books Posts

Keeping Shop

by phildini on May 8, 2017

There is a recurring villain in the Terry Pratchett novels called The Auditors. They show up over a number of books as the adversary of Death, and make one of their most daring ploys in Thief of Time, which I also consider in the top five of the Discworld canon.

The Audtiors, who I describe in the singular because it thinks of itself as one entity, is one of the most insidious adversaries in the Discworld because it is not evil, or even mean-spirited. It simply wishes there was more order to the universe, and would prefer all life to stop because life is so disorderly.

One of the best descriptions for the existance of The Auditors begins thusly:

Nine-tenths of the universe is the knowledge of the position and direction of everything in the other tenth.  Every atom has its biography, every star its file, every chemical exchange its equivalent of the inspector with a clipboard.  It is unaccounted for because it is doing the accounting for the rest of it, and you cannot see the back of your own head.
Nine-tenths of the universe, in fact, is paperwork.

This phrasing has stuck with me recently in regards to critique of the internet and online communities. In many ways, the internet is its own auditor, its own bookeeper, its existance is the record of its existance. And yet, thousands upon millions of words have been written explaining more about the communities and worlds that make up the internet. Entire libraries could be filled with the printed pages of digital commentary on Twitter and Facebook and all manner of internet forum that have come before.

One of those pieces of internet critique, which I will not link to because I do not wish to drive traffic to it, rankled me, to the point where I felt a need to counter it. But to counter it properly, we need to establish some background. Carl Sagan once said "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."

And so must we, but the universe we're inventing is The Fediverse, specifically one small corner of it called The Wandering Shop. This is the story of how The Wandering Shop came to be.

Twitter is awful. This is the sentinment that so many of us, myself included, have felt in the past months and years. It's product decisions are opaque, it's community vascillates between cynicism and bigotry on a daily basis, and you can never shake the feeling that you're trying to have an intimate conversation while yelling at the top of your lungs in the public square.

Enter Mastodon, a piece of Open Source software (which in this case, as in most cases of Open Source, means software anyone can edit and everyone has opinions about which they'll happily go to the barricades for). Mastodon has it's own fascinating and complex history, involving multiple internet generations of Open Source and Free Software activists, but it is, in essence, a piece of software that behaves much like Twitter that you can host yourself. This definition is untrue by almost every measure, but it aids wonderfully in understanding.

Two crucial facts about Mastodon are true, and possibly beautiful, making them True again: 1) You can host it yourself, meaning you have full ultimate control over the canonical copy of the data. 2) Anyone who joins your instance, your little slice of the network of servers, is subject to your rules, and your community decisions.

One of the things that Twitter got wrong, in my opinion and the opinion of other heavy Twitter users, is that it thought the only way to grow and to have a userbase committed enough to fill the gaping maw of Venture Capital was to allow free speech to be the default. It's truly mind-boggling how, when unfettered free speech isn't allowed in the classroom, the workplace, on public television or radio, or in most human relationships, the developers of communication tools for humans think that free speech with no rules (or poorly enforced rules, amounting to the same thing) will prompt quality conversations.

Mastodon, from the outset, made no bones of the fact that the owners of the instances could mute or block or kick off individuals who broke that instance's community guidelines. They could even block or mute whole other servers, allowing the instance owners to set their own rules and sanctions.

This is what interested me, when I first read the post from Eugen Rochko that kicked off Mastodon for most of us. I joined immediately, and loved the growing community I found there. Mastodon replaced Twitter in my life so quickly that at times it almost felt like whiplash. My fingers would reach to open Twitter of their own accord, and when my mind returned from wherever it had been I would realize what I was doing, close Twitter, and open Mastodon.

I'm forever grateful to that muscle memory, however, because without it the Wandering Shop would not be. It was during one of those brief unconscious Twitter checks that I saw my friend Annalee suggesting the idea of a moderated Scifi/Fantasy Mastodon instance. You can still see the thread here. We got to chatting, first over Twitter, then over email, and days later The Wandering shop was born.

As you can see from that thread, a strong Code of Conduct was part of the Shop's DNA from the beginning. Many of us, myself included, feel like The Wandering Shop is a real, shared coffee shop that happens to mainly exist in our minds, and so it makes sense to me to say that the guidelines and code of conduct are built into the very walls of the Shop.

Annalee and I wanted to build a community that was open to all, but deliberate in what was and was not acceptable behavior. To the best of my knowledge, we have yet to act on poor behavior from the Shop's patrons (those who have registered their accounts at The Wandering Shop), but we have muted or blocked accounts and instances that we thought were making life in the Shop worse. Additionally, we've put effort into deliberate community building. We made a weekly calendar to encourage conversations, and we try to generally be available as part of the community.

This is, for me, the power of Mastodon, when run deliberately: You can build online communities like neighborhoods, full of people you enjoy sharing the sunset with, and still be connected to the rest of the city down the road. I can honestly say The Wandering Shop is in the top three online communities I've ever been a part of. Twitter and Facebook don't even make top ten.

The article that came out today, that fired me up enough to write this piece, was describing why an instance admin was shutting down his Mastodon instance.

I'm paraphrasing here, but the gist was: "I set up my instance as a place with no rules, where anyone could come and be who they wanted to be, and say what they wanted to say. I was stunned and saddened at the abuse and horrific imagery I had to encounter when dealing with this instance, and so I am shutting it down before it gets me in real trouble."

There is a part of me, a small part, that is always reaching out to connect with other human beings. I don't think anyone could try so hard to start online communities and not have a portion of yearning in that direction. I feel for this man, who tried and experiment and had it go so wrong.

But mostly I look at what is possible when thoughtful care and attention is taken towards creating a deliberate community, and a spark goes off behind my eyes. I think of the world we're building at The Wandering Shop, and compare it to this person's dismissal of the whole concept, and that spark quickly becomes the heart of a forge.

At the XOXO Festival in 2015, Eric Meyer spoke about building the kinds of online communities we want to live in. We're trying to build a deliberate community at The Wandering Shop. I hope you'll join us, if you feel so inclined.

You can support The Wandering Shop by donating to our Patreon.

Review: The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl by Bryce Anderson

by phildini on May 22, 2015

If you look at the people who are trying to predict Strong AI, Artificial Intelligence that's equal to or better than a human's intelligence, there's two pieces of consensus among them: 1) That there's a real good chance we'll have that kind of human-or-better AI by 2040, and 2) that the reality of such an AI will change our world and our existence in ways that we almost can't comprehend. If you dig into that second piece a bit, you find two camps of people. One camp thinks "the future is so bright we're going to need shades." The other camp thinks "Yeah. Shades to shield our eyes from the nuclear fallout when a bunch of AIs decide humans aren't worth keeping around anymore." (I'm mischaracterizing the pessimist group, but not by much)

Caught between these two extremes, it's pretty easy to gain anxiety about the future, especially if you work in tech and know how fragile things currently are. (If you want to join me, and a lot of other really smart people, in celebrating/fearing the future, read these two blog posts from Wait But Why.) Both camps agree on one thing though: Humanity basically won't be able to keep up, at all, with our new technological Gods.

But there's an idea that's not explored in the blog posts above, a third option that could be far better or far worse than a benevolent machine God or destructive robotic despot (but ultimately more relatable than either): What if we could upload a human brain, upload all human brains, and beef up their processing power to beyond any intelligence level we can think of today? What if the next superintelligence was actually a human?

This is the idea that's explored in Bryce Anderson's The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl. A young woman, Helen, the titular character of Anderson's novel, donates her body, and most specifically her frozen brain, to science, on the condition that they try to rebuild her, neuron by neuron, in a computer. Or, more realistically, a vast network of computers. As time progresses, Moore's Law marches on, the computers powering Helen get faster and faster, she gets smarter and smarter, and eventually reaches a level of intelligence and power that can only be described to us real-time, single-brained humans through some very clever literary devices.

The road to super-intelligence is not easy for Helen, as she must navigate the landscape of human interactions while at the same time being a brand new type of human. Not to mention having to make political arguments to fund her survival through grants, and keeping an eye on a true Strong AI that may not have humanity's best interests at heart.

All of this is set against the backdrop of a technological near-future that I had no trouble believing in. With the blog posts above fresh in my mind, I was prepared to dismiss any fictional representation of AI as Science Fantasy, but Anderson has done his homework, and knows his subject material well. (The dates he includes at the start of the book's chapters help build a timeline that will seem fairly plausible after reading Wait But Why). The most impressive part of the book, from a literary standpoint, is the way Anderson can construct the worlds-within-worlds-within-worlds required for a story that happens in an increasingly digital space, and not leave the reader confused as to where they are. There were only a few moments in the book where I felt lost as to what environment the characters were really in, and even then my confusion didn't distract from the action.

The thing that drew me in deep, however, the thing that made me sit up and take notice and plow through Singularity Girl, was that core idea, the idea that maybe we can prevent the technological apocalypse by making ourselves better, rather than making the machines better than us. I'm sure there are many that consider the idea wishful thinking, that would point out there's nothing inherently great about humans at a galactic scale, and that I shouldn't make our species out to be any better than it is. To me, it seems like theres a very thin line between a machine that has our best interests at heart and a machine that wants to turn us all into power sources. One line of code may be all it takes, and it may be the only thing that can fight a super-intelligent robot, is a super-intelligent human.

You should absolutely go read The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl. The book has good characters, incredible worlds, edge-of-your-seat action sequences, and is almost guaranteed to expand your mind.

Review: Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

by phildini on January 31, 2015

I should be working on editing my own novel, but for some reason I find editing more nerve-wracking and fear-inducing than I found writing the thing, so I'm going to do another review, and see if that brings the focus. On the docket today: Atlanta Burns, the first in a series of the same name by Chuck Wendig.

I think I'll start by claiming some bias. I've been following Chuck Wendig on the Twitterz for about four months, and called upon his mighty spirit to help me get through my first fight with editing my novel. He responded with a virtual bourbon-beard.

It was a touching moment. I like Chuck Wendig, or at least the part of his persona that he shows through his blogging and tweeting. I've had discussions with co-conspirators in the past about how to define a relationship where you feel really close to someone you've never met, and I've never heard of a great word or phrase to adequately describe it. So: bias disclosed, I think Chuck Wendig is pretty great.

I'm conflicted about his latest novel.

This feels like a bit of a betrayal to put in type, and possibly hypocritical. If we look at just the facts, ma'am, the fact is that I finished the novel in *checks GoodReads* less than 48 hours. That's a pretty quick turnaround for someone who is working full-time and watching too much Futurama to boot. So I can't say I wasn't gripped by the story, or engaged by the characters, because I certainly was. Both those barrels hit me in the face and I kept going back for more.

But reading Atlanta Burns was painful. Not painful in the "Oh God, what creative writing dropout wrote this" kind of way, because the writing is excellent. Like, seriously, the man breaks one of his own rules for YA character perspective and does it amazingly. No, Atlanta Burns was painful because I felt the pain the novel's protagonist (named, as it so happens, Atlanta Burns) was dragged through practically from the the first page. It felt visceral in a way that I truly wasn't expecting.

I always feel a little strange trying to give a synopsis of a book when I'm reviewing it, because the back cover will do a better job that I ever will, and in reality you should go read the book and then come read my review. But this feels like an appropriate moment to say: Atlanta Burns is novel about high-school girl who resists being molested by her mother's boyfriend through the mechanism of a shotgun blast into the boyfriend's nether regions. That's more-or-less the start, and things kind of go downhill from there. The novel takes her through a series of Sisyphean tasks against the most downright-messed-up characters that the mind can imagine when it thinks "backwoods America". People die in this book, and not the people you want to, when all is said and done.

This is background for what I mean when I say I felt some of the pain Atlanta went through. There were moments of physical pain that made my muscles clench, and there were moments of mental anguish where I had to step away for a moment. Wendig is a great writer; it was a bit like being slowly cut by the most exquisitely crafted scalpel, perfectly honed and embellished with decorative filigree.

To say I'm conflicted about the work is an understatement. On the one hand, I've known people who have gone through situations that are approximations of what Atlanta goes through, and there's some scar tissue there. On the other hand, Atlanta takes every opportunity for agency she is given, and is basically the epitome of "don't let the bastards get you down".

It's probably against the law to talk about YA fiction with lead female characters without mentioning The Hunger Games, but here's the difference: Most of what happens to Katniss is the result of a system, of a corrupt governance inflicting oppression and pain on its people. Katniss is often a victim by proxy; President Snow never slams her head against a metal wall himself. Everything that happens to Atlanta is, more or less, personal. The villains are going after her or her friends directly. The scale of the violence is much smaller than in Panem, but it's all the more visceral for it.

Yeah, I'm conflicted.

I have one true complaint, and only one, really. (GREAT SPIRIT OF CHUCK WENDIG FORGIVE MY TRANSGRESSIONS!) I don't read a ton of YA fiction, so maybe this sort of thing is normal. There's a bit at the end where Atlanta records a video message to bring hope to the downtrodden and a warning against the oppressors. In a book where the main character has tried to fight the worst of humanity and fight for the outcast at every turn, the statement felt unnecessary, and diminished, for me, the character's power. The bad guys know what she's capable of, the audience has seen her take a beating and give it back ten-fold, neither side needs the reminder.

There's a quote by Cory Doctorow that goes something along the lines of "I write so many blog posts to help me realize what I actually think about things." Having now written a review of Chuck Wendig's Atlanta Burns, I can say:

Atlanta Burns was one hell of a ride, and worth reading. I'm both excited and terrified for the next volume, but I will certainly be checking it out.

Review: Redwall by Brian Jacques

by phildini on January 6, 2015

It has been more than a decade since I first picked up a Redwall book. I can't quite remember what pushed me to pick up that first volume of heroic mice and baleful rats, although I fancy that some well-meaning librarian recommended them to me. The result, of course, is that I tore through every volume the library had, reading Redwall, then Mossflower, then Mattimeo, all the way up to around the Triss-era. I fell out of the series around 2004, and didn't really pick up the following novels.

Since I've spent so much time recently trying to determine my literary roots and inspiration, I got it into my head that I should re-read some of the Redwall series, starting with the titular book itself.

Re-reading Redwall as an adult, with potentially hundreds of books and almost a dozen years between that first reading and now, was a simultaneously enthralling and disappointing journey. About fifty pages in, I realized that the writing was not at all what I remembered. Not necessarily bad, just overly simplistic, as though Brian is trying to talk down to his readers.

I give some credit to the fact that Redwall was the first, and by all accounts first novels are never as good as what comes after. I may dig into the later books at a later date to see if the writing improves, but there were whole sections of Redwall that seemed just too sappy and simple to have ever been believable.

Then again, maybe I'm just cynical, and jaded.

The balance to the at-times mediocre writing (and here I feel bad, damning the dead author and causing my inner child to cry a little) is the fantastic story being told. Redwall is a book whose characters are defined by their actions, not their words, and the actions of the humble band of woodland creatures that inhabit Redwall abbey in their fight against a horde of rats still make me race through the pages. It is a testament to the Jacques' quality as a storyteller that, even knowing the end of the story, there were times where I couldn't put the book down, couldn't wait to see what would happen to Matthias and Constance and Basil and Cluny the Scourge.

While the speeches Jacques' characters give can feel flat, the actions they take make them more real than some humans I've met.

I'll end by saying that as I've written this review, it has occurred to me that perhaps Redwall might be best experienced read aloud, and indeed it seems like a perfect book to make into a bedtime story. After a child has outgrown Peter Rabbit, perhaps their minds can feast on Matthias, champion of Redwall. Mossflower wood is waiting, and Redwall abbey is the gateway to a world of adventure.