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At the Museum

“Did you know,” Elizabeth says to Oliver, “that some researchers explain the war crimes as a result of a rational and systematic reasoning. It was not aimed at certain ethnic groups when it started. It was, initially at least, an attempt to create a more efficient society, by simply promoting the ones who were best suited to contribute. Have you thought about it like that? Oliver, hello, I am talking to you …”

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Oliver was reading. And taking pictures. He liked to take pictures at museums. He took pictures of the artefacts – old machines, airplane mockups, and electricity stations. He also took pictures of the texts. He liked this, to have a recording of the texts describing the artefacts. Often these texts said something, about the time when this machine was new and considered state-of-the-art, and in that way also something about the people living then, operating the machine, doing their work, living their lives, one day at a time.

“No, I did not think about it in that way,” Oliver said.

Oliver had listened to Elizabeth, and he had done it at the same time as he was reading. He sometimes took this opportunity, to point out his female traits, and he found it especially convenient when he was asked to do practical work. Practical work meant working with their house, doing necessary repairs and perhaps also some paint work, and from time to time there was also a need to do something to their car. By keeping a safe distance from these activities, he prevented himself from doing the wrong things, or breaking things, and he had no intent to fall down from a ladder, or get crushed under his car while changing tires.

“But for sure, it could happen again, also in our country,” he said.

He felt like a lesser skilled reporter, echoing words from intellectual persons, now and then letting their voices out in popular documentaries on one of the state-owned television channels.

“But it was another time then,” he said. “I think we are more protected from certain things now, due to everyone communicating with everyone all the time.”

He turned towards Elizabeth, who was standing some metres away.

“I mean,” Oliver said, “look at the recent uprisings, Spring Uprisings I think they are called. In several countries, almost at the same time, people have taken action. And they have made some real progress. Not only with words in underground magazines, or through the use of protest songs. They have made real things happen, and real persons, although some of them being dictators but still persons, have paid with their lives.”

“All right, my dear Professor,” Elizabeth said. “I get your point.”

She communicated her response in her standard, matter-of-fact, hmm-sounds-interesting, voice. She had been there before, in similar situations, listening to her beloved husband as he made one of his little speeches. They were delivered in an illuminating and enthusiastic tone, but more often than not she could not help but listening to the undertone – perhaps it was involuntary but nevertheless it was not so skilfully hidden – of a man talking to someone slightly below his own rank.

She wanted to continue her previously initiated discussion, and she knew that Oliver would be sincerely interested had he been able to concentrate on what she had to say. He had always been debating the rationality of his own world, with his equations and his models, and they often discussed what could happen if humankind decided to go all the way, towards a scientifically proven and rationally structured society, with productivity and growth as the only measures of progress.

“Of course there would be no art, of any kind, in such a world,” Oliver once said. “But I’m sure there are many who would not be missing it – at least not the more modern kinds.”

She looked for her husband, and after having surveyed half of her field-of-view, looking towards the direction where they were supposed to continue, she spotted him. He was on his way towards the next Exhibit hall. It was a newly restored and freshened up exhibition, located in the building assigned to the Theory and Applications of Genetic Engineering. This was a new topic at the museum, and it had been initiated with financial and intellectual support from a recognised combination of established researchers and industrial top executives. They represented a mix of organisations, of which some were governmental and others private.

Medical and pharmaceutical research institutes and corporations were represented, as one would expect. Lately, however, an increasing share of the sponsoring had been contributed by industries in software and computer engineering. Oliver found this interesting, and he was fascinated by the fact that his home field of computers and software systems – which in his own view was more related to technology and materialistic things than being scientific and systematic as genetics and biology – was represented here, among the museum donors.

He was aware of recent research and experiments where a parallel computer had been created, with a complexity similar to the brain of a reasonably advanced animal (he remembered something about a cat, but he was not sure). Oliver was confident that this was very far from creating a real brain, and he sometimes found himself irritated when he listened to his technologist colleagues, talking and gesturing, all progress and glory in their eyes, about computers with brains and intelligence. If they had studied the results we see here, at this fantastic museum, nicely displayed right in front of us, they would have known that putting a lot of computer power in one place is one thing, but making it evolve like life itself is a completely different matter.

They were inside the new hall, with Elizabeth wondering where to find a decent cup of coffee, and Oliver wondering how to find the most efficient way of spending the time they had, to maximise his learning experience.

“Look,” Oliver said enthusiastically, “here we can see the history of the discovery of the DNA. Look at all the pieces, the beautiful double helix, the codes, using only four letters isn’t that amazing.”

He turned towards Elizabeth, and his arms were wide apart, and Mother Nature was filling his eyes with glitter and light. He felt the wonders of science, discovered by great minds belonging to interesting persons, and in some – perhaps small but still – way he was part of it.

“And here we see the enzymes,” he continued. “The great protein creators, acting like workers in a factory, doing their systematic job, almost like a computer carrying out its instructions, one by one, step by step.”

He was in his best mood, and it was somewhat contagious.

“I love you too,” his wife said, as she kissed him on his left cheek.

His interpretation was the usual one. Take your time, she had said, and let’s have some coffee later.

“Isn’t it interesting?” he asked himself, and perhaps also subconsciously addressing Elizabeth, “that all these tiny pieces, when they come together, make up such an intelligent machinery?”

He became aware that she had left the room, but his conversation continued.

“Thinking about it a little bit more,” he said, addressing an elderly woman standing beside him, “you are almost convinced that there must be some kind of design behind it.”

“Aha, I see what you are getting at,” said the woman. “We have some talk about it back home. They call it Intelligent Design, and soon it may be part of the school curriculum.”

“Ssh,” Oliver said, holding his upright index finger in front of him, and smiling towards his newfound acquaintance.

She looked back, somewhat puzzled, and before she had a chance to comment, Oliver continued.

“We have this new party,” he said. “They are interesting but in a sense also somewhat fanatic.”

“Ok,” the woman replied. “Tell me more.”

“They totally advocate a renaissance of science,” he said. “And had they been here, undercover and spying on us, the people they are set out to protect, they would not have liked us talking about Intelligent Design.”

“Who knows,” he added, “some day they might arrest people for unscientific public behaviour.”

He wanted to say more, but he felt the presence of his better half nearby, and as a precaution, preventing him from being told to stop his academically styled wit, thrown upon an innocent bystander, he nodded towards the woman, and said, towards Elizabeth.

“Yes, darling, I’m coming. Coffee would be perfect. I’m all done here.”

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A helping hand to Evolution

What if we could single out the unproductive?

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What if we could find, and eliminate, the ones who do not fit in?

Even better, what if we could prevent them from entering our world?

Some people may want to ponder these questions.

Some people may also want to act on them, and do something about it.

An organisation, headed by its Leader in collaboration with the man known to them as the Treasurer, has been formed, and their goal is to create a better society. They will do it using DNA, and they will use DNA patterns for selecting the ones who are fit, and suitable, and have the talent for science and rational reasoning.

They will do it while our protagonist, Oliver Dalton, continues his ordinary life, with a permanent job at the University and with a temporary assignment at the Department of Education and Societal Health.

He has been hired, by the Department, and his task is to see patterns in DNA, using the national DNA database as his data set. His world interleaves with the world of the organisation and their Treasurer, and it affects Oliver and his family, in ways that they had not anticipated.

The organisation refines its plans while Oliver spends time in Munich, visiting his daughter and celebrating his own birthday. When the organisation finally decides how to carry out their mission, by shifting their focus from elimination to prevention, Oliver is busy with his work. When Oliver is informed that his daughter is in danger, and the police steps in, this is not an end, but rather a beginning, of an even more complex situation.

As the final plans are set into motion, the police and the Dalton family do what they can to track down the organisation, and charge them for a crime that will “eliminate whole generations, without harming, or killing, a single person.”

Set in Munich and in an unspecified Northern country, in our current society, with science and technology as driving forces and with art in its different forms as a sometimes debated complement, Prevention is a “fast-paced modern thriller. The plot is well executed and the writing is crisp and engaging. The character of Oliver Dalton is well drawn and relatable and the cast of supporting characters is equally realistic. Prevention probes into the field of DNA matches and profiling, and the various uses that gene matching can be put to.”

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Hypnopompia – is that even a word?

Yes it is! – I learned it from Winslow Eliot in her beautiful book Writing through the year.

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Winslow Eliot says that Hypnopompia is that marvelous in-between moment before you’re fully awake. She also mentions a corresponding state, called Hypnagogia, which occurs in the moments before you fall asleep.

It is said that in these states, where you are in a zone between sleep and being awake, there is possibility for increased creativity. This has been utilized by famous persons, in their artistic but also scientific endeavours, and as explained by Winslow Eliot, it has to do with how our brain works:

During hypnagogia, the normal activity of the left/logical side of your brain is inhibited, allowing imagery in your right/creative brain freedom to experience whatever it wants to, without trying to analyze itself.

The whole reasoning, which also reminds us of the interesting topic of the divided brain, suggests that we should take advantage of what is happening underneath – down in that dark chamber that we call the unconscious – if we want to produce great works of art.

It sounds a bit scary to me. If you ask Robert Olen Butler, it is, and should be, scary. He says, in the very fascinating book called From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction – which, by the way, I think, I found via a reference from Sarah Selecky – that virtually all inexperienced writers end up in their heads instead of the unconscious, and he also gives an explanation for why: the unconscious is simply scary as hell.

But there is hope, I think, and I was encouraged to continue writing when I read the book, which I also finished.

It contains many gems, including a discussion about what we could mean when we use the word art. Robert Olen Butler says that what we remember comes out as journalism, and what we forget goes into the compost of the imagination. And only when we let the memories decompose, down in that chamber we cannot access by force of our will, can we recompose them into new works of art.

The book also echoes many pieces of advice seen elsewhere, which tell us to write every day, and it tells us that

Once you are engaged in writing a piece of fiction from your unconscious, it is crucial that you write every day, because the nature of this place where you go is such that it is very difficult to find your way in.

and also that we are allowed to take one day off, occasionally, but beware, as Robert says: you take two days off and you’re on very thin ice.

The book also has some case studies. In these, we are allowed to see the writing of some of his students, and we are allowed to follow discussions on their writings. I found this very interesting, and there are references to Robert Olen Butler’s own works, in the form of shared pieces from his own writings – some that he is satisfied with, and some that he is not so proud of.

As a final remark about the book, I want to mention the chapter called Cinema of the mind. I found it to be an eye-opener, and there are some very interesting studies in there – one I especially remember is from Cat in the Rain by Ernest Hemmingway – showing us how thinking (sorry – I meant letting your unconscious guide you) like a film-maker can help a lot when creating fiction.

So now I try to live as I learned. I have practised a short morning ritual of Hypnopompia-assisted writing for some weeks now. And yes, I can recommend it. It has also increased my word count, so someday I may even finish my writing project.

And in the meanwhile, of course, we should remember that the writing itself is a kind of self-inflicted journey, and that we might also learn some interesting things along the way.

How the %&*# can I find my voice?

They say I have to have a voice.

A voice when I am writing, that is. A voice that makes my writing instantly recognizable as mine. But where is this voice? And do I have it? Perhaps I have no voice at all!

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I decided to practice. This was when I took my first steps in the preparations for writing a draft for a novel. I had previous experience in writing, that was clear. I had written research papers and even a thesis. So perhaps I had a scientific, tech-voice? If you want a sample of it, it may sound like this:

Fast motion along a predefined path is important in many robot applications, and requires utilization of the maximum allowable torque range. If the torque is at the limit, there is no margin to cope with disturbances or modeling errors, which may result in deviation from the path. A path velocity controller for modification of the velocity along the path when the torques saturate can improve path tracking. The path velocity controller acts as an outer feedback loop outside the ordinary robot controller, and modifies a nominal velocity profile, computed by minimum time optimization using available methods.

But now I should do fiction. What was meant by that? That I could, or perhaps should, make things up? That was sort of unfamiliar, at least if I wanted to gain some experience from my previous writings.

They say that authors blend in their own life in their stories. I had certainly heard of that. And I had also heard of angry relatives suing authors for making too many private things very public. So here one might need to tread softly, to avoid breaking hearts and making people upset. And it would also be important to show some dignity towards people who know me, and still want to know me, even after I have written the book.

I read Alan Watt, and I really liked his suggestions of stream-of-consciousness writing. I started with capturing small scenes from my life, and then trying to reproduce them onto a piece of computer screen. Here is a lunch sample, where a bunch of work-oriented persons eat, in a Scandinavian setting, doing their best to avoid the unspoken taboo of talking about work during lunch time:

They talk during lunch. Sometimes the conversation flows freely, and sometimes long periods of silence occur, broken after a while by some of the group using their creativity to come up with a new subject to talk about. They mostly talk about facts. They do not talk about feelings. No one says “did you read that book, it was truly fantastic, it gave me a complete new picture of the Chinese culture”. Perhaps someone says “did you know that there is a golf player who can reach 300 meters using only his putter”. This may be followed by a comment, like “did he do it in a contest?”, and perhaps a somewhat scientific observation in the style of “can he control his muscles or does he hit that hard all the time?”.

Since I always was a strange cross-breed between science guy and something more artistic (perhaps writing, perhaps rock and roll, perhaps opera – I still do not know), I tried to put some art into the writing. So here is Michael, character-to-be in Prevention – the book that I now prepare, leaving his rehearsal, only to be attacked and hit to the ground some minutes later:

Michael Dalton did not know, then, as he prepared himself for the rehearsals, that he was in for a new period of silence. This time it would not be determined by himself, as a result of a failed audition, but instead by forces outside of his own control. He did not know it when he sang his aria, or during the majestic sextet when he listened to the almost divine beauty of the Dove sono aria, and he did not know it when he said goodbye and see you tomorrow to his fellow actors and singers. Instead he felt happy and full of enthusiasm and life. He did not know, shortly thereafter when he mounted his bicycle for the short ride home, that this was the last rehearsal for him, at least for a long time to come.

He only knew it later in the night, when he woke up, stirred awake by a nurse at the nearby hospital, telling him to be quiet and yes you heard me right, you are not allowed to sing, neither to speak actually. You have to be very calm, and stay where you are, in this bed, at least for some days to come.

I found this a good way of practising, and I listened to the wise words of Austin Kleon, saying that no matter how hard you try to copy something or someone, you will always end up doing something original. I decided that this was a way of writing – take your experiences and write about them – however in a state of mind where you feel free to really invent things as you go along. And as a result, some new stuff, completely invented and not very true at all, may come out.

And when you read it afterwards, and revise it, you might even find it a bit interesting!

Of course you need structure too! I studied a bit about structure, for example by following a sequence of good videos in the Plot Whisperer series by Martha Alderson, and by reading a bit in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

I also found the snowflake guy a.k.a Randy Ingermanson interesting, and I started to subscribe to his newsletter.

And piece by piece, mood by mood, some scenes and also some characters emerged.

I also decided on the beginning. There would be a prologue, somewhat secretive with some hidden symbolic meaning at the end. And then there would be the first scene, opened by Annie Dalton, daughter of the great Oliver Dalton, professor of System Studies, in a phone call indicating potential problems.

Her first words are simply

“Dad, I’m sorry, I can’t make it. I have this pain in my stomach. I think I need to stay at home tomorrow.”

The timing is not perfect, since this is the day before Oliver and his wife Elizabeth are leaving for Munich, where they will meet Annie and where they will celebrate Oliver’s birthday, and everything is already neatly planned, including a list of all museums that Oliver wants to see.

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They are not yet aware that Annie plays a part in a bigger scheme, where powerful organizations do what it takes to shape the society, and its inhabitants, in a for them desirable direction. And the old tradition of Eugenics, pioneered in the early 1900s, is suddenly both alive and well.

What if we could single out the unproductive?

What if we could use DNA for that purpose?

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These were questions I pondered, not for myself in person but for my candidate villain. I was searching for a theme for my book, the one I had decided to write, using NaNoWrimo as a base for creating the first draft.

Thinking about it a little bit more, I came to the conclusion that both questions – the selection of people as well as the DNA method for doing it – rewarded the book a classification as science-fiction.

But as I found out, this was not completely true! After having done some research, I had to change the book category to the single word fiction.

This was in 2011, in the pre-november time frame. I was not yet a fully evolved Kindle addict, so I used also other e-book readers on my phone. I started with the Aldiko reader, which I found interesting since it was easy to download free books.

Among the free books one could download, most were old classics like Robinson Crusoe and Moby Dick. For some reason – I do not remember exactly how – I had come to know the term Eugenics. I downloaded a book with that name, by a man called Gilbert Keith Chesterton. I found it a bit interesting, but mostly rather dry and a bit old-style (it was written in 1922).

But there were some interesting passages. Like the claim that the Eugenic moral basis is that “the baby for whom we are primarily and directly responsible is the baby unborn”. As I understood it, this was not a statement relating to abortion but rather a statement on the possibility to prevent a child from even being conceived, by controlling which couples were allowed to be formed, between man and woman. In this way, one could indirectly control the types of children being born.

Thinking about it, we still have that control, at least here in Sweden. If you want to get married, you have to ask the state for permission, and then the state will check if there are any impediments to the marriage. Currently, it is used for checking that you do not marry more than one person, and that you do not marry a close relative, but of course, in the wrong hands, such a law can be used for advanced population planning (assuming for the moment that children are conceived only by married couples).

Another way to control the population would be to go directly to the men and women, selecting those who had the least suitable traits for a productive society, and simply ask them to not have any children.

This was actually done, in many countries, including Sweden, and in many cases the asking was not done at all, at least not in a way that gave the victim a choice to opt out of the whole procedure.

So state-controlled programs for sterilization, as a way to prevent less suitable genes from propagating through to new generations, were indeed carried out, and thinking about if this could be an interesting angle for a book, I had the idea to create an organization that would revive these ideas, now, in the modern world, where much more advanced DNA technology is available.

The next question then becomes: can we use DNA technology for the selection part? If I put on my most scientific manner I can say that I doubt it, but you never know! For example, here is an article where researchers claim that they can filter out people using intelligence as a criterion.

This made me decide on the overall plot structure. Yes there would be an organization revisiting the Eugenics ideas, and yes there would be some good guys – perhaps an absent-minded professor-type with at least some resemblance to the aspiring author – and there would be an interesting way of thinking, done by the bad guys, to actually decide whom to single out as victims.

And of course they need a method for effectuating their plans. They need some channel of distribution and some network of operators that can do the actual work.

And their goals will be noble (from their point of view), I mean after all they are doing a good thing for society, by making it more efficient and productive.

And most of all, their main plan will eliminate many unwanted persons. And this will be done without casualties. In fact, not a single person will be physically harmed!

This also led to the title being decided.

The book will thus be called Prevention, and it will be ready soon …

Art – Science – or, and, or vs

Do we have to make a choice?

Do we have to choose between art and science?

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Is it so that science covers what we do for a living, which in turn make our companies earn money, which generate taxes and welfare and growth, and then we use art for our recreation?

I did not think so much about these things before. I started out in the art department you could say. I wrote my first (and still my only) two novels when I was ten. I typed them in, on my father’s typewriter, and I also made photocopies, typing them once more, using blue carbon papers in between, so as to make fresh copies, obviously to be sold with great success!

One of the books was a mystery novel. It featured two boys, I think they were cousins. They discovered a hidden treasure, tucked away in the woods outside their grandparents house, and following the strange note they found on a piece of paper, placed suspiciously just beside the treasure coffin, they were led to an abandonded house, even deeper into the woods. After some twists and turns, they discovered and cracked the criminal gang, conveniently labelled X03, a league whose members then all became prisoners for a long time to come.

Of course I took the inspiration from adventure books I fancied. Like The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, or one of Alfred Hitchcock’s books with the Three Investigators.

The other book was called Knight John, and here there was an even clearer line of inspiration. I was a great fan of Ivanhoe, I had read the book several times, and I had also found some interesting connections between Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, hinted to me in some black-and-white film, but not clearly enough explained to me by my parents. So there was place for more investigations into this unsolved problem. Did they know each other, these two heroes? And wasn’t it so that Robin Hood was perhaps also a real person? In contrast to Ivanhoe, who was invented by Sir Walter Scott.

These were interesting things, but at the time I did not pursue my writing career any further.

Now, some years later, I will make a retry. As I said in a previous post, I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. So the challenge then was of course to choose a topic, to write about, and of course also to find out how it is actually done, this task of writing a novel. Being an educated person I soon started to look for instructions, manuals, and HOWTO-guides (such things were not needed in 1971 right?).

I found some good books, which were really helpful. I will say more about them later but since there is no reason to being secretive I give you their titles here, and some comments. So these were the first books I found to be very helpful for the task of writing a novel.

  • Do the Work by Steven Pressfield – purchased April 26, 2011. I mentioned this one in the previous post also, and although it is not a handbook in novel-writing of any sorts, it is a fantastic source of inspiration for the actual act of doing the writing. It is very interesting to take part in the stories told, and I especially remember some low points of having a film manuscript finally turned into a movie, and no one is showing up at the cinema, and how this is used to fuel the spirit to actually continue, in spite of this anti-success. I also remember the phrase “Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five”, as an illustration that Resistance never gives up. And I learned that Steven King works every day, including Fourth of July, his birthday, and Christmas.
  • The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the story within – Watt, Alan – purchased September 30, 2011. I found this book interesting since it did not directly focus on structure and outlining. Instead Alan Watt recommended us to imagine the world where the story, not yet known to us, would take place. This was very helpful, and there are many good exercises in the book that you can do, where often stream-of-consciousness writing is used (just let it flow, do not at all make it anyway close to perfect and stylish), for the purpose of getting to know your characters, both the good guys and the bad guys, better. An interesting example is “As your hero, write for five minutes 1) the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and 2) the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done”.
  • Reading Like a Writer (P.S.) – Francine Prose – October 25, 2011. If I must pick a favorite, this one wins! Francine Prose does not give instructions on how to write. Instead she shows, by example, how other writers write, and have written, by quoting from their books and commenting on their writing. I will tell you more about my impressions in a later post, but personally I highly recommend this book. It made me see books with a quite different eye, and helping a lot when trying to write. And it gave good pointers to authors I had never read before, such as current favorites like Edward St Aubyn, Alice Munro, and Scott Spencer (I finished A Ship Made of Paper with almost no breaks – I am a notorious book-zapper so this is a good credit for me)

Professionally, I am now in the science department. Well, to be more specific, you might call it the Engineering Science Department. My job is to be an Associate Professor in a system oriented topic (think computers, software, control systems, mobile phone technology) at a university in Sweden. Now that might sound fancy, but I can say at least that it is a lot of fun, and at times also a bit strange, especially when I compare to earlier jobs in industry, where I was an engineer working with software and system simulation, and many more managers and time plans than you will ever see in a university.

I wanted to relate to this when I chose a topic for my novel. Being a little bit tired of all the talk on TV and in newspapers about how we must be a competitive nation, and all the worries that our kids are so bad in mathematics, I found, and liked, this article, properly named Dehumanized. I thought that this divide, between the rationalistic thinking of those obeying only the physical laws and their mathematical incarnations, and those who are perhaps a little bit more interested in the why-side of all things, looking for not only useful and economical things in their chase and search to find meaningful stuff.

So this was my mindset as I enterned the NaNoWriMo challenge, to come up with a story, rather thriller-like if I could make it, after all I wanted people to read at least a little bit more than the first pages, and in the mean-time throw in some bad guys representing the firm believe in the rational stuff, and some good guys doing their best to prevent large-scale bad things to happen.

And most of all, the large-scale bad things would be engineered and directed towards the weak, so that we once and for all could arrive at a more effective and rational society, where the fluffy bloggers and wannabe-artists do not occupy the complete media space, showing off their new things in more and more real-life soap operas and almost monopolizing the social mediasphere.

Now wouldn’t that be a nice place to live – in the art-free world?