Psychopathic A.I.?

So… I’m working on editing the first draft of my flow-of-consciousness cyberpunk novel, as you do, and my ‘day-job’ is working in A.I. (I say ‘day-job’ as being a scientist is very much a part of who I am, not just something that I do until I make it as an author).

And sometimes, you just see something so crazy.

Essentially, to try and raise awareness of problems of training data for A.I., they trained an algorithm with data from the darkest corners of the net, and then compared its ability to caption images with an A.I. trained with more normal data, the result is that they have made an A.I. that would be diagnosed as a psychopath. And they did this to warn us all of the danger of making a psychopathic A.I. by accident (luckily, they did it by design, then!) The link is below, and probably about a 5 minute read…

Click here to read the article

Going further than ‘blockchain for books’!

I attended the London Book Fair this week, largely, I will admit, for the free wine, but it turned out there were many books, authors, editors, publishers there as well, so at least some interesting conversations over the free wine.

The Alliance of Independent Authors - Author Member

And, one of the most interesting ideas I heard about was from Alli (Alli: the alliance of independent authors), an association I am a newly minted member of (and I got a badge and everything –> ). And that idea was blockchain for books.

Essentially, if the concept takes off, it is nothing less than a way to democratize the monetization of the internet!

The idea is to use blockchain technology to keep track of who owns a piece of content (it could be a book, blog post, photograph, anything), and to slice any payment associated with that content and partition it between the content creator(s), hosters, rebloggers and so on. For selling books, if the public get engaged, this is a way to directly sell your books, or parts of books (or blog posts), safely, un-piratably (or rather, piracy can be traced), and get paid immediately (I assume some at Alli are annoyed that Amazon sits on their royalties for a three months before they get paid). It means, that, as a reader, you can start reading someone’s ebook for fractions of pennies, rather than having to pay out $1.99 for the whole lot, and feel warm and glowy that your support is going to the actual writer.

But let’s extrapolate this idea to where it could go. I log on to somewhere, say, Facebook or similar, and I find my friend has posted some fun gifs of kittens. By viewing that content, I would automatically give them a micro- or nano-payment of say, 0.001p, OK. That payment is then split between them, the reblogger/influencer (my friend, in this case), the original artist(s) and the platform (Facebook, in this instance). What does this mean? Well, it means that consuming content on the internet is no longer free at point of source (it’s not free now, we just think we don’t pay, but we do, with computer hardware, electricity bills, phone bills, our personal data and so on). OK. But now the money made by content provision is split so that the people that made it actually get some of the money, rather than it all going to Facebook, as is the case now. And where will this money come from? Either, you pay to browse, or you pay the platform for you to browse, and here you can pay to browse by selling your data and/or enduring advertisements. Or you pay to browse by creating content yourself. But it means if I click on my friend’s photos, they get paid for creating that content, rather than Zuckerberg getting paid for them creating that content (although, in fairness, Facebook would take a cut).

There’s a parallel here with open-source software I think. Why don’t we declare the internet to be a type of commons (I’ll confess, I cannot remember whether it currently is, or not), and share out the money that commons makes? Why are there giant corporations making an absolute killing from data and content that we create for free? And what is this idea, I am torn between it being rather left-wing, with the workers, having already claimed the tools of production, now claiming the rewards of production, or rather right-wing and extreme capitalisation where everyone is a producer and well as a consumer. Still, if I spend time writing a blog-post, say, that entertains or informs someone, has that not created value? I am sure I read somewhere (I think it was Postcapitalsm: A guide to our future but it could have been The Economist) that the GDP of modern societies was undervalued due to the work we give away for free.

Of course, there would have to be some regulation, some way to making sure that this payment remains cheap, and ideally free to the poorest. I don’t like the idea of poor university students having to slave away creating cat gifs to fund access to wikipedia for their (well-researched) essays.

Anyway, I think all Alli was suggesting was using this for books and novellas, not the whole internet. I think there is a link to their white paper here: Block-chain for books!

Up and up: free today and tomorrow

My debut novel, Up and up, is free to download today and tomorrow (14th-15th April).
Click here to download

And it has a new blurb:

What do you do when one of your best friends is a psychopath?

Sebastian Rake needs to escape the suburbs. With only bitter memories and an expulsion notice behind him, he’s going to the city to become someone. But to help a vulnerable woman with a secret, he needs a favour — and in London, favours are never free.

A decade later he is someone, with the penthouse, the money and the blow to prove it. A chance meeting with old friends offers a shot at the one person he didn’t know he lacked. Then, as the impossible happens and the stocks start to fall, a buried secret rises from his past to threaten what’s left. How far will Rake go to stay on the up and up?

Up and up is a modern noir set across the teenage and adult years of a working class man who can’t escape his past. A gritty, pacey suspense novel full of the truth of London-native Erik Sturm’s upbringing.

Reviews: perhaps my readers know more than me…

At one point, my day job was of enough interest that someone actually reported on something I did. This is where I learnt something important, that I believe Hollywood actors say, ‘Never read your own reviews, daaarrling!’ Or at least, I beleive they say, in some sort of thespian drawl, whilst avidly poring over everything written about them or their work in private.
Anyway, so perhaps I shouldn’t read my own reviews. But, as a debut author, with a book to pitch that, to be honest, I am not entirely sure how or where to pitch it, I do read them. In fact, I moved my book from ‘thriller’ to ‘suspense’ on the advice of a review. But here is one review that I got recently:

13 March 2018

A gritty, streetwise novel that follows a group of friends from pavement to penthouse and back again while asking the question: What do you do when one of your best friends is a psychopath?

Switching between 1996 and 2008, we see the characters transform from 20th century teenage wasters plotting their escape from suburbia to grasping, materialistic 21st century adults desperately trying to keep it on the up-and-up – all while dodging almost every type of trouble imaginable.

Firstly, wow! I have pondered nicking some of this review as advertising copy. But, I am a bit unsure about ‘American Psycho in Reverse’. It gives away some of my novel (obviously, now you know there is a psychopath in my novel, and presumably already got that there were City yuppies as well), and I have been unsure as to whether that should be there in the advertising copy or not. And, I am a bit uncomfortable as comparing myself to Bret Easton Ellis, as he writes ‘literature’, possibly even ‘great American literature’. And, although I said this novel was a literary, coming of age novel as I wrote the first chapter, I think it very quickly morphed to gritty crime (I tend to compare my work more to Martina Cole, as she is also willing to write in the swear words and seems familiar with the insides of a London Working Man’s Club). Worse, I’ve not finished reading American Psycho myself. I spent the start impatiently waiting for the gory bits, and when I got to them, I got a bit grossed out to be honest.
The next bit of the review: ‘grasping materialistic adults‘. This caused some thinking. One of my friends who’s read the book told me they thought that Rake was a bit of an arsehole at the start of his story in 2008. And I recently re-read that chapter. We have Rake, noticing that the strippers in a trashy, classy club are being exploited, but, although this stops him from enjoying the experience and leads to him wondering if this was the life they were promised when they left ‘Romania or where-ever‘, it doesn’t encourage him to report the Russian gangsters to a human trafficking helpline, neither does it prevent him from ogling the bar maid. So, yeah, a bit of an arsehole then. (But let’s give Rake his due, attempting to rescue women in peril hasn’t worked out so well for him in the past, and he’s on a bit of a redemption plot-line at this point). I must admit, however, yes, the characters are grasping and materialistic adults. I did wonder if I could write a story where I could persuade the reader to sympathize with a stock-broker during the 2008 crisis (at least, a little bit). And, after their upbringing, is it any wonder that the characters are attracted to money?
The other thing about this review is this question: ‘what do you do when one of your best friends is a psychopath?‘ This is interesting. I could reframe the book copy as being about the relationship between Rake and Cezek (currently, I see it as about Rake, Helene and Cezek). This is the current copy on adverts for the book:

Old friends. A terrible secret. Dare they risk it all to stay on the up and up?

If you like gritty truthiness, compelling characters and gripping suspense, then you’ll love this stunning debut novel from Erik Sturm.

And this is a possible new formula:

What do you do when your best friend is a psychopath?

If you like gritty modern noir, compelling characters and gripping suspense, then you’ll love this stunning debut novel from Erik Sturm.

Both of which, I think has a better hook than ‘No one escapes home undamaged‘, which was my original version.
They are all true to the content of the book. Those that have escaped Plumstead are a bit damaged by their experiences, but that doesn’t really tell you anything about the book, it’s more the conclusion you might draw (the ‘premise’ in book writing terms). The three sentence structure (Old friends. A terrible secret. Dare they risk it all to stay on the up and up?) tells you a bit more, and introduces the colloquialism ‘up and up’, which it occurred to me at some point during the process, not everyone would know. And the question, (What do you do when your best friend is a psychopath?) gives away a plot point, but perhaps a hook-y one. (What would you do? Especially, if you and no one you know can trust the police. Especially, if, because you were dumb enough to call in a favour with them, they have something over you. How can you protect someone else from them, especially if because of your personal guilt, you cannot come clean and explain how you know they’re a psychopath).
So… what have I learnt from this experience? In self-publishing, it is a good idea to do what is called a ‘soft launch’ and put your book out quietly to get some feedback from your first readers and your first reviews, especially if it’s your first time and you are learning how to pitch your book from how people react.
That, and people can spot a psychopath.

Books that inspired me… IT (Stephen King)

I read my first horror novel when I was 11, Coma by Robin Cook, a tattered old paperback found at a holiday home and from there I became a devourer of horror novels. At 13 I found and read Stephen King’s IT, along with many of his other novels (The Stand is my favourite). Like everyone else who went to see the recent movie adaptation, I went back and re-read it. What struck me was how much this book has influenced me, and how bizarrely similar it is to my novel.

Let’s start with the differences. IT is horror, set in a small town in Maine, in the 1950s, following a group of children terrorized by a… thing, a monster, called IT, and then following them as adults in the 1980s as the return to finish off the monster. My novel, is set in Plumstead, London (UK) in 1996 and central London in 2008, and it is a suspense / modern noir, with nothing supernatural. The ages are different, Stephen King’s characters are 11-ish, I think, then 40, mine are 17 then 29. Stephen King’s book is about 2 inches thick, mine is only about half an inch. The style is different. Stephen King writes wonderfully, descriptive prose, mine is more sparse (there is, somewhere, a few first chapters of a novel that I wrote as a teen where I tried to write like Stephen King that will never see the light of day! I am not a deeply descriptive writer.).

Now, the similarities. Both books jump across time-zones, revealing the story. In IT, the adults don’t remember all the details of their childhood, and part of the plot is them figuring out what they did to defeat IT. In Up and up, the characters know what happened, the time jumps reveal the story to the reader.

Both books contain local language (the vernacular). Stephen King’s characters speak how I presume people in small towns in Maine speak (one character is introduced as being able to ‘ayup’ with the best of them). I set out to try and capture the poetry of how people in south-east London actually speak (‘innt?’). Both have swearing, and children/teenagers behaving ‘badly’ (actually, I wouldn’t say either were really behaving badly, just behaving like normal teenagers, really, but in any event, they are not the sort of role models a parent would want for their kids, I think).

Both have the group meeting up again years later to deal with whatever happened when they were kids. And in both the adult world contains adults who are violent and abusive, and that is taken as a normal state of affairs, background flavour, rather than something to fight against as part of the plotline. And, in both books, the characters, when adults, have not achieved the Hollywood-style happy ending (although, if they had, what would spur them in the later time zone part of the story).

Both books have, I think, a ring of veracity to them. Mine is heavily based on my life growing up in London, and I think Stephen King draws heavily on his life growing up in Maine.

Of course, I don’t mean to say I am as good a writer as Stephen King. I am simply bemused as how much this book I read at 13 was internalized and influenced my own fictionalized version of my own coming of age. When I’ve got a paperback version ready to go, I intend to send it to him, with a letter explaining, as some sort of weird 20 year late fan letter. And, I bet it will not be the weirdest fan letter he’s received.