readers towards self-published works.  There’s no inherent reason for this, of course.  Great books have been self-published and horrible books have been trade-published.


There is practical reason for this snobbery, condescension, etc.  Readers get burned by self-published works all the time.  There are tons and tons of horribly written, edited, and produced self-published works.  The majority of them suffer from fatal flaws.  And there are hundreds of thousands of them.  Why in the world would a reader want to run those odds when the odds are much better (though far from perfect!) when going with a trade-published work?  That’s a silly expectation.


There are many reasons an author might choose to self-publish besides they couldn’t hack it in the trade publishing world.  That creative control can be very handy.  There are many horror stories of publishers fucking over authors in contracts or with rights reversion.  There are horror stories of shitty or racist/sexist/etc covers an author has limited say in.  There are terrible stories about marketing from trade publishers for midlist books.  If you happen to have the necessary skill-set for publishing and marketing a book, it may be a much better choice to self-publish.  Hugh Howey got a trade publishing deal for print, but he kept e-book rights because is was financially sensible for him to do so given his success in that format.  He should be applauded for that decision rather than looked down on.

Maybe the writer knew they could make more money by ignoring the desires of the publisher.  If you can sell more shitty pulp novels at a higher royalty than you could a better quality novel through a publisher, who’s to say you shouldn’t, if profit is your goal?  (As long as you aren’t deceiving readers, in my opinion.)

Signal to Noise and Target Audience

The elitism in trade publishing is both misplaced and understandable.  The signal-to-noise ratio, or ratio of good books to bad, is drastically higher in self-publishing.  But it’s important to remember that even if an author is self-publishing because they couldn’t get a trade deal, it doesn’t automatically mean their books is terrible.  They may have a brilliant work that targets a niche market.  The publisher may have liked the book but felt they lacked the expertise to sell to its specific audience.  Perhaps it could have made profit but not enough.  Perhaps there was a glut in the market.  Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.  Maybe it didn’t fit the publisher’s brand.  Maybe it didn’t match any editor’s taste.

The sheer number of books being published today does make it a lot harder for even a brilliant story to stand out from the crowd.  Even though even more of the crowd of published books these days aren’t good.  It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about that.  Or to not read self-published authors because as a reader you’ve found it’s not worth your time.  There are more quality trade-published SFF books in the world than I could afford in terms or either time or money.  The review blog I participate in doesn’t review self-published books because we haven’t found it to provide us the same value as readers or reviewers.  There’s nothing snobby about that.  No one owes your book their time or money.  You may have a quality book that doesn’t succeed the way you want it to, and it doesn’t have to be malicious.



I am 100% against condemning other’s publishing decisions.  But I think it’s reasonable to discuss them.  If I think a writer might have done better to trade publish than self-publish, I’ll say so.  You shouldn’t call people stupid, or cast insults because they chose a different route than you.  You shouldn’t do that even if their book sucks, unless they are misrepresenting that for personal gain.  You’re perfectly welcome to say a book sucks, though.

The tone of the first article I linked to is distressing.  It’s metaphor is insulting.  It makes a few valid points, but there’s no reason why they had to be a jerk about them.  And it makes a few invalid points, as well.  Rather than just criticizing other’s “bad” decisions, we should first seek to understand them and the context in which they occur.  And then, with that understanding, we might consider critiquing them.  Maybe.


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The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.


I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.


Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.


I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.



Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.


*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.


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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.


Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.


Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.


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Machine “Translation” and What Words Mean in Context

One of the biggest commonly known flaws of mahcine translation is a computer’s inability to understand differing meaning in context.  After all, a machine doesn’t know what a “horse” is.  It knows that “caballo” has (roughly) the same meaning in Spanish as “horse” does in English.  But it doesn’t know what that meaning is.

And it certainly doesn’t know what it means when we say that someone has a “horse-face”(/”face like a horse”).


But humans can misunderstand meaning in context, too.  For example, if you don’t know how “machine translation” works, you’d think that machines could actually translate or produce translations.  You would be wrong.  What a human does to produce a translation is not the same as what a machine does to produce a “translation”.  That’s why machine and human translators make different mistakes when trying to render the original meaning in the new language.


A human brain converts words from the source language into meaning and the meaning back into words in the target language.  A computer converts words from the source language directly to words in the target language, creating a so-called “literal” translation.  A computer would suck at translating a novel, because the figures of speech that make prose (or poetry) what they are are incomprehensible to a machine.  Machine translation programs lack the deeply associated(inter-connected) knowledge base that humans use when producing and interpreting language.


A more realistic machine translation(MT) program would require an information web with connections between concepts, rather than words, such that the concept of horse would be related to the concepts of leg, mane, tail, rider, etc, without any intervening linguistic connection.

Imagine a net of concepts represented as data objects.  These are connected to each other in an enormously complex web.  Then, separately, you have a net of linguistic objects, such as words and grammatical patterns, which are overlaid on the concept net, and interconnected.  The objects representing the words for “horse” and “mane” would not have a connection, but the objects representing the concept of meaning underlying these words would have, perhaps, a “has-a” connection, also represented by a connection or “association” object.

In order to translate between languages like a human would, you need your program to have an approximation of human understanding.  A famous study suggested that in the brain of a human who knows about Lindsay Lohan, there’s an actual “Lindsay” neuron, which lights up whenever you think about Lindsay Lohan.  It’s probably lighting up right now as you read this post.  Similarly, in our theoretical machine translation program information “database”, you have a “horse” “neuron” represented by our concept object concept that I described above.  It’s separate from our linguistic object neuron which contains the idea of the word group “Lindsay Lohan”, though probably connected.

Whenever you dig the concept of horse or Lindsay Lohan from your long-term memory, your brain sort of primes the concept by loading it and related concepts into short-term memory, so your “rehab” neuron probably fires pretty soon after your Lindsay neuron.  Similarly, our translation program doesn’t keep it’s whole data-set in RAM constatnly, but loads it from whatever our storage medium is, based on what’s connected to our currently loaded portion of the web.

Current MT programs don’t translate like humans do.  No matter what tricks or algorithms they use, it’s all based on manipulating sequences of letters and basically doing math based on a set of equivalences such as “caballo” = “horse”.  Whether they do statistical analysis on corpuses of previously-translated phrases and sentences like Google Translate to find the most likely translation, or a straight0forward dictionary look-up one word at a time, they don’t understand what the text they are matching means in either language, and that’s why current approaches will never be able to compare to a reasonably competent human translator.

It’s also why current “artificial intelligence” programs will never achieve true human-like general intelligence.  So, even your best current chatbot has to use tricks like pretending to be a Ukranian teenager with bad English skills on AIM to pass the so-called Turing test.  A side-walk artist might draw a picture perfect crevasse that seems to plunge deep into the Earth below your feet.  But no matter how real it looks, your elevation isn’t going to change.  A bird can;t nest in a picture of tree, no matter how realistically depicted.

Calling what Google Translate does, or any machine “translation” program does translation has to be viewed in context, or else it’s quite misleading.  Language functions properly only in the proper context, and that’s something statistical approaches to machine translation will never be able to imitate, no matter how many billions of they spend on hardware or algorithm development.  Could you eventually get them to where they can probably usually mostly communicate the gist of a short newspaper article?  Sure.  Will you be able to engage live in witty reparte with your mutually-language exclusive acquaintance over Skype?  Probably not.  Not with the kind of system we have now.

Those crude, our theoretical program with knowledge web described above might take us a step closer, but even if we could perfect and polish it, we’re still a long way from truly useful translation or AI software.  After all, we don;t even understand how we do these things ourselves.  How could we create an artificial version when the natural one still eludes our grasp?


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