This post isn’t about science fiction, but rather the craft of storytelling and why Taylor Swift is an expert at it. I’m reminded of that quote from Network where someone says Peter Finch ‘articulates the popular rage.’ Swift can also be credited for articulating her outrage with modern mendacity, which is why I’m writing down another theorem for modern life:
Theorem of Swift’s Constant Outrage
For every emotional inconsistency or toxic behavior related to human relationships that evokes a sense of outrage, there is a Taylor Swift song written about it.
I don’t think of myself as a TaySwift fan, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy her music. In fact, I discovered a new amazing song today while looking for Youtube videos related to the idea ‘This is why we can’t have nice things.’ Lo and behold, there’s a Tay Swift song about this and she’s spitting fire with those lyrics.
So because I appreciate good storytelling and articulate concepts, I’m taking a moment to say that Taylor Swift is pretty darn good. Is she perfect? Of course not, but she’s talented and if you’re looking for someone to learn from, you could do worse.
Like you, I’m overwhelmed by the madness of current events. This is a different time, an angrier time. A time of wrath. A time of madness. A world where people stupid themselves to death. A world where innocence and humanity wash away in the inexorable tide of cruelty. Over and over, one word echoes into the darkness, one single word missing from all of this chaos: empathy.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. As human beings, we gravitate to those who show us empathy. We respond to those who relate to us. Sadly, we live in a time where empathy is a commodity, a sign of weakness.
In fact, when you think about modern civilization it’s clear our culture thinks that the strongest person in room is the one who cares the least.. Our culture values those who demand that everyone relate to them while relating to no one but themselves. ‘I’m the center of the universe,’ they say. ‘You revolve around *me.*’ Our culture takes its cue from that toxic mindset and says ‘okay, well since I want to be strong this is what I gotta do.’
Our culture thinks that the strongest person in room is the one who cares the least.
I can cite a hundred examples of what I mean based on the news this week, but next week you won’t remember them. We seem to be trapped on a treadmill of loathing and animus, and I’m not sure where this lunacy will end. So I’m not going to discuss in detail what is already known and lost. The world is not showing empathy, and it’s apathy seems to beget more apathy.
Nobody is perfect. Even professional facilitators recognize their own weaknesses when it comes to fostering environments of reciprocal empathy. Our disruptive age challenges cultural norms of what empathy is, and what it isn’t and it’s created confusion.
For guys in particular, there are experts who say ‘men are experiencing a clear tension point between the expectation for them to be empathetic and emotionally connected spouses and fathers, to the equally strong expectation for them to be manly providers for their families … this tension seems to be at breaking point; men just don’t seem to know who or what they are supposed to be in 2018 and beyond.’
So yes, showing empathy is hard, but it’s a vital part of humanity. Horrible things happen when we let greed and apathy run the world. When Charlie Chaplin talked about the ‘passing of greed’ in The Great Dictator, he did not know the world was staring down the barrel at the Second World War. He talked about being victims of a system that makes men torture, but we live now in that system and it’s of our own design. There’s no mistaking that our world has become vicious and repulsive.
It’s difficult to show empathy to cruel people. The only advice I can offer is ‘learn to deal with them.’ Don’t take what they say personally. Don’t try to make them understand. Distance yourself from them, and their influence. Cultivate and nurture relationships with people who deserve your trust and your compassion. Recognize that you are valuable, no matter what other people think, say, or do.
We can’t save everyone. We can’t fix everyone. A college professor once said: “You all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you, that’s why you’re here, in college. I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that person is you.” Even if the light inside of you is small, let it shine! It will help others find you in the dark.
Quick Housekeeping Note: this blog post will either make you or break you. If that’s not something you’re up for, feel free to pass this one by. One of the big ideas I talk about in Mesh are harsh truths, and here’s one of them: Sometimes, you will lose at life before you even get started.
I know Forrest Gump says life is like a box of chocolates, but that’s nonsense. Sometimes life is like playing a game you know you’re going to lose. Suiting up for a game that starts out 1000 – 0. Boarding a plane you know is going to crash. For many people, including kids, life is the torture of seeing a finish line they’ll never reach, but trying for it anyway.
These are some harsh truths to talk about, but the kids who enjoy Mesh will get what I’m saying. Too often, adults sugar-coat the truth because they don’t know what else to do. Bad circumstances, bad childhood, bad role models … any number of things can wreck your shot at life. No fault of your own, nothing you could have done differently. Life can and will break your wings before you get a chance to fly.
“That’s not true,” people will sputter. They’ll cite example after example of people who solved their problems, overcame their obstacles. They fail to acknowledge is that life is complex. What works for one person may not work for another. All those little differences can add up to what engineers call a ‘cascade effect.’ Sometimes all the weak points of your life align at the wrong time, becoming a catastrophic failure.
Plus, in this low-empathy / boring dystopia world, your life isn’t just a struggle; it becomes work just to have you around. Kids exploring humor and empathy will make cruel jokes. People have to be willing to show compassion to make room for you and your circumstances. Hard times bring out the best in good people, and the worst in bad people. Not everyone is up for that kind of choice every day so they check out; even those who promised to be there no matter what. That’s a soul-crushing reality to accept.
I know there’s a common myth that any problem can be overcome with a sufficient amount of willpower and determination, but for many people including kids, that isn’t true. Some are born into life hampered by circumstances they can’t change, imprisoned by walls they cannot climb.
For those experiencing a loss at life, you should know that you aren’t alone. The bitterness that comes after realizing your best isn’t good enough? The anger and sadness from living a life dealt a raw hand? That’s something I talk about a lot in Mesh.
That anger, that sadness, that bitterness doesn’t have to be the end of the story. After all, if you relate to anything I just said, you might be asking yourself a reasonable question: If I’m going to lose, why try at all? What’s the point of playing, if there’s no possibility of winning?
I’ll tell you why. Buckle up, buttercup.
We try for one simple reason: we don’t know everything. We might be wrong about our chances, we might be wrong that our circumstances won’t change. We might be wrong that people won’t care, we might be wrong that things will never get better.
‘Losing at life’ is what happens when your narrow definition of success is unattainable. ‘Losing at life’ is what happens when you think there’s only one way to be happy. ‘Losing at life’ is what happens when you think only superheroes can be brave.
We might be wrong about all of those things and sometimes we have to lose at life, be screwed before we get started, before we can start to see all the ways we can win.
I’m not going to lie – my life, my actual life, is pretty messy. That’s one of the primary reasons I write: writing helps me keep my frustration, my anger, my depression under control. I describe all my negative stuff with this example.
Louis L’Amour talks about something called ‘creep’ in his novel about the Nevada Silver Rush Comstock Lode. Clay mud, compressed between plates of rock for millions of years, were suddenly freed. There was nothing the miners could do to stop the clay from coming, billions of tons of pressure forced the clay out like gray toothpaste. Instead, the miners had to work to keep the creep cut back every day – otherwise the clay would fill the tunnel.
I admit it: this is a complicated, obscure metaphor. If you can think of a better one, please feel free to share it. Until then, this is best way I can rationalize why I write and why writing and publishing are important to me. When I don’t write, when I don’t create, that dark stuff starts crowding in quick. Daily work to create, or build the Inkican platform, is what keeps it cut back.
One of the biggest challenges of these truths is to realize you don’t have all of them. I have no idea what the true answer is to all of this for me, or anyone else. All I know is that this is keeping me from giving up, and I talk about that in Mesh because there are many kids out there struggling on that journey with no idea how to take the first step. It’s important to me, then, for Mesh to help show Roman taking those first steps and getting the help he needs.
So the end of this blog post is really the beginning of a conversation. Mesh is a deeply personal project, as I’ve said. Now you know a little bit more about why it’s personal. I’m hoping that Roman, Zeke, and the rest of the Snow Foxes become friends for the other kids just like them. We’re all working to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives, now that life as we know it has come to an end.
As an aspiring sci-fi author, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Star Wars. On the one hand, I love everything about Star Wars (Hello, see the previous post?) and will be celebrating May the Fourth with all of you. On the other, stuff has happened to the Star Wars franchise that makes me realize an uncomfortable truth: You love Star Wars, Jackson, but Star Wars doesn’t love you.
Maybe you saw this news story on Tuesday – Disney took some heat for some poorly-worded tweets connected to MayThe4th. According to the news story, ‘Disney Plus, encouraged fans to share their favourite Star Wars memories using the hashtag on Monday. It followed up with a legal warning suggesting any user who tweeted the hashtag was agreeing to Disney’s terms and letting it use their content.’
Then the fans exploded with indignation, and Disney walked their comments back, saying ‘that the wording applied only to specific tweets in the original thread.’ I’m over here like ‘Um, kay …’ Disney’s social media faux pas rips the Band-Aid off of many fan fears that festered ever since Disney bought Star Wars from George Lucas. They want to be seen as cute and cuddly, but then they drop the Death Star on your head. It’s hard to look like an Ewok after you threaten to force-choke Twitter.
And look, I love both Disney and Star Wars. But that doesn’t mean I love what they’ve become. Forty-plus years after New Hope, I hung up my Han Solo jacket and started writing new stories, and exploring new universes as an emotional necessity. I wanted to find new scifi universes I could fall in love with, and that would love me back.
So if any of this resonates with you, if that Twitter thing is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, know that you aren’t alone. If there’s something about Star Wars in a post-prequel era that doesn’t sit well with you and you’re really sure what it is, but the feeling won’t go away, maybe I can give you the words. Let’s say it again, for the people in the back:
You Love Star Wars, but Star Wars Doesn’t Love You
“This is all stupid,” some might say. “I still love Star Wars and everything you’re saying is wrong!” Okay, that’s cool. I’m not saying that you have to stop loving Star Wars. I still do, myself (Remember the start of this blog post?). But I think it’s important to give myself the freedom to see things as they are, to look beyond the obvious.
It’s always been my experience that science fiction isn’t just like fiction. There’s a central cultural truth about sci-fi that I believe even if I don’t have the empirical data to back up, and here it is: Sci-fi fans and creators enjoy some mutual interaction / control over the universes. Star Trek, for example, has gone out of its way to include fans in the movies, to the point of hiring them to be extras on different films (See Star Trek, the Motion Picture)
Star Wars doesn’t follow that Fan Happiness Playbook. They’re content to keep fans on a tight leash, and let’s be honest: in many ways Star Wars fans are to blame. So I don’t completely fault Disney for exercising that level of control over Star Wars, but at the same time it’s important to see the relationship for what it is: Star Wars doesn’t love you.
Being aware of that, giving yourself permission to realize that, is liberating in many ways. You can enjoy Star Wars when you want to, when it’s doing something for you. And then when you’re finished you can go enjoy something else (I suggest old 70s sci-fi – tons of interesting old ideas down there).
But the main thing is to understand what Star Wars is, so that you can go decide what YOU want to be. Don’t forget that, don’t lose sight of that. YOU are in charge of your own universe. Go make it something you love.
One of the things I celebrate in Mesh is hacking – the real, original version of hacking – along with the current version celebrated within cyberpunk. What I find interesting today is how, most kids have no idea what the history of hacking really is. Let’s spend a few moments talking briefly about that history, and then you’ll have a better sense of how Mesh fits into that history.
Before we start diving into the details, let’s do some housekeeping: This essay is by no means an exhaustive list of computer hacking incidents, nor is it meant to masquerade as an InfoSec white paper. I haven’t found too many places where old-school hacking is connected to modern cybersecurity, so I decided to write something up for myself and other interested readers.
The Olden Days
To begin with, did you know that hacking dates back to 1903? It’s true! Magician and inventor Nevil Maskelyne pranked John Ambrose Fleming’s demonstration of Guglielmo Marconi’s ‘secure wireless telegraphy technology.’ Maskelyne figured out how it worked and then he took over, sending insulting Morse code messages through the auditorium’s projector.
This tradition of science-based pranks continued, notably in the 1930s when Ken Wadleigh, who later in life became a dean at MIT, and 4 others welded a streetcar to metal rails by first distracting the motorman and then setting off thermite bombs to weld the wheels in place.
Whoa, I did not expect that. Advanced reviews are trickling in and the critics sound as though Rise of Skywalker is more like the Ruse of Skywalker. According to at least one review, TRoS is ‘completely manic,’ and according to another this last installment of the franchise is “a sterling, shiny example of what Martin Scorsese would call ‘not cinema.'” When critics, who typically fall over themselves to faun over Star Wars, are lining up to stick knives into the movie, it’s a sign that we should plan for some type of Internet-wide emotional crisis. Star Wars outrage can spawn crazy, worldwide meltdowns.
How do we deal with the anger, the anxiety, and the disappointment?
First, let’s take a step back. TRoS is supposed to be, on some level, a response to the fan backlash in ‘The Last Jedi.’ The given understanding is that ‘The Last Jedi’ was a polarizing film that challenged what you believed about Star Wars. To that I say yeah, that’s what art is supposed to do. Rian Johnson got in our face and said “What do you really think this is about?” ‘The Last Jedi’ was about the story we needed to hear, not the story we wanted to hear. It made us feel something, it made us think, and it made us appreciate Star Wars on a new level. To that, I said, ‘bravo.’ That is what art is supposed to do.
Maybe the world wasn’t ready for that. That’s cool. Maybe we can look at this as a teachable moment for science fiction. You might take the opportunity to examine your artistic aspirations for this, and future scifi stories. To put it another way, when you go to a gallery, do you want to see Kandinksy and Monet, or do you want Thomas Kinkade? You can’t have both, you can’t have a ‘Kandinksy with the appeal of a Kinkade.’ That’s not how art works.
But to get us past this moment, the emotional surge of either love, bitterness, or outrage, mental health professionals will tell you that it’s valuable to have an emotional crisis plan. ECPs are designed to guide you through low moments and struggles. They help us respond effectively to stress, disappointment, and anxiety. How can we use this strategy to get us through the opening weekend of The Rise of Skywalker?
I have a few suggestions, and maybe you have others you’d like to share. First, let’s learn to manage ourselves or our tightly-wound friends:
So yes, Mesh takes its name from ‘mesh networking.’ Non-nerdy types might immediately wonder after finishing the book, ‘is this real? Can a mesh work?’ The answer to both questions is yes – mesh networking is totally real and can totally work. Let’s talk about the why’s and how’s in a handy little format for future reference.
Number one, let’s give out some technical terms in a very Explain Like I’m Five format. A node is a single device in a network, a link is the thing that connects two nodes, and a topology is the arrangement of nodes and links in a network. For example, the the picture on the right represents a topology’ of nodes and links. Nodes and links can take many forms, and a topology can take any form to represent how everything is connected together.
You’re used to seeing that in pictures of the Internet. Your computer or phone connects to a wireless router or network cable. From there, everything is routed and switched depending on what you want to do. This is all controlled, more or less, by specific organizations or companies with their own ideas of how a network is supposed to function (For example, AT&T, the FCC, or ICANN). With me so far? Okay.
Okay, now imagine that the Internet is broken. Or, you can’t use it, or you don’t want to use it. Does that mean your computer is useless? Of course not. It just means you can’t get to specific things that the Internet connects you to. You can still print, or transfer files back and forth between two computers on the sample simple network. Now imagine that everyone is in the same boat as you. They’ve got a small local network, but they can’t get to outside services like the Internet which means they’re disconnected from Twitter, Netflix or Google. What now?
This is where a mesh network comes in. A mesh can take advantage of the bluetooth or Wifi tech in your phone to broadcast info within a small range (100-200 meters). Each device then takes responsibility for being both the node, and the link at the same time. Put enough of these meshed devices together, and you’ve got a groovy little Internet of your own. No special tools, no crazy skills required.
In fact, Mesh networking can even work with old Ham radios. According to Offgridsurvival.com, ‘radio operators were using an internet of their own called Packet Radio. Packet Radio allows Hams to send files, update bulletin board systems, send text messages and even control remote systems and networks via their radios. Should some catastrophic event ever occur that takes out the internet, Packet Radio technology can still be used to link remote stations and form an ad hoc network — or emergency internet of sorts.’
“The problem here is that Star Trek, for as “enlightened” as it seems, essentially has adopted a 19th century perspective on social / cultural change, enhanced with some early 20th century Boasian concepts.
“The basic premise behind the Prime Directive is species have their own developmental trajectories, and that Starfleet / the Federation / other species shouldn’t interfere with that. So far so good. That’s moderately Boasian in its perspective.”
And then …
“[T]he idea of a society’s “natural development” is very much predicated on 19th century unilineal evolutionary ideas, that all societies develop along a single technological and social continuum. Even worse, the Federation and Starfleet enforce this by refusing planets’ admission to the organization if they don’t conform to certain criteria. And they use this as a bludgeon at times, as with the 3rd season episode, “The Hunted,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunted_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)) in which a society seeking admission to the Federation is refused admission because, to human Captain Picard, their means of waging war (super soldiers who are not properly reintegrated into society after their usefulness is over) is not palatable. The implication is that societies must change if they want admission, which comes with huge economic and technological benefits.
“As one character remarked (in an episode I don’t recall, but I think it was DS9, and maybe Quark), “at least with the Borg, you know where you stand. The Federation does the same thing, but is far more insidious.”
“While we could argue that many of the Federation’s stipulations are reasonable, there’s a significant amount of ethnocentrism at play here. Earth / human morality and ethics are always treated as monolithic, and are also always (well, almost always) treated as the default.”
And believe me, this is the Cliff Notes version. Go finish reading this delightful, yet insightful discussion on alien contact. Your brain will dissolve into a chewy mouthful of scifi nerdery, and you’ll be a better person for it.
So if it isn’t clear by now, Inkican is a dedicated non-political space. It’s pretty simple why, I don’t know enough to articulate a solution and I don’t want to be another mouthbreather boring you with my opinions. Don’t ask me about it, because I don’t know. Even if I did know, I’m the last person you should get life advice from. This is our little zone of peace. The only thing I’ll say about current events is this: greed doesn’t work. Gordon Gecko said that greed is good in 1987, not so much in 2019. People are miserable, we’re sliding into a boring dystopia, it all comes down to a simple problem: exploitation vs. ethics. Me vs. We. We live in a society of ‘Me’s’ and it’s not working too well for us. The future is ethical, if we plan to survive the next hundred years.
This isn’t a new idea, others have said the same thing. Since I’m not about giving my opinions, I’m just writing down what I think might happen if I think society goes one way or another. What if society started thinking about ethics, or ethical behavior, into its decisions?
Ethics, as Wikipedia defines it, ‘is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.’ Those that have profited off the sociopathy aren’t going to give up without a fight, and that conflict is ultimately what Mesh is about. I’m not advocating a certain perspective, I’m just writing about what might happen if people made those types of choices in the future. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s a future you want to live in.
One thing is certain, a ‘Me’ society cannot last. It’s not a sustainable perspective. It might last for a small minority, but it won’t last for the majority and sooner or later our actions will catch up to us. Can’t buy your way out, can’t argue your way out, we all reap what we sew eventually whether it’s us or the people we leave behind.
So yeah, I’m not advocating for a specific position. Not equipped to. I’m saying all this as an objective observer of our time, extrapolating what it might mean if circumstances continue. Is it good? Is it bad? That’s up to you to decide. I see things in my head and I write them down, as much for me as it is for anyone else. We could also imagine a better place, if we want to. We can elaborate and explore value systems, transitioning to a world that respects diversity and is sensitive to culture. In fact, this choice is upon us whether we choose to see it or not. As this Huffpost essay points out: ‘those who come after us are also our fellow human beings. We must do to them as we would have wished that they would have done to us if it was they who had inhabited this planet before us.’
Or not. I’m not your Dad. We can fail to act, choose to ignore the problems staring us in the face, but we cannot avoid their consequences. If our philosophy is ‘me at any cost,’ well that’s been tried before. We’ve seen civilizations fall on that toxic perspective (Hello, Rome!). Maybe people want that, to be that failed civilization others wander through. Maybe they want to be the one that the villagers come for with torches and pitchforks. I mean, it doesn’t sound like something I want but you do you, homie.
Back to Mesh. You’ll throughout the story that the kids are faced with that same choice. It’s a little less ambiguous in their case – Roman and the gang literally will have the choice to take over the world if they want to. But will they? Do they want Me or We? The book is about that choice, and everything that comes after. You’ll be able to figure out who’s who as the story goes on. One thing is for certain, the Mesh kids won’t escape their choices.
When writing a sci-fi book, one of the first questions you may be asked is ‘how real is your book?’ I’m happy to say that not only are the technologies I talk about in Mesh completely plausible, they’re completely real!
Don’t believe me, believe this write-up on the Mesh network of Havana, Cuba. According to Gizmodo, their mesh has been growing and changing since 2001: “Beginning in 2001, a small community of tech-savvy Cubans have been building a sprawling mesh network that stretches across Havana. This crowdsourced connectivity takes advantage of hidden Wi-Fi antennas and broadband cables stretched across rooftops to network over 9,000 com
puters across different neighborhoods in Cuba’s capital. The resultant Snet, or streetnet, enables people to exchange news updates, share files, and even play online games like World of Warcraft.”
Mesh networks make sense in places where Internet use is prohibited, or prohibitive. The technical details of Havana’s mesh are almost adorable, as this article entitled “If it Rains, Ask Grandma to Disconnect the Nano” goes on to prove.