06 Sep

Space Traders, DACA, and Good SF

In listening to fallout over Trump’s recent DACA decision, I’m drawn to parallels with Derrick Bell’s Space Traders, a controversial novella published in 1992 that examines what might happen if an alien race offered the US government a wondrous bounty in return for the entirety of the country’s African American population.

Outlandish, right?

I say read it, and decide for yourself. Read it and watch as the world around us seems to follow the script.

I first read Space Traders somewhere around 2012 when a flurry rose around it due to Obama’s candidacy. It seemed…valuable…I got it, anyway, but in my worldview it wasn’t really relevant to what was going on at the time. It was republished in Dark Matter two years later. My memory was jogged again a year or two ago when I saw a FSI piece Nisi Shawl wrote on the history of African-American Science Fiction. I didn’t re-read Space Traders then, but I recalled it, you know, reintroduced it into a slot in my memory of Interesting Science Fiction that Exists.

Maybe this is why, after listening to recent conversation about DACA, Space Traders came back to me. Maybe this is why I Googled it today and read it again. Maybe this is why I didn’t find the story outlandish this time. Or, well (pun intended?), yes, why I find the the story outlandish, but not for its conceit. The story explores public arguments made for and against accepting the aliens’ deal by politicians, clergy, businesses, other minority groups, and the general voting public. Its parallels to the conversation around DACA are both eerie and unnerving. Reading Space Traders today feels uncomfortably familiar.

At one point, one of the characters defines the problem for resistance as follows:

“The question is to how best to counter an offer that about one third of the voters would support even if the Space Traders offered America nothing at all. Another third may vacillate, but … that in the end … will simply not be able to pass up a good deal.”

Read that passage again. Go on. It’ll only take a moment.

Sound familiar?

This is the thing about good science fiction. Good science fiction is about what it means to be human—the good, the bad, the amazing, and the outlandish. Good science fiction does not flinch. Good science fiction can make you look at yourself differently.

Some time ago I was sharing a dinner table with a well-known African-American writer who I will not name because that’s not my point here. Eventually our conversation touched on race and gender, and partially on things like the Alt-Right Sad/Rabid Puppy wedge that’s the SF field’s contribution to right-wing bullydom. Somewhere in that conversation I said the situation seems so much sharper now than it has ever been. This is when the writer very politely asked why I thought that was true. Not as in “what are the causes of it being sharper?” but as in “how do you measure such sharpness in order to judge it one way or the other?”

To be honest I didn’t have an answer. When I think about it, our rhetoric today is probably not sharper than it’s ever been—and, as divided as we sound now, we’re probably not even close to being as violent right now as we’ve been in the past. This is America, after all. Pretend as we might, our history has been far more bloody than inclusive.

So, yes, my statement at dinner was clumsy. It was clumsy because for me it was correct—the world is sharper for me now, but that’s because I’m seeing the situation in ways I didn’t earlier. Today I focus differently, but I’m not used to that focus so I sometimes have to fight through all my gut reactions in order to let my brain lead me to it. Today I understand that even writing this statement in this blog post is, in its own way, clumsy. Not that I have a choice here, but I’m good with that. I would rather be a clumsy, well-meaning guy who stumbles my way to understanding than a person whose view is based on privilege so strong I’m blind to what it means to be human.

As far as DACA is concerned, I have opinions, of course. But they don’t matter here. I’m not some leading-edge activist. I’m just a 50-some year-old science fiction writer trying to figure out what life means, you know? And I know this post all by itself will never change anyone’s mind. This post is not Good SF, after all.

All I really want is for you to sit down and read Space Traders, then think hard about it. When the narrative makes you angry, I want you to ask yourself why. Compare that passage to arguments happening today. See how they are often so similar you can’t tell them apart.

Space Traders is about much more than DACA, of course, about much more than immigration or even race relations in general. Space Traders is about humans, power, and how we organize and manage that power, how in America that power is clearly in the hands of a culture whose foundation is to staunchly steeped in white supremacy that, even when it’s brought to the surface in its most explicit and impossible to ignore fashion, that third, vacillating part of our population can find ways to pretend it’s not there. It’s about how people use power, how we cloak it in common good, pretend that we are e pluribus unum when is in our interests, but find ways to shove that idea aside when it’s no longer as convenient. It’s about the fundamental nature of people and how the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are aspirational more than true. It’s about those times when we’re willing to let power brokers stand certain laws of logic on their heads when we benefit from make the Declaration and Constitution bend in different ways.

Human beings are strange after all. Sometimes we’re clumsy. Sometimes we’re oblivious. Sometimes we’re selfish, greedy, or just outright cruel.

And, sometimes, for any or all those reasons, we’re just straight out wrong.

The best science fiction helps us think about these things.

That’s why I want you to go read Space Traders today.

17 Aug

Many Sides of Violence

There’s this thing people have about violence, people who say violence is never the answer. They say it with such conviction, and yet, it’s so clearly not really right. I admit it would be fantastic if we lived in a society where violence or its threat would never be needed. That would be great. The Wild West would have been totally different in that world. World War II would never have been necessary. A lot of Native American families would still be in existence if we lived in that world.

Another thing that would be great about living in that world is that you would never have to make any hard calls on the ethics of cause and effect. Knowing who was “at fault” in any interaction would be totally simple. I mean, if you came into a room to find your kids tussling, and both of them were whining that the other kid started it, you would just look for the one with the bloody nose and know the other one was responsible.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.

We live in a world where events slide into each other over long distances of time, where those collisions create a huge ocean of cause and effect, and where violence can and often does settles things—at least for a while. Of course, that violence doesn’t always wind up working the way you think it will when you use it. Martin Luther King’s approach with the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, for example, found ways to use an opponent’s violence to expose fault in Bull Connor’s position. In Dr. King’s case, he lost the day in Birmingham—Connor and his cops turned the hoses and dogs on the protestors, and arrested thousands. But the violence King’s plans incited resulted in change. Of course, the Bull Connor started the violence, but MLK and his council started the conflict…except, of course, the plan was a reaction to the violence made over years of the US not actually living up to its Constitution and to people like Bull Conner being in charge, so Bull Connor and his ilk started it…or you can follow the chain of events back as far as you want.

In the end, though, non-violent tactic or not, the Dr. King’s Crusaders were on the “right” side even if you want to blame him for creating the violence he triggered in Connor. It’s all very complex, you see? Violence is not where things begin.

The use of non-violence is helpful in these moments, though, because it makes it much easier to see who was in the wrong and who was in the right.

Still, Dr. King’s approach was not the only approach on the table. There were violent people on his side, too—call them Malcolm X followers for simple white-guy shorthand (I am, of course, a simple white guy, so this works for me…but, yes, I know it’s complex). Malcolm X’s follower were claiming their rights “by any means necessary,” and were people whose presence scared the average citizen (specifically meaning white guy, but spreading further, too). Their approach was less successful in getting the result they wanted, and it drew unwanted attention from law enforcement—especially since law enforcement was the direct representative of a government that was, to them, the oppressor. But they wanted the same thing that Dr. King wanted. Their approach was different, but they were incited by the same oppressors and had the same goals. Both of them were on the “right” side of a hundred (plus) year old argument. One approach defended himself, the other did not, but both were on the right side of the fundamental argument that was going on across the nation at that time and both were blamed by some for inciting violence at the time.

While Dr. King’s non-violent approach was more effective in driving change in the 1960s, I don’t blame “the violent left” for lashing out while being on the receiving end of a systemic history of aggression that set everything on a hairline trigger, and then became incited by whatever single fateful moment happens. There is no carte blanche, of course, every situation has to be looked at properly. But violence against power that’s there to dehumanize has an inner logic to it that I can “support” in the right times. I understand that violence. Just as I understand the violence, or at least the preparation for such, of groups who rise up to meet members of the Ku Klux Klan and other Heil-Trumping Nazis who were advocating ethnic cleansing of the country this past weekend.

I wish that such preparation wasn’t so necessary. Of course I do.

I wish that the demonstrators who came “to protect the Robert E. Lee” monument had actually gathered peacefully and chanted “Save Robert E. Lee!” rather than carrying torches and chanting “Blood and Soil!” and “White Lives Matter!” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” I wish they had not driven home their KKK ideology, had not flown the flag and used the words of a race-based ideology that exterminated 6 million people of Jewish descent and started a six-year World War that took millions and millions of military and civilian lives. That would have been great. I wish these ralliers did not actually believe that only white people deserved to be in this country and that their group’s openly stated purpose wasn’t to aggressively reclaim the country for the white male. I wish they had not brought a militia. I wish they had actually gone to Charlottesville and been orderly, and they would have gathered around the monument and had their speeches and chanted “Robert E. Lee is the Guy for Me!” or whatever.

Alas, that was not to be. Nary a “Save Lee” chant is to be heard on any tape I’ve seen or is included in any conversation from a KKK/White Nationalist I’ve seen or heard any comment about the monument. Go figure.

And I wish it weren’t predictable that a Nazi/KKK guy would kill someone. I wish that leaders and planners of the event hadn’t expected people would be killed and that they weren’t fine with that. I wish that the history of these Alt-Right demonstrations did not have a very long trail of bloodshed. I wish the organizers of the event would express immediate sorrow and remorse for the loss of a life, and the injuring of so many others.

Yes, I wish all of that.

And I wish that all sane people—white, black, white, right, white, left, Asian, moderate, white, agnostic, white, Christian, black, Jewish, white, Hindu, and what-the-hell-ever—would immediately side against this collective ideology that is foreign to American views of equality for all, banding together to say “we’re not falling for your free speech crap…we may not know or agree on much, but we know evil when we see it and we’ve got family buried in France and Germany and all across the Pacific because of you assholes…” I wish this would happen because there is this higher good that needs to be maintained in this country, and because if that aggressive alignment of all American people of all types were to happen there would be a much smaller chance of counter-violence from an anti-protest group to ever be necessary.

But that’s not the world we live in.

We live in world where when real fascists rise up—I mean, real live flag-carrying, “Blood and Soil,” “Get out of my country, we are the master race,” NAZI/KKKers—and I think it’s fair that people defending the ideas of equality for all are allowed to, and be expected to, come to a counter-protest prepared to defend themselves.

We live in a world where “Blood and Soil” in the form it was used is not the free speech of ideological sharing. In our world, “Blood and Soil” chanted as it was is a direct threat. Last I saw no one was arresting a KKK folks for saying anything, anyway, so this isn’t about free speech. In this situation, “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” was not about free speech. In this situation, this kind of behavior is about intimidation, and that is what the reaction is about. The open display of the expectation of the use of force is group bullying at its worst. The alternative for the true protester here (not that the opposite side in this conversation were not counter-protesters, they were protesters against the ralliers) is to suffer the fate of Martin Luther King’s people, to take your beating as a defenseless person, or allow yourself to be run over by a car. That kind of response takes an amazing amount of fortitude and courage that should be honored and admired when it exists, but never required in order to prove one’s fundamental position is correct.

So, of course whenever Nazis demonstrate there will be people on the counter-protest side who are ready for violence. Violence is not preferred. It is not acceptable as a first reaction. But violence will always be on the table as a tool against this kind of overt display of intimidation. This game started decades ago, after all. Therefore, violence should always be expected from these confrontations. It was almost guaranteed to happen, and in my opinion it was guaranteed to happen somewhere from the minute Donald Trump won the election. The only question was where.

Given this guarantee, trying to figure out who threw the first punch is missing the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter. In this situation, in this fight, the first punches were thrown a lot of years ago, so trying to decide who is at fault based on the existence of violence is a false shell game.

In other words, I don’t need to see whose nose is bleeding in this situation to know that Nazis are wrong.

There is no wiggle room when it comes to Nazi/KKK/Alt-Right demonstrations. If a Nazi group wants to protest the removal of a monument, fine. If they want to chant “I loved Robert E. Lee,” great. But the moment “Blood and Soil” gets spun up and the Nazi regalia gets to flying, the game changes and the leash gets really short. The Nazi/KKK/Alt-Right ideology is counter to the very idea of what America is.

If you stand in a group as they chant about ethnic cleansing, you are part of their group. You are also wrong, and not a “very fine person.”

If you defend Nazis in this situation, you are wrong.

If Nazis are chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” and you say they might have a point somewhere in there, you are wrong.

Which brings me to the cartoon villain that is our duly elected president, a guy who is a mixture of Lex Luthor, Archie Bunker, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. He may not be a card-carrying Nazi, but he is the chief enabler, an obvious sympathizer, and an embarrassment to any society that considers itself civilized. Watching him operate on a daily basis is like splashing down in the middle of a Philip K. Dick novel written when the guy was on his “Full-Blown Drugged-Out Paranoia” mode.

Trump is wrong. He is the wrong person for this job. That fact has been evident for some time, but is now impossible to miss.

The only real questions that remain are how long congress will stand beside a Nazi sympathizer as he chants his “Many Sides” chant, or whether we will still have an America that we can recognize by the time it falls to the people and the ballot box to do what must be done.

20 Apr

My Male-Pattern Stupidity and Fearless Girl

I’m finding myself caught up in several conversations about Fearless Girl and Charging Bull. You know what I’m talking about, right? The statue of the little girl standing defiantly in front of the Wall Street bull and the flack that came about when the original artist, Arturo Di Modica, complained that her appearance altered his art. “My bull is a symbol for America. My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength,” Di Modica said in a Washington Post article. He’s charging what is essentially copyright infringement, and he wants Fearless Girl removed.

The stuff really seemed to hit the fan when Greg Fallis posted a conversation titled “seriously, they guy has a point.”

Among the responses to this I saw was by Caroline Criado-Perez, titled “On Fearless Girl, women & public art; or, no, seriously, the guy does not have a point.

The whole thing is fascinating.

On one hand, you can have some very technical conversations about copyright law. This part is interesting to me because I’m not particularly adroit when it comes to how copyright works in visual art. It’s also interesting to me because to my uneducated experience this situation appears to be unique to sculpted art. I’ve tried to equate the idea of placing two sculpted figures together to things like music sampling or call-and-response forms of literature, but it seems a different beast. Sampling and call-and-response works build on top of each other, or happen as a result of each other, but the existence of a sample or response does not keep one from enjoying the original on its own merits.

That’s the argument, right? That Fearless Girl makes it impossible to see Charging Bull on its original merits? Actually, no. That’s not quite right. As consumers of the works, we are free to view and interpret them as we wish. The argument Di Modica is making, however, is that Fearless Girl actually changes the meaning of Charging Bull.

This is where the whole thing steps into the more charged questions of artistic intent, artistic merit (which included the twist that Fearless Girl was paid for by corporate commission), and, eventually, into the idea of what a piece of art is in context of the audience who absorbs it. In other words, your thoughts on the situation say as much about you as they do anything else.

As I wrote on a Facebook comment discussing the argument:

To be simple, this seems to boil down to:

DiModica says: “I’m upset because this new art has changed the original intent of my work! Move your work or suffer my wrath!”

Fallis says: “The guy has a point, and oh, by the way, Fearless Girl was paid for by a company so it doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

Criado-Perez says: “No, the original art already contained the message brought out by Fearless Girl, it’s not our fault that you couldn’t see it until Fearless Girl showed up…and, by the way, it doesn’t matter who paid for it. Please put your big-boy pants on.”

At the end of the day, I find it tempting to say that this is one of those topics on which rational people can disagree, and leave it at that. It is, after all, true that rational people are disagreeing here. But it is also true that something being rational, or logical, does not make it true. It is, after all, logical to think the Earth is flat if you only look at the question from one perspective. Alas, however, the Earth is not flat. This means that a rational person is not always right.

If one allows me the consideration of being rational, my own journey through looking at this situation is indicative.

When I first saw the argument, I thought the guy really did have a point. I thought Fearless Girl completely changed Charging Bull, meaning the original intent was gone. After a muddled but oddly emotional discussion with Lisa, and after using another evening to silently mull it over, I came to the view that I was wrong. Di Modica’s original intent is still there—it’s just that his original intent is rife with the existence of oblivious privilege. In this sense, my own process of taking in the piece was a perfect example of why Fearless Girl works. I was oblivious at first, then slowly able to pivot to a different way of seeing it. I’m taking to calling this initial reaction my Male-Pattern Stupidity anymore. I think I’m a good guy at heart, but sometimes it takes me a little while to think through things and get to a healthy view of any particular situation. This process is, in several ways, the exact definition of privilege as applied to me. To never need to see (or be forced to see?) the full depths of meaning inherent in Charging Bull makes life easy in a particularly insidious way.

So, anyway, my first reaction to the piece was that the artistic content of Charging Bull was totally changed.

Similarly, copyright: First I thought Fearless Girls’ creators were in trouble, then I spent time reading about past cases and came to the conclusion that no, even if the existence of Fearless Girl did change the meaning of Charging Bull, it is unlikely Di Modica can win a copyright case on the technical merits of the situation alone. The arguments for this made total sense to me. But as I came to understand that the intent of Di Modica’s piece has not actually been altered so much as “more fully” exposed, the copyright argument pretty much vanished completely.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no lawyer. I assume the case will make it through the courts, and that the courts will decide however they decide. I am, however, now of the opinion Di Modica has a very steep hill to climb.

Regardless of how any court will decide, however, for my tastes Fearless Girl is an interesting piece of art specifically because her power comes out more fully as I think through the nuances of her relationship with her surroundings. For me, she does not change the original intention of Charging Bull as being about strength and power inherent in America so much as she comments upon it. Fearless Girl was created (with help from its corporate sponsors) as a view on representation, after all. She would work in that fashion anywhere she was placed, but the aspect of representation in Fearless Girl’s presence is brought out even more fully when you place her in front of Charging Bull, just as it would be if she were placed in front of the White House, or an all-male country club, or….

In this sense, Fearless Girl’s comment on representation doesn’t change, nor does she change anything inherent in the object she is placed in front of. Instead, she points out something specific that is already within that target’s original meaning and she holds it up for people to see.

How a person sees that specific something seems to be the deciding factor in how that person will react to the situation.

So, yes, I see that Di Modica is upset, and I understand the logic for why he is. I get it. I’ve felt it myself. It’s totally logical he would feel that way.

But the fact that his discomfort is logical does not mean he has a point.

14 Nov

So much to do and the Spanish Inquisition, just for…uh…laughs?

The super moon hits its peak tonight at 8:52 EST. Cool, eh?

#

So I’m back from TusCon43, which was a great time, and where I met lots of great people. The panels I was part of presenting or sat in on were full of vigorous conversation. I signed a few books, and got to talk about story structure and basically just wallow in the fun and weird and nerdy environment that is fandom. So, yeah, the southwest was quite welcoming to this mid-western kid.

Now I’m trying to circle the wagons (to use a western metaphor) and figure out if there is any chance in hell I can get back on schedule. I’m figuring not, but I shall plow on and see what happens. Hang with me and I’ll soon be dropping exciting information about Stealing the Sun my new SF series, and about The Knight Deception the first book in what could be an episodic series that I’m planning to publish through Skyfox in February or so.

Super, super busy.

I’m pushing book one into early publication cycles now. Final proofing of book 2 is just complete. Book three proofing needed to start a week ago. Book four’s manuscript is nearly finished, but there’s a long path after that. And now book 5 will have to happen in conjunction with a major workshop workload.

So, yeah…sigh.

#

I was tired last night, so rather than do much heavy lifting, I went back and watched the Trump interview that CBS did on Saturday.

Amazing.

It just struck me a minute ago that it was kind of like a Monty Python sketch, but without the overt winks and nods, and without the laugh track.

Here’s hoping things go rocketing to greatness.

But, seriously…

11 Nov

The Divide

Like a bunch of folks, I’ve been watching the rhetoric of the fallout of this election. People trying to get a handle on what everything means are as interesting as anything else about it. Folks are wandering around, scratching their heads about how we’re more divided than ever—which I think isn’t right…I think we are just as divided as we’ve always been, probably less in reality, but our divisions are becoming highlighted because the social and economic ramifications of the world are getting pretty harsh in certain circles.

Regardless, folks are tied up in the argument of whether this thing that’s happened is about racism or jobs or foreign policy or emails or what.

Against this backdrop comes a Pew poll that defines the divide in light of a question about what people saw as real problems they wanted tackled.

Here’s the chart:

It’s a fascinating chart—a listing of issues, and how strongly people who backed Clinton feel about whether they are real problems vs. how strongly people who backed Trump feel about that same question. The bottom line read on this makes as much sense to me as anything: this election was about immigration first, and guns and security second.

At a 28-point gap (and capped at Clinton supporter’s 53%), “Racisim” was a lower-grade issue between the camps, but that’s an interesting question when you ask yourself how people define the category and how that category interacts with the other categories. The ability to parse illegal immigration and racism is interesting in itself. The swing of the strength of these two categories between the two populations (Trump vs. Clinton supporters) may speak volumes in pragmatics of how the two groups define the issue and see the world. For people like me, it seems logical to tie the idea of concern over illegal immigration to some element of racism, especially when discussing its ramification on jobs and base economics. Not the overt definition of racism as evidenced by various hate groups, but at least some degree of “us vs. them” as related to the economics associated with the inherently racial component of illegal immigration to begin with.

I suppose this is, in itself, a microcosm of the conversation our society is having today.

What is rasicm? How is it different to a Trump supporter vs. a Clinton supporter. Will that gap in those definitions ever change? If so, what will it take to make it happen?

The widest divides are:

Things Trump supporters cared about more than Clinton’s:

  • Illegal Immigration: 59 point gap (-32 points in “racism”)
  • Terrorism: 32 point gap (-42 points in Gun Violence)

Things Clinton supporters cared about more than Trump’s:

  • Climate Change: 52 point gap
  • Gun Violence: 42 point gap (-32 points in terrorism)
  • The Income Gap: 39 point gap
  • Racism: 32 point gap (-59 points in immigration)

No other gaps were more than 20 points.

In other words, Trump people voted to stop immigration, did not think racism was a major problem today, wanted to stop terrorism (while not considering gun violence a problem that needed be addressed), and really could care less about climate change. To highlight another point, Trump supporters really did not seem to consider the income gap as being nearly the problem Clinton’s supporters did.

Clinton people are deeply concerned with climate change, gun violence, and the income divide. They consider racism to be a bigger problem than illegal immigration, and are not intensely concerned about terrorism.

There’s your divide.

There also appears to be a gap in the idea of education, specifically the affordability of college. Trump people care about college affordability 28 points less than Clinton supporters—which is interesting. If they were worried about their children getting ahead economically, I would have expected that concern to be much higher.

Other interesting items: jobs, crime, and job opportunity were not areas where gap in concern is high, though what gap there is have Trump supporters being more concerned about them than Clinton’s.

Anyway…there you have it.

Per this, the Trump win was about:

  • Anti Illegal-immigration (which some, including me, see as tied to racism)
  • Anti-Climate Change (elitist economic issue?)
  • Concern for Terrorism
  • Guns
  • A differing concern on the income gap

My original ideas about this was that Trump’s win was about immigration and jobs, but this information makes me see it a bit differently. It makes me downgrade the jobs part of the equation. This data says it’s anti-Immigration, anti elite economic issues, and concern for self-defense (gimmie my guns so I can protect my family against the terrorists?) are the things that define the Trump voter’s concerns. Since he won, that means those things are what the election was about.

This picture says that things like concerns for jobs and the fundamental workings of the economy were generally important, but were not the issues that divided the population.

That’s interesting.

If true, I think it’s important to think about.

06 Nov

Creativity in the US

I’ve had this tucked away in an open browser tab for quite awhile, and stumbled upon it again today. I think it’s fascinating, even though I’m not sure what to make of it. The graphic was embedded in the Passive Guy’s blog a couple months ago, attached to a post titled “The stunning geographic divide in American creativity.” Read the whole post for a bit more commentary.

Yes, I thought, as I looked at the title of the post.

It is stunning, isn’t it?

As noted, I didn’t know what to make of it when I first saw it and I don’t know what to make of it today. But I find the chart coming back to me over and over again.

  • First, I was surprised that that half the people or more in almost all states are doing something they consider creative (performing in or creating works of art). I would have expected this to be considerably lower, but then I’m a mid-western kid by background, what do I know? I haven’t seen anyone talking a lot about this, though. If this chart is a fair representation, it suggests some nice things about modern life in many ares of this country–specifically that people have enough personal time to actually spend it doing things that come from the internal self.
  • Second, it makes me wonder if different parts of the culture have different definitions of what “doing art” is. My dad, for example, has some very firm ideas on what art is and what it isn’t, and would, I’m sure, classify as craft some things that I would call art. There’s the thing, right? When one crochets, is it a craft or an art? Dunno. Is it possible that people in one culture would see doing the same task in different categories? Of course it is. So, who knows?
  • Third, again, assuming the divide is real (which I admit I tend to believe), I agree that the data breaks the rule of thumb–the idea that all the artsy folk come from the far coasts. In the end, this shouldn’t really surprise me. Rules of thumb are often wrong. It did surprise me, though. And further, in this moment of political upheaval, I think it’s interesting to compare traditionally red states. If there are cultural differences that drive this divide, what does it say that the Idahos and Wyoming (deeply conservative) are so purple, and the Georgias and Floridas (also bastions of conservative politics) are so yellow? Traditionally liberal zones are consistently purple, but conservative zones are widely split. California is an interesting state, since is spans the zone. It would be interesting to see it broken down.

But, regardless, it’s strange, isn’t it?

What is it about Minnesota that makes it stand out so purple? Why is Georgia the heartland of southern artistic energy, yet still so low relative to the rest of the country?

If you read Washington Post article that accompanies the chart, the answers are pretty basic: education and poverty. More education, more art. More poverty, less art. That seems fair enough. It seems logical, and so there’s probably a truth to it. But I keep looking at it and looking at it, and in the end all I can really say for sure is that I think it’s a chart that means a number of things. I think it has a history to it–perhaps a history with education and poverty at its core, but a history broader than those things. This is a picture of result, after all. The number of people doing artistic things is an output of a system. It’s a measure of the culture we’ve developed.

And so, yes, taken as it is, I think this chart means several things.

I’ve kept it in my tabs because I think this is a very important chart.

I think it’s no surprise that the line of demarcation follows the boundary between new slave and free states in the Missouri Compromise (noted in the Washington Post article–with what I assume is irony–as happening by chance).

I think it means we’ve got work to do.

I think this means the work will take centuries.

04 Sep

Sunspring … extreme SF, all the way down

A little bit ago, I wrote an entry that I titled “The Rules They Are A Changin’, in which I discussed some “sky is falling’ kind of thoughts about what happens to the economy when AI do almost all the work. The piece got a comment or two, both on the site and on the Facebook feed it went into. The comments were similar to what I hear when I talk to people about this: “Yes, Ron,” the comments all start, “but a computer will never be able to fully replace a human’s thinking. It will never be able to make art!”

This, of course, ignores the fact that they already are making art, oftentimes indistinguishable from that which humans do today, oftentimes … er… distinguishable?

In the later category one might include Sunspring, a fascinating 9-minute short SF film that was made off a screenplay written by an AI that had been feed a whole bunch of SF screenplays, and then prompted to write one of its own. I should note that the film was written and released well before my little note—but I’ve only now ran into it, so I’m only now talking about it. I’ll link to the film at the end of this blurb. You should watch it. It’s intensely interesting for all its aspects, both good and bad. It’s meta. SFnal in concept and content in a strangely delicious way (delicious to me, anyway, your mileage will certainly vary).

In other words, it’s a weird film. The kind of thing a college kid who’s a fan of Phil Dick and David Bowie might write while on an acid trip. But it’s also oddly beautiful, as I suppose such things can be. As with all screenplays, it is infused with the human aspect of the actors, so the entire product is not AI/CGI, but then this kind of fits part of the questions I asked in the piece I first wrote. What happens to us when the AI starts to write screenplays that are “better” than what we can write? or at least “similar enough” to what we can write to make them more attractive to the marketplace?

Do we become merely interpreters?

At least until AI constructs can learn to act?

Dunno.

And let’s be clear, Sunspring is in no way an indicator that human screenplay writers are on the precipice of getting run out of business tomorrow.

But in two years? Five? Ten?

Who knows? But, yes, friends, I do think the rules really a changin’.

Regardless, here’s a really interesting foray into the idea that a computer can already come up with in 2016.

16 Mar

The complex system of companies, jobs, and people

Lisa dropped me this link to a PBS News article about Nick Hanauer’s viewpoint on wealth, its distribution, and its use. Hanauer is well known as a left-leaning billionaire, and was one of the few of the 1% who actively urged the country to tax him more. He’s also the guy who did the TED talk that was circulating a bit ago wherein he said the rich needed to wake up before the non-rich start coming at them with pitchforks.

So you might say he’s a little controversial.

That said, whether you are a person of the left-wing or the right-wing, I think you should read this. Inside lie several very important concepts that I haven’t previously seen put as clearly as Hanauer has done here. I’m writing about this because it’s been days since I read it, and the information within continues to pick at my brain. So I figure if it’s got me thinking this long, perhaps you might find it interesting, too.

Here are some things I’m coming to as a result of thinking about things.

Concept 1: The economy is a closed loop system. It does not start at the top and trickle down, nor does is blossom from the bottom. It is, instead, a fully integrated system—and as any system engineer can tell you, this means that it almost certainly operates best when it’s in some form of balance.

Concept 2: Rich people (big companies) do not exist to create jobs. Hanauer puts this in a more controversial fashion by saying that the rich do not create jobs, but this is not completely true. The rich (and big companies) do invest, and those investments do create some jobs. But the proper way to look at this is that big companies (and the rich overall) are doing the best they can to create the fewest jobs possible. That’s how one controls cost, after all.

Concept 3: There is one prevalent purpose that a company exists to accomplish. “Okay, Ron,” I hear you say. “What do big companies exist for?” To be blunt here, while big companies do a lot of things and provide many values, they exist for one reason above all others: to return value to their investors (in the short term). That’s what they exist for. This fact lies between every word of Hanauer’s article, and it’s also obvious when you look at what companies actually do rather than just listen to what they say. In that sense, I like that he spends considerable time in the article exploring the things big companies do with their profits (rather than throwing that cash directly back into the business). I’ve been in the middle of corporate America for much of my career, and you cannot live in that zone for very long before you understand exactly how deeply this concept is true.

Concept 4: To understand a company’s priorities, you have to pay attention to lots of things. Let’s face it, it can be confusing to sort out complex entities. Big companies obviously create some jobs and they obviously do great things for communities. But that’s not their purpose.

Concept 5. The primary job creation force in this world is product demand. Bottom line, when people stop buying something, jobs dry up. This should be obvious.

Concept 6: Multiple things can create demand. Yes, sometimes, companies can create so much buzz they develop their own demand. Apple, of course, comes to mind. But those are more outliers than standard examples. A vast majority of new products come as disruptive technologies that are aggressively fought by the traditional market (can anyone say traditional publishing vs. indie?). Also, realize that when a big company puts everything on a truly new product, it’s often considered a “bet your company” kind of thing. When companies lose that bet, jobs erode. Anyway, the bottom line is that several things can create demand. This is essentially another way of saying that the economy is a complex system (see #1 above).

Concept 7: The laws of the land modify how big companies use people. (I use the term “use” there in both the positive and negative). We hear a lot about minimum wage, but the fact is that you can increase minimum wage by increasing employment…and I absolutely love the point he makes that the strongest thing that the government could do to help is not to raise the minimum wage, but instead to increase the limit for when companies need to pay overtime. No one really talks about that. But this dynamic of being on salary has lots and lots of baggage, and resonates strongly with the fact that people are working longer and longer hours (this is a problem that I was working on for the last year of my career in my corporate role…it’s a fascinating system unto itself).

I could go on, I suppose. But I figure this is enough to get you started. Read the article. Think about it. Ask yourself if it changes the way you see things.

23 Sep

Do you know more about the world than the chimps?

I always enjoy talks given by Hans Rosling, and the one I’ve linked to below is no exception. He uses data, and data that makes you think.

“The first thing to know about the future is to know about the present.” This is a statement Rosling makes in the earliest stages of the video, and I think everyone (me included) need to keep in mind as we go forward talking about the world and stoking our senses of outrage about whatever the issue of the day is. After making this statement, he then goes on to use three questions to show the audience exactly how their pre-assumed biases appear to affect “group opinion.”

It is against this backdrop that he “proves” that chimpanzees on the whole actually know more about the world than us humans do.

Fascinating, eh?

So, how about you? Do you think for yourself? Do you listen to the media? Which media? Do you have a cultural bias? A regional bias?

Can you beat the chimps?

Here’s the video:

10 Dec

Rates of Male/Female “Heroes” in modern day scripts

This little scriptwriter meme has been floating around the net today, and I think it’s definitely interesting from a writer’s perspective. So check it out for that alone. But then I saw someone note that they were depressed that female heroes appeared in only 77 of the 277 scripts that were analyzed. This was considered depressing by that writer–who was female. And, it is depressing in so many ways. I do get it.

But I like this chart because it’s actual data, and as with all things data-related, there are several other things here that make me go “huh.” I love numbers.

For example, 77 of 277 is 28%. If this is a reasonable facsimile of the number of female protagonists being written in all manuscripts today, some follow on questions might be: “How many were written before?” and “Are we going up the curve?” and, if so, “how fast?” Of course, there’s no way to know from this data. And I would also love to know ‘How did the female/male protag breakdown by genre?” too, which this data apparently could get but doesn’t provide. And the male/female protag breakdown of the scripts “recommended” would be interesting, too. There are a lot of additional cuts (not just gender-related, of course) that seem to scream out for study here.

Finally, the one “positive” (is it a positive?) is that while the 28% of manuscripts have a female protagonists, only 30 female writers were involved (10.8%). So there exist nearly three times the number of female “heroes” as there are female writers. At least in this sample.

Let’s play a little game, and assume EVERY female writer was involved with a female protagonist, then 47 (19%) of the 247 manuscripts written by men have female protagonists. If EVERY female author wrote a male character, that means 77 (31%) of 247 manuscripts written by male authors had a female protagonist.

So the upshot of this data is that:

in this particular situation, males wrote female protagonists at a rate of something between 19-31%.

Another way of looking at it is (assuming a linear relationship):

if females write male heroes 50% of the time, males write female heroes 25% of the time.

It would be interesting to know if this, too, has changed over the course of time.

What does it mean? I’ll be the first to say “I dunno.” But I admit I thought is was interesting.