Monthly Archives: June 2011

Talking Science to Romance Novel Writers

A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to give a talk on science and technology to the Nashville Romance Writers of America chapter. Yes, yes, laugh all you want, but romance novels often touch on other genres. I met writers whose books had strong science fiction or suspense elements, and you can bet that they’re interested in science and technology.

I focused my talk on recent technologies and trends that are affecting how we relate to each other. I started with how our sense of privacy is evolving. We’re more willing to share details of our lives than before, and online tools like Twitter and Facebook both encourage that behavior and spread what we say to a much wider audience. Heck, thanks to this blog you know more about my views on parenting than some people who see me multiple hours a day. Much of what we share is innocuous, like what we’re having for lunch, but over time you can learn a lot about someone who’s sharing openly on line.

Now mix that trend with gamification, in which the trappings of games are added to non-game activities. Gamified applications are encouraging us to share even more information online. Foursquare is an excellent example of this. Foursquare lets you use your mobile phone to check into locations like the Five Guys near me. As you check in to places, you earn badges. If you check in at a place more than anyone else, you become the mayor, which encourages other people to check in more there to dethrone you. Being mayor and having badges doesn’t actually net you anything but it doesn’t matter — the net effect is that you’re driven to broadcast your movements to the whole world because the app is exploiting the same psychological quirks that make us pour money into casinos. Ian Bogost has called this trend exploitationware with reason; here, we’re being exploited to share more than we might otherwise do.

Now imagine what happens when two people meet cute. After they get home, do they look up the other person’s profile on Facebook? Do they peruse their Twitter stream? See where they’ve been checking in on Foursquare? All of this raises near endless possibilities for personality-driven conflict and misunderstandings, which serve as fuel for romance novels.

Even when we’re not sharing information with others, our technology is doing that for us. We’ve long been trackable via our cell phones, but to get that information you had to talk to the cell phone company. Now our phones are quietly recording where we’ve been and storing them on the phone. Want to know where your boyfriend or girlfriend have been? You might only need five minutes alone with their phone to find out.

Right now a lot of what we share is manually entered. We upload and tag pictures, identifying the subjects. We write about our day and what we ate. Data mining and improved computer processing power will automate much of that, with the knock-on effect of taking some control out of our hands. Facebook has a giant database of people’s pictures that we’ve given to them and labelled with the name of the people in the pictures. Facebook now uses that information to try to identify people’s faces in new pictures. You don’t have to upload a picture of you drunk at a party; instead, a friend may do so and Facebook will automatically tag it and add it to your feed. Google Goggles draws on Google’s vast database of indexed web pages and pictures to identify items you take a picture of. Researchers are working on apps that, when you take a picture with your smartphone, uses information from your phone and the phones around you to figure out where you are, what you’re doing, and who’s in the photo.

If you put all of this together, you’re much closer to what the science fiction writer Charlie Stross called the lifelog. Imagine recording every word you say and everything you see. Computers translate your speech to text, identify who you’re looking at and what you’re seeing, and index it. Voila, you’ve got a searchable database of your entire life.

Now imagine that information being broadcast. Companies will offer incentives for viewing their products, let alone using them. Social apps will want us sharing our information with our friends and will use the trappings of games to encourage that behavior. The judicial system will use what we record in courts, and employers will want to watch what we do during work hours. A future Google will aggregate all of this information and make much better statistical predictions about how people really behave. Partners can check up on each other. You think we have boundary issues now with Facebook and Twitter? Just you wait.

All of that is going to make how we relate to each other different in weird and somewhat unpredictable ways. And as I said earlier, that’s key to romance novels: how do two people learn about one another and eventually come to fall in love. Now they’ll just do it under the unblinking eye of everyone’s cameras.

To Liza on Her Fourth Birthday

The weekend before your actual birthday we went to Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville to feed the “ducklings and fishies” that fill the park. We bought several loaves of old bread and did our best to make all of the animals hyperglycemic. You squeezed chunks of bread into balls that you would then throw as hard as you could in the general direction of the fish or ducks, only to have them land about six inches in front of you. After that we went to Build-a-Bear, where you rebelled against the company’s name and instead built Fluffy the Bunny. After that was Chick-Fil-A, your favorite restaurant ever. But the best was that, as we drove back home, we spotted people dressed up in Ghostbuster and Stormtrooper outfits in front of a local comic book store. It was free comic book day! You got to shake hands with a Tusken Raider and have your face painted by the Dixie Derby Girls while they compared bruises in a game of one-upsmanship.

Liza posing in front of a small lighthouse

Your more traditional birthday celebrations were spread out over three weeks. On your actual birthday you had donuts at school. Later that week mom and I took you to Red Robin. Two weekends later my parents showed up and took you and your friends Kate, Josh and Jordan to Chuck-E-Cheese. Sadly I was on a business trip and so missed you communing with Chuck and his scary animatronic band.

You talk far more than I ever expected you to. When I was young I talked a lot — completely unlike now — and so your uncle Andrew never got to talk much. Based on that I assumed that you’d have the same experience, since Eli talks slightly more than he breathes. Instead you also talk a lot, so that often our house sounds like we’ve got two radio station DJs competing for our attention. With practice, you’re leaving your cute toddler speech behind. It wasn’t too long ago that you were calling crayons “crayawns” and talking about your favorite restaurant “Phil Sandobal’s”. At one point you heard your mom bemoaning yet another fly buzzing around our kitchen. “There’s our usual house pet, a fly,” she said, which led you to call every fly from then on a “usually fly pet”.

Liza and Uncle Andrew flying a kite

Speaking of flies, you’re still enamored with bugs. This summer the red-eyed 13-year cicadas hatched and our friend Renee brought some over for you to see. You put them in your bug catcher and carried them around the house while petting them. In fact, you have no real sense that some bugs are evil, even those without scary red eyes. Just a few weeks ago you picked up a small sweat bee that stung you. Undaunted, you later picked up a big fuzzy bumblebee “because he wanted to be friends.” Fortunately, most of your bug encounters have gone much better. You’ve played with praying mantises, beetles, cockroaches, and more without being harmed. One of your favorite Christmas presents was the ant farm we got you, even though we couldn’t get the ants for it at the time because it was too cold. The ants finally arrived in April, as I found when I came home from work and you ran to meet me at the door. “Guess what I got! Guess what I got!” you said. “ANTS!”

Liza in pigtails

You have a gift for naming things. There have been endless Needles the beetle, which you delight in finding and showing us at 6:30 in the morning. You’ve added to your stuffed animal menagerie: you now have Lips the fish and Turtle Turtle Not the turtle. Your scooter is Pixie the scooter. One of your many stuffed dogs is Special the dog.

As you’ve grown, so has your imagination. You have two invisible friends, Poodie and Jai Alai. They are electric monsters shaped like dogs who eat bones and are invisible. Sometimes they shoot electricity. There are also ice robots who follow the car and alternate between protecting the car and chasing it. To you, the large electrical towers that dot our landscape are robots, though it’s possible that’s due to your brother’s influence.

Liza jumping waves

This has been a year of extreme weather. In January we had our first real snowstorm since your birth. You got to tromp around in the snow and make snow angels. A month ago a series of tornadoes tore through our community. We spent the afternoon huddled in a hallway filled with quilts and pillows. You and Eli played on iPads and iPhones; your mom and I fretted. The next day, as the extent of the devastation became clear, we ran to Arkansas, where we were promptly hemmed in by floods. At one point we walked from Pop Don’s house to a section of road that was underwater. “Why is there water on the road?” you said, pitching rocks in to see them sink to the asphalt below.

Liza eating cupcakes

Last year I wrote that, if we were lucky, you’d become potty trained without us having to work hard. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. The transition from you wearing diapers to you being potty trained was so smooth that we almost didn’t realize it had happened. Not so with your pacifier, which required a lot of bribing and crossed fingers. “Put them on the table and the binkie fairy will take them away and leave quarters,” we told you. Hint: it wasn’t the binkie fairy, it was me. I put them in the top drawer of my dresser in case you were absolutely unable to go to sleep without a pacifier. I had a whole story about the binkie fairy feeling bad for you if I had to trade them for sleep.

Liza in an 80s hair metal band

You’re still not the greatest sleeper, though your sleep habits have improved noticeably. Your brother sleeps so soundly that I could tie him to the car bumper and drag him around without him waking up, while the sound of moonlight sometimes interrupts your sleep. When we were visiting with my family during Thanksgiving, we put you to sleep in one bed and then moved you to another. The first night when I lifted you and you stayed asleep, I nearly passed out myself. Most nights aren’t that smooth, though. Putting you to bed stimulates your procrastination gland. “I need to go to the baaaaathroom,” you tell us. “There are shadows in my room. Who’s out there? Can I have some water? There’s a monster in my room. Can you cover me up?” The best of your excuses play on our parenting impulses. “I want you to hug me,” you’ll say. When we do, you say, “Now hug me for a while.” Just last night we went in to find that you’d been playing, dressed yourself in your fairy wings, and only then fallen asleep.

Liza holding Elli her stuffed elephant

The most exciting thing you did all year was fall and poke one of your teeth through your upper lip. You got to have stitches, which sent you into hysterics throughout the process. Lest anyone think you were so upset because you’re a frilly little girl, I’ll point out that, two days later, the stitches were bothering you so you went ahead and pulled them out.

Eli is your best friend and dearest enemy. Sometimes you two fight; five minutes later, you’re sad that Eli won’t play with you. Every morning you wake up and go play with him until he pushes you or you hit him, at which point you wake up your mom and me either by complaining about what Eli did or screeching like an angry owl. Screeching is how you let people in neighboring states know that you’re angry. I’m afraid you inherited my temper. If so, I hope you learn to control it sooner than I did.

Liza and Eli hanging upside down

These days are so hot that we’ve been spending a lot of it in friends’ pools. You splash around excitedly, holding onto two pool noodles while you kick. After a while you tire out and want to be carried through the water while clinging tightly to my neck. I treasure those moments because, as excited as I am about your growing independence, it’s still wonderful to have you holding on.

Liza and me