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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Technogourmet's Manifesto

The company I work for is upgrading our cell phones, and they have given me an iPhone. It sits in a box on my desk. I am scurrying now to find out how to disable the internet on an iPhone (this may work).

I do not want any apps. I do not want to play Angry Birds. I do not want Twitter in my pocket. I want a cell phone which makes telephone calls and sends SMSses, and nothing else. I don't mind if it has a slick iOS interface for doing this, and there are probably some iPhone functions -- video and sound recording, perhaps -- that I won't mind. But the internet? That is right out.

This makes me sound like a technophobe.

On the other hand:

Most writers I know probably hand-code the bibliography page on their websites. Not me -- I wrote my own XSD describing an XML taxonomy of works, publications, reprints, venues, languages and translations, a XUI to generate a GUI to edit it in, and an XSL to transform it into this HTML. When I finish writing for the day, I run a Perl script of my own invention which counts words, reckons the total net increase and decrease, and writes statistics to a running log.

This makes me sound like a technophile.

As I've written before, in the 1990s I used a Palm PDA to organize my life. By careful steps of performance analysis, process improvement, and re-analysis, I have progressed to using a paper Moleskine and a binder-clip wallet.

I am not a technophobe; nor am I a technophile. I am a technogourmet.

In the movie Ratatouille, the young up-and-coming chef, Linguini, spars with with the formidable food critic Anton Ego:


Linguini: You're Anton Ego.
Anton Ego: [chuckles] You're slow for someone in the fast lane.
Linguini: And you're thin for someone who likes food.
[crowd gasps]
Anton Ego: I don't LIKE food. I LOVE it. If I don't love it, I don't SWALLOW.

That's me. I love technology. And if I don't love it, I don't swallow.

I asked for help, on Facebook, with this business of disabling internet on the iPhone. This occasioned a certain degree of hilarity among my intimates -- a hilarity which I encouraged. It is of course absurd to dumb down a hugely internet-centric portable device into a phone; as my old friend Elizabeth Mitchell said, it is like buying a car only to listen to its radio.

It is funny. But there's a little more to it than that. There is, in this day and age, something quirky and idiosyncratic about not wanting more -- more power, more bandwidth, more connectivity, more convenience. Not wanting to be always online, not wanting to have email and Facebook and blogs and YouTube and the news and Wikipedia constantly at your fingertips, when you are having breakfast with your children, or sitting on the sofa jamming with them on guitar and ukelele and clarinet, or walking across the medieval bridges of the old city in the evening on a date with your wife, or browsing in a bookstore, or trying desperately to come up with the right order of clauses in a sentence you've rewritten six times. Wanting to do all those things in peaceful netless silence, away from the hysteria of the world-mind, is already, in 2011, mildly subversive. And not wanting to be able to be online at these times -- not wanting to even have to make a conscious decision to turn the internet off -- that is even odder.

Here's the thing. If I won a car in a raffle, and there was a free parking space outside my apartment, and it was legal to do so? I would perhaps park the car, remove the engine and sell it, and use the car as an extra room. Overflow books and kitchen appliances in the trunk. A comfy place to listen to the radio. But to drive? No way.

I have had cars. I know what happens. When I have a car, I drive it. Biking becomes a luxury, a choice, another activity to try and make time for, to do occasionally and feel virtuous about. So I get out of shape. I spend time sitting, stressed out, in traffic. I go places that are farther away, because I can. I time things more closely, hoping to beat traffic, and then I'm late. I dress assuming air conditioning and a heater, instead of dressing for the weather, and get colds. When all I own is a bicycle, am automatically fitter, healthier, more reliable, tougher, and mellower, without any extra exertion of willpower. In a very literal sense, owning a car makes me a worse person.

Our selves are not merely epiphenomena of neuronal connections. We are not just made of meat. We are made of lots of other things: social fabrics, societal expectations, physical reminders of habits, and, most relevantly here, tools.

We are our tools. We hope to be judged by the contents of our characters; but our characters are not fixed and static natures. Our characters are constituted by our actions, our daily choices; and our choices are constrained, influenced, and often determined by our available tools. In choosing our tools we choose, in part, who we want to be.

If a technology is making you better -- better at being who you want to be -- use it, swallow it, become it. If it is making you worse, spit it out.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Gauntlet is Thrown

Here are the footnotes to the science-fictional poem which Amal has not yet written:

Footnotes


  1. Textual and other evidence suggests a date of composition after -5686 but well before -5492; see reference I.

  2. An adult member of one of the two fixed genders popular in ancient times, associated, at the time of the poem's composition with vigor and cunning, but also with desperation, loneliness, and inflexibility. See footnote 12.

  3. Salsica nulliphilus, a fast-growing, vacuum-durable weed that formed the structural basis of most habitations in near orbit around Tyche.

  4. A pejorative term for a class or clade of birthed humans principally employed in tending these groves. Although adapted to microgravity environments, they were dependent on paleohuman levels of caloric, water, and oxygen intake, which seems to have been a point of both pride and ridicule. (That the poet seems to have, in fact, been a member of this group, suggests that the term may be employed here ironically).

  5. Possibly a reference to the Systemic Collapse of -5834, during which the population density of the outer solar system decreased by roughly 80%. See references II and IV. At the time of the poem's composition, neither communications nor nutrient flow had been restored to anything like pre-Collapse levels.

  6. The metaphor invokes Tyche's tidal forces, a principal source of energy in that region of the Oort cloud, seen as mighty in comparison with the week and distant sun (see footnote 10).

  7. It is unclear whether the agencies referenced here are mythical, or actual custom-fashioned, disembodied, nonbiological entities. That the inner solar system was at the time dominated by such entities has led scholars to suggest, anachronistically, that the poet imagines something like the Incursion of -4358; a statistical analysis of the entire corpus of surviving texts, however, renders this interpretation overwhelmingly unlikely.

  8. These were commonly exchanged in a ritual denoting a promise of continued affection and respect.

  9. Which is, of course, another kind of theft.

  10. The sun, whose radiation made up a relatively small part of this region of the Oort Cloud's energy diet, even as its gravity shaped the entire system. The poem derives much of its power from the contrast; see footnote 6.

  11. The metaphor of orbit as both (voluntary) dance and (unchosen) destiny, of escaping while remaining bound, recurs here (compare, also, line 4). The poet's association of life on the surface of a planet with entrapment and suffocation is a commonplace of many microgravity cultures.

  12. The other of the two fixed genders popular in ancient times; see footnote 2.

  13. "Water" here may be a traditional metaphor for "bandwidth" (and thus "speech") -- but the literal interpretation is also possible; see footnote 4.

  14. The text we have ends here, and in my view none of the algorithmic reconstructions of the ending satisfy. The conditions under which the corpus was recovered leave open the possibility that the poet intentionally ended with this abrupt caesura; but this, too, I find difficult to credit, as it implies an archness -- even glibness -- at odds with the wry but earnest melancholy which otherwise characterizes the poem's voice.

(I presume the ultimate result will be published somewhere as our collaboration, although Amal clearly, you will agree, has the much harder job!)

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Footnotes for Amal

It's always so nice to find a new friend in a nearby time zone with similar instant-messaging habits; three or four days a week I am, like many postindustrial workers of 2011, rigidly in front of a monitor for most of the day (of course for most of those workers it's five or six days; not for nothing has the zombie become our principal monster), and, as an extrovert, I depend on a steady stream of occasional remarks to keep my spirits up. IM'ing while coding is the early twenty-first century equivalent of all those conversations in Jane Austen in which (it is sometimes startling to realize) the characters are, while navigating the various economic and emotional issues critical to the plot, also producing copious amounts of needlework, darning, mending, and knitting.

So I've been chatting with Amal El-Mohtar, the gifted SF writer and poet (author of the splendid -- and Nebula-nominated -- "The Green Book", editor of Goblin Fruit, and Rhysling award winner), who is in the UK, and thus awake at a keyboard when most of my IM correspondents are still snoozing.

A few weeks ago I peeked into Amal's LJ. I am not a LiveJournaler -- I detest its user interface, and the length of entries and comment threads makes it a timesink in a way which answer-an-IM-while-the-unit-tests-run is not -- a fact which separates me to a distressing extent from many friends for whom LJ, as opposed to IM or Facebook (which latter I find annoying but, alarmingly, increasingly essential; and yes, I know I would love Twitter, which is part of why I am avoiding it), is their primary mode of online interaction. (There is a new geography emerging here, a topography of user modalities just as tyrannical as the old one of physical distance was in the era of paper-and-ink...)

So I just occasionally dip into LJ in an attempt to catch up on the details of the lives and productions of various friends, and often I am skimming. I followed a link from there to the journal of one Shweta Narayan, where I misunderstood what was going on.

Shweta and Amal, you see, auctioned off the writing a set of poems, in support of the worthy cause Con or Bust; Shweta wrote one, and Amal is writing another. But, as I was reading quickly (for at my back I always Hear / my next Release-Date hurrying Near), I misunderstood the nature of the collaboration. I thought that Shweta had just written footnotes to an imaginary, not-yet-written poem, and Amal was expected to write the poem to fit the footnotes. I thought this was a brilliant literary game, and immediately congratulated Amal on it.

Amal clarified my error.

But I think the game is clever enough that -- since it does not exist -- we are forced to invent it.

Thus, Amal -- foolhardy adventurous poet that she is -- has agreed to write a poem to fit footnotes that I compose (you see that I have the much easier part of this endeavor!)

We briefly discussed genre, and came to the conclusion that just to up the ante even further, it should be science fiction proper -- in outer space, with robots and rockets, that kind of thing -- as opposed to Amal's usual environs (postmodern postcolonial steampunk, or menacing faeries, or caravans threading through sandswept abandoned ruins, or harpists with troubled pasts in deceptively peaceful-looking sun-dappled glens...).

Other than that, Amal has no idea what she is getting into. On Tuesday, I will post the footnotes here; you, dear readers, will see them when Amal first does.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Translations, Reprints and Steampunk Games

I've been awfully remiss about letting you all know, Constant Readers, about what's going on over here at the Vast Publishing Empire that is Benjamin RosenbaumTM® AG , Inc., LLC.

Recent highlights:

  1. "The House Beyond Your Sky" was translated by Florence Dolisi as "La maison derriére la ciel" and published in Angle Mort, a newish French webzine patterned on the Lightspeed model.

  2. "A Siege of Cranes" was translated as"Un volo di gru" by Davide Marra (who has a story in the same issue, "Pianeta Rossa", in which Garibaldi and Belzoni meet on Mars!), in ALIA 6.

    Interestingly mine is the only story in the issue from the USA; there are also seven original stories from Italy, and 14 other translations -- 6 from Japan, 4 from Singapore, 3 from China, and one from Spain. I don't know if this is a special issue, or if Alia always mostly looks eastward for inspiration.

  3. "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes', by Benjamin Rosenbaum" was reprinted in Rachel Swirsky & Sean Wallace's Jewish SF/F anthology, People of the Book, and "The King of the Djinn" (by me and David Ackert) was reprinted in Tim Pratt's anthology Sympathy for the Devil.

  4. My Danish collection, Start uret, has gone to a second printing! This is the first time, I believe, that anything of mine has gone to a second printing!

    Admittedly the first printing was only 100 copies. But then, there are only 6 million Danish speakers worldwide, so that's the equivalent of 8,333 copies in English. In translator Lise Andreasen's words, it is selling like warm bread.

  5. I posted some time ago about Todd Sanders' miraculous hand-crafted artisanal editions of A Siege of Cranes, "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum", and The House Beyond Your Sky.

    Now he has created a line of steampunk games based in part on the aforementioned "Biographical Notes..." (I have to tell you, when I wrote this story I had no idea I was committing steampunk); they include Aether Captains: Pirates and Traders, Aether Captains: Triad, Aether Captains: Dread Supremacy, and Aether Captains: Capek Golems. I believe Aether Captains: The Great Race is still in progress.

    These are Creative Commons'd, DIY, free Print and Play games -- you can download and print out the PDFs, assemble dice and tokens, and start hunting airship pirates in the skies over Arkady.

    It seems Grigor Karthagonov, carefree jackanape though he may be, has time to captain an airship while also expounding his philosophical typology of action and motive (or perhaps this Karthagonov is a descendant of the philosopher...)


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