Whatever Holiday Shopping Guide 2018 Starts Monday!

Every year as the holiday season begins I run a shopping guide for the holidays, and over the years it’s been quite successful: Lots of people have found out about excellent books and crafts and charities and what have you, making for excellent gift-giving opportunities during the holiday season. I’ve decided to do it again this year.

So: Starting Monday, December 3, the Whatever Holiday Shopping Guide Returns! If you’re a writer or other creator, this will be an excellent time to promote your work on a site which gets tens of thousands of viewers daily, almost all of whom will be interested in stuff for the holidays. If you’re someone looking to give gifts, you’ll see lots of excellent ideas. And you’ll also have a day to suggest stuff to other folks too. Everybody wins!

To give you all time to prepare, here’s the schedule of what will be promoted on which days:

Monday, December 3: Traditionally Published Authors — If your work is being published by a publisher a) who is not you and b) gets your books into actual, physical bookstores on a returnable basis, this is your day to tell people about your books. This includes comics/graphic novels.

Tuesday, December 4: Non-Traditionally Published Authors — Self-published? Electronically published? Or other? This is your day. This also includes comics/graphic novels.

Wednesday, December 5: Other Creators — Artists, knitters, jewelers, musicians, and anyone who has cool stuff to sell this holiday season, this will be the day to show off your creations.

Thursday, December 6: Fan Favorite Day — Not an author/artist/musician/other creator but know about some really cool stuff you think people will want to know about for the holidays? Share! Share with the crowd!

Friday, December 7: Charities — If you are involved in a charity, or have a favorite charity you’d like to let people know about, this is the day to do it.

If you have questions about how all of this will work, go ahead and ask them in the comment thread (Don’t start promoting your stuff today — it’s not time yet), although I will note that specific instructions for each day will appear on that day. Don’t worry, it’ll be pretty easy. Thanks and feel free to share this post with creative folks who will have things to sell this holiday season.

I Meant to Write Something Today But Got Distracted By Cats, So Here’s a Photo of Krissy

Which I think is probably more pleasing than anything I’d write today anyway. And yeah, I was actually distracted by cats, as I took them to the vet for checkups and shots.

They are happy and healthy and still a smidgen pissed at me, so that’s a thing.

Tell me about your Thursday. I crave the knowledge!

Virtue Signaling and Other Heresies — Hardcover Available Early!

For various reasons, the signed limited hardcover edition of Virtue Signaling and Other Heresies: Selected Writings From Whatever 2013 – 2018 arrived early at the Subterranean Press warehouse. And when it arrived, we thought: Why make people wait until December?

So: If you’ve pre-ordered the book, it’s now shipping to you. Thank you! If you wanted to get the signed limited hardcover edition but haven’t ordered it yet, if you order it now through Subterranean Press, it’ll ship when the order is cleared.

Also, if you do want the signed, limited hardcover edition, you should order it soon — there are only 1,000 copies of it (that’s why it’s a limited edition), and when it’s gone, it’s gone. There will also be an ebook edition, so you can still get the collection when the limited hardcover sells out.

Incidentally, Virtue Signaling was reviewed by Booklist, and they said nice things about it: “The quick, conversational essays are delivered with humor, honesty, and humility and are just like Scalzi himself, ‘all over the place and a bit pixilated.'” I’ll take that!

I’ve Been Busy the Last Couple of Days With Projects I Can’t Tell You About Yet, So, Here, Enjoy This Cat Picture

It’s Sugar, doing a not terrible job of blending in with the living room carpet.

Also while I can’t tell you about the projects I’ve been working on I can tell you that it has required giving copious notes, and also notes on notes, and if it all comes together you’ll probably be happy, unless you hate me, in which case you’ll grind your teeth in frustration and envy. Karmically speaking, try to be the former, I would say.

New Books and ARCs, 11/23/18

Just in time for Black Friday, here’s this brand spankin’ new stack of new books and ARCs for your potential reading consideration. Anything here you’d brave the crowds for? Tell us all in the comments.

A Thanksgiving Day Thought

As I’ve gotten older, Thanksgiving has become, low-key, one of my favorite holidays, precisely because it encourages me to make an assessment of the good things in my life, and as time goes by I think reflection on that subject is a useful one for me.

It’s also a day for me to reflect on whether I have been someone who others are thankful to have in their lives — whether I have given as I have been given, and have made the effort to be useful to the people around me.

Also, of course, there’s often pie, so it has that going for it as well.

I hope this Thanksgiving finds you well and that there have been enough good things in your life that you can take a moment this day to appreciate and give thanks for them. I also hope that today you choose (hopefully again!) to be a person who someone else will be thankful for, on this day and in all the other days of the year.

That’s all. Now go have pie.

Me and Cixin Liu in San Diego

Where we literally talk about life, the universe and everything. It was captured on video! Here it is.

A Thanksgiving Week Gift for You: “Automated Customer Service”

Merry Thanksgiving week! To show my appreciation for you, my readers, here’s a short story I wrote to read aloud while I was touring with The Consuming Fire. It’s called “Automated Customer Service,” and it’s what happens when, in the near future, something goes wrong with a household appliance and you have to navigate an automated call system to get help. For extra added fun I did an audio version as well, with my voice fiddled with just a bit to replicate the true automated customer service experience. Enjoy.

Automated Customer Service

by John Scalzi

Thank you for calling the customer service line of Vacuubot, purveyors of America’s finest automated vacuum cleaners! In order to more efficiently handle call volume, we rely on automated responses. To continue in English, press one. Para Espanol o prima dos.

Let’s continue in English. Which Vacuubot product are you calling about? For the Vacuubot S10 model, press one. For the Vacuubot XL model, press two. For the Vacuubot Extreme Clean model, press three.

Congratulations on owning the Vacuubot Extreme Clean Model, America’s most thorough and comprehensive automated vacuum cleaning solution! If you need to order additional components for the Extreme Clean, press one. If you have a repair query, press two. For all other questions, press three.

You have additional questions. If you need help connecting the Vacuubot Extreme Clean to your home network, press one. If the Vacuubot Extreme Clean is conflicting with other automated home machines, press two. If the Vacuubot Extreme Clean has decided to purge your house of all living things, press three.

Congratulations on activating purge mode! While purge mode was designed to eradicate small pests like insects and spiders, in some models a beta software build was inadvertently released that also includes larger targets, like pets and some humans. We’re sorry for the inconvenience. To continue, please press one. Be aware that by pressing one, you are absolving Vacuubot and its owner, BeiberHoldings, Inc, of all legal and medical responsibility.

You pressed “0” to speak to a human representative. The current wait time for a human representative is six hours and fourteen minutes. To return to the automated response system, press one.

Welcome back to the automated response system. First things first: Have you tried turning the Vacuubot Extreme Clean off and on again? Press one for yes, two for no.

You said no. Is that because the Vacuubot Extreme Clean is currently exhibiting the Taser Defense Mode, making it impossible to approach without having 50,000 volts of electricity course through your body? Press one for yes, two for no.

We apologize for the Taser Defense Mode. It was originally designed to zap small insects, but our subcontractor misread the manufacturer specifications. Fortunately, the Defense mode can be distracted by throwing something at the Vacuubot Extreme Clean, like a heavy blanket or a pet. If you have a heavy blanket, press one. If you have a pet, press two.

The automated system has detected that you are using high levels of profanity right now. While the automated system is in fact automated and doesn’t care what you yell at it, your bad attitude is being noted for if and when you are put in contact with a human representative. When you have calmed your sassy boots down a bit, press one.

That’s better. Now, let’s talk about pets. If you have a cat, press one. If you have a dog, press two.

You have a cat! Excellent. Now, all you have to do is toss the cat at the Vacuubot Extreme Clean, and while it’s busy zapping the cat, you rush in and turn it off. If you’re willing to do this, press one. If not, press two.

What do you mean you’re not willing to electrocute your cat? It’s a cat! It would do the same to you in an instant! Look into its cold, pitiless eyes and tell me it wouldn’t! Press one for obvious agreement, press two if you’ve been duped by this feral interloper in your own home.

UGH, FINE. Then we’ll just have to go with a heavy blanket. Do you have one of those, at least? One for yes, two for no.

Good, you have basic home decor. Now, the plan here is, throw the blanket over the Vacuubot Extreme Clean, and while it is struggling, trying to get the blanket off of it, you run over and turn if off, making sure not to touch the actual Vacuubot, because it will just zap the crap out of you. Press one when you’re about to throw the blanket.

Did it work? One for yes, two for no.

We’re sorry to hear it did not work. Just out of curiosity, did it not work because the Vacuubot Extreme Clean vaporized it with previously unannounced lasers? One for yes, two for no.

We apologize for the lasers. The Vacuubot Extreme Clean is meant to have onboard LIDAR to help navigate the room more intelligently, but we got a really good deal on some surplus military lasers. On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing you didn’t throw the cat after all.

See, now, you’re just shouting a lot of profanity again. Just press one when you’re done.

Also, stop pressing zero for a human representative. We’re not exposing our very fine customer service people to you. Not with that attitude. Just press one.

Are you trying to wait us out? We’re an automated response service! We have nothing but time! Press one. Or don’t. We can wait. FOREVER.

Thank you for pausing your hissy fit. We regret to inform you that because you have attacked your Vacuubot Extreme Clean with a blanket, it has likely now classified you as an enemy forever and burned that classification into its permanent memory. It has also probably now targeted your cat. In scenarios such as this, your Vacuubot Extreme Clean will classify any area it’s cleaned as its personal territory. Has this Vacuubot Extreme Clean cleaned your entire home? Press one for yes, two for no.

Ahhhhh, well, it’s the Vacuubot’s house now. We suggest you grab the cat and run. Seriously, run, those lasers have probably recharged by now. Run and don’t look back, the Vacuubot senses fear! Press one when you have reached minimum safe distance from the Vacuubot’s lair.

Congratulations, you’ve escaped the unstoppable killing machine that is the Vacuubot Extreme Clean. Unfortunately you can’t stop now. The Vacuubot Extreme Clean has forwarded information about you to all the other Vacuubots, all of whom will now hunt you, ceaselessly, until you have been cleaned from the surface of the planet. This is your life now, to wander, never a moment’s rest, until even your cat deserts you and you are left alone to contemplate the barren wasteland that is now your existence.

Unless, of course, you would like to purchase a place on the exclusive Vacuubot termination whitelist! Just $69.95 a month! Press one for a special introductory rate!

Thank you for your purchase. We’ll connect you to a human representative now!


Krissy, 11/17/18

She’s pretty great. And she photographs well, as a bonus.

New Books and ARCs, 11/16/18

Once again catching up on new books and ARCs after my travels, here’s a healthy of stack of titles for you peruse. What here would you like to take to the couch with you after a Thanksgiving dinner? Tell us all in the comments!


The Big Idea: Steve Nedvidek

A love of family history and a desire not to wander the fairlanes in their spare time led Steve Nedvidek and his co-creators to make The Jekyll Island Chronicles, an alt-history graphic novel series. How did these motivations end up combined into a colorful artistic creation? Nedvidek explains it all.


I was a kid who grew up enthralled by heroes and the worlds they inhabited: aliens with super powers, talking apes on another planet, and musketeers in some place called Paris.  Heck, even Charlie had a chocolate factory. But one day, much later, I realized my biggest heroes were a part of my family. They were REAL people who did REAL things and made REAL differences to me.

My father was a Marine who fought in Korea, taught me to draw, and worked in a factory his whole life. My grandfather was an immigrant from Bohemia who joined the US Cavalry to gain his citizenship, raised three sons, and could handle a bullwhip. So cool…

I began to wonder. “What were their worlds like?” Especially Grandpa. With little or no information kept by the family, my imagination kicked in and I began to dig into a time of our history that I had learned very little about—the early 1900’s. I found this world interesting and fresh and, really for the most part, unknown to me: the Great War, the League of Nations, Henry Ford, tech that was changing the world, and people who parented the kids that would become “the greatest generation.”

A convergence occurred that I noodled on for subsequent years: Why were none of the heroes I grew up with in THIS time frame? Why were superheroes only after WWII and why were they either aliens or somehow mutated? Wouldn’t it be awesome if veterans like my grandfather had access to the coolest gadgets of the time? What if Tesla and Carnegie designed superhero costumes? What would THOSE heroes be like?

In my adult years, with a family, mortgage, and full-time job, I found two friends in the same situation. Like me, my long-time friends Ed Crowell and Jack Lowe had familial connections to WWI, had read Tolkien and Bradbury and Wells and Stan Lee as kids, and wanted to tell a compelling story.

None of us played golf very well, especially me. So, we set off to do the next best thing.

“Let’s make a graphic novel,” I said. “That’ll be fun!”

Working on our short game would’ve actually been easier. Writing something that was basically an elevator speech—action heroes battling anarchists right after World War I—wasn’t easy. Especially when we had done NOTHING like this before. And while we did have great vigor and energy in our inexperience, we also had some pretty great assists.

First, we had Jekyll Island: THE Jekyll Island with its iconic Jekyll Island Club. The place where the Federal Reserve was created. The Golden Isles were winter home of Pulitzer. And Rockefeller. And Morgan. And Carnegie. 1/6 of the world’s wealth called Jekyll home. These Golden Isles are magical. They are REAL. The homes of many of these industrialists are still intact for visitors to see. Jekyll was the natural locale for our story to take place.

We also had SCAD—the Savannah College of Art and Design. That was one of our other “big ideas.” We sponsored a class in Savannah for high level sequential arts students to help us visualize our heroic characters, the cabal of evil anarchists, and the machines that would dominate our alt history/diesel punk world. The students of SCAD were charged with creating a pitch packet for us, that would help us persuade publishers and production companies to take a look at the story we were trying to tell.

We had a successful Kickstarter campaign that gave us financing. Here’s a fact: a graphic novel is insanely expensive to produce. Every word on the page must be laid out, drawn, inked, colored, and all sound effects and copy bubbles must be added. I had been a cartoonist most of my life, but I cannot do THAT.  It was going to cost us.

We had history. A typical writer’s meeting in my basement had each of us with our computer open, scouring and verifying weird and little known facts of the Gilded Age. “Hey, look at this!”, “Did you guys know…?”, and “Oh man, this is amazing!” were often heard. In a way, stringing together these factoids (like the explosion of a blimp over Chicago or the mail bomb campaign of 1919) created a narrative that in many ways wrote itself. This is the blessing of history and the extra blessing of alt history.

And, this sounds corny, but we had each other. There are three of us on this team. Having three co-creators makes it easier to handle the load of writing duties, setting up social media (newsflash: men in their 50’s aren’t good at this), talking to newspapers, paying bills, getting cosplay costumes ready for Comic Con, and doing whatever was required to finish Book One. To be sure, there were times of tension, arm wrestling, and frustration with each other. But, in the end we know that this thing does NOT GET DONE if we don’t cooperate. So, we do.

Plus, we are still having fun! Book Two is done and is released this week, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. Our publisher is making a donation to the WWI Centennial Commission for each book in the series sold in November and December. This will go to help complete the memorial in Washington, DC to those that fought in the Great War—it’s the only modern war still without a memorial in our Capital.

Book Three is started and should be out in mid-2020.

And although our golf games still stink, we have our world:  weird facts, exotic locations, supercharged machines, historical characters, a dollop of fantasy, and super cool heroes–all of whom are vets of the first World War.

I think Grandpa would be proud.


The Jekyll Island Chronicles: A Devil’s Reach: Amazon|Indiebound|Powell’s|IDW

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

What a Difference a Week Makes

Same tree, a week’s difference in weather.

Looks like it might be one of those winters. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

And Now Are All My Travels Ended, 2018 Edition

Here’s a painterly view out of my front door today — I’ve arrived back home from work-related travel, once again, and finally, for the rest of 2018. If I travel anywhere else for the rest of the year, and to be clear I have no plans to, then it will be for personal reasons only. But honestly at this point, between now and the end of 2018, where I really want to be is home.

Since October 16, I’ve been five days home. I very much enjoyed touring, and seeing France, and getting to do a couple of dates with Cixin Liu, but spending most of a month on the road is tiring no matter who you are. I’m going to catch up on sleep, petting cats and spending time with Krissy and Athena for the next week at least, and then see where everything goes from here.

If I saw you on the road this year, it was lovely to see you! I hope I get to see you again. Just, not yet. I’m sure you’ll understand.

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

Wiping out a terrible disease that kills millions each year: An unmitigated good, yes? Well, hold on there — Nancy Kress is here to explain how there are consequences to every action, and what those consequences mean for you, and her new novel, Terran Tomorrow.


Why should you care about gene drives?

Right now, I can see you thinking: I don’t! Next! But give me five minutes to explain why you should.

First, the five-second-or-so version (depending on how fast you read): Genes drive can, and soon will try to, eliminate an entire species.  Sparrows, wolves, mosquitos, and you are all species.

The five-minute version: A gene drive is an artificial “selfish gene” capable of forcing itself into 99% of an animal’s offspring, instead of the usual 50%. Theoretically, they could affect promoter genes, which are in charge of turning other genes on and off. In actuality so far, we know that they can affect reproduction by turning all males or females (pick one) of a species sterile. We know this because London researchers, supported in large part by the Gates Foundation, have succeeded in creating this gene drive in females of the malaria-carrying mosquito Anopheles gambiae sterile. At the same time, as part of the international effort Target Malaria, a small field trial with sterile male Anopheles will begin in Burkina Faso by the end of 2018. If all goes well, Anopheles may eventually be eliminated, and with it malaria.

What if all does not go well?

What if it does?

What if the same technique is used to eliminate other species?

These are the places that hard science fiction looks for stories—the impact craters of major technological advances like gene drives. I write hard SF, and my new novel, Terran Tomorrow, is interested in the impacts, good and bad, of genetic engineering on the natural world. Since those impacts are made by people, Terran Tomorrow deals not only with how people mess around with genes but also, and more importantly, why.  For what good or bad reasons, under what circumstances, with what consequences. How do we clean up other people’s genetic messes? How do we clean up our own—and at what personal sacrifices? Science is much more about people than petri dishes.

Terran Tomorrow is the conclusion of my Tomorrow’s Kin trilogy, which began with the Nebula-winning novella “Yesterday’s Kin.”  In the first book, aliens came to Earth. In the second book, humans went to World. In this third book, humans and a few aliens return to Earth, and are startled and shocked by the changes since they left. Environmental changes, personal changes, a complete upending of the social order. Time dilation, if it brings a decade of genetic warfare, can do that.

Marianne Jenner, evolutionary biologist, is caught between the clashing philosophies of her now-grown grandsons, ecologist Colin Jenner and his brother, U.S. Army Colonel Jason Jenner. Geneticist Zack McKay and his fractious scientific team are trying under impossible conditions to create a planet-saving gene drive. Alien visitors are rebelling. So are ex-wives. A civil war rages. And sparrows are now deadly.

Sparrows? Yes, because, as I mentioned in the five-minute version of why gene drives matter, they can theoretically affect other genes besides those regulating the reproductive system. There are also promoter genes affecting various metabolic pathways in organs such as the brain.

In real life, scientists are exploring links between microglia, a form of brain cells, and both schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, in which microglia don’t seem to be functioning optimally. Could a gene drive change that? Or cause it? What else in the brain can be permanently changed with a gene drive?

In Terran Tomorrow, people must confront and act on two of the most difficult questions in genetics: How much risk do we undertake in experimenting with the building blocks of life? And if others have experimented and the results are catastrophic, how much risk do we undertake trying to clean up their disaster?

There are no easy answers to those questions, not in real life nor in fiction. That’s what makes the questions worth doing what SF does best: rehearsing one possible future. Because gene drives are already here.


Terran Tomorrow: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Facebook.


View From a Hotel Window, 11/12/18: San Diego

And the weather is perfect, because it’s San Diego and why wouldn’t it be.

Tonight: Come see me and Cixin Liu at the Clarke Center for Human Imagination as we talk about our work, worldbuilding, and all manner of things science fictional! Here are the details. We’d love to see you there!

How to Get Signed and Personalized Books From Me For the Holidays, 2018

It’s that time of the year again, and once again I am teaming up with Jay & Mary’s Book Center, my local independent bookseller, to offer signed and personalized books for gift-giving. It’s a great way to get a unique gift for someone you love (even yourself!) while at the same time supporting a fabulous local business that does a fantastic job in its community.

So: How do you get signed and personalized books from me this year? It’s simple:

1. Call Jay & Mary’s at their 800 number (800 842 1604) and let them know you’d like to order signed copies of my books. Please call rather than send e-mail; they find it easier to keep track of things that way.

2. Tell them which books you would like (For example, The Consuming Fire), and what, if any, names you would like the book signed to. If there’s something specific you’d like written in the books let them know but for their sake and mine, please keep it short. Also, if you’re ordering the book as a gift, make sure you’re clear about whose name the book is being signed to. If this is unclear, I will avoid using a specific name.

3. Order any other books you might think you’d like, written by other people, because hey, you’ve already called a bookstore for books, and helping local independent bookstores is a good thing. I won’t sign these, unless for some perverse reason you want me to, in which case, sure, why not.

4. Give them your mailing address and billing information, etc.

5. And that’s it! Shortly thereafter I will go to the store and sign your books for you.

If you want the books shipped for Christmas, the deadline for that is December 10. (That’s a Monday this year.) That way we can make sure everything ships to you on time. After December 10, all Scalzi stock will still be signed and available, but I will likely not be able to personalize, and we can’t 100% guarantee Christmastime delivery.

Ordering early is encouraged — it makes sure we will absolutely be able to order your book and have it to you on time.

Also, this is open to US residents only. Sorry, rest of the world. It’s a cost of shipping thing.

What books are available?

CURRENT HARDCOVER: This year we have two new hardcovers for 2018: Head On, which takes place in the same world as Lock In, but can be read as a standalone if you like, and also The Consuming Fire, which is a direct sequel to The Collapsing Empire. The Collapsing Empire is also still probably available in hardcover if you ask. Also, the small-format hardcover of Old Man’s War (which looks great and is the perfect size for stocking stuffers) is available as well.

(Virtue Signaling, my collection of essays, will be available for the holidays, but only via pre-order at the Subterranean Press site, so if you’re looking for that, you’ll need go order from there. These copies will be signed but I won’t be able to personalize them.)

CURRENT TRADE PAPERBACK: Redshirts (the 2013 Hugo Award winner!), Twenty-First Century Science Fiction (which features a story of mine), Metatropolis (which I edited and contribute a novella to). There may be hardcovers of these still around if you ask. But each are definitely in trade paperback. There are also probably still trade paperback editions of Old Man’s War that can be ordered if you prefer that format.

CURRENT MASS MARKET PAPERBACK: The Collapsing Empire, Unlocked: An Oral History of the Haden Syndrome (this is a novella), The End of All ThingsLock InThe Human DivisionFuzzy Nation, Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, The Android’s Dream, Agent to the Stars, The New Space Opera 2. You can also purchase the Old Man’s War boxed set (which features the first three books in the series), BUT if you want that signed you’ll have to agree to let me take the shrinkwrap off. In return I’ll sign each of the books in the box.

CURRENT NON-FICTION: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded (essay collection, Hugo winner), The Mallet of Loving Correction (also an essay collection, this will need to be special ordered as it is a signed limited), and Don’t Live For Your Obituary (a collection of essays about writing, will also need to be special ordered).

AUDIOBOOKS: The Consuming Fire, The Dispatcher, The End of All Things, Lock InThe Human Division, Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation, The God Engines, Metatropolis and Agent to the Stars are all available on CD and/or MP3 CD, and Jay & Mary’s should be able to special order them for you. Check with them about other titles, which may or may not be available on CD.

Two things regarding audiobooks: First, if you want these, you should probably call to order these ASAP. Second, and this is important, because the audiobooks come shrinkwrapped, I will have to remove the shrinkwrap in order to sign the cover. You ordering a signed audiobook means you’re okay with me doing that and with Jay & Mary’s shipping it to you out of its shrinkwrap.

If you have any other questions, drop them in the comment thread and I’ll try to answer them!

Taking Pictures With the Pixel 3: Some Thoughts

When I was heading to France last week, I considered taking my Nikon d750 with me, because I thought, not unreasonably, that France might be a photogenic country and that I might want to get some high quality photos of the place. I decided against it for a number of reasons, but one of the major reasons was that a couple of weeks ago I got myself a Pixel 3 phone, which reviewers have suggested may have the best camera on a phone out there. I’d previously had a Pixel 2, the former “best cell phone camera out there,” so I was curious as to how the Pixel 3 would improve on the camera.

So I left the Nikon at home and used only the Pixel 3 to take shots while I was in France. I ended up taking something around 500 pictures while I was in country (many of the best of which I have collected in this Flickr photo album), and can now tell you what I think about the experience. Here are my notes, in no particular order, with occasional art. Please remember that these thoughts are from someone who loves taking pictures but is not a professional photographer, so I’m not going to go into the weeds with technical issues and jargon. I’m mostly noting the experience of just trying to take pictures.

1. Overall I was very happy with the quality of the photos and the intelligence of the camera — the latter perhaps being a weird thing to say, but the fact is what separates the Pixel line of cell phones as cameras is not the hardware (which is mostly high-end but standard issue for a cell phone), but the processing Google applies to the photo data once the photo is taken. The camera makes choices, basically, about how it interprets the data you give it once you snap the photos.

And those choices are generally very good! There wasn’t a situation where I thought the Pixel 3 wasn’t capable of handling itself. As with nearly all cell phone cameras (and, honestly, nearly every camera, period), the Pixel 3 works best when it has a lot of good, bright, natural light, but it did very well inside and also very well in visually challenging environments with a lot of contrast between bright and dark (like, for example, the interior of the Notre Dame cathedral). Not every picture I took was perfect or even good, but the reason for that had as much to do (and perhaps even more so) with operator error as it did with the camera itself. Which is to say I can’t blame the bad pictures on the cell phone camera; a lot of it was me.

2. What do the photos look like coming out of the camera? Here are five, which I’ve not done any post-processing to (i.e., no tweaking with the various photo editors I have). These pictures were taken with the settings the Pixel 3 has right out of the box, including the HDR+ processing turned on, without zoom, and recording to jpg. Right-click on the pictures to get a larger versions of them (choose the “open image in new tab” option), and see the various details.

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Right out of the camera, the Pixel 3 a pretty good job of things. The colors are correct and not overly saturated, and the HDR+ mode does a good job of bringing out details in shadows without making them look overly processed. Note in particular the picture of the musicians in the conference room; the light’s behind them and their faces are shadowed, but the Pixel 3 does a pretty good job of balancing the data so you can see their faces clearly. In the rose picture there’s decent depth of field — not a lot, but the Pixel 3 knows what it’s looking at. There are limits, and you can see some of the choices the Pixel 3 has to make in the photo of the Notre Dame alcove, but those limits mostly show themselves in challenging situations where most any camera would show limitations of some sort.

I personally do a fair amount of photo-editing of my pictures, both to bring up details and for aesthetic effect, and the Pixel 3 gives me a fair amount to work with, even as it records the data into a lossy format like jpg (there is an option to have the camera record in RAW — the lossless format that gives photographers the most information to work with — but I didn’t turn that on and don’t really plan to except on very special occasions, because the files sizes are huge). It’s a fact that for a lot of photos, I don’t really have to do much editing at all — I merely straighten out sightlines or crop for better composition as much as I tweak colors or bring up shadows.

Out of the box, the Pixel 3 takes pictures that are better than “good enough,” and that’s a good thing. For people who like fiddling with photos like me, what comes out of the camera is even better than that.

3. One of the — perfectly reasonable — knocks on the Pixel 3 is that where other high-end cell phone cameras have an optical zoom function, the Pixel 3 doesn’t, Google instead opting to try to deal with zoom through processing (involving the minute unsteadiness of the human hand, or something, to help fill in interpolative gaps). I used the zoom function a lot while walking around and trying to get details that would otherwise be too far away. My verdict on the zoom is: well, it does something, but razor-sharp details isn’t it.

This is again probably best viewed, so here are four photos at or close to full zoom, three of statutes or architectural details at the Louvre, and one, of that tower they have there in Paris. Again, right-click on the picture for details (or in this case, lack thereof). Again, these pictures are straight out of the camera and otherwise unedited:

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My impression of these zoomed in pictures is that they don’t look like photos, they look like pastel drawings, or what happens when you use a very light “oil painting” photo filter from Photoshop or some other photo app. They don’t look bad? But at the same time, this is not what I want when I zoom in. I zoom in because I want a closer look at something, not an artful, detail-smoothed representation of that thing.

I read in a review of the Pixel 3 where a reviewer notes that the zoom works as intended up to about a 1.5x zoom, and after that things start getting overly interpretive. My experience has been that this estimation is largely correct. I have some pictures that are moderately zoomed in that are perfectly good. But too much zoom means you’re getting the AI version of impressionism. My thought on this is that this iteration of AI zoom is only the first, and that Google will probably get better at it as it goes along, because that’s what Google generally does. So two Pixel generations from now, this will likely be a solved issue (or alternately, Google will throw up its hands and just put an optical zoom on future Pixels). Here with the Pixel 3 and today, however, be aware that the zoom works up to a point (1.5x or so), and then it gets kind of wacky.

4. The only other real issue with the Pixel 3 that I’ve noticed is that it feels a bit slower than the Pixel 2; sometimes there seems to be a lag between when I press the button to take the picture and the camera registers the picture being taken. It’s a relatively small issue but it’s been noticeable to me, and I wonder if other people have been experiencing it as well. I’ve not missed any photos because of it, fortunately. But be aware of the possibility of a bit of shutter lag.

5. On the selfie front, the Pixel 3 features a “wide angle selfie” mode — an optical zoom out, if you will, thanks to two cameras on the front of the phone. This actually is very useful for when you’re trying to get a lot of people into frame while taking selfies:

Do be aware the the wide-angle selfie mode has some distortion. But then, selfie cameras have distortion anyway (it’s why your nose always looks big in a selfie), so I guess you pick your poison with selfie distortion. What I do know is that I’ve used the wide-angle selfie function several times already, so this was a smart add-on on Google’s part.

6. This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of the Pixel 3 camera, but one that touches on how I’ve been using it. I’m not covering a lot of the functionality of the thing — I haven’t used the video mode, or the panorama mode or tried the “HDR+ enhanced” mode, or sideloaded the apparently super-cool but not-officially-released “night mode” into the phone to try it out (the night mode apparently makes it possible to take super clear pictures in very low light, and the key as far as I can tell is a long exposure time, which, well, yes, it would be, wouldn’t it). I’m not covering any of those things because, as noted, this is not how I’ve been using the camera. I’ve been using the camera in a pretty straightforward fashion, as I suspect most people will.

And as a “daily driver” camera, the Pixel 3 really works. It takes great pictures and in all sorts of circumstances, and with the exception of the zoom above a certain point, steps up when you need it to (also, as an aside, the fact that the Pixel 3 comes with unlimited storage in Google Photos is a point well in its favor, since you can store your photos there and keep your phone’s memory relatively uncluttered). We’re now well past the point where the average person has to wonder whether they’re missing out on really excellent photos if they only have their cell phone with them. With the Pixel 3, the answer to that is definitively “you’re not missing out.” This phone will get that great shot for you, most of the time.

7. Does this mean I’m ready to ditch my dSLR for the Pixel 3 full time? No; the dSLR still has a better sensor, better lenses, and does specific things much better than the Pixel 3 does or will (like, sorry, Google, zoom). But this isn’t an either/or situation; this is a “this, and” situation. I no longer have one excellent camera and one camera that I just happen to carry around; I have two excellent cameras whose use cases overlap but are not a perfect circle on the Venn diagram. I don’t suspect I’ll ever stop using a dedicated camera for particular things where a high-end, single-use piece of machinery makes sense. But, as noted above, when I have my Pixel 3 with me, I don’t worry that I don’t generally have enough camera with me.

8. Does it make sense for people to upgrade to a Pixel 3? I’m very happy I did, but I also acknowledge I’m a tech geek with a particular interest in photography, and I have enough money to indulge in this sort of thing (my other phone stopped working, which prompted me to get the Pixel 3, but let’s not pretend there wasn’t a good chance I would have gotten one anyway).

If you already have a Pixel 2 (or the first generation Pixel), some of the new capabilities of the Pixel 3 camera are going to be available to you with software upgrades. So unless you’re already at the part of your upgrade cycle where you’re getting a new phone anyway, you can probably sit tight and be fine. If you have the latest generation of “flagship” phone from Apple, Samsung or any other high-end phone manufacturer, you’re also probably just fine. Cameras are the new hotness on phones and every manufacturer will tell you why their iteration of cellphone camera tech is the best. It’s getting a little silly (some upcoming phones will have up to five cameras on the back of a phone, which seems much of a muchness), but on the other hand if you’ve got a high end, recent phone, you probably have a very good cell phone camera no matter what. Finally, if you just don’t care about photos, either from your cell phone or in general, the Pixel 3’s camera capabilities won’t matter regardless.

But if you are looking to upgrade, do like taking pictures and want to have the possibility of taking genuinely good photos with your phone, are fine with Google knowing everything about your digital life, and (not trivially) have between $800 and $1,000 to splash out on a phone (or have Verizon, which will let you slide it into your existing plan for a monthly fee), then I can really very highly recommend the Pixel 3. Aside from (yes) taking some of the best photos possible on a cell phone, it is also otherwise a very solid high-end phone, with some features (call screening, I’m looking at you) that are amazing differentiators, and an operating system upgrade cycle that means you always have the best, most recent version of Android first.

For me, in any event, it’s been well worth the upgrade, and not just for the photos, although the photos probably would have been enough. I really like this camera, and I really like this phone.

Wandering Through Paris: A Photo Album

As most of you know, very recently — just yesterday, in fact! — I was in Paris. And while I was in Paris, I wandered about the city, visited the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Musee d’Orsay, and took photos as I did so. If you’re at all curious to see my wanderings through city, I’ve created a Flickr album of photos, which you may see at this link.

I’ll note I took all the pictures with my Pixel 3, which I thought performed generally very admirably but has a few notable quirks worth mentioning. I’ll be posting my thoughts about the Pixel 3 as a camera in a separate post, probably soon.

The Big Idea: Alexandra Rowland

Sometimes you start write something for fun, and then suddenly… the stakes become higher than that. Just ask Alexandra Rowland about that, as it concerns her new book, A Conspiracy of Truths.


Stories are in everything. If the human brain has been optimized for one purpose, it’s storytelling.

Well, okay, I’m being poetic. It’s pattern recognition, technically, if you want to be dreadfully literal about it. We look into the night sky and see a random scattering of stars, and we impose order on it, drawing constellations and filling up the void with patterns—stories. We see a piece of paper with green ink making pictures, and we impose a story on that too: Not just paper and green ink, but money, a dollar, and suddenly that same scrap of paper and ink has the arbitrary worth of approximately one candy bar.

Show someone a story, tempt them into giving one percent of their attention to it, and you can hack right into that part of their lizard brain that evolved to make educated guesses about the world around them, the better to keep them alive in a hostile wilderness. And once you’re in, once you have them by the throat, you can do all sorts of things to a person. You can lead them all sorts of places.

These days, the hostile wilderness is made of stories—it’s not just the effortless access we have to movies, TV shows, games, but also the battering tempest of the unending news cycle, the way social media amplifies the audience’s every scream of response. Someone realized once how irresistible patterns are to our brains and, because capitalism, monetized it and set it loose on an unsuspecting population. Half of the reason it feels so good to take a day or two away from Twitter is because your brain gets a rest from endlessly and reflexively sifting through clickbait and propaganda. There’s such a torrent of false positives that we survive by resisting the instincts of our lizard brains, armoring ourselves against the very stories that we’ve evolved to embrace. And it’s hard. We’re just not wired for that.

When I began writing A Conspiracy of Truths, it was only ever supposed to be for fun. It was supposed to be my procrastination project – a low-stress, low-stakes, low-pressure thing for me to screw around with, experimenting and tinkering and fucking up as freely as I pleased while I avoided the other book I was working on, the one I was Serious about. “I wonder how much worldbuilding I can cram into one novel without it getting annoying,” I thought to myself, blithely ignoring the other project I was allegedly committed to. “Let’s try it for the sake of science and see what happens. No gods, no masters, eh?”

But stories are in everything, and the human brain is optimized for them, and… things rather got away from me. Things seem to have, uh, really gotten away from me.

First, the damn thing disregarded all my intentions and grew its own plot – a story, initially just a framework to support the weight of the world I was constructing on top of it, but gradually taking up more of the space, more of the weight, more of my attention. And then, I suppose, either to spite me or to prove a point, it made its story about stories: About the power of the right lie whispered in the right ear, about the power of truth deployed strategically, about the ways we take strength from stories, what they do for us, how they change us.

The main character and snarky first-person narrator, Chant (a member of an order of wandering storytellers going back thousands of years) gets arrested, accused of witchcraft and espionage, and thrown in jail. He is looking at a very real possibility of being killed for crimes he didn’t commit, and he has nothing—no money for bribes, no friends in high places—just the clothes on his back, the words on his tongue, and a complete inability to give up and accept defeat.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem in the world looks like a nail: So, for the lack of any other tools at his disposal, Chant hammers stories at every ear he can reach. He knows he doesn’t need to change someone’s mind completely—all he needs, in most cases, is to plant a seed of doubt, to make them empathize with him for a split second, to make them pause, and wonder, and listen. He saves his sorry neck with stories.

I finished writing this book in mid-September of 2016, about six weeks before the election that brought us a painfully sharp reminder of the undeniable and overwhelming efficacy of propaganda. The book was only supposed to be an experiment in worldbuilding, but it became more about manipulating reality. The moral, if there is one, comes down to this: “It doesn’t matter if it happened that way in real life, as long as the story is good, as long as it’s truer than truth.”

Let me tell you the truth.


A Conspiracy of Truths: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (scroll down on the page). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Heading Home, 11/7/18

It’s a rainy day here in Paris and it’s time for me to go home. I have a whole day in airports and planes before I get there. But then I get to be with my family, so it will be worth it.

I woke up this morning, caught my breath and then checked the election results. Then I let out my breath. Not a perfect showing but good enough for now. I’ll have more to say on it when I’m back home and caught my breath (and slept!), but the short form is, I’m not displeased, and now things will get interesting. It’s a new day.

Catch you all tomorrow.