Reader Request Week 2010 #8: Short Bits

And now to wrap up another Reader Request Week, short answers to a bunch of questions. Because I don’t always have to be wordy, you know.


What kind of “perfect storm” of rights, permissions, or people would have to come together for you to consider making a movie out of one of your books? Are there specific actors you’d cast, or thought in your head “I bet she’d play a perfect Zoe”? Would you lean towards Hollywood big budget or perhaps a smaller reputable ‘Indie’ outfit of sorts? Tell us what you need to make a movie of one of your works happen!!!

There’s no perfect storm, and the equation is simple: Film makers with a track record I approve of plus an advance deal I find acceptable equals me allowing an option. I am pretty picky about the track record and advance deals, however. That said, this question seems to suggest that filmmakers are falling out of the sky in large numbers, begging to make a film of one of my works, and that I would be integrally involved in the film making, neither of which is true. Nor does it mean that if I allowed an option to my work, that a movie would be the ultimate outcome. Thousands of properties are optioned each year for film/tv; less than one percent, I would expect, get past the option stage.

Arrow Quivershaft:

Why do you think so many online subcultures, even ones that have nominally similar interests, like to rip each other down? And is there anything that can be done?

No, there’s nothing to be done about it, short of attempting to censor or at least moderate the entire Internet, and that’s a cure worse than the disease. As to why one group online goes after any other group online, well, you know. They do it because they can and because no one can stop them, and generally on the Internet no one’s going to seek you out and punch you in the teeth for being an asshole. People have been jerks on the Internet for about as long as the Internet’s been used by people; that’s not going to go away anytime soon. But if you want to try to do something about it, the simplest thing to do is, as they say, to be the change you seek, i.e., don’t be a jerk online yourself.


On a serious/political angle, what do you think of Obama’s promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay and the subsequent actions/lack thereof?

I thought his promise to shut it down by this last January was both optimistic and unrealistic, and although I would have approved of its being shut down in that time frame, I’m not entirely surprised it was not. I think Obama realizes that in the grand scheme of things, most Americans aren’t all that deeply concerned about the well-being of alleged Middle Eastern terrorists as long as we’re not actively torturing them (i.e., making ourselves look bad), so if it moves slowly he’s not going to get a huge amount of stick from anyone but progressives. So he’s not spending a huge amount of his political capital on it at the moment. I think he’ll eventually close it down, and when he does it’ll be far too late for most progressives and far too early for most conservatives.

My Informed Opinion:

You and foreign languages. I quote you:

“I only read and speak English.”

I find this pretty depressing.

Well, as do I, to tell you the truth. I wish I had had a better facility for other languages when I was younger (or at the very least, paid better attention in class). At this point I suspect the best way for me to learn a different language would be to live in another country, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. That said, one thing that I’ve noticed over time is that some languages I can not exactly read but at least make out the gist of what’s being said, French and Spanish being the ones that pop to mind. I think that’s just decades of knowing Latin roots plus picking up a smidgen of those languages’ grammar simply through osmosis. It’d be neat if that were to continue.

Having said all that, one of the things that’s really interesting is that the continuing improvements in online translating tools means that for a limited value of “reading,” I can now read several — although it’s probably more accurate to say that I can tell which parts are likely to be adequately translated, which parts are complete nonsense, and overall get a good idea of what’s being said through context.

Eric J:

What kind of laptop do you have? Have you noticed a trend in other writers and their laptops?

I have a three year old Toshiba (on which I am writing this, since my office is not yet up and running) and an Acer netbook which I’ve had for about 18 months now. As regards other writers, I suspect they are statistically more likely than other people to own Mac laptops, but beyond that I don’t notice any particular trend. Speaking for myself, one major laptop consideration for me is keyboard arrangement and feel; one of the reasons I got the Acer netbook, for example, was that it didn’t fiddle with the right “shift” key like other netbook makers did. Anything that slows down my typing speed and makes me think about where my fingers are is bad.


What is your personal automotive history? Most loved and hated cars of your past? Why do you drive what you now drive? And, of course, auto or manual?

I’ve owned three cars: A Ford Escort, a Suzuki Sidekick and a Honda Odyssey, and the last two of these we still own and use. I’ve liked all my cars, because they’ve done what I’ve asked them to do, which is get me places with a minimum of fuss. I’ve never been a gearhead of any sort — my geek tendencies don’t express in that direction — so in a general sense my car choices have run toward the practical and not especially exciting. The furthest I go in that direction is kinda wanting a Mustang, although that’s more about what I thought was cool when I was younger than anything else. However, I do strongly believe that you can’t really say you know how to drive a car if you don’t know how to use a manual transmission. That’s not the same as saying I prefer a manual transmission. Just that one should know how to operate one.


You’ve written very eloquently in the past about being poor and how it sucks. What I would like to read is an article about the good things about being poor. You don’t need to go all Pollyanna on us but surely there are some lessons you’re glad to have learned? Some things you wish your heirs could learn without having to really be poor?

I suppose that being poor can help you understand the place money holds in our society, and what amount you really need to survive, but I think it’s possible to learn those things without being poor; likewise, it’s possible to be poor and have those lessons go right over your head. Ultimately I don’t think there’s any real advantage to be had with genuine poverty in one’s history, or if there is, that the disadvantages one has because of poverty are extensive enough to wipe out most of the advantages. The one possible exception I would make for this is people who have actively chosen to be poor for personal, ethical or religious reasons, i.e., taking a vow of poverty. That’s a choice, and that’s fine. But I don’t suspect most people who are poor would choose to be so.

The Other Ian:

What won’t you eat? Why not?

I won’t eat brains. Tried them once (I think it was lamb brains) and the consistency was horrifying. I don’t need to go through that again. Plus they’re like injecting pure cholesterol into your bloodstream. So they’re horrible and bad for you. Once was enough. Aside from that I doubt I’ll go out of my way to eat animal gonads of any sort, and I’m okay with having an irrational aversion to placing animal balls in my mouth.

Daniel B.:

A while back, you were toying with the idea of ads on The Whatever. Never seems to have transpired…why?

Because I don’t want them and I don’t need them, basically. I was thinking about them at a time when I suspected I would need the additional money ads would bring — mostly because I thought I needed to get an assistant, which I eventually decided I didn’t need. I’ve said before that if I needed to put in ads I would, and wouldn’t feel bad about doing it. But I don’t need to now, and I don’t want them, so I’m not going to bother with them.


Could you tell us about your first kiss and the events surrounding it?

Yes, I could.

40 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2010 #8: Short Bits”

  1. I suspect your automotive history has a lot to do with your fiscal philosophy as well. One of the surest ways to save money over time is to not be constantly trading in vehicles (and continually making payments).

    My first car was a manual transmission Ford Escort. I had it in high school with a Miskatonic U ALumni Association bumper sticker on the back… all my friends called it the Lovecraft.

  2. Scalzi
    I know I am too late for submissions, but I would love to hear you rant about grammar. I have noticed your tendency to answer what was written not what was intended.

  3. Re: poverty: I’ve noticed that a lot of people who talk about voluntary simplicity are people who started out with lots of money; it’s a lot easier to live the homesteading lifestyle if you have enough money to buy the land in the first place, for example.

    The big difference between voluntary simplicity and involuntary simplicity is the emergency reserves account.

  4. “Kim’s the first girl I kissed,
    was so nervous that I nearly missed”

    That pretty much sums it up, Thanks Nickleback…

    I do like that answer though, “I could” not that you would or should or having any intention of doing so.

  5. Longtime reader, first time commenter.

    I second #Sara’s desire to read a rant about grammar. Especially if you can include some reference to Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

  6. I always thought that you’d be able to sell Agent to the Stars fairly easily. Hollywood loves stories about how great Hollywood is. Whether they’d make a good movie out of it is, however, is an open question.

  7. And here I was looking forward to Uwe Boll and Michael Bay bidding for the rights to Zoe’s Tale.

  8. I’ve found that one good thing about becoming poor is that it tends to throw the difference between needs and wants into stark relief. Of course, the lesson is only really useful once you’ve gotten back out of poverty.

  9. Grr… “Machine translation” is still more like “machine mutilation”. In my experience, there’s a big difference between what you think something means after babelfish (or something like it) is through with it, and what it actually means.

    Babelfishは、 大嫌いです。Non mi piace.

    Although, perhaps there is some proprietary licensed software that can do better.

  10. not sure I understand why someone would be depressed that you do not speak any other language than English.

  11. “I do strongly believe that you can’t really say you know how to drive a car if you don’t know how to use a manual transmission.”

    Right there with you, buddy.

    For our last vehicle, we shopped around until we had the chance to drive a Subaru Forester, and both the wife and I had the same response to the gear shifting: “Ooooh. Buttery.” You may want to test-drive one somewhere in the future.

    Oh, and I’m passing the sentence quoted above on to our Number One Son, who seems to think that being able to drive an automatic Geo Prizm is enough for him. It’s just so not.

  12. Interesting observation about the poverty question. Having been raised with not enough, I’ve got to say that a lot of opportunities to expand my horizons and abilities were lost. Want to take Art class in high school? Sorry, not enough money for art supplies. Want to take piano lessons? Clean your teacher’s house and pay for your own. So, I had no art training, but did get piano lessons by cleaning my teacher’s house. And no one suggested higher education, because how would one pay? So I graduated at age 45.

    Now, my husband’s discipline has made us wealthy. Our children do not know how wealthy, because we have lived around children of wealthy people and they are often waste products. We have two kids, one genius and one special needs. If our smart kid knew the extent of our wealth, he would feel he deserves new cars, not 5-to-10-year-old high mileage cars like we drive. But, when he needed supplies (computers, stuff for robotics, etc) I came through. I didn’t want all that genius to go to waste – I wanted his abilities to be able to flower. Now he’s at college, underperforming. I had to find a way to get myself through community college, and by damn I made A’s. We’re paying his way through university and he’s skipping classes. I think we should not have made his life so easy. A little poverty focuses the mind.

  13. atsiko@9: The JapaneseEnglish case is probably the hardest for machine translation. Translating between European languages, which are inherently more closely related to each other, is easier. It’s easier to bridge the gap of 500 years of divergent language evolution than 5,000!

    As far as cars go, I’ve always bought reliable cars and stuck with them. It’s certainly helped financially! At 44, I’ve only ever purchased three cars. (Not counting the old beater hand-me-down cars I got as a teenager.) I had a Honda Accord that I kept running for 19 years before finally replacing it with a Prius. (I really miss the manual transmission.)

  14. I’ve run two different online communities (one about food, one about silent and early talkie film) and the thing both had in common was that 1) they were unusually civil and 2) they had a real-world component. A lot of things went into #1– they tended to be older people less inclined to be jackasses online, moderation was rare but pretty damn firm when it happened, etc.– but I suspect #2 was the most important; people are less likely to be jerks online if they know there’s a considerable chance they’ll be having lunch together in the near future. So that’s my advice for civility online, it starts with civility offline.

  15. One food to consider not eating is andouillette.

    On my first visit to Paris, my wife and I were caught in the rain and ducked into a small cafe. We were cold and hungry, and she ordered the andouillette; the menu described it as a rustic, provincial sausage. It arrived, looking like an innocuous English banger but smelling like an animal’s ass. Not a domestic animal, either. Maryann bravely sampled a single bite, reporting that it tasted like it smelled.

    I couldn’t being myself to put it in my mouth. The waiter – shithead! – was snickering at us from across the room. He must see it a dozen times a week, never getting tired of it: Stupid Americans!

    We went back to our room, a 4th-floor attic apartment we rented via Craigslist, and googled it: andouillette was a traditional sausage made from a pig’s colon. The entry noted with some pride that by French law, the fecal matter must be removed from the colon prior to preparation. What were the events leading up to the passage of that law? France being France, I’m sure there was vigorous debate, with the pro-feces side complaining bitterly about the inexorable decline of French culture.

    The stupid part is, I’m kind of sorry now that I didn’t at least taste the damn thing. But as a general policy, I certainly don’t recommend *eating* it.

  16. I’m not recommending living in poverty for anyone, but you can learn things from it.

    I grew up in poverty, and what I’ve learned from it is that true poverty is not a lack of money but a lack of control of one’s life.

    So, as I grew up, I was able to function pretty well in times of no money because I was never out of control of my life.

    It also helps you, I think, if you pay attention, to sort out the real value of ‘things’. I grew up in a warm, loving family with always enough to eat [we lived on a tenant farm], a sound but pretty cold in the winter house, and mostly hand-me-down clothes.

    Today, I drive very practical vehicles and wear very practical clothes, etc, without actually having to give it much thought.

    I certainly wouldn’t wish extreme poverty on anyone, but the worst thing about it might be never learning what it takes to leave it.

  17. #16 – Lack of control of one’s life. There it is in a nutshell.

    I have years of memories of broken-down cars, but we had a tow strap. What we always needed to find was someone with a car that was not broken down, who could pull us home. We could not afford to pay the deductible for the towing insurance. If we could find someone to tow us and get the car home, my dad could fix it. He was a mechanic, and always traveled with a tool box in the trunk.

    Now, I have towing insurance, and can afford to pay the $25 deductible to get a car towed if I need it. I’ve needed a tow a few times, and every time I’ve been towed, I feel the relief of being in control of that situation, instead of trying to get someone to come pull me home.

    Even writing about the broken-down cars is making my stomach clench.

  18. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times when you’ve mentioned a Mustang, especially a V8 Mustang. Get a Shelby GT500 Mustang. It only comes with a six gear manual transmission. (You can get the standard GT with an automatic transmission. SIGH!) The clutch grabs quickly and the clutch spring is much stiffer than most people who drive cars with manual transmissions are used to. But when you learn how to use it, you can creep away from stoplights or accelerate very quickly without chirping or spinning the rear wheels.

    Of course if you want to dump the clutch, there is traction control which you can select or deselect depending on your on mood.


  19. I wish more people understood how difficult it is to get any exposure to a foreign language growing up in North America. I studied Latin and German in high school, but that doesn’t give me the ability to have conversations in either of those languages. Almost every single person I’ve ever met who speaks a foreign language also speaks English, and they would always rather speak English to me than let me practice my German on them. It is prohibitively expensive to travel to countries where English is not the dominant language. And even when you do, it doesn’t necessarily give you a chance to brush up on your language. I haven’t been able to travel abroad, but when my husband went to Germany, he found that every attempt he made at speaking German was answered in English. We are kind of victims of our own success, here. Ironically, in the course of my work, I have the opportunity once or twice a month to talk with German speakers, but I am not fluent enough (and a bit too shy) to try it. C’est la vie.

  20. Two things, John,

    First, I would love to make a movie out of your *Agent to the Stars*. Unfortunately, you lose all of your civil rights after you’re dead, so it’s hard for me to go out. People keep trying to bury me.

    Second, I just know you’ll change your mind regarding brains. They are very yummy. Braaiiinz! Braaaaiiinz!

  21. Way back in high school in N.Y.C., the only two choices for language classes (second language, that is) were Spanish and French, and I took 4 full years of the latter. Bad choice, since Spanish would have been more useful even just in New York, with its high Spanish-speaking population (primarily Puerto Rican and Cuban), let alone later on when I travelled all over the USmostly visiting penpals.

    And it was “Parisian” French, which I learned the hard way when I moved to Canada 40 years ago is a totally different language from what they speak up here. Plus, of course, high-school French might get me directions to the railway station, or even permit me to try experimenting with a fancy restaurant, but it’s totally useless for grocery shopping. I had to learn vocabulary from scratch, or else constantly turn the cans around on the shelf so I could see the English side of the bilingual labels.

    My late mother was fed up with the whole concept of “progressive” education, especially with the idea that Latin and Greek were essential for proper understanding of and literacy in English (and most other Western languages, for that matter), so she made me study both at home. I didn’t get very far with either, particularly the apparently vast number of verb-cases in Latin, but I do have a good feel for word roots (and prefixes/suffixes) that most average people these days probably don’t.

    So basically I’m one more person who, for all practical purposes, can only speak English, though I can often catch snatches of others if I listen carefully. One odd ability, and heaven knows where it came from, is that I can usually recognize and identify the language of just about any written material even if I can’t understand it.

  22. Oops, slight correction (or clarification) to the above — my mother felt, quite correctly, that Greek and Latin are essential background to English, and was p.o.’d that the school system no longer agreed and therefore Latin & Greek were no longer offered in public schools.

  23. Not to be a fancy lad and whatnot, but I speak 4 Western languages (plus enough Chinese to get from my company’s local Dalian office back to the hotel satisfactorily) including English, and guess what?

    When it comes down to it–“it” being the ability to communicate, meet women, do business, and be socially pleasant–English is really the one that matters.

    So don’t sell yourselves short, monoglots.

  24. You have never written a book worthy of a movie, thus I doubt anyone is knocking down your door.

  25. I was thinking earlier today about how to turn TGE into a movie – and decided that the staged riots from the tea partiers probably wasn’t worth it.

  26. So, if Scalzi ever expresses an interest in eating brains, we KNOW he’s a zombie. Gotcha. Information for life!

  27. There are STANDARDS for books which are “worthy of a movie”? I had no idea. SEE: Twilight, American Psycho.

  28. James V.:

    “You have never written a book worthy of a movie, thus I doubt anyone is knocking down your door.”

    If you’re the fellow I suspect you are, James V., I seem to recall you saying to someone that I would never sell a novel roughly a day before I announced a two book deal with Tor. So your prognostication skills in this regard are, shall we say, suspect.

  29. John, I’ve noticed some people don’t have proper access to literature, while some writers are making obscene profits on the free market (I am reliably informed JK Rowling has bought a castle, while many of her readers cannot even afford a box set of her work). Additionally, many of these authors do not even write useful information, but instead spin fanciful tales with little or no practical application.

    In order to ensure universal access to quality writing, shouldn’t the government take over the printing of books, establish fair prices and set standards for what kinds of books will be allowed to be printed, seize excess profits, and make certain the people are not being overcharged for literature that they don’t really need?

  30. TallDave:

    “I’ve noticed some people don’t have proper access to literature”

    Yes, if only there were some sort of public repository of literature in every town, funded through the government, where people could freely borrow books and other media. But I suppose that would be socialist or something.

    Which is to say today’s attempt at snark is not your best, TallDave.

  31. “I seem to recall you saying to someone that I would never sell a novel roughly a day before I announced a two book deal with Tor. ”

    Well, Clearly this is an omen. When James V makes his prognostications we must assume the opposite. I think within a month Scalzi will have a movie deal.

  32. Does this mean that in five years I’m going to be all pissed off at how they ruined “Old Man’s War”?

  33. I don’t think there are any good things about poverty, or even about being broke, unless (as John has already pointed out), you are an ascetic who chooses to detach from the mercantile world for philosophical or religious reasons.

    In my own life, I have found that the people who are anxious to celebrate the wonders of poverty are the people who can turn to Mom and Dad for help if their car breaks down or if they need to go to the hospital. The people who don’t have that safety net are pretty firmly convinced that poverty and/or being broke are incredibly stressful.

    I would strongly encourage Foible to read The Road to Wigan Pier, in which Orwell realizes that he hadn’t been angry enough about poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London and states very clearly how poverty is soul-draining and stifling.

  34. RE: Lessons from Poverty: #1 lesson don’t be poor. It sucks. I went through a hand to mouth stage in my twenties not making the best life choices, and the exposure to risk sucks. Previous posters have mentioned the lack of options, weighing needs versus wants. I’d agree with Scalzi that whatever insight you gain in frugality from being poor is better taught as a teenager by parents controlling expenses and opportunities. The “simple joys of austerity” is one of those lies rich people contemplate while waiting for their Ferrari to be fixed. And a major shout out #17 Intruder for the tow strap. Tow straps probably saved me thousands of dollars worth of towing and abandoned vehicle. Longest strap ride: from north of Oklahoma City all the way to Dallas. Love the strap.

    RE: Language skills: multiple languages are over rated. You need to be able to communicate effectively. If in your life and career one language fulfills that need, good enough. Depending on your circumstances, 5 languages may not be enough. Over the course of my life I’ve been conversant in Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese, and Cantonese. But most of those have faded as the fierce urgency to know them faded, so that while I can pidgin through most of them (and understand them if I have a patient speaker) I only speak Spanish regularly. I’ve always been amused by cultures that hold multiple languages in esteem. The European fixation on speaking multiple languages is just a reaction to their failure to create a cohesive culture. Most Americans can get by speaking English only because American culture has succeeded in getting its citizens to speak a common language, regardless of their heritage.

  35. So when Old Man’s War gets optioned, and the option gets sold to Paul Verhoeven…

    Let’s just make certain we have the pitchforks and torches ready shall we?

  36. As was mentioned in 2005, John, I believe you are James’ hobby. I enjoyed your quote from Shaw in response to his delightfully insipid rants at the time. Perhaps we could engage again in such chicanery?

    Much ado &etc &etc,

    Brigadier General Dave (2nd class)

  37. >> You and foreign languages. I quote you:

    >> “I only read and speak English.”

    >> I find this pretty depressing.

    > Well, as do I, to tell you the truth. I wish I had had a better facility for other languages when I was younger (or at the very least, paid better attention in class).


    > some languages I can not exactly read but at least make out the gist of what’s being said


    > It’d be neat if that were to continue.

    Nice to hear!

    And I recommend half a year, a year in a foreign country. I have been lucky to have lived two years in Germany + some holidays in other countries. At least judging by (former) ex-pat blogs these experiences have been on the whole positive for Americans, excluding some depressing third world countries.

    #19 I have the opportunity once or twice a month to talk with German speakers, but I am not fluent enough (and a bit too shy) to try it

    Du kannst es tun! Glück damit!

    BTW, Machine Translation. I wouldn’t hold my breath for mind shattering breakthroughs there. Babel fish is a big SF thingie but sadly lacking in reality. There are some huge issues here, and they were already discovered in the 60’s. People just keep discovering them again and again since people don’t bother to find out what has been researched before.

    1) language != words

    2) referencing is very hard

    3) idioms

    and others including the elusive “knowledge of the world”. These are not trivial things. Then again, it is not necessarily so that languages that are close to each other are easier to translate. Maybe you know about “faux amis”, false friends?

  38. Thanks for the answer.

    One other reason for a gonads taboo: if sympathetic magic has taught us anything, eating prairie oysters may make you more potent than you want to be.

  39. Sorry that I am just catching up, now, but I feel the need to comment on “poverty.” I wouldn’t call it an advantage, exactly, but having grown up in poverty, I have experience with life at both the center and the margin of society. As a gay woman of color, I also have the experience of living on more than one margin. So, I don’t make the same sort of assumptions that someone raised without any of these experiences might, and that makes my life richer and more complex. I do value that, and appreciate how my experience of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia has made me a more complex person, with a broader and deeper compassion for my fellow creatures.

    I have no entitlement, no privilege– I could have chosen to respond with anger, even rage, but instead I have a deep and abiding appreciation of every glorious moment. I *know* how nice it is to shower regularly in a clean, safe, warm room; to sleep on a bed with pillows and covers; to eat every, single day, more than once, even! These are wonderful, special things. I don’t ever take any of it for granted.

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