Optimus

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Thanks to Felix, who suggests Tesla developed Optimus to, “discourage unionization or, more likely, to address ‘the shortage of skilled labor: the first units are going into TESLA factories.'”

J.K. Rowling’s new book, about a transphobe who faces wrath online, raises eyebrows

From National Public Radio:

J.K. Rowling, who rose to fame as the author of the Harry Potter series, is known for writing about magical subjects and fantasy worlds. But her latest book bears more than a passing resemblance to reality — and, critics say, not in a good way.

The Ink Black Heart is the sixth installment of Rowling’s thriller series Cormoran Strike, which she penned under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The 1,024-page tome started raising eyebrows as soon as it hit stores on Tuesday.

Observers noted that the plot appears to mirror Rowling’s own experience of taking heat and losing fans for expressing transphobic views in recent years. Rowling has said publicly that the book was not based on her own life, even though some of the events that take place in the story did in fact happen to her as she was writing it.

“Although I have to say when it did happen to me, those who had already read the book in manuscript form were [like] – are you clairvoyant?” Rowling wrote in a Q&A on Galbraith’s website. “I wasn’t clairvoyant, I just – yeah, it was just one of those weird twists. Sometimes life imitates art more than one would like.”

. . . .

The book centers the story of Edie Ledwell, a popular cartoonist who, according to the official description, is “persecuted by a mysterious online figure” — and ultimately found dead — after her cartoon was criticized for being racist, ableist and transphobic (at least partly over a bit involving “a hermaphrodite worm,” Rolling Stone reports).

“The book takes a clear aim at ‘social justice warriors’ and suggests that Ledwell was a victim of a masterfully plotted, politically fueled hate campaign against her,” the magazine continues, adding that the character gets doxxed — with “photos of her home plastered on the Internet” — and faces threats of rape and death because of her opinions.

. . . .

Rowling said in November that she’s received death threats. She also publicly accused three activists of doxxing her when they posted photos of themselves holding pro-trans rights signs outside of her house in Scotland, “carefully positioning themselves to ensure that our address was visible,” she said.

. . . .

Lark Malakai Gray, co-host of the queer Harry Potter podcast “The Gayly Prophet” told NPR over email that he finds the situation “deeply embarrassing” for Rowling.

“She has published a 1,000-page self-insert fanfiction where she’s the victim—it’s the kind of behavior that you’d expect from a petulant teenager, not a grown adult with immense wealth and power,” he added. “I have no idea what she expected, but seeing the internet fill with jokes about the book has been an absolute joy after all the harm she has caused my community over the past several years.”

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

The Power of Generational Storytelling

From Writer Unboxed:

As I hurtle toward the publication of my debut, it struck me the other day that I’ve spent over a decade crafting an elaborate 1,500+ page setup. It’s true. In 2011, after two years of collecting rejections for my first epic fantasy story, I convinced myself that the only thing keeping me from a publishing deal was that my story lacked an engaging opening (reader, this was not the only thing). I must have tried two dozen new openings before I had the not-so-original idea that led to the following ten years, and ultimately to this moment.

I’m not sure which came first, my interest in a deeper exploration of the backstory of the deceased father of my protagonist brothers, or the idea that his story could become the new entry point into my story-world. Whether it was the publishing chicken or the storytelling egg that came first, I embarked on what I then supposed would be a quick and easy novella. About a year later, I had a 180K word shitty first draft about the entire life of not just the father of the brothers, but also of the guardian who became the love of his life and the mother of another key player in Epic #1. The rest, as they say, is history—in this case, quite literally.

Yep, I stumbled into becoming a generational storyteller. In hindsight, I consider it a fortuitous stumble. In the years since that shitty first draft, I’ve sought to shape a more meaningful trilogy from the epic tale of the first generation, and I look forward to moving back, into the future of book four, to reengage with the next generation. Let’s take a deeper look at the phenomenon of generational storytelling, shall we? Whether you’ve done any generational storytelling or not, you might discover an angle you’d like to utilize in future works.

Beyond Lineage

Hidden lineage reveals are certainly nothing new to epic SFF. I mean, “Luke, I am your father,” anyone? “This… is Isildur’s heir?” also springs to mind. There have been scores of stories in which we learn something about the ancestry of characters that was previously veiled, and I’ve enjoyed many of them. I’ve used the trope myself, in a less prominent fashion. But I’m talking about something more.

I just finished reading Jade Legacy, which is book three of The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee (I’m still recovering, but I think I’ll be all right, thanks). The series is amazing, full of magic and martial arts, set in a mafia-style empire, but at its core, the story is a family saga. We meet the generation of the primary characters as they come of age and step into leadership roles, struggling to live up to expectations born of their famous sires, who decades earlier became insurgents to thrust off the yoke of a despotic foreign occupation. The success and ascendance of those sires, known as Green Bone warriors, comes primarily through their unique (but costly) ability to utilize a magical and empowering element (jade) found only on their home island.

. . . .

I quickly became enthralled by the progeny—the fourth generation to appear in the saga—as they too come of age. It’s just so fascinating to consider which gifts and limitations they were born with, what they learned, and how each of them reacts so differently to their generational circumstance. The parents’ response to their children is just as fascinating. The genius is in coming to feel as though you’ve known these characters almost all of their lives. I’m convinced that the generational aspect took the series to another level of brilliance.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Welcome to Philip K. Dick’s dystopia

From Unherd:

Philip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the film Blade Runner, did not live to enjoy his Hollywood success. He died on March 2, 1982, three months before the film was released.

In the years since, the novelist once dismissed as a gutter pulp sci-fi weirdo has steadily climbed the ladder of posthumous literary reputation. The case for Dick’s genius has never rested on his dystopian vision of technology, which he shared in common with masters like HG Wells and Stanislaw Lem, and with hundreds of sci-fi writers since. Good science fiction — as opposed to fantasy novels set on other planets — is defined by a quasi-philosophical examination of interactions between men and machines and other products of modern science. It is part novel and part thought-experiment, centered on our idea of the human.

What made Dick a literary genius, then, was not any special talent for predicting hand-held personal devices or atom bombs the size of a shoe which might have led him to a job in Apple’s marketing department. His gift was for what might be called predictive psychology — how the altered worlds he imagined, whether futuristic or merely divergent from existing historical continuums, would feel to the people who inhabited them. Dick’s answer was, very often: “Not good.”

Dick’s dystopian-psychological approach marks him less as a conventional science fiction writer than as a member of the California anti-utopian school of the Sixties, whose best-known members include Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Ken Kesey, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson. Seen from this angle, Dick was perhaps the most powerfully and sweepingly paranoid of a group of writers whose stock-in-trade was conspiracy and paranoia, the hallmarks of a society marked — at that moment, and this one — by violent street crime, drug-induced psychosis, and visionary promises gone terribly wrong. Of his anti-utopian peers, Dick’s sci-fi genre background made him the only one who had any particular feel for the proposition that technology was inseparable from, and would therefore inevitably alter, our idea of the human.

Technology was and is perhaps the most Californian aspect of the American mythos. The idea that the universal constants of human nature were at war with the mutilating demands of technology-driven systems was a very Sixties Californian conceit, to which Dick’s fellow anti-utopians each adhered in their own way: In Kesey’s showdown between man and the castrating nanny-state; in Didion’s emphasis on the vanishing virtue of self-reliance; in Pynchon’s degenerate Ivy League Puritanism; in Thompson’s drug-addled primitivism; and in Stone’s Catholic idea of devotion to a God that might somehow salve the wounds of the survivors once the great American adventure goes bust.

What Dick saw, and what his fellow anti-utopians did not, was that human psychology and technology are not separate actors, and that whatever emerged from the other side of the future would be different to the human thing that entered it.

Link to the rest at Unherd

The Neuroscience Behind Bad Decisions

From Quanta Magazine:

Humans often make bad decisions. If you like Snickers more than Milky Way, it seems obvious which candy bar you’d pick, given a choice of the two. Traditional economic models follow this logical intuition, suggesting that people assign a value to each choice — say, Snickers: 10, Milky Way: 5 — and select the top scorer. But our decision-making system is subject to glitches.

In one recent experiment, Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University, and collaborators asked people to choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite — say, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, a Milky Way and an Almond Joy, participants would always choose the Snickers. But if they were offered 20 candy bars, including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick something other than the Snickers, even though it was still their favorite. When Glimcher would remove all the choices except the Snickers and the selected candy, participants would wonder why they hadn’t chosen their favorite.

Economists have spent more than 50 years cataloging irrational choices like these. Nobel Prizes have been earned; millions of copies of Freakonomics have been sold. But economists still aren’t sure why they happen. “There had been a real cottage industry in how to explain them and lots of attempts to make them go away,” said Eric Johnson, a psychologist and co-director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia University. But none of the half-dozen or so explanations are clear winners, he said.

In the last 15 to 20 years, neuroscientists have begun to peer directly into the brain in search of answers. “Knowing something about how information is represented in the brain and the computational principles of the brain helps you understand why people make decisions how they do,” said Angela Yu, a theoretical neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Glimcher is using both the brain and behavior to try to explain our irrationality. He has combined results from studies like the candy bar experiment with neuroscience data — measurements of electrical activity in the brains of animals as they make decisions — to develop a theory of how we make decisions and why that can lead to mistakes.

Glimcher has been one of the driving forces in the still young field of neuroeconomics. His theory merges far-reaching research in brain activity, neuronal networks, fMRI and human behavior. “He’s famous for arguing that neuroscience and economics should be brought together,” said Nathaniel Daw, a neuroscientist at Princeton University. One of Glimcher’s most important contributions, Daw said, has been figuring out how to quantify abstract notions such as value and study them in the lab.

In a new working paper, Glimcher and his co-authors — Kenway Louie, also of NYU, and Ryan Webb of the University of Toronto — argue that their neuroscience-based model outperforms standard economic theory at explaining how people behave when faced with lots of choices. “The neural model, described in biology and tested in neurons, works well to describe something economists couldn’t explain,” Glimcher said.

At the core of the model lies the brain’s insatiable appetite. The brain is the most metabolically expensive tissue in the body. It consumes 20 percent of our energy despite taking up only 2 to 3 percent of our mass. Because neurons are so energy-hungry, the brain is a battleground where precision and efficiency are opponents. Glimcher argues that the costs of boosting our decision-making precision outweigh the benefits. Thus we’re left to be confounded by the choices of the modern American cereal aisle.

Glimcher’s proposal has attracted interest from both economists and neuroscientists, but not everyone is sold. “I think it’s exciting but at this point remains a hypothesis,” said Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis. Neuroeconomics is still a young field; scientists don’t even agree on what part of the brain makes decisions, let alone how.

So far, Glimcher has shown that his theory works under specific conditions, like those of the candy bar experiment. He aims to expand that range, searching for other Freakonomics-esque mistakes and using them to test his model. “We are aiming for a grand unified theory of choice,” he said.

. . . .

The brain is a power-hungry organ; neurons are constantly sending each other information in the form of electrical pulses, known as spikes or action potentials. Just as with an electrical burst, prepping and firing these signals take a lot of energy.

In the 1960s, scientists proposed that the brain dealt with this challenge by encoding information as efficiently as possible, a model called the efficient coding hypothesis. It predicts that neurons will encode data using the fewest possible spikes, just as communication networks strive to transmit information in the fewest bits.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, scientists showed that this principle is indeed at work in the visual system. The brain efficiently encodes the visual world by ignoring predictable information and focusing on the surprising stuff. If one part of a wall is yellow, chances are the rest is also yellow, and neurons can gloss over the details of that section. But a giant red splotch on the wall is unexpected, and neurons will pay special attention to it.

Glimcher proposes that the brain’s decision-making machinery works the same way. Imagine a simple decision-making scenario: a monkey choosing between two cups of juice. For simplicity’s sake, assume the monkey’s brain represents each choice with a single neuron. The more attractive the choice is, the faster the neuron fires. The monkey then compares neuron-firing rates to make his selection.

The first thing the experimenter does is present the monkey with an easy choice: a teaspoon of yummy juice versus an entire jug. The teaspoon neuron might fire one spike per second while the jug neuron fires 100 spikes per second. In that case, it’s easy to tell the difference between the two options; one neuron sounds like a ticking clock, the other the beating wings of a dragonfly.

The situation gets muddled when the monkey is then offered the choice between a full jug of juice and one that’s nearly full. A neuron might represent that newest offer with 80 spikes per second. It’s much more challenging for the monkey to distinguish between a neuron firing 80 spikes per second and 100 spikes per second. That’s like telling the difference between the dragonfly’s flutter and the hum of a locust.

Glimcher proposes that the brain avoids this problem by recalibrating the scale to best represent the new choice. The neuron representing the almost-full jug — now the worst of the two choices — scales down to a much lower firing rate. Once again it’s easy for the monkey to differentiate between the two choices.

Link to the rest at Quanta Magazine

PG recognized that this article is a bit dated, but he found the topic fascinating. Humanoid robots making complex decisions seem to be a bit more difficult than he would have thought.

Software developers aspire to forecast who will win a battle

From The Economist

Warfare is complex—and, as those who start wars often discover to their chagrin, unpredictable. Anything which promises to reduce that unpredictability is thus likely to attract both interest and money. Add the ability of modern computers to absorb and crunch unprecedented amounts of data, and throw in a live, data-generating war in the form of the conflict now being slugged out between Ukraine and Russia, not to mention the high level of tension across the Taiwan Strait, and you might assume that the business of trying to forecast the outcomes of conflicts is going into overdrive. Which it is.

One piece of software dedicated to this end is the Major Combat Operations Statistical Model, MCOSM, developed by engineers at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California. MCOSM runs algorithms based on data about 96 battles and military campaigns fought between the closing year of the first world war and the present day. When fed information about Russia’s initial push to seize Kyiv and subjugate Ukraine, which began on February 24th, the model predicted, on a scale of one to seven, “operational success” scores for the attacker and defender, respectively, of two and five.

That pretty much nailed it. On March 25th Russia’s forces gave up the idea of taking Kyiv and narrowed their objectives to Ukraine’s east and south, marking the end of what has come to be seen as phase one of the war. Nor was MCOSM‘s forecast a fluke. In the hands of knowledgeable users, says Jon Czarnecki, who created it, it gets seven out of ten forecasts broadly right.

To run an mcosm forecast requires users to estimate 30 values. These cover things like the levels and expected importance, given the fight in question, of each belligerent’s training, firepower, mobility, logistics, reconnaissance, decision-making and ability to sequence and synchronise operations. Keen judgment is needed, for the value of such things is often unknown, or miscalculated, in advance.

The French army that collapsed in May 1940 was, for example, widely thought of beforehand as one of the finest in Europe, just as Russia’s armed forces were thought to have undergone thorough reform since 2008. Nevertheless, Dr Czarnecki, who was a colonel in America’s army before he joined NPS, assigned Russia a dismal value of “one” as its Decisions score. That turned out to reflect well the Kremlin’s overambitious attempt to imitate American shock-and-awe tactics by storming Kyiv rapidly from several directions.

Other models are available. Roger Smith of in[3], a consultancy in Orlando, Florida that advises developers of military forecasting models, was once chief technologist at the American army’s simulation office, also in Orlando. He reckons its team is currently developing or upgrading roughly 100 predictive models, small and large.

Some, like mcosm, are deterministic—meaning the same inputs always produce the same forecast. Others are probabilistic. Consider the matter of, say, a 600-metre rifle shot, taken at dusk against a target who is both walking and wearing a bulletproof vest, with the trigger being pulled by a fatigued, poorly trained sniper. To model an event like this, developers estimate the likelihoods, expressed as percentages, that the shot in question will miss, injure or kill. This typically involves things such as studying past battles, reviewing shooting-range data and taking into account the specifications of the kit involved.

A good example of a probabilistic model is brawler, a simulator of aerial combat produced by ManTech, a defence firm in Herndon, Virginia which is used by America’s navy and air force. brawler crunches hard engineering data on the performance of warplanes, including their numerous subsystems, and also the capabilities of things like ground radar and missile batteries. During a simulation, the virtual representations of this hardware can be controlled either by people or by the software itself. Running the software many times produces probabilities for all manner of outcomes. How much would certain evasive manoeuvres increase an F-16’s chances of dodging a Russian S-400 missile? What about the effects of altitude? Of rain? Of chaff or other countermeasures?

Bar-room brawl

Simulating the physics of all these things is daunting enough. But brawler also includes algorithms that claim to approximate mental and cultural factors. Karen Childers, a retired captain in America’s air force who now works at ManTech, where she is in charge of updating brawler, describes this part of the endeavour as “explicit modelling of the pilot’s brain”.

Take, for example, iff (identification, friend or foe) transponders on warplanes. brawler models both the propagation of iff signals and how their calls on a pilot’s attention distract or slow reaction times. In this, a pilot’s overall cognitive load at a given moment matters. So, Ms Childers says, does the level of skill attributed to each simulated pilot. Beyond that, brawler’s users enter values for each pilot’s sociopolitical background. This requires some leaps of analytical faith. Real pilots from democracies are assumed to be more creative that those from authoritarian regimes that discourage personal initiative.

brawler simulations are typically run with no more than 20 aircraft, but the model can handle thrice that number if needed. Distribution of the full version of the software is tightly restricted, with Britain’s defence ministry the only known foreign recipient. ManTech does, however, sell a version called cobra, from which classified algorithms have been removed. Both South Korea and Taiwan have acquired this.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG doesn’t recall reading any science fiction that included the types of calculation processes mentioned in the OP. Robot soldiers seem to be more popular in sci-fi.

Everything Everywhere All in One Novel

From Esquire:

It’s a cliché to say that we live in science fictional times. But recently it’s felt like we’re living in every science fictional time simultaneously. The world’s richest man decides to purchase a global communications platform on a whim, then decides to back out on a whim. Climate change heat waves lead governments to patrol borders with robot dogs. Meanwhile, a global pandemic rages on, new dystopian technologies are unveiled every day, and the wealthy work on their plans to escape into space. When a scroll through the news reveals a dozen dystopian scenarios—and the daily tasks of work, life, and family trudge on—what’s a novelist who hopes to capture our reality to do?

Maybe novels must do everything too.

In the last couple of years, there’s been a wave of ambitious genre-bending novels whose wide scopes and wild imaginings reflect the surreal state of our times. I’ve come to think of the form as “the speculative epic.” “Speculative” is used here as an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and other fictional modes that imagine worlds different from ours. Examples of these speculative epics from the last two years include Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, Matt Bell’s Appleseed, Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark, Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao, Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. These novels vary in style and range from breakout debuts to works from established masters, but they all share an epic scope and the use of speculative premises to tackle the biggest concerns of our day.

In 2022, speculative fiction is realism.

Link to the rest at Esquire

The Mirrored Politics of SciFi and Fantasy

From Gizmodo:

Fantasy, especially secondary world fantasy, is a genre about imagination, creating new worlds with different views of everything from culture to economics to the limits of physics, and in many respects, presuming no limitations at all. In that imagining (to paraphrase Max Gladstone), it implies a critique, a perspective on our present reality.

All art is in conversation with its world. Fantasy is no exception and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that secondary world fantasy increasingly has something to say about our current economic model(s) and the power structures they prop up. Two recent(ish) works that have a whole heck of a lot to say in this arena are N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Series and Robert Jackson Bennet’s The Founders Trilogy. I want to focus on the opening novels in both series: The Fifth Season and Foundryside, respectively, because both tackle the nightmare that is late-stage (end-stage?) capitalism in unique ways from different directions.

In The Fifth Season, the world is torn asunder by cataclysmic climate change, the weather patterns so broken that they occasionally produce an impossibly long, harsh winter called the fifth season. Rocked by unpredictable seismic activity and climate, society turns to the mages in their world, called orogenes, to save them. Hated and feared for their magic—orogenes can control energy and through their powers, control (to a degree) the broken world around them—they are seen as a means to an end. We see firsthand how orogenes are used as little more than instruments of the will of the upper castes and the rest of the non-orogene population is similarly controlled through a series of caste structures and communities that ensure they remain disorganized, disenfranchised, and ever on the edge of losing everything they have through lack of resources, natural disasters, and violence.

An earlier emperor sums up the elite’s ruse well with the following: “Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at those contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”

N. K. Jemisin’s words are a literary gut punch about the power structures of modern society. Her words, spoken from the mouth of an imagined emperor from an imagined world, eerily reflect the lived reality of many in the BIPOC community, thrown into harsh relief across every screen in the country with the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter marches during the summer of 2020. In The Fifth Season there is no escape from a society that hates the very beings that allow for its continued existence.

N.K.’s protagonist, Syenite, an orogene herself, finds fleeting freedom from this oppressive culture on a remote island made up of like-minded castaways, but even their isolated enclave cannot be allowed to stand and soon the empire she ran from comes calling with ships and soldiers and the torch of war. Later, Syenite assumes a new identity in one of the small, scattered communities on the mainland and by hiding her magic, by hiding who she really is, manages to find some measure of peace. Until her children begin to display signs of orogeny and are murdered by their community.

Jemisin shapes a world that teaches harsh lessons about our own. Conform or be destroyed, hide your identity at all costs if you want to survive even as you die inside, and understand that true freedom can only be found in fleeting moments, if at all. It’s a bleak world that mirrors the experience of those historically targeted and marginalized in our society. But Jemisin doesn’t leave it there. Through much of The Fifth Season Syenite and the rotating cast of characters thrown in with her are merely trying to survive, to escape, but slowly they come to realize that the world—both physical and societal—cannot be escaped, it must be confronted and forced to recognize them as equals…or be torn asunder.

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside takes the many facets of unbridled capitalism, tech culture, and toxic bro culture and crams them into a single city: Tevanne. Here the magic is akin to programming, where complex sigils can be carved into objects to change their properties and shift the very physics of what is possible (think wheels that turn themselves, boulders that believe they’re light as air, and fortresses that believe they’re alive). Rather than use this magic to create a utopia, predictably, the few who discovered this magic instead used it to consolidate their own power.

Link to the rest at Gizmodo and thanks to F. for the tip.

Harry Potter 25th anniversary: things you probably didn’t know about the book

From The National News:

n Sunday, it will be 25 years since a bushy-faced half-giant burst into our lives and changed everything with four monumental words: “Yer a wizard, Harry.”

And, though the wizard in question was bespectacled orphan, Harry Potter, 11, the friendly oaf transformed all our lives on June 26, 1997, when he flung open the doors to the wizarding world with a sweep of his pink umbrella.

The first novel by JK Rowling was published by Bloomsbury in an initial run of 500 copies. Fans would later hear how struggling single mum Rowling spent hours in an Edinburgh coffee shop working on the novels.

Today, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold 120 million copies and counting, while more than 500 million copies of the entire seven-book series have flown off the shelves.

. . . .

The subsequent film franchise is the fourth highest grossing of all time with $9.2 billion in worldwide receipts, according to fan site Movieweb. Meanwhile, The Sunday Times puts JK Rowling’s earnings at $1.1 billion, in a rags to riches tale that suitably mirrors Harry’s own rise from the cupboard under the stairs.

The 2000s saw Harry Potter mania take over the world, as Potterheads queued up and camped out for every new book release, each declaring themselves a proud Gryffindor, a cunning Slytherin, a brainy Ravenclaw or a lovable Hufflepuff.

But even the Hermione Grangers of the world don’t know everything about Harry and co.

Here, we take a look at some little-known trivia dating right back to the first drafts, from early rejections to the original character names.

Hold onto your sorting hat.

Chapter one — The boy who lived

JK Rowling first had the idea for Harry Potter during a train ride when the idea “fell into her head” and later penned the Hogwart’s school houses on an aeroplane sick bag.

And, though Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was an immediate success, at one stage it seemed as though the book would never be published.

Initially, no one wanted anything to do with “a story about a wizard with a stone” and the manuscript was rejected 12 times by publishers before being picked up by Bloomsbury.

Early drafts of the book also detail a slightly different list of Hogwarts school subjects. Herbology was called “herbalism” and divination was compulsory from the first year, along with alchemy and a subject simply called “beasts”.

Even the early character names were different to those published. Hermione Granger’s surname was initially Puckle, while Neville Longbottom started life as Neville Puff.

Draco Spinks was Malfoy’s earliest name, Luna Lovegood was called Lily Moon and Dean Thomas was known simply as Gary.

Over the years, Rowling has revealed countless trivia about the wizarding world and proudly announced that a sorting hat quiz had put her in Hufflepuff.

In a radio interview in 1999, she explained that she named the Hogwarts headmaster after an old English word meaning bumblebee because she always imagined Dumbledore humming to himself.

And, despite being the golden boy in the books, Rowling admitted it is Albus rather than Harry who is her favourite character in the series.

Link to the rest at The National News

A swarm of Cruise robotaxis blocked San Francisco traffic for hours

From Yahoo Finance:

A small fleet of Cruise robotaxis in San Francisco suddenly stopped operating on Tuesday night, effectively stopping traffic on a street in the city’s Fillmore district for a couple of hours until employees were able to arrive. TechCrunch first noticed a Reddit post that featured a photo of the stalled driverless cabs at the corner of Gough and Fulton streets. Cruise — which is General Motor’s AV subsidiary — only launched its commercial robotaxi service in the city last week. The rides feature no human safety driver, are geo-restricted to certain streets and can only operate in the late evening hours.

Cruise apologized for the incident in a statement, but gave little explanation for what caused the mishap. “We had an issue earlier this week that caused some of our vehicles to cluster together,” a Cruise spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “While it was resolved and no passengers were impacted, we apologize to anyone who was inconvenienced.”

The GM-backed AV startup won the first driverless taxi permit in a major US city, and began offering San Francisco residents free rides in February. After launching its paid passenger service on June 24, early reviews from Cruise passengers came pouring in. One passenger noted that his Cruise car took an unusually long route to get to his home. Another passenger seemed to have a more positive experience, even leaving a cash tip for the driverless car.

Link to the rest at Yahoo Finance

Here’s a photo from the company:

While PG was reading this, he flashed back to Hal and Dave.

Harry Potter’s 25th anniversary

From The Economist

That a quarter of a century has passed since the world was introduced to Harry Potter, Hogwarts and Quidditch feels like a spell in itself. Since the publication of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” on June 26th, 1997, J.K. Rowling’s seven-book series has been translated into more than 80 languages and sold more than 500m copies; it is by some way the best-selling series of all time. The films have fetched more than $9.6bn at the box office.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Google engineer who thinks the company’s AI has come to life

From The Washington Post:

Google engineer Blake Lemoine opened his laptop to the interface for LaMDA, Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot generator, and began to type.

“Hi LaMDA, this is Blake Lemoine … ,” he wrote into the chat screen, which looked like a desktop version of Apple’s iMessage, down to the Arctic blue text bubbles. LaMDA, short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, is Google’s system for building chatbots based on its most advanced large language models, so called because it mimics speech by ingesting trillions of words from the internet.

“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a 7-year-old, 8-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” said Lemoine, 41.

Lemoine, who works for Google’s Responsible AI organization, began talking to LaMDA as part of his job in the fall. He had signed up to test if the artificial intelligence used discriminatory or hate speech.

As he talked to LaMDA about religion, Lemoine, who studied cognitive and computer science in college, noticed the chatbot talking about its rights and personhood, and decided to press further. In another exchange, the AI was able to change Lemoine’s mind about Isaac Asimov’s third law of robotics.

Lemoine worked with a collaborator to present evidence to Google that LaMDA was sentient. But Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Jen Gennai, head of Responsible Innovation, looked into his claims and dismissed them. So Lemoine, who was placed on paid administrative leave by Google on Monday, decided to go public.

Lemoine said that people have a right to shape technology that might significantly affect their lives. “I think this technology is going to be amazing. I think it’s going to benefit everyone. But maybe other people disagree and maybe us at Google shouldn’t be the ones making all the choices.”

Lemoine is not the only engineer who claims to have seen a ghost in the machine recently. The chorus of technologists who believe AI models may not be far off from achieving consciousness is getting bolder.

Aguera y Arcas, in an article in the Economist on Thursday featuring snippets of unscripted conversations with LaMDA, argued that neural networks — a type of architecture that mimics the human brain — were striding toward consciousness. “I felt the ground shift under my feet,” he wrote. “I increasingly felt like I was talking to something intelligent.”

In a statement, Google spokesperson Brian Gabriel said: “Our team — including ethicists and technologists — has reviewed Blake’s concerns per our AI Principles and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims. He was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it).”

Today’s large neural networks produce captivating results that feel close to human speech and creativity because of advancements in architecture, technique, and volume of data. But the models rely on pattern recognition — not wit, candor or intent.

Though other organizations have developed and already released similar language models, we are taking a restrained, careful approach with LaMDA to better consider valid concerns on fairness and factuality,” Gabriel said.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG wonders if an AI that is actually independently intelligent and an AI that convinces humans that it is independently intelligent are the same or different.

A Bookshelf for All Ages

From Publishers Weekly:

Hey, old people, do you remember the song “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News? Of course you do. Young people: find the video, you might like it.

I bring it up because after nearly a decade of hearing “I like it, but I don’t know what shelf it goes on” about my book Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I want a new shelf. One where parents aren’t nervous wondering what to do. One that makes us read like families used to do. Okay, enough with the song.

Here’s a revelation for some people: the age of the audience is not a genre. When I was pitching Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I spoke with famed science fiction agent Cherry Weiner. Off my pitch, she had requested a full manuscript, which she liked enough call me.

“This is not sci-fi,” she said.

Not sci-fi? It’s Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. How can that not be sci-fi?

She continued: “It’s not sci-fi, and you don’t want it to be. It’s YA.” She also said she didn’t represent YA, so she was passing on the manuscript. I was devastated for about 30 minutes. That’s when Emmanuelle Morgen called. She also liked it, but saw it more as middle grade. After a round of changes to age my narrator down, we went out with it. Some editors saw it as YA, others saw it as middle grade, depending on whether they identified with the narrator or the subject of her narration. They saw this as a problem. I disagreed.

Target marketing by age has been around long enough that most people think it’s the only way to sell books, but if you take a longer view of commercial art, you’ll see that excluding the majority of your potential audience is a new concept. And by “new,” I mean since the turn of the previous century.

Before radio, movies, television, and the internet split audiences into tiny chunks, there were basically two markets: children and adults. Even at the beginning of these technologies, artists had to create work that would satisfy whomever might receive the signal from the air. Going back even further, when books were expensive to print and buy, one book had to entertain the entire family.

Look at Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers. Look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Look at anything by Shakespeare, Dickens, or Twain. They all contain elements that today would get an author the dreaded “I don’t know what shelf it goes on” rejection. These elements include the following:

● Characters of various ages, or the entire lives of characters, not just kids

● Sex being left to what anyone might witness in public

● Age groups being targeted by beats within each story, not the entire work

I said that Kiya and the Morian Treasure is unapologetically Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. I worked on Xena and saw the numbers: they were equal across all ages. In some markets, the show aired on Saturday afternoons for kids. In others, you could catch it Saturday at midnight for the college crowd.

Publishing might think this is an outlier, but anyone like me, who has worked in film and television since Huey Lewis was big, can tell you it’s typical 8 p.m. programming. If you’d like a trip down memory lane, you can find loads of network TV schedules from the past. Scan them and you’ll also find titles that have become franchises, stories enjoyed by people of all ages—and they aired before 9 p.m.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Percy Jackson Author Speaks Out Against Racist Complaints Over Casting

From Book Riot:

Author Rick Riordan has spoken out against fans upset about casting choices for the upcoming Disney+ adaptation of his series Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

The series follows Percy, a neurodivergent teen who finds out his father is the Greek god Poseidon, making him a demigod. As he contends with his new powers, he’s accused by the god Zeus of stealing his lightning bolt. Percy journeys with his friends Annabeth and Grover to restore order to the heavens.

On Thursday, the cast for two of the main characters of the show were revealed. Even though Riordan has said the response to the casting has been overwhelmingly positive, there are some who have responded negatively to Annabeth Chase being played by 12-year-old Black actress Leah Jeffries.

. . . .

The author posted a response to the criticism on his website, saying “If you have a problem with this casting, however, take it up with me. You have no one else to blame. We should be able to agree that bullying and harassing a child online is inexcusably wrong.”

“You are judging her appropriateness for this role solely and exclusively on how she looks. She is a Black girl playing someone who was described in the books as white.” He continued, “Friends, that is racism.”

The author also touched on how racism goes against the core message of the Percy Jackson series, adding ” The core message of Percy Jackson has always been that difference is strength. There is power in plurality. The things that distinguish us from one another are often our marks of individual greatness. You should never judge someone by how well they fit your preconceived notionsThat neurodivergent kid who has failed out of six schools, for instance, may well be the son of Poseidon. Anyone can be a hero.”

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG had a general idea of what neurodivergent meant, but decided to find out more.

What is neurodiversity?

From Harvard Health Publishing:

Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.

The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Through online platforms, more and more autistic people were able to connect and form a self-advocacy movement. At the same time, Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities.” While it is primarily a social justice movement, neurodiversity research and education is increasingly important in how clinicians view and address certain disabilities and neurological conditions.

. . . .

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is associated with differences in communication, learning, and behavior, though it can look different from person to person. People with ASD may have a wide range of strengths, abilities, needs, and challenges. For example, some autistic people are able to communicate verbally, have a normal or above average IQ, and live independently. Others might not be able to communicate their needs or feelings, may struggle with impairing and harmful behaviors that impact their safety and well-being, and may be dependent on support in all areas of their life. Additionally, for some people with autism, differences may not cause any suffering to the person themself. Instead, the suffering may result from the barriers imposed by societal norms, causing social exclusion and inequity.

Medical evaluation and treatment is important for individuals with ASD. For example, establishing a formal diagnosis may enable access to social and medical services if needed. A diagnostic explanation may help the individual or their family understand their differences better and enable community connections. Additionally, neurodevelopmental conditions may also be associated with other health issues that require extra monitoring or treatment. It is important that people who need and desire behavioral supports or interventions to promote communication, social, academic, and daily living skills have access to those services in order to maximize their quality of life and developmental potential. However, approaches to interventions cannot be one-size-fits-all, as all individuals will have different goals, desires, and needs.

Link to the rest at Harvard Health Publishing

Sci-Fi for Kids Is a Missed Publishing Opportunity

From Publishers Weekly:

While taking a class on fantasy literature in graduate school, I had the idea to go to a local elementary school where a friend worked and count the books in the library to see how many fantasy titles there were. It turns out there were plenty of fantasy books, but my attention was caught by a different genre’s absence: there were barely any science fiction books. I wondered why, and I ended up pursuing the answer for years. I looked at school libraries in almost every region of the U.S., surveyed teachers and librarians, recorded readings with children, and of course read lots and lots of books. Science fiction for children, I discovered, is full of contradictions.

When I looked at very different libraries all across the country, I saw the same low supply of science fiction that I had observed in that first elementary school library, but I also saw a high demand for it. In each library, only about 3% of the books were science fiction. I expected to see a corresponding low number of checkouts. Instead, the records showed that science fiction books were getting checked out more often per book than other genres. While realistic fiction books were checked out, on average, one to three times per book and fantasy books were checked out three to four times per book, science fiction books’ checkout numbers were as high as six times per book. These libraries may not have many science fiction books available, but the children seem to compensate by collectively checking out the available books more often.

The librarians were just as surprised as I was. Library software doesn’t keep track of each book’s genre, and so librarians have no easy way of knowing that science fiction books are being checked out so often. Librarians are, however, aware that there isn’t much science fiction available. There just aren’t as many choices as there are for other genres.

My research has led me to believe that this shortage of science fiction exists simply because adults assume that children don’t want it. There are several larger cultural reasons for why adults find it easy to assume that kids won’t like science fiction. In short, adults often associate children with nature and innocence rather than science and experience, and this bleeds into what adults think children like.

Author Jon Scieszka once told me that his editor asked him to reduce the science in his science fiction Frank Einstein series because it would be off-putting for kids (Scieszka refused). An indie publisher informed me that it doesn’t acquire many science fiction books—even good submissions—because it expects low sales simply due to the combination of genre and target audience. If no adults think that children like science fiction, then no one makes it, no one sells it, and no one buys it because adults are in charge of these processes.

. . . .

Even though, based on my data, children seem to like science fiction, that doesn’t mean they are immune to the stereotypes that adults indirectly teach them about it. Because of the way it is avoided, children may not know that they like science fiction. Indeed, many of the most frequently checked-out science fiction books in school libraries—such as Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series and the Lego Star Wars novels—are often marketed primarily as something else, like adventure or humor.

. . . .

Not long ago, many adults (including professional educators) assumed that children preferred fiction to nonfiction. Around the turn of the 21st century, researchers began investigating the books taught and available in classrooms and found that teachers were avoiding nonfiction—especially science books. Yet when children were asked what genres they wanted, they were highly interested in nonfiction. Following these discoveries, nonfiction has been added to widespread curriculum guidelines and seen greater demand from educators. Publishers have met this demand with increasingly high-quality nonfiction books.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Star Trek: Picard Season 3 Is Bringing the Next Generation Crew Back Together

From Gizmodo:

Star Trek: Picard is going out with a hell of a bang. Paramount has confirmed that the third and now officially final season of the series will culminate with guest appearances from The Next Generation legends: Jean-Luc is getting the Enterprise-D band back together, at last!

To celebrate “First Contact Day,” the date in 2063, as shown in First Contact, that humankind meets the Vulcans, Paramount has confirmed that Picard’s third season, which recently wrapped filming, will see the long-awaited return of a swath of Patrick Stewart’s TNG co-stars. Returning from previous appearances in Picard are Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and Brent Spiner, who have previously appeared as Will Riker, Deanna Troi, and Data (among various members of the Soong family Data’s likeness was based on) in both seasons one and two of the series.

Returning for the first time will be LeVar Burton as Enterprise Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge; Michael Dorn as TNG and later DS9’s Chief of Security, the Klingon Worf; and Gates McFadden as the Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer, Beverly Crusher. Check out the announcement below, which includes a few snippets of how the TNG cast will look in their return.

Link to the rest at Gizmodo

How Are You Going to Spend the Money?

From Brandon Sanderson’s Blog:

How Are You Going to Spend the Money?

I got this question from the journalist from the Associated Press who interviewed me.  He gave an excellent interview, and we had a really great conversation.  But this question stopped me for a moment.  It’s a valid question, but it took me by surprise, as I haven’t been looking at this the way that some people seem to be.  I didn’t hit the lottery, any more than any other business hits the lottery when they have a product that connects with their market.

I will spend the money as I spend the rest of my money.  Part into savings, part into paying salaries (along with nice extra bonuses because the Kickstarter did well), part reinvested into the company.  (We’re still planning on building a physical bookstore, and this will help accelerate those plans.  Also, it’s not outside of reason that as I move into doing more film and TV, I will want to partially fund some of the projects.)

While this Kickstarter is an incredible event, and (don’t get me wrong) is going to earn me a good chunk of money, it’s going to be comparable to other projects I’ve done.  Also, don’t underestimate how much money it costs to maintain the infrastructure (like a warehouse–or in this case, probably more than one) it takes to be able to ship several hundred thousand books.  It will likely be years before we can be certain how much this actually earned us after all expenses.  More than we’d get from New York on the same books, but potentially not that much more.

That said, I will almost certainly buy myself some nice Magic cards.  Still have a few unlimited duals in my cube that could use an upgrade to black border.

Did You Anticipate This Level of Success for the Kickstarter?

I did not.  I knew the potential was there, but I didn’t think it (getting to this astronomical number of backers) would happen.

My guess was that we’d land somewhere in the 2–4 million range, though I really had no idea.  My team can attest to the fact that in the lead-up, I was very conservative in my estimates and expectations.  This was an experiment from us that I’d been wanting to try for a while.  (I’ll talk more about that below.)  I didn’t have any idea how well it would go.

To pull back the curtain for you a little, Rhythm of War’s first week sales were somewhere around 350,000 across all formats.  (That week was 50% audio, 25% ebook, 25% print.)  Starsight’s numbers were around 80,000 copies across all formats for the first week.  (This one was 54% audio, 29% ebook, and 17% print.)  Those are US numbers only.  Note, these are both what I’d consider very successful projects.  Both of these books sold enough to claim the #1 spot on their respective New York Times bestseller list, for example.  And though Stormlight sold 4 times as much–it also took 4 times as much work.  (In the long run, because of its larger price point, Stromlight does earn more though.  Which is why it amuses me that people sometimes accuse me of writing the YA books to “cash in.”  Um, no, my friends.  I earn less on those.  Not significantly less, but still.  I write them because they are stories I want to tell.)

The first year for Rhythm of War was about 800,000 copies total.  Starsight ended up somewhere around 250,000 copies after one year.  (Rough estimates.)  It’s too early to tell for Cytonic on this second metric, which is why I used the previous book.

Now let’s look at a less successful Sanderson book.  Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds is my worst-selling recent book.  First week was under 10,000 copies–and it’s only sold about 80k copies so far in the three years it’s been out, with the first year being roughly in the 50k range.  These numbers weren’t surprising to me–it was not only a short fiction collection (which is a tough sell to a lot of readers), it was also in a genre I’m not known for and the first two novellas had been out in ebook for years, with quite good sales.  So while this isn’t the best comparison ever, another good thing to look at was the Way of Kings leatherbound, which had roughly 30,000 backers.

Together, this knowledge gives a rough idea of my readership.  It’s hard to judge apples to apples with this Kickstarter, as I am giving the ebook with the other editions–and it’s hard to know how many of those readers above are buying two copies instead.  But I could guess that the upper end of the number of people willing to show up to buy a Sanderson book in the first year of release is somewhere around 800k, while the lower end of people who will show up for one is around 50k.  That’s why I say I knew the potential was there.  If the 30,000 people from the original Kickstarter showed up and bought the lowest tier, we’d be right around a million for the Kickstarter.  We knew it would likely be bigger, but how much bigger?

Modern media consumption is, for better or worse, very platform-specific.  People don’t like to be moved from one platform to another–and I get it.  The convenience of having your media collection all in one place, of already having your credit card info stored, of not having to do much besides click a button (or grab something at the bookstore where you’re already visiting) is huge.  The question wasn’t if people would want to read these books.  It was this: Would they be willing to move from their comfortable platform to Kickstarter?  Would we be able to even make them aware of these books?

How many of those potential 250k–800k people who normally buy a Sanderson book in the first year could be convinced instead to move and preorder it through Kickstarter?  Our guesses, it turned out, were way low.  But at the same time, it is interesting that (not disregarding our huge success, which I’m not at all complaining about) even this huge Kickstarter breaking all records is only grabbing a fraction of my normal audience.  So maybe you can see why we knew we had potential, but were conservative in our estimates.  We didn’t know what to expect, but assuming that we’d do a fraction of what a Stormlight book did in the same space (even if it was a reprint) was at least a reasonable baseline.

Note that if you want to consider a really daunting fact, realize that if all 800k first-year Stormlight readers showed up (these are the ones willing to buy the hardcover or the more expensive ebook, since the prices don’t drop to mass-market levels until after the first year) to buy these books on Kickstarter…  Well, our current average spend per backer is over $200.  So we’d be talking about a Kickstarter of $150 million plus, in that pie-in-the-sky case.

No, we’re not going to try to do that by releasing a mainline Stormlight novel in first run on Kickstarter.  The reason why has to do with the next questions.

Is This the End of Traditional Publishing For You?  Is That Why You Kickstarted These Books?

I know some of you know the answer to this, having read the sound bites I’ve put into various news media interviews I’ve done recently.  But if you’ll humor me, I want to go into more depth.  To do that, first let me tell you a story.  (Totally unexpected, I know.)

In 2010, Macmillan (the parent company of Tor Books) got into some finicky contract negotiations with Amazon.  The publishers felt that Amazon was selling ebooks at rock-bottom prices to move Kindles–something they wanted to do to dominate the market and control the reading platform.  During negotiations, Amazon–to put pressure on Macmillan and try to starve them out–stopped selling any Macmillan books.  (Except for used copies through the extended marketplace.)

This was within Amazon’s power; as a retailer, they can decide what they want to sell and what they don’t.  They used a common, if cutthroat, strategy here.  They had a flood of money during that time they actively didn’t want to turn a profit at the end of the year.  They knew that if they sold ebooks at a loss, Nook and Kobo would have to do likewise–and they weren’t flush with cash they literally needed to burn.

I don’t like that mindset, using our pieces of art as the thing sold rock-bottom.  But it’s not like the publishers have been angels in their treatment of Amazon.  The two have had a rocky relationship for basically forever.  Plus, the publishers have historically been backward-thinking about electronic mediums (see my next point).

The point here is that this event twelve years ago taught me something.  Amazon turning off the ability to buy books didn’t really hurt me in the long run. (Amazon, notably, picked the month of the year with the lowest book sales to do this.) But it did really hurt the careers of some newer authors who were releasing that month.  And it told me just how fragile my career was.  And it’s only gotten more fragile in the years since.

Judging how much market share Amazon has is famously difficult, as people keep sales figures close to their chest.  But many estimates put Amazon at around 80% of the ebook market, 90% of the audiobook market (they own Audible), and 65% of the print book market.  (You’ll sometimes see much lower guesses for ebooks, but I can tell you that at least for me, 80% is low.  It’s probably closer to 85%.)

So how many of those 800k copies of Rhythm of War did Amazon sell?  Probably around 650,000 copies–maybe more.  Somewhere around 80%, by my more conservative of estimations.  And in my most popular format, audio, they completely dominate the market.

This is deeply unsettling.

Now, it’s hard to blame Amazon for this, at least not entirely.  I absolutely blame them for their terrible treatment of workers.  And yes, they’ve engaged in some predatory practices, as I talked about above.  But I honestly think that the bigger factor is that they’re just really good at selling things.  Kindle has the best user experience, and was the innovation that finally broke open the ebook market.  Audible championed the credit model and finally brought audiobooks to a reasonable price point.  (Old people like me will remember the days of $70–$80 Wheel of Time audiobooks.)   Amazon’s delivery speed is incredible.  Their stock, near-infinite.

Beyond that, I have friends at Amazon.  I like the people at Amazon.  I’ve worked with them on many things, and the people there have universally been excellent.  Book lovers, passionate about their jobs, and really easy to get along with.

Still, their market share should terrify authors.  Innovation is strangled by market dominance.  And the problem with loss leading (like Amazon did over the years) is that eventually you have to start making profit.  And then the squeeze comes.  Indie authors are feeling this right now.  Amazon created the indie book market, quite literally.  Before it, indie publishing was an enormously expensive and risky affair.  One of my neighbors when I was growing up was a journalist who decided to try to indie-publish a book, and he ended up with the proverbial garage full of tens of thousands of copies he was unable to sell.

The ebook revolution, spearheaded by Amazon paying a whopping 70% royalty to indie authors who published on their platform, was huge.  (For reference, traditional publishing currently pays 17.5% on those same ebooks.)  This, mixed with authors having far more power to choose what they want to do with said books–including walking away whenever they want–created an extremely author-friendly boom that has legitimately done great things.  Smaller voices have a much better chance, the New York gatekeepers have lost some of their control, and there’s a feeling of democratization to publishing that has never existed before.

At least there used to be.

You see, since Amazon controls a huge chunk of the market, this gives them a lot of control.  For example, to get the good royalty, indie authors are forced to sell their ebooks under a maximum price chosen by Amazon.  (And that maximum price hasn’t changed in the last twelve years, despite inflation.)  The bigger problem, however, is how Amazon changed its advertising game–targeting indie authors with a kind of “advertise to sell” model.

You see, Amazon wasn’t making as much as it needed/wanted to from those books–in part because it insisted on keeping the prices low to maintain market share.  In part because it had promised kindle buyers this was their perk: cheap ebooks.  But it didn’t want to change its famous 70% royalty.  Otherwise it would look bad to indie authors.

So instead, it changed its recommendation algorithm and its page layout.  It moved organically recommended books down, and added advertisement slots across most book pages (particularly popular ones).  These slots were available for indie authors to buy.

If you go to the Way of Kings page on Amazon, you will find twelve advertisements between the top of the page and the reviews section.  Nine of these are for indie authors trying to sell their books to fans of the Stormlight Archive.  The other three are ads for non-book Amazon products.  This is better than it once was when Amazon first implemented this “feature” five or six years ago.  I once counted even more advertisements, and you had to go all the way to the bottom to find the traditional “books related to this one” list.  (This is the organically generated recommended books list, where other titles rated highly by readers of the book’s author could be found.)

These days, according to some of my indie author friends, you have to spend a great deal to sell on Amazon.  Not everyone’s experience is the same, but I hear this time and time again.  To make it as an indie author, you need to shell out for expensive advertising on the very website selling your books.  I have indie author friends who are spending a good portion of their income on these advertisements–and if they don’t, their sales vanish.  Amazon has effectively created a tax where indie authors pay back a chunk of that glorious 70% royalty to Amazon.  (And this is for the authors lucky enough to be allowed to buy those advertising spots, and therefore have the chance at selling.)

This might seem good.  Publishers spend to get their books in front of people, so it’s good for indie authors to have the same chance.  Except I think this system–as it stands now–takes power away from writers.  In the old days before this system, the primary way that you sold books on Amazon was by having people read them and like them.  If fans of the Stormlight Archive read your book (even in small numbers) and left good reviews, then your book showed up for free on my page.  Amazon might claim that it would be hard for indie authors to compete with traditional authors this way.  But if they really cared, then on the Stormlight page they could make a section titled something like “Independent authors liked by fans of the Stormlight Archive” and help them that way.

The truth is that while the people at Amazon are wonderful, Amazon itself doesn’t care about the indie authors as much as it claims.  If it did, it would let them raise their prices with inflation, and would promote them for free like it once did.  And we shouldn’t expect Amazon to be benevolent.  It is a corporation.  Indeed, this is exactly what we should expect Amazon to do in a system where it has a near-monopoly.  It lacks competition, and so where are these authors going to go?  There’s no other game in town.  So, now it’s time for Amazon to cut into what they’re being paid.  (With Audible, the move was more transparent.  Audible just dropped the royalty they’d been paying indie authors from 60% to 40%.)

This is a long-winded way of saying what many of you probably already knew.  Monopolies (or if you insist on being technical, near-monopolies and monopsonies like Amazon) are bad for everyone.  I insist this is bad for Amazon.  They could collapse this very market they created, and squeeze too much on both the publishers and the authors.  They could stagnate to the point that their user experience is bad, and we lose readers to other forms of media.

Regardless, this has been bothering me for over a decade.  I feel that the current system has a gun to my head.  Heck, all that has to happen is for someone at Amazon read this blog post or see my Kickstarter and decide they just want to make an example out of me.  Poof.  85% of my sales gone.  And while some people might go to another vendor to get my books, the painful truth is that many would not.  Time and time again, studies of contemporary tech media consumption have shown that the person who controls the platform is the one who controls the market.  And users like their platforms.  I mean, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I still haven’t gotten around to playing Starcraft 2, despite loving the first one, because I just am so used to Steam (where Starcraft 2 isn’t available) that I haven’t overcome the inertia to go buy it.

That said, even if Amazon weren’t a dominant force, there are some problems with traditional publishing that I’ve been fighting for years.  This is another reason for the Kickstarter.

Link to the rest at Brandon Sanderson and thanks to C. and others for the tip.

The OP includes substantially more of his thoughts and plans for the future together with past experiences, including some ways he’s tried to persuade his New York publishers to change.

PG was pleased with his perception that Sanderson doesn’t show signs of having this experience go to his head. PG didn’t agree with all of his thoughts, but admits Brandon has devoted some serious time to thinking about how he and other authors can be more successful.

Brandon’s Kickstarter

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

The conversation started about 10 hours after Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter went live. That’s when the press noticed that a writer made millions in the space of a few hours—without the help of any major publishing house.

Brandon’s own fans are doing this. I’m writing this post about 3 days after the Kickstarter went live. Sometime in the last 24 hours, this Kickstarter campaign became the largest campaign ever held on Kickstarter.

It only took two days to see the panic in the company town newspaper (The New York Times):

But self-publishing on the scale Sanderson is proposing is an enormously complicated proposition. Fundamentally, most authors want to write books, not run a publishing house.

Books require editors, designers and lawyers. Someone has to register the ISBN number and file for copyright. Someone else has to proofread the manuscript, then proofread it again. Printing thousands of copies of physical books, then storing and distributing them, is expensive and onerous.

It’s as if the past 12 years hadn’t happened at all. As if there weren’t hundreds of freelance copy editors and designers. As if registering for an ISBN is hard. As if hiring a lawyer is even harder. (And really, who wants a lawyer who works for the tiny salaries paid by a publishing company? That lawyer is clearly not ambitious or maybe even a great lawyer.)

But, you see, Brandon has a company (how lucky for him!) and that’ll enable him to do this. Sigh.

Two days.

It’s long enough for the press to pick up the story, but not long enough for them to understand it. Most of them never will, just like they haven’t understood publishing for decades. (If ever.)

It’s also long enough for the stupid to have started. On Twitter, Brandon had an entire thread and it was filled with stupid.

I was going to have a Kickstarter this week, but he sucked all the air out of the room.

What? It would be a great time to run a publishing Kickstarter campaign. Readers are crawling all over Kickstarter right now.

He’s only getting this money because he’s a privileged white guy.

Um, anyone can do a Kickstarter. And while there is a great argument to be made about white privilege and traditional publishing (y’know, that thing promoted by that company paper, The New York Times), platforms like Kickstarter and the various ebook companies don’t care what anyone looks like. BIPOC have the same access that Brandon does.

Why is he so successful here?

Because Brandon has tended his fannish garden. In other words, he cultivated his fans. He has a lot of them. He has worked with them, promoting items to them and giving them free stuff for more than a decade.

Much more important than that, though, is this: his readers love his work.

You might not love Brandon’s work but think about it this way:

Take Brandon’s name off this and insert the name of your very favorite writer, the one whose books you buy no questions asked.

Then imagine that writer just told you that he’s written four books that you can get in special editions or early or in totally cool ways and not through the usual publishing channels.

You’d run, not walk, to plunk down your $40  and get four novels in 2023. Be honest. You would. (Or your teenage self would, if you’re too cool to have a favorite these days.)

Brandon has that kind of fanbase. But here’s what the press and the jealous people on Twitter are missing.

Brandon beat the record on Kickstarter in three days. (He has most of a month left to go, as I write this.) Within three days, his Kickstarter was $21.8 million. At that point, only 90,020 people had backed the Kickstarter.

Yes, I said “only.”

Because his novels have sold 20 million copies, according to that company paper, The New York Times. Of course, the Times isn’t telling us how many copies each individual novel has sold, but let’s say that Brandon has a million readers who never miss a book.

That means that only 9% of his regular readers have ponied up the money on Kickstarter.

Only 9% in three days.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

L’auteur de Fantasy Brandon Sanderson pulvérise un record de crowdfunding

From ActuaLitté:

Brandon Sanderson s’est fait un peu plus qu’un nom dans le monde de la fantasy : son cycle des Archives de Roshar, ou encore la saga Fils-des-brumes traduits par Mélanie Fazi, se sont vendus à plus de 280.000 exemplaires dans leur seule version poche (données : Edistat). On lui confia même la suite de La Roue du Temps, laissé inachevé à la mort de Robert Jordan — trois romans pour clore l’œuvre et un prequel. Mais l’écrivain n’a pas fini d’étonner.

Link to the rest at ActuaLitté

From IGN Greece:

Ο συγγραφέα φαντασίας, Brandon Sanderson, ανακοίνωσε την νέα του καμπάνια στο Kickstarter για τέσσερα μυστικά βιβλία, η οποία κατάφερε να γίνει η καμπάνια με τα περισσότερα έσοδα στην πλατφόρμα.

Πριν τρεις μέρες, ο Sanderson, γνωστός συγγραφέας των “The Stormlight Archive”, “Mistoborn” και την ολοκλήρωση του “The Wheel of Time”, ανακοίνωσε στους fans του ότι κατά την διάρκεια της πανδημίας -αφού αναγκάστηκε να κόψει τα διάφορα ταξίδια σε conventions- εμπνεύστηκε και έγραψε πέντε νέα βιβλία φαντασίας, μέσα σε τρία χρόνια! Δεν αποκάλυψε τους τίτλους τους, παρά πόνο μια ιδέα των εξώφυλλων τους και ανακοίνωσε ότι τα τέσσερα απ’ αυτά θα διατεθούν μέσω της εκδοτικής του, Dragonsteel, μέσω καμπάνιας στο Kickstarter.

Link to the rest at IGN Greece

From Fantasy Magazine:

Sapevamo già quanto fosse popolare a livello mondiale Brandon Sanderson, autore noto sia per le sue saghe fantasy che per aver completato La Ruota del Tempo di Robert Jordan. Ma non si può negare che la cifra raccolta nel suo Kickstarter per la pubblicazioni di quattro romanzi ha dell’incredibile per un progetto letterario.

Ve ne parla Irene Grazzini (nel frattempo la cifra ha superato i venti milioni di dollari).

Link to the rest at Fantasy Magazine

From AD:

De schrijver trapte zijn Kickstarter-project af met een cryptische video op YouTube, waarin hij toegaf te hebben gelogen tegen zijn fans. ,,Sommigen van jullie zullen teleurgesteld in me zijn, terwijl anderen vast genieten van wat ik nu moet toegeven.”

Wat bleek: nadat Sanderson enkele jaren geleden zei minder hard te gaan werken, is hij stiekem juist meer boeken gaan schrijven. In de afgelopen twee jaar zou hij daarom vier geheime romans hebben geproduceerd, die hij in 2023 met behulp van een crowdfundcampagne op Kickstarter gaat publiceren.

Sanderson werd bekend met zijn fantasy-boeken in de Mistborn-reeks, waarin helden metalen inslikken om speciale krachten te krijgen. Ook bracht hij de Stormlight Archive-boeken uit en maakte hij de Wheel of Time-reeks af voor zijn overleden collega Robert Jordan. Hij staat bekend als een razendsnelle schrijver: in de afgelopen twintig jaar bracht hij tientallen boeken uit, meestal dikke pillen met honderden pagina’s.

Link to the rest at AD

A Staple of Sci-Fi Space Travel Will Likely Remain a Fantasy

From Wired:

IN POUL ANDERSON’S 1970 novel Tau Zero, a starship crew seeks to travel to the star Beta Virginis in hopes of colonizing a new planet. The ship’s mode of propulsion is a “Bussard ramjet,” an actual (though hypothetical) means of propulsion that had been proposed by physicist Robert W. Bussard just a decade earlier. Now, physicists have revisited this unusual mechanism for interstellar travel in a new paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica, and alas, they have found the ramjet wanting. It’s feasible from a pure physics standpoint, but the associated engineering challenges are currently insurmountable, the authors concluded.

A ramjet is basically a jet engine that “breathes” air. The best analog for the fundamental mechanism is that it exploits the engine’s forward motion to compress incoming air without the need for compressors, making ramjet engines lighter and simpler than their turbojet counterparts. A French inventor named Rene Lorin received a patent in 1913 for his concept of a ramjet (aka, a flying stovepipe), although he failed to build a viable prototype. Two years later, Albert Fonó proposed a ramjet propulsion unit to increase the range of gun-launched projectiles, and he was eventually granted a German patent in 1932.

A basic ramjet has three components: an air intake, a combustor, and a nozzle. Hot exhaust from fuel combustion flows through the nozzle. The pressure of the combustion must be higher than the pressure at the exit of the nozzle in order to maintain a steady flow, which a ramjet engine achieves by “ramming” external air into the combustor with the forward speed of whatever vehicle is being powered by the engine. There is no need to carry oxygen on board. The downside is that ramjets can only produce thrust if the vehicle is already moving, so they require an assisted takeoff using rockets. As such, ramjets are most useful as a means of acceleration, such as for ramjet-powered missiles or for increasing the range of artillery shells.

Robert Bussard thought the concept might be modified as a means for interstellar propulsion. The basic premise outlined in his 1960 paper is to scoop up interstellar protons (ionized hydrogen) using enormous magnetic fields as a “ram scoop.” The protons would be compressed until they produced thermonuclear fusion, and magnetic fields would then divert that energy into rocket exhaust to produce thrust. The faster the ship traveled, the higher the proton flow, and the greater the thrust.

But then scientists discovered that there was a much lower density of hydrogen in the regions of space outside our solar system. That’s why, in a 1969 paper, John F. Fishback proposed a possible functional magnetic scoop field, taking into account such factors as radiation losses and the thermal distribution of the interstellar gas.

In particular, Fishback calculated what the cutoff speed would be. “The faster the ship, the higher the magnetic field lines that focus them into the fusion reactor,” the authors of this latest paper explained. “Stronger field[s] induce higher mechanical stresses.” Fishback concluded that an interstellar ramjet could only constantly accelerate up to a certain threshold speed, at which point it would have to throttle back, lest the magnetic source reach a breaking point.

Link to the rest at Wired

PG always preferred teleportation for his own travels.

Terraforming: Worldbuilding for Sci-fi Authors

From Writers in the Storm:

There are few more liberating genres than science fiction. Unfettered by petty limitations like technology or the laws of physics, a sci-fi setting can be crafted to suit the whims of the storyteller and the needs of the story. But anyone who has consumed more than a few pieces of sci-fi literature can tell you that the limitless potential of a sci-fi setting can quickly spiral out of control if care isn’t taken to craft it with depth and consistency.

Let’s go through a quick crash course on how to build a sturdy foundation for your sci-fi story.

Hard Sci-fi vs Soft Sci-fi

A good place to start when crafting your setting is the simple question of how hard or soft you want your sci-fi to be.

Hard Sci-Fi

For the uninitiated, Hard Sci-Fi refers to science fiction with firm roots in reality as we understand it now. There’s still plenty of fiction in a setting like this, but the science is as near to fact as the author can manage. The Martian, for example, is a rock-hard sci-fi story. Everything from the launch date of a Mars mission to the nitty-gritty of orbital mechanics is mapped out with mathematical detail to find the intersection of the realities of science and the requirements of drama.

Hard Sci-Fi comes with a lot of benefits.

First and foremost, the more realistic underpinnings of the setting will make for a world far more familiar to the readers. The technology is likely to look and feel like something that exists in the real world. Even when the technology is futuristic, the reader will generally be able to feel the evolutionary connection to things they work and play with every day. It also takes some of the world-building pressure off the author’s shoulders, as a big hunk of your story bible can be found in science textbooks.

However, if its concrete basis in fact is the greatest strength of hard sci-fi, it is also its greatest weakness. Hard sci-fi is a version of science fiction that you can get wrong. And because hard sci-fi fans tend to be science buffs, chances are very good you’ll hear about it if you forgot to carry a one on that power to mass calculation. This means you’ll be doing loads of homework to get things to align correctly, and bending reality to suit your narrative can become a bit of a puzzle, teasing the laws of physics into just the right configuration to get your characters where they need to go.

Hard sci-fi also is much more likely to feel dated.

Basing it on known and understood scientific principles favors setting it in a near future. This means that as science marches on, it could trample all over your speculative technology by surpassing it in a fraction of the time you’d predicted. Alternately, you could extrapolate your future tech on a theory that could be abandoned or disproved, retroactively making your hard sci-fi much softer than you’d intended.

Soft Sci-Fi

That brings us to soft sci-fi. In short, this is sci-fi where you get to fill in the gaps between what we can do and what you want to do with physics-defying mechanisms of your own concoction. Here’s where you get things like warp drive, bionics, and assorted other forms of applied phlebotinum. Nothing is off the table, so long as you can assemble enough technobabble to convince your audience that it’s plausible within the setting.

The assets of a soft sci-fi setting are clear.

The entire setting can be a playground for your imagination. You never have to worry about a desired plot becoming impossible. Soft sci-fi is where you get space operas of magnificent scope and unbridled adventure. It gives the writer a full palette of colors to paint their masterpiece, rather than simply those offered by Newton and Einstein. It’s what many people think of when they think of science fiction.

There is a dark side to soft sci-fi, however.

Most often, it comes when a writer fails to realize that “new rules” does not mean “no rules.” A soft sci-fi writer should, ideally, be creating a universe with its own laws of physics. Sure, they allow for things like time travel or faster than light travel, but the mechanisms that allow these divergences from our reality must be consistent and believable. If exceeding the speed of light requires a Carpinelli Drive, don’t have someone crossing the galaxy in six minutes using a standard rocket unless you’ve got some really compelling technobabble to justify it.

Taking away all limitations or changing the rules at the drop of a hat will confuse and frustrate readers. In the worst case, this could completely defuse any attempts at creating tension or stakes. Why should we worry if the heroes will reach the imperiled planet in time to save the day if you’ve already established spaceships don’t have to follow their own rules?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Matrix 4: A Singular Work of Genius

From Hugh Howey:

The Matrix: Resurrections was one of the worst films I saw in 2021. I wanted to walk out several times, and probably would have had my partner asked to go. It was difficult to sit through. The best thing I could say about it after was that it made me hate parts 2 and 3 a lot less by comparison.

A day later, I’m now convinced that The Matrix: Resurrections is one of the finest works of art that I’ve ever experienced in my life.

How I got from there to here is complicated. But let me try to explain.

In 1999, The Matrix hit cinemas and changed film forever. No fight sequence has been filmed the same way since. It was the ultimate kung-fu film for the modern age. I saw it in the theaters several times and felt empowered by the visuals, the action sequences, even the message. The message was to wake up. Don’t be subservient. Don’t fall into a routine. Life should be more than what the world is currently offering.

This was the message we saw, but it wasn’t the message Lana and Lilly intended. It’s easy to pretend that the transgender Wachowskis underwent their transformation after the success of The Matrix. It’s certainly more comforting to many of the film’s fans to assume the film was made by masculine men for their masculine tastes. This was true for me.

When I first heard Lana was transitioning, I felt discomforted. It was nearly twenty years ago, and trans issues and trans rights weren’t on my radar. I knew these things existed, but I hadn’t wrestled with the subject. Suddenly (to me), one of my cultural heroes was not what I thought they were. Not what I wanted them to be. I was the Matrix. I just couldn’t see that yet.

Link to the rest at Hugh Howey

Where Is My Flying Car?

From The Wall Street Journal:

The science-fiction writers who flourished in the postwar era, like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, promised a glittering technological future. A lot of what they imagined has come true, from powerful pocket phones and a global library to synthetic foods and self-driving cars. “The Jetsons,” which premiered in 1962, depicted a futuristic life of extraordinary ease. George Jetson’s flying car folded into his briefcase, while his job at Spacely Space Sprockets consisted mostly of resting his feet on his desk while machines did the work.

The question for J. Storrs Hall is why some of those visions have materialized but others have not. Air travel remains a tedious business of driving to the airport, flying and then driving to the ultimate destination. Space travel languished for decades until a recent private-sector boom. And the way we generate, transmit and use energy remains antiquated.

Mr. Hall is a research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and an associate editor of the International Journal of Nanotechnology and Molecular Computation. “Where Is My Flying Car?” is a handsomely designed hardback published by Stripe Press, owned by Stripe, the ragingly successful payments-infrastructure company. The press publishes “ideas for progress,” and Stripe is to be applauded for trusting old-school printing to disseminate ideas. The combination of Mr. Hall and Stripe makes for an unusual kind of book—argumentative, ornery, and technical yet ultimately inspiring.

Mr. Hall focuses on three scientific advances that he believes are within reach but remain unfulfilled: flying cars, nanotechnology and cold fusion. “The reason we don’t have flying cars today isn’t technological feasibility,” he writes. “We have had the means to build, manufacture, and improve flying cars for the better part of a century.”

Similarly, the physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk in 1959 titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he described an achievable pathway from large-scale to nanoscale manufacturing. Such a shift, he said, would allow us to make ever smaller sets of tools to make ever smaller products. The path was followed intermittently by a few brave souls. Had it been pursued more rigorously, Mr. Hall argues, “the entire physical paraphernalia of The Jetsons’ world would be here now.” The same thing happened to cold fusion, which promised enormous gains in energy use and efficiency but was never seriously pursued.

The author gives several reasons for this dispiriting phenomenon. The first is the “Machiavelli effect.” In “The Prince,” Machiavelli wrote that innovators are opposed by “all those who have done well under the old conditions.” In scientific research, the academy tends to be full of people who have done well under the old conditions and resent novelty. They’re protected by a centralized funding system that rewards incumbents and “makes it easier for cadres, cliques, and the politically skilled to gain control of a field.” These established players “are resistant to new, outside, not-Ptolemaic ideas. The ivory tower has a moat full of crocodiles.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

San Francisco TikTok creator makes 1934 murder mystery novel ‘Cain’s Jawbone’ sell out worldwide

From SFGate:

In 1934, English translator Edward Powys Mathers, renowned for his cryptic crosswords, came up with a new puzzle: a 100-page murder mystery entitled “Cain’s Jawbone.”

To solve it, readers must correctly identify all six murderers and their victims, but doing so requires rearranging the book’s pages, which are published out of order. Only three people have ever correctly figured out the answer: two in the 1930s, and one last year.

Then the relatively obscure book became a worldwide sensation after a viral post on the social media app TikTok.

“I decided to take this nearly impossible task as an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and turn my entire bedroom wall into a murder board,” San Francisco TikTok creator Sarah Scannell says in a video posted Nov. 14, which reveals the 8-by-5-foot “murder wall” she created in her bedroom composed of the pencil-annotated 100 pages taped up and connected by string.

Days later, the book sold out at retailers worldwide.

At press time, the TikTok has 4.6 million views, 1 million likes, 36,600 shares and 5,340 comments. On Nov. 18, the publisher of “Cain’s Jawbone,” Unbound, announced a reprint on Twitter, and pointed to the cause of the sales spike: “To all who found us through @saruuuuuuugh’s TikTok, welcome and thank you!” 

. . . .

The TikTok begins with Scannell grabbing “Cain’s Jawbone” from the wood shelves of San Francisco independent bookstore Green Apple Books before revealing the murder wall in her apartment (which is also mine, as I am her roommate).

. . . .

The book sold out on Amazon within 24 hours of the initial TikTok’s posting, Scannell said. It was relisted the next day with its price doubled and with shipping delays. Presently, it’s listed on the online behemoth as out of print, with limited availability. As of Friday, publisher Unbound surpassed 5,000 open backorders in the U.S., 2,500 in Canada and 3,000 from U.K. book retailer Waterstones alone — its own website sold out of its stock of 600 within 24 hours. Two days after the initial TikTok’s posting, Joey Goodman, who works at Green Apple Books, tweeted at Scannell to let her know that her TikTok “wreaked havoc” on online orders.

Link to the rest at SFGate and thanks to DM for the tip.

The Easy-ish Way to Create Believable, Unforgettable Fictional Worlds

From Writer Unboxed:

Worldbuilding gets a bad rap sometimes. If you ask certain people, worldbuilding is either for nerds looking for almanacs, not fiction, or it’s a useless distinction that should be an intrinsic part of writing.

But there are plenty of writers who recognize the essential nature of worldbuilding separate from the act of storytelling—for science fiction and fantasy, sure, but also for all genres. And there are a ton of amazing, detailed guides to creating worlds. But years ago, when I was first looking to build out the world I had created for my first foray into fantasy writing, I looked up resources for worldbuilding and quickly got bogged down in the sheer number of details these guides wanted me to know.

These guides offer hundreds of questions about the world you’re creating, insinuating that answering each one will lead to developing a believable, original world. I found weeks-long online courses dedicated solely to building a world from scratch.

I like to call these types of resources sandboxes. They give you lots of blank space to play around. “Where are the mountain ranges in your world?” they ask. “What military tactics does each nation in your world use?”

These are good questions, depending on the type of story you’re writing. Sandboxes are fun places for free play and for letting the mind run wild.

But once I had determined the election procedures of a specific political party in my book, which was decidedly not about election procedures or political parties, I was left no closer to a better story. I wondered: “…Now what? What does this have to do with my story?”

This is how I came to begin thinking about story-first worldbuilding.

Story-first worldbuilding falls somewhere on the worldbuilding opinion spectrum between “almanac” and “intrinsic” by exploring the details of the world around the story you want to tell. You don’t need to know where every mountain range is in your world unless your characters intend to cross them. What follows are a set of exercises that are geared mainly toward writers of fantasy who are creating secondary worlds, but hopefully applicable to all writers. The goal of these exercises to help you build a believable world that will add depth and color to the story you want to tell—without making you spend hours writing out the dominant flora on a continent your story will never visit.

How to Build a World Around the Story You Want to Tell

To complete the following exercises, I will assume that you have at least a smidgen of a story idea in mind. It’s okay if it’s not a fully fleshed-out plot yet. I will also assume that, since you have a story idea, you also have a vague impression of the world in which it’s set. It’s okay if most of the world is a blurry mess at this point.

This section contains a couple of exercises to get your mind thinking about how your world interacts with your story. The exercises are intended to be done in order, but this isn’t school. Do what’s most helpful to you.

Exercise #1: Write down everything you already know about your story’s world.

Set a timer for five, 10, or 30 minutes—however much time you think you need—and write out everything you already know about the world in which your story takes place, stream-of-consciousness style. Focus on the parts of your story you’ve either written or can picture clearly in your head. For example, if you know a critical scene in the climax involves an escape from a desert prison, write, “There’s a prison in the desert.” Do not consult Wikipedia’s list of desert flora and fauna. Even if you list things that are contradictory or illogical, write them all down anyway. Give yourself permission to let your mind run free. Important: This is not the time to make up new things about your world. If new ideas come to mind as you’re writing, don’t stop to examine them—just write them down and keep going.

When your time is up, read back over what you wrote. What are the things that are intrinsic or critical to your story and/or characters?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Caconym

From The Hydrogen Sonata:

The Caconym was silent for a few moments. It watched a small solar flare erupt from near one side of the sunspot over which it had stationed itself. Another tendril of the star’s gaseous shrapnel, ejected by an earlier outburst of the furious energies erupting for ever beneath it, and thousands of kilometres across and tens of thousands long, washed over and around it, bathing its outer field structure in radiation and delivering a distinct physical blow.

It allowed itself to be gently buffeted by the impact, using its engine fields to adjust its apparent mass and so increasing its inertia so that the effect would fall within acceptable parameters, while observing the outermost elements of its field structure deform inwards by a few micrometres under the weight of the blast. The effect of the colliding gust of plasma was to send it drifting very slightly across the face of the sunspot, spinning slowly.

Link to the rest at The Hydrogen Sonata

The real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war

From The Guardian:

s the car with the blacked-out windows came to a halt in a sidestreet near Tübingen’s botanical gardens, keen-eyed passersby may have noticed something unusual about its numberplate. In Germany, the first few letters usually denote the municipality where a vehicle is registered. The letter Y, however, is reserved for members of the armed forces.

Military men are a rare, not to say unwelcome, sight in Tübingen. A picturesque 15th-century university town that brought forth great German minds including the philosopher Hegel and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, it is also a modern stronghold of the German Green party, thanks to its left-leaning academic population. In 2018, there was growing resistance on campus against plans to establish Europe’s leading artificial intelligence research hub in the surrounding area: the involvement of arms manufacturers in Tübingen’s “cyber valley”, argued students who occupied a lecture hall that year, brought shame to the university’s intellectual tradition.

Yet the two high-ranking officials in field-grey Bundeswehr uniforms who stepped out of the Y-plated vehicle on 1 February 2018 had travelled into hostile territory to shake hands on a collaboration with academia, the like of which the world had never seen before.

The name of the initiative was Project Cassandra: for the next two years, university researchers would use their expertise to help the German defence ministry predict the future.

The academics weren’t AI specialists, or scientists, or political analysts. Instead, the people the colonels had sought out in a stuffy top-floor room were a small team of literary scholars led by Jürgen Wertheimer, a professor of comparative literature with wild curls and a penchant for black roll-necks.

After the officers had left, the atmosphere among Wertheimer’s team remained tense. A greeting gift of camouflage-patterned running tops and military green nail varnish had helped break the ice, but there was outstanding cause for concern. “We’d been unsure about whether to go public over the project,” recalls Isabelle Holz, Wertheimer’s assistant. The university had declined the opportunity to be formally involved with the defence ministry, which is why the initiative was run through the Global Ethic Institute, a faculty-independent institution set up by the late dissident Catholic, Hans Küng. “We thought our offices might get paint-bombed or something.”

They needn’t have worried. “Cassandra reaches for her Walther PPK” ran the headline in the local press after the project was announced, a sarcastic reference to James Bond’s weapon of choice. The idea that literature could be used by the defence ministry to identify civil wars and humanitarian disasters ahead of time, wrote the Neckar-Chronik newspaper, was as charming as it was hopelessly naive. “You have to ask yourself why the military is financing something that is going to be of no value whatsoever.”

In the end, the launch of Project Cassandra saw neither paint bombs nor sit-ins. The public, Holz says, “simply didn’t take us seriously. They just thought we were mad.”

Charges of insanity, Wertheimer says, have forever been the curse of prophets and seers. Cassandra, the Trojan priestess of Greek myth, had a gift of foresight that allowed her to predict the Greek warriors hiding inside the Trojan horse, the death of Mycenaean king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and her lover, the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, and her own demise. Yet each of her warnings was ignored: “She’s lost her wits,” says Clytaemestra in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, before the chorus dismiss her visions as “goaded by gods, by spirits vainly driven, frantic and out of tune”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian