2003 Greatest Hits

Just in case I don’t get back for a couple of days, here are a few of my favorite entries from 2003. In case you missed them the first time around. Enjoy.

The Child on the Train
X Prime (and followup)
The Terror of Bad Chocolate
They Shoot People, Don’t They?
Reader Request #8: Writing
Workshop Fracas
The Genesis of a Literary Feud for the Ages
States’ Rights Stupidity
California Schemin’
Fun With the GMH
The Lord of the Rings in Film History (and Why the Movies are Better than the Books)

Also, my favorite picture of Athena from 2003:

As someone wrote in the comments: “CUTEST. KNIFE MURDERER. EVER.”


2003, 2004

2003: Not a bad year.

I mean, for me. For the world its had the usual ups and downs as it always does; since you have Time magazine and Instapundit out there, you don’t need me to recapitulate these stories. But this is the prime source of Scalzi information (it implies such in the domain name). So let’s talk about my year, why don’t we.

Professionally, of course, it was pretty good. I had two and a half books published in the year, which is to say, two books under my name, and a hefty uncredited (but not unpaid) contribution to a third book. Although I’m not exactly sure of how much money I made this year (weird but true, although suffice to say it was enough), I am reasonably sure about half of my income has come from book writing, which is a first, and which I also like. I’m going to work on having some more years like this.

The other nice thing is that both The Rough Guide to the Universe and Book of the Dumb have done well in their respective fields of science books and books about stupid people. To my immense relief, Universe was uniformly well-reviewed around the world, with praise both for the writing and for the sheer mass of information in the book. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a huge psychic load off my shoulders. I’m not an actual astronomer, so I was sweating bullets about getting things right; I had that paranoid fantasy in which some immensely stupid error slips through (the moon being made out of boogers, perhaps, or the sun powered by AA batteries) and then Stephen Hawking makes fun of me in front of everyone. This is not happened; far from it, in fact.

Book of the Dumb, on the other hand, has not been reviewed so far as I know, but I find this entirely unsurprising since it’s not one of those books that gets bandied about in the literary pages of newspapers. It’s not for nothing that my “book tour” for BotD consisted almost entirely of radio appearances: It’s a book positively made to be plugged on “Chuck And Bob AND THE MORNING ZOOOOOOOOOO!!!” or whatever variation of that theme you have in your own home town. And you know, I’m perfectly happy with that. Given the choice between writing small, respectful books that get small, respectful reviews and sell small, respectful amounts, or selling tens of thousands of copies of a book that features people getting their arms stuck in toilets to the morning drivetime crowd, well, I’ll take the latter. I’ve got a mortgage, baby. Yes, I’m a hack. At this point, I’m surprised that this is an issue to anyone.

The thing is, of course, that it’s not an either/or situation: One can write both “small” books and “big” books. Indeed, one of the things I like about 2003 is that I did do both. The Universe book is probably not going to sell as well as the Dumb book (indeed, it’s very nearly an impossibility, as Dumb had a first printing some eight times as large as Universe’s), but I couldn’t be happier with it. Minus a typesetting error or two (which will be corrected in the next printing, anyway), it’s exactly the sort of book I always wanted to write. And I love being a writer who can write a book explaining the universe and a book that makes fun of ridiculous people — “can” meaning both “I have the ability” and “I’ve managed to dupe people into paying me to do it.” I don’t doubt there are better writers than I, but I have a pretty good range. 2003 let me confirm that in book form.

Bookwise, 2004 looks pretty good. Old Man’s War will finally hit the shelves near the end of the year (hardcover! Wheee!), and before then at least one Uncle John’s book will sport some contributions from me. And while it’s not in the same category as “real” books, I’ve decided to go through the Whatever archives and pick some of my favorites to present in a self-published book, probably in time for my birthday. I’ve been doing this for five years, after all. It’s not a bad time for a retrospective.

Outside of books, 2003 has been interesting professionally as well. One thing I’ve always mentioned about writing professionally is that one has to accept that nothing lasts forever, and indeed 2003 saw a couple of my long-term clients taper away. But then again, there are other opportunities to explore as well, not the least of which has been the AOL Journals project, and my By The Way journal. It’s been very interesting being on the ground floor of an entire online community creating itself, and also exciting to be a fundamental part of its growth. I think there will be a lot to do with AOL Journals in 2004, to take the community out of its infancy and help integrate it with the larger online community of writers, bloggers and whomever. I’m looking forward to that. So in all, 2003 was a good year for me professionally.

Personally, it was not so bad, either. Family, of course, is going along swimmingly, with me even more madly in love with my wife and child than in years before. In keeping with my general policy of not discussing my intimate family life in anything more than general statements and sweeping hand gestures, that’s all I’m going to say about that. The big social event for me was Torcon 3, the big science fiction convention held in Toronto. Cringe though you may, ye uninitiated swine, the fact of the matter was it was the first time in years I got the pleasure of hanging out with a bunch of folks in the same line of work as I am, and I enjoyed spending time with people with whom I became friendly and who (as a consequence) I’d actually like to have become friends in the traditional sense of the word. They’re not all geeks, and those that are, are eminently worth knowing. Anyway, it’s not like I’m all suave and metrosexual, you know.

It was also a reminder that I am fairly isolated, both geographically and intellectually. I like where I live quite a lot, and I also like the standard of living that rural America provides me; it’s nice to have a lawn with almost the exact proportions of a New York City block. On the other hand, outside of immediate family and neighbors (all of whom are very nice) I see no one except the guys who deliver stuff to my house, and I’m not sure they want to spend any time with me (it may have something to do with the fact I answer the door in my bathrobe).

Most of the time this isolation doesn’t bother me — thanks to the Internet, I’m in virtual constant contact with a ton of people (hi there!) — but recently I’ve been having a need to actually see people physically, to actually be in the presence of people with whom I converse. Also, to have sushi more than once a year. So of the two major New Year’s resolutions I’m making for 2004, one is “go out and actually be with people.” This may involve trips. That’s okay with me. So, fair warning: I may appear in your town. Let me know if you have a couch.

My other New Year’s resolution? Simply to be more organized. I did quite a bit in 2003 but I have the gnawing suspicion that if I had just a little more organizational structure, I’d either have accomplished more, or at the very least not felt I was running behind of stuff as often as I did. Like the classic chaotic writer, there’s always something I need to be getting to — book proposals, magazine queries, finishing a novel — that I seem to postpone more than I like.

(In the case of the novel, actually, it’s not a matter of postponing but of writing more slowly than I have before. It bugs the hell out of me but I think it’s the natural pace of this particular piece of work. I’d try to rush it but the fact is I’m really happy with what I’m writing so far, and when something is working, even at a slow pace, you’d be kind of nuts to screw with it. I’m fortunate in that so far, my editors have resisted the urge to beat me with a hammer. I love my editors. They are best and kindest people in the world. They smell nice, too!).

So: More organization. I’m definitely going to have Krissy help me with that. She’s the most organized person I know. It’s not why I married her, but I will say that it’s a damn fine marital perk.

So that was 2003 for me, and those are my hopes and expectations for 2004. Here’s hoping that in all things, 2004 is a year we remember fondly in the years to come. See you on the other side.


Wrapping Up

The final tally for my literacy drive was $726.04 — not a bad sum. I’ve got a call into Reading is Fundamental right now to see if there’s a way to send the amount to them directly through PayPal; if not, I’ll simply cut them a check and mail it off. But since the whole thing was handled electronically to this point, I’d like to go ahead and finish that way too. Call it the obsessive-compulsive in me.

I’d like to say thank you to everyone who contributed to this; I’m happy to say the average donation was above the suggested $3, with several people donating rather substantial multiples of that amount. I do hope that each of you enjoyed the stories I wrote in exchange for your contributions; I had fun writing them. And of course I’m glad that the end result of our mutual efforts will be books for kids. That’s a great gift to be able to give. So once again: Thanks very much.


My Christmas Gifts

It’s this simple.

I’m off for a few days. Merry Christmas to all of you.


Quick Note to “Scalzi Christmas” Readers

The final Christmas story is taking slightly longer than expected to write. I should have it to you tomorrow if I don’t in fact finish it this very evening.



We celebrated Athena’s 5th birthday yesterday. Her birthday isn’t actually until Tuesday, but you know how family is — it’s easier to schedule everyone for a weekend, especially at this point in the holiday season. Athena was of course unaware there was anything going on; beyond the fact that we were holding her birthday on a day that was not actually her birthday, we’ve also never made entirely clear to her when exactly her birthday is. So when we leap up and scream “Happy Birthday!” at her, that’s when she knows. This is probably the last year we’ll be able to get away with this, since Athena now grasps the concepts of dates and months and such. But it was fun while it lasted.

If you haven’t read this already, here’s the letter I wrote to Athena when she was born. Time changes a lot of things, but in this case not the way I feel about my child. She’s still an unfathomably wonderful gift.


Jackson & The Hobbit

One last thought on the whole Jackson/Tolkien thing. On the off-chance the Tolkien estate deigns to allow Peter Jackson to do a version of The Hobbit (which seems unlikely as Christopher Tolkien appears to dislike the films and is not inclined to allow a filmed version of The Hobbit), I think Jackson should consider doing the whole thing CG. The WETA folks showed with Gollum that they can make incredibly realistic and effecting CG characters, and even the best-case scenario for The Hobbit (in which the Tolkien Estate relents tomorrow and allows a film version — and allows Jackson to do it), he wouldn’t be able to do much with it until 2005, by which time computing processing will have taken yet another jump and the WETA folks themselves will have gotten more adept, what with working on King Kong and all. I wouldn’t expect it to be cheap, but at this point, money’s not an object. It’s not like Jackson hasn’t shown that he’s up for a challenge when it comes to working in film. And he’s shown that he doesn’t let effects get in the way of actually telling a story. So why not?


Why The Film is Better than the Book

So, yesterday I said: “It’s my belief that the Rings movies are better as movies than the Rings books are as books.” Now I’ll follow through on that thought.

No one disputes that The Lord of the Rings is great fantasy, and vastly influential. Indeed, throw a rock and you’ll hit a fantasy writer who has cribbed most if not all of his or her fictional world from Tolkien’s vast world-building notes (throw the rock hard, if you please). It’s also a great story, full of all the traditional mythic themes that make everyone who’s read Joseph Campbell (or at least heard Bill Moyers rattle on about him) wet with excitement. But is The Lord of the Rings great literature? By which I mean, is the writing of the work itself so very well done that no other but the book can be the best realization of the story within?

I say no. Once again, there’s no doubt Tolkien is a master world builder, and his real-world mastery of languages and the themes of myth aids him immeasurably creating a well-constructed tale. But while he loves language and myth, it’s not so clear the man loves literature. He loves the world he made but was a little put out writing a story in it. It’s been noted that of all the books of the world Tolkien made, his favorite is The Silmarillion, which is his great “historical” work of Middle-Earth, and very much its Bible. Tolkien’s son Christopher also edited and released 10 volumes his father’s world-building notes and stories, a veritable orgy of details.

In other words, we come to Tolkien for the depth and veracity of his world, not necessarily for the literature he created from it. As literature, The Lord of the Rings is perfectly good, but it’s not great. Tolkien is not a great stylist, to begin with, and while The Hobbit and some of his shorter pieces have a light step, readingwise The Lord of the Rings can be a slog, with long stretches of flatness, declamatory exposition and (yes) indifferent poetry. The story Tolkien tells is great, but the text that tells it is rather less so.

And ultimately this is why, to the pain of fantasy readers and lovers everywhere, the brahmins of literature have consistently balked at letting Tolkien past the gate and into the realm of great writers. It’s not just genre snobbery, although that is part of it. Ultimately though, the fact is that as a writer, the man’s not the equal of the great writers of the 20th Century. To put it pithily: He’s no Nabokov. And this is why, while great fantasy, The Lord of the Rings is not great literature.

But the very “not greatness” of the Rings as literature is what makes it possible for it to be one of the very great films. Allow me to submit one of my personal observations regarding literature: Great Literature Does Not Make for Great Movies. And the reason for this is simple: Great literature is, simply, a great story, best told. The great books tell their tales so well that every other iteration of the story — including the movie — is a pale copy. The book is the Platonic ideal; the movie is (literally) the flickering shadow on the wall. And this is why, despite the moanings and wailing that film would replace literature, the great books are still with us: Because they are the best tellings of their stories. One may admire the film version of War and Peace, which is very good, but no one seriously argues that it supplants the novel. I thought the 1984 film version of 1984 was a damn fine approximation of Orwell’s novel, but it’s not the novel. And to go back to Nabokov, despite the filmed essaying of his novel by both Kubrick and Adrian Lyne, Lolita is not in danger of disappearing from bookstore shelves.

Great movies, on the other hand, come from not-so-great books. And the reason for this is equally simple: The not-so-great book is not necessarily the best telling of its story. The examples are rife. Take The Godfather. The movie: The greatest American film of the last 50 years. The novel, by Mario Puzo: Eh. It’s good. Take Gone with the Wind. The movie: The quintessential example of Studio-era epic filmmaking. The novel: A bodice-ripper. Take Jaws. The movie: Scared people off beaches for years. The book: Flat (as proved by Benchley’s other books). Other great movies made from decent-to-near-great books: M*A*S*H. A Clockwork Orange. The Wizard of Oz. Dr. Strangelove. The Exorcist.

Indeed, in all the cases above, the film version of the story is the definitive version — the original text is, at best, complementary to the film. This is because the film is the better telling of the story. And it’s not simply because some stories are better told as films for visual purposes. It’s because the texts did not best express the story. It doesn’t mean the books are bad — Baum’s Oz books, for one, are a delightful read. It simply means the story is more completely serviced in film.

As is the case with The Lord of the Rings. Director Peter Jackson is famously a huge fan of the Tolkien books, but based on the movies (and the various commentary I’ve read from and about the man) I think it’s more accurate to say he’s a huge fan of Middle-Earth — he seems very nearly enamored of the work other artists have done in the place as he is with Tolkien’s prose. Artist Alan Lee, as an example, is not a distant runner-up in his influence on Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth: Jackson took more than one of Lee’s imaginings of the story and placed them bodily into the film, and of course hired Lee outright to be the conceptual artist for the film.

Tolkien’s own text was weak enough that Jackson and his co-screenwriters were able to rework it into something that in stronger in a filmic setting than it is in the setting of literature. The result of this, as many critics and commentators have mentioned, is that while the film fiddles with the details in the book, as a whole the film feels right — it’s not the same telling of the War of the Ring as Tolkien’s, but it’s a true telling nonetheless, inasmuch as true is the right word to use here. The themes of the tale, as well as its human and mythic qualities, are amply served by Jackson and his film — and better expressed than they are in Tolkien’s prose.

(In fact, one could argue — now that the technology exists to illustrate the nature of his creation — Tolkien’s world is uniquely suited for film. The man created a vast store of world-building material for filmmakers to work with, including a history, a mythology, a geography and a bestiary. As a culture, Middle-Earth is arguably better known than some actual cultures that existed on this planet. Someone mention this to Christopher Tolkien and see how long it takes the man to stroke out.)

I’m not going to make the argument that the film version of The Lord of the Rings will actually supplant Tolkien’s literary version, although the reason for this is not because I think the books are a better or equal version of this particular tale of Middle-Earth, but because the books have had an unusual 50-year head start on the films. All the films mentioned above were filmed within a few years of their source novel’s publication, although I should note that the proximity is not a cause for the movie supplanting the book (as a current example, the Harry Potter books do not appear to be in danger of being wiped out by their film versions — although I’ll also note that I don’t consider the Harry Potters to be awesome literature. But they serve for the example). As it is, the two versions of the Rings tale will happily co-exist side-by-side.

Nevertheless: The filmed version of the tale is a better film than the book version is a book, because the storyteller in the film tells the story better. Middle-Earth is undoubtedly Tolkien’s world. But Jackson is the better teller of this particular tale.


The Lord of the Rings in Film History

Yes, of course, I went to the first showing of Return of the King in my area, which was a 10:50am showing Wednesday morning. Theoretically I could have driven to the other side of Dayton and caught it at 12:01am, but I guess I’m not a true fan, since convenience really is a dividing line for me. Nevertheless, I’ve seen it, and this weekend I’ll probably see it again, this time with Krissy. I’ll avoid posting a review, as I’ve nothing particularly new to add to the general swelling of approval, other than to note it’s largely correct. However, I would like to talk about some of the commentary surrounding the release of King.

Critics are falling over themselves trying to express their desire to crown the Lord of the Rings films with some “greatest of all time” accolade (with the notable exception of Roger Ebert, who for some unfathomable reason has never warmed to these films beyond praise for their technical accomplishments). So far, I’ve read “Greatest Film Trilogy Ever,” “Greatest American Film Trilogy Ever” (ironic considering the total New Zealand-ness of the production in every sense but the cash), “Greatest Hollywood Trilogy Ever” (more accurate), “Greatest Film Event of the Century and/or Millennium,” (pointless — it’s 2003, people), “Greatest Filmed Work of Fantasy,” “Greatest Fantasy Trilogy,” and, from some particularly frothy quarters, “Best. Film. Ever.” — although whether this refers to King or the whole Rings cycle as a whole is unclear.

Well. Even taking the trilogy as a whole, it’s not the best film ever, so let’s be clear on that right out. Anyone who makes that argument is going to get beat over the head with everything from Citizen Kane to The Godfather to Battleship Potemkin to The Bicycle Thief. Speaking as someone with now more than a dozen years of pro film critiquing experience, I’d suggest we all recognize that the quest for the “Greatest Film Ever” is a futile one — after a century of film, there’s too much of it to pretend that one beats the rest.

If you put a gun to my head, I’ll suggest to you that Citizen Kane is probably the most significant film in film history — it stands at a pivot point in film history where it successfully recapitulates most of the highlights of film theory to that point, while laying the groundwork for a lot of technical innovation, and is a curious marriage of the fabled studio system and an indie ethos (25-year-old director with total creative control, don’t you know). But that’s not the same as “The Best.” So let’s throw that out.

Is it (“it” being the entire Rings series) the best fantasy film? Again, it’s not especially clear: If you don’t narrowly define “fantasy” as “them films what got dragons,” I bet you film historians would toss a few worthy contenders your way, starting with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and then continuing on through King Kong (A remake of which Peter Jackson will attempt next) Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, 2001, and of course Star Wars and ET both.

If again we dispense with “best” and go with “significant,” it’s hard to argue against Star Wars in favor of Rings. Indeed, there is direct cinematic lineage from the former to the latter; had someone gone back in time and hit George Lucas with a truck in 1975, it’s deeply questionable whether special effects technology — the critical technical component in realizing the Rings films affordably — would be at a point today where these films could have been made. Without Star Wars, we might have seen Fellowship of the Ring in 2010, if at all (True, if someone killed Lucas in 1975, we wouldn’t have been confronted with The Phantom Menace. But let’s not think about that now).

Best trilogy? Film geeks will argue Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy is better, and how are you going to argue? You spend much time watching Indian films from the 1950s? More recently in the time stream, fans of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski will offer you his “Three Colors” trilogy of films. We finally get on safe ground with “best Hollywood trilogy,” but let’s concede it’s faint praise, because there are no other Hollywood trilogies of comparable quality — none even in the same ballpark. Film buffs tout the Godfather films, but let’s be clear about the Godfather films: They’re not a trilogy. There are two Godfather films which are of a piece, and which between them constitute the high-water mark of late 20th Century American Film, and then there’s the tacked-on-16-years-later-because-Coppola’s-short-on-cash addendum of Godfather, Part III. Everyone knows this, so let’s not all pretend the Godfathers come into the discussion here. Honestly. We’ll all feel better for letting the lie perish here.

Tossing aside Godfather, we’re on pretty thin ground for fabulous Hollywood trilogies. This is entirely to be expected. Hollywood doesn’t make trilogies because stories need to be carried over three films. Hollywood makes trilogies because film number one hit big and the studio wants to crank up the money machine. Hollywood Film Trilogies, almost by definition, are not creatively necessary, merely financially desirable. In the history of film, Rings is very nearly unique because it was conceived as a trilogy — it was understood going into the production that the arc of the story would take three films. Comparing this intentional trilogy to other, basically unintentional film trilogies is comparing apples to oranges.

To make a fair comparison, you have to consider other film trilogies conceived as film trilogies, and off the top of my head, the only other Hollywood film trilogy where I know that was a consideration from the start is Lucas’ current Star Wars trilogy. No one in his or her right mind considers these films the equal of the Rings films, aside from the visual production qualities, and it’s is not complete in any event (Going back to Krzysztof Kieslowski, his “Three Colors” trilogy was envisioned as a trilogy, but it’s not a Hollywood production, and the film stories themselves are not linked aside from a general theme). Until 2005, at least, Rings is literally sui generis.

Indeed, even thinking of Rings as a trilogy is fraught with danger. The Lord of the Rings was famously chopped up into three books by publishers, not by Tolkien himself; likewise, the film Rings is one story and ultimately one film — filmed in one go save for pick-ups and effects shots — which had to be released in three installments almost entirely for logistical and commercial purposes. In theory, had New Line and Peter Jackson been insane enough to do so, Rings could have been released in one gaspingly huge 14-hour lump. Those of us who do not actually believe we are Arwen or Aragorn thank them both for their more measured release schedule, but nevertheless the fact remains: Ring is of a single piece.

And thus we come to it at last, what Rings inarguably represents: The single greatest sustained effort in the history of commercial cinema. There have been other long-form films, of course, and even great ones — Abel Gance’s Napoleon comes to find immediately, as does Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah — but none of them come close to the scale of the Rings, either onscreen or offscreen, and none of them show the attention to detail in the machinery of filmmaking, from script and story to production design and direction, that Rings provides. Likewise, there have been films which have incubated over a period of time as long as these films have (seven years and counting, since there’s still an Extended Edition of King to be slapped onto DVD, which requires more effects shots, editing and scoring), but never ones so active, so consistent and over so long, turning out a finished film of such high quality.

On these terms, Rings is as good as it’s ever been, and quite honestly it’s difficult to see how anyone could do it as well. It’s not to say that people won’t try. They’re trying even now: You’ve got the new Star Wars films (which, to be fair to Lucas, were begun prior to the start of Ring), and in the last year we saw the back-to-back single story effort that was Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions (a film which, taken singly and doubly, I think is somewhat unjustly maligned, primarily because people wanted them to provide an ontological platform for their lives, but the Wachowski brothers just wanted to make a live-action anime flick. Their reputation will improve over time). You can also argue that the Harry Potter films are basically one non-stop production. Then there’s Kill Bill, which really was a single film that was chopped (heh) into two.

I think you’ll see more of this thing in the future, first because Rings showed it could be done, and second for the purely practical reason that if you’re a studio and you intend to make a franchise out of something, it may simply be cheaper to make two or more films at the same time (pooling the cost of the below-the-line production costs) than to make one film now and one film later. To go back to the Matrix sequels, Revolutions has done less than half the business of Reloaded, but as the films were budgeted as a single shoot — and that cost was recouped with Reloaded’s box office take — the box office of Revolutions is basically pure gravy.

Also, now that movie studios know that audiences will stick with a multipart story over the space of several years, they may be more willing to risk doing two or three-part films, released in (relatively) rapid sequence. For example, I’d be willing to bet some (small) amount of money that when Warner Bros. gets to filming the fourth or fifth Harry Potter films, it may opt to make two films out of one or both, simply because the novels upon which they’re based are so damn long. If they do — and the gamble works — then all bets are off and we’ll see a lot more multi-part films. The miniseries, which died on TV, may make a comeback on the movie screen.

But again, it’s difficult to see how any of these efforts could top Rings, which represented a perfect storm of talent, source material, real-world timing and (let’s not discount this) novelty. It’s a landmark.

I was going to chat a little about my thoughts on Tolkien’s books as source material and how they relate to making a really excellent movie, but I’ve already gone waaaaaay long, so I’ll save that for a future post. But I’ll tantalize you with this much. It’s my belief that the Rings movies are better as movies than the Rings books are as books.

Ha! A cliffhanger for y’all!

Update: See the exciting conclusion here.


What to Do With the Man

The news of Saddam’s capture is, of course, delightful, and good in an unqualified sense. Already those on the left are finding caveats and those on the right are becoming unbearably smug, but I’ll leave them to their own respective spins and say that from here, where I stand, this is a good work done, and many thanks to those who made it possible.

The question now is what to do with Saddam. While I’m sure that many people will come up with many suggestions, allow me to suggest that we do to him what I would have us do to Osama bin Laden, should we find him: Put him in a clear plastic box, surrounded by television monitors that play testimonies of those who he has tortured and imprisoned, and the testimonies of the friends and families of those he has killed, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ceaselessly, until the man dies. And of course, I would make sure he lived a very long time indeed.


DRM Silliness

I’m going to get geeky with music, here. Hold on.

One of the things people who get annoyed with digital rights management in regards to legally purchased and downloaded musical files are especially annoyed with is that although DRM is easily evaded by recording the audio playback as a .wav file and then compressing the .wav file into the DRM-less audio format of your choice, ultimately what you’re doing is recompressing music which was already compressed before, thus degrading the sonic experience. So from their point of view this is a massive imposition.

Well, I’m a curious fellow, and so I wanted to hear how much degradation (musically speaking) I’d experience in a situation like this. So I went ahead and recorded two DRM-protected tracks I’d purchased — “Fallen” by Sarah McLachlan from the iTunes Music Store (AAC format), and “The Old Apartment” from Barenaked Ladies from (wma format) — and converted the recording into two 128 kps mp3 files, using my ACID Pro 4.0 program (it can also be done with less expensive recording software; it’s just the software I have).

The answer is fairly interesting. There is a bit of degradation, which is expressed (to my ears, at least) as a slightly “brighter” and more sibilant sound at the high end — which in practical terms means that cymbal crashes seem to “sizzle” slightly more than they do in the original sound files. The middle and lower frequencies seem largely unaffected.

I should note that in terms of fiddling with graphic equalization, I tend to crank up the higher frequencies, so cranking those frequencies back down diminishes the “sizzle” significantly; when I have the graphic equalization flat, the difference between the original files and their recompressed children is, from a practical point of view, negligible. And to be entirely honest about it, I prefer the recompressed version of “The Old Apartment” to the original, which is kind of muddy to my ears. And of course, the degradation issue becomes rather less of a problem if you’re happy to encode at a higher rate in exchange for a larger file (which, as hard drives get larger, becomes less and less of an issue).

Now, I’ll note that I’m not listening to this music in ideal conditions — I’m listening to the tracks through my $50 Altec Lansing 2.1 speakers, which is connected to a SoundMAX integrated digital audio card, which is the basic sound card that came with my computer. I also listened to the tracks through a pair of Sony headphones I bought in New York a couple years ago for about $25. But this is kind of the point: Most people, even those who really love music, aren’t hardcore audiophiles — they’re listening to music like I do, on their computer with adequate speakers, or, perhaps, through a portable stereo or (in my case)home stereo component system that they bought in 1991 for $400 and which they still use because it still works. In other words, they’re listening to music like normal humans. Hell, the best audio system I currently own is in my minivan.

(Hardcore audiophiles, of course, wouldn’t sully themselves with compressed music files; they’re either playing their vinyl on gyroscopically balanced turntables playing through vacuum-tubed amps into speakers that laser-detect the shape of the room, or presently repurchasing their entire music collection on SACD. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.)

This is why in a basic sense I’m unconcerned with the practical effects of DRM in terms of managing my music. It’s trivial for me to put the music in a format that I’m happy with, with a sound quality which is perfectly acceptable given to what I have to listen through and how I listen to the music on a daily basis. I grant that it would be nice not having to fiddle in order to get my music the way I want it to be, but on the other hand, it’s no more difficult than encoding a CD into mp3 format.

Neither I nor, I suspect, anyone else who has enough of a technical understanding to grasp either the concepts of DRM or recording from a “line out” feed will have a practical reason to have anything to fear from its restrictions, particularly if what they’re doing is simply organizing their own collection of legally bought music. From the music listener’s point of view it is a corporate tax on the ignorant, in that it is the technically unlearned who will have their music collection tethered to particular computers or jukeboxes or whatever. But such an ignorance tax regarding technology isn’t really a new situation.

Given that DRM is essentially useless against anyone who understands it, I have to assume that the point of DRM is not really to restrict the consumer but to calm the suppliers, i.e., the music companies. It provides the illusion of control, in that most people are indeed ignorant of the details of digital rights management, and have little to no interest in taking the time to learn more about it, and while it taxes the ignorant, it doesn’t punish them the way other schemes do, like the recent attempt to introduce encoding to block people from playing CDs on their PCs. That’s enough for the music companies for the moment.

It’s still not entirely clear to me that the music companies realize to the extent their business model has been blown up, and that people like Apple and (inevitably) Microsoft, in owning the shops, are poised to become music companies in their own right. Steve Jobs denies this idea in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, but on the other hand look at another one of Job’s side gigs, Pixar. When Disney got into business with Pixar, it assumed it was in the driver’s seat. Now it’s nearly a decade later and Disney needs Pixar a whole lot more than Pixar needs Disney.

Likewise, a decade from now, established artists with a committed fan base will be asking the music labels what they can do for them that they can’t already do for themselves dropping their tunes directly onto iTunes. They’re already doing it now — note Pearl Jam, Natalie Merchant and Prince — but in ten years it’ll likely be the rule, not the exception.

And when that happens, DRM will be even less of an issue than it is now. Fans don’t want to rip off musicians, and musicians trust (or at least understand the value of appearing to trust) their fans. Middleman stores like iTunes (and by extension Apple) will more actively take profits from distributing the music, lessening the need to protect their music player market with DRM. Music companies will still be around (they’ll buy into up-and-coming bands and be a relatively safe haven for veterans who don’t want the hassle of running their organization) but I imagine their DRM policies, should they exist, will be rather less restrictive than they are now due to business pressures.

So ultimately, DRM is, in my mind, a middle step between the way the music business was and what it will be in time. It’s transition. DRM means the transition is somewhat less painful and more ordered than it would be otherwise — certainly more smooth than the transition appeared it would be even a couple of years ago.

That being the case, I can hang with the inconvenience of re-encoding music files from time to time. It won’t last.


Another Review of Universe

Well, isn’t this nice: A good review of The Rough Guide to the Universe in Astronomy & Geophysics, the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Here’s the link; you’ll need to scroll about two-thirds of the way down the page to get the review.

For those of you who don’t want to bother with the click, the review is basically summed up in this sentence: “It is not a book that goes into any great depth, but it is a lot of fun and gives a good general overview of current astronomy.” And this line is nice, too: “A book for someone who wants to find out more about astronomy, but would recoil from something that looks like a textbook, or a children’s book, or anything that looks too dull, thick or heavy.” Since that is indeed exactly that the book is intended to be, I am of course very pleased by the review. Also, it’s very nice to have an official “thumbs up” from the Royal Astronomical Society; I figure if I’ve made astronomers happy I’m doing something right.

I’ve been very pleased and relieved that so far I haven’t seen a bad review of Universe, and most of the reviews I’ve seen have been positive to very positive. Being as nuts as I am about the field, that means a lot to me. Of all the bad books I have the potential to write, I’m glad this wasn’t one of them.

I should also note that Amazon has actually thought to bundle Universe and Book of the Dumb together in a package deal: You can get the both of them for $22.23, which is $7 off the list price of both books.


It’s Not Too Late to Pitch In

What do Dorothy Parker, the Village People, David Cronenberg and Zbigniew Brzezinski have in common? They are all featured players in the first of three Christmas stories I am writing this season. The story is now up on the site, but the only way you’ll be able to access it is to pitch in and support my literacy drive. Just $3 for three stories and the heartwarming satisfaction of knowing you’re helping kids all over the country learn how to read. You can’t beat that. Come on down: You know you want to know how all these people somehow connect.


By Popular Demand

As requested by several readers, there is now a permanent link to By The Way, my AOL Journal, over there in my links. Please feel free to avail yourselves of it as much — or as little — as you choose.


Doing My Part.

Santorum. Santorum. Santorum. There, that should help bring Santorum, the sex-related term, to Google primacy over the gay-act-hating US Senator from Pennsylvania. And, of course, it couldn’t happen to a nicer gay-act-hating sort of guy.

Having said that, the Santorum Shot is a truly disturbing drink idea.


The Bear Knows Why

Let’s just say Santa has his “nice” list, his “naughty” list, and his “get a visit from the collection elves” list. I leave it to you to decide which list the bear was on.

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