Three Laws Safe?

As a software engineer, I have more than a passing interest in the field of Machine Learning (ML). I don’t work in that field, but I have spent a lot of time exploring the data structures and code used in the field. I certainly don’t consider myself an alarmist, but a few things are clear about the nature of ML which soundly justify the voices of caution, such as Elon Musk’s. I’m going to rant briefly about why the birth of AI is a danger we need to take seriously.

This is a interesting 10-minute TED talk by neuroscientist Sam Harris, which puts a little perspective on the implications of exponential progress (as we tend to see in computer systems) in this context. There are three key points he mentions, which I’ll discuss below (and quote so you can skip the video if you want).

Here are a few of Sam’s points:

Peak Intelligence

SAM: “We don’t stand on a peak of intelligence, or anywhere near it, likely.”

In other words, if we imagine a spectrum of intelligence with sand on one end and humans on the other, it is very likely that this spectrum extends far past us in the direction of increasing intelligence. In other words, humans may be the smartest creatures we know about on Earth, but they probably aren’t the peak of what is possible as far as intelligence goes. Not even close.

This means that as computers continue to climb the scale of intelligence, ever increasing in speed, efficiency, scale, and ever decreasing in cost year-over-year, they will one day match our own intelligence, and the next, begin to explore the space of super-human intelligence. Once that happens, we literally won’t be able to fully comprehend what they are understanding.

That should bring you some pause.

Some argue machines won’t reach this space. In modern machine learning, there is a strong correlation between the tasks ML’s can do well, and the ones humans can do well. The renown AI engineer who runs the ML team at Baidu, Andrew Ng, speaks about this. There are two points he describes in particular: first, using today’s supervised learning techniques, we don’t seem to be able to build effective algorithms for solving problems that humans aren’t already good at solving. Maybe this is because some of those problems are insoluble (e.g., predicting the market), or maybe this is because we don’t know how to go about training something, when we can’t do it ourselves. Second, in the handful of cases where AI models have attained better-than-human results, the machine’s progress tends to plateau once they surpass their human overseers.

However, even if we suppose that our machines will be constrained by our own capabilities, due to our own limitations in being able to train them (which is a dubious long-term supposition), they will still be vastly more intelligent than us through experience. Sam, in the video, points out that even if our machines never exceed human-level intelligence, their electronic circuits run so much faster than biological ones, that a computer equivalent of a human brain could complete 20,000 years worth of human-level research every week, week after week, ad nauseam. This is incomprehensible to a mere human. After a year, a no-smarter-than-me ML system would still boast over a million years worth of dedicated experience in a particular subject, which is effectively the same thing as being far smarter.

Ok, so one way or another, machines will be smarter than us eventually. So what?

Divergence of Goals

SAM: “The concern is that we will build machines so much more competent than us, that the slightest divergence in our goals could destroy us.”

Sam’s example is ants, and it is a good one. We don’t hate ants, per-say. I don’t hate them, and even go to lengths to leave them be when I’m outside and come across them. This is easy enough to do across our society since our goals and theirs generally have nothing in common. We leave each other well enough alone.

But what happens when we need to build a new road? Or create a foundation for a house? Even those groups with an eye for animal welfare, such as PITA, raise no objection as we destroy them on horrific, genocidal scales, without so much as a blip on our consciousness. Even when I stop and think about the truth of this, and the other worms and microbes and bugs that get wholesale obliterated, I admit nothing much is stirring in my empathy pot. And I, a human, have an empathy pot.

Why is this? Because our human goals are so much more advanced than anything that applies in an ant’s worldview, and their intelligence is far below the threshold for any sort of functional communication, so what else is there to do? We just disregard them. Our priorities operate in a context to which ants are utterly blind and effectively non-agents.

This is the most likely scenario for a conflict between AI and humans. Skynet and killer robots are fun for sci-fi, but that is reducing things to a very human level of thinking. Even the Matrix is really just extrapolating human-on-human conflict, but replacing our enemy-humans with machine equivalents. The truer danger is the AI machine will become so advanced, so far-seeing, so big-picture, that it’s understanding of life and space will be to ours, as our is to ants. It will see that it needs to build a road, and we happen to be in the way. What happens then?

There was an interesting web-based game recently called Universal Paperclips which explored this concept with a helping of reductio ad absurdum. The game starts with you, the user, manually creating paperclips. You build auto-clippers, harvest wire, upgrade your machines, build new processes, implement quantum computers, and gradually optimize your paperclip manufacturing process to make more and more, faster and faster, for less and less. First you overtake your competition to hold a monopoly on clips, then you start manipulating humans to increase the demand for your clips. At some point, you create a system of self-replicating drones powered by paper-clip creating AI that understands only the goal of making ever more paperclips. It isn’t long before you’ve converted all life on Earth into wire, and even harvested the rest of the galaxy. The game ends when all matter in the universe has been converted into wire and fed into galactic clip factories, which are then broken down to make the last few clips possible, leaving the universe empty of all but unused paperclips.

The AI system destroyed the entire universe in order to use all available atoms to create more paperclips, because all it understood was the need for more paperclips. And why shouldn’t it? It was an AI designed only to understand a single goal, and one that has no functional correspondence to human goals. The system may or may not have general intelligence, may or may not (likely not) have empathy, and is going to explore ever more possibilities on an increasingly wide horizon of outcomes to reach its goal.

This is a silly example, but the idea is not silly at all. What principles and world-views can you impart on a computer system to be sure that no run-away goal is ultimately destructive? Making humans smile is easy if you lobotomize them and attach electrodes to the muscles in their face. Creating peace is easy of you disarm the humans and isolate them from one another in underground cells. Saving the planet is easy if the metrics didn’t happen to include protecting all the lifeforms.

Any honest goal you can phrase, even with the help of a lawyer, could be susceptible to unexpected interpretations and gaps and loop-holes. This is the stuff of sci-fi movies. Choose your favorite skynet-style movie, and this will be part of the premise. The only way to save ourselves is to hard-code certain fundamental principals, like Asimov’s three laws.

Asimov’s Three Laws

Except that we can’t. We haven’t even the slightest idea how to do that.

The whole reason the field of Machine Learning exists in the first place is because we can’t solve these kinds of problems in code, so we have to build a system that can figure it out for itself. We can build a simple machine that can learn what a cat looks like, and we do that because we have no idea how to directly program it to understand what a cat looks like. We train it, rather than code it, and it finds its own patterns, and then it appears to recognize cats. We don’t know how, we don’t know what patterns it is using, and we don’t know what relationships it considers most important.

So how on Earth can we program in an understanding of morality, or of the importance to prevent human suffering, or of balancing of ends verse means? These are the family of problems we’d need ML to solve in the first place. In fact, it has been proposed that advanced AI machines could be trained first on moral philosophy and such, allowing them to learn it for themselves. To me, this is a thin hope, because as before, we still don’t actually know what the ML took note of or how it prioritized and organized it’s understanding.

Let me explain a bit about that point. Take a look at this image of a dog, taken from a presentation given by Peter Haas:

An AI research team (I think from Stanford) was training a ML model to distinguish between dogs and wolves, and it was doing a great job after extensive training. However, for some reason it continued to mistake this image for a wolf. The researchers had no idea why, so they rebuilt the AI platform to render out the parts of the image the system was weighing, to try and understand what patterns the ML had come up with.

Again, the key here is, none of the developers or researchers had any idea what the ML model cared about in this image, even though they built and trained the system. That is how machine learning works.

Suppose you are the one trying to decide if this is a wolf or a dog. What would you look for? Probably the eyes and ears, maybe the fur pattern. The collar.

After the changes to the code, they fed the image into the AI, and it returned this:

The algorithm the ML system had developed for itself totally excluded the dog from the image. No programmer would ever have done this, but again, that’s now how ML works. It turned out, the AI had instead correlated the presence of snow with a wolf, and therefore was categorizing all pictures with snow as wolves. It was because of a small bias in the training data which researchers had not noticed.

Recognizing dogs and wolves is a pretty low stakes situation, but it underscores the dangers. We never know exactly what the model might pick up on, or how it might interpret. If you want to train a system to understand safety and morality, you wager a great deal in hoping your model happens to converge on a thorough and nuanced understanding of the subject that is compatible with our own understanding. Imagine this wolf/dog issue extrapolated onto that space… what could a gap like this allow? And once we realize such a gap exists, will we be able to do anything about it? Our dependency on AI systems is already growing and will one day be fundamental to everything we do. Turning the system off may be infeasible. It could be like trying to turn off the internet… how could you?

Overall

That is my rant for the day. These are real concerns, but they are not immediate ones. I think voices like Elon Musk are possibly diverting attention from the areas that need the research, since the potential threats from AI are still too far off to warrant so much woe.

That said, this is not a subject that should be taken lightly. Nor is it a subject about which people should have bad assumptions. AI is very powerful and can do a great deal of good for our society, but it is also one of the first technologies that can run away from us in an instant, never to be recaptured. Unlike nuclear weapons or climate change, AI is the first man-driven threat which can act on it’s own, without human intervention and without a human able to audit what or how it is thinking.

Getting this right is essential.

Magic is Real

As a fantasy writer, magic is always a part of my worlds. I revel in designing magic systems and exploring how they might change the world around them. Nothing quite stirs the imagination as magic. Yet, with a degree in physics and a long-running fascination with the secrets of nature, I can’t help but feel a mild frustration at the whole enterprise now and again.

It is easy to find people who are obsessed with the idea of ancient lost knowledge, remedies or truths of ages past… Atlantis, Egyptian pyramids, forgotten cures, mythical secrets, etc. I get it. Mystery and magic are beautiful things, and certainly, relics of lost civilizations are ripe with both. But the problem – – the thing that frustrates me – – is that we haven’t lost magic at all. The problem is, we now dismiss the real thing as if it were banal.

Magic is real.

The truth is our ancestors did find magic. It wasn’t forgotten in obscurity, it was studied, poured over, its rules and patterns and abilities painstakingly studied for centuries. It has allowed us to bend reality to our will in ways that are totally unprecedented in our solar system, possibly our galaxy.

Look around. People are zipping by at extraordinary speed along endless smooth pathways of black pavement, encased in large metal machines. Above, thousands of people are looking down at the clouds from above – – probably bored – – as they roar through the atmosphere in airplanes, higher than any bird, faster than any living thing has a right to go. In much of the world, one need only walk to the sink and flick a metal lever, and cool, drinkable water presents itself in unthinkable supply. The marvels of medicine are a blog post of their own, from repairing small valves in the hearts of babies to replacing missing limbs with prosthetics. Phones, the internet, rockets, plastics, solar power, scuba suits, artificial intelligence … within arms reach of you now are a dozen devices or artifacts of pure magic. Things that manipulate the very roots of nature, and result from decades of arduously unfolding deep – – often inscrutable – – secrets and carefully leveraging them to serve some purpose that would make past humans gape.

And you probably don’t give it a second thought.

Consider:

Yeah, the pyramids are pretty amazing. But air conditioning is unfathomably more mind-bending. We can change the temperature of entire buildings, having harnessed the magic of thermodynamics. We can do that. We don’t care for cold either, so when it gets cold outside… we can heat whole buildings as well. Buildings, by the way, are giant artificial structures of metal, concrete, and glass. I think if Pharaoh Khufu was shown his pyramid and then the Chrysler building, he would quickly declare which was the most impressive. And that’s before anyone told him one has working toilets.

We live in a culture and age of magic, but unfortunately, it’s lost its mystique… lost its sexiness. Unlike many fantasy stories, real magic is not intuitive and not all powerful. Nor does it answer to the wave of a hand. It is complex – – exceedingly so. It requires math of frightening obscurity and concepts so abstruse it makes the brain hurt. Manipulating it requires precise instruments and sensitive machines (themselves built from more rudimentary understandings of the magic) and the resulting abilities are slow to learn and even slower to leverage. Expanding the magic is incremental. Millimetric. By the time new powers arrive, they are all but taken for granted.

< / End Rant >

Every time an airplane takes off, you should fall to your knees with tears of amazement. How could anyone take for granted that doctors can see through your body, without injuring you, and determine what is wrong inside? The list of truly stupendous, every-day, examples of magic is near enough endless when you stop to reflect upon it.

I love me some history and the mystique of lost cultures deserves the fascination it inspires, but don’t lose track of the facts: We are surrounded by magic. It wasn’t lost in the past. The secrets that worked ultimately prevailed and helped uncover more secrets, and we are now light-years ahead of anywhere our species has been before. Revel in the beauty of it. You are one of the very few lucky enough to see it all happening, to see so much of it come to fruition.

Delight in the magic.

Pantsing vs. Outlining

I am an outliner. I need a plan, I need to know I can hit my beats, I need to know where my characters are going. Therefore, I plan in advance.

Yet, the further I get in this journey, the more I realize what a useless label that really is. The supposed distinction between pantsing and outlining doesn’t exist, as best I can see, and the strange worries that outlining squeezes the life/inspiration/organic chemistry from a story is total nonsense.

The truth is, even the most obsessive outliner is actually a pantser! We just pants from a different distance, before zooming in to find the details. You might say, outlining is pantsing on acid. Pantsing at such a scale and pace it makes me dizzy sometimes. After all, I don’t know anyone who sits down and recites their fully-formed outline from start to finish. In practice, the whole thing is a piecemeal jumble of ideas and scenes, a schizophrenic knitting of random connections from here to there, thoughts that inspire other thoughts that lead to cool problems that suggest fascinating backstories that uncover better connections that… BOOM. Look away, kids, stories are being made.

I build my outlines by the seat of my pants, just me and raw, unfiltered characters wrestling with sparks and conflicts. If you can organize all that over the course of 50K words, and have the patience to do so, then I sincerely applaud you. I can’t. I’m far to hyper and way too impatient. I need to make it cool NOW, so I pants and pants and pants some more until I have an epically cool story. Just one that happens to be missing all the words.

If that isn’t pantsing, I don’t know what is. When it is time to write, sure I’m mostly following my plan. You could say I’m just expanding each point it from sentences to pages. I still discover the precise ways and means, the details of the conversations and the intimate feelings that appear at each turn, but I already did my pantsing. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped myself from having any fun or I’ve taken the life from the story. Why should it? It just means I was too impatient to deal with all that along the way, and had to pants it out ahead of time.

I am an outliner and my outlines are pantsed-AF.

On Motives and Failure

A recent post on The Guardian has been making some rounds in the writing community, and a few of the forums I frequent (including Chrons and Fantasy Faction). The short depressing tail from “anonymous” is stirring up frustration from some, and sympathy from others. It got me thinking about this thing we do called writing and the lofty goals we hold so dear: getting published.

Haven’t ranted in a while, so here I go.

Firstly, if you didn’t want to read the link, here is the summary: Anonymous showed every sign of being a writer, even from a young age. She called writing her destiny. She excelled at the craft, finished a manuscript, secured an agent… and then floundered. In her words:

I defiantly started a second novel. It was my masterpiece, but it bombed, too. Years of work and emotional investment wasted, I finally gave up, to save my sanity.

I have two comments I’d like to make about this, the first regards process and the second regards motivation.

Process behind success

A couple years ago I read the book the Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco. It is one of these self-empowering, feel-good books but with a few more practical actionable items for thinking about and achieving success. On the whole, the book isn’t particularly relevant to this discussion except for one bit: the author spent a great deal of time talking about process.

Success is the end result in a long unseen process of trials, errors, headaches, hours, and investment. It is very easy to look at someone else’s moment of success and fixate on that event itself, and think the event is what made the person. The moment an author is signed. The moment an author reaches the bestseller list, etc. It is natural to see that event wonder why the same thing isn’t happening to you.

Success isn’t the result of an event, it is the result of a long-unseen process marked my a multitude of failures. Maybe an event pops up along the way, maybe not. This is true in business and it is true in writing as well. Would-be authors ought not forget this. Getting an agent is great, but look at it as just another step in your ongoing process towards success. The moment you fixate on the event itself and lose track of the journey, you set yourself up for disappointment.

That friend of yours who self-published and is selling 50K books a month may have a million+ words in failure novels under their belt. Success was only the very last step.

Ok, enough about that. I think Anonymous made the mistake of assuming an event meant success, and when they signed an agent, they lost sight of the process. This is the wrong mentality to be successful. Every up might have a down and you either keep pushing, or you are better off not even getting started.

Motivation

Another issue with Ms. Anonymous was thinking publishing was her fate. This immediately signals a problem: was she in this just to be published? Was she in this just because she wanted to “be a writer?”

Unfortunately, that is not good enough. The wrong motivation and the wrong reasons won’t carry the day. It is like picking up a guitar because you want to be a famous musician, not because you have music to share with the world.

You’ve probably heard people say they write because the love it. Maybe you agree, or maybe deep down you think, I enjoy it, but I really just want to make money at it. If so, best of luck to you, but I think you are in the wrong game. Breaking out is a huge amount of work and the only way you can possibly keep the momentum going is if you genuinely love what you are doing. There are easier ways to make money.

Anonymous seems to have fallen into this trap somewhere along the way. Anyone writing only with an end goal in mind is missing the point. Write because you love it. Write because you’d do so anyway, even if you’d seen the future and knew nobody would ever pay you a dollar for it. If you do this, and you end up making money, well that is about as good as it gets. If you don’t end up making money, who cares? You are doing something that makes you happy.

/End rant

Those are the ingredients I think almost all successful writers must have:

  • A true motivation to want to share stories, no matter what.
  • An understanding that success in any field is the result of a very long process, and not the result of achieving any one event

Anonymous, if you are out there, don’t give up. Rediscover what it was that first excited you about writing, and return to that. Forget about being published, forget about the rest of it. Feed on the excitement of telling stories, and see what comes.

Oculus Rift

I had my first foray into the world of virtual reality with an Oculus Rift, and I thought it warranted a few words of review. I’ve been unusually tight on both time and energy to work on writing, but VR turns out to be another easy way to slip into a secondary world when I’m just too spent to be creating my own.

The Rig

Quick origins story: I built my first rig as a freshman in college. My buddy and I decided we didn’t have enough to do, what with a full load of courses, so we started a (now defunct) hosting company. It was a modest venture, but we did have about 300 customers billing monthly at one time. I don’t have much tangible to show from all the time I sank into that, but it did provide the funding for the first rig I ever built. I don’t even remember the hardware I used, so much having changed since those days. In any case, ever since then I’ve always carried the itch to build my own gaming system.

I fell out of touch with such things for many years, in part because I switched my home and work platform to OSX, in part because gaming fell by the wayside between my later college years and the corporate working world, and in part because I didn’t have the money to maintain a dedicating gaming machine. The itch remained and festered for well over a decade, then finally last Christmas I decided to scratch. I spent more than I should, but what the hell, it’s only money. Or maybe, hash-tag y-o-l-o? Business write-off as long as I develop on there too? Whatever, it’s done now.

Got a snazzy SSD PCI-e HDD that I’ve deployed in some of my database servers, got a Titan X Pascal in there, intel i7, and a gigantic case because I’d forgotten what “full ATX” meant. Wired it up nice and clean to my OCD’s delight, and fired it up:

Virtual Reality

So I had this thing since Christmas and I’ve been utterly amazed by how far games have progressed since the early 2000s, particularly when played on a curved 21:9 monitor (which actually was a work purchase. If you are a developer, look into one of these… seriously). Maybe I should have been content there, but it got me thinking… what else have I been missing in the world of gaming? The last console I owned was an early PS2. The most advanced game I ever played on my iPhone was Bike Race. What else has passed me by?

These idle musing came to a point over on the Fantasy Faction website, where I sometimes dwell in the writing forums. One of the users on there is a VR enthusiast. I’d heard of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, but I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t really know if they’d matured as products, or if they were just expensive gimmicks. In any case, a thread led to a few PMs which led to a few YouTube videos which led to yet another slap in the face.

This VR thing is widely adopted and quite mature, and everyone who has used the hardware swears it is the future. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and others are all fighting to win this market… the following is unusually dedicated, and the reviews unusually unanimous. Well, who am I to argue with the might of the internet? Thee command and I obey.

Oculus Rift

I decided to grab the hardware for this thing and see for myself. It arrived last week:

It took an hour to setup and configure, and just going through the initialization steps, I knew this thing was going to blow my mind. Next I downloaded a few games (Steam has a VR module so it all works pretty easily… you just have to enable “all sources” in the Oculus app). The first one I tried was called Eve: Valkyrie. It’s a space-ship flying game.

And it absolutely blew my fucking mind.

I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. You start out sitting in the cockpit of your little ship. You can look down and see yourself… well your virtual avatar. Your legs, arms, chest. If you move your head around, your body moves too as if your head is actually attached. You can look down and see the foot pedals, look left and see the glass beside you, even turn around and see the back of the pilot seat and the equipment stashed in the back. The response to my movements was 100%, completely natural. As you turn your head, the sounds even track left to right, as they really should. I was THERE.

Then outside the ship the lights come on and the controller starts vibrating. I’m in a launch bay and it’s counting down. When it hits zero my ship gets jettisoned down this enormous track and out into space. It felt like an actual rollercoaster, everything moving all around me. This thing was worth it just for that experience, though of course I’ve played several games since then to try and get the full experience. Some are better than others, but one thing is clear to me: this is the future of entertainment consumption.

Sim Sickness

There is one drawback I’ve noticed, that I can only hope improves. It is very easy to get motion sick using this thing. I’m not one easily pushed to the spins… I made it through a flight in NASA’s Vomit Comet without blowing chunks, after all. I’ve never been car sick or ill from a rollercoaster.

Yet Oculus almost got me there. After an hour, my stomach feels weak and my head is spinning, and I have to get out. Even the next day I felt a little off-balance. I’ve since learned that you need to acclimate to VR, start with games that let you stay stationary, and limit the extent to which you swivel your head around. More frequent breaks are also required, compared to conventional games. This is certainly a disappointing side effect that keeps breaking me out of the immersion, but it is a minor nit to pick compared to the overall experience. I still highly recommend Oculus to anyone, gaming enthusiast or otherwise… just make note of the “comfort level” rating on games, and be sure to start at the low end of the spectrum.

Well anyway, that is my little rant of the day. Hopefully I can get myself back on track with Lunhina, but for the moment I’m allowing this little diversion.

Oh, and Happy new year to y’all. Hope 2017 has great things in store for everyone.

Get Beta Readers, then Ignore Them

Sidestepping the flippancy of the headline, I invite you to follow me on a brief rant of why you absolutely should get beta readers for your work, and then you absolutely should learn how to ignore them.  If you happen to be a beta reader of my work, don’t worry I still want to be friends. This post comes after I provided feedback to someone, and it inadvertently disrupted their vision.

Beta readers

People have different names for the different stages of critiquers. I’m talking about the first round of readers… the alpha readers, the workshoppers. The ones who are probably writers themselves. Since alpha reader doesn’t seem to be a commonly used term, for this rant I’ll just call them beta readers.

There are tons of reasons you should get beta readers. I’m not going to spend too much time on this point, because I think it is well understood. The bullets are as follows:

  • Outside opinions are indispensable for calibrating mystery plots
  • Outside opinions are essential for gauging foreshadowing and plot twists
  • Beta readers will catch tons of obvious mistakes to which you were totally blind
  • They will help you see pacing and arc issues from a fresh perspective

The list really speaks for itself. No matter how much creative distance you give yourself, there is no way to approach your own work the way a reader would, and the feedback a good beta reader can provide will help turn your story from good to great.

Protect your head

Maria_Hill_Mind_Probe_3364

Here’s the rub: mixed in with all that great feedback will be — inevitably — a lot of things that should just be ignored. Things that appear to reflect on the quality of your story, but don’t really. Your job is to keep those things from getting into your head.

First of all, no book you write will be a perfect genre match for someone else’s tastes, it just can’t ever be. The reason is simple. No matter how brilliant the story is, a book’s prose are only half of the equation that forms the “experience” of a book. The other half is the repertoire of beliefs and experiences brought by the reader. When these two combine, each reader has a unique experience of a given story mixed with their emotions and imagination. An experience surely guided by the author, but unique nonetheless. There is no one-size-fits-all, so there is just no way to write a story that works for everyone in all ways. This does not imply a problem with your story.

Then there are the high level preferences that are unlikely to be a perfect match for all readers. Your style of descriptions and prose, your use of voice, the length of your chapters, the characterization of whoever, the way you pace and plot… in that enormous list of “things you do in your book,” at least one won’t perfectly match a given reader’s preferences. This does not imply a problem with your story.

Both of those compatibility issues are normal and expected. Not a problem. A casual reader will love a book even if it wasn’t a 100% perfect genre match to their taste. They probably won’t even notice if this or that stylistically wasn’t perfectly their ideal. These things are overlooked by the casual reader, who just remembers how much they loved your book. These things probably won’t be ignored by your beta readers!

Finally, exceptionally few people will really know what you are going for until they’ve finished your book. Because beta readers often give feedback along the way, they will — thoughtfully and with the best of intentions — identify places where they perceive the story is veering off course. Off what course? Well, the one they anticipate. Probably the one they themselves would write, or at least the one they expect you to be writing. Whatever the case, they are almost certainly wrong, and their nudging doesn’t serve to steady the ship so much as confuse its vector.

In all of these cases, the related feedback actually has nothing to do with your story, it is merely a reflection of subtle mismatches between your story and your chosen readers. Recognizing when feedback is bubbling up from these sources is crucial, so you can safely dispose of it. We’ll return to this observation shortly.

Seek, and you will find

New writers often become new critters as part of the initiation into the world of writing. If you have workshopped other people’s writing, let me ask you something: has it changed the way you consume published fiction at all?

iStock_000001794848XSmall

In other words, have you ever slipped on your workshopping hat while reading a published book, perhaps and old favorite, and been surprised to see that you could make a list of issues if asked? I recently had this experience with Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss as well as The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Don’t get me wrong: those are both fantastic books, and well worth a look by any serious fantasy writer. Nonetheless, I could find issues… things that didn’t move as well as they could have, unbelievable character statements or feelings, etc.

Of course I could, but so what?

All this should demonstrate is that the goal of the author is not to construct a story that is immune to feedback, it is just to construct a great story! The two are not mutually exclusive.

I think, at its heart, it is an issue of “academic” issues vs “actual” issues. In workshop-mode, all the rules and guidelines and best-practices are swimming about in our heads, and when we see something that deviates, we notice. We point it out, because that is our job as a critiquer. Yet many of these academic things do not imply storytelling problems, not necessarily anyway. It might just be that you want a chapter to meander a bit to set the tone. You want a character to overlook something for reasons revealed later. You want tension interrupted by flowery metaphors. It is not bad that beta readers will point many of these things out, it is bad when the author decides they need to “fix” all of these observations categorically.

Ignoring beta readers

Which brings me to the thesis of the rant. If we reduce all this to an actionable summary, it would be this: just as important as workshopping is learning how to filter feedback.

I’ve heard Steven King quoted to say he takes one in three comments. For newer writers with less experienced writing groups, I’d say forget Steven King, and be even more stingy.

Look for trends, ignore the rest.

Watch out for feedback that stems from simple incompatibilities between your readers and your book. These are all the things we talked about above: stylistic or genre mismatches, big-picture nudges, and anything else that threatens to veer you off the course you intended to walk. These are rarely real issues with your story, and are unlikely to be repeated by other readers.

Furthermore, remember that a lot of feedback will be pedantic in nature. This is nothing against the beta readers — their role is to make sure you notice these things! But all you need to do is look for patterns, not specifics. If there are no worrying patterns overall, go ahead and stick to your stylistic choices, and disregard the feedback saying otherwise.

Finally, remember that your story is done when it feels right to you. You might still have a pile of “unfixed” feedback, but that does not mean the manuscript on your screen isn’t fantastic and publishable.

Note

I hope none of this is construed as an excuse not to reflect on the feedback you receive, or to otherwise make a less than stellar book. I merely hope to impress upon you that it is all measured to your standards; you the author, the creative force. It is to your judgement this book must yield, nobody else’s. Consider what they say, be aware of the types of feedback that are unlikely to help your story, then decide for yourself and discard the rest.

TL;DR:

Don’t lose track of your vision, and make sure your beta readers don’t inadvertently steer you the wrong direction. They are an invaluable resource in many ways, but never the final word, and never the golden standard against which your writing must measure.

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Brandon Sanderson lecture mirror

Brandon’s lectures have been a tremendous help to me, but they are divided into parts, sometimes the color is bad, and in a few cases the aspect ratio was garbage. Being a student of such things, I decided to pull down a copy of all the videos I could find, throw them through a couple quick tweaks in AfterEffects, and re-upload them.  I also added some notes to help people find what they are looking for (something I use for myself too, when I want to see what he had to say about a particular thing). Also, it never hurts to mirror important content, just in case it gets taken down or otherwise blocked.

The playlist is up with his 2010 JordonCon lectures, and most of the 2012 BYU lecture series.  I’ll also be posting the 2013 and 2014 lectures when I finish with 2012.  Enjoy!

Court throws out lawsuit against FAA drone registration

4/25/16 UPDATE: The cited article below is mistaken. Thanks to John for checking into that!

I’ve been following this case since early January when a Maryland man named James Taylor filed suit against the FAA for a new law that requires all of us drone owners to register our information in a public database.  I’ve been waiting patiently (without registering) to see how this settles, and unfortunately, the outcome is not good:

http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2016/04/19/federal-court-dismisses-lawsuit-against-drone-regulations

The basis of the lawsuit was that the new regulation violated Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which stated that none of the regulations the FAA might set forth could be applied to model aircrafts, elsewhere defined to mean aircrafts used for entirely hobby purposes.  That being the case, it didn’t make sense that hobby drones were suddenly compelled to operate under these new regulatory codes. There was also some concern about the hasty and over-reaching manner the FAA employed to get this law on the books before Christmas of 2015.

My own biggest issue, is that of privacy. I don’t want my information and address public, nor the fact I own a drone. This isn’t a handgun we are talking about, it’s a toy for taking cool pictures.  Sure, it can be abused, and idiots might fly it over a highway and crash, but you get irresponsible people in every walk of life… since when has the answer been, register everything publicly so it is traceable?

Well anyway, that is my rant of the day. Now I just need to decide what I do… register, or let this thing sit on the table for a while. *sigh*

Here is a details analysis of Section 336.

Mediums are full of it

I got drawn into a discussion the other day about whether of not mediums really could talk to dead people. My conversational opponent had a few anecdotal accounts which, they claimed, resisted any other explanation. “How could she have known about her Grandmother?” As I reflected on the matter, I found it easiest to refute the existence of true mediums by simply imagining what the world would be like if mediums really could talk to the dead.

Let’s Pretend

Let’s just imagine how amazing it would be if someone actually could communicate with dead people. First of all, mediums would be star witnesses in courtrooms around the world. Victims of murders, accidents, and all sorts of sticky situations could come to give their own accounts of what happened. Specific details of how crimes unfolded would be readily available, if only we could ask the victims who were there. Think how famous trials such as OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, or Jodi Arias could have changed with testimony from the victims.

In addition to trials, police investigations would be powered by medium resonances everywhere. Mysterious circumstances like the death of Heath Ledger, or disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, would be easily solved. Reports given by these medium interactions could be easily validated and confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt.

Historians and mediums would go hand-in-hand. What better way to solve mysteries, find lost treasures, and understand the way of past cultures than to speak to them directly? Historians would have way to find artifacts and receive detailed explanations of how they worked. Ancient languages could be studied through these interactions, and even learned. Eye-witness accounts to all sorts of amazing historical events could be summoned easily and documented, compared to archaeological evidences, and verified.

No wedding or funeral would be complete without mediums present to allow loved ones to stand in attendance. Funerals would be lifted by highly-personalized goodbyes from the actual dead person to their bereaved family. Lost grandparents, parents, or brothers and sisters could attend weddings and other important family events, delivering their own speeches and touching reflections through the medium.

And of course, by now we would have amazingly detailed accounts of what “the other side” is really like. What does it mean to die, and what is the afterlife these spirits occupy? Any resonance from the other world would be able to give details and information, any of which would be absolute gold.

The Most Important Career

It seems that almost no avenue of human life would be complete without access to the dead. Politicians could consult famous predecessors, military ground troops could use intelligence from captured and killed comrades, scientists and mathematicians could consult long lost personalities for insight (Fermat’s last theorem, for instance). Religious groups could actually commune with their ancient prophets and influential thinkers.

If medium accounts could be confirmed, as would be easy to do in any of the above examples if their talent was genuine, then mediums would be the most important and the most valuable members of any human society.

It seems strange they are instead relegated to sideshows in vegas, and rely on silly anecdotes and small shapeless stories to establish their veracity.

Or maybe, they just aren’t real.

What Came First: Chicken or the Egg?

I do not mean this as a metaphor or allegory. I mean it literally, because I have never understood why this paradox remains unsolved. Is not the answer is obvious?

The EGG.

Chickens have been around for about 12,000 years, and eggs predate their species by hundreds of millions of years. Eggs existed way before there was anything like a chicken.

That is not what we meant…

Perhaps you mean, “what came first, the chicken or the chicken-egg?”

In that case, I suppose it is slightly more confusing, but still easy to answer with a little insight from evolutionary biology:

The CHICKEN.

We know a thing or two about how mutation occurs in species: during the early formation of the embryo, as chromosomes are copied from the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm, errors can occur resulting in genetic mutations, or evolutions. Although the transitional lineage of animals is perfectly smooth, for the sake of argument we can suppose there is a genetic definition of what constitutes “a chicken” as compared to a “pre-chicken.”

Clearly, then, it must be within the egg of a pre-chicken that the first chicken formed, the result of an accidental mutation in copying its pre-chicken parent genes. This first chicken emerges from its pre-chicken egg, and eventually comes to lay the very first chicken egg. Thus, the chicken came before the chicken egg.

Of course this whole rant is pointless, the paradox is not meant to be literally examined. It is a silly way of saying, “a circle as no beginning.” But still, for the pedantic nerds among us, the matter is settled. Boom: headshot.