September, 2011

Sep 11

Automated Killing Machines on Their Own, With NO Human Guidance…

Hard to find a more chilling news story than this one from the Washington Post.

“This successful exercise in autonomous robotics could presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. Imagine aerial ‘Terminators,’ minus beefcake and time travel.

These drones will hunt specific people–and supposedly be able to pick them out from the innocents. And then kill them.

Robots, as the article points out, have no common sense. Their ability to discriminate a target correctly will always be in question– human beings, finely attuned to identity, wrongly identify people all the time. Robots, however well outfitted with facial recognition software, cannot be trusted to hunt down combatants…or terrorists… on their own…

But that is apparently what the military has in mind.

Here’s the Washington Post story:

Of course, I predicted these devices in my novel ECLIPSE PENUMBRA.

I’m preparing that book, along with Eclipse and Eclipse Corona, for a new omnibus edition of the A SONG CALLED YOUTH trilogy. And just went over this text yesterday:

Ahead, the crooked corridors of rock were sunk in shadow; dark, hunched figures shifted there. Lila said, “We cannot see them. Their uniforms are colored like the rock.” She took a flare gun from a pack lying on the ground beside her, dropped a shell in it, fired it; the shell arced up, down, and splashed the gray dimness with sparks and the blue-white dazzle of burning magnesium. Someone screamed, and even Claire smiled at that. Burn, you bastard, because you’re going to kill me.

And then they saw something else in the light of the flare.
Torrence remembered snorkeling once, off the coast of Florida, seeing a shark nosing slowly toward him among the coral formations. That’s what this thing looked like, from here. The shark in the undersea maze had swum past, ignoring him. This one wouldn’t do that.

It was a seeker missile, moving slowly — not much more than hovering in place, just drifting forward as it picked out a target — held up by jets on its underside, its tail rocket dormant, waiting for the missile’s microcomputer to make a decision, wavering in and out of the flare light behind it. The self guided drone was a sleek thing of shiny chrome, a sensing grid on its nose looking for heat in human-body outline. Nosing this way, that. Why was it taking so long? Maybe it was confused by the still flickering flare, reflected from the cold rocks. Soon it’d pick out the heat from a group of people, though, and it’d find its way —

One moment the missile was drifting in and out of shadow, almost absently; a split second later, rattlesnake flash, it struck, impacting with the top forward edge of the cratered boulder where Sortonne and Sahid had been … Had been.

Torn outlines of the two men were flung from the fireball; dolls from which some sadistic kid had torn the hands and heads. Warm droplets spattered Torrence’s cheek.

Sep 11

The Fear of Death, Conspiracy Theories, UFOs, and…Hey That’s What I Said!

‘A new study finds that people who are anxious about death are more likely to believe in the conspiracy theories outlined in [for example, The Da Vinci Code] (Doubleday, 2003). The thriller follows a cryptographer and a symbologist as they unravel a mystery about the secret of the Holy Grail…The students [in the study] most likely to believe the conspiracies in Brown’s novel were those who enjoyed the book the most, expressed the most New Age beliefs, and felt the most anxiety about dying. . .Conspiracy theories “can alleviate people’s sense of loss of control by giving them a reason that things happen…”‘

The text quoted is from LiveScience:

I’ve long been saying, in essays and interviews, that there is a psychological connection between the fear of death and belief that flying saucers are real, that ETs are among us, and alien abductions happen. These beliefs are held by otherwise intelligent people even when you show them solid reasons to doubt the “evidence” of the extraterrestrial presence on Earth. Why? It’s like this…

Extraterrestrials are, well, extra to the terrestrial, they come from outer space (if they’re here at all), and outer space is, in the minds of children, where “heaven” resides. ETs are from “celestial” places. They come in womblike saucers, and they look, often, like embryos– the commonest description of them, the gray alien, is like embryos. The womb is a symbol of safety, and life at its beginnings, far from death. ET technology represents transcendence in the minds of believers–it seems to defy science, it suggests that the limits of the physical world can be broken, and faster-than-light barriers be damned, these creatures can come here and take us back to their world. Also aliens are presumed to have super medical abilities, and are often said to have the ability to cure all disease, should they “find us worthy”. That is, they are all about escape to safety, about transcendence of the limitations of life, in the unconscious of the believer. And the most frightening limitation on us all is mortality itself…

I can see a strong parallel with my theory of flying saucer believers’ fear of death, and the conspiracy believer’s need for an over arching explanation for every mystery…

Sep 11

The Edgy Address

“Among the echelons of the upper middle class, there is a smug pride often taken in the edgy address, as if poor people existed to lend the better off a veneer of adventurous chic.” –The New York Times (thanks to Lucius Shepard)

Sep 11

“Six Things the Film Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know”

As a person who worked in the film industry and feels that he probably didn’t always get a fair break, well…

I had to post this link.

Sep 11

How Tiny We Can Be…

Years ago, I was shopping for a new computer, and the salesman proudly pointed out that the one on sale had a “turbo” setting. I asked what that was. He said, “If you press that button, the computer’s, like, on turbo.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning–” He shrugged. “It uses more of its ram and stuff–so it goes faster than it would ordinarily.”

“Why,” I asked, genuinely puzzled, “would anyone want a computer that doesn’t always go its fastest? Why wouldn’t you have the button pressed all the time? Why not just have the computer built to work at its fastest setting?”

He stared at me. He blinked. He looked at the computer. Finally he admitted, “I don’t know.” (And in fact those “turbo” buttons vanished from computers in short order, as the same question occurred to a lot of people.)

I’ve been trying to discover if there’s a turbo button, anyway, for my own brain. I mean one that doesn’t require damaging drugs, or drugs at all. I know from my own experience in life that I’m often not using my entire mind, my whole self, all my “ram” and presence to make a decision. In fact, if I’m on the narrow-gauge default setting in my life I don’t exactly make decisions–I just lurch from one choice into the next. It’s as if I’m a tiny person, a fraction of what I could be. If I make a decision under those conditions it’s based on a very narrow gauge of input. So, in my life, I’ve made a lot of errors. I think we’re all prone to this, but certain factors made me especially prone to it. I didn’t start working seriously on learning to make conscious decisions till I was about 38. I’m starting to get the hang of it now–a long time later. Habits, you see, have momentum, inertia, their own entrenched pathways. They can be hard to escape…

The author and professor, Jacob Needleman said (I paraphrase) that it’s a poor life that’s lived in only a small part of oneself.

Too often, we’re only using a small part of ourselves–”Oh no he’s going to talk about that discredited ‘we only use a small part of our brain’ idea!” Nope, I definitely don’t mean that. That cliche has been debunked. We do use all our of our brain, at some point.

No, I’m talking about the incorporation of my full presence, my self in the higher sense, my mind and my awareness of my emotions and my body, all in one.

if I strive to be completely there, in that sense, then when I come to a personal crossroads I make better choices. If I incorporate as much of myself as possible, I’m not spurred by impulse, by some tiny part of myself. Certainly not by “the little head”; not by vanity alone, not by blind desire, not by mere appetite, not by some lashing out in anger. If I incorporate as much of my full self as possible, suddenly it’s as if I’m inhabiting my entire self for the first time. There’s a distinct feeling of emerging from a tiny, stifling cubby hole. Data, input, information, sensation, feelings, flood over me, and take their place.

No turbo button needed.

Sep 11

If this is a sample of the Secret Service’s Effectiveness I fear for the President

We received a bit of spam that surprised me:

“Our company has years of experience producing fake passports and other identity documents. We use high quality equipment and materials to produce counterfeit passports. All secret features of real passports are carefully duplicated for our falsified documents. To get further more detailed information about our high quality fake passports/driving licenses/id cards please visit our website…”

It then goes on to offer its website, and to detail the kinds of false ID it provides. It also provides contact email addresses.

The first thing that strikes you is the businesslike tone of the spam promising criminal services. “Our company” they say. They behave as if they provide a legal service; as if they’re a mainstream company.

They seem to have no anxiety about being caught.

A little googling comes up with “GAO warns that false passports are easy to get”. Apparently they’re damned easy to get. So easy pretty much any kind of cartel overlord, mass murderer or terrorist can come easily in and out of the country!

I think it’s the case that the Secret Service is the agency which would run down makers of false passports. It seems a form of counterfeiting, after all. Certainly it’s forgery. If this is the Secret Service’s bailiwick, they’re blowing it. These guys are right out in the open. The GAO, two years ago, found this problem to be epidemic.

If this is the measure of their competency I fear for the President. A headline in 2009 remarked on “unprecedented levels of death threats” against Pres. Obama. . .

Sep 11

Is it kindness to discourage people from trying to become a writer now?

It is a tough time to become a writer, seems to me. It was always difficult–especially if you’re talking about being a full time writer. The few who clicked with it to the extent that they did really well create a kind of candleflame for the moths to fly into. “She did it, why can’t I?” Poof, the moth’s wings go up in flame. Of course, some will always break in and do well–it’s up to lots of factors, most of which you can’t control. It’s up to you, yes, but it also revolves around the needs of the marketplace, chance, timing, and imponderable factors. Lightning strikes–or lightning doesn’t.

Some of us slog along in the middle ground, with book after book, never really hugely breaking out (hey, it could happen!). We’re survivors, we find ways to make a living with our craft. We leave room, somewhere, for art, too. But we’re survivors with the hardbitten quality of itinerant lumberjacks, or freelance truckers. It’s not always pretty.

When I broke into writing fiction, science-fiction and fantasy was still flourishing. There were lots of genre markets. Paperbacks were cheap for people to buy–and the publishers were cheap in paying writers. But for a guy like me, incompetent at other kinds of employment, it was better than a real job. I was able to experiment, artistically, in those books, try new things, present wild ideas, and as long as the novel was entertaining and coherent, it found a home. The books bubbled to the surface of the vat of pulp and seethed a little and then melted away. But there were a lot of them. The 1960s and 70s seemed to break down frontiers. Unusual books–like Vonnegut’s novels, or Jerzy Kosinski’s or Anthony Burgess’s, or anthologies like Dangerous Visions became best sellers. Naked Lunch sold well; JG Ballard and Philip Dick began to get real respect. Publishers took more chances, and in that atmosphere, lines of progressive science-fiction were the norm–and so Terry Carr bought a novel by William Gibson called Neuromancer.

Gibson has a grand talent–but mediocre talents could find entre too. In those days it was possible to break in with perseverance, a little talent, and a copy of the annual Writer’s Market book under your arm. Eventually, someone at the publisher’s house read at least some of your manuscript, if you’d prepared it rightly. You knew where to get your shot.

But megachain bookstores came along, came along, and publishing tie-in books became more common, spurred by the big merchandizing gains post Star Wars. Huge blockbuster movies began to have as much more influence on book publishing than critics did. The numbers of books expanded and for a while that meant more markets but it also meant far, far more competition. And it meant a kind of bubble and bust scenario. The industry seems to be contracting now, in some ways, and expanding in others. E-books are proliferating and some people are making money from them (sometimes even self-published people). They’ll probably come to dominate publishing, though books as objects will never go away completely. The hugeness of the business (despite some recent contraction), the big-media orientation of it, the purchases of publishers by gigantic, diversifying multinationals, has meant that the preferences of acquiring editors has been increasingly formed by the company’s bean-counters, accountants, marketing execs, and stockholders. The bean counters see things short term and can’t understand why anyone would publish a book not particularly likely to be a best seller. The idea of building up a writer’s name by degrees is largely unknown to them. Publishing is trend driven, far more than before. It was always a business but now it’s a business that emphasizes books that mirror movies and TV–including ever more novelizations of moves and TV series, and tie-ins to media franchises, dramatizations of video games and comics, deals in which the writer gets paid on a work for hire basis, with little or no royalty.

Authors who write original genre novels now lean toward writing fiction that translates well into movies and television–and the novels are often sent, in manuscript, to film developers long before they reach print.

All this means that the marketplace for writers is in tumult, is changing much the way the marketplace for pop music composers is, with doubt about the very business structure of publishing, as it once stood. This is after all the age of near-instantaneous publishing; this is the age in which people are beginning to write thin truncated narratives to be read on smartphone screens, so-called cellphone novels. Nowadays writers may be more likely to break in with work for hire franchise books than with original novels. There are always exceptions–and in some ways the marketplace may include more points of entry, especially in terms of self-publishing ebooks, and new ebook publishers. But on the whole it’s a vast, churning confusion, with less time for copyediting and quality, and more demand for the latest vampire novel, the latest zombie hunter novel, the latest this, the latest that, and fewer editors
on the lookout for originality.

I wouldn’t persuade people against becoming a writer now. But I would tell them definitely keep your day job and be prepared to compromise your artistic dreams, for a good long while, when you break in–especially if you plan to break in to genre writing…

Sep 11

“LA Porn Studio Begins Construction On ‘Post-Apocalyptic’ Underground Bunker”

Can’t resist posting this – it has so many points of mordant amusement.

“A San Fernando Valley adult entertainment studio began construction this month on what it calls a “post-apocalyptic” underground bunker in anticipation of a global catastrophe rumored to take place in late 2012.

“A spokesman for Van Nuys-based Pink Visual said the bunker will be ‘far more than a mere bomb shelter or subterranean survivalist enclave’ with amenities such as multiple fully-stocked bars, an enormous performing stage and a sophisticated content production studio.”

Sep 11

Could help explain all those unexplained fish and ocean mammal die-offs…

“Every time a garment made from polyester or other synthetic fabric goes through the wash, it sheds tiny plastic fibers. Thousands of them. It turns out that these fibers end up fouling coastal environments throughout the globe, a global research team finds…What really makes microplastics potentially dangerous is the contaminants they ferry…’In the ocean, plastics act like a sponge.’…absorbing and concentrating fat-soluble pollutants…including DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons…”

Read about it at

Sep 11


It’s a simple thing, really.

The average person has been told, over and over again, that there is a connection between national debt (and/or the deficit), and their own low income. They’ve been told that the deficit is caused by big government (when in fact it’s caused mostly by wars and low tax revenue) and somehow, in some way, this national deficit or debt causes them, the individual tax payer, to be poorer, or to be unemployed. In their minds, the false connection has been made, over and over by the repetition of the BIG LIE. An effective central government somehow equals more unemployment, they’re told. What characterizes big government? They’re told it’s characterized by “high” taxes and “excessive” regulation of industry. They’re told this by industry puppets who, of course, don’t want the restraints of regulation or the responsibility of paying taxes.

Of course, no real connection exists. Historically, when taxes on the wealthy and on corporations are higher, so is hiring; so is prosperity. Taxes induce corporations to grow, to hire more people, for tax deductions, and it provides income to the government that it uses in infrastructure and other job-creating programs.

But, the lie is repeated over and over and over until today’s “low information voters” take it as fact. . .

And so they vote Republican–against their own best interests.

It’s just that simple.