The Intern

The InternOne of my favorite past times every summer is to float down the Current River.  This past year we had a new intern join us.  This is the story of that trip.

I’m not sure if you remember that place where tiredness meets imagination, but I found it a few nights ago in a tent near Jadwin Missouri. It was a cool evening and coupled with a long day of oaring on the Current River and a world class game of volleyball the day before I fell asleep quicker than a baby with a bottle of Nyquil.

I wasn’t dreaming, just sleeping hard when I was jarred to consciousness by a voice screaming in the night, “NOW!”

I opened my eyes and listened in the darkness, but all fell silent again…well mostly. There was the muffled sound of people talking nearby, Call me maybe playing on the community iPod, and the sound of either a sick duck or injured frog that would not shut up. I closed my eyes again and listened.

“INTERN NOW,” Chris bellowed out again.

I had to chuckle. The poor guy. The intern. Colin had to be tiring of that phrase, but if he was it didn’t show. I thought about what the next day might bring, but the sandman hadn’t traveled far and I was soon asleep again.

The next morning brought with it a few early risers, but most loomed around like extras on the set of The Walking Dead. It wasn’t until Captain Ron broke out the brown sugar and bacon that the rest of the group emerged from their tents. The Intern was one of the last ones to belly-up to the table, but not even he could resist the smells that came from the big black cooker.

There’s a point in everyone’s career where they really begin to connect with others, when you go from being the intern, to being the INTERN, and Colin found that place about half way through the float at the top of a 30 foot cliff.

The chant started slowly with just a couple individuals, “Intern. Intern.”

I can only image the rush of endorphins that ran through his body as he stared down at the little stream below. His heart raced. His time at Dot Foods flashed before his eyes. “Intern. Intern. Intern.” More people joined in on this catchy little phrase.

Was it really worth it, to risk his life for this group of half-cocked IT professionals? The shouts began to roll down through the entire valley. Old men, women, children, Jager the stuffed dog, and even people who didn’t know this guy joined in. “INTERN. INTERN. INTERN. INTERN.”

Colin stepped to the edge and jumped. In a fraction of a second he rolled forward into a full flip as his body hit the water. When he came to the surface, the crowd erupted in shouts and applause.

To the rest of Dot Foods he will be known as Colin the college student, but to those of us who brave the waters of the Current River every summer, he will forever be remembered as THE INTERN.

A bit about writing

Writing is a three-legged-table. The first leg of character develop helps the reader relate to your characters. They can see them grow (or degenerate) as the story moves along. It is critical that the characters have flaws…people relate to human faults.

The second leg of writing is plot. This tells your reader what happened. For example we see Luke Skywalker lead his father back to the good side. In Lord of the Rings we see Frodo’s struggle with the ring and Aragorn’s decision to take his place as king.

The last leg is called World Building. World Building is the act of putting together a setting in which your stories take place, weather that be middle earth or a galaxy far, far away.

As you begin to write, think about these three things, and reveal a little more about each to your writer.

Writing to remember

Communication-SkillsA memory conceived among many senses will not be easily forgotten (Tweet That!).  The goal of communication is to deliver a message to a recipient in a way that it can be received and comprehended, but I think communication should go beyond that.  We should communicate to be remembered.  If it’s worth saying, it’s worth remembering.

Memories are more than words and concepts, they are life experiences.  Try thinking of an emotional event in your, life like an argument with a close friend. You probably remember it more in terms of how you felt than the words that were said.

Have you ever gotten sick while eating a certain food?  Once, when I was a teenager, I got extremely intoxicated.  I was so out of control that my mother gave me a bath and I didn’t know it. That’s probably a good thing. I still have no memory of what happened to me that night, but I remember how I felt.  For years the smell of any alcohol would make me sick.  The reason I remember it so well is because the event is tied to several senses – smell, taste, touch, etc.

I’ve had many opportunities throughout my life to speak before various groups. I’ve spoke at churches, community settings, in front of children and adults.  I enjoy speaking and writing, and helping others understand things.  When I speak to a group, I try to employ methods that will touch as many senses as possible.  I was speaking some years back on the topic of sharing and half-way through my speech I had a pizza delivered to the podium.  I stopped for a moment, paid for the pizza, picked up a slice, took a few bites, and began speaking again.  Seven years later someone approached me and said, “Hey I remember that time you spoke, and gave me a slice of pizza”.  Why did they remember?  Because they heard, they saw, they touched, they tasted, and they could smell what I was saying (Tweet That!).

This same principle applies to us as authors. You may not be there when the reader picks up your piece, but you can trigger memories they’ve stored away.  Don’t just tell them what happened; drop your reader smack dab in the middle of a scene (Tweet That!).  Let them experience your writing through their memories.

Worldbuilding

Lunar_baseIf you’re unfamiliar with the term “World Building” you might get a mental image of huge machines covering the surface of a dead planet carving rivers, planting forests, and pumping oxygen into the atmosphere.  Truth is—that’s not far from reality.  World building is the art of bringing to life an imagined world through descriptions, back-story, maps, drawings, and other creative means, and is one of the greatest tools a science fiction writer has for adding depth to a story.

World building is a huge topic, and there have been many books and classes discussing it, but in this article I plan to give you just a few brief thoughts on the subject.

First and foremost, let your world building be an enjoyable process…it should be fun.  Much of the writing you do will have several reads and rewrites.  The kind of stuff that you review, review, hand it to a friend to look over, and then review again, but your world building document can contain raw ideas.  You don’t have to worry about getting everything perfect; if you have some dangling modifiers, misused semicolons or run-on sentences it’s ok.  This document is yours, and nobody will ever see it, so give your eraser a break and let your ideas flow.

With that said, don’t go crazy.  You need to give your world building ideas some organization so you can find the information you need when you need it.  I like to keep my ideas in a three ring binder with tabs for subjects like: places, species, and organizations.  On some pages I have hand-drawn maps and diagrams, on others I have typed notes, and still on others I have tables full of terms and definitions.  This also allows you to shuffle your pages around, and add or remove them if needed.

Keep informed on scientific facts.  One thing that ruins science fiction quicker than anything else is incorrect or inconsistent information about the world your story takes place in.  For example, it’s probably not the best idea for your story to take place on a planet that orbits a pulsar; it would be difficult for life to exist in such a hazardous place.  Your readers will pick up on mistakes like this, and your story will lose credibility.

Make sure your facts are consistent.  If your planet orbits a yellow star at the beginning of your story, make sure that you don’t call it a brown dwarf later on.  Inconsistency will cause your story to fall apart, and the reader won’t be able to paint a coherent picture of your world.

Brainstorming often follows writing.  Sometimes as I put my ideas to paper, or the binary ones and zeroes of my computer’s storage system, I’ll have an idea for some new aspect of the world I’m writing about.  I’ll immediately jot that idea down along with all its associated facts to keep things consistent throughout the entire story.  Later on when I write of that idea again, I can review my summary and keep things straight.  It would be bad to have a species described with five legs in one place and four in another, or a character with no siblings at the start of a story, and an older brother half-way through.

Finally, be complete…think about things like culture, history, geography, languages, and why the world is the way it is.  The more content you put into the brainstorming document, the easier it will be writing the stories that happen there.  If you’re writing about a species that has three sexes, then describe the family unit.  What roles do they have?  Do all three work to support the family?  If two of the parents are allowed to work, how would that affect their income?

When creating your world-building document consider the butterfly effect.  If a butterfly flaps its wings on earth, does it cause a hurricane on Mars?  Things are deeply connected, and one tiny action may have large repercussions in other systems…so think it through completely.

If you’re interested in creating unique places and things check out rabiki.com and see worldbuilding in action.  Come be a part of a community of creative individuals and build your world.

Talking Machines…part 2

talkin machine2In my previous article, I talked about how far technology had progressed in the past 100 years.  In my own lifetime, I’ve seen computer technology really explode.  My first computer was a Commodore 16, with no hard drive, and 16k of memory.  There was no graphical operating system, and I couldn’t do much more than type at a prompt.  The PC came with a monthly magazine subscription that had sample programs listed in the back, and I can remember my dad and me sitting for hours typing in code for a Space-Invaders type of program.  It never worked.  We tried entering the program three times, but it would crash after about 30 seconds—must have had a bug.

Since that time hard-drive size and processing speeds have increased exponentially—Moore’s law describes a trend in hardware manufacturing where the number of transistors that would fit on an integrated circuit doubled about every 24 months.  It also seems a new PC becomes outdated minuets after removing it from the box.  However, in spite of all these computing advancements, human language programs have lagged far behind.

Computers can process large amounts of data very quickly—billions, and even trillions of instructions per second. A computer can search an encyclopedia for a phrase like “history of computers”, and return all the results in a list in just a few seconds. There’s just no way a person could do that kind of rote processing—it would take us months or years to do the same thing.

Computers tend to do certain types of tasks efficiently, like searching through a list or adding numbers. But there are certain tasks that are tough for a computer. For example, a person can look at an image of a friend, and within seconds recognize them. Computers can’t. There are image-recognition programs, but they are slow and unreliable.

Many forums and blogs on the internet have a CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) defense built in…when you post a reply to someone’s thread or blog, it requires you to look at an image, and then type it into a verification box. This is to keep computer programs from posting advertisements and other nasties to the site. This is effective because it is difficult for a program to look at an image and determine what it is.

Another difficult task for a computer is to process language. Human languages are ambiguous—take a look at this sentence: Time flies when you’re having fun, but fruit flies like bananas.

Does fruit fly?  How does time take flight?  Is “flies” a noun or verb, an action or insect?

Also stressing a word in speech can change the meaning of the sentence. For example:

I never said anything about you”
– Maybe someone else did, but I didn’t.

“I never said anything about you”
– I never said anything, but may have written something.

Imagine a future without the mouse or keyboard.  You get home from work, open the door, and immediately speak to your house computer, “Jake! Please turn on the TV.”  It responds in a pleasant voice and tells you it is now set to channel 23 for the evening news.  Later on that evening you’re sitting on the couch, “Jake can you email my sister, and invite her to the cookout Saturday?”  It replies a few seconds later and asks, “Would you like me to ask her to bring something?”  A program that can understand and follow a conversation would be very useful.

It could also become a very personal possession, and be passed on to your children and grand children, allowing them to ask questions about your life like  “Jake. What was my grandfathers favorite food?” or “Jake.  What was my dad’s first job?”

For now, computers that can communicate intelligently with us lies within the realm of sci-fi, but science fiction often drives scientific discovery.

Talking Machines…part 1

talkin machine1I’m amazed at the progress of technology over the past 100 years. Modes of transportation have gone from wheeled carts pulled by horses to vehicles that are measured in thousands of horsepower. There have been major advances in medicine—doctors can transplant most organs of the human body, and there has even been partial success in transplanting the head of a monkey to a different body.  Or was it the body to a different head? We’ve been to the moon and Mars. We’ve split the atom. We can talk instantly with someone on the opposite side of the planet, and computers that would have filled entire rooms years ago, can now fit on your wrist or in your pocket.

So… I pose this question. When do you think we will be able to talk to our computers?

We do this somewhat now, in limited capacities, so let me rephrase the question. When do you think conversations with our computers will be as real and indistinguishable as conversations with other humans?  I’m not talking about sentience, that’s an entirely different conversation, but when will computers be able to simulate human conversation?

ELIZA was one of the first programs to attempt a conversation between man and machine, and was created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966.  Dr. Weizenbaum was a computer science professor at MIT, and created ELIZA to simulate an empathic psychologist.  It would take statements made by patients and rephrase them as questions.  For example, a response to “My back hurts” might be “Why do you say your back hurts?”  It’s a simple little trick that seems to mimic intelligence, but is easily dismissed as it becomes apparent that there is no reasoning behind the responses.  There are many other conversational programs available today—Jabberwacky, ALICE, PARRY, ELLA, and HAL to name a few, but they all fall short when it comes to true natural language processing (NLP).

This idea is not new to the field of artificial intelligence.  Alan Turing first proposed a test of intelligence in the 1950 edition of Computing Machinery and Intelligence.  The test goes like this: a human judge has a text-only conversation with a computer program and another human.  If he is unable to distinguish between the computer and the other human, then that program passes the test—the Turning Test.

In 1990 Hugh Loebner brought this test to life by offering $100,000 and a gold medal to the first computer program whose responses were indistinguishable from a human’s.  This grand prize is still unclaimed, and programmers still compete annually for a bronze medal and a $2000 prize.

You might think that computers are smart, but the ability to do something quickly and efficiently doesn’t indicate intelligence.  For the most part, computers just do what you tell them.  They don’t think for themselves.  They just follow instructions.  There has been significant progress in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), but the smartest machines of today still only have the intelligence of an insect.

In 2005 Ray Kurzweil wrote a book called The Singularity is Near that suggests sentience will happen not too far in the future.  Ray has been hailed by many as a modern day scientific prophet.  Bill Gates said, “Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”  His book suggests that technology is growing exponentially—by 2020 machine intelligence will equal human intelligence, and by 2040 machines will surpass the intelligence of all humanity combined.

Is sentient life possible? Ehh… I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see, but I do think it will be possible for a computer to emulate a human—first in speech, and then in action.

Death of Science Fiction

sf1My fascination with science fiction started when I was six—I’ll never forget the excitement I felt as I watched X-wings and TIE fighters scream across the screen, followed by the roar of engines and blaster bolts exploding against metal.  I wish I still had my Luke Skywalker and Momaw Nadon action figures.  They would probably be worth a lot today, but I think they gave me my money’s worth.

I’ve noticed a trend away from science fiction over the past 20 years, and a decline in quality movies for the genre.  I’ve been disappointed far too many times by poor quality stories.

On one occasion as I walked through the sci-fi isle of my local video store, a new movie cover caught my attention.  It had an image of an earth-like planet completely enveloped with jungle vines, and it was titled Savage Planet.  Sounds pretty cool huh?  I was excited.  I rented the movie, made some popcorn, put my feet up, and got ready for a nice movie.  You’ve heard it said, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”  Well I say, you can’t judge a movie by its cover either.

This was one of the cheesiest movies I’ve ever seen.  It was about a group of people who discovered a way to transport to another earth-like planet.  When they arrived, they were all systematically hunted and killed by gigantic mutated bears.  Yes, you heard me right…bears.

I’m not sure what was worse, the horrible storyline or the cheaply filmed video.  With movies like that it’s no wonder some don’t enjoy sci-fi.

Science fiction is hard to define.  It has several sub-genres, and it covers a variety of topics like time travel, space exploration, cybernetics, alternate histories, etc.  I’ve heard it said that sci-fi is like pornography, it’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it.  My simple and broad definition of science fiction is this:  The stories built on or around undiscovered advanced technologies.  .

Good science fiction will always be based on good stories.  The Star Wars saga is not about light sabers, star destroyers, aliens, or the Death Star.  It’s a story about one man’s fall and his son’s struggle to save him.  Don’t mistake the setting as the story.  World-building is an important part of writing—create a separate document describing the world your story takes place in, and fill it with all kinds of detail.  Be specific.  I like to use a three ring binder with tabs for different topics like species, planets, history, cities, characters, etc.  This document is for you, and it’s not your story.  Use it to set the scene, but make sure the story never gets lost in the details.  Reveal only enough to make it believable, and let your story do the rest.

Another factor that makes writing sci-fi difficult is the rate of scientific discovery.  What we grok about our world has grown exponentially over the last hundred years.  There is only one constant…things will change.

Isaac Asimov, one of the twentieth century’s greatest contributors to the genre, was not exempt from this problem.  Several of the short stories in his book Robot Dreams are built around a super intelligent computer called multivac that filled an entire room, and used punch cards.  It was state of the art at one time, but who knew in 50 years a computer that powerful would fit on your wrist.  Things are changing much faster today, which makes it more difficult to predict the technologies of the future.

No…this is not the death of a genre…sci-fi will not disappear.  As long as we have children fly their imaginary rockets to the stars, as long as we have creative individuals willing to share their imaginations, and as long as we have people who can dream the impossible, science fiction will flourish. I love this genre and challenge you to be creative.  The possibilities are endless, and a canvas as broad as the night-sky awaits the aspiring galactic calligrapher.

Protect yourself

I’ve just spent the last few days at work fighting a nasty virus…several days and some long hours.  I thought I throw this post out there to help anyone who might be listening.  So what exactly is a virus?  Well that term is often used loosly to describe several different types of computer threats.

A virus is a computer program that attaches its self to another program or file allowing it to spread from computer to computer causing varying degrees of damage.  They ususally sit dormant until activated by someone.

A worm is similar to a virus, but can travel without your help….there’s no need to double click it to get it going…it goes all by itsself.  Some worms have been known to replicate themselves by contacting everyone in the users address book…and sending a copy of itsself.

A Trojan Horse is just like it sounds….its a program that caims to do one thing, but does something else.  I have seen some programs that claim to be virus removal software, but are actually programs that just open your system to more attacks from other nasties.

Spyware is software that usually does no harm to your system, but just tracks your actions…and sends that info to others.  This is where we get a lot of those anoying pop-ups, and this usually makes our computers run slower.

So how do you protect yourself?  It’s impossible to be 100% protected from everything that comes along, but there are a few steps you can take to eliminate a vast majority of existing threats.

1.  Don’t open attachments.  Never open an attachment unless you know what it is ahead of time.  Even emails from your friends can contain malware, and no you will not die if you don’t forward it to 10 others.

2.  Keep your operating system up to date.  If you’re a windows user, you can do this through Internet Explorer.  Those who create viruses look for vunerabilities in operating systems, and when found write harmful programs that take advantage of those loopholes.

3.  Keep your anti-virus up to date.  I’ve had a lot of people ask me which anti-virus is the best.  Honestly,  I think there all pretty good.  Trend Micro, Symantec, McAfee and AVG do a nice job of keeping computers clean.  To be quite honest….if you don’t want to use an anti-virus, then why spend your money on a computer?  It’s like driving your car without insurance….actually a bit worse.  If you don’t use an antivirus, and you connect your computer to the internet, you will become infected……