Who I Am And Where To Find Me (May 2012)

April 30th, 2012 | about warren ellis/contact

My name’s Warren Ellis. I write books and comics and articles and other things.  I live in south-east England.  My next novel, GUN MACHINE, is due January 2013 from Mulholland Books.  The film RED 2, sequel to RED, based on the graphic novel I wrote, is due autumn 2013.  A film version of my GRAVEL graphic novels is in active development at Legendary Pictures.  I have author pages at Amazon and Amazon UK.  My most recent original comics work was SVK, produced in partnership with the design & invention unit BERG.

I’m writing a new novel and developing things in film and tv, but am keeping an eye out for interesting things to do on the side.

If you want to contact me about writing for print or web, please contact my agent Lydia Wills – her email’s linked in the righthand menu bar, too. I’m currently looking to write more articles and the like, to help keep me sane during the writing of this novel.

If you need to contact me about anything involving film, tv, games or other things that move and make noises, please contact my agent Angela Cheng Caplan using the link in the righthand menu bar.

Sometimes I speak at conferences, or do other kinds of talks and appearances.  I’ve previously been a columnist for WIRED UK and Reuters.  You can contact me directly about everything else, including interview requests, at my public email address: warrenellis@gmail.com (gets checked daily.)

I have a weeklyish newsletter, MACHINE VISION, which you can sign up for at this link.

@warrenellis on Twitter.

I have an Official Facebook Page.

Username warrenellis on Instagram (for as long as it lasts!) and This Is My Jam.

I keep a notebook at Tumblr.

I occasionally podcast.


Bookmarks for 2012-04-30

April 30th, 2012 | brainjuice


The Manfred Macx Media Diet

April 30th, 2012 | daybook

A not-fully-baked consideration.

Manfred’s on the road again, making strangers rich.

It’s a hot summer Tuesday, and he’s standing in the plaza in front of the Centraal Station with his eyeballs powered up and the sunlight jangling off the canal, motor scooters and kamikaze cyclists whizzing past and tourists chattering on every side. The square smells of water and dirt and hot metal and the fart-laden exhaust fumes of cold catalytic converters; the bells of trams ding in the background, and birds flock overhead. He glances up and grabs a pigeon, crops the shot, and squirts it at his weblog to show he’s arrived. The bandwidth is good here, he realizes; and it’s not just the bandwidth, it’s the whole scene. Amsterdam is making him feel wanted already, even though he’s fresh off the train from Schiphol: He’s infected with the dynamic optimism of another time zone, another city. If the mood holds, someone out there is going to become very rich indeed.

He wonders who it’s going to be.

I re-read Charles Stross’ ACCELERANDO at least once a year.  More often, I’ll return to just the first three chapters once every few months.  Published in 2005, and written in serial form from 1999 to 2004 – and you can grab the whole thing for yourself, free, from this link here – ACCELERANDO is a sprawling (yet massively condensed and concentrated) piece of radical hard sf about the deep computational future.  It’s also about Manfred Macx, “venture altruist,” staying ahead of the memetic curve with an exotic set of information-processing hardware.  Let’s run a bit of that opening again:

He glances up and grabs a pigeon, crops the shot, and squirts it at his weblog to show he’s arrived.

He’s doing that with, essentially, Google Glasses and some wearable computers to beef up their utility.  It’s what I’d do today with a smartphone.  In fact, I last did it on Thursday.  Macx’s kit is based around the glasses.

I got asked a question on Tumblr yesterday — which I’ll get to in a later post – that set me to thinking again about Manfred Macx, who can’t do what he does without processing vast amounts of information each day.  So I’m cropping out the bits of ACCELERANDO (with apologies to Charlie, obviously), to illustrate how this parallel-future character goes about his business, and what a fictional set from 2004 says to us in 2012.

His channels are jabbering away in a corner of his head-up display, throwing compressed infobursts of filtered press releases at him. They compete for his attention, bickering and rudely waving in front of the scenery.

I like to think that this bit is Bruce Sterling at age 70.  That’s a man who processes a lot of press releases.

He’s ignoring the instant messenger boxes, enjoying some low-bandwidth, high-sensation time with his beer and the pigeons, when a woman walks up to him, and says his name: "Manfred Macx?"

I might be the only person I know who doesn’t use IM at all.  That said, this book is pre-Twitter, and I can certainly get a “please RT” vibe off that…

Being a pronoiac meme-broker is a constant burn of future shock – he has to assimilate more than a megabyte of text and several gigs of AV content every day just to stay current.

I think I’ve probably gotten into the concept of agalmics and how it relates to the attention economy before now.  Attention Philanthropy is the takeaway, and how this site mostly works – using whatever profile I have to direct you to works of interest.  How much text do you take in every day?  Is it even possible to quantify it by bytes anymore?

Also: I watch no videoblogs at all.  The only informational video I get is watching Newsnight on the iPad.  I should probably review the field again.

his glasses remind him that he’s six hours behind the moment and urgently needs to catch up.

Do you ever feel like that upon waking?  Six hours behind the moment.  Sleeping took you off the road to the future.

He speed reads a new pop-philosophy tome while he brushes his teeth, then blogs his web throughput to a public annotation server; he’s still too enervated to finish his pre-breakfast routine by posting a morning rant on his storyboard site.

Kick that one around.  It contains the point that he’s not just taking in information, but processing it and excreting more information.  Also, extruding it out on to a public space where people can fiddle with it.  (Of course, Charlie still has comments enabled on his site.  I am less sanguine about that sort of thing.)

The point is crucial.  If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.

What is also happening here, of course, is that he’s doing the work of a public intellectual.  “Critical creativity,” as I think Umberto Eco once put it.  Only without the requirement of space in a newspaper or magazine, of course, which is what the internet brought us.  And, as the net trends towards microblogs and status updates, it is also what we’re taking away from the internet now.

Lying on a bench seat staring up at bridges, he’s got it together enough to file for a couple of new patents, write a diary rant, and digestify chunks of the permanent floating slashdot party for his public site. Fragments of his weblog go to a private subscriber list – the people, corporates, collectives, and bots he currently favors.

I’m reminded of Bruce again, here, and the fact that his Twitter account is locked.  20,000 people are allowed to follow his account – in actual fact, the people, corporates, collectives, and bots he currently favours.

It feels like there’s a lot to unpack in that couple of sentences.  The patents he mentions go into a special “Free Intellect Foundation,” which is a more careful way of basically just flinging a complete idea out into the wild.  Agalmia: gift culture.

 

He sits in a chair, gin and tonic at hand, absorbing the latest market news and grazing his multichannel feeds in parallel. His reputation is up two percent for no obvious reason today, he notices: Odd, that.

Aah, when we thought there’d be a trackable reputation economy.  Cory, what damage you wrought on the poor innocent heads of the socially optimistic.  Charlie himself ended up taking down Klout last year.

In other senses, of course, this does exist.  Checking Likes, Instagram and Tumblr hearts and even +1s.  Your reputation’s only as good as the last piece of content you gave to a social network.  How much time do we spend assimilating content and spitting the tastiest bits back out into the world in order to gain reputation as a gifted regurgitator?  Where we’re adding no more to each piece of information than the identifying DNA in the smear of saliva we leave on it?

The metacortex – a distributed cloud of software agents that surrounds him in netspace, borrowing CPU cycles from convenient processors (such as his robot pet) – is as much a part of Manfred as the society of mind that occupies his skull; his thoughts migrate into it, spawning new agents to research new experiences, and at night, they return to roost and share their knowledge.

I kind of want to mention Weavrs here – I still have to find the time to train the one I spawned last year, but (with all respect to the developers) I doubt I’ll ever be able to make it do what I want.  Intelligent Agents are going to be a pipedream for a while longer, I suspect.  Which makes me sad.  But there’s something here – Weavrs and other software instances like Google Alerts can enact discovery, and bring us information we wouldn’t necessarily have the time or awareness to grab manually.  This makes me want to spawn new sets of Google Alerts.  I only have a couple running right now, for hauntology and radiophonics, which I set up a couple of years back.

"Do I know you?" he asks politely, even as he feels a shock of recognition.

"Amsterdam, three years ago." The woman in the double-breasted suit raises an eyebrow at him, and his social secretary remembers her for him, whispers in his ear.

"Annette from Arianespace marketing?"

Not really in the flow of what I’m trying to talk about here, but: facial recognition software yoked to a contacts system hooked into a well-maintained calendar.

His glasses are on the breakfast bar; he pulls them on and is besieged by an urgent flurry of ideas demanding attention.

Six hours behind the moment again.  But this is (in part) the same experience as picking up a smartphone with notifications enabled.

"What’s life coming to when I can’t cope with the pace of change?" he asks the ceiling plaintively.

Manfred is thirty when he says this.  I’m forty-four.


AWOL

April 26th, 2012 | photography

20120426-120636.jpg

Off to London for Molly Crabapple’s thing at the Groucho. And whisky.


GUEST INFORMANT: Debbie Chachra

April 25th, 2012 | guest informant

Dr Debbie Chachra is a materials scientist: an engineering professor at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering (Deb’s bio at Olin), and a prolific writer.  She also produces one of my favourite tumblrs, Daily Idioms.   Basically, I learn something every time Deb writes anything.  So I asked her to write to you about whatever was on her mind, and she said this:

 

Plasticity has its grand tradition and main stream, which happens to flow by way of du Pont and their famous employee Carothers, known as The Great Synthesist. His classic study of large molecules spanned the decade of the twenties and brought us directly to nylon, which not only is a delight to the fetishist and a convenience to the armed insurgent, but was also, at the time and well within the System, an announcement of Plasticity’s central canon: that chemists were no longer to be at the mercy of Nature. They could decide now what properties they wanted a molecule to have, and then go ahead and build it.
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

I’m a materials scientist by training, and that means that I spend a lot of time thinking about the stuff that makes up our physical environment. How plate glass is an unappreciated marvel, manufactured by floating infinite ribbons of optically-clear glass on canals of molten tin. Or how aluminium went from being a gift for kings to being, literally, disposable with the advent of large-scale electricity generation.

And one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.

The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s Law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. But this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.

But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still account for less than 10% of the world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.

Plastic is more than just water bottles and Tupperware. If you’re indoors, look around. There’s a good bet that much of what’s in your field of view is made of plastic. Paint. Carpeting. Upholstery. The finish on a wood floor. Veneer on furniture. And that’s before you go into your kitchen, or bathroom, and never mind a subway car or a hospital (disposable, sterile medical supplies, anyone?). Plastic is so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible.

In the last century or so, chemists and chemical engineers have done as Pynchon described, and developed thousands of plastics for use in tens of thousands of applications, if not more. That means that we’ll need to find replacements for these oil-based plastics for every one of those uses, probably from previously unconsidered renewable sources. It’ll be a different world.

There’ll likely still be applications that really need petroplastic, so landfills will become goldmines. The characteristic drawback of plastic, its stubborn resistance to degradation (‘this plastic bag will still be around in ten thousand years!’) will become a virtue, as it sits unchanged in anaerobic landfills waiting for us to decide that it’s worth excavating and recycling. And one day we’ll do just that–there’ll come a point when the easy, albeit expensive, way to get a particular combination of properties (formability, degradation resistance, sterilisability) will be to dig up post-consumer plastics and reuse them.

And one day in the future, cool, slick petroplastics will become a repository of warm nostalgia. I like to imagine the Brooklyn-hipsters-of-the-future, on their rooftops, using vodka and bitter almond oil to make artisanal polyethylene.

Thanks to Clive, Tim, Tim, and Jamais for listening to my cocktail-fueled pedantry, and for their insight and feedback.

Thanks, Debbie, for taking the time to do this for me.  You can find her on twitter as @debcha.