Monday, February 27, 2023

I Tried Again to Write with AI. It Went Better This Time.

Hey everyone! Mary here, and you might recall that last time I was on here, I was lamenting that, in a fit of writer's block, I tried to get the machines to write my book for me, and it didn't go well. Basically, I was totally blocked on a book, and I tried to get ChatGPT to generate some plot ideas and an intro paragraph and... yeah. It was terrible. 

Well, since then, I've gotten write's block again (hooray!). This time, it was on my Brave New Girls short story, which I almost considered not writing altogether, that's how blocked I was (hey, I can just edit the thing, right?). I had the bones for a plot there, I was just completely blanking on details (it probably didn't help that I was doing this amid a whirlwind of other activities too). 

So, once again in desperation, I turned to ChatGPT. Hey, they say the machines are coming for my job? Fine, machine, you do the work.

But since I had the bones of a plot already — girl in a solarpunk future enters a centuries-old lab full of booby traps to retrieve a rare plant developed by a long-dead eccentric scientist — I was actually able to get something out of the AI this time.

First, the simple stuff. What the hell is this girl named? Usually, I scan baby name lists. This time, I described the character and asked ChatGPT to give me a bunch of names. Who knows if the description did anything, but after hitting "regenerate" a few times, I settled on Amara. Maybe this is just a lazier version of browsing Behind the Name.

Then, it got a little more complicated. What makes this plant special? What's a plot twist I could throw in? Who's her partner in this adventure, since I didn't want her talking to herself the whole time?

This is where the machine fell apart, though it was rather amusing seeing the cockamamie ideas it came up with (Amara has a mechanical arm, and the machine was REALLY obsessed with it... half the plots it generated had something to do with the arm, like the plant being somehow connected, or her partner really wanting to study it, or... it was weird). 

But amid the trash I was able to pick out a few things that worked. Who is her partner? Oh, ChatGPT gave me a lot of wackadoodle suggestions, but I liked the one where it was a kid who got in trouble for studying illegal plants. How does she meet him? Amid other things, ChatGPT suggested a hackathon. Perfect. And as a not-hackathoner, I asked it to give me some ideas for what could actually be going on at this event. What makes the plant special? ChatGPT kept insisting it was sentient, but finally I came up with a reason all on my own by rejecting all the machine's idea (it's a superfood, essentially, that could put Big Agriculture out of business). What about a twist? Okay, that one I was on my own for. 

These are all questions I would probably have typed, in some form or another, into a search engine before. Which is what AI will probably wind up being used for a lot, plus generating copy (which, mind you, is different from writing... think about all those functional words that litter your surroundings that say things like "scan here to access our resources" or whatever, or boring filler articles for "content marketing" that say exactly nothing).

I've heard it said that copy-generating AIs can be thought of like calculators. You still have to do the real math, with the fancy formulas and whatnot, but the machine can crunch the numbers for you (maybe that's why super high-level math doesn't have numbers at all).

An AI by design can't come up with original ideas. It can only regurgitate what's out there, and sometimes that can be helpful. And when it's not, well, it's good for a laugh.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Reading for the Winter Blahs

 It's a grey day in New York today, one of the many you can expect in the northeast this time of year. Even if winter has been warmer than usual, it's still chilly and damp and it still gets dark too early. I've not been exactly motivated to do much writing or reading for fun. 

So when I get mopey, I turn to some of my favorite comfort reads. Here are three great mystery series that deserve a much wider audience. All are available on kindle and other ebook formats. 

1) Hammerhead Jed Mysteries by A.J. Devlin

The newest series of the bunch, this follows the exploits of Hammerhead Jed Ounstead, former pro wrestler in Vancouver, BC. He's content to now spend his semi-retirement working at his family bar and helping out as an errand boy for his Dad's detective agency. But then one of his old wrestling buddies asks him to help find his kidnapped boa constrictor and he gets drawn back into the shady world of the squared circle. Each book looks at a new sport - book 2 is roller derby, book 3 is mixed martial arts. Great fun, with an engaging lead as a reluctant detective. Go buy them to encourage him to write more. 

2) Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

If you like mysteries, you undoubtedly like Sherlock Holmes and some of the many imitators and incarnations. This series is the only one I'm aware of that takes place in the old west. Meet Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer. After finding an old copy of a Strand Magazine, Big Red reads the Red-Headed League to his older and smarter (though illiterate) brother. After reading the exploits of the world's greatest sleuth, Old Red is inspired to use Sherlock's techniques to solve a murder on the ranch they're working on. The mysteries always play fair, so you're free to puzzle along with Old Red and try and figure things out. The interplay between the brothers along with the clever mysteries make this a rootin'-tootin' good read. 

3) John Ceepak Mysteries by Chris Grabenstein

Stop me if you've heard this one:  There's a rookie cop partnered with a straight-laced veteran. I know, I know. But what makes this series so much fun is the location. The series is set in the fictional Jersey shore town of Sea Haven. Jersey Shore aficionados will recognize that this is a portmanteau of Beach Haven and Sea Bright, and it really is a stand in for any number of shore towns along the east coast. There are the restaurants and hotels with terrible beach puns in the name, run-down amusement parks, clueless tourists, a terrible town slogan ("Have a sunny, funderful day!") oh, and lots of murder. The characters are a lot of fun, too, in spite of the cliched set up. John Ceepak is a great lead - ex-army, come back to his home town to work on the force. He takes young, seasonal recruit Danny Boyle under his wing and turns him into a good investigator. It's a fun, breezy series, and quite literally the perfect thing to read at the shore. 

I hope you enjoy these as much as I have! If you have a personal favorite mystery series, let me know in the comments!

Victor Catano lives in New York City with his wonderful wife, Kim, and his adorable pughuaua, Danerys. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, production manager, and chaos coordinator. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @vgcatano and find his books on Amazon

Monday, February 20, 2023

Book Review: The Benefits of Being An Octopus

 "The Benefits of Being An Octopus" by Ann Braden 

"That's one of the things about the people on that beautiful tropical island: they can't see who's floating about in the ocean around them. Or maybe they can and they just choose not to look. I don't know.

I've never been there".

Seventh grader Zoey Albro needs more hands, like the great octopus she so greatly admires. Going to school, helping her mom, and taking care of her three younger siblings is a lot of work for a girl her age. There's so much she'd love to do for herself, like her homework, but there's no time to stop or to slow down. As Zoey explains,  "Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they've got to do". But with the unexpected help of a persistent and caring teacher, Zoey learns how to find her voice and to make choices that will change not only her life but the lives of those she cares for most around her as well.

This was a nice change up from what I've been reading recently. It's a middle grade book and the title is what caught my eye. I felt a true tug on my heart strings as I read this and I understand why so many people are raving about this in my book groups for kids. This read tackles serious issues such as bullying, domestic abuse, and gun laws. I really enjoyed the writing of the novel. I found myself laughing at some points and almost crying at others. This is an excellent read for people of all ages and walks of life and I'm so glad I took the time to read it. Solid 5 🌟 

"Sometimes if you don't have a jacket and you're sitting next to someone who does, you feel colder. But sometimes, if the right person is wearing it, you feel warmer".

"I think that sometimes you need to have your back up against the wall to find out what you're made of...".

Monday, February 13, 2023

Farpoint 30 Autopsy

Another quality post brought to you by Steve! 

Hey, everybody!  Don't forget, WE ALL LIVE IN A FASCIST POLICE STATE NOW, THANKS TO THIS ONE FUCKING GUY.  Who's the fucking guy?  Well, take a fucking guess.

Meanwhile, I'm back from my first convention of the year.  Now we are so happy we do the Dance of Joy!  Doy-doy-doy-doy...  (How's that for an IYKYK?)  I've been attending Farpoint for...gosh, it must be six or seven years now.  Okay, I double-checked and it appears to be six years.  

But what I realized this year was that I hadn't seen my usual con partners, Elizabeth Corrigan and our very own Mary Fan, who I used to say three or four times a year for what must be at least three years due to the pandemic.  It was time to rectify that mistake!

Last year I felt wrecked having to drive back and forth to Farpoint multiple times, so this year I decided to try to limit my panels to just Friday and Saturday.  So I drove down to Baltimore Friday night, checked in, and sat on my first panel, "How to Build an Alien," the subject being, how do we avoid the Humans But With Funny Foreheads cliche.  (Farpoint, in case you couldn't guess from the title, is a largely "Star Trek"-themed con.)  

We actually had a pretty decent audience for a Friday night, and as of 5:59 pm I thought I was going to be the only panelist.  So I got ready to give the folks a hell of a show, even if it was just me on the other side.  But, within about thirty seconds three more panelists piled in, including the moderator and thankfully the pressure was significantly lessened.  We still gave them a hell of a show, of course!

Then I headed over to meet up with Mary and Elizabeth for dinner.  It may have been a while, but it's nice to see old friends and fall back into old rhythms.  It may have been three years but it felt like no more than three days.

I headed home, and since moving into Air Studio International Headquarters, I am about a half hour closer to Baltimore than previously, so it was actually not a miserable weekend in terms of driving.  People say it happens after cons a lot, but I was really feeling rejuvenated as a creative this time, particularly from seeing Mary and Elizabeth, so I sat down and wrote an entire original piece for my Saturday reading, "How an Enormous Black Poodle Almost Killed Me and Vincent Price's Daughter."  I was planning just to read something from my stockpile, but there you have it!  My 2023 original piece done.

Saturday morning my first panel was at noon, and that was "Write What You Know," which, ironically, was actually meant to be a takedown - or, at a minimum, a dissection - of trite writing advice.  To the aspiring writer in the front row who took down a whole moleskine of notes, I see you!  I also recommended that all of the aspiring writers submit to THE PERFECTLY FINE NEIGHBORHOOD, so hopefully we'll see some movement there.

For the hour of lunch that we got a managed to get a sausage, egg, and cheese muffin that was frozen solid in the center, just the way I likes it, and set about editing the short piece I had written the night before.  Shockingly, it was not bad.  There were a few bits I didn't quite like, but after doing this for ten years, I have a pretty good feel for how audiences will react to readings, and I could tell this one was going to be decent.  So I headed over to the Derby room and when it was still empty at 2:05 pm, without even a sign of my other reading partners, I suspected I'd get another hour to myself.  Maybe I could get another ice muffin!

But all of a sudden an audience poured in alongside the other readers, and I suppose what happened is everybody got stuck at other panels.  My weekend has been thankfully broken up with at least one hour between each panel, but clearly not everyone got that luxury.  So I read "Black Poodle" and people seemed to enjoy it!  I'm actually glad I did it in front of a different audience before some of the bigger cons coming up this year, because I definitely noticed some saggy parts that I can tighten up.  Although, if you don't mind me tooting my own horn, I noticed as I was speaking some of the weak turns of phrase and changed them on the spot.  But now those changes can go into the official script!

Then my 4:00 pm signing came and Billy West and Carlos Alazraqui almost immediately left their stations so...I did not sell any books.  But, all in all, I very much enjoyed Farpoint again this year, as I do every year.  It was a very nice, leisurely way to kick off the con season, with the panels not being overwhelming and not having to table or deal with packing and hoteling.  And for those of you who want to hear "Black Poodle" in its entirety, well, you'll just have to make it to another one of my events this year.  For now, ciao, everybody, even though I'm not Italian.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

I'm Thinking of Ending Things: On How AI Has Made Me Re-Evaluate My Process

Yesterday, Microsoft announced that they integrated ChatGPT into search, which I know is not how you expected this article to begin... but here we are. It's been a topic I've been following for some time given that so much of what I've developed in terms of skillset, has been utilizing search engine optimization best methods and practices. 

I use this not just for the website I manage, but also, for other ones I've helped move forward and grow. It's a process that's far from rocket science, and is more or less, just optimizing user interface to present the best possible user experience. For instance, instead of an empty sidebar on a website, you put an ad or a best-of list. Things you missed! Top Featured Articles of the week! Look at all these things you must read! Stuff to commodify your attention with clicky-dos all for a fraction of a penny in ad revenue. 

Modern SEO based on UI is a method that's picked up in popularity as of late thanks to a multitude of applications that have come and grown these past few years. It's also become popular because of video games - a space where UI has become essential thanks to the multitudes of releases that have to feel and interact differently from one another (think Playstation controller versus a mouse and keyboard) but also, because of how available mobile games have grown...  along with the ad revenue they bring with it.

From Candy Crush to Pokemon Go... so much of that industry was just... fun ways of laying out a system. Stuff to efficiently organize and grab people's attention via click-methods and menus. It was kind of like organizing an attache case in the original Resident Evil games. Or, for those more meticulously minded, getting your thrills by checking off digital to-do lists. 

This new form of AI more-or-less is changing how internet searches will work. 

Previously, much of this space relied on a clean interface and organizable data for a bot to crawl and index, and understand. But now? It's a lot less about what a robot finds and presents for a user to pick up, as much as it is, about what you do to engage with the robot, with it taking from these spaces, and delivering a presentation to the user based on language models and what the AI finds as popular talking points. Not necessarily factual, mind you, but definitely clickable... which is sort of the BuzzFeed style of digital journalism popularized this past decade.

Journalism will change. A lot of the query-driven searches (so... all of journalism) will no longer drive traffic compared to actually having unique stories and news. Having a voice,  and better yet an actual diverse team of writers, will help because the stories will become more about the people writing it, if not equally than in as much as, it is about the actual subject material. 

Marketing, will focus less on keywords and search queries, compared to having already bits of data ready for an AI to absorb and recount later to a user. Search is no longer about the person now. It's about what data an AI can deliver to your doorstep. It's about what's most addictive about the language culture of today to get you to stay on board with a product.

The thing most places are too afraid to tell you is that a large chunk of these layoffs are partially inspired by this new reality. 

Yes, there were redundant and over-hired sections of the job market today for certain, all for promises of growth that never came to pass, but the part that I think most of us see in terms of the writing on the wall: is that the AI bot can push out this addictive clickbait content drivel faster than any human can. 

And while it's got a slew of fact-check problems... what you're witnessing now is only the beginning. Machine learning? Well, that's something I think most people are taking for granted - the idea that it's learning and will get better and make a lot of these types of writing and coding, the basics becoming more or less, redundant.

I dated a mathematician in 2018. She switched out of her Master's program to move into finance before moving away. She sort of warned me this reality was incoming. How machine learning, and by proxy AI, would dominate the market and change everything very soon. That this isn't the type of thing to ignore by a long shot... 

Marketing, coding, journalism, and media. We let so much of this side of the industry be dictated by google search and web-based traffic. Everything from your social media hits to your search engine queries is codified and authenticated by a mixture of how many people visit a page, but also, how much engagement it hits on social media. This analysis. This data analytics... which for a while, was sort of the crux of modern web-based industries... will I think, be analyzed and organized using these new AI tools - effectively replacing a lot of how the algorithm worked for the sake of attempting to create a better user experience... by which I mean, what's more addictive and sticky. The kinds of creative content that keep you engaged in an ever-glutenous attention economy. 

What you're seeing here is the death of something that's dominated how we've done things for the past 10-plus years. And a new methodology of doing something far better... or far worse...

There was this movie written by Andy Kaufman, one of my favorite screenwriters. It's called... "I'm thinking of Ending Things." 

That's how I've been feeling lately. I just want to end things, now. Not in a cry for help so to say as much as it is, I think we need to stop. Or at least, I need to stop... Stop feeling plugged in and sort of dying, the more I realize, things will never get better in the world. Sort of take control of what's right in front of me and let go.

Anyway, I really wanted to see this film when it came out. 

I didn't have a chance to because I was busy improving my website's SEO during the heart of the pandemic. 

The past five years have been chasing this stability that never felt stable in this kind of writing, doing what everyone asked of me, and trying to chase a thing that never felt genuine. 

I think that this is it. 

I want to end things. 

I want to write stuff that feels genuine. 

I want to be okay just being me and sharing with you my truth:

That I think we're all fucked. But we don't have to be...

Anyway, I'm tired of this and am breaking up with the old process. Old me. We're done now. And I'm moving on to something new. Let's go new me and find a new way of doing things. 

The robots are here to stay, either way.

Monday, February 6, 2023

My Favourite Horror Romance

I'm not a huge fan of romance novels (well, perhaps that's unfair because I've never read a single one) but I am a huge fan of love. No other emotion can bring me to tears quicker, which is why I'm thankful that at least they're happy tears. Since Valentine's Day is approaching, I thought I'd use this month to discuss my favourite horror romance.

It's not Buffy and Angel, or Buffy and Spike. Or Sookie and Bill, or Sookie and Eric. Or Elena and Stefan.... or Elena and Damon.... wait a minute, it's almost like there's a pattern here. I'm sure these romances have their merits, but none in my opinion, measure up to the epic love story depicted in Bram Stoker's Dracula (which is, ironically, not much like Bram Stoker's novel at all). Yes, I'm talking about the one from 1992, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring the legend that is Gary Oldman.

I normally grumble endlessly about movie adaptations of books I hold dear, and I'm a huge Dracula fan. However, I think that great decisions were made by screenwriter James V. Hart when he adapted the novel for the screen. While one of the best aspects of the book (for me) is that Dracula is just a monster stalking prey, I'm glad that he was humanised for the movie and given a back story. This is unusual for me because I normally hate it when someone takes a perfectly good book monster and twists them into a person, but it really works in this instance.

We've had so many Dracula movies over the years, most of which depict him as the soulless monster he is, as penned by Stoker, but what Coppola and co did was to transform and transcend the source material - that whole movie to me is a beautiful, breathing piece of art. Who needs ANOTHER film version of a story we've seen a thousand times already?

It retains the horror of the book because we still fear for the characters. They are just as terrified and distraught in the movie as they are in the book. Mina's role is elevated in the movie because being inexplicably in love with Dracula without knowing why adds layers to her character. Dracula is still a violent, terrifying monster and his new depth in this movie serves to emphasis that fact, rather than detract from it.

He loves Mina more than anything in the world - it's a deep love for which he risked his life, only to end up pledging his allegiance to darkness out of enraged grief. A love so deep that he turns himself into a monster over it. It spans oceans of time, it is unrelenting. And yet, he still stalks and terrorises Mina's friends. He still kills them. He's in a city with thousands of other food options, and yet he still consumes those dearest to her.

He seeks to isolate her, to alienate everyone around her besides himself, to sever her from her world and draw her into his. She begs to be a vampire with him, but he witholds, claiming he loves her too much to damn her. But eventually he does try.

To be clear - I'm not romanticising this love story. I don't adore this movie and this couple because I think their love is good and pure, and I did not want to see them together at the end. He is ageless, powerful beyond the scope of regular power, lethal and clever, and selfish. He demonstrates over and over how he can take from Mina until she has no choice but to try to separate from everyone else in order to protect them. She loves him and this clouds everything she once was. He loves her but instead of doing what's right, he manipulates and coerces and love bombs. He is an absolute pillar of the worst kind of romantic partner, the epitome of abuse.

And THAT is why I enjoy watching this unfold. It's because Coppola and co presented us with a "love" story that appears to be perhaps the greatest, deepest, and most sincere romance of all time, but it's actually a horrifying depiction of one of the most potentially-lethal abusive relationships in film history. I spend the whole run-time of this movie rubbing my hands together with glee at the prospect of this piece of shit's demise. I love that Harker and the gang never give up trying to save Mina and pull her back to normality, to break the spell cast over her. I love that despite being her husband, Harker STILL recognises that Mina is the victim in this twisted fairytale, manipulated beyond recognition, and needs help.

They never blame her, they just follow her to the end of the Earth in a bid to take down that murderous, toothy twat. In many ways, this movie and its message that the abuser will eventually reach his well-deserved end, is ahead of its time. I don't know if this is the message Coppola was trying to send, but that's how I interpret it.

I don't take nihilistic, voyeuristic pleasure in watching someone's mind get utterly twisted, their heart smashed to smithereens. I love this relationship only because Dracula is a horror movie. It's horror, folks. And this relationship is horror incarnate. It's one of the first movie romances I can remember watching in which the dickhead is quite literally presented as the blood-sucking monster that he is. I love it because he doesn't get her in the end, because we get to see her freed of him. I love it because the people who ACTUALLY love her do everything in their power to help her. I love it because it's as good a social commentary on toxic relationships as I've ever seen, but displayed with breathtaking sets and a score that mesmerises - everything about this movie folds you into the romance in a way that distracts you from the fact this it is not really, in the slightest, romantic. We start thinking like Mina, we cry at the end. We want her to bin off Jonathan and swan off into the darkness with her "real" love, because Dracula has convinced us too of his sincere, unyielding love for her. I love this because as filmmaking goes, I appreciate the audacity it takes to convince the whole audience that this is the love that dreams are made of. But it isn't. I can't think of any movie that so skillfully encourages you to empathise with the victim by actually rooting for this hideous "relationship" just like she does, despite it being the most lethal relationship imaginable. That's how manipulation works, you see. You don't even realise you're in the land of irrational thinking.

It is the kind of horror that chills me to the bone.

It is horror within horror within horror.

And also, it's got Keanu Reeves and his English accent, so there's that.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Animals in Literature

 Groundhog vs Gopher: 5 Key Differences - AZ Animals

Today is Groundhog Day, a unusual North American holiday where we make weather predictions based on the observations of a big rodent we tend to try and exterminate any other day of the year. As strange at it is, it's not the first time we have used animals to represent our beliefs, i.e. the Easter Bunny and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Animals have always been an important part of human society, and that extends to our myths, superstitions, and even our religions Animals have been our food, our companions, our mode of transportation, and our livelihood. They've been our gods, heroes, sidekicks, and adversaries. Even if you don't eat meat or keep pets, it's undeniable that human culture would not survive without them. It only makes sense that we would personify them and insert them into our literature over the years.

Most of us were introduced to animals really young, whether we had pets or not. They are often personified in children's books and shows to keep their attention and teach them a few things at the same time. Even earlier than that, a lot of toddler age kids had animals teaching them through flashcards, puzzles, and other toys. Some of the earliest books I remember reading as a kid were about animals, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

It didn't stop at childhood either. Many books geared more toward young adults and teenagers, like the Warriors series or Harry Potter, featured animals as main characters. A lot of novels have human characters with animal-like characteristics or shape-shifting capabilities. The horror genre loves to use animals. From the undead cat, Church in Pet Sematary, to the cloned dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Fantasy likes to use them as sidekicks, mounts, and even wise teachers, like Baloo and Bageera in The Jungle Book.

We owe a lot of our best works to the animal kingdom. Whether we depict them realistically or turn them into talking magical creatures, if it weren't for animals, we wouldn't have some of the great books, paintings, games, movies, TV shows, and yes, holidays that we have today. So this Groundhog Day, say thanks to the little guy for his contribution to our culture...whether he sees his shadow or not.

Stay Weird.

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