Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Discussion of software apprenticeships at All Girl Hack Night

At the March meeting of All Girl Hack Night, a startup founder Diana Griffin and two women developers -- Tricia and Autumn -- talked about software development apprenticeships they did at Diana's startup, GirlsGuild.

A startup's decision to take apprentices

GirlsGuild is a startup that matches women makers (they didn't want to call them "masters", as that might sound too intimidating) with apprentices who want to learn a skill or a craft: leatherworking, chocolate making, graphic design, or many more. So it is only natural that its founders wondered how the notion of apprenticeship would extend to software development. In the software world it is also known as eating your own dog food. Having only recently learned programming, GirlsGuild founders Diana and Cheyenne built GirlsGuild web app themselves, with the help of more experienced Ruby on Rails developers. So they also wanted to give back and teach other women what they knew of programming.

Thus they announced apprenticeship positions. They view them as different from internship. They expected that apprentices were completely new to programming, and that they might not know much at all.

In Tricia's case, it turned out to be true. She went into apprenticeship to gain experience she couldn't gain otherwise.

Reasons to become an apprentice

A beginner developer who wants to get a job in the industry must demonstrate some kind of credentials or programming ability to potential employers; if you don't have computer science education, that can be tricky. It is a chicken-and-egg problem, getting experience without already having experience. That's where unpaid work, such as an internship, can give a foot in the door to a beginner programmer.

And that's why when Tricia heard about an apprenticeship opportunity with GirlsGuild, she applied. It helped that she knew Autumn, who was already working there as an apprentice. Up until that point, she had taken some Java courses at the Austin Community College, but had no programming experience in the industry. Without it, or a degree in computer science, she didn't see how she could ever get a job as a software developer.

At first she worried that GirlsGuild won't accept her, but she was determined to come back again and again, and become impossible to get rid of.

Left to right: Tricia, Diana Griffin, and Autumn
Left to right: Tricia, Diana Griffin (cofounder of GirlsGuild), and Autumn at the All Girl Hack Night discussion of software apprenticeships. More pictures from All Girl Hack Night events are in my photo gallery.

Autumn admitted that she worried about that too, even though she is an experienced software engineer, and her reasons for going through an apprenticeship were different. She was working in a well-established organization with a large team of developers; as typical for a large institution, it had complex processes and procedures in place for everything, such as testing, doing code reviews, and deploying to production. Autumn, however, wanted to experience working in a startup, where processes are minimal, red tape almost nonexistent, developers have very close interaction with business owners, and large influence in the product.

Neither of them needed to worry about not being admitted to an apprenticeship, because GirlsGuild was happy for every helping hand they could get.

Structure of an apprenticeship

GirlsGuild founders Cheyenne and Diana got together with Tricia and Autumn for 3-4 hours a week. At first they walked them through the code, examining various use cases, a la "When a user clicks this button, here is what code gets executed in the background". They gave Tricia and Autumn full freedom of bugs and issues to work on. They were happy to have anyone to work on them, even beginners. (I didn't ask if they were ever concerned that a beginner would inadvertently make the product worse, e.g. by fixing a bug's symptoms rather than the underlying cause, and making it more difficult to fix the cause afterwards.)

Meetings with Diana and Cheyenne was just a small part of the time both apprentices invested in their work. The meetings took only 3-4 hours a week, but Tricia and Autumn spent much more time than that studying the code on their own. To every meeting they came prepared to implement what they learned. And after a while they didn't need constant hand-holding from Diana. They would work independently and only come to her if they got stuck.

Making it easier for a startup to foster apprentices

It helped that ever since its beginning, GirlsGuild kept a detailed list of code issues in Github. It also helped that they didn't have any other deadlines to meet except self-imposed ones; there weren't any investors breathing down their neck to implement features faster. GirlsGuild, as I understood, is funded entirely by the owners, both of who have full-time jobs outside of GirlsGuild. This gives them a lot of freedom to implement features at their own pace.

Another thing that helped was that their users were so forgiving. There weren't too many users to begin with, and they didn't tend to get upset by errors. Plus, error messages were quite funny, said Tricia, so that went a long way to give the users enjoyable experience even when the application didn't work right. They had a simple, direct process of fixing user-reported bugs: the user would call them, and they would get on fixing the bug right away.

Comparing apprenticeships to other ways of gaining programming experience

The audience wanted to know how apprenticeships compared with other ways to learn programming. Was it a better or worse way than, say, taking self-paced courses at Codecademy? College courses? What about intense development bootcamps, such as MakerSquare?

According to Tricia, who had previously taken some programming courses at Austin Community College, an apprenticeship teaches you very different skills than an academic course. Most programming classes, in her view, might teach you concepts of programming, but not how to write an application from scratch. What's more, they won't teach you other crucial aspects of being a software engineer, such as how to collaborate with other engineers, or use tools (e.g. Github) effectively. So, for a taste of real-life software engineering, apprenticeships are invaluable.

It so happened that towards the end of her apprenticeship, Tricia entered the full-time Makersquare development bootcamp, and Autumn took Makersquare part time courses in the middle of her apprenticeship. So they could not really compare the experience they gained from it to the experience gained from the apprenticeship, but they both thought they would have been much more valuable to GirlsGuild if they had come to it after Makersquare. Diana assured that they were very useful anyway, and that if they had come to GirlsGuild after MakerSquare, they would have been leading the apprenticeships!

Tricia says most prospective employers valued her apprenticeship almost as much as an experience at a paid job, because it showed that she could take a project, persevere, and complete it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book review: Helene Wecker, "The Golem And The Jinni"

This was one enjoyable urban fantasy book. It was different from other novels I've read in this genre, though admittedly I haven't read that many, because I got disappointed with the genre soon. There is no Mary Sue heroine here that every werewolf falls in love with; this one has truly interesting, unique characters, rather than the usual assortment of werevolves and vampires.

The title character, a golem, was made by a European Jewish wizard for a man who wanted a custom-made wife; the man took her on a trip to the US, but died along the way. She disembarked in New York not knowing a single soul there, but was befriended by a kind, old rabbi, who quickly guessed who she is. Luckily he is the only human she ever encounters who can see that she is made of clay. Outwardly she is indistinguishable from a human woman.

The jinni, on the other hand, escaped from an ancient flask, accidentally opened by a metalworker in the Little Syria neighborhood of New York. He was trapped in a human form by a sorcerer many centuries ago in a Bedouin desert. While the Golem, who is made of Earth, is an excellent baker, the Jinni, who embodies the fire element, is talented at metalworking. They make their lives in the new country, their paths eventually cross, and they find an unlikely (or maybe likely?) friend in one another, as the only other supernatural creature each has ever met. They are the only ones who can understand what it's like to live in a human shape with all its restrictions, and to have to pass for a human every day. This involves not letting anyone catch on that you don't eat, sleep, breathe, or have a heartbeat.

As much as they try to blend into the society, they naturally create messes in their wake, simply because they are not human beings, and some things they do have unexpected consequences to humans. The Golem cares about it much more than Jinni does, who, at least at first, doesn't give a thought to the broken human lives he leaves in his wake (mostly women, for the handsome Jinni is like catnip for them). The Golem is the opposite: since she was created to serve, she can't help but sense the humans' needs, and feels irresistible urge to help them. The Golem's concern for others rubs off on the Jinni, who, after spending time with her, starts viewing his carefree actions in a different light.

But both of them are bound to the powerful forces who made them what they were, and the past comes looking for them. When that happens, ancient wizardry starts to play out in 19th century New York. To avoid spoilers, some tensions get resolved, and some don't, but it seems that the stage gets set for a sequel.

This book alternates between exotic/mystical and cozily mundane settings: the Golem works at a bakery, and the book has a good number of delightful scenes involving challah, strudel, fresh-baked bread, and so on. They are interspersed with scenes of Middle-Eastern and cabalistic magic. The threads of present and past are woven together beautifully, and suspense arises on two levels -- past and present; while the reader suspects that they must be related, you can't easily predict how it will all come together.

Secondary and tertiary characters truly come to life. Each of them is distinct. The characters that seem at first spoiled or airheaded, turn out to have depth. Sometimes the book teeters too far into the realm of "characters who didn't believe in the existence of paranormal suddenly become believers", but there is only a little of that. The scenes set in the ancient Bedouin desert centuries or millennia ago don't seem as strong as the scenes set in the 19th century New York; I'm not sure why, but maybe because they rely too much on clicheed Middle-Eastern setting, whereas the New York setting is detailed and authentic? Then again, this book is based on Middle-Eastern fairytale tropes, so that would be hard to avoid.

In any case, the result is quite original.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book review: Karen Joy Fowler "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"

This was one of the most enjoyable books I read recently. This is definitely character-driven fiction, and not just primary, but secondary and tertiary characters too were developed with unparalleled depth and nuance.

The plot revolves around a young woman named Rosemary, who is trying to figure out what happened to her "sister", a chimpanzee named Fern. In their early childhood Rosemary and Fern (who were born just months apart) were raised as siblings; Rosemary's parents treated the chimpanzee as their own child, encouraging her to do everything Rosemary did. Then, when Rosemary was five years old, Fern suddenly disappeared from the household, and Rosemary never fully recovered from the loss of her sister.

On one hand, it wasn't hard to figure out the mystery of what happened to Fern; it was clear that Rosemary's parents gave Fern away because they just couldn't keep a chimpanzee at home anymore as Fern grew bigger and stronger. Historically, cases of raising a chimp as a human never ended well, because humans were never able to control the chimp's aggressive tendencies; this novel leaves no illusions that this attempt could have been anything else but doomed, and the adult Rosemary understand it very well.

However, there is a twist at the end that makes it particularly ironic -- but by the time it is delivered, we readers are quite skeptical whether we should believe it. That's what makes this book so captivating. As Rosemary tries to piece her past into a coherent narrative, it becomes increasingly clear that none of the characters' versions of events can ever be trusted. Rosemary herself doesn't trust her memory, believing that many of her vividly remembered childhood episodes never could have happened. But we also find out that throughout Rosemary's childhood her parents and older brother Lowell manipulated her, feeding her various lies, fictions, and non-answers to avoid accept responsibility for their actions. So later in the book, when Lowell delivers a key "revelation" to the now-adult Rosemary, there is no reason to think that he isn't manipulating her even then.

This book reveals, in an understated way (because Rosemary is never bitter or angry towards her family) how even highly functional, seemingly caring parents can be subtly cruel towards their children. They raised Fern among humans, knowing that she won't be able to live with them indefinitely, yet making it very hard for her to adapt to a life among chimpanzees. It was just as bad that Rosemary's father, a psychologist, treated not just Fern but Rosemary too as an experiment. While she and Fern were together, they were both studied by graduate students in her father's lab. Everything Rosemary said was interesting to them, but only because she was part of the human-chimp speech acquisition experiment. With Fern was gone, nothing Rosemary said interested them anymore, and her endless chatter became a nuisance.

What I liked best about this book was endless observations about the nature and unreliability of memory, about theory of mind, about animal rights, and the way those meditations were wrapped into suspenseful plot arc.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Build Something Awesome… but what?

"Build Something Awesome with OpenStack and the Open Cloud" hackathon could have lived up to its name, if only someone knew what kindof awesome things one could build with OpenStack. Or could explain it to developers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Maddy (left), our unofficial team lead and Python expert, and Anna
Maddy (left), our unofficial team lead and Python expert, and Anna. More pictures from the 2013 OpenStack Hackathon are in my photo gallery.

The September 14th, 2013 OpenStack hackathon was the first hackathon I ever attended. It was organized and sponsored by Rackspace, creator of the OpenStack project. I didn't know much about it, so I assumed that it was just yet another API that lets you build applications. The hackathon event page did not hint at what kinds of applications you could build with it. So I was surprised when it turned out that for the kind of application my team wanted to build, OpenStack kind of… got in the way.

The hackathon started with a 2-hour presentation by Rackspace’s developer advocate. He guided us through a tutorial on how to create a DevStack server on Rackspace. DevStack, by the way, he said, is not the same as OpenStack, but the distinction was lost on me. This was by far not the most subtle point that was lost on me.

Left to right: Paige, Jess, Maddy (our unofficial team lead and Python expert), and Christine
Left to right: Paige, Jess, Maddy (our unofficial team lead and Python expert), and Christine. More pictures from the 2013 OpenStack Hackathon are in my photo gallery.

After the presentation our team of five, all female developers, rolled up our sleeves to start building the application proposed by one of our members. I investigated the server created during the walkthrough, looking for the directory where Apache keeps HTML files and web scripts. That's where I thought I would place a web application (at the beginning, just a Python script) that we were writing. I saw there was an index.html in the /var/www directory, but its contents were not the one that were displayed when you pointed your browser to this server's root URL. So I went to the presenter and asked why that was. He said, better don't try to use Apache on that devstack server; it's configured in a special way, and if you want to run an ordinary Apache web server, you'd be fighting it all the way. You should create a basic Linux server on Rackspace, not a Devstack server, and install Apache on it. I tried asking him what could we do with this Devstack server, if not write web applications. He said it was mostly for learning. Learning OpenStack. Well, that still didn't answer my question what I could do with OpenStack, but oh well, maybe I should have found out beforehand? It's not like it was any secret that this hackathon was for building things with OpenStack: it was in the name of the hackathon. But I wasn't the only person who went there with assumptions that I could build web applications with it.

Other lessons from this hackathon were more interesting, and came from my attempt to find out what can be accomplished during a hackathon. More about it in the next blog post.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ted Chiang speech on lifelogging

Lifelogging is an emerging trend of recording every, or nearly every moment of your life. A simple example of lifelogging would be wearing a video recorder that records continuous video and audio of everything you see and do. Ted Chiang used this example to speculate about how lifelogging would change our society. He made carefully balanced points both for external-recording-as-memory, and against. In the end, I think, he is for it. Here are the highlights of his speech.

Even as we might think that a video of our life would never be used as a memory substitute but only as aid, it won't be so. We have been outsourcing our memory for millennia in every way we could. Ancient Greek philosophers complained that writing has corrupted people by weakening their memories; no one could recite thousands and thousands of lines of Iliad or Odyssey anymore. Since then, outsourcing of memory has only picked up pace. We don't remember phone numbers, because we rely on having them stored in our phones; we are less inclined to commit facts to memory, because we can always Google them. So if we have a continuous video of our life, we will come to rely on it instead of our internal memory; it will become, in fact, our memory.

But our memory is not a documentary; it is a web of narratives that get edited every time we remember something. Recalling past events adds layer after layer to our memories, and also distorts them. Most of our memories contain a version of events that pleases us, or lets us see our lives as having a narrative arch. Maybe it lets us to hold on to a thought that our life is getting better in one way or another -- for example, that our love for our spouse grows deeper over time; and that can be useful, because without this illusion we might not have the strength to go on. For example, in a certain study the female participants said they shared as many interests and spent as much time with their husbands as 10 years ago; but the researchers, who had asked the same question of these same women 10 years ago, noted that it wasn't true: the number of shared interests and the amount of closeness had declined.

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2014 are in my photo gallery.

As we edit our memories, we are also eliminating those memories that are inconsistent with the way we see ourselves. Ted Chiang gave two examples of famous science fiction writers who had been on the giving or receiving end of it. One of them had misremembered the year of his father's death by 2 years, until fact checkers found an old obituary for his father in the newspapers, and pointed out the inconsistency. The writer provided a hypothesis for that: since his father died just a few months before he started college, and the freshman year of college was a very exciting time for him, his memory simply refused to put those two events in one year. The emotional "tone" of those events was much too dissimilar for them to have happened just months apart.

The other writer in Ted Chiang's example found out, as an adult, that his mother didn't remember beating him with a rope as a child. She denied ever doing that. Again, the way this could be explained is that back in the early 20th century (the time of this writer's childhood) it was acceptable to beat children, but a few decades later it was far less so. So his mother, thinking of herself as a good mother, unconsciously edited out of her memory the episodes of beating her child.

But if we edit out our memories in which we have hurt others, then we are not doing justice to those people; we are denying them their experiences. Similarly, the ruling elite of a nation might be denying the acknowledgement of suffering to the groups in the nation that they had oppressed. The notion of justice -- both interpersonal and on world scale -- requires that we remember our wrongdoings. This was Ted Chiang's conclusion, and this is why he thinks, after all, that lifelogging would be a step in the right direction.

Questions and discussion with the audience

Audience member 1. Forgetting can be very helpful in getting over a trauma; especially forgetting violent events. If we can't forget anything, if our video is there, we might be tempted to go back to those traumatic moments and never make progress in healing.

Ted Chiang responded that these days researchers are working on medicines that help us selectively forget, allowing one to heal from PTSD. (This doesn't quite address the question that selective forgetting won't do you much good if you'll be tempted to go back and revisit the record of violent events. -- E.)

Audience member 2. A certain amount of forgetting goes a very long way in maintaining good relationships with your relatives. When you meet and talk with them only a few times a year, it helps if you had forgotten things they did that made you very angry, or hurt you.

Ted Chiang responded that it would be even better if that person remembered how they wronged you, and be motivated not to do it again.

Audience member 3. What if having a video of all moments of our life would prompt us to live our life as if we are creating a story? When I was in college I deliberately went and did things, had experiences, to have something to write home about. Friday afternoon would come and I would think, oh, I haven't done "anything" this week yet (out of the ordinary) -- I should go be interesting for a couple of hours now!

Ted Chiang responded that this wouldn't be the same as how people these curate their Facebook profiles, posting only those activities that form an image they like. If we don't have to worry about anyone seeing our video, we won't be motivated to appear a good person on the tape.

That last statement hinged on a pretty big assumption, which Ted Chiang stated upfront at the beginning of his talk: that privacy and security issues had been solved, and we don't have to worry about our life record being viewed by the eyes it wasn't intended for. I think Ted Chiang made this assumption only to keep the scope of discussion manageable, not because he thought it would be easy. Still, it was near impossible to discuss lifelogging-as-memory without getting tangled in the issues of privacy, as is evident from the audience's questions.

Audience member 4. What happens when a hacker hacks into the record of your memories? Surely it will happen, because any and every technology that has ever existed has been hacked into.

Ted Chiang. Even if hackers modify your own memories, that wouldn't be the end of the world for you, because any kind of public event would be recorded by at least some other people. So you could compare your memories with theirs, and restore the truth. (This doesn't address the cases when the event is private and nobody else has a record of it; or what if a hacker makes your most private moments public? Or what if you don't even know your memories were tampered with, and thus have no reason to compare them with others' memories? -- E.)

Audience member 5. If everything you do is recorded in the continuous video of your life, then any movie you've seen will also be in it. So who will own that part of the video -- you or the movie studio? If you want to rewatch a movie, would you need to pay to get access to your own memories? If you don't pay, is it piracy?

Ted Chiang pointed out that movie studios are already dealing with similar issues even today, because you can download a movie from the torrents as soon as it comes out on the screen. This won't be that different.

Other audience members asked more questions without good answers. For example, 5th amendment. Police can confiscate your computer records, video records, or any kind of records if they are needed in an investigation of a crime; but if the recording is literally considered to be your memory, they might not have a right to confiscate it, as that would be the same as forcing you to speak. How would the laws, or constitution need to be rewritten in such a case?

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Book Review: James Cambias "A Darkling Sea"

This book was praised by more than one of my acquaintances who are not writers. It is an important distinction. I have been increasingly disappointed by new books recommended by science fiction or fantasy writers, and have come to suspect that those books are hyped because of something other than good storytelling. But I know that if my nonwriter friends enjoy a book, it must have an engaging plot and characters; and if they are techies, it probably has well thought-out, science-based (or at least systematic, even if magic-based) worldbuilding.

"A Darkling Sea" has a lot of that. The worldbuilding is superb, and it has plenty of intrigue, as its human protagonists deal with not just one, but two very different alien races. Yet I was ambivalent about this book. It left me with a strange feeling that the majority of the plot was just the setup for something that didn't quite happen. But it is not true, of course: the plot arch arched satisfactorily, and was properly resolved in the last couple of chapters. So it must be that my expectations were different.

While this book shows a clash between two technologically advanced races, it is positively NOT a space opera. The action is carried out guerilla-style at the bottom of the sea on a distant planet. There, a group of human researchers observe Ilmatarans -- underwater, bottom-dwelling intelligent beings -- until another alien race, Sholen, tells them to quit or else. It is really about a conflict between human and alien psychology. But it rather lacks intensity and sharpness of psychological conflicts that such a claustrophobic setting could -- or should -- provide. Then again, my measuring stick for similar themes -- humans living in close quarters, isolated from civilization, facing the unknown -- is Peter Watts' "Blindsight". Few novels live up to the intensity of "Blindsight", so perhaps it's not fair to measure "A Darkling Sea" against it.

Still, when the driving force of the plot is a conflict between human and alien mentality, the book needs better characterization. As it is, the characters in it (the humans at least) are likeable, but bland. There aren't any strong, quirky characters through which such a conflict could manifest.

The worldbuilding in this novel, however, is excellent. It's not an easy feat to create two credible, different, nonhumanoid races, but this novel did just that. Between the Ilmatarans and the Sholen, Ilmatarans are definitely a more completely fleshed-out civilization. The name Ilmatarans is the only thing incongruous about it, because this name brings to mind J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. That's unfortunate, because the lobster-like, underwater-dwelling Ilmatarans couldn't be more unlike Tolkien's elves. Other than that, their culture, mentality, customs, even speech idioms follow from the physical conditions of their world. Living at the bottom of the ocean, they don't have eyes (which would be of no use in the perpetual darkness), and instead perceive the world and communicate via echolocation and taste. As with every alien species, a writer has to straddle a careful line between making them boringly human-like, and making them too alien for us to understand. With Ilmatarans, the author fell back on a tried-and-true method of making them a pre-industrial race, akin to a medieval, feudal society on Earth; they were starting to engage with the world scientifically, but their societal structures were quite primitive. That way, as alien as they are, they are still simple enough for us to understand.

What especially intrigued me about Ilmatarans was their number-speech. They assigned non-obvious semantics to numbers, and considered not just factorization of a number, but also its decomposition into a sum of integers; from that they inferred something about a person's character. Too bad it didn't play a big part in the book; I would have liked to know more about that. Even though there is no scientific basis for such a cabbalistic approach, it could tell us a lot about a culture.

But an even more interesting race was Sholen, the spacefaring civilization that clashed with humans over the sphere of influence. They were a spaghetti ball of intriguing contradictions. They had a self-proclaimed "hands-off-the-universe" attitude, which meant they wanted uncontacted alien races to remain so, and especially to stay free of influence of humans -- yet they enforced their peace philosophy rather aggressively. Their social structures and modes of interaction were a bit like bonobos', but they were nothing like the friendly, frolicky apes. My impression of them was more like hulking, menacing, six-limbed monsters. Despite all that, Sholen did not seem to be a poorly thought-out heap of inconsistencies, but a complex race with its own internal logic.

While the novel was enjoyable, it wasn't exactly groundbreaking, and that's why I will only give it 4 stars. I like to reserve 5 stars for books that do something innovative, such as develop an original scientific or philosophical idea. (Yes, like Peter Watts "Blindsight"). The setup, storytelling, mood, and characters of "A Darkling Sea" strongly resemble classical science fiction. An comparison that comes to mind is "Dragon's Egg", which also has primitive but smart creatures living in an extreme environment (super-high gravity of a neutron star). It is classical in the sense that science and technological resourcefulness takes precedence over character depth; the human characters in the book are not especially interesting. But the book is at least modern in the sense that female and male characters are equal in skill and courage.

I also have one minor beef with this book. The ending reveals a surprise whose impact can only be fully understood if you kept track of tiny, insignificant pieces of information scattered throughout the book. At least that's my guess. When I read the last sentence, I thought "huh"? What's that have to do with anything? Is the object mentioned in there referenced anywhere earlier in the book? If it was, I quickly forgot it (it was no more than a minor detail), and I don't even know how far back I would have to go in the book to find earlier references. Or is there an implication that this object could only have been left behind by yet another, ancient, long-lost civilization? If so, it must be a setup for a sequel, because this object played no role in the book that I could tell. Luckily, the plot had already been wrapped up at that point, so the ending was just a bonus "huh".

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ArmadilloCon 2014 interview with Ted Chiang

Jayme Lynn Blaschke interviewed Ted Chiang, one of the two ArmadilloCon 2014 writer Guests of Honor. They talked about linguistics and time travel, story length and starting from the end, and obsolete scientific theories as story material. Here is a condensed version of the interview.

Why, despite the plans to make "The Story Of Your Life" into a movie, Ted Chiang does not consider himself a Hollywood bigshot.

Until the cameras start rolling, there is no guarantee that the movie will get made: many movies had been canceled at the last minute.

About the process of writing "The Story of Your Life"

Originally Ted Chiang wanted to write a story about someone who knew the future, but was unable to change it. What sort of emotions that person might experience, knowing that both good things and bad things were going to happen, and not able to do anything about it? Linguistics came into the story later, as Ted Chiang tried to figure out how to grant this protagonist ability to know the future. Meditation or mind-altering drugs didn't seem very interesting possibilities. Then he remembered Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines our perception of the world. The notion of being able to know the future by learning an alien language seemed very interesting, and only then the story became about linguistics.

At that time he didn't know a lot about linguistics, so he spend the next several years reading books about it and working on his writing, so as to become a good enough writer to tackle this story.

More about his writing process

He first comes up with the ending for a story, and works backward from there to determine what needs to happen. That way the stories don't "get away" from him like they do for many other writers who work without a plan.

About story length, and the [un]likelihood of writing a novel

Though he turned down a Hugo award for the story "Liking What You See" because it was too rushed (under the publisher's deadline he could not expand that story into the length he originally wanted it to be), Ted Chiang is content with how it turned out, and has no plans to rewrite it. He doesn't write novels, because each of his stories takes up only as much length as is required to develop the idea of the story. That's not to say he wouldn't write a novel if he ever got a novel-length idea; it just hasn't happened.

And while some audience members thanked Ted Chiang for "resurrecting" short story, he doesn't think short story is on the way to become a commercially viable art form. Though e-readers enable people to read in short bursts, they haven't lead to short story renaissance.

Ted Chiang (left) and Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Ted Chiang (left) and Jayme Lynn Blaschke. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2014 are in my photo gallery.

About Ted Chiang's early writing days

His first story, written at the age 15, was an disaster-in-space story about an attempted rescue of astronauts in a spaceship. Even so, the adventure stories he wrote were science-based. One of them involved research the wavelength of gamma ray emitted when electrons collided with positrons. In other words, as Jayme Lynn Blaschke pointed out, he was writing for Analog.

What influences helped his transition from adventure stories to more philosophical ones?

John Crowley, Gene Wolf, and Ed Bryant. Ted Chiang highly praised Ed Bryant as a currently forgotten author who won a couple of Nebula awards in the 80s for his science fiction short stories. He especially recommended Bryant's story collection "Particle Theory". Ted Chiang credits him for opening his eyes to the ways you could use science as a metaphor for human experience.

Ted Chiang's story "72 Letters" where the concept of preformation, meaning that all living beings contain microscopic, but fully-formed versions of their future children, happens to be true. What appeal do obsolete, discredited scientific theories hold for Ted Chiang, at least as story potential?

People believed in those ideas because they were not self-evidently false: it required some experimental results for them to be discredited. So you could imagine a universe where they were true. As far as preformation goes, a human being or any organism is incredibly complicated, so it's not obvious that it could come from a single cell like an ovum. We still don't completely understand the details of how a fertilized egg becomes a human being. So a theory that we are fully formed on a scale too small to see is not unreasonable; though if you take it to its logical conclusion, that Adam and Eve's sperm and ova contained the entire human race in them, it starts to seem less plausible. In any case, you have to perform the right kinds of experiments to determine that it's wrong.

Ted Chiang is also interested in what are the things we take for granted now, not knowing that they are based on an incorrect scientific theory.