Monthly Archives: October 2009

What I Did With My Friday

I drove up to Cleveland to hang out with these guys:

For those of you lamentably behind in your geek culture studies, the two fellows sitting on the couch are Paul & Storm, and the fellow lurking behind the couch is Jonathan Coulton, and their thing is to entertain the geekoidial masses with songs of mad scientists, sea captain’s wives and, of course, zombies. They gave a groovy show, which is to be expected, and aside from that were mad fun to hang about with otherwise. Also in the hangout crew: artist Len Peralta, who handed me a lovely kid’s book about zombies that he illustrated. Zombies! They’re everywhere, man.

Cleveland was a bit of a jaunt for a concert, but P&S&J were folks with whom I’ve been friendly with online and with whom I share a number of mutual friends, so it was time to close that loop, as it were, in do the “meet in real life” thing. And, well, you know. It’s not like I have a job or anything. So why not. It was time well spent, in any event. I’d make the drive again.

The Permanent Stargate: Universe Discussion Thread, Season Two

This is the SG:U discussion thread for the second season; The season one discussion threads are here: 1|2|3

As there is an interest in having an official comment thread here on Whatever for the discussion of Stargate: Universe episodes, themes and details, behold! This is it. Henceforth, let this be the place you come here to chat with other Whateverites (and occasionally its Creative Consultant as well) about what you see on the show. I’ll put a permanent link to it into the SG:U sidebar widget so it will always be easy to find.

NOTE: This thread will almost certainly contain spoilers of the most recent episode if you come to it during or after the first airing of the show in the US/Canada. Be warned.

All right, then. Discuss the show!

The Permanent Stargate: Universe Discussion Thread, Part III

This is the third part of the SG:U discussion thread; the first part is archived here, and the second part here.

As there is an interest in having an official comment thread here on Whatever for the discussion of Stargate: Universe episodes, themes and details, behold! This is it. Henceforth, let this be the place you come here to chat with other Whateverites (and occasionally its Creative Consultant as well) about what you see on the show. I’ll put a permanent link to it into the SG:U sidebar widget so it will always be easy to find.

NOTE: This thread will almost certainly contain spoilers of the most recent episode if you come to it during or after the first airing of the show in the US/Canada. Be warned.

All right, then. Discuss the show!

The Permanent Stargate: Universe Discussion Thread, Part II

This is the second part of the SG:U discussion thread; the first part is archived here.

As there is an interest in having an official comment thread here on Whatever for the discussion of Stargate: Universe episodes, themes and details, behold! This is it. Henceforth, let this be the place you come here to chat with other Whateverites (and occasionally its Creative Consultant as well) about what you see on the show. I’ll put a permanent link to it into the SG:U sidebar widget so it will always be easy to find.

NOTE: This thread will almost certainly contain spoilers of the most recent episode if you come to it during or after the first airing of the show in the US/Canada. Be warned.

All right, then. Discuss the show!

The Permanent Stargate: Universe Discussion Thread

As there is an interest in having an official comment thread here on Whatever for the discussion of Stargate: Universe episodes, themes and details, behold! This is it. Henceforth, let this be the place you come here to chat with other Whateverites (and occasionally its Creative Consultant as well) about what you see on the show. I’ll put a permanent link to it into the SG:U sidebar widget so it will always be easy to find.

NOTE: This thread will almost certainly contain spoilers of the most recent episode if you come to it during or after the first airing of the show in the US/Canada. Be warned.

All right, then. Discuss the show!

Physics Puppets!

You folks may remember last year when Whatever’s Favorite Physics Professor™ Chad Orzel ran a charity drive for science classes on his site, and promised to dance like a monkey if his monetary goals were met. They were, and he did. Well, he’s doing another drive this year, and his drive is backed by Hewlett-Packard, which is awesome.

But Chad is ambitious, and wants to take as much of Hewlett Packard’s contribution as possible, and means garnering a few more donations from ordinary mortals such as ourselves. And to entice you, this is what’s Chad’s offering this year:

Puppets!

Specifically:

If the Uncertain Principles share of the HP contribution is greater than 1% of the total, I will recreate the famous Bohr-Einstein debates about quantum measurement, in puppet show form, and post video of it on the blog.

Yes, that’s right: Einstein. And Bohr. In puppet form. Talking quantum physics. You know you want it.

Here are all the details. There’s a time limit on this — HP will be allocating their contributions on Sunday — so you know what to do. And puppets shall be your reward. Works for me.

In the Lair Of the Semi-Geek

I’m upgrading the laptop to Windows 7 at the moment, but clearly can’t be away from the Internets during the upgrade lest I burst into flame, so while the upgrade is doing its thing, I’m online with the netbook. And I took the picture on my phone, which I then used to upload it to Flickr.

Geeky, yes. But if I were a true geek both my laptop and netbook would be running Linux (and some particularly stringent variant of Linux, not that hand-holding fluffy Linux known as Ubuntu), and my phone would be using Android and I would be on Slashdot, snarking at all the sheeple upgrading to Windows 7 today. Thus, I am at best a semi-geek. A quasi-geek, if you will. Try not to judge me, true geeks. That’s all I ask.

In Which Athena Assumes I Am Watching Something From The Onion, And Yet I’m Totally Not

Me: [Clicks on a YouTube video from Fox News complaining about how the White House doesn't think it's a real news station]

Athena (not watching but listening as she plays the Wii): Are you watching something from that fake news channel again?

Me: (pause, then) What makes you think that?

Athena: Well, just listen to them! They sound so fake. What if President Obama heard that? What would he think?

Me: I’m pretty sure he knows about it.

Athena: Hmph. (Goes back to playing the Wii)

Athena’s comments were before Obama actually came on to the video, incidentally. And no, we haven’t spent any time at all indoctrinating our daughter regarding cable news channels. I think ten years old is a little early for that sort of thing. Genuine spontaneous comment, delivered unironically and yet deeply ironic all the same. It’s fun when life is like that.

Note on Handcrafted Spam

So, either spammers are hiring people to glance at entry headlines and then post four-word comments vaguely related to the topic, or their contextual analysis is getting better. Either way, there’s been an uptick in spam getting past Askimet today, obliging me to zap it when it comes along. If you happen to run across it before I zap it, don’t panic. What with the house painters and a neurotic dog freaking out at the house painters, it’s not as if I’m getting anything else done today, so I might as well hunt spam. So I’ll likely get to it in short order.

The Coolness of Science Fiction

Someone asked me the question: “Was science fiction ever cool?” and in my AMC column this week I answer, in detail, with telling examples. And because I will have settled this eternally burning question, we can now focus our energies on more important things, like curing cancer and finally creating the Apple tablet computer. Some will say that answering this question will have been the easy part of that all, but honestly. What do they know.

As always, feel free to leave your questions/comments over at the AMC site.

Living Like Fitzgerald

With a hat tip to the estimable Walter Jon Williams, I point you in the direction of this article, which examines the tax returns of one F. Scott Fitzgerald, of whom you may have heard, over the length of his writing career from 1919 through 1940. It turns out that during those years, Fitzgerald more or less consistently clocked $24,000 in writing income, which the author of the article, employing a 20:1 ratio of money values then to money values now, offers as the equivalent of making $500,000 a year in today’s dollars. This is a nice income if you can get it, and Fitzgerald got it in an era in which his tax rate was something on the order of 8%.

What’s interesting for modern writers, however, are the little tidbits that let you know how much things have changed — and how much, alas, things have stayed the same.

For example, here’s one fun fact: The engine of Fitzgerald’s income (at least until he went to Hollywood) was not his novels but his short stories. He considered them his “day job,” a thing to be endured because writing them would allow him the financial wherewithal to write the novels he preferred to do. And how much did he make for these short stories? Well, in 1920, he sold eleven of them to various magazines for $3,975. This averages to about $360 per story, and (assuming an average length of about 6,000 words) roughly six cents a word.

To flag my own genre here, “Six cents a word,” should sound vaguely familiar to science fiction and fantasy writers, as that’s the current going rate at the “Big Three” science fiction magazines here in the US: Analog (which pays six to eight cents a word), Asimov’s (six cents a word “for beginners”) and Fantasy & Science Fiction (six to nine cents a word). So, sf/f writers, in one sense you can truly say you’re getting paid just as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald did; but in another, more relevant, “adjusted for inflation” sense, you’re making five cents to every one of Fitzy’s dollars. Which basically sucks. This is just one reason why making a living writing short fiction is not something you should be counting on these days.

(Mind you, science fiction writers of the 1920s weren’t making what Fitzgerald did, either — indeed, if they were writing for Amazing Stories (the first SF magazine, which debuted in 1926), it was an open question as to whether they’d get paid at all; publisher Hugo Gernsback loved his “scientifiction” but he had liquidity problems, which is why he lost control of the magazine in 1929.)

In 1920, Fitzgerald also had his first novel published: This Side of Paradise. He made $6,200 on it for the year, from a royalty rate of 10% (later bumped up to 15%), on a cover price of $1.75. Using the 20:1 multiplier, we can say hardcovers in the US, at least, have gotten a lot cheaper, but that royalty rates for authors are essentially unchanged 90 years later; I myself make a 10% – 15% royalty on my books.

It’s also interesting to note that Paradise was Fitzgerald’s bestselling book while he was still alive, and that it sold less than 50,000 copies at the time. This would be similar to someone selling 150,000 copies of their book today: A solid seller, to be sure (I wouldn’t turn down sales like that) but no Twilight, or even The Secret History. It’s also a reminder that the main portion of Fitzgerald’s literary fame had to wait until he was dead and unable to appreciate it — The Great Gatsby regularly sells in excess of 200,000 copies a year these days (hello, high school reading lists!), but sold only 25,000 copies while Fitzgerald was alive. I’m sure Fitzgerald would be happy being considered a writer for the ages — he was somewhat embittered at the end of his life that his literary star had fallen so dramatically — but I also suspect he wouldn’t have minded all those yearly sales happening today occurring while he was still alive and having use of the money. He certainly could have used it.

Which is of course the other thing; in this era or the 1920s, a half million dollars (or its real money equivalent) is not an inconsiderable sum — and yet Fitzgerald had a hard time keeping it. Much of that was due the cost of tending to Zelda, his increasingly mentally erratic wife, who was frequently in psychiatric hospitals — yes! Health care was expensive then, too! — but some of it was just money just leaking out all over the place, as money seems to do around those creative types. And then there was Fitzgerald’s desire to live well, with servants and nice houses and such, and his wee problem with alcohol. Eventually Fitzgerald’s financial issues became significant enough that he felt obliged to work in Hollywood — Hollywood! of all places — which he found remunerative but degrading.

The lessons here: Do keep track of your money, try to live within your means, avoid debilitating addictions if at all possible and, for the nonce at least, try to have decent health insurance. That’ll help you keep your cash as a writer, whether you’re making $24,000 a year from your writing, or $500,000.

On my end of things, while I wouldn’t mind getting paid like Fitzgerald (in the “half a million” sense, not the “$24,000″ sense), I don’t think I’d want to live like him. Aside from the fact that I’d have less than four years left on my life, he doesn’t seem to have been very happy in his life while he lived it, and that wasn’t something that having a significant income was going to fix. I might have wished for him a little less money (and the need to acquire it), and a little more peace of mind.

Exiled In My Own Home!

The entire top half of my house has been taken over by house painters, who are painting the rooms and hallway in tones with names like “restful” and “free spirit.” I am exiled to the formal dining room with the laptop, since sitting in my office sniffing paint fumes is not actually how I want to spend my day. Kodi is in here with me, barred from chewing on the house painters by a pair of baby gates we’ve kept around for events such as these. As the dining room is roughly the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, this is not as horrible as it could be. Even so, it’s amusing to be shut out of most of one’s own house. I’ll likely be here for the next couple of days.

Stephen Fry Aptly Sums Up The Problem Of Every “Clever” Person in the World

Whether they are genuinely clever or not:

If a joke or a neat phrase or an apparently convincing rhetorical trope or apt simile occur to me they will emerge from my mouth without passing Think.

Yes. That.

From here, in which Mr. Fry suffers the consequences of just such an act, and ends up apologizing (and apologizing well, it should be noted, which is harder than it would seem).

Scalzi on Nook

Over on Twitter, I’m asked if my books will be available on the Nook, Barnes & Noble’s new eBook reader. My answer: It appears so. A cursory glance at the B&N eBook site reveals four of my books as well as the New Space Opera 2 anthology being available, and the technical specs of the thing say it supports EPUB and eReader formats as well as PDF, so if you have eBooks of mine in those formats I suppose they should work for you, although I’ll hedge in noting I have no idea if whatever DRM might be on your eBook purchases will conflict with the Nook itself. Really, these things aren’t up to me.

Also not up to me: B&N eBook store pricing, DRM (if any) on your purchases at B&N or anywhere else, or anything relating to the technical or distribution side of any of this. Folks, I just write the books, I don’t market them. That’s what I have publishers for. If you have kvetches of that stripe, take it up with them, or with B&N.

As to my thoughts on the Nook, I have none of note at the moment, as I’ve not played with it. Cursorily, I think it looks nice, and I like that it has native PDF support, but other than that I’m not qualified to say. I will say that I’m not at all likely to regularly purchase books electronically until I can get them without DRM. I’m sort of constitutionally opposed to not actually owning the things I buy. Call me crazy on that.

Mobile Whatever

A couple of people today have asked me whether they missed the announcement that I had installed a new version of Whatever to be read on mobile devices. The answer is no, you haven’t, because I wasn’t aware that there was a new mobile version of Whatever. But there is, apparently, thanks to the folks at WordPress.com, who blog about adding the mobile themes here. So if you’re looking at the site via your iPhone or BlackBerry or whatever mobile thingie you use, it’ll be stripped down and somewhat easier to navigate through. There’s also an option to look at the full site, however, if you liked it the way it was.

So, apologies for the surprise, but, well. It was a surprise to me, too. That said, I found it the Whatever easier to read on my phone earlier today, so I’ll be keeping that turned on for now. Naturally, those of you accessing the site on your standard computers or via RSS will not care about any of this. Until you visit the site on your mobile. And then you will be delighted.

Today’s Not Terribly Relevatory Observation Regarding My Physical Condition

As I get older, it becomes surprising to me, not how much I am beginning to resemble my father (because I’m not, really), but how much I am beginning to resemble my grandfather. In particular I’m pretty sure I’ve gone and inherited his forehead. Which is not necessarily the feature I would have chosen. But that’s genetics for you, isn’t it.

That said, I sincerely hope my daughter has not, in fact, inherited my grandfather’s forehead as well. Because that would be grim right around the time she hit 50. Fortunately she has a way to go before this is at all a concern. I cannot say the same for my own supra-ocular facial region, alas.

The Big Idea: John Brown

Here’s a question for you: When you’re confronted by a large, angry animal that could squash you like a grape, is the first thing that comes to your mind, hey, now that gives me an idea for a story? If the answer is “yes, of course it does,” then you may be an author. Or more specifically, you may be John Brown, whose debut novel Servant of a Dark God was inspired by just such an event. What was the large, angry animal that acted as a muse for Brown? And what was the idea it inspired? Mr. Brown lays it down:

JOHN BROWN:

The big idea for this epic fantasy was cows. Let me explain.

I live up in the hinterlands of Rich County, Utah. It’s all ranch land for miles and miles. Now, I’m a city boy, so everything up here was new to me when we came up a few years ago. It was late summer. I had just written a novel and realized that while it had a lot of cool things in it and a number of fine scenes, the story, as a whole, was busted beyond repair. No salvaging it. I just needed a new idea. So, as I often do, I went walking with a pencil and two sheets of paper stapled together to generate ideas.

My route led me up a small canyon that lay about a half mile from our place. The ranchers here push their cattle out of the fields and up into the hills to graze during the summer. This lets them use their fields to grow the hay they’ll need for winter. So it’s not uncommon to encounter cattle in the uplands. On one of those walks I came across a small herd eating and lazing about the aspen, sagebrush, and willow growing along the brook running down the center of that canyon. One of the cattle was making an odd sound. It was not saying “moo” or anything like unto it. It was a bull, hidden in the river willows.

Now, I’m a bit impulsive. I’m curious about a lot of things. And ever since I was a wee lad I’ve wanted to talk to animals. So, without thinking, I mimicked his call.

The bull in the willows responded in kind.

I didn’t know what we were talking about, but I figured it wasn’t every day you got to talk to a sizeable beef. Being of supreme intelligence (not quite the word my wife uses to describe it), I brayed back again. He made another grunt. I called out again, delighted with our chat. It was at about that point when the bull began to kick up dust. He then changed his tone and charged through the willows.

A mature bull averages around 2,000 pounds. A solid ton. They don’t slip through the brush all silent like. They crash. This one was crashing in my direction. As he progressed, the tops of the willows along his path shuddered and shook.

I began to be alarmed. Then I suddenly realized what we’d been chatting about. I’d been saying something like, “Hey, geek! I’m taking one of your women. What are you going to do about it?”

And he was saying something like, “I’m gonna kill you.”

And I was saying, “Bring it, I’m taking a woman.”

I was now on red alert and looking around for a tree, but anything that might support me stood hundreds of yards away. I had only a few seconds before the big galoot would break from the willows. Maybe if I could make it back down the trail and around the bend, maybe he wouldn’t see me. So I decided it was expedient that I should flee.

Luckily, my round the corner trick worked, and the cranky polygamist did not follow. However, thoughts of cattle did. And during one of my walks later that week (yes, I went back up that canyon. No, I did not have any more bovine chats. Well, not long ones. Just a few short practical joker ones. I figured that guy with his two dozen women needed to loosen up a bit) I suddenly looked around and thought: ranchers, cattle, beef—what if humans were being ranched?

But not for their flesh. I wanted something different. What about soul? I reasoned if soul did exist, then it would be physical. So what if a food chain were based upon it? And if you were going to ranch intelligent beings, you wouldn’t want them to know it. No, you’d want them to think they governed themselves. And so the truth would have to be buried deep. In this world the human overseers (who would be humans themselves) would have to mercilessly hunt anyone who began sniffing around the trail to the truth. They’d have to have a huge propaganda machine. They’d also have powers that would lift them above other men.

Boom. Lightning struck.

I wrote it all up on my little sheets of paper out there in the Western summer sun amidst the sagebrush and fields of hay. The idea grew, and after a lot of work I finished Servant of a Dark God. It focuses on a teenage boy and girl. The problems start when the girl’s family becomes the target of one of the overlord hunts.

It ended up being a blast to write. It also landed me my agent and first book contract (a three-book deal, actually; thank you, Tor Books).

And I owe it all to a cow.

—-

Servant of a Dark God: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt (PDF link).

Still Can’t Brain Today

Man, some days are just like that. So in lieu of actual brain thought thingies, two notes and a totally deep thought.

* Over at Omnivoracious, Jeff VanderMeer interviews Bill Schafer, publisher at Subterranean Press. I get mentioned in passing, and the old cover of The God Engines gets shown off.

* Hey, you know where I’m going to be on Friday? Cleveland, that’s where. And what will I be doing there? I’ll be here, to see these guys. You should go too. Here’s where you can buy tickets.

* And now your totally deep thought: Are there such things as ghost zombies? Because if there are, like, whoa, man.

That’s all I got.