Fall by Neal Stephenson – Book

When Neal Stephenson takes on a subject he does not fool around, or he does but with purpose. In Fall, Neal Stephenson takes on the small topics of our times like how to fix the internet, immortality, artificial intelligence, and the Singularity. He even gets in a prolonged jab at modern American culture when he takes us with Sophia to Ameristan for a quick and terrifying visit (hint: the border is made up of WalMarts).

Who is Sophia? She’s Dodge’s great niece. Dodge, also known as Richard Forthrast, is the key character in this sprawling novel. One of Dodge’s last acts before entering a clinic for a simple procedure (which proves fatal) is to be distracted by a red leaf that he catches on the palm of his hand before it hits the pavement (Fall). He asks “if we lived on as spirits or were reconstituted as digital simulations” would things still have “quale” (for example) the subjective experience of redness.

Dodge, although his demise is premature, has made legal arrangements to have his brain frozen (a legal dilemma since the cryonics company has folded, but also not a dilemma because Forthrast is a very wealthy man with relatives who love him). So his brain is separated from his body until those at the forefront of using computers to scan brains and preserve them in digital form can progress. Once this is accomplished Dodge awakens in an empty digital simulation, a digital afterlife. But Dodge earned his fortune as the inventor of a popular world-building game called T’Rain. He begins to build a world to give the afterlife form. Back on earth living people can watch Dodge’s simulation unfold (he remembers his name as Egdod)

Dodge’s cohorts and rivals are Corvallis Kawasaki (cohort) and Elmo Shepherd (rival) and, of course his niece Zula, mother of Sophia (loyal family). A fake nuclear incident which leaves many people believing that the town of Moab, Utah was attacked points out some of shortcomings of the internet. “The Internet – what Dodge used to call the Miasma – had just gone completely wrong. Down to the molecular level it was still a hippie grad school project. Like a geodesic dome that a bunch of flower children had assembled from scrap lumber on ground infested with termites and carpenter ants. So rotten that rot was the only thing that was holding it together.”

Our intrepid computer wizards and coders invent a new way to protect an individual’s identity by using their actual “lifeprint”, called a PURDAH (Personal Unseverable Designation for Anonymous Holography). The internet needs to keep expanding to keep Dodge and all the new souls being scanned into the afterlife alive. Then Dodge, creator of the land mass of the afterlife from his Palace to the Knot, decides to see if he can bring forth new souls in the Landform Visualization Utility (LVU). When he is ultimately successful his old rival El (Elmo) Shepherd feels the entire design has been taken in the wrong direction. He decides to end his own life (he has a fatal disease anyway) and get scanned into Dodge’s creation. He ousts Dodge and takes over.

Eventually, of course, all the friends and enemies of Dodge die (or are murdered) (bots are no better than their owners). The population of Earth is declining. Who will be left to make sure the afterlife is supplied with enough energy to continue to exist? How do we get to the Singularity?

It’s a long strange trip (from the Grateful Dead song ‘Truckin’). Neal Stephenson is always amazing and Fall might just be the quintessential gamer fantasy novel/or you might think it is just past weird. As for me, although it lagged in a few parts, it worked. That does seem like one way we could get to the Singularity and leave the Earth to its own devices to recover from humans. On the other hand, I have not signed up for any tech leading to a digital afterlife, and as far as I know, no such tech exists. I don’t think the afterlife looked all that appealing unless you were a member of the ‘Pantheon’. We may find out if books copy life, or if life copies books. Keep your ears open.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – The Verge

SEO – Reducing Creativity to Algorithms?

SEO
or search engine optimization is useful for Google but it should not be a
concern of writers unless you are writing for a business. Many
bloggers just want to contribute to the national or cultural discourse. Different
types of blogs require different sets of SEO criteria. It is easy to see why
Google would like to critique blogs without actually reading them. There are
thousands of blogs and reading is time consuming.
Hiring
panels of readers to take an in-person approach to critiquing blogs would be
quite expensive, although when you look at the net worth of Blogger™, which
derives from its blog authors, such panels probably are financially doable. If
actual inspectors can go out to restaurants to determine quality and
cleanliness and adherence to health rules, it would at least make sense to hire
“inspectors” who would sample blogs on the internet.
It
has not been established that creativity and the quality of something as
abstract as writing can be judged by mathematical formulas and artificial
intelligence (AI). I don’t think the state of the art has reached this point
yet and I am not convinced that it ever will. How could an algorithm find a gem
in any given blog post, that one idea or statement that sets it apart from
others?
Perhaps
a series of Blogger prizes would be more appropriate. Business sites could be
ranked with a system of stars and prizes awarded to best business sites. The
same kinds of prizes could be offered in areas like how-to blogs and opinion
blogs and news blogs and fashion blogs, etc. The number of categories could be
kept small or there could be many categories thus giving more bloggers a chance
at success.
Bloggers
sometimes write about topics that produce hundreds of thousands of search
results. How would a small blogger, even one with something original to add,
ever rise to the top of such a search without some kind of manipulation? I
doubt if even talented SEO-savvy bloggers could appear at the top of the
searches which produce mega results.
Some
SEO rules are not appropriate if you wish to write creatively. If you have to
mention your most important key words in your first sentence and your last
sentence, structural variety goes out the window. Planning ahead to get your
key word/s once in bold, once in italics, and once underlined plays havoc with
literary conventions, e.g. if you write about books, titles are given in bold
print, subtitles or magazine articles in italics. These kinds of structural
requirements interrupt the very kinds of “fresh” writing that the internet
should encourage. 
When writing articles based on internet research it is important
to credit your sources. But I am learning, in my reading about SEO that links
to outside articles are bad and should be used only if surrounded by a “do not
follow” code. I wonder how many bloggers know the proper code for this. Even
after reading the code in my textbook on SEO I don’t have a clue how to use it.
I guess you can give a footnote that is not an actual link but you would have
to do something more time-consuming than copying and pasting URL’s.
I
know that writers write to guidelines all the time. Publishers have guidelines,
magazines have guidelines, grant proposals have guidelines and writers learn to
use these guidelines every day. But these are often guidelines about length,
format, etc, things that do not ruin the flow of the prose. And there is always
the possibility that if the recipient/publisher really likes the content s/he
may overlook the rules.
The
current SEO process leaves out the human factor, and while it is interesting as
sort of a robot experiment, it is unlikely to sort out the best bloggers using
the sorts of inclusions I have seen so far in my little SEO text. Is there a
similar algorithm-based process for photography and other art forms? I doubt
that there is this “untouched by human hand or mind” process for these forms of
art.

I
still feel like I am cheating when I try to deliberately build these robot
signals into my blog. (There is, of course, also the fact that I still don’t
know how to utilize SEO because my computer literacy doesn’t extend this far.)
Bloggers and what they do should be separate from SEO and what Google does with
it. I don’t think bloggers have any business trying to deliberately skew
content to rise in a search engine. Google is experimenting with search engine
optimization at the expense of honest bloggers who spend their time trying to
create gripping content. 
Google needs to humanize their efforts to rank
bloggers. Do I still have to learn this SEO stuff or have I made my point? Well
I very much doubt it Google will change course based on anything I have to say.
Perhaps more people need to offer a point of view about this. However, I do hope
I don’t get “sandboxed”. Yikes!
By Nancy Brisson
This blog post is also available at http://brissioni.com/