Monthly Archives: June 2009

Why I Appreciate Askimet

Because none of the 175 comment spam attempts in the last couple of hours actually managed to hit the site. Yes, it caught one real person’s comment by mistake, but I freed that, and anyway, a 99%+ success rate works for me.

It’s Because He Can’t Handle the Zero Calorie AWESOMENESS, That’s Why

Yes, I know about Hugo Chavez banning Coke Zero from Venezuela. You can stop sending me the urgent e-mails and tweets, thanks. No, I can’t hazard a guess why, aside from the rather dubious contention that it contains some form of a harmful ingredient. I think we’ve already well established that President Chavez has more than his share of loopy in any event, and it’s not as if Venezuela was on my list of places to visit, anyway. Not that I plan my visits with an eye toward cola availability, mind you. That said, when New Zealand stopped making Raspberry Coke, let’s just say my fervor to visit that particular island country cooled a tick. I will speak no more about that.

Cat Valente, Working Live Without a Net

Cat Valente is a fabulous award-winning writer and a friend of mine who with her upcoming young adult novel is planning to show you how writing can be a performance art:

Starting Monday, I will start posting chapters of a full-length novel version of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I will be writing it in real time, posting every Monday. It will be free to read–but please know that the sheer calories to make my brain create it require funding, and I would very much appreciate your support. Pay whatever you like for it, whatever you think it’s worth. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned rent party. There’s a button at the bottom of the post to start things out.

Why is she doing it and why should you think about supporting her? The details await you here. I’ll vouch for her writing skill: Cat’s a keeper (you may recall her Big Idea piece on her most recently-published novel, Palimpsest). This should be interesting — and worth your checking it out.

The Big Idea: Jay Lake

Normally I write a bit about each of the Big Idea authors, but here’s all you need to know about Jay Lake, one of my fave people in science fiction/fantasy and a Hugo co-nominee with me for METAtropolis: He’s awesome. His new book Green? Also awesome. His Big Idea piece? Totally completes the awesome trifecta. I’ll get out of the way of all this awesome now, so you can experience it for yourself.

JAY LAKE:

Mainspring came out in June of 2007.  Escapement followed a year later.  I knew there’d be at least one more book in the clockwork cycle, and maybe more than that.  But in discussions during the winter of 2007 and spring of 2008 (books take a long time), my editor Beth Meacham said, “Unless you want to be the Clockwork Guy for the rest of your life, you might want to take a break and try something different.”

She had a point.  On the one hand, being the Clockwork Guy wasn’t the worst idea I’d ever heard.  On the other hand, my short story career has practically been the definition of eclectic, as I’ve played with styles ranging from straight Robert E. Howard pastiche to high interstitial weirdness.  And pretty much everything in between you care to name, with the possible exception of nurse romances.  (And there’s even a romantic interest with a nurse in my short story “Jack’s House.”)

This argued for another direction.  As it happens, I flick ideas off myself the way a fourth grader flicks boogers.  Never been much of a shortage in that department.  But a novel had been tugging at me for a couple of years, based on my short story “Green”, which originally ran in Aeon magazine’s fifth issue.  I liked the original story a lot, and had written several spinoffs, including “A Water Matter” which ran at Tor.com,  ”People of Leaf and Branch” which is running this June at Fantasy, and “The Daughters of Desire” forthcoming in Blood and Devotion. Obviously this setting had been running around in my brain for a while.

More to the point, I’d been wrestling at the time with some serious issues in my own craft around writing female protagonists who felt genuinely female, and not like me in a dress, as it were.  The notion of tackling a substantial piece of fantasy from a single-threaded tight first person POV sounded like an incredible way to expand my writerly horizons.

Thus, Green was born.

She’s almost an anti-hero, at least to my way of thinking, and unreliable as a narrator in some subtle ways, because though she’s very inwardly focused, Green isn’t particularly self-aware.  She’s an angry, violent young woman who doesn’t see those things in the mirror, and so never really understands why people react the way they do to her.  Given the roles into which she is thrust, her forceful nature is the only thing which does ensure her survival, but that makes her trip a hell of a ride.

The story begins with her being sold by her father at the age of three.  Her mother is dead, they are the poorest of peasants in a destitute tropical country.  Green is taken across the sea to Copper Downs for the sake of her beauty and raised among pale-skinned, pale-eyed strangers for whom she is a thing, most literally – a product to be formed and shaped and tailored into a fit wife or courtesan for the nobles of the Stone Coast.

Her training is suborned by a careful plot against the immortal duke ruling the city.  Green’s own fractious spirit and this undermining of her training combine to make her a dangerous rebel, and rebel she does – both against her trainers and against her conspirators.  From that unfolds a tale of claim and counterclaim, gods and ghosts, politics, sex and the place of women in the world.

All of this centers on a big idea that is also very small.

The big idea in Green is the notion of agency.  That’s at the heart of many of fiction’s epic struggles, but Green takes her fierce sense of individuality to the ragged edge and beyond.  Would you kill to be who you think you ought to be?  How badly would you need something to be willing to die for it?  The book’s tight internal narrative lets me get close to some very hard choices – grand versions of the choices we all make every day, in incremental steps and small doses.

Tor took this book and gave it one of the prettiest covers I’ve ever seen.  Striking, yet also strange and violent like Green herself.  I’ve already outlined a sequel, Endurance, which will be written later this year for a likely 2011 publication.  She’ll be back, tough as ever.  Get to know her now.

—-

Green: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Green. Visit Jay Lake’s blog. Follow Jay Lake on Twitter.

SNL Alumni + SciFi Film = FAIL

Over at AMC today, I talk about the historically awful box office track record of Saturday Night Live alumi in science fiction films, a losing streak carried on this last week by the meager box office performance of Land of the Lost. I provide many other examples, plus the one rather surprising exception to the rule (hint: It’s not Ghostbusters). You know you want to check this baby out.

I’d Like a Really Massive Order of Entitlement With a Side of BRAAAAAINS

Let me get this straight: Valve Software promises to follow up its absolutely and terrifyingly awesome zombie FPS Left 4 Dead with a sequel a year after the original, with new characters, new zombies, new bosses, better AI direction, new and more maps, and a whole slew of new guns and melee weapons… and some people want to boycott the thing, apparently because they feel that all of that doesn’t actually warrant a full release price. What they’d really like is for Valve to release it for free, and barring that, maybe at an expansion pack price.

Screw that, you appallingly cheap bastards. Valve knocked the ball right out of the park with L4D — I haven’t played a game as much, or with as much enjoyment, since Unreal Tournament 2004. Now they’re offering me a new, full, hopefully even better game in that same universe just a few months from now? Sweet zombie Jesus, sign me up. $50 is not nearly too much to pay for a game I know I’m going to waste precious working hours spend lots of time playing obsessively after my work day is done. Hell, on a per-hour basis, I’ll be paying pennies, if that.

More than that, Valve has earned my trust, because a) they have never once put out a crappy game and b) have never been cheap with their content: There may have been better a gameplay value than The Orange Box, which bundled Half-Life 2 and both its expansions, Team Fortress 2 and the little jewel of a game-changer known as Portal, but if there has been, I’m hard-pressed to name it off the top of my head. Valve regularly updates and expands their games as well; it’s difficult to bitch about them being stingy in that regard, unless your sense of entitlement is so monstrously large you couldn’t fit it into the Black Mesa test chamber.

All of which is why when Valve says, “You know what? We’re releasing Left 4 Dead 2 as a full game, because we’ve invested that much time in it and it’s just that good,” I believe them. They haven’t lied to me before, and they’ve had plenty of opportunities to do that, and to steal my money from me. Hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t  expect it will happen now.

Now, realize I’m saying this not entirely impartially: I know several people at Valve, and they’ve had me out to their shop to look around and chat with the crew there. But this in itself gives me an opportunity to point out how much I think these guys have earned my money: Before Valve had me out, they offered to comp me their entire line of games. I told them “no.” First, I already owned most of their games anyway. Second, the ones I didn’t yet own, I wanted to pay them for. Because I figured they were going to be worth it, and I wanted to show that fact. Yes, I suppose I could have just baked them “thank you” cookies or something, but I thought maybe pitching in to help pay for their salaries might be more appropriate.

So, hell no, I won’t be boycotting Valve for having the sheer unmitigated gall to look at the work they’ve done on this upcoming game and decide it merits a full release, and a full release price. As far as I can see, given their past games, and their past business practices, they wouldn’t say it’s worth me spending that much money unless it was. So I’ll be putting my money down, and happily so. And then I’m gonna get me some undead. Because, dude: Cost of Left 4 Dead 2: $50. Going after cajun zombies with a chainsaw and a frying pan: Priceless.

I’ll Get Back to You When I Get Back To You

The New York Times with a piece on how smartphones have morphed from luxury to necessity, which includes this following observation regarding responding when people e-mail or text you:

“The social norm is that you should respond within a couple of hours, if not immediately,” said David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “If you don’t, it is assumed you are out to lunch mentally, out of it socially, or don’t like the person who sent the e-mail.”

All together, now: Bullshit.

First: If you are the sort of person who believes that all your e-mails/texts must be responded to instantaneously or sooner, you may be a self-absorbed twit. Please entertain the idea that your responder may have a life of his or her own, with priorities which may not conform to yours. Chimpanzees, dogs and certain species of squid have all developed a theory of mind — you can too, if you try. We’re all rooting for you out here.

Second: If you’re the sort of person who believes that all e-mails/texts must be responded to instantaneously or sooner, that probably means you’re ignoring something important right in front of you, like the other person at the table, or traffic on the freeway, or a large dog about to savage you because you’re carelessly walking on his lawn. For your own safety and the courtesy of others, please do pay attention to the real world. Just because an e-mail or text wants your attention doesn’t mean you’re obliged to give it.

Third: Can we all agree that we don’t want to live in a world where we are obliged to respond to e-mails/text in an unrealistically short period of time, lest we be thought an enormous douchenozzle? I think trying to respond to your e-mails/texts over a course of a day or even two is perfectly reasonable, coupled with the understanding that, in fact, not every e-mail/text requires a response, so you might not get one. If you really need an immediate response, you can ask for one in the e-mail/text — again, with the understanding that a) abusing the “please respond asap” privilege dumps you into the “self-absorbed twit” category, and b) that person may still not respond immediately.

Basically, if we all agree that we can act like people who don’t have to be ZOMG the centaar of Teh Univarse!!!one!! for every other person and thing, things will be a lot more pleasant overall.

Mind you, even if we can’t all agree with this, I’m still going to answer my e-mail/texts on my own sweet schedule, not anyone else’s. Yes, I have a smartphone. And yes, I do in fact answer e-mails and texts with it; it’s fun to do so. But the main reason I have the phone is so that if my car flips and I’m pinned under two tons of Honda steel, I can call for help. I may or may not answer texts/e-mails any sooner because I have the phone. Not answering immediately does not mean I don’t like you; it means I have my own life and I’m busy with it. If you can’t manage to grasp that basic and obvious fact, that goes into the bin marked “your problems,” not mine.

Note that this formulation does not apply if you are my wife. If you are my wife, your e-mails and texts are returned immediately. Because I totally love you, babe. Everyone else: Eh. I think this is a fair set of priorities, personally.

Gizmodo Agrees: Apple Fans Are Status-Seeking Beta Monkeys

Thus, its entry today lamenting the fact that with the latest iteration of the Apple product line there is no longer any meaningful technological or design distinction between the expensive, top-level Apple products the hipsters flash about in coffee shops and subways to signal their reproductive fitness, and the plebian-level Apple products common trolls use to sign into MySpace and/or listen to their Nickelback MP3s:

A leveling of class distinctions in Apple products is going to sting people who valued the affectation of elitism that came with using Apple’s top-of-the-line products. Even subtle differences—like the premium paid for the matte black MacBook over the otherwise identical shiny white one, were signals, beamed out to the others in the coffee shop, declaring who was “da boss.” You know, the guys who wore the white earbuds with pride five years ago…

Maybe Apple is trying to create good design that works for anyone and everyone. I can respect that. Still, the question remains: Does this make rich people look like poor people, or poor people look like rich people? The privileged must know.

Gizmodo is getting its snark on, obviously, but it also hit the nail on the head as to why I, at least, have a mild allergic reaction to the Cult of Apple. It’s not that Mac laptops and iPhones aren’t nice pieces of equipment; they surely are. It’s just that they’re also the tiny coke spoons of the early 21st century — a bit of déclassé ostentation flashed by people who think they’re signaling one thing when they’re in fact signaling something else entirely, and that thing is: I may be an asshole.

To be sure, the guy with an Android phone and a Toshiba laptop may be no less of an asshole. But you’re not necessarily going to assume that from his technology alone. This is why I’m always vaguely annoyed when someone smugs at me that I should get a Mac for my next computer: part of my brain goes, yeah, it’s a nice machine, but then I’ll be indistinguishable from all those Williamsburg dicks. Next will be a canvas manbag and chunky square glasses, followed shortly by leaping in front of the G train. Thank you, no.

Yes, yes: Not everyone hoisting a MacBook Pro or soon to be flashing an iPhone 3GS is a vacuous hipster status monkey. But then, not everyone who drove a Trans Am in 1982 was a beefy, mullet-wearing Rush fan, either. Yet when you picture a 1980s Trans Am owner in your mind, is he not today’s Tom Sawyer? Does he not get high on you? Well, see.

Zoe’s Tale UK Edition Officially Out

This actually happened last Friday but I was busy fighting zombies or picking my nose or something, so:

Hey, if you live in the United Kingdom and you wanted your very own Tor UK edition of Zoe’s Tale, it is now officially out and available at your favorite bookstore. And if it’s not available at your favorite bookstore, then I suggest to you it doesn’t deserve to be your favorite bookstore anymore, now, does it? No, it does not. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

In any event, I hope you all enjoy it over there in the UK. I’m very fond of this book and its main character. I’m sure if you visit the site here with any frequency you’ve figured that out by now.

(North Americans: It’s in your bookstores too. Hint, hint.)

The Big Idea: Tom Levenson

Issac Newton: You know him as the man who invented calculus and described the physical world with a model that persisted until Einstein. But there was another side of Newton: Crime-fighter! No, he didn’t wear a mask and a cape; it’s not that kind of crime fighting. Rather, in 1695 Newton left the academic life to become Britain’s Warden of the Royal Mint — and in doing so ended up matching wits with a master counterfeiter.

It sounds like fiction, but it just happens to be true, and Tom Levenson’s new book Newton and the Counterfeiter lays out the story for you. And how did Levenson find the story in the first place? It begins with a letter from a man, begging for mercy.

TOM LEVENSON:

This is another one of those books – I think several “Big Idea” essayists have had this experience – that started with something small, just one tile out of place in a room I thought I knew.

My first hint that I would have to write what would become Newton and the Counterfeiter came in 1992 or so. I was researching a book on musical and scientific instruments, and I had reached the point in that narrative where I had to check on Isaac Newton’s thinking about music and nature.  I found some good stuff – my favorite was his attempt to map onto a musical scale the sequence of colors revealed when sunlight passes through a prism.

But I was brought up short by an excerpt of a letter to Newton that I found in one of the older works I consulted. It was a sad, desperate note, in which a condemned man – William Chaloner – groveled, begging for his life.

That stopped me.  It wasn’t relevant to what I was working on.  But still, I wondered, what was a prisoner awaiting execution in Newgate Jail doing writing to a man recognized in his own time the greatest mind of the age?

It was a stray moment of curiosity, just a loose end, and I let it go in the press of getting another book out the door. But I didn’t entirely forget it either, and over the next few years, I kept reading around Newton’s life.  The first-order answer to my question was easy to find:  all the biographies will tell you that Newton left Cambridge in 1696 to take up what was supposed to have been a sinecure as Warden of the Royal Mint – a reward both for being the smartest man alive and for having picked the right side in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that put William and Mary on the throne in place of the last Stuart, James II. It was the Warden’s official duty to track down coiners and counterfeiters – and Chaloner had boasted of having produced counterfeits with a face value of thirty thousand pounds — so there was the formal connection between the two men.

But even so, I was still stuck in the realm of facts; I didn’t know how – or even if – I could come up with what I needed to turn this moment of contact between the criminal and the financial bureaucrat into a story rich enough to produce a book worth writing (and reading).

Getting there took both a stroke of luck and a year of flailing with the writing of what I found.  The luck came when I found the only surviving trove of Newton’s criminal case notes, not catalogued with the bulk of Newton’s official Mint papers. There were over four hundred separate records, with more than a hundred bearing on his pursuit of Chaloner.

With those documents, mostly summaries of depositions given by witnesses, associates, paid agents and informers that Newton was ultimately able to place in Chaloner’s jail cell, I had all the plot I needed to propel a book – complete with some lovely grace notes as well.  I particularly enjoyed the three days it took me to track down just what Chaloner was selling in what one contemporary called “tin watches with dildoes in them.”

And yet, despite this rich lode of material about criminal life and its detection in late seventeenth century London, the book still lacked something, an idea to animate the facts of the case into something larger than just another narrative of crime and retribution.  I started writing anyway – this was in the middle of 2006. I had the material in hand after all, so I thought I could just bull my way through from incident to meaning.  But after about four months and about a quarter of a draft manuscript in hand, I stopped. I had hit a point where whatever I tried to write as the next chapter just didn’t work, and I put it all down to think.

I finally realized what should have been obvious:  the book told the story of Isaac Newton tracking down a criminal.  It was about the man who led the scientific revolution demonstrating what it was like to live such a transformation every day on the streets of London.

Nailed!  I took several months to do some more research, re-organize what I had written to that point, and get on with the rest of the story. But now I had a reason to animate each plot point large and small that moved my tale forward.

Here’s a small one:  at one point I was looking for just a little scene-setting detail, something that would allow me to place Newton in some weather on a particular day, just to get a bit of the feeling of being there.  I discovered on the day that Newton was writing to John Locke, pissed about something that had passed between them, Locke himself had recorded the weather conditions.

That led me to the fact that the man who made Locke’s thermometer was the first to use serial numbers to identify a scientific instrument maker’s products.

And that’s important because one of the critical ideas that Newton himself advanced was that the new science had to come up with a kind of evidentiary hygiene – some way to make sure that measurements made by different observers could be assessed and compared.

For the book as a whole, this notion that I could get a sense of what living the scientific revolution meant to those who were there at the moment gave me a way to connect to the rest of his life the story of Newton tracking down the prolific and dangerous Chaloner.  He organized his questions, gathered evidence, reshaped his web of information into a chain of cause and effect:  this is the familiar Newton, exploiting the method we still use to investigate the material world, not to solve the motion of a comet, but to penetrate a criminal conspiracy.

In the event, Chaloner put up a grand fight.  He evaded Newton’s attempts to capture him for almost two years – a cat and mouse game traced in my book.  But the story ends the way true crime usually does:  with the doomed Chaloner begging his adversary for that one last chance that does not come.

What?  You expected the bad guy to be able to escape the smartest man in history?  Couldn’t happen.

—-

Newton and the Counterfeiter: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the book. Visit Levenson’s blog. In a nice bit of meta, see him discuss writing this Big Idea piece here. Follow Levenson on Twitter.

Today’s Really Dumb News Story

Courtesy of Associated Press:

Obama’s issues yet to match earlier presidents’
Scholars say Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman faced greater challenges in office

This is somehow a bad thing? I mean, I’m generally a fan of Obama and all; he seems a smart and generally capable fellow. But given the choice of testing his mettle with a nation-rending civil war and/or the deepest financial collapse in modern history and/or a global struggle against genocidal fascism, or not, I’d personally kind of rather go with not, you know?  Tell me Obama doesn’t have to face the problems of Lincoln, and my response to you is: good. Let’s try to keep it that way, shall we. I assure you, his current challenge level is perfectly sufficient.

Reminder: Viable Paradise Applications Due June 30

While we’re on the subject of writing workshops, I would be hideously remiss not to remind you that if you are hoping to apply to (and thus possibly attend) Viable Paradise, the week-long writing workshop at which I serve as an instructor, the proverbial clock is ticking: All applications need to be in by the end of this month, June 30, 2009. This gives you just a shade over three weeks to get your application together and in to us (although, you know. Sooner = better).

If you’re asking yourself “is this writing workshop really worth my time and money?” my answer would be, “No, unless you like the idea of spending a week being taught by some of the best writers and editors in science fiction and fantasy, in a setting of intense natural and scenic beauty, with fellow up-and-coming sf/f writers who, judging by VP’s alumni track record, may very well set the genre alight in the coming years. In which case: Maybe it is.” Hey, I call it like I see it, man.

In any event: Get your stuff together and get it in. June 30 will be here sooner than you think.

Clarion West Write-a-Thon: Sponsor a Writer to Sponsor a Writer-to-Be

So, my pal Tempest Bradford said to me, “Hey, I’m participating in the 2009 Clarion West Write-a-Thon, to raise money to help students attend the Clarion West writing workshop. I’m trying to raise $1,000. Wanna sponsor me?”

And I said, “Sure.”

And she said, “Great! And would you mind writing about it on your Web site to tell other people about it, and maybe get them to sponsor me?”

And I said, “Well, I would, but I’m trapped in a well and can’t get to the keyboard, so maybe you should write something instead and I’ll just post it.”

And she said, “That makes no sense, we’re conversing in e-mail and besides, if you can cut and paste what I write into a blog post, you can get to your keyboard.”

And I said, “Sorry, can’t hear you, the water’s rising.”

So she wrote something up and this is what she wrote. Which I am now posting. From a well. Using my mind. Take it away, Tempest:

Hello everyone, Tempest here. Scalzi has been kind enough to let me steal a few pixels on his blog to encourage you to sponsor me in this year’s Clarion West Write-a-thon. There’s a ton of information about the fundraiser, the workshop, and the scholarship I’m also raising money for here. But if you want the short version, here are 5 reasons to become a write-a-thon sponsor:

1. You’re intrigued by the idea of a write-a-thon. Is it like a marathon? Yes. Except without training, carbo-loading, and warm-ups. There is some stretching, though, as writing will put a crick in your neck.

2. You like getting things for free. Like PBS and NPR, I’m offering free gifts to people who pledge at different levels. You could get some free books, some cool jewelry, or your name in a story.

3. You fancy yourself a patron of the arts. You’ll totally have some bragging rights over your friends if you sponsor me. And if it turns out your friends are sponsoring me, too, you can always say “I pledged way more than you!” Well, only if you actually pledge more. And don’t you want to be more patronizing than your friends? (oh wait…)

4. You love science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature and want more of it. Donations go toward supporting the current and future students of Clarion West. Clarion and Clarion West students go on to do amazing stuff. See: Octavia Butler, Benjamin Rosembaum, Nisi Shawl, Cory Doctorow, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, and many, many more.

5. You believe that SF/F/H literature can only be improved by a greater diversity of voices. Clarion West is very committed to diversity amongst its students and instructors, and the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship provides financial support to writers of color who’ve been accepted at Clarion and Clarion West. Voices of color are very much under-represented in this field. By donating to this scholarship and this workshop, you’re doing something significant to correct that.

So there you go, the 5 best reasons I have for sponsoring me for the Write-a-thon. However, this isn’t about me, really — it’s about the students. If you sponsor me, you’re supporting them. If you help me reach my goal of raising $1000, you’re raising money for them. And hey, you don’t even have to sponsor me to be part of this. There are many, many writers who could use your pledges and encouragement to meet their writing and fundraising goals.

Even if you can only commit to giving a little, every donation counts. Click here to sign up! And thanks :)

And there you have it. Please consider sponsoring. Also, tell someone I’m in a well. It’s damp down here.

METAtropolis Starred Publishers Weekly Review

This is nice: METAtropolis’ upcoming print version just got a starred review in Publishers Weekly (scroll down for the review), which said, among other things:

Editor Scalzi (Zoe’s Tale) and four well known writers thoughtfully postulate the evolution of cities, transcending postapocalyptic clichés to envision genuinely new communities and relationships… Each story shines on its own; as a group they reinforce one another, building a multifaceted view of a realistic and hopeful urban future.

Nifty. It’s nice to see the anthology getting some reviewer love. To be clear, as editor of the project I’m getting a bit more credit than I should; Toby Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake and Karl Schroeder made my editing job one of those “collect stories, get credit for their work” gigs. On the other hand, if all editing gigs were this fun, I’d do more of them. And then when would I get my writing done?

Speaking of which, off to hit my daily quota.

The New York Times: We May Slide Into Irrelevancy But At Least We Update Daily

The New York Times is engaging in another one of its those delightfully passive aggressive stories it does about blogs, this time focusing — about a decade too late — on the bloggers who quit blogging when they realize that just because they write something online doesn’t mean anyone is going to know it is there. I say this is a decade too late because I certainly remember the grousing in 1999 or thenabouts by folks discouraged that no one was beating a path to their virtual doors, and I remember the newspaper stories about just that fact. What’s old becomes new again, apparently.

The Times also notes that of the millions of blogs that exist, only a tiny margin get a readership beyond the bloggger and the blogger’s mom (“OMG I can’t believe my mom read what I wrote about her on my blog”), and thus as a consequence most are eventually abandoned. But again, this is no real surprise; the numbers are larger now but the percentages of abandoned blogs has been fairly consistent for years. The vast majority of blogs, in fact, have nothing but the following three posts:

Post One: “Here’s my blog! This is where I’m going to share all my thoughts about life, the universe and everything! It’s going to be great and I can’t wait to tell you all what I’m thinking about everything!”

Post Two: “Hey, sorry I haven’t updated in a while — life’s been crazy. But I’ll be back soon.”

Post Three: “Here’s a picture of my cat.”

And then it’s done.

Nothing wrong with this — writing on a regular basis is work, even when you’re ostensibly doing it for fun, and it shouldn’t be a surprise not a lot of people really want to work that hard. Also and perhaps more to the point, I suspect many people who start blogging realize fairly quickly that they either don’t like sharing all their thoughts to the world, or that their thoughts, while interesting to them, appear fairly banal once they’re typed out, and it’s better just not to post them for the sake of posting them. And there’s nothing wrong with this either, and indeed the blogger is to be congratulated of the bit of personal insight. Most blogs are abandoned because they should be.

The thing about this Times piece is that it feels almost endearing anachronistic; not to run down blogs, but they’re not exactly the hot new kid on the block these days, are they. These days it seems like the only people starting new blogs are laid-off journalists, which says something both about blogs and these journalists. Everyone else has moved on to Facebook and Twitter. Which is something I personally applaud; I like my blog, but I’m a wordy bastard, by profession and by inclination, and online social networks actually do a far better job of what people wanted blogs to do, which is be a way to act and feel connected online with friends and family. No one gives a crap if your tweet or status update is short and utterly inconsequential (“Hey! I just ate a hot dog!”) — indeed, that’s kind of the point.

So it’s worth noting that even on Twitter, with its absolute ease of connecting with people and its inherent design promoting short, deep-thought-free posting, the vast majority of Twitter accounts rarely update, and have fewer than 10 followers. Which is to say the same communication dynamic applies everywhere online, regardless of whether it’s a blog, or Facebook page or Twitter account or whatever. It’s hard to make interesting content, whether it’s a 670 word blog post or a 140 character tweet. People might initially think they’re up to it, but they find out quickly enough that they’re not. Which, again, is perfectly fine. There’s no inherent virtue in being a wordy bastard. Some people are; most people aren’t.

I expect the Times will catch up on this news about Twitter in another eight years or so, assuming (he said, snarkily) it’s still around then. Set your timers now.

Damn, and I Was Psyched for Electro-Woman and Dyna-Girl: The Movie

Movie note: Land of the Lost tanked this weekend with less than $20 million in box office — an amount very close to what Speed Racer brought in when it tanked in its first weekend last year. And thus, I expect, ends Hollywood’s big attempt to monetize Gen-X childhood nostalgia. I am not myself overly distraught by the fact, although I suppose this means this here spec script I wrote for a movie version of Jason of Star Command will never see the light of day. Somehow we must all find the strength to go on.

D-Day + 65 (Years)

Hell of a thing they managed, now long ago enough that the day itself qualifies for Social Security. The men involved are all in their 80s or 90s now if they are indeed still around; it’s passing from living memory at an accelerating rate. This isn’t to suggest it will disappear — World War II is America’s favorite war, the one in which we save the world by defeating those damn Nazis (and, no, we can’t hear the remnants of the Soviet Union clearing their throats indignantly in the background, why do you ask?), and this was the moment we designated as the beginning of its end. It’ll be with us for a while. But there’s a difference between what we know about and what people lived through. Fewer and fewer people have lived through this.

A Small Rant About The Things I Might or Might Not Know Which I Might or Might Not Tell You About

Spin magazine had up a piece on Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman performing a benefit gig the other night, in which it revealed that the two of them revealed to the audience that they were dating. Good for them. But the news of their dating prompted someone to send me an e-mail, asking me why I had never mentioned that Palmer and Gaiman were dating and suggesting that it was somehow my duty to keep people informed about such things.

E-mail being the emotionally flat medium that it is, I was not entirely sure that this person was joking, but the more I re-read it the more I became convinced that this person was at least mildly piqued that they thought I was holding such a choice tidbit of quasi-celebrity news from them, and did believe I was obliged to spill about people of fame they assumed that I knew personally.

Assuming that I am in fact not being hypersensitive, two points here:

1. How was I supposed to know this? I’m an admirer of both Miss Palmer’s music and her crazy eyebrows, but I don’t know her and have never met her. Seems unlikely I would be her bosom confidant. Likewise, while it may seem to some outside observers that I should know Neil Gaiman, we’ve only ever exchanged a few brief e-mails, mostly about the recent Hugo Voters Packet. I’ve spoken to him once, but that was in 1992, when I called him up to interview him for a newspaper article I was doing on graphic novels. At no time in our conversation did Gaiman ever say “Hey, anonymous newspaper reporter whom I shall probably never speak with again, seventeen years from now I plan to date a very cute and talented musician. Please keep this news in the strictest of confidence, unless at such time you happen to own a blog, which right now sounds like a disease involving phlegm, but which in the future will mean something else entirely, in which case you may write about it there.” At which point I suspect I would have thought to myself, hmmm, this guy’s been drinking too much cartoonist’s ink.

Well, you say, you know lots of people who know Gaiman (and now, presumably, Miss Palmer). That’s almost like knowing them! Well, no, not really. Look: One of the people who is close enough to me that I consider them family is close enough to Brad Pitt that they went to each other’s weddings. I do not know Brad Pitt. Someone I was a friend of in college was for years a close confidant of Hilary Clinton. I do not know Hilary Clinton. As recently noted, people I know can get on the phone and talk to Harlan Ellison any time they want. I do not know Harlan Ellison. I could amaze and delight you with the list of all the notable people I almost but in fact don’t know personally.

Now, perhaps one day I shall meet Mr. Gaiman and Miss Palmer; seems a reasonable bet I’ll see at least one of them this August. And perhaps on that day we’ll experience the sort of immediate and massive friendcrush that leads each of us to reveal all sorts of secrets to one another in long intimate conversations that will instantly cement our new status as ZOMG totally BFFs. Hey, I’m somewhat personable; it could happen. And then in fact I will know everything there is possibly to know about Mr. Gaiman and/or Miss Palmer. Which leads to the next point:

2. Even if I did know personal information about Gaiman or Palmer, why would any of you be under the impression I would tell you? I already have enough problems with people who don’t know me assuming that every single thing that I ever do or learn about in my personal life is going to get plastered up on Whatever in an orgy of attention-seeking indiscretion. The last thing I need to do is to actually prove them right.

This may be hard for some folks to believe, but my default assumption when someone mentions something about themselves to me is to tell no one else. Before anything else, this is simply the polite thing to do, and what I would hope others would do for me if the situations were reversed. But more than that, there’s the fact that somewhere along the way I realized it’s better to have the sort of friends who know they can trust you, than the sort of friends who value the entertainment value of your inability to keep a confidence. I want friends, not an audience.

If I meet Neil Gaiman/Amanda Palmer/Whomever and we decide we’re gonna be pals and share each other’s unmentionable, career-damaging secrets in the creative person’s drunken equivalent of becoming blood brothers, here’s probably what I’d mention about it here: “Hey, so I met Neil Gaiman/Amanda Palmer/Whomever, and they were very cool once I got all my squeee over and done with.” Because — no offense — that’s about all you need to know about that. Everyone’s personal life is personal until and unless they choose to make it otherwise. Even the people you like and admire and may in some way, and against all reason, feel you own.