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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…?

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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.

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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

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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!!!

Moving Forward

A friend just sent me an article about driverless cars. It was an academic ramble about behavior and society and a bunch of blah blah blah that the client probably paid a lot for.

When I started writing Six too many years ago, pods (a driverless vehicle) were the only means of transportation on my planet, Victoria. Driverless cars weren’t being discussed much in the not-too-distant past here on Earth, but they seem obvious and inevitable.

I’ve had my doubts about them–worries about privacy (data collection about where people are going, conversations being recorded, targeted ads being served based on those) and safety (solar flare knocks the AI offline and all the cars crash or the cars are maliciously hacked). Though I still worry about this, to my surprise I found myself vigorously arguing in favor of these cars when a friend of mine disparaged the idea.

“That will never happen!” he said contemptuously. “Driverless cars? No way. Too dangerous.” This came up, unbelievably, after he’d told me about a driverless subway line in Paris that was “perfectly safe.” ????

Though I am sure you, reader, are an excellent driver…there is the matter of ALL THOSE OTHER JERKS ON THE ROAD. You know, the people who change lanes without using a blinker. That tailgate. That drive in the middle of the night when they are tired or drunk. That run four-way stops and red lights. That rear end us and start a chain reaction that clogs up the freeway for hours.

Hopefully this art exhibit in St. Petersburg will be the only time we see cars like this (soon)

Hopefully this art exhibit in St. Petersburg will be the only time we see cars like this (soon)

People in the future are going to look back and think, wow, they had whole radio stations devoted to reporting on automobile accidents. How horrifying!

My grandmother was a terrible, reckless driver. When my dad was a kid he remembers flying forward and smashing his head against the metal dashboard–more than once. As she aged, she began to get into more and more accidents. I’m not sure how she kept her license. She finally stopped driving when she totaled her car in a crash that miraculously injured no one.

So, even if the navigation systems on the driverless cars aren’t perfect at first, I have confidence that engineers that can build space shuttles can build a car that can drive better than my grandmother or a drunk or that guy next to me on the freeway that is actually reading a book while piloting his vehicle.

And while I thoroughly enjoy road trips, which I take fairly often, most of my time in cars is spent in traffic less than 10 miles from home. The trips are stressful and frustrating. I don’t know if drivers in San Francisco are getting more reckless or I’m just sick of them, but getting to a friend’s house is a slalom around illegally double parked cars, people turning left on crowded roads, jaywalking pedestrians…

This is what I think we’ll see in the next 10 years. Cities or counties own fleets of driverless cars. We personally don’t own them, and aren’t financially responsible for any accidents that happen. The city has the insurance which is paid for as part of our monthly subscription fee. The cars rarely park. They cruise around, and when you call one, it will be at your house in less than five minutes. You likely never ride in the same one twice. Even if there are different classes of cars (to placate the rich) there will be nothing near the current social stratification we see now when people visibly own super expensive cars. It will be more like economy, business, and first class on planes. At the end of the day, we are all still on the same plane. And actually, if snobby people pay more for the “gold” cars, they will end up subsidizing the economy cars (and probably have to wait longer for one to come because there will be fewer.)

We won’t need driveways or parking lots anymore which will open up a whole bunch of real estate. In a city like San Francisco this will be huge. All existing garages converted to usable rooms, driveways can be more yard, or a place to build onto the house. Retail parking spaces become wider sidewalks and bike lanes, small green belts. Big parking lots can be more housing, more retail, more parks. This will be a huge shot in the arm financially for a small business owner who can suddenly sell a 1000 square foot lot.

As far as safety, in a dense city the cars may drive slowly as the system learns, 20 mph or less tops, but we will get places faster because when the light turns green, all the cars will go at once and cars won’t be parked illegally blocking traffic.

openroad

Will we still retain our right as Individuals and Americans to take our annual road trip? Of course! Trust capitalism. If we will pay for it, it will happen. I suspect we won’t be able to plan our exact routes in crowded urban areas, but if you want to go on a two-week trip through the southwest, you’ll be able to tell the car exactly where you want to go.

I could go on and on as you can tell, but the main things I’m sure of? Traffic deaths and accidents will decrease dramatically. Old people who couldn’t get around before will now have more freedom and not be isolated from society. Parents won’t spend their lives driving their kids to soccer practice.

Yes, we will continue to have to fight to retain our rights and privacy in an increasingly connected world, but that’s already an issue. As it is our every movement can be tracked by our cell phones and Facebook, Google and the NSA are scanning our emails, so when we give the driverless car the address of a restaurant and it starts showing us ads from the competition? Well, that already happens (and is something we need to deal with).

The new system won’t be perfect, but it is going to drive a hell of a lot better than my grandmother did, I’m sure of it.