Interactions: Ed Simpson and the 3d nuclide chart

An example visualization from the 3D Nuclide Chart

The nuclide chart is a staple of nuclear physics, visualizing the properties of nuclides arranged by their number of protons and neutrons. The chart appears in text books, talk slides and Lego form (in the Binding Blocks science outreach programme). The 3D Nuclide Chart is a web app put together by Ed Simpson (@SuperSubatomic on Twitter) of the Australian National University. The app lets users plot the nuclear data of their choosing (taken from published data tables), play around with the 3D viewpoint (or work in 2D), set colour schemes and fonts, and then export the visualization as a png file or export the relevant data. The results are rather pretty, and the app is easy to use.

We asked Ed a few questions about the chart.

For our non-nuclear-physicist readers, what does the nuclide chart show?

The nuclide chart is like a nuclear physicists’ periodic table, and is a basic tool of the nuclear science community. Instead of visualising the elements, it plots the properties of nuclides. A nuclide is a specific type of nucleus, defined by its number of protons (Z) and neutrons (N). Plotting nuclides as a function of Z and N gives insights into basic nuclear properties such as radioactive decay and half-lives. It also allows us to spot patterns in nuclear structure, such as the “magic numbers” of protons and neutrons, which greatly add to the stability of nuclides.

Can you let us know a little about the history of nuclide charts?

The earliest nuclide charts date back to the mid 1930s. The evolution of the chart after that is somewhat hidden in the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, where much of the development took place. Declassified Los Alamos reports do tell us, however, that it had reached a recognisably modern form by 1945. The 2D visualisations of the nuclide chart have changed very little since then, though we’ve discovered many more nuclides: from 540 in 1946, to more than 3200 today!

What made you decide to make a new visualization tool for the nuclide chart?

Ed Simpson in an accelerator control room

Nuclear physicists often use nuclide charts in publications, talks and outreach materials. The existing online tools were more focused on data than visualisation, and I developed the 3D Nuclide Chart with the primary aim of producing high quality images for reuse elsewhere. The chart has fine-grained control over the appearance – everything from the colour palette to fonts can be changed. Being 3D, it’s perfect for use in outreach and teaching, and being online, all that’s required is a recent web browser.

What are your plans for future developments of the visualization?

The main thing I’d like to add is loading of data from users (e.g., a set of calculations of nuclear masses). Plotting data as a function of time would also be really cool for visualising the abundances of nuclides during astrophysical events like the r-process, which is responsible for creating half the heavy elements we see around us today. I’m always open to suggestions, and many of the developments have come following feedback from users.


The story behind the story: Three tales the river told

This week, Futures is taking a trek courtesy of Three tales the river told, the latest story from Stewart C. Baker. Regular readers will recognize Stewart as he has perviously taught us How to configure your quantum disambiguator, revealed the truth about Love and relativity and examined Failsafes. You can find out more about Stewart’s work on his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Three tales the river told

This is kind of a heavy story, in a number of ways. But perhaps it should be: although it’s unlikely that the Yellow River would dry up to such an extent you could walk along its empty river basin for a month, climate change and other human-caused issues are projected to have a serious impact on rivers.

Will it be so big an impact we have to live underground to survive, drinking reclaimed water a la the Fremen in Dune?

I sure hope not.  But since I’m a bit of a cynic, I’m equally sure we’re on a path to find out.

Other than general anxiety about the mess we’re making of our planet, the inspirations from this story came from a number of places.

Rivers, oceans and other bodies of water have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s because they’re so vast and ever-changing, and speak to the wanderlust that lives on deep inside my soul even though I’m somewhat of a homebody in practice. Or perhaps it’s just some ingrained awareness of how vital they — and water in general — have always been to the arc of human development and survival.

The title came first with this one. For that, I’m indebted to Vylar Kaftan, who runs an annual Rummage Sale contest on Codex Writers Group where you write a story from someone else’s title, and to Aimee Ogden, who provided the title itself.

For the rest:

Part 0, set in UnderGuangdong, and the general idea for the setting, pays homage to Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, which features a future world where people live in cities under the earth after the surface has been taken over by desertification. Although my story doesn’t have nearly as many aliens in it, of course.

Part 1, with the archaic characters reading “Weep, Mothers, for Your Children”, is from an even stranger source: real life. The only thing I’ve changed is the location. I remember seeing a number of reports about ‘hunger stones’ being revealed in the Elbe river due to a drought in 2018. In real life, although the path of Yellow River has changed many times, as a rule it does so much farther downstream, where it overruns its banks and floods the countryside around it before settling into a new course. These course corrects have literally changed the course of Chinese — and world — history, affecting battles and wars, and the longer, more subtle conflicts that accompany commerce and settlement.

Part 2 looks a little at one of those. Kaifeng is on the Yellow River’s south bank, and was regularly flooded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ming Dynasty river engineers eventually stopped the worst floods, but in 1642 the governor of Kaifeng broke the dykes on purpose to stave off a peasant rebellion besieging his city. Turns out, that was a terrible idea: the resultant flooding, famine and disease killed hundreds of thousands, and severely decreased Kaifeng’s importance. If this sounds interesting to you, check out the excellent Controlling the Dragon: Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China by Randall A. Dodgen, which uses a mix of primary and secondary sources to paint a fascinating, complex picture of China’s relationship with its second longest river.

I’m not sure where part 3 came from, except a belief that gulls are likely to survive just about anything. (My mother, who is a birder, insists that ‘seagull’ is not a type of bird, hence ‘gull’.)

Is the gull’s appearance at the end of the story a good thing? A sign of ongoing life in the face of apparent mass extinction?

I’m ambivalent, but — as above — I sure hope we never get to the point where seeing a single bird is cause for thankful tears.

The story behind the story: I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Steven Fischer with his latest story, I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime. Regular readers will remember Steven’s previous pieces for Futures in which he introduced us to The First Fragmented Church of Entropy, offered A beginner’s guide to space travel and seafood and ran the software routine Query, Queue, Repeat. You can find out more about Steven’s work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about making decisions, particularly ethical ones, and how the right answer to a question can depends on who is answering it.

Individuals and groups make judgements in drastically different ways, and the moral principles an individual is obligated to uphold can be separate from, or even at odds with, those that a group needs to examine.

Although principles such as justice, deterrence and efficient use of resources can be major priorities for governments and societies as a whole, these more nebulous concepts don’t often find their way into our individual decision-making on any appreciable level. On the other hand, empathy, compassion and many of the other qualities that make us human seem to disappear (or may even be impossible to reproduce) when large groups of humans start making decisions together.

Truth be told, I think that might be a good thing. Individuals and societies make different types of decisions on vastly different scales, and maybe a different approach is required. But I wanted to explore that contradiction a little bit in this story, and look at the tradeoff between those methods and the times when we might lose something in the process.

I’m not sure what the right answer is, or even the right way to go about reaching it. But I know what I’d say if I was the one designing the system, and I know what I’d do if the decision was up to me alone. And frankly, I don’t think those two answers would be the same.

What it’s like to be a Reviews editor

Have you ever wondered what reviews editors do? Chasing authors to submit and making edits to the text of the reviews? That is just a small part of it.

In this editorial we outlined the story of a Review from commissioning to publication. As editors, we spend a lot of time searching for ideas for potential reviews. We travel to conferences and visit labs to find out what the community is interested in and whet types of reviews are missing. Then we work closely with authors to develop the idea of the review, and then polish the text before publication to make it accessible and self-contained so that physicists from other fields can follow, make use of — and enjoy — the article.

Some of the crew on an ice skating trip last winter

Being an editor is a busy and stimulating job. Producing monthly issues means regular deadlines and a lot of planning ahead. We coordinate and liaise with authors, referees, art and production editors to make sure that the content is published regularly as the readers expect. The job is also very sociable. We are part of the journal teams and the wider physical sciences reviews journal teams and even wider reviews team. We also interact a lot with our colleagues at Nature, Nature Communications and the Nature research journals. All editors have academic backgrounds and we all share the love of science and common experiences from our PhD and postdoc years.

Here are some comments from editors of Nature Reviews journals in the physical sciences:

Iulia Georgescu, Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Physics: I think the role of reviews editors is not well understood. We are not gate-keepers, but guides walking together with the authors all the way from idea to publication. We often think of manuscripts as ‘our babies’ because we are as invested as the authors who wrote them. It is a wonderful thing to see a Review evolve from a vague idea, to a well-structured outline and then a full manuscript. We feel great satisfaction when we see the reviews we worked on published and take pride when they are well-received by the community. I often think: look at my baby and how well it’s doing.

The editor’s natural habitat

Giulia Pacchioni, Senior Editor at Nature Reviews Materials: Being a Reviews editor is a lot of fun — I like keeping an eye on how ideas evolve from initial results presented at a conference to a flurry of publications as the topic becomes more established, and deciding when is the perfect moment to commission a Review. I am lucky to have the opportunity to travel to plenty of conferences and lab visits to keep in touch with the community, and to spend a lot of time reading and thinking about science.

Claire Ashworth, who works for our inter-journal team providing support to Nature Reviews Physics, Nature Reviews Materials and Nature Reviews Chemistry: I enjoy seeing an idea develop into a published Review and working with authors at each stage of the publication process to achieve this. I think that Reviews editors are quite unique in terms of the amount of time that we invest into each article and the extent to which we use both our scientific knowledge and editorial experience to help to ‘shape’ an article.

Stephen Davey, Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Chemistry: The Reviews editor role is rather different to that of a primary research journal editor – and not just because I spend my time chasing authors rather than being chased by them. I get to put a lot into every manuscript that I handle. And I do it all while travelling the world, meeting interesting people and slaking my thirst for knowledge.

Zoe Budrikis, Associate Editor at Nature Reviews Physics: Every day — every hour, sometimes! — in this job is different. I can go from looking for commissioning ideas in soft matter physics, to line-editing a review on the physics of climate modelling, to discussing with editors in other journals about what the latest trends in complexity research are.

Interactions: Daniel Hook

Daniel Hook  is CEO at Digital Science and in his free time continues to work in theoretical physics.

What did you train in? What are you doing now?

I spent 11 years studying physics and theoretical physics at Imperial College London.  Originally, I joined the Physics with Theoretical Physics BSc program in 1996, I carried on to do a 1-year MSc in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces in 2000.  I then studied part time for a PhD in Quantum Statistical Mechanics with Dorje Brody finishing in July 2007, submitting just before the RAE deadline. I’m now CEO of Digital Science, a technology company that aims to improve the research ecosystem by providing better tools for researchers, administrators, librarians, funders, publishers and corporates.  While the leap from theoretical physics research to trying to improve how research is done is an improbable one, I will attempt to explain (below) how that happened.

How do you introduce yourself (I am a physicist/entrepreneur/…)

I always claim that Theoretical Physics is not a job that you do but rather it is the person that you are.  As such, it’s difficult to answer this question since I’ve always felt I’m both physicist and entrepreneur – I certainly bring a lot of aspects of theoretical-physics thinking to how I approach business.  Introducing myself as CEO, entrepreneur or academic all seem to be disingenuous to one or other of the communities of which I consider myself to be a part, so I usually introduce myself as “someone who helps software start-ups to support researchers”.

How did you your career progress from a PhD in theoretical physics to leading Digital Science?

That’s a long story, but an abbreviated version goes something like this. Carrying on in theoretical physics after a PhD usually means 5-10 years of postdocs in several geographic locations; the often-taken alternative being working for a bank as a quantitative analyst.  Neither alternative seemed to be very attractive to me, or to my office mates at the time, so we founded a software company called Symplectic together. We liked academia, but had noticed that the software that academics had wasn’t too good, so we started working with a variety of parts of Imperial College to develop better software to support academics.  In particular, the Faculty of Medicine was very collaborative and together we developed a piece of software that would later become Symplectic Elements, our research information management platform. By 2009, we had started to sell Elements outside Imperial College and had been noticed by Nature Publishing Group, who were already planning to launch Digital Science at the time.  Symplectic became one of Digital Science’s first investments in 2010.

By 2013, I was spending about equal parts of my time working on Symplectic and helping to establish the Research Metrics group at Digital Science, which wasn’t really fair to either company.  As a result, in the middle of the year, I moved to become Director of Research Metrics at Digital Science and Symplectic promoted Jonathan Breeze to become the new CEO of the company. Two years’ later, Digital Science’s founding Managing Director, Timo Hannay, decided to launch his own start-up SchoolDash and I was asked to lead Digital Science as his successor.

How did you co-found Symplectic? Do you have any advice for young scientists who would follow your career path?

Co-founding Symplectic, as I’ve mentioned, was in part a decision based on the idea that the four of us who co-founded the company didn’t want to leave academia, but also didn’t see a route to do theoretical physics in a way that worked for us. We also wanted to give back to an environment that we loved and where, through our PhD studies, we had seen lots of things that could have been done better with a good software solution.  Luckily, in a lot of theoretical physics research, you usually need to learn some level of coding. In those early years between 2002 and 2008, the four of us wrote about 12 pieces of software from a web content management system to an examination management system. It was a great way to learn the tools of our trade and to learn how to run a company.

I would not recommend following my career path to anyone – it was very much a personal choice and one that, by luck, has turned out to suit me.  That said, undergraduates and PhD students are often taught a definition of success that is very narrowly defined – specifically in the academic context.  What I have learned from my non-standard path is that success can be many things and that ultimately it is about finding a way to make a difference in a way that is personal to you.

Why are you still involved in active research?

As I said earlier, I don’t believe that theoretical physics is just something that you do.  I really love doing research and I’m very lucky in that the type of research problem that interests me is the type of problem for which I only really need a pen, some paper and perhaps a computer.  At the same time, I happen to think that if you’re going to write tools for researchers you can only do that well if you understand what challenges researchers actually face on a day-to-day basis. As such, I think it’s important that I continue to do research to be constantly reminded of what the challenges are and what doesn’t work as well as it could.

I should also say that I’m very fortunate to work with some really great collaborators who put up with my very busy travel schedule and who continue to work with me after all these years.

What is your vision for the future of science communication?

This is a really complicated question.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem and I’ve given a few talks on it in the past couple of years. You can find one of them here.  If you can’t sit through the whole 55 minutes of the video, then I can try to summarize my position as follows.  I think that:

  • Communication must become more open and more collaborative – I think that material will be shared earlier in the research process with a greater range of people and that there will be credit and incentives that help this to become a reality;
  • The mechanisms that capture the research outputs of experiments or other data gathering activities will become smarter, more nuanced and more complete in the contextual data that they capture – current equipment and approaches are far too narrow and focused, and don’t capture nearly enough context around the experiment;
  • Communication will become more iterative – we can already see this starting to happen in that researchers now release datasets independently of a publication; there are often versions to the dataset as more data are collected and added to the public release; preprints are also changing our relationship with versions of record and the concept of priority in research.
  • We will move away from the scholarly article.

Ultimately, what makes the scholarly article and the monograph the two preferred forms of communication are three key factors:  Firstly, the fact that they are published on a specific date. This allows them to, secondly, have a physical form, which happens to be fundamentally the same as one that we learn to interact with from a young age. Thirdly, that physical form encapsulates an elegant structure of information that quickly gives us contextual information about what we’re reading.

In short, we are conditioned to hold something in our hands that feels like a book. With research literature that is only possible because a particular version is published on a particular day.  As Geoffrey Builder has observed, by just looking at the front page of a paper, any researcher can identify where the authors, affiliations, title, abstract, main text, journal name, page number, date and DOI are located in the layout without seeing even a single word.  Indeed, in many cases researchers can identify the name of the journal from layout alone.

However, the past few years have seen the nature of research results in many fields change completely.  An increasing number of researchers now have vast amounts of data that they need to share in order for their research to be reproducible; they have developed software; their data needs to be consumed as a video or audio file or using a specific viewer in order to interpret it.  On top of this, many researchers are beginning to see significant value in sharing negative results to increase the efficiency of the research system. None of these aspects can easily be fitted into the standard, flat, paper-based article or monograph.

As a result, I see the principal research outputs becoming the research objects rather than the papers.  I see a deep need to change research evaluation and incentives to take this shift into account. I see research communication becoming more like computer software in the sense that it should be highly versioned, highly collaborative and quite open.  I believe that “co-authorship” of research objects will be fluid and changing in time. I think that research reviews may be created by AIs at our request – relating research objects that interest us and pulling together the thinking of multiple researchers to meet our current need for information.

Even if my predictions are not accurate, it seems clear that there are many opportunities to rethink how publication works and that there are a number of transitions that are likely to take place in the next few years.

The story behind the story: Breadcrumbs for an alien

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Bo Balder with her new story, Breadcrumbs for an alien. Bo has previously introduced us to Skin hunger and the story I die a little, and in her latest piece, she wrestles with some curious communication difficulties. You can find about more about Bo’s work and her novel The Wan at her website or by finding her on Facebook and Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her latest story — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Breadcrumbs for an alien

I wrote Breadcrumbs for an alien while thinking about communication.

I grew up with Star Trek the Original Series, where aliens are just human actors with bits of rubber stuck to their faces. Everybody spoke the same language, American English, and the problem wasn’t usually understanding each other’s goals and desires. Klingons wanted to fight. Starfleet officers wanted peace. The humans always won.
Jabba the Hutt was a bit uglier and more alien than Spock. And sure, aliens have become more complex and more alien since. The movie Arrival is a great example of that.
But still, it’s usually clear that there are sentient aliens, that they understand we are sentient, and that both sides are trying to bridge the communication gap. It’s only a matter of movie time and the heroine’s insights to get there.
And  yet human beings don’t really need to meet aliens to experience misunderstandings. Isn’t trying to get our meaning across and ourselves understood what we do every day of our lives? And isn’t it usually hard, even between persons of the same species, language and culture?
I think when we meet real aliens, if we meet them, the gap we need to bridge is a bit wider than an episode of space opera or the length of a book.
Suppose we managed to meet aliens living concurrent with us in this Universe that is vast in both space and time, would we be able to communicate with them? Would we even recognize them as sentient beings, and they us?
What if a human astronaut landed among a civilization so different to her own she couldn’t even recognize its existence? No matter how hard the other party tried to signal to them, how willing and eager they were to find common ground? There is both tragedy and comedy to be found in such a situation, and that’s where I went with this piece.

The story behind the story: Proxima junk

This week, Futures welcomes new writer Mark Vandersluis with his story Proxima junk. By day, Mark is an IT manager for a telecoms company in the UK. By night, he writes, and we are pleased to present the fruits of his labour. Here, Mark reveals the inspiration for his story — beware, this post contains spoilers, so please read the story first!

Writing Proxima junk

I’m old enough to have grown up feeling terrified by the ever present threat of nuclear Armageddon, and old enough now to fear the catastrophic consequences of climate meltdown for future generations.  In this story, I decided to look at what might remain of humanity’s greatest achievements should such planet-wide catastrophes occur. How might we be remembered or understood some centuries later? I wanted to consider these questions by taking an outsider’s viewpoint; in this case, the narrative would be delivered by an alien with no real knowledge of our history or motives. Wanting to set the story at a nearby star, the ‘Proxima’ part of the title came first; I have no idea why the word ‘junk’ then spontaneously came to mind, but in that moment, the exact setting for the story crystallized and from that, the whole the story quickly followed. For me, this is not the first time that a seemingly random process of title selection has been the catalyst for the production of a complete story. Are there any explanations out there?

Most of us have at some time or another browsed around a curiosity shop, a junkyard or car boot sale, looking through bric-a-brac for something of interest, or of enough value for us to consider making a purchase. So here we find ourselves somewhere near Proxima Centauri, a bit of a galactic backwater, in a scruffy little junk shop with one alien salesperson and just one prospective customer. The salesperson must use all his finely honed skills to keep the customer engaged and interested, in order to achieve a sale. Reading between the lines of the salesperson’s (mostly incorrect) speculations on human artefacts, we learn that humanity’s greatest achievements have either been destroyed by ourselves or ended up in this second-rate junkyard. Most of what remains from Earth seems destined to become a ‘coffee table’ curiosity (or even worse, eaten!). We also learn that after damaging our planet irreparably, things rapidly went downhill for us as a species.

So what is left that aliens might consider worth buying? Sadly, in my eyes, the answer is ‘not much’, unless you have a taste for radioactive metal, or would like that last remaining Voyager disc as a talking point in your home. This future is a bleak one for us, one which we must absolutely strive to avoid.

As readers, we do also get to glimpse some of the wonders of our Universe, which unfortunately our own species never managed to behold: advanced spacecraft, exotic lifeforms, advanced artefacts and energy sources, alien art. By contrast, our technologies are dismissed as ‘primitive’. In the partial descriptions and conversations of salesperson and customer, we get a hint of the diversity of races in the Galaxy. We also see that many of the traits and behaviours (some positive, some less so) which we identify as ‘human’ might well be universal: special offers and discounts, guarantees and loyalty cards, mailing lists, limited edition collectables, accidents, haggling, inane questions in second-hand shops. The importance of family. The likelihood that salespeople will be salespeople the Galaxy over.

And of course, we learn never to underestimate the universal comfort of dunking a biscuit into a nice cup of tea or coffee (or slime!) at break time.

The story behind the story: How we know they have faces

This week, Futures considers the world of aesthetics with Marissa Lingen’s story How we know they have faces. Regular readers will be well versed in Marissa’s work, but if you’re new to her writing, please check out her website and Twitter feed — as well as the other stories she has written for Futures (handily collected at the foot of this post). Here, Marissa reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing How we know they have faces

Once upon a time there were three little girls — two sisters and their cousin — who loved stories about aliens and spaceships.

The oldest little girl grew up to be a nurse educator, the kind of nurse with a couple of master’s degrees and heaps of opinions about whatever brand-new drugs and medical equipment came along. She still loved science fiction, and lots and lots of science fiction stories had medical themes, which made her pretty happy, although she liked the stories that didn’t have those things, too.

The middle little girl, cousin to the two sisters, grew up to study nuclear physics, then diverted into a career in writing science fiction. (Spoiler alert: this one is me.) And sure, she was writing the stories herself, but even when she was ‘just’ a reader, she could find lots and lots of stories that touched on the physics she loved. And that made her pretty happy too — although if you paged through her work it went outside the bounds of physics just like her cousin went outside the bounds of medicine for her reading joy.

The youngest little girl grew up to be an aesthetician. She thought about aliens and the big wide universe just as much as she ever had, because being an artist with make-up and other visuals of the human face wouldn’t have any reason to change that, but for some reason there weren’t a lot of stories that combined her professional love with her science fiction joy. She was willing to step outside her own field and enjoy other people’s interests, which is a good thing, because she had to be. Because despite the near-universal human interest in modifying and decorating our own forms, not a lot of science fiction gets written about it.

Mary, this one is for you.

Other Futures stories by Marissa Lingen

Say it with mastodons | My favourite sentienceSeven point twoPlanet of the five rings | Running safety tips for humansThe most important thing | The many media hypothesis | Boundary waters | Maxwell’s Demon went down to Georgia | The stuff we don’t do | Unsolved logistical problems in time travel: spring semester | Entanglement | Quality control | Search strings | Alloy

The story behind the story: Shipmaster’s scalp

In this week’s Futures, Jeremy Szal returns with his mind-bending story Shipmaster’s scalp. Jeremy is, of course, no stranger to Futures (you can see a list of his other pieces at the foot of this post), and you can catch up with his work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the genesis of his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Shipmaster’s scalp

Being able to access anything, from anywhere, at anytime, via the Internet, is a great thing. The only catch is that someone, somewhere, at anytime, can access you back.

I’m talking about the usual suspects: Google, Apple, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter: and hundreds of other apps, services and browsers that we happily feed our personal data, credit-card information, passwords, search results and more, into on a daily basis. It may seem innocent at first, but when we start seeing ads targeted towards something we’ve said in passing conversation on the phone, then things get frightening. Even more when the videos we watch, the places we’ve been, and the things we’ve purchased, are used by the Faceless Big Corporations to paint an online picture of us, selling that data onwards to third-party marketers for profit.

Such was the inspiration for Shipmaster’s scalp. A future where privacy has become a luxury only the rich can afford, and anyone has else has everything about them and everything they do, stored online for anyone, usually people with nefarious purposes, to eyeball and exploit for their own gain. In our world, we have ad blockers and proxies to combat this. In Kharrus’ world, an entire network of smugglers exists to get around this act of perverse intrusion of privacy. Because, regardless of the terms of use, sneaking around in the personal data of others is an act of privacy violation, and can be (and is) frequently exploited. It’s why I had Kharrus be tortured with a virus that violates the uttermost private and personal place imaginable: his mind. For months and months and months.

Seems ludicrous? And yet, that’s almost exactly what these corporations and tech companies are doing when they track, quite literally, every step you take, every word you speak, everything you purchase, and sell it on to appropriate people, or utilize for themselves. Who’s to say they won’t corporate with the authorities, or individuals with even worse intentions, if the opportunities calls for it? What if they see you purchasing something suspicious? Or frequenting a seedy place? Or communicating with people with criminal records? It’s the reason I deliberately made Kharrus’ captors more evil than he is: he’s defending the lives of the people he cares about. Their own goal is to root out a bad blip to society. Because, on the Internet, that’s exactly what you are: a faceless, soulless, blip, nothing more than a fistful of megabytes, a handful of search results and a potential for exploitation and profit.

More Futures stories by Jeremy Szal

Daega’s test | System reboot | Walls of Nigeria | When there’s only dust left | Traumahead | Tomorrow, the sunset will be blue

The story behind the story: Faulty machines

This week, Futures welcomes back Gretchen Tessmer with her conflict-weary story Faulty machines. Gretchen has previously introduced us to a hive mind and revealed how it feels to be swallowed by a black hole. You can find out more about her work by following her on Twitter. Here she reveals the inspiration behind her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Faulty machines

This story is what happens when you’re casually watching a random online argument flame itself into a raging wildfire of petty nonsense (i.e. why is a raven like a writing desk? — but with more politics) … while simultaneously half-listening to the random Transformers movie that’s playing on the television in the background.

Which Transformers movie, you ask? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. There’s a lot of them. I remember Michael-Bay-grade explosions and Optimus Prime definitely showed up to save the day at some point. But that’s all I know.

So anyway, I started scribbling about battle robots and this story just kind of fell onto the page fully formed. It’s not a new idea obviously (“an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind”) but it’s one that I’ve explored a few times in other stories/poems and will probably continue exploring.

Logic, plans and good intentions — I love how we try to order the world into nice, clean patterns. But then feelings step in and everything starts to melt, or go sideways, or burn the place down. Or turn numb in grief, in Lucy’s case.

Feelings are faulty and unpredictable. But hey, it keeps the story interesting.