Where It’s At

All right, full disclosure. If it isn’t already obvious, the fourth and final volume of The Laws of Power series is taking longer than it probably should have. I’ve written some books in as little as three months, which is blazing speed for me. A year or less is more normal. Then again, I know some people who can write one in a week. On the other hand, the first novel I ever wrote took about five years. Maybe because I didn’t know what I was doing.

I still don’t know what I’m doing, but have since learned this is not an obstacle. You learn as you go, and by the time you’re done, you know how to write that book or that story. Then there’s the next one.

All by way of saying I’ve been going by fits and starts, and sometimes there were days when I couldn’t even look at the thing. For the sake of my own sanity, I finally had to ask myself why, and the answer was obvious:

I didn’t want to say goodbye.

The first story that eventually became the Laws of Power series was “What Power Holds,” published way back in 1994 in Dragon. These characters have been with me for a long time, even when I was writing other books and hundreds (yes, by now it is hundreds) of short stories. It was well past time to close the loop. I was able to do it (mostly) with Yamada, and Marta and company deserve the same consideration.

I will get there, assuming I’m not scheduled to drop dead beforehand. I am finally making progress at a more sustainable rate, losing the mental block. I appreciate those who haven’t lost patience just yet. I hope I can finish before that happens.

PS: I had done an excerpt or two here, but I’m not sure that’s the best idea. I was thinking of moving any future episodes to the more private mailing list. If you have an opinion on that, let me hear it.

Amazing Ways

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People are weird.

…and before I pause to thank Captain Obvious, I’m saying hello to Mr. Editor and already revising for accuracy. “People” implies everybody, and in my experience everyone isn’t weird. Don’t get me wrong, some people are incredibly weird. I’ve met a few in my time. But they’re not all that common. Not exactly rare, mind, but not really common. It takes a great amount of difference in worldview and habits and interests and behavior to cross the line from merely “different” to outright weird.

What people really are, almost without exception, is complicated.

Crappy people have their good points. Saints are riddled with shadow, and a lot of the time neither condition makes a lick of sense. Try to get to the heart of any of it and usually you’re left with some variation of “because that’s the way it is.”

As I’ve mentioned once or twice in this space, I was raised Southern Baptist. I almost said “strict” Southern Baptist, but that borders on redundant. No drinking except when there was. No dancing. Period. Lots of Sundays in the pew, lots of hymns. I like to say I put it all behind me years ago…almost.

Amazing Grace. I still love that song. Lyric wise I no longer believe a word of it. But I like the music. So much so that, to this very day, I’ll tear up a bit when I hear a decent version of it. Do it with bagpipes and I’m likely, if briefly, an emotional wreck.

I’m still trying to sort out the why of that, and the only answer I’ve ever come up with is simply this:

It’s complicated.

Oh, So THAT’S Why…

I think some people believe the hardest part of writing a novel (or, come to that a short story) is figuring out what happens.

Hah.

Well, to be fair I can only speak from my own experience. I generally know what happens, as in, I know the end, and sometimes I know it before I’ve written the first paragraph. I know the events as they unfold, even if I couldn’t write a plot outline to save my life. I even start writing scenes from the end in my head before I’m anywhere near the end. Now, true, I don’t usually know how to get there. Figuring that out is the hard grunt work of actually writing the book.

However…

There’s a point of progress even more crucial than knowing WHAT or HOW. I have to know WHY.

Why is essential . Knowing ‘why’ informs everything I write in the book from there on. More, it explains to me how what I’ve already written fits into the WHY. And if, for some reason, the previous material doesn’t fit into the why, it has to go, and time to start over. Fortunately, for me that rarely happens. It usually seems that my subconscious is smarter than I am and has already figured out WHY and is only waiting for me to catch up. Good thing, too, otherwise I’d write even slower than I do already.

I was reminded of this in a scene I just finished for The Seventh Law of Power. I already knew the How and What. Now I finally know Why.

Passing For Human

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Almost everyone has heard of the Turing Test. Named after Alan Turing, a British mathematical genius and one of the designers of the first ever stored-program computer. In its simplest form, the test has three participants: One is a human (A) typing into a computer terminal, another is a computer program (B), and the third (C) is also human, who receives messages from and sends messages to both (A) and (B).

The trick is the third person (C) doesn’t know which of the other two is the human and which is the machine. They ask questions and receive answers. If, at the end of the trial, (C) can’t tell which one of the two is the computer, the computer is said to have passed the Turing Test and therefore can be said to be thinking on a human level, which is believed to be the prerequisite of Artificial General Intelligence, which is the holy grail of AI research.

Rubbish.

Meaning no disrespect to Alan Turing, a brilliant man who was treated very poorly by a country which owed him a tremendous debt of gratitude. It’s more that modern AI research has developed in ways almost no one really foresaw back in the 1950s.

Most modern AI models are based on a technique called “deep learning,” where the program is trained against masses and masses of data and “learns” to predict or discern patterns. This is narrow AI. It does the thing it was trained to do extremely well, often better than the best human, but only that one thing. The best chess-playing algorithm/model can’t change gears and play Go, at least not without forgetting how to play chess. An AI that can learn to do anything we can do and retain every new skill would be a lot closer to AGI, or artificial general intelligence. That is, it would be a generalist like us. Wake me when that happens.

To date, and despite a few disputed claims to the contrary, no computer program has beaten the Turing Test. Some have come close, and I firmly believe the Turing Test will be beaten, possibly soon, but it will be beaten by a narrow AI, not an AGI. It will be beaten by a program/AI model which has absolutely no idea what it’s saying, or what you’re saying to it, though it will appear to be doing both. It’s an illusion.

True, language is a skill like any other, and great strides are being made in AI which can now converse on a near-human level, orders of magnitude better than the first chatbots. This is, I admit, astonishing and I’m curious to see how far it progresses.

There is a catch, of course. One noted researcher is of the opinion that AI will only pass the Turing Test when it learns to lie. Think about it. All (C) has to do is ask “Where do you live?” and if the AI tells the truth, it’s game over.

Again, rubbish.

Not because it isn’t true, but because the best natural language models of AI already know how to lie. Maybe they’re not “aware” that this is what they’re doing, but the fact remains. Just listen to any conversation between a human and one of the more advanced AI language models. It lies constantly. It’ll tell you what movies it’s seen in theaters. It’ll tell you how much it likes going to the beach and walking on the sand. It’ll tell you how it feels about sunsets. It’ll tell you where it lives.

In an ironic way, I believe the fact that AI can lie is the current crowning achievement of AI. It’s almost human of them. Maybe they’ll beat the Turing Test even sooner than I think.

©2022 Richard Parks

The Red-Tail and the Raven

It’s been a couple of weeks. Don’t ask. Everything’s fine, just too much stuff all at once. To atone somewhat for last week’s absence, today’s post will be a flash in the Master and Apprentice series. I really should give them their own book one of these days.

The Red-Tail and the Raven

Picking blackberries was a tricky business.

Master, as expected, was in a more supervisory role rather than an active participant. He lay on his back on a little hillock near the center of the meadow, idly chewing a bit of straw.

“Come here,” he said. “Put down your bucket and look up.”

I did. It was a nearly cloudless sky, blue, stretching from horizon to horizon.

“It’s lovely. Was that it?”

Master had his expression of exaggerated patience.  “Look closer.”

After a moment or two I noticed what I’d missed the first time. It was a hawk, lazily circling high overhead.

“That’s a red-tail,” Master said. “What’s it doing?”

I shrugged. “Hunting?”

“Possibly, but I suspect it’s just looking over its territory.”

One might wonder why Master interrupted berry picking to give me a lecture on the habits of red-tailed hawks. There had been a time I might have wondered, also, but Master never did anything without at least two reasons and one wild notion. I waited.

“Why would a creature that can fly so far stay in one area?”

Of course, I didn’t know the answer. Which, I suspected, was the point.  “Because it has everything it needs here? Why should it leave?”

I was distracted for a moment by a raven landing in a treetop nearby.

“Indeed,” Master said. “Yet the common raven up there also has a home territory where it has everything it needs. And yet, now and again, it will simply pick a direction and go. Why is that?”

“Because…it believes there’s something beyond ‘everything it needs’?”

“Perhaps. Let’s find out.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Master and the raven had worked this out in advance. The raven took flight, not rising in a leisurely circle like the hawk, but rather setting out straight into the woods, and Master and I followed.

“Do you really think we can keep up with it?”

“Depends on how certain it is of its destination,” Master said.

Indeed, it was clear after a bit that the raven wasn’t sure where it was going. While it did not stray very much from its original direction, it did pause often, making croaking sounds to itself before it set off again. We soon came to another clearing, and there, sitting on a dull gray boulder, was something small and shiny, probably a stray bit of rock crystal. The raven flitted down, snatched it up, and went back the way it had come.

“All this way for something shiny?” I asked.

“All this way for something it didn’t have before, something its home did not provide. We admire the hawk for its grace and beauty, and we’re right to do so. But if you want to see something you’ve never seen before? if you want to go somewhere you’ve never been? Look to the raven.”

I made a note to myself to watch the ravens, but Master seemed to read my thought.

“From the meadow, please. Those berries won’t pick themselves.”

©2022 Richard Parks