Monthly Archives: August 2013

Ten Years In Conventions

Today I head down to San Antonio and LoneStarCon 3, this year’s Worldcon. Coincidentally, this weekend also marks exactly the 10 year anniversary of me attending my very first science fiction convention: Torcon 3, up in Toronto. Before then, with the exception of a one-day  Creation Star Trek convention that I covered as a reporter (and at which I stayed only a couple of hours), I had never been to a convention, or knew anything about science fiction fandom in any real sense. So cannonballing into fandom’s deep end, as it were, was a genuinely interesting experience.

Me and Cory Doctorow at Torcon 3, Toronto, 2003. Note the can of regular Coke in my hand. Oh, how we’ve changed in a decade.

Those of you who are curious of my thought on my very first convention at the time can get a report here (this is one of the nice things about having such a long-running blog: all this stuff is documented). Looking back across the expanse of ten years, I have become very fond of my time at Torcon 3. It’s where I first met so many of the people who I now call friends and are important parts of my life; not just writers but also booksellers, artists and fans.

Ten years ago, when I stepped foot into the convention space in Toronto, with the exception of my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, whom I had met only once, I knew literally no one in science fiction, I had published only a single science fiction story (this one), and my novel Old Man’s War, which I had sold to Tor, wouldn’t be published for another fifteen months. I was, literally, no one. Even so, people were kind and treated me as if I was already part of the family. They made me feel welcome into the community, and made me want to be part of it.

Ten years later, I am, and happy to be so, and happy to be going back to see and spend time with my friends. While I’m there I’m sure there will be some people at LoneStarCon 3 who are like I was ten years ago: New, unknown and unsure of where they fit in. I hope they feel as welcome as I did; I hope to be one of those who makes them feel welcome.

Genuine & Counterfeit

William Beckett, who plays very excellent power pop, both with his previous band The Academy Is… (whose final album Fast Times at Barrington High I reviewed here) and now as a solo artist, tweeted the other day that he’d be making times available for in-house concerts. And I was all, wait, this is a thing that can happen? I’ve had terribly bad luck trying to see Beckett live. He’s either been appearing near my home when I am off touring, or touring elsewhere when I was home — or on a couple of occasions, in the same town I was touring in, starting his gig the same time I was doing mine. But now I can have him come to my house and entertain me while I relax and have snacks in my ridiculously large chair? Done and done

And nicely timed for me, since his solo debut album, Genuine & Counterfeit, came out a couple of weeks ago and we’ve been grooving on it here at the Scalzi compound (Athena is also a fan). If you’re familiar with Beckett’s previous work, both with TAI and with his three solo EPs, then this album will be familiar territory: Beckett’s got a way with power pop hooks and smartly post-emo longing, both of which make G&C right up my personal listening alley. The album is loosely thematic, in that it tracks the course of a relationship from first blush through its ups and downs, with each track hitting a particular moment of  drama.

In that way, it’s a good companion piece to Barrington, which was also loosely thematic. If that album was about being on the verge of having to grow up, this is the one about actually learning to be a grown up, and being a grown up with one other person. Also like Barrington, it’s describing a time of life which I am well out of (18 years of marriage! Happy marriage! It’s a thing!), but it doesn’t mean I can’t reach back and remember what this was like. Humans don’t change that much. So it speaks to me. Since the individual songs work just fine as their own poppy moments, you don’t have to think about any of this if you don’t want to. But if you do, it’s there. Which I think is how it should work most of the time.

In short: Catchy and not at all dumb; easy to listen to, with enough upstairs to make it memorable, to me, anyway. I like it a lot; you might too. Can’t wait to catch the live show.

Various Thoughts on Online Comments

Because I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently, but it’s not resolved itself into a coherent narrative. So to hell with the narrative, let me just toss out some thoughts I’ve been having on the subject, in no particular order.

1. Comments and comment threads have been problematic roughly as long as the ability to comment online has existed; the phrase “Oh God don’t read the comments” didn’t just come out of nowhere. That said, from an anecdotal point of view things seem to be a bit worse these days; the trolls and assholes, who were previously free agents, appear to have organized themselves and picked targets.

Someone with more time on their hands than I have (or who has a need for a thesis project) can examine the root causes for this, but if I were going to guess, I would suspect that sites like Reddit (which not are not only link aggregators but allow development of very specialized communities) have made it easier for trolls and assholes to congregate and co-ordinate.

This isn’t meant to be a blind slap at Reddit and sites of its kind — the same format also makes it easy for people who aren’t assholes to congregate and co-ordinate, often to very good effect. There’s good with the bad. The fact of Reddit and other sites like it is value-neutral. But as a practical matter, I suspect the fact of Reddit-like sites makes it easier for aggregate troll action.

(We could have an entirely different discussion about how Reddit embodies the Walmart-ization of online communities — migrating communities which used to exist disconnectively online under a single roof — and what that’s meant for the dynamics of online discourse, but it’s a big topic and I don’t want to get distracted. Nevertheless, put a pin in that concept. It’s worth thinking about.)

2. Comments can be a way to build community and increase stickiness for a site, but I think that only works to a degree. If your comments are unmoderated and toxic (or moderated poorly and toxic because of it), people will avoid your site because it makes them feel unclean to drag their eyeballs over that sort of crap; people will avoid commenting there to avoid associating with creeps. It’s a variation of Gresham’s Law, as it applies to sites and commenting.

I also suspect at this point many sites need comments less than they did before, because there are so many other ways for people to air their opinions, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit being the best examples of this. If you want your comments seen by people you care about — and most people do — then you’re going to comment where you know your community already is. This migration of personal observation to social media doubly leaves the comment threads of many individual sites the realm of toxic commenters who either want to troll or want to attach their soapbox to a high-status site without regard to making actual conversation in the comments.

If a site has comments only as a means to an end — i.e., making the site “sticky” so that eyeballs pass over ads — then whose eyeballs they are may not matter to the site. Creeps are creeps, but their eyeballs count for CPM as well as anyone else’s. But inasmuch as I believe horrible comment sections have a high potential to drive out readers/viewers, I do wonder if in the long run these comment sections are penny wise and pound foolish.

3. With the above said, you know what I think would happen to the traffic of, say, the New York Times or CNN sites if comments were generally disabled? Not a damn thing. People don’t go to news sites for community, they go there to read the news. The people who do comment there, I suspect, don’t feel like they belong to a “CNN community,” they’re just the people that the British press call the “green ink brigade” — cranks who want a platform.

From a logistical point of view, to the extent that any news site is obliged to have moderators for the comment sections, it would probably be cheaper and easier to make this new era green pixel brigade submit their letters to the editor the way they did in the old days, and then have some poor bastard pick the ones worth airing on the site, rather than making several poor bastards crawl through the already-published comments of a bunch of cranks to make sure they’re not egregiously racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever. Basically, recreating a letters page for a new era, for news sites, wouldn’t make the news sites worse, and might even make them better.

4. Barring that, sites with commenters might considering doing what I see Boing Boing doing now, which I think is actually very smart, at least in terms of readability: putting the comments into their own special place (Boing Boing goes old school and calls theirs a BBS), a click away from the originating entries.

This is smart because, one, it means that if all you’re there for is the article, that’s all you have to see; two, conversely, it deprives the cranks and trolls their immediate goal of using Boing Boing’s high traffic for shock value. As a result, both Boing Boing’s main site and the comment threads have a much better chance of not being smeared with crap (and, Boing Boing has another place to put in advertising if they want, which it does not appear they do to date).

5. In a general sense, though, I think it’s well past time for sites (and personal blogs) to seriously think about whether they need to have comment threads at all. What is the benefit? What is the expense? Blogs have comments because other blogs have comments, and the blog software allows comments to happen, and I suspect everyone just defaults to having comments on.

Comments can be a good and useful thing, but if the end result of having them open is that the person running the blog is drained and enervated by them (and by having to deal with them), then that person maybe should not have comments on. If the end result of having comments on a blog is that the site is over run with trolls and assholes, some of whom are systematically attempting to silence the blog’s owner, then that site maybe should not have comments on. If having comments makes a desired audience avoid a site or blog because they don’t want to have to deal with trolls and assholes, that site maybe should not have comments on.

6. With regards to a personal blog, before anything else, it is a place for the blog’s proprietor(s) to speak their mind. It does not automatically follow, blogging software defaults aside, that anyone else should have that same privilege in that space. Everyone is free to speak their own mind online — in their own online space. When they are in your space, you have the right to say whether you want them to speak, or indeed to have anyone else speak.

Bear in mind there are a lot of people out there who like to claim censorship or whatever if they can’t comment exactly how they want on a personal or privately-owned site. But you can ignore them because they are either ignorant on how free speech works, or they are intentionally pretending not to know how it works in order to pressure you to allow them to bother you in your own space.

Either way, screw ‘em. You don’t have to give them a platform. Tobias Buckell stopped doing that. Ask him how it’s worked out for him.

7. Here on my own site I am giving some thought to how I manage comments, primarily for troll/asshole mitigation. I already actively monitor and moderate my site, of course, but there are only so many hours of the day and I have other things I need to do (like generate pay copy). So I’m thinking of ways to keep things manageable while still keeping comments and handling all my other responsibilities.

One thing I’ve begun doing is really rather simple: With contentious threads that will sprout trolls if left untended, I now turn off comments when I go to sleep. This means when I wake up in the morning I don’t have to deal with a bunch of troll spoor, or responses by non-troll commenters to said troll spoor. This has been a surprisingly useful tool, since in some cases it was clear to me some of these obnoxious commenters were timing their commenting so it would go up when I wasn’t around. The flip side is that it temporarily locks out non-trollish commenters, but I suspect some of them who really want to talk about the piece in the comment thread will check in later, i.e., they are reasonable people and reasonable people react reasonably.

Another thing I think I’m going to start doing more of is put a timer on threads with contentious subjects. For example, with my “Feminist” post of the other day, I decided to turn off the comments after two days. The reasons for this: One, most comments for any entry here tend to come in the first couple of days; two, after the few 400 comments or so threads here tend to repeat itself and/or devolve into a few people arguing past each other; three, because these days I find my tolerance for monitoring a contentious thread at the expense of other work I have running out at the two-day mark, and, brothers and sisters, that is a sign.

I don’t see that I will ever pull general commenting from Whatever. There is an actual community here, which I cherish, and I like the fact this is one of the places online where actual conversation happens in the comment threads. But again I am mindful of the cost, in time and opportunity, that it requires from me to keep commenting open and functioning. It’s something I keep checking back on.

The Big Idea: Benedict Jacka

William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” This is a concept that comes into play with Chosen, the latest Alex Verus novel by Benedict Jacka. He’s here now to explain how.

BENEDICT JACKA:

It was early 2012, and I was thinking over ideas for a fourth Alex Verus novel.  At the time I didn’t know for sure that my publishers would want a fourth Alex Verus novel – due to the weirdness of publishing schedules I was planning the fourth book before the first one, Fated, had even been released, and publishers generally like to see sales figures before they commit to sequels – but if you can’t take a little uncertainty, you shouldn’t be in the writing business in the first place.  Which was how I found myself turning over plans for Alex Verus #4.

One thing I’d decided early on was that this time I wanted to present Alex as a bit more morally ambiguous.  In book #3, Taken, the main adversary had been a life-draining monster that fed off children, and when your villain’s that far down the morality scale it tends to make your protagonist’s ethical issues look pretty minor by comparison.  I thought I should change things up a bit, and it struck me that a good contrast to Taken would be to use something closer to a hero antagonist.

Now, hero antagonists aren’t anything new, but in most stories which use them, the “antagonist” part has a short shelf life.  When both guys in a fight are sympathetic, then once the initial conflict’s over the writer usually has them work out their differences somehow.  Either the antagonist finds out that the hero is in the right, and switches to the hero’s side (The Fugitive) the hero finds out that the antagonist is in the right, and switches to the antagonist’s side (Oblivion) or the whole thing is just a big misunderstanding and a prelude to the heroes teaming up against the real villain (pretty much every comic book crossover ever).

In all these stories the protagonist and the antagonist eventually realise that they should be on the same side.  But what if there wasn’t any misunderstanding?  What if the two characters’ goals were just fundamentally incompatible with each other?

Right from the start, a key element of Alex Verus’ backstory had been that his first teacher had been a particularly notorious mage named Richard Drakh.  I’d already established in the previous books that while working for Richard, Alex had done some things he wasn’t proud of, and it made sense that some of the survivors of those things might one day come looking for payback.  And since Richard had disappeared long before the events of Fated, the most visible target for them would be . . . Alex.

That opened up a whole bunch of interesting questions.  In FatedCursed, and Taken, Alex had gotten into quite a few fights, but not because he wanted to – it had usually been a case of self-defence.  But what would he do if someone was coming after him for a justified reason?  He’d try to compromise . . . but what if they weren’t interested in compromise?  What if they wanted him dead (not penalised, dead) for something that really was his fault?

Well, that struck me as a pretty interesting story hook.  Alex wouldn’t want to use lethal force against someone like that, but he wouldn’t just step in front of a bullet either.  His instinct would be to find out more, looking for a third option, which would mean going back over the parts of his own history that he really didn’t want to face.

Would it work?  The answer to that would depend on what kind of world I was writing.  In a idealistic setting, Alex would eventually (after a lot of soul-searching) be able to find some sort of peaceful solution.  In a more cynical setting, there’d be no peaceful solution, no happy ending:  one side or the other would end up dead.  I already had a feeling which of those it was going to turn out to be, but I didn’t know the details.  So I started writing the book to find out.

As for what my publishers thought . . . well, Chosen’s coming out today, so it seems they liked it.  Hope you do too!

—-

Chosen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

To The Dudebro Who Thinks He’s Insulting Me by Calling Me a Feminist

Over the weekend, some dudebro with a history of shitting on women took this picture of me (which you may remember from here) and meme-ized it, with the intent, given his personal history and predilections, of mocking me — both for my views as regards women, and for wearing a dress.

Well, this dudebro clearly knows his way to this site, where the picture was originally posted, by me, so let me go ahead and address him directly.

Dudebro: Let me detail for you the various ways this picture has utterly failed you as an attempt to ridicule me.

One: This picture was taken as a result of a dare, to wit: if people on Twitter pledged $500 to the Clarion Foundation in a half hour, I would take a picture of myself in a regency dress, of which there just happened to be one in the house because my friend Mary Robinette Kowal, writer of a number of successful, award-nominated regency-era fantasies, was visiting and had one with her. Twitter came through with $600 in the allotted time, and, well, fair’s fair.

So when I see this picture, what I am reminded of is that I have the power, with just a simple, entirely mild instance of cross-dressing, to raise hundreds of dollars in minutes for a worthy charitable organization. If you had that power, would you not use it? Well, actually, I don’t imagine you would use it, since the idea of being a man in a dress apparently fills you with sniggering, confused terror. Fortunately for Clarion, I don’t have that problem. Which brings us to this:

Two: Mocking me as a feminist means you are mocking me for this:

Aw, SNAP, bro. Someone hand me the phone, because it looks like I just got TOLD.

Now, bear in mind that I know this isn’t what you mean by “feminist.” What you mean by “feminist” is GWAAAAARGH UGLY WOMEN WHO WON’T LET ME HAVE SEX WITH THEM AND THEIR COWERING MALE GAMMA SLAVES WHO HAVE COME TO SNATCH MY MANLY TESTICLES AND ROAST THEM OVER A BONFIRE OF HUSTLERS AND PORN BLU-RAYS AND THEN MAKE ME WATCH WITH ALL MY OTHER EMASCULATED DUDEBROS WHILE THEY FEAST ON OUR HOT BARBEQUED DUDE OYSTERS GWAAAAAAARGH, although I’m sure you have many layers of self-justifying verbiage that helps you avoid confronting this fundamental reduction of your views. Nevertheless, that’s not actually what “feminist” means.

Sorry. I know this hard for you to grasp. If you want to take a moment to process the news, we can pause for a few.

Ready? Okay, let’s move on.

Three: Let me draw your attention to something in this next image:

Now, I see you going “wha?” to this, so let me explain. When you use a picture to mock someone, the idea is that you show them as an object of ridicule — that your life, whatever else it is, is better than theirs in a fundamental way. But, here’s the thing. I may be a dirty dirty feminist, but I’m also a feminist with five acres of really awesome lawn, on which rests a lovely, large house, in which I have lots of very cool things. I got the lawn and house and things by being successful — that’s right! I am financially successful through work! It’s not like, say, I’ve generally failed at everything I’ve done and have wealth from living off family remittances. Nope, I worked for this stuff. Go me.

The point is that whether you processed this in your brain or not when you slapped up the picture, what you’ve ended up doing is showing me exhibiting some of the benefits of being who I am — and one of the things I am, as you maintain, is a feminist. I am not saying that being a feminist is sufficient for having a successful career, big house and a ridiculously large lawn that is the size of a New York City block — but on the other hand it certainly hasn’t hurt me in acquiring those things, has it. And as you clearly believe in correlation as causation — Because I am a feminist, I have worn a dress — then you should also believe that because I am a feminist, I have a nice lawn, a nice house and a nice career.

So, yes: this is what a feminist looks like: A successful man standing on the land he owns, enjoying his life and all the opportunities it affords him, including wearing a dress if he feels like it, which clearly he does. Mock away, chuckles.

Four: Which conveniently brings us to the next point:

Or, to put it another way, after some random dudebro has attempted to insult me on the Internet by taking a photo of me in a dress that I’ve already posted on my own site and slapping the word “feminist” on it, all I have to go back to is a successful career, a loving family, a circle of amazing friends and talented peers, and a social system whose systematic biases favor me in nearly all cases as a well-off straight white man. Even when I put on a dress.

I mean, I know that’s not much compared to the awesome power of a random Internet dudebro calling me a word I don’t find in the least bit insulting, but it will have to suffice. Somehow

It would be nice to live in a world in which any time a dudebro tried insulting someone else, that person had the same level of insulation from the effects of the attempted insult as I do — we don’t, and this dudebro is working hard to keep it that way. I know one of the reasons he’s working so hard on it is because even if we’re not there yet, we’re well on our way to it. Rear guard actions are always the most frantic.

Speaking of which:

Five: Seriously, now: “This is what a feminist looks like” qualifies as arch mockery in your world? Dudebro, please. This is so much more devastating:

Look, I don’t want to tell you your job, but you’ve got a slightly chubby, slightly balding middle-aged dude in a mint green regency dress here. There is so much to work with. That all you’ve managed is “Hurrrrr hurrrr feeeeeemineeeeeest hurrr” is not just disappointing, it’s a waste of awesomely good meme material. If you can’t do better, dude, you might as well turn in your Reddit membership right now.

But I know, little dudebro. I know. In your world, calling another dude a feminist is the worst possible thing you can do. So one more picture for you:

I mean, these are my choices, right? One or the other? Well, then, if these are my choices, I know which way I am going to go. Which, I suppose, means that by your definitions, this was right all along:

Yes. Yes it is.

Underwhelming Technology: Touchscreens

When I bought my most recent laptop and desktop, I went ahead and got a versions with touchscreens built in, because, hey, why not, it’s the wave of the future and in any event within a year it would be standard issue tech, etc. I wasn’t entirely sure if I would use them, but I thought there might be a good reason to use them that I hadn’t thought of. Well, it’s been several months now and I think I can safely say that generally speaking, touch screens on laptops and desktops are mostly pointless, at least to me.

Some reasons, in no particular order:

1. I spend most of my time in my desktop environment, on applications that don’t really have much use for the touch interface — or when the touch interface is there, it’s usually markedly inferior to the mouse/trackpad interface.

2. Trackpads in particular have gotten rather better recently (Apple has a lock on this, but even Windows 8 shows a dramatic improvement on this), so the additional utility of a touchscreen is lessened relative to the greater utility of the trackpad.

3. Stopping to touch the screen breaks my workflow, which is not a great thing.

4. The times that I have used the touchscreen on my desktop have made me aware that having a screen that big generally defeats the purpose of having a touchscreen as it is most often used today. I tried playing Fruit Ninja on it and quickly learned that there’s just too much real estate to get across (and in a vertical position, no less).

5. I’m old(er) and possibly set in my ways so the touchscreen interface requires me to have to learn something new, which I don’t always want to do.

The last of these, I’ll note, is the least convincing to me, since the Scalzi Compound has several tablets and phones scattered around it and I really have no problem using the touch interface on those; I’m not wandering about angry that I can’t use a mouse on my iPad. A touch interface makes sense on an phone or tablet; it really makes less sense on a laptop or desktop.

The thing that brought that home to me, actually, was the Chromebook I have (and on which I am writing this right now). It doesn’t have a touchscreen, unlike my Dell XPS 12, and I find that this matters almost exactly zero in terms of the relative utility  that I get out of the two computers on a day to day basis. I have no need or interest in touching the Chromebook screen, especially now that the trackpad is lightyears ahead of the CR-48 I got a couple of years back. Likewise, except for the relatively few times I use the XPS 12 as a tablet (it has a flippable screen), the touchscreen capability goes almost entirely unused on it.

Bear in mind this is a reflection of a) how I use desktop/laptops and b) the current state of touchscreens in these formats. I fully expect in five years I may have several really excellent reasons to use a touchscreen on the desktop or laptop. But then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if I don’t, either. Maybe at the end of the day it’s just not the right format for touch, and the touchscreen — which will nevertheless become a standard feature, because it’s getting there already — will be just another one of those things you have on your computer but almost never use more than 1% of the time.

I guess what I’m really saying is that if I had to do it all over again, the last time I bought a laptop I probably would have gone for another MacBook Air instead of the XPS 12. The XPS 12 is a fine little computer, to be clear, and I’ve been pretty happy with it overall. But I went with it on the expectation that I would be doing more with the touchscreen than I do. The irony is that by the next time I am in the market for a laptop, it’s almost certain Airs will have touchscreens. Which I probably won’t use much.

About the News or Lack Thereof

It’s been noted to me I’ve been fairly quiet about the news and politics here recently. This is true, primarily because I’ve been devoting most of my brain cycles recently to the new novel, which is challenging in unexpected ways and requires some interesting problem-solving on my part (note to Patrick, my editor: This is not a euphemism for “oh crap, what the hell am I doing.” Everything’s fine. Look! Over there! A puppy!).

As a result, while I am certainly aware of the news in the last several weeks, and have reflexive opinions about it, generally speaking I have not been thinking particularly deeply about it enough to craft something coherent enough to be readable for longer than a tweet or two. And, you know. That’s what Twitter is for.

Having said this, it’s now entirely possible I will go off on a tear about the major news events of the day, in detail, with footnotes, because hello, welcome to me. But I suspect not. I got my advance checks recently, and cashed them, even! And the new book has an October deadline. So, it has priority claim to my brain cycles. The rest of the real world will still get through from time to time, and I may even comment on it. But if I don’t, that’s my handy-dandy excuse.

Ooooh, a Scary Godmother Doll Kickstarter

My daughter was a huge fan of The Scary Godmother as she was growing up (and still is, in that teenage way), so when Scary Godmother creator Jill Thompson announced that she was kickstarting a fully articulated fashion doll of the character, I didn’t waste much time signing up so I could get one for Athena. Yes, she is spoiled. But also yes, this is a nice way of both thanking Thompson for creating a character that’s brought happiness to us and supporting her making a living off the people in her head. Everyone wins.

The Scary Godmother Doll Kickstarter has three weeks to go and is a third of the way to being funded, so I thought I’d help boost the signal a bit and direct you folks to go take a look at it, and maybe sign up yourself if you like. The Kickstarter has a bunch of tiers in it, from $1 to $10,000, so you can probably find a level that works for you. Check it out. And if you like it, tell other people about it. I really want it to happen so we can get that doll.