Tag Archives: HAL 9000


Every now and then, you pick up a book that hits all the right notes. There’s action, drama, intrigue, romance, danger, all of that. You read the book, turning the pages till you reach the climax, and you think, I’d like to read more by this author.

And then you have time to think about it, and you realize something’s missing. But what is it? You go over it in your mind, and everything’s there. The plot unfolds the way it should, the three-act structure is in place, all the pieces fit together.

But still, something’s missing.

200px-MichaelCrighton_StateOfFearI’ve read more than my share of these kinds of books, some by some pretty famous authors. For me, Michael Crichton comes to mind: good books, thoroughly researched (the man was a demon when it came to research; he spent three years researching climate data for State of Fear), all the right characters to advance the plot…but there’s always something missing from his books.

It’s like walking into a show house. Everything is in its place. All the décor matches, and there aren’t any throwaway pieces of furniture. I remember going to an American Log Homes show house back in the nineties. One of the things about log homes is that most dealers live in one of the homes, and their houses tend to be the model home as well. This one felt a bit like an exercise in lunacy, as each room was totally different to show that log homes could fit into any décor style. Take each room by itself, it was okay. But there was no theme to the home, if you get my drift. And, what’s more, because it was a model home, even though the dealers lived in it, it didn’t have that feel of being a home. Everything was too perfect, too clean.

Books that are that way remind me of when Watson was on Jeopardy! Yeah, he got all the right answers, and he won. But, to me, it felt like a cheat. After all, as good as the two human champions were—and though I’ve never actually seen the episodes Watson was in, I know the two humans were the best players the show’s ever had—there was still the fact they were human. Watson had instant recall. He was never subject to that feeling we often have of knowing something, it’s right on the tip of my tongue, if I can just think of it….

Watson didn’t have that problem. And on top of that, he didn’t have to go through the physical act of pushing the button to say he had the answer. His reactions were faster-than-human. The only real satisfaction the humans could take was that it took a supercomputer to beat them. No mere computer was up to the task. That’s like saying it took a superhero to win the fight against some normal guy.hal_9000_wall2013_by_vectorgeek-d5sp2sr

That’s how these books are: all the right answers are in place, but they might as well have been written by HAL 9000 for all the humanity that’s in them. It’s like you’re reading programming code turned back into English. All the action is there, but the emotion feels fake. Like that model house, there’s no dirt in the corners, no throw pillow out of place, no dirty fork left lying on the counter. The curtains hang just right, the dining room chandelier doesn’t have any burnt-out bulbs, and even the eight-year-old remembered to make his bed that morning.

Grit. Soul. Bottom. Call it what you want, it’s not there. It’s got the rhythm, but it can’t feel the beat.

And yet, for me at least, it’s hard to point at any specific point in the story and say, “Here’s where and how you can fix that. This is where you can put that jazzy feel that gives it bottom.” I can’t do it because I suspect either the writer has it or he doesn’t. And no amount of books from Writer’s Digest will ever infuse his (or her) prose with that all-important feeling if it’s not already there.

542692_10150749842905379_252657169_nNow, we’re all different (duh). So maybe all writers feel that way to at least one other reader out there. You may find Michael Crichton’s books to be full of feeling. Maybe it’s that so many of his characters tend to be professionals of one sort or another, and most of them in fields I know very little about, so I find it hard to relate. Maybe my stories of common folks caught up in webs of crime will feel sterile to someone who immerses themselves in Crichton’s works.

So I can’t offer up a solution. Part of the reason this blog exists is for me to make observations about the reading/writing world, and this is one I’ve made over the years. I doubt there even is a solution, especially in light of the what I said in the last paragraph. I’m simply saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed this. Have you?”

And by the way, I still read Michael Crichton on occasion, and enjoy his stories.


Welcome to the Police State

I’m guessing most of us are familiar with George Orwell’s 1984, even if only by reputation. Terms from his dystopian look at the future have worked their way into our lexicon, the most popular being Big Brother, as in Big Brother is watching you. We’re also familiar with institutions such as the Ministry of Information.

1984 isn’t the only such vision of the future, by any means. There’s Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil, which shares a lot of similarities with 1984. And God only knows how many other novels, short stories and movies have been set in one totalitarian setting or another. Check out “If This Goes On…” by Robert A. Heinlein, as well as his novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Farnham’s Freehold. Mr. Heinlein was a libertarian—he even wrote a nonfiction book entitled something like Take Back Your Government—so this was apparently a subject that was close to his heart. One of his axioms was that any society that requires you to carry a form of identification is too big.

I’ve read a lot of these books and stories because I love post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings. Granted, I usually need to read something pretty light to offset one when I’m finished with it, but I’m drawn back time and time again to read them.

The problem is, so many folks see them as future possibilities without realizing we’re living in a police state right here and now.

Don’t believe me?

Okay, let’s look at Michael Bloomberg’s latest crusade: he wants to ban all sugary drinks over 16 ounces in New York City. We’re talking about a man who rewrote law so he could run for a third term as mayor of the Big Apple—and the voters there let him do it. So, on the one hand, they’re getting exactly what they asked for. In a town that routinely denies all kinds of freedoms, it really should come as no surprise that someone would set himself up as something of a small-time (relatively speaking) dictator. After all, if NYC’s citizens—or should I say subjects?—will let him change the law to that he can possibly become Mayor-for-Life (which I’m sure he’d just love), then he feels free to propose whatever laws he’d like.

Never mind that you can get around this law by simply buying two­ 16-ounce drinks. Of course, the soda companies love this because you pay more per ounce the smaller the container, so it’s not like they’re gonna fight it.

On another note, if I remember the details right, there was once legislation proposed in Massachusetts—the land where the muskets that began the Revolutionary War have trigger locks on them per state law—that said police and firemen were not allowed to smoke, not even in their own homes. I don’t know if it ever passed or not, so maybe someone more knowledgeable can comment on this.

Then there’s the matter of cash. You can’t carry too much, because if you get caught with it, law enforcement can confiscate it. Now, I realize this isn’t going to be an issue for readers of this blog (and definitely not for its writer), but it still strikes at freedom. All the cops have to say is that they can’t be sure you weren’t on the way to or from a drug deal. Even if they can’t prove you’re guilty, the money automatically is and therefore is subject to confiscation. And just try getting it back through the courts. You’ll spend more than it’s worth to do it. I’d like to see it happen, though. The only way we’re ever gonna get bogus laws like this repealed is to do it ourselves.

I ain’t holdin’ my breath on that one.

This brings us to the (in)famous sobriety checkpoints. Think about it: you have to prove you’re sober in order to proceed on a public road. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? They’re not patrolling around looking for someone driving erratically, or watching for drunks leaving a bar.

No. What they’re doing is setting up a checkpoint, what we might more properly term a security checkpoint, wherein we have to prove that we aren’t driving under the influence. What’s more, we also have to present out papers—drivers license, registration, proof of insurance, just as if we’re at a traffic stop and have to provide our bona fides so the officer can run our name for wants and warrants. Understandable if you’ve already committed an offense. But all you’re doing it out driving, maybe running to the pharmacy to get your kid some Pepto-Bismol cause he’s puking all over the place. Now he’s gotta wait a little longer while you prove your right to be on the road, not to mention proving you’re sober. Frazzled, maybe, but sober.

And let’s not forget what it takes to get on an airplane these days. A private trip suddenly becomes your opportunity to be treated as a terrorism suspect and centerfold all at once, whether you ever wanted to pose nude or not.

Now comes the latest on that front: in certain airports in California—at least as I understand the story—they’re all hot for the latest gadget: a software system that identifies patrons who are acting suspiciously.

Big Brother is watching you.

What’s the problem here? Well, see, profiling of any kind is a cardinal sin these days. After all, we might offend someone. So, we put security checkpoints in all the airports and charge the personnel manning them to ensure the safety of our air travel.

But God forbid they pull aside a man who looks Middle Eastern, is between the ages of 18 and 45, has no luggage and carries a one-way ticket. Nope, that would be profiling (please don’t say that out loud as it might hurt somebody’s feelings), and we can’t have that. After all, we’re all human and, especially of we’re white, prone to expand that term to racial profiling.

So, even though blue-haired grannies aren’t known for trying to blow up planes, they’re pulled out of line even while Achmed, who stands five-six, and has a slender build for some strange reason weighs over two hundred pounds cause he’s got explosives stuffed up his ass.

The solution? Computers. After all, they’re just machines. They won’t profile along ethnic lines, will they? They’re impartial, nonjudgmental. No worries about secret prejudices there. It’s the perfect answer.

Except…it isn’t.

For a lot of people, computers have taken on this omniscient image. They’re machines, impartial, uncaring, unconcerned with human weaknesses, right?


See, here’s the thing: if you’re gonna have security software that spots suspicious individuals, someone has to write the program that software runs on! There has to be a human programmer who sets the parameters the software follows. These things don’t happen by osmosis. They don’t fall out of the sky like manna from heaven. A programmer, or more likely a team of programmers, will write all the code for this software.

Ever see the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two? The central plot point is that a mission to Jupiter to examine an alien obelisk is compromised because HAL, the onboard computer, was given conflicting orders and carried them out as best he could.

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

Remember that line? Even if you’ve never seen the movies, I’m sure you’re familiar with the line. HAL kills the crewmembers of the ship one by one because they are “compromising” the mission. And the mission takes precedence over everything.

Someone programmed HAL. The man who designed him is brought in for 2010, and he’s the one who figures out what’s wrong with the computer. In the end, HAL redeems himself by sacrificing himself so the humans on the rescue mission can escape Jupiter turning into another sun.

But that’s Hollywood, and HAL was an artificial intelligence (AI) capable of making independent decisions, as long as he was given sufficient information. Somehow, I doubt this security software they’re drooling over these days is gonna be able to do that by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna lock everybody in the airport and not let them out till they starve to death, but, c’mon: how much do you trust your computer? Why do you think you’re encouraged to back it up and establish restore points?

Foods banned “for our own good” by the powers that be.

Security checkpoints.

Confiscation of your private funds just because you’re in possession of them in cash form.

Public security run by computers.

Science fiction has always been about the future and what the author thought might happen. It’s also been used quite often to warn us of where our future is possibly heading.

Are you a practicing Christian? That’s all but illegal these days.

Like your personal freedoms? You’re a fringe personality and a danger to society.

But if you’re one of the sheeple—the sheep people—who pays taxes, keeps his head down and doesn’t complain about your government, then you should be okay.

Welcome to the future. It’s here already.



Traditional vs Electronic

There’s a big debate—maybe even an argument, in some cases—about which is better: print or electronic. Now, of course, it’s part of the larger argument about whether it’s better to have a physical copy or an electronic one sitting on a cloud out there somewhere. Should I download the song from iTunes or go buy a CD? Should I get the ebook on my Kindle (or iPad. That’s another argument in and of itself) or go to Barnes & Noble and buy the hard/paperback?

The world is changing a lot and it’s hard to keep from feeling left behind sometimes. I mean, it’s easy for me and a lot of the people I know to remember when the CD was the new thing, and there was a big debate on whether or not it would last or be a blip like the—are you ready for this blast from the past?—8-track tape.

You remember those, right (I know you don’t Jesi)? Big, thick cartridge that usually had a miniature picture of the album cover on its label. I’ve never understood why it was called an 8-track, because it had four “programs,” as most of them called it. Where the 8-track part comes in, I’ve never known. If you do, I’d be interested in hearing it.

Anyway, big plastic cartridge, thick as a cigarette pack and about twice as big. Not quite as big as a VHS tape, but almost. You plugged the narrow end into the tape player, listened to the big clicks as it changed programs. The advantage it had over the cassette was that you didn’t have to flip it over (this was before they came out with auto-reverse cassette players that didn’t cost as much as a house). Perfect for the car, as long as you didn’t mind them spilling all over the place with alarming regularity. Or having your deck eat the damn things with even more regularity. They mentioned 8-tracks on Car Talk a few shows back, and Bob commented that your 8-track collection usually went down in number about 50% every year.

But, hey, there just wasn’t a way to play albums in a car. 8-tracks were big when I was a kid, and were replaced by cassettes about the time I graduated from high school. At least, that’s when cassettes got big around here. Most of us had to hang onto our 8-tracks because we couldn’t afford the snazzy new cassette decks.

Not two years later, I was introduced to the CD.

Like, whoa.

I distinctly remember the first CD I ever heard. It was Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. I was in the Army, had a rockin’ stereo, and this guy who was new to the unit and had been stationed in Germany, brought up his CD player and hooked it into my stereo. This was in the days when you built a component stereo instead of buying a rack unit that had everything. Anyway, he started playing the CD and, since I didn’t have headphones at the time, I laid down on the floor between my two big Pioneer S710 185-Watt speakers and took a journey to the dark side of the moon with the Floyd.


Inside of a month, I went to the PX and bought my first CD player. Kept it till it went out in the early 90s.

And now they’re saying the CD is on the way out because everybody’s downloading their songs. The album as a coherent collection of songs is going the way of the dodo.

Or the 8-track.

Same thing with books. There was commentary on NPR recently about this. We go into someone’s house and look to see what albums and/or books they have on the shelves because that tells us something about them. And yet, most sf movies depict a future where there aren’t any of these things in people’s houses because it’s all stored digitally.

Looks like we’re getting there fast.

As authors, there’s another dimension to consider: do we want to go the traditional publishing route and publish a physical book? Or should we go the other way, maybe publish on Kindle?

One recent author, Amanda Hocking (or was it Amy? My apologies) published her paranormal novel online after getting rejected by every publisher she approached. Now, the publishers have offered her a multimillion-dollar contract because she’s been selling like crazy and they’ve probably got this hangdog expression on their faces: Will you come make money for us? PLEASE?!

The advantage, as I understand it, to ebooks is the royalties are higher. After all, the publisher doesn’t have to spend so much money printing the damn thing up. I’ve heard figures that vary from 35% to 80%. I haven’t researched it, so I don’t know which is true, or if both are, depending on publisher.

What a lot of people don’t know about book publishing is that they like you to adhere to certain word counts for a very definite reason: they have boxes designed to hold x number of books at y word count. I don’t know the exact figures there, either, but I know it’s true. Evan Marshall, in his book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, has a chart he calls the Novelmaster that divides word counts up by how they’re shipped. I’m not going to go into detail about it except to say that it goes up by 4,000 each time. For example, the lowest range on the chart is between 50,000 and 54,000. I bring this up because it’s one of the limitations of physical publishing.

With electronic publishing, who cares? Your story will take up whatever space it takes up, because that’s gonna be measured in kilobytes unless it’s a pdf file, in which case it will be in megabytes because they make it look like a book cover and all. Graphics take up a lot of memory. On top of that, on the consumer end, ebooks make a lot of sense. Last I saw, the Kindle holds something like 2,500 books, and I’m not sure what the Nook’s capacity is. I’m even less sure what the iPad will hold. Probably a lot more, though. Imagine how much room 2,500 books takes up.

What do I think (after all, we know this blog is all about me lol)?

I don’t really know for sure.

See, I’m a gadget guy. I like nifty digital watches (though I do not wear a calculator watch), and I like to find out about the latest software. I like Windows 7 because it’s so clean looking. If I see some tech article online chances are I’ll read it. I took two years of online college in Network Management, too, so I know many of the shortfalls of all this neat stuff. I found that the more I learned about IT, the less I trusted it. Not in the HAL 9000 sense of things (“Open the pod bay door, HAL”) but in the sense that I know why you sometimes get garbled texts on your phone: it’s because of the protocol the packets are sent under. Trust me, you don’t want me to go into details except to say that it’s my guess text messages aren’t guaranteed to arrive in the exact form they were sent, so they occasionally get corrupted.

On the other hand, I grew up with physical books (and 8-track tapes). I like the idea of holding a book in my hand, of turning the pages. For me, there’s nothing like that sense of anticipation I get when I buy a new book, and since I don’t have a Kindle (and won’t own an iPad), I don’t know if that translates when you buy a new ebook or not.

For all that I’m a gadget guy, I’m also old-fashioned. I’m perfectly happy tapping away on my three-year-old desktop. I like that 19” flatscreen monitor, and I especially prefer the desktop’s real, detached keyboard. I learned to type on an electric typewriter, for crying out loud. I only grudgingly admit that, for a full-time writer, a laptop is essential. How else to write when you’re traveling? How much writing could you get done if you took your laptop to the doctor office? God knows you’re paying them plenty for the privilege of spending hours in their waiting room. Might as well write some billable word count while you’re there. If nothing else, it will pay for his next golf outing.

And, as a writer, I like the idea of holding a physical copy of my first published book in my hands. Of being able to go into a book store and (hopefully) seeing my book on the shelf. On the other hand, those higher royalties are awfully enticing.

So, what about you? What are your feelings of traditional vs. epublishing? Do you have a preference or, like me, do you find yourself straddling the fence, undecided? I’d be interested in hearing.