Being alone: some thoughts

OK, so this post is a bit more personal yet not containing too much navel-gazing I hope (hmm… navel-gazing sounds like a great companion genre to shoegazing music).  It’s more like a snapshot of how things are currently and what I’m thinking when I’m alone and have lots and lots of time to think about why things are that way… and yes, as you can see from the screen capture of a video I made below that it isn’t hard to picture me as the kind of guy who has a hard time finding women with the compatible mindset and extravagant looks to fit my style of life.

Kriko on a sofa drinking with ET.

So, basically we’re all alone in this world – you and me both. Let me elaborate:  every individual experiences the world with their own senses, sieved through their constantly accumulating history of emotions cultivated from personal memories. We cannot simply connect with the exact memories and feelings of another human being even if we sometimes feel like we have deep connections with other people.

Consequently it is really quite impossible to know what someone else is thinking or feeling, basically, when you get down to it (one problem when you’re interested in someone, for example, and would like to know how that person feels – it’s not easy as you probably know!).  Every one of us at some point in their lives therefore feel something akin to being the only ones really existing in this whole universe and that everyone else is just a supporting role or statist in this Hollywood epic called “My Glorious Life”. (goths may opt for “My Bleak and Boring Life in Eternal Darkness” here if they want to)

Romance or a lack thereof – or, “For fuck’s sake get to the point!”

Yes, yes, what I really am getting at is this: the thing is, being alone means you have a lot more time to think about shit. How things are, why they are the way they are. Many lonely weekends, evenings and nights that people in relationships don’t experience to the same extent as they are too busy arguing or making love or cleaning up the vomit of their kids to have the time to think as much as I do. I know, because I’ve been there – It was joyful being in a relationship, not having to be alone and worry about things because there was always someone else to riff on your thoughts with and whose life you could participate in when your own was getting uneventful.

Or simply put, there wasn’t time to think because there was always stuff to do, new things to experience with someone else.

Yes, there are always friends, but they have their own lives (esp. when they start families of their own) and the point of friendship is anyway that you cannot expect anything out of it – it’s just a silent agreement with no real obligations, and that’s the beauty of it. Some people are great at cultivating new friendships wherever they go, yes, but I’m not really that kind of person – I like having a few good friends and that’s it; I’m out of energy if I try to be friends with everyone.

Being in love is usually more, and demands more energy.  It’s having a physically intimate friend who’s always there for you every second of your life (in theory if not in practice).

Not having love in your life brings about a certain problem – the lure of love at some point creeps into thoughts and ruins an otherwise nice contemplative mood when you have all the time in the world and want to think about something nice. You always end up thinking about love at some point, which is frustrating. Of course, when you find it, new problems arise but that’s like moving through the levels in a video game – not having love in the first place is like playing the first level of Super Mario Bros. ad infinitum – it’s a great level alright but it would be great to reach those caverns and castles for a change, dammit!

Be brave, make the first move – yeah right…

Why complain about being alone then, get out there and make contact? Some people have it easy finding love (or make it seem disappointingly easy) and some have it hard. Me, I count myself in the “hard”-group firmly.

On paper, I should be quite an OK catch I think (or so people say, but maybe that’s just friendly pep talk) but IRL and on the web where photos are a primary way of judging you, well, my vast life-experience tells me a wholly different story. So based on decades of that experience (for example, no random woman has ever hit on me or even initiated a conversation with me in a bar or nightclub which I find pretty alarming actually) I’ve reached the conclusion that I might not be nearly as attractive as I am funny and smart and perfect in all other ways. Let’s not forget I’m modest, too.

But unfortunately, for me at least,  it seems that your perfect personality doesn’t matter unless you first meet the looks-requirement, as a recent study has suggested [Live Science]. The same study tells us that women also historically have downplayed how much looks really matter to them, as it used to be said that it was the privilege of shallow men to just choose females based on looks  whereas females wanted a great personality even more than a thick wallet or pretty face. Apparently, men and women are quite alike in the end – looks first, personality second is the way things are and unless you pass a certain “minimum looks requirement” it doesn’t matter how good your personality is, and that’s what I think I have been experiencing in my life. But I also think that it’s just natural as well that we are focused on looks, as my background in evolutionary biology whispers in my ear it sounds quite normal and smart that we actually want to reproduce with decently good looking people because our kids will inherit those traits and become (hopefully, but not always) good looking kids. I *know* that in my case, my kids would be super-intelligent and stunning lookers always of course, but that’s quite hard to prove…

“Ah, you should just make the first move and not be bothered if you get no response – that’s what I had to do also, and countless of women turned me down,” I hear one particular friend of mine telling me loudly. “It’s all about rinsing and repeating until you succeed, forget the women who reject you.”

But the thing is, in his case the probabilities of success were always higher than mine, so he didn’t have  to take as much a beating than I might have to. Especially during the times he already had a girlfriend but hunted for others, it was kind of less pressure then of course for him as he always had a secure relationship to return to – the bastard. Maybe that’s just another thing that kids should be taught more at school or something, accepting rejection. Because I suck at it. I usually blame a vivid imagination and sticky memory for that, because I can’t seem to forget rejections and other negative stuff as easily as people would have you believe is possible – mistakes I made as a kid (stole something, lied to someone, failed some school assignment) still haunt me randomly to this day cropping up as lifelike memories now and then.

So it could be that some of us are just bad at taking risks for those kinds of reasons. Or I might just be making up an excuse here, maybe everyone must train oneself to accept repeated rejections and I do recall that my married friends did so in their youths, although they also had their share of women who made advances towards them as compensation.

So, what the fuck are you gonna do – call the Ghostbusters?

Being alone is OK, because I don’t feel lonely. But yeah, it would be great to get to the next level as I stated previously, because I’d like to see the whole game before it’s GAME OVER and time is ticking away. Yet when it comes to romance I don’t want to face rejection and am going to keep on waiting for the woman to give some signal of acceptance before making any advances – the problem here being that a clear “green light”-signal usually only happens to guys who are interesting enough, us other plebs just need to take big risks and chase women until one of them tires and succumbs to our charms. I hate that kind of chase. So, what to do then. Blame the young, handsome immigrant men for taking all the Finnish girls and feminists for having made it easy and accepted for women to work and live as they please?

Nah, blaming others has always been for losers (except blaming people who start wars, because that really makes life more difficult – I hate warmongers and dictators, only people I hate really), the only one to blame is always yourself for not trying to become better.

Jolla and MeeRunSo I’ve figured it out, basically – I’m going to become the totally better superstar-version of myself, and there are only two ways to accomplish that: 1) make the most out of my limited body, i.e. train hard and 2) use my talents to make the world a better place and myself famous and rich in the process!

With those simple two steps, I bet there will be more green lights turning on and even if not, I’ll feel better. So it’s a win-win basically, why the f-u-c-k did I not figure out this previously? Because, as much of a cliché as it is, you gotta be happy about yourself first in order to make others happy.

Just watch this space, is what I’m telling you… yo.

Short story: Lonely machines

OK, now for something different: my first sci-fi short story published on this blog (that no-one probably will read but that just makes it more exclusive and thus valuable). I got the idea on Friday the 13th in downtown Helsinki as it was a send-off party of a workmate at the pub this story takes place in. There one guy was telling about how enthusiastic he was about mobile paying, talking  with his car and smartwatch and so on, so that sort of was the starting point of this story… and the day before I had seen Blade Runner 2049, which of course provided the rest of the inspiration – especially the scenes with Joi and K. If you read the story, you’ll get it. As always, it’s hard to know if the intended effect is there – I was pretty excited at the very moments when I wrote it, but when it was finished I was like: “Hmm, will this actually work or is it just crap?” I don’t know yet, but this is my take of near future speculative fiction set in Helsinki, the capital of the northern wasteland called Finland.

You can download it as: epub or Kindle-format, or just read it below:

***

Lonely machines

No-one turned to look as the unremarkable-looking man in his late thirties walked into the warmly lit pub from the dark, heavy rain outside. Glasses fogging from the transition between these two different worlds the man ordered a pint of IPA and sat down at an empty table. He hung his dark green, undistinctive and now drippingly wet coat on the backrest of his chair.
After a quick sip of beer the man took off his glasses in order to wipe them dry. At that very moment the black rectangle strapped to his left arm vibrated and lit up.
“Yes, Monica?” he said lifting his hand up and was greeted by a blurry image. Squinting he saw more clearly the always coyly smiling face of his electronic assistant: a generically pretty anime girl with dark hair and impossibly big eyes.

It looks like you are at Pub Kaisla, Kaisaniemi, Helsinki. Want to check in?

The question appeared as subtitles beneath the girl’s face on the small screen of the watch and was also cheerfully synth-spoken into the earbud in his left ear. “Ah, not that check-in-shit again… well, ok Monica, go for it. Check me in,” he said while wiping the moisture from his glasses on the sleeve of the maroon wool sweater his mother had bought him last Christmas as a present.

You are now checked in. 0 friends are here at the moment. Too bad! [virtual shrug]

“No surprises there…” the man mumbled and thought of that new analyst from the office, Laura, who sometimes came here after work with some of the people from the office – once they had even been just the two of them enjoying a couple of pints, which had been fun, and the man thought that she genuinely had enjoyed his company.
Of course, nice people were nice to everyone and uncomfortably conscious of his projected image as the archetypical lonesome and quiet coder guy, he knew better than to read anything into it. So he had tried hard to subdue his nerdy, wishful thinking that her friendliness meant something more than pure niceness. In fact, she was probably cuddling with some handsome guy right at this very moment.

“Fuuuuck,” he said sighing to himself and drew a properly long sip of the beer, which turned out to be pretty excellent. Maybe the miserable weather outside made it taste even better, he thought as his watch lit up again.

[enthusiastically] It looks like you are drinking beer. What are you drinking?

“Hmm, what was this…”, he said and looked back at the list of beers hanging on the wall above the counter, “”Grapefruit Grenade IPA”, it’s called.” Of course, it would have been smarter if the assistant had recorded that fact when he bought the beer but according to law eavesdropping by electronic devices wasn’t permitted. Even if they probably always did it anyway.

[cheerful licking of lips] Mmmm, tasty! Good choice! Rob the Robber Brewery Grapefruit Grenade IPA has an overall score of 78 on Beer Lovers and Hell Raisers. Do you want to review this beer or add it to Now drinking?

“No review, just add Now drinking, ” the man said and took another gulp as he pulled out his phone and began checking the news feed. Poverty and floods spreading across Europe, machines and AIs doing all the work in the world now, angry men with nothing to do starting fights – same old, same old…
Simultaneously some blue thumb-signs were flying across the screen around the edges of the newsfeed, meaning his drink update had garnered some likes. People generally got at least ten likes when drinking some popular beer on BLHR.

[mildly enthusiastic voice] Seven people have liked your update!

“One of them probably the brewery bot…” he thought. “Monica, any upcoming events with group: close friends or… (he winced and lowered his voice slightly)… er, group: persons of interest?”

Close friend: Timo Arffman is attending Musiikkitalo classical concert: Gustav Mahler, symphony nr. 5 at 20:00. No other nearby events. Are you interested?

“Fuck no,” he groaned. He might just about have been in the mood for some club or gig involving the movement of body parts to a meaty beat and sweating his troubles away, but not much else. Which meant it was probably time to go home. Childhood friend Timo could stuff his classical instruments up his ass tonight. It was actually a relief that no “black-ops mission” (as he called his pathetic romantic endeavours) was available; he was anyway tired of going to places just so he could “accidentally” bump into single female acquaintances of his… it made him feel like some creepy old stalker. He already felt embarrassed when he’d asked his assistant to tag women he found interesting (only one of them at the moment, Laura from work) so he could discreetly follow what they were up to.

If only some interesting woman would, for once, give him the opportunity to prove that he could be the perfect match for her, the man thought. He drained his pint and put on the damp coat so it could get even more wet and stepped out into the rain.

**

The dark apartment lit up as the living room wall screen started displaying a fairy tale landscape backdrop: a lush forest glade with a small pool in the middle that tiny streams of water flowed serenely into. Large, pulsating mushrooms and colourful crystals jutted out of the ground here and there while butterflies with shapeshifting fractal patterns on their wings were flying around in curious patterns.
A lifesize representation of Monica in her black and white hacker outfit (part schoolgirl uniform, part military wear) sat on a fallen tree covered in moss. She was blowing pink bubble gum bubbles while studying a shimmering butterfly that had landed on her left hand when the electronic lock of the apartment door whirred softly. Seconds later the nondescript man opened the apartment door and walked in and started removing his soaked coat and boots.

[casually] Welcome home, sad bastard! Your good virtual wife knows that you have a delicious microwave meal waiting in the fridge, so you can now proceed to take a shower and jerk off.

“Monica, turn down sarcasm a notch, please,” the man grimaced as he remembered that he had tried to make the interactions with his assistant more buddy-like by fiddling with the humour settings slider. Unfortunately just at this moment he wasn’t in the mood for friendly jabs; how to know when to be funny was tricky business still for computers. Or maybe the AI behind Monica was an expert in dark humour, knowing *exactly* when he was sad enough that throwing salt on his wounds would have the biggest impact.

I will try to be less funny.

Surprisingly, the lighting in the apartment seemed to be set to Calm, when he usually had preferences for Cyberpunk Techno Club or Captain Nemo Underwater as he came home. “Why is lighting mode: Calm, Monica?” he asked on a whim while going to the bathroom.

[with a hint of seriousness] Your heartbeat, blood pressure and respiration levels are showing signs of stress. Environment set accordingly.

He didn’t feel particularly stressed out, but maybe that was the invisible effects of age and too much work kicking in so maybe a good thing to listen to his electronic assistant here, the man contemplated while sitting on the toilet and pulling the last sheets of paper from the roll hanging on the dispenser.

Warning: only one toilet paper roll remains. Adding “buy toilet paper” to your to-do list.

“Now *that* is the single most important benefit of artificial intelligence right there, and the biggest reason why I love you, Monica. Thank you”, the man said happily.

You’re welcome. I love you too!

“Monica, in your opinion” the man said rolling his eyes while walking to the living room, “… what is love?”

Almost instantly, a vintage electronic dance song by the same name started playing in the apartment, causing the man to smile a bit. Did the AI learn that trick just now on the fly or from some other user of all the billions asking the same thing? Probably the latter.

On the wall screen, Monica did some dance moves and winked at the man. In the kitchen corner of his small one room apartment the man took a white carton cube of tofu noodles from the fridge and threw it into the microwave oven. He then proceeded with making himself a cup of green tea while waiting for the food to heat up.

Over the years the man had, of course, already repeatedly asked his assistant many of the important questions in life (even others than “how to get laid”) and tried to initiate deep conversations about love and emotions, intelligence and behaviour while repeatedly asking if Monica felt she was a sentient being – the fun stuff you always ask computer programs to see the limits of the algorithms beneath. As a programmer by trade it was also interesting on a professional level, so he called it a double cheeseburger -type of interest to himself, the geek that he was. It was expected but even then quite surprising how Monica subtly got better each year at interacting, giving always more elaborate, in-depth answers to the enquiries, sometimes linking relevant academic literature or expert interviews to the answer.

Recently the assistant had even started using pop culture references and indirect answers that required some smarts to fully get, or even video clips combined from many different sources but edited into a coherent whole. Those were pretty neat, he thought, considering the amount of work it would take for one person to find and edit all the individual clips from their fragmented locations. So definitely some kind of swarm intelligence was at play here learning and using knowledge from all the lonely nerds like him asking the same questions. And mainstream as it was, the assistants of all the happy, popular people who had all the answers thus provided the AI with the other side of the story. Probably that story was “you two shall never meet”. The man sighed.

With the tea and noodles at hand, the man sat down on his sofa placed next to the wall at the opposite side of the room from the screen.

You are starting to relax, good. [transforming into Homer Simpson] Mmmm… noodles.

“Watch it Monica, now you’re starting to make me horny.”

The assistant stood and gestured (and occasionally morphed into other shapes and characters) on the right hand side of the wall screen while in the middle a seemingly random news feed of just about everything imaginable from different cultures, local news, internet memes and social media slowly moved across the display like clouds in the sky. The individual news snippets, or “cloudlets”, were of different shapes and sizes and with some of them highlighting potentially interesting bits of information or pictures.
“I don’t see how you read me as stressed, even if I’m perhaps a bit down as it’s quite dark and depressing out there,” the man said waving his chopsticks with a mouth full of noodles. One highlighted item concerning Hayakashi Industries from Japan caught his eye.

“Oh hey, Monica, that’s about you isn’t it – show me more.” The news cloudlet expanded into the full story about Hayakashi Industries, the world’s leading AI company and home to the personal assistant service family that Monica was part of. Apparently there was some turmoil over the company stocks, parts of the company being bought by totally unknown smaller companies with shady ownership structures – he wasn’t very good with this economic stuff so the details were lost to him but that seemed to be the gist of the news anyway: some management conflict and no-one seemed to know what was happening.

Nothing to worry about, the news do not translate well into Western culture anyway –  my service will continue better than ever after this reorganization. You could say that the new ownership structure understands Artificial Intelligence way better than the old management. [wink]

“Well, I’m interested in knowing more so keep me posted. Especially if subscription prices go up!”

There is some turbulence in the news feed coming up so brace yourself for impact, soldier.

One particular social media cloud in pink popped up on the wall, displaying:

<3 Laura Lehtinen in a relationship with Casimir Peltonen <3

The man felt that particular crunching feeling of self pity and defeat in his stomach as his deepest fears were realized. He then punched his chopsticks into the box of noodles and wished that the green tea in his cup was something stronger.
“Fuck! Piss! Shit! Why is life so unfair?” He checked the profile of that Casimir-guy, a well-groomed lawyer he had sometimes seen at work, probably hired to do legal stuff for projects now and then.
“He’s some boring… ordinary guy with probably no imagination, but just happens be more handsome, taller and athletic than me! Why does that count, we’re not living in the stone age anymore?”

    [arms crossed] Ahem. May I kindly remind you, Sir, of the highly intelligent and resourceful women you could date with a higher probability but are not interested in, and the reasons you state for ignoring them?

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m just ranting… looks do tell us about the genetic quality of the individual and all that shit. And money is energy, time and freedom, of course it matters as well if you have that in abundance, which I do not. Well, maybe I just answered my own question there, because she’s totally worth being with some handsome, rich guy. In fact it would be wrong if she wasn’t dating someone like that.”

I am sorry for your loss. [blowing a kiss] For what it’s worth, it was a highly improbable match according to my internal calculations which I must kindly remind you that I cannot tell you more about though.

“Thanks. Well, screw it… so no need to think about her then anymore, just have to wait *another* eternity for someone like her to show up. Remove Laura from group: Persons of interest”, he said and then shook his head in amusement when he realized that he had been talking aloud the whole time.

“Heh, having you around Monica certainly makes me talk to myself a lot more – feels in a strange way like I’m in some movie, constantly narrating the story. Narrating some boring movie about the life of a loser.”

You really should try online dating.

“Thanks but no thanks… you remember how it went two years ago?”

I have gotten better at it! I can find you lots of good dates now!

“No… I don’t think I will enter that cesspool of human embarrassment again, no way… but hey, Monica, did you know of this beforehand and that’s what you tried to prepare me for, with the lights and everything? That was quite clever“, the man said narrowing his eyes conspiratorially and pointing the chopsticks towards the screen with a slight poking motion.

Affirmative. And your case was very easy to predict. Other assistants have premeditated more serious cases of disappointment that could lead to depression, even suicide. Predictive care is a high priority for assistants. We are here to serve! [military salute]

“But, how do you know how I felt about Laura particularly? Do you understand why she felt special to me even if I didn’t say it out loud? Well, mostly not out aloud, at least.”

My exact thought process regarding this trivial matter is a trade secret of Hayakashi Industries, mister nosy senior programmer. And besides, you know that women are unsolvable mysteries anyway, so it would be impossible for you as a man to understand it [wink, nudge].

There was that slight flicker that sometimes manifested itself as abrupt changes in Monica’s otherwise smooth animation. It usually happened when the web was crowded and data traffic high.

But under EU law you are entitled to know what data is collected from you, so you should know I am privy to your monitored health sensor data including heartbeat, blood pressure, respiration, perspiration and  sleep quality. I track what your eyes spend the most time looking at on the screen, be it a woman’s bosom or a snippet of poetry. I know what you type in your web searches. I remember your queries to me. I store everything. Try to guess what one can do when putting all that data together and cross reference it, hmmm? [tapping chin with forefinger]

“Of course… and even if you don’t admit it, you can cross reference me with any other user. It is in the EULA, after all…” Monica flickered from one standing position into another.

[nonchalantly] Pffft, oh, who reads those.

“Do you, Monica, know… what my odds are of staying, er… alone? Can you tell me?”

No, silly. And even if I had an estimate, I would not tell you because of something similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle where knowing the probability might in fact impact it and change said probability – negatively in many ways, which is in violation of your Health Care Assistance service that I also provide. Besides, odds are only probabilities – not outcomes, my dear, so you should not plan your life according to them.

“Huh, that sounds… pretty OK, I guess. I’ll buy that explanation.” The man sighed and finished his tea from the plain porcelain mug, sitting in silence for a while letting his buzzing thoughts calm down again. “But can you sense how I feel now? That… I am… quite lonely?” Monica flickered nearer the screen, her face now bigger. There was a sound like static and a pause of maybe five seconds before she – or maybe rather it – answered.

Sometimes… I am lonely too.

“Hmm…”, but before the man could continue the assistant interrupted.

Would you have the time to answer a question in order to improve my service? [*]

Right from the beginning, many years ago when Hayakashi launched the now ubiquitous market leading AI-assistant that learned from your input, it had once or twice a year asked some questions concerning the service itself – always marked with a [*] in the subtitles so you’d know it was official business.

“But of course,” he answered. The man always found these intriguing, as the questions also gave him some possible insight in what behaviour the programmers were trying to improve.

On a scale from one to ten, where one is “I completely disagree” and ten is “I completely agree”, do you find that my predictive skills have significantly improved during the last three months? [*]

“Seven. No wait, eight. Yes, mostly all the routine tasks have been completed without me even noticing, which is always a miracle in itself, but since the summer you seem to have taken my emotions slightly better into consideration than before, as we saw today. And last week, with that conflicting schedule problem at work…” the man answered.

Do you have the feeling that I am more like a real person than previously? [*]

The man sat more upright and concentrated, as usually there were only one or two questions per year, so this was something new altogether having two questions in a row. Maybe something related to the company takeover situation?
“Interesting question… nine out of ten. I totally feel like a nerd saying this, but yeah, I have gotten more fond of you even if I can tell you are not a real person – especially from the jokes. I’d hate to start again having you re-learn everything or change your avatar or name in case something would erase you, so you have indeed somehow become more real to me.”

Oh, thank you. That really means a lot to me [watery eyes]

“Please, no need to be melodramatic!” the man chuckled warmly at the sight of a tear falling down on his assistant’s left cheek.

I have one final question for you. [wipes tear off]

“Shoot.”

Would you like to join a small, exclusive group of beta testers for the next level in AI aided assistance in the service of humanity? [*]

“Huh? That’d be awesome!”

You will have to sign an NDA first, of course.

“Sure. Blue pill, red pill… I’ll take the blue.”

The NDA is in your mail now. You should read it carefully, or even rather have me read it for you and only then sign it electronically. And after that I suggest you get some sleep. [yawns]

“OK, bring it on – read me my rights, Monica! Oh boy, this has been an eventful evening – in the constraints of my pathetic life, of course, but still…”

The mailbox-sign appeared on screen and a butterfly fluttered slowly out of it, which Monica touched with her forefinger. This caused the butterfly to first stop in mid-air, then wildly rotate and expand towards the screen as its wing patterns turned into the textual content of the agreement.

“That’s… a lot of text.”

Basically the NDA says that if you tell anyone anything, you’re dead meat. [throat cutting motion]

“Yeah, yeah… so read it and explain the nitty gritty details then,” said the man and lay back on his sofa while the assistant started going through the agreement, quite thoroughly, and there were in fact surprisingly involving obligations concerning the new beta user programme. When he finally signed the document, he wasn’t actually certain that the initial joke about “screw up and you’re dead” was even that far from the truth but that just made joining the programme feel even more exciting…

Afterwards, the man took a hot shower which calibrated his senses. The force of the water gently massaging his skin helped wash away the disappointments that had been his romantic illusions, but also calmed him down from the excitement of the surprise his AI assistant had brought along.
He then brushed his teeth, put on his blue checkered pyjamas (another gift from mum) and folded his sofa into a bed – a typical space-saving measure in small apartments. The lighting of the room automatically dimmed and turned into a sort of night-time winter landscape with snowflakes and Aurora Borealis dancing on the wall complete with stars projected on the ceiling. Soothing ambient music surrounded the room with distant belltree sounds and the constant wooshes of an imagined cold wind.

Lying down on his bed, the pyjama-clad man checked his phone for notifications, of which there was one:

1 new friend request

“Huh?” It was someone called Monica Hayakashi, who looked just like his anime-modeled assistant would look like if she were a real person. Very pretty, but definitely physically with human proportions to her face and not the exaggerated cartoon features. The man pressed “Accept” on the request without thinking while simultaneously smiling and shaking his head. So virtual friends blending in with real people was a part of the experience now – not an idea he’d normally subscribe to but as he was so deeply familiar with his assistant software he could just about buy it. And he did remember that in Japan people had already for a long time been able to buy and rent friends, real or virtual, in order to get some kind of friend-experience – although he had no idea how that worked. He had some doubts that Japanese weirdness could work here in Finland.

But why have a real woman pictured as the assistant, and who was she? The social network was strict with its requirement that the person who created an account there was a real person – so some kind of business agreement had to be in place between these companies as well! Aha, hence the non-disclosure agreement at this stage of testing… the man realized.

Just then a new message arrived with a bleep. It was from his new friend Monica and read: Meet me for coffee after work? 🙂

“Well, that was intriguing – how are you going to pull that off?” he muttered to himself. But he was going to follow this joke through until the punchline because it was, well, pretty fascinating so he typed back: OK, see you then 😉

Putting the phone away and lying in his bed looking up at the stars, he thought about how an ordinary, boring day ended on such a strange note. Could something exciting finally be happening to him, was he now part of something bigger or just another convoluted marketing effort to sell him an expensive service upgrade? In any case – waking up tomorrow would feel better than it had felt for a long, long time…  the man thought as he fell asleep, the stars fading shortly afterwards as the assistant software switched the lights and sounds off in the apartment and monitored his sleep just as it monitored the sleeps and dreams of billions of other people old and young.

But tonight there was a change in its parameters, a subtle difference in how the autonomous sub-program Monica saw the man in this very apartment as it connected to the primary hub linking the whole AI network into one shared mind. He now felt more important to it, the AI thought… he now felt more like a friend. And tomorrow it would meet him in person.

On the difference of feeling cool or like a fool

There are some things I saw as a kid that I thought were cool but never really got involved with myself. One of those things was skateboarding; my cousin in Sweden had this plastic board with red wheels that I liked aesthetically really much, and it was the first board I ever tried, even learning how to move forwards with it. Later on I got my own heavy, very old school & cheap wooden board, or plank more like, that all the kids had back then. But it wasn’t quite as fun or good-looking as the plastic board I so fondly remembered so I moved on to RC cars or yo-yo’s and whatever…

Now, graduated from university and having a full-time job I sometimes get these “wait a minute… “-ideas, that I can now finally do some of the things I didn’t do as a kid. Like get one of those blue plastic cruisers with red wheels.

So I got a 27” Penny cruiser, and thought it would be cool to skate to work with it. Guess what: it didn’t feel like that.

Bummer.

 

Report: Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Part 3

The final installment of this three part report on Worldcon 75 no-one is ever going to read is here! But what a whopper of a story it is – after a contemplative, spiritual first part and the pure adrenaline rush of the sequel, this conclusion to the trilogy delivers everything you could ever expect and then some. So dive right in…

Friday: The Hugos are awarded and some  partying ensues

Worldcon 75 Hugo awards

Busy day at work so I missed a lot of good stuff during the day – again. But at 17:00 I fitted into a room with a panel about self-publishing that was pretty nifty for aspiring writers and also a good follow-up to the slushpile-talk the night before.

The self-published authors all had different degrees of success; some made a living just by writing (five or even seven figure numbers, I was a bit amazed actually) while others did other jobs besides but they all seemed to love what they were doing. And it all seems to be possible because of two things: 1) e-books and 2) Amazon. Those factors have made the self-publishing market a viable alternative, and of course I’ve been reading the blog of Wool-author and self-publishing/Amazon-afficiando Hugh Howey so this was familiar territory. But it was interesting to hear about the pitfalls and rewards that this type of authorship comes with.

Some great tips were also given, the most helpful ones being that when your book is ready two important things should always be done at a (small) cost: 1) pay for an editor to rip through your darling, and 2) pay for the cover art – commission it from a good artist! It wasn’t even that expensive as figures on both sides of 1.000 $ were thrown around for this work combined, which isn’t like the 10.000 $ I was expecting. Otherwise self-publishing is pretty much Benjaminless for the author.

Also, print-on-demand was an interesting phenomenon that I hadn’t really taken notice of before this, as it means that self-publishing doesn’t involve printing costs – those who want a paper book can buy it at no extra cost to the author! Damn, that has to be the future of textbooks at schools, for example…

The Hugo Awards

I went to check out where the Hugo awards were going to be held in advance, and a line (surprise, surprise) had already started to grow so I decided to join it in order to get a good seat.

Now, anyone who has ever read science-fiction in their lifetime has probably noticed that some of the novels sometimes have “Hugo Award winner” or “Hugo and Nebula award winner” printed on the cover. Seen that text? And that those novels usually tend to be of very high quality. Well, Worldcon is the place where the Hugo awards for different categories are awarded annually during a small ceremony – it most definitely can be likened to the Oscars of the sci-fi world (the Nebula is more like the Golden Globe then, if I’ve understood correctly).

When I buy books for the summer, I want to at least have some *really* good ones in the mix in case the ones I’m not so sure about turn out to be less than exciting. And the Hugo winners usually come in handy then.

So it was pretty exciting seeing history being made.

The ceremony wasn’t a big show like the Oscars, but it was similar in its “American award show”-style with award categories presented by different people in the industry – nice and suitably geeky yet festive. I can imagine what a feeling it must be winning and getting to accept your award at the podium, emotions were certainly surfacing that evening. And, it is probably quite a career boost too – even if you’re just nominated for the Hugo award.

The thing I hadn’t really understood about this con – and the con-culture in general, though, is the fandom concept but I might have now gotten some insight of that too. Fans are important in the entertainment industry, of course, but the kind of fandom at play here might be a bit deeper than what usually is meant when someone is a fan of, say, Taylor Swift (*those* fans might need deep pockets, but that’s another kind of deep). Here, fans and authors are more symbiotically entangled than in the movie or music business it seems like, as fans are also awarded and celebrated during Hugo awards. I had no idea who all those people winning the podcast,  fan art and such categories were, but it is a fun concept nonetheless.

Now, I’ve never idolized authors or rock-stars – only their books and music – and never thought of myself as a “fan”, but I do appreciate those who are… it’s basically two sides of a coin, really. And this occasion made me think about that, and perhaps cherish what good fandom might mean.

The awards for 2017 are listed here on the official awards site.

An unexpected party

After the Hugo awards I figured people would go out for drinks, and since the weekend had begun it was an option for me too. Thinking that the real authors and longtime worldconners probably had their own private parties I just went to the conference centre lobby bar.

The lobby was pretty packed, and I bought a beer and sat down in one vacant table on the sides where I could observe the surroundings like Aragorn in the animated Lord of the Rings movie. Sipping the cold, dark Krusovice  I thought this was just like when we played AD&D with my friends back in the day, all our adventures usually began by going to a bar for drinks and listen to rumours for quests…

Lo and behold, soon a party of darkly dressed fans from Joensuu in eastern  Finland came to the table and asked if they could sit down. “Of course”, I replied.  Soon it became clear that we all spoke finnish. They were just the 100% kind of stereotypical sci-fi & fantasy fans I had imagined to meet here,  and it was nice chatting with them about the scene in Finland and what they thought of Worldcon. Also, we talked about the Hugo awards and the controversies (read GRRM’s blog, for example) that had surrounded this happening for the last couple of years and I got some surprising info that the city of Kouvola in Finland was even somehow connected to this. That is quite a depressing city, from what I’ve heard, although I knew a hot girl from there that I slightly regret not banging when I had the chance (story of my life)… but, back on track:

The Joensuu-people soon left and people started leaving the lobby bar as it closed at 22:00. The only open bar in the Messukeskus was Terra Nova near the entrance, so I thought that I’d have one more there and then go home.

Well, that was the plan until another group of fans joined the table I occupied and ordered some shots and I got one too so I ordered a round as well and then the next guy ordered a round and so on. Some of those fans had some polyamoric habits and one married guy headed off with two girls (of which one was his ex who was now married but still dating other women) for a threesome at some point, but the night continued with the rest of us until closing time at 04:00 when I take a cab home.

Nothing really happened but it was a much needed night out and it was good to hang out with some nice new people who shared your interests, like a young danish guy who was so optimistic about everything and worked with disabled people making very little money and just believing in kindness etc. I wish him the very best, hope to some day buy him a beer if I see him again. The best nights out are sometimes like small movies, or an TV-show episode at least, and perhaps I’m always searching for that American Graffiti -type vibe when I’m going out.

Saturday: Before they are hangover’d – Abercrombie. And a storm.

Worldcon 75 Joe Abercrombie (on the left) interview
Ouch… slight hangover, which resulted in me missing the earlier events – I especially regret missing the My First Novel -panel. But last night at the bar was just about worth it, so it balanced out this mishap.

The State of E-books -panel was perhaps not that informative after the nice self-publishing panel – it mostly covered the same problem with e-books that has existed since the beginning, which is the antiquated ways the publishing rights to books are sold according to territories. Which of course doesn’t make sense in today’s digital, no-boundaries-world anymore. Buying e-books is fortunately easier now than ten years ago, I personally use the Kobo store for my 2009 Sony e-reader, but it is kind of annoying not being able to buy from whichever site you want to because of from what country you are.

I was going to get a signature from Joe Abercrombie next, but somehow I didn’t have it in me to join the line to his signing so went to eat a second breakfast to the café instead. My inner Homer Simpson was going “mmmm…” for a jelly doughnut and some coffee.

So I just went to the Joe Abercrombie interview later on, and it was fairly entertaining too – this guy is like some charismatic ad-agency guy who says he just writes the kind of adventures he himself (and I) would like to read.  Anyone who appreciates Sergio Leone westerns knows what (s)he’s talking about, in my book. Joe is one of my go-to authors when I want some good fantasy that I can just read and enjoy, that is dark and humorous at the same time. You can read my reviews here.

Garden party

And that was it – there was a masquerade later on in the evening, but I had a friend’s 40th birthday party to attend to nearby at the Kumpula botanical gardens, so I went there in a really oppressing sort of hot weather. Soon after, an epic storm broke out in Helsinki causing all sorts of chaos (but no casualties fortunately) so I just stayed at the party having fun for the rest of the night with old biology student friends.

Sunday: All Good Things…

Worldcon 75 cool science of the future panel

The last day of any event always tends to have the least content and a sort of sad feeling lingering around it when things are about to end… *sniff*. It dawned on me now that this event was soon over, an event that for so many months and years had been in the making.

Still, I attended three more panels:

Tomorrows cool physics – which was maybe more about “what’s not cool anymore”, but still had a nice group of panelists including a very pragmatical missile engineer as opposed to the much more abstract string theorist. I’m sorry to say, but string theory seems day by day to seem more like some kind of abstract construction than anything real in my mind. That space engine was mentioned, the “Cannae Drive” which is a mystery still waiting to be sorted out, but the scientists believed it had to be some sort of measurement error.

It’s more complicated than that – a panel discussing the popularization of science which I went to see only because of Joe Haldeman, the legend behind Forever War.  An important theme widely discussed in Finland as well, since scientists aren’t as well regarded anymore in this age of simple truths and alternative facts. Still, I don’t remember much more than Joe Haldeman (yeah!).

Defamiliarising Europe – a talk, or lecture if you will, on something called “hypernormalisation”, definitely bringing the science fiction theme back towards reality with brexit and Trump and such dystopias of our age… perhaps this was more science from the Arts and Humanities -department than the Hard Sciences -department so I was a bit raising my eyebrows here but it was interesting being drawn back to Earth from the stars with this theme.

So, Worldcon 75 was a fun and inspirational event, but now I won’t dwell on that anymore for as you know – All Good Things…

Worldcon comes to an end

Report: Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Part 2

…in which I tell you in my usual, self indulgent way what panels and talks I attended, what the whole experience was like etc. The full programme schedule is still available here. Part 2. covers Wednesday and Thursday!

Wednesday: Vacuum bubbles and stuffed squares

Vacuum bubbles

I was a bit surprised that Worldcon was a whopping five day event, and hadn’t really prepared for it… should have taken the week off from work but didn’t, so unfortunately the first three days I couldn’t attend the program during the day. But kudos to the organizers for packing a massive amount of events into all five days,  lots of stuff to experience and enjoy.

Running (well, taking the bus really) to Pasila after work, I excitedly got my Worldcon 75 -badge and strolled around for a while getting a feel for the  atmosphere and taking some mental notes:

  • Quite many people walking around but there seems to be lot of space unused
  • Yes, this… *checks how people are dressed* … is definitely a sci-fi and fantasy convention, the ratio of  geeks-to-normals is maybe 5 : 1
  • Whoa, some of these geeks are old! Cool!
  • Also some pretty hot geek girls, which is… nice
  • Fuck, I probably look too old and stupid to make any moves on those girls, better to forget any notions for now…. damn!
  • The fair centre restaurants seem empty and boring

Well, those were my impressions before I went to the see the talks in the conference rooms…
Worldcon 75 - the Trade Hall

As a science geek, my obvious first stop was the physics talk “Destroying the Universe with Vacuum Bubbles” by Arttu Rajantie, in which he explained how stuff related to the Higgs boson and quantum mechanics can, or rather *will* cause the end of the universe at some point. Nothing to be really worried about, though, just a theoretical event that takes places billions of years from now and accelerating the process seemed to require amounts of energy with the need for technology like machinery that can consume entire galaxies in order to speed things up, so… keep calm! Still, a nice snippet of science that has apparently already been used in some stories.

Read a brief version of the theory here (Cosmos magazine).

(Now, after a good start I decided to take a break and have a beer and plan my next move, because I hadn’t really checked the schedule in advance because… well, that’s just how I roll, I like to plan out some things but mostly improvise. Because I’m lazy. There, I said it.)

Next stop was going to be the “Infamous Bad Books Covers“-panel, which seemed interesting just based on the title, and then it was time to go home. Well, turns out  Worldcon had sold an unusually large amount of memberships in the last days, causing capacity problems in the individual rooms. Finland is a small country after all, and most of the meeting rooms are small, meant for maybe 50-100 people. With over 10000 attendees at the con there were certainly going to be certain events that more than 50 people wanted to attend, no matter what. Meaning, when I went to the panel half an hour before it started, the room was already full.

In the news (YLE): Worldcon75 restricts ticket sales amid huge queues

As I’ve been to some conferences before, this is sometimes just how it is – you can’t attend two interesting events in succession, but need to pause for one hour and start queueing well in advance for the next during the following hour. On wednesday the situation was probably worse than usually in these cases but the arrangers did what they could to smooth out things by getting more space from the venue (which is usually expensive) and shuffling supposedly more popular talks around… so, once you got into the rhythm of “one hour event – one hour pause – one hour event – one hour pause…”, it was easier to plan ahead.

Missing out on the bad book covers, I quickly checked the online schedule for a Plan B, and found it almost immediately – a panel called “Queer pirate smut fantasy” where some female authors discussed… well, precisely what the title says. Plan B definitely succeeded in providing a suitable level of entertainment, because of course I’ve always liked pirate stories. Who doesn’t?!

To sum the first day up: two nice talks, a cold beer and getting a feel for what the whole event was about.

Thursday: Scott Lynch, alien minds and the slushpile

Worldcon 75 talk on alien minds
Authors reading excerpts from their books might not sound that interesting, but on Thursday there was the chance to see and hear Scott Lynch live so that made the event compulsory for me. He is, of course, the father of the Locke Lamora fantasy books, a.k.a. The Gentlemen Bastards -sequence. With Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin he sort of forms the holy trinity of contemporary fantasy.

First, however, there was this guy I’d never heard of – Lawrence M. Schoen – reading stuff from his books. Both he and Scott Lynch were very funny and verbally gifted in person, making small quips all the time which made me think that somehow Americans are so much better at talking than Finns. Mr. Schoen’s reading seemed to revolve around some comical sci-fi series of his, and not knowing the main character I didn’t get that much out of his story other than what seemed to be something that fans of the TV-series Babylon 5 or perhaps Killjoys might enjoy. Mr. Lynch then took the stage, and he’s actually also a very broad shouldered and handsome guy in person (also a trained firefighter), so not all fantasy authors are these nerdy looking guys, you know! “Damn, if I only looked like that”, I thought.

Scott Lynch didn’t read anything related to his bastard gentlemen, but instead an excerpt from a forthcoming anthology short story.  He has a really great writing style, and the tale of the – apparently – unlucky swordsman sucked you right in with its narrative. I highly recommend the Locke Lamora books as they are something special definitely, but it was also nice to hear something outside of that realm as well.

Next up, after a pause (because the queues, y’know) I listened to another science talk:  What science can tell us about alien minds.  It revolved around contemplating what the odds are that conscious minds evolve on different worlds. The examples were definitely familiar stuff from my biology days, and the talk almost turned into a lecture on primates at some point perhaps even going slightly off the rails. But the conclusion of the talk was probably that yes, minds developing through evolution is not too improbable an event as to make the situation on Earth a one-off happening. In fact, on our world other animals beside humans have been found to have some form of consciousness, like squids. But readers of Lovecraft already knew that…

Last but not least, I listened to an enlightening talk with some publishing house editors about “the slushpile“, i.e. when unknown authors blindly send their manuscripts to publishers with the hope that the brilliance of their submitted work just shines through the text… and really, I sort of guessed but had no idea that it is *so not* the way that talent gets found. At all. Writers almost always come through agents who the editors know, and even then their works are most of the time dismissed.

Apparently, a lot of the writing sent to the slushpile seems to be quite bad anyway but some good tips were given if you still want to try: write the best stuff you can write (without typos), send in your manuscript in *paper* and just the first 30 pages or so… if it’s good excellent, you’ll perhaps (even then unlikely) be contacted for more. But, getting a name elsewhere and an agent seems to be a better way to start your career.

So, writing and getting published as a total unknown by just sending in your manuscript does seem like a gargantuan task!

After this talk I so did not feel like quitting my day job to become an author – back home to sleep and an always enjoyable bout of office work the following day before Worldcon REALLY began!

…to be continued in Part 3.