Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Futuristic/Robotic Music

Music, for me, has always been an inspirational tool. Make a playlist, hit play, stare out the window or close eyes and just let it all come. Scenes, settings, the ways in which characters act -- all of this makes for great first draft material.

But once the basic premise of a novel is established, I usually want to pick tracks to listen to while writing that helps the work along, rather than hindering it. As in, if one is working on a romance novel, one does not really want to listen to a slasher film soundtrack. Or maybe you do if it's I dunno -- some sort of vampire romance silliness.

Anyways, you get the point. So today I would like to explore some of the tracks that have inspired my novel (currently undergoing the Last Edit). It's a mixed bag, since the worlds of RoboNomics, the novel in question, are of the future and thus have yet to be seen, felt, heard, smelt, tasted, et cetera.

The other day I across an awesome song that perfectly sets the scene for a futuristic novel:

-Damn! I can't find it. It was on the Songza Blogged 50 playlist. I will find, I promise you that. And then I will update!

OOOOH! I found it! It's The Hunter by ON AN ON. (Or is that ON AN ON by the Hunter? Sometimes I am confused between songs and bands that could be interchangeable)

Despite the moving images that seem to come out at me from my screen from a different time -- a past time, listening to the track without the video makes for a fast forward.

Then there's Genesis by Grimes. I'm not entirely sure what makes this song futuristic. It just is:

Then for some reason there's something about late '90s british trip hop that puts one in the mind frame for writing fiction about robots. Maybe it has something to do with the Matrix? Cyberpunk and trip hop inextricably linked in my mind. Why? Who knows. Same time, same place?

Let's explore that musical era a little bit more with an amazing robot-related track. Well, in my mind it is robot-related, since it literally asks, "Are you human?"

It's all suitably dystopian. And then no creation of speculative fiction would be complete without a little Fever Ray:

And what would a soundtrack to an automated world be without Crystal Castles:

I'll round it out with some auto tuning, since it makes everyone sound like robots. Then again, so does wooden acting. Remember that?

That's just a sampling of what I've got so far. There are many other tracks on my 'RoboNomics' playlist but they are of the more atmospheric or action scene types that I would like to enumerate and talk about in a future post. For now, enjoy these songs as you imagine living in a world populated by intelligent machines...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

I Want My Tricorder

So this post is going to be more about artificial intelligence than it is about robotics. Maybe a tiny bit about robotics. And healthcare. If it can even be called that.

I have a bone to pick with healthcare. Hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies -- that entire sprawling behemoth that exists to get us born, keep us alive, and (with any luck, although usually not) ease us towards the end. Ridiculous. The entire thing. From beginning to end the widely accepted institution that is referred to as 'healthcare' is utterly ridiculous.

Here's why: it is, for the most part, stagnant. I mean, let's forget for a moment that physicians, in their inception in the Europe of long ago and far away were thought of as little better than servants. These creatures whose function was to attend to the bodies of others so that others were free to do more important work with hands and minds.

Somewhere along the line it was got flipped upside down. Instead of living in poverty the physician, armed with decision trees and reams and reams of memorization, was thrust into upper-middle-class living. All of a sudden a physician went from making spouses depressed by circumstance a la Madam Bovary to 'dropping the MD bomb' as one of my friends once called it: i.e. single fellow in the company of straight ladies will withhold announcing his profession until he wants some action.

If science is a faith than doctors are the priests, the deacons, the ministers, the pastors, the missionaries. Making sure that we all adhere to the one true god of memorized facts and that we perform our religious duties each arbitrary recurring period. And many of us happily go to without question.

Well I question, sir. I question.

Here is the essence of my question. We have cell phones, inspired by their creator by Star Trek communicators. Why don't we have tricorders yet?

What is it about the field of medicine that creates such mediocrity? Is it because of the endless line up of patients? Is it because (in my country) the healthcare system is snagged at every turn by red tape? For god sake's -- when we bust we're still mended by needle and thread. How long have we been using that old thing?

At least there is a little hope. At least at the fringes of our science there are some people who refuse to believe that progress in medical research is not impossible. To wit:
  1. Today the National Post came out with a piece about robots performing surgery on throat cancer. Hand tremors begone!
  2. Apparently some folks have developed some that functions sort of, kind of like a tricoder.
  3. Medical Knowledge and Artifical Intelligence. Physician, free thyself to go work on developing a tricoder.
It's a good start, but it only approaches the sort of thing I dream about. And what do I dream? Non-invasive healthcare. Preventative, profoundly non-invasive. As in: no more need to poke and prod and cut off bits of you to figure out what you have. No reason to turn your body inside out to get rid of it. Why? Because I can just, even as a layperson, take this little device and detect pre-cancerous cells within any part of my body and then take action to avoid cancer (or whatever else disease you'd like to avoid) before it even happens. Ta da!

That's the dream. Seriously, body sciences. For the greater good: think of how many more people you could save with proactive, rather than a reactive, model. Don't tell me it's impossible. Do it. Now.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Spring Cleaning

So I spend all of yesterday cleaning the office. But I only got the first part done. The first part: sorting throught the massive piles of papers that dwelt in amongst the desks and tables. Yes, our office is crowded.

Today I have to clean out the closet, which will prove to be fun. The Borgias on in the background as winter in this forsaken place drags on and on and on.

Spring cleaning before a summer course. Riiiiiight...

Friday, April 12, 2013


So I thought I'd do a thing every Friday in which I will resurrect an old blog I had under a pen name. I decided to kill the pen name and go with my real name, but at the same time I made the unfornate decision to destroy that blog. Sad. It was dubbed "Inspirational Music for Writers," and it was amazing!

So anyways I am going to try to recapture the essense, the spirit of that blog. First with a song to stop procrasination with an ounce of motivation:

I probably posted it before but I don't care. It deserves a double post. It's just that good.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

AI and the future of education

For the beginning of this robot series, I wanted to discuss the field I probably know most about: education. Not specifically about robotics and education, or robotics in education, however. When on that topic, many commentators and news articles focus on the use of robotics to get kids involved in scientific endeavours or as novelty 'experiments'.

 Today, the Wall Street Journal released a piece about robots as teachers.

No, I'd rather distill all of my ages upon ages of research in the topics of AI, robotics, automation and all things futuristic into a crystal clear opinion about the future of education. And why current public education systems are stuck in the past. I'll start at the optimum point of departure: my education. The one I know best. I'll take it as a case study.

Case Study: A Young Teacher's Education/Education in the Present/Past


A little background. Grade school in the late eighties and early nineties in a publicly-funded elementary school down the road from where I grew up. Endless lessons in printing and cursive writing, none of which I use anymore for anything other than signing cheques and self-amusement (i.e. writing certain fictional things long-hand -- although now that I come to think of it I even type the most private of journal entries nowadays. Writing just cannot keep up to the speed of my thought. Typing comes much closer). What else did I learn in those long days? I remember choosing books for independent reading that were far beyond my grade level and when it came to computer time, there was an ancient that involve a virtual turtle on a green and black screen that was controlled with keystrokes and a trackball. Logo I think it was called?

In sum, I learnt how to interface with the written word. I learnt social avoidance, arcane skills that I no longer use, and some basic math. I think there was something about religion in their that I've largely forgotten and that I despise gym (especially dodgeball).


In high school, I took a course in keyboarding as well as a whole bunch in computer programming. Now, granted, I did learn during those grungy years of the mid- to late nineties how to interface with computers. How to use them effectively and a little teeny bit about Java and Visual Basic. (don't ask me any probing questions, I seriously don't remember how to program a computer. Other than that it's tedious). But a large part of those years was spend retaining useless information. Sure, some folks went on to take English Lit degrees or history degrees or math degrees or biology. But less I become a complete whiner reverting to her 15-year-old self, did I seriously need to know any of that?

But a lot of what I learnt in high school was more about streaming and segmenting us all in preparation for what came next. And the what came next was university: that which I'd been waiting for since elementary school when I first read about Anne of Green Gables going off to a magical place called Queen's College. What I learnt in high school is that I never wanted to go back.


So onto university. In university I learnt the fundamental skills I probably should have been introduced to years before. The Basics. In C++ class I learnt that I would never be a computer programmer. In intro, mid-level and advanced philosophy I learnt how to think logically, how to construct an argument, and how to write a paper using personal pronouns. In poetry class I learnt how to put all that aside and express myself.


Here comes the crux of the matter. After my undergrad I took my savings from four years of three part-time and summer jobs that I had tucked away after tuition was paid and happily spend every last penny on Teacher's College. I was fortunate in my choice of programs, however, in that that particular school required every student to purchase a lap top from them. The hulking brick of a widescreen computer was to be integrated into every lesson and every activity that we did during the eight month program. It was a good fit for me, given my background...and I was even given a job as a computer assistant for my class of 29 future elementary school teachers. There was meant to be two per class.

In some courses such as Teaching Early Literacy, the professors were great at integrating the computers. (although to be bluntly honest most of us were distracted from the power point presentation by gossiping on MSN messenger) and in other courses, such as teaching music, we barely looked at the computers. But in every single class, without fail, I would field multiple questions about the beasts (this was back in 2005-2006 and all I remember is a big slow thing with a loud fan). Some students my own age were unfamiliar with the concept of a mouse or how to type beyond hunting and pecking. I was gobsmacked and wondered how they'd made it through their respective undergrads...

Picking apart the Case Study

The point of all this is that I did and did not have a typical North American school-going experience for someone of my age. It was typical in the way 'core' subjects such as reading, writing and math were taught. Indeed, I would argue that teaching trends and differing theories aside (Phonics or not, traditional math or not...) it was pretty typically of the way every child in each and every publicly-funded school on this continent, broadly speaking. It was not typical in terms of the 'specialize' subject of evolving technology and my learning through it and with it.

It is 2013. But learning being interfaced with information technology is still a 'specialty'. Through the latter part of my education I've heard tons about the information age and how it will revolutionize careers, education, childhood. This is and has happened in every sector except for education. Why is that?

Education of the Present, Education of the Future

I could go on here about the traditions in which western education is grounded. I could tell you how the ideas of a liberal arts education, founded as they upon the idea that those in school are only male upper class 17-century Brits and have nothing to do with the here and now of my North American context. But let's put all that aside for a moment and leave it to educational theorists.

Instead I want to talk about the past, the present, the future and where our attitudes about these things go horribly. First, an anecdote.

When I was in teacher's college, part of our training was a practical component. My first stop was a kindergarten classroom. My favorite school-going age: every one a little philosopher, every one comes to school (almost) wholly themselves before society begins to leave its mark. I was in that class for the beginning of school, and had a special glimpse into the skills that the children brought with them to an inadequate public education system. One little boy came to school already knowing how to type on a keyboard, and all he wanted to do was go to the computer and type up surveys that he would then print out and deliver to his classmates as they played. He could type faster and with more accuracy than his 55-year-old teacher. Remember, this was back in 2005. Which means that he and his advances set of technology-interfacing skills are now 12. Meanwhile, most likely his kindergarten teacher is still teaching four-year-old who possibly, use and are exposed to technology more often than she is.

The point here is not that age makes the difference. I would not want to argue that since advances in GUI have reached a point at which anyone at any age can, possibly, adopt effective use of things like tablet computers, smartphones, etc. The point here is that in this day and age of the integration of technology in so many people's private lives, we cannot expect children to put aside the tablet they know how to use effectively to sit and cover sheet after sheet with printed S's.

Where does Public Education go Wrong?

In Ontario, where I grew up, there is a discourse of 'business' in public education. Children are our greatest resource, it goes, and the aim of public education is to form future workers. Future efficiency workers who will help our economy. I'm sure you may have heard it before, and most recently from President Obama trying to justify spending on education to a public nervous about the economy and scrutinizing spending. The rhetoric is debatable but I'll take it as a given for the purposes of this blog post.

But if we take it as a given that the point of public education and spending on it is to create contributing future workers, why the heck are teachers still teaching branches of knowledge that are useless to most of today's workers, not even touching the workers of tomorrow?

The Solution?

It is as impossible for me to know, even with my research, how information technology will evolve. We cannot yet see the new fields of employment will arise as time rolls on. But we can know two things fairly: which fields are likely to disappear due to increasing automation, and which skills will always be added value for humans.

The first we can know from researching the leading edge of emergent technologies. The second we can know from thinking about the ways we use and interface with information technology. Which is about just that: Information. I am not asserting that every kid be taught computer programming, that would be silly. But reading and writing are still as useful a skill as ever, and printing is not so much. Reasoning and creative problem solving, these things are important as well. Interpersonal skills -- something I've never been taught. This lessons do not necessarily have to be off-loaded onto elementary-level students, but it is a shame that currently the "basics" are not taught to students until after public education is over -- if ever.

I think the version of education I envision which is most conducive to the future is one is which every teacher is required to possess functional technological literacy. It is one in which learning is not just loved for learning's sake, but for discovery's sake. And one in which students are equipped to adapt and thrive in an environment in which ever-changing information technology wraps around our social and work-worlds. If such a change does not occur, I'm afraid that teachers in the near future, like the main character in my upcoming novel, will be easily surpassed by robotic doppelgangers.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Girl I Was

Flood of weird, slightly interconnected memories this morning. Mostly related to Carleton.

Back in 1997, back when I was too young to mention -- in high school -- I had the chance to take a week off of school to go to Carleton during the uni's summer had begun, I think. Anyone on the honor roll at our school and a bunch of others -- probably all the high schools in our board -- could sign up for the program and go to these "mini-courses". Was there only one? I recall one of my best friends at the time having one session in the morning and one in the afternoon. Back when we all had promise -- back when all my girlfriends wanted to doctors and lawyers and politicians -- when we believed in Girl Power and didn't give a thought to being child-burdened ever-maternity-leave going teachers. Which most of them are now. The ways in which people will gratefully give up their dreams and identities, hm? But I digress.

Anyways I had a full day course called POE'ET TREE 4*5*DAZE taught by a poet named Peggy Caesar. Sometimes I wonder where she is now and whether she is still a poet. I loved that course -- it took my writing from childish nonsense in the vein of an L.M. Montgomery character to being angst ridden teenage nonsense in the vein of (insert grunge band name here).

My favorite memory of that course was the day we took it outside. Some delicious day in May or June with sun. We sat by the Rideau River and look down it: that vantage point from which you can see a bridge and further along the gold domes of an orthodox church. The aspect was so perfect for the poem that Peggy decided to read to us. It bears reprinting here:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of course. Hooray for the public domain!

The entire scene had such an impression on me that it culminated into something that happened when I went off to go my first degree at Carleton three years later.

It was the end of Frosh Week, 2000. The night before, the Saturday, there had been an enormous outdoor party for the incoming first years. On-campus as I was, off-campus as some of my friends -- all were invited. The mass of 18 and 19-year-olds (back when we had an extra year of high school in Ontario), the rare 25-year-old friend who'd traveled to 'find themselves' first. I think if memory serves it was a Much Music Video Dance Party (do they still do those?) A massive crowd of drunken, dancing youths. A blow-up sheep that has being tossed about like a beach ball in the crowd of an outdoor music festival. But there was something wrong. The entire week I had felt it -- the obnoxious onslaught of busy-ness designed to keep homesickness at bay did not work on the immense sadness I felt over my end-of-high-school abrupt breakup.

I felt empty. The next day I was up fairly early, went to an empty caf to get a brunch and then had nothing to do. Classes had begun but there was no need to get too deep into studies yet. So I decided to take a walk. Early September and still hot and beautiful, I turn towards the Rideau River again to see the view I'd fell in love with. That's when I saw it: the field in which we had partied. Covered in garbage. No one had come to clean it up yet.

So I did. To this day, I've never told anyone this story. Not as far as I can remember, at least. It was Sunday, the buildings of the uni empty, and so nearly no one came by. Everyone who lived on campus were away in the dorms, sleeping off the night before or trading stories. There was a cyclist or two who passed through the path that split the field in half, but when they did I mimed that I was idling on a picnic table bench or what have you. I think I had brought a textbook to peruse by the river side with me, and I'd just sit and read that a second until they moved on.

I gathered every bit of garbage and placed it in the cans scattered here and there. I don't know why. Maybe it was because of the incongruence of my memories of poetry recitals by the river and the junk that they wouldn't bother with until Monday morning. Anyways I did that.

I eventually took another poetry course at Carleton, in my third year. I had to submit work in order to be accepted into the class. This one was less Samuel by the river than it was trying to out-talent students who wrote about being drunk, high, or having sex in weird ways and other yawn-inducing experiences.

It puts me in mine of all the other tiny triumphs that I've had between then and now. How I've always had one foot in the literary world. I have so many dark moments when I think about how I took the wrong path, and I think I wasted my time with learning how to teach, learning how to conform. But in reality I have submitted my work to courses and been accepted. I have submitted my work to journals and been published. It makes me courageous. It makes me persistent. It makes me wonder whether I should put chapters of the current work online for comment and criticism. Goodreads, Wattpad, what do you think? Should I?

Monday, April 8, 2013

On Jurassic Park

So we went to see Jurassic Park 3D this weekend. It is crazy -- it's been twenty years since I saw the thing in theatre. I was 12 (you do the math) and I went with my whole. It was not a thing we did often, going to the theatre to spend $4 each on a movie. Sitting in those god awful uncomfortable chairs that were not stadium seating. It makes me feel so old remembering it. It was so scary at the time... I didn't sleep that night and my younger brother and sister had nightmares.

But the crazy part about everything is that even after all this time, I was still terrified. I hadn't seen the movie much, I suppose. In the past twenty years once in the theatre and then maybe once as a rental -- I really don't know. But knowing and not quite remembering made it all frightening. I don't know if it was the 3D however -- there was no t-rex popping out of the screen and for the most part I didn't really notice. Maybe it was more of the size. The small screen Jurassic Park was never really scary. But the big screen -- well, I guess it doesn't change after 20 years, stadium seating or not.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Less than a Month until Course

So my writing course starts in a little less than a month and I am extremely excited. In the meantime I have been reading the textbook like a good little keener should:

It was expensive, as most textbooks are, but it just might have been worth it. I am only on the second chapter of it and I have to say it is an excellent book. The only issue I take with it is that it seems as though it is written specifically for writing literary fiction. And as much as I would love to consider myself an author of literary fiction, it seems by my choice of genre and my style (what I love to write) that I am an author of commercial fiction. The excellent advice might be a tiny bit easier to take if it were not for the undertone of ...artistic snobbery?

I have also obtained the recommended text as well:

Although I have yet to read it, I think it will be super helpful. Since I read a lot of novels anyways I think it would be beneficial to read through this book and learn from it as well over the next six months or so.

Can't wait!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Intro to Robots

All right! Now that I've lightened the mood and poked fun at the Frankenstein complex a little, let's get to it.

So I've decided to change the tone of this blog from a personal ranting platform to a series about robots. In anticipation of my novel, which if everything goes as planned will be released very early 2014 (I'm thinking the first day of the year), I would like to explore issues related and tangential to the novels. Specifically, the automation and intelligent machines, broadly speaking, in the novel.

There is no doubt that in print journalism and on the interwebs, people write about and talk about robots quite a bit these days. Perhaps this is a bias colored by research. Or perhaps it is the fact that op-eds and news items are, with more frequency, winding up in Forbes and the New York Times and 
CNN and other major, mainstream news outlets and outside of just Wired and IEEE blogs.

But these outlets report mainly on the emergence of intelligent machines and automated labor and usually with the undercurrent of that frankenstein trope. What I would like to do here is to explore issues, mainly social, related to robotics and other forms of automation but not covered in the novel and not strictly related to the replacement of human labor with machine labor (which is covered, at length, in the book)

And so thusly do we begin. I will try for a post a week in this series. Wobot Wednesdays? Maybe I'll just eschew catchy blog series names and just write. Look out for next week when I will post about the future of technology and the future of early schooling. The intersection of things-I-know-some-stuff-about. Weeee!