Monthly Archives: June 2007

WHATEVER IS DOWN (Was: Rental Zen, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Entirely Ignore DRM)

NOTICE, 11am, 6/28/07: Whatever seems to be having some sort of extreme database issue at the moment. The short story: As of just short of midnight last night, Whatever’s database apparently stopped accepting new data, including new entries and new comments (I’m able to post this, apparently, because it’s into an article already posted. Don’t ask me how it works — it just works). Anyway, I’m looking into it now. Don’t know how long it will take to fix. In the meantime feel free to visit my LiveJournal, where I will update with news and information. You can also post comments there.

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Behold my latest toy, a 60 GB Creative Vision:M, which is just like a video iPod, except that if you try to connect it to iTunes, it will wail and thrash and scream “it burns us, preciousssssss!” or something like that. Which, you know, is fine, because I bought it to interface not with iTunes at all, but with another music service entirely: Rhapsody, which I’ve subscribed to for years, and which, if you pay $15 a month as I do, will allow you to fill certain music players (like the one I just bought) jam-packed full of rented music, music which is, incidentally, positively swaddled in digital rights management. The idea here is that if I should cancel my Rhapsody account, the music on my player will lock up; I won’t be able to access it. Because it’s rental music, you see.

My response to this, basically: Yeah, okay, whatever. Indeed, so utterly unconcerned am I with this that one of the reasons I bought the Creative music player in the first place is that it’s my intent to fill it up solely with rented music, in all its DRMed-to-the-gums glory. Why? Because in the end, it just doesn’t matter to me. And here’s why:

1. To begin, I own tons of music — literally thousands of albums dating back to high school — but it’s across a myriad of media, and not all of it is easily accessible: About 80% of my CD collection is packed away in boxes in the basement, for example, and only part of it I’ve ever bothered to rip to electronic format. Then there are the cassettes and (god forbid) LPs I own, and the albums and tracks I’ve downloaded off of iTunes. Honestly, it’s all a big friggin’ mess, and the idea of trying to get it all organized so I can stuff it into my music player fills me with a horrible sort of crushing ennui. Really, just stab me in the eye, because it would be less painful.

With the rental music, I don’t have to bother with all that. Right now, as I type this, I’m downloading the entire discography of Depeche Mode into my player off of Rhapsody. It took me about 90 seconds to queue up the entire playlist and drag and drop it into player; all 160 songs (or so — I’m not loading in remixes, etc at this point) will be funneled into it in another ten minutes or so. Simple, easy, done. I own all this music, but it’s easier to use the rental version. So I’m likely to replicate the part of my music collection I actually listen to into my player.

There’s the added attraction that I can also drag and drop music that I haven’t bought into the player and take it along with me to listen to, to see if I want to buy it. I often do (my rule of thumb is if I listen to an album’s worth of rented music three times through, I buy it), so that’s not bad either. And even if I don’t buy it, thanks to Rhapsody’s setup with music companies, the artists and/or copyright holders still get paid a portion of the rental fee. It’s tiny, but it’s better than nothing.

2. The DRM setup doesn’t allow me to trade music files with people, but you know what? I don’t do that anyway – it’s not a behavior I typically indulge in. When someone tells me about a band they like, what I usually end up doing is pulling that band up on Rhapsody and listening to it there, because I feel that’s an ethical way of satisfying my curiosity (a little bit of my monthly fee goes to the musicians, remember), and when I want to share music, I have a tendency to point to streaming audio/video that’s either been authorized (on YouTube, which has licensing agreements at this point with most of the big labels, or through something like AOL Music) or — if it’s questionable that it’s been authorized — is at least on an obvious site that takes down data on request (again with the YouTube). The DRM keeps me from engaging in behavior I don’t engage in, which means for me, it doesn’t present a real issue.

To be clear, the reason I don’t typically engage in file trading is not because DRM makes it difficult — I’m technologically competent enough that it would be trivial for me to get around nearly any DRM set-up yet devised — but I choose not to, and because generally speaking at this point in time there are better ways to achieve the goal of sharing music, some of which actually allow copyright holders to get paid something.

3. Yes, but what about the fact that thanks to the DRM, I can only access the music on certain computers and on certain music players? Surely that’s an imposition! Well, the thing is, it’s not. Rhapsody’s setup allows me to run its music software on five computers and on a certain number of portable players. Well, as it happens, I have four computers in the house and three portable music players — which is to say, I’m covered. And even then, should I want to get around this, Rhapsody has made it easy to do by allowing its users to access its system via a Web browser, so actually there’s no limit to the number of computers I can use to access whatever music I want. What if I want to put the music onto my stereo? I bring my laptop to the stereo and run a line from the laptop to the stereo. Done and done. But I can’t actually remember the last time I used my stereo; at this point the entire family listens to music via computers and the TV (on which our satellite system has a several dozen music channels).

So while theoretically DRM restricts my access to music, as a practical matter the restrictions it places on my use of the music are so non-onerous as to be just like not there at all. For how I use my music, and how my family uses music, the restrictions are not an issue in the least.

4. There is the fact that Rhapsody could at any point change the rules of rental access or that I could leave the service and have all that music on my player become dead files. But I have to say that this doesn’t particularly concern me because I understand that I am renting music here. Which is to say that I am under no illusion that I own the specific data files I am downloading into my player. I own some of the music because I’ve purchased it in other media, and at any point in time if I want I can rip that music into electronic files, and I would own those too. But these files — the ones I’m borrowing from Rhapsody — I don’t own any more than I own a DVD from Blockbuster or Netflix, or a book from the local public library.

If Rhapsody suddenly changes its terms to something I don’t like and I leave the service, or it goes out of business, or whatever, I understand that I’m going to lose access to these files. Big deal. I can switch to another provider, which would mean restuffing the player, which would be annoying but not horribly onerous, or I can just drop in the actual music I own. In the meantime, it’s not a problem. Indeed, in one respect the rented files have an advantage to electronic music files I own: If the hard drive I’ve stored most of my mp3s on implodes (as it will inevitably do), there goes my collection (presuming I don’t have a CD version or haven’t otherwise backed up). This is not an issue with the rented music. If my computer implodes, it doesn’t take Rhapsody with it.

Add it all up and all this rented music thing makes a lot of sense to me, and for me.

Now, to make one thing clear, when I’m talking about being fine about DRM, I’m talking about it in the context of rented music. If we’re talking about music I want to buy to own, then I’m of another mind entirely when it comes to DRM. Because I’m buying that. It’s mine. Again, the issue of DRM keeping me from accessing my music would be trivial in a practical sense, both in how I use my music, and how I could get around the DRM if I want to. But that’s not the point. The point is once I buy something, the seller is loses the ability to tell me how I can or cannot use it, and all the EULAs in the world aren’t going to change that much. But when I rent music, it’s not the same thing. Swaddle it up with DRM; I’m fine with that.

2007 Best Fan Writer Hugo Essays in Japanese

As the Worldcon is taking place this year in Japan, and I am nominated for the Best Fan Writer Hugo, I thought it would be both useful and respectful to get translations of some of my SF-related entries in 2006 so that Japanese fans and Hugo voters would be able to have an informed view of the work before they cast their ballots. Thus, behind the cut are translated essays. Clearly, these will be of most interest to those who read Japanese.

For the rest of you, if you’re curious as to which essays these are, they are “The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment,” “On Carl Sagan,” “You Can Get This Book For Free. You Should Buy It,” and “Cover Story and Cover Art.

I am greatly indebted to Yumi Kurosawa and Yoshio Kobayashi for their work in translating and editing these essays.

Translations behind the cut.

Continue reading

Ficlets Author Interview: Robert J. Sawyer

Look! Another Author Interview! I’m on fire over there at Ficlets. This time around I’m interviewing none other than Robert J. Sawyer, who is talking about his new book Rollback and opining on a number of subjects relating to science fiction, Canada, the position of fiction in society, and the various intersections of each. And he also explains how Margaret Atwood can get away with suggesting that she doesn’t write science fiction (hint: it has something to do with being Canadian. No, really).

It’s a hella interesting interview, and if you don’t read it, it will eventually rank as one of the great missed opportunities of your life, and the regret will eat at you like a ravenous polar bear. Yes, just like that. And you know how ravenous polar bears can be.

Yes, I’m all about the Canadians today. Rock on, frosty northern neighbors!

Helpless

Continuing what is apparently a week of Canadian female singers, here’s kd lang singing Neil Young’s “Helpless” at the 2005 Juno Awards; seems that Young was supposed to be there but was ill and in the hospital, which explains lang’s intro. However, if you’re going to have to get someone to fill in for you, you’re not going to get much better than this.

Man, what a voice. Also for those of you who are live performance-minded, check out kd lang’s total microphone awareness. The song, if you didn’t know, is available on lang’s hymns of the 49th parallel album, which has her covering Canadian songwriters, and really is excellent.

The Point at Which I Stop Being the Perfect Consumer

You know, I’m as gaa-gaa over tech as the next geeky, overfed American nerd, but at a certain point fiscal restraint kicks in and temps down my need for the next new hot thing. Thus is my ardor for the iPhone suddenly cooled when it’s revealed that the low-end phone plan for the thing is $60 a month. Add that to the $500 minimum cost of the phone, resulting in a minimum $1,200 cost for the gadget in the first year, and I’m all, eh, I can wait. My current cell phone cost me $40, and I piggyback on my mother-in-law’s service plan for $10 a month. That’s about right for me.

I know, I know. Since when should I let practical issues get in my way? Anyone who’s getting a first-gen iPhone is signing up to be a guinea pig anyway; practicality shouldn’t enter into it. Fair enough, and I wasn’t exactly camping out to get one anyway. But I feel the same way I did when the first iPod came out, actually. When it happened I watched all the cool kids stab each other in the eye to get to it, and meanwhile I, who had had a CD-player-sized Creative 5GB Jukebox for over a year at that point and had paid substantially less to get it than what the first-gen iPod went for, thought it would probably be best just to sit out the fracas for a while with my perfectly serviceable, pre-existing alternative.

I guess what it comes down to is that at then end of the day, I don’t care to be one of the cool kids if it just costs too much to do it. I’d chalk it up to rapidly-approaching middle age, but I’ve always been like this. Of course, there’s a simpler way to put it: I’m cheap.

ALA Recap

I spent my weekend in the Washington DC area at the ALA conference, which was actually a whole lot of fun. The first reason was that I’m a tremendous fan of librarians in a general sense, and the specific librarians I met over the weekend were fairly excellent as individuals, and basically a whole lot of fun to meet and spend time with. Honestly, the day I can’t enjoy myself among people who spend their life dealing with books is the day I’ve probably fallen head first into a grave.

The second reason was that it allowed me to get to know a few of my fellow authors a bit better, specifically Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and Steve Erikson. Jeff and I have had that “we know each other online” thing going on for a couple of years now and have always been fairly friendly, so it was nice to seal the deal in the real world, and Ann (who incidentally is the new editor over at Weird Tales) was a delight to meet as well. Steve Erikson I had not met nor corresponded with before, but he’s kick, especially when he’s sharing stories about his past life as an archaeologist, which have to be heard to be believed. It was excellent to meet him.

Jeff, Steve and I were all on a panel titled “The Literature of Ideas,” along with Charlotte Jones, who is the granddaughter of Madeleine L’Engle and an absolutely wonderful person in her own right. The panel was put together with the help of Tor’s Kathleen Doherty, and I think she chose the participants well, because each of us came at the topic from entirely different angles, which is what you want to keep the audience from keeling over from boredom. Each of us talked individually about science fiction and fantasy for about fifteen minutes and then did a Q&A. Jeff gives some of the highlights of the talks on his new blog Ecstatic Days, which I recommend, both for the talk tidbits and in a general sense.

Aside from Jeff, Ann and Steve I managed to sneak in a little time with Sarah Beth Durst, who was down at ALA promoting her debut novel Into the Wild, and made the acquaintance of graphic novelist and Whatever reader Jane Irwin, who was nice enough to give me copies of her Vogelein comic series. I also saw YA author David Lubar, who used to write humor articles for me back when I was an editor at AOL; we’ve known each other for a decade but it was the first time we met in person.

But wait, there’s more! I also very briefly saw Delia Sherman, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, each appearing literally as we were heading out of the conference to catch a cab to the airport. I think they planned it that way. At the airport Jeff also very briefly introduced me to Peter Straub, who happened to be wandering about. It was one of those small world things. In short, lots of interesting people who do that writing thing were at the conference. Funny how that might be.

And of course one of the nice things about going to a library conference is that the publishers there give out all sorts of free free free books, and I’m a flat-out sucker for that. Really, that’s why I love lit conferences and trade shows and will pretty much show up for any of them: Because afterwards I get to wander the aisles and graze. I ended up picking up a couple dozen books, even split between books for me and books for Athena, and then heaved myself down to the temporary post office at the conference to mail them all home. They’ll be here in a couple of days. I’ll have to figure out what to do with myself until then.

So there you have it: Librarians + Authors + Book swag = happy Scalzi. That said, it’s good to be home and to have nowhere pressing to be for a while. I’ve got work and family to catch up on.

Basement Apartment

Oooh, neat. I found the video for Sarah Harmer’s song “Basement Apartment”:

I love this song, because I think it pretty much nails that place in time when you’re in your early 20s, and you have that college degree but no money because you’re killing time as a barista or comic book store staff member or a musician before you go to grad school or that entry-level gig (or, let’s be honest, even after those), so you pile together with your friends in really lousy apartments and live an existence that’s about two grades too shitty to be called “bohemian,” and eventually you begin to wonder if life actually gets any better than this. Not exactly a great space to be in, mentally, but once you’re out of it it’s nice to look back on it, just like it’s nice to think back on that car accident you just barely missed having.

Anyway, excellent song. And it’s off an equally excellent album, You Were Here, which I recommend to everyone. And just for the hell of it, here’s Sarah Harmer’s Web site, because the rest of the stuff she does is pretty damn good too.

In What is Becoming a Depressingly Regular Announcement:

I’ve now presumably caught up with all my e-mail that I left lingering while I was gallivanting around the country. So this means that if you’ve sent me e-mail in the last several days that you were hoping to get a response to and I didn’t respond, now would be the time to send it again.

Also, and specifically for the person from the Millennicon convention who sent me e-mail a while back: For the life of me I can’t find your e-mail to respond to it. Will you please resend it? My apologies for clearly being such a big fat loser.

A Question of Medium-Sized Sociological Importance (Or Not)

If there really is a cultural divide between the people who are on MySpace and the people who are on Facebook, as this draft of an academic paper suggests, what does it mean that I have accounts on both?

I suppose I could suggest it points to my own white-trash-yet-elite status (living in a mobile home while attending one of the most expensive high schools in the county, say, or being (very) briefly homeless while (also briefly) having Saul Bellow as my college thesis advisor). But since all those days were well behind me by the time either of these sites existed, probably not. Personally, I suspect it has more to do with the fact I sort indiscriminately sign up for these social network sites. This would also explain why I have accounts on Friendster, Okrut, LinkedIn, Prosper, Flickr, Second Life and etc and so on. I am a stat-oriented sociologist’s worst nightmare.

I Am Leaving In The Morning For the Land That I Long to See Again

More traveling today. While I am away, immerse yourself in this: “Blackwater,” by David Sylvian (in the guise of Raintree Crow). It’s easily my favorite Sylvian song. The video is negligible; close your eyes and drink in the music.

Incidentally, the ALA conference at which I spoke was excellent; we had good talks and met quite a few interesting folks. I’ll write more about it after I get home.

Nippon 2007 or Lack Thereof

I don’t know that this will come as too much of a surprise to anyone, but I won’t be attending Nippon 2007. There are a number of reasons for this, but two main ones. The first is that I have two books due pretty much exactly when Nippon 2007 occurs (the novel and the revise of The Rough Guide to the Universe), and I’ll have to be focused on that. The second reason, somewhat related, is that even if those deadlines were not a pressing consideration, I wouldn’t be able to spend more than the time of convention in Japan; I dearly want to visit Japan, but if I go I want to be able to spend more than five days.

What it boils down to is that unfortunately it’s not at a good time for me, in terms of work or personal commitments. Naturally, this makes me very sad. I will be there in spirit. I will also be there in terms of voting for the Hugos, since I have a supporting membership to Nippon 2007. There are lots of people I’ll be wanting to vote for this year; also, if you’ll recall, I am a nominee myself. No, I hadn’t forgotten. Indeed, I’m still pretty chuffed about it. I hope you Hugo voters hadn’t forgotten either. Please vote in my category, even if you don’t vote for me.

Since I won’t be attending Nippon 2007, I know some of you will be wondering if I now plan to attend this year’s NASFiC. In a word, no. I have another commitment that weekend, unrelated (mostly) to fandom, and even prior to making that commitment I had been turned off to the NASFiC due to the convention’s hotel issues, which to be fair to the NASFiC are not about them, but about the hotel owners. Be that as it may, and as I’ve noted before, I’m not inclined to give money to people who so clearly don’t want me there. This is just me and should not be taken as a criticism of that convention; I’m sure the NASFiC itself will be a fun time.

So at the moment the only conventions I have on my schedule for 2007 are the Heinlein Centennial and the Utopiales Festival in France. Whatever shall I do with myself if I’m not at conventions? Well, the rumor is, I occasionally write books. Maybe I’ll do that. So when I go to conventions in 2008 and beyond, I’ll have something new to share. I know! Crazy idea.

Random Crap 6/22/07

I’m about to head off to get a plane and fly to DC, so in lieu of coherent thoughts, a bunch of little things:

* This happened yesterday while I was visiting my friends Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier. Also while I was visiting them, at least a mile of skateboarders went skating by — no really — but Scott doesn’t have any pictures of that up yet. It was still pretty damn cool. New York, what a wacky town.

* Emo Crayolas are amusing.

* David Goodman passed along an interesting article about book blogs in the Guardian newspaper, and I wrote it up in the Ficlets Blog.

* Regarding Dick Cheney suggesting he’s not actually in the executive branch: Man, I wish.

* Oh, and apparently Citizen Kane is still the best movie ever. Somewhere the makers of Freddie Got Fingered are muttering about how they got robbed, again. And weren’t they? Weren’t they?

* Incidentally, some people were asking me how I knew about “Goatse double-penetration felch hentai,” either as individual concepts or in the particular horrifying combination. People, it’s okay to know them. Just don’t live them. That is all.

Surfacing in NYC

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Not to be all mysterious about it, but the reason I was traveling is in picture above: I went to NYC, to the Tor offices, to take part in a autograph session involving the LongPen — a remote controlled signing apparatus in which I (or any other author) scribble my autograph onto a computer screen, and then, on the other end, a pen replicates the signature precisely. So I was signing autographs in NYC, and the books (and the people who were getting their books signed) were in Anaheim. It’s like living in the future, it is. The LongPen is being touted as a “green” way to do book signings, although I would hesitate to say it was so in this particular case, since they flew me in from Ohio for this. Even so, it was definitely an interesting experience.

One of the reasons I was mum about where I was going was because here in New York there’s a monthly speculative fiction reading series at the KGB Bar, and I thought it would be fun to pop in and give a bunch of people cognitive dissonance when they saw me being someplace I couldn’t possibly be. Because I’m a twit that way, that’s why. Well, it worked, and also it was a lovely series of readings, by Tempest Bradford, Matthew Cheney, Rachel Pollack, Veronica Schanoes and Catherynne M. Valente. Now I’m off to lunch at Google’s NY offices, after which I plan on going on a multi-borough crime spree. Because that’s what New York City is for!

I have some further thoughts on the LongPen over on the Ficlets Blog.

Everything I Read Online is Pornography

I’m sitting in the airport in Dayton. It has free wireless Internet, which is good, but over on top of that free wireless Internet is the Webmarshal filtering system, which is bad. It’s bad because it is apparently absolutely indiscriminate in what it classifies as pornography, and, thus, blocks.

Among the sites currently blocked as “porn”: Boing Boing, Google’s blog search, Gawker, and all of LiveJournal. All of it! So is MySpace! And Facebook! Apparently Webmarshal is convinced that every single social networking/blogging site is endemically plastered with Goatse double-penetration felch hentai or something. Sure, maybe parts are. But surely not all. And certainly not the parts I want to visit. My days of grooving to Goatse double-penetration felch hentai are over. Most days. And even if they weren’t, I’m not going to try to access any of it in public. I don’t want to get thrown out of the airport, you know. I do have a flight to catch.

Even Whatever is not immune to Webmarshal’s charms — I can access it, but not before having to go a screen that warns me that there’s harsh language here (which is totally fucking untrue), and that my access is being noted by the system administrator. Well, let him note it. In 30 minutes, I’ll be on a plane.

Anyway, note to Webmarshal: Your Web filtering sucks. And yes, I fully expect Whatever to be blocked as pornography the next time I come through Dayton’s airport. This is what I get for writing “Goatse double-penetration felch hentai.”

(Update: Heh. It actually got blocked within 30 seconds. I can update to the site, apparently — I just can’t see it. Ridiculous.)

Author Interview: Jennifer Ouellette

I’ve finally gotten my act back together and restarted the Ficlets Author Interview series: I sent out a bunch of well-delayed author questions today and will be sending out another batch in a couple of days. And — even better — I got one set of answers back, from Jennifer Ouellette, author of the highly entertaining and scientifically engaging The Physics of the Buffyverse, which is about — can you guess? — physics in the universe of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ouellette and I chat about the value of these sort of pop science books, whether “popular science” books in general have too narrow an audience, and what some of the most flat-out cool science discoveries of the last few years have been. It’s a good interview, and if you miss it, your life will be a meaningless void. Sorry. But there it is.

Also, a quick procedural note — I’m running about like a madman on Wednesday (i.e. today — well, actually tomorrow, as I’m timestamping this as Wednesday but actually writing it on Tuesday) so I might not update again until much later Wednesday, if I update at all. If you don’t see me around today, don’t panic. I’m alive, just offline. It will happen from time to time.

One Small Thing

Someone sent me an e-mail noting (in a humorous fashion) that it was very clever of me to collect up all your money for a donation I can take a tax deduction on. Not that I think any of you were particularly worried about this, but in case you were, no, I have no plans to take a deduction for the donation. It wasn’t my money, I was just passing it on. I don’t think it would be very ethical for me to take the deduction.

However, I am taking the American Express points I got for charging the donation to my card. Because daddy needs a free trip. Hope you don’t mind.

Mulberries

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You would think that after living somewhere for six years one would know what’s in one’s yard, but remember, I have a big yard. Thus it came as a bit of a surprise to me recently to discover that I have a mulberry tree on the edge of my property; here’s one of the mulberries. Now all I need is a bunch of silkworms and I’m ready to begin a second business.

The thing I like best about the mulberry tree? Asymmetrical, non-repeating leaf forms. God help me, I’m such a geek.