Inventing the Future

Yesterday evening I was a guest panelist at an event in the Bristol Technology Festival. It was called Invented Futures, and it was all about how we use technology to, you guessed it, invent the future. Obviously I was there a the science fiction expert, but the rest of the crew covered a wide range of technological innovation.

Julia Scott-Stevenson from UWE is an expert in Virtual Reality. She’s involed in the i_Docs project (immersive documentaries), and she has also written a manifesto on how immersive experiences can be used for good.

Coral Manton from Bath Spa University works with computer games (and therefore has one of the best jobs in the world). She is also one of the people behind a fascinating project called Women Reclaiming AI, which seeks to create a digital assistant made by women (as opposed to an artificial woman made by men).

Pete Bennett from the University of Bristol has a variety of creative projects including Digitally Enhanced Lego, and making games for the gorillas at Bristol Zoo.

Also I shouldn’t forget our moderator, Maria Leonard, who is the brains behind Death.io, which helps people manage their departure in the digital world. (Did you know that you can leave your Farcebook account to a friend to manage after you die? I didn’t.)

I saw my job as talking about as many great books as possible, and it was slightly disturbing to realise that many of the people in the room only consumed science fiction through TV and movies. Consequently they were completely unaware of the changes that have happened in the field over the past decade. I asked the audience to guess how many of the fiction writing awards it this year’s Hugos had gone to women. It took quite a while for someone to twig that the correct answer was, “all of them”, and this despite the fact that the audience was majority female.

I mentioned as many books as I could. Even so, I couldn’t get in every one I wanted. So here is a reading list.

Books by Bristol writers that address issues with the current digital world:

  • Everything About You by Heather Child
  • After Atlas by Emma Newman
  • Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

Books about AIs and artificial beings:

  • Autonomous by Analee Newitz
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • vN and iD by Madeline Ashby
  • Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M Valente
  • The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod
  • Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross

Other books about digital worlds:

  • Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder
  • Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Julia recommended the anthology, Women Invent the Future.

If anyone has any additional suggestions please add them in comments. But let’s it keep it to fairly recent books, OK? There’s no need to suggest Asimov’s robot novels, or Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep.

The Kindness of Strangers

You don’t get many men turning up at the Women’s Equality Party conference, but Jon Skeet is one who was there. What’s more he was very supportive of the LGBT group and our advocacy for trans people. That’s how I met him. We’ve chatted a bit on social media since. We are, after all, both coding geeks, so we have something in common there too.

Yesterday Jon mentioned that he was thinking of doing a Christmas fundraiser and he asked if there were any trans groups with a specific link to IT. I mentioned that Trans*Code could always do with a few quid to put on hack days. I didn’t think any more of it until this afternoon when Jon got in touch to say that the appeal was online, and he was hoping to raise £1000.

For context, that’s more than my entire budget for LGBT History Month in Bristol, and I don’t crowdfund that because I don’t think I could raise that much money.

We are now 6 hours in on Jon’s campaign and the total raised stands at £1820.

So it looks like one of the things I have to do next year is run a Trans*Code hack day in Bristol. Any young trans folks who are interested in programming, do get in touch. And if anyone knows of a company that would donate some office space on a Saturday, I’d be very grateful.

Details will be sorted out in due course. In the meantime, if people could share the campaign on social media that would be great. I’m sure we can find things to do with additional money.

Yesterday on Ujima – Maternity, Careers and Mental Health

Yesterday’s show was supposed to start with my interviewing fellow Ujima presenter, Sandra Gordon, about a maternity rights event taking place in Bristol soon. Unfortunately circumstances intervened and I had to spend half an hour talking about maternity all by myself. It isn’t a subject I know a huge amount about, having never been pregnant myself. Fortunately I was saved by my friend Laura Wood because I could talk about her amazing book on the mental health issues that can arise from childbirth.

Sandra did arrive in time to get on the show briefly, but I had to hurry her up as it was time to talk to Ben Shorrock of TechSpark who is trying to get a grant to help diversify the tech start-ups being created in Bristol. The article we discussed can be found here, and if you want to vote for Ben’s project you can do so here (but you only have until Noon tomorrow, UK time). Inevitably Ben and I ended up talking about women in tech, and why women make better programmers than men.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

Next up I welcomed Jenny Stringer, a local journalist who has been doing a project to highlight opportunities for women in the construction trade. That doesn’t just men being a brickie. Women can also be electricians, or plumbers (like mine, hi Penney!). Anything men can do, women can do too. And more importantly you can earn twice as much as an electrician than as a beautician. Get to it, girls!

Finally I ran a pre-recorded interview with La JohnJoseph who was coming to Bristol to run a workshop on queer mental health. I went along to the event in the evening and it was a lot of fun. Huge thanks to JJ for doing this, and to the Wellcome Foundation for funding the project.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The playlist for the show was as follows:

  • The Intruders – I’ll Always Love My Mama
  • The Supremes – Baby Love
  • Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
  • Michael Jackson – Wanna Be Starting Something
  • The Housemartins – Build
  • Angelique Kidjo – Houses in Motion
  • Patti Labelle – Messin’ with my Mind
  • Jamiroquai – Music of the Mind

Lobsters for Emojis

When I was at Trans Pride in Brighton I was rather confused by some people in the parade apparently dressed as lobsters, and carrying plastic lobsters, and flags with lobsters on them. I mean, I’m very fond of lobsters, but why at Trans Pride?

Being a good investgative jouralist, I looked for them in Brunswick Gardens and, having found their stall, asked them what this was all about. It turns out that it is all the fault of Google, Apple and Facebook. Bear with me.

Of course most things bad in the world are the fault of Facebook these days, but lobsters are not bad, and why Apple and Google as well? Well, because they are all voting members of an IT industry body called Unicode which is responsible, among other things, for regulating emojis.

You may have noticed that there are a lot of flags missing from the set of emojis available on your phone or tablet. There is no Welsh flag, for example. Almost as importantly for me, there is no trans flag. That would be very useful. Apparently it is one of the most commonly requested new emojis. But Unicode says there is no need for one.

And yet, when a small group of people petitioned Unicode for a lobster emoji, apparently on the grounds that having to use a shrimp or a crab would be confusing, this was quickly granted.

As a result, the lobster has become a symbol for the campaign for a trans flag emoji. And this, as the petition points out, is rather apt, because lobsters are one of the select group of creatures that can become gynandromorphs. That is, you can find lobsters that are male on one side of their body and female on the other side. Biology is way more complicated than the average anti-trans activist would like to admit.

So if you see me using a lobster emoji on Twitter in future, you will know what it means.

I Talk Women in IT at Bristol 24/7

In what I expect to be the first in a series of monthly columns on women’s issues, I have done this year’s Ada Lovelace Day post (slightly late), at Bristol 24/7, a brand new magazine dedicated to life in Bristol. You can read it here.

Eyeballs are, naturally, appreciated. It is a new magazine that needs to establish credibility in the eyes of advertisers. Also I’m sure that my editor will be keeping a keen eye on whose columns draw the most traffic. I want to be able to do well without resorting to writing click bait.

Angry Robots, Round 2

You’ll all doubtless remember the inept piece of monitoring software that killed the live webcast of the Hugo ceremony. I’m sure that’s by no means the only instance of software incorrectly accusing someone of theft. In fact, here’s another example.

A couple of months ago I bought a new PC. It came with Windows 7, which has a whole slew of features intended to catch software pirates. When you first boot the system you have to register your copy of Windows, so I did. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when a few weeks later Windows asked me to re-register. I did. Several times. Eventually this stopped working. I just got messages telling me that the activation service was offline. And Windows started giving me rude messages about how parts of my system would be disabled until I registered the software, which of course I could not do.

I tried complaining about this on Twitter, and Microsoft’s support people soon noticed me. This lead to my getting some diagnostic software and finding a solution. Apparently my copy of Windows did not have the correct product key entered. Instead it had a factory default number. What I needed to do was run some software that would allow me to enter the key and all would be well. And so it was.

However, this confused me. Did someone (Lenonvo? PC World?) fail to correctly license the software before shipping it to me? If so, why did registration work earlier? And why was I getting messages saying that the activation service was offline when the actual problem was an invalid key?

Well, the software was working, so I let it be. Another of those great software mysteries. Except that today I was once again told that my copy of Windows was illegal. Entering the correct key fixed it again.

What concerns me about this is that a bug in Microsoft’s piracy prevention software could result in my being locked out of my PC, and cost me a lot of money to fix. I submit that this sort of problem will get much worse before it gets better. As companies get more and more obsessed with piracy prevention, more and more legitimate customers will find themselves incorrectly punished by badly written software. Phil Dick where are you?

Still, at least Microsoft have answered my questions. PC World haven’t yet addressed my initial support query. That’s 18 days without a response.

Åcon Here I Come

Lots of bloggery today, because tomorrow I am heading for Finland and my first ever Åcon.

In US con terms, Åcon is a literary relaxacon. Rather like SMOFcon, it is as much a holiday for Finnish con-runners as a convention, but it is a holiday that they take in the company of a favourite writer. This year that writer is Catherynne M. Valente.

There will be some programming. I’m on two panels. The first is on post-modernist fantasy. The other is on kick-ass heroines. I shall be referencing this.

Tiara

But I’ll also reference the blog post on which I found it.

There may also be beer, chocolate and sauna. And doubtless mosquitoes.

I’ll try to blog when I can, but I understand that the hotel only has wifi in the lobby, so tweetage will be limited.

Smarter Than Us?

Today in my Twitter feed I was pointed to this article (thanks Errol!) about how computers in telescopes are doing most of the grunt work for astronomers. The story leads with the idea that, “Astronomy could be the first discipline in which the rate of discovery by machines outpaces humans’ ability to interpret it.” That is, the machines are coming up with data in vast quantities, all of which needs to be looked at and interpreted. That’s quite impressive. But the thing that caught my eye was this:

Last year, Hod Lipson and pals at Cornell University developed a genetic algorithm capable of sifting through data looking for the laws of physics behind it.

And it seems to work. These guys generated a load of data by tracking the motion of things like simple harmonic oscillators and chaotic double-pendulums. They then set their algorithm loose on the raw data–not the manicured stuff but the warts’n’all measurements.

Their jaw-dropping result is that their algorithm derived Newton’s laws of motion from this data, without outside help.

Now that is one smart algorithm. But the article goes on to say that the software has come up with other relationships as well, some of which are not known physical laws. They could be false positives, but they could almost be brand new scientific discoveries.

Smart things, these computers.

Repeating the Same Mistakes

At the moment I am spending a lot of time looking at tools for making ebooks. Because ebook files are mainly XHTML these are very similar to the tools people were coming up with 10 years ago for building websites. No one has learned anything. I’m not sure that any amount of lessons from the past would make automatic converters do a better job; they’ll always be crap. But people who make proper design tools should learn. Here’s a quick reminder.

If you are building a tool for writing code — any sort of code — that tool should not modify the user’s code without telling her. And while automated helpers can be very useful, there should always be a way of turning them off.

That was a public service announcement on behalf of coders everywhere.

Adventures in Wi-Fi

Today I finally got around to testing out the Mi-Fi with my netbook. The 3 signal isn’t strong enough for me to do so from the cottage, but it works fine in the town center. I was able to browse the web and check email — something the O2 mobile broadband couldn’t manage. So now if my wired broadband goes down, or I’m on the road, I have a reasonable chance of getting access. So far so good.

In the process of doing this I discovered that the O2 mobile broadband software has no uninstall option on Windows 7. You can see it in the Remove/Change Programs window, but when you select it no options are offered. Microsoft’s help pages have suggested trying removing it when booted in Safe Mode, which I shall try later. Failing all else I should at least be able to edit the start-up options so that the darn thing doesn’t load each time I switch the machine on (and yes, having it loaded does prevent the Mi-Fi from connecting).

Isn’t technology wonderful?

Dust to Dust

The comics App on the iPad is called Comics (clever that) and comes from a distributor called Comixology. It doesn’t yet support all of the publishers in their paper catalog. In particular it is missing DC and Vertigo. However, there is a lot you can buy. Marvel is there, and Dark Horse has just signed up, which means you can get Grandville. That looks absolutely awesome.

The comic I want to talk about here, however, comes from another smaller publisher, BOOM!. The title is Dust to Dust, billed as a prequel to their adaptation of Phil Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep. The writer is Chris Roberson. You can get a free sample on the iPad, but Chris has kindly sent me a copy of issue #1, so here’s a quick review.

The term “prequel” is probably a bit of a misnomer. What Dust to Dust appears to be is an independent comic series that is set in the world of DADOES and uses similar themes, but is not about the same characters. Those of you who enjoy debating the meaning of scenes in Blade Runner will be disappointed that Charlie Victor, the android hunter in the story, admits up front to being an android himself. On the other hand, those of you who hate movie adaptations of books will enjoy the fact that Chris appears to be making good use of Mercerism and other aspects of the novel.

Robert Adler’s art is appropriately dark and cyberpunky. The story is set in San Francisco and issue #1 includes several locations that I am very familiar with. Even BART gets a few panels.

One thing that is very clear from the opening issue is that it has been written by someone who knows his science fiction. It feels right, from a genre point of view. Chris has also tried to give it an modern feel by have the major viewpoint character, Dr. Samantha Wu, think in Twitter posts. Limiting yourself to 140 characters is a useful discipline for thought bubbles.

Chris has done enough set-up in #1 to get me wanting to know how things will develop in future issues. And, because I’ll be able to order them on the iPad, I will be able to do so as issues come out. When DC and Vertigo finally sign up and I can also follow Fables, Cinderella and iZombie, plus Paul Cornell’s run on Action Comics, I shall be very happy. And my bank manager will be very worried.

iHaz iPad

Yes, I have succumbed. I have bought an iPad. There are, I am sure, lots of things I will use it for. For starters it will save my eyes a lot of strain because I’ll now use Twitter and Reeder mostly on the iPad rather than on the iPhone. I’m also expecting to use it to read books. But the thing that has got me really excited about it is reading comics. The high quality screen makes them look really good. And, given how hard it is to get comics regularly in the UK, the ability to simply download them over the Internet is very useful indeed.

I’ll say more about the comics App in another post, but I thought it would also be useful to talk a bit about the technology. I did not buy a 3G iPad. Mostly I will be using mine at home, where I already have an excellent broadband service. When I do take it on the road I will be using a MiFi from 3. This is effectively a mobile router. It handles up to five different devices, so it will work with the iPad, my netbook and my laptop. This is a vast improvement on the O2 mobile broadband deal that I have, which is tied one one, and only one, computer. I haven’t used the MiFi with the computers yet, but it seems very promising. It also came warmly recommended by Lee Harris and Christine Burns. Hopefully this will put an end to my moaning about being unable to get online while traveling.

Is Free Old-Fashioned?

Over at the music recommendation blog, Fingertips, Jeremy is once again dipping his toes into the maelstrom of debate around issues of the value of digitally-distributed art, an issue that now affects stories as well as songs. Most of you are doubtless very tired of the whole discussion, but there are a couple of things about Jeremy’s article that are interesting.

Firstly, being someone whose web business is based solidly around pointing people at free music online, Jeremy might be expected to be solidly in the “music wants to be free” camp. However, he’s nothing of the sort. Indeed, he comments:

If nothing else, this insistence on a free music future seems an inexplicable diversion of good energy. Why are people more willing to fight for free music than to fight for a talented musician’s right to earn money from his or her handiwork? Why do people jump through hoops to invent alternative scenarios for musicians to make money, rather than fight to defend the value of music itself?

But the thing that caused me to sit up and think was his comment about how the idea that electronic copies have zero value is not some bright new 21st Century idea, but actually a very old 20th Century one, because it is rooted in the idea that something that has no physical existence can’t have value. Anyone in the IT industry whose family are always asking them when they are going to get a “real job” in which they “actually make something” will know exactly what he means.

You know, I think he’s probably right. Go read the whole thing (especially if you are Jay Lake, Amanda Palmer or anyone else who thinks a lot about this stuff).

Continued Use of Foul Language

So, I am back from Eastercon, and trying to sort out my computer problems. The netbook screen worked again briefly yesterday, but has now gone back to trying to emulate a Damien Hirst spin painting. I have successfully extracted the hard drive, which is fine. Most of the data is easily recoverable. I have it attached to my laptop now. However, the data files for my email are on a part of the disc that Windows 7, in its wisdom, has password protected. Of course I know the password, but I haven’t got a clue how to access it. A little web research will now follow, but if that doesn’t work the email will have to wait until I get back to Somerset tomorrow and can attach an external screen to the netbook.

*sigh*

In Which There Is Much Swearing

Today I due to do three live panels. So today my netbook decided to die on me. I think it is only the screen that has gone, but even so it is unusable. I do have a laptop with me, but it doesn’t have much battery life so for live coverage it really needs to be tethered. There are plenty of power points around, but this could be a problem.

Fortunately I also have the iPhone, but I’d rather not have to use that for CiL because I don’t know what sort of controls I’ll have through that interface and I need the iPhone to keep an eye on Twitter. *sigh*

Why me?

Linking Again

Because I should be packing for P-Con and doing the day job.

– An interesting statement by Christopher Handley’s lawyer on the subject of obscenity and manga, and why they chose to plead guilty.

– A great article on fear being the enemy of gender equality (thanks Nnedi!).

– A suggestion that the iPad is the Wii of the tablet market. Actually the thing I found most interesting about this is that if you go into a computer games shop in the UK all of the effort goes into selling XBox and PS3 games, with the Wii stuff hidden away in a small corner. That’s odd if Wii is easily the top-selling console. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be buying an iPad until it has the eye-friendly Kindle-style screen. The iPhone hurts my eyes quite enough.

– Peter Tennant of Black Static takes the opportunity to show that not all male horror fans are sexist. Nice piece of PR by TTA Press there, which is another reason why it is important to apologize well.

Sports Games on the Wii

One of the most impressive things about the Wii is the range of realistic sports that you get with the basic package. Wii Sports Resort adds to this. I’m particularly addicted to the table tennis game, though that is in part because the solo version serves up such interesting opponents – thus far I have played against, amongst others, thiny disguised versions of Catwoman, Darth Vader, Miss Piggy, Michael Jackson, Winne the Pooh, Scooby Doo, a werewolf and Kenny from South Park. In general, however, the attraction of the sports games is that the Wii’s unique interface technology allows you to play them in pretty much the same way as you would play the real thing. Of course the Wii helps you — I would be totally useless at real table tennis — but at least I’m getting exercise.

Anyway, encouraged by such realistic game play, the next thing any new Wii owner is likely to do is to buy some of the specialist sports games on offer from people like EA. Paul Cornell blogs about his experience over Christmas:

Ashes Cricket 2009 on the Wii (complete bloody swizz, you don’t actually use the Wii controller as you would a cricket bat, which one intuitively expects from such a game, and would characterise any cricket game for the Wii that I’d actually want to buy).

Spot on. I made the very same mistake. Given that the basic Wii sports lets you bat in baseball and play tennis, it seems inconceivable that a Wii cricket game would not yet you bat in a realistic manner. And yet it does not. That game isn’t by EA, but the Tiger Woods PGA Golf game is. I stupidly bought that too, and discovered that the golf game in Wii Sports Resort is actually a better golf simulation.

As a side point, the people who design the interfaces to these sports games should be taken out and shot. There’s really no excuse for poor menu design and lack of access to features except in the highly constrained way the game wants to force upon you.

The real problem with Wii games, however, appears to be that the game manufacturers have simply converted their old, keyboard-based games for use on the Wii. This I can understand. It is an economic problem. You don’t want to have to write a completely different game for the Wii when you already have something that works on the Playstation, PC and so on. But that means that there is a gap in the market. Someone out there ought to be producing really good sports simulations for the Wii that use the Wii interface in the way in which it was intended. If anyone knows of such a game, especially if it is a cricket game, please let me know. (And actually I’d love a chance to help design such a game. I have worked in computer games before.)

As an aside, the Wii game that I know of that is actually most like batting in cricket is the “Return Challenge” table tennis game in Wii Sports Resort. The mechanics of hitting a table tennis ball are different, but aside from that it is a very similar psychological problem. You have to face ball after ball; the drink cans placed on the table tempt you to try to hit your return shot in a precise way rather than just playing safe; and the crowd noise can be a big distraction. It is an exercise in concentration. Sir Geoffrey would approve.

How Technology Should Work

A few months ago one of my laptops suffered a terminal dysfunction of its screen – it looked like the backlighting had failed. As I don’t have an external monitor here in Darkest Somerset I wasn’t able to test that theory immediately, and I decided not to buy a monitor until I was sure I had diagnosed the problem.

Then I went to Calfornia for a few weeks, bought Kevin a Wii for Christmas, and fell in love. There was no way I was going to be able to wait until my next planned US trip in March 2010 before my next Wii fix. So I bought one. And because there is only one functional TV in the house, which is my mother’s primary source of entertainment when it is too cold to go into the garden, I needed a screen.

Of course I only needed a really cheap screen, but these days it is hard to find anything other than an HD-ready flat screen TV. It looked like I was stuck with buying one. So I looked at a small one and noticed, to my delight, a VGA socket. One cable purchase later I had not only a functional Wii but also a functional laptop, provided that I don’t want to use them at the same time. What’s more, as there’s an indoor aerial in the house, I also have a semi-functional television (reception on an indoor aerial here is not that great, but not a disaster either).

I note also that because I have the BBC iPlayer on both the laptop and the Wii I can actually have rather better TV should I want it. My DSL connection isn’t quite fast enough for streaming TV at the moment, but there’s an upgrade available from my ISP at no extra cost. My only concern there is that the new deal has a download limit and I need to check how likely it is I’ll get hit with overage charges, given how much time I spend online, and how bandwidth heavy streaming TV is.

So this is how technology ought to work. One screen, many different purposes. It is nice to see something working properly for once.

Stupid, Stupid Computers

Here in Darkest Somerset I am working with two computers, a Dell laptop (running XP) and the new Acer netbook (running Windows 7). When I was using them in California they could see each other over the in-house network. Here they can’t. As far as I can make out, nothing has changed except the router. I can’t see anything in the settings that might block network communications, but I don’t understand routers well enough to know for sure and I don’t have time to randomly change settings to see if something works. If anyone does have good suggestions I would be very grateful. (And if you want diagnostics, I get the dreaded System Error 53, but the machines can ping each other.)

Oh, and anyone posting snide comments about how I should be using a Mac or Linux instead will get a gentle tap with Scalzi’s Loving Mallet of Correction, because I have to use the same O/S my clients use, otherwise I don’t get paid.