Monthly Archives: June 2009

Ohio Libraries and Fiscal Amputation

Well, this is lovely. Follow: About 70% of Ohio’s public libraries are not funded locally but are funded by something called the Public Library Fund, which is part of the state budget (specifically, 2.2% of state’s tax revenue). The State of Ohio needs to find a way to see it’s way clear of a $3.2 billion shortfall for the next budget. Part of the governor’s proposal to do that: Cut the Public Library Fund by 30% over the next two years.

When this is added on top of an additional 20% decline in the Public Library Fund due to reduction in tax revenues collected (because people are, you know, poorer these days), this means that the large majority of Ohio’s public libraries could see their operating budgets cut in half in the next couple of years. This would almost certainly lead to a number of libraries closing, or substantially cutting back their services and staffing. This is, of course, during a time when libraries are seeing a spike in usage, because rumor is there’s a recession going on, and that’s the time people use their local libraries.

Budget-slashing moments are always painful and everybody squawks when their money gets slashed, and in times like these, I’m not one of those people who demands every public service be exactly at the same level it was before. I understand some things are going to get cut and that I’m going to lose some things my taxes paid for before. That’s life in a bad economy. That said, tweaking the state budget so that libraries end up losing half their funding seems like really dumb thing to do. Despite the occasional spittle I see flung by ignorants, it’s not as if our libraries are lavishly funded, or that the people working in them have nothing to do — libraries and librarians are used to making do with relatively little. But there’s a point at which “little” becomes “simply not enough,” and I would expect that getting one’s budget halved will get them there pretty efficiently.

If you’re an Ohioan, do your local library a favor and ping your local representative and tell him or her that you don’t support such a drastic cut in the Public Library Fund (You can find your House rep here, and your state senator here). They’ve got to decide on a budget this week, so the sooner the better. What I’m going to tell my own reps is that while I get that everyone has to share the pain, there’s pain and then there’s amputation, and this is amputation. I’d like to walk it back to pain, if that’s at all possible.

Summer Frost

Out in the yard today there was what looked like frost, which is a nice trick considering the current temperature is sixty five, on its way to almost ninety. A closer examination, however, revealed that the yard is filled with thousands upon thousands of these:

As you can see from the blades of grass for reference, these are teeny-weeny little webs. Get enough of them all in one space, beaded with dew, however, and there you have it: Summer frost. It won’t last long — the dew is alreay evaporating — but it’s a pretty effect while it’s there. Pretty for me, that is; I doubt the little bugs these webs were spun to ensnare would agree with me, if they had enough brains to have an opinion, which they don’t. It’s hard out there for a tiny bug.

Today’s Thing to Keep You Busy While I’m Away

And I’m away with not just typing today — I have errands to run and real live people to see. I know! Real live people! Who would have thought.

So, while I’m away, I crave your thoughts on the following topic:

Best ice cream flavor that (to your knowledge) has yet to be invented. No fair checking to see what weird flavors they’ve invented in Japan. The idea is to make a flavor you actually want to eat, but can’t, because no one’s whipped it up yet, so far as you know.

Go on, thrill me. I could use some ice cream right about now, actually.

Happy Successful Male Transmitter of Genetic Information Day

To every man who has managed to contribute to the propogation of the species and/or has voluntarily agreed in a legally binding sense to keep a genetically unrelated child from being consumed by wolves or leprechauns or whatever: Good on you. Have a day.

Personally, I’d like to take a moment to thank the person who makes my participation in this day possible:

Also a significant player in my participation:

Here’s a little song that goes out them both.

The Secret to My Success, Alas

My Technorati ranking has gone up a bit recently:

That’s not bad, considering most my posts here recently have consisted of “I’m busy writing something else.” Imagine what my ranking would be if I posted real content!

Oh, who am I kidding. You’re all just here for pictures of the cat. Here you go.

I hope you’re happy.

Writerly Absorption

People have been asking me this week if I have any comment on Iran/Obama’s DOMA screwup/what’s going on with Jon & Kate/whatever, but the answer is: not really, no, because most of my brain power is being sucked into the writing project, and when I’m done with it each day, my powers of writing long, thought-out pieces full of insight are kind of tapped out. I mean, I can give you a summation of my thoughts on each topic, if you like:

Iran: People’s votes should actually count

Obama & DOMA: Dude, pull your head out

Jon & Kate: Like I give a crap about these people

But if you’re asking for much more than that, there’s a better than even chance that my response will be “guh?” It’s not that I’m not thinking about these topics, it’s that when I sit down to write about these big, meaty topics, my neurons collapse into soup. And while that’s nice if you like soup, it’s not so good for thinkful writeamation, if you know what I mean.

I mean, I’ll try to keep up with these things. But I promise nothing until the writing project is done. Yes, it sucks that my brain is apparently making me choose between pay copy and blogging, but at the moment it is. And my mortgage tells me which way I have to vote. I’m sure you understand.

On the Signing of Books

I’m getting an increasing number of requests for signed books, so I thought I would go ahead and make a quick post about it to refer people to later. So:

1. No, I don’t have any signed books for sale via my own Web site. I know some authors keep an inventory of signed books they’ll sell to folks, but I’m not one of them. The reason for this is very simple: I suck at order fulfillment. I mean, I am truly and extraordinarily bad at it. It is not a wise idea to send me money directly in the hopes I might get a signed book back to you. By turning you away now, I’m saving you from getting pissed at me later.

2. Likewise, I no longer sign books people mail to me to sign, even if they come with return postage/packing. Why? As above, I am extraordinarily bad at turning mail around. Yes, I know: open package, sign book, repack book, mail. How hard can it be? The question is not how hard it is, but how lazy I am. And the answer is: apparently very. Keep in mind this laziness is to my own detriment; there have been times where I’ve been delayed in getting paid for work I’ve done because I keep putting off mailing a W9 form. But this should put this in perspective: If I’m so lazy I can barely be bothered to get paid, you shouldn’t be surprised I’m lackadaisical with other mail-related issues. I’m sorry about this, really I am, but I’m 40 now, so it doesn’t seem likely this aspect of my personality is going to change at this late date.

3. There are ways of getting signed books from me regardless. Some examples:

a) I do a number of signed, limited editions via Subterranean Press, which in addition to be being signed, often have the added benefit of being quite pretty and well-made, so they’ll last. Upcoming signed editions (at the moment) include The Last Colony, METAtropolis, The God Engines and the chapbook “Judge Sn Goes Golfing.” More and different ones will come later. These signed editions are a bit more expensive than your average books, but they are worth it, I think.

b) I usually sign bookseller stock when I’m at conventions, so if you check with booksellers who attend conventions I go to, they often have extra signed copies of my books. One bookseller I know has some signed stock of mine is Larry Smith; he may be willing to accomodate you (note: if you do contact him, please do it by e-mail initially, okay?)

c) Last year at holiday time I did a thing with my local booksellers to come in and sign books that folks ordered from them; I’m very likely to do that again. I’ll post here and let you folks know of I do.

4. I do attend a good number of science fiction conventions and other literary events, and when I’m at them I’ll be delighted to sign your books. My general rule of thumb is that if I have a scheduled signing slot, I’ll ask you to wait until that point; if I don’t or if the scheduled signing has already happened, I’ll go ahead and sign then. Two requests: bring a pen (I often don’t have one on me), and if it’s obvious I’m in the middle of something, please catch me at another time. I really will be happy to sign your book then, I promise. I like signing books.

By the way, if I have already agreed to sign something for you, I will still do it; this is for going forward from here.

Any questions? Pop them into the comment thread.

The Big Idea: Seth Shostak

Science fiction writers such as myself live in a state of wariness about the concept of alien intelligence truly existing. On one hand, how cool would it be to finally know we’re not alone in the universe — every science fiction writer in the world would be vindicated. On the other hand, we’d also be out of a job, or at least have to change our job title, and “science fact writer” already means something else.

Seth Shostak, for example, qualifies as a “science fact writer,” even though he’s writing about aliens in his new book Confessions of an Alien Hunter. That’s because Shostak is in fact the Senior Astronomer for the SETI Institute, which devotes its time and efforts to searching the skies for evidence of extraterrestrial life. His book, which has garnered great reviews (“compelling and thought-provoking” — Washington Post) talks about that task, separating the fact and the fiction and presenting a state of the search. Yes, this guy is trying to put me out of a job. But I’m not holding it against him.

And what is the state of the search? Here’s Shostak to give you a brief overview.

SETH SHOSTAK:

In my heart of hearts, it just seemed reasonable that the public would want the low-down on aliens.

Not the Fox TV low-down.  Not the conspiracy-blog low-down.  Not the new-agey I-can-see-their-auras low-down.

No, I figured the great unwashed, as well as their better-bathed brethren, deserved to hear the tweed-jacketed, gray-haired academic low-down.  Call me deluded.

Of course I have a canine in this fight.  After all, I am one of those tweedy, barely hirsute academics.  And my day job is to participate in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.  So writing about the hunt for cosmic company is tantamount to penning an extended job description for myself.

But personal involvement aside, there’s no doubt that the subject of extraterrestrial life plays well at dinner parties. That’s because space aliens have invaded our literature, our cinemas, our televisions and – according to many – our airspace. Aliens are the modern equivalent of centaurs and Cyclopes.  But they’re actually better than those fabled fauna, because you can’t prove they don’t exist, and you might prove they do.

Indeed, astronomers, paleontologists and biologists have – in the last two decades – provided a lot of backhanded support for the idea that worlds with life are about as plentiful as mosquitoes in Minnesota. To cite an obvious example, note that a dozen years ago we didn’t know whether planets were commonplace or rare.  Now you can safely wager that there are a trillion or more planets in our home galaxy.  (For the unaware, note that there are a hundred billion other galaxies.)  That’s a lot of real estate, and while much of it might be fiery, fumy, or frozen, some worlds – simply by chance – will have conditions that could provoke the emergence of life.

Another relevant science tidbit is the fact that living things have glazed the Earth for almost the entire history of our planet. It doesn’t sound as if getting life started was a tough project. Rather than being some sort of improbable happenstance, life may be an irresistible chemical phenomenon that festers on any world boasting liquid water.

These facts don’t prove that the hidden recesses of the night sky are filled with thinking creatures.  But the possible niches for life are stupefyingly plentiful. So when I talk to the public about our search for aliens, I’m always intrigued by the handful of audience members who, despite my presentation, prefer to think we’re alone.  These people are special, because they believe in miracles. In a cosmos that is achingly vast, in which stars and planets are strewn like snowflakes in the arctic, they contend that only our world has organisms able to know things, to comprehend their environment and to chart their destiny. What a pitifully impoverished creation that would be.

Such a barren cosmos sounds unreasonable, not to mention lonely.  Nonetheless, the convictions of science aren’t based on what seems reasonable, but on what we observe. Learned people can argue the possibility of space aliens until the heifers come home, but in the end, the debate will only be settled if these beings are found. And that’s what SETI is all about – picking up radio waves or laser flashes from other worlds. Either type of signal would divulge the presence of technological intelligence.

SETI is not big science; it isn’t the Large Hadron Collider. It’s a back-burner experiment involving – world-wide – fewer people than work in a pit crew.  It’s funded, at least in the United States, by private donations. Given the limitations of budget and manpower, it’s hardly surprising that – so far – we haven’t found proof of cosmic company.  But if the effort can be sustained for another two decades or so, improvements in technology will allow SETI researchers to examine millions of star systems.  To my mind, that’s the type of effort that could lead to success.

Much of my book explains how SETI stalks its prey – the nuts and bolts of the strategies used to scan the sky.  There’s also a lot of history, both institutional and personal.  But I was keen to do more than merely gratify the interests of propeller heads, because – as noted – aliens are appealing (or unappealing, depending on their demeanor and intentions) to nearly everyone.

This popularity results in phone calls and e-mails every week from people who want to share their ideas about E.T. Sometimes these communicants offer technical advice: why don’t we look for gravity waves or neutrino communications?  What about searching for signals sent our way using hyperdimensional physics (whatever that is)?

But for much of the public, such technical details are less interesting than SETI’s sociology.  Three questions routinely dominate my correspondence: (1) what happens if you find a signal, (2) are aliens visiting Earth, and (3) will E.T. be similar to us in appearance and construction?

These are matters of immediate and personal concern.  If I talk about the algorithms used to sift through cosmic static, many people’s eyelids lower to half-mast. But when I assure the public that the government won’t hide information about aliens – that everyone will hear the news right away – their ears perk up like a starched bunny. Both SETI policy and practice ensure that any interesting signal will show up in your favorite blog within days.

What about UFOs?  Half the populace is convinced that the aliens are already here, flitting above the landscape in their saucer-shaped craft, and amusing themselves by hauling people out of their homes for some non-consensual experiments. Well, the evidence for this is as flabby as a sumo wrestler gone to seed.  Consider the famous Roswell incident of 1947. Should we believe that aliens trundled hundreds of light-years to Earth, and then botched the landing?  If you look carefully at the facts, the claim that extraterrestrial craft cart wheeled into the New Mexico desert is no more credible than the assertion that leprechauns are camped out in the forests of Ireland.

Then there’s the matter of what the aliens will look like.  Will they be similar to us, creatures built of squishy protoplasm, and having some alien variant of DNA?  That’s possible, but I think there’s good reason to expect that any aliens we discover will be highly evolved artificial intelligence.  That’s right: machines.  This despite the fact that everyone seems to expect little gray guys, sporting big eyes and flat personalities.

My big idea is to explore what I believe is a big fact – that a remarkable occurrence could take place well within your lifetime: the discovery of thinking entities far beyond our solar system.  As our knowledge of astronomy grows, this idea seems less and less fanciful: no longer merely an intriguing construct of fiction, but a plausible possibility. The technology of the 21st century could provide the proof.  Proof that the biology on this planet is not something miraculous. Proof that we have company.

Since its beginnings, terrestrial life has lived alone, cloistered and unaware.  In “Confessions of an Alien Hunter,” I explain why four billion years of isolation may soon come to an end.

—-

Confessions of an Alien Hunter: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Watch Shostak discuss his book on the Colbert Report. Read his recent New York Times op-ed. Follow him on Twitter. Listen to his podcast, Are We Alone?

Daddy Issues

Father’s Day is this Sunday, and like all columnists I believe in knocking down the low-hanging targets, so, surprise, this week’s column looks at science fiction movie dads and how they rate. Darth Vader, pictured above, rates very poorly, as you might imagine. Catch the rankings and then add your comments. And have a nice Father’s Day.

Fourteen Years of Married Bliss, Now With Extra Added Cat!

Today marks the occasion of my fourteenth wedding anniversary, and I have things to do today before I do the official anniversary date night celebration, so this is all you get out of me here today. But to make up for the absence, here’s a picture of Ghlaghghee, posed artfully before my and Krissy’s official wedding photo. Because we all know so many of you just show up for the cat pictures anyway.

If you are married (or would be save for those annoying legal niceties), be sure to give your spouse an extra kiss and let him or her know you love them. That would be a lovely gift for you to give to me and Krissy. Also, pet your cat or cat equivalent. Ghlaghghee would appreciate that, I’m sure.

See you tomorrow.

Status Check on Current Project

I’ve gotten a number of friendly solicitous questions about my current writing project and schedule, so I thought I’d answer a couple of those.

1. As for what the project is, I’m keeping it close to the vest at the moment. It’s not a huge secret — I’m not reinventing literature as we know it — but it’s something I think is best revealed when it’s done and ready than while in process. Guessing in the comments will not avail you, since I will neither confirm nor deny your stabs in the dark. You’ll know when I’m ready to tell you.

2. I’ve noted that I’m writing to a quota each day, and some of you are wondering what the quota is. It is: 2,000 words, or six hours daily, whichever comes first. The weekly goal is 10,000 words, which is (if you do the math) five 2,000 word days. Generally speaking I hit the 2,000 word goal well before the six hours is up, which is not terribly surprising to me since I am typically a quick writer and have, when pressed, banged out 10,000 words in a single day (my record, I think, is 14,000). So 2,000 is a good daily goal for me because it’s a fair number of words, and yet at the same time it doesn’t leave my brain feeling entirely worn out when I’m done. This means I have some thinking ability left over for editing and plotting out future scenes.

Usually I write slightly more than 2,000 words daily, on account that stopping exactly at 2k words would leave me in a middle of a scene or whatever, and I might as well finish the scene or thought. Excepting the two days where I didn’t write at all (which I budgeted in because, hey, it’s nice to let your brain relax), the least amount I’ve written on a day is a shade over 1,000 words; the most just a shade under 4,000.

3. The reason I’m writing on a daily quota schedule is to see if I can and what effect it has on the writing. I’ve had a tendency with previous novels to write very little for several days and then bang out most of an entire six or seven thousand word chapter on a single day, which is a little like laying on your ass for four days and then running a 10k. It’s doable but you don’t necessarily feel great afterward. I wanted to find out if a more regular writing regimen was more congenial, both in how I feel at the end of each writing day and on the quality of the writing.

Since I’ve only been at this for a couple of weeks I’m not ready to come to any long-term conclusions about it one way or another. I will say that so far, writing this particular project has been a very pleasant experience — it’s nice to see the words click by at a more or less constant rate, and there hasn’t been a point where I’ve hit any major plot snags, which may be a consequence of the project, or may be a consequence of having enough brain left over after writing that I can work out plot snarls before I sit down for more writing. Again, too early to tell.

4. Without going into any detail about the project, I will say two things. One, I’m happy with the writing itself; I’ve enjoyed reading what I’m writing, and so has my reader, who is also my wife. Krissy is not the sort of person who just genially encourages me (she kept pounding on me until I got Zoe’s voice right, you may recall), so if she’s happy with the writing, I feel like I’m generally on the right track. Two, I’m having fun writing it, fun being a quality that is not always in abundance when writing, especially the closer one comes to a deadline. But one of the reasons I’m doing this particular project is that I thought it would be fun to do, and it is. For various reasons, this is a good thing.

So that’s what’s up with the current project.

This is How Old I Am

I’m so old that when I had a college internship, I actually got paid for it. And then, the next year, instead of having another internship, I got a job. Because in the old days, that was the path of the intern. Today’s intern path appears to curve in on itself, and the only hope for an actual job on that path is to do so many internships that you achieve a sort of momentum that eventually lets you hit escape velocity and launch yourself into the world of actual paying employment. I think I like the way it used to work better.

What bothers me about unpaid internships is not fundamentally that they are unpaid (although that really isn’t a good thing), but that the purpose of internships seems to have changed in an uncomfortable way: it’s gone from a way to train students in practical real-world application of skills they’ve learned in college to a way to plug, for free, actual skill gaps in one’s work force. I don’t doubt interns learn something in the latter scenario, but what I suspect companies learn is that there’s little point in hiring for certain roles and tasks because there’s always a new crop of interns. Thus begins a baseline expectation for business that some labor is always meant to be free, and so long as they give themselves legal/moral cover by calling that work an “internship,” there’s no reason not to exploit it.

And while I admit that I can see there is some appeal to this idea — I wouldn’t mind having a college-age lackey I could boss around and make clean my house and fecth me my Coke Zeros, all for free, in the guise of them being an “intern” for a bestselling, Hugo-winning writer — I don’t think it’s the correct thing to do. Internships are work; work should be paid for. Internships train workers; they should not be used to replace them. And just because you can get a 21-year-old terrified that his/her college resume is too light to work for free on the dubious assurance of course credit and/or a job reference, doesn’t mean you should. Pay the poor kid something, why don’t you.

I know, I know. Getting paid for work is very 20th century. Call me a relic.

Your Mid-June Pimp Thread

How long has it been since I’ve put up a pimp thread here on Whatever? Oh, probably too long. And I’ll be busy today typing in places you can’t see  (which sounds dirtier than it is), so: I declare this an open pimp thread.

For those of you who do not know what this means, it’s simple: In the comment thread, promote something you think people should know about. Could be a new book, album, piece of art, blog, whatever. Promote your yourself, promote your friends, promote people you don’t know personally but who you think are, like, doing supercool stuff. It’s all good. And the site here get 40k or so readers daily — there are worse places to tell people about what you think is new and cool.

A reminder about links: Feel free to put them in (it’s kind of the point), but remember that I have my moderation limit set to three links per comment, and sometimes, for reasons known only to WordPress, the moderation thing gets triggered even before then. If you post a comment and it doesn’t show up immediately, don’t panic (and don’t think I hate you). I’ll be along to free moderated messages. One way to avoid this is to simply do one link per comment. Multiple comments are encouraged in this case.

So: Promote!

Japanese Cover for The Last Colony

This is what it looks like:

A couple of notes:

1. I’m pretty sure hot pants aren’t exactly practical attire on a colony world.

2. Likewise, a tuxedo jacket and a frilled shirt.

3. I suspect the artist may have not gotten the note that John and Jane are not supposed to be green in this book.

4. I don’t remember writing about big metal blimps.

But, hey. In Germany, it’s lasers and spaceships. In Japan, hot pants and tuxes. I assume the local art directors know their audience, and I’m willing to let them do what’s best to help get books in the hands of reader. But for the record: Jane Sagan: Not generally a hot pants sort of person. She is, however, quite handy with a knife.

The Lost Art of the Pretentious Video

As much as I am a child of the 1980s, I will not say that the music of the time is better than the music of today or any other era, for reasons I have noted before. However, I will maintain that there was one thing the 80s did better than any other era before or since, and that is make truly spectacularly pretentious music videos.

Take, as a representative sample, this video for “Alive and Kicking,” by Simple Minds, which I should note is a song I like:

Our pretentious ingredients:

1. Initial God-eye view of band with lead singer Jim Kerr in messianic/crucified position;

2. Rock band performing in the Rousseauian splendor of nature with full kit, far from maddening crowds or electrical outlets;

3. Band dramatically posed, staring into the far distance, photographed from below for extra iconographical goodness;

4. Lots of shots of Jim Kerr emoting like a latter day Byron;

5. Gospel singer inserted for musical credibility.

Just a simple glance at this video tells us: “This is a video made in a time when no one thought anything about the cost involved  in hauling a Scottish band out to the Catskills and putting them in the middle of a bunch of arty crane shots.” Why do it? Why not? We’re going for mythology here, son. This isn’t just a band, these are masters of emotional grandeur. And if it takes posing them precariously on a cliff next to a waterfall without regard to the safety and well-being of the bassist to get that through your MTV-addled head, that’s just what we’ll do. Bassists are cheap and plentiful anyway (except for Sting, that posh bastard). This is a gorgeously pretentious video.

Now, sadly, it’s also a gorgeously pretentious video that fails miserably, for the following reasons:

1.The “crucified messiah” pose worked only for Bono, and even then only in 1987, and it certainly doesn’t work for a dude who looks like a leprechaun wearing his dad’s sport jacket;

2. If you put a rock band in nature, it should look like it might survive a night or two without access to hair gels;

3. Any mythological iconograpy inherent in dramatic posing undercut by 80s clothing and hairstyles;

4. In every closeup Jim Kerr appears dazed, as if he was clubbed in the temple just before cameras rolled, and his dancing style looks like what would happen if someone attached electrodes to his spine and zapped him at random;

5. The gospel singer in fact highlights the staggering inauthenticity (or at least, total goofiness) of the rest of the band.

But hey, pretty countryside.

They don’t make videos like this any more, not because musicians have run out of pretension — that’s really not ever going to happen — but because who can afford to anymore? The music industry has cratered and MTV doesn’t run videos anymore, and the idea that a band might spend a quarter of a million dollars on film crew transportation and crane shots for a video that’s going to be seen in a three-inch YouTube window is, shall we say, an idea whose time is past. It’s easier and cheaper to record something ironic using a $200 Flip video recorder. This video is as unlikely now as OK Go’s treadmill video would have been in 1987. This is not a bad thing — I prefer the OK Go video, personally — but it is a reminder that times change.

So reflect a moment on the great pretentious videos of the 1980s. There were some before, there were some after. But never as many, and rarely as pretentious in sum. Of course we didn’t know it at the time. You never know what you’ve got — and how ridiculously pretentious it is — until it’s gone.

Noooooooooooo

Dude, if you’re having such a problem wiping your ass that you have to consider this, it’s time to get a bidet.

(Update, 1:18pm: Folks the comment thread note there are legitimate reasons to need something like this. Point taken, and I should have noted that. But I don’t think the makers of the ad are hoping to entice just that audience.)