Universal Story Engine

Another view of our morning hike in Malibu.

Will I Be Replaced Soon

A leading edge question about AI is how soon will it replace human thinking and creating. How long, people want to know, before I am replaced by a machine that never complains, doesn’t need breaks, and never expects a raise in pay.

When it comes to interacting with our everyday digital devices, machine thinking has already replaced human thinking. We allow machine intelligence to navigate the road for us, spell check us, choose how we spend our time, and recommend movies and books. How long before it is creating for us? Writing for us? Composing for us? Making paintings?

Maybe longer than you think.

Look at journalism. Bots already write weather reports and report on sports scores. Since 2017, the Associated Press has been using computer vision AI to label incoming photographs so editors can work faster. The system isn’t totally independent, though. It required editors to supervise and train it.

There’s a project in the UK called RADAR that semi-automatically creates news articles. It still needs human help as well. Six journalists give it government data sets and help the program decide what is newsworthy about them. A story about aging could have localized stats included.

We’re at the stage right now where AI can automate only about 15 percent of a reporter’s job and nine percent of an editor’s job. Humans are still ahead of bots when it comes to working with sources, making choices about what goes in and what stays out of a story, and the broad area of guesswork and genius we call creativity.

It’s a different story in generative art and audio. Bots are able to learn how to create visual art if they are trained on existing examples made by humans. And if you’ve played around at all with Garage Band lately, you’ll find that the machine can do a lot of your creative thinking for you, choosing instruments and even genres for you to work in. You don’t need to know your way around a piano to instantly get the value of Garage Band’s arpeggio builder. You can sound like Philip Glass in about a minute.

Machines already help me with my writing when I need to remember things, connect storylines, and remain consistent in my storytelling. I am a devoted user of Scrivener. It’s of great value for me to have a table of contents that updates depending on what stage of writing I’m in. With long-form projects, like the novel I’m working on, I cross-reference facts across all chapters. With short-form projects, like podcasts edits, I use Scrivener to help me divide up interview transcripts into segments so that I can build the storyline.

Planning long-form fiction in the digital world is a pleasure. I still write in notebooks. I like pencils. But there is something about seeing the whole picture that the digital environment delivers that I can’t resist. If you want to go deeper into this, Granthika is an app designed to be your extra brain when working on longform fiction.

Polaroid Stock Tests

I’m working on a project that uses the old SX-70 Polaroid look. If anybody remembers that, please tell me what you remember about it. In past projects, a long time ago, I used SX-70 film in a pinhole camera with a Polaroid back. And I used an SX-70 in a couple of shoots and it was awesome. This is the first time I’ve tried to simulate the look in the digital world.

Today’s walk in Charmlee Park. Usually wildflowers at this time of year but since there’s been no rain we have this landscape instead. Compelling in its own way.

EXT. KITCHEN - DAY Outside, the pandemic rages. Inside, members of the pod prepare the next batch.

Celebrating the very air today. air quality

Have been reading: Intimations by Zadie Smith 📚

Brooklyn is loud. After all those months of 7pm salutes to essential workers, New Yorkers know which pots and pans create max volume and are very well practiced at opening windows and shouting alone for prolonged periods. — James Hamblin on Twitter @jameshamblin

Thanks to all who worked on the campaign. Who did phone banks. Who worked for it. Exhale.

Currently reading: Andrew’s Brain: A Novel by Doctorow, E.L. 📚

Voted Today

Early voting in Los Angeles started this morning. We dropped off our ballots. Others were waiting in a line to cast their vote — the line went down the street. My wife burst into tears after we were done. A mix of relief and apprehension.

The 1619 Project Revisited (via NYT) www.nytimes.com

According to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, a total of 158,690,350 million people are expected to vote out of approximately 239.2 million eligible voters either before or on November 3rd — the highest turnout in a presidential election since 1908.

A conversation about race

At Futurex we’re planning an event around diversity and inclusion called “what if people of color owned their own world?”

It’s a conversation with Jaime Casap who was with Google for 14 years, helping launch the chromebook and Google’s education apps. This is a free event on zoom coming October 28. Sign Up

Currently reading: Capital is Dead by McKenzie Wark 📚

500 Words: Wait, Wut #10

Looking back from 2050

Hello from the future. I am posting this from 2050. I have been completely restored. Thanks to the team! 🙌 They replaced my gut, re-vibed my nerves, resurfaced my heart, brought my hair back and got rid of the gray. Amazing! The only deal I had to make was that my eyes can never leave my phone. No big deal. Everything happens on phones anyway until we have the brain-machine interfaces next year. (Verizon, thanks for picking up 50% of the restoration! You folks are tops!)

I am wearing my containment gear today to celebrate because — guess what? — soon we won’t have to wear containment outside. Yep, the air finally cleared up. Thirty years ago The Guardian reported that just four global corporations were behind more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965. And you know what happened?

People freaked.

Not all at once. It started when climate scientist Michael Mann said, “The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that seven and a half billion people must pay the price – in the form of a degraded planet – so that a couple of dozen polluting interests can continue to make record profits. It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen.”

And people said HELL YEAH. We can do something about this, and we don’t mean incremental stuff, like getting a hybrid car or using a metal water bottle. We can put the few companies doing the most damage out of business.

As you all remember, we didn’t come to that stage right away. It took time, even after another pandemic. (Covid-22? Sheesh. Bad stuff.) After that, there was the Children’s Rebellion. Nobody could look their kids in the eye after the kids started talking about the world we were trying to leave them. The kids’ homework strikes led to kids’ hunger strikes. Then parents had to get involved. Black Lives Matter put climate justice at the top of their program. I mean, they had to, after the air was killing more Black people every week than police.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! This is an optimistic note from the future, after all. I don’t have to tell you how bad it got for a while, but I bet you didn’t know that the nations led by progressive women did a lot better than those led by assholes who interrupted women. It may be hard for some of us to admit all the things that were fixed by women, by people of color, by our own children screaming WAKE UP MOM AND DAD. It’s fair to say that we’ve all learned that wisdom doesn’t just come from the patriarch, from white people. Wisdom is freely available and can be exercised universally.

We can look back now with clarity and see our difficulty was in failing to see the interconnectedness of all things. Some tried, but they were overwhelmed. Others had a go, but they became pedantic like Al Gore. (Sorry, Al, I say it with love. When I ran into you at the restoration center you looked fantastic!)

As President Kendi wrote so many years ago, racism and capitalism are entwined, and together they fuel a system that leads to environmental injustice, that creates health problems that are worse for people of color, that creates racist policies to perpetuate itself. Back then, few saw it with the clarity he did. You may find this paragraph hard to read even now because it is so … interconnected. Hey, just ask any Shaman you meet and they will confirm it is the truth. (Oh, I forgot, you don’t have them yet. They are on every street corner now and a lot of them are outstanding and have payment plans.)

So many things have changed. Amazon was finally forbidden from selling air by the bottle. Elon Musk’s monopoly on space travel was broken. All those problems with freezing people and thawing them out have been solved. Yet some things will never change. You still get your best ideas in the shower.

Editor’s Note: This post closes the cycle on Wait, Wut? A new series will start soon.

500 Words: Wait, Wut #9


When the smoke was thick, the sun was a salmon orb. It stayed an unhealthy pink until the burn from the north blew our way. Then it went dim and seemed like it might go out.

Staring at the sun, and being able to stare because it was a behind a veil of smoke, reminded me we were living in a dystopian family drama following a script that I didn’t like. But the cast was superb! Brave dad ordering supplies, fierce mother goddess overseeing mental and physical health, a genius kid, a cat providing love for food and litter changes, all trapped for months in a containment vessel (well, apartment) while everything burned.

What is happening now is something we will remember for a long time. Our children will divide their days by before and after just as we did after 911. The United States is ranked at number 28 for quality of life among the nations of the world. If my father were alive he would be worried, calling me on Sunday to say, Where is the fire now? Do you have enough work to pay the bills? Can I send you paper towels because we’re ranked 28th now?

Wait, wut? The US is ranked twenty-eighth in the world for quality of life? We’re far behind Norway, Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand.

I take a moment to consider this, my fingers swollen from pressing buttons to order food, disinfectant, and books, the requirements of survival in the containment vessel, and wonder what the hell happened, and how did it happen so fast? I teach a university class filled with students from abroad. They can’t wait to get back to their home countries. America is too dangerous, too polluted, and our government too dysfunctional. What happened?

It’s easy to cultivate a sense of calm! Just think of the good: So many people have moved out of New York, the oysters and honeybees are moving back to the bays and parks. Nature: beaten back by humans but not done yet. There are fewer cars on the road in Los Angeles, so you can see the mountains through air that is clearer than it has been in years. I order books from bookshop.org and Powell’s, not Amazon. There is progress.

Nothing big happens fast because we are subjects to a mighty king: Incrementalism. Things slip slowly, so slowly. 911 was a culmination, not the beginning; it represented years of the Bushes’ business and political dealings with the Saudis going sour slowly, so slowly, years of rot falling through. This thing we’re in now also happened slowly, like the tide receding so slowly that we can’t see the marks it makes in the sand. But they are there.

Anne Helen Peterson, who writes a newsletter called Culture Studies, puts it this way.

The past year has been an exercise in mass compartmentalization: how can you take what’s happening around you, flatten it, then divide it into small enough sections that you can endure it? If you can just get through the summer, you’ll be okay. If you can just get through the week, you’ll be okay. If you can just get through the day, the afternoon, the hour.

She, and others, argue that our civilization is bending toward its end. We order wine using an app while the world’s wheels are coming off, but slowly, so slowly. One wheel gets a little wobbly, we note it, and we keep driving. The radio still works, so we keep listening to music and open the windows to let the wind in. Scenery flows, so we must be going somewhere. Dystopia arrives step by step. As William Gibson had it: the future is already here - it’s just not very evenly distributed.

You can’t keep bending to the new normal. Sometimes you have to break and that means taking a new direction.

Next week’s post will be a dispatch I’ve obtained from the future. Written in 2025, it looks back on where we are now.

I used to think baseball players had the best names but Sinner (tennis) is really good. 🎾

Currently reading: Neuromancer by William F. Gibson 📚

At FutureX we are planning an event around the future of school and work. Check it out. Remote learning may suck now, but how to make it better? Remote learning sucks, explained in a comic - Vox

Op-ed: How Patents Threaten Small Seed Companies

This is a bigger problem than you might think. Small farmers facing pressure from big chem companies. Originally published in Civil Eats civileats.com/2020/09/1…

Adventures in Secure Email

I’ve been trying the various secure email platforms, going through ProtonMail, Tutanota, and Runbox. I’ve had the best experiences with Runbox and have adopted it for my futurex.network domain.

No complaints with ProtonMail. It works. The marketing is a little hype-y. You need your correspondents to also be on ProtonMail or else they have to share a password with you to open the mail. It’s available via a browser and the ProtonMail app is fairly primitive.

Tutanota has a pretty decent desktop app, a good iOS app, and of course works on the web. There is a level of security to it even if your correspondent doesn’t use it. You can easily share a password with a correspondent and keep that password all through your correspondence. This makes it pretty easy to use in semi-secure or totally-secure modes. Tutanota has been the target of some denial of service attracks, lately, so that got me worried.

I’m going with Runbox now because I can use my own domain name and it was pretty easy to set up. The Runbox helpdesk (I was helped by one of the co-founders) walked me through validating the domain, the CNAME records, etc. It’s secure and encrypted, but not at the level of passworded and encrypted communications like the other platforms. It’s a carbon-neutral company. The servers are in Norway. You can lock selected IP addresses from accessing your account. It’s got a spam filter that can learn from your actions. I wanted a server that was outside the US, out of the Google/Apple universe, free of corporate surveillance, and reasonably secure. I’ve found that in Runbox at a reasonable price.

New episode of Future of Food

🎙 Listen

The Chosen Blog

Funny thing. My blogs aren’t often chosen by editors to feature but it happens from time to time. About 7 years ago Wordpress chose to feature a blog I wrote about coffee. A few years ago, the editors at Medium chose to feature a blog I wrote about media and YouTube. Last Friday, the Medium editors discovered a blog I wrote about cooking and decided to feature it. I sure wish I could recognize the pattern here, but since everything I write is good :) I don’t know why some are chosen above the rest.

A Red Cup Agency production. Stay one click ahead and be good to each other.