Get rich quick: Plan A

Posted by Collin Piprell

Jack Shackaway here. I’m worried about Collin. Take a look at this e-mail:

Yo, Jack.

One of the UK publishers I most respect has just declined my 180,000-word science fiction novel, saying how much they like the writing and world-building, and how they understand and admire the structure, but for some indefinable reason they haven’t “fallen in love” with it. So we turn to other ways of generating an income from writing.

I’m thinking I’ll run this classified ad in Mind, the Oxford Mail and various other likely publications:


Attention professional philosophers and scientists! Author stumbles upon the secret of consciousness and the structure of the universe while writing a science-fiction trilogy. Said author is your standard starving writer, and secrets of life, the universe and everything are notoriously uncommercial. Thus he is willing to entertain contractual arrangements whereby a deserving and nicely cashed-up philosopher or scientist gets famous, while this deserving but currently destitute writer gets rich. Contact, in the first instance,

And here I was, all worried about starving to death. Just goes to show you.



P.S.: I’m also selling shares in the movie versions. Get yours while they’re going cheap.

Not only is Collin trying to flog the first two finished sci-fi novels in a series, he’s working on another, not part of that series. All of them long, all of them “crossover,” inasmuch as they add literary pretension to an already savory stew of science, metaphysics, humor, sex and violence.

Still, his postscript has me thinking. I don’t suppose any of you people out there want to buy 2% of Free Lunch now? That’s 2% of any returns, from movie sales to book royalties. I still have some way to go before I actually finish this book, so I can give you a very good deal if you hurry. Contact, in the first instance,

kickstarter2What's that you say? Kickstarter? Whoa. I'm too young to be so far behind the times. Really--I can use crowd-sourcing to fund my novel?



Kickstarter image from Wired magazine. 


What I should write (learning to listen to my public)

Posted by Collin Piprell


Jack Shackaway here. Of Kicking Dogs fame.

It’s true, as Collin says (here and here). Nearly everybody’s a writer these days.  And — given all the media interest in current publishing-industry convulsions — the few who aren’t writers are experts on publishing and books.

I used to tell people I was a novelist. I don’t anymore. That’s as interesting to your average citizen as saying “Every night I go to sleep.” Who isn’t writing a novel?

But if they nevertheless do get wind of this idea you’re writing novels for some reason, they ask you whether you know how much 50 Shades of Grey has minted as of that very morning, and then they tell you exactly how much before asking how much you earn from this pursuit.50 shades cover

So you mumble a bit and gesture skywards and say, “Do you think it’s going to rain?”

Next they ask you what kind of novels you write. And, if you tell them, chances are they’ll respond by telling you what class of narrative you should be writing instead. One nice Thai woman, for example, asked me at a cocktail party recently why I didn’t write romantic novels. A European entrepreneur in a suit asked me last week why I didn’t write like John Grisham. Yeah, and a cute girl looked at me funny on the Skytrain this morning. Maybe she was a groupie. (Joking.)

Learn to pay attention

At the risk of offending you, I’m now going to reveal related advice I got from a woman some years ago.

This cruise-boat hostess, who was a piece of work, passed me a book entitled The Amber Anklet and said, “This is the kind of book you should be writing.”

Inclined to skepticism, once home again I nevertheless left it on my night table, thinking, who knows, some fine morning it might serve as hangover fodder.

So lo, and verily, in the course of time a contingency of that very nature did indeed arise. And I was lying there thinking I needed something to distract me from the pain, and what should I discover on my bedside table, buried not too deep under cold pizza and other things, but The Amber Anklet. So I picked it up and started reading.

potboiler cover“He was gigantic,” the first page began. “Gigantic in every way. ‘Oh, please!’ she cried, as he tore the flimsy evening gown from her sleek body. “Don’t.”

Despite her pleas, the heroine was abused on at least three occasions before the end of the first chapter, by which time she was being loaded aboard a pirate vessel manned by Turks, all of whom were gigantic in every way. By the end of chapter two I was struck with a wild surmise, and got to thinking about the how the cruise-boat hostess had kept touching me and sighing and so on, and this soon had me rummaging through the mess of old name-cards that had fallen down behind my desk.

I called the cruise company only to find that she had left their employ some months earlier and they had no idea where she was or what she was reading at this time.

There was a point to that story, but now I forget what it was. Something to do with why people tend to believe I should be writing every kind of book except the ones I’m writing, except for those who think I shouldn’t be writing any kind of books at all.

Fallback positions

My own father never used to tell me what kind of books I should write. He said I should study engineering because then, if I failed to get my degree, I could always work as a draftsman.

Of course digital technology threatens to make draftsmen just as redundant as writers will soon become.

I hasten to add that I can’t imagine writing books of The Amber Anklet class. For one thing I don’t approve of rape under any circumstances; in fact I'm personally incapable of even pretending to rape someone according to the script of someone's fantasy. Not that this opportunity has ever actually materialized. In fact 50 Shades offends me with all of its rough sex, though I speak mainly on the basis of heresay in this matter, having found the quality of its prose so offensive I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages to see for myself.

Full disclosure: Whoever wrote 50 Shades makes considerably more from her writing than I do.Harry Potter Covers

Not only that, I don’t know what I would’ve said to that cruise-boat hostess supposing I'd managed to contact her. Maybe did she want to borrow my copy of Infinite Jest.

grisham cover


infinite jest


Dark Night of My Quick Guns XVII, by Allie Ambit: A brief review

Posted by Collin Piprell

Jack Shackaway presents a review of a recent Mickey’s Muse product:

explosion hollywoodTHIS BOOK never fails to satisfy basic reader expectations, but I was disappointed that, in key ways, it never exceeds them.

Take the lead scene, for example. Mr. Ambit presents everything that Hollywood wants—a startling instance of random structural violence, with much smoke and flame and opportunity for the action hero to squint in the general direction of the shitstorm and wince in a way that suggests strong emotion. That's good. And this scene employs another device that offers the comfort of familiar cinematic narrative convention, inasmuch as it relates in no obvious manner to the story that follows.

The problem is that the opening fails to exceed the degree of property damage and loss of life, plus attendant noise and smoke, that we’ve seen in so many earlier novels of this type. It’s hard to say what made the human partner-in-crime-fiction draw back at this critical juncture. Namby-pambyishness adds nothing to this sort of genre thriller — certainly not if you want to appeal to Hollywood and, after all, who wouldn’t?

Explosion 2A little later in the yarn, perhaps because of a similar failure of nerve, the mandatory innocent female victim of a psychopathic killer is despatched with all the flair of an abatoir worker despatching a cow.

Those who wish to inspire Mickey’s Muse to maximum effect may profitably observe Ellie’s Law:

"The quality of a movie is inversely related to the quantity of money available to make it."

That is to say, the more money Hollywood filmmakers have, the more they spend on special effects, vying with one another to annihilate a world-historical number of vehicles, preferably expensive sports models, and blow more and larger buildings higher and higher into the air.

Bear that in mind, if you’re planning to produce a novel that clearly supplies the frame for a winning screenplay.

The question: Do the shortcomings of Dark Night of My Quick Guns XVII reflect a failure on the part of Mickey’s Muse, or are they merely the result of undue delicacy on the part of MM’s human collaborator?pulp-fiction 2

I'll just say this: Mr. Ambit might be quicker to consult the Help menu.




pulp fiction cover


Mickey’s Muse: Henry Ford for writers

Posted by Collin Piprell

The bots are coming, the bots are coming 

robot writer la times bbcThe times, they are a’changing, and faster than some of us might like. Us writers, for example. As Klaus F. Zimmerman has suggested:

“If anyone needed a wake-up call about how much the world, as we know it, is changing, consider this: China betting its future on robots is certainly about the starkest signal imaginable.” (“The big trade-off in the world of labour,”  The Straits Times, 1 May 2015)

And it isn’t just drivers and maids and things who face imminent unemployment (see “Don’t tease the Homebot” and links therein).  Professional and even “artistic” types may soon have to adopt some brand-new bags.

“... Oxford University researchers forecast that, within 20 years, as many as half of all jobs could be affected. This includes quite a few job categories that are widely considered to require high skill levels.”

Writers don’t necessarily need the skill levels characteristic of aeronautical engineers, given that the consequences of writerly incompetence aren’t generally as dramatic, but they do have to know a few tricks,  and it may surprise some to learn they’re under threat as well.

In fact, we may witness an ever-increasing deluge of new books at the same time the number of writers begins falling off to vanishing point. Read on.


The other day a Fitz’s Bar habitué whips out his smartphone and shows me a revolutionary tool for writers.

“This,” he tells me, “is a new and improved version of Mickey’s Spillane’s secretary.”

“Weren’t Mickey’s secretaries generally leggy and nice?”

“Yeah,” he says. “But.”

Mickey’s Muse

Spillane’s modus operandi, many of his admirers liked to believe, was to kick back with a bottle of whiskey, feet up on desk, and dictate his novels to a leggy secretary du jour. Who knows, these individuals might have even administered a few mid-stream stylistic adjustments to the flow of immortal prose. “Mickey’s Muse does better than that,” says my friend, discounting any associated lack of legginess. “It spins the whole yarn for you.” mickeys muse genres graphic

Choose from a typology of genres. (The New Yorker goes farther than you might expect in championing genre novels.) Select one of a few generic plots and two or three standard themes, specify your preferred era and setting, assemble a cast drawn from a grabbag of customizable prefab characters, and let ’er rip. A standard novel takes about 2.3 minutes in draft.

“Then you upload it to your computer. Make some revisions, fill in a few blanks. Change a name or two. Soften the female lead’s voice, maybe give her bigger boobs.”


“And Bob’s your uncle. You’ve just authored another book. Feed it from your word processor or phone directly into Publishit.”*

And whoosh. Writers join the ranks of outmoded middlemen. With this latest technological breakthrough, writers go the way of literary agents and conventional publishers. What do you need with writers when you’re able to download and instruct Mickey’s Muse as easily as any writer can? All hail the digital millennium.robot writer three

Disruption as progress

But who am I to oppose newness and improvedness, contemporary successors to older ideas of Progress?

“Even if you’re only a reader,” my friend tells me, “you can name the hero after yourself. Give yourself any personal attributes you like, maybe a facility with automatic weapons and a giant dick. Cast yourself as a famous writer with too many groupies to count. Hire yourself a nice leggy secretary. Hell, yeah.”

Never mind. More newness and improvedness lurks right around the corner. Given qubital computing together with fully immersive virtual realities, soon anyone who wants them will be able to enjoy the pleasures of life as a famous writer. Who wouldn’t skip the hard parts and go straight for the perks? In the meantime, you can outsource all the slog and sweat of story creation to Mickey’s Muse.

I’m sold.   mickeys avalanche of books“Madrid-based artist Alicia Martín’s amazing installation at Casa de America cultural center in the heart of Madrid appears to pour out of the building like an avalanche of literature. This piece is part of an ongoing series of installations around Spain titled Biografias or Biographies. Each one incorporates approximately 5,000 used books.”

"Too Many Books?" by Tim Parks. (Thanks to Kevin Cummings for birddogging this NYR article.)

Robot writers currently in action: here, and here, for just two examples. (I found the above robot writer graphic at these sites, but can't find an artist to credit. Does anyone know who did it?)


spillane seeking secretarial help

Spillane vetting secretarial talent?

spillane comic








* Google has revealed the following anticipations of my 'Publishit' (above): Publish-It (poster software); PubliSHIT (a magazine); PublishIT (encryption stuff); and lots more. The Internet makes it harder and harder to think of things no one else has done already.


Existential & neural plasticity

Posted by Collin Piprell

helmet pink useIn the last two posts, we’ve seen how tobacco smokers and anthropogenic climate-change deniers demonstrate a similar psychology.


Jack Shackaway now looks at a third such group -- those, including himself, who take motorcycle taxis in Bangkok. Jack offers this as a follow-up to both my “How I quit smoking” and my “Immortality for Joe Atheist” posts.

He claims the following sketch has been sitting on his computer since back in a time (or a parallel universe) when the motorcycle helmet rules were actually being sort of enforced in Bangkok and back when neural plasticity was indeed the media flavor of the month, and not merely old hat.

Extradimensional currents

Here I am, in Bangkok traffic, sitting on the back of a motorcycle taxi, telling myself, yet again, that I should remember never to find myself sitting on motorcycle taxis in Bangok traffic. My driver’s spare brainbucket, being too small for my head, hangs from the side of our vehicle. Anyway, the strap’s broken, not to mention the helmet is shocking pink. Whatever. Right away, I can see my driver has little or no depth perception. Given the way he leans the wrong way into corners he may also suffer an inner-ear infection. From the outset he keeps seeing openings among the contending currents of traffic, holes that no one else — especially me, what with my eyes closed in terror — can see. Never mind his apparent death wish, I can only conclude he’s either the unluckiest attemptive suicide in the world, or else he knows something the rest of us do not. Perhaps it’s due to some understanding on his part of extra-dimensional physics that we don’t have a head-on collision with any of these cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks or other motorcycles.

Big surprise — we actually get to the printer. But it’s closed. So what do I do? I suggest he takes me back to a noodleshop on my soi, my sub-street, thereby indicating serious brain damage on my own part even if we have avoided leaving my brains strewn across the road.motosai massed

Second chances

Never mind. The media flavor of the month is neural “plasticity". Back when, in the Stone Age of behavioral psychology, we were told with confidence that, after the age of 15, our neurons started popping off at the rate of about one a second. I was never really able to relax and enjoy life after watching one prominent scientist standing there at the podium telling us this while she snapped her fingers, counting off the death of our brain cells.

That was about the same time I discovered booze and the fact that sufficient quantities of this substance could erase the fear of steady neural attrition at the same time, sufficiently applied, it could erase millions and millions more cells, preferably the ones in charge of inciting anxiety about such matters. But good news! Current wisdom says this steady and inevitable brain death is not a fact of life. Indeed, freelance writers and other piss-artists get another shot at sentience. That’s right. Brain cells regenerate, in some uncertain way and at some uncertain rate. I’m actually hoping that they regenerate faster than Dr. Donald Hebb, the behavioral psychologist, claimed they died in the natural course of events, or else, by my own calculations, I’ll have to live 2,700,000 years to regenerate what I lose in a year, at a very conservative estimate of 1 million cells per booze-up at the rate of 2 per week, or around 700 per year, given that there are nearly 2 trillion seconds in a year, and that’s only if I stop boozing now.

I’ve just revisited that last paragraph, and it confuses me, which is no more than one should expect given the fact that I’ve been drinking too much twice a week all my adult life. … Wait a minute—if there are really nearly 2 trillion seconds in a year, and my neurons had been dying at the rate of 1 per second, I should have run out of brain cells long ago. … What’s that you say? …

Ha, ha. Anyway, I’m a writer, not a mathematician.

I could really use a beer.

But wait! My point is this. Collin has recently offered us other grounds for hope in such matters, where I can fall on my bare head off as many motorcycles as I like and still persist reasonably intact in a bunch of other parallel worlds where, as it happens, this doesn’t actually occur. Hey, and doesn’t that also mean I inhabit infinite other universes where I can erode my brain down to a nub, a game of Pong between two remaining neurons, and so what? Because a bunch more universes remain where I haven’t done this yet and can still do it if I feel like it. Collin doesn’t generally go around tsk-tsking people but, if he did, he’d be doing it now. Maybe in the next adjacent universe, eh?max tegmark quantum_cartoon

In fact I think I’ll go get that beer right now. brain cells numberThe multiple universe cartoon is from Max Tegmark's website. * The Whole Brain diagram is from, which is a rich source of related information. The massed motorcycles shot is from 


How I quit smoking: And what climate-change deniers can learn from this

Posted by Collin Piprell

 quit smoking


My fix

I’m lucky to be alive. For one thing, I began smoking cigarettes at the age of nine. By the age of 12, I was smoking at least half a pack a day and, by the time I left home at the age of 15, I had a 40-50 a day habit. By the time I was 16 going on 17, I’d smoke another pack if I spent an evening in a tavern. I eventually stopped after 28 years of smoking, by then a heavy smoker of both cigarettes and pipe tobacco. Until that point, through parental tirades, sore throats, and occasions where I had to choose between buying a pack of cigarettes and eating something, I’d never once quit.

How did I accomplish this to-me nearly miraculous feat? By hard dint of two home-grown devices. Deep breathing or rigorous exercise helped stave off the monkey every time it really started to claw at my back. More importantly, I owe my continued existence to a mental exercise: I imagined a future version of myself standing there in a doctor’s office absorbing the news I was dying of emphysema (or cancer or heart disease), and being told there was no cure.

If only I’d stopped smoking years before. I imagined my sheepishness — shame, really — at having known for so long, at least on an intellectual level, that I was killing myself, yet never deviating from that course of action. And now it was too late. I could quit all I liked, and I was still going to die soon and unpleasantly. What really got me was a vivid sense of the futility of wanting things to be otherwise, to be somehow empowered to go back in time to a point where I could decide to quit before it was too late.

Then I realised that, in this imaginative communication with my future self, that self's devout wish might in fact be granted, and this moment was my chance to change the course of events.

Our global fix

Anthropogenic climate-change deniers behave in much the way I did, all those years I kept smoking despite the fact I was pretty sure this would eventually kill me. (Yeah, but that would be then, eh? At some time, who knew when, probably way down the road. What does that signify when you want a cigarette right now?)

And now Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have given us The Collapse of Western Civilization.  The authors introduce their book in this way:collapse

“Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. In this essay, we blend the two genres to imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and (possible) future."

In short, the protagonists of what its authors describe as a science-fiction book are looking back at our time from a future where the planet has been devastated in much the way the scientific community long promised us it would be, and they’re wondering at the wilful stupidity, compounded with short-sighted cupidity, that led us — especially those among us who were supposedly responsible policymakers — to let this catastrophe happen. Never mind policymakers and the general public alike were in full possession of the facts of the matter and had been warned again and again by the scientific community as a whole.

Just 104 pages long, the book economically and, given the authors’ backgrounds, authoritatively offers us a collective perspective on our behavior much like the POV that led me to quit tobacco.

Some say it’s too late for our planet. Maybe so. But I’d smoked heavily enough long enough that I feared I’d stopped too late. As it turns out, however, the human body is remarkably resilient, and so far it appears I may not have to pay the Piper after all. Let’s hope that homo sapiens and our planetary habitat will prove similarly blessed.

Perhaps it’ll help if enough people read Collapse.


The cartoon is from 


Mai pen rai (after all, mere humans could never change the climate)

Posted by Collin Piprell

Are you a Bangkok Old Hand?

bkk old hand coverTry this selection from the quiz, first published in 1993:

In which of the following situations would it be appropriate to use the common Thai expression mai pen rai (“never mind; no problem”)?

(a) A guest spills a little water on your coffee table.

(b) A waiter accidently dumps your beer into your lap.

(c) You go downstairs one morning in the rainy season and find that those of your possessions that float are floating, while everything else is under water.

(d) You read that the greenhouse effect—the gradual warming of the global climate and the subsequent melting of the polar ice-caps—means that all of Bangkok will be under water by the end of the century.

Or perhaps even much sooner than the end of the century, given recent evidence.

It turns out the “mai pen lai” attitude is far more widespread than a certain class of Western expats resident in Thailand would normally grant. It seems we even have the upper legislative house in the modern world’s leading superpower formally suggesting that current climate change is not anthropogenic, and (in effect) we should at all costs vote in favor of commercial interests, and screw the rest of the world as well as future generations everywhere. (“Senate says scientists are wrong, climate change isn’t real” [what they said was that it isn’t caused by human activity] by Sean Cockerham, 22 January 2015.)

'The chairman of the environment committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ... an enthusiastic denier of climate change, [says] it is the “biggest hoax” perpetrated against mankind.

“The hoax is there are some people so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change the climate,” Inhofe said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “Man can’t change the climate.”'james_inhofe

Well, shit. Yeah. Heaven forbid we should let such patent hubris on the part of human beings inhibit the march of commerce, eh? Because it appears the bottom line here is that nothing should interfere with the Keystone pipeline project  and other US energy self-sufficiency measures.

For more on this, see my next post on this site, “How I quit smoking,” which in part provides brief notice of a new book that should be required reading for everyone in the world, starting with our political, business and educational policymakers.


Answer to the above Bangkok Old Hand Quiz item: In all of those situations: a, b, c and d.

antarctic ice

Antarctic ice melting faster than expected.


Rule to live by #1: Bring black peppercorns to any dope-smoking contest the like of which nobody is likely to win

Posted by Collin Piprell

peppercorns drawing

The fix. Neil Young, in a Rolling Stone interview with Howard Stern, offers this treatment for weed-induced paranoia: chew some ‘black pepper balls.’ I’m thinking he must mean peppercorns.

neil young heart of gold










On the off chance that peppercorns are the latest panacea, I tried chewing just two of them. Not because I’d been smoking dope, and not because I was feeling especially paranoid. Just because like, whatever, eh? And they were good. Not as good as finding one by accident in a nice salad or pasta dish, but good. And, I imagined, I became suffused with a sense of well-being. A kind of oneness with a generally benign world.

The panacea. Next thing I was routinely chewing peppercorns as a hedge against insomnia, sleepiness, melancholia, bad breath, hunger, Angst and simple boredom. I’ve hesitated to try smoking myself into a proper state of paranoia but, given all the pepper I’m ingesting more or less for the hell of it, I’d probably find I was immune.

Mind you, I now resist the notion of ever again dipping into a Reader’s Digest (only in dentists’ waiting rooms, okay?) for fear I’ll learn that peppercorn addiction notoriously induces apathy and general emotional disconnectedness. For the same reason, I no longer read the health pages in newspapers.

Living forever. The other morning I inadvertantly entered into an insomnia-induced trance akin to that typically experienced by shamans. It was in this altered state of consciousness that it occurred to me that I should steep cracked black peppercorns together with a bunch of parsley and drink the tea. And damned if it didn’t taste pretty good. Not only that, but I listened to my body as I drank this stuff, and my body said “Dude!”, which I took to mean something like good shit. Not only that, it was much cheaper than sencha tea, my usual swill.

My suspicion is that if I went online to look — which I’m not going to do because I don’t care — I’d discover that once again I’ve reinvented the bicycle. Generations of New Agers and their ilk have probably already been there and done that.

Bonus lore.  Magic drink #1 and magic drink #2.

peppercorns drawing


Don’t tease the HomeBot

Posted by Collin Piprell


The future has arrived. Have you looked away from the Internet recently, taken a gander out there at what passes for the real world these days? If not, you’d better take a look.

Some oddly premature future has arrived while you were posting cute cats and inspirational quotes on Facebook. What we generally think of as the present has been skewed, bumped off-center and ahead of its time into a sci-fi realm that’s fast becoming commonplace reality (not to mention fast evolving into even screwier realities we can only guess at). homebotIt’s scary.

A case in point: I’ve just now caught myself responding emotionally to our new HomeBot. This snazzy robotic vacuum cleaner carries two on-board cameras and maps the territory it’s expected to clean, learning from experience and doing its job faster as it gets the lay of the land. Sara loves it, though she grants it certain limitations. On earlier test runs, for instance, she parked the dining-room chairs up on the table to avoid confusing our little home helper and to give it more room to maneuver.

But what good is all this hi-tech gimcrackery, if I’ve still got to do some work? So this morning I chose to leave the chairs on the floor. A bit later I was in my office composing deathless prose when I hear something like a zombie bumper-car rally out in the dining room. In reality it was our HomeBot — it was trapped in a curling stonelabyrinth of chairlegs. A wee shiver ran up my spine as I watched this simple machine, which so much resembled a curling stone, displaying something very like sentience as it tried to find its way clear. It had taken to methodically going this way and bumping into a leg, then that way and bumping into another leg, and then another way. Again and again, it came very close to discovering a clear run out toward the kitchen. Except it always missed the exit by a couple of inches, only to take up the whole search routine all over again. Caught up in its quest, I found myself sharing its frustration. (Not to mention all this was easier than writing.)

“You moron,” I hollered at it. “There. Just to your left. ... No! You idiot.”

Bear in mind I’m talking to a mechanical vacuum cleaner.

Anyway, before I had to intervene, it worked things out for itself. Not quite a moron. And what did it do then? Having escaped from under the table, it performed a couple of victory turns out there in the open, spun around once more, and then careened right back under the table and under the same chair that had last entrapped it.

So I changed my mind. “You really are a moron, aren’t you?” I told it.

Yeah, right. I watched in amazement as it repeated its earlier reconnaissance routine except this time, after one circuit as if to confirm what it had already learned, it darted back out through the proven escape route and headed off for the kitchen.

After it finished with the kitchen, it came into my office. Picture this companionable scene: me at my desk beavering away all the while the HomeBot hummed and whisked away, taking care of business, leaving me free to concentrate on such creative projects as writing blog posts about vacuum cleaners. And so it went. Except I’d closed the office door to keep the cool air in, and my new helpmate got confused. Next thing I knew it was nudge-nudging along the wall in the northwest corner on the room, first one way and then back the other, whining about low batteries.

Low battery,” it said, real urgency in its voice (or so I imagined).

Here’s the thing. HomeBots are programmed to establish and remember the location of their recharging station. And this one’s station lay in the corresponding corner of the living room, which it couldn’t get to because the office door was closed. So there it was with its next best hypothesis, futilely and ever-more desperately trying to get the fix that would let it finish the job.

But here’s the real thing — I reacted the way you might to a pet animal in distress. I experienced a sense of amused concern for this poor wee bot, all hungry and confused the way it was.

“You moron,” I told it, this time more affectionately. I picked it up and carried it to the living room, where I put it down it front of its station, vicariously enjoying the relief as it scuttled up to dock at its electrical teat.

They’re everywhere. Think about it. HomeBots and their ilk are just the beginning. Soon every home will have a robot or two, or three. (In fact some argue the revolution has arrived.  And here.) At least as interesting: These bots promise to become part of the household, even part of the family. You probably think I’m just weird, feeling sorry for a mechanical vacuum cleaner who isn’t that much smarter than a curling stone. (It can’t even climb up and dust the books on my shelves, I was disappointed to learn.) But my responses may be typical.  Indeed bots are being designed to encourage emotional relationships. They’re already used with some success in elderly care, for just one example.

justin-bieberOr how about this? In terms of congenial human-bot relations, we Canadians — who, just incidentally, also invented the telephone, the Nanaimo bar and Justin Bieber — now present you with the super-nice HitchBot. What a charmer, eh? Schmoozing its way all the way across the continent, programming maybe by Dale Carnegie or some such.hitchbot

Speaking of cars and passengers, beyond the housebots as such, our cars are already being transformed. In the near future our vehicles will be directed both internally and externally by clever machines designed to take us safely and expeditiously where we need to go, in a manner and by a route we can leave to our carbot.

No such thing as a free lunch. At the same time digital technology is taking much of the drudgery out of our daily lives — in the process often usurping our jobs (e.g. three million professional drivers in the USA alone may soon have to seek other employment) —  it is also contributing much to the increasingly totalitarian nature of our societies.  So look ahead to a day coming soon when you get this kind of exchange:

You say, “To the mall, carbot.”

“Sorry," it replies. "Your presence is required downtown. Someone wants to talk to you.”

“Carbot! Take me to the mall.”


“Okay, I’m getting out. ... Unlock the doors.”


Sci-fi? Maybe.

My friend Jack’s new Ford performs automatic parallel parking, but it leaves Jack to extricate himself from the space afterwards. And Jack says his car has this perhaps puckish habit of stuffing itself into spaces that he can’t drive out of afterwards. And this is early days, a mere preview of the revolt of the machines, maybe even our eventual supersession by the bots, the evolutionary antecendents to whom humanity gave birth.

So, is our HomeBot just the thin edge of the wedge? The announcement comes to me where I sit in the office: “Charging complete!” I go back out to the living room to look at the thing again.

This time I sense a sinister cast to the way it’s hunkered down there, all fueled up and ready to go again. It occurs to me to wonder: Can we really trust our vacuum cleaners? But that’s only one of a range of responses to our robotic helpmates.

“Don’t tease the HomeBot,” Sara tells me, when she hears about today’s adventures. “You should always put the dining-room chairs up on the table.”


Of earworms and Teflon tunes

Posted by Collin Piprell

Our word for the day is earworm. And the following definition is from the charming animation “Jazz that nobody asked for.”

jazz that nobody asked for“Sometimes a song can get stuck in your mind. Become a little piece of unwanted music, that keeps looping for the rest of your day.

Neurologists claim that stuck songs are like thoughts we're trying to suppress. The harder we try not to think about them, the more we can't help it. The phenomenon is also known as earworms, and the ongoing ‘dim di da da dum’ causes a kind of brain itch you can't scratch.”

I once acquired the equivalent of that little red Pandora’s box in the animation. Back at the beginning of time, when I still lived in Montreal, I bought Live/Evil (Miles Davis), and I used to come home at about 4am sometimes full of beer, and listen to Miles’ 21-minute version of  “What I Say”  two or three times in a row while I chain-smoked in the dark. The ladies who shared my flat finally asked me whether I couldn't listen more quietly, or possibly in some other city, since they had to go to work in the morning. (I was a student.)

Then, decades later here in Bangkok, I’ve come across this album again and, what do you know? I still find this cut compulsively listenable. Which suggests that my musical tastes never really miles davis

Sara snickers. “Unlike the rest of you?” she says.

Whatever. It may be my old Montreal flatmates had somebody put a curse on me, because now I wake up in the middle of the night with this thing in my head, and it won't go away.

That’s right. So go ahead and listen to it at your own peril.

A note on Teflon tunes.

phishBill the Mathematician, who is second only to Al the Alien as a mentor, says nobody else is old enough to remember Miles Davis, and I’ll provoke more traffic to this site if, as he puts it, "You dis Phish and praise Nickelback. Miles Davis is in that in-between stage where he's too long gone to be well known to the online masses, but not so long gone that it can be cool to be really into him. On the other hand, everyone loves the forgettable Phish and loves to hate the even more forgettable Nickelback, and wants to tell the world about both those things.”

So I’ve gone and had a look on YouTube. And both groups sort of give me a pain in the neck. I don’t think they’d ever infect me with earworms, because my delicate sensibilities erase all trace of them bar by bar even as I try to listen.nickleback

There, now I’ve dissed them both. I await the outrage, maybe even an extra visitor to my site.