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January 29, 2003

Palm Pilot; Criticism

One rather unexpected side benefit from my whole recent computer meltdown fracas is that I've found myself in possession of a Palm Pilot -- an m125 Palm Pilot, which if I follow the Palm Pilot nomenclature correctly is sort of their "Accord" model: Not exactly a Kia, but not as full-featured as a Beemer. I got it for free, so what do I care -- for free, the Accord model suits me just fine.

I got it because my mother-in-law won it in a sweepstakes sponsored by Philip Morris (now called Altria, presumably on the theory that it's okay to blacken the lungs of your customers if your company's name sounds like that of an affordable import sedan) and sent it along to me to see if I could make heads or tails out of it. Then Krissy let slip that I had gotten a new computer, and mom-in-law started angling for the old one (as soon as it's been fixed, of course). That had in fact been my plan, and mom-in-law was so excited to hear that that she gave me the Palm Pilot in exchange. And there it is: The one verifiable story in the history of the world of smoking having a positive benefit for a non-smoker.

I have to say that I don't see too much point in Palm Pilots or most other PDAs, which by and large are a $400 solution to an 89-cent problem, which is -- "give me something to write this note on." Functionally speaking there's very little a Palm Pilot is good for that pocket-sized spiral notebook can't do. PDAs are beginning to correct this by getting more and more tricked out -- the latest Sony PDA basically has the same processing power as the desktop computer I owned in 1998 -- but again the functionality for this $600 beauty (it takes notes! It plays music! It takes pictures!) can be replicated with a spiral notepad, a portable CD player and cheap camera for a total outlay of $50, tops. No, you won't look as cool, but you'd have an extra $550, which you could use to buy some Manolo Blahnik pumps. And then you would look as cool. Odd how looking cool ultimately requires a stupid expenditure of money.

Which is not to say I won't use the Palm Pilot. I'm going to New York in a couple of days to meet with clients and publishers; I might as well use the Palm Pilot to stash my notes and directions and phone numbers. Normally I'd use a little notebook, but seeing as one of those would set me back 89 cents (not counting the pen) and the Palm Pilot was free, the Palm Pilot is surprisingly the economical answer in this case.

I have found one entirely useful activity for the Palm Pilot, which is as a storage device for e-texts. In addition to my own book (which I figure it would be useful to have a copy of on hand, seeing as I'm meeting with my publisher), I've also downloaded The Innocents Abroad and Mont Saint Michele and Chartres from Project Gutenberg, which is devoted to publishing public domain works online -- not that they'll be getting any new public domain material anytime soon, thank you very much Bono Act (note to self: Make sure that after I die, all works enter the public domain sometime before my grandchildren are in danger of physical decrepitude).

There's some nicely delicious irony in the fact that the most useful activity I can think of for this bit of 21st Century technology is for it to hold 19th Century works of literature. But then again, why not? There really are worse things than for a pixellated Henry Adams to get a new life on a Palm Pilot. Free literature on a free PDA! It doesn't get any better than that.


On the subject of writing (and, very loosely, literature) a reader sent me an e-mail yesterday letting me know that while he enjoyed Old Man's War, he had a couple of suggestions about the story that he thought would make it even better, which he then proceeded to provide to me. It was basically all I could do to keep from chewing off the inside of my cheek.

It's not this guy's fault, mind you. I understand that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, and I appreciate that he liked the story enough to offer suggestions on how it could be improved. The intentions are good and I wouldn't want this guy to think I thought he was out of line for making suggestions, or that he should be stomped to death by 40-foot fighting robots for having the temerity to question my prose.

But having said that, "constructive criticism" drives me up a freakin' wall. To be entirely honest, I like criticism of my work to be generally unconstructive. I don't mind if, say, you you tell me my dialogue stinks and is unrealistic, but I do mind if you tell me my dialogue stinks and the way to fix it is to do A or B or C. When I had Old Man's War out to beta testers, I asked them to catch grammar, spelling and continuity errors, and to tell me what they liked and didn't liked about the story. But I also specifically told them not to offer suggestions on how to fix things. Why? Because I didn't want to hear them. It's enough for me to know if you think something's not working in the writing. It's my job as a writer to figure out how to fix these problems -- or not, since something you might see as a bug in the writing is something that I might see as a feature.

Of course, this little quirk of my writing character comes across as arrogance, and I cop to that. I've always been arrogant when it comes to writing; I remember back as a first year student in college getting into trouble with my Art History TA when I refused to participate in classroom peer review of other students' papers. I refused on the grounds that inasmuch as the other students weren't actually qualified either as English or Art instructors, any comments they might have would be of questionable utility to me and therefore a waste of my time, and because if I was going to have review other people's work and basically do the TA's job, I wanted to get paid. This position assured me of getting reamed by the TA when it came time to get papers graded (I think I ended up getting a C- in the class), but I didn't care about that. And, irony of ironies, as soon as I'm done with this Whatever, I'll be starting an article on the Dada movement and getting paid nicely for it. So we can see how the battle of the C-minus-giving-TA vs. my youthful arrogance eventually panned out.

But aside from the question of my arrogance (or at least only tangentially related to it) comes the question of the critic's competence. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, and speaking as a professional critic, I'm all for people expressing their point of view. You don't need to be a professional musician to know you like a particular piece of music, or a professional writer to know what you like and don't like about an article or story. Lots of creative people seem to think that that only their peers are qualified to criticize, but that's just a stupid defensive measure creative types pull out of their ass when they don't want to admit that being criticized simultaneously stings and deflates the ego.

While everyone's competent to express an opinion about whether something works, it doesn't stand to reason that everyone is in a position to suggest how the piece might be improved. Independent of the specific critic, there's no reason to believe that the piece would be improved if, say, different plot branches were utilized, or if certain motivations were explored, or whatever. The end result of these changes could be worse piece, or better one, or simply one that is equally bad in a completely different way. Changing something is not implicitly equivalent to improving something. Back around the Murmur era of things for REM, people complained that they couldn't understand Michael Stipe's lyrics. But if they could would the music have been better? Not necessarily; Stipe's maddening mumble was part of early REM's allure. Murmur might have been better if you could hear what Stipe was saying; but then again, it might have been worse.

Then there's the matter of personal competence as it relates to making suggestions about writing. No offense, people, but most of you aren't professional writers or editors, and that does make a difference. When Patrick Nielsen Hayden comes to me with specific suggestions about what needs to be done to punch up Old Man's War (as he's already told me he will), you're damn right I'll listen; he's Senior Editor of Tor and in that capacity knows how to shape text so that it's both successful creatively and has a shot in the marketplace, and those are two things I want the book to be. Were another working novelist to offer unsolicited advice on a plot point, I would likewise listen attentively. These people have the real world experience that convinces me they know what they're talking about.

Short of those categories, however, I'm liable to ask myself how much you know about the dynamics of writing professionally, and if the answer I get is "not much," I will then ask myself why I should be listening to your specific writing suggestions. Doctors don't listen to suggestions from their baker on how to perform surgery (or if they do to be polite, they don't usually take them very seriously). They listen to doctors. Likewise, it it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, I go to writers and editors first. Yes, I realize this goes back to the whole "arrogance" thing. But, you know, look -- I've been writing professionally for well over a decade now. This is what I do. Financially speaking, this is all I do. This is my day job. When it comes to writing, I'm pretty confident I know what I'm doing (most of the time).

I do try not to be stupid in my arrogance. When I was writing my astronomy book, I had a couple of friends with PhDs in astronomy look over some early chapters, on the principle that they, being doctors of astronomy, were eminently qualified to tell me if and when I had my head up my rectum (it wasn't, mostly). And I'm not saying that non-writers can't have excellent suggestions about the craft of writing; they can and do, both in a general sense and specifically relating to my work. I'm not even saying that I don't sometimes ask for advice from non-writers, or writers who are not yet professional writers; I've done both, and my writing is better for it.

What I am saying is that if you're not a writer or editor, and you offer me specific writing advice without prompting, you should know I'm going to consider the source in evaluating how useful the advice is to me. Please don't be too offended if my estimation of its utility ultimately differs from yours. I do appreciate the thought, honestly. But this isn't one of those situations where it's only the thought that counts.

Posted by john at 05:51 PM | Comments (2)

January 27, 2003

Bad Mechanical Karma

First, an exchange between me and Athena. It helps to know that she just learned how to count to three in Spanish. Got that? Okay, then:

Me: Hey, Athena. Say 'three' in Spanish.

Athena: Three in Spanish.

Just in case any of you were wondering if she was really my kid.


I suspect that in a former life I must have been both against technology and a bad person -- say, a drunken abusive Amish -- because that's the only reason I can explain why I have such bad luck with technology. This last week had me throwing money away in big fat handfuls as a consequence of my technological bad karma. Yes, I'm bitter. Stupid karmic wheel.

Let's start with the utterly unsurprising demise of my computer. As many of you may remember, late last year I decided to upgrade my then-current computer rather than replace it entirely, on the idea that a new processor and video card would do me just fine -- and that turned into a week-long process roughly as pleasurable as having nails slammed into one's eyes with a ball-peen hammer. Well, it turns out all that pain and expense was for naught, because in the wee hours of Saturday morning the motherboard (i.e., the primary piece of equipment I decided not to upgrade) decided to fry itself in its own juices.

So just get a new motherboard, right? Well, Mr or Ms oh-so-logical, there are a couple of problems here. First, I live miles from anywhere, so I can't just toddle down to the motherboard store and get me one of those bad girls. Second, even if I did, the odds of me successfully installing one on my own are roughly equivalent to the odds of me winning the Kentucky Derby riding an alpaca. Third, Because I live in the middle of nowhere, I'm at the mercy of a) computer repairmen who think they should be able to take Saturdays off, and b) computer repairmen who do work on Saturdays but then decide to blow off their appointment with you, leaving you to wonder at 10pm in the evening whether or not they've been consumed by coyotes, and at 11pm indeed hoping that was the case. And of course no one works on Sunday, because of the only confluence of God and Football (never, EVER have a computer implode on Super Bowl weekend. That is all).

Finally, I have a clock ticking: I had already over-extended a deadline for an article I was writing on, and I absolutely positively no excuses have to get it in first thing Monday morning, and the revision and all the notes I have for are on my computer's hard drive (this is where people smugly say -- well, you should have backed up. But it wasn't the hard drive that crashed. It was the computer. Even if it were backed up, I still couldn't access the information. So bite me). I did take the hard drive in question and attempt to install it on my daughter's computer, but in one of those quirks that undoubtedly has Bill Gates laughing manically as he snorkels through his riches, the way Windows XP formats hard drives is different than the way Windows 98 formats drives. Don't worry, I've already reserved a nice spot in the sixth circle of Hell for Gates and his idiot information architecture group. No, no, don't thank me. They earned it.

Long story short (or shorter, at least): I have a new computer, which, in the only bit of good news in this whole story, is both pretty sweet and relatively inexpensive. It's a vpr Matrix FT5110-PE, "vpr Matrix" apparently being the house brand for Best Buy (which I drove an hour and change to get to -- in blowing snow! Uphill! Both ways!). Despite being a store brand, the Matrix line is fairly well-regarded and also sports a design from the Porsche design studio. I don't actually care about that last bit, personally, but on the other hand, it's nice to see Best Buy make the effort. I'm rather more taken with the specs: the short form is a 2.8 Pentium 4, 512MB RAM, 100GB hard drive (to which I added the aforementioned hard drive, which is 80GB), DVD-ROM and DVD-R/RW drives, 64MB GeForce4 MX420 (which I'll actually be swapping out, since the graphics card in my other computer is better), and so on and so forth. In all, a nice upgrade from where I was. I would have preferred not to have to have it, mind you, but now that I do have it, it's not so bad. And I also got a slightly better deal because I took the store's floor model. It has a small scratch on it, and that's 10% off. I can live with that.

One amusing point of the buying process is that, this being Best Buy, the sales dude tried to sell me the extended warranty, pointing out that most manufacturers won't warranty floor models. I pointed out to him that Best Buy's policy was to honor the manufacturer's warranty on any floor model they have. And anyway, Best Buy is the manufacturer. Honestly, now. Buying extended warranties on computers is folly in any event, since there's little point in having a three-year service deal on an object that's going to outdated and upgraded in a year. Although I suppose given my luck with computers it couldn't have hurt.

In case you're wondering: Yes, I got that article done. It'll pay for the computer, thank God.

Okay, I'm going to try swapping the video card now. Pray for me.

Posted by john at 05:57 PM | Comments (2)

January 22, 2003

Salon's New Deal; Editing

After a trial period earlier last year, Salon has decided to go ahead with a new way to stay alive, which is to allow non-subscribers to view its content -- if they agree to view an ad first. Essentially, Salon is doing this because its subscription model is a big fat failure.

David Talbot, Salon's amusingly dissembling editor, spins the rationale for this switch in a really interesting way, first by declaring the subscription fiasco as a moral victory ("Nearly 60,000 of you have signed up to become Salon Premium subscribers -- far more than the doomsayers predicted would ever pay for our editorial services") and then noting in the very next sentence that it's also a business failure ("But to break even, Salon needs to sign up more of you"). It's the one article on Salon today that you don't need to sit through an ad to read, incidentally.

Talbot then rather incompletely lays Salon's fiscal misfortunes at the door of the collapsing Internet ad market. "Even in the glory days of online publishing," he intones, "advertising alone couldn't pay the rent." Maybe, but Salon also didn't exactly look for rent in a cheap part of town, if you get my drift. There's no point in discounting the online ad market collapse, but Talbot also conveniently ignores his own company's famously prodigious burn rate and propensity for finding really interesting and creative ways to throw money out of high windows, such as spending $5 million to buy MP3Lit.com, a Web site offering spoken word recordings, in May of 2000 (really, how much does it cost to record an author reading?).

If Talbot and his pals had not spent the "glory days of online publishing" lighting piles of Benjamins in bonfire-like stacks to keep warm in those chilly San Francisco summers, it's possible they'd have more fiscal maneuvering room today. So, yes, the online ad market sucks. But, that's not the only reason Salon's in financial trouble. The ad market is a downward slope, but Salon spent millions on a shiny greased toboggan to get down that slope as quickly as possible.

Talbot also paints the picture of a World Wide Web bereft of reading material: "In the past couple of years, the Web has become a graveyard for dozens of creative, independent sites," he declares. On the other hand, in the past couple of years, it's also seen a massive explosion in creative, independent Web sites in the form of blogs, some of which provide as good or better reading than the sites that have vaporized, and some of which are arguably now as influential as Salon itself when it comes to certain issues.

Talbot credits Salon for beating the drum on the recent Trent Lott controversy, but most of the early heavy lifting on that came from Josh Marshall and his TalkingPointsMemo.com site, with an assist from Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, who linked to Josh from their own sites and added their own pungent commentary to make the point that disgust with Trent Lott's comments weren't only a lefty thing.

Salon does do good work and has good writers -- even at its most smugly annoying, the site usually manages at least one good story a day. And it pays writers, a little fact which should never be overlooked. Nor are most blogs prime reading material -- just enough of them are to make the daily trip around the Internet roughly the same timesuck it's been since the 20th Century. But the point is, Salon's not a lone voice crying out in the online wilderness. It's merely the one in the most financial trouble.

(The irony here is of course that Salon has tried to capitalize on the blog revolution, literally, by offering up space for blogs on its servers for $40 a year. In Internet cultural terms, this is somewhat akin to one's mom coming to pick you up from school wearing hip huggers and a midriff-baring cutoff that shows off her belly button tattoo. I don't think this revenue scheme has been successful, either in attracting bloggers -- who can get their own vanity domain and blogging software for the same price or less -- or in marketing the bloggers that are there. The most successful blogger on Salon Blogs is Salon's own Scott Rosenberg, who since 7/11/2002 has registered 337,505 hits (as of this writing), which averages out roughly 1,875 hits a day ("hits" being a meaningless stat, incidentally, since it could refer to page views or unique visits or discrete requests for files, of which several can be used to make up a single page). I get roughly the same sort of traffic -- in unique visitors -- on a daily basis, and I don't update every day or have the advantage of one of the leading online magazines flogging my site. Glenn Reynold's Instapundit, as a comparison, is averaging about 60,000 unique visits a day. It's like every single Salon subscriber visiting Instapundit on a daily basis.)

All of this may lead you to think that I think the "view an ad, get content" content scheme is a bad one. Actually, I don't -- if Salon can make it work, more power to 'em. As a working freelance writer, I'm in no rush to see a paying market (even one I've never been in) vaporize. And while I think a significant portion of people won't click through an ad every single day (not because they're anti-advertising -- the whole "information wants to be free" mantra is so 1999 -- but because they don't want to waste mouse clicks), I think significantly more will put up with an ad than will shell out $30 for a Salon subscription. Which is the whole point.

I do suspect that Talbot, et al hopes that getting people to view the premium content this way will help convert some of those non-subscribers to subscribers, either because they find they like the premium stuff, or because they get tired of wading through the ads. I'll be interested to see if this happens. My gut says it won't -- it's not as if Salon hasn't been around for a while, and those readers who wanted to avoid advertising have already been signed up (this is why I'll still pay the subscription fee once mine runs out later this year).

Interestingly, Salon is also offering an intermediate, $18.95 level of access, which allows access to all its content without forcing you to sit through an ad, but still has advertising on the text pages -- basically, Salon as it was circa the turn of the millennium. That's a fascinating idea. I don't know how successful it will be, since someone who's willing to pay $20 a year for Salon would probably be willing to pay $30. But it has almost a nostalgic tinge to it, a return to a more innocent time when when online magazines thought they would take over the world, and spent millions on companies whose product could have been easily replicated just about for free. Ah, to be young again.


Time is getting close for The Rough Guide to the Universe -- final edits are due next Monday, so I'm poring through galleys looking for grammar and formatting errors, of which (of course) there are plenty, primary among them omissions of metric system measurements for temperatures, distances, weights and so forth. The book is to be published more or less simultaneously in North America and the UK, and rather than publish two separate versions, one with metric and one with imperial measurements, we're putting them both in. So for example, I'd say the Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of 93 million miles/150 million km. Unfortunately, we arrived at this decision halfway through writing the book, so many of the early chapters are missing metric, which I'm now rather laboriously putting back in.

This is, incidentally, yet another reason why it rocks to live in the Internet era, since instead of having to calculate the values with a calculator or in my own head, either of which would be monstrously error-prone, and would drive me to ram a rusty spike through my temple to stop the pain of math, I merely go to OnlineConversion.com and let it handle all the heavy lifting for me. I don't know why Robert Fogt, the guy who put OnlineConversion.com up, thought it would be a grand idea to do so, but man, I'm glad he did. Bob, if you're reading this, you get a free copy of the book because you saved my brain from spasming uncontrollably. I thank you. My brain thanks you.

While I'm editing, I'm also getting a kick out of how I've been edited in the book by my Rough Guide editor. As some of you may know, Rough Guides is a publisher based out of London, so its editors also (and understandably) tend to be Britishers of some description or another. This means that they tend to "Britishize" the material I send them (or "Britisise," as they might spell it). The most obvious example of this is the extra "u" in words like "color," but there are are also distinct British colloquialisms that were inserted to replace distinctly American ones, and incidental comments have suddenly become Anglocentric -- a reference to the Boston Marathon is now a reference to the London Marathon.

The end result is a book voice that sounds like me, had I been born and raised roughly 6,000 miles north east of where I actually was. The same thing happened with Money Online, the first book that I did for Rough Guides, so now I wonder if the people who I meet who have read the books first ever find it odd that I don't have an English accent. I suppose I could fake one. It would never fly in the UK, where apparently accents change depending what side of a street you were raised on, but here in the US if you vaguely imitate Hugh Grant, you're fine. I already find it easier to sing on-key when I fake an accent (this from spending a significant portion of my teenage years singing along to Depeche Mode and other euro-dork bands), so going wholesale over to the speaking voice would just be a final evolution. And Americans automatically seem to assume that people with English accents are smarter anyway. That would be a real advantage on any publicity tour, because I am trying to sell an astronomy book, after all. It's something to think about.

On the other hand, the smartest Englishman I know about doesn't sound British, he sounds like a Speak and Spell. I don't think I'll be imitating his voice. Then everyone would know I'm faking it.

Posted by john at 06:01 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2003

Busy Redux; Academic Emergency

I know, I haven't exactly been a world-class updater these last couple of weeks. My excuse is the same as it was last week around this time: I've been hella busy, and it's been the good "damn if my writing career isn't just totally coming around" sort of busy as opposed to the bad "holy crap, no matter how much plasma I sell I still won't make the mortgage" sort of busy. Since a couple of months ago it appeared as though I might have more of the latter than the former, I feel somewhat justified in attending to that stuff first, and the Whatever secondarily if at all. I've always said that one of the main aims of the Whatever is to keep my writing skill sharp for when actual pay copy rolls around, and well, guess what. It's here. And may I just say: Wheee!

The fact of the matter is that it looks like 2003 is going to busy enough (and what's more, busy enough because I'm writing books, dance, dance, jig, jig) that I really have to reconsider what I'm doing here. This is not to say that I want to stop writing on the site, since it's become abundantly clear that Scalzi.com is good for me and my writing career, and I'm loathe to desert it. As Molly Ivins is fond of saying, you dance with them what brung you, and recently, what brung me is this site. Also, basically, since I work from home and am hundreds of miles from my most of my friends, this is also, um, much of my social life. I know. I know. Don't remind me. All I'm missing is the slide rule.

The problem is that writing long-form bits here really is time consuming, so I've been considering (as I often have in the -- good lord -- four plus years I've been doing this) writing something more explicitly blog-like. I've somewhat stuffily maintained for a very long time that the Whatever isn't a blog (it was around long before the word gained common currency, for one thing), but these days enough bloggers write long-form think pieces (refer to Den Beste and others) that the distinction between what I do and what some of them do is non-existent, and anyway, writing shorter, punchier and link-ier has some appeal. It's easier to write a lot of short things than it is to write one long thing and so by necessity I may end up writing shorter (and paradoxically, more).

Of course, knowing me, I won't do it -- Long-time readers will familiar with this pattern of mine where I declare that I'll be writing less and/or writing shorter and then go off on a multi-week long-form writing spree. Also, of course, the whole point of calling this the "Whatever" is to remind myself it's not supposed to have any set format, and that I can put up whatever I want, whenever I want. So who knows. I'm just sharing where my mind's at at the moment. Because, you know, I can.

In any event, if my appearance here is sporadic over the next few months, you'll know why. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Okay, now I'm done.


The Bradford school district, which is the district in which Athena will attend school, is currently in an academic emergency. Ohio tests each district's students on 22 separate levels of proficiency (which actually breaks down to tests in 5 or 6 different areas in grades 4, 6, 9, and 10). Bradford's aggregate student scores marked the district for failure in all but six of these categories; only two other local districts are comparatively more awful, one of them being the school district of Dayton, where the district only got passing scores in 2 out of 22 of the tests. Which is pretty awful. But one doesn't want one's child attending a school district whose major claim to fame is that it's not quite as bad as the district in the nearest big city with a rotting industrial core.

Now, there are some factors here which are not immediately obvious. The first is that these test scores reflect the scores from last year, before the kids in town got schlepped over to the brand spanking new super-high tech school for which the residents in town (your truly included) pay some of the highest local taxes in the state. Having a new school won't make for an inherently better educational experience any more than buying a new car will suddenly make you a better driver. But one can hope that staff and students will take advantage of the new capabilities of the building.

Another thing is that the school district is so small (about six hundred students total) that the poor performance of even a single student makes a significant statistical difference on one of these tests. One really dumb kid in your 4th graders class can pull down the performance of the whole district by a few percent, and of course, generally speaking and alas, dumb kids usually travel in packs. This is why Dayton's situation is really quite a bit worse than Bradford's; six kids that were kicked in the head by their farm horse can somewhat artificially deflate Bradford's district performance, but to do as poorly as Dayton, you have to be endemically failing to sufficiently educate literally thousands of children. So maybe things are not really all that bad.

But now let's also factor in some other intangibles. A third significant data point here is that Bradford is defined as a "Group 6" school district in Ohio, which means it's a "Rural Poor District." Any fan of current American pedagogy will tell you that you being both "rural" and "poor" are two strikes against you right off; from an educational point of view, the only thing that's worse than being rural and poor is being inner-city and poor (refer once again to Dayton).

I can attest to both the rural nature of Bradford (longtime readers will recall that my eastern and southern neighbors are, in fact, cornfields) and a quick spin through the town gives ample opportunity to reflect on the "poor" portion of that equation as well (the median family income was $43,500 at the time of the 2000 census, compared to the national average of $50K). "Poor" means many things, but specifically for public education it means a small tax base which (despite the aforementioned high local taxes) means the district needs outside help from the state.

It's also the sort of place where one does not see a lot of adults walking around with college educations. In a town of 1,859 souls at the 2000 census, precisely 41 of them had a BA or higher. It's not that people here are stupid, mind you -- I've met enough of the locals to know better than that (also, Krissy is currently lacking her BA, and she's one of the smartest humans I've ever met. Call her stupid and she'll both outthink you and kick your ass). But it's a blue-collar town smack dab in an agricultural economy. It's a "college optional" sort of place, and the kids who do head off for college from here are doubtful to return. The educational dynamics here are going to be different from those of a community in which a larger percentage of the adult population is college-educated and is reaping the economic benefits of that education.

Whatever the causes and rationalizations, and even factoring in the fact that I'm not one of those people that a school's purpose is to educate children to take multiple choice state assessment tests, an Academic Emergency is still a no damn good situation for Bradford to be in. Even if one bad test performance can create a real percentage dip for the schools, the fact is one single child won't actually put the schools in trouble -- a lot of the kids have to be not making the grade. That's a problem.

And it's my problem, since Athena's four, and she'll be heading into Bradford school's real soon now. On one level, I'm not too terribly worried, since no matter what, Athena has parents who value education and we'll be compensating for any lack in the schools. But on the other hand, and more fundamentally, I shouldn't have to be compensating for gaps in her education. Parents need to be active and engaged with their child's education. But unless Athena's teachers want to come over and do some of my work for free, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask them to cover the basics for my kid.

I don't think the solution is to bail out of the Bradford schools. I don't want to send her to private school (all of which around here are religious -- thank you, no) or attempt to homeschool, which would be successful to the extent that I think we could give her a reasonable academic education, but then there'd be the whole issue of not becoming socially adapted; I'm sorry, but every time I see one of those homeschoolers win a national spelling bee or some such thing, they all look like they've been kept in a jar since they were infants -- they look queer, in the old, non-sexualized sense of the term. No, we're going to stay in town. I paid for that school (several thousand dollars, if it, anyway); my daughter is going to use it.

Anyway, if one student can drag down an entire school district's scores, then it's reasonable to assume that one set of parents can help to yank them back up. I don't know if Bradford's educational staff will ultimately appreciate or hate us, but in the end I'm not particularly interested in their feelings. My daughter will show up to be educated, and by God, that's what's going to happen. That's not an academic emergency. It's an academic imperative.

Posted by john at 06:05 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2003

Steve Case is Smart

Steve Case is stepping down as Chairman of AOL Time Warner sometime in May, and that pretty much clears the deck at AOLTW of any major executives in the company that came from the AOL side of things. AOL may have swallowed Time Warner, but Time Warner then digested AOL from the inside, eventually bursting forth from the apparently surprised online giant's chest like the creature from Alien (an analogy that would be even more trenchant if Alien were a TW property instead of being owned by 20th Century Fox).

These days it's fashionable to bag on AOL and the AOL execs, because the online component of AOL had been nothing but a headache for the merged company and will likely continue to be so for some time to come. I wouldn't argue the latter part of that, but I think that the business smarts of the AOL execs have been vastly underrated. This is particularly the case with Steve Case, who I submit did exactly what he's always done, and did it superbly -- looked out for the future of America Online.

Not AOL Time Warner, which is a clumsy beast at best. Fundamentally, I don't know that Steve Case actually cares about AOL Time Warner (note that this and everything which follows is pure speculation; while I was employed by AOL for a couple of years and contracted with them after that, Case and I never bonded, or even spoke to each other in the halls). But he does care about AOL; in the early 90s Case grew the company from a third-place also-ran behind (then) giants Prodigy and Compuserve and helped it survive a direct challenge from Microsoft to become the largest online service in the world.

He did this, in part, by keeping focused the consumer. Case was a guy who spent a few years traveling the country thinking up new pizza toppings for Pizza Hut, after all. He knew from the common man. But more importantly, he did it by being scarily prescient, and when he wasn't scarily prescient, by knowing a good thing when he saw it and snapping up the technology and the people. The man didn't have a perfect record, but more often than not he zigged and kept on skiing while everyone else zagged and ran smack into trees.

This is why I believe that at some point Steve Case looked at the insane amounts of capital that were funneling into Internet companies and making his lower-level managers millionaires at the age of 26 and thought to himself, there's no way this is going to last. There was a reckoning coming, and it would (and did) wipe out the value of companies just like his. So Case went looking for an old-line company that could shelter his baby from the coming storm. He found Time Warner. When they merged, he raved about synergy and combining media forces and whatnot. But really, what else would Case say? It's not like he could come right out and say "I bought Time Warner so that when the bubble implodes, AOL can sustain itself on Time Warner's vital juices." That would defeat the whole purpose. And anyway, that whole synergy thing could have happened, right? Okay, then.

Baldly put, the AOL - Time Warner merger was no sweetheart no matter which side of the deal you came from originally -- relative to either individual company's stock price prior to the merger, the stock is way down. However, allow me to suggest that while a merged AOL Time Warner stock price is currently in the basement instead of the penthouse, the value of a stand-alone AOL stock would probably have zipped right past the basement on its way to the lower reaches of the economic septic tank. Time Warner gave America Online stability while it rode out the bubble pop. Without Time Warner, AOL might have survived the last few years, but it would have been an extremely uncomfortable time, with delistings, massive layoffs and Microsoft licking its chops at the idea of merging with AOL for pennies on the dollar, instead of the only moderately uncomfortable time it turned out to be.

This won't be of any comfort for the people who came into the deal owning Time Warner stock, and who saw the value of their stock decline primarily (but to be fair, not wholly) because of the trials of AOL and the Internet business model as a whole. But if you came in from the AOL side, the next time you see Steve Case, you should give him a big hug. Your stock is worth a fraction of what it used to be, but because of his savvy, it's almost certainly a much more generous fraction than it would be otherwise.

Case can step aside as AOLTW chairman because AOL is saved -- either it will continue to be integrated into AOL Time Warner, in which case it's got a corporate structure to keep it alive, or it'll be spun off intact, in which case it's on its own in a far better state than it would have been had it tried to weather the Net collapse by itself. Also, of course, if AOL is spun off again, Case would logically be the guy to run it -- putting him back where he was when this whole adventure began. Which is to say, in charge, and looking ahead at things other people aren't seeing.

Posted by john at 06:09 PM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2003

OMW Followup

It's been an interesting couple of days here at the Scalzi household, in the wake of the announcement about my book contract with Tor. I'm getting a lot of questions about the deal and what I'm doing from here, so I thought I'd answer a few of the questions that have been posed to me the most frequently yesterday.

1. Are you now rich? You've got a two-book deal, after all.

Heh. No. Keep in mind that this contract is for my very first novel, and the follow-up thereafter. We're starting from the ground floor here, and this is a science fiction novel, so it's in a genre market. The money I'm getting in advance of publication is good but modest, both in real terms and relative to the advances I get for my non-fiction books. Mr. Nielsen Hayden was forthright with me when he offered the deal, noting that the sum of the advance was not "life-changing." From a purely economic point of view, this is correct.

However, this is just fine with me, for a number of reasons. First, the money you get as an "advance" is just that: An advance on your royalties, based on sales. You don't start earning new royalties until you earn out your advance. To give you an example, when I signed the contract for The Rough Guide to Money Online, I was given a fairly hefty advance for the book's category. On the flip side of that, however, I wouldn't make any more money on the book until (and if!) the book earned out that entire advance. That was tens of thousands of copies in my particular case.

If your book sells to the point where it starts paying out again, swell -- everyone likes making more money. If it doesn't, then things become interesting because technically you haven't earned out your advance. As a practical matter, this means little to the author in the short run, since the published never asks for the unearned portion of the book back; it's part of the risk the publisher takes on in trying to make money off your book. On the other hand, if you develop a reputation for never earning out your advances, that's no good for your long-term career health.

I'm not especially interested in that scenario; I prefer to look over the long-term picture. A modest advance to me today makes it easier for the book to be profitable, thereby allowing me to publish more books, grow an audience and then (hopefully) become rich on the backend, on royalties based on actual units sold. This is to say I have enough confidence in my writing that I think in time I'll do well based on my work's actual performance, not just by what I can wrangle out of a publisher beforehand. If I'm wrong, well, I do have a nice business writing corporate brochures and CD reviews. I'll survive.

The second reason that I'm fine with it is that I have confidence in the people I'm working with. When it comes to science fiction, Tor is as good as it gets -- these people know science fiction and book publishing inside and out, and the quality of their writers lends credence to this fact. Given the choice between my current advance and a contract at Tor, and a slightly larger advance and a contract somewhere else, I'd go with Tor, because I believe the people there can market my work really well, to the benefit of us both (now, if someone came in and offered me, like, a half million dollars, I'd probably take the money and run, baby, run. But let's stay on the grounded side of realism, here).

So in short: I'm not rich because of my book deal. But I am very happy with what I'm getting out of it, both in terms of money and in terms of the people with whom I have the good fortune to work.

2. Why did you take Old Man's War off the site? Putting the novel on the site is what brought you fame and glory!

Well, yes. But I did just sell the book to someone, and I'd rather err on the side of caution for right now. If Tor and I decide that it's in our mutual benefit to put the book back up on the site (and we might; I can think of a couple of scenarios where doing so could create a net positive benefit) then it'll go back up. In the meantime, however, it's not as if there's not scads to read around here, including a whole other science fiction novel, freely downloadable as "shareware." If you haven't read it yet, now is a fine time.

3. Will you become a full-time author now?

No. To be clear, being an author (which is to say, being a writer who writes books specifically) is going to take up a rather large proportion of my time in 2003, since I have to:
a) Make revisions to OMW as requested by my Tor overlords;
b) Write novel #2 as specified in my two book deal;
c) Proof the galleys of Rough Guide to the Universe (I'm doing that now);
d) Contribute to the upcoming Uncle John's book;
e) Send my non-fiction agent a book proposal, and if that is then accepted and bought somewhere, write that book too;
f) Book tours and promotion for whichever books need touring and promotion.

(This is where the ability to write quickly and sleep little comes in handy.)

But for all that, my bread and butter will continue to be my corporate writing and freelance work for magazines and newspapers. Why? Because I have a mortgage, silly! And also because I actually like writing all that stuff -- yes, even the corporate material, which I like because it's an interesting intellectual exercise, it keeps my brain fresh for more creative stuff, and because it pays stupid well. Once I get to the point where I'm getting six-figure advances, then we'll talk about being a full-time author.

I'll admit in the best of all possible worlds, I'd like to be a full-time author, alternating fiction and non-fiction books for the next, oh, I don't know, forty or fifty years. But until then, I'll keep the other writing in the mix. This includes the writing for which I don't actually get paid, meaning this Web site, which continues to be unfathomably useful in terms of my career.

4. What's the second book going to be about?

I can't tell you because I'm still working out the plot. I will say that it is science fiction, and involves a "diplomatic troubleshooter" who is called in to resolve tricky situations, usually through the use of action sequences and snappy dialogue. Also, it won't take place in the OMW universe. I may revisit the OMW universe at some point in the future (why not, it's an interesting place), but at this point I don't really want to put all my creative eggs into one infinitely-sequelized basket. My current plan is to start sketching out the plot starting yesterday and start writing as soon as practically possible, on the reasoning that I want to give myself as much time as possible to procrastinate.

5. Since you've sold OMW, do you think you'll ever sell Agent to the Stars?

I don't know. Hell, I wasn't expecting to sell OMW, so it'd be presumptuous to think someone's going to swoop down and take Agent too, especially since it's been out there on the site for going on four years now. It also has the same problem it had when I wrote it, which is that it's hard to classify in the various SF sub-genres, which makes it hard to sell, both as an author to a publishing company, and then for the publishing company to the rest of the world. OMW at least has the benefit of nominally being military science fiction.

(This is, incidentally, mildly ironic since when I wrote Agent, I wrote a supporting essay in which I mentioned somewhat snarkily that the way to get your SF book published was to write military science fiction, and I guess I just proved my own assertion there. My defense here would be that I wrote some military fiction that I personally would want to read, heavy on the personal relationships and a bit lighter on the techno-geek stuff.)

I don't think I'll make much of an effort to sell Agent, in any event. I think it serves a rather useful function right now, as a risk-free introduction to my fiction writing style. People can come here, read the novel and then if they like it, can go hunting for my traditionally published books. If someone were to offer to publish it, I probably wouldn't say no, but I'd also want to keep it up here. I would imagine that might put a damper on any potential sales. But you never know.

I am still open to different publishing avenues in a general sense. For example, I've been giving serious thought to collecting up selected Whatever columns over the last four years and presenting them as a book. My non-fiction agent tells me such collections are deadly in book stores; if you're not Dave Barry, you're not selling a book of columns, and I'm definitely not Dave Barry. So what I'll probably do is set them up as a "Publish on Demand" thing and sell it through Amazon or some such. Because why not? Clearly I'm the last person who should suggest personal publishing doesn't lead to anything good.

6. Think you'll ever write a novel in a genre besides science fiction?

Dunno. I have a couple of ideas outside SF, but to be honest, I read science fiction more than I read any other genre because science fiction interests me more than other genres, and I don't see a whole lot of a point in writing a book in a genre I don't actually like. I realize this may lose me a few readers who choose not to lower themselves into the genre gutter with the rest of us geeks, but, you know, screw 'em. I'll do what makes me happy, and what makes me happy (right now, at least) is science fiction.

Posted by john at 06:12 PM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2003

Change in Plans

So, there's been a slight change of plans. As you may remember (surely 2002 isn't too hazy yet), I serialized my most recent science fiction novel, Old Man's War, here in December, and this month I was going to put it up as shareware, a la Agent to the Stars. Well, I won't be doing that. The reason for this is that, well, I kind of sold it. Instead of being available as shareware, Old Man's War will be available either later this year or early next year in a hardcover edition from Tor Books, publishers of (among others) Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Steven Brust and Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, really, Teddy Roosevelt. It's a reissue, I think, not one of those L. Ron Hubbard-eqsue "dictating from beyond the grave" situations.

Am I happy? What a silly question. I'm just glad this is a text medium, so you can't see the footprints on my desk from where I was dancing on it (yes, I could make a little videocam movie. But, no). And it's actually a two book deal, so I get to write at least one more novel and have someone pay me for it. As they say, it beats a sharp poke in the eye. Or in the groin. Or just about anywhere else, for that matter. Sharp poking: Bad. Two book deal: Good.

I'm also pleased to say that the book deal comes as a direct result of having the book up here on the Web site; the editor who made the offer (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who in addition to being the Senior Editor of Tor is the author of the Electrolite blog) did so after reading chapters on the site and then downloading the complete book (and by doing so, Mr. Nielsen Hayden's ranking on my list of People Who Can Ask For a Kidney and Not Be Dismissed Out of Hand has shot up rather dramatically over the last few days. And I can assure you, it's a very short list).

I'm not 100% positive on this, so please don't hit me if I'm wrong. But I'm pretty sure it's the first time that an SF novel that's been published on a personal Web site has been picked up by a major publisher for traditional publication. It's not the first book that's been derived from a personal Web site, of course -- James Lileks, for one, turned part of his site into a successful non-fiction book (and has another one coming), and Pamela Ribon's upcoming novel is in part mined from her Web site entries. But it might be the first time for a novel that was presented in more or less completed form to make the jump. If this is the case, then as you may imagine I'm rather pleased about it. One always likes to be the first at something, or at least near the top of that list. If it's not, of course, I'm still pleased for me.

(Addendum: MJ Rose reminds me that she did it first, with her erotic-tinged novel "Lip Service." In 1998, even. But it wasn't science fiction, so I can still cling to being the first in that genre until someone inevitably comes to knock me off that perch. Come and get me!)

It's also a confirmation of something I wrote just prior to serializing the novel on the site. I wrote:

There's also another reason I'm putting it online, which is simply that I'd like to advance the possibility that something like this -- self-published and online -- doesn't necessarily have to be automatically shoved into the "loser" box. Over the last year, I've been spending a lot of time listening to and reviewing independent music through my IndieCrit site, and speaking out of a decade and a half of critical experience, much of this independently-released (and indeed largely "self-published") music is as good or better than the music that is being shot out of the major music labels. Why shouldn't independently-released novels have the same chance of reasonable quality? Someone's got to start making the case for it, and why not me.

And indeed, the fact this sale was possible at all is yet another example of the maturation of the online medium. Many folks still see the online medium as the medium for people who can't or won't get published any other way, but that hasn't been the case for a while now. Over the last year in particular several of the more prominent bloggers have seen their online bylines become useful in transferring their writing into the mainstream media; by the same token a number of old-line writers and journalists used the "blog" format to ratchet up their reputations (my high school classmate Josh Marshall being a fine example of that).

For talented and committed writers, writing on one's own site is a true alternative medium which can be used for one's overall gain, and not simply as a catchall for otherwise unusable or unpublishable material. People who write well, and write online, no longer need to feel at an inherent disadvantage to those who write well, and write in a traditional medium (bad writers, alas for them, are still stuck).

Now, before someone gets it into their head that my publishing my novel online was some sort of controlled, Machiavellian plan to forgo the SF publishing slush pile, and that Mr. Nielsen Hayden fell right into my trap, bwa hah hah hah, I'd like to be clear: I'm not nearly that organized, and I don't know that this sort of thing is easily reproducible. Old Man's War is a good book, but there are lots of good books out there waiting to be looked at, and typically speaking, your book has a much better chance of getting bought if you actually set it in front of an editor rather than waiting for an editor to come on by.

So in short: Boy, did I ever get lucky. I really cannot emphasize that enough, and to drive this point home, I'll note that Agent has been online for going on four years and hasn't had so much as a nibble, traditional publishing-wise. I don't want to suggest we all ditch the traditional methods of getting work published. They're traditional because they tend to work (also, if people start hounding Mr. Nielsen Hayden or any other SF editor to swing by their Web site and look at their novel, I don't want it said it's because I said that's what they should do. Please, be nice to the editors. Give them love. And jewelry).

What I am saying is clearly we've gotten to the point where it's no longer the smart thing to automatically dismiss writing online -- even an online novel -- as "not good enough." Sometimes, it is good enough. It's just that simple. I'm happy to be one of the guys who gets to be the case in point for that.

Posted by john at 06:17 PM | Comments (0)

January 01, 2003

The Child on the Train

About a week after Krissy completed the first trimester of her pregnancy, she went in to the doctor to have a routine checkup for herself and her baby. While she was being examined, the doctor had difficulty finding the baby's heartbeat. This in itself was not unusual -- at just over three months, a fetus is still a small thing. The sound of its nascent heartbeat is easy to lose in the other sounds of the body. But by the next day, Krissy had begun to spot and bleed, and shortly thereafter she miscarried. As with nearly a quarter of all pregnancies, the processes that form and shape a life had stopped at a certain point well short of completion, and for whatever reason this child would not be born. It was a death in the family.

By and large, we kept the matter to ourselves, telling the people who needed to know -- family and close friends -- but otherwise saying nothing. I had written about Krissy's pregnancy on my Web site, as I had written about Krissy's first pregnancy -- and why not, since a pregnancy (at least in the context of a happily married and financially secure couple) is a happy thing. For a writer, there's a lot of material to discuss, so long as it's done in a tasteful manner that doesn't have one's pregnant wife planning to beat one in the head with a pan. But a miscarriage is obviously something different. There's no way to write on one's Web site, in a breezy and conversational style, that a pregnancy has ceased.

Even if there were, the event was too close and too personal to share in that way. Celebration should be public, by definition, but grief is a fragile thing. Grief is a small, difficult and necessary visitor that dwells in your home for some little time, and then has to be gently encouraged to depart. Crowds make it nervous and inclined to stay put. We didn't want that. We figured anyone who learned of it later would understand. We held our grief close and then after enough time, bid it farewell and set it on its way.

And it is gone; its time in our house was brief. Our friends, our family, and most of all our daughter helped see to that. One cannot stand in the face of such fortunate circumstances as we have and wish to cling to grief. There is too much that is good in our lives together to stay sad for long. So we didn't.

Were you to express your condolences to us today, we would of course thank you for them -- we know they're sincere and we know they're meant from the heart. But we would hope you would also understand when we said "thank you" and then chatted with you about something else entirely, it's not because we are pained about revisiting the grief. It's that the grief is like a shirt that is six sizes too small. It fit once, but it doesn't fit now, and trying to get it back over our heads would be an exercise in futility.

I mention the miscarriage now primarily because this is around the time that Krissy would have been due, and various correspondents have been asking about it. When I write back that Krissy has miscarried, they're all deeply apologetic for bringing up what they (not unreasonably) assume is a painful topic. And of course, it's not their fault at all, since I mentioned the pregnancy but not the miscarriage. I really don't want anyone else to feel horrifyingly embarrassed because of my decision not to discuss certain information.

I also want to avoid scenes like that one I had in October, in which I was standing around with a circle of casual acquaintances. One of them was discoursing about the danger of asking other casual acquaintances about their personal lives, since there's always something horrible that's happened -- and no sooner did this acquaintance finish saying this than she asked me how Krissy's pregnancy was coming along. Rarely has someone posited a statement and proved it with such brutal efficiency. I felt bad that my omission put her in such a situation. So now it's out there.

I should mention that the fact that we've left behind the grief of the miscarry does not mean the event is forgotten; or perhaps it's better to say that the child we lost is not now nor ever will be forgotten by us. It is, as I've said, a death in the family, and while the small absence it created is small indeed, it is yet still an absence. It doesn't go away, and even though we see it without grief, we recognize it exists. It would be wrong to pretend it does not.

If I could describe to you what a miscarry feels like from an emotional point of view, I would ask you to imagine a dream in which you are standing on a train station platform. While you are waiting, you look through the dirty windows of the train car in front of you and see a small child looking back at you. The child's face is indistinct because of condition of the windows, but what you can see looks achingly familiar. For a moment, the child is separated from you by only that single, dirty pane of glass. Then the train starts to move, and the child starts to move with it.

And you realize that the reason you're on the platform at all is because you're waiting for your own child to arrive, a child you have yet to meet. And you realize that you could have claimed that child as your own. And you know that whatever child eventually comes to you, you will love that child like the sun loves the sky, like the water loves the river, and the branch loves the tree. The child will be the greater whole in which you dwell.

But it will never be that child, the one you could only glimpse, the one who went away from you. All you can do is remember, and hope with everything in your heart that the child who went away from you finds another who will love it as the sun loves the sky, the water loves the river, and the branch loves the tree. You pray and you hope and you never forget. That's what you do. That's what I do.

Posted by john at 06:20 PM | Comments (0)