Monthly Archives: July 2004

Note to the (Not Unduly) Paranoid

Here my question to everyone who is worried that electronic voting systems without paper trails will steal your vote in the upcoming election:

Didn’t I hear you say that you were traveling on Election Day? And wouldn’t that mean you’d need an absentee ballot? And didn’t I hear you say that everyone else you know who is worried about their vote is also traveling on that day? And won’t they need absentee ballots as well? You should remind them that they’re traveling on that day, you know. Seems to me, in fact, that most of Florida should be traveling on that day.

There. I hope that settles that.

Kerry’s Speech

Unlike the other speeches of the Democratic Convention, which I caught after the fact on streaming audio, I pulled myself away from the computer and my book deadline long enough to watch John Kerry’s speech. I figured, as a politically-involved American, I owed myself that much.

I thought the speech was excellent — it did what political speeches are supposed to do, which is to sucker-punch the opposition political players while taking care not to coat the voters in splash damage. I think Kerry’s speechwriters threaded the needle very well; people who paid attention to the rhetoric of the speech will find a lot ot think about, and I suspect at this point in time people might actually be paying attention to substance.

The speech was good enough that not even Kerry’s delivery could screw it up. And that’s a good thing, because for most of the speech he certainly tried. The man gives a political speech like an uptight man dances: He’s always off-beat and hesitant. He’s not listening to the beat, which is the reaction of the audience; he was continually stepping on his crowd’s desire to wind itself up. If Bill Clinton had given the same speech, the delegates would have literally torn the roof off the Fleet Center and the vast majority of the RNC operatives would have been weeping at the imminent loss of the election. As it is, I don’t imagine the RNC is very happy — the speech definitely poked some sensitive areas — but based on Kerry’s delivery, they may still be able to convince themselves they’ve got a chance. To be fair to Kerry, he got better as he went along, but it’s clear that he is not, nor will he ever be, the sort of orator that will make the hairs stick up on the back of your neck.

I can live with that. George Bush ain’t exactly a barn-burner either, and indeed the oratorical delivery of these two opponents — the confused mumbling of Bush cs. the soporific competence of Kerry — makes one positively dread their imminent debates: Remind me to tank up on a couple of double lattes before I watch. This is probably the only election year in the history of our Republic in which the Vice-Presidential debates are more anxiously awaited than the Presidential debates; Democrats can barely suppress their glee at the idea of Edwards tearing into Cheney, while Dick stands there and glowers so intently that his jaw shatters from all the tense gritting of teeth. I believe Vegas bookies are already setting the odds for a Cheney stent implosion midway through the debate. We’ll have to see.

But again, I think the speech was solid enough and made its points well enough that the Bush administration is going to have to tack to make up the ground it will lose tonight with voters, tacking which will be made rather more difficult, I expect, by tomorrow’s expected announcement of a $450 billion deficit in the next fiscal budget. The administration spin on this one is that the deficit isn’t going to be nearly as big as they had previously expected, which I imagine is a little like telling someone who had a leg amputated that the good news is that they were able to save the knee. The spin, I suspect, is not going to go well.

More to the point, however, I think that any one who is undecided about Kerry at this point has seen him for what he is. He’s not dashing, but he’s solid; not warm, but not without empathy. He has no rhythm, rhetorical or otherwise; the man, simply put, can’t dance. But there’s a time for dancing. This isn’t it. It’s okay to go with someone who has other things on his agenda.

Kerry did what he needed to do; the speech itself did the rest. Now we get to find out what that’s worth.

Getting Geeky

Like many sad pathetic gaming freaks, I will be rushing out sometime next week to grab a copy of Doom 3 from my local store, not doubt beating other pasty geeks over the head for the last remaining copy. Prior to doing so, however, I want to give some consideration to upgrading my video card, so I can enjoy my geekage even more than I will right now. However, what with my computer being 18 months old, I don’t want to make the stupid mistake of buying more video card than my computer can handle. With that in mind, I was hoping some of you more technically knowledgeable Whatever readers might be able to suggest an appropriate video card for yours truly.

To help you in your advice, the specs of my computer can be found here — it’s a vpr matrix FT-5110-PE which has been essentially unfiddled with, with the exception of me adding in an additional hard drive (the former C drive of my previous computer) and swapping out the 64MB GeForce4 MX420 graphics card with a 128 MB GeForce 4 Ti4200 (PCI bus). The only other thing which I suspect may be relevant that although the computer is a Pentium 4, it does not feature hyperthreading.

I suspect with this sort of rig, going for a GeForce 6800 Ultra (or its ATI equivalent) would be sort of pointless, which is just fine, because I’m not in a rush to spend $500 or more on a video card. But I’d be willing to spend up to $200 (maybe $250) for something appropriate (I can justify this ridiculous expense to my self because Half-Life 2 is also on the way). In absence of any other ideas, I’m looking along the lines of something like this — but again, if anyone can suggest a card that might make better sense for my rig that hits in my price range, I’m all ears. You can drop me an e-mail or (of course), just leave a comment. Thanks.

2004′s “Let Them Eat Cake” Moment

Someone remind the DNC to send this nice young lady a fruit basket:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A campaign worker for President Bush said on Thursday American workers unhappy with low-quality jobs should find new ones — or pop a Prozac to make themselves feel better.

“Why don’t they get new jobs if they’re unhappy — or go on Prozac?” said Susan Sheybani, an assistant to Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.

When told the Prozac comment had been overheard, Sheybani said: “Oh, I was just kidding.”

Alternately, when the Bush campaign kicks her ass out the door for giving the Democrats a big fat t-shirt worth of clueless Republican class-bashing, perhaps they’ll give her a complementary prescription.

No-Show at JournalCon

Some depressing news: Do to an unavoidable schedule conflict, the details of which I prefer to keep personal, I am unable to attend JournalCon this year. This really bums me out; I was really looking forward to seeing friends as I always do, and, of course, singing badly at karaoke. But I know y’all will have fun without me anyway. Try to, anyway.

I will still be attending Noreascon, however, so maybe I’ll see some of you there.

Satellite Internet Sucks

Venting.

I want somebody to give me a broadband alternative to satellite. Now. One of the disadvantages to living out in the middle of nowhere is that there’s no cable, no DSL, no nothin’. So I’m stuck with satellite if I want broadband. The reason satellite sucks is that it’s not that fast (most of the time it’s like an ISDN line in space), its upload speed is no faster than dial-up, its inherent lag (because everything is routed through a satellite in space) means I can’t frag others in online games, and — this is the salient point — it goes out when it’s raining (the signal can’t get from the satellite). It’s been raining all month long. No other utility I have blithely takes the day off when it gets wet outside. Even the satellite TV works, and it’s coming from the same satellite. Yes, in really bad weather, the satellite TV will go under too, but listen, if the weather is bad enough to knock down the TV signal, it’s time to go to the basement with your granola bars and water and hope your house is still standing in an hour.

It is absolutely ridiculous that I live in the 21st century, yet my Internet connection can be hobbled by abundant moisture. For days – I’m on the second straight day of interrupted service, thanks to the rather extended cloud front I’m sitting under. I’m on dial-up right now, in case you’re wondering, and of course, that’s a horrible solution. I need my phone. And, frankly, doing research on the Internet on a dial-up connection is do damn slow I might as well just go to the library in town (where, incidentally, they have their computers hooked up to a cable modem. Hmmm.). Point is, satellite Internet sucks and blows, and Starband (my provider) will lose my business the exact instant another broadband option becomes available, even if it costs more money.

Alas for me, nothing’s on the way. Time Warner isn’t bothering to put cable down my street, we’re too far away from the exchange for DSL, and while other options are being developed (they’re testing broadband from power lines down in Cincinnati), it’ll be a couple of years at least before any of that comes my way. In the meantime, I am stuck with the worst possible way to be online, broadband-wise. Stupid me for residing in bucolic splendor. It’s enough to make me want to move back to the suburbs.

All right, I’m done venting. Go on with your lives.

My Wildly Overpacked Noreascon Panel Schedule

I just got sent my Noreascon panel appearance schedule, and let me just say: Holy buckets, am I on a lot of panels. I’ve got eight of them, plus a reading. This is a bit of an upgrade from last year, in which I was on two panels and had a reading. So if you were hoping to see me on a panel this year, well, now you’ll have lots of chances. I don’t know if this is because they think I’m actually interested or just a sucker. Guess we’ll find out.

Here’s what I’ll be on, so you can start planning to come (or avoid) now. I’ll also add some preliminary comments. The panel descriptions, by the way, come from the convention e-mail I got. Don’t blame me if they’re not descriptive enough — I know as much about them at this point as you do.

Thursday, 9/2 @ 1pm: They Should Make a Movie of That…
Description: What SF/F/H short stories, novelettes, novels, trilogies, or series would make great cinema?
Co-panelists (to date): Jim Mann, Carrie Vaughn
Notes: I’ll be moderating this one, apparently. It turns out I’m on a lot of film-based panels, which makes sense considering The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Film and all those years as a critic. I expect more additions to the panel before it actually gets under way; three seems a little understaffed for such a topic. Being moderator, I expect we’ll open up the panel to questions and comments, although I expect I’ll check in with my co-panelists to see what they have to say on the matter.

Thursday, 9/2 @ 3pm: Must-See TV and Movies
Description: Are you cineliterate? Can you call yourself a fan if you can’t recognize “Klaatu berada nicto?” Do you know who Tom Corbett is? Why you should stay away from pod people? We’ll talk about the classics, and even the good stuff, from Metropolis to Rocketship XM to Princess Monomoke…
Co-Panelists: Chris Barkley, Daniel Kimmel, Craig Miller (moderator)
Notes: Again, another panel playing off the SF film book and my years as a critic. This should be an interesting panel, not in the least because I expect that should we discuss fantasy as well as SF films, Kimmel and I will have differing opinions about the value of the Lord of the Rings films, as evidenced by his largely negative review of The Return of the King here. And he describes The Chronicles of Riddick as “a good cheesy sci-fi action movie that one can actually enjoy.” Well, it is cheesy, that’s for sure. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be any fun if people didn’t have differences of opinion as to what is essential viewing and what is not.

Friday, 9/3 @ 1pm: Looking Backwards: The 20th Century
Description: It was a time of terrible wars and great evils and unparalleled progress, ending with democracy triumphant, right? Well…. It was also the time of Milton Berle and cheese Whiz, love beads and Elvis, and……OK, so will the writers and fans of the late 21st century look back on the 20th with nostalgia, with surprise, or with horror? How will people in far future times look at us? Imagine what things about the 20th century that those in the future will look back on in the same way as we view the Roman gladiators…
Co-panelists: Esther Friesner (moderator), Craig Gardner, Terry Prachett, Connie Willis
Notes: Given the presence of Willis and Pratchett, I expect no one shall even notice I am on this panel. But on the other hand, I expect it to be well-attended. And as it happens, however, I do have an opinion as to what the average person in 2099 will think of 1900s (i.e., roughly what the average person thinks of the 1800s, which is basically a big blank except for the Civil War and possibly Mark Twain), and the whole panel looks really good, so it could be a lot of fun.

Friday 9/3 @ 4pm: Rumors at the Speed of Light
Description: The downside of rapid Internet communication.
Co-panelists: Charles Ardai, Sharon Sbarsky
Notes: Once again I am called to moderate. I wonder if I can dragoon Charlie Stross or Cory Doctorow to sit in on this panel, as they’re both obviously qualified to opine, although I’m sure both of them have incredibly packed schedules as well. No matter what, I think this can be a very interesting topic.

Saturday 9/4 @ 2pm: Lies I Learned at the Movies
Description: Let’s discuss at least a few of the thousands or scientific facts that movies teach us — that turn out not to be true. Our favorite: the title of the 1969 “historical” epic about a volcano disaster, “Krakatoa, East of Java” ….um…it’s WEST….
Co-panelists: Adam-Troy Castro, Bob Devney (moderator), John Pomeranz
Notes: Since I’m doing a chapter on this sort of thing in the SF Film books, I’ll be taking notes at this panel.

Saturday 9/4 @ 4:30pm: Reading
Description: I’ll be doing a reading of some of my work for a half hour.
Notes: You can thank Justine Larbalestier for this one, since apparently she pestered someone on the programming staff to make sure I had a reading scheduled. It’s nice to have friends. Now all I have to do is come up with something to read. An obvious choice would be something from Old Man’s War, but I’m actually thinking of writing up something else special for the reading. Something amusing. We’ll have to see if I have the time and/or ability to fight against sloth.

Sunday 9/5 @ 10am: Grow Old Along With Me: Aging Your Characters
Description: Why get stuck in adolescence? Middle age is another quest/rite of passage, and so is old age/death. How do you help your characters grow old (gracefully, or not)? How do you work with those parts of the voyage through life in your work? Or, are we being merely mercenary-to sell to an aging market segment?(Or, because we grow old, we grow old…?)
Co-panelists: Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress (moderator), Jean Lorrah, Steve Miller, Susan Shwartz
Notes: Finally, a panel that’s actually related to the science fiction novel I’ll have coming out. The panel does look rather tightly packed; I hope I don’t get squeezed off at the last minute.

Sunday 9/6 @ 4pm: Writing for Massively Multiplayer Online Worlds
Description: Good SF/F writing makes or breaks a persistent massively multiplayer online world. Without them, a MMORPG becomes a slayfest, or a simple “go here and do that” list of quests. Experts from the industry talk about how to get more involved in persistent worlds as creative forces from the start of a project to its launch, and what good writing means to a creation of a great game.
Co-panelists: Alexander Macris, Jessica Mulligan
Notes: I assume I’m on this panel because of my work with OPM and the Watchdog column therein. Clearly I am not a writer or a designer of MMORPGs, although of course I have opinions about them. No one’s listed as moderating the panel; if no one eventually is listed, I may ask to do it if only to make sure someone can’t ask me a really difficult question I know nothing about.

Monday 9/6 @ 2pm: SF Chick Flicks
Description: So many SF films are about boys and their toys. What are the SF films with heart and soul? Are there any great SF “romances” that would really work on screen?
Co-panelists: Bob Devney, John Pomeranz, MaryAnn Johanson (moderator)
Notes: Is anyone still at the convention at 2pm on Monday? Also, and not to knock my own sex here (Y Chromies is my homiez!!!), but if the name of the panel is “SF Chick Flicks,” why is 75% of the panel male? I know I’ll be surprised if we get much attendance. On the other hand, I’m excited about the panel because I have a secret crush on MaryAnn Johanson, who is a damn smart and funny reviewer and also lists Buckaroo Banzai as her favorite film ever, which would be enough for me to propose marriage if, in fact, the US didn’t have this totally irrational hangup about bigamy. Stupid US laws. Anyway, don’t tell her about my secret crush. It’ll just weird her out.

So there you have it: All my panels and reading. Inbetween these, I expect to be hanging out in bars (odd for someone who doesn’t drink, but apparently everyone else does. What can you do), catching up with friends and avoiding sleep in all its myriad forms. If you don’t catch me at a panel, you’ll undoubtedly see me around. Don’t be a stranger. Unless you’re, you know, a crazed Internet stalker. In which case: 500 feet at all times, just like the restraining order says. Fortunately that’s not most of you.

A Chilling Tale of Terror in the Skies!

Turns out that the person on Annie Jacobsen’s infamous flight from Detroit to LA that most worried the air marshals was Jacobsen herself:

Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger overreacted to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS.

The passenger, later identified as Annie Jacobsen, was in danger of panicking other passengers and creating a larger problem on the plane, according to a source close to the secretive federal protective service.

Full story link here (you’ll need to scroll down a bit).

As so many bloggers so often say about the working press — I wonder if this bit of information will get the same play on blogs as the initial story by Jacobsen. I doubt it. I will of course not speculate as to why that might be, and instead leave that fun to you.

However, I should say that although Jacobsen’s piece got the most play — and the most overheated reaction — from the right side of the blogosphere, I really don’t see this as a red v. blue issue, I see it more as a “who is hysterical and who is rational” issue. Perhaps this is misplaced confidence on my part, but if 14 Arab men, who all seem to know each other, are placed on a plane I am also on, I’m going to assume that the TSA — not my favorite government agency, to be sure — is not so monstrously incompetent as to not have checked them out. As indeed it seems they had in this particular case. I know, I’m an incurable optimist. But there it is.

There’s also a matter that, inasmuch as Detroit is home to one of the largest Arab populations in the world outside of the Middle East, and Los Angeles in turn has a not insignificant number of Arabs as well, the unusual thing would be if there weren’t a fair number of Arab men on the flight. Finally, to be entirely blunt about it, between air marshals and the general determination by Americans post-9/11 to chuck the whole “don’t mess with hijackers” thing to the wayside, if it came to that, whoever the hijackers might be, they wouldn’t be allowed to use our plane as a missile against any one else. Basically, a rational person wouldn’t have been all a-feared and vaporous.

Does this mean we should forget Arab men hijacked the planes on 9/11? Nope. It does mean we should remember that July 2004 is coming on three years later. It’s a different world. Also — again, call me nutty — I do like to go on the assumption that most Arabs, even the men, board a plane to be a passenger, not a hijacker. The odds really do seem to be in favor of the former rather than the latter.

As I said, none of this is conservative, none of this is liberal. It’s a matter of thinking things through. It’s entirely possible I could be wrong. In which case I’ll be dead. You got me there. On the other hand, I myself have flown out of Detroit a number of times since 9/11 — most recently this last May — and while I’ve not been confronted with a Syrian band’s worth of Arab men, I’ve seen a fair number Arab-looking men on flights I’ve been on, thrown into the usual polyglot airplane US passenger mix. I’ve made it through all those flights just fine (and so did they).

I doubt none of this will ever make Annie Jacobsen feel more secure on a flight with its share of Arab men; from her writing she seems to be the twitchy type. I don’t suggest political re-education for her; this isn’t about her politics, it’s about her and her fears. I do suggest a sleeping pill.

The Writing Flight Deck

One of the contributors to a recent rather long comment thread asked me if the Whatever, and keeping track of the subsequent comment threads, is taking away from my book writing. Well, no. Playing Unreal Tournament 2004 instead of writing is taking away from my book writing. The Whatever doesn’t take time away because any time it threatens to, I just stop writing it. It’s that whole “if you miss a deadline you don’t get paid” thing.

Others have asked me how the paid writing is going. Short answer: Good, but hectic. The Book of the Dumb 2 has come to crunch time, as I’ve noted before; I need to have the full manuscript in on 8/2, not just for their deadline but also for my own, as that’s the date I start working on The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Film. The writing process on BotD 2 has up to this point been pretty free-form — I’ve basically written about whatever amusing examples of stupidity I’m found particularly fun, but now things get a little more precise: My editor on BotD 2 has taken all the material I’ve written so far, chopped it up into chapters and let me know where I need to fill in gaps. For example, I’ve already done quite enough pieces on people doing stupid things under the influence of drugs, but I need to do at least five more bits on people in the sports world doing stupid things.

All told, between now and 8/2 I need to write roughly 70 additional pieces and/or 30,000 additional words. It sounds like a lot because it is. The good news here is that the format of the book makes writing this stuff very easy; it’s not like, say, having to write 30,000 words in a novel off the top of your head in two weeks. I’ll be busy (which is why you may not see much of me around here in the next couple of weeks), but it’s doable.

After BotD 2 is turned in on 8/2 I turn immediately to the RGtSFF, which is on a fairly tight schedule: I need to have a chapter in to the editors within a couple of weeks and the whole manuscript needs to be in by the end of November. The good news here, of course, is that most of the “research” has already been done because I’m a big fat science fiction geek, and also a film/DVD critic. Be that as it may, I got myself a Netflix subscription (it’s tax deductible!), and expect to be doing a whole lot of “research” in front of my TV in the next few months. Whee!

As I’m writing RGtSSF, I will also be “gestating” the sequel to Old Man’s War, which as I think I’ve noted is tentatively titled The Ghost Brigades. By “gestate” I mean “thinking about it” — basically where other writers outline I do a whole lot of pondering while standing motionless in the shower (oh, stop it, you juveniles). Ideally, I’d like to start writing Ghost Brigades at the beginning of the new year, although it’s possible (depending on the state of my gestating and other factors which I can hint at — hint, hint – but say nothing about) I might start it a little bit later. Regardless, it’s on my slate for early 2005.

What else is on the writing slate? Well, it’s likely I may contribute to some more Uncle John books, and then I have my writing gigs with Official PlayStation Magazine and the Dayton Daily News. My AOL contract is up for renewal soon, although nothing’s been solidified there, so we’ll have to see what happens one way or another (it’s always been meant as a short-term gig, so if they renew I count myself lucky — I have fun with it). I owe each of my agents book proposals for projects that we can hopefully slot in for the second half of 2005; for my non-fiction agent I figure I will finally give him that proposal for a book on writing (which I’ve been threatening to do for a couple of years now), and on the fiction front we’ll have a slate of SF ideas but also a couple of non-SF ideas as well. We’ll see if anyone nibbles.

So, in short, that’s the stuff I know I’ll be up to for, oh, the next year. Note that this doesn’t count all the stuff I don’t have set in the schedule but would like to do — more magazine and newspaper articles, for example, and also maybe a few science fiction short stories and things like that. And, of course, it doesn’t mention the Whatever at all. Don’t worry. I’ll be here. Provided I don’t waste all my time on Unreal Tournament 2004.

I, Hollywood

Over on his journal, science fiction writer Bill Shunn has got himself worked up on principle over the I, Robot movie, which is based on the Issac Asimov book of the same name roughly in the way a store-brand grape soda is based on an actual grape. Shunn is personally boycotting the film and thinks you should too, although with I, Robot pulling down a $52 million opening weekend, his boycott will have to play as a moral victory rather than an economic one.

I respect Shunn’s position (and like him as a writer, which is always nice too), but am not the principled purist he is. I went and saw the film on Friday, and I had quite a bit of fun with it; it was put together well (which means it moved quickly enough not to let one dwell on plot holes), it looked great, and it had just enough pathos in the form of the self-aware robot to be a bit smarter than the average loud summer film. In terms of Will Smith summer SF films, it was not as good as Men in Black, but better than MIB II, Independence Day and (shudder) Wild Wild West. Among director Alex Proyas’ work, it’s the least distinguished that I’ve seen (I haven’t seen his Garage Days), but given the film is a hit, he’s now got a chance to make more quirky films to re-establish his cred with the goth geeks. Overall, I give the film a “B-.”

However, as a longtime professional observer of the film industry, I also went into the theater unburdened the illusion that the film would have anything at all to do with Issac Asimov’s robot stories. This is a Hollywood motion picture, after all; nothing is sacred, least of all original texts, and least of all this particular case, since to my understanding the project initially started as an unrelated science fiction story about robots, onto which the I, Robot brand name was grafted as the rights to the property became available. In other words, this was a vaguely cynical exercise on the part of the filmmakers, at least as regards Asimov’s work.

And, of course, this is SOP for Hollywood. Allow me to put on my pontificating hat here and tell you an obvious truth: Hollywood doesn’t care about source material. When a major movie studio buys a novel (or in this case, a collection of stories) to adapt into a film, it stops being material of a fixed nature; it becomes suddenly fluid, and you’ll find vast chunks of the book sliding out, getting rearranged or simply being ignored for the expediencies of the filmmakers and the studio. Let me make it even more clear: It is a rare book that makes it through the film adaptation process without great violence being done to it.

And this is not always a bad thing. I think some of the most successful literary-to-film transfers have been ones in which Hollywood does what Hollywood does — substantially guts and reworks the source material to adapt it to the needs of the filmmakers. The obvious example here is Blade Runner, which is of course a mightily reworked version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. It’s entirely possible a filmed version that is more faithful to the original novel could have been made; on the other hand, Blade Runner is excellent. It’s a fair trade.

(This is not to suggest I, Robot, the film, is on par with Blade Runner. It’s not; as divergent as Blade Runner is from Electric Sheep, it shares the book’s primary narrative themes, whereas mostly what I, Robot shares with Asimov’s work is robots, and the use of the Three Laws of Robotics as a plot device. But it is to say that in theory, and sometimes in practice, Hollywood’s habit of gutting source material and reworking it is not inherently bad.)

Conversely, movies which follow their books to a greater or lesser degree (changing chunks here and there but still showing the recognizable plot lines of their literary progenitors) are not necessarily doing the books any favors: Hollywood appropriation of literary SF in this way often ends pretty badly, and the video stores are littered with the wreckage to prove it: Dune. The Puppet Masters. Starship Troopers, which I must confess I enjoy personally but which I know Heinlein fans throw their hands up in horror over (Poor Heinlein has yet to have a good film made from his work). And let’s not forget Bicentennial Man, as long as we’re on the subject of Asimov. There are books which do make the transfer substantially unmolested — I think the adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact is a good example — but they are rarer than not.

I readily grant that it’s very likely a movie version that was more faithful to Asimov’s ideas could have been made (Shunn directs folks to an unproduced screenplay, written by Harlan Ellison and Asimov himself), and possibly should be made. But it wasn’t and hasn’t, for whatever reasons. C’est la Hollywood. I’m not necessarily going to take it out on this version because of it, especially if this version has the imprimatur of the Asimov estate. And in any event, I, Robot the book remains in its unmolested state, and as of this writing is #40 on the Amazon.com sales list, a height I doubt it, now over a half-century old, would have achieved without Hollywood’s unsubtle violations. If a new generation of readers use this movie as an entry point to access Asimov the writer and other science fiction writers, well, speaking as a science fiction writer, I can live with that.

Whoops

Note to self: From this point forward, remember that it’s the 1/4″ attachment you use on your hair clippers, not the 1/8″ attachment. Alas, by the time I realized I was using the wrong attachment I had already buzzed off a big fat swatch of hair; there was nothing to do but finish it up. I don’t think it looks bad, it’s just, you know, really really short.

On the more procedural tip: I’m coming down to the last two weeks before the deadline for Book of the Dumb 2, so it’s reasonably likely that through the end of July I’ll be here every couple of days (or every three days, or whatever) instead of every day. I know that I always say crap like that and then I update, like, seven times in a 24-hour-period, but you know. This is me covering my ass just in case I actually do stay away for several days at a stretch.

Daily updates at By The Way will of course continue, although non-AOL Journalers who visit should be aware that a fair number of the entries there will concern the upcoming one anniversary of the existence of AOL-J; the members there have taken it upon themselves to whomp up a bunch of celebratory activities, and as the official watering hole, I’m keeping up with all the events (and lending a hand from time to time). I think it’s very cool, actually. We hoped AOL members would develop a community, and boy, did they ever. Rock on, AOL-J peeps. Fly your flag!

Anyway, these anniversary celebration entries may be of limited interest to you folks who are not AOL Journal members, although of course I encourage you to join in on the fun anyway. Just tell them you’re with me, and don’t wreck the joint. I will also be writing about stuff other than AOL-J’s anniversary, mind you, so By The Way will still be worth the visit.

Anyway, to recap: Hair very short, possible sporadic Whateveration through 7/31, AOL-J anniversary stuff on BTW. Now you’re entirely up on my life at this moment in time. Aren’t you thrilled.

In Defense of Marriage

E-mail from various people asking me what I think about the anti-gay marriage amendment being batted back in the Senate: Well, obviously, I’m very pleased about it. Any day a bunch of politically opportunist homophobes get stuffed back into their holes — and on a procedural note, meaning they didn’t even get the showboating vote they wanted for their base — is a good day indeed.

My understanding is that now they’ll try to get the amendment passed in the House, although from a practical point of view I’m not entirely sure what the point of that is, since if the Senate’s already killed it, it doesn’t matter what the House does with it. This is more of a “stand and be counted” thing. Which is fine with me; I prefer to have my intolerant twits well-marked, and a House vote will certainly do that. And of course, I hear tell that the Senate will take up the amendment again, one day, in the future, presumably when the US voters elect 67 senators who hate those girly men and butchy gals enough to permanently relegate them to second-class status and/or think so little of the US Constitution that they’re ready to amend it to take away people’s rights. Let’s just say I’m not exactly staying up nights with worry.

Be that as it may, I will tell you the one thing that really gets me about the homophobes pushing the anti-gay marriage amendment and other such nonsense: They act as if there isn’t already same-sex marriage in the US. Well, there is: To date, thousands of men and women have legally married members of the same sex, and every day more same-sex couples are added to that number. Theoretically, anyone in the US could marry someone of the same sex, so long as they were willing to take up residence in Massachusetts. Heck, you don’t even have to be gay to marry someone of the same sex, which I think is a suitable slap-in-the-face point of fact for all those dim-bulb morality hair-splitters who proffered the absolutely insipid “Gays and lesbians can get married, just to people of the opposite sex” argument.

Call me a stickler for details here, but so far I’ve heard nothing about what happens to all the thousands of legally married same-sex couples out there, should an anti-gay marriage amendment pick up steam and be in real danger of being added to the Constitution. Are these people’s marriages voided, and expunged from the records? Or are the current marriages allowed to exist, and grandfathered in? Either way, it looks horrible for the people trying to pass the such an amendment. In the former case, you’re asking people to willingly destroy other people’s perfectly legal marriages, and in the latter case you are creating an obvious contradiction, in that if same-sex marriage is such a terrible threat and clear and present danger to the state of matrimony, how can any be allowed to exist? One exposes those who vote for the amendment as cruel; the other exposes them as hypocrites.

And this is why it’s utterly essential for people who support an anti-gay marriage amendment to pretend same-sex marriage hasn’t happened — that it’s still something that can be discussed on theoretical grounds. Because as soon as you start making it clear to people that what you’re asking them to do is tear apart marriages that already exist — thousands of marriages — I expect you’re going to hit a huge wall of resistance. And why? Oh, well, here’s the irony: Because people respect marriage. They respect the commitment it represents. They respect what wanting to be married says about the people in the couple.

And, not at all trivially, they understand that when you say a legally married couple can be ripped apart by an act of government, then any legally married couple can be. At this point in time, there is no legal difference between saying that a same-sex couple can’t be married, and that couples where the individuals are of differing races can’t be married. None. Or individuals of differing religions, or of any other differentiating bit of trivia one would care to name.

So it’s pretty simple: If you actually want to defend marriage, you have defend all the legal marriages, and that includes the ones with two men in them, and the ones with two women. Otherwise you’re explicitly saying that the government has the right to void any marriage of any couple, so long as two-thirds of the House, Senate and states go along. Who wants to be the first to sign up for that?

I can understand why the anti-gay marriage crowd doesn’t want to bring up the fact that same-sex marriages already legally exist, but I am frankly flummoxed as to why people who support same-sex marriage never seem to make much of the fact. Damn it, people, you’re playing the homophobes’ game, and you really need to stop it. Every time some bigoted twit gets up and vomits out the talking point about “activist judges” and the sanctity of marriage, someone needs to get up and ask him if he’s really saying he’s ready to break up those thousands of same-sex marriages that already exist, and if so, how that makes him any better than those “activist judges.”

Legally-married same-sex couples should be walking the halls of the House offices, asking those lawmakers itchin’ to make a little political hay at the expense of the homos why they’re in such a rush to break up a marriage. Every time someone says, as President Bush did, that “What they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do,” we should ask what marriage has ever only been about what people do in the privacy of their own home. Every airy utterance about the value of marriage from these people should be answered with the grounded reality of a same-sex married couple affirming the value of their marriage.

These marriages aren’t theoretical. They’re not open to debate. They exist. To be opposed to them is to be opposed to marriage. I don’t know why people opposed to the anti-gay marriage amendment and other such nonsense aren’t doing more to point out that very obvious fact.

Fact is, there is no such thing as “same-sex marriage.” There’s just “marriage,” in which any one adult can marry any other adult. Thousands of people are married to another person of the same sex, and their marriages are as legal as mine. More get married every day. You can like them, you can not like them. But they exist, they’re legal, and to that extent they’re no different than my own — and deserving of the same respect as my own. If you’re married, they’re no different than yours – and deserving of the same respect.

I’m not inclined to break up a marriage. Are you?

Wonder Twin Powers Activate

Folks who knew me when I was younger — a lot younger — have told me that Athena is the spitting image of me when I was her age. While I think there is of course family resemblance, I remained neutral on the matter, since I don’t particularly remember what I looked like at that age, and didn’t have any pictures from when I was five. That is, until today, when my Aunt Donna sent along a packet of childhood pictures:

You be the judge: Natural family similarities or uncanny clone-like closeness? (That’s Athena on the right, in case you needed help with that.)

One does hope that at a certain time — say around puberty — Athena starts looking quite a bit different than I did at the same age. We’ll just have to see.

Update: 5:37 — Is it just me, or does my 5-year-old forehead seem unnaturally large? I mean, it doesn’t seem that large now, even factoring in the balding. Maybe my brain has shrunk.

Shadows and Clouds

Sunset this evening, and we were treated to a very odd shadow on the clouds, which you can see here. I have no idea what caused it, although I suspect it was another cloud in front of this one (but out of sight from me) blocking the path of the light onto the cloud. Whatever is causing it, it looks very cool, and once again I am reminded that Ohio is indeed fine sunset country.

Election Notes

I’ve spent the last day or two trying to write something about the election, but every time I do, it’s as if someone sticks an industrial-sized plastic jug of mayonnaise over my head and then beats on the jug with a rubber mallet: I get a sickly, suffocating, pain-inducing feeling and a bad, eggy taste in my mouth. I’m old enough not to want to rush through time, but if someone opened a door that could zap me from today to Election Day without having to suffer through the intervening three and a half months, verily, I say unto you, I would skip through with a merry grin. I would be three and a half months closer to death, but the quality of my remaining life will have been dramatically improved.

Alas, I cannot. I must suffer through the next few months like anyone else. But look, people, if we have to slog through the summer and fall together, we at can least dispense with the bullshit and admit certain things about the candidates. It would make the next several weeks marginally more pleasant or at the very least, more honest. Really, let’s just heave these things out on the table.

George Bush: Incompetent like an armless juggler. If re-elected, will go down as the worst president in 100 years, if only because Warren Harding had the decency to die in his first term. Invaded Iraq because of some freaky Oedipal thing that would be better left undiscussed had it not caused 800+ Americans to die; doesn’t have the balls to admit it. Hates science; hates facts; hates the Constitution. Big believer of the idea that saying something makes it so (“We’re safer today”); vindictive to those who beg to differ. Believes being a “good person” makes up for bad policy; forgets that in being a good person, deeds count more than words. Wholly-owned subsidiary of people who believe Jesus lovingly hands every dead homosexual a charcoal briquette before pulling the trap-door lever that sends them to Hell.

Fails the Reagan “are you better off now” sniff test spectacularly; as a matter of policy, he’s like a dead skunk in an un-air-conditioned double-wide. Electoral base consists of people too stupid to grasp how incompetent he is, too scared Osama might be under the bed to worry about silly little things like the Amendments 4 through 8 inclusive, too jingoistic to parse the difference between the flag and what it represents, or so cynically partisan that they’d vote for a capuchin monkey as long as it were a Republican capuchin monkey.

John Kerry: There is not a single person in the United States who is going to vote for John Kerry. They are all voting against George Bush. No one likes John Kerry; no one cares about John Kerry. John Kerry’s presidential platform could call for compulsory man-dog sodomy and the nuclear annihilation of Canada and there is not one “not voting for Bush” voter who would blink, since in their opinion anything is better than Bush, although surely dogs and Canadians may wish to disagree. Any representations by the Kerry camp that his candidacy is anything but a marginal alternative to Dubya should be met with a polite smile and a deft change of the subject matter to sports or Spiderman 2.

The fact that John Kerry is opposed to verifiably the worst president in eight decades and is still neck-in-neck in the polls at this point is absolutely shameful, and opens up the argument of who is more incompetent: An incompetent president or the man who loses an election to him. On the other hand, there’s a name for presidents elected primarily because they’re not the sitting president: One-termer. Also, note to Kerry: Don’t eat or drink anything Edwards hands to you. Give them to Teresa to taste first.

Ralph Nader: Pathetic attention-starved right-wing tool. Nader voters: Please see previous sentence.

Undecided Voters: Oh, please. Like you need any more time. You’re dragging it out for the rest of us. This election cycle is bad enough without the pandering and petting you people apparently feel you have to have. Get the pole out of your ass, already. The rest of us want to go home.

There. I think that covers it.

Copyedit

Pictured: The manuscript to Old Man’s War (the first time, incidentally, that I’ve ever seen the whole thing in hard copy form), onto which the copy editor assigned by Tor has made (I’m presuming the sex here) her copy edits, which I’ve either accepted or rejected, the latter being noted by me scribbling “STET” in green pencil where her changes were made.

I’ve heard tale of truly dreadful copy edits, but I’m reasonably pleased to say this copy edit didn’t seem at all dreadful. The biggest issue seems to be a difference in philosophy regarding commas in a series: When confronted with a series in a sentence (“Cheese, eggs, bread and milk”) does one add a comma before the word and? I say no; my copy editor believed otherwise. I’ve STETed all those additional commas out of existence; other than that, however, the copy edit caught several rather embarrassing grammar and spelling errors and brought up a few questions which needed to be addressed for clarity’s sake. In all, the copy edit makes me look better as an author, and I’m happy for it.

The comma thing does make me aware how much I use punctuation in general and commas specifically for intonation in my writing. Commas are grammatically used today primarily for reading clarity, to separate phrases and clauses from each other in a sentence, to make them all easier to read and comprehend; other marks (like that semi-colon just now, not to mention these parentheses) do much the same thing. But way back, when most words were spoken, not written, commas, semicolons and the like were guides for the speaker to tell him when and how to make pauses in speaking. Small pauses were commas, larger ones were semicolons and colon; and periods of course were the longest pause of all. They still function that way, even mentally (do you or do you not take a quick mental pause when you see a period?), but it’s not really the main thrust of punctuation anymore.

Even so, as a writer I find that I’m pretty sensitive to where the commas go in writing, and how they affect the flow of the sentence as it rolls through my brain. More than that, I think how I use my punctuation is part of my writing voice. I am most aware of it when I’m writing dialogue — change the position of a comma and you can change the emphasis and meaning of what someone is saying — but I’m also aware of it in other places. Good punctuation use (particularly commas) can make written words feel conversational; bad punctuation use — even if it’s grammatically “correct” — can make written words hard to read.

I don’t want to get precious about it, since there’s a lot that goes in to making writing readable, and it’s not as if I fret over every single comma. It’s just I sometimes think the rhythmic nature of punctuation can get overlooked in written language.

I’ve also noticed, interestingly, that Americans use more punctuation writing than the British. Read a UK newspaper article in which someone is quoted, and the quote often seems to read like a run-on sentence due to a distinct lack of commas: “‘I went to see if he needed help but he didn’t so then I left’ said Clive Jones of South London” where the US version of the same quote would have at least three commas in there. It could be British reading comprehension is better than in the US — they don’t need no stinking commas to show them where the clauses are! — but I do have to say that when I read news from a British Web site, I often feel like I need to take a breath at the end of a sentence. Canadian print that I’ve seen reads much more like US print; Australian print, on the other hand, seems to follow the UK model. So maybe it’s a North American English-speaking thing.

In any event, one more pre-publication step done; Old Man’s War is that much closer to print.

The Art of Comments

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Daniel Drezner’s recent post regarding comments, which was inspired, I think, by the recent removal of the commenting ability on several “big name” blogs. There seems to be an anecdotal observation going around at the moment that as a blog’s popularity goes up, the overall quality of the comments goes down, and eventually the signal-to-noise ratio in the comment threads becomes so low that it’s not worth reading the comments at all.

There’s more to Drezner’s observations than this, and eventually he believes that comments may still be salvageable, so I encourage you to read the post yourself. That said, I do have some observations that I would like to add. Bear in mind, per usual, that I’m just going off here — I don’t have any hard data to back up the stuff that’s dribbling out my fingers at the moment.

First, in a vague and general sense, I think it’s correct that a more popular a blog/journal/whatever becomes, the more noise you’re going to get in the comment threads. This is certainly not news to any of the long-time “old school” journalers, who’ve been managing comments in one form or another before Daniel and other “bloggers” went online. This isn’t an “old school versus new school” put-down; that would be stupid. Rather, it’s an observation that the patterns of online communication replicate themselves through new generations, a sort of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” argument for writing online.

But I do think that “blogs” in a general sense are rather more susceptible to comment thread pollution than old school journals or some other personal sites for a simple reason: Blogs tend to be focused on a single subject, and often a single subject that people get their underwear all bunched up about. Politics is the shining example here, but any primarily single-subject blog is going to collect readers who are, shall we say, reading and responding to the subject from an extreme outlying position (both on the subject matter and in regards to their personalities — i.e., they’re “X Dorks” where “X” is the primary subject matter).

Moreover, these readers are more interested in the subject than they are necessarily in the owner of the blog, which I think probably allows them to be ruder both to the blog writer and to the other commentors in a thread. In other words, single-subject blogs don’t tend to foster a high level of community; the readers are transients, moving from blog to blog based on the subject matter.

Contrast this with an old school-style online journal or personal site. These sorts of sites are more personality focused, which is to say that readers who come to these tend to be interested in the individual who is doing the writing and less about any one topic that individual may write about. Single-subject readers might show up to these personality-driven sites on occasion, particularly if it’s linked to by some other blog because a particular entry concerns whatever subject they’re interested in. But I don’t suspect they stay long, because the range of topics is too scattershot. The people who make these personality-driven sites a daily (or frequent) stop tend to have some sort of “investment” in the writer and in the community of other readers — and therefore the comment threads tend to be more civilized in general.

This little theory of mine is certainly consonant to my own experiences regarding comment threads. On a day-to-day basis, the traffic to Scalzi.com is between 5,000 and 10,000 unique users, which puts me (as far as I can tell) in the upper reaches of traffic for the blogoverse (there are also the readers to By The Way, which garners similar numbers and which I suspect has rather little overlap in general readership). But generally speaking, my comment threads are refreshingly free of obnoxious twits.

On the occasions when I am extensively linked (when I’m writing about gay marriage, or how my daughter is Hispanic, for example), the “noise” in the comment threads goes up considerably, as “single-subject” posters do some hit-and-run commenting. But they don’t tend to stick around for very long, since the next three or four entries may have absolutely nothing to do with the entry they came in on. They leave, but new readers who root around and decide they like the style of the site and the texture of the community stay. The result: Relatively stable, polite comment threads.

I think of it as a “slow-growth, high-value” readership community, since in my experience the readership numbers of the site have grown rather more slowly than the readerships of more prominent blogs/journals/whatever, but as a result the readers tend to be interested in the content, regardless of what the content might be. This obviously optimal for me, since I have both a short attention span, and an interest in writing about a whole bunch of things. But it’s also “high-value” in the sense that most of the people who read the site have no interest in screwing up the experience for other readers, or for me.

Interestingly, this isn’t to say that I think all of my readers particularly like me, or agree with what I say/do/whatever. Off the top of my head, I think think of at least a couple of regulars who I know don’t particularly like me (or alternately, respect me). But even they are generally polite in their hostility, and I both appreciate and accept that. Civility does not require unanimity in viewpoint, merely a general agreement that it’s nice to play nicely.

By and large, and based on my experiences with Whatever readers in the comment threads, I do have to say I feel fortunate that my readers (that’s y’all) do seem to value the site and do make the effort to keep the level of discourse here very civilized. Leaving aside comment spam and double postings, the number of comment deletions I’ve made in 15 months can be counted on my fingers, and none of those from “the regulars.” And that’s during a time when the readership here went up by about two and a half times, which I think suggests that new “regulars” value what they see here in the entries and in the comment threads. So give yourselves a pat on the back, guys. You’ve done good.

And of course, this same trick of “high-value” readers and commentors is replicated elsewhere. The most obvious examples I can think of are the commentor at Making Light and Electrolite, run by Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, respectively. As far as I can tell, their subject matter and readership are both wildly heterogeneous (there is some correlation along the “science fiction” axis, as PNH and TNH are Tor editors, but even that is not universal) but again by and large their communities are generally civil even when they’re strenuously arguing amongst themselves. Pamie.com is yet another example.

I’m pretty confident that if someone were to actually do a study of the comment threads on “single subject” blogs and “personality driven” journals, what they’d find would probably correspond to what I’ve observed. Budding sociologists, you have your thesis. Have fun with it. In the meantime, I’ll stick to my policy of writing about whatever I feel like writing about. It seems to keep the idjits to a minimum, and you can’t beat that.

Your Suggestions, Please:

I’m putting together some articles for Book of the Dumb 2 on really bad TV shows. So: Any suggestions you have would be appreciated.

Criteria:

1. A show that was clearly a bad idea in its own (and indeed in any other) time.

2. A show that actually failed (i.e., one season or less). No matter how much you hate, say, Full House or ALF, the fact they lasted several seasons says something (nothing good, to be sure, but something).

3. Critically reviled would be helpful.

4. Had to have aired in the US. I’m sure Britain and Canada had their share of bad shows, but I’m unlikely to have seen them and/or to be able to find much information about them during research.

5. Major network is preferable. Really, who gives a crap about some really bad show on Spike TV.

Some examples I can think of for Dumb TV: Coupling (the US version), XFL, Diary of Desmond Pfipfpfer (or however it was spelled), Supertrain, Pink Lady and Jeff, My Mother the Car.

Compensation: Well, I’ll love you. Also, I’ll put a note in the entry: “Suggested by [Your Name Here]” You’ll be famous, to the entent that fame came be derived by such an attribution.

Timeframe: By Friday, let’s say, 8pm.

I’ll be doing about ten of these articles, and will probably include at least a couple of the shows I used as examples, but I think I’d love to see what other people have up their sleeves. So let me know what you thought truly represented the worst TV had to offer.

Mail Woes

Just got another “can’t send mail to AOL” message, which means two things:

1. Now I really am going to change my hosting — two of those in the same month suggests things are going to get worse, not better;

2. There’s a reasonably good chance all my mail is kind of screwed, so if you’ve attempted to send me mail in the last week or so, it may or may not have arrived. You can try sending again or simply drop me a note in the comments thread.

I will of course keep you in the loop about what I do next with Scalzi.com, but you can expect a move in the next month or so.

Kerry/Edwards

First, a cheap laugh at the New York’s Post’s expense:

Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha! Of course, screwing up a major story this badly will just make the Post even more vindictive toward Kerry, Edwards and the Democrats — if that’s at all possible — and that’s probably no good, but for the moment it’s amusing to see the paper fall right square on its ass.

As for Edwards: Well, long ago, I expressed the opinion that Edwards got into the race in order to get himself positioned for a nice, cushy VP spot, and I’m pleased not to have been proven wrong (ironically, if my original choice for the Democratic candidate for President — Wesley Clark — had gotten the brass ring, it would have been doubtful Edwards would be in the veep spot. But I was so very wrong on that Clark thing).

As for whether Edwards is a legitimately good choice: Sure, why not? As many other people have noted, he’s from the south, which balances out the ticket and keeps people from freaking out that the south, the regional crybaby of the US, isn’t represented on the Democratic ticket (yes, you southerners, you’re whiners. Whine whine whiny whine whine, the lot of you. You never hear the Pacific Northwest getting into a snit that there’s no one from Oregon on the ticket. Suck it up). He’s telegenic and charismatic to leaven out Kerry’s rather Lurch-like demeanor. He’s considered “young,” which has more to do with his hair and teeth than his actual age (he’s, like, 50), and everyone seems to think that will make a difference. And of course, he actually seems to want the position, which will make a difference when it comes to campaigning. In all, he’s sterling veep material, as far as I can see.

Frankly, it’s not so much that I’m at all enthusiastic about Edwards as I am deeply relieved that Gephardt isn’t anywhere near the ticket. Words cannot describe the unfathomable depths of lassitude a Kerry/Gephardt ticket would have made me feel. I would have voted for it, but for precisely the same reason I’d have colonoscopy, which is that the alternative is worse. It wouldn’t be something you’d do for fun. I’m not hugely a fan of Kerry/Edwards, but at least I don’t get the “Do it because it’s good for you” vibe off the pairing, which at this point counts as a distinct positive.

Can Kerry/Edwards win? Oh, yeah. Now we have to see if they actually will. There’s a long way to go until November. No one get cocky on either side, please.