data tech

Data is the New Dirt

You may have heard that “data is the new oil”. You might also sense a bit of marketing hoopla in this phrase. There are a few ways to define “big data” but none of them fits with this analogy. My definition comes from my experience in transforming disparate data sets into business intelligence for the purpose of enabling an organization to accomplish its tasks. The data by itself is useless. Data is the medium from which value is extracted, not the value itself. In this view it’s more accurate to say that data is the new dirt.

It is true that data needs to be transformed just like oil needs to be refined, but the key difference is that oil is a finite resource and data is infinite. The scarcity of oil determines its value. Oil in raw form has value. A barrel of crude is worth about US$60 today (I would’ve guessed much higher!) but raw data is worthless. In fact it’s less than worthless. It cuts into the bottom line.

Imagine you’re a CIO of a big organization. You’re standing in a state-of-the-art data center humming away with endless rows of sleek cabinets packed with the latest server hardware, each hosting tens of thousands of virtual machines running database server software on untold petabytes of storage. The lighting is low and the place pulses with high-tech power. It’s all very bad-ass. But as you walk down the center aisle you approach a wall where there’s a huge LED display with a seven-digit number spinning out of control – an amount representing the net cost in millions of dollars per year spent storing all this data Your gut tightens as you fathom the volumes of data flooding the data center and the costs spinning straight to hell. Those numbers are burning into your retinas as you stare up at the LED. Your face is about to melt off like the Nazis in the climactic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But you make your wisdom saving throw and recover just in time, calling HR and telling them to hire some data professionals now.

The point is it’s not the data that’s valuable; it’s truth, and these days there’s a scarcity of truth. The number of things into which oil can be refined is limited. On the other hand data can be molded into any information that is somewhere on the scale between insanely valuable and totally useless. Transforming data must be a flexible, adaptive process or its value is never realized. Somewhere in this mountain of data are facts, the rarest nuggets in the world.

Admittedly, my professional view spells big data with a little “b”. What I work with is nothing compared to the vast oceans of Big Data processed by Silicon Valley powerhouses and the internet of things. Big Data in this sense may very well be the new oil for a handful of tech companies, but anyone who has flown from Houston to Galveston knows the impact oil refinery can have on the environment. The data centers that store all this data use a lot of juice, the production of which also affects climate. Social Media also outputs a massive amount of social pollution unchecked. Looking at the bigger picture, “Data is the New Oil” can also infer that everyone’s data is valuable and every individual should be getting rich, too. In the future there will be stronger, well-defined data rights to support this, but for now it’s delusional and dangerous thinking, a point made in the excellent blog post, “Data isn’t the new oil, it’s the new CO2,” by Martin Martin Tisné, managing director at Luminate, a philanthropic organization I follow. I plan on writing more about Luminate in the future, as well as Mr. Tisné’s article in the MIT Technology Review, “It’s time for a Bill of Data Rights”.


Best Toilets on Earth

There are many things I love about Japan, and one of them their cleanliness and centuries-old devotion to good hygiene. The Japanese are known for their sensible protocols for staying clean, like no wearing shoes in the house and showering before baths. They also have the best toilets in the world.

When Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his “black ships” into Yokohama harbor in 1852, the level of tech he brought with him must have terrifying to the Japanese, who were still running around in robes, carrying katana and spears. At the time, the Japanese were centuries behind in war tech, but they were centuries ahead of the Westerners when it came to clean.

The comedian Ron White jokes that the most luxurious items in his Beverly Hills home are the Japanese toilets. He got so accustomed to the toilet lid opening as he approached that he defiantly pissed all over traditional toilets when they didn’t obey.

In Japan these “luxury items” are standard in every house, and the motion sensors are the least of their awesome perks. The most beneficial feature is the bidet. Toilet paper only requires a light padding to dry off, and you’re done. No repetitive wiping with course, dry paper. An Indian comedian, Hasan Minhaj, accurately observes that wiping a dirty ass with dry paper is the most ineffective way of cleaning. If you stepped in dog shit would you clean your shoe with a dry cloth? No, you’d run water over it to clean it off. Many cultures have adopted a moist towel approach to wiping, but the Japanese built-in bidet is far superior.

Some of the toilet side-arm control panels can be bewildering. I still don’t know everything our toilets can do.

There are many other wonderful features of the standard Japanese toilet, like UV light to sterilize the toilet bowl after you finish, and warm toilet seats that keep your butt warm on winter mornings. The toilets are more resource-friendly, offering the option for small or large flush. Each toilet has a control panel, either on the arm rest (yes, arm rest) or mounted on the wall. Some of the display panels can be bewildering. There are options to adjust seat warmth, water pressure, nozzle position, energy saving mode, deodorizer, and so on. I still don’t know everything our toilets can do. Japanese toilets are not only the cleanest and most comfortable, they’re healthier for the butt, too. These toilets are a game-changer. After experiencing this beneficial tech, there’s no going back.

social media tech

The Roaring Twenties

On New Year’s Eve 1979, I was eleven, cozy in my pajamas after a nice hot bath. I lay on my belly on the carpet of my grandparents’ living room, filling the pages of a sketch pad with dreams of the new decade to come. The Eighties were going to be kick-ass!

My grandparents lounged in lazy boy chairs and smoked as we watched an episode of M*A*S*H. Later we watched Lou Grant. I know these details now because I still have the sketch pad, and I’m reading the notes. (I just confirmed these shows were broadcast on the day in question, although there’s no mention of what we watched in the interim one hour between the shows.)

I didn’t take notes of every evening, but it was the first time I was conscious of entering a new decade. I drew spaceships and electric cars (the kind of stuff Elon Musk works on now, in real life), and other beneficial tech that would no doubt improve our lives in the future. Technology was exciting and cool. It would have been impossible to imagine an uncontrolled psychological experiment performed on the human race for the purpose of selling products and ideas, let alone draw it in my sketch pad. The inability to conceive of such a thing then is why many people were slow to understand the negative impact of social media today.

(I didn’t intend for this to be another post about the negative impact of social media, but it’s useful as a way of further defining what I mean by beneficial tech.)

Flash back to the scene of me watching TV with my grandparents on the last day of 1979. This was the golden era of TV, when there were just three competing networks who were in business to sell advertising. At the start of each show there was a commercial break, and another cluster of ads every fifteen minutes thereafter, with a few national ads and maybe a couple slots for local stuff. There were probably twenty or thirty ads aired during the time my grandparents and I watched TV that night, but nobody was paying attention. Commercials were for socializing, grabbing a bowl of ice cream, or taking a bathroom break. TV shows like M*A*S*H were not created for the purpose of selling things. Their entertainment value was incidental to the advertisement business that supported the platform on which they aired.

On the surface it looks like the content of Facebook is also incidental to its ads. But the amount of content is infinite, and “the algorithm” chooses what each individual sees. Put back in the TV age, this would be like everyone watching a slightly different version of the same show. At some point during an episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye would pause, look directly at me, and wink, holding the toy I hadn’t received for Christmas. “Still want one of these?” On an emotional level that’s how Facebook works.

Except it takes time for this magic to do its thing. The tech needs to learn every nuance of our behavior and moods. This requires hundreds of hours of our attention. In order to harvest the maximum amount of attention, social media companies employ armies of psychologists and developers to engineer addiction. The idea is to silo people into easily-marketable groups, and the best way to do this is to get them hooked and incite emotional reactions. It just so happens the easiest human emotions to tweak are all negative: anger, rage, hatred, and fear. Multiply this effect by billions of tweaked individuals and the result is a world of angry, depressed, divided masses who view the people on the other side of their engineered, bipolar worldview as sub-human.

This sucks.

It doubly sucks because on almost every measurable level we’re living in the best time in all of human history.

What to do? It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t use social media, because everyone else does. Anyone who abstains from the madness is breathing in toxic fumes, second-hand-smoke.

My grandparents were cool, not because the commercial brainwashing of the day had convinced me that smoking was cool (it very likely had), but because they were fun people and I loved them. They loved me too, and would’ve never intended to do me harm; but one side-effect of hanging out with them was a continual lungful of second-hand smoke. At the time, I didn’t mind the smoke. Nobody did. It was 1979.

Is social media even less beneficial than cigarettes? On the micro level there are no doubt positive things that happen on Facebook and other platforms, but it’s possible to argue this point. Cigarettes were intentionally addictive and non-smokers breathed in the harmful byproduct. Forty years later, a technology called social media is intentionally addictive and non-users experience harmful byproducts. But the difference is that social media is also intentionally toxic. Cigarettes were incidentally toxic. If there had been a way for tobacco companies to engineer their product so that it didn’t kill their customers, then I’m sure they would’ve done it. Social media companies are colossal advertising platforms that purposely divide people, and mass-produce negativity for the purpose of selling products and ideas.

Should social media be regulated like tobacco? Maybe, but we’d need new laws. Anti-trust litigation isn’t the right tool. Alphabet and Facebook are indeed monopolies. (Their combined market capitalization is $1.3 trillion dollars as of last year, and no one else is even close.) But monopoly is not the problem. The problem is that social media companies are wielding unchecked control over a dangerous technology that does measurable harm to society. How is this not the most alarming thing in the world? Would it be beneficial to humanity if this market became more competitive through government anti-trust intervention? I don’t think so. Instead, the ad-based business model needs to go.

Social media should be sold as a premier service. In the past thirty years companies like HBO and Netflix obliterated the ad-based model of the big three TV networks. It turned out there was a big market for quality entertainment. The result was Peak TV. Shows like M*A*S*H were great, but any given show on Netflix today would be the best show on TV forty years ago. This further defines what I mean by beneficial tech.

A hundred years from now historians will look back on this time and see early social media as humanity’s first big mistake with AI. The technology is at a nascent stage. It can be a bridge to something better down the road.

So what about my dreams of a kick-ass decade? The Eighties turned out to be filled with a mix of miracles and personal tragedies, like any decade for anyone. There was also an explosion of fantastic entertainment and exciting change. I’m optimistic about the upcoming decade.

Let the Roaring Twenties begin!

social media tech

Why I Avoid Social Media

Technology is a beautiful thing. For the past twenty-plus years I’ve been striving to make tech work for us, because that’s the way it should be. Tech should free up more of our time, and give us more agency over our lives. Aside from being beneficial, it should also be cool. I would never suggest that someone stop using a tool that meets the above criteria, but I think we can all agree that in the past decade social media has fallen short of all three.

By social media I mostly mean “Goobook,” though other apps like Twitter and Reddit can serve up their own versions of hell. I admired (but did not use) the original Instagram before it was more tightly integrated into its parent company’s advertising machine. I don’t know much about the other apps. I just say Goobook for short because it sounds funny and makes me smile.

In the big picture Goobook is probably in some rough period of early evolution, just as the mid-nineteenth century industrial revolution had its share of inhumane bumps in the road. One day the current tech will lead to something that serves us instead of the other way around. But to get there, I believe the ad-based model must go.

Time Is a Non-Renewable Resource

The most basic reason I don’t use Goobook or any of the other apps is because there are an infinite number of better things I’d rather do with my limited time on this earth. For example, nothing. Most people probably don’t remember, but doing nothing can be pretty cool. Some call it meditation. It works wonders for mental health.

In an ad-based business model social media uses machine intelligence and slot machine psychology to get us hooked. Like casinos, it wants the maximum amount of our time. It could care less about our mental health.

Netflix, as an example of the paid model, has some binge-worthy content, but it doesn’t care how much I watch as long as I pay my eight bucks per month. I’m happy to pay it for the value it provides.
Tricking someone to give up their time is not cool, considering it’s the only resource we can’t get back. In Michael Ende’s classic book “Momo,” a homeless girl with special talents fights back against time thieves, the sinister “men in grey”. Written in the Mad Men era, it’s a critique of consumerism and stress, but it might as well be about what’s happening today – except one hundred fold.

Please Take My Money Instead

Goobook has bragged to its customers (its customers are advertisers, grandpa) that it can make an active user feel any emotion and she won’t know why. We like to think we’re rational beings, but emotions rule the world. Emotions are also how advertisers sell things, and negative emotions work best. Nobody buys stuff they don’t need because they’re happy and self-assured. Positivity is the arch enemy of advertising, and Goobook is the most powerful ad platform ever unleashed on the world.

How does this digital trickery work? From a tech point of view it’s fascinating stuff. From a human point of view, not so much. Machine intelligence records micro movements and reactions of individual users over time. The machine cultivates a behavioral profile, until it knows exactly which of our emotional buttons to push. Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Goobook, has some truly eye-popping examples of how “technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities”. Fortunately for us Tristan is now co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, and spokesperson for the Time Well Spent movement, making him one of the most awesome human beings on Earth.

Goobook also likes to brag that their so-called services will always be “free”. Any complete, truthful disclosure of true intent would be hilarious. Imagine if new users saw this upon signing up:

“We’re not going to lie to you. We employ an army of psychologists and engineers who design revolutionary technology for the sole purpose of getting you addicted to our app. Given enough time, they will succeed. But don’t worry, we’ll never charge you a cent!”

Well I should fucking hope not. In fact I’m thinking Goobook should pay me and everyone else for being lab rats in this uncontrolled psychological experiment they’re performing on the entire world. Let’s take a quick look at the results so far. Since Goobook really took off ten years ago we’ve seen an astonishing rise in uncool.

Cavalier attitudes toward privacy led to the undermining of democracy (Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, the breakup of the European Union, and the rise of nationalism everywhere).

Journalism got monopolized. (All journalists are now “sharecroppers on the Facebook farm,” according to WIRED magazine), subject to censorship based on whatever its users want to see, and thanks to its negative feedback loop this means Disaster, Tragedy and Politics (which, let’s face it, is all the same category these days).

This has led to general grumpiness and negativity despite the fact that nearly every quality of life statistic has improved over the past forty years. The preceding statement is factual, but just the fact that we doubt it for a second is proof that the concept of truth has also taken a hit.

Binary “thumbs up / thumbs down” thinking has polarized society and has disabled our ability to think deeply about complex and nuanced issues – at a time when we need this ability the most.

There’s also a lot of growing interest and debate over the possible role of Goobook in the uptick of U.S. opioid use and suicide rates in the past decade, especially among teens. I was skeptical when I first saw an article on this topic, as I thought it could be that instead of Goobook causing depression, depressed people were drawn to Goobook. And Goobook-bashing had become so trendy that I wanted to keep an open mind. At first the accusation reminded me of my teenage years growing up in the U.S. Bible Belt, when there was a lot of hysteria over the supposed evils of Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal. (I was a big fan of both, by the way, and look how well I turned out!) But now, compared to apps whose stated business intent is to systematically and subliminally manipulate the thoughts and emotions of billions of people using AI-driven addiction techniques, music and role playing games seem absurdly tame. Considering social media is most effective (for its customers) when its users are isolated and bummed out – and these happen to be the exact conditions under which drug addiction and suicide happen – it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a link.

The New Normal

Somehow we’ve accepted all this as totally normal, when just a few decades ago it would’ve seemed like dystopia on high. In 1984 I was in junior high school, and appropriately enough George Orwell’s famous book was required reading that year. Imagine going back to the 80’s and explaining to me that thirty-five years in the future there would be a system used by everyone, whose stated purpose was to addict people, and to tweak their emotions over time.

My teenage eyes would go wide. “Dude… The Ministry of Truth actually exists in the future? The government has taken control?”

His naiveté stuns me for a second but then I laugh, thinking of the recent congressional hearings with Goobook. “No, in the future the government is dumber and weaker than ever. Tech moves fast. Government is slow.”

He’s confused for a moment but then recovers. “So it’s like Tyrell Corporation in the movie Blade Runner?”

“Ah, good reference. Something like that. Except the tech we have in 2019 is much less cool. That, and the big tech companies of the future all have headquarters in beautiful, cheery places, where all the employees believe they’re making the world a better place.”

“Why would they believe that?”

I ponder this for a moment, thinking of something that would make sense to him. “You know all those people in your school who think pep rallies are awesome?”

The teenage me nods knowingly, but then shakes his head in dismay. “How did all this happen?”

“It happened over a long period of time. People just went along for the ride and then they were hooked. Remember those freaky propaganda films on drug addiction they made you watch last year? It turns out there’s a science to addiction, and the people who implemented Goobook have got it all figured out. Like any addiction, it starts as a fun escape.”

“I’d never fall for that shit.”

“Don’t worry, you won’t. But everyone else will, so it doesn’t matter. It becomes the new normal, and that’s how the world around you will change.”

“Can anything be done?”

“Yes. Fortunately there are ways out.”

I mentioned Tristan Harris at the Center for Humane Technology, who at the moment would get my vote for one of the most awesome guys on Earth. There are others, a rising wave of smart thinkers fighting this thing like Momo fighting the men in grey. One way out seems to be paid subscription, because then the app would be serving us instead of us serving the machine. Goobook wouldn’t make as much money, at least not at first. But the paid model is sustainable and better for everyone in the long run. It’s a little like the early industrial days when companies went unchecked and polluted the environment in their quest to maximize profit at all cost. Goobook is doing the same thing now, except they’re polluting our hearts and minds. We need more awareness on this issue to get it cleaned up. I’ll do my part.

Other champions of this effort are: Roger McNamee (ZUCKED)
Douglas Rushkoff (TEAM HUMAN)
Jaron Lanier (Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now)


Bill Gates Beneficial Tech

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continues to lead incredible efforts to raise quality of life for poor countries, promoting and implementing technologies in medicine, education, and sanitation. There’s even a revolutionary new, low-cost toilet that separates solid and liquid waste material for recycling. I’m eating breakfast as I read this, so I skip to some of the cleaner breakthrough technologies.

Gates predicts that an executive assistant AI will be available in the next five to ten years, a super-smart Cortana or Siri. I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t want an AI backed by a huge Tech giant whose primary motive is to subtly manipulate my thought patterns for the purpose of selling me shit (ideas or products), not to mention the privacy and security issues. It seems like Hacker News publishes a story every week about some creepy vulnerability in baby cams and other home devices. It’s going to be very difficult for any Big Tech operation to earn back trust after Snowden and Cambridge Analytica. However it would be so cool (and beneficial) to have a private, trustworthy AI to help with mundane tasks. I’m thinking of SARA, the private AI in my novel TOKYO GREEN. Is there any chance we could get a private AI? How would the technology get smart without having the ulterior motive to persuade, sell to, and control people? These questions demand attention, but Gideon doesn’t go there. I’m marking digital personal assistants as a “maybe” on the beneficial scale.

The most encouraging points of the interview are those about several big-picture efforts to improve the environment and fight back against climate change. Gates has dumped billions into an investment group called Breakthrough Energy. I take a break from the interview and check out their web site. It looks fantastic. “Reliable, Affordable Energy for the World – Investing in a Carbonless Future”. I make a note to follow this blog in the future, along with Gates Notes. Gates is big on nuclear power and so am I. Turning back to the interview, there’s a statement by Gates worth quoting:

“If we didn’t have climate change the quest to get broad acceptance of nuclear power wouldn’t be a priority for me. The general public attitude towards nuclear is a real challenge.”

Bill Gates

Yeah, I totally agree. Nuclear power is the clear answer to the world’s long-term environmental and energy needs. It’s too bad that anti-nuke became part of the environmental movement’s dogma back in the hippie days. Having lived within a few hundred miles of the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, I know first-hand the gripping fear and hysteria that the mere mention of “radiation” brings with it, and how these emotions are stoked and distorted to further a political end.

Gates reminds us that clean energy is good, but not nearly enough. Only about one-quarter of the world’s carbon emissions come from producing electricity. Another quarter comes from the harvesting of animal flesh (cattle). This must hit home with Gates, as he loves eating hamburger. For the world this will only become more of an issue as developing countries become more nutritionally diverse.

“All of that new consumption translates into tangible improvements in people’s lives. It is good for the world overall—but it will be very bad for the climate, unless we find ways to do it without adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”

Rather than quit eating hamburger or shaming people into eating less meat, Gates picks post-livestock meat as one of the most important emerging technologies going into the new decade. This tech is cool, beneficial, but also expensive. The challenges are in bringing down the costs. I make a note to find out where we are on lab-grown (post-livestock, they call it) meat, and do a quick search. It looks like Gates (along with Richard Branson and Cargill, Inc., a huge agricultural company) invested a lot of money in this stuff.

“Memphis Meats, a post-livestock meat producer, received a new $17 million donation from a slew of major American industrial powerhouses…”, August 2017

I’ve also heard of Beyond Meat, but haven’t tried it. I imagine it’s tough to find in Japan. Is Cargill investing in this stuff because they see it as the future, or because they want to maintain control of the industry?

The two big winners in this interview are nuclear power and post-livestock meat.

There was a time in the late nineties, around the time of Microsoft’s anti-trust suit, when my impression of Gates was not so good. Now, given his philanthropic impact, he’s a total bad-ass. Gates is my personal prototype for being a beneficial person. I haven’t watched too much TV lately, but the Netflix special “Inside Bill’s Brain” is on my list of things to see.

The Interview posted on MIT Technology Review

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Breakthrough Energy

Gates Notes


Beneficial Tech

It’s a bright and sunny morning here in Greater Tokyo Metro on the first day of a new decade. My family and I are happy and healthy and I’m conscious of how fortunate we are. I can’t think of a better time to start a project that will allow me to give back to the world.

My goal with this blog is to promote, understand, and use beneficial tech. I’ve been a problem-solver and solution-provider in Tech for the past twenty-five years, making tech work for us so that we don’t have to work for it. My work has been beneficial to a variety of organizations, but it would be a stretch to say that I made a positive impact on the greater good. This blog is a tale of my own personal journey toward putting my skills to better use. So this blog is about being beneficial with a capital “B,” as in better quality of life. Beneficial to whom? Everyone. That’s right, baby – all of us, the human race.

How do we measure whether tech is beneficial? I’m tempted to dive deep into philosophical quandaries about what’s beneficial and what’s not. It’s possible for seemingly negative tech to have a far-reaching positive impact. For example, what if civilization is driven by some collective hive mind that we can’t comprehend, driving us to create tech that does short-term harm to quality of life while leading to a major metamorphosis of our species in the distant future? Think of a caterpillar that builds his own coffin (cocoon), only to transform into a butterfly. Think of the charcoal skies of the early industrial age and how this would pave the road to a better overall quality of life for the human race. Even something as potentially horrific as nuclear weapons has had a positive effect, having reduced worldwide conflicts with the power of deterrence. In general I remain optimistic about tech, but resist wishful thinking and the status quo.

There’s the old trope of humanity versus technology. Some would say that “beneficial tech” is an oxymoronic term. I’d say such an assertion is moronic. It can be fun to entertain the Unibomber’s no-tech utopia, but there’s no going back. All we can do is form a solid idea about what it means to live a good life, and then focus on that vision during what’s sure to be a bumpy ride.

For now I have a few starting definitions for beneficial tech, though I expect this to expand and retract as time goes along.

  1. Tech that elevates all of us up the hierarchy of needs.
    I’m referring to Maslow’s theory of human motivation. It starts with meeting physiological needs, and moves up the pyramid to safety, belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization. These things mean different things to different people and cultures, but it’s a good start.
  2. Tech that protects and cleans (or at least doesn’t harm!) our natural environment, including space.
  3. Tech that allows for a more creative, productive, and humane work experiences. What is work these days, anyway?
  4. Tech that protects Tech (hackers & cybersecurity).
  5. Indoor gardening, DIY endeavors, and community projects that encourage a more connected, cost-efficient way of life. At the moment I don’t know anything about indoor gardening, but this idea is a key part of my concept of better living, and I intend to learn as much as I can.
  6. Storytelling with data. Wake up! This is important. Okay, maybe not to most people, but for me this is where the rubber hits the road. Big data (or really any size data) is the main thrust of what I do. I’ve heard “Big Data is the new oil,” and even “Data Science is the sexiest career”. Neither of these statements make any sense to me, but there’s no doubt that data can add real power to decision making and efforts to improve the world.
  7. Space! The final frontier. I’d like to see some real progress with space exploration in my lifetime. Space unifies us as a species. It feels like a natural destination, and it’s just flat-out cool.
    To be clear, “beneficial” can be cool, but not all cool tech is beneficial. I’ll explore this concept, too.

The Making of Tokyo Green

TOKYO GREEN was published in the spring of 2019. It was about three years in the making, though in pure writing time it took fourteen months. A few friends asked why (and how??) I wrote my first novel during a time when I should have had zero time for anything outside of family and career. Here’s the official story for anyone else who’s interested. It might also benefit other new writers who want to embark on this crazy journey, too.

TOKYO GREEN: The Concept

It should go without saying that my primary motivation for writing anything is psychological need. I just feel better when I write. As a teenager I spent summer breaks filling notebooks with tales of imaginary worlds, but when it came time to choose an economic path in life I lacked courage and drive. I took the road most traveled, which did not involve any creativity at all.

Twenty years later there was hell to pay for my lack of courage. Midlife hit me hard. It felt like everything I had done professionally up until that time wasn’t worth a thing. No surprise, this was around the time I began journaling and writing short stories in an effort to keep the muse off my back.

In the summer of 2016 my wife and I took the kids to a small family reunion in Colorado. Our youngest was taking his first steps. For a few years I had been writing every day and learning from my mistakes, so by this time I had a few ideas for a novel kicking around. On this trip I decided to go with Tomo’s story, as he and I had a lot in common when it came to work. I was also fascinated with the story’s starting question: what would the world be like in thirty years? Looking at it another way I was asking the biggest question on any parent’s mind: “how can I prepare my kids for the future, with all the big-picture changes that are sure to come?” I started reading books and articles on the topic, and even corresponded with an actual futurist on a few thoughts.

Another motivator was my mild obsession with the idea that the subgenre of dystopia was dangerous for the human race. The future was a product of what we imagined it to be, so why not imagine something kick-ass? This was the theme of one of my favorite stories, Ray Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector,” in which a scientist lies to the world about a better tomorrow in order to save the world from itself. In reality the world was much better off now than when Bradbury wrote the story, but most people perceived it to be going to hell. This mass delusion was complicated by the means of distributing information media in the modern age. I did some more research, and read several non-fiction books by people who were trying to turn the tide of this bizarre phenomenon, well-known titles like Factfulness and Enlightenment Now.

Fueled with these ideas, I wanted to contribute my part (however small) to set the record straight. For sure there would be big problems in the future, but there was no reason to assume civilization would collapse. It was no accident the main character of Tokyo Green is the same age as my oldest son. I wanted to imagine a future for our children. Otherwise what was the point?

TOKYO GREEN: The Manuscript

Back in Japan, I resumed an online course by Holly Lisle called “How to Think Sideways,” the first ten weeks of which was a holistic approach to discovering one’s own true story that needed to be told. I probably had twenty thousand words of notes, world-building and character sketches before the real writing even began. I pounded out the first scene in August of 2016, and maintained a good pace of about 1,000 words per day for several months. I did most of the writing in the ungodly morning hours, and during my commute on the train.

Every November there’s something called “National Novel Writing Month” (NANO-WRIMO) in which writers from all over the world push themselves and friends to bust out 50,000 words (of anything) in thirty days. It seemed like a good idea, so I tried it, and by the end of the month I did indeed have an additional 50,000 words. The only problem was that most of it was crap. I know this event works well for many writers, but I won’t do it again. I have no problem motivating myself to work, and with this project I had already established a good, balanced pace of writing before the NANO-WRIMO month began. With the slight uptick in speed the story stepped out of tune. This produced some unexpected “Wild Bill” moments, senseless tangents, and subplot dead-ends.

Earlier I mentioned the muse. By this time he and I had become close. This might sound romantic to the uninitiated, but I can assure you it was not. As a left-brained techie I used to roll my eyes when people talked about their so-called muse. (The word still sounds too quaint, but there’s no better fit.) Suffice to say my muse was not quaint. I had kept him locked up in a closet for most of my life. Now he was a mean bastard who rode into town on a Harley and fought dirty when drunk. And dammit he was always drunk. He banged on the door any time of night and did not care if he woke the baby up. He blew an air-horn in my ear at 2 AM just because he had crazy new ideas. What did it matter if I had to get up in a few hours to go to work? I’m sure anyone who has been involved in a big creative endeavor can relate.

By mid-December, I had a 130,000-word beast of a manuscript that only I could love. It was thicker than a big-city phone book when printed out. Much of my real life had been running on auto-pilot during the four months of writing, so I put this ugly baby in a drawer for a few months while I worked on reuniting with family, coworkers and friends.

TOKYO GREEN: The Revision

In April of 2017 I pulled the heavy stack of paper out of the drawer and put it on a shelf. For a while I was afraid to take a look. I finally read it, and it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. In fact some of it was pretty good. However it was clear that it needed a lot of work. In the end it would take every scrap of my free time over the next eight months to revise. I used Holly Lisle’s “How To Revise Your Novel” (HTRYN) method, which was thorough (to say the least), grueling and extreme.

The revision process slaughtered about a quarter of the original manuscript. I removed scenes, added scenes, and rewrote all eighty of them at least once. The original story had been written from three points of view: Tomo, Kosei, and Sara. I gutted all the Sara POV scenes in the revision, because it just didn’t make sense that a story could be told from an AI point of view. (I reckoned that computers didn’t think like humans any more than submarines swam like fish.)

I catalogued every detail, item, and artifact, making sure each had its place. A third of the original characters were cut from the cast. I did a manual cut and paste of the physical manuscript, typed the whole thing in from scratch, printed it, read it out loud, and then repeated the whole process twice.

During this time it felt natural to withdraw from the real world. I grew my hair long over the course of a year and a half to the bemusement of my conservative colleagues. By the end of the revision it was shoulder-length. For most of a year I slept four hours, woke in the middle of the night, revised, and then crashed out for an hour or two before starting the daily commute. Real-world pressures mounted at work and home. My family pressured me to stick to our original plan and move back to the States. (Okay, to be fair this was my original plan, before the muse took control.) But the move would’ve required a year or more of my undivided attention to get my foreign-born family settled in, and TOKYO GREEN was not yet complete. So the muse rejected the idea in the psychological equivalent of holding a loaded gun to my head. It was very rough patch on the road to finishing this thing, and I was doing it alone. There was no way I could explain that I had a slave-driving boss in a second career that paid nothing at all.

At the end of 2017 I had something resembling an actual novel. The 130,000-word beast emerged from the revision process a lean, mean, 90,000-word version of its former self, which by total coincidence was an average novel’s length. Eighteen months after starting this project, it was time for others to take a look.

In January of 2018 I asked Matt Turano to help with content editing. He read the manuscript twice and sent a forty-page, double-spaced reply. It was a real treat to work with him. He applied the right balance of encouragement and hard critique. Some of his suggested changes were easy fixes, but some required a lot of work. The most significant mod was a re-write of the first chapter (for the fourth time!) to smooth out some emotion that made no sense. Back in the summer of 2016 I had pounded the words of the first chapter down with a bit of wage-slave angst, and after all the revisions some of it still remained. Chapter One was not the place to alienate readers with my problems. By the final re-write it was all Tomo, doing his thing.

I spent a month making these final revisions. Afterwards I declared my midlife crisis to be over and once again dropped the book in a drawer.

TOKYO GREEN: The Product

For most of the next year I enjoyed the awesome feeling of not having a secret second job.

I did explore the idea of traditional publishing for a while, even though I wasn’t sure it was right for the book. This was new territory for me, so I pursued it for the learning experience alone. Jane Friedman (author, publishing insider) was nice enough to correspond with me a bit. Out of twenty submissions to various agents I got two bites. An agent and I went back and forth about possible representation.

In the end I concluded traditional publishing was not for me. I wanted to do things on my own time, and I was not open to making big changes to fit an existing niche. As a reader I didn’t think traditional publishing had done the best job of providing me with what I wanted to read in the past twenty years, so why should I trust them to tell me what to write?

A year drifted by and I forgot about the project. This might seem unbelievable after so much effort, but I had this complacent feeling like the demon had been exorcised. I was at peace. Still, the idea of making my small contribution hung in the air. If a book was dropped in the forest and nobody was there to read it, was it ever written at all?

In January of 2019, I asked EJ Clarke of SilverJay Editing to copy-edit the book, and got Ida Jansson of AMYGDALA DESIGN (Norway) to do the cover.

So now I’m on the eve of finally publishing this thing and I think back to my teenage years of daydreaming and filling up notebooks with tales of imaginary worlds. I feel like the best part of me is vindicated, even if this novel doesn’t make a cent. If you’re thinking about writing a novel or embarking on some big creative endeavor then consider this: The economic me has made some money over the past twenty-five years in this thing I call a career. For sure I’ve met some good people along the way. But if every minute of it was wiped from my memory I wouldn’t miss a thing. (Hell, if such a service existed then I might pay to have it done!) On the other hand, the experience of completing a meaningful, creative project is a memory I wouldn’t give up for anything. It’s an accomplishment I’ll take to the grave.


Striving for Mastery

Someone said that mastery of (any?) skill is reached at ten thousand hours, and this seems to have been accepted as a general guideline. I wonder where I am on the mastery scale for writing? How much longer do I have to go? What happens once I reach mastery? Is it like the scene at the end of Highlander when lighting shoots out of my mouth and all the windows around me shatter? Every word I put down on paper from then on is carved into tablets, written in gold? What will my title be? I’m also pretty good at putting bait on the end of a fishing hook, but I don’t want to think about what my title would be after reaching mastery in that skill. At the end of the day I’m not taking this ten thousand hour thing too seriously, as I’m sure it’s possible to be better than ninety-nine percent of people at a given skill in a much shorter period of time. Still, it’s fun to think about where I stand.

Is there a mastery for writing in general? Maybe so, but if would it be fair to say I’m a master at writing fiction, if eighty percent of what I’ve written are random thoughts in a journal? Probably not. For now let’s assume there’s a general mastery for writing. That means I can add up all the journals and non-fiction accounts of things I’ve written since I started writing as a teen? (This brings up another good question: is it fair to include a cumulative total if the training toward mastery is not done sequentially. In golf, for example, I know that taking a year off and starting again is more or less like starting at a beginner level. I wonder if the same is true for writing, if I took a few years off?)

What counts as an hour of writing anyway? Is “writing” only the action I’m performing at the moment, or does it include the many hours of revision that is often involved in creating a published work? Let’s say it includes revision hours, too.

So assuming the ten thousand hours towards mastery does not have to be day-to-day consecutive, and it can be any writing at all, that means I can include all the notebooks I filled with plots for D&D adventures while hanging out in my mom’s basement as a kid. It includes all the short stories and papers I wrote in college, all the journals and letters and anything that involved crafting sentences for others to read. I’m not going to include emails and birthday cards. That seems to be pushing it too far. Looking back twenty years would result in a vague estimate. It might be helpful to look at more recent years first. On average I’ve put more quality words on paper in my last eight years in Japan than any other time of my life. I’ll start with total word count, and then try to work out some way of measuring hours of writing from that.

Forty essays in the theme of “Leisure Maximus” for a total of forty thousand words. (Funny how that worked out to exactly one thousand words per essay.)

Twenty thousand words on a “Brief History of Economic Me” and related essays.

Seventy thousand words on the Family journal.

Forty plus flash fiction and short stories for a total of fifty thousand words.

One hundred and fifty thousand words on the novel Tokyo Green. (Minimum! Again this is a rough estimate. The original manuscript was one hundred and thirty thousand words. The final product was ninety thousand words. There were at least twenty thousand words of notes, character sketches and world-building. And there were scenes rewritten and others written from scratch during revision. So how to arrive at a total here?)

Sixty thousand words of two unfinished novel manuscripts.

Two hundred and fifty thousand words of notebook “doodling”. I estimate a minimum of five hundred words per day written in my notebook on the train, and I’ve made the round-trip commute over two thousand times. This comes to one million words, but much of this doodling went into the journals and stories mentioned above, so I won’t count it twice.

This comes to six hundred and eighty thousand words.

Does it make sense to get a words-per-hour total from this?

Again, I’m trying to estimate time spent on the craft, and the above words represent the words in their final form. Certainly journaling and doodling takes much less time than writing good fiction. There’s no way I can make this exact, but I’ll try to be fair.

After thinking about it lunch, I decided on one thousand words per hour for journaling, doodling, and unfinished manuscripts; and two hundred words per hour for finished essays and works of fiction. I can spend up to ten hours crafting a five hundred word flash fiction story to perfection, but can get through many more words per hour writing and revising a longer work. Two hundred seemed fair. So that’s three hundred and eighty thousand words at one thousand words per hour, and three hundred thousand words at two hundred words per hour, for a grand total of three thousand three hundred and eighty hours of writing in eight years. This is close to my original ballpark figure of thirty five hundred hours, which averages to a little more than an hour per day writing over the course of eight years.

How many hours did I write before arriving in Japan, dating all the way back to my junior high school years? Who knows? I’d guess at least as much, maybe less. Let’s say twenty-five hundred hours as a conservative estimate. So maybe I’ve clocked six thousand hours of writing time in my life. I can wait to see what happens when I break ten grand.


What and Why I Write

The next few decades are sure to be a wild ride. Big picture changes are happening faster than anyone can keep track, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out. This is why I write speculative fiction.

Good or bad, the tech we create changes who we are as a species, forever. Five hundred years ago the printing press was a kick in the face to the status quo of Europe. But the kick happened in ultra-slow-mo compared to the pummeling social media gives civilization today.

With change comes conflict, and conflict is the fuel for stories that burn rubber down the road. As a writer and big picture thinker, it’s a good time to be alive.

Dystopia is boring. If our collective imagination really is our preview to the future, then we can do better than that. The characters in my stories challenge the status quo in new and productive ways, contributing a positive spark (or even a course correction) to the turbulent ride we’re on.

There’s conflict between nature and tech, a give and pull dynamic, without which nothing evolves. I wonder about our collective threshold for unnatural behavior in the pursuit of money. Will we choose soul-sucking comfort and security in an office cubicle under the glow of bright fluorescence, or will we do something more in tune with our DNA?

It’s my morning commute and I’m on the train, writing the old fashioned way, with pen and paper. I sit between a uniformed school girl and a salaryman, each of whom is tapping their smart phone like a frantic chimp scraping bark off a tree. Is this natural behavior? Who knows? I’m just another clever ape who works a day job under fluorescent lights.

For me, writing is the kind of obsession seen in the movie “Close Encounters,” when artists of the world are called to create something resembling Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, without knowing why. The main character of the movie starts with a mashed potato sculpture at dinner and ends with a ride on the mothership into outer space.

Writers like to describe writing as something they “must do,” usually said in the double negative, like “writing is something we cannot not do.” I can relate. There’s plenty of conflict between the muse and me.

For a long time I kept the muse locked in a box in the basement like the gimp in “Pulp Fiction,” because I presumed to have more important things to do. A few years ago the muse escaped. Understandably, he was very pissed off. Now I have no choice but to appease him. There’s no putting him back in the box.

Real life requires most of my waking hours, between a busy family life and a professional gig that pays the bills. With my remaining sliver of freedom I’d prefer to take it easy, or pay down my sleep debt. “I don’t think so.” says the muse. “The mothership is calling. Get in, loser. We’re going for a ride.”

Life would be perfect if only I could devote all my work hours to writing, and appease this bastard muse. Or would it? Without sufficient conflict, nothing ever evolves.