Wacky Database Madness

My WordPress seems to have momentarily not wanted to speak to my database. It seems to have corrected itself. Who knows if it’ll happen again. But if you suddenly can’t connect here, that’s what it is (naturally, if you can’t connect, you won’t see this message on the front page of Whatever. But I send it out, perchance to send it along the RSS grapevine).

Reader Request Week 2008 #4: Where I Am Now

Dan asks:

Cast yourself back to the Scalzi of twenty years ago.

Now, in your life, are you anywhere near where you thought you’d be?

Yeah, pretty much I am. Twenty years ago I was a first-year student in college, and I had a weekly column in the college newspaper and I had bluffed my way into upper-level creative writing course (in which the professor on the first day declared that there was to be no science fiction written for his class, the bastard!), and I pretty much figured I was going to be a writer in the future, because that’s what I was then, and what I knew I was good at (relatively speaking) and wanted to continue doing.

There are specifics that I wouldn’t have expected. For example, living in Ohio, which still occasionally comes as a shock to this southern California boy. Also, I didn’t anticipate the Internet in any way. When I was in college I assumed I would go on and be a columnist at a newspaper or a magazine. Well, I did — at 24, I was the youngest nationally syndicated newspaper columnist in America (and quality-wise, alas, it showed) — but I didn’t then expect that I would end up essentially writing a daily column online, on my personal site, which gets as many weekday visitors as the average American newspaper has in weekday circulation. I mean, come on, that’s a little wacky. It still surprises me. But it doesn’t surprise me I’m writing in this form.

And as for writing novels, not surprised there, either. I hoped I would be writing books, and let’s just say I’m not entirely surprised I ended up writing science fiction at this point, either. I suppose I could have made my debut in fiction by writing a sensitively-written novel about a young writer who goes back to his hometown and meets up with all the old friends he’s left behind (and the one girl who was always meant for him, and still is), filled with exquisitely observed moments leading to a small Moment of Realization™ near the end, but inasmuch as I just threw up a little in my mouth even writing that description, I’m glad I went the route of aliens and exploding space ships. Just more fun, you know?

So, yeah: I became what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s nice. We should all be so lucky. But then I suppose if we were all so lucky, there’d be millions of astronauts and quarterbacks, and a substantial number of people who were both. I don’t think our economy could support that.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

Reader Request Week 2008 #3: Sex and Video Games

Arachne Jericho wants to know my opinion on:

Sex and video games

Well, I’m a fan of each individually, that’s for sure.

As for sex in video games, I don’t have any major problem with it philosophically; the age of your average game player is the late 20s, so presumably they know about sex (at least in theory), and for those who aren’t quite there yet, the ESRB ratings should tell mom and dad about its presence, the occasional “hot coffee” slip-up notwithstanding. Yes, I know certain people are all het up about it, but, you know, certain people are all het up about a lot of things. It’s just video games’ turn.

But from a game play point of view, I don’t think too much of sex in video games; it seems rather silly at this point. It’s not even advanced enough to be creepy in an “uncanny valley” sort of way; anyone who saw the “hot coffee” minigame in “GTA: San Andreas” saw just how goofy it looked; the only way you could think of it as sexy or titillating was if you had the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old. I don’t doubt that there will eventually come a day when graphics on consoles will provide a sex scene realistic enough to be genuinely erotic, but it’ll be a while yet.

For now, gamers have to settle for “sexy” rather than simulated sex, although even then “sexy” in video games is a matter of some dispute. Lots of boys found early Lara Croft sexy because of her improbably polygonal breasts; likewise there are folks who play the Soul Caliber series just to watch Ivy jiggle about in her structurally-dubious costume, or to get a little bit of fan service when Sophitia did her little victory hop. My money for the sexiest (female) character in video games, however, is Alyx Vance, who features nary a jiggle or panty flash, but instead has a brain, some well-written empathy and is also handy with a pistol that she never has to reload. This you can file under the category of “different strokes for different folks”.

Be that as it may, I will be delighted to do without the potential cut scene in which Gordon Freeman and Alyx graphically do their part to repopulate the species in the wake of the fall of the Combine (or however it all ends), as exciting as such a prospect might be to certain furtive game players. These folks need to get their porn the old-fashioned way — off YouPorn and Danni.com — and leave poor Alyx (and Gordon) alone.

What about games where you play having sex? Well, you know. I suppose they will happen (and have happened, lame as they have been), and for those of you who will have an interest in them, a friendly bit of advice: no matter how adept you become at button mashing, if you try “up, left, left, down, circle, square, square” on a real sex partner, you’ll either get slapped or laughed at. Trust me, sex is one interactive game play experience which is better co-op, and unplugged.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

Reader Request Week 2008 #2: Technological Gifts

Daniel asks:

You are the the Great God Scalzi, but sadly you are not quite omnipotent. In fact you only have the ability to create five new technologies. Which 5 technologies will you bestow upon humanity in 2008?

Five seems a little much; if you choose the right five, humans won’t have to do a damn thing for themselves between now and when the race finally implodes from ennui. So, Daniel, allow me to limit myself even further and give humanity only a single technological advance, not just in 2008 but ever. That advance: Fusion.

Why fusion? Because at this point in our species’ history, we’re killing ourselves over energy; energy procurement and consumption is the driving force for pollution and climate change, and a significant factor in American and global economic and social inequality (not to mention our military involvement in the middle east). Basically, we get really really stupid in the presence of energy. Cheap, efficient and safe fusion technology won’t make us any less stupid overall, alas, but it might buy us some time to let some of the smarter and saner members of our species do a little cleanup and long-term planning before we find something else to get all stupid over. That’s worth spotting humanity a technological advance.

Note, please, that fusion doesn’t solve every problem and would create a few new ones: When petrodollars (or petroeuros these days) dry up, for example, the middle east is going to fall in on itself in really interesting and probably very scary ways. But overall I suspect cheap fusion technology would make life better for more people around the world than not, and open more doors for humanity than it would shut. On balance, it would be a nice gift. Everything else, I’d make ’em work for.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

Reader Request Week 2008 #1: Homeschooling

For this year’s Reader Request Week, I’m going to try to do something a little different. Over the last five years I answered one (or occasionally two) of the questions a day, and then posted a follow-up entry with shorter answers to left-over questions. This year, I think I’ll try answering more questions, but writing shorter individual posts (mostly; there may be a couple I just blather on about). It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work!

So let’s get to the first question, from Shiloh, about homeschooling:

A California appellate court has just ruled that homeschooling parents must have teaching credentials in order to homeschool their children, which is somewhat controversial; there are a lot of homeschooling parents in California, and many don’t have the necessary certification. I’m curious what you think, and if you have any opinions on homeschool in general, as an alternative form of education.

I don’t have any animus against homeschooling as a concept, although I probably wouldn’t do it myself, for several reasons, most notably that I don’t have the time (I have to work during the day) and I’m pretty sure I don’t have the patience. Also, you know. I pay taxes for my local public school — some of the highest in the state, in fact. I’m going to get my money’s worth out of that local school of mine. But if parents choose to teach their kids at home and can back up that choice by giving their kids a good, balanced education, more power to them.

As a practical matter I tend to be suspicious of the motivations of people who homeschool. While there are a number of parents who simply and strongly believe they can give their kids a better education and more attention than they can get in their local schools, I don’t think it’s any secret that a significant chunk of homeschooling parents do so because of religious convictions, i.e., they don’t want their spawn learning anything that contradicts the Bible, etc. This is easy to make fun of, but it does mean that some unsmall portion of homeschooled children are being kept actively ignorant (or alternately are coached to go through the motions of knowing science while having the idea reinforced in their heads that it’s just a pack of evil secular lies), and that’s just no good. Nor is it just an idle concern, since the homeschooling statutes here in Ohio, on the topics of subjects required, read:

5) Assurance that home education will include the following, except that home education shall not be required to include any concept, topic, or practice that is in conflict with the sincerely held religious beliefs of the parent: (a) Language, reading, spelling, and writing: (b) Geography, history of the United States and Ohio; and national, state, and local government; (c) Mathematics; (d) Science; (e) Health; (f) Physical education; (g) Fine arts, including music; and (h) First aid, safety, and fire prevention. (emphasis mine)

Which is just a nice legal way of saying parents can toss out evolution (or anything else) if they can make a case that it makes the Baby Jesus cry for their kids to learn it. Now, I recognize it’s unfair to lump all homeschoolers in with religious folks who are allergic to science; nevertheless it’s my default assumption unless noted otherwise.

Anecdotally, I have one other concern about homeschooling, which is I do wonder about the socialization of homeschooled kids — i.e., if they’re spending enough time with peers learning how to be, you know, regular humans. Part of this concern comes from watching those homeschooled spelling bee champions quiver and twitch and generally act like poorly socialized howler monkeys while they try to spell “chthonic” or whatever. Again, this is unfair (spelling bees are manifestly not the domain of the brilliantly socialized), but this is where one sees public displays of the homeschooled, and it’s something I worry about. I’d hate for these kids to go off to college and fall apart in the first semester because there’s never been a time where they haven’t spent most of their day with mom and/or dad.

As for the ruling in California, I’m of a split mind about it. I don’t think a teaching certification means that one is a competent teacher; I’ve suffered through enough piss-poor accredited teachers to know that’s the case. On the other hand, here in Ohio, all you need to homeschool your kid is a GED, and that seems a little shaky to me. And per my concern about parents homeschooling to make sure their kids don’t learn something, I think it’s in the interest of the state to be able to set some standards that every homeschooling parent must hit before they teach their own kids, which to my mind should include at least some training. As much training as California wants to require? I don’t think so. But more than a GED would be nice. Pedagogy is more than just plopping your kids down in front of a bunch of workbooks and hoping it works out for the best.

Now, left begging in all this is the question of whether education in a school setting is really a substantially better way for a kid to learn than at home, with the help of an engaged and motivated parent. But it’s another post, I suppose.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)