Monthly Archives: May 2006

The Fermi Paradox

SFCrowsnest has a review up on Old Man’s War which is mostly positive, and that’s good. Yay! It also notes that the book “wantonly ignores the Fermi Paradox and offers no explanation as to why his galaxy is so densely populated with myriad alien species.” For those of you not in the know, the Fermi Paradox is the idea that is best summed up as “if there is intelligent life out there, why isn’t it here already?” In the particular case of OMW, I suspect the question might be better tuned as “if the universe is filled with hostile intelligent life, why aren’t we dead already?”

Well, that is an interesting question, isn’t it. The review is entirely correct, incidentally: I don’t really explain that aspect of the story. In terms of OMW, the reason I don’t explain this has to do primarily with me wanting to leave the question open a bit, because I think it’s fun to let readers speculate; the question begins to be answered in The Ghost Brigades and will be more so in The Last Colony, but as I’ve said elsewhere about the Old Man series, in my mind the ambiguity of some aspects of the series is a feature, not a bug. I like to read what it is that readers of the series have to say about it. It’s nice to live in a time when one can get out on the Internet and see reader speculation in that regard. Naturally I understand why people want answers from me rather than have that ambiguity there, but I hold the opinion that in science fiction, not everything is improved with a “logical answer.” Case in point: Midichlorians.

In the really real world, I like to answer the topic of the “Fermi Paradox” with two questions of my own:

1. Why don’t we have a moon base?
2. Why is there no McDonald’s in my hometown?

In both cases there’s no practical bar against either — both are able to be accomplished materially, although admittedly one’s easier than the other — and yet here we are without a moon base or a McDonald’s in Bradford, Ohio. Once you figure out why we don’t have either of these, you know why the Fermi Paradox isn’t really a paradox, and also frankly isn’t really that interesting of a question. I have my own thoughts as to the answer to both questions and what it means for the Fermi Paradox, but I’ll leave it open for you folks to discuss if you want.

Comments

I’m fiddling with a comment plug-in. There may be comment disruption while I fiddle. If your comment disappears, don’t panic — however you might want to hold off on making important comments until I’m done fiddling. However, if you want to attempt to leave comments in this comment thread, that might be helpful. Any comment is fine for the moment.

Update: Huh, that was interesting. The plug-in sent the comments into a dusky netherworld which apparently cannot be accessed by mere mortals. I’ve sent that plug-in away. You may now comment normally.

Irony

The message in the most recent bit of spam comments attempted at the site: “You have a great site, but I’m sorry you have a lot of spam :-( “. That’s not the irony. The irony is that it was all caught by my spam trap and never showed up on the site at all.

Sadly, however, if I don’t do a quick checkup every couple of hours, I would have a lot of spam on my site. Vigiliance is the price we pay for a site not to suck (comment spam-wise, at least).

Wiscon 30/06

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First of all, a moment of silence for my cell phone, which apparently slipped the surly bonds of earth sometime on Saturday and hasn’t been seen since. I suspect it has been bodily translated into heaven, where it will serve to take voice mail and blurry photos for the angels. If I had actually paid for the phone, I suspect I’d be truly annoyed. But since I didn’t, eh. There are worse things that could happen. But this is an object example of why I can’t have nice things. Because I lose them, you see.

Aside from the alien abduction of my cell phone, Wiscon was a whole lot of fun. Perhaps the best way to approach this is a series of bullet point impressions and comments

* Yes, during the Rat Bastard karaoke dance party, Ben Rosenbaum and I stripped to “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” What happened was that as the song started, Lauren McLaughlin and Krissy said to me, “You should go out there and do a striptease to that song,” and I said. “Well, if I’m going to do that, Ben Rosenbaum needs to do it with me.” Why Ben Rosenbaum? Because when someone like, say, me, walks over casually to him and says, “Come on, Ben. Time for a strip tease,” his reaction is to say “Yeah, okay.” And then to do it. For the record, Ben is, like, totally hot. I, on the other hand, could stand to lose about 15 pounds. Also for the record, the nudity, while not exactly tasteful, was only from the waist up. Because neither Ben nor I is stupid.

* The salient comment about the whole stripping adventure, from, I think, Jeremy Lassen: “What was really scary about that was that you were totally sober the whole time.” Why, yes. And this is exactly why you won’t ever see me drunk. Because, really. God forbid. Incidentally, Jeremy Lassen’s karaoke version of AC/DC’s “Big Balls” immediately made it into Wiscon party history. And, I guess, so did Ben’s and my show, but Jeremy didn’t have to show any nipple to get there. You go, Jeremy Lassen.

* Yes, there are pictures. Several people have threatened to blackmail me with them. Since I keep demanding they send them to me so I can put them up, you can see how well that’s working. Yes, I have shame. Just not in that direction.

* I had three panels at the convention, all of which, I thought, were pretty successful. The first was the “Chick Lit and Chick Flicks” panel, where I served primarily to offer thoughts about “chick films” over the years, with some anecdotal thoughts on chick lit itself. The “Does Your Baby Make You Smarter?” panel, I think was overall the best panel I was on, because fellow panelists Naomi Kritzer, Pat Cadigan and Jim Minz have smart and funny things to say on the subject, as did Kira Franz, who also went above and beyond by tracking down actual research on the panel subject and offering it up at the panel, thereby opening up whole new avenues of discussion. It’s lovely when people do that. The “Naked Eye Astronomy” panel was also happily successful, with particular notice in this case going to Linda Susan Shore, who brought construction projects for everyone in the audience, and who acted as the panel’s Googler, finding and exhibiting photos of some of the phenomena we were discussing in the panel.

I was the moderator on the last two panels, and let me tell you what I know about moderating: Excellent co-panelists make you look good as a moderator. These co-panelists made me look good as a moderator — and made for excellent panels for the audience — and I thank them for both.

* There’s been a recent tradition at Wiscons that the Campbell nominees in attendance square off in a “Campbell Smackdown,” and this year was no different: On Sunday Sarah Monette and I found ourselves stuffing our feet into pillowcases and having a sack race with very small sacks. This makes it rather harder, incidentally. And who won the smackdown? Well, we both did, since the race ended in a tie. We were both gracious in victory.

* One of the very nice things about Wiscon is that one meets a lot of really interesting people who are smart and clever and funny, and gets the idea that some of these folks might eventually turn out to be friends. This Wiscon I was fortunate to meet a lot of people who were mostly new to me, including Holly Black, Meg McCarron, Jeremy Lassen, Hal Duncan (who I met briefly in Scotland last year, for about five minutes, so this counts more), Veronica Schanoes, Lawrence Schimel, Mark Tiedemann, Christopher Barzak, Gary K. Wolfe (who went to the U of C), Richard Butner, Barbara Gilly, Karen Joy Fowler, Jay Lake, Geoff Ryman (who took to rubbing my head, possibly for good luck), David Schwartz (in whose company and with Richard Butner I had one of the more amusing 3am conversations I’ve had recently, involving both dolphin penises and the pope’s home run record), Ron Serdiuk the bookseller from Australia and last but most emphatically not least, Cherie Priest, who is just a blast and a half. Plus there were all sorts of other people whose name escape me at the moment because, as you all know, I’m a moron.

That’s a lot of new people to have spent at least a little of time with, while at the same time trying to see the people one already knows one likes. I think this contributes to the sensation that one sometimes gets at cons of simultaneously being happy that one gets to see so many smart, clever, funny and interesting people, and being sad that one doesn’t get to see all of them enough. Hopefully I’ll have more opportunities in the future to spend time with these folks, and add at least some of them to list of people I am humbled and fortunate to call friends.

* And now, what I know you’ve all really come for: The link to my Flickr set of pictures of Wiscon 30. Most of these were taken at Sign Out, because I’m just lazy that way, but it’s a good mix of the folks who made this particular convention so very excellent. We’ll be back.

The Perfect Man

No, it’s not me (the pictures of me faux-stripping at Wiscon prove that readily enough). No, it’s a new short story by my friend Lauren McLaughlin, which was published in Salon today. Lauren read a portion of it yesterday at Wiscon, and it was a whole lot of fun, so I recommend you check it out. Yes, you’ll have to sit through one of those Salon “ultramercials” to get at it. But you know what? It’s entirely worth it, and also, it’s probably not the most annoying thing you’ve ever done for a free read. So go!

Something to Hold You

Here’s the rat bastard thunderstorm supercell that caused us and what felt like a half-million other people at O’Hare Airport so much damn trouble getting home last night. As I think I mentioned earlier, we ended up renting a car to get home; the whole report on the “getting home” thing is here.

I’ll be pecking out a fuller Wiscon report later in the afternoon (short version: it was fun fun fun), but in the meantime, for your reading pleasure, let me point you in the direction of this interview with my pal and ace fantasy writer Justine Larbalestier, with whom I hung out quite a bit with at Wiscon, and also this interview with my pal and ace SF/F writer Elizabeth Bear, with whom I did not hang out with extensively at Wiscon, sadly, but the time we did have together was pure creamery goodness, I’ll tell you that.

Anyway. More later.

Brain-Dead

Ended up driving home from Wiscon, which is quite a feat because we flew in. I’ll have more details about that and Wiscon in general later. Probably much later, because as you might see from the timestamp, it’s quite late.

If you’ve sent me an e-mail any time since last Thursday, it’s likely you’ve not had a response. I’ll be getting to mail today.

OMW as VG?

Here’s an interesting commentary/interview with me at the video game site Gaming Target, in which the author chats about how Old Man’s War would make a great video game (I agree), and then interviews me about the influence of video games on OMW (there’s a little). It’s an interesting commentary/interview, made extra cool because the guy who wrote the piece is named “John Scalzo.” Man, that’s just awesome.

When Reviews Happen

I meant to write this up yesterday but didn’t; it’s a question from Lars, from the entry about my review in the San Antonio Express-News:

Hi John, whenever you mention a review it always gets me wondering about the reviewing process in general. Do books like yours usually just encounter a few waves of press after publication, or is it an ongoing process? Are you still getting as many reviews for OMW as you are for TGB? I was just wondering if you could give me a bird’s eye view on it.

My experience in this regard has been like this, in terms of my novels:

Prior to publication date: Reviews from trade mags (Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus, etc)

At or immediately after publication date: short-lead magazines (like Entertainment Weekly) and newspapers, SF reviewing Web sites

Within several months of publication date: long-lead magazines (most of the science fiction monthlies), SF reviewing Web sites

Whenever: Personal Web sites. “Whenever” in this case means anywhere from at or near publication date to a number of years later, depending on whenever that person gets around to the book.

In my experience, the window for newspapers and large magazines to review your book is fairly small, because they tend to focus on new releases and also because there’s always something new being released. One of the nice things about the San Antonio review is that it comes even after The Ghost Brigades has been out for four months. Why a review came so relatively late in a major newspaper could be because of a number of reasons: The reviewer could have been particularly fired-up about the book, for example, or it may be, inasmuch as SF is not hugely reviewed in newspapers in any event, some allowances were made. Whatever the reason, I’m happy. The Express-News’ Sunday circulation is 350,000. It’s nice to get in front of that many people.

Old Man’s War has had a slightly unusual review “life” in that it popped up some additional newspaper reviews when it hit trade paperback, and the Hugo nomination has also put it back into the spotlight. The Ghost Brigades, as far as I can tell, has had a fairly standard review life. One nice thing is that it’s been reasonably well-reviewed in the non-SF media despite being a sequel, (indeed, at this point it’s been more extensively reviewed in the non-SF media then in it, although that might be a factor of longer lead times) and sequels are to my understanding somewhat less likely to be reviewed. I suspect it certainly did help in that case that most the reviews of Old Man’s War were positive ones, so the same reviewers were more likely to revisit the universe a second time. Ghost’s reviews were also generally positive, so I think that bodes well for The Android’s Dream getting coverage. But you never know. Publishing can be capricious and cruel.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that I’ve been very fortunate that the books have been reviewed at all in the mainstream press. There are several hundred science fiction novels released each year, the majority of which will get one or two print/mainstream reviews if they get any at all. In this regard they are like every other sort of book out there. I can speak to this with some experience, since I currently have six other books out there aside from OME and TGB, and combined those books have gotten six and a quarter reviews in the print media (the quarter review is of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, which was reviewed with three other books in its series). As far as I know, neither The Book of the Dumb or its sequel have been reviewed at all. Ironically, they are my best-selling books. Admittedly, when an entire book can be described in one sentence — “makes fun of stupid people doing stupid things” — there’s really no reason it should get any reviews. Nevertheless, no reviews or just one or two is par for the course.

Of the types of reviews noted above, it’s difficult to say which matter more. Is a review in the San Antonio News-Express, Sunday circulation 350k, more useful than a review from, say, Fantasy & Science Fiction, whose circulation is 26k? The News-Express gets to more people, but we know that every subscriber of F&SF magazine is a science fiction reader, almost by definition. Or is it better to get a good review from Instapundit, who gets 120k readers a day, most of whom probably aren’t SF readers but at least some of whom (anecdotally speaking) seem willing to take a chance on a book on his recommendation? Or from Boing Boing, with 250k a day? I have my own thoughts on the matter, based on personal experience, but I don’t know if my anecdotal experience would be useful or accurate for others. It’s probably safe to say that a good range of reviews from all sorts of places can be useful.

Leaving behind the print media and the high-traffic Web sites, I think that discussions of books on personal Web sites and also SF-enthusiast sites are very important in a “long tail” sense. Someone writing about OMW or TGB on their blog or LiveJournal is the equivalent of a personal recommendation (or pan) of the book to the friends who read that blog; it’s handselling the book in a small audience, and in aggregate I think that adds up. And as personal sites get to the books when they get to them, it keeps the book in circulation, as it were. These are not the reviews that Tor is going to slap on the book cover (that honor goes to the print media), but in aggregate I suspect they can be just as important over the long run of a book. Likewise, I think Amazon reviews can be important aggregate handsellers, so long as the reviews are actually cogent (which is sometimes the case, sometimes not).

Coming back to pro criticism and reviews, I’ve been fortunate that most of the reviews that I’ve gotten have been pretty good, but I don’t pretend that I will live in this sort of blessed state forever. Inevitably something I write will clang against the general critical rim for whatever reason, whether it’s because people gotten used to what I write and how and the bloom is off the rose, or because someone decides that it’s time to pick a fight (critics do that from time to time, sometimes for cause, sometimes not), or because (yikes) I genuinely write a clunker.

What can you do? Not a thing — except in that last case, in which case you try to make sure your next book doesn’t suck. But speaking as someone who has been a professional critic for a decade and a half — as someone who has made a pretty darn comfortable living passing judgement on other people’s critical endeavors — I’m here to tell you that the only worse thing you can do than worry too about what critics think is to attempt to write to please critics, particularly the professional sort. That’s folly, pure and simple, if only because there are simply too many critics to be able to please all of them. My philosophy is that I write a book I want to read, and if critics hate it, at least I have a book I like. Fortunately, my personal taste in SF seems to be of the saleable sort, so that’s nice.

Also, when it comes down to it, I’m not particularly intimidated by professional critics, which is helpful when it comes to putting reviews in perspective. That’s partly because, as noted, I am one, so the methods and manners of criticism and reviewing are not unknown to me; it’s partly because, frankly, I can’t be outsnobbed. I have a degree in philosophy of language from the University of Chicago and had Saul Bellow as my thesis advisor, at least until I dumped him to do something else. Any critic who thinks he can snob up on me can kiss my pompus ass. It takes a lot to impress me, is all I’m saying. And as long as I’m happy with what I write, people can say what they want to say.

Now, I realize not every writer comes to the game with my level of rampant egotism baked in, but the point is that critics are not people to be scared of or intimidated by; they’re just people with opinions, and hopefully are not too stuffed-shirt serious about them. The good news is that most critics and reviewers aren’t (and don’t want to be) irritating lit pricks; they’re largely people who like to share their enthusiasm of good stories with other people who are looking for good stories. Sometimes they’ll like what you do, sometimes they won’t. That’s how it goes.

So that’s the basics on reviews.

Julia Spencer-Fleming Interview on By The Way

This week I interviewed multiple-award-winning mystery author Julia Spencer-Fleming over at By The Way. If you don’t go over and read the interview, you’ll always regret it. Always. Also, her latest novel To Darkness and to Death is about to come out in paperback. If you don’t go and buy it, you will also always regret it. Always. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

I won’t be doing an author interview next Wednesday on account of I’m going to be busy the next several days doing whatever it is I’ll be doing at Wiscon (mostly hanging out in the Governor’s Lounge and watching other people get tanked), but we’ll be back on schedule after that. And yes, I do mean to get a schedule of authors who are to be interviewed out. But, you know. Distracted by shiny bits of foil and all that.

Help Me Build a FAQ

I’m thinking of putting together an FAQ for me and for this site, because I find I’m answering a lot of the same questions over and over and I’d like to have one central document to point people to.

Wanna help me out? Here are the questions I know I’m going to have so far (I’m not going to write the answers yet). If there are other questions you think I should have on the FAQ, let me know.

Note: For this, real and useful questions, please. We can put together a FASQ (“frequently asked silly questions”) document some other time. But I’d like the FAQ to actually be helpful. It doesn’t even have to be a question you think is frequently asked, just one that would be good to have in a document like this.

Here are the questions I’ve got, in no particular order:

1. Who is John Scalzi?
2. What books have you written?
3. What else do you write?
4. Will you read my manuscript/unpublished story?
5. Can I link to your site/an entry?
6. Will you introduce me to your agent?
7. Can I send a book for you to sign?
8. How did you get published?
9. Will you link to my site?
10. If I tell you my story idea, will you write it and we can both get credit?

Any more questions which you think I should be answering in a John Scalzi/Scalzi.com FAQ?

Word 2007 Beta — Shiny!

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Ooooh, pretty. I managed to snag the Office 2007 Beta today and have been playing around with it a bit, which is to say I’ve been playing around with Word 2007 because I couldn’t really give a crap about the rest of the Office suite. So far: Very pretty. I’ll be fiddling with some of the functionality soon to see what I think of it, but as I’ve always been partial to MS Word, I don’t expect I’ll be terribly displeased. I can say at this point that a) I really like the new organizational structure of the features up at the top (the tabs mean you don’t have to drill down through several hundred menus to find functionality), and b) I sure hope MS improves its”Publish to Blog” feature, because right now it stinks; I can’t get it to play with the Whatever, which is a tragedy, or even with LiveJournal, which it’s supposed to be able to do. It has seamless integration with MSN Spaces, however. Yeah, I’m gonna get right on that.

If Word 2007 pans out, it’ll make the case for me returning to my PC for my book writing. I switched over to the Mac to write The Ghost Brigades — indeed, I rationalized my Mac purchase by saying to myself and my wife that novel writing was what the Mac was for — but I’ve been less than overwhelmed by the word processing choices on that side of the computing gulf. Pages is pretty but functionally something of a disappointment for me, and OpenOffice for the Mac is alternately distractingly ugly, clunky or buggy. I could have bought Word for the Mac, but I’d already spent money on Pages. What I ended up doing was writing TGB in TextEdit and porting it over to Word 2000 on my PC for formatting when I was done writing. The book was good, mind you, but overall it was a less than optimal writing experience. As I said, we’ll have to see what I think of this new iteration of Word. This beta will function through February 2007, which I assure will be more than enough time to complete The Last Colony (because if it’s not, Patrick Nielsen Hayden will wring my lousy neck — and he would be right to do it).

Incidentally, if you look closely at the picture here, it will appear as if you are looking at the first page of The Last Colony. However, in fact, you’re not. What you’re looking at is a previous, cast-off version of the first chapter of The Last Colony, which I abandoned because it sucked; the characters in the chapter got away from me and started babbling with stentorian gravity, and I had to knock that crap off straight away. In fact, there are five or six versions of the opening chapter, all at various levels of completion, that I have tucked away and which you will never see because they are God-awful — which is not even counting an entire earlier iteration of The Last Colony, featuring a major character you will now never know, because I threw him down a well after I wrote three chapters of the guy and realized I couldn’t stand him, and if I couldn’t stand him, what chance did the rest of you have? So now he’s dying a miserable death at the bottom of a well, and no one can hear him cry for help. Well, I can. But I assure you, he deserved it, and I’m leaving him for the rats.

The good news is that now The Last Colony has an opening chapter I like quite a bit, and with that out of the way the writing is coming along quite nicely, thank you. And I’ve learned that beginnings can be tricky for me (interestingly, I had nearly the same problem with The Ghost Brigades), but once I’ve got that sorted out, things typically run smoothly. At least this is what I’m telling myself. If you wish to contradict me on this matter, I have a well on my property I’d like you to see.

Of course, maybe the problem was the I wrote them on the Mac. Without MS Word. Hmmmmmm.

When Birds Attack Patio Doors

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This cardinal has been attacking the back patio door all day long. I was wondering what the hell was up with that (and indeed, created a poll on the subject, which you may vote on here), when it was explained to me by the guy who delivers meat and dessert products to my door: Cardinals are territorial and this one has probably seen his reflection in the window and thought it was another cardinal. To which my response was: That’s a pretty dumb bird. But, I don’t know. Maybe it’s getting some sort of birdie satisfaction out of it. I know the cats have been fascinated by the show.

The Other Campbell Award

The finalist list for the John W. Campbell award is up, and congrats for my fellow 2006 Hugoites Charlie Stross, Ken MacLeod and Robert Charles Wilson for having their books make the final cut. The winner will be announced in July.

This Campbell award is not the Campbell award I’m up for; the former is a jury-awarded prize for the best SF novel of the year, while the latter is a fan-voted award for the best new SF writer. Oddly enough, I think both awards were started in the same year (1973; the winners for each were Beyond Apollo and Jerry Pournelle). Why two awards with the same name honoring the same field were begun in the same year is a good question (well, not really: John W. Campbell died not long before), but it certainly makes for fun cocktail conversation at SF shindigs.

We’re Ruled By Morons, Part the Infinite

Oh, for an Attorney General who can actually understand the Bill of Rights:

The government has the legal authority to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday…

Mr. Gonzales said that the administration promoted and respected the right of the press that is protected under the First Amendment. “But it can’t be the case that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity,” he said. “And so those two principles have to be accommodated.”

Now, let’s go to the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Hmmm. It says no law abridging the freedom of the press. It doesn’t say, “no law abridging the freedom of the press, unless Attorney General Alberto Gonzales somehow loses the ability to parse unambiguous subordinate clauses in the Bill of Rights and says that there is.” Funny about that.

I think I’ve noted before that January 2009 can’t come soon enough. Let me reiterate that idea here now. My dog apparently has a better grasp of the rights of the press under the Constitution than does our nation’s top law enforcement officer. It’s not too much to ask for an Attorney General who knows our Constitution better than one of my domestic quadrupeds.

A Musical Dichotomy

Finally got a chance to catch the Eurovision performance of Finnish band Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” which won that particular musical contest, proving without a doubt — if there still was one — that This is Spinal Tap was not comedy, it was prophecy.

To clean your brain, here’s Petra Haden’s lovely acapella version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” You’ll need it.

Ghost Brigades Review in the San Antonio Express-News

And it’s a pretty good one:

In Heinleinesque fashion, the book is loaded with scenes of comradeship, isolation, ruthlessness and the protocols, which govern the lives of active-duty soldiers. But this is where Scalzi, famous for his blog “The Whatever,” surpasses Heinlein. Scalzi weaves in subtle discussions of humanity’s growing fear of aging and our simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the Frankensteinlike creatures we are able to create.

The reviewer also takes a nice long time exploring the political structure of the Colonial Union and coming to some interesting conclusions about it, some of which are relevant to the previous discussion of Old Man’s War that we had with Nick Whyte here (and which fellow writer Naomi Kritzer followed up on her LiveJournal here). I personally think it’s delightful that a mainstream newspaper gave up a truly healthy number of column inches to a science fiction book review; that it’s a really thoughtful review is a nice bonus (and that it’s positive review is the cherry on the top). So good on you, San Antonio Express-News, and Aïssatou Sidimé.

Also, in other news, I am apparently famous for the Whatever. Excellent. My plans for world domination via sloth continue apace.