Tag Archives: Future

Review: Normal, by Warren Ellis

Out of the twenty-four books I have read so far in 2016 Warren Ellis’ novel Normal is easily my favorite. This isn’t surprising given that I’m on record as a card-carrying member of the Cult of Ellis. He’s directly or tangentially referenced in more than a few posts here and I’m not exaggerating when I admit he’s been an intellectual model of mine for years, ever since Crooked Little Vein. What’s surprising is how fresh and new Normal is amidst both his previous body of work and fiction in general.

Normal follows foresight strategist Adam Dearden through his intake at Normal Head, a psychiatric facility that caters to a very specific clientele: those who have spent too long looking into the future. This includes both civil futurists and their shadow-siblings working for military or intelligence taskmasters. Referenced on the cover as well as throughout the book, one of the few pervasive ideas is abyss gaze: as a futurist you spend so long looking into the abyss that the abyss looks back into you. Every patient at Normal Head is brilliant, and every patient is broken.

Normal is a locked-room mystery. A patient goes missing on Dearden’s very first night. It’s also a psychological exploration not just about academia but ourselves – what the world does to those who gaze at it and how we cope. In the very first scene LOLcats are featured prominently and serve as an escapist technique. But the patient in that case has no internet access, and no cats – that absence forcing her to more directly confront what brought her to Normal. The novel’s rife with self-deception and false dichotomies, both of which are eventually called out. But there’s also a basic and unflinching recognition of the importance and necessity of the work that futurists do.

Ellis excels at weaponizing typical imagery – the specter-like figure lurking on the edge of the forest, the isolation of the setting – with advanced futurism the likes of JG Ballard (who himself wrote a missing-asylum-patient short story that casts Normal’s conclusion in an interesting light). Ellis also brings darkly intelligent humor such as the opening scene with the LOLcats, a wildly frenetic and joyful and chaotic asylum-wide reckoning, the overwhelming desire to be medicated and the ridiculous things done to cope with abyss gaze. He’s also got the balls to make an economist (Clough) a primary truth-teller in the story, though he acknowledges this irony later through the madly bright figure of Colegrave.

Normal pulls down a theme common in Ellis’s work that manifests in different ways: progress through transgression. It could be macro-scale societal progress through transgressing bodily norms. Or as in this case the micro-scale violation of crossing from the civil forecaster to mil/intel strategist side of the cafeteria pushing the story forward, letting the dog finally see the rabbit. It’s never a neat process and often results in whatever group is involved dissolving into a bunch of howling, shit-throwing monkeys but things do move forward.

Normal is at once a darkly amusing locked-room mystery and a deeper statement on the often destabilizing, quixotic nature of doing the right work and still getting blown over by it and having to catch your breath in whatever way you can. It draws on Ellis’ incredibly well-read and cross-disciplined nature. And both his instant, defensive pessimism and his beliefs and hopes about people.

I can’t recommend it any more highly. At 150 pages it’s a quick and well-paced story with a lot of technology and character fluidly unpacked and laid bare.

Competing Magics and Fiction Conditions

Leaving my mid-Manhattan hotel to write at the Starbucks across the street: almost a smart idea.

Almost because: it is blasting Christmas music on November 29th. An impossibly young-sounding baby wails from the lower level trying to make its discomfort heard over the louder wail of festive saxophones.

I hear you, kid. I hear you.

Headphones are an option for me of course. One I’ve chosen. But there’s a problem: I’m primed to attend to underlying patterns and background stimuli. With that priming background music pops out from behind whatever I have playing.

I attend to the background. It’s a defense mechanism since that’s where my comfort lies. Conversations filter through even as I try to meld into the wall. Festive saxophones switch out for playful trumpets and well-meaning crooners intruding on my playlist.

Every time Christmas comes around I end up thoughtful about the period when Christianity overtook Paganism, especially through Briton eyes. The pagans saw it as a landscape of competing magics, according to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe among others. That war all but ended as Saint Patrick defied tradition to light the signal fire on the Hill of Slane first – rather than that on the Hill of Tara, as an insult to the primacy of the pagan nobility of Tara.

Magics never stop competing. They change and morph and adapt – or they’re not magics. More than fifteen hundred years after Patrick’s king-of-the-hill game I am surrounded by the recent trappings of his faith – now manifested in a jolly piano tune about travel, snow, something about a fire. The front window of this Starbucks is pasted with holly and mistletoe decals. Someone somewhere is upset that my coffee cup is red and lacks overt deference to the upcoming holiday.

Most people don’t give a shit.

Magics never stop competing, especially in New York City, I’ve found. This is my second trip here in three months – and the twenty years before that. The personal enterprise and entrepreneurship on display still hasn’t ceased to amaze me. Every corner in Manhattan someone else trying to make it work, but even more than that, trying to make it look like it’s working. The appearance, the display, the forward-looking optimism that whatever magic they’re weaving is working. That the mere portrayal that it’s working adds to its arcane power and future momentum.

British writer Warren Ellis recently charged an audience to act like they live in the Science Fiction Condition – “like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky. Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted.” Britons have excelled at that kind of projection for ages. They used to toss all manner of weapons, coinage and other riches into various lakes not just as religious tribute but as a forward-looking projection of how they wanted deceased to appear in the afterlife. Not to indicate current status – but to display their own sort of Fiction Condition even to the gods.

And as magics go, so this went – the conquering Romans later sold interests in British lakes to entrepreneurs looking to recover their riches. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords may be no basis for a system of government, but it seemed to work fine as a basis for speculative investment. It can’t be any sillier than the securitization of mortgage clearing-house fraud that exploded in 2008, anyway.

Paradigms change – entire worldviews – and we’re all still looking to show the future how great we are there, even if we’re not quite there yet.

Someone a few tables over is talking about an app they’re building. The speakers are promising good times to come through happy, sentimental jazz. I’m maintaining my own Fiction Condition for the moment.

And still wondering what lake to drain for my treasure.

Errata: Handwriting Style ID, Future Everything, Hersh is Nuts, Baltimore & Racism

The fantastic Social-Engineer.Org podcast had a fantastic recent episode on identifying people by way of their writing style on the internet. (audio at link)

On another security note, The Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast recently had Bruce Schneier on the program. (audio)

A few great videos from FutureEverything 2015:
Warren Ellis on Haunted Machines
Haunted Machines panel with Ingrid Burrington, Joanne McNeil, Warren Ellis and Tobias Revell
Ellis’ closing talk, Some Bleak Circus.

The Guardian ran a great story on a Department of Energy worker who tried to sell a classified list of email addresses, tried to spear-phish DoE computers, and offered to spill the beans on highly classified projects for $100,000. (article)

Here’s a great Vox takedown of Seymour Hersh’s new book/LRB article about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. (article)

The New York Times on How Racism Doomed Baltimore. (article)

Mother Jones reports: Multimillionaire Carly Fiorina Took 4 Years to Pay Staffers From Her Last Campaign. (article)

Andrew W.K. in the Village Voice on depression – incredible piece of writing, and really important to read even if you don’t experience depression. Someone you love likely does and this may provide some perspective.

Errata: Horrible Greenlight Game, Creator Economy, AI shenanigans, etc

Moving ‘Errata’ posts to a once-a-week thing, I think.

From gaygamer comes news about an incredibly horrible game allowed to find its way on gaming platform Steam’s “Greenlight” system. (article)

Paul Saffo’s SALT talk on the Creator Economy. (Video and audio at link)

Stephen Colbert has partnered with Share Fair Nation and ScanSource to fund every single teacher grant request in South Carolina. (article)

Motherboard on a new thought experiment: could a superintelligent AI freely manipulate humans interacting with it to its own ends? (article)

Also from Motherboard, a researcher has put together what looks to be a fairly comprehensive record of all arrests related to dark web market activity. (article)

Master combination locks have seemed pretty shoddy security for a long time, but a new exploit allows you to crack many combinations in eight tries or less. (article)

A great episode of the Lawfare podcast in which editor Ben White delivers a talk on “The Future of Violence.” (audio at link)

–This feels like a low-tech companion to the points about technology-centric existential threats that Bill Joy worries about. Going to have to pick up White’s new book, written with Gabriela Blum, ASAP.

Social-Engineer.org podcast episode with Deviant Ollam on his physical security shenanigans.

And via twitter, a Macedonian protester using a riot shield as a mirror to reapply her lipstick:


That Old Haruspex

Time was, a man or woman of vision would kill an animal for this.

Back across the Atlantic Ocean and the desert of time gone past, a person of vision would kill an animal for this. Usually livestock; cows, sheep, goats. Sometimes another person. That practitioner would bleed the victim or gut them and seek futures in the way their biological constituents spread across the ground.

The lifeblood crawling over the ground, some soaking in as sacrifice, held in it secrets accessible only through arcanity. It told of the coming harvest, the seasons, politics. Childbirth. War. Coagulated into an abstract reification of what was in the offing. Translated, of course, by a mad person.

We’ve moved into a time when this method of hematomancy is no longer acceptable. For good or ill.

You’ve likely guessed from the dirt under my fingernails and glint in my eye that I gravitate more towards “ill.”

We’ve abandoned divination (in all but that darkest corners) and fly blind as events speed up. Confident in our computer projections and blissfully ignoring the blood seeping across the floor from every circuit board, we proceed. Every phone poll centered around biased wording, every focus group engineered to support a specific result casts a stone to shatter the atemporal mirror set up to guide us.

The universe, having put effort into these systems, is unhappy at our direction.

New methods come into being. Perhaps under a more opaque sky but novelty increases as we go along. Novel divination is no exception.

That old haruspex, you know. That ancient bleeding or gutting to find a glimpse of coming Troubles. It’s alive and well. Sure, psychotics still use the old way from time to time. But we’ve new animals to bleed. Millions of them. More slowly.

Go to any Walmart parking lot. The closer the parking space the more concentrated the magic. Look down and find the oil spots. The pools. The aggregated ghosts of local futures.

Realize the futures are told in the blood of our vehicles, pack animals limping along and lubricating the visual disparity between this world and what it may be.

Political and consumer confidence polls are answered by the antiquated percentage of us who still have home phones. What better predictor than the near-corpses of our most precious, utilitarian possessions and the blood and guts they spit painfully upon arrival at our biggest, most predatory temple of consumption?

Gaze down at the lot, at the spot. Internalize the shape and scope of a single oil stain. Find every edge and turn, every predictive edge manipulated by scarred asphalt or the bounds of days to come. Trace the slowly fading marker that tells of many things, including the possible impending death of that car. Realize just how many spots share the same parking space. How many overlap and perhaps influence each other. Do intersecting spots affect each other or has a darkly blooded future reached back into its own desert to intervene, to teach, to warn?

Shift your perspective wider by comparing one space to another. See the overwhelming plethora of internal offerings left to provide a momentary vision. Glimpses peter out only as the laziness of the driver determines that the distance from the store is more important than the time spent hunting for a place to leave a slick, sad offering.

Our population grows more sedentary and the distribution of cars condenses. Obesity rises; no one wants to walk too far from the car to the store. Terence McKenna often said the future was building up like a logjam in a river. The impending future condenses and so do our visions, our divinations. Our oilspots compounding in concert one over the next.

Each Walmart is covered in once-shining beacons for us to integrate in ritual. Fucking covered. We bleed everywhere and refuse to peer through the window it opens.

If a security guard shows up to ask why you’re wandering about the lot, muttering and looking down, just say you’ve lost your keys.

Or gut him for old time’s sake.

Readings: Methylene Blue and Fear Extension, Wet Implants, CRE Rates Rising

Am. Journal of Psychiatry, via Reddit: Effects of Post-Session Administration of Methylene Blue on Fear Extinction and Contextual Memory in Adults With Claustrophobia – “Methylene blue enhances memory and the retention of fear extinction when administered after a successful exposure session but may have a deleterious effect on extinction when administered after an unsuccessful exposure session.”

IB Times: Upgrade Your Brain: Liquid Hard Drive Implants Could Increase Intellect – “Scientists at the University of Michigan realised that digital information could be stored on colloidal clusters after observing them switch between two states – such as the 0s and 1s of traditional bits – when placed in a liquid.” – A lot further off that chip-based implants but perhaps much more viable in the long run.

Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology via Reddit: Rising Rates of Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae in Community Hospitals – “The rate of CRE detection increased fivefold in community hospitals in the southeastern United States from 2008 to 2012. Despite this, our estimates are likely underestimates of the true rate of CRE detection, given the low adoption of the carbapenem breakpoints recommended in the 2010 CLSI guidelines.” – CRE is scary, scary stuff. Scarier than MRSA, and from the epidemiology folks I’ve talked to, even scarier than XDR TB.

Readings: Rpi Copy-Paste Warning, Printing Memory on Paper, WSJ Hacked

Reddit/thejh: Beware copy/paste from a web page to the (Raspberry Pi) command lineHadn’t thought of this, but a good point.

CEN: Researchers Print Electronic Memory On Paper – “Electronics printed on paper promise to be cheap, flexible, and recyclable, and could lead to applications such as smart labels on foods and pharmaceuticals or as wearable medical sensors. Many engineers have managed to print transistors and solar cells on paper, but one key component of a smart device has been missing—memory.” – Fantastic step forward and, if the war on ubiquitous computing continues, as much of a game-changer as 3D printing processes are to gun control.

Ars Technica: WSJ website hacked, data offered for sale for 1 bitcoin – “The hacker was offering what he claimed was user information and server access credentials that would allow others to “modify articles, add new content, insert malicious content in any page, add new users, delete users, and so on,” Andrew Komarov, chief executive officer of cybersecurity firm IntelCrawl, told The Wall Street Journal.” – SQLi attack, supposedly. Would be interesting to see the results of malicious content served to WSJ readers. Juicier targets and at the same time likely lower-hanging fruit among them given the likelihood that a financier is well-versed in information security.

Readings: Gameover Botnet Interview, Memory-Enhancing Implants, Snowpiercer Release

Krebs: Backstage with the Gameover Botnet Hijackers – “Defending a system that is as complex as this one is very hard. Complexity is the enemy of security. I won’t go into specifics, but let’s just say there are examples in the code where they clearly overreacted and introduced features that we could later use against them.” – An interesting lesson in the midst of a great interview, and a lesson that can be applied pretty broadly. Overreaction is an enemy in just about every field I can think of.

Ars Technica: Human memory-saving devices get $37.5m research boost from DARPA – “Both will initially work with people with epilepsy who have been given implants to locate where their seizures originate. The researchers will reuse the data gathered during this process to monitor other brain activity, such as the patterns that occur when the brain stores and retrieves memories.”

Verge: Post-apocalyptic thriller ‘Snowpiercer’ available for download just two weeks after release – ‘He added: “The motto at Radius is ‘a screen is a screen is a screen’ … We’re screen-agnostic, and as consumer habits change, film audiences today are becoming screen-promiscuous. Starting Friday, 85 million-plus consumers will have access to Snowpiercer on VOD. The film will be more widely available than every other film on screen this weekend combined. One way or the other, we’re going to find you somewhere.”‘ – Incredibly smart tactic on their part. Multi-platform releases that focus on accessibility and timeliness are a great step toward a really thriving digital future.

Running Towards the Warning Sign

Cyberpunk author William Gibson is often quoted as saying “The future’s here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

I always considered him wrong about the first part and right about the second.

Yesterday I watched an (old) interview with Gibson done by fellow author Robert J. Sawyer at the Toronto Public Library in which Gibson dropped a pretty stark message. “The only people who can view Neuromancer as a dystopia,” Gibson stated, “are people living in a condition of extraordinary privilege.” Now it’s important to remember that Neuromancer is largely about a crippled, suicidal drug addict being scraped off a predatory street, having his brain rewired and being tasked to complete an equally suicidal hacking mission. Refusal results in him becoming re-crippled, failure likely results in his death or incarceration as well. This in the context of a world where some corporations have become so established as to be colonial powers in their own right.

As part of the internet’s countertechno culture I see at least weekly someone utter the lament, “Where’s my fucking jetpack?” The sad old refrain, accusatory and rightly perceived and being full of privilege in itself. Science Fiction promised us so much and the world delivered so little.

In thinking about this tonight I stumbled on a new indignation, insult to the injury. The only part of modern life really approaching Jetpack Space, really approaching that glory, is the NSA. The technological capabilites of the National Security Agency goes far beyond even most hackers. Their sheer ballsyness, the testicular fortitude it takes to dream up some of these hacks no less package them in a catalog to be pulled out at whim harkens back to pure science fiction. A society in which technology and imagination don’t follow each other but are rather intertwined, symbiotic.

With that symbiosis leading to a rate of societal change that can only be described as exponential.

It’s not a warp drive, or first contact, or zero point energy. In fact it’s the antithesis of these long-sought advances. NSA technology takes us nowhere. It’s turned inward and facilitates no bridge between nations no less extraterrestrial species. And it requires an astounding amount of energy produced in some of the most archaic of ways.

Yet it’s quickly clear that the NSA has brought us further into the future than any existing body so far.

In our privilege, the only part of the future we dared tread towards is the part we were warned most vehemently about.