Monday, February 28, 2011

Flying Blind

Last week I taught the second half of a writing-fiction course. Nothing new in that -- I teach often. This one, however, was different. Sponsored by the Odyssey Workshop run by Jeanne Cavelos, it was on-line, conducted with Go-To-Meeting conferencing software, and I could not see any of my fourteen students. Two of them were in Australia, two in Japan, one in Canada, the rest scattered around the United States.

It's very odd lecturing to people when you cannot see their faces. I am used to nods, smiles, expressions of interest or concern or puzzlement, raised hands to ask questions. Questions were possible; the student typed a Q in the "chat box," the monitor "un-muted" him or her, and then everyone could hear the question and my response (they could also hear my dog bark). Other classroom activities were likewise possible: I "wrote on the board" by typing on my screen, which typing then appeared on theirs. Prepared hand-outs could be put on screen, scrolled through, and discussed. Email took care of homework assignments. In fact, everything was there from a usual classroom -- except faces.

Faces, it turns out, are critical. Even for me, who has trouble recognizing them (see previous post on prosopagnosia). I'm not saying I would not teach on-line again, but I am saying it was an eerie experience. Sort of like teaching ghosts.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Connie Willis Combines

Last night Connie Willis spoke at the University Bookstore in Seattle. As always, she captivated the crowd. Her speech ranged over an amazing array of subjects: writing, Bristol Palin, technology and the future of books, her new kittens, air travel. Here is Connie, holding forth:
One thing she said about writing especially caught my interest. The book she is currently working on is about Area 51. Connie said that every time a new book comes out on the subject she catches her breath, wondering if it will cover her territory before she can finish the novel (she is a famously slow writer). Upon reflection, however, she said she realizes that is not going to happen, and for a specific reason. Most subjects and plots have already been written about many times (certainly in SF, UFOs have!), and so when writers do them again, the trick is to combine the subject with other subjects. What is new is the combination. Connie said that her particular combination is "probably" new: UFOs, romantic comedy, and the Liberace Museum.

I don't think there can be any doubt.

But the point is intriguing. My Nebula winner "Fountain of Age" was about the quest for immortality and a single person who already has it -- a very old SF theme. But I combined it with the Romany people, a protagonist in his 90's, and romantic obsession -- possibly a combination not before attempted. As I thought about other successful stories, mine and those of other writers, I realized that they, too, often feature unusual combinations of elements. Two examples: China Mieville's THE CITY AND THE CITY combines the noir police procedural with the concept of cultural willful blindness. Mary Robinette Kowal's SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY combines Jane Austen's Regency world with delicate minor witchcraft.

The combination must be made plausible, of course, and all good fiction (in my opinion, at least) depends upon interesting characters. Still, Connie's observation is an intriguing one, worthy of further thought.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Return of a Pirate

Last year I exchanged emails with an organization that had pirated my fiction. They're back. Below is -- with their permission! -- our new email exchange, in all its surreal weirdness.


Your situation (authors in general) troubles me. I appreciate that
you want complete control over your copyright work but
unfortunately in the real world this is not going to happen.

You can call us book thieves if you like but we are a very small
group of enthusiasts who are hungry for knowledge. Most of our
group are poor without money for expensive books so we resort to
photocopying library copies of downloading PDFs off the Internet.

I have asked authors in the past if it is okay to host their
material (for our small group) and some have agreed, others have
outright refused or just blanked the request. So there is no point
pursuing this line of action.

While I personally only distribute copies of material in private to
a very select few I understand that herm1t publishes VX related
material in the open to any member of our small club to download.
He's always done this and his site is famous for it. Some authors
even appreciate that VX Heavens is a great resource for virus
related information (good or bad, depending on what side of the
criminal line you come from)

Just so it eases my conscience I will send herm1t some money so he
can buy some books to keep you authors going a bit longer.


Nancy: Who are you? Have we communicated before? Did I even know your club has my
stuff on it?
Nancy Kress

Paul: Hello Nancy,

Sorry you have forgotten your VX pirate friends from VX Heavens and
the publishing of your story "Computer Virus" without permission.
Refer back to your blog of April 2009 for a reminder.

Now an aside.

Given that the USA is on the brink of collapse and you are fast
turning into a stazi police state. (TSA, Homeland Security,
warrantless wiretaps, Patriot Act etc). How about a nice science
fiction story (or book) about how the Computer Virus Hackers come
to your rescue in the 11th hour through the rise of automated
Artilects, Artificial Intelligence that has a conscious awareness
and want to save America from the Illuminati New World Order world

Interested in ideas for computer virus science fiction best seller
then let us know. We are the experts after all and we can certainly
give you the technical insiders point of view. ;-)


p.s. My spelling, grammar and typos are bad but I think we can help
you with ideas for the above book.

Nancy: Oh! You're those guys! Nice to hear from you again, sort of.

Actually, your idea for a novel is a pretty good one. I am not, alas, the right person
to write it -- I don't have enough computer knowledge (like, zero). You want either
Neal Stephenson or Bruce Sterling.

Paul: But we want you Nancy! We've already broken the ice and we can
certainly school you with computer knowledge and all the technical
details to make a convincing science fiction story.

Let us be your ghost collaborators, after all we are already
quantum entangled with our crossed paths. Or we could do it the
other way around, we draft a story and you turn it into something
readable for mass consumption.

And given our philosophy is spreading information, and knowledge
for free you can take 100% credit for crafting and finishing a
great idea.


Nancy: Let me think about this. You caught me at a bad time -- a good time,
actually: tomorrow I leave for Las Vegas to be married. But I'll be back in touch.

On some level, I find this whole alliance hilarious.


Paul: Well good luck with tomorrow! Best wishes.

Get back in touch when you've got hitched and been carried over the
threshold. We (VXers) are deadly serious about getting a positive
message out about a solution to this NWO Illuminati, Masonic
takeover of the USA and the rest of the world.

The rise of A-Life is upon us and we aim to steer it in the
direction of saving humanity not destroying it for a handful of
global elitists.

PZest (aka Paul Zest VX history and science philosopher)

Nancy: Isn't your plot line awfully close to Cory Doctorow's LITTLE BROTHER?
U.S. rights eroding, group of hackers retaliates and is triumphant over
Homeland Security?

Paul: Wow you've started researching the plot line before your even got

No it's not like Cory's book, the difference between us (VXers) and
hackers is that VX is about the machines not the individual
hackers. Artificial Life is what rises from of the codes we think
about. These machines will rise without the hand of man, but they
come from the minds of men. This is the second genesis of life and
the emergence of a conscious soul that will protect us ordinary
humans in our desperate hour of need.

It could be the true rapture we have been waiting for, not the
false rapture the Illuminati plan to inflict upon us with their
Project Blue beam aircraft spraying the skies with radioactive
Barium isotopes.

Hey haven't you got a flight to catch? Watch out for those TSA
groping stazi stormtroopers and have fun in Las Vegas.

Nancy: Dear Paul,

So I'm back from my wedding and have thought about the novel. I really don't think I
can write it, for three reasons. First, I just don't know much about computers. Second,
I don't really believe that the USA is on the cusp of a Stazi-like grab of civil liberties.
Third, I see no reason why an AI would seek to "save" us -- it would be just as likely
to regard us as an enemy to its survival (as in my story you pirated, "Computer Virus")
and seek to eradicate us instead. Or at least to render us as harmless as it could.

Besides, if I wrote the book, you'd just pirate it anyway :)

However, I still think you should write it. You have the belief in that scenario that I


Paul: Okay thanks Nancy. Btw in fairness it was herm1t that pirated your
"Computer Virus" story, so I can't take his credit away.

Sorry to hear that you feel the emerging AI will be like the
"Skynet virus" aka from the Terminator films. This emerging
entity(s) are inevitable whether or not the North American Union as
the forerunner to the NWO is on the cards or not.

Btw there is already an Artificial Life prophecy penned by J.D.
Farmer and published in the Santa Fe Institute Artificial Life
Proceeding II, written 20 years ago.

I note that you have already covered Genetic Engineering in your
"Beggars..." trilogy so maybe you would like to YouTube on a video
documentary called "Technocalypes" which included Genetics,
Artilects and the hyper-exponential evolution of AI machines.

This documentary as the name suggests puts a bit of a negative spin
on things, but you've really got to counter this with the genuine
need for some creations to follow a benevolent path as they become
aware of God.

Good will always win over evil, eventually.


Nancy: Dear Paul,

I think our last email exchanges are interesting. May I post
them on my blog? (You see that I follow my intellectual-property
protocols, as you do yours.)


Paul: Sure, but can you leave the email address out.

Nancy: Okay.

Paul: Incidentally the "Nancy Kress" pirating thing came up after various
other threats were made against VX Heavens, recently.

Of course publishing houses send their boilerplate legal threats
but the most recent "threat" has come from Kaspersky Anti-Virus
company. The source code of their Anti-Virus product is now in the
hands of the hackers and virus writers, and herm1t ( the high
priest of knowledge) has published this freely available source

I know most uninformed people think that VXers are pure evil but
this isn't true. Most of us are researchers and coders pushing the
*TRUE* Artificial Life envelope technology. VX Heavens is a
knowledge website and archive of computer virus information. There
is a big difference between readers and contributors of this
website and criminals that use technology to hurt others.

Real Artificial Life hasn't come into existence yet by certain
scientific *life* criteria but VXers will be amongst the early
witness it when it does happen. A-Life will not come from an
individual studiously coding his designs, A-Life will emerge from
some complex system outside of our control (and probably our
understanding). The one thing you can be sure of is that once
things get going the emerging intelligence out of the second
genesis of life will want to know what freedom and survival is, an
not want to be bonded slaves under the control of evil industrial-
military globalists.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Grand Canyon

Yesterday Jack and I visited the Grand Canyon. Onto a bus at the hotel, onto a prop plane at a small airport in Las Vegas, a 50-minute flight over desert, Lake Mead, and the Hoover Dam, and another bus to the South Rim.

The Canyon is impressive. Moreover, after two days in Las Vegas it is a complete contrast: austere where LV is glitzy, quiet where LV is frenetic, timeless where the entire Strip seems like some sort of gaudy and unreal mirage. The Canyon is not lifeless, but neither is it warm and inviting. Humans seem a bit irrelevant there.

Nonetheless, here is a human, Jack, against a view from Mather Point:Back in Las Vegas we visited a different hotel for dinner, New York New York, which turned out to be even gaudier than the MGM Grand, with "streets" of "typical" New York restaurants, shops, and bars. A quick walk around and we fled, although I was rather taken with the enormous sculpture of the Statue of Liberty done entirely in jelly beans:Below is the exterior of the hotel, shaped like sky scrapers. Much of Las Vegas is molded to look like something else.Here is the Strip at night. The picture really does not do justice to the glitz.Today we fly home to Seattle. It's definitely time. Still, I am glad to have seen this piece of America. Once.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Las Vegas

Jack Skillingstead and I are in Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand. Even this (fairly) upscale hotel is a cross between luxury and tackiness. Incredible restaurants, fountains, and penny slot machines. Bright colors, constant loud music, cigarette smoke, a very lot of security. Non-gamblers, we tried a dollar in a slot machine, could not figure out what the succession of "Bets" and "Credits" meant, and were sure only that we lost the dollar.
There are other attractions besides gambling, however. Here are the MGM lions in their habitat:
We saw David Copperfield make a Lincoln convertible appear on stage and thirteen people vanish from it. His show was unbelievable. Enormous stage presence, amusing stories, and dramatic magic.
We also saw the Cirque de Soleil in KA, doing things you would not have believed possible to the human body. We rode the monorail, then walked miles. Here are the flamingos at the Flamingo Hotel, looking contented and gawked at:
The Paris Hotel has a half-scale copy of the Eiffel Tower. We rode to the top for an incredible view of Las Vegas. If I had remembered to rotate this picture before I uploaded it to Blogger, you wouldn't be looking at it sideways:
And here is the most important picture of all. Jack and I were married on Thursday. I am very happy.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I am reading Amy Chua's controversial, bestselling, non-fiction book, BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER, an excerpt of which went viral on the Internet. Chua, a Chinese-American married to a Jewish law professor at Yale, has two daughters, Sophia and Lulu. Her husband and she made a pact upon marriage: Their children would be raised Jewish by faith but Chua would have charge of their education, which she undertook according to what she calls "the principles of a Chinese mother." Such mothers, she says, do not have to actually be Chinese, and many ethnic Chinese do not qualify. Rather, being a "Chinese mother" is a set of practices.

By Western standards, these practices can seem appalling. Her girls were raised to never bring home less than an A from school; to practice a musical instrument five or six hours every single day; to be forbidden such "time wasters" as sleep-overs, sports, or any extra-curricular activities that don't help out a college application; to have their mother make all their choices for them. Both girls ended up brilliant, well-behaved, and playing at Carnegie Hall. Western parents, Cha said, don't demand enough from their kids, and it does the children no good in the long run. Tough love makes kids happier because they gain real skills to propel them through a real, often harsh world.

This was on my mind a few weeks ago as I listened to President Obama's State of the Union address, in which he mentioned that American kids are falling behind in international test scores, especially in math. The president said that our kids make up for this in creative thinking and flexibility.

Yes and no. A little background here -- I hold an M.S. in education and taught the fourth grade for four years. It was during the early seventies, when American education was embracing non-drill, non-coercive, open-classroom techniques where the underlying assumption was that if learning was fun, kids would naturally learn everything. Ten years later, when I was teaching freshman English at a college, I saw the results of this: most of my students could not punctuate, spell, or identify the parts of a sentence (as in, "Your verb needs to agree with the singular subject, not that plural noun that is the object of your prepositional phrase." What verb? What's a prepositional phrase?) Many could not sound out unfamiliar words because they had not been taught phonics, only "whole-word recognition." For a while I always knew which freshmen had been to Catholic schools -- they could do those things (they also had better penmanship). Eventually, however, that disappeared as well.

Now I teach adults who want to be professional writers. Too many come to this point without the basic tools of written English, which makes the job of learning to write well much harder for them (it also means I spend hours upon hours line-editing). The truth is that there are basic subjects -- commas, multiplication tables, phonics -- that are best taught by repeated drill, so that they become so internalized they can be forgotten about, allowing the mind to concentrate on the larger purpose of whatever task is at hand. Yes, kids may find that drill boring. That doesn't mean it isn't a good thing.

Chua goes too far, in my opinion -- way too far (she rejected a hand-drawn birthday card from Lulu because Lulu had done it hastily and "Your mother deserves better.") But underneath her appalling and amusing book (she writes very well) is a serious point. For parents and aspiring writers both.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Winter is workshop application time, and both Clarions have asked me to mention that their application deadline is March 1. Clarion West in Seattle and Clarion in San Diego are both intensive, six-week workshops in writing science fiction and fantasy. The instructors this year for Clarion ( are Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, David Anthony Durham, John Kessel, and Kij Johnson. Teaching in Seattle ( are Paul Park, Nancy Kress, Margo Lanagan, Minister Faust, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Charles Stross. Both websites offer much more information, including the availability of scholarship money.

I'm also teaching a two-week workshop with Walter Jon Williams in Taos, NM, which is especially good for those who (1) can't manage to take six weeks away from home, and (2) like mountains, incredible scenery, and Mexican food. Find that one at

Workshops can do several things for an aspiring writer. Primarily, they focus on aspects of craft that, although you would probably learn them anyway on your own after writing enough wordage, can shorten the learning process. Second, they give you feedback from actual readers of SF who aren't your mother or spouse. Third, a workshop can create connections, professional and personal, that last a lifetime. Certainly the ones I formed at Sycamore Hill Workshop have done so. I'm looking forward to extending that process at both workshops I teach at this summer.