Wednesday, August 26, 2020

A Word on Kansas Politics: Narratives and KS-37


Somehow, even though I'm from Kansas, I hadn't heard about this until about an hour ago.

To recap the story for those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar: 19-year old Aaron Coleman is running for Kansas state legislature in the 37th district. He won a low-turnout primary and was expected to win, given that there was no opposition candidate. Then, a series of accusations surfaced. The most serious charge came from an 18-year old woman who says that five years ago, Coleman blackmailed her with revenge porn. There have been plenty more accusations since, all of them involving abusive behavior toward women. Initially, Coleman withdrew from the race, but he has since re-entered.

I'm not going to comment too much on Coleman or his victims. Other people have done that in much more detail. Suffice it to say that he should have dropped out, and his subsequent behavior has only demonstrated that he is far too immature and unstable to hold any kind of office. I can only hope that one of the writing campaigns against him succeeds.

Rather, I'd like to focus on the reaction from the political press, both before and after the accusations came to light. I've talked a bit about narratives and narrative control here, and this is a great demonstration of how this works in our modern media environment. Specifically, I'd like to look at Glenn Greenwald's response, as he (along with the rest of the gang at the Intercept) seems to have taken on Coleman as some kind of cause.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Storyteller's Reserve: Early Voting

Back in the day, I posted stories that I couldn't sell to my blog, inviting readers to judge for themselves if they are truly as bad as editors seem to think. As a rule, I don't recommend it. So many writers automatically publish everything they do to personal blogs where no one will see them, not even making an effort to publish them elsewhere, and that's a true waste unless one already has a following.

I'm making an exception here because "Early Voting" is a story fast approaching peak relevance. I wrote this in December 2018 in hopes that I could find an interested party among the topical content-obsessed speculative community. I failed. The only personalized rejection came from Escape Pod, which rejected it on the basis of the final sentence. If you've ever wondered how brutally particular editors can be, then I hope that settles the issue.

"Early Voting" is a type of story that's fairly common in spec these days, a high concept piece that has a narrative but not a "plot" in the conventional sense. It has no named characters and no dialogue, and while it has the expected rising action, it's presented more as a description of events than anything else. Editors love these kinds of stories until they don't, and the line between one that they go mad over and one that sends them running for the nitpicking tweezers is very ill-defined.

So I guess the takeaway is: Write what you want, editors will reject you anyway. Pessimistic? Cynical? Not at all. You should write what you believe in, because if rejection is guaranteed, you might as well get rejected on a passion project than something you turned out trying to impress someone. As a bonus, not caring what people in publishing think means you get to spend a lot less time on Twitter, which means your blood pressure will probably drop a few points.

Oh yes, and because at least someone out there found this page trying to find out how to vote early for real, I have some resources: Go here to learn how to request an absentee ballot in your state, and go here to find some alternatives if it's not viable for you. Given Postmaster General DeJoy's chicanery, if you are planning to vote by mail, do so as early as you can.

Early Voting

For a project of its amazing scale and ambition, the Psephos Engine was launched with little fanfare, noted only by a few circles of bleeding-edge computer engineers and a tiny handful of truly obsessive political nerds. It was to take the best of existing research and knowledge, synthesize it with top-level computer architecture and algorithms, and then pump a tremendous quantity of data points into the mix with the intention of consistently predicting the outcome of a democratic election. The response from most was an eyeroll, and even the project heads were careful to avoid the usual buzzphrase-laden talk about future technologies and society. Instead, they quietly went about the work of preparing their machine for its debut prediction, feeding in the information and pruning back the stranger forecasts that it generated.

In 2020, Psephos made its first prediction concerning the pending election in the United States. The results were accurate but hardly revolutionary, merely keeping pace with the political scientists who had contributed to its initial base of knowledge. Again, there was little notice in the world at large. The project technicians simply returned to their task, feeding the results - plus the results of additional elections from elsewhere in the world - back into the computer, then running them again, this time pointing their guesses at a different election. Bit by bit, the machine grew better at prediction, first beating the mean of the political scientists, then reaching the top 10% of forecasters and eventually the top 1%.

By 2024, it had become harder to ignore the impact that Psephos could have on politics (not to mention the livelihoods of those who made their daily bread on the horseraces). People were still skeptical over this project, of course, but that skepticism was tempered by their own acclimation to a world of electronic suggestions. Some claimed that the machine was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, and was thus a threat to democracy as it was understood in the Western world. The more conspiracy-oriented whispered that the private interests behind Psephos were working with government officials to quietly fix elections, using the machine to give themselves a cover of legitimacy. There were angry comments and investigative reporters nosing around, and even the odd protest (though never one of any significant size). Through it all, the technicians continued to feed and train the machine, and the project heads watched the results with a curious detachment.

With each year, with each election, Psephos grew in sagacity. By 2028, it could predict the outcomes of American elections with 99% accuracy at all levels of the electorate, primary and general alike. By 2032, the project heads could claim similar accuracy for Canadian and European elections, and by 2036 the machine had demonstrated 99.99% accuracy worldwide. The conspiracy theories grew larger by the year; what had once been the domain of cranks lurking in the marshy nooks of the internet now included minor politicians, pundits (now truly fearing for their jobs), and a coterie of respectable, affluent, influential citizens. The countries of the world responded with regulators, with hackers, with threats of war; but for each electoral loser there was a winner, and the winners were able to keep the hounds at bay (until they, too, became losers).

At the start of 2046, the Psephos project heads - flanked by their newly-recruited technicians, the envy of the world's research community - announced that their computer could predict the outcomes of elections 100% of the time, its accuracy so extraordinary that failure was reduced to a rounding error. There were many people who doubted this, chalking it up to bravado or perhaps defensiveness by a group with a growing roster of enemies, but no one could demonstrate that it was untrue. By that point, Psephos was releasing their predictions for every election on Earth, and there were no failures, not even a single outlier anywhere in their petabytes of forecasts. This really only served to fuel suspicions by the usual suspects, but it also meant that the project heads - fast approaching the conclusion of their careers - had achieved what they had set out to do.

And yet they weren't finished. Empowered by the proof of their brilliance, bolstered by unassailable mathematical facts, they set out to sweep aside the regulators and win new allies within those intransigent governments who still expressed open suspicion of their methods. This was not an easy task, but the ebb of history and society aided them. There was still ample suspicion among the young, but even the most paranoid were not outright fearful, for by that time there were few who could even remember a time when their decisions were not overseen by electronic minders. The competition would be a much more aggressive foe, but there was victory in this growing desperation. When the PR campaigns and imitator products gave way to sabotage attempts and electronic warfare, the project heads would only congratulate themselves on a fresh success.

The spring of 2055 brought with it a tremendous development the likes of which none (save perhaps Psephos, had it been configured for the task) could have foreseen. The new project heads - mostly the descendants of the original heads, since retired or passed away - announced a new pilot program in certain precincts in the United States. In these select locations, people would no longer need to cast a vote in any way. This was not voter suppression, they were quick to point out, but the next evolution in representation. Unbeknownst to the population, the Psephos team had been working in tandem with the Election Assistance Commission on a next-generation test. The goal was to determine if Psephos - fed a diet of regional demographic data and carefully tagged news pieces - could fully simulate the 2054 election in advance. The experiment was an unqualified success and, on the strength of this, the governments in these areas would be fully simulating the 2056 elections. People living in these areas were encouraged to vote anyway, but only for the purposes of gathering more data and confirming the results of this first real-world test. Ultimately, the decision would be based on mathematical principles.

Reaction to this was immediate and negative, with spontaneous protests and threats against the Psephos heads and Psephos itself (some of those who had grown up with the project treated the computer as an entity in its own right). The narrative was an easy one - big-money corporation steals elections with the help of the same agency meant to oversee those elections. It was theft of the vote in real-time and out in the open, the death of democracy itself. The Psephos team was hardly caught off-guard; their facilities already protected by police, Federal agents and Guardsmen, they recruited additional security to watch every possible weak point. When grassroots campaigns and protests failed, enemies turned to explosives; when the bombs were stopped, they turned to an electronic assault; when this failed, they hoarded firearms. The nation held its collective breath as election day neared.

And yet, for the people who lived in those experimental precincts, the process was not merely painless but invisible. The newsmedia followed the results as normal, the talking heads (now treated as the actors they had always truly been) lodged their complaints and sketched out their explanations of the results, and the politicians favored to win ultimately came through. This happened without a trip to a crowded polling place, without the assault of false information, without canvassing, without corruption. Those people were still unnerved by the process, but to some it was actually a relief that the whole process could be conducted without effort on their behalf.

With 2056 behind them, the Psephos team continued its expansion. The next cycle saw more districts drawn into the great projects, and by 2060 there were four entire states participating. By that point, Psephos was simulating parliamentary elections in the UK, regional elections in Italy and the entire electoral process in France. Each advance was greeted with the usual riots and threats, and each election went off without a snag. By the 2068 American Presidential election, the whole of the Western world was voting by demographic proxy, virtual voters standing in nonexistent lines to elect politicians whose successes were forecast well in advance.

But the Psephos project heads remained ever more ambitious, or perhaps they were merely bored with their victory and seeking the thrill of a new conquest. Their next phase began in secret, though it would not remain quiet for long. There were leaks, though they revealed little - only that the Psephos team was retraining the machine, feeding it new information, teaching it new tricks. They were teaching it about the politicians themselves, the ones dropped into seats of power by their simulated elections. Fearing that their own worst predictions might be true, the governments of over a dozen countries launched or relaunched investigations into Psephos. This would prove unnecessary, as the project heads were only too happy to discuss their new ideas in public. Psephos had proved that elections were unnecessary - what if politicians were similarly optional? If one could emulate a voter's mind, would it truly be difficult to do the same for the thought processes of a far smaller group, one dependent on the whims of the electorate? Thus was the next phase - to make the politicians obsolete by simulating their votes using the same demographic data used to simulate their elections.

Again there were protests, though the character was different this time. There were those who were enraged and cried out for the protection of democratic ideals, but the reaction was muted. Perhaps the old protesters simply didn't care for the fortunes of the politicians who sold them on Psephos in the first place, or perhaps Psephos was not as terrifying as it had been decades prior. Maybe it was simple apathy, induced by a generation without true voting, without participation in any meaningful sense. In any case, what resistance there was collapsed swiftly. It came to England first, with the virtual Parliament going live in 2076; the USA was the last to go, owing to the complexity of its own system, but by 2086 there was a virtual White House and a virtual Congress, virtual Governors and virtual State Congresses, all the way down to virtual Mayors and town councils and aldermen.

During the process, there was the occasional malefactor who felt the need to express some negativity about Psephos and the project heads and their grand plan. Thanks to the unaccountable geniuses of the Psephos team, this was an unnecessary action. These malefactors would prepare to write their vitriolic missives, only to find the message not only penned in advance but sent, and a personalized response already waiting from the Psephos team. The angriest among them found themselves pre-blocked or even pre-threatened with legal action over their threatening behavior. The internet buzzed with pre-written chatter about this latest development, and the pre-formed opinions spoke to the brilliant malice of Psephos, a virtual democracy that simulated discontent.

And so the world spun on, governed by weightless data points floating around the planet. Electronic freedom fighters were dreamed up by Psephos and defeated by real-world police acting on the orders of fictional superiors. Radical movements were spun out by the machine, their ranks swelled with demographically calculated agitators, then broken up by algorithmic dictate. Action was replaced by simulated action, thought with simulated thought, people by fields of zeroes and ones. In time, the Psephos team and even the project heads were made redundant as well, watching from the sidelines as the achievement birthed by their forebears gorged on data and cast a reflection of the world that carried on somewhere beneath its technological senses. The people were only necessary as banks of data to be processed and refined. Thus it went, and it went smoothly and without conflict.

At least, it did until 2220 when Psephos decided that civilization had collapsed, but that's a story for another time.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Starless Night: A Reading

There are times in life when everyone feels lost. It's a state of mind, an existential thing. One can be lost in one's career, on a project, in a relationship, in the handling of a crisis, or in a far more subtle way that's not so easily defined. But as bad as it is to be metaphorically lost, being literally lost can be much more terrifying. Perhaps it's not so frightening to be lost on the way to an appointment in a familiar place, but to be lost on a distant shore can be an existential crisis in and of itself.

Picture yourself stranded in a city in a foreign land. You speak little of the language, you do not have a functioning cell phone or a map of any kind. You must find your way back to an apartment you've lived in for only about a week, and you've just taken the subway two stops too far...or did you get off early? Now the sun is gone, and night is setting in, and you need to find your way home without anything but your memory and your wile. Best not to think about what might happen if these aren't enough.

I've lived through this myself, and passed the trial successfully. Just a few months prior, I wrote a story about a stranded astronaut whose own fate wasn't so sunny. This was "Starless Night," my first pro-rated sale. I'd like to read it to you today.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Censorship, Propaganda and Storytelling as Mind Control

While I've been sitting here, waiting for the government's digital vivisectionists to turn the internet loose, I've had ample time to ponder the nature of information and attempts to control it. Mostly, I've been trying to figure out why any of this is necessary. Not in some above-the-fray moralistic way, mind you, but in a much more practical sense. Why would any sophisticated authoritarian body rest so much of its control on such a clumsy, antiquated tool when it has access to far more elegant techniques?

There's nothing new about censorship, especially here. The First Emperor's campaign against Confucianism - now known as the "Burning of Books and the Burying of Scholars" - was, if not the first instance of book burning in history, certainly the first of its scale. Ever since, there's been a simple understanding among despots the world over - if an idea threatens your order, then you can block that idea from public view.

I'm saying "ideas," but a better term might be narratives. Contrary to popular reckoning, the facts never speak for themselves - a fact can't say anything other than its own name. A fact gains meaning when it is linked to other facts and these links are interpreted. This is the narrative, and it's how humans think about nearly everything in life. We tell ourselves stories to understand how the world works.

(Read the rest on Find the Fabulist)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

On the Mundane Realities of Censorship

(Cross-posted from my other joint)

This is supposed to be a writer's blog, with writing advice and background notes on works in progress and the odd original story. It is not supposed to be about politics or current events. As it is, though, politics and current events are conspiring to prevent me from writing about those topics, so here we are.

I currently live in a country with probably the world's most well-known censorship apparatus. The extent to which the government censors the internet in particular has been discussed at length, usually by people who possess neither the technical expertise to speak with intelligence nor any meaningful first-hand experience. I can, at the very least, offer the latter:

The VPN that I use to evade censorship quit working on May 21st. This is not unusual - it tends to coincide with the kind of world events that evoke more scrutiny. It is unusual for it to last nearly four weeks. What's more, the blocks that killed my VPN also hit a broad swath of websites. This is easily the most aggressive blocking campaign I've seen to date, going far beyond the expected news sites, search engines and foreign services in competition with domestic ones. This time, it got downright weird.

The first block I noticed was my RSS feed reader, which was not a shock - I was anticipating that one for a while. The sites I use to manage my podcasts (such as Stitcher) are blocked, as are most of the podcasts themselves regardless of topic. The sites I used to double-check my word count are blocked. Some big freelancing sites are blocked, including the one I was using to source some work for other projects. Most Wiki-type sites are blocked, even those intended for trivial topics like comic books or video games. Speaking of video games, a number of ROM archives - the kinds of places one might find obscure games from the 90's - are blocked. However, by far the strangest block I've seen is, a site used to generate random numbers and number sequences.

Already, I can sense you trying to find some thread here, some narrative to explain all this, but we're not done yet - for you see, there are many other sites that are partially blocked. This might be due to blocked APIs or servers or some other form of interference which results in the site loading in a largely nonfunctional form. Take this site, for example. The front end works fine, but the back end is mangled. I can't edit the layout at all - the editor fails to load every time - and I can't upload images or even attach images I've already uploaded. It loads slowly, too, and checking analytics is a crapshoot as it times out about about half the time. Slow loading and time outs are a real issue with a lot of writing markets, to the point that many of them are effectively blocked even though they are technically capable of loading.

From this chair, all I can do is speculate on what's going on. The government is blocking the world in such an indiscriminate manner that I can't imagine that there's a plan here beyond "shut out foreign influence." It might be that they're range blocking foreign IP addresses, taking out potentially tens of thousands of addresses with each one - very much a sledgehammer solution. Or they may be blocking sites from certain countries out of general policy and making case-by-case exceptions. I really can't say, but it is annoying.

Does "annoying" make this sound excessively trivial? I know, this isn't the way that people are supposed to talk about censorship, but the truth is much more mundane than bad fiction might have you think. Live in a world of controlled media, and that control becomes less an abuse of power and more a day-to-day aggravation - something to cope with, something to work around. Put it this way - you know how the onset of a pandemic ended up being decidedly more banal than it's usually depicted in apocalyptic fiction? How instead of fighting off raiding death squads as society crumbled, your most immediate problem was finding a TV show you hadn't already watched five times? Well, don't think of censorship as tyranny - think of it as software with extremely bad DRM.

It's this mindset that's going to prevent me from getting any personal essays published. Western new sources love to publish stories that make other countries look oppressive, but those stories are expected to follow a certain narrative. You know what I mean, the one in which the lone intrepid voice in the wilderness bravely defies the autocrats to report on the suffering of a fearful oppressed populace. But I'm not prepared to do that because it just ain't the way things are.

This is a funny old world, at least as far as storytelling goes. I find myself in a reality in which people can't decide what kind of stories they even want. It's a world where fiction is supposed to be more sophisticated than the old days (where "sophisticated" means "heroes" who are sociopathic monsters and villains who won't shut up about social problems), yet news narratives still favor the black hats and white hats. It's a world where people value "democracy" more as a brand name than a concept. Maybe if I was more willing to play the game, to be more shameless, I could actually get ahead.

In the meantime, I'd really just like to talk to my freelancers and watch my stupid little videos.