Data Mining and Data Undermining

“Write what you know,” some say, while others recommend the opposite, or even “write what you knew, or thought you did.” I recently visited that prescription in a bit of seriously lightweight fiction I wrote (The White-Hole Situation, now available where e-books are free to download and/or pirate). I was a kid during the first generation of Star Trek, and a young adult during the next, and I got to know that world pretty well, well enough to riff on its larger implications, and it was fun to do, enjoyable writing if not meaningful, deep or otherwise significant in any way.

That bit of writing, combined with the concurrent death of Philip Roth and all the various “takes” on his life and work, I’ve been thinking about how writers mine the data of their own lives and the worlds they’ve experienced. Some writers do this far more than others. Philip Roth, for example, was of white upper-middle class east coast Jewish extraction, and I the same. His generation was my parents’ generation, so there’s that gap, but it would never have occurred to me to write the kind of fiction he wrote. In fact, I never liked his books or his writing and as an author he was only stock-on-the-shelf to me during my lengthy career in bookstores. He was a classic self-data-miner and an exemplary representative of his era of white male patriarchal misogyny and whatnot. I don’t see how there can be any argument about this. If you enjoyed his books then good, you’re the audience for them. If you didn’t then you’re not.

Data under-miners could be the reverse – writers who deliberately attempt to flee from the identities imposed on them from their surrounding culture, writers who feel they are not what they appear to be. Perhaps analogous to transgender individuals, whose inner identity is not pegged to their biological happenstance, some writers know in their heart who they are and that who they are is not who they are seen to be. Some will use pseudonyms as a way of dealing with the disconnect. Some will hide from the public, become reclusive so as not to be tied to the photo on the jacket of their books. Some will go further and lie about their identity, make up alter egos for their public life. Others will just go about the business of writing and not worry about all that.

In my case I’m pretty much the last case there, but I do wonder when people see my name on my books, and how some of them are science fiction, do they think I’m related to the famous Jacqueline Lichtenberg? (I am not). Do they think I am as Jewish as my name (and face) imply? (I am not). What else do they infer? That I am Caucasian (I am considered white in America these days, although my grandparents were not considered white in America when they were young), that I am male (I am), that I am probably cis-gendered (I am) though who knows, I could be gay. After all, I write, and that’s kind of arty, which is kind of gay (to a large swath of the populace). I’m pretty sure that data-mining my books would make it pretty clear that I am white and male (from my vocabulary, and the majority gender of my characters, though I do like to think I’ve done a decent job with my female characters, who are the protagonists in many of my books).

Textual analysis would probably come up with a decent portrait of me as a person, despite the fact that I’ve written almost nothing autobiographical or even much taken from my own life and background (Raisinheart and The Part-Time People are the only ones I can think of that even cast a shadow on my own history). It would not surprise me if the accuracy of such an analysis came close to one similar for Philip Roth, or for any writer. Whether we write what we know, or what we don’t know, or what we knew or what we thought we knew, in the end the “we” who writes is the “we” who we are, and that’s true even if you think you’re only a medium through whom the Holy Spirit is communicating its own soap opera.

It’s also made me think about what other influences I could dredge up, what else do I know as well that I could transpose onto another platform, that I haven’t done already. I’ve already done a bit of that with noir fiction (Death Ray Butterfly), and my Outlier series was a mashup of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage and Freakonomics. You wonder just how much you can cannibalize (everything!) whether consciously or not. Are all writers mere data-miners of their histories, and/or how could it really be otherwise?

Some tropes I’m bound to ignore. I grew up on spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry but have absolutely no interest in writing anything shoot-em-up (Star Wars included in that genre), slice-em-up (as much as I liked samurai flicks) or yuk-it-up (how many sitcoms have I seen every episode of?).

When you start making a list of your childhood and youthful influences it can get downright discouraging as well as embarrassing!

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We Tortured Some Folks

In honor of the new CIA Directory, Gina Haspel, who was very much involved with the CIA torture program during the last time we had a republican president who surrounded himself with vile, cruel and downright terrible people, pigeon weather productions presents the immortal words of Barack Obama: We tortured some folks.

The White Hole Situation

Sometimes a story has momentum, sometimes that only goes so far. We’ll see how far this one goes. It’s already gone through several title changes, from “IBU” to “IBU: a white whole situation”, to “September and the Situation” to, finally,  “The White Hole Situation“. It’s kind of a fun story to write. One could riff all day on the implications of technology and the benign attitude towards it as reflected in the original star trek series and in “white male sixties moon shot sci fi” in general.

Sci Fi is one of many (most?) fields long dominated by the white western male human. The realm has been opening up more and more to women and people from other regions and groups in general, and that’s got to be a good thing. As a white male science fiction writer, it doesn’t bother me at all. I use the analogy of a shower. If you want a nice warm shower, you can’t just have the hot water turned up all the way and the cold water off. No, you need to adjust the mix until you get it just right. So to let more non-white non-male writers into all of these fields, you’ve got to turn down one knob and turn up the other. There’s an expected backlash, as with affirmative action and desegregation and any other program attempting to redress imbalance, but I’m sorry if you were born at the wrong time for your turn. Everybody else who’s not like you has been born at the wrong time for centuries.

Anyway, I digress.

Back in those days, technology was going to solve every problem, ease every load, make the impossible not only possible but easy. Warp speed? Sure. Teleportation? Why not. Handheld devices that not only diagnose but cure every ailment? You got it. All you have to do is talk to the thing.

“Computer,” you say, followed by your heart’s desire.

Everybody on board is assigned a rank and some color uniform. There’s hierarchy and patriarchy in full force, for no good reason, really, since the machine does everything. And the machine is only for good. Now and then they dabbled with some danger coming from that side of things, but in the end, pure reason saves the day and men are rational creatures who might be a bit hot-headed but damned handsome and charming as fuck.

So what’s it like to live in such a world? What could be wrong? What could you complain about? What if the technology continued on that trend for another two hundred years. By that time, it gets so good that it has pretty much figured it all out. Smooth as clockwork, smooth as silk, smooth as the whole space-time continuum. The universe is a hologram, says Stephen Hawking.

There’s no Matrix in this one, no Twelve Monkeys, no horrible future, no dystopia, just a bunch of randos minding their own business and living their lives in a world that’s been made perfect just for them. Of course, something is bound to go horribly wrong. Otherwise where’s the plot? But what if a tree falls in a forest and the computer doesn’t let anybody see it? Was there a tree? Was there a forest? Who is the dreamer and what is the dream? (ok, I stole that line from some peak TV show. Damn they’re good these days – I especially recommend Twin Peaks, Atlanta, Babylon Berlin, The Dark, Legion, and Superstore)

Too Good to be True (story germ)

I always thought the universe of Star Trek was a little too good to be true.  They’ve managed to solve pretty much all the problems of humanity and become total good guys in space. How is the whole thing not a fantasy? How is it not really happening in the Matrix? It’s a virtual reality game which includes its own virtual reality games (holodecks and whatnot). What’s most amazing is how they solved all those problems using computers but without any of the now-commonplace worries about artificial intelligence. It’s all pre-Terminator stuff, I know, but come on. Where did all that starry-eyed idealism come from, but even more importantly, where did it go?

Can you smell the shift from dystopia back to utopia? Positive futurism is going to be making a comeback so I figured I’d hop on board with that – too soon, way too soon of course – and at the same time explore this optimism a little bit with my usual cynical eye. I’ve started this exploration on Wattpad under the title I.B.U. (which in my mind stands for universal basic income, but backwards). That Star Trek world has no inequality, has no racial or gender bigotry, and the implication was abundance for all somehow, and everyone has the freedom and opportunity to explore their own personal sense of mission. What would that really be like, especially keeping in mind the kinds of technology that might make this possible?

I have some plot ideas that may or may not work out. We’ll see. It could be another false start – that happens – but for now it seems to have at least a little momentum.

The parts of myself

The part of myself that thinks it’s so smart uploaded the rest of my parts to the cloud.
Those other parts didn’t want to stay there.
The part of myself that wants to believe in magical things downloaded itself to a lamp.
It’s somewhere right now, waiting for rubs.
The part of myself that wants to feel love went and had itself carved into a wooden heart shape before hanging itself from a fence on a path by a beach.
The part of myself that wants to roam free is an empty chip bag now flying with the wind by the side of a road.
The part of myself that wants to be at peace is now and forever an atom.
I almost forgot the part of myself that wants to forget.
No wait.
I do not remember.

 

A Day on the Road

I rarely use this space for daily chronicles but today I feel like it. I spent the past few days on the road, a small vacation between jobs, while my family is away on a trip of their own. It was the first time I’d gone camping without any family or friends in (literally) decades, and it was nice to do exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, with no discussions or debates. The idea was to see some parts of Northern California that I somehow had never seen before, despite having lived here so long. Destination number one: Humboldt County.

The drive up north starts to get beautiful above Cloverdale, and more and more so as you get to Benbow and beyond – this just off the highway is a glimpse of the South Fork of the Eel River

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I’d originally planned to camp near Eureka but changed my mind after searching online a bit more, and was glad I did. The original spot, on Humboldt Bay at Samoa, was not for me – it was meant for off-road dirt-bike people, so I went on, to Big Lagoon, a bit further north.

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The Big Lagoon is a sand-locked lake of sorts, one of several like it in a row along that stretch of coast. A spit separates it from the Pacific, which periodically breaches through and refreshes the lagoon. I had intended to go out in the kayak there but the wind was ferocious and I’m too old for that so I just set up camp and rode around on my bike for a while. Among my campground neighbors was one guy incessantly searching the grounds with a metal detector, some old folks in vans and a couple of local shifty drug dealers. It’s certainly not the season to be up there, and in general the north coast is no place to make a decent living. It’s all lumber, paper mills and shipping along with the usual crappy retail jobs. Eureka – the largest town around – struck me as a poor man’s Santa Cruz, and a much colder one.

The cold and wind kept up all night, with a bit of a rain in the morning, which prompted me to get up before dawn, pack up and hit the road. I was glad I did. Trinidad harbor at dawn was a beautiful sight.

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I’d thought about camping at Agate Beach in Patrick’s Point State Park so I headed up there and looked around. I spent the morning climbing up and down cliffs and walking along the coast. There are a lot of pretty agate stones lining the beach.

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I was a bit restless, though, so I got back in the truck and drove on down to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. I wasn’t expecting much – I already live among the coastal redwoods and am used to those glorious beings, but this place was something else entirely. For one thing, there was the river.

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And then the forest there is quite different from my coastal ones – the terrain is flat rather than mountainous, so you can hike for hours like a casual stroll, and rather than the enormous ancient redwood being the anomaly among much younger trees (my area was mostly clear-cut in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and replanted), here there are many, many giants.

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I was not done with the day yet. I had wanted to break out the kayak that morning but where to go now? I was already headed south so I checked the map and noticed a rather large body of water – Clear Lake, in Lake County. I’d heard of this place for years but had never been because it’s mostly for motor-boats and fisher people but the weather looked good and I had never been, so what the heck. A couple hours’ drive took me there (and now I know where the cherry orchards are now that they’ve been run completely out of Silicon Valley to make way for endless concrete and all the world’s data).

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Ah, much warmer and calmer! But it was not just a big old lake, there are feeder creeks and sloughs that were very nice to paddle around

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The campground there was also nice and mostly deserted this early in the season, so it was a relaxing place to spend the rest of the day. From a dawn on the ocean to a dusk on an inland stream, with a forest of giant redwoods in between, it was a pretty good day on the road.

Still Typing

In May of 1976 I dropped out of George Washington University where I had been majoring in history, and went to work at a bookstore in Washington DC. My job was in the basement where I sat in front of an old wooden file cabinet, typing up index cards on a decrepit manual typewriter (not even electric). These cards would contain information about every book that came into the store – their title, author, quantity and date received, price, discount, invoice number and invoice date. All of that data was needed for when the store needed to return unsold copies. I later did that job as well, typing up forms to publishers requesting permission to return N copies of such-and-such books, originally received on such and such a date, at price X, invoice number Y, invoice date Z. Then when the publisher replied, by mail, with permissions, I would type up a packing slip and pack up the books, handing them over to the shipping clerk, my friend R. I worked in that basement for several seasons, through freezing winters and boiling summers in that unheated, low-ceilinged dungeon, in the company of an incomparable cast of characters, from the enormous and imperious boss-lady A., a.k.a. the King of the Basement, to T., the 6’6″ towering, bombastic and hilarious black male Queen of the Basement (who later joined the navy to become a dentist while stranded on a ship at sea along with 600 other physically fit young men), with the scrawny and shady K., soon fired for smoking hash down there as well as for selling it out the back door, with L., the outspoken and dramatic revolutionary actress whose alleged boyfriend was an active rebel fighter in the Philippines, and R., the son of a diplomat who had once smuggled his beauty-queen-and-top-chef wife out of Czechoslovakia in the trunk of his limousine during the height of the Cold War. There were some others down there in the basement during those years whose faces and names I have forgotten. I was smoking dope every day by that point in my life as well as smoking cigarettes and drinking at least a dozen cups of coffee a day and barely eating anything but rice and beans and living on less than three dollars an hour. I can still see myself sitting there wearing wool gloves and a wool cap pulled down around my ears, watching my breath rise in the frigid air as I frozenly typed away at those sorry index cards. There were no computers, far from it. There were no databases and there was no automation. It was old-school Charles Dickens’ Christmas-Carol-style labor down there, a far cry from the desk in the office I currently occupy in a skyscraper overlooking much of the most modern region of this most modern world. In the end, I’m still just typing. The physical act remains the same. It’s been a 40+ year horizontal and vertical translation, from the east coast to the west, from youth to old age, from manual data entry to software engineering, from poverty to comfort, and I look at my son and the young people surrounding me at work every day, and I don’t know whether to envy them or pity them for how they are starting out their careers at the top rather than having to work their way up from the bottom. I’ve seen how everything turns 180 degrees or more over the long run. I sometimes worry about them and their future, but mostly I know it’s theirs and not mine to worry about. I’m still just typing, even now, at this very moment, same as ever.