Letter Home from the War

29 April 2119

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know you’ve been waiting to hear how I’m doing in the war and it’s been a few years since you’ve heard from me. I just completed the newest version of our operations security (OPSEC) training and the new papercut prevention training yesterday and only got the authorization to write this letter this morning.

When we first deployed out, I had the latest smart phone with system-wide long distance included and a the latest Panasonic Toughbook computer with system-wide net access, but there were some complications upon arrival at the current location preventing previous contact.

It seems a lieutenant from the finance office got bored and wandered onto the flightline and used his smart phone to take pictures of the latest stealth dropships and aerospace fighters. Then he wandered over to the ground force staging area and took pics of the stealth tanks, subterranean personnel carriers, and missile artillery. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then emailed those pics to his fiancé, who’s the daughter of a Russian Colonel. Even though the colonel was an exchange officer who worked on all of those programs while assigned with the U.S. Space Command, it’s an issue because Russia and China are the enemies in this war. Within 24 hours of the LT’s email going out, they collected the phones and computers of the enlisted and limited our access to a handful of computers on the training network. They also increased our computer-based OPSEC training requirement by one hundred hours. The lieutenant, on the other hand, is now the captain in charge of the intelligence office for headquarters.

Shortly after that, our new unit Colonel and Chief arrived.  The new colonel met with all unit members, told us of her faith in us should the shooting part of the war kick off any time soon, and replaced within 48 hours by the headquarters general for loss of confidence.  That colonel’s replacement announced his new program to have everyone run a 5K on a weekly basis to keep in shape for our power armor. When the chief tried to explain to the colonel that’s not how power armor works, he was promptly replaced by an E-9 personnelist whose only experience with power armor is putting his own on backwards twice since he got here.

About six months after that incident, it looked like the shooting part of the war might actually start up.  Then a Russian, drunk on vodka, wrecked the Russian equivalent of a Humvee.  That resulted in all forces, on all sides, including the Russians and the Chinese, being required to attend another hundred hours of driving-under-the-influence training, which delayed the start of the war by another three months.

Around the time we were expecting the war to start, a pilot, borrowing a work truck, ran over two of our maintainers outside one of the maintenance hangars.  The pilot was reassigned to the standards and evaluations office and promoted two months after that.  For the maintainers, all of our power armor was repainted to fluorescent pink and fitted with fluorescent pink lights to ensure we’d be seen day and night.

Over on the ground forces side of the base, there were concerns about the environmental impact and personal injury danger of the ammunition in use.  Ultimately, the decision by the general was to have all explosive ammunition replaced by paintballs to lessen personal danger.  So far, this change has only resulting one serious injury after a couple of the infantry troops took turns shooting at each other and one of them managed to shoot out the eye of the other one.

I know back on Earth the Secretary of Defense talks about shock and awe, but so far, the only shock and awe we’re experiencing out here is the shock of all the training requirements that multiply by the week and our awe of the faster computers the Spec Ops troops are using.

Fortunately, if the shooting part of the war ever starts, it looks like it will be relatively safe and see minimal casualties.  Assuming we all survive the peace to see the shooting side of the war, that is.

So, as you can see, while people want to believe Joe Heller was writing a fictional satire of the military, he was actually writing an accurate history.  Somewhere along the way, the top brass decided to turn it into a how-to and training manual for U.S. military officers and then through the School of the Americas and officer exchange programs succeeded in exporting it to the rest of the Earth’s militaries.

Love,

Your Son

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Hundred Acre Wood Forest Fire

Ashdown Forest fire. The scene of a fire at Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Picture date: Monday April 29, 2019. East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service was called on Sunday evening to tackle the blaze which covered six hectares (14 acres) of the forest which inspired the Hundred Acre Wood in AA Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh. See PA story FIRE Ashdown Forest. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire URN:42584168 (Press Association via AP Images)

Sad news today for storytellers.

If you’re like me, the tales of Winnie the Pooh were an early inspiration to your reading, writing, and storytelling.

Ashdown Forest in East Sussex England, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood in the Winnie the Pooh stories, was damaged by a forest fire on Sunday.

Thirty-five acres was burned before firefighters were able to stop the blaze. Also, no word on the status of Pooh and company, but let’s all hope no news is good news.

Picture stolen from CNN.

Avengers Endgame

Good new geeks and nerds!

We put Avengers Endgame over the $1 Billion box office mark.

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Note:
I will avoid spoilers here and request that any comments remain spoiler free as well.
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The non-spoiler version of a review:

It’s a great closeout of the Avengers storyline begun with the first Iron Man movie. It touches on all the movies and storylines that have taken place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the past 11 years.

There’s great action sequences.  There’s so much to like and be excited about in this movie. If you’ve got daughters or girls in the house, there’s a few sequences in particular that make this a must-see.

If you like the movies of the MCU, do not miss this one.  If you’re debating between watching the regular screenings, the IMAX, or the IMAX 3D, I recommend spending the extra money on the IMAX 3D show. It was worth it.

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Note:
I again request that any comments remain spoiler free.
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Shakespeare, Failing, Trolls, and Other Writing Encounters

This blog entry originally began as a response to Bittersweet Turns‘ blog series on “Rhythm Writing”, which you can find here: first entry, second entry, and third entry. As I worked on this and read the three articles, my response really outgrew what I felt would be appropriate for a blog comment. So, instead, my response will be my own blog entry. I hope Priya will forgive my response here, and I highly encourage anyone reading this entry to run over and read her fantastic series.

Writers face “writer’s block” and other forms of writing interference for a number of reasons. Some of us face mental health setbacks, others face the blank-for-too-long page, and others get caught up in writing the next big thing.

Even professionals sometimes fall into that last grouping. I’ve seen some of my favorite top-level writers produce second- to third-tier level texts because they tried to jump on the current selling bandwagon.

One of the best pieces of writing advice given to me came from a college professor, in an English 101 class, many years ago. He lifted it from Shakespeare, who had written it in the third scene of the first act of Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”

Being true to yourself in writing takes a number of different forms. And, it took me years to fully understand what message he was really conveying.

We’ve all heard, “write what you know”, and to a point that is true. But there’s a limit that comes with that. To the best of my knowledge, no one other than Rowling has found Hogwarts, no one other than Tolkien has found Middle-earth, no one other than Pratchett has found Discworld, or no one other than Adams, well, except for The Doctor, has met Arthur Dent and the rest of the crew of the Heart of Gold. Thus, the rest of us have to improvise what we “know”.

To “write what you know”, I add “write what you like”. By this I mean, write your story or text as the story you would want to read. If you like reading about giant mechs beating each other up on a battle field, write that. If you like reading about castles, dragons, and elves, write about those. If you like reading about the end of the world, end the world!

I know some of you are now thinking, “okay, that’s great for you fiction writers, but what about us students and academics stuck in non-fiction writing?” I’ve got an answer for you folks, too.

In addition to “write what you like”, I will add “find something to like about what you’re going to write about”. Whether you’ve been in a writing class, a writing workshop, or been suckered into reading reading a friends latest fan fiction, you, like most of us, have read a text that is, at best, boring, or, at worst, just bad. That’s usually the result of getting a writing topic like “what did you do on your summer vacation” or “why I love baseball”. Sometimes, it’s hard to find something positive to say about those topics, but that’s where you, as a creative, need to dip into your skillset and create something interesting out of something boring.

With this idea, I mean, change the topic just enough to be interesting. If you get the college entrance essay topic of “where do you see yourself in ten years”, write a first-person narrative of a day or week in your life, as you believe it will be, ten years from now. Maybe you find the cure for cancer. Maybe you teach English to and study the biology of aliens from Proxima Centauri. Maybe you figure out how to convince your government to actually go through with a mission to colonize Mars. It’s your future, no one knows what it’ll look like, so be creative. Keep in mind, we went from cars to airplanes to spaceships on the moon to space stations in orbit of the Earth in one-hundred years. We went from computers the size of small houses to computers that fit in your pocket in approximately twenty years. It’s anyone’s guess what ten years from now will really look like.

To the rules “write what you like” and “find something to like about what you’re writing about”, I also add “failure is okay”. I know, I know. I felt the great disturbance in the force when I wrote those words, so I know what you’re feeling reading them. Those of us with anxiety and OCD are especially scared of failure. On the depression side of the house, sometimes we have the advantage of already feeling like a failure at things, so we got this. We, the big ‘we’ as society, put too much emphasis on success and dismiss failure. But failure is okay, that’s how we learn.

When I say “failure is okay”, by no means, am I saying, “half-ass work is okay”. What I am saying is that sometimes you will try something, especially something you haven’t tried before, and sometimes it won’t turn out how you want it too. Again, that’s okay, it’s okay to fail, that’s how we learn. In fact, when it comes to writing, my graduate rhetoric and writing classes encouraged us to look at written papers as drafts and treat “failures” as opportunities to learn.

Sometimes the draft will still be draft level, but on its way to something great at the deadline. Turn it in anyway, take the corrections and comments, and create a better draft. I know, not all academic classes, allow for this, but sometimes, the professor will allow a revised draft to replace the final product, if you demonstrate that you have an honest interest in learning to write better.

And,with that, we’ll return to Priya’s “Rhythm Writing” blog posts. She discovered that playing music while she writes and writing the thoughts that come to mind in the moment is a good way to hold off writer’s block. She points out this is especially effective when the music is instrumental. I could not agree with her more on this. However, I think the tone, or the feel, of the music is often more important than whether or not it has lyrics.

And that brings us to trolls. By trolls, I don’t mean the idiots who come along and write stupid or offensive comments on the internet. There’s no cure for them. The best advice for dealing with them is ignore, don’t engage, and hope they lose interest.

No, the trolls I refer to are the big monstrous types that come over hills or from the skis as attacking invasion forces in fantasy and scifi. Music is an effective tool for creating a mental image or an atmosphere to write certain scenes.

For example, if I am working on a military fighting force in a story, I’ll usually have something heavy metal-ish or aggressive alternative-ish playing in the background. If I’m setting up a scene for a fantasy world or scifi planet, I usually have the instrumental versions of Nighwish albums playing to inspire the scene. If I’m writing about trolls or any other invasion force, the troll metal music of bands like Finntroll is an important soundtrack to what I’m creating.

Unless I’m looking for specific lyrics to add to a scene, my default is usually European metal with non-English lyrics or instrumental music of any type. However, at times, I’ve used other music depending on what was needed to create the atmosphere I needed for a scene.

Again, I implore you to check out Priya‘s blog series on “Rhythm Writing” at Bittersweet Turns, which you can find here: first entry, second entry, and third entry.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Predictions Saving Lives or Making Nightmares Real?

A recent article appeared on the Forbes website, “Researchers Attempt to Predict and Prevent Suicide Using Deep Learning and Math“, discussing a team of scientists working on an algorithm to predict suicidal patterns and prevent suicides.  One of the scientists states the project goal being:  “if our algorithm can identify and stop just one or two, we will feel really good about that.”

On the one hand, this looks like a good idea that will help to save lives.  On the other hand, it brings to mind the nightmares of Philip K. Dick‘s (PKD) scifi short stories.  PKD is probably my single most favorite scifi author; and his scifi stories and novels contain as many warnings against future nightmares as they do predictions of future technologies.

In the PKD story, “The Minority Report” (PKDR/PKD4), murder and violent crimes are prevented through a combination of precognition abilities and computer algorithms that produce three reports.  If two of the three reports agree there will be a murder, the computer produces a card with the name of the would-be murderer, who is then sought out and apprehended by the pre-crime department.  However, the existence of the minority report indicates the future crime accepted for prevention may not show the whole picture.  In fact, the possibility of innocent persons being imprisoned for crimes that were never  going to be committed is raised by the narration of the story.

While pre-crime exists in a fictional setting, the overlooked minority reports, that might clear someone of a future crime, raises the question of whether this suicide algorithm’s identification of a suicidal patterns might result in similar problems of non-suicidal persons being institutionalized.  The behaviors might just meet a list programmed into a computer and not indicate an actual a future suicide.  Some of us with depression would definitely want assurances that something was in place to prevent this result.

The Forbes article also explains that project development involved “student[-]developed algorithms to do statistical analysis … to look for key factors related to suicide risks and apply deep learning methods to these large and complex datasets”.  When deep learning methods are discussed in connection to the algorithms, questions of artificial intelligence (AI) are also immediately raised.

In “The Defenders” (PKD1) and “Second Variety” (PKD3), PKD offers two differing views of what it could look like when an AI determines humans are their own worst threat.

In a more benign take on AI, the story, “The Defenders”, features robots designed to fight a war between the U.S. and Russia.  When humans leave the surface due to the increasing lethality of the weapons of war they’ve created, the robots determine the two groups of humans are bigger threats to the earth and that their war doesn’t even make sense.  Instead, the robots dupe humanity into believing the war is going on through the building and destroying of model replicas of human cities, while also cleaning and preserving the actual untouched cities.  The robots made an analysis of human behavior that determined they should keep the humans underground until their societies have moved on from warfare to a focus on survival in a generation or so.

However, PKD presents the nightmarish concept of robots designed to fight a war who’ve determined human life is a bigger threat than the robots on either side in the story, “Second Variety”.  These robots are designed to reproduce and to use learning processes to create even more deceptive and lethal versions of themselves to outwit the other side.  Further the two sides of the robot war eventually focus on making those deceptions more effective against the robots on the other side.  The war continues to be fought by the robot combatants with humans soldiers largely forgotten, except for being seen as a threat by the robots on both sides.

To clarify, I do not think the algorithm will use deep learning methods to gather humans into camps and exterminate them Terminator-franchise-style. 

However, we must bear in mind that any technology that involves computerized systems learning on their own, making decisions on their own, and enforcing objectives has the potential to become a very serious threat long-term unless safety precautions are put into place to prevent the machines from determining non-machines are all a threat.

Sources

Dick, Philip K. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol I. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1990. (PKD1)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol II. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1995. (PKD2)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol III. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 2002. (PKD3)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol IV. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1991. (PKD4)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol V. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 1992. (PKD5)
—. The Philip K Dick Reader. New York: Citadel Press, 1997. (PKDR)

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

On The Future by Martin Rees

Last night, I finished reading Martin Rees‘ book On The Future: Prospects for Humanity. Before I get into a rundown of the book, some background is needed here.

This book’s title caught my eye because of a recent interest, for personal storytelling purposes, in learning more about the science behind future humans, or the future of human evolution.

If you’ve been here a little while, you know that the fiction of James S.A. Corey is a huge influence on my view of scifi writing and what it could/should be. One of the areas that I think they excel in is the indirect study of humanity’s future evolution into, more or less, four different strains due to space travel and the settlement of planetary and space station based colonies.

During my graduate studies at the University of Missouri, St Louis (UMSL), I encountered the area of literary criticism known as Literary Darwinism and one of its chief advocates, Joseph Carroll. A quick oversimplified description of the field is it uses evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology, with a focus on gene-culture co-evolution, to study the motivations behind character actions in literature.

Rees’ book carried praise quotes from Edward O. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, and Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist. In the field of Literary Darwinism, these are probably the single two most referenced authorities after Dr Carroll. And that is how the book ended up in my hands.

Rees offers some interesting insights into what he believes the future might hold for humanity. While not as pessimistic on artificial intelligence and alien contact as his University of Cambridge colleague, Stephen Hawking, Rees remains cautiously optimistic in his approach.

Unfortunately, Rees’ look into future human evolution gets somewhat lost between an almost obsessive view of posthumans in the forms of technology-enhanced human cyborgs and computer-based human uploads and a concern for human-driven climate change that overrides most of the books other discussions.

While Rees’ book didn’t meet my own storytelling goals, I think there’s still a lot to digest for others. Cyberpunk and Post Cyberpunk readers and writers will definitely find a lot of background to populate future stories. Writers with AI characters will also find some scientific source material here. For the Literary Darwinism academics, this definitely belongs on the bookshelf for future reference.

Star Wars and Storytelling

My love affair with storytelling began when I was five years old. A little movie entitled Star Wars arrived in the theaters. After seeing the movie, Star Wars became the center of all my playtime activities, most of which were different forms of storytelling.

Fast forward a few years ago, the newest Star Wars movie trilogy began with the return of old characters and the introduction of new characters. Adult me was just as excited about the prospects of this coming addition to the Star Wars mythos.

As most readers are aware, this past weekend saw the Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. During this event, the powers that be behind the Star Wars movies decided to release the official name and teaser trailer for the latest Star Wars movie and the conclusion of the Skywalker family saga.

I know, I for one, had the same sense of excitement seeing the release of this trailer as I did when the trailer for Star Wars:The Force Awakens released a few years ago. If you haven’t seen the teaser yet, I’ve included the link below. If you have, one more view won’t hurt you.