Max Barry is the author of seven novels and the creator of the popular online game NationStates. He also once found a sock full of pennies. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. Sometimes he coaches kids' netball.

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Tue 21
Jun
2022

I Don’t Believe in Free Will

Max Look I’m no philosopher, but in the last blog, I mentioned I don’t believe in free will any more, and Jeffrey was like, uh, what, so here is my take.

This isn’t going to be one of those dumb theoretical arguments where I make you accept that X is true and then aha then logically you must believe Y. Oh no no. This is pure feels. Here we go.

  1. Chickens. I have owned chickens. Well, not owned. Rented. They are robots. I could write a 100-line program that generates behavior indistinguishable from a real chicken. If chickens have free will, boy, is it hard to tell.

  2. Code. I program sometimes. The code has no free will. It does what I tell it. But it can be at least as unpredictable as chickens.

  3. Brains. People are easily persuaded. I mean, frighteningly so. The older I get, the more the brain seems like a machine with a bunch of controls painted on.

  4. Stories. People crave a narrative. You know that optical illusion where you see things out of the corner of your eye that aren’t there, because your brain sketches in something that would make sense? That’s all of us, all the time.

  5. Probability. We don’t get it. We assign cause and effect to anything that moves. Like, real talk, the universe is an ocean of roiling chaos, where everything is determined by uncaring forces beyond our control. But we thirst for narrative order, so a thing can’t just happen, it has to have a moral purpose. And we are prepared to invent one.

  6. Sports. I like running numbers on things. It turns out that all team sport is basically rolling a bunch of dice and shouting, “The blue dice have started to believe in themselves, they’ve got all the momentum.” This is really just an example of #5 but I didn’t want the paragraph to be that long.

  7. Everything is the same. You’re not so different from a chicken. It’s just a matter of degree. The world isn’t merely non-binary but non-categorical.

  8. Extrapolation. From time to time, I realize people are a bit more predictable than I’d thought. This happens much more often than the other way around. I can follow this trend to its logical conclusion.

  9. Motive. Absence of control is scary. We like to believe we’re in charge of things. That’s suspicious.

  10. And: Whenever I tell someone, they say, “Well, if I don’t have free will, how would I be able to do THIS?” and wave their hands about. They all do this.

    That’s basically it. I could be wrong. It’s just the way I’m leaning these days.

    It doesn’t change anything, by the way. I don’t like people any less just because they’re wet determinism machines. If anything, it’s endearing. I mean, look at the humans, waving their hands, thinking they’re making choices. That’s adorable. And I’m not going to murder anyone. Even if I can’t avoid it, I feel like I can, and want to avoid that situation. Just like if we’re all living in a computer simulation, being mean to people remains bad, and has exactly the same consequences. Not that we’re living in a computer simulation. That idea is just crazy. It would be a simulation on some kind of device we’ve never heard of.

    P.S. I have also read a lot of Philip K. Dick. That could also be a factor.

Mon 13
Jun
2022

Madison in Paperback

The 22 Murders of Madison May I went to Canberra the other week to win an Aurealis Award for Best Sci-Fi Novel. It didn’t work. They read out some other book’s name instead. Still, don’t let that dissuade you from picking it up, as today it comes out in convenient, affordable paperback:

The 22 Murders of Madison May

By the way, I can’t believe how much multiverse talk there is. I actually put a line in the book about how people are sick of multiverse theory. Now every time I turn around, there’s a new multiverse book or show. Is that good? I don’t know. It’s probably good, because I became convinced that we do actually live in a multiverse, so people should accept it. Also I no longer believe in free will, but that’s a whole other thing.

Unrelatedly, did you see that thing about the Google engineer who got fired for telling people his AI had become sentient? The AI is totally not sentient, of course, but humans are so terrible at perception, we’ll believe anything has feelings if you draw eyes on it. Just imagine what kind of things people are going to do in the future because they’re fooled by increasingly lifelike AI. Wild stuff, man.

Wed 20
Apr
2022

The Earlickers of Twitch

What Max Reckons You can find people doing anything on the internet if you want, but you probably don’t. We all find our boundaries, I think, beyond which we’re fine with not knowing the details. But we know it’s out there—there’s nothing we’d be surprised to hear you can find on the internet, because of course you can.

Still, I’d like to present an online service in which Amazon.com pays women to lick plastic ears.

A young woman prepares to lick a microphone shaped like a plastic ear
An earlicker at work.

Some earlickers gentle and sweet, as if the plastic ears might be ticklish. Others you’d think are trying to extract the last bit of jam from a deep jar. Each earlicker has her own style. Most break up the earlicking with light conversation, but a few advertise NO TALK, if you prefer your earlickers just to focus on the ears, please.

It’s important to note that Amazon.com doesn’t want earlickers. Amazon did not, I’m pretty sure, set out to create an earlicking market, and it would probably like them to go away. Nor do the earlickers themselves particularly want to be earlicking—these aren’t earlickers from way back, who finally found a commercial platform to do what they love. Oh no. This is one of those situations that came about despite everyone’s best intentions.

At its core—right down in the canal, if you like—this is a language problem. The earlickers exist because it’s hard to say what you mean.

Screencap from The Simpsons, where boys play a Yard Work Simulator virtual reality game. Amazon.com owns Twitch, which you might have heard of: It’s a streaming platform for watching other people play video games rather than playing them yourself… although that’s an old-school way of describing it, laced with the same condescension with which my parents viewed us 80s & 90s kids who’d do anything if it was on a screen.

Amazon wants Twitch to keep doing what it’s doing: attract a mainstream audience where mainstream companies can advertise their mainstream products. But since anyone can become a Twitch streamer with a phone and some spare time, the site needs content rules. There’s no end of streamers to choose from, you see, and the audience skews young and male. It’s a viewers’ market, and the viewers quite like boobs.

So Twitch bans sexually suggestive content. See? It says it right here. No sexually suggestive content.

Screenshot of Twitch policy page, saying sexually suggestive content is prohibited

But that’s a bit vague, if you’re a streamer. If your income depends on staying on the right side of the rules, you want to know exactly where the lines are—whether you risk being deplatformed for doing a dance, for example, or going for a swim. Or licking plastic ears.

And Twitch—wanting to be transparent and helpful and not get pitchforked by a social media mob every time a popular streamer is or is not banned for crossing or not crossing the line—has obliged by writing policy docs to cover as many specific situations as possible. “Gestures directed towards breasts” are prohibited, for example, while “cleavage is unrestricted as long as coverage requirements are met.” (This is why streams are hosted by women with grand decolletage who don’t talk about it.)

You want details? Twitch has details. Twitch has precise rules for every scenario you can think of:

For streams dedicated to body art, full chest coverage is not required, but those who present as women must completely cover their nipples & areola with a layer of non-transparent clothing or a paint & latex combination (artist-grade pasties, tape, latex or similar alternatives are acceptable).

Or rather, almost every scenario. Because you can’t think of everything. Even if you cover everything that’s happening now, you can’t anticipate what people will come up with next.

The plastic ears with which the earlickers ply their trade are special microphones. They’re not cheap. You need to make a capital invesment to become an earlicker—which implies the existence of earlickers who sunk their savings into a 3Dio Free Space but never managed to made a living from it, and now the ears sit in a corner of their room, the lobes gathering dust, a symbol of regret.

But these microphones are the best (I assume) at capturing wet, intimate earlicking sounds, which, in the viewer’s headphones, create the auditory illusion that they are having their own ears licked. This experience can range from erotic to irritating, but it’s clearly, clearly sexually suggestive.

However, earlicking is not specifically mentioned in Twitch’s ruleset. And there’s a thin, artist-grade pasties veneer of credibility because earlicking is similar to ASMR, i.e. meditation via crinkly sounds. It’s difficult to find the words to express objectively how one is different from the other.

As someone who runs their own site of user-generated content, I’ve hit this paradox myself, where the more specific I make the site rules, the weirder behavior it seems to encourage. While the ruleset relies on broad, sweeping language—we may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it—it’s relatively easy for site moderators to maintain consistent, common-sense standards. But the more specific and objective the wording becomes—which users want; they crave detail—the more bizarre corner cases pop up, which aren’t quite covered by the language, and which explode in popularity because now they’re the most boundary-pushing-yet-allowable examples of the type.

That’s how you get earlickers.

You can find the earlickers of Twitch here. (Warning: sexually suggestive.)

Wed 23
Mar
2022

These Lads Don’t Try to Walk It In

Max I get a Google Alert whenever my name pops up in articles, which I use to find reviews of my books, and (if they’re good) link them from my website, or (if they’re bad) update my list of people to turn my back on should we find ourselves some kind of post-apocalyptic scenario and they’re all like, “But we need water.”

That works great so long as there aren’t other Max Barrys out there being notable. The last thing I want is to hear about some other Max being newsworthy. Even if the other Max is being a giant dick, sure, I can feel like, “Well, I’m doing better than that,” but I don’t want people wondering if I’m, for example, that duct-taped breast-touching Max Berry.

A few months ago I started getting alerts about a soccer-playing Max Barry. At first, I ignored them, because I don’t care about soccer. I once went to a game in England and the Prime Minister was there and a team kicked three goals and everyone passed out with excitement. That was fun. But I have no desire to see another game. One was enough. For me, soccer is no netball.

But these Max Barry alerts kept coming. Every few days, a new email. Max scored a goal. He scored two goals. His team was setting records. I got interested despite myself. If you spam me with parts of a story, it turns out, I need to see how it ends. So finally I looked him up. He plays for Buckie Thistle Football Club in Scotland. “Scotland” is probably redundant in that sentence. But, get this, Buckie Thistle is on a massive tear. They’re about to play Rothes for their 20th win in a row. Twenty wins in a row! Who are Rothes? I have no idea! But that’s exciting!

Buckie could win this whole thing, whatever it is. I’m not sure if there are finals, but if there are, I want to tune in, if they broadcast games from the Highland Football League. Possibly not, because the Highland Football League is, I read, level five on the Scottish pyramid of league rankings. The best league, the Scottish Professional Football League, is level zero. That’s really on the nose, in my opinion. They measure every other league by how many rungs it is below the best one. But anyway, I’m invested. I care about this now. Go Buckies. Buckies? Thistles? You go.

P.S. It just occurred to me that this blog will mess with people’s ability to search for “max barry buckie thistle.” Sorry about that. By way of apology, here is a profile of Max where he talks about how he’s out for revenge against the club that released him (booo, Aberdeen), and I think this is Max Barry’s Buckie Thistle page, although they haven’t updated it since 2021. Come on, Buckie Thistle web team. The boys are making history out there. Pull your finger out.

Wed 16
Feb
2022

Snow White

Writing Once upon a time there was a queen, and the queen said, “Hey Google, who’s the fairest one of all?” And her Nest Audio said, “Sorry, I didn’t understand.” So the queen tried again; she said: “Hey Google, who is the most attractive person in my geographic area?” and Google said, “Sorry, I don’t have any information about that.”

So the queen tried her phone; she said, “Hey Siri, top 10 most beautiful people in my kingdom,” but Siri didn’t answer, and the queen remembered she’d become annoyed and disabled Siri the night before.

The queen walked into her sitting room, where she had an Amazon Dot. “Alexa,” she said, “who’s the most beautiful person in the kingdom?” And Alexa said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding right now,” which was a problem that had been going on awhile, and the queen had googled it and tried moving the Dot away from the wall and blowing out dust but nothing had helped.

The queen sighed and returned to her bedroom and opened Instagram on her phone. The queen had over two hundred million followers so her notifications were a nightmare, but she scrolled through search. Among the snaps of donkeys and farm workers was a reel of a young woman sweeping the front porch of a cottage in the forest. Maybe it was just the light, or filters, but she looked possibly even more beautiful than the queen.

The queen’s finger hovered over the clip. Normally, she would have looked up the account name, hired a hunter, and had the girl killed. But today she hesitated. She looked at the gorgeous outfits that had been laid out on the bed for the day’s photo shoot. “Why do I do this to myself?” she said. “It’s probably just filters.” Then she cast the phone onto the bed.

That day, the queen enjoyed the shoot for herself, living in the moment, unplugged, and felt happy and satisfied, and also like she was growing as a person. But when she posted her new set, among all the likes was the comment: “so beautiful xxx also love @snowwhite you 2 should pose together sometime.” The queen tapped through to see who @snowwhite was and fuck her if it wasn’t the sweeping girl from that morning.

“Hey Google,” said the queen, “Call Hunter.”

Thu 25
Nov
2021

Messaging

What Max Reckons

You know, I think we’ve gone too far on this messaging thing. Not messaging as in sending each other messages. That’s fine. The more messages, the better. Messaging as in, How do I make an idea palatable to idiots.

Obviously messaging works. If you have an idea you need to get into people’s heads, you should think about messaging. People are busy. They pay no attention. When people hear an idea, they take one piece of it way out of context and form an opinion based on that, then refuse to change it until the end of time. You have more success if you tailor your message to be charming and digestible.

That’s fine. But I feel like we’ve begun to demand good messaging for everything, even when we’re not idiots. Now we think: If your messaging isn’t great, I’m out already. I’m not even going to entertain your idea, because your messaging sucks. It might be a good idea, but you couldn’t even get your messaging right, so forget it.

Maybe it’s a natural reaction to being bombarded by marketing all the time. Every day, sounds and and colors and movements try to catch our attention, most of which we manage to fend off. It’s wearying, so maybe it’s a relief to encounter some messy, confusing messaging that allows you to dismiss it right away, with no further brain-power required.

But this means abdicating responsibility to the messengers. It allows messaging, rather than the thing being messaged, to determine what we think about it. I don’t love the situation where we’re all so busy and distracted that there could be a, oh, I don’t know, a global pandemic and a free vaccine, and a valid argument against taking it would be, But the messaging was terrible.

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