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June 30, 2006

Say Goodnight, Gracie

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Bye, June!

I'm taking a break until the 5th. I do hope you'll find something to do to occupy your time until then.

One idea: Vote for the Hugo Awards! As you may recall, Old Man's War has been nominated for Best Novel, and I've been nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. There are also other worthy candidates in both categories and in other categories as well. So if you're a voting member of this year's Worldcon, it'd be nice if you could swing over and do your thing. If you're not a Worldcon member, well: There's still time to join.

Have a great 4th of July (or 1st of July if you're one of those wacky Canadians). See you all next Wednesday.

Posted by john at 02:19 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

SCOTUS to POTUS: RTFM

The upshot of yesterday's Hamdan decision seems to be that the Supreme Court has rather vigorously slammed the door on the idea of an imperial presidency, the one where our executive branch takes input from the legislative and judicial branches under advisement -- if it feels like it -- before doing anything it damn well feels like doing. That's my takeaway from it, anyway.

Naturally, I'm pleased. I'm against the concept of an imperial presidency in a general sense, and I'm particularly against it in this specific instance, because I've never gotten past the feeling that the Bush people think of the Constitution as anything other than an annoying old document that they don't understand why they have to pay attention to, because they're not like other people. Well, guess again, Mr. President. Not even a war lets a president get away with this. As Senator Lindsey Graham -- a Republican, I'll note -- said yesterday: "There is a strain of legal reasoning in this administration that believes in a time of war the other two branches have a diminished role or no role. It's sincere, it's heartfelt, but after today, it's wrong."

The fact that comment comes from a Republican -- and that more than a few Republican and conservatives felt uncomfortable with the administration line regarding its power -- points out something that I've noted before, which is that the administration's attempted power grab over the last several years has nothing to do with Bush's nominal political orientation. There's nothing inherently Republican -- certainly nothing inherently conservative -- in the Bush administration's posit of an executive branch supreme above the legislative and judicial branches; it's a political philosophy cooked up entire in the Bush administration itself, and sprung not from a genuine and coherent foundation of ideas, but required because of the personal opinion of the president (and his advisors, such as the vice-president) that they shouldn't have to consult the courts or the legislature. It's the ultimate version of putting the cart before the horse.

This is, thankfully, why the Bush theory of executive power was doomed: It's built on irrational premises, and it was required to compete with a rational theory of executive power, which is to say, the one encoded into the Constitution. The Bush folks are clever enough to attempt to spin a political philosophy out of their leaders' unwillingness to follow the Constitution; they were not wise enough to make a durable argument from it (or alternately, not wise enough to realize it couldn't work). Personally, I think it was vitally important that the Bush Theory of Executive Supremacy was whacked down while Bush was still in office. I don't think it would survive anyway (I try to spin scenarios in which a Hamdan-like decision comes to the Court in a Democratic administration, and Scalia and Thomas don't vote against it, and I just can't), but all things told it's better it dies with its creator still in office.

There are some folks out there who suspect that this doesn't change anything; that an adminstration that would posit a theory of executive power would not feel obliged to listen to the court, and that Bush will pull an Andrew Jackson, basically daring the Court to enforce the decision while doing what it wants to do anyway. I think these people need to chill the hell out. There's a difference between promoting a legal theory and proceeding from it in the absence of a ruling, and proceeding from it after it's been discredited. Maybe I'm dumb, but I don't see examples of where the Bush adminstration has gone out of its way to do the latter. This administration may view the Constitution as inconvenient, but it's not comprised of stupid people, either. It wants to expand what is seen as the legitimate power of the executive branch -- not have the executive branch seen exercising illegitimate power. I strongly suspect it'll abide by the ruling. It will wriggle and twist and turn in all ways to try to preserve its theory of executive power under the constraints of the ruling, of course -- how could it not -- but it'll follow the ruling.

And if it doesn't? Well, then. Impeach the president. Most readers here know I am generally virulently against impeaching the president (any president, but even this one) under nearly all circumstances. But in the almost unfathomably improbable circumstance that George Bush decides to ignore the Supreme Court ruling and do things his own way, thereby placing himself both outside and above the rule of law, then impeachment, trial and removal from office are reasonable and rational remedies (I suspect the impeachment, trial and removal from office of the vice-president will happen concurrently. Hello, President Hastert!). But of course, if Bush & Co. see themselves as above the law, it's not likely they would respond to impeachment, now, is it. And then we'd have all sorts of interesting Constitutional crises. I don't see this happening.

What I see happening is the Constitutional rule of law re-established, and the executive branch of the government returned to its co-equal position with the legislature and the judiciary. I'm pretty happy about that.

Posted by john at 10:19 AM | Comments (61) | TrackBack

June 29, 2006

On Tonight's Episode of "Those Crazy Clones!"

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When Clone #1 won't share his copy of Subterranean Magazine #4 -- the SF Cliche issue -- Clone #2 gets upset, and Clone #3 takes matters, and a battle axe, into his own hands.

Those crazy clones!

(In other news, yes, the magazine has arrived. It looks great. Get your own copy. And then get one for your clone. Because you know how they get.)

Posted by john at 04:17 PM | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Jim Baen, 1943 - 2006

Science fiction and fantasy readers, pause a moment in your day to to note the passing of publisher Jim Baen, who died yesterday. Author David Drake has an appreciation of him here.

Posted by john at 09:18 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

June 28, 2006

Clouds and Rainbows 06/28/06

You need to see that one in the larger version, I think.

Athena loves rainbows.

Whole set here.

Posted by john at 09:36 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Also, Now That I'm Thinking About It...

... I actually don't enjoy toast all that much. Just not a big fan of burnt, crispy bread. You want crispy bread, have a cracker.

That is all.

Posted by john at 12:12 PM | Comments (59) | TrackBack

The Blabbering Masses

I've gotten a couple of e-mails over the last couple of days asking me if I have any opinion about the slapfight currently going on between The New Republic and Daily Kos. The answer is no, not really, because I'm not entirely sure I understand what the hell it's about, or even why I should care. At its heart it boils down to "print media writer gets annoyed at blog; blog returns hostility," and, well, isn't that a little 2002? Who gives a crap? Let TNR and Daily Kos have their fun, but let's not pretend it matters.

Nevertheless, there's a side issue to this whole pointless hoofraw which interests me. Probably the most cogent discussion of it comes from Josh Marshall, who chalks up the TNR overreaction to whatever it was overreacting about (I'm still not entirely sure, although here's the (ironically) TNR blog entry in which it occurs) by noting that people at tiny political magazines might get a letter or two in response to something they write, whereas when you post on a blog and immediately you start accruing responses in comments and e-mails, and if you're popular and controversial enough, you'll get dozens and possibly hundreds of comments.

Josh makes a good point. Like Josh, I work in print and I work online. My offline writing regularly goes out to about half a million people in aggregate; I almost never get any comments about it. This site pulls in between 15 and 20 K people a day; I'm not sure I can remember the last time an entry didn't elict a comment of some sort. I could put up an entry which, in its entirety, reads "I enjoy toast" and people would leave comments (indeed, I suspect that would be a lively comment thread). What's more, after a certain and I suspect very low level of visitation, comments happen regardless. When I switched over to the Movable Type software in March 2003 (thus gaining the ability to allow comments) this site got about a tenth of the visitors it has now; nevertheless, nearly every entry then has comments too. There are LiveJournals which have 1% the audience I do which I'd bet get as many comments as this site gets. That's what this medium is about. And I guess if you're not used to that, maybe it looks like blogs are being attacked by monkeys. I don't know.

One thing that I think is true about comments on a blog or site is that there are two factors which are highly significant regarding the overall quality of comments and of comment threads. The first factor is the size of the blog's audience; basically, the larger the blog, the more people will comment. This means that two things are more likely to happen: One, the sheer number of morons and nutbags in the blog's audience who feel compelled to respond will go up, dropping their little comment turds in the thread. These turds must be negotiated around; too many of these turds in a comment thread and suddenly the whole thread looks bad regardless of any substantitive discussion which might be happening, because even The Hermitage would look terrible covered in crap.

Two, when there are a large number of people commenting, the narrative of the thread becomes increasingly fragmented -- people are responding to comments that happened four or five posts upthread, and none of the comments between those have anything to do with that conversation. This fragmenting can be mitigated by quoting from previous comments or by threading, but it still offers a herky-jerky reading experience.

The second factor is whether the blog is monotopical (all about politics, or open source, or ponies, or whatever); essentially my theory is that the fewer topics you cover in your blog, the more likely you are to have higher percentage of morons, nutbags and just plain obsessives among your commenters. Read the most popular political or tech blogs and you'll see this most clearly, but I suspect (without having done any useful research on the subject of course) that any single-subject blog will get a disproportionate numbers of morons/nutbags/obsessives among the commenters.

Now, combine those two factors above -- have a very popular, monotopical site -- and you've got real trouble in the comment threads. There is likely to be substantive discussion, but the signal/noise ratio eventually becomes hard to manage. And this is without considering other factors, such as whether the blog's proprietor is completely off his or her nut (because whackjob bloggers will attract whackjob commenters) or whether said blogger has notoriety outside or independent the blogosphere (in which case you add "crazed fanboys" to the mix of morons/nutbags/obsessives) or whether the blogger is an attractive woman, in which case you get an extra added helping of passive-aggressive creeps among the commenters. Really, such a fascinating melange of insanity!

Some very popular, monotopical bloggers don't even bother turning on their comments most of the time. I think that's an entirely reasonable solution, actually, particularly if the blogger has a life outside of blogging and doesn't want to deal with the bother of moderating comments. Because if you are a popular, monotopical blogger (who is not also entirely insane) and you want to keep your comment threads from evolving into a miasmic stew of the lowest common rhetorical denominator, that's what you have do. There are many who don't, however, and their comment threads are, from a point of readability, a pure waste of time.

How does all this relate to this site? Well, you know. I actually think this place is reasonably good with the comments. It has an audience which is large (for the blog world) but which is not unwieldly. I cover a lot of topics, so the people who are genuine obsessives on one particular topic don't tend to stick around. I don't think I'm personally insane, nor do most the commenters seem that way, and while I have notoriety outside the Blog world, it's not a notoriety so outsized that it comes with its own core of stalkers. And also, of course, I'm not a pretty girl, drat the luck. So the factors that trend a site toward monkey-like commenting are not greatly in evidence here.

Also, I spend a lot of time in my comment threads, which I think matters. I'm not a strident moderator, but I do think I help establish a tone, and I do think the people who comment here over a reasonable period of time reinforce that tone. Whether that tone is always a congenial one is of course a matter of debate, and not evey comment thread is a model of deep thought and civility. But I think by and large the commenting here is varying degrees of intelligent, substantive and fun. I think overall the Whatever has excellent commenters and comment threads, and that reading the comment threads adds to the value of the site rather than detracts from it, which I think is the case in many places.

Yes, I'm patting myself on the back for having a good reader base. Thank you all, you make me look good.

Is the general high level of comment quality on the Whatever sustainable? Well, that's an interesting question, isn't it? The site's attendence is still growing, and we may get to the point where it the audience is so large that the signal-to-noise ratio in the comment threads gets to be too much. But then again, as they say in financial services commercial, past performance is not a promise of future gains. There's no assurance growth will continue. I doubt this blog will ever become Daily Kos-sized or LittleGreenFootballs-sized, primarily because it's not a monotopic blog, and I have no ambitions for it to be so, or to be anything more than what it is now -- a place for me to blather. I suspect this is eventually a growth limiter (this is where it would have been useful to be a pretty girl).

However, even if the site does have its readership grow extensively from here out, I suspect its growth will happen as it has for most of its existence, which is, relatively slowly. The Whatever has never grown by leaps and bounds; it's been a steady accumulation. I think this sort of growth produces a generally thoughtful class of commentors, although again, this is just an anecdotal observation. I have no rigorous data to back it up. But if it is true, then I think there's also a good chance the comments and comment threads will continue to be of a general high quality. We'll have to see over time.

Posted by john at 12:09 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Author Interview: David Louis Edelman

Over at By The Way, I've put up an interview with David Louis Edelman, whose SF/Business thriller Infoquake has found its way into bookstores. Learn why there are no bug-eyed aliens in the book (but why there are bears), what future business has to go with the go-go 90s dotcom era, and what we have in common with the contemporaries of Adam Smith. It's everything you could want in a six-question interview, and so much more.

Posted by john at 09:24 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 27, 2006

Back to the Amendment Junkpile

Flag amendment fails. Yet again. Back into its hole for another year. Thank you to the 34 senators whose brains are not made of cottage cheese on this matter.

Posted by john at 08:13 PM | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Subterranean Magazine #4 Update

I've been informed that most copies of Subterranean Magazine issue #4 were mailed today and the rest will be mailed tomorrow, so those of you who have ordered copies: Here they come!

(And those of you who have not ordered a copy: It's not too late to turn away from a life of deprivation. Here's the link. Just $6 for 18 fabulous stories! Come on!)

Posted by john at 04:54 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

An Unfathomable Cavalcade of Riches

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A banner day for SF/F lovers, today is, because four big novels drop into the stores: Fellow Campbell nominee Sarah Monette's The Virtu, which has gotten a lovely starred review in Publishers Weekly ("This sequel is every bit as original and satisfying as its predecessor"); Scott Lynch's debut novel The Lies of Lock Lamora, which received a starred review in Booklist ("Expect it to be among the year's most impressive debuts") and whose movie rights have already been snapped right up; This year's Best First Novel Locus Award winner Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron : A Novel of the Promethean Age, which is also nicely reviewed ("Campbell-winner Bear overturns the usual vision of Faerie, revealing the compelling beauty and darkness only glimpsed in old ballads and stories like 'Tam Lin'"); and last but certainly not least fellow Hugo-nominee Charlie Stross's Glasshouse, which -- surprise, surprise -- is getting all sorts of reviewer love as well ("Stross's wry SF thriller satisfies on all levels, with memorable characters and enough brain-twisting extrapolation for five novels"). The question is not which to buy, merely which to buy first. That's my question, anyway.

Actually, I do have a complaint, which is that all of these are coming out just as I'm buckling down to finish The Last Colony, meaning that even if I buy them -- which I will -- I won't be able to enjoy them until after the end of July. And that's just cruel. Really, I can't understand why they didn't put my needs first. Writers can be so mean sometimes.

As I've just unleashed a veritable torrent of pimpery here, I declare the comment thread below to be a self-pimp zone: If you've got a something you want to promote, this is a fine place to do it. No link too self-serving! Pimp yourself! Pimp your friends! Hours of fun for the whole family!

Posted by john at 01:31 PM | Comments (26) | TrackBack

June 26, 2006

Re: Flag Burning Amendment

Oh, look. Another year passed, another idiotic debate on a flag-burning amendment to the US Constitution, as ever, just in time for July 4th. Funny how that works.

Rather than wind myself up on the matter, I commend those of you who have not seen it to last year's post on the matter, in which I show just how easy it is to get around any flag-burning amendment, rendering it even more completely useless and stupid than it would be on its own. I expect to be posting this as a repeat every year around this time from now until the end of time itself, or at least until the end of the US Congress. A shame, that.

Posted by john at 09:40 PM | Comments (37) | TrackBack

Because I Am a Bad Bad Person...

... I find this almost unspeakably funny.

Well, except for that very last part. But right up to that.

Update: It appears to be an edit of an ad for Nokia (Thanks, Codepope, for the catch). Still funny, however, and I feel better about laughing.

Posted by john at 05:30 PM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

June 25, 2006

And Now The Bad News

I'm at crunch time for The Last Colony, which means that from tomorrow until the end of July I'm going to spend almost all of my waking life writing, buffing and polishing that book in anticipation of shipping it off to its editor. My blathering here is very like to wrench down to a minimum. I know I've said that before, but by God, this time I mean it. This means entries are likely to get very short, and the likelihood of me spending a whole lot of time in the comment threads is fairly small (depending on who you are, you may find this a good thing).

I was in a similar crunch last July and brought in guest bloggers for what I thought was a very interesting (and highly successful) month. I don't think I'll repeat this trick this year but I may entertain the notion of bringing in a couple of other folks to post when the mood strikes them. I'll decide that this week. No, this isn't an open call; I'll contact the folks I'm interested in if I go that way.

Once The Last Colony is done, I'm sure I'll be back to my hypergraphic ways around here. But I hope you'll indulge me over the five weeks if the Whatever is not filled with the same mass o' text you're used to. I promise, I'm still writing, just somewhere else where you can't see it. Yet.

Update: 10pm: Also, I've redone the colors around here.

Posted by john at 08:29 PM | Comments (20) | TrackBack

John Scalzi: Egotistical Toady-Loving Asshole?

Due to my reaction to a number of his recent posts, a fellow who comments here at the Whatever has decided to take his leave of this sunny vale, but not without offering a kiss-off which reads, in part:

You're an asshole with an inflated ego who only truly suffers the company of sycophants & makes no effort to even try see anyone else's point of view.

Well, I have my own opinions on this assessment of my own self, but because I'm just this way, I thought I'd throw this open to discussion. So:

Resolved: John Scalzi:

a) Is an asshole;
b) Has an inflated ego;
c) Suffers only the company of sycophants;
d) Makes no effort to see anyone else's point of view.

Discuss. Are all these true? None? Some but not all? I crave your opinion on the matter!

To assure that all and sundry feel free to express themselves freely, this thread will not be edited (excepting for spam), nor will I participate in the thread. I trust that you all will play nicely with each other.

Have fun, you crazy kids.

Posted by john at 06:38 PM | Comments (68) | TrackBack

June 24, 2006

Testify and Amen

From Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College: Jesus is not a Republican:

I went to Sunday school nearly every week of my childhood. But I must have been absent the day they told us that the followers of Jesus were obliged to secure even greater economic advantages for the affluent, to deprive those Jesus called "the least of these" of a living wage, and to despoil the environment by sacrificing it on the altar of free enterprise. I missed the lesson telling me that I should turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even those designated as my enemies.
The Bible I read says something quite different. It tells the story of ancient Israel's epic struggle against injustice and bondage — and of the Almighty's investment in the outcome of that struggle. But the Hebrew Scriptures also caution against the imperiousness of that people, newly liberated from their oppressors, lest they treat others the way they themselves were treated back in Egypt. The prophets enjoin Yahweh's chosen people to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" and warn of the consequences of failing to do so: exile and abandonment. "Administer true justice," the prophet Zechariah declares on behalf of the Lord Almighty. "Show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other."
The New Testament echoes those themes, calling the followers of Jesus to care for orphans and widows, to clothe the naked, and to shelter the homeless. The New Testament I read says that, in the eyes of Jesus, there is no preference among the races and no distinction between the sexes. The Jesus I try to follow tells me that those who take on the role of peacemakers "will be called the children of God," and this same Jesus spells out the kind of behavior that might be grounds for exclusion from the kingdom of heaven: "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."

Balmer, incidentally, considers himself an evangelical Christian, although he is under no illusion that he has the same views as the majority of evangelicals in the US. Based on the essay, to which I commend you, I wish that more evangelicals did share his views. Perhaps in time more will.

Posted by john at 03:22 PM | Comments (59) | TrackBack

The Great Book Triage of 2006

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Because the quantity of books I have threaten to collapse upon me and cwush my widdle head, we have, as a temporary measure, packed up the majority of my books into plastic tote containers, for easy shlepping to the basement. At some point in the near future I'll put up some more bookshelves and they will be released from their polyurethane entrapments, but for now, it's best for everyone involved.

Krissy has suggested this will also be a fine time to do a little culling of the books, and so I've gone through the collection with an eye toward which books I have more than one copy of, which books I've read but am likely never to read again, and which books I got for some unfathomable reason yet have no intention of reading (the picture above isn't of the reject pile, incidentally; this was a picture near the beginning of the sorting process). I'm the sort of person who would generally prefer to give up a limb than give up a book, so you might imagine this was painful for me; I basically looked for excuses to keep 'em. But eventually I had over 100 books headed to the used bookstore. May God have mercy on their souls.

The sorting process did make me confront just how many books I have that I'm not likely to let go of. Books by friends, books given to me by friends (whether they've written them or not), and books that limited and/or first editions are all books that are not going anywhere, and I seem to have accrued a lot of those, with more coming in as we go along. There are worse things, of course. But it does mean I'm going to end up buying more bookcases than I imagined I would.

Posted by john at 12:09 PM | Comments (26) | TrackBack

June 23, 2006

Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet)

In the e-mail box today, a question from one of the great new writers of the day, Joe Hill:

On the assumption that you're always hunting for material for the blog, I thought I'd point you to the Chuck Klosterman article in the latest ESQUIRE. The always interesting Klosterman wonders why, if videogames are the dominant pop art form of our day, there isn't a Pauline Kael or a Lester Bangs to remark upon them - why the form has failed to produce a body of interesting criticism. I know you're a staff guy for PS2 magazine, and someone who has given more than a little thought to the place video games have in our culture. I thought maybe you'd want to check the Klosterman piece out and respond.

Well, as it happens, I know the reasons why there are (currently) no great video game critics. Here are the reasons:

1. Video games are too immature for valid criticism. "Immature" not in the sense that the stories/material is infantile, or aimed at such a low common denominator that useful criticism is not possible. Some video games are, of course, but then so are some movies and music, so that's not really saying anything.

What I mean is that it's immature as a narrative medium. Video games are no longer anywhere near new -- the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary -- but it's only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it's only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we're talking less than a decade's worth of games worthy of criticism.

Now, let's go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism -- and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.

If we grant that Kael and Bangs typify mature (or, given Bang's style, at least fully engaged) examples of criticism of their media, the reason there is currently no Kael or Bangs for video games is clear: It's awfully damn early for someone like them to arrive for the video game medium. Possibly the "Kael of video games" is the age of my daughter right now, and like her banging out rhythms on Dance Dance Revolution or getting immersed in some Mario World. Like Kael or Bangs, she'll never have known a time in which games were not fully narrative in their way, so like them she won't have to rely on metaphor or perspective that inherently views video games as a disruption (or the supplanter) of other artistic media.

Which is a problem with at least some of the people who have attempted "serious" video game criticism. Before he became an "embedded journalist" for a video game company, writer Wagner James Au used to write portentous, pretentious reviews of video games for Salon magazine and others, breathlessly exclaiming how this video game or that would forever change the way we look at the world, or whatever. It made me want to brain the man with a heavy limb of oak. These games Au journalistically slobbered over may or may not have been great games, but his rush to pump up the importance of video games in the world (and in the process, position himself as a chronicler at the vanguard of social change) made him look a little foolish. Good idea, overwrought execution. He may have gotten better since then -- I'm not sure, I haven't read him in a while -- but he was an early example of why possibly the real significant critics aren't even in the business yet. The real significant critics will take for granted that the medium is significant. They won't have to worry about justifying it.

(Likewise, of course, by the time Kael made it to the New Yorker, the magazine didn't have to explain to its readers why it had a film critic -- in 20 years, perhaps, the New Yorker won't have to explain why it has a video game critic.)

Joe Hill notes that in his essay, Klosterman suggests that now is for video games what 1967 was for rock music. I disagree; I think now is like 1956 was for rock music, or 1928 was for film. We're not yet at the point where the creative aspects of the medium are simply undeniable, but we are at a point where most of the tools exist that game makers will need to state their case.

2. You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you've got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You're done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.

Now, perhaps there are some would-be critics who would tell you that they could watch the game as it's being played by others and give you a reasonable critical evaluation that way, but let's call that now for what it is: Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. You can't usefully criticize that which you can't understand, and you can't understand video games without playing them, because the play itself is immensely significant. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the choice of allowing video game players to save their games only at certain save points rather than saving anywhere is as significant in the experience of playing the game as where Gregg Toland put his camera is in the experience of watching Citizen Kane. Trying to understand the impact of save points in that game without playing the game is like trying to understand the impact of deep focus by being told about it by someone else. No matter how much you understand it intellectually, you don't understand it as an experience. So your criticism will lack validity.

As I noted, this problem will correct itself in time, because there are a lot people coming up who can think critically about the video game media and do exquisite combo moves without thinking much about them. We're just not entirely there yet.

3. The current generation of video game reviewers are primarily reviewers, not critics. Which is to say that the reviews are aimed at telling readers whether a game's play is worth shelling out $50 for, and not about the cultural and aesthetic context of the game and why it is significant in that regard. There can be some of this, of course; today's best reviewers are quite knowlegable about the genre and also, they're neither personally stupid nor bad writers (although I'll have more to say about the latter later), and they know when a game they're playing is significant as well as fun. But criticism is not the primary role of the review.

This is not a problem. Reviewing tends to be thought of as the idiot cousin of criticism, but as someone who has done both, I reject this interpretation, because it's jackass stupid. Reviewing a game with an eye toward its playability, the enjoyment it gives to the consumer, and its simple overall fun factor is entirely valid. For one, people tend to buy video games to have fun. For another, $50 ($60 on the next-gen consoles) is not an insignificant amount of money to slap down for a game. Your average player may be mildly interested in the context of the game he or she is playing, but nine times out of ten, what they really want to know is: is this worth my time? Is this worth my money? Having people who can knowledgably say "yes" or "no" on that criteria is a good thing.

Professional video game criticism at this point is almost completely review-driven rather than criticism-driven because that's where the money is, and the companies who traffic in video game reviewing (including Ziff-Davis, for whom I freelance) see the bottom line value in that. As far as I know, there is no video game equivalent of Cahiers du cinéma, and if one is to come into being, it will be done by someone other than the current crop of publishers, and by people who want to tear down the existing critical structures surrounding video games. People gripe about reviews or declaim about the need for genuine criticism, but no one's done anything about it to any significant effect. Again, this may also be an issue of time -- Cahiers du cinéma popped into existence after a half-century of film; its closest equivalent in popular music, Rolling Stone, also happened long after pop music established itself as a viable artistic form (hold this thought; I'll come back to it).

4. Many current video game reviewers suck and will likely never stop sucking. The best of the current generation of video game reviewers are good writers and smart observers of the field, even if they are confined for various reasons to reviewing rather than criticism. But let's be honest here and note that the best writers and thinkers tend to be concentrated in the print magazines, who can afford to pay well for the most competent writers (as well as competent editors and copyeditors, whose input is, to put it lightly, not insignificant).

Quite a lot of the Web-based reviewers, on the other hand, are guys who happen to love video games and think it's damn cool they get to play games for free and maybe get a little money on the side. Many of these reviews are not especially good as pieces of writing, or show any particularly interesting depth of thought. Serious video game criticism is not likely to come out of the current commercial magazines, but I regret to say that I don't see it coming out of most of the current Web-based writers, either, because I don't see all that many looking up from what they're doing now to see a larger picture.

Now, this is all part and parcel of a larger issue in video game journalism in general, which is the perception that it's in the pocket of the industry itself because it is highly dependent on the largess of the video game companies, who offer sneak previews to games and access to programmers, etc. in an informal quid pro quo situation. In other words, there's a general perception video game journalism is largely corrupt. Speaking from my own experience, I think this true the further down the food chain you get (for the record, I've never been pressured by anyone at Ziff-Davis or anywhere else I've done video game writing to write anything but what I wanted to say), and again, it does put a damper on genuine criticism of video games coming from those who perceive themselves to be in "video game journalism."

This isn't meant to be a general beating on Web-based game writing -- there is some good Web-based writing on video games. But I do think that game sites that grew out of enthusiasm for games and without notable regard for legitimate journalistic standards and practices find themselves vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation by video game companies. Yes, this is a problem, and it's a problem that I wonder if some game sites are at all interested in solving, because it runs the risk of them losing access to cool stuff (and possibly readers). This is not a fertile ground for deep thought.

5. Video games lack a human story. Film has its auteurs; music has its singer/songwriters. Each of these archetypes of their media are romantic and also (conveniently enough) a useful peg to hang criticism upon. These media also have other useful archetypes: "the band," movie stars and crew, producers (both in music and film), exhibition events (concerts and premieres) and so on. The human story in video games is much harder to find. Video games do have their auteurs -- Wil Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meyer and Shigeru Miyamoto are examples -- but what they do and how they do it is frightfully opaque. Does a long discussion about Carmack's work on specular lighting or his latest game engine have the same critical accesibility as a discussion about, say, Orson Welles' directorial choices, or the making of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" technique? Personally, I think it doesn't, save for a small, technically adept tribe.

Also, the context of video game making is inherently less interesting than the context of the creation of other media, and that has an impact on criticism as well. No offense to video game makers, but their lives (so far) generally lack the drama of the lives of filmmakers, musicians and authors, primarily because whereas the backstory to film and music is the stars, the location shoots, the long nights in the studio, the drug-filled creative sessions and what have you, the backstory to game making is lots and lots and lots of coding, with the occasional status meeting and feedback from beta testers. The closest video game creators have gotten to a dramatic life narrative fueling a creative ambition in the field is the John Romero/Daikatana story. I don't doubt that the creative and production backstory to video games is significant in the creation of games; the question is whether it is transparent enough to write about and compelling enough to hang criticism upon -- and if any critic can follow the entire process well enough to write about it knowlegably.

One way this could change is if a standardized set of tools appeared that allowed game makers to focus on creating interactive narratives more than on the tool building itself. This is already happening to some extent -- many video games are built on relatively few game engines, which are then licensed, and platforms like Second Life allow people to build worlds and situations with pre-created forms. There's also machinima (movies created inside of game engines), the creative and critical narrative of which is rather more like the one we already have for film (although machinima is not typically interactive in the same way a video game is). As creating games becomes easier, there is a chance for a wider range of human stories coming into the world of video game production, which will make for more fertile ground for criticism.

More likely, however, is that the Kael or Bangs of the video game world is going to have to find a way to make really obscure and obstruse technical concepts not only interesting but illuminating, and also find a way to tease out the human drama of game production and tie it in with what the player interacts with on screen. This is a tough gig, and again, it may require some more time for the world to catch up.

One final thing, which is the inevitable conclusion of everything above:

6. Criticism is a reaction as well as an explanation. Cahiers du cinéma was a reaction to the status quo of film criticism up to that time; Rolling Stone was among other things an attempt to legitimize a genre of music that was still seen mostly as artistically inconsequential noise. We like to think we live in a world on "Internet time," but we're still the humans we've been for millennia as well. I've no doubt people are reacting to the video game industry and striving to become the Kaels and Bangs of the media, and bless them for it. But the question is whether there is genuinely enough there to respond to in an enduring way. If it took half a century of film before the editors and writers of Cahiers du cinéma could promote the auteur theory of film -- and in doing so, change not only the volcabulary of film criticism but also directly affect how films were made -- how long might it take to formulate a similar, workable, durable theory of video games? This theory won't be like the auteur theory, to be sure. But maybe it'll be something to wrench around the way we interact with video games, and as a result have an impact on how games will be made.

Is it that time yet? Are we there yet? I'm not sure it is, or that we are. Moreover, I'm not sure we will be there any time soon. When it does happen, video games' versions of Kael and Bangs will be there and ready to tell us how to think about it, and we'll be able to react, appreciate, argue or ignore them, just as people did with Kael and Bangs. I'm not certain when it will happen, I'm just certain it will.

(Incidentally: of all the current video game writers and critics, who do I think is the closest equivalent to Kael or Bangs? These guys. You may feel free to speculate why I think this might be so.)

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June 22, 2006

New Favorite Photoshop Effect

Diffuse Glow (0 grain) + 50% boost in saturation.

It's an interesting look.

Incidentally, if it seems like I'm posting pictures more than writing anything of any consequence over the last couple of days, that's because that's basically what I'm doing. I'm in an unaccountably foul mood over the last few days, and I'm largely avoiding posting anything that requires me to say anything longer than a paragraph because if I don't it's likely to slide into incoherent ranting about how 90% of humanity must be taking jackass pills or something. Yes, I know it's fun to see me when I'm in a mood, in that "ha, ha, let's watch the drunken dancing monkey" way. But I'm not in a mood about anything in particular; it's more of a free floating exasperation with the universe. And that's not particularly interesting (at least it's not that interesting to me). It'll pass. In the meantime: look, pictures.

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You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

Just before the thunderstorm:

We're in the thunderstorm right now. Wheee!

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June 21, 2006

Melonhead

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This is a fairly accurate pictorial representation of how I feel today, thanks to staying up late late late to finish a magazine article (this is part of the whole "other side of my writing life" all y'all don't know all that much about). It also means that just about the most complex thought I can hold in my head at the moment is "I like gum."

So in the absence of me being of any particular use in the thinking front, here: A site with 1,400 videos from the 80s, including massively obscure favorites I haven't seen in 20 years, like "Belly of the Whale" by Burning Sensations, and ones I never did see at the time, like "The Big Picture," from Y Tori Kant Read, the absolutely terribly band Tori Amos was in before she became, you know, Tori Amos. Lots of fun for those of us who were there are the time, and if you were too young to have seen these when they first showed up, well, you get to be entirely appalled that such things exist in your world. Sorry, man. At the time, they seemed cool.

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June 20, 2006

Before and After

What a difference six months makes.

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It's the last day of spring. I hope you enjoy it.

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June 19, 2006

Some People a Helmet Wouldn't Help

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What happens when a state repeals its motorcycle helmet law? Guess:

A Florida Today analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics found "unhelmeted" deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year of available data.

The article notes motorcycle registrations are also up in the state since the law was repealed, but they're up 87 percent, not 1000 percent, so as raw numbers and as a per capita number (or a per decaptia number, as the case may be), "unhelmeted" deaths are up.

This isn't what bothers me, really. What bothers me is the following quote:

But Merritt Island motorcyclist and helmet law opponent Dave Carroll said the helmet law debate is misguided.
"What causes most of the crashes is cars," he said. "Usually, it's the car driver turning left at an intersection and causing an accident because they didn't see us coming."

You know what? If someone believes they shouldn't have to wear a motorcycle helmet because the accident is someone else's fault, the fact is I don't want that person to wear a helmet. Because that person is clearly too damn stupid to live. For the rest of you, I'll merely remind you of what you no doubt already know, which is that your brains will splatter themselves across the pavement just as readily when the accident is someone else's fault as they will when it is yours. You don't wear a motorcycle helmet because you're a moron on the road. You wear a helmet because everyone else is.

I don't really care if Florida reinstates its motorcycle helmet law; I think overall people would be safer and somewhat less dead if there was one, but if there's not it's no skin off my nose (and cheek, and forehead and jaw). The way I see motorcycle helmets is that they are just one of life's stealth IQ tests, and when I see someone driving a motorcycle without one I know I'm dealing with someone who one of three things: A moron, delusional ("I'm too good a driver to get in an accident"), or a delightful optimist concerning the driving skills of every other single person on the road. I am none of those, myself, but it is always good to know when someone else is, and that they advertise themselves so clearly as being so.

(The picture at the top, incidentally, comes from here. It's what happens when you go 155mph on your bike and then hit a car. To be fair, even a helmet won't help you then.)

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June 18, 2006

Selection Bias

Out here in science fiction land, there been a lot of agitation over the last week concerning gender bias, with the particular focus being Fantasy & Science Fiction, one of the "Big Three" science fiction magazines (the other two being Asimov's and Analog). The basics of the issue are that it was noted over on SF writer Charles Coleman Finlay's blog that the number of women published in that particular magazine was low relative to the number of men (between 15 and 20 percent of stories published over the last four years were from women). This created a lot of commentary. Finlay then suggested a "submission bomb," in which 100 women would simultaneously submit to the magazine; this created a ton of commentary in itself, some of which accuses Finlay basically of being a patronizing prick. And from there topic metastatized all over the place.

I don't really have an opinion as to whether F&SF has a gender selection bias, or whether "submission bombing" will do any good in correcting that. But since I did guest-edit a science fiction magazine recently, the controversy caused me to go back to look at my own table of contents to see who is in there and in what proportion.

As it turns out, I bought 18 stories/articles for the magazine, seven of which were written or co-written by women. That's about 39% of the stories. I'll note anecdotally that this percentage of stories seems to be in line with what I remember being the overall proportion of submissions from women and from men; about 40% were from women and about 60% were from men.

(The actual percentage of xx-generated material in the issue is lower because I wrote a short editor's note, Bill Schafer wrote a publisher's introduction, and the book reviewer, who came pre-installed, is a guy. However, in my selection process, that's the percentage. On the other hand, from the Subterranean submissions I bought a story for my own site, by Nick Mamatas and Eliani Torres, so the number of stories I bought featuring women writers is higher than appears in the magazine. Ultimately, it's sort of a wash.)

I don't recall having any intentional selection bias for or against women (or for that matter, for or against men) in any particular round of cuts; I focused primarily on what I thought were good stories, and then later on what stories best fit an overall flow of material -- what stories gave the best balance of story topics, writing styles and etc. Despite all the stories having the same overarching theme (science fiction cliches), I wanted the writing of the stories to have a wide range of styles and topics, both to highlight that cliches could have life in them if executed well, and also because having a magazine wherein all the stories sound alike is kind of boring, and I didn't want this issue to be boring. When the dust cleared, these were the stories that remained.

Having no intentional gender bias in the selection is not the same thing as saying that gender didn't play a role in the nature of the stories. I can think of stories in the magazine where I suspect the gender of the writer mattered materially for the story's focus and point of view, and was part of what made the story worth reading. If it mattered more than other aspects of the writer's personal experience and writing craft is something the individual writers would have to answer, not me. Suffice to say that I was looking at how each story worked as a whole, and then how it worked as part of an entire magazine.

If I had finished my selection process and I had only a couple of stories by women, would I have gone back and tried to find a few more? I suppose I might have, but if I had been happy with the selection of stories I expect I would have stuck with it and just said "these are the stories I thought were the best." I suspect I might have done the same thing if the situations were reversed. I will say that early in the reading process I had substantially more women-written pieces on my "yes" and "maybe" lists than male-written pieces, and I remember wondering if I was going to find male-written pieces that I liked. As it turned out, this was an artifact of the submission process -- I had a one-month submission window, and rather more women submitted earlier in that timeframe, and rather more men submitted later. Whether this was a random occurance or indicative of larger trends in male/female submission protocols I leave to people other than me to winkle through.

While I had no intentional sex-oriented selection bias, I did have one intentional selection bias, which is that I wanted to try, if at all possible, to have the issue debut writers new to the science fiction field. Four of the writers in the magazine are being published in SF for the first time; as it happens two of them are women. There's also another writer for whom this is the first time she's published in a North American short story market, and another for whom, while she is immensely well-known in SF circles (and indeed, is a multiple Hugo nominee), this nevertheless marks her first "prozine" sale. Again, this was not an issue of being conscious of, or working from the intention of, striking a blow for women in SF, or for making sure I had a chromosomally ideal proportion of debut authors; I just liked their work and wanted to publish them, and was pleased to be able to give them their various debuts.

This contributor list is reasonably gender balanced, but it's clear to me that if one wanted to pick apart the contributor list in terms of bias, one easily could. For example, the contributors are almost entirely some strain of white; I'm only aware of one of them being of something other than purely European descent. I couldn't tell you how many of them are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, so if it were to turn out the magazine has an unusually high (or low) number of queer or bi contributors, I can't take much credit for that (or blame for it, either). The contributor list is heavily weighted toward North Americans, I know that for sure. I suspect the contributors tend to be more liberal then conservative, but I since I didn't ask to see voter registration cards, I can't know for sure. And finally, the list here is almost appallingly homo sapiens-centric (that is, as far as I know).

In the end, there are probably many things this list of contributors has too much of, or not enough of. What I definitely know it has the right amount of is people who write stories I wanted to buy, and that I think other people would want to read. That's what I saw my job being, and I think I did it well enough. You'll have to read the magazine for yourself to see if I managed the latter part of it well enough for you.

Posted by john at 01:51 PM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

My Progeny, Her Self

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Yeah, this picture just about sums it up. Also, contrary to what you might think, owing to this being my child, she is not actually flipping the double bird here in the picture, she's merely propping up the eyebrows. Really.

One of the things you know about fatherhood going in is that you're going to love your kid. That's a given. What's a bonus is when you genuinely like your kid, which is to say that your kid is a human being that you think is interesting and fun and someone you'd like to know both better and for a nice, long time. I'm always constantly amazed how much I really like Athena, not just for all the things we share in common but also for the things that make her singularly herself; she's my kid but she's becoming her own person, which seems about right.

As she's growing into that person, I have a daughter, a friend, a co-conspirator in various goofy pictures, and an inspiration, both practical (gotta send her to college) and ineffable. That's a good deal for me, no matter how you look at it. I feel pretty lucky to be able to know her. For Father's Day, my wish for all you other fathers is that you get to feel the same way about your own kids.

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June 17, 2006

Eleven Years

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I've been married for eleven years today. It's good to be married. And now, I'm stepping away from the computer for the rest of day.

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A Tiny Tiny Geek Moment

I'm feeling mighty tech competent today: After a couple of weeks of screwy wi-fi and home network issues, I've managed to reconnect everything and make it work again. And all it took was many hours of trolling the Internet to learn how! Actually, if I had been tech competent, I probably would have figured out the problem in 20 minutes. But hush. Give me my small victories.

Posted by john at 12:40 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

June 16, 2006

Friend-pimping Stephen King

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Art by Mark Geyer

No, I don't know Stephen King personally. I don't even know him impersonally. I hear he's a nice guy. But I do know Bill Schafer, publisher of Subterranean Press, and that's why I'm letting you know that Subterranean is publishing a special 10th anniversary edition of King's serial novel The Green Mile:

Subterranean Press is delighted to announce the 10th Anniversary Edition of this classic work. Mark Geyer, whose art graced the original paperback releases of The Green Mile, has agreed to provide more than 60 original sketches for our edition. This exclusive publication will consist of six individual illustrated hardcover volumes, contained in a cloth slipcase.

For you collectors, these books come in three editions: Gift, Limited and Lettered. If you get the Lettered collection, you take your collection very, very seriously. Apparently, for Stephen King, there are a lot of serious collectors, so if you're one of them, you really should get a move on.

This is pretty cool for Subterranean, and as someone who's done a lot of work with them, I'm happy to see the house doing well. I can't imagine this edition of The Green Mile will be anything but excellent.

Posted by john at 12:03 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Why I Don't Argue With My College Girlfriend

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Because she could totally kick my ass, that's why. She's a second-degree black belt. This is her laying down the smack on some errant boards what got uppity and out of line. Because, you know, those boards would kill you and everyone you know, if they had but a chance. Fortunately between them and world domination is Shara.

In case folks think I'm having a dig at Shara's expense, her being my ex and all, you should know that we actually continue to be very good friends (look to see who The Ghost Brigades is dedicated to), and I think it's super-cool that she kicks ass. Also, those boards were asking for it. You can tell just by looking at them.

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June 15, 2006

Jim Baen

Several SF blogs are reporting that Baen Books publisher Jim Baen has had a stroke and is now in the hospital. Most of them have gotten it from Steve Barnes; I've seen the general story confirmed elsewhere by someone who would be in a position to know. Apparently there may be a further announcement regarding his condition later tonight.

This is all I know personally at the moment. Needless to say, I'm thinking good thoughts for him, his family, friends and employees.

Update, 9pm: This was just posted in Baen's Bar by Baen author Julie Cochrane:

Okay, people, here's what's going on.

Jim Baen is in the ICU after a stroke, it is serious, Toni and a relative are there with him. Now you know as much as we do about his condition.

Baen Books is functioning under the very detailed emergency plans that Jim has in place.

Please don't send cards or flowers. Please do send whatever prayers are appropriate to your faith.

When we know more, we'll let you know.

Thanks,

Julie

Update 11:21pm: Another message from Baen's Bar, this time from Baen editor Toni Weisskopf:

Dear Barflies

I'm sorry to have to announce that Jim Baen suffered a stroke on Monday, and has been in the hospital ever since. His condition is serious, but it's too early for any prognosis as to how he'll fare from here on in.

His family has arrived in NC, and are with him in the hospital. I've been to see him, as have other members of Baen's staff and his friend David Drake. In the meantime, so far as Baen Books is concerned, our plans continue on schedule.

The business is fine, we're all simply very concerned about Jim.

Posted by john at 08:33 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Preserve This

Here's another feather in Bush's cap, in my humble opinion:

Bush creates world’s biggest ocean preserve:

President Bush on Thursday created the world's largest marine protected area — a group of remote Hawaiian islands that cover 84 million acres and are home to 7,000 species of birds, fish and marine mammals, at least a quarter of which are unique to Hawaii.

At a White House ceremony, the president designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands the United States' 75th national monument. The islands have been described as "America's Galapagos" and as the most intact tropical marine region under U.S. jurisdiction.

“To put this area in context, this national monument is more than 100 times larger than Yosemite National Park,” Bush said. “It’s larger than 46 of our 50 states, and more than seven times larger than all our national marine sanctuaries combined. This is a big deal.”

Excellent. Hey, I spend enough time banging on the man when he does something I think is bad. I don't mind spending a moment or two noting when I think he's done something good.

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Nanoarmor!

Dude, I so totally thought of this first for Old Man's War:

A new "liquid armor" could be the solution for protecting the parts of the body that aren't currently covered by standard-issue ballistic vests – arms and legs, where many of these devastating and life-threatening injuries occur. Co-developed by two research teams – one led by Norman Wagner at the University of Delaware, and the other led by Eric Wetzel at the U.S. Army Research Lab in Aberdeen, MD – the liquid technology will soon lead to light, flexible full-body armor.
The liquid - called shear thickening fluid is actually a mixture of hard nanoparticles and nonevaporating liquid. It flows normally under low-energy conditions, but when agitated or hit with an impact it stiffens and behaves like a solid. This temporary stiffening occurs less than a millisecond after impact, and is caused by the nanoparticles forming tiny clusters inside the fluid. "The particles jam up forming a log jam structure that prevents things from penetrating through them," Wagner explains.
Wagner and Wetzel developed a way to specially treat ballistic fabrics, such as Kevlar, with the liquid, making them dramatically more resistant to puncture and much better at reducing blunt trauma.

Will I see a dime from this? No! Damn, I knew I should have filed that patent.

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Girl on a Swing

And all is well with the world.

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June 14, 2006

Presidential Oops

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To the folks sending the e-mails, yes, I heard about the presidential faux pas today with Dubya joshing a reporter about his sunglasses, not knowing the reporter was legally blind. Yes, it's an oopsie. No, I don't particularly care. Nor do I think it's yet another example of Bush's inhumanity to man, or whatever. Apparently Dubya didn't know, because the reporter had never made a big deal out of it (he wears the sunglasses to help prevent macular degeneration or some such). And in any event the president did the right thing by calling the reporter and apologizing. Done, taken care of, move on.

I mean, yes, I can understand why all y'all might think this sort of thing is something I'd giggle about like a schoolgirl. But you know, I do try to base my dislike of the president on genuine political and policy issues rather on him making a goof. Sometimes I fail in the noble quest. But not this time. Or to put it another way, if the reporter in question doesn't seem to have been notably offended by the president's hijinx, I'm not entirely sure why I should be.

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Wednesday Author Interview: Pamela Ribon

Over at By The Way I've got an interview with Pamela Ribon, author, blogger and the mastermind behind the Dewey Donation System which so many of you have been kind enough to get behind (thanks!). It's an interesting discussion on how Pamie got involved with book donations, and what libraries mean to her. Check it out.

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Athena on Flag Day

Because Flag Day is every child's favorite holiday!

You can see the entire set o' pictures here.

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June 13, 2006

Writing Novels One Novel at a Time

Elizabeth Bear expounds on the oft-quoted idea (most frequently attributed to Gene Wolfe) that when you write a novel, you're not learning to write novels, you're learning to write that novel. As she's on her 15th novel at the moment, you can imagine she has some thoughts on the matter.

I think whether writing a novel gets easier or harder as you go along depends on what you're trying to do as a writer. I think if you're content to bang out books that are fundamentally indistinguishable from one another -- which, in itself, is not a bad thing, especially if your initial standard of competence is high -- what you take from writing one novel will get applied easily to others. If you try to do substantially different things each time out, what you've learned in earlier work might not translate over. I think most authors -- including me -- inhabit a space between those two extremes when they do from one book to the next; you want to do things you know (and that you know you do well), but you want to use some of the credit you've been extended from earlier work to fiddle with the forms.

In my particular case, thanks to writing four other novels, I don't actually doubt that I can write novels. But with each of the novels I've done so far, I've attempted something new to me. With Agent to the Stars, I was trying to see if I could write a novel. With Old Man's War, I wanted to see if I could write a novel I could sell. With The Android's Dream, I wanted to see if I could write in 3rd person. With The Ghost Brigades, I was looking to see if I could create a continuation of a universe without it being a direct sequel. Now with The Last Colony I'm wrestling the mechanics of putting a bow on an entire created universe. And a little further out, the Secret Book Project Which I Don't Talk About will, in fact, present what I expect is my most daunting writing challenge yet.

Each of the novels I've written has created a foundation of story and writing skills that I used for the next novel, and has also allowed me to do a bit of stretching, and to try something new (or, at least, new to me as a writer). To put it in video game terms, I'm constantly in the process of leveling up the skills. I'm pretty sure there will come a time in which not every novel I write will present a new and major skills challenge, but in the short term, at least, I don't see this happening. I'll hopefully be expanding my writing toolbox for a long time.

At the same time, however, I don't necessarily see me taking a huge leap away from what I know I know how to do to attempt something wholly unconventional, or entirely new to me. There are reasons for this. One is that I like using the writing skills I have; I think they lend themselves to telling interesting and accessible stories, which is nice because those are the kinds of stories I like myself. Another is that I like to sell books, which is to say that I like writing stories I think people are going to like to read, and I'm not averse to throttling back a bit so that I don't lose the audience who has come around to hear a tale.

This last bit can irritate the folks who like to posit the whole "are you an artist or are you an entertainer" false dichotomy debate, but you know, screw them. There's nothing wrong with taking your readers into deeper water one step at a time. The Beatles didn't go directly from Please Please Me to the White Album, and if they had, we'd remember them, if we remembered them at all, as that funny band from the 60s who blew their second album and now all work at various cheese shops around Liverpool.

(Please don't read this to suggest I am as good a novelist as Lennon/McCartney were songwriters. It's just an example of a larger point.)

Also, of course, the other practical reason not to go nuts as a novelist is that sailing out into uncharted waters makes your publishers nervous; they don't want you to screw with a good thing. If you're lucky you get a publisher who encourages to continue to expand your repetoire of writing skills but also reminds you to dance with those what brung you, i.e., they're paying attention to your needs as a writer and also your needs as someone who wants to pay your bills with writing income. To date, Tor has been really good with this (you'll see just how good with this they've been when the Secret Project hits the shelves), and that's allowed me to feel pretty secure in continuing to grow as a novelist at the right pace for me. I think it also helps that we're both aiming toward the same thing in this regard.

In the end I think the optimal novel-writing experience is the one in which you feel the novel you have just written was written as well as you could write it, you've gained a new skill for future novels, and you have a desire to attempt something with your next novel that may be just ever-so-slightly beyond what you've tried before. That's generally the experience I've had so far, and hope to keep having.

Posted by john at 11:45 AM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

June 12, 2006

The Dewey Donation System

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Since 2003, my friend, fellow author and blogger Pamela Ribon has done an annual charity drive wherein she picks a group of libraries who are in need of some timely donations and encourages all her readers (and others) to make a donation of books or cash to the libraries. This year she had gussied up her donation drive and found some co-sponsors (including Television Without Pity and Glarkware) and is debuting the donation drive under its new name and Web site, the Dewey Donation System.

This year's donation drive focus is the Harrison County Library System, in Mississippi. Harrison County's libraries were incredibly hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, with its two largest libraries, in Biloxi and Gulfport, gutted by the tidal surge created by the storm. These libraries lost all of their childrens' books and much of their fiction and audiovisual offerings. Other libraries in the system lost some or all of their collections as well. Many of these libraries are still closed; all of them need to rebuild their collections.

The Dewey Donation System site makes it easy for you to pitch in: The site links you to the Amazon wish lists of the individual libraries in the Harrison County Library System. Browse through the things they need, and when you find something that tickles your fancy (and fits your budget), buy it. Amazon takes care of sending it to the library -- no need for you to worry about how it's going to get there. Then once you've made your donation, swing back by the Dewey Donation System site and let them know what you've donated. You'll get your props for encouraging the cause of literacy, and maybe that will encourage others to donate as well.

I've been a big fan of this annual book drive since it began, not only because it's helping preserve literacy -- a big cause of mine, as you can guess -- but also because it makes it so simple for me to do the right thing and send a book or two. Pick, click, done. I've donated this year like I always do (a copy of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast to the Gulfport branch), and I encourage you to do the same -- and to let other folks know this donation drive is going on. The Dewey Donation System site has PSAs and ad banners you can add to your own site if you like, but I think what would be even more effective, if you're a blogger, is to do an entry and say, "hey, I donated. How about you?"

I wasn't approached by Pamie or anyone else involved to do an entry about this, incidentally. I'm just happy she keeps doing it every year, and I'm happy to call attention to her good works when she does them. I hope you'll join me in thanking her and the other sponsors of this drive, join me in donating to this cause, and join me in letting other folks know it's happening.

So, to Pamie: Thanks. And to everyone else: Hey, I donated. How about you?

Posted by john at 08:40 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Subterranean Magazine To Press

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For those of you wondering when Subterranean Magazine issue #4 would go to press: Today is that day. Even as I type these words, the mighty presses are whirring and clanking and making whatever other noises presses make, and then the copies will be sent to subscribers, people who have purchased single copies, and to the contributors. This doesn't mean it's too late to order your own copy, however. Hey, all the cool kids are doing it.

Posted by john at 03:11 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Odds/Ends, 06/12/06

Little things that are happening to me and/or I'm thinking about:

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* Look who's come crawling back. It's my cell phone, making its return to me after two weeks of solo adventures about which it apparently chooses not to speak. Fine, be that way, you little clamshelled bastard. I'll find out, one way or another. Actually, it was finally found at the hotel that Wiscon was at by one of the convention volunteers, who kindly popped it in the mail and sent it back to me. Overall it appears none the worse for wear, and I'm pleased to have it back. This is the sort of above and beyond service from Wisconites that will keep me coming back to the convention on an annual basis.

* Since I wrote about the Fermi Paradox a couple of weeks ago, I've run across a couple more reviews of Old Man's War which complain about me totally ignoring the paradox, as if it were a genuine irrefutable physical law rather than a product of some late night bull session under the squash stands at the University of Chicago, just another conversation while Ricky and the boys were playing with the fission pile. Note to geeks: It's not a law. It's not even a theory. Hell, it's not even a hypothesis. I even doubt it's a real paradox. However, it's annoyed me enough that in The Last Colony, I now have a character talk about Fermi's Paradox, and offer the true explanation of how the aliens can be out there and not have visited here. So for those of you whose world view rests on the resolution of that particular "paradox," now you'll have something to live for until May 2007. And then, I suspect, you'll probably hate me, because I don't think you'll like the answer. I like it just fine, however.

* An interesting quote from Orson Scott Card from an interview in a Roanoke, Va., newspaper, on whether he considers himself to be a conservative:

Believe me, I can infuriate a room full of Republicans and seize every opportunity to do so, since I have little patience with their worship for the free market or their opposition to civilized control of weaponry. I am disgusted by the short-sightedness of leaders of both parties. But the fact that I find George W. Bush to be the most moderate, thoughtful, rational and responsible president since Dwight D. Eisenhower makes me look conservative to those who think "conservative" is a dirty word and George W. Bush is the devil.

This makes me very much want to visit the alternate universe in which OSC resides, because the GWB we have in this universe is pretty much the exact opposite of the adjectives Card uses to describe the president. Perhaps we can arrange a swap. I would agree that liking Bush doesn't make one conservative, however, since at the moment I don't know many genuine conservatives who are glowingly happy with the man.

Aside from this, however, a really sharp observation from OSC about injecting his personal politics into his fiction:

My characters have political opinions, but they are rarely my political views... If I ever let my fiction be propaganda, then my career as a fiction writer is over.

This is something I think OSC and I have very much in common. I save my personal politics for the real world, and let the fictional politics of the worlds I create go where the story needs them to go. This does of course create the occasional misunderstanding of my own political views, but in some ways I find those misunderstandings perversely satisfying from a craftsmanship point of view. It means as a writer I've succeded in creating a worldview separate from my own (or at least appears separate through the lens of current politics), and that's a skill to have, particularly in science fiction.

OSC makes the salient point that is values are still likely to come through, and in my own reading of his work I think that's true; I find it most notable in his Alvin Maker series. I think some of my own personal values are evident in Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades as well, although less in the direction of the books' political structures and more in the way the characters deal with each other.

This is not to say the political structures in the books don't have their effect. One of the challenging things about The Last Colony is that it deals with the political set-up I've developed over the last couple of books, with the Colonial Union being the way it is, and the aliens being the way they are. Dealing with all that and still having the characters have room to be recognizably their own people is the challenge here. If this book had its way, it would be 800 pages long, but the book is a fool and doesn't know what's good for it. That's why I'm around. What we're hoping is that I'm not a fool, too.

Posted by john at 09:34 AM | Comments (49) | TrackBack

June 11, 2006

Plagiarising the Whatever

A question from e-mail:

I would be interested in reading about your experiences with people who plagiarize your entries to the Whatever. I've been reading a few other bloggers who are dealing with the issue and I'd just like to see how this has been with you and your blog.

To be honest, I can't think of a situation where I think someone's plagiarised a Whatever entry. There have been a couple of times when people have cut-and-pasted an entire entry of mine into their own blogspace, most notably with the "Being Poor" entry, but even in those instances they've usually linked back either to me or to the place where they originally found the entry. That's not plagiarism, because there's no attempt to hide the fact they didn't write it. It is a massive copyright violation -- no interpretation of fair use includes a simple cut-and-paste of an entire entry -- but generally speaking I find it difficult to care if some random dude does a cut-and-paste onto his personal site, particularly if he links back.

Also, here's the thing: The couple of times where someone has cut-and-pasted something I wrote into their blog without attribution, someone has popped up in the comments and said "hey, John Scalzi wrote that. You should credit him." And then -- pop -- up comes the attribution. No, those commenters are not me working through a sock puppet. It's simply that enough people read my stuff online that people recognize what I've written, even if it's on someone else's site.

In a larger sense I don't think there's much incentive to plagiarize online, anyway. 99% of plagiarism as far as I can see comes primarily out of two desires: To make one's self look smart to friends, and to get a good grade while avoiding actual work. Well, people generally aren't being graded on their blogs and journals, and the blogosphere's value system is such that you get almost as much credit for finding something smart and clever and sharing it with your friends as you would for writing something smart and clever. Most people are content to excerpt and link, and of course I am pleased when they do.

Off the Internet, it's possible that kids are plagiarising my Whatever entries for school papers or whatever, but I don't know how much of a good idea that is. My site is regularly spidered by Turnitin.com and other plagiarism-detection services, so anyone who copies something I write wholesale into their own paper stands a good chance of being caught if their professor uses any of these services. So kids: Don't. Just don't. Cite me and put the URL in a footnote. It keeps you from having to explain why you suddenly write like a 37-year-old shut-in living in rural America.

Students aren't the only plagiarists, of course; sometimes pro writers and authors will nip in a few passesages from other favorite writers here and there, because of deadlines or stress or whatever excuse seems most convenient at the time. As far as I know, no one has yet attempted this with me. I am occasionally quoted by newspaper columnists (the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn does this from time to time), but being quoted is nice and good, and I'm happy when it happens. But wholesale lifting of work? Nope. Not that I know about. If it were to happen, my first inclination would be to contact the writer and give them a chance to "correct" their lack of attribution rather than report them to their bosses. If they got all snotty about it, then there would be trouble. But generally speaking I'm not in a rush to end someone's career because they did something that is stupid but probably harmless. Call me a softie.

As far as I know, I have not myself plagiarised anyone. But I have been drinking a lot of cough syrup recently. And I have deadlines. And I'm under a lot of strees. I could do it any time now. I apologize in advance for my possible future plagiarising misdeeds.

Posted by john at 11:18 AM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

June 10, 2006

Back from Kokomo

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I had a lovely time at the book signing at Don's Books in Kokomo, thanks to the tremendously nice and friendly staff of Don's Books, who made a lovely display of books and gave me chocolates as a thank you gift for showing up. And they were really good chocolates, too, from a local business that makes its own chocolates in the store: J. Edwards Fine Chocolates and Baked Goods. I managed to exert some control and bring some chocolates home to wife and child, thus becoming the hero for the day. Self-restraint is a good thing. It was also nice seeing folks who had gone out of their way to come up to the signing; I was having enough of a good time chatting that I lost track of time and ended up staying quite a bit after my appointed signing time. There are worse things.

One additional fun thing for me: Don's Books was stocking the latest printing of OMW, the one with the "Hugo Award Finalist" bug on it, which I had known about but hadn't yet seen (that'd be the one in the picture, clearly). I'm a big ol' geek for being excited about that, I suppose. But on the other hand, if you're an SF writer and you're not excited about that sort of thing, you're either very jaded or very zen. And I'm neither at this point.

In all, a very good time with some good folks. Thanks to the folks who came out. I'm glad you did. Thanks also to Don's Books for the welcome and the chocolates. All signings should go so well.

Posted by john at 07:30 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

June 09, 2006

It's the Devil's Book!

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Oh no! My Amazon ranking for Old Man's War shows that it is the work of the devil (and that yesterday it was the work of Boeing)!!!!!

This just gives me an excuse to show you the poster Whatever reader Jon Hansen made me the other day with that 6/6/06 picture I put up:

Excellent.

Jon Hansen, incidentally, recently pointed to what I have to suspect is Godwin's Favorite Website: Hitler Cats, devoted to pictures of cats who -- you guessed it -- look like Hitler.

And look! Churchill Dogs!

Posted by john at 02:26 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Killed!

In e-mail, someone wondering if I had thoughts on the most recent outrage in the science fiction community, which is that Asimov's magazine killed a story it had bought from writer Jim Grimsley, called "Wendy." As Grimsley writes at the Asimov magazine message boards:

The story's protagonist is a person with known genetic tendencies toward child abuse, at a time when these can be firmly predicted. The story is being killed due to the child abuse content... I'm not posting this here to start a discussion about this action since I'm not likely to hang around for it. But this forum is a convenient way of letting other Asimovs writers know that this has happened.

Of course, a discussion has ensued, with lots of folks angry and etc. It should be noted that Asimov's editor apparently offered Mr. Grimsley the full payment of the story as a kill fee (the term used in publishing for the money you get if a story is cut after you've got it under contract), but he refused it.

I'll address the last of these first: Look, people, take kill fee money. It's free money. It's money for a story you can still sell for the first time. Are people in science fiction not aware of the kill fee concept or something? I won't gainsay Mr. Grimley's reasons for not taking the money, but for the rest of you, understand that a kill fee isn't pity money, it's money to compensate you for your time, effort and the loss of putative professional advantages of having your story appear in a particular forum (in this case, Asimov's). The Asimov's editor offering the kill fee wasn't being nice, she was being professional. Good on her.

As for the story being killed: It happens. I've killed stuff as an editor. Back when I was editing a humor area for AOL, I commissioned a cartoon from Ted Rall about e-mail snobbery; Ted sent back a viciously spot-on piece. I was delighted by it; my boss was not, and I was required to reject it. Which I did -- and offered Ted a kill fee (which he took, by the way, as he should have). I subsequently bought lots of other cartoons from Ted, so everyone ended up happy. There were a couple of other times where I had bought or commissioned a piece which for various reasons I didn't run, and when that happened I offered kill fees for those as well.

As a writer, I've had pieces killed -- fortunately never because something I've written is substandard (as far as I know), but because there wasn't enough space, or the editor decided it didn't fit with the issue, or, frankly, for reasons I wasn't informed of other than "we've had to kill this piece." I may be more mercenary about these things than other people, but as long as I got paid for my time and effort (nb: your kill fee should be in your contract), I moved on. Sometimes I sold the killed piece elsewhere; sometimes it would just get filed away in my vasty archives.

In the commentary thread over at Asimov's, there's bitching and complaining that this is further proof that the SF is too timid, or whatever. I haven't seen the story in question, so I can't comment much about that. I do think that one story killed does not a trend make in the world of science fiction publishing. There are lots of reasons an editor can buy a story one day and kill it the next, beginning with being overruled from above (which is what happened to me in the Rall case I mentioned, and as appeared to have happened here), down to an editor simply changing his or her mind (i.e., "I bought this, but now that I re-read it I wish I hadn't").

I'm not the editor this time around so I'm not privy to the decision-making process; all I know is what Mr. Grimsley has said. But I'd want to see this happen a couple more times before we all go on an "SF has no balls" orgy of outrage, or an "Asimov's has no balls" orgy of outrage. Toward the latter, if Asimov's is only publishing safe and bland stories, you'll know it soon enough (and so will Asimov's, by way of declining subscriptions). Toward the former, if the story is good enough for Asimov's it has a good chance of selling elsewhere, and if it doesn't, it can still get out via the Web (this is another reason to have taken the kill fee; to get paid and still release it online, via CC license, thus possibly getting a Boing Boing mention). As a genre, SF has balls aplenty, I think, and from my own personal point of view, there are so many other issues with traditional SF magazine publishing these days, starting with the genres' overall esthetic and going all the way down to the fact the "big three" SF magazines don't accept e-mailed submissions, that this particlar event doesn't really register on my outrage meter.

One can argue that Asimov's shouldn't have bought a story they decided not to run, but as I noted earlier, this sort of thing happens all the time all over publishing for all sorts of reasons. The question is: What did Asimov's do then? In this case, offer a kill fee, which was the professional and courteous thing to do. As I said, I wouldn't gainsay Mr. Grimsley's choices in the matter, and having a story killed stinks, whatever the reason. But if it had happened to me, I would have taken the free money and been somewhat pleased to get a second bite at the publishing apple.

Posted by john at 01:46 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Readercon in July

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Note to stalkers: I'll be at Readercon 17 this July 7-9, because, what can I say, I'm a big, fat China Mieville fanboy. I'm still trying to decide if I can make Confluence, because I hear good things about it, and the convention also dispatched someone to Wiscon to ask me to come, which I thought was a really nice touch. But that would be two conventions in one month, and also, if I don't have The Last Colony finished by then, I may be a hunted man, with legions of Tor editors nipping at my heels. So we'll have to see. At least it's at the end of July; I had thought it was the weekend right after Readercon, and that would have been a little much.

Posted by john at 11:48 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Way Down in Kokomo, Plus TGB Review

Just a reminder, if you're anywhere close to Indiana tomorrow, that I will be making an author appearance at Don's Books in Kokomo tomorrow, Saturday, June 10, from noon until 2 p.m. I'll be signing books for sure; I may also do a reading of some sort. Or possibly some interpretive dance. Or karaoke! It really all depends on the crowd. But, yeah, swing by and say hello and bring me things to sign. Because I'll sign them, all right. I'll sign them like you wouldn't believe.

Via my superultramegafabulous publicist Dot "I'm superultramegafabulous" Lin comes a review of The Ghost Brigades that managed to slip under my obsessive-compulsive data-gathering radar. It comes from the Dallas Morning News, and it starts with a fun bit of hyperbole: "If Stephen King were to try his hand at science fiction, he'd be lucky to be half as entertaining as John Scalzi." Well, bless you, Victor Godinez (he's the reviewer). Of course, King has tried science fiction, with Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher and most recently with Cell. I'm not entirely sure that I can rightfully claim that TGB is twice as entertaining as any of those (or sold as much as a tenth of any one of them). That Stephen King, he can tell a story. But I do appreciate Mr. Godinez's sentiment.

Posted by john at 09:37 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

June 08, 2006

Monoprocessorial

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My PC is beginning to cause me some issues: its ethernet card is only intermittently functional, and it's reached that point that every Windows box eventually reaches, in which the system is collapsing under the weight of all the crap that fires up whenever you turn it on. Rather than spend a whole lot of time being frustrated with it, I'm sending it down to the minors, which is to say to Athena's room, and for a while at least I will return to my monoprocessorial ways, with only the Mac in my office.

This should be less problematic than it might have been; I've been using the Mac for online stuff anyway, and most of the important documents I had on the PC were on a external drive, which I've now attached to the Mac. I bought and downloaded Photoshop Elements, which should be able to handle most of my picture processing needs, and all those other heavy-duty programs I use on the PC have sufficient Mac analogs. About the only thing I won't be doing is killing things via first person shooters, but inasmuch as I have a book to write, this is probably just as well.

Also, you'll note, I've cleaned up my office. Proof that even I have limits on squalor.

Posted by john at 09:19 PM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Representin' for the Geek Tribe

This is cool: Check what's fronting the Geek Gift Guide at Amazon (scroll down a little if you don't see it right away). Here's the whole Geek Gift Guide. Needless to say, I have quite a few of the things here, and wish to have most of the rest of them.

(Temporal note: If for some reason you're viewing this substantially after 6/8/06, there's no guarantee that what's featured at either link has anything to do with me anymore. All fame is fleeting, even the geek kind.)

Posted by john at 01:33 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

al-Zarqawi

I'm busy plugging away at other things at the moment, but I've got e-mail asking me what I think of the US military killing al-Zarqawi in Iraq. My immediate reaction is: Good. I imagine I will have a more subtle reaction in the long-term ("good, and now..."), but until I get what I need to get done done and gather my thoughts on the subject, here, have a thread to discuss the event and its implications. I'll swing by when I'm caught up.

Posted by john at 10:17 AM | Comments (48) | TrackBack

June 07, 2006

Wednesday Author Interview: Tate Hallaway

Over at By the Way, I'm interviewing bestselling paranormal romance author Tate Hallaway, who is also award-winning SF author Lyda Morehouse. It's like getting two author interviews for the price of one!

Also, I swear that sometime soon I'll have a schedule made of the authors I'm interviewing, so other authors can help me fill in the gaps in the schedule. With God as my witness, etc., etc.

Posted by john at 02:17 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Addendum

Same-Sex Marriage Ban Amendment gets canned. Now we have to talk about real issues, drat the luck.

Posted by john at 12:04 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Writing Catchup

Writing stuff:

tadcsmall.jpg* Editing news: The last few days had me busy doing proofs of both The Android's Dream and the Subterranean Magazine cliche issue. The latter is off to press after this, I'm pretty sure, so if there are any additional copyediting errors, please don't blame the authors, they're all my fault. During the reading I was reminded of how fun this issue is; it's a good mix of stories. It makes me pretty damn excited that soon you'll be able to read these stories for yourself and see what I mean.

As for The Android's Dream, rereading that particular book reminds me how much I like it. As I've noted before, TAD is meant to be a fast and breezy read; it's smart but it doesn't dwell on the deep questions of the universe. But structurally I think it's probably the best plotted and paced book I've written so far -- everything fits together really well and the story just sucks you along. That and I'm much more of a smartass in Android than I am in either OMW or TGB (or am likely to be in The Last Colony, although it's got some fun moments in it so far). I think people are going to like it.

* Speaking of The Last Colony, some of you are asking, how is it going? It's going fine, thanks. My beta readers have gotten back with initial reports that are largely positive, which is nice, although I suspect at least one of the chapters needs a little massaging -- one of the things of writing a chapter that is literally all dialogue is that it's all about information management and characterization, and you need to make sure one doesn't overwhelm the other. But this is a "tweak" issue rather than a "massive rewrite" issue, and that's the sort of issue I want, given the choice between the two.

I will say this: You like spaceships? Because we've got 'em in this book. Got 'em by the score.

The writing is progressing along nicely, I think, But I think I'm going to have to boost up production speed a bit if I don't want to be a frazzled panicbunny by the end, or have to have my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden fly out and stand over me with a whip, which, sure, sounds like a fun time, but, you know. He's a busy man. As am I. Boosting my writing output for the book also possibly/probably means a little less writing here, although I'm sure you all understand that one of these writing endeavors pays my mortgage and the other doesn't.

* As I'm writing TLC, other projects are beginning to fall into place in the near future. As most of you know, after TLC I have that two-book project for Tor, the specifics of which I'm not talking about, which is the next thing on the agenda, along with an update of The Rough Guide to the Universe. Beyond those projects I have one other project I can tell you about: I'll be writing a novella for Subterranean Press. And, get this: It's a fantasy novella. Why fantasy? Well, because it's something I haven't tried before, and I have an idea that I think would be interesting, and a novella seems like a good place to play with that idea. I have no more details for you than that, because I'm still fiddling with the details in my head. However, I think it should be interesting.

Beyond that: I got nothing. Not that any of you will notice, since between now and the end of 2007 we'll see the release of Android, Last Colony, Book #1 of the project I 'm being all secret about, Coffee Shop (the writing book), Hate Mail (the Whatever book), the second edition of Universe and the novella. That's not a bad release schedule over 18 months. And it gives me some time to think about what I'm going to write next. I do have some interesting ideas for fiction and for non-fiction (at least they're interesting to me), so I don't expect my dance card will be unoccupied for long. At the moment, however, I will say it's kind of fun to look past the current projects to the wide open spaces beyond them and think of the possibilities there.

That's where I am with the writing thing, right now.

Posted by john at 10:43 AM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

June 06, 2006

Grading the Amendment

If the proposed Constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriages were submitted on a law exam as an example of a model new amendment, how would it fare with the professor? Brooklyn Law School professor Jason Mazzone, who teaches Constitutional Law there, gives it the once over and concludes, among other things:

The amendment is obviously a rush job by a novice rather than a carefully drafted proposal by a seasoned constitutional lawyer.

Well, yeah. Here's the whole grading report, complete with grade. I wouldn't grade it so high, but then, I'm not one for grading on a curve.

Of course, in the real world, there's a good reason this particular amendment is sloppily constructed. It's not because the people who constructed it are morons (or at the very least, not just because), but because those who wrote it know it hasn't a chance at passing, so the rhetoric is pitched toward the floor stompers who want their pet cause to get a nice head pat, rather than toward the Constitution in which it has almost no chance in residing.

Also, yeah, I'm pretty much done with this topic for a while. Unless the amendment somehow passes. Then I'll be all, OMGWTF??!!?!??!?!?! Fortunately, I don't think I'll need to get real worked up about that.

Posted by john at 01:41 PM | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Happy Devil Day!

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Ahhhhh, finally! A day I can relax and just be myself.

Hope you're enjoying the end times too.

Posted by john at 12:25 PM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

June 05, 2006

Defending Marriage From the Marriage Bigots

Look, am I mad or something? I look around and about at people talking about same-sex marriage, and it seems that everyone is accepting the discussion on the marriage bigots' terms, rather than reality. Come on people, let's get a grip:

1. Same-sex marriage already exists in the United States. It has for two years. The definition of marriage in the US already includes members of the same sex marrying each other.

2. By pressing for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between men and women, it is the marriage bigots who are looking to change the definition of marriage.

3. The language of the proposed constitutional amendment would end thousands of legal marriages -- both the same marriages that legally exist now and all the same-sex marriages that would occur between now and whenever the theoretical moment would be that the 37th state ratified the amendment.

4. The proposed constitutional amendment would make second-class citizens of all same-sex married couples by stripping them of a marital status they currently enjoy, while allowing all other legally married couples to continue being married.

Why aren't people hammering the marriage bigots with this? There's a manifest difference in a debate which has as its founding proposition that same-sex marriage is a theoretical construct in the US -- which is the proposition marriage bigots want to promote -- and the debate which has as its founding proposition that same-sex marriages are already here, and there thousands of them. The latter forces the marriage bigots to come out and admit that their proposed amendment and their goals destroy real marriages between real people -- thousands of marriages between thousands of people.

Why aren't people asking the marriage bigots flat out what they have against marriage? Against married couples? And by what right are they able to say that couples who are already legally married should have their marriages declared null and void? This proposed amendment breaks up marriages. God damn it, people should be hollering this at the top their lungs every time one of those marriage bigots gets all sanctimonious about what marriage means. People ought to be getting these marriage bigots into a corner and getting them to admit that they need to destroy legal, loving marriages in order to accomplish their goals. We ought to be getting these marriage bigots admitting that they have to strip away rights these Americans already have to do what they want to do. And then we need to ask the people "who don't know what they think about it" if they want to align themselves with people who want to destroy actual marriages in order to "preserve" a definition of marriage that doesn't actually exist.

As long as the marriage bigots can frame the debate as "defending marriage," they can avoid acknowledging their agenda is patently hateful. But the accurate frame is that they're attacking marriage -- and attacking actual marriages -- to change the definition of marriage into something that is in line with a discriminatory social agenda.

I'm not worried that this obnoxious and hateful proposed amendment will pass, mind you -- there are enough people who think that something as odious as this ought not be in our foundation document, even if they don't like the idea of guys marrying guys. But the argument is much larger than the proposed amendment, and the marriage bigots are falsely arrogating the moral high ground in the argument. Look: anyone who wants to destroy marriages should not get the high ground in the marriage debate. I don't know how much more simple it can be made.

Same-sex marriage is already here in the US. Thousands of same-sex married couples already exist in the US. The marriage bigots want to destroy the marriages of thousands of Americans. Could we please make note of these salient facts? Really, it's not too much to ask.

Posted by john at 09:42 PM | Comments (287) | TrackBack

Lack of Livejournalling

In case you're wondering where the hell some of your favorite LiveJournals are today, lots of them have been temporarily deleted to protest LiveJournal's parent company Six Apart's freakout about icons which feature breastfeeding, because apparently a nipple is inappropriate, even when it's being shown in its non-sexy nutritive mode as opposed to its "Hi there I'm a nipple and I'm here to entice your loins" mode. These LiveJournals will be back tomorrow.

I don't know how successful the protest will be, but philosophically I'm of the mind that getting worked up about pictures of breastfeeding is more than a little silly, so Six Apart's freakout is likewise a little silly. It reminds me of the contrempts a couple of years ago when religious conservatives were outraged by billboard featuring Mary breastfeeding Jesus, put up by (wait for it) PETA. Here's what I had to say about that. I just can't imagine getting worked about something like that. Life's too short to be offended by lactation and latching on.

In any event, there's the explanation for missing LiveJournals, if you needed one.

Posted by john at 03:37 PM | Comments (59) | TrackBack

Synchronicity, of a Sort

Today is the 25th anniversary of the identification of a mysterious syndrome attacking gay men, which would in time be called AIDS. President George Bush is marking the day by calling for an amendment to the Constitution of the United States that would bar same-sex marriage, despite the fact that there are currently thousands of U.S. citizens who are in legal same-sex marriages.

I am ashamed that the president of my country wants to use the Constitution of the United States to break up the lawful marriages of thousands of my co-citizens. But I'm not at all surprised at his timing. The depth of his contempt for the Constitution, and of his pandering to bigots, requires no less of him than this.

There are parallels, I think, between this George and another: George Wallace. The latter George famously stood in a schoolhouse door in 1963 to show he stood with those who believed in segregation now and forever. Later, when he was asked why he indulged in racist politics, Wallace said, "You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor." Yet in his later political career, Wallace recanted his racist views, reached out to those to whom he had earlier expressed hate, and worked to make amends. Was this recantation personal or merely political? It's not for me to say, but even if it were the latter it was still the right thing to do.

By declaring his desire to take away rights that people already have, George Bush is standing in his own schoolhouse door, condoning bigotry to satisfy his own particular group of floor stompers. One may hope in the fullness of time he will do as Wallace did and attempt to make amends. I would be willing to forgive him, to the extent that he is doing me wrong by his position. But there are others whom he is wronging more, and from whom he will need forgiveness more.

Posted by john at 02:47 PM | Comments (53) | TrackBack

A Decade of Freelance

My pal Scott Westerfeld is celebrating ten years of being a full-time freelance writer today, and comes to the party loaded down with stats that will be of use for people in the "should I keep my day job or write full-time?" thing. In those stats, what I think is the salient bit of information:

Years before I made enough to write only as me: 8

Before that date, he was doing the ghostwriting and all the other things he was doing. This is something for all y'all to keep in mind as you're plugging away, wondering if there's a light at the end of the freelance tunnel and how far away it might be.

The eight years notation is interesting to me because as it happens I am at my eighth year of the freelancing life, and this is the first year where I could ditch all the other writing I do that's not related to my own books and still make what I consider to be an acceptable amount of money (I haven't quite done that because I like doing the stuff I'm doing. And I'm greedy. Bwa ha ha hah ha!). The details of my and Scott's writing lives are different enough, and other fulltime writers' lives more different still, that I'm hestitant to declare a general "eight year" rule here. But I do wonder if this is also consonant with other writers' experiences.

I am delighted that Scott is able to make a living writing books, for the purely selfish reason that it means there are likely to be more Scott Westerfeld books for me to read -- and this likely to be even more the case now that he is a New York Times Bestselling Author via his latest book. You can't buy that sort of accolade, you know. Other people have to buy it for you, several thousand units at a time.

So congratulations, Scott. Here's to many more years of the freelance, and book-writing, life.

Posted by john at 12:01 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

June 04, 2006

An Irregular Guy

Commentor Greg wonders if I'm not just spending a little too much time thinking about teh gay, in a comment I will excerpt below:

We all know how progressive you are--but how much of a regular guy are you? I work with a lot of educated, heterosexual males (many of whom voted for Kerry), and we spend a lot more time talking about Victoria Secrets models than we do about the gay movement. When was the last time you made a post about Victoria Secrets models?

Well, in fact, I've never done a post about Victoria's Secrets models. This may be because I tend to skip right past the Victoria's Secret catalogues and go straight to the porn. Mmmm.... sweet, sweet porn.

I suspect Greg is being more than slightly tongue-in-cheek here, but on the other hand this is worth approaching semi-seriously. So here we go.

There are a couple of things to note here. The first is to remind everyone that the Whatever is not an accurate portrayal of what's going on in my mind or life all the time; it's merely a portrayal of what I find interesting to write about in this particular space. In my moment-to-moment life, I don't really spend all that much time thinking about same-sex marriage or George Bush or "intelligent design" or any of the other bugaboos that populate the entries here. Most of my thoughts on a moment-to-moment basis are given over to largely inconsequential things, or at the very least things that are not interesting to write about. I don't burden you with them, and I think you'd thank me for that.

Second, to be honest, my masculinity really isn't all that exciting. Without delving too deeply into areas the vast majority of you don't want to know about (and which, frankly, I don't want to share), my masculinity expresses itself in pretty bland ways, and I'm comfortable enough with it that I don't feel that much need to talk about it. I mean, would I happily be the meat in a Rosario Dawson-Emma Thompson sandwich? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Do I want to go on about it here? Not especially. Do I get nearly insensate glee out of killing things in first person shooter games? Well, who wouldn't? But I don't get a kick out of recounting my virtual gib-fests. Do I grunt joyously at the exploits of my beloved sports teams? Well, actually, no, I don't. Sports largely bores the holy living crap out of me. But if I did, I probably wouldn't go on and on about it here.

Now, what's entirely possible is that I'm not a regular guy, by whatever standards regular guys are judged. But, eh. I like me just fine. Also, not being a "regular guy" got me this:

And clearly, I can't complain about that. And yes, I do in fact mean it when I say that not being a regular guy got me my wife, because a regular guy wouldn't have been making an idjit of himself on the dance floor like I was that day 13 years ago when my wife saw me dancing and decided to make my acquaintance because of it. Because regular guys don't dance (without a four beer minimum, that is), and they certainly don't dance like I was dancing, with my arms all up above the Heterosexual Line (i.e., above my shoulders) like they were. Two years of actual dance classes, guys. It works (also, I'd note that I took the dance classes because then I got to spend time with girls in skin-tight leotards, as opposed to wrestling with other sweaty boys in a gym class. Because, well, duh.)

However, I would like to note that even if I'm not exactly a regular guy, some aspects of regular guy-ness are not entirely absent in my mental makeup. As evidence of this, I submit to you photographic evidence of my intimate relationship with that most regular of regular-guy regularity: Slobbery. To wit, the atrocity that is my personal office:

Words cannot express the utter shame I feel that my workspace has devolved this far. But I just can't help myself. Krissy tells me she's going to come in here and take a flamethrower to the place, and my thought on that is thank Christ. One of us has to have the balls to do it. And God knows it's not me.

To sum up: Yeah, I'm a guy. Am I a regular guy? Probably not. I'm an irregular guy, I suppose. But it's worked for me so far, so I'm gonna keep going with that.

Posted by john at 12:33 AM | Comments (58) | TrackBack

June 03, 2006

My Life Among The Big Fluffy Clouds: A Brief Photo Essay

Posted by john at 11:43 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

TGB Review in St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The review is here. It's another positive one:

"Scalzi is a natural heir to Heinlein, and his second book in this series is a good old-fashioned space opera, which takes time to question the nature of free will."

I'd like to be an unnatural heir to Heinlein. Zombie SF writer! w00t!

Posted by john at 12:01 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

June 02, 2006

My Kid Has More Writing Awards Than Me

Her second consecutive Creative Writing Award at the school's end of the year awards ceremony. Yeah, I'm happy. Of course, this means my kid has two more writing awards than I do. I hope to correct this sometime in the reasonably near future, but in the meantime there are far worse fates for a parent to face.

Posted by john at 04:23 PM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Letters From Neighborhood Bigots

So, a week ago, I wrote up a review of the Will and Grace season finale for my Dayton Daily News DVD column. Today I got a letter from a local bigot on the matter. I'd like to share a little bit of the letter with you and my thoughts thereof. Because of the language, I have it sequestered away behind the cut. Follow the link below. Please note that as much as possible I tried to preserve the original typography of the letter in the excerpt.

Scalzi,
Your little faggot pecker must be all a-twitter! Season finale of "Cocksucker and Grace" on DVD..... "Queer as Folk" 5th season out on video, Plus all the fuckin' 'gay' SHIT goin' on at Club Masque in Dayton this 'cumming' weekend. Time-Warner cable is advertising that "Cocksuck Mountain" is available on channel 1000, pay-per-view. That should interest you, since you've no doubt worn out the copy you bought alread ( those "eye candy" faggot coeboys, ya know! )
Jesus, man! How are you gonna handle so much fuckin' queer excitement ?! How many loads of cum can you swallow in one weekend ? How big a cock can you take up your sorry gay ass?

And so on and so on for another six paragraphs, which more or less conclude with the fellow saying he didn't spend 14 months in a North Vietnamese POW camp so that cocksuckers get can get married, and asking me if I've ever done any military service. My immediate response to the latter would be that, no, I wasn't in the military, although I know a number of cocksuckers who were; my answer to the former is that while I'm sorry he spent 14 months in POW camp, I'm not entirely sure how it gives his feculent bigotry any sort of moral authority.

This same fellow sent me a similar letter when I wrote up my review of Brokeback Mountain and it was pretty much the same letter, with slightly different sentences. As hate mail goes, it's about standard: limited volcabulary, limited ideas, and rhetorically confused, because, after all, if I am the sort of wild cocksucker he wants to suggest I am, why on Earth should I be insulted when he suggests this? I will say that would happily smoke a mile of prime man pipe rather than be what he is, but that's neither here nor there. This sort of hate mail is boring, which is my real problem. Boo hoo, I've been called a faggot cocksucker. Bitch, please. You need to do better if you're going to impress me.

Anyway, here's the thing about hateful, homophobic, and deeply closeted letters like this: Their existence amuses me. The fact that this fellow gets two full pages of bile and invective out of a single-paragraph review of the Will and Grace series finale fills me with cackling glee. I like that I make bigots fume and squirm, and I look forward to doing it for years to come. They deserve no less.

Also, of course, I hope this fellow gets the high hard anal piledrive he clearly and desperately yearns for, although I'm certainly not going to volunteer to administer it. I have my limits.

Posted by john at 03:25 PM | Comments (57) | TrackBack

Bad News, Good News, Appalling News

Let's go with the bad news first: Whatever the con crud is that I've caught has well and truly kicked my ass; I slept until 11am today and my big plan for the rest of the day is to crawl into bed again as soon as I am able. Unfortunately this conflicts with what were my other plans for the day, which were to hop into my car, drive to Chicago, and see members of the University of Chicago Class of 1991 for our 15th reunion. But as I just wrote to a couple of dear friends of mine, I'm not in a condition to drive, and also, I don't think that the thing I want to do with people I have not seen in 15 years is infect them all.

So for today, at least, I am staying home and recuperating. If I'm feeling better tomorrow, I'll make the drive to Chicago. So here's hoping I feel better, because there are a lot of classmates I've been looking forward to seeing. I kind of feel like a schmuck for missing things tonight, but inasmuch as I'd be standing there wobbling slightly with a deathly look on my face while everyone else is having fun, I don't know that folks would be missing much. Anyway. For those U of C folks who were hoping to see me: Unbelievably sorry. Maybe tomorrow.

Good news: My wayward cell phone, lost at Wiscon, has been found and is being shipped back to me as we speak. I plan on giving the cell phone a stern talking to.

Appalling news: My pal Gwenda Bond has done as she's threatened to do for the last week or so and sent along the really revealing shot of me doing my striptease at the Wiscon karaoke party. Naturally, I had to post it here. To keep people from unintentionally viewing the horror that is me without my shirt, I've made the image a pop-up picture. Click this link at your own peril. Is the picture safe for work? Well, if you mean "the only thing you'll see is an out-of-shape 30-something making an ass of himself without a top," then, yes, it's safe for work. If you mean "you'll be disciplined when your screams of 'My eyes! MY EYES!' reverberate throughout the office," then, well, no. It's not work safe in the slightest.

Posted by john at 12:23 PM | Comments (26) | TrackBack

June 01, 2006

New York City, Chock Full of National Monuments and Landmarks

New York has no national monuments or icons, according to the Department of Homeland Security form obtained by ABC News. That was a key factor used to determine that New York City should have its anti-terror funds slashed by 40 percent--from $207.5 million in 2005 to $124.4 million in 2006.

Just for the record:

National Monuments within New York City:

African Burial Ground National Monument
Castle Clinton National Monument
Ellis Island National Monument (jointly with New Jersey)
Governors Island National Monument
Statue of Liberty National Monument

National Historic Landmarks within New York City:

  • 69th Regiment Armory
  • African Burial Ground 
  • American Stock Exchange 
  • Andrew Carnegie Mansion
  • Bartow-Pell Mansion 
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Carnegie Hall 
  • Central Park 
  • Central Synagogue
  • Chester A. Arthur House 
  • Chrysler Building 
  • Church of the Ascension (Episcopal)
  • City Hall
  • Conference House 
  • Cooper Union 
  • Duke Ellington Residence
  • Eldridge street synagogue 
  • Empire State Building
  • Flatiron Building 
  • Governors Island 
  • Grand Central Terminal 
  • Hamilton Fish House 
  • Holland Tunnel
  • Louis Armstrong House 
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Merchants House Museum
  • New York Botanical Garden 
  • New York Cotton Exchange 
  • New York Public Library
  • New York Stock Exchange
  • Paul Robeson Residence 
  • Pupin Physics Laboratory, Columbia University
  • Rhinelander Mansion
  • Rockefeller Center 
  • Soho Cast Iron Historic District 
  • Surrogate's Court
  • Tenement Building at 97 Orchard Street
  • Union Square
  • United Charities Building 
  • Woolworth Building
  • (gacked from Wikipedia)

    Have I mentioned recently how much I resent being ruled by morons?

    Posted by john at 09:24 PM | Comments (78) | TrackBack

    Strikeout

    athenabb0601.jpg

    Poor Athena. We signed her up for baseball some time ago, but thanks to the weather the season has been a total bust: They managed to play three games (which they won, so that's nice), but four others have been rained out (including today's game) and one was cancelled due to bad scheduling on the part of someone -- her team's opponent was scheduled for two games at the same time. There's no one to blame for most of this -- no one could have known that the last May (and the first day of June) would be as wet as they have been around here -- but it's still a bummer. All the games are scheduled for around 6pm, which is apparently the perfect time to have a thunderstorm. We're well into the season; hopefully at the end of it they'll have played more games than they've had cancelled on them.

    Posted by john at 06:39 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

    Late Appearing Con Crud

    When you sleep until 10:30 and wake up feeling like crap a few days after going to a science fiction convention, that's so very much not a good sign. Late-attacking con crud is the worst kind. See, this is the dark side of going to conventions: they're like kindergartens for grown-up geeks, in terms of swapping communicable diseases. Pretty sure I got sideswiped and whatever it is I got has gotten done incubating and is ready to say hello.

    I don't need this; I have to be in Chicago tomorrow for my 15th year college reunion. Let's hope it's just about waking up feeling crappy. Like hangover, three days late, for a guy who doesn't drink. Yeah.

    Wisconites (and others who went to conventions this last weekend): How you feeling?

    Posted by john at 11:15 AM | Comments (31) | TrackBack