Reader Request Week 2020 #6: Pulling Punches in Criticism

Troy Gordon asks:

Do you ever hold back in your criticism of other artistic endeavors (movies for instance) out of fear or apprehension that it will open your own work to hostile/non constructive criticism and exclude you from future opportunities? You are successful and obviously intelligent enough to know how story and character arcs work, and how to bring a story to life, but sometimes your reviews on things can come across as… muted. I find this interesting, given how outspoken you can be on some topics, but very careful in your criticism of other’s work. Is it because as an artist, you appreciate the effort that went into that other piece of art, is it a political consideration, or a combination of both?

This answer is complicated! Strap in!

First: I mean, I was a professional critic for years, primarily in film but also in music and video games, so in fact there’s a long and rich history of me going deeply negative on things when I thought it was necessary. I even have some stories I can tell about creators getting pissed at me for doing so — if we’re ever in the same room at the same time, get me to tell my story of Ian Astbury of the Cult sending me an all-caps email after I gave his band’s (then) new release a less-than-entirely-shining review. I don’t feel like the argument that I’m overly muted in reviews is supported in the text, running across all of my career.

Also, if sometimes my criticism of something comes across as muted, it might be because I’m writing about something I didn’t feel all that strongly about. For example, last December when I wrote up a piece on The Rise of Skywalker, the tone of the piece reflected how I felt about the movie: I was reasonably entertained, but it felt rushed and there wasn’t a whole lot of emotional range in the film. I didn’t hate the film, and didn’t feel the need to be performatively angry with it or the filmmakers for not providing a certain level of catharsis; likewise, I didn’t love the film or desire to defend it, or the people who made it, from the criticism of others. It was just fine. The review’s tone reflected that.

“Just fine,” incidentally, is where the vast majority of films (and, honestly, most creative output) reside, particularly if they’re put out by large entertainment companies who know how to spot, hire and support technically proficient people who are competent at their jobs. With very few exceptions, Disney and Warner Bros and Universal and Netflix and so on are not all that interested in turning out immortal works of cinema that will shine through the years; they want to create something you’ll spend money on to watch. The “I’ll watch that” line for most people is not “immortal cinema,” it’s “entertaining enough for two hours.” If it turns out a film is immortal cinema as well as being entertaining for two hours, so much the better; none of them are opposed to that. But if they had to choose between “entertaining for two hours” and “immortal cinema,” they’ll go for the first. They understand the first. They can market it. Immortal cinema is much trickier, and hardly ever as commercially reliable.

When I was a professional film critic, I would say that 10% of my reviews were of amazing films and 10% were of genuinely terrible films, and in both cases writing a review was not difficult because there was so much to say either way. 80% of my reviews were of films that were some level of mediocre: Nothing wrong with them but nothing great about them either. Those were the challenging ones to write, because how do you approach “meh, it’s fine?” over and over again? One solution is to basically go to war with every film you don’t think ranks as immortal cinema, and, well. That’s a choice. It’s not the choice I usually go for.

So I don’t disagree that my reviews might come across as muted to some folks. But if they do, because that’s mostly how I feel about the film I watched. Meh, it’s fine! If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like! And so on.

What’s often more interesting than straight review at this point is meta-commentary: What the film means in a larger context. So for example, my thoughts on Wonder Woman, which I thought was fine (specifically, I said, “a solid film with some genuinely great moments, cheapened a bit by the generic boss fight at the end”), but about which the most interesting thing was — to me — the perception of it being much larger success than its sibling films Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, when globally it made just about the same amount, financially, as either of those two films.

Here on Whatever, where my commentary on film does not have to be straightforward “should you pay money for this or not” reviewing, I tend to do a lot of meta-commentary; for example, my observations of the last Star Wars trilogy are as much about the role of Disney taking over the franchise from George Lucas as it is about the individual films themselves, because I think that’s interesting. At some point I’ll probably write up something on how the Disney trilogy was about what happens when a major corporation loses its nerve and plays it safe (as opposed to the prequel trilogy, which was all about an auteur doing things exactly how he wanted to, even if what he wanted to do frankly sucked). But for now I will acknowledge that this sort of inside pool may not be as interesting to other people. So it goes.

Yes, yes, Scalzi, but do you pull your punches because you’re trying to do business in Hollywood? Answer the question!

UGH, fine.

The answer is: Not really? At least, not as it relates to doing business in film and television. First, bluntly, no one in Hollywood gives a shit what I write about film (or anything else) here on my blog because this blog doesn’t matter to them. It’s not Variety or The Hollywood Reporter or the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, and it’s also not the aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score, so, really, who the fuck cares? I’m literally off their radar, and nothing I could say here has an impact on what they do.

Which is a sentiment, incidentally, I get, since as a writer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal serve the same function in my industry: They’re the trades, they’re what everyone in publishing (and also library and bookstore acquisition people) read. Because of this, we writers remember when, say, Kirkus gives one of our books a pan (and boy, have they!).

So I could write whatever I wanted here, secure in the knowledge that literally the only person who cares, vis-a-vis doing business, is me. I know this because, despite writing a piece where I saidStar Wars is not entertainment. Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot,” I’ve been offered work in the Star Wars universe more than once. When I pointed out to the people offering me work that I actually wrote those words, they more or less shrugged. Because no one gives a shit, except me.

With that said, it is entirely accurate to say I don’t post very many negative reviews here in film, music, TV and so on, especially in the last several years. This is because:

1. Since I’m generally no longer being paid to write criticism, I mostly don’t bother to write about the things I don’t like; I think it’s better and more useful to point out the things I do like.

2. Over the course of time I have becomes friends or friendly acquaintances with all sorts of writers/musicians/filmmakers/artists/etc, and I’m sensitive to publicly criticizing in a negative way the creative output of people I like (and sometimes, especially in film/TV, their participation is not always immediately evident; one might be surprised by an IMDb listing).

3. In the one field where my public opinion does have weight — science fiction and fantasy publishing — I am very sensitive to the fact that if I thoughtlessly crap on someone else’s work, it could have a negative impact on them and me, since I will look like a real dick punching down on others. Generally speaking I don’t want to be that guy. So even if I have public beef with someone in the community, and at this point it’s been years since I have had, by and large I leave their work out of it. There have been exceptions to this, but very few, and I don’t think any of them were actual in-depth reviews.

4. Finally, philosophically speaking, creating is hard, and outside of some vanishingly rare examples of people trying to simultaneously sabotage a contract while still fulfilling it to the specific letter of the law, no one starts creating with the intent to make something bad. At this point in my life, unless I have a really good reason to do otherwise, when I see creative output I think is bad, I try to remember someone at least tried to give someone else joy with their work. And, sure, they fucked it up, but I can honor the attempt, and not call out the failure — which, among other things, might be a failure only to me; someone else might love it.

None of this is really about worrying about curtailing my business opportunities; it’s more about trying to be a decent person to other creative people.

Now, nothing here should be understood to suggest that negative criticism a) shouldn’t be allowed, b) isn’t useful, c) is put out by shitty people just to be shitty. As noted above, over the course of time I’ve written plenty of negative criticism. Negative criticism can be useful and is often necessary, and importantly, it’s almost never for the creators themselves. I’ve written about this in full elsewhere, so you can go look at that if you like. All that I’m saying is that unless I personally have a truly compelling reason to write a negative review, these days, I don’t.

(Also, and almost as an aside, I am entirely unconcerned about whether, if I write a negative critique of something, I will get a negative critique back. It almost never works that way, and also, dude, I get so many negative reviews anyway. I’m not worried about negative reviews in a general sense, because I was a pro critic and I understand better than most that negative reviews are just the cost of doing business. Also, and this may just me, I enjoy a good negative review and kind of always have. It’s nice someone cared enough to really hate something I did.)

So, no. I don’t pull punches in reviews or critiques because I worry about repercussions. But I won’t punch something if a small tap will do, and most of the time, these days, I won’t bother to punch at all.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #5: Me and Sports

A “Hilketa” player, ready to bash another player. Art by Tim Paul.

Go, team! Kevin Sims asks:

What are your views on professional and amateur sports? Do you have a favorite sport/team? You’ve created a fictitious sport in the Locked-In universe and one of the characters from those books was a legendary basketball player, but I’ve never read a blog or a tweet from you about sports in general.

Here’s a fun fact: In the late 90s/early 00s, I wrote several weekly newsletters for AOL, which they used as member retention tools, i.e. reasons for people to stay subscribed to the service when by that time one could just go out on the Internet. One of the newsletters I wrote was on sports, in which I, in the guise of a sports fan named “Bucky Blast,” would opine of the sports news of the day and solicit reader comment for the newsgroup forum.

It was, far and away, the most popular of the newsletters I wrote, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and the feedback I would get from them was that they really appreciated how knowledgeable and passionate “Bucky” was about sports. And truth to tell, it was also my favorite of the newsletters to write — it was fun, and it was nice to write something that a lot of people enjoyed and engaged with on a regular basis. I was sad to stop writing it when AOL eventually quit the newsletter business — or at least, quit wanting to pay me for them.

People who knew me were surprised both that I was writing a sports newsletter and that I enjoyed it, because, like Kevin here, as far as they knew I had never expressed much particular interest in sports, either as a fan or as an athlete. Likewise, Krissy is occasionally dumbfounded when at family gatherings or the company functions she brings me to as a spouse, I can fluently speak sports to cousins and coworkers even though she never ever sees me evince even the slightest interest in the activity at all.

So what gives?

Simply: I’m not actually a fan of sports — which is, I don’t passionately care about a particular sport or team, or the world of sports in general — but I find the phenomena of sports fascinating: How it functions in our society, how people respond to its structure and celebrities, and how we talk about it — and also, the conditions of excellence it requires, and the commitment one has to undertake to achieve that excellence. It’s an active part of the human condition and how could one (at least, the one that is me) not be interested in that?

Also, and I think this is important, I never really subscribed to the nerd/jock division that was prevalent in the culture when I was growing up, and still exists to a greater or lesser extent. I played sports in high school — I ran track and cross country and played soccer — and I went to a small enough high school that nearly everyone played sports of one sort or another. And so a lot of our nerds were jocks, and a lot of our jocks also did theater and so on. Then I went to the University of Chicago, where everyone was a nerd, even the jocks, and we were Division III in any event, i.e., the NCAA division where college sports were an affectation, not a revenue generator. All this was and is useful because it means I don’t have any deep-seated resentment of sports or the people who love them passionately. They’re not my tribe, but they’re not my enemy, either.

Anecdotally, that seems to be more often the case these days. It’s not a new or particularly interesting statement to make that there’s not all that much of a difference between sports fans and “nerd” fans. One wears their favorite team jerseys while the other wears t-shirts with their favorite media characters; one cosplays and the other paints themselves up in team colors; and so on. This is even more the case with the immense commercial rise of nerds in the last two decades: San Diego Comic Con and DragonCon (and all the other immense media conventions) fill up hotels and restaurants as effectively as a Super Bowl and have just as many celebrities showing up to be part of the proceedings, albeit different celebrities. And in these COVID times, both groups are feeling the same uncertainty of wondering when, if ever, they are going to gather again in their tens of thousands to celebrate their thing. The similarities are enough that to also note that there is these days a non-trivial overlap between sports fans and nerds — that people are entirely comfortable expressing their love for both the Cubs and Firefly — seems anticlimactic.

(And even more anticlimactic when you factor in the rise of eSports, which these days is the only sports anyone is getting at the moment! But that’s a subject that would require its own whole piece.)

Here’s another thing which I think contributes to my knowledge and interest in sports: As a journalist, I found sports writing consistently some of the best and most interesting journalism out there — some of the most readable, in fact, so I enjoyed reading it. Sports journalists were allowed to write with style and sarcasm and sentimentality that journalists reporting on news and politics were usually not allowed, for various reasons. Like entertainment reporting, where I worked, sports journalism was more “feature-y” on a regular basis, which allowed the writers to get away with more. It’s fun to write and fun to read. So I would — and do! — read a lot of it. And when you read a lot about anything, you tend to pick up a knowledge base about it.

Add this all up and it means that I have an interest in, and knowledge of, sports, even if at the end of the day it’s not “my thing.” It’s not! But it’s cool if it’s your thing, so long as you’re not a dick about it to others. Please note that “Enjoy your thing, but don’t be a dick about it” is a general mantra, not one relating directly to sports fans.

Now as relates to me directly: I don’t really have favorite sports teams, excepting some vague residual affection for the Dodgers, Lakers and Kings because they were the local teams when I was growing up. I don’t watch sports on TV although I enjoy going to live sports events with friends, because, you know, friends. I think Division I college football and basketball are a racket, but living in Ohio I’m also aware the entire state’s mood is affected by how well Ohio State’s teams are doing, which I find fascinating. I have affection for minor leagues and weird sports and will sometimes buy jerseys from minor league teams/sports with amusing names.

I play in a fantasy football league every year with friends and let the computer pick my team, a fact which everyone else in the league knows, so when my team beats theirs (occasionally) or wins the season (much rarer, but has happened) it annoys the fuck out of them, because they all made an effort. I like the sports movies of Ron Shelton, particularly Bull Durham, which I think is probably the best movie about baseball ever made. If I had to pick two sports to watch for the rest of eternity, I would probably pick curling and Australian Rules Football, the former because it’s a ridiculous sport right down to its pants, and the latter because I have absolutely no understanding of how it’s played even after looking up the rules. It just looks like dudes in togs running around with a ball, and honestly, that level of complete chaos appeals to me.

Finally: Hilketa, which is the sport I created in Head On, was an immense amount of fun to create and put together and I would absolutely love to make a video game or table top game based on it, I think it would be absolutely huge — the perfect eSport, in fact. Game makers, talk to my people about it.

I think that covers me and sports! Bucky Blast, heading to the showers.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #4: What It’s Like To Be a Cis Straight Man

Allison asks:

What is it like being a cisgender straight man?

I ask because I’m a trans woman who spent 50+ years living (or at least trying to live) according to the assumption that I was a man, but could never make any sense of the men around me. I couldn’t figure out why they did what they did, nor how they they related to one another. I just never “got it.”

By contrast, women have always made sense to me (even when I thought they were being cuckoo), and I find I can even relate to most trans men reasonably well.

I don’t know if you can do anything with my question, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

I can’t speak for all cis straight dudes, but I can tell you my experience of it, which is:

Being a cisgender straight man is thoughtless.

By which I don’t (necessarily) mean that being a cisgender straight man is about being “thoughtless” (i.e., a heedless jerk, unintentionally or intentionally), or that it means we cisgender straight men are all thoughtless in that manner. What I mean is that because being cisgender, and straight, and a man, are all cultural defaults, I don’t have to expend any sort of thought on being them or relating to world as those, if I choose not to.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to not think about these particular things. I just… don’t think about them. I don’t think about my gender expression or my sexuality or my maleness pretty much the same way I don’t think about geese, or garden hoses, or Nepal. They’re not things I have think about on a regular basis, and I don’t have a particular interest in any of them, so, yeah. What’s it like to not think about Nepal? If you can imagine that, you can imagine me not thinking about my gender expression, or sexuality, or maleness.

I mean, I can think about my cisness, and my straightness, and my maleness, just like I can think about Nepal. I could concern myself very passionately about Nepal if I wanted to, learn all about it beyond what I know now, which is mostly that it’s the place where we keep the Himalayas and Kathmandu, something something Doctor Strange and Marian Ravenswood, aaaaaand that’s about it (Oh! And it has a pennant for a national flag). If I do think about Nepal in a more than cursory manner, I might learn something, and appreciate more about the world and my place in it, and possibly become a better person with a larger understanding of others. It might behoove me to learn more about Nepal.

But, and this is the thing, there is no actual penalty for me if I don’t. I live in the US! I have no business with Nepal at all! If I don’t think about Nepal, my life does not materially or significantly change. Thinking about Nepal is optional for me. Just like thinking about my cisness, straightness and maleness. I can think about these things, or not.

So frequently I don’t! I don’t have to give much thought to my gender presentation, because my gender presentation largely follows the norm, and as a result, when I’m out in the world no one thinks of that presentation as remarkable or objectionable, and I don’t feel any internal conflict between who I am and how I present.

I don’t have to give much thought to my sexual identity, because my sexual identity also largely follows the norm, and there is, almost without exception, no penalty for being straight in our culture. I don’t have to explain it or rationalize it or defend it. It just is.

As for being a man: Well. No one’s telling me what to do with my body, or making me uncomfortable being in the world, and again with very rare exceptions I don’t have to worry about going from one place to another, or being anywhere, or how to dress or how to exist, etc. I don’t have to think about much of anything about being a dude.

When you don’t have to think about these things all the time, guess what? You don’t! I can expend my brain cycles on other things, not relating to existing in the world. Which makes existing in the world, and this life, less difficult for me than for a lot of other people. I may have touched on this before, a time or two.

In our society, the highest privilege is being able to have the option not to have to think on your privilege, or lack thereof. As a cis straight man (who is also white, and also able-bodied, and also well-off), all my privilege checking is allowed to be optional and conditional. I do check in on my privilege, and try to understand it, and try to be a decent person in navigating it. But most of the time, I’m just getting on with my life, in a world that’s designed to be largely frictionless for who I am.

What’s that like? It’s pretty great, if I think about it, which I suspect I do more than many cis straight dudes, but still not nearly as much as people who aren’t cis, or straight, or men. Most of the time, I simply take it for granted, because I can, and because I have other things I want to think about.

It would be nice if everyone had the luxury I do, to be thoughtless about who they are because there’s no reason not to be, and they won’t be materially penalized by the culture, and by other people, for who they are and how they choose to be in the world. And that, at least, is something I should be thoughtful about, and try to work toward, as I move through this life.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #3: Becoming More Ourselves

Who are we, really? Or as dchotin asks:

My grandmother used to say that as she grew older, she didn’t change, she just became more the way she was. I’ve always thought there’s a lot of truth to that – people don’t really change as they grow old, but aspects of their personalities become highlighted. Do you think that’s true? What do you see being highlighted in yourself?

I think your grandmother can be correct. But a lot depends on the person, and their choices.

Take, as an example, me. I very strongly feel a thread of continuity from the person I was at fifteen, and the person I am at 51 — the things I see in my personality as virtues are there at fifteen, waiting to be developed, and the things I see as flaws are also there, ready to be unleashed. At fifteen I was already observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative, and so on. All of it there, all basically ready for me to start making choices about which of these things I would put into play, and paying attention to which of these things would get me what I wanted.

At 51, I am still observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative (and so on), and I am also the sum of my choices about how to use all of those tools, both positive and negative. I have to say that broadly speaking, the choices I made have turned out pretty well for me: I got to be who I wanted to be when I grew up, and getting to be who I wanted to be when I grew up did not turn out to be a curse. And I think that the people who knew me at 15 can (and in fact, do) look at me now and say, yup, we could see the person you are now in the person you were then. I’m me, as I’ve always been me, just refined.

Which is great — except that I’m also aware that, had I made different choices, or if my life circumstances had been a little different, my life now could be wildly different in a number of ways — and yet the people who knew me at fifteen could still look at me and say, yup, we could see who you are now in who you were then. All the ingredients of who I am would still have been there. I simply would have mixed them differently, and gotten different results.

So your grandma is right. But she’d largely be right no matter what would have happened in the course of a person’s life — different circumstances require different aspects of one’s personality to come to the fore. Barring trauma that materially changes aspects of one’s personality, we play the personality cards we were dealt by our genetics, in the game that is provided by our environment. This last sentence is, shall we say, a grossly oversimplified metaphor for life. But I think you get what I’m aiming for.

I do often think about how my life would be different — and how I would be different — if certain things had turned out differently. Who would I be now if I had a stable childhood? If I had not gone to the high school or college that I did? If I had not gotten the first job I did? If Krissy and I had never met? If I had written a thriller instead of a science fiction book when I first sat down to write a novel? In every case, who I’d become then would not be the person I am now — but the person I would be is someone I think could still see a continuity to that fifteen-year-old me, and probably see the person he was now as, if not inevitable, at least highly probable.

Which is to say that out in the multiverse, there are many different iterations of me, each of them a lot like me, all logically derived from the same 15-year-old me, but different enough that I strongly suspect you would be able to tell us apart after a few minutes of conversation. It would be fascinating to get to meet some of them and chat with them and see how their version of life had gone up to this point. If some of them were novelists, we could totally swap books, and then suddenly all of us would have a decade or so of new novels to release without having to work at it! I like this plan. Because, remember, I’m lazy.

I will also note that at age 51, I’m not done with this — I am still making choices and I’m still deciding which parts of my personality to put to the front, and that will have an effect on who I am at 52, and at 60, and at 75 and so on (provided I live to these ages). I am reasonably cognizant of my virtues and also of my vices at this point in my life, so that’s nice. But that doesn’t mean I’m always going to make good choices, because I’m human, and you know how they are. I’m lazy and be petty and cranky and mean and tired and occasionally dimwitted just like anyone else. I’m not perfect, and I know that about myself.

Often, when I am confronted with choices I have to make, or wonder how to be in the world, this is what I do: I cosplay as a better version of myself, and choose my actions accordingly. This has the short-term advantage of generally helping me to make better choices, and the long-term advantage of, if you pretend to be a better version of yourself long enough, the chances of you actually becoming that better version are somewhat higher.

And then when you do, you can look back and see that who you are is who you’ve always been. Just, as your grandmother said, more so.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #2: The Hellish Swill I Consume

This question, from (and here I assume this is a WordPress error rather than the actual name, but even so) g2-772325788f49f5257c84be1c8310f9d7:

To a long-committed healthful foodie, your apparent diet is quite horrifying. How often, if ever, do you consume plant “superfoods” such as carrots, kale, collards, broccoli, winter squash, sweet potatoes, chard, etc, etc, not to mention whole grains, beans and so on?

I work at least two or three of such superfoods into each day’s menu, and couldn’t survive on the hellish swill you so often highlight.

“Hellish swill”?!? I mean, damn.

So, two things:

1. I’m still alive — and healthy! — at age 51, even with this apparent diet, so there’s that.

2. The key word here is “apparent.”

In fact, I do eat carrots and broccoli and sweet potatoes and beans and such on a regular basis, although I don’t go out of my way to call them “superfoods” — that’s a marketing term, not an actual scientific designation — they’re just, you know, vegetables and fruits and stuff. I eat vegetables and fruit regularly because I like vegetables and fruits, and also (and I suspect this is to the point) because it’s a good thing to eat more than just heavily processed foods high in fat and sugar and empty calories.

(And here Krissy, who is about whilst I am typing this, says, “You eat fruit a lot, but you don’t eat vegetables unless I make them,” to which I said, “Yes, but you make them often,” to which she said “but not that often,” to which I recounted all the times in the last couple of weeks she’s made vegetables with dinner, to which she rolled her eyes at me. So, uh, yeah, vegetables?)

I don’t usually blog about the fruits and vegetables I eat because there’s nothing particularly unusual about eating fruits and vegetables — or, indeed, most of the other perfectly normal and largely healthy foods I eat on a regular basis — whereas the “burritos” I make from the leftovers I have in the fridge are usually heinous in some way that’s amusing enough to post. I should note that I eat burritos that aren’t particularly notable in terms of their contents, too, but I don’t post about those. In general, I don’t post most of my food. It’s not that interesting. Please do not confuse what I present here and on social media for actual general caloric intake.

(This is where I point out again that the John Scalzi you see here and on social media is a real and actual John Scalzi, and also a John Scalzi that is tuned for online performance and engagement. This includes showing off questionable foods because it’s funny, and not showing off the normal food, because it’s boring.)

That said, I will note that I am eating in a (somewhat) more healthy manner than I was a couple of years ago, because when I started making a concerted effort to get in better shape at the end of December 2018, part of that was not only trimming back the amount of calories I was putting into myself, but looking at the quality of those calories as well. So I eat relatively fewer empty calories now than I did before. I don’t want to overstate that, because I still eat a not-trivial amount of junk; I have a pretty serious sweet tooth and I don’t fight that much. That means I will still eat cheesecake and candy and what have you. But I do keep track of how much of it I eat, and work to balance it out with things that are better for me in the long run. Moderation! It’s boring but it turns out it works.

I do appreciate that people don’t want me to die of burritos and candy, which, bluntly, is a reasonable concern given that I’m on the old side of 50 now, and also I’m a writer, i.e., in a profession not known for being physically active (like, at all). But in fact I’m in better shape now than I have been in probably a decade, and I am actively keeping an eye on my health, which includes getting up to move on a regular basis, and looking at what I eat.

Yes, I eat crap, and tell you all about it when I do. But it’s not all I eat. I promise.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #1: Being Politically Persuaded

It’s time for this year’s Reader Request Week! Let’s dive right in, and why not dive into the deep end? GB Miller asks:

I think over the years you’ve made your political beliefs quite crystal clear. Have you ever legitimately considered/agree with any viewpoint that came from the other side of the spectrum?

I’m gonna argue with some of the particulars of this question, because a) I don’t necessarily agree that I’ve made my political beliefs “crystal clear,” and b) I don’t agree with the formulation of politics as being on a linear spectrum. So let me address both of those before addressing the heart of the issue: Whether I consider political viewpoints that are different from mine.

First: Have I made my political beliefs crystal clear? I have certainly made my political opinions of the day clear  — I have a three-decade track record of publicly talking about politics. But this is where I remind people that what I talk about publicly is not the entirety of my thinking, or of my action, and also, it’s important to note that people having positions on particular political topics does not in itself necessarily offer much insight into their political beliefs. Many liberals and many libertarians, for example, believe sex workers should be able to ply their trade openly and without social/economic/legal penalty, but the underlying beliefs that lead to that agreement are widely apart. And independent (heh) of political belief, there’s a fundamental difference between the position of “I should be able to work as a sex worker without penalty” and “I should be able to pay for sex work without penalty,” which leads two often very disparate cohorts to agree on the political topic of sex work.

If you know what I (or anyone) think on a political topic, what you know is what I (or anyone) think on that particular subject. Unless I delve deeply into the ethos and philosophy that led me to that point, however, you can’t say you know much of the underlying political belief. You can argue, with some justification, that there is a significant correlation between one’s thoughts on a set of political topics, and an underlying political ethos. But correlation is not causation, and one can be led astray.

Moreover, there’s a very large difference between how people see their own political beliefs, and how others often see them. I tend to think of myself as an inherently conservative person, motivated by an underlying philosophy of rationality and individual liberty, balanced by the practical issues of how to make a nation of 330 million as livable as possible for the largest number of its citizens. The Internet, on the other hand, often sees me a screaming socialist communist liberal who wants your guns and your freedoms.

Who is correct? Well, I live in my head, so I have a better idea of my own thinking. But I’m also human and prone to self-idealization. “The Internet” in this case is shorthand for people who superficially oppose my positions on political topics, and have the need to both gamify political discourse and simplify the world into “sides,” because binary systems are so much easier to deal with: Either you’re with us or against us. But again — hold a large enough set of personal political opinions, and the correlation with a “side” becomes stronger. So maybe these gamifiers and simplifiers aren’t entirely wrong.

Again, however, it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. It’s entirely possible that what I see as my personal inherent conservatism and belief in individual liberty within a system meant to benefit the largest number of people can lead me to espouse what are currently seen as (at the moment but not necessarily historically) intensely “liberal” positions. I am thinking of the cause of my political opinions; the Internet is seeing the effect of my political beliefs.

Second, and as a consequence of the first: Political sides are bullshit, and linear political spectrums are bullshit, and the fact that the political system in the United States has developed over the years to allow only two major parties at a time to control the discourse of politics is also bullshit, since it codifies “sides” to a vastly detrimental degree. We’re seeing the damage of that right now, as one of our major political parties has devolved into a tool of reactionaries who have almost no political philosophy other than cronyism, bigotry and a will to power. There is a philosophical reason I don’t belong to either major political party in the US, even if, as a practical matter, I find myself generally aligned to one of them and adamantly opposed to the current iteration of the other.

[Deleted: 3,000 word rant on this subject here, further expounding on the bullshit nature of “sides” and “political spectrums”]

There, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system —

— we can get to the question of whether or not I’ve ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that comes from a different “side of the spectrum.” Specifically: No, because as noted, “sides” and “spectrums” are bullshit.

I think the more useful question here, and the one that I think gets to the point of what was asked in the first place: Have I ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that is different than mine on any particular political topic? Yes, and primarily for two reasons:

1. I think it’s useful and necessary, as a politically acting and thinking individual, to understand the wider landscape of current political thought, specifically in the US (because I live here) and in the rest of the world to a lesser extent;

2. I think it’s useful to interrogate one’s own political positions and assumptions, and one of the better ways to do that is to find people who disagree with those positions and read what they have to say to see if it exposes flaws in one’s own thinking.

So, as it happens, I read and consider a fair amount of writing from people whose positions on political topics are different from mine. Do I ever find this writing persuasive? Sometimes! There have been times when I have been provided with a deeper historical or cultural understanding of a topic that has required me to incorporate that knowledge into my own thinking. Other times I learn that an understanding I had on a topic was based on an error, and I needed to re-examine my position based on that information. Sometimes with new information my position changed to a different position I felt was justifiable. And, of course, sometimes I went, “Oh, that’s interesting, but, yeah, I don’t find that reasoning compelling,” and kept my opinion.

Have I ever changed my mind entirely based on someone else’s viewpoint? Not generally based on a single piece of writing or argument, no; I would argue that my position on a topic would not be particularly strongly held if a single piece of writing could fundamentally alter my understanding on it. But a single piece can inform my thinking on a topic, and from there further reading/consideration can influence my thinking, alter it and over time change it significantly from where it was when I began thinking about the topic with any seriousness.

I don’t want to overstate my intellectual malleability, mind you. Because I have an underlying political ethos (as noted above), some aspects of my political thinking are more resistant to change than others, and it would take a lot of doing to move those. But there are topics for which I don’t have particularly strong opinions, or alternately new topics for which I don’t have a whole lot of information, where a single piece of argument, compellingly presented, can be significantly persuasive on my thinking and understanding.

Moreover, I don’t particularly find it difficult, or intellectually dissonant, to find common cause with people whose opinions on political topics I might otherwise generally disagree with. There are number of people in the US who consider themselves political conservatives who are (rightly, pun intended) appalled by the Trump administration and the GOP’s general willingness to abandon what are supposed to be its principles in order to dive head-first into the kakistocracy the current administration has wrought. Hey, we agree on this, and weirdly, for many if not most of the same reasons! Does this means we are now political BFFs forever? Nah. But on this topic I will take all the help I can get.

I will say that one of the things I do find tragic about the hazy electron shell of political positions that constitute the self-identified “right” in the United States today is that, while there is shitty political discourse all over the scatterplot of US politics, the shittiness of the discourse of the right is far closer to its mainstream than it is elsewhere — bad arguments abound and morally reprehensible positions are defended because, well, look who is in the White House, and authority must be defended, always.

Worse, much of this is by design — any organization that offers political opinion can offer up shitty hot takes on the topics of the day, but for places like Fox News and Breitbart and The Federalist (to offer three examples, each in logarithmically decreasing levels of respectability), being disinformative is the point — Sean Hannity and whatever poor desperate hacks the Federalist has sucking on its billionaire teat at the moment are not interested in sound argument. They want to muddy the rhetorical water and play as much “Debate: The Gathering” as possible because the destruction of clarity and logic in politics serves their purpose, or more accurately, the purpose of those paying them. Propaganda is not only the tool of the American “right,” as a quick glance through history (and the Internet) will show us. But the American right leads with it right now, because it must.

Needless to say, I do not find those “viewpoints” compelling. I find them disheartening, not only on the macro level of “what the fuck are you doing, Jefferson and Hamilton both would find common cause to kick your ass,” but also on the personal level of, when it turns out that one’s publicly stated political viewpoints are binned reductively on the “left,” it’s more difficult to find people on the self-identified “right” who can make a coherent argument on those viewpoints because “make a coherent argument” is not a priority in that sphere right now. That’s bad news for me, and much worse news for the country and planet.

What I’m saying is: I do consider viewpoints that are not my own. I wish right now that I was getting better arguments interrogating the viewpoints I currently have.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Krissy, Mother’s Day 2020

In addition to being my birthday, today is Mother’s Day, which gives me all the pretense I need to show off this portrait of Krissy, who is, after all, a mom. And a very good one, if I do say so myself.

Also, I’m pretty happy with this new camera.

51

You know what, 50 was a pretty good year overall. Not for the world, sorry; for the world the last 366 days have been a bit shit, and while I’m not really responsible for any of that I still regret that we all had to slog through that. But for me — pretty reasonable! I got myself into the shape I wanted to be in, I wrote a book and a novella and some other things, got to see friends and spent time with family and pets, and popped up into the NYT Bestseller list near the end of it. There were ups and downs in there, but there are always ups and downs. In the end, however, for me, everything tootled along nicely. The enforced sequestration of the entire planet has certainly been a thing, but that’s definitely not just me dealing with that.

I have apprehensions about what the next 365 days will bring. There virus is still out there, despite our national and various state governments wanting very hard to pretend it isn’t, and I don’t think our world economy is just going to spring back as if nothing happened (in no small part due to the fact that the virus is still out there). I think we’re all dancing as fast as we can at the moment, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. I don’t think any of us really know. We’re going to find out. Oh, and also, there’s an election in November. Plan ahead, please. Like, right now.

For all that, I personally feel okay going into the next year. Ultimately I am a fairly optimistic person — or at least, if not optimistic, then curious. I want to find out where the story goes from here. I always have. Maybe that’s why I became a writer. I have my own plans as well, world and time allowing. I’m looking forward to getting to it.

A Goal Entirely Hit, Addendum

You may recall that some time ago I had felt out of shape and was unhappy with it. After hitting a high weight of nearly 200 pounds, and also feeling tired walking up stairs, I set a goal of getting down to 170 pounds. With regular exercise and calorie counting, I hit that goal last July (in fact, ten months ago today).

At the point I had to decide whether to sit pat (i.e., maintain that weight) or keep going a little further. I decided on the latter, but on a more relaxed basis: I wanted to get to about 165 pounds, which for various reasons I think is an ideal weight for me, but I didn’t want to set a particular timeframe on it. I adjusted my calorie counting scheme to lose just a little bit on a weekly basis and tweaked my exercise to be a bit less strenuous, and then just settled in to see what happened next.

What happened next is that this morning I crossed over the 165 pound mark (I was at 165.1 pounds yesterday morning, which was annoying for the perfectionist in me) and hit that goal in ten months, which is an interesting contrast to the amount of time it took to drop 25 pounds (seven months) when I was really working on it. The chart features some swings on it — you can see the peak where I went on this year’s Joco Cruise pretty clearly — but generally speaking it was a long, slow glide to dropping that last five pounds.

Now that I’ve hit 165, what’s next? Nothing! More accurately, I don’t have any ambition to lose any more weight, so now the goal is basically to maintain current weight (plus or minus a couple pounds) for the foreseeable future. This goal may be tweaked if, for example, I decide to exercise more and as a consequence build more muscle mass (which is denser than fat and thus might increase my weight without adding bulk), but generally this weight is one where I generally conform with my own image of myself, so, yes. Good enough! Time to declare victory!

If nothing else, it’s nice to hit this particular goal on the final day of my 50th year; I can start my 51st year pretty much exactly where I wanted to be in terms of physical shape. That’s a nice little gift to myself.

Reader Request Week 2020: Get Your Questions In!

This upcoming week I have almost nothing scheduled, either in the real world or online, which honestly is a first for me in a real long time. I could just take a break, but where’s the fun in that? So: It’s time for the annual Reader Request Week, in which you pick the topics I write about for the next week here at Whatever. Always wanted to ask me a question? Want to see me opine on a topic of your choosing? See me dance like a monkey just because you can? This is the time and place for it!

(“Didn’t you just do a Reader Request Week?” I did one in November, yes, which is generally far later than I usually do them; I usually schedule them for March or April. So this is an attempt to get things back on the more usual schedule. Anyway, the last six months have been the equivalent of a decade, am I right? So I’m actually behind!)

You can ask any question on any topic — politics, social topics, personal queries, silly nonsense, it’s all up for grabs. Post your question in the comment thread, and I will go through the thread and pick the topics I’ll respond to, starting on Monday, May 11, and going through the entire week.

While any topic is up for request, I do have a couple of suggestions for you, when you’re making your topic selections.

1. Quality, not quantity. Rather than thinking of a bunch of general topic for me to address, which isn’t very interesting to me, and which is also like hogging the buffet, pick one very specific topic that you’re actually interested about — something you’ve thought about, and taken time to craft a question that will be interesting to me. I’m much more likely to pick that than look through a menu of very general topics.

2. Writing questions are given a lower priority. Me writing about writing is not unusual here, so for this week, writing topics are a secondary concern. But if you really want to ask a question about writing, go ahead, just remember that point one above will apply more to your question than most. It’ll have to be a pretty good question to stand out.

3. Don’t request topics I’ve recently written about. I’ve included the last five years of Reader Request topics below so you can see which ones are probably not going to be answered again. That said, if you want to ask a follow-up to any of the topics below, that’s perfectly acceptable as a topic. Also, for those of you wondering how to make a request, each of the posts features the request in it, so you can see what’s worked before.

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it).

Please don’t send requests via Twitter or Facebook, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Here are topics from the last few years:

From 2015: 

Reader Request Week 2015 #1: Free Speech Or Not
Reader Request Week 2015 #2: Ego Searching Redux
Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women
Reader Request Week 2015 #4: Bullies and Me
Reader Request Week 2015 #5: A Boy Named John
Reader Request Week 2015 #6: Me and Republicans
Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement
Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass
Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2015 #10: Short Bits

From 2016:

Reader Request Week 2016 #1: Living Where I Do
Reader Request Week 2016 #2: Will Humans Survive?
Reader Request Week 2016 #3: How, and If, I Will Be Remembered
Reader Request Week 2016 #4: Autonomous Cars
Reader Request Week 2016 #5: Pronouns
Reader Request Week 2016 #6: Why I Don’t Drink or Use Drugs
Reader Request Week 2016 #7: Writers and Ego
Reader Request Week 2016 #8: STEM and STEAM
Reader Request Week 2016 #9: Short Bits on Writing
Reader Request Week 2016 #10: Small Bits

From 2017:

Reader Request Week 2017 #1: Punching Nazis
Reader Request Week 2017 #2: Those Darn Millennials
Reader Request Week 2017 #3: Utopias
Reader Request Week 2017 #4: Haters and How I Deal With Them
Reader Request Week 2017 #5: Remembering Dreams
Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance
Reader Request Week 2017 #7: Parents, Their Age, and Their Kids
Reader Request Week 2017 #8: The Path to Publication
Reader Request Week 2017 #9: Writery Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2017 #10: Short Bits

From 2018:

Reader Request Week 2018 #1: Incels and Other Misogynists
Reader Request Week 2018 #2: Our Pets and How We Treat Them
Reader Request Week 2018 #3: The Reputational Reset, or Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #4: Far-Left(?) Scalzi
Reader Request Week 2018 #5: Who’s Cool and Who’s Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #6: The Fall(?!?!?!) of Heinlein
Reader Request Week 2018 #7: Mortality
Reader Request Week 2018 #8: Public Speaking
Reader Request Week 2018 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2018 #10: Short Bits

From 2019:

Reader Request Week 2019 #1: Strange Experiences
Reader Request Week 2019 #2: The War Between the Generations
Reader Request Week 2019 #3: Blogging With Extreme Confidence
Reader Request Week 2019 #4: The Things You Outgrow
Reader Request Week 2019 #5: Civility
Reader Request Week 2019 #6: Being Entertained as an Artist
Reader Request Week 2019 #7: How My Wife Can Stand Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #8: 13-Year-Old Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2019 #10: Short Bits

Got it? Good. Then: Ask me what you really want to know! I might even tell you!

Spring Photos, May 7, 2020

Just playing with the new camera some more. 

Sunset, 5/6/20

I think the new camera is gonna do just fine. Have a good evening, folks.

Meet the New Camera

It’s the new Nikon d780. And it’s a beaut.

“But, Scalzi,” I hear you say, “Why did you choose that one when [insert your favorite recent camera] is clearly the best one?”

Well:

1. Because I like, and am used to, shooting with Nikons. Switching over to some other brand would require a bit of a learning curve, and right about now I’m not feeling like I want to do learning curves. Also, I like dSLRs, including their form factor, the optical viewfinder, and their other utility — for example, the battery on the d780 is rated for 2200 pictures, while a mirrorless camera battery craps out at about 400.

2. Because I already have a fair bit of glass that corresponds to Nikon’s dSLR line, which meant a) I didn’t have to add on the expense of new lenses, b) I could use the lenses I had to their fullest extent (i.e., not every dSLR lens is fully functional with Nikon’s mirrorless line).

3. Because Nikon pretty much stuffed the guts of its Z6 mirrorless camera into the d780, and in “liveview mode,” i.e., looking at the back panel LCD rather than through the optical viewfinder, the d780 has pretty much all the functionality of Nikon’s mirrorless line. Basically, it’s like getting two Nikon cameras — a dSLR and a mirrorless — for the price of one! And that both appeals to the utility junkie in me, and gives me a bit of time to get used to mirrorless functionality, because it seems likely that SLR cameras are going out to pasture in the next couple of camera generations.

4. The d780 had the same 24.5 megapixel resolution as the d750, which in theory I was not in love with — I was thinking I wanted at least 36 for the next camera. But then I thought about what I use the camera for and also my own storage and workflow. And in point of fact 24.5 megapixels is more than enough for what I do (especially since I’m not exactly printing out most of what I shoot), and a 24 megapixel RAW file is not so much of a monster, size-wise, that I will run out of archive space… which I might with the RAW files from Sony’s 61-megapixel shooters, as an example. Additionally, all the reviews noted that the sensor in the d780 was excellent, in terms of its functionality — great colors and sensitivity and so on. So that’s good.

5. Because I wanted it now (it’s my birthday present to myself), and while there’s a possibility that Nikon will come out with new dSLRs with bigger sensors, etc in the near-ish future, everything about this particular camera was pretty much what I wanted. So, you know, why wait?

And how are the pictures? I’m glad you asked!

They’re pretty good.

And will probably get better the more I learn how to use this particular camera. Because this time around I plan to do more with the camera than just leave it on “auto” all the time and then futz in post (although honestly that’s done pretty well for me to this point).

In any event: Here’s the new camera! I think I’m going to have fun with it.

Thoughts on Cameras in the Age of Excellent Cell Phone Photos

I noted here, I believe, that recently my dSLR, my Nikon d750, basically crapped itself, most likely from a faulty mirror mechanism. This wasn’t entirely a surprise to me — it had developed a hiccup several months back where the first photo after being turned on was a black rectangle as the camera remembered it needed to get the mirror out of the way to take a photo. I was not happy about this state of affairs but neither was I terribly put out; I have had the camera a sufficiently long time, and have taken a sufficiently large number of photos with it — literally hundreds of thousands of them — that I feel like I have gotten real value from the camera. I can repair it (and probably will, eventually, to pass it along), but I’ve been thinking of getting a new camera for some time now. Now, as it turns out, will be the perfect time.

But here’s an actual quandary: I want a new, dedicated camera, but I am also, if not cheap, exactly (and here I look around my office at computers and musical instruments), someone for whom utility-to-price is a huge motivator in purchasing. Which is to say that if I don’t think I’m going to get a lot of use from something — “use” being a very flexible term in this formulation, but let’s not go there now — then I can’t justify the price in my head. So right now I’m asking myself the question: Can I actually justify buying a new dedicated camera?

The reason why this is a question: Well, look at the photo above, of a dandelion, which I took on my walk yesterday. I took it with my Pixel 4; I saw the dandelion, bent down a bit, took the photo and then kept walking. Then I came home, fiddled with it some in Photoshop, and at the end of it had a picture that’s in many ways as good as one I might get out of a dSLR — a dedicated camera. So, do I need a dedicated camera at all?

Another example:

The top photo here is taken with a Nikon d5100 dSLR, an older but still serviceable dedicated camera that I’m using since the d750 crapped out. The bottom photo is taken with the Pixel 4. Both pictures were taken within seconds of each other — look at the cloud shapes for confirmation of that — and both are jpgs taken directly from the camera without any further editing on my part.

Which is the better photo? Ultimately, it’s primarily a subjective matter, I think — but that’s just it: It’s a subjective choice between a dedicated camera using a very expensive lens, and a cell phone camera. The dedicated camera here is nine years old, but the cell phone camera has a imaging sensor that could fit into the corner of the dSLR’s sensor. The d5100 relies on the user to work on the photo manually, either in-camera by fiddling with settings, or afterward in Photoshop, while the Pixel 4 lets the mighty power of Google’s machine learning do all the heavy lifting. There are choices to be made and preferences one might have, but at the end of the day, neither photo is so far and away objectively better — in terms of the technical aspects of the photo — that you would say a dedicated camera is necessary, on the basis of these photos.

So again: What utility will I get out of a new, dedicated camera, when the cameras in phones do such a very good job these days?

The answer for me might be paradoxical to some, and it is: The better cell phone cameras get, the more frustrated I get with their limitations — and the more I recognize how much better a dedicated camera is for those situations.

Let’s go back to the Pixel phones, with their cameras. I should note that they are and have been very, very good cameras, enough so that if I go somewhere and I don’t bring a dSLR, I don’t worry too much if I’m still going to be able to get good pictures. I even wrote about this fact previously.

But that said, their limitations — and the limitations of other very good cell phone cameras — still will pop out at you if you are more than a casual photographer. Their small sensors can only capture so much light and Google’s (or Apple’s or Samsung’s) AI can only compensate so much, and the choices they make are ones you have to live with whether you want to or not. The lenses on camera phones are likewise limited, which is why Google/Apple/Etc have spent so much time creating “portrait” modes to offer fake blur that their lenses can’t provide, and why literally everybody’s nose looks so damn big in selfies. Yes, you can buy add-on lenses for cell phones, but at that point the financial buy-in is high enough that you should start asking if it might not make more sense to get a dedicated camera.

Also, good luck getting a photo like the one above from a cell phone, unless you’re directly on stage with the musicians, sticking a phone in their face while they’re performing. And even then the phone is going to struggle with focus and lighting in ways that mean the chances of you getting that live candid shot before the bouncers haul your ass off the stage is fairly low. There are camera apps on phones that allow you to specify ISO and shutter speed and other technical aspects of your photography, to be sure. But again, if you’re the sort of person for whom all of that matters (and you are comfortable fiddling around with these things), the chances are pretty good you’ve already got a dedicated camera, and you’ll be using that for everything put pickup shots.

Or to put it another way: cell phone cameras have gotten good enough that they will do 90% to 95% of everything that the average person would ever want out of a camera. And that is an unalloyed good thing! Everyone should have a camera that flexible and useful to them. But if you’re an avid photographer (or a professional photographer), you spend so much more of your time than the average person in the 5%-to-10% area where cell phones fall down, that you become painfully aware of how far they have yet to go, regardless of how far they have come. This isn’t about snobbery (or more accurately, shouldn’t be) — it’s about use cases. For how I use cameras, my Pixel phone, as wonderful as the photography out of it is on a regular basis, still can’t give me everything I want and need, and it’s frustrating for me that it can’t.

Which is why as cell phone cameras become better, I still find myself reaching for my dSLR, and why, in fact, I ordered a brand new one, which is scheduled to arrive at my house tomorrow (details forthcoming! Wait until it arrives!). I love my Pixel 4 camera, and I love that I always have a “good enough” camera on me. But “good enough” is still not good enough for everything I want to do, and for every picture I want to take. I will get enough use out a dedicated camera that it is still worth the expense for me. I suspect that will continue to be the case for a while.

Week Seven Quarantine Report

We’ve reached the “Take Arty Black and White Pictures of a Telephone Pole” stage of the quarantine, so, you know, well done us.

* And just how was this week in quarantine, Scalzi? I mean, oddly enough, it was… fine? Not terrible, not great, and I’ve gotten to the point, I guess, where it doesn’t feel all that weird anymore. Again, it helps that “stay in your house and only see family and pets” is my default when I’m at home anyway, but the existential aspect of “you must stay at home” was not this last week weighing on me with any real urgency. It was just, meh, another week at the house. I do think it helps that the weather is now at a point where it’s consistently not cold — welcome to May! — so being able to step out of the house and not feel the immediate need to go right back in is nice. Yesterday it got up to eighty degrees! I’ll take it!

* I do think, leaving aside the politically-motivated bigoted gun-toting dipshits for a moment, a lot of people have gotten to the “we’re bored with quarantine” moment of things. This is different from the “we’re bored in quarantine” feeling everyone’s had for, what, two months now? This is different; this is the feeling of fuck it, imma see people and if I barf up a lung later, well, that’s on me. Honestly at this point I can’t say that I’m unsympathetic, even if understand that the science of viral outbreaks strongly suggests this will end up with a bunch of people barfing up a lung come Memorial Day.

To be clear: I don’t recommend going “fuck it,” and just dealing with the consequences later. For my own part, my May plans are to stay at home and do what I’ve basically been doing for the last couple months, although with fewer promotional appearances and (hopefully) more actual writing. I am saying I understand why people feel at that point. It’s not all about people being politically manipulated. It does have something with people feeling lonely and purposeless — and also, you know, worried about jobs and money and the future and things like that, which are tied into politics, but are also things which hit on a personal level, too.

* With that said, let’s not pretend that the rush to “get back to business” in defiance of science isn’t rooted substantially in politics. As others have pointed out, a state telling people to go back to work well in advance to it “flattening the curve” in terms of infections and deaths will likely save it from having to shell out more for unemployment, especially in Republican-controlled states where the capacity for handling unemployment has been whittled away to begin with.

Also, it’s becoming clear that the virus is generally affecting poor and/or minority communities substantially more than it’s affecting better off, white communities (this is, no surprise, correlated with those poor/minority communities having more health problems related to less ability to access health care). So lots of white people have been able to delude themselves into thinking that actually this thing isn’t that bad, especially if they live in places where they have not (yet) come into contact with people who have had the virus themselves. Alternately, there are white folks who understand what’s going on but actively don’t care if poor/minority communities are adversely affected because they “need a haircut” and/or just don’t give a shit what happens to those people, because they’re racist fucknuggets.

The science does seem to suggest we’re all setting ourselves up for a second round of infection and death and economic turmoil, but the politics of the moment, most specifically on the right, seems to have landed on the idea that it’s fine if some people die, because those people are probably old and/or poor and/or not white. This isn’t casting unwarranted aspersions, since there are conservative politicians and “thinkers” on record saying that they’re fine with people dying if it gets the economy chugging along again. And, well. They’re going to get their way, at least for a little while. I don’t think it’s going to work the way they want it to. But that’s what happens when you put ideology ahead of logic.

(“But what about Ohio?” Our governor is re-opening the state this month in stages — you can now go to the doctor and dentist again, and later this month retail shops will be open, all with certain procedures in place to protect workers and customers. And, we’ll see; I think DeWine and his people have handled things well to this point, a rarity among GOPers, but I also worry it’s too early. We’ll find out. At the very least I have faith at this point that our governor has been listening to actual scientists and understands the risks they’ve laid out to him.)

* I should just say I want to be wrong with the above — I would be delighted with COVID-19 being managed and more people not getting sick or dying, just with what we have on offer now. I would be happy to be able to sit in a restaurant or fly on a plane or visit friends casually. As I said last week, no one wants quarantine to continue; this isn’t fun for anyone, even the introverts. I would be very happy, in a month, to be the one to whom “We told you so” is being said to, rather than me being the one saying it. Please, please, please, prove me wrong. Just don’t be pissy with me if I’m not.

May Flowers, Plus a New Song From Matthew Ryan

Right on time. We had April showers all last week. Here’s to a lovely May.

Also, my pal Matthew Ryan dropped a new cover song today. It’s a striking version, well worth the listen. Enjoy.

Webb School Days, Vol. 1: A Playlist

And in case you don’t have Spotify, here’s the playlist in YouTube form:

And Now, The Most Terrifying Self Portrait I’ve Done This Week

It’s the “kaleidoscope” setting on a camera app I was playing with. Yeah, that’ll stick with you when you’re trying to get to sleep tonight. Oh, and just for good measure, here it is in black and white:

Sweet dreams!

Quarantine, Six Weeks In

Thoughts on six weeks of quarantine (so far):

* I had a really good week last week, with The Last Emperox hitting a bunch of best seller lists and some other good things which I can’t talk about yet falling into place, and aside from that life at home continuing on in a generally pleasant fashion. Yesterday I was out in the yard with Athena and Krissy, and looked back at the house, with trees blooming and the sky blue and filled with fluffy white clouds, and I thought about the fact that I had a really good week, in the middle of a global pandemic.

Which, I don’t know, might seem rude to some folks. I’m not going to pretend that my quarantine experience hasn’t been generally atypical compared to many others, and I’m also not trying to tempt fate here. But also, I think it’s okay to appreciate good moments in bad times. They might be the most important times to appreciate good moments.

* With that said, I’ve definitely not been immune to the stress of the quarantine life. I’m sleeping more, but I’m also sleeping at weirder times, relative to the before times, so I’m not sure all that sleep is much more restful. I’m not being creative at all, which is fine since I’m still on the publicity treadmill for The Last Emperox (five online events next week!), but one day — next Friday, in point of fact — the main PR push for this book will be over and then I do have to be on to the next thing.

And also, I miss friends, many of whom I was supposed to be seeing on the book tour, and I more than mildly resent the virus (which to be clear, is incapable of caring about my resentment) that it deprived me of the ability to see them in the flesh, and to hang out with them and have a meal with them. I keep in contact with most of them online, obviously, and that’s not bad. But if you’ve already made plans to see people, to have that all shelved feels like a loss. Over the last couple of weeks I have been thinking of all the places I was supposed be on any one particular day, and all the people I was supposed to see. It’s saddening.

Also also, I have the mehs pretty hard, in which nothing seems particularly interesting to me, i.e., I’m not watching shows or movies because I can’t be bothered to give some my attention for that long, I’m reading less for the same reason, video games not giving me a jolt, etc. I assume some of this is just general restlessness, but after six weeks we can also just admit quarantine ennui is a real thing that happens to people. Again, the fact I’m doing so much promotional work right now means I’m not entirely trapped in a cycle of anhedonia — I do have to be up for those things — but I’m not going to pretend it’s not a thing I’m experiencing right now.

* All the above, incidentally, is why you have my official permission to tell all those people who are saying that you should develop a new hobby under quarantine and/or if you’re not doing six different things all very well, then you are wasting this precious gift of time, to fuck right off. Motherfuckers, I released a bestseller in quarantine and promoted the crap out of it and am negotiating some genuinely breathtaking business deals and I’m still mostly feeling like sleeping until 3 fucking pm in the afternoon and then going back under the covers an hour and fifteen minutes later. If you’re getting out of bed these days, you’re ahead of the game.

* This was also the week in which our dipshit president suggested looking into the feasibility of injecting people with disinfectants and shining bright lights into people to knock out the coronavirus, followed by the delightful spectacle of some of his acolytes trying to suggest that what he really meant was [insert actual deeply experimental/unproven medical procedure only vaguely in the same ballpark as the president’s dimwitted podium improv here], before the president informed us all that he was just being sarcastic to own the fake news, lol, which was a lovely way for him to hang all his acolytes out to dry. I understand the president is now considering not having daily press conferences anymore, which I suspect is better for him and the rest of us as well.

Commentators are arguing that this is finally the point at which our current president will finally lose the support of his supporters, but, come on. We all know that’s not true. The president could say that he heard a scientist say “Sir, the skin of the human foot heel is the most beautiful anti-virus against corona, it’s really actually fantastic,” and the next day some of his people will have scraped their feet to the goddamned bone and gobbled down the flesh, screaming that they were immune now, OPEN UP THE COUNTRY YOU COWARDS. We’re stuck with these geniuses for the duration, I’m afraid. In other words, please vote in November kthxbye.

* I will say, incidentally, that no one doesn’t want the country opened up and the quarantine lifted. But there appear to be two classes of people in the country at the moment: The ones who listen to scientists, which thankfully appear to be in the majority, and the ones being manipulated by rich conservatives and/or by the politicians being manipulated by rich conservatives. The former understand that waiting to open up the country today means a lower chance of having to close up the country again tomorrow, whilst the latter appear to need their it’s not an assault rifle okay on their person in order to scream about needing a haircut, at whatever state capitol they have been told to congregate at. I don’t wish viral infection on the latter, but I won’t act surprised when it happens. And then the rest of us will have to say in quarantine longer. In short, thanks, assholes.

* The one thing I have been doing with some enthusiasm during this quarantine is taking photos, particularly of Krissy, who is, to be fair, an excellent subject. So to end this post on a high note, a couple recent shots of her. Enjoy, and onward into week seven of the quarantine.

 

Zeus, Majestic

Those of you who remember when we first got Zeus might, like me, be a little amazed he is now the senior cat of the Scalzi household. But it turns out he wears the title well. Also, he still takes a pretty grand photo, from time to time.