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The Turtle in Our Hedge

A baby snapping turtle.

It’s a snapping turtle, which is not great, as they are mean and also can take off your finger (or a chunk of a pet’s nose) if they feel like it. However, it’s currently the size of a half-dollar coin, which lessens the danger somewhat. It was on our walk as I took this photo, and after I snapped a few shots retreated to the hedge just out of frame.

I don’t expect it will stay in the hedge for any period of time; that’s not the species’ usual habitat. But it’s there at the moment. Why? Who can say? Snapping turtles do show up in the yard from time to time, because there are both a pond and a creek nearby. I expect this little turtle will find its way to one or the other.

Until then: Look, a turtle in the hedge.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Craig Alanson

It is, in simplest terms, our humanity which makes us human. But what’s in our humanity that makes it tick? New York Times best-selling author Craig Alanson gets into that, in his Big Idea for the latest novel in his Expeditionary Force series, Breakaway.

CRAIG ALANSON:

What’s funny about an alien invasion?

The notion that we might survive one, without a lot of outside help.

Many people who read/listen to my books, might be surprised that there is a Big Idea behind my writing. Wait, they might say, aren’t your books all about snarkasm?

Yes and no. Humor is the means I use to convey a Big Idea.

The Big Idea behind the first book in my Expeditionary Force series, came from watching fun but ridiculous “plucky band of humans with rifles/laptops defeat alien invasion” movies like Independence Day and Battle: Los Angeles. Those movies are certainly fun, and it’s great to fist-pump when the alien bad guys get the beat-down from righteous humans. But, Dude, get real. Any alien species capable of crossing the vast gulf between stars will have technology capable of squashing us like bugs. Their ships can park comfortably in orbit, and simply drop rocks on our stupid heads. Or use nukes, or whatever Death Ray the lowest-bidder defense contractor equipped their starships with. If we try to send a nuke up to attack the aliens, they will have plenty of time to target and destroy the bright, hot-burning rocket pushing that nuke up the steep hill into orbit. 

Wait! You might say. OK, aliens have invincible technology. But we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds- No, wait. That was a different war. After an alien invasion, we shall hide out in the hills, or caves, or abandoned dollar stores, and humanity will survive to fight on!

Uh, well, maybe? Until, you know, the aliens flood the lower atmosphere with nerve gas, or genetically-engineered superviruses, or killer nanobots.

I chose Columbus Day as the title of the first book in my Expeditionary Force series, to make the point that an encounter with advanced aliens will be as traumatic for all humans as the encounter with Christopher Columbus was for the peoples of the Americas in 1492. 

OK, so I had a Big Idea. How could I write an alien invasion story about it? Must it be totally gloomy and hopeless?

No.

We can get by with a little help from our friends. Maybe there will be aliens who question whether conquering and exploiting another culture is really a good idea. But I’m not counting on it. Given the enormous effort required to travel between stars, the shareholders back on the alien homeworld will want a solid return on their investment.

How, then, could we be useful to aliens, so we don’t get bulldozed to make way for a luxury housing development aliens will build on the rubble of our civilization (with a pretentious name like ‘Tranquility Estates’)? A story where humans go offworld to fight as mercenaries has been done many times, so I add a twist. In Columbus Day, human soldiers do go offworld to fight, only to discover too late that our new ‘allies’ are the real bad guys, and our troops are stranded thousands of lightyears from home. That’s when it gets complicated.

Being at the bottom of the technology ladder, what can we offer advanced aliens other than boots on the ground, since we have no hope of surviving without outside help?

Friendship. Loyalty. A sense that no one has to be alone in an uncaring universe. It is our humanity, for lack of a better word, that is our best asset. Even a desperately lonely, immensely powerful and immensely clueless alien AI can find a friend, after a whole lot of swiping left on one species after another. Our history shows it is easier to demonize and dehumanize ‘them’ when ‘they’ are a faceless group, but harder when the ‘they’ is one person, asking for help. Or just asking for mercy. A friendship, between one human and one alien, is a good start.

Yes, my books tend to have a lot of snarkastic humor, in between the furious space battles and tense special ops missions. Using humor to convey a Big Idea doesn’t make that idea any less serious. It may allow that Big Idea to reach a broader audience.

So, you now know one way to survive an alien invasion. Make a friend. You’re welcome. If aliens do invade, let me know how it works.

I’ll be hiding in my garage.


Breakaway: Amazon|Podium 

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

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Phone Thoughts in 2021

Not too long ago, I mean, like, in the last couple of weeks, a professional colleague emailed me to tell me some good news and to ask me about something related to our shared venture. I emailed back that he should call me because what I had to say was easier communicated through talking than text. Then three days later I emailed again asking why he hadn’t called. He called then and apologizing saying, basically, that he assumed the comment about calling was sarcastic.

This illustrates, I think, the state of making phone calls in 2021.

For the record, I was not being sarcastic – I did actually want to speak to this fellow. But I couldn’t entirely blame him for having that thought. At this point in turning of the world, voice communication, i.e., using one’s phone as a phone, is an increasingly rare thing. Speaking personally, more than 90% of my business communication is through email. Speaking on the phone is reserved for rare occasions that are on opposite sides of the communication spectrum: Either short congratulations on good news, short commiserations on not-great news, or long strategy calls that are essentially not-in-person business meetings. Everything else is email.

Personal contact is perhaps even more lopsided; there are friends I’m in almost-daily contact with through text, email and both public and private social media who I don’t think I’ve had a phone call with in years. Some of them I don’t think I’ve ever had a phone call with at all. I’m happy to talk to friends on the phone, I should note; my phone conversational skills have not so atrophied that I’m incapable of blathering away about nothing for twenty minutes or a half hour. But I’m also not sitting in my house wondering why no one calls anymore. I know why they don’t call — because they’ve already shared the news about what’s going in their life on social media, and I’ve probably already responded by hitting the “like” button at the very least. We’re already all caught up.

And this is fine. The phone had its nearly-century-long primacy as a communication medium because there was nothing better, faster; its primary competition was letter-writing and postcards. Now the primary competition is social media, which is generally better for saying things to a bunch of people all at once; text, generally better for saying something to a particular person; and email, which does both. Even the (ugh) conference call has been supplanted by the (ugh) Zoom call. The phone call is now specialty communication: For when, for whatever reason, saying something with your voice is actually the best way to do it.

Which as it turns out is rarely.

And which is why I don’t, on a daily basis, miss the phone call at all. I don’t miss the disruption of my workflow or personal time, or having it be the primary thing I focused on when it was an unwanted call and thus I didn’t want it to be, or not knowing who was calling or why. I don’t miss being annoyed with spam callers (my Pixel phone automatically screens out the majority of these now so I never see them at all), and I don’t miss the political or other robocallers. I don’t miss trying to navigate through voicemail to listen to messages. I love talking on the phone with people I like to talk to, and usually these days we do that by appointment, which is pretty great as well. I can and do take spontaneous calls, but the “always take that call” list is very short. If you have to wonder, you’re probably not on it.

(And I do vastly prefer phone calls to video calls. The selfie camera on my phone makes my face look like a small moon with a vast nose mountain on it, and it does the same with everyone else. This is not a great look for any of us. The video call is fine for when family or friends are having a get-together you can’t be at and you want to be able to wave at the whole group at once, or, again, some other very specialized use case. But otherwise, no, thank you. It’s possible this opinion is affected by a year of quarantine and forced Zoom conviviality; I’m the first to admit to Zoom burnout. But I think this would be the case for me in any year. If you must call, I prefer it be audio, please.)

Miscommunications about when to call aside, I do think the communication situation in 2021 is vastly preferable to what it was in, say, 1991 or even 2001. For me, Whatever and Twitter are for general public communication; my private Facebook account is for the wide spread of friends and family; email, text and private messaging are for specific people. For specific slices of folks, there’s Discord and Slack when I want that. And finally, when it’s needed, and only when it’s needed, there’s the phone.

It works! I like it! I think it’s better. You are free to disagree, obviously. Just don’t call me to do so.

— JS

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