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Tuesday
Jun242014

THE FUTURE OF THE WRITTEN WORD IS HARD TO CALL

Predicting the future with any accuracy is hard. Predicting the future of the written word…I hardly want to venture a guess. Maybe that’s because it’s too close to my heart.

I attended a conference of the Canadian Authors Association this past weekend. It was richly enjoyable and inspiring, as always. You’d expect writers to attend conferences to learn how to perfect our craft, and that’s certainly true. Yet these days there are just as many presentations about how to get published, how to get an agent, and how to market our books. In other words, the business side of writing. We’re writers—business stuff isn’t our strong suit. But if our writing can’t support us financially, we have to find other employment and either give up writing entirely, or only bring out a new book every five or ten years while we earn a living some other way. Combine a full-time job plus all of the business aspects of writing these days, and we’re lucky to get a book out to an audience of readers at all.

The advent of ebooks has turned the publishing industry on its ear, and it’s also messing up the money thing. An ebook doesn’t require cutting down trees, slapping on ink and glue, and trucking the end result to the corners of the continent, so obviously an ebook shouldn’t cost anything close to the price of a printed one. Right? Well, those thousands of words take just as many months or years to cobble together whether they get to the reader in the form of symbols on a page or pixels on a screen. The same goes for any editorial work required, cover art, or marketing to let potential fans know the book exists. But the more people get used to paying $2.99 for an ebook, the less money will enter the system to pay for all of those things. At the same time, publishers are becoming less and less willing to risk their money on any but their stable of bestselling authors, a state of affairs that unavoidably takes its toll on variety and originality.

Whether you read from a page or a screen, there are some truths about the written word that seem self-evident to me:

  • When writers can turn their full attention to writing they can produce better books and more of them.
  • The more writing a writer does, the better they get.
  • The way to get more of the books we most enjoy is to enable writers to devote more of their time to what they do best.

What can you do as a reader? Be willing to pay a reasonable price for something that brings you hours of enjoyment, and maybe even some real insight that can last you a lifetime. Rely on your taste for good writing instead of your taste for a bargain. Support the writers you like by buying their books.

I don’t know if, a hundred years from now, we’ll be reading from screens, or holographic letters in the air, or flashes of light on the insides of our eyelids. I do know that if we don’t support the best of our storytellers, the physical format of the stories won’t much matter.

Thursday
Jun122014

SOME NEW READING FOR YOU

I've been kind of lax in keeping the content of my STORIES page fresh. So this week I took down a couple of stories that had been available for a long time and posted two new ones for you to enjoy.

"Sand From A Broken Hourglass" is about a man who wants to find someone else to blame for his alcoholism, and turns to a radical experimental method for retrieving repressed memories. But the walk down memory lane is a lot more hazardous than he bargained for.

How does a man exist in two realities at once? In "Shakedown" a prototype nanomachine is being developed to perform medical miracles within living bloodstreams using a Virtual Reality control system that will demand all the skill its gaming champion pilot can muster. Then the government comes calling with an urgent mission far into untested territory, and this "Shakedown" will be anything but smooth.

ALSO remember that through the month of June the e-book of my radio industry mystery/thriller novel Dead Air has been reduced from $7.99 to just $3.99, available from Kobo, Amazon, the iTunes Book Store, and Barnes & Noble. Read the first chapter here.

Tuesday
Jun102014

TURING TEST PASS IS A FAIL

I’ve been amused this week to read the news that a computer program passed the famous “Turing Test” for artificial intelligence. The program presents itself as a 13-year-old boy living in Ukraine named Eugene Goostman, and it was able to carry on text conversations well enough to convince one-third of a panel of judges that they were chatting with a human being. It happened during a regular Turing Test event being hosted by the University of Reading in the UK on the 60th anniversary of the death of mathematician Alan Turing, who devised the test as a way of measuring artificial intelligence: if a computer is mistaken for a human more than 30% of the time during a series of five minute keyboard conversations, it passes the test. This is being touted as the first successful test, although NewScientist magazine points out that others have succeeded too, depending on the criteria used for the judging.

Detractors claim the fact that “Eugene” is presented as a 13-year-old boy with limited English-language skills coloured the expectations of the judges enough to render the test results less meaningful than they might otherwise be. Have you heard thirteen-year-olds talk lately? The fact the judges could understand Eugene’s answers at all should have been a tip-off that they weren’t speaking to a real teenager. Did he pause in the conversation to answer a few texts on his phone? Did he drop f-bombs, use spelling that looked like alphabet soup given a stir, or rely on the word “like” every other sentence? Were there any mistakes obviously caused by autocorrect? Dead giveaways, all of those. (Actually, Eugene does text like that on Twitter.)

Personally, I think the limitations of the test itself make it of little value. Certainly it shows that superfast processors fed with enough data about likely questions, colloquial language, general knowledge and other parameters can simulate a humanlike dialogue. It says nothing about self-awareness, self-motivation, creative problem-solving, psychological empathy, or many other things that we would expect of an intelligent being. So we’re still a long way from the Skynet days of the Terminator movies, or even HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey.

If you spend much time on Facebook, or even watching reality TV, you’ll know that speaking like the average human being isn’t exactly a shining display of intelligence anyway—quite the opposite.

There are efforts to create a more universal artificial intelligence test, involving more visual cues, among other things. I expect that within another few generations of computing progress, that test will also be found wanting. The truth is, we’ll probably never know when the first truly intelligent, sentient, artificial mind is created.

Because it’ll know that the smartest thing it can do is to keep that little secret to itself.

Thursday
Jun052014

EBOOK OF DEAD AIR JUST $3.99 FOR A LIMITED TIME

My publisher has agreed to let me offer a special discount on the e-versions of my radio mystery/thriller novel Dead Air. For the month of June it’s just $3.99. I know there are a lot of people who are hooked on their e-readers and have thought about picking up Dead Air. There’s no more reason to wait.

Get an insider’s look into the world of morning radio and suspense that will keep you reading way past bedtime. As one reader put it: “Finished Dead Air last night just in time to exhale the breath I had been holding and draw in another before I passed out. Quite a thriller.”

Read the first chapter here.

Available in e-format from Kobo books, the iTunes Book store, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday
Jun032014

SOLAR ROADWAYS: REALLY THE PATH OF THE FUTURE?

By now you’ll have seen at least one video promoting Solar Roadways. The Indiegogo fundraising campaign has been one of the biggest ever. Here’s an overview video that’s also over the top, but basically, the product is a hexagonal solar panel embedded with grids of LEDs and, in colder climates, heating grids to melt snow. Used as paving stones, the panels would use all that available road space to generate electricity, keep snow-and-ice-free in winter, and microprocessor-controlled LEDs can be used to show lane markings, crossings, or even moment-by-moment traffic alerts and warnings about road hazards ahead.

A tough tempered glass covering engineered for traction and strength. Clean energy. Ice-free roads without car-eating salt. Traffic alerts right in the road surface. Sounds perfect, right? Hundreds of online investors think so. Then, as a science fiction writer, should I be including these in the landscapes of my near-future stories?

Maybe not. I’m also not big on flying cars. Or personal rocket packs. It’s not that we can’t do these things, it’s just that we won’t.

The biggest hurdle is that the initial capital costs are too high. Some municipalities might budget for very gradual conversion to roads like this, when times are good, but higher levels of government don’t think past the next election, and road costs like this won’t get them re-elected. Additional objections raised by others range from how to keep the solar panels clean, to the dangers of hackers creating traffic mayhem by messing with the LEDs. Any and all of these problems might be solvable—technology marches on. Yet we’re still driving big boxes of metal pushed by internal combustion engines along strips of asphalt because society hasn’t had the collective will to change that.

To those of us willing to see that fossil fuels are a dead end street, there’s just something that feels right about using all of that road space around the world to generate clean energy. But there’s also huge amounts of available roof space, that’s much easier to utilize. Why not start there, and power our electric cars?

What we really need to change is the personal automobile. We’ve got to stop single drivers from carting eight-passenger SUVs with them as they commute bumper-to-bumper into and out of city cores. Have you seen those prototype vehicles that look like enclosed motorcycles? They could work. Or, laugh as much as you want, vehicles like the Segway for short trips around city cores or neighbourhoods. Maybe powered by low-voltage electrical strips in the pavement (yes, possibly even generated by solar panels). Not hovercraft, though—wheels, because they’re simple, low-friction, and have low energy requirements. And for longer distances on high-traffic routes, something like Elon Musk’s proposed hyperloop system: ultra-high-speed rail in near-vacuum enclosed tubes. Those are the things I’ll put into near-future stories.

Flying cars and rocket packs would be cool, but just aren’t practical. Solar roadways crossing the continents could be practical, but for the near future, sad to say, they’ll remain too good to be true.