Five Things: June 2, 2020

Oh, not much going on in the world at the moment, is there?

Here are today’s five things:

Trump gassing peaceful protestors to walk to a photo op: I think we’re all used to the president being appallingly tone deaf, but this one seems destined for the top ten collection (I’m hesitant to rank it any higher at the moment simply because there are at least eight months left in his presidency, and he’s going to be more desperate as he goes along). The fact that the tear-gassing begun during his “Oh boy I sure wanna do me some martial law” speech, and then the president walked over to the church and held up a Bible like a cudgel, surely did give the event symbolism. Just not the symbolism he was aiming for, and definitely not the symbolism history will provide it.

The topper, of course, is that the Church was neither told he was coming nor wanted him to be there. As the Bishop Mariann E. Budde noted:

“He did not pray. He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.”

Mind you, gassing protestors and wielding the Word of God like a club makes the president’s base of racists and Really Bad Christians happy, and he wants them happy with him because no one else is, or will be. Trump is not the anti-Christ, but I tell you what, if a Democratic president did exactly the same things Trump is doing now, the same Very Bad Christians who are oozing with joy over Trump would be tossing the term around with impunity. But that hypothetical president wouldn’t be the anti-Christ, either. Just a very very very very very bad president.

Update on the ant situation: Lacking a strong pheromone trail, the ant legions are bit scattered and confused in the front hallway, and I thunder through regularly, deploying the Thumb of Doom on them. I tried cinnamon as some suggested to see what it would do to them; the answer is, it doesn’t seem to do anything, and now I have cinnamon in my hallway. What does seem to work, however: Febreeze. It corrals them pretty effectively. This is all containment until the ant traps arrive in a couple of days. I’m making a science project out of it, basically.

For all that:

That blackout thing: I missed the “Blackout Tuesday” thing in the planning stages and found out about it after people started complaining that associating lots of black screens with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag was making it useless for actual transmission of information. Good intentions have unexpected consequences, basically.

While I would not tell others how to do their thing, for myself I’ve been largely resistant to changing up my social media profile pictures or jumping onto hashtags. That sort of thing often feels like empty calorie activism to me, I suspect in part because I have other ways to signal how I feel about current events and social issues (hint: you’re reading it right now). But I also acknowledge that if you feel like you want to do something but don’t know how, profile pics and hashtags are at least a start. It does help to pay attention to consequences, however, unintended or otherwise.

Crazy Rich Asians: I eventually maxed out on reality last night and decided to indulge in some escapism, which involved a) salted caramel ice cream, and b) Crazy Rich Asians, which has become one of my go-to films for a bit of happiness. There are lots of reasons I like this film, but one of them is that — having gone to a high school that had its share of kids whose families were “comfortable” (to use the euphemism one character in the film uses for being really rich) — it does a pretty good job of simulating the casual aspects of being wealthy, i.e., what your concerns and cares are like when money literally is no object. I don’t want to go too far in that, since there are a lot of clearly amped-up-for-plot-purposes bits (the bachelor and bachelorette parties are prime examples), and ultimately this movie is a fairy tale complete with a marriage proposal. But when it’s not directly doing that, it gets the everyday utopia of wealth right. These folks have problems, but rent sure as hell isn’t one of them.

A wretched record: Speaking of films, this is an interesting story in Variety about how The Wretched, a low-budget horror film I certainly haven’t ever heard of before, has been the number one movie at the box office for weeks — because it’s showing at drive-ins, which are the only theaters currently open. This is one of those “technically correct, but come on” records. 2020 is going to be full of those before the end, I suspect.

The Big Idea: Drew Murray

Author Drew Murray knew he wanted to write a technothriller with his novel Broken Genius — but how to do it in a way that reader would not get lost in the technological weeds? Murray explains his solution for you now.

DREW MURRAY:

Very close on the heels of every technology humans invent is a way to misuse it.

One crisp fall weekend a couple of years ago, I went to visit an old friend I’d last seen in Northern California while on a pilgrimage to see the birthplace of the computer age in Silicon Valley. Over pasta heaped with bacon, he filled me in on his new job in the world of programmatic advertising.

On some level, I knew we all, as consumers, were being watched online. But how much can be found out about us? The answer is a gut-crunching, tingle-down-the-back-of-your-spine feeling of being spied upon. I wondered, What could happen if the collector of said information were to use it for something less benign than advertising?

I had a protagonist in mind who would also be interested in the answer to that question. I’d come up with him for a short story I wrote at a writing conference with the theme, “Murder at the Beach.” I wanted my detective to be a creature of Silicon Valley, but that presented a problem. What would cause someone to leave the lavish tech industry with its catered Michelin-star-rated buffets and eye-watering wealth? Something terrible. I had several ideas. Will Parker ended up being so fascinating to me that I wanted to explore his character in the greater space afforded by a novel.

Writing about current technology requires research to get the details right, or people won’t feel it’s genuine. Writing about distant future technology in a science fiction setting has few boundaries, but must feel familiar enough to the reader to suspend disbelief. Writing about a near-future technology combines both of these challenges. Too much detail and a reader could lose interest. Not enough detail and a reader could fail to believe in the possibilities. Either way, the reader is taken out of the story.

One technology capable of elevating an eerie amount of information collection to frightening and dangerous is a quantum computer. Able to analyze almost limitless amounts of data instantaneously, it’s the hardware that will enable true artificial intelligence. But so far, this technology remains experimental. Explaining the details of how that technology might evolve in the future makes a great science journal article but is snooze-inducing in a novel.

The lifeblood of a thriller is stakes. People being killed to possess this technology is a great start and raises juicy questions. Who wants it? What would they do with it? And who else is in danger? If the answer to the last question is everyone, you’ve hit the gold mine of stakes.

The next challenge I had to keep the tension high was to find action. In some thrillers that comes naturally. In military thrillers, soldiers jet around the world getting into battles. In spy thrillers, secret agents operate under constant threat of capture. Action is everywhere! Tech thrillers have to work harder because the truth is, high-tech work is boring to watch. I spent over twenty years in technology, and most of the time it was people sitting at a computer screen, typing away. At first, it was in cubicles, later in large open spaces, and now at home because everything is connected. Not exactly gripping stuff. I needed a way to get out of the office.

To get the movement I was looking for, it had to be about hardware. A physical device, disconnected so it could move around. Even better, it could be lost, becoming the treasure in a treasure hunt. Something so valuable on the loose and up for grabs would trigger real physical action and a healthy dose of danger, since we’ve established that people are willing to kill for it.

But where would this object, this high-tech McGuffin be lost? For that, I considered what would be a natural and interesting environment for my protagonist, Will Parker. He’s a techie. He’s from California. He’s definitely a fan of science fiction in popular culture. My answer was a Comic Book Convention.

The problem with setting a book at a comic con is that like technology, the level of detail is everything. Not enough detail and it won’t feel authentic, especially to fans that have gone to one (or if they’re like me, lots of them). Too much detail and you get lost in the comic con itself, breaking the tension of the high-tech treasure hunt. What followed was a process of trial and error. It took several revisions to get that level of detail right, and the feedback of a carefully selected panel of early readers with varying levels of experience with comic cons.

The winning strategy was to choose elements of a comic con that are readily understood by someone who’s never been to a one, and then have the story interact with it in some way—such as celebrity autographs. Everyone knows what an autograph signing is, whether it features sports heroes, movie stars, or tech entrepreneurs. By choosing that element, I had only to show how it typically works at a comic con, and then have it play a role in the treasure hunt. Approaching it this way led to surprising and humorous outcomes.

The last piece that brought it all together was to choose a first-person point of view for Will Parker. Being inside Will’s head inherently makes him a guide through the worlds of tech and comic cons, while allowing him to bring his own particular style of commentary to the sights and events as they unfold. His narrative perspective allows me to fine-tune the level of details for readability because of what he focuses his attention on. We trust that he understands the details of technology, so that when he’s fearful over what could happen if this new technology is misused, we share that fear. And who doesn’t want to feel that creepy tingle when reading a thriller?

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Broken Genius: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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