A great article in The Atlantic about happiness versus meaning. An excerpt:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers, which include Stanford University’s Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, write.

When I started writing AI Apocalypse, I had to deal naming and discussing multiple AI characters. Since biological genders could, in theory, be meaningless to AI, once approach would be to give them names at random, and use only gender-neutral pronouns.

I’m fine with using “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun. “It” can also work, but it’s somewhat distancing. In the end, I felt like using gender-specific pronouns because that brought my closer to the characters.

That begs the questions of how the AI get genders when they don’t start with any. I believe they start gender-neutral, but can choose the gender pronouns they want applied to them. Although we don’t see it in the books, I’m imaging that there’s some aspect to their online profile/reputation that indicates preferred gender pronouns. So we could, in theory, have AI that identify as it, he, she, they, or something else entirely.

I thought this was a pretty novel explanation. Until I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my kids the other night, and we saw The Offspring (Season 03, Episode 16), the episode in which Data creates a child android named Lal. And what does Lal do? She starts out gender-less, and then chooses a gender after making observations.

I’ve seen every Next Generation episode, many more than once, but didn’t remember this episode at all. But it must have influenced me, but this was exactly how I imagined the AI in the Avogadro Corp universe to behave.

I think a lot of science fiction influences me that way: concepts linger over many years, even though the details of where something came from fade away.

By the way, I only recently learned that Japanese has gender-specific name endings, and “ko” is reserved for female names. So Shizoko, from The Last Firewall, is properly a female name. Woops. Sorry to all Japanese speakers out there. If you want an in-universe explanation, I’m going to say that Shizoko was previously identified as female, but changed her gender while keeping her name. :)

 

Maybe I’ve written one too many books with the word apocalypse in the title, or maybe all the people I know that have been victims of one hurricane or another are rubbing off on me, but I find myself wanting to be prepared for whatever unexpected events might come. So I’ve got food, water, power, fuel, first-aid. I’m not a hardcore prepper, but I’ve got a few supplies.

Thinking about ebola made me realize that there’s nothing in my kit in the event of a widespread biological outbreak. Sure, I could stay home for a few days or a week, but what if I needed to venture out for more supplies? So I thought I’d check to see what the CDC recommends, and how much it would cost to be prepared. If it wasn’t too much, then maybe it would be worth adding to the emergency kit. I visited a few different CDC pages.

The answer is that for less than the cost of taking your family to the movies, you could buy all the safety equipment you’d need.

The basics are this:

If you want to go hardcore, as you’d want to if you needed to take care of an ebola patient, you’d add:

In the end, it costs about $15/person. Pretty cheap to add to an emergency kit. Part me says it’s crazy to get this stuff, but part of me also knows that by the time you actually need it, it’s too late to get it.

 

From Escape From the Data Center: The Promise of Peer-to-Peer Cloud Computing:

In principle, a P2P cloud could be built using the ordinary computing, storage, and communication equipment found now in people’s homes, with essentially zero initial investment. Broadband modems, routers, set-top boxes, game consoles, and laptop and desktop PCs could all contribute. The challenge is to turn this motley collection into a coherent and usable cloud infrastructure and offer its services to customers. You also have to ensure that the salient features of clouds—on-demand resource provisioning and the metering of service—are maintained.

This would surely be tough to do, but think of the advantages. First, there would be no single entity that owns or controls it. As with most other P2P applications, a P2P cloud could be created and operated as a grassroots effort, without requiring the permission or consent of any authority. People would choose to participate in a P2P cloud by installing the appropriate client software on their local machines, and the value of the resulting cloud infrastructure would be commensurate with the number of individuals who are contributing to it.

By now many of you will have received an email from Amazon letting you know about the new second edition of Avogadro Corp. I’ll say more about the second edition, but first a little background.

I wrote Avogadro Corp in 2009 as a first-time fiction writer. I wrote the first draft in December and finished with just a few minutes to spare before midnight. It slowly developed from a 27,000 word novella into a 67,000 word novel over the next two years as I took writing classes and learned a bit about writing.

I released it in November, 2011. I was delighted with it, as were many of the 50,000 people who ultimately got a copy. It received acclaim, won awards, and was even covered by Wired.

New Avogadro Corp Second Edition. Buy at Amazon.

New Avogadro Corp Second Edition.
Buy at Amazon.

But some feedback was critical of typos and grammar, and I grew as a writer, I really wanted to go back and fix some issues. So in January of this year I started on a complete rewrite. It’s still the same story it was before, but I added a little depth to the characters and setting and polished the prose. There are 3,000 new words of content, and it’s been copyedited and proofread by professionals. I think it’s much improved over the original.

In addition, it’s gotten a beautiful, new cover, thanks to designer and writer Jason Gurley.

If you’ve previously bought an ebook, you should be able to download the new second edition for free. We haven’t yet enabled nanotech-updating for the physical book, but you can buy a new second edition paperback that will look great on your bookshelf.

If you enjoy this new second edition, I could use your help spreading the word about it. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m still juggling a day job and a family and writing, and would love to cross over the threshold into full-time writing. It will take 10 months to finish the editing for book 4 with my current schedule, but only 8 weeks if I was writing full-time.)

Here are some things that would help:

  • Mentions on any social media sites, especially those were tech people like to hang out: Slashdot and Reddit, in particular. Of course, Twitter, Facebook, and others are also great.
  • If you dinged Avogadro Corp a point or two on your Amazon review because of the typos or grammar issues (totally understandable), but feel the new edition is an improvement, please consider updating your review if appropriate. (You can find your own Amazon reviews here.)

If you need them, here at links to the Amazon version:

I hope you enjoy it, and I’d love to hear what you think. Send me an email or a message on twitter.

I’ve seen a lot of reactions to the tragedy of the celebrity photo plundering that affected Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and many offers. Some condemn the celebrities who had taken nude photos and videos of themselves. Some condemn the culture of men who objectify women. Some condemn cloud computing. Some condemn the people who view the photos. Some condemn people with poor computer security.

I see all of these perspectives, but I think we’re also missing something bigger. To get there, I’m going to start with a story that takes place in 1993.

I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona studying computer science. It was a great place to be. Udi Manber was a professor working on agrep and glimpse, long before he become the head of search at Google. Larry Peterson had developed x-kernel, an object-oriented framework for network protocols. Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet, dropped by one day to review what we were doing with high speed networking.

I’ll never forget the uproar that occurred when we received a new delivery of Sun workstations. I think it was the Sun SPARCstation 5, although I could be wrong. But what was different about these computers was that they contained an integrated microphone. And that meant anyone who could get remote access to the software environment could listen in to that microphone from anywhere in the world.

Keep in mind that the owners of these computers were not technical novices. These were the people creating core components of what we use today: everything from search to TCP optimized for video. And they were damn nervous about people hacking into the computers and listening in to the microphone from anywhere.

Fast-forward about seven years, and I’m reading a series of books about cultural anthropology. (Yes, this is relevant. And if you’re interested, Cows, Pigs, Witches and War by Marvin Harris is a great starting point.) I might be a little loose on the specific details, but the gist of what I read is that when scientists studied indigenous tribes relatively untouched by modern culture they found that “crime” occurs at a similar rate across most tribes. That is, norms might differ from culture to culture, but things like murder and stealing happen in all tribes, and at similar frequencies. Tribal culture doesn’t have prison, so the punishment is being cast out of the tribe. Without getting into details, this is actually a quite strong punishment. Not only is social rejection itself powerful, but the odds of survival go down dramatically without the support structure of a tribe.

Now let’s ground ourselves back in the current day. What happened to Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and many others is terrible. However, this isn’t an isolated occurrence. Stealing photos – and worse, much worse –  occurs all the time, to many women, and we’re just not hearing about it because they aren’t famous.

This 2013 ArsTechnica article, Meet the men who spy on women through their webcams (caution: may contain triggers), is probably the best overview on the subject of Ratters. The term is an extension of Remote Administration Tool (RAT). These are men (almost always men) who prey on women (almost always women) by first gaining access to their computers, then spying on them through their webcams, in the privacy of their own home, as well as going through their computer to find photos and videos. Eventually, compromising videos and photos exist, whether they are found on the filesystem or recorded by the ratter using the webcam. The ratter then uses the threat of sharing those compromising photos and video to blackmail the victim into recording yet more explicit videos.

Certainly ratters are awful people who deserve to go to jail for their crimes. And equally certainly there are great improvements we can make in our society in terms of how men treat and view women. And we can make improvements in our personal computer security.

However, if the tribal studies tell us that crime still occurs at a relatively constant rate, and if even some of the most technically sophisticated people fear their microphones being used to spy on them, then we know that neither criminal deterrents nor improvements in our personal computer security practices are going to be sufficient to completely stop such behavior.

So then what?

Well, now we come back to what Cory Doctorow frequently argues. Computer laws such as those around DRM inhibit computer researchers from making improvements into computer security, by making it illegal to reverse engineer how certain bits of code work. Spyware that originates from governments, corporations, and school districts is frequently subverted by computer hackers and ratters (in addition to being abused by the originators as well.)

Cory has also said that computer security and privacy is like potable water: With enough effort, individuals can capture, treat, and store their own independent water supply. But as a society, it’s far more efficient for the government to provide guaranteed drinkable water through municipal water supplies. Similarly, an individual might take heroic measures to ensure their security and privacy: long passwords, no cloud services, cover their webcams, avoid the internet whenever possible. But how feasible is it for every person to do this? And can we all maintain that level heroic effort? Probably not.

What we need is change at the highest level.

We need our governments to stop perpetuating the problem by spying on us, and instead take our privacy and security seriously. Instead of DRM, give us privacy. Instead of school districts spying on us, give us privacy. Instead of buying spyware from corporations to spy on us, make selling software that spies on us illegal.

Privacy and security is a problem that affects all of us, not just the celebrities that are the latest and most visible in a long series of victims.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00039]I have three kids of reading age. When I finished Avogadro Corp, they asked to read it. A few thoughts raced through my mind: They’d probably be bored by it, or maybe scared. But I’d probably let them at least try to read it. Except that I’d used a lot of curse words. So I said no.

I wrote my second book, and they asked to read it. I had used less curse words, but I had a teen character who smoked and did drugs. Doh. I said no. I started my third book, and it has less curse words, no smoking by any of the main characters, but it had a sex scene I didn’t particularly want to explain to them.

Around this time, they asked if I was I ever going to write a book they could read. I said yes, and then didn’t get a chance to work on it for almost a year, although some ideas germinated in the back of my mind.

One particular memory: I’m a fan of Cory Doctorow, and I went to see him speak at Powell’s. He writes smart science fiction about the issues he cares about in real life: privacy, control over our data, the police state, and activism. Although I’d guess his largest pool of readers is adults, his books are definitely oriented towards teens, and making them aware of their power and influence in the world, and equipping them with the tools to make a difference. Only Doctorow can write a novel in which you learn how to encrypt your hard drive or install Linux.

At the Powell’s speaking event, Cory asked the audience “Do you want a reading or do you want a speech?” There was a unanimous cheer in support of the speech. Afterwards there was a question and answer session.

What really stuck in my mind was the teens in the audience. They made up maybe a quarter or less of the room, but they loomed large in my mind. These are the people Cory wants to reach. And during the Q&A portion, the teens stood and asked questions of Cory about privacy and jailbreaking phones and technology, which he addressed. It sounds sort of factual and ordinary when I describe it, but it was powerful to me in the moment.

I knew that if I was going to write for kids, I didn’t want to just write entertainment. I wanted to address issues in the same serious way that I address topics in my adult science fiction. Sure, robots and AI make for good entertainment, but I write the stuff I do because I think it’s important for people to think about it, and I treat it as seriously and accurately as possible.

So what topics did I want to address for kids? What is appropriate for the age I wanted to write for? I decided to focus on a few things:

  1. Logical reasoning. It’s a foundation skill every intelligent person needs. The format of a detective story is ideal for this.
  2. Building and manipulating technology. Kids love technology, but many are passive consumers. I want them to see themselves as creators, customizers, and makers. In the novel, the kids build an autonomous quadcopter for their science fair, then use it as a tool in solving a mystery.
  3. Judging the validity of information. Can you trust the source? It is true? How can we know? Being a critical receiver of information is important when we’re deluged with advertisements and dubious information all over the place.

I started working on The Case of the Wilted Broccoli in the fall of 2013, and published it this summer. It’s a kids mystery novel featuring an eleven-year-old girl detective named Willow who has to solve a mystery at her school when people start getting sick from the school lunch. Some of the inspiration came from The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown, all much-loved books in our household. But it’s a story that embodies the principles I mentioned above.

I have one scene in The Case of the Wilted Broccoli about Wikipedia that my critique partners and an adult editor told me I should remove because it wasn’t necessary to the story. But I knew it wasn’t necessary for Cory Doctorow to explain how hard drive encryption works, yet he did anyway. I kept the scene in, and multiple kids have told me they loved it. Here’s an excerpt:

In class, their teacher reviewed the bridge-research assignment. “You’ve all picked your bridges, and you should have started your research. You have one week left to turn in the first draft of your report, which should be two pages long. And remember, no using Wikipedia.”

Linden groaned inside. Teachers were always saying they shouldn’t use Wikipedia, but he loved, loved, loved everything about it. He raised his hand.

“Yes, Linden?”

“We should be allowed to use Wikipedia,” he said. “Wikipedia is equally accurate and more comprehensive than traditional encyclopedias.”

“Anyone can edit Wikipedia. It’s simply not a credible resource.”

Linden’s felt his blood start to pound in his ears. He respected his teachers, but they weren’t always right. “But it’s been studied by dozens of researchers, and they’ve found it has high quality, even in specialized subjects. Even if someone puts incorrect information into Wikipedia, the editors usually spot and correct it within minutes.”

The teacher tapped her foot. Linden couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or amused.

She looked at the wall for moment, then turned back to the class. “Regardless of the accuracy of Wikipedia, if you all do your research using it, everyone’s reports will look exactly the same. Each person researching the Fremont Bridge will read the same information, and I’ll get back ten of the same reports. So no Wikipedia.”

The teacher’s point was good. But Linden knew some secrets about Wikipedia. Some of the best stuff was not in the main page for an article, it was hidden on the Talk page. That’s where the people writing an article had discussions. And if two people disagreed about a subject, the history of their arguments was preserved forever on the talk page.

That wasn’t the only secret, of course. The History link displayed every change ever made on a Wikipedia page, so visitors could know what had been deleted or added.

Linden had already started his research on the St. Johns Bridge last night. After he read the main article on Wikipedia, he discovered on the Talk page that there was a disagreement over whether the bridge should have an apostrophe in the name. Should it be written St. Johns or St. John’s? It turned out the bridge was named after James John, also known as “Old Jimmy Johns” or “Saint Johns.” Since Johns was his nickname, the name of the bridge shouldn’t have an apostrophe in it. And yet the main article hadn’t said anything about who the bridge was named after.

I hope that each book I write for children embodies more of these principles while telling an entertaining story that kids want to read. Some day I’d like to give a talk or reading and have kids show up to ask me questions about building drones or editing Wikipedia.

If you or someone you know has a child ages seven through eleven, please check it out and let me know what you think.

The Case of the Wilted Broccoli is a kids mystery novel featuring an eleven-year-old girl detective named Willow who has to solve a mystery at her school when people start getting sick from the school lunch. She and her brothers build an autonomous quadcopter for their science fair while investigating the food supply for their school. It’s available in paperback, and for Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, and Nook.

Last November, on a train ride to Seattle to see Ramez Naam and Greg Bear, I started book four of the Singularity series. Last Thursday, I finished the rough draft. I was very excited and did a little dance in my office. Of course, I’m not done. I’ve got to turn that draft into a cohesive story, polish that story into something that reads well, and get it edited, proofread, and then it goes into production (page layout, ebook conversion, cover design).

I’m excited to get it out, and I know other folks are excited to read it, but it’s still many months away from being available. I’m not sure exactly how long. It varies with each book, as I learn more, also depends on my work schedule. I’m making some small changes to my day job schedule that should give me more consecutive days of writing time, which will help me make steady progress.

For a few weeks though, I’ll be focused on other things: I’ve got to the second edition of Avogadro Corp fully out. I need to do some marketing work around my novel for kids ages 7 to 12, The Case of the Wilted Broccoli. I need to give a little attention to my Patreon campaign. And I’ve got blog posts I really want to write that I’ve put on the back burner while I worked on finishing the draft of book 4. At some point I also need to figure out a title for the fourth book.

But before the end of September, I should be back to work editing and revising.

This is just a quick note to say that I’m still hard at work on Book 4. I’m staying as focused as possible on getting the first draft done while I’m still able to write on a daily basis. During the summer school break, I can write every day. Once my kids go back to school, I only have two good writing days per week.

The good news is that I’m making great progress and the end is within sight.

Now let the quiet resume.

I’ve launched a Patreon campaign! Please consider supporting my writing with a small recurring donation.

What is Patreon? It’s a relatively new crowdfunding platform with some key differences from Kickstarter and its many competitors.

Kickstarter is about raising the funds for a specific project, like making a movie, or bringing a physical product to life. But Patreon is about supporting ongoing creation, like a webcomic, series of YouTube videos, or in my case, a series of books about the near future, artificial intelligence, and the singularity.

Patreon supporters, or patrons, make a recurring donation: either monthly (as in my case), or per piece of content.

Why support me?

Naturally, there are patron benefits. All patron supporters will receive a free digital copy of each book as much as a month before it’s published. There will be occasional bonus material, such as unpublished chapters and short stories. You’ll receive thanks, of course, and at higher donation levels, also receive signed copies of physical books, and at the highest level, an exclusive one-off patron creation.

But I hope you’ll also consider the benefits to my writing and my career:

Each new book requires an outlay of several thousand dollars in editing, proofreading, and design. In the past, I’ve made tradeoffs between keeping cost low and quality. With greater support, I can make each book the very best quality possible.

I would also like to write full-time. Today I juggle a family and full-time job, and squeeze writing into the little leftover nooks and crannies in my schedule. I’d like to give each book the full time and focus it deserves. Writing income is also lumpy: much of it comes when I release a new book. Monthly patron donations on Patreon will help level out my income.

If you loved Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, or The Last Firewall, become a patron and help me create more works of even higher quality.