August 2nd, 2006

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Conestoga report; part two (of three, I think)...

Saturday was a busy con-day for me. I was on three panels (one of them the panel on robots/robotics that I posted about yesterday), and I had three other events to work into my schedule in addition to the panels. There was a SFWA Regional Meeting; attending that one reminded me forcefully of how glad I am not to be an officer of anything. There was an excellent and informative panel on the "Pros and Cons" of small presses. [Quick summary... The pros include: individual attention for authors and their books; genuine interaction between author and publisher with regard to such things as covers and cover blurbs and ad copy and formatting and marketing plans; and a sincere intention on the part of the publisher to keep books in print for a decent length of time. The cons (especially for small presses that use print-on-demand technology) include: inability to get books reviewed and get media attention for authors; inability to get books into the big chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble; and cash flow constraints, since a small press that doesn't get paid for ninety days or more doesn't have leverage to do anything about that and can't pay authors or artists until that money arrives.]

And then there was my "reading"... This year, because attendance at authors' readings has been dwindling, Conestoga was trying out a new idea: Every one-hour reading slot would be divided into three parts, with each author getting roughly fifteen minutes. I read the text (and showed the illustrations) of my new collage book; that text was the science fiction poem about linguistics and a radical transformation of Earth that I posted in this journal not long ago, titled "Open Twenty-Four Hours." It fit nicely into the time slot, but the three of us doing the readings were scheduled at the same time as the Royal Gauntlet falconers and their birds, which meant we had an audience of one. And I understood that perfectly; if I'd been someone else and had been offered the choice between listening to the three brief readings and going to the bird event, I'd have chosen the birds too.

One of my Saturday panels was "Creating Believable Worlds," where six of us talked about how we do that. My method isn't romantic. I write a sort of encyclopedia of the fictional world I'll be writing about, with detailed biographies of all the characters -- even the minor ones -- and long articles about its history, government, religions, ethnic groups, food and drink, transportation, media, and so on and on interminably. I want to know my fictional world so well that when I'm writing the narrative I'll know what would be going on far beyond the boundaries of that narrative. It's not unusual for me to spend two years working on a novel's encyclopedia before I feel that I'm qualified to start writing the novel itself, and writing the novel usually takes less time. Most of that background material I don't use, but the fact that it exists is what I rely on to make the world itself believable. The panelists talked about the difference between making a fantasy world believable and making a "real" sf world believable, and decided that there wasn't much of a difference; the fantasy world requires just as rigorous an infrastructure or the story doesn't work. The question that provoked most controversy, both on the panel and in the audience, and for which we came up with no useful answer, was: "How do you create believable myths for your fictional world?"

My final panel for the day -- "I'm Out Of Print; Now What?" -- was disputatious, and I'm afraid we writers wrangling on the panel may have convinced the members of the audience to give up writing altogether. It was scary stuff. For example.... You have to be very sure when you sign a contract for your book that the contract includes an appropriate clause giving you back the rights to that book -- if the publisher fails to keep it in print -- so that you can sell it again to a different publisher. Much argument over what constitutes an "appropriate" clause of that kind. And then there's the fact that some of the big publishers now are using print on demand as a way of making certain that you can never get your rights back, since with POD they can continue to fill orders forever, one book at a time, without ever having to go through the hassle of a print run, or the hassle of storing copies in a warehouse. [Note: When a big publisher uses POD, it's perceived very differently than when a small press does it.] Much argument over whether it's possible to force a publisher to write the reversion of rights clause to say something about "in print" meaning selling a certain number of copies over a given period of time.

We talked about ways of finding a new publisher if you do get the rights to your book back, and at that point we slipped into "You think THAT'S bad -- wait till you hear what happened to ME!" mode. Much indiscreet revealing of authorial past experiences. One horror story after another from most of us, although we had one panel member who was able to tell one success story after another, and that provided a welcome contrast. However -- because nobody else in the room felt capable of duplicating the successes she was describing -- welcome as it was to know that it's possible for an author always to win, that didn't dispel the general gloom.

Science fiction and science fiction fantasy writing is not a glamorous business to be in in the U.S. today. I'm old enough to remember a time when it was a glamorous business, which I'm grateful for, and I'm optimistic enough to believe that a time will come when it's less grim than it is right now. On the other hand, even now -- when it looks to me as though the operational pattern of the big publishers is identical to that of the Bush administration -- it's a great deal more glamorous than clerking at WalMart or flipping hamburgers at a fast food place or working on the line at the turkey plant. I count my blessings.
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More about robots...

I had said that I was particularly interested in the development of robots that could carry a substantial part of the burden of caretaking in the U.S., and Doug commented:
"It seems to me it would be better to have robots assume just about any other tasks, thereby leaving more people with time for caretaking tasks, than to have the robots learn to do the caretaking. Perhaps I'm missing the point."

And Michael Farris responded:
"That was my first thought too, but then I remembered that the frail, (chronically) ill and elderly are not exactly what you'd call popular groups (in a culture aggressively oriented toward the young, fit and sexually-attractive at least). Those who combine more than one of those characteristics are going to be even less popular. It would be wonderful if robots freeing people from a lot of physical drudgery/labor would free up hands for taking care of those who need it and people were able and willing to do that. But I can easily imagine that it might not be that easy. ... It may end up being much better for the frail, ill and elderly to be taken care of by machines programmed to simulate tender feelings than leave them to incompentent, indifferent or hostile human hands."

To which Doug then responded:
"That may well be true, but it's a sad thing if it is true. (So we're not disagreeing.) It strikes me as rather un-Ozarque-ian to give up on the possibility of changing society's social attitudes and instead settling for a partial technological fix. But perhaps it's just practical."

Assume, for purposes of discussion, that we did have robots that could competently handle all the scutwork and drudgery we deal with now and provide us with lots more free hours than we now have. A set of interacting problems then kicks in, I believe.

First there's the fact -- humankind being as it is -- that many people who suddenly found themselves with free hours available would flatly reject the idea of using that time for caretaking.

Secondly, there's the fact that so many of those now doing the caretaking are in the standard "Sandwich Generation" bind -- their caretaking has to be stretched to cover the urgent needs and crises of their immediate spouse or partner, their adult children, their grandchildren, and their elderly parents and/or elderly relatives, plus perhaps an ill and aging friend who has outlived all his or her relatives and close associates, with all of those individuals competing for the same time and energy and affection. It would be one thing if this situation existed while the caretaker himself/herself was young and strong, but all too often it's not like that. The Sandwich Generation tends to be reaching an age at which they themselves are beginning to need some caretaking.

And then there's the fact that families (of all kinds and definitions) tend now to be scattered all over the country instead of living under one roof or even in just one town, forcing the caretaker to choose -- geographically choose -- among the bedfast great-aunt in California, and the father with dementia in North Carolina, and the spouse at home who's growing frailer with each passing day.

I'm not sure that changing society's social attitudes would help with these problems. Maybe ... but I'm not sure.
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Robots talking; booknote...

[This is from the May/June 2006 issue of The Verbal Self-Defense Newsletter; it seems to me to fit in the current discussion.]


Wired For Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship, by Clifford Nass and Scott Brave. Cambridge: MIT Press 2005.

This excellent book is densely packed with information, in great detail, on many aspects of human speech and human/AI speech; everything is solidly backed up with footnotes and references to research studies and other evidence. It tells us on page 3 that over the course of our evolution "humans have become voice-activated with brains that are wired to equate voices with people..." and goes on to demonstrate that even when we are entirely aware that the voice we're hearing is coming from a machine we continue to behave as if its souce were a human being. Those of us who react with positive or negative bias to a particular sort of human voice, for example, will react with the same bias to that same sort of voice coming from a computer or a talking coffeepot. However illogical it may be, we don't seem to be able to override our own programming in this regard.

On page 183:
"Whether it comes from a person or a machine, speech activates a powerful and varied cognitive apparatus that is designed to express and recognize who a person is and what she or he is thinking and feeling. ... Even when voice interfaces exhibit all of the limitations associated with machines -- including bizarre pronunciations, emotional ignorance, and chronic inconsistencies -- they are not exempted from the social expectations that are activated by talking and listening. .. Socially inept interfaces suffer the same fate as socially inept individuals: they are ineffective, criticized, and shunned."

Wired For Speech is not precisely a fun read, because of the excruciating care and detail with which the case is made, and because there is a lot of overlap among the experiments and their descriptions, but it's a valuable learning experience, and an important book. Highly recommended.