April 2016 Archives

My name is M Harold Page ("Martin" is actually fine) and I don't really believe in Writers Block.

Yes, OK, it does describe a situation: "Oh look, there's a writer banging their head on the desk and weeping with frustration(OMG is that blood?)"

And that was me for the last couple of months. My productivity plummeted. The contract I was working on seemed complicated and hard to focus on...

Then I had a very overdue eye test and the optician regarded my current reading glasses and said, "I wouldn't be wearing those."

It wasn't my brain. It wasn't my Fickle Muse (Oh The Angst). It was my damned eyes.

Not getting around for my eye test had cost me weeks of productivity and even begun to trigger self doubt. Was I really able to hack it as a writer? Would it make me happy?

Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!

Except when I started talking to other people about this, they had similar stories. External stuff - illness, eyes, depression, RSI - seeps into our lives in imperceptible increments. We're like a lobster going, "Ooo. Seafood! Where is that nice smell is coming from?" We don't realise we're the one being cooked until too late!

And that's the wider experience. Writer's block always turns out to be either some issue with skill, or else some non-writing specific issue revealed by the attempt to write.

So, inspired by the Checklist Manifesto, here's a checklist to get you out of the cooking pot. I've listed the most common issues first, but they are, alas, not mutually exclusive...

I've been writing Laundry Files stories since 1999, and I recently passed the million word mark. That's a lot of stuff! And it occurs to me that while some of you have been following them from the beginning, a lot of people come to them cold in the shape of one story or another.

So below the fold I'm going to explain the Laundry Files time line, and give a running order for the series—including short stories as well as novels.

Right now, the British (and by British I mean London) press are currently obsessed with a single topic: the up-coming BRExit referendum on June 23rd, asking whether the UK should leave (or remain in) the EU.

(This topic is somewhat less visible in the Scottish media because we have a general election coming up on May 5th. Campaigning is currently frantic, with Labour and Conservatives scrabbling to come second, the Scottish Greens (not the same as the English Greens) looking to upset the Liberal Democrats in fourth place, and Pat Robertson presumably saying "I knew it". But I digress.)

I already blogged about the BRExit referendum back in early 2013, when it was still only an idiotic twinkling in David Cameron's eye, and I still maintain that it's basically just an internal Conservative Party power struggle—the stench of hypocrisy and opportunism hangs over the contenders. But I'm not going to bore you with arguments I already went over years ago. Instead, I'd like to kick open a discussion (noting the presence of lots of non-British readers on this blog: I'm intrigued to know how this very British lunacy looks from the outside) with two observations I didn't make the previous time round.

Hugh Hancock, your friendly neighbourhood crafter of tales about supernatural get-rich-quick schemes gone horribly wrong, back with another bit of musing on what the Chatbot Future holds... See also Part 1 - Sexbots and Part 2 - Magical Beasts

In "Accelerando", Charlie posited the idea of a swarm of legal robots, creating a neverending stream of companies which exchange ownership so fast they can't be tracked.

It's rather clear to me that the same thing is about to happen to social media. And possibly politics.

What makes me so sure?

Microsoft's Tay Chatbot. Oh, and the state of the art in Customer Relationship Management software.

Turing Test 2: Is The Bot Distinguishable From An Asshole?

Microsoft unleashed its conversational bot on Twitter, and 4chan's /pol/ unleashed their opinions - or possibly their sense of humour - on it in turn. Hours later, it was a racist asshole.

But that's not the interesting bit.

The interesting and worrying part of the entire test was that it became a plausible, creative racist asshole. A lot of the worst things that Tay is quoted as saying were the result of users abusing the "repeat" function, but not all. It came out with racist statements entirely off its own bat. It even made things that look disturbingly like jokes.

Add a bit of DeepMind-style regret-based learning to the entire process - optimising toward replies or retweets, say - and you have a bot that on first glance, and possibly second through fourth glance, is indistinguishable from a real, human shitposter.

A lot of ink has been spilled worrying about what this says about the Internet. But that's the wrong thing to worry about.

The right thing to worry about is what the Internet is going to look like after more than one Tay is unleashed on it.

More than a hundred. More than a thousand.

Guest post by filmmaker, game designer, comics author, and person who should really take a holiday some time Hugh Hancock

As an author of fictions about demonology that goes horribly wrong and the avoidance and escape of previously-bound supernatural guardians, I'm thrilled, fascinated and somewhat disturbed to learn that we're on the edge of an age of things that look a lot like supernatural servants.

Rather than apps, the smart money is now on bots - intelligent servants called and dismissed with specific incantations, capable of granting your heart's desire (assuming that desire is for an artisanal pizza or an Uber).

I went over this briefly on Tuesday, in which I concluded that it's entirely possible we'll soon be able to summon a succubus - in the "perfect inhuman lover" sense, not the "explanation for brief sleep paralysis" sense - into our PCs.

(Fun side note: it turns out Ashley Madison was already using techo-succubi extensively in its affair-enabling business.)

And that led me to thinking. What other roles have humans traditionally attempted to summon, bind, control or conquer supernatural servants for? And to what extent have we managed to replace those with technology?

Let us wander off into occult history and figure out what other mystical creatures we're cohabiting with these days, or will be soon...

House Fairie, Brownie, etc

We'll start in Charlie's and my home, Scotland, where one of the most mundane and obviously useful of magical servitors originates - the brownie.

Not to be confused with the delicious baked good, the Brownie was a small faerie from the classic surprisingly un-grand-and-threatening school of British faeriedom, which would help out around the house in exchange for the owners keeping up a certain set - and often rather tricky - series of rules, from giving the little critter food to avoiding thanking it for its work.

They're fairly clearly the inspiration for Harry Potter's House Elves, although the latter are considerably more user-friendly.

Assuming you kept up those rules, Brownies would clean, churn butter, and perform other useful, mundane tasks.

Do we have a technological equivalent? We have several.

Right now, people are having sex with a computer.

I don't mean that they're having sex with a RealDoll or similar—although I'm sure they are.

I mean that there are people out there, right now, who are shagging a state machine.

Welcome to the world of computer-assisted self-bondage (LINK IS VERY VERY NSFW!). Using Arduinos, Heath Robinson-esque contraptions involving keys held in CD trays, and Bluetooth-enabled electrostim machines, men and women have programmed their own doms or dommes. A truly merciless dominant who will randomly please or hurt, and there's nothing the user can do about it.

(There's a Terminator misquote here that I'm desperately trying not to make.)

Meanwhile, there are dozens of other people who are attempting to chat up a slightly different state machine.

Advertisers on porn sites around the world have figured out that users are, shall we say, somewhat preoccupied, and there are a limited number of advertising techniques that will work. One of the most common ones is a "fake chat" ad—an attractive woman propositioning the user with the promise of, at least, some hot Facebook or Snapchat messages.

Some of the more advanced ads actually take the user to a landing page where a very, very crude script will respond to them.

This has been happening for ages, of course. So why am I talking about it now?

Because tech developments in other areas are about to turn the whole "sex with your PC" deal from "crude and somewhat rubbish" to "looks like the AIs just took a really unexpected job away".

Soon you may well be able to summon a succubus. Through your PC.

Rise Of The Chatbots

Summoned servitors are about to make the mother of all comebacks.

I'm rather enthusiastic about that on a fictional level. Indeed, the film I just released, DANGEROUS TREASURES, came very close to being called BOUND THINGS instead—it's a story of a couple of geeks who follow clues on a deepweb occult forum which lead them to have a lengthy and bloody interaction with the bound guardian of the treasure they're robbing. And the binding and summoning of guardians is key to the entire thing (hopefully not spoiling it too much!).

(Amusingly for the topic of this post, the reason we didn't call it BOUND THINGS is that it sounded rather too porny.)

Accidentally, I seem to have hit something of a zeitgeist with this one. Because in Silicon Valley, I'm reliably informed, the Wave Of The Future is exactly this: summoned, intelligent servants which you can control if you know their True Name.

Hi! Charlie here. I'm a bit burned-out and busy with real-world stuff right now, so for the next week, guest bloggers are standing by to keep you perplexed bamboozled entertained. Starting with an interesting essay on deep learning and chatbots by Hugh Hancock, later today ...

Hugh adds: The film I've just released is called DANGEROUS TREASURES. It's a geek action-horror-comedy about Lovecraftian horror, deepweb forum culture, and frantic Googling.

The tagline I'm using is " These geeks think of themselves as 2016's Indiana Jones. Too bad the thing they've awoken knew Cthulhu. Personally. "

Last Sunday I gave a brief talk discussing world-building in SF/F at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

I've been quiet since then because of a combination of work and a stomach bug. Meanwhile, here's the outline for my talk. (Yes, it's fully collapsible/expandable.)

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