SXSW Interactive 2017 – Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Every new technology is launched amidst cries that it will be the downfall of civilization, yet civilization keeps on keeping on. Things shift, the technology is assimilated, and in aggregate, life gets better.

I never thought I’d be the type to put a tin foil hat on my laptop and yell at the bots to get off my lawn, but I left SXSW Interactive intending to do just that.

A few years ago I had few complaints about the technology that had become part of my everyday life. My job as a designer would be tedious without computers and software and the internet. Does anyone else remember rub-on letters? Paper books full of “clip art?” Life got better and easier. I self-published my own book. I used laser cutters and 3D printers at tech shop. I navigated foreign cities with the ease of a local thanks to my phone.

I love technology. I don’t want to go back. I like all the stuff we have.

I’ve ranted quite a bit here but it was more theoretical than personal. “Privacy” in danger, but only for those poor schmucks who didn’t keep an eye the updated terms of service. Wireless devices can open garage doors, but ours is physically locked. Yahoo accounts were hacked, but I don’t have one.

I thought I could keep ahead of this. I now realize I can’t and I really don’t like that.

Granted, I picked a pretty paranoiac track of panels at SXSW. I could have gone for uplifting talks on design and entertainment but I went right for the gloom and doom. Panels like; “Intelligent Machines will eat their young and us too,” “The future of jobs is dark and full of terror,” “Bugs in the system: Mapping the vulns market,” “Dark Days: AI and the rise of fascism,” “The internet of things you don’t own,” and “Biotechnology needs a security update.”

It isn’t just that I write sci fi and need to imagine the future. If there is a bogeyman in my house I’m not the type to hide under the covers; I go through the entire place cupboard by cupboard with a steak knife, terrifying as that is. Now I find the bogeyman is in my house, all my friend’s houses, in our cars and appliances. It’s a bit overwhelming.

I saw four trends at SXSW that, especially when combined, disturbed me. One: the proliferation of AI and automation, two: the lessening of property and privacy rights, three: the lack of regulation of new technologies, and four: the distraction of virtual and augmented reality.

Prototype haptic suit combined with VR goggles

“The Future of jobs is dark and full of terror” was a lively panel. France has formed a digital council to investigate the effect of automation on employment. The head of it was on the panel, as well AI researchers and the CEO of a social media monitoring company. The fear is that, in the case of a company like Foxcon (which employs tens of thousands of Chinese workers) automation could be sudden and catastrophic. The speed at which automation can change things is frightening.

I’m optimistic about this in the long term. After all, in 1850 64% of the workforce were farmers, and this number was down to 2% in 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/20/us/farm-population-lowest-since-1850-s.html

An audience member brought up that his friend, a radiologist, might soon lose his job because AIs are better at spotting tumors than humans are. I smiled because the job of radiologist didn’t even exist in 1850. You’d be hard put to even explain this job to the farmer. We didn’t even know what germs were back then!

This robot isn’t taking my job, it is amusing and delighting us by creating portraits using Einstein’s handwriting and formulas

I posit that we can’t even imagine the jobs we will have 100 years from now but we will have jobs. That said, I’m pessimistic about the near-term if we don’t stay on top of this. Our lives are short and I don’t want to live during the mid-century riots. One thing I notice in every fiery-eyed and enthusiastic developer is an absolute lack of concern of how their invention will affect society at large. They face a technological challenge and they want to figure it out. As they should. A builder bot that can make cheap, sturdy houses in a day out of whatever is laying around would change the world for the better, especially in developing countries. However, we need to slow this down a bit if it means 1.5 million people lose their jobs – tomorrow.

Loss of privacy always concerns me and is compounded by loss of ownership…both of the data we generate and the products we thought we bought.

Cory Doctorow asks a question during the panel, “Bugs in the system: Mapping the vulns market”

At present it is open season on our personal data, and given the current political climate “Senate votes to allow ISPs to collect personal data without permission,” (which they are already doing now) privacy advocates are in for an uphill battle. I’m not sure why everyone isn’t freaking out about this. We are in our homes, in our room, typing on a computer we own, using a web service we pay for to do a search on perhaps something related to a medical condition…maybe insulin pumps…and the ISP can harvest and sell this information? Yes they can.

“The internet of things you don’t own” explored the strange new world of things we supposedly own but don’t – like books and movies and other digital assets that can be pulled from our devices if the license changes. I used to “own” a copy of Photoshop, but I’m now forced to rent it from Adobe. I literally do not own the means of production in my design business. This scares me.

There are other things we “own” but can’t legally tinker with. (I just bought one of the panelist’s books – “The end of ownership: Personal property in the digital economy.”) That we aren’t allowed to repair or alter our own property is bizarre. A multi-million dollar piece of farm equipment wasn’t distributing larger seeds properly because of software…and the company didn’t offer a fix for a year. The farmer was screwed, and couldn’t hire a third party to help him even if he wanted to. A 10-ton piece of equipment can be rendered useless because of crappy, proprietary software. Is that okay? That’s the status quo right now. Software is creeping into our hardware. Manufacturers hand us potentially dangerous or insecure products and then quietly back away, with no legal responsibility to update buggy software, or offer updates to older software. WTF?

Which leads me to my next concern. Lack of regulation. Technological development is racing ahead of regulation, and seems to be gaining a greater lead. So even though organizations like Underwriter’s Laboratories (aiming to make products safer) publishes white papers like “Cybersecurity Considerations for Connected Smart Home Systems and Devices” I’m not seeing this affect what I see on the shelves of Best Buy, which is piles of insecure crap that will probably join a bot army the moment I hook it to my wifi.

I understand that regulation is hard. But no regulation is hard on us, the consumers, who end up with physically intact devices that no longer work because a company has no obligation to keep software up to date. I also understand how hard it is to keep software up to date…so ?????? Seriously, all the people that give TED talks need to figure this out. I mean, how hard would it be to at least require all devices to prompt users to set up a password when they first turn the things on? That this hasn’t happened yet is a bad sign.

The lack of regulation gets even scarier when you consider biotech. The panel, “Biotechnology needs a security update,” really nailed the ambiguity of our situation. We can’t not innovate in this area. As one panelist rightly called out, biology is already doing its best to kill us (disease, aging), however, biotech can be used for good or evil. As one panelist, an FBI agent in the Weapons of Mass Destruction unit, noted, they can’t investigate and prosecute crimes if no one understands what happened or if it is even illegal. Ai yi yi.

Here’s where we are: uncertain about the future of our jobs. Wary of products we don’t quite own that still manage to collect and sell information about us when they aren’t being used by hackers. Dismayed that the government seems to be throwing up its hands and backing away from regulating devices that can literally explode–because they don’t want to stifle innovation.

How to deal with all this? Escape!

Is this the future of human interaction? The cute girl next to you, dating some other guy, virtually.

AR and VR was everywhere. Last year there were a few booths in one room and this year every vendor had a headset. I find the combination of complex problems we don’t fully understand and a new type of immersive entertainment that removes us from the world around us to be very worrisome. Because–AR and VR are amazing! (If a bit head-achy at the moment.) People lined up around the block to try the newest things. They laughed and carried on and threw fake rocks and zapped things with fake lasers.

Basic income is an idea being bandied about now to deal with job loss due to automation (and poverty in general) however, I don’t see how this would do anything but cement the unequal distribution of wealth and power we have now. I’m worried basic income is a 10×10 room, crappy food, and some VR goggles so you can keep quiet and live in a fantasy world someone else created.

Bruce Sterling talked about a post-work future and all the things we might do with our time, (travel, do creative things) but in real life, about half the people I know that don’t have to earn a living (teens, retirees, people with trust funds, internet millionaires) don’t do much of anything but settle into a slump, or worse.

Bruce Sterling returns from Italy to give the “closing” talk, aka throwing a few rocks then leaving the country.

My fears could just be a failure of my own imagination. I’ve been born and raised to consider my job an important part of who I am and a measure of my worth, but perhaps if I was born 100 years from now, I’d happily become the custodian of the park down the hill and learn all about plants and soil and work with the volunteer architects and builderbots to build a band shell where local bands would play and actors perform each night. Maybe it will be awesome. ??

I’m hopeful that everything will work out. That robots handle the tedious jobs and humans find meaningful new employment. That we will be able to do what we want with things we own, including our personal data. That regulations will keep us safe when the mandate to return a profit to shareholders doesn’t. That AR and VR provide opportunities for engagement as well as disengagement.

For now though, I’m keeping the tinfoil hat on my computer and kicking those bots off my lawn.

Litcrawl 2016

or, A Kind of Graduation

My writer’s group gave a reading at Litcrawl. This is a huge deal for me. I probably said it before but I will say it again, a few years ago I stood outside an overcrowded venue wondering how those lucky authors got to read at this event. I didn’t know any authors. None of my friends wrote. I went to a couple writer’s conferences and learned some good stuff but didn’t meet anyone who was a good fit for a critique partner.

viewfromstreet

Then my husband saw a posting in Bernalwood (local blog) about a writer’s group looking for members. A group that met two blocks from my house. What are the odds?

I went, it worked out, and I’ve been in the group a couple years now. I feel so very lucky. The group is great. None of us are English professors but we muddle along, helping each other out. Everyone is kind, thoughtful, and I gotta say, pretty resilient and willing to take criticism. I’ve learned so much from the critiques I’ve gotten as well as from reading other people’s work and trying to articulate why a passage isn’t working for me.

Doing a public reading at Litcrawl is the culmination of our “writer year” to me. This year especially, it felt like I’d graduated from wanna be writer to actual writer. The event went so well. City Art is a great venue–floor to ceiling windows and plenty of room. We had a big crowd despite the rain (thanks to my friends that showed up!). Everyone from the group read interesting passages, I wasn’t too nervous, I made eye contact and tried to move around a bit, and since no one read after us we got to have a reception.

mmatlitquake2

Something about the evening really clicked with me. We weren’t faking it, we were really doing it!  We had a book table, our group name was in the program, I was drinking wine and eating cheese with friends after doing a reading in San Francisco…at Litcrawl. WOO!

 

Finding my niche at Defcon 24

I had a really good time at Defcon. I’ve spent the last week trying to find a theme or overarching takeaway I could use sum up the event, but there was so much going on and so many different things to do. Each of the 22,000 attendees likely had a very unique experience and for me to declare “This is Defcon” would be ridiculous.

I ran around like a crazy person trying to take it all in and of course failed, but had a good time trying.

Here’s what I did experience:

DJing in the chill room

SomaFM was invited back (4th year now) to provide music for the chill room…which initially wasn’t very chill thanks to a machine gun arcade game. Once we got that sorted (thanks to the guys that rolled it out of the room) and turned down the lights, it was semi-chill. How chill can anything really be in Las Vegas?

viewfromdeckI’m a reluctant DJ but I’m really glad I got pushed into doing this. I’m finally getting comfortable with the hardware and was able to get my songs queued up and played all while answering questions about SomaFM and, oh, Defcon in general. It was as if someone taped an “Information Booth” sign on our table. No, there are no sessions in this room. Yes there will be a movie later. The vendor room isn’t open yet. I don’t know. Yes. Tomorrow.

So many nice people came up to say they’ve been listening to SomaFM for years and thanked us. It was a really great experience. Also when I walked around the hotel, random people came up to me and said, “You were DJing earlier, weren’t you?” which made me really happy. Yes, that was me! It’s funny how merely being seen and remembered in such a huge crowd feels so good.

The Sessions

I didn’t get to as many sessions as I’d have liked to. Between DJing and trying to eat from time to time (huge lines!) I only managed one or two a day. I did see DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge. As much as you could see given it was seven computers trying to defend themselves from attacks launched by the referees. I can’t figure out if the computers were connected to each or simply had copies of the competitors software and tried to prove the competitors were vulnerable to the attack. You can read more about the challenge in this article.

I was amazed by the scale and production values of this event. The disco lighting on the computers. The “famous” astrophysicist commentator who had no idea what was going on and read everything on the teleprompter…which caused some of the biggest laughs of the convention. He’d sometimes pop out a, “That was amazing!” exclamation when nothing happened. I mean, my god, the stage was filled with seven computers doing nothing visible. Why were we all staring at them? Granted DARPA prepared some great infographics and I understood more about running a program than I ever have. If computer programming was every purely visual I might be able to do it.

shellphish

My favorite part of this all was that the computers were air-gapped to the extreme, so that results of each match were written to DVD and dropped by a robot arm off the platform.

Still, I felt foolish sitting there after an hour or so and wandered off.

I went to “Feds and O days” which speculated on how many zero day exploits the FBI and NSA might be holding onto (vs. informing the vendors so they could patch them). The speaker, Jay Healey, researched this and concluded the number is probably under 20. The audience was skeptical.

What is crazy is that this is now happening…a hacker/group claims to have gotten zero day exploits from a group associated with the NSA and is auctioning them off!

Jennifer Granick’s talk, “Slouching Towards Utopia, The State of the Internet Dream,” was pretty much bad news all around, and she said something like, the future of the internet is the dark web, the only place that will be anything like what the web was imagined to be when it started.

defconspeaker

I saw other panels including one on picking Bluetooth low-energy locks from a quarter mile away, bypassing Little Snitch, Ask the EFF, and getting into penetration testing.

One of best talks was the Mr. Robot panel, with writers and technical consultants tasked with keeping the hacks on the show “real.” One problem being they can’t do the same thing twice, nor can they always do the most obvious hack if it is too easy and undramatic. One of the consultants formerly worked at the FBI and he said how he’s getting uncomfortable now that the plot involves hacking  the FBI…he’s not sure what to say or not say when asked for advice from the writers.

I never thought I’d say this in any context, but I had a great time waiting in lines. I met so many interesting people.

The Villages

Not far from the chill room in Ballys were all the “villages.” Hardware hacking, Car hacking, Biohacking, Tamper evident, Privacy, Capture the flag and more.

hhvillage

Some of these villages confused me. I wasn’t sure whether the equipment was public or private. I stood and watched and that was about it. The Capture the Flag area…wow. Those people camped out. From what I could tell from the empty food and beverage containers they spent all four days there trying to hack each other. Pretty intense.

ctfI’m not sure if the vendor room counts as a village (not) but I’ll mention that here. Bizarre to see a big, bright  room full of stuff that can be used for testing, or for no good, for sale out in the open, not in a dark alley from a guy in a trench coat.

I’m curious to know how much malicious hacking goes on at Defcon. I’m afraid I underestimate it because the friendly white-hat hackers were eager to talk about what they were working on, while the bad guys didn’t advertise. I was quite surprised to find that the SomaFM booth had been inadvertently hosting a wifi sniffer, hidden under the black tablecloth. The guy that retrieved the small black suitcase said he’d put it under there because it “bothered” the police to see an unattended box. Um, yeah?

soldout

The Parties!

I had to rely on the official program for these since I wasn’t plugged in enough to learn about any super secret events. I like to imagine there was a bacchanalia happening somewhere but with so many introverts, maybe not?

Friday night I went to the Queercon pool party. I asked as many people as I could if it was okay that I go if I wasn’t queer and everyone said it was. It was a really fun, massive party and being from San Francisco, swimming at night in 90 degree weather was a dream come true. The music was SUPER LOUD though and overwhelmed me after a day in the craziness of Vegas and the conference.

Saturday night I had the best time at the Whiskey Pirates party. They design an amazing unofficial badge. I arrived at 8 on the dot because I knew the suites filled up and I had trouble getting in last year. I’ve been wanting to learn more about lock picking since a guy gave me a very brief tutorial in a bar last year, and what luck! There was table at the party dedicated to this and one empty chair! I got a bourbon and coke and settled in and I could stayed there all night. The others at the table were so generous helping us newbies and lending us tools.

lockpicking

I was surprised by my own attention span. I struck up a conversation with a DJ from Oklahoma (who was also picking locks) who collects vintage arcade games and showed me the inside of the PacMan machine he brought.

packmanI was really excited to successfully pick handcuffs! They were the easiest, granted I didn’t do it while I was wearing them. A guy at the table demonstrated this feat, even pulling the pick from some secret area in the back of his belt. Everyone was impressed.

handcuffsI lost my seat when I went to get a drink, so went to check out the other room where they were assembling the very cool badges. I felt as if I’d walked into a church or secret lair! A crowd of about 15 listened, silent and rapt, as a member of the group talked about ideas for the badge next year. Anytime the door entered and a person came in from the “wild” side of the party everyone shushed them.

When I left the party the line was huge and unmoving and my friends couldn’t get in.

I waited in a LONG line (not a fun line this time) for another pool party after that but I think I was running out of steam. A fellow SomaFM DJ and I got in and were kind of like, eh. Possibly I wasn’t blown away because I’d done this the night before as well.

After that I managed to catch most of Terri Nunn and Berlin’s set because they were running so late.

terrinun1Terri Nunn was great, performing in front of the DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge computers. So Defcon!

In the middle of the show she said something like, So you are all hackers. You’re all men. I’d like to be hacker to hang out with the guys. I’m badly paraphrasing but you get the point.

The conference is still 90% men. The first year I attended I was shocked and dismayed. I hoped that in four years, the number would grow. I think it has a bit. However, there are still very few women in the field of computer/network security, so it makes sense they’d be represented in that same percentage at the conference.

Is Defcon welcoming to women? In my experience, absolutely. Defcon sounds like it was a boys club back in the day and women attendees were hit on or bothered, (I’ve heard some anecdotal history), however I’ve not seen or experienced any of this in the four years I’ve gone, and Defcon seems to be trying hard to attract more women. I went to a webcast last year (out of curiosity) where board members and members of the community brainstormed about how the get more women speakers, and it is tough because women don’t apply. I have no way of verifying that but everyone on the webcast seemed sincere. They worried that part of the problem might be that the women in the field don’t feel qualified to speak because they haven’t spoken at a conference before, and a couple of men on the call confessed that they too dealt with imposter syndrome and not feeling qualified for their titles and had to fight to get over it.

I’m pretty confident the number of women in tech is going to rise sharply in the next 10 years as people that were raised with home computers make it through school and begin to work their way up the career ladder. This is a new field and I’m optimistic. There is just so much dialog around this. It will get fixed.

seaofmen2I’m doing my part by showing up, going to talks I don’t feel qualified to attend because I’m a designer and a writer and not a programmer, and meeting people and asking questions. All I’ve learned has given me some great inspiration for science fiction stories and I’m so glad I went.

 

Out of the Comfort Zone

I got back home from Lawrence, Kansas, last night, badly hungover from a raucous evening of a group reading of “The Eye of Argon” (Thank you Andrea.) This included drinking whenever we heard the word “wench,” which turned out to be way too often. It was one of the most “writer’s group” moments of the two weeks and a great note to end on. We were just getting to know each other, so I suppose the next step would have been disagreeing and forming cliques and we simply didn’t have the time for that. “Leave the party while you’re still having fun,” my grandmother said, and she was absolutely right!

novel_shortgroup

Two workshops were held during the two weeks, one for short speculative fiction and one for novel writing, so we all got to hang out which was great

The workshop well-run, well-thought-out, and exactly what I needed right now to get my writing to the next level–and it was physically and emotionally tiring in ways I didn’t expect.

workshopwandyduncanv2

Critique with guest instructor Andy Duncan

I’ve not spent two weeks surrounded by strangers since…I don’t even know when. I suppose when I did study abroad right after college. The effort of being congenial 16+ hours day wore on all of us, I imagine. More than a few participants admitted being introverts (though I’d not have known it). I’m somewhere in the middle, but I do need a good amount time alone in places where I can recharge–such as my house or the SomaFM office, or on long walks.

dormroom

My home for the workshop was a stripped-down, linoleum-floored, twin-bedded dorm room (and this was the nice dorm I later learned). Not a place to relax. The air conditioner startled me awake at night when it kicked on–though apparently I was lucky as in some rooms it didn’t run at all. The bathroom was down the hall and the shower a claustrophobic plastic coffin that was home to a giant, friendly cockroach.

cutehouselawrence

The town of Lawrence is really cute (aside from some run-down student housing). I love to walk and use that time to mentally unwind, but long walks were more pore-cleansing than soul-cleansing in Kansas in the summer. I’d get out in the morning and walk to the library to read (we critiqued five people a day and though I’d read everything in advance I needed to refresh my memory). By noon the temperatures would be in the 90’s with high humidity and the walk back to the dorm was hell. I returned to my room soaked through and had to actually change clothes before our critiques started at 1pm.

The only real recharge time I got was when I rented a bike and rattled my way up and down the brick streets of Lawrence last Saturday. I got to be a pure tourist for a few hours.

The critique sessions wouldn’t have been so exhausting if I hadn’t been trying so hard pay attention and take notes. This was my first ever workshop and I invested a lot into it–both time and money and lost wages–and I was determined to get everything from it I could.

jimgunn

Jim Gunn giving a critique – possibly calling a story “crudely charming”

The toughest thing was splitting myself into many different personas so that I could give critiques, get critiques, empathize with others, respect others, take things personally, not take things personally, intellectually agree or disagree, emotionally agree or disagree. Sometimes all at once. All while keeping calm and remaining open. Everyone in the group was so polite and even-keel, it made me suspect they were dealing with the same issues. Or maybe they are just better at it. It was my first time after all.

Midway through week one I thought I’d mastered it. I was upbeat. I’d been through a critique of one of my stories and pretty much agreed with people. I was inspired.

studentunion

Andy Duncan & Jim Gunn (and us workshoppers) at lunch at the Student Union

I hit a snag with my next story. We like to think we have thick skins but innocuous words can slip through and hit us where it hurts. Not only that, but even if a story is 90% there (none of mine were), the point of a critique group is to zero in on the bits that need improvement. It is disheartening to hear person after person not “get it,” and to realize the fault is mine, not theirs.

Chris, the workshop leader, had a top 10 list for every one of our mistakes. “Here,” he’d say, pointing to the printout, “Why I hate your main character. Number seven.”

instruction

Chris posted the answers to our writing problems

The point being, fledgling writers all make common mistakes. We need to recognize them and learn the “rules” that will help us avoid making them again. All the writers we admire know these rules by heart–and so do the editors reading our submissions. Opens with a dream? No. Passive voice? No.

The rules are to a game, and the game is getting published professionally. We’d best respect them if we want to play. This simple fact was finally made perfectly clear to me, but only after I dropped my ego and stopped arguing. The workshop served me well in that it stripped away all my conceits. My creative work fell short of the mark. Am I going to go away crying (only for a short time) or pick myself up and fix this?

I will fix it. I like to think that’s why Chris picked us for the workshop, even if it was subconsciously. We don’t give up. We will succeed. In his day job he actually does pick winners – for the Campbell awards.

The short days of workshopping were long. After five hours instruction and giving and getting critiques, my brain was totally fried. With less than a ten-minute break most nights, we gathered and walked to dinner together, usually seeing some fireflies along the way (YAY!!). I struck up a conversation with whoever was by my side, often someone from the novelist workshop that was taking place at the same time.

headingtodinner

Kij and Chris leading us to dinner

Once I got some food and drink in me I was ready to go again but that mile walk to the restaurant in the heat each night was tough.

After dinner we’d chat, write, or watch a movie together. Sharing space during the day sometimes overwhelmed me, but communal living at night was a treat. I could drift from room to room, floor to floor (the dorm was three stories) and settle in on the periphery of an interesting conversation, catch the tail end of a movie, play a quick game of Russian roulette with a nerf gun…we relaxed at night and I got to know and like my peers.

My peers. It’s a big step for me to say that but I’m going to go ahead because fuck it, I was accepted into the workshop like everyone else. People who’ve been to Clarion and Odyssey and have more pubs than I have fingers. When will this feeling that I’m faking it end? I was paid for a story. It’s in a print magazine. I’m a writer. Not a great writer yet but working towards it.

Thanks to everyone who spent two weeks giving me sharp pokes in the right direction.

Leaving on a jet plane…

…to Kansas City

I’m in terminal 3 at SFO waiting to take off. I applied for a two-week speculative fiction writer’s workshop about a month and a half ago. I never thought I’d get accepted. They only take 10 people max and it was the last day to apply. What the hell, I figured. No harm in trying.

When I got the acceptance email a week or so later, I almost couldn’t decipher it. Chris, the workshop leader, wrote a long, newsy letter with comments on the story I’d submitted as part of my application, gave me some tips on how to improve it, and somewhere in the midst of that said if I was still interested, I was in.

I’ve gotten so used to rejection letters I almost missed that sentence, especially since it was buried under the story critique. When I finally spotted it and believed it, I whooped! I jumped up and down. I ran around the house.

I’ve never done anything like this. I felt like Lena Dunham in Girls when she went off to the Iowa workshop. This is the right time for this for me. I’ve been in the Alabama Street writers group for almost two years now and I’m getting the hang of giving and getting critiques. I’m freelancing so I can get away. I have a couple stories ready to go. It worked out perfectly.

yardinspring

Now I’m at the airport feeling a bit melancholy about leaving home and maybe a bit nervous as well, which is a surprise, because I am so stoked for this. I’ll be corny and honest and say I’ll miss my husband. I love crawling into bed with him every night. I’ll miss my yard. It is spring and everything is in crazy bloom and hanging out there reading and writing is heaven. I’ll miss my friends & family. I’m also bummed that I’m missing most of the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend. I got tickets to a bunch of talks before I knew I was going away.

I got up early today and managed to see one talk, “Subversive Speculative Fiction” with panelists Jewelle Gomez, Ayize Jama-Everett, Carter Scholz, and Johanna Sinisalo, and moderated by Charlie Jane Anders. It was a great panel and I said hi to Carter Scholz–an author I’d met before at SF in SF.

A member of my writer’s group, Jennifer Ng, rented a booth space in “Literary Lane” to promote her book Ice Cream Travel Guide. I stopped by and bought a copy. Another friend was volunteering at The Center for the Book booth – where they had two small presses set up so people could print a small notebook.

jennifericecream

I hated to leave. The festival was just gearing up and it seemed like everything was geared towards me. Information about writing and editing classes, conferences, editing and coaching services. I had tickets to six other talks, including one by Jonathen Lethem, that I had to give away.

I walked back to the BART station, accompanied, literally, by sad violin music.

Now I’m in terminal three. I’ve got time to kill because there was no line at security. No line at all. I’ve never seen anything like it! The man scanning tickets was almost asleep he was so bored. I walked to the far end of the terminal to a secluded area with a great view north. I couldn’t quite see Bernal Hill–but almost. I stress ate a chocolate chip cookie and began to write.

Then the flight attendants arrived. I’d stumbled upon their secret hangout. A group of eight men and women sat down to my right and began to gossip as if I wasn’t there. “They aren’t going to put me on disability due to mental issues.” “I said you want to evict me? Go ahead!” “They put everyone in first class but me, and she said it was based on seniority and I said I KNOW that girl started after me and she said I’ve worked here for twenty years and I said girl you old. Super old.”

I forgot to be sad as I listened to tales of layovers and lipstick that matched nail polish and being raised in Kingstown, Jamaica.

We are all made of stories. I’m going to learn to write mine better!

Too Much and Not Enough – SXSW Interactive 2016

nasarobot2I’m sure there is some way to do this conference right and I never manage it. When interactive ends, I’m tired, dehydrated, malnourished and brain dead. This is a big expense and my clients don’t appreciate me disappearing for 10 days, so I feel I’ve got to take advantage of every moment, see every panel, go to every party, look at all the trade show booths…it’s too much. I do this every year but I can’t stop myself. Every time I think I’ll take a break or get lunch or go back to the room to nap something catches my eye on the schedule and I end up on another death march to another hotel for another panel.

This isn’t the best time for me to do this write up, but if I don’t do it now it will never happen. I’m going to take a deep breath and do a quick summary and try to be fair, because I did have some great moments.

My biggest takeaway from the panels I went to on privacy, security, encryption, internet of things, and big data is that we are FUCKED as far as privacy goes. There is no regulation coming anytime soon to make sure the connected devices that are coming into our homes are secure. I mean seriously – nothing is worse than watching five smart panelists, including lawyers and senators, sit in uncomfortable silence when an audience member ask if there is ANY plan. Then to hear them mumble about companies self regulating. And say the government can’t keep up with tech. And that no one wants to stifle innovation. These are our leaders??

People are bringing devices like the Amazon Echo into their homes and they have no idea what these devices are doing at any given moment. You’ve likely heard the story of the Echo responding to a voice on the radio and changing the temperature of thermostat?

Another big part of the problem is that once you purchase a device, the company does not have any obligation to keep the software on it up to date or patch it is a security weakness is exposed.

On a more positive note, I attended a couple of robotics/AI panels and the news there is better. Everyone seems to realize that robots can’t be black boxes. We have to understand what they are doing, why, and be able to anticipate what they will do next. They need to react to humans and give feedback and behave within the constraints of human social norms.

krush2

A cool VR gaming “accessory” – a pod with 360 degree rotation

A woman told a great story of being frustrated in a robotics lab she worked in when she was blocked by a robot parked in front of a door. She squeezed around it and got yelled at because she ruined the experiment. It was trying to figure out how to get through the door. She said – how would I know that? They all realized the robot needs to give physical cues humans can understand and so now they are working with people from Pixar (Maybe? I forget which animation place) to develop simple motions to express thinking, frustration, failure, success–not with some fake face but gestures. The boxy robot scratches its head when thinking, slumps when it fails at a task, etc.

Researchers found a robot with a spherical head is perceived as more intelligent, so they have purposefully made their robot with a small square head to indicate it is NOT smart. A panelist argued robots should never be humanoid unless they are as smart as us (which is not going to happen anytime soon) because we feel tricked and frustrated when a human-looking thing doesn’t act human.

Also I feel a lot better about what we call AI thanks to Kevin Kelly. He is convinced that AI’s will do very specific tasks very well. An AI might drive a car and that’s it. It won’t be the same one that is running your insulin pump. No master AI will control everything.

VRnow

The state of virtual reality now: Everyone in the same room looking at different things

Also, VR headsets were everywhere. Even in the pathetic MacDonald’s lounge. I asked the guy at the front door what VR had to do with MacDonalds and he shrugged. “Nothing. It’s just supposed to be fun.” Hey, great marketing!

KW

On the more creative side, I was inspired by panels by directors, actors, and writers. I’ll need to go back and listen to these again. Hopefully SXSW puts up the recordings. Kerry Washington talked about negative comments “about her” on social media as being more about the people leaving the comments. They are “sharing” information about themselves, so the meaner the comment…

Ira Glass was candid and down to earth. I especially enjoyed him talking about Mike Birbiglia, writer and director of the movie “Don’t Think Twice.” Glass said Birbiglia was shameless in asking for help from anyone and everyone to get the script for the movie in shape. He showed the script to Glass who initially thought there was nothing there, no movie. And Birbiglia kept at it roping everyone in, getting feedback, making changes. And the movie premiered here!

IG

Ira Glass makes a balloon animal for an audience member

It was fun to see the women from Broad City all dressed up and professional, and to hear  them to declare they are NOT like their characters insofar as they work really hard and know what they want from life.

broadcity

The actors and writers from the TV show Silicon Valley were really funny (improv style). When asked why there weren’t more women on the show, the writer/director said the real silicon valley is something like 89% white dudes, so that is how he casts the show. I understand. He is holding up a mirror and we are meant to both laugh and realize the stuff going on here is pretty awful.

siliconvalley

The evening events were overcrowded and underwhelming. In years past parties seemed to have more of a theme and some hands-on activities. The parties we managed to get in to (many had lines around the block and were also at capacity) all had DJs playing so loud it was next to impossible to have a conversation – or to meet anyone and network. I met a few interesting people but ended up with only a couple business cards. Last year I got dozens.

Fsociety

Mr. Robot F Society evening party – had a line around the block & we never got in

Another barrier to meeting people is the ubiquity of phones. Waiting in line used to be a great place to get to know people, as was waiting for a panel to start, now 90% of everyone is heads down on a phone. I was really sad about this. Before striking up a conversation was a kindness, now it’s an interruption.

One weird thing about SXSW is the “shadow” events that take place at the same time. All around town restaurants and bars are closed for private parties and the huge corporate-branded spaces are usually open to badge-holders during the day, then privatized at night for who knows what. Adding to the complexity are events and spaces that are “public” but RSVP-only. All this ends up creating a strange atmosphere. When you look around the place feels like a big party but when you try to join in, there are barriers.

Kroll

I did RSVP to the Fast Company Grill and really enjoyed it. It is one of the only branded spaces here that makes sense. So many sponsored parties here have logos everywhere, the bar staff in logo t-shirts and…no information about what the company does and no representatives. Fast Company is a magazine. They had magazines out. They had drinks and food, but also speakers and panels by people they feature in the magazine. Great! Got it! Marketing success. Though, I don’t read the magazine so…?

thinktwice

The Director and cast of “Don’t Think Twice” at the Fast Company Grill

I’m not sure that interactive is working for me anymore. I tried to be zen this year and let whatever happens happen, but it frustrates me that there is an ideal sequence of panels I could go to each day but the venues are so spread out (the convention center itself is nearly a kilometer end to end) that I cannot physically get from place to place and even if I managed to get there, the panel might be full. I also miss the publishing/writing track they used to have.

Nothing blew my mind and I can’t help but worry that it’s my own fault. If only I’d gone to that other panel. Maybe I wasn’t listening hard when the speaker said the really important thing. Maybe I should have introduced myself to the people next to me who were so damn intent on updating their facebook pages. And then I felt annoyed that I was blaming myself. It’s okay to hate lines and crowds and maybe conferences with more than 80,000 people aren’t for me.

Shrug. Sometimes everything aligns and sometimes nothing happens. Maybe I’ve just been to this too many times and it is too familiar and my WOW bar is raised too high.

Heh. I sometimes feel the universe is a little too interested in making me eat my words. And making me eat them RIGHT NOW. I’m writing this at an outdoor café and the man one table over heard me mentioning VR to a friend of mine that stopped by. He came over to show me one of those little VR/phone cardboard things that he said had a documentary on it and that he could more fully connect emotionally with the movie thanks to the VR. He is a documentary filmmaker from Finland who is investigating ways to rewrite theater plays for VR. He sat down, we chatted about the conference, about Nokia’s new $60k VR camera (which I hadn’t heard of), about Finland, about people being on their phones all the time.

Then, he gave me his card.

I realized my chances of meeting a VR documentary filmmaker from Finland as I trudge through my usual routine in San Francisco are precisely ZERO. I need to take a deep breath, and a nap, eat some vegetables, and embrace the big mess that is SXSW because my WOW bar is way out of alignment and my perspective is messed up. I met an astronaut. And a wheelchair-bound cattle farmer from north Texas with a concealed carry permit who’s lost 80% of his trees due to drought. A guy from the U.K. who is the CEO of a startup destined to fail (sorry). A woman from the DoD who runs all their websites. I discussed EMPs with a guy from a senate intelligence committee. A woman walked up to me last night and said, “I met you in Berlin,” and she was right!

Maybe I will come back.

BruceSterling2

I actually understood Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks – a first!

The Future is Coming…

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2015

I worked steadily this year, both in writing and at my day jobs, and it’s hard to romanticize either. I wish writing were more dramatic but editing Six is like building a brick wall–one I’m not sure how high or long to make.

San Francisco Sunset

The last sunset of 2015, as viewed now from the attic where I write

The book is actually in good shape. My writer’s group has given extremely helpful critiques and I hired a professional editor give me a high-altitude review of the whole thing. I’m fine-tuning it now and will send this draft to a couple more beta readers, then begin to shop it around in earnest.

I wish I could pat myself on the back for achieving a couple of milestones this year, but I can’t. I feel I haven’t gotten enough done. I think that is the real challenge–getting used to never being done. I’m working on Six, a couple short stories, and a side project in a totally different genre to clear my head. All this is how it should be and preferable to not having anything going but I need to focus on getting more of the pieces finished and out the door.

Enough of my whining. On to…

The Highlights of 2015!!

Shakespeare and Company, Paris.

Shakespeare and Company CatIn January, I almost attended a writer’s group at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I showed up, as did half a dozen other people, and then a clerk came up to our attic room to tell us it was cancelled.

I was bummed, but I met a couple of interesting people. One women from South Africa had a book published years ago, and to some acclaim, though she now talked of it disparagingly. She was in her mid-30’s so the book must have come out when she was in her 20’s. I was dying to know her name and the name of the book, but I had to be “cool” because she was going out of her way not to mention either despite some pretty obvious hints from me. Another woman had come to Paris “to write.” She wanted to finish her wine-themed memoir. I didn’t say anything but I think going to Paris to write is a terrible idea! Go to Paris and have a good time and then go somewhere boring to write.

Anyway, I felt super writerly just being there. There are things that should be on my to do list that I can’t even imagine until after I’ve already done them, and this was one of them. Writer’s group at Shakespeare and Company. DONE!

She’s Geeky Conference, Sunnyvale California

A great un-conference for women in tech. I was intimidated when I went the first time but everyone assured me that they want to add the “A” to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I highly recommend this event.

South by Southwest, Austin, Texas

Film, Interactive, and Music. We did it all…and I didn’t get catch a cold. Though I did sprain my ankle pretty much as soon as we arrived I didn’t let that stop me. Saw and heard amazing talks (the future of human computer interaction, future crimes, surveillance’s threat to liberty, a look inside DARPA, book publishing and new media, what privacy means now, digital ethics, and of course Bruce Sterling’s famous closing remarks), saw amazing movies (including the world premiere of Ex Machina with a Q&A with the director and cast, and a screening of Mr. Robot, with Director and cast), went to a biohacking party, saw bands, drank too much. The usual! I meant to do a post on this but blogging often feels a lot like procrastinating.

mrrobotcastThe cast and writer of Mr. Robot. I was too shy to get a photo with Christian Slater.

Shoreline of Infinity comes out

My short story See You Later is published in a Scottish science fiction magazine – and I got paid for it!!

Bay Area Book Festival, Berkeley, California

This was the first year for this event and it was PACKED. I’d meant to attend many talks (all free) but most sessions were full. I did get to hear John Scalzi speak, and I introduced myself to Paolo Bacigalupi. I felt bad for him. I was super red and sweaty and looked the crazed fan part perfectly. Said hi to Ransom Stephens who I met a few years ago at the San Francisco Writer’s conference.

Paolo Bacigalupi signing booksPaolo Bacigalupi signs books while his wife waits patiently

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Stuart Brand, San Francisco, California

I blogged about this.

Yes and Yes Yes, Palm Springs, California

My first time at this unconference in Palm Springs. They can explain it better than I:

“A gathering of…

  • thinkers/futurists/nerds/weirdos
  • voracious consumers of and generators of ideas and information
  • creatives that like to engage in conversation about their creative pursuits & the concepts behind them
  • people comfortable with & excited about their own obsessive interest in their odd corner of the world”

Right up my alley. I had a really great time until it was time to fly home and the plane overheated on the runway and we were stuck in the closed-down airport for hours and hours.

YxYYI know this looks like voracious consumers of beer, not ideas, but we found we could do both

EFF anniversary party, San Francisco, California

Yikes…this was an intimidating crowd. Everyone was so smart. Lawyers who argued the such and such case, professors, authors. I met Cory Doctorow (again) and Will Wheaton (what a gracious guy) and gave them both SomaFM t-shirts. It’s tough for me to introduce myself to public figures. It feels really intrusive. OTOH, they are in public so random people like me coming up is an expected annoyance. I’d rather not do it, but it is important for me to close the gap between screen and real, and to gain more empathy for people that put themselves out there in the media. It is a tough job.

EFF and Cory DoctorowI really like Cory Doctorow’s jacket

DEF CON Hacker Conference, Las Vegas, Nevada

DEF CON was great. I finally felt comfortable and not like an impostor the way I did last year. I went to sessions. Parties. DJ’d. Drank. More on this in a future post.

DefConBedside table at a party at DEF CON

XOXO, Portland, Oregon

This was my first time at this “experimental festival celebrating independently-produced art and technology.” Very interesting sessions, interesting attendees, and crazy hot weather for Portland.

I met author/illustrator Jason Porath. He seems to be a friend of a friend and we ended up at the same table at a food truck court. His book, http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/ should be coming out soon.

I got my novella printed at Powell’s Books via an on demand printing machine. It was really cool to see it go from virtual to physical.

Powell's books Portland

I met Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff of Suck. They were a big deal to my crowd back in the day. I talked to Joey Anuff at length about his stint at MTV as well as other things. He was a really nice.

Eclipse

eclipse3

Our writing group read at LitQuake’s LitCrawl

I wrote about this in another post.

Huh, I guess I did a lot this year in addition to working and writing. I didn’t realize until I put it all in one place. If it seems like I go to a lot of conferences, this is true. I spend 95% of my time in front of a computer screen either writing or doing design–and not interacting with people or getting a sense of “the next big thing,” which I’ve got to have a handle on if I’m writing near-future fiction. Going to these kinds of creative conferences allows me to get face to face with people and see what they are excited about.

Also, I need to visualize the next step in my writer career by interacting with successful, published authors and this is a challenge because they aren’t wandering around in the wild. If I wanted to become a programmer or a social media consultant or an architect or a teacher I could walk down to the coffee shop right now and grab one for a chat. It’s harder to find a science fiction writer! Thus, the necessary but awkward introductions at conferences and lectures. I don’t know if all writers would find this necessary but for me it is a great motivator.

My goal for 2016 is to do even more, be even more productive, and GET SIX PUBLISHED.

Happy New Year!!!