Please Enjoy This, the Greatest of All Thanksgiving Songs

I was gonna post an earnest entry on all the things I’m thankful for this year, but then we’d be here for a really long time. This video, on the other hand, is barely 100 seconds long, and is more fun. Enjoy, and enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday.

Zeus and Smudge Welcome You to Thanksgivingtime

It’s after 5pm on Thanksgiving Eve, so we are officially in Thanksgivingtime, in which the early foodstuffs are being prepared so that there will be room in the oven tomorrow for the turkey and other things that need to be made on the day. So cakes and pies and certain casseroles that are reheatable: tonight is your night. Zeus and Smudge celebrate your moment.

For everyone who is trying to get somewhere for Thanksgiving in the middle of a bomb cyclone: Best wishes to you, and may you get where you’re going with a minimum of fuss and disruption. Enjoy your time with family and friends tomorrow. You deserve it.

Very Very Early Pixel 4 Impressions

I had pre-ordered a Pixel 4XL earlier this year and when it didn’t actually arrive on the day the phone came out (or several days after that), I cancelled the pre-order, on the basis that I was willing to pay the pre-order premium because I would get the phone as soon as possible, and Google had fucked up that part of the deal. Having cancelled the pre-order, I waited for the inevitable price drop that would come as part of “Black Friday” sales. Those arrived earlier this week, so I ordered the Pixel 4 (the smaller version) in the limited edition “Oh So Orange” color. This time the phone arrived in two days. Doing better, Google.

So how is the Pixel 4? Some very early impressions:

* First and perhaps most importantly, there were some very deep concerns about the battery life of the Pixel 4 phones, the smaller edition in particular, which actually has a smaller battery than the same-sized Pixel 3 a year previous. Now having the smaller Pixel 4, and having sucked down 37% of its total capacity in three hours of my typical sort of usage, I can confirm its battery life is indeed actual trash, and if battery life is super important to you that you should either pick up the XL-sized version or look at another brand entirely.

Why am I willing to tolerate the crappy battery life? One, I actually played around with the 4 XL in a Verizon store and found it almost comically large, larger than I would have been comfortable with as a daily driver, whereas the form factor of the Pixel 4 is, for me, close to perfect. Two, I am a super-heavy user of my phone in any event, and experience shows that I drain batteries down to their nub regardless of their size, so I always carry an external battery with me (a 5,000mAh one the size of a credit card), which alleviates a lot of my personal range anxiety. Three, when I’m home — which I usually am — charging isn’t problem, and when I travel for work (i.e., will be away from home for several days), I have a larger 20,000mAh battery that’s in my computer bag. So, meh. I recognize I am weird on this score and everyone’s else mileage will vary significantly.

* The Pixel 4’s face recognition works as advertised, very fast and seamless. It also has yet to be updated to address the security concern that you’ve probably heard of — your eyes can be closed, so someone could theoretically open your phone while you sleep — so if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t trust the people you sleep with, and you have a Pixel 4, maybe don’t use the face unlock (or if you do, restart it before you go to bed, so it requires a PIN or password to open). I understand the  face update is coming soon, so there’s that at least. I didn’t use my fingerprint scanner much for specific apps on my phone (yes, I am mildly paranoid on that score), so it doesn’t bother me too much that lots of Android apps haven’t updated their biometrics to include face scan yet. Again, your mileage here my vary.

I do already miss the ability to see notifications by pulling my finger down the fingerprint scanner. That was a neat trick and I wish there had been a way to retain it.

* I wanted the Pixel 4 for its camera improvements, and having now played around with the phone just a bit, I can say, yes, the camera is better, particularly using zoom (because the Pixel 4 has a telephoto lens, which the 3 and earlier Pixels did not). I took a picture of one of my backyard trees at 3.5x and 7x zoom with both cameras; in both cases the Pixel 3 turned the tree into an impressionist painting, while the Pixel 4 did a much better job of capturing details, particularly at 3.5x (7x was still impressionist, but rather less so than with the 3). Better detail capture is important to me because I do use zoom a lot with my cell phone photos, particularly with pets.

Google got some stick for not including an ultrawide lens along with its zoom lens; this is a controversy I find I don’t care about because a) I don’t take a lot of ultrawide photos anyway, and b) when I want to, there’s both a panorama mode and Photoshop’s “photo merge” function, so, again, meh. If Google was going to have to choose between telephoto and ultrawide — and apparently they did? — they made the right call, or at least, the right call for me, which is what I care about. I will say that if the second lens had been an ultrawide and not telephoto, I probably would have sat out this Pixel upgrade cycle.

(Speaking of ultrawide, Google did get rid of the wide-angle lens on the selfie side of the Pixel 4, but widened the framing of the single lens on the front to be almost as wide as it was with that second lens, so…. again, meh?)

I haven’t gotten a chance to check out the astrophotography mode of the Pixel 4 yet, because it’s not yet night and also it’s going to be overcast for the next several days at least, but given how well it works on the Pixel 3, I’m not terribly worried that it will disappoint. I did try out the in-camera ability to balance shadows and highlights, and it’s pretty nifty, although less of a draw for me since I already edit extensively in Photoshop as it is. Portrait mode seems to do a slightly better job at artificial bokeh and figuring out where hair is, although if that’s really important to you, you should get a camera that gives you actual depth of field.

I’ll need to play with the camera more to give any sort of real verdict, but the early indications are that it’s a better camera with better software capabilities, and it’s better in ways that are important to me as someone who takes lots of pictures. Whether these improvements are important to you is, well, up to you. I think if you’re a casual and/or primarily selfie photographer and you own a Pixel 2 or 3, you could probably wait to upgrade. If you’re a more serious photographer (and like having the most capable phone camera), the upgrade is worth considering.

(Yes, I know, it’s weird to talk about the camera without posting pictures — I’ll post pictures in a separate entry when it’s not gray and gloomy and totally depressing outside.)

* The Pixel 4 has a “Live Caption” function which listens to what the phone hears (or is playing, if it has people talking on a video or podcast) and then does a live transcription, which it can do because it does it directly on the phone rather than sending it out to a server farm to be processed. I turned it on for the most recent “Binging With Babish” video and, well: Holy fuck, y’all, this thing is amazing. Not only did it very accurately transcribe with was being said (up to and including words like “anthropomorphize”), it mostly kept up with Andrew Rea’s fast-talking cadence.

Likewise, I used the Pixel 4 recorder app, and recorded myself with the captioning on. It kept up with me as I spoke, and when I saved the recording (and it was processed), it pretty accurately added punctuation to the transcript. Also, just to mess with it, I spoke-sang “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins at it, which it handled, including spelling that ridiculous word accurately — probably more accurately than I just did. This is deeply impressive (it doesn’t handle actual songs very well, but I’m willing to cut it some slack there).

* The phone also has a 90Hz screen, sometimes (i.e., when it’s bright enough and/or the phone decides you need it) and this seems to be a plus to some people and a negative to others (not the least because it’s a drain on the phone’s already unimpressive battery). Having now seen the 90Hz screen myself, I’m not especially impressed with it — I see what it’s doing and it is smoother, but it’s not a huge differentiator for me personally, and I don’t think I would miss it or notice much if the phone just chugged along at 60Hz most of the time. Otherwise the screen is fine; basically what it was on the Pixel 3. Reviewers have noted it’s not the brightest screen in daylight, and it’s not, but it’s fine (and I’m mostly indoors anyway).

Otherwise the phone seems pretty speedy and capable. It got a memory upgrade from last year and is now up to 6GB of RAM, which is less than other high-end phones but (again!) meh, it’s handling everything I’m throwing at it, so. In terms of storage, I have the 128GB version, which matches what I had last year in the Pixel 3, and inasmuch Google allows one to offload lots of stuff into its cloud, I never came anywhere close to filling up the phone, nor do I expect to do so this time around. Obviously this won’t work if you’re paranoid about Google knowing your shit, but I long ago decided that Google was the company that gets to know everything about me, so, yeah.

* Other notes: The overall look is fine — I think at this point you either love or hate Google’s design language, and I like it just fine. The “oh so orange” color is a kind of goofy, but that’s why I got it and also it will make it easy for me to find my phone in a crowd. The speakers are nice and loud, if not especially full of bass, so if you need your phone to project, this will do the trick (but please please please use headphones in public, none of the rest of us want to hear your music or your phone conversation or whatever bullshit Facebook video you happen to be watching, don’t be that asshole). And as with other Pixels, you get the most updated stable uncluttered version of Android as a matter of course, which is a definite plus.

Overall, I’m liking the Pixel 4 so far, and my only real thumbs down for it is its trash battery — but since I knew about the trash battery going in, I’m not going to hold it against the phone too much. If you want a Pixel 4 and can handle a trash battery, the smaller version is perfectly good! If you want a Pixel 4 and don’t want to carry around an external battery everywhere you go, and don’t mind a tablet-sized phone, the Pixel 4 XL (which save its larger size and a higher resolution screen is functionally otherwise the same as the smaller version) is probably the way to go.

More thoughts about the Pixel 4 in the future if warranted, and definitely more pictures to come.

A Very Scalzi Christmas Down the Last 100 Copies of the Signed Limited Hardcover

Here’s the news from Subterranean Press itself:

Basically, if you want to be sure you get the signed limited hardcover, order from Subterranean Press directly and do it very very soon. Like, today. Because those 100 copies are going to go quickly.

(If you miss the signed limited hardcover, however, there will still be the ebook version. And an audio version to boot. There will still be options!)

Trying the Astrophotograpy Mode on my Pixel Phone

I haven’t upgraded to the Pixel 4 yet, but one of its star attractions for the camera, the “astrophotography mode,” debuted on the Pixel 3 last week. I got up at a ridiculously early hour this morning for other reasons (i.e., cat woke me up), and the stars were visible for the first time in a while, so I figured what the heck. Here’s what I’ve got. Right click on the images to have them pop up in a new tab if you want a closer look:

From a camera phone, y’all. That’s pretty impressive. Whatever Google’s doing with their computational photography, they should keep at it. I’ll take some more shots when the Pixel 4 finally shows up. I’m looking forward to it.

Reader Request Week 2019 #10: Short Bits

Time to close out this year’s Reader Request Week with some short takes on questions I didn’t otherwise get to:

Dean Laws:

Hey Scalzi, can you trust photographs anymore?

Could we ever? Photographs were being manipulated and altered basically as soon as they were invented, and whether that fiddling was soft focus on a movie star or a member of the Politburo being erased, it points out the fact that photographs were never a reliable medium. Like any other medium of reportage, one must evaluate who is reporting and their level of trustworthiness. Many news organizations have procedures in place to minimize doctoring of photos (and to make any doctoring evident), because they understand the “trustworthy” aspect is real and important.

BG:

How do you stay healthy, especially regarding arthritis and the like?

You and I are roughly the same age both spend a lot of time at a keyboard. My wild keyboarding days are catching up with me. :(

At the moment I have a pretty serious and persistent case of tendonitis in my left shoulder, so I’m not sure I’m always doing that great a job of staying healthy. But aside from that I am in better shape than I was a year ago, and in a larger sense and especially as one gets older, the answer is, diet and moderate exercise, to counteract or at least slow the effects of aging. I am fortunate not to have arthritis (except for a small a bit on one of my hips that I really have to to work at to tweak, so I don’t work to tweak it) and I’ve been practicing reasonably good typing habits for a while, so that specific thing isn’t much of a concern with me. But generally, and especially if one is over 50, the way to stay healthy is to work at it. Alas.

John-Paul:

Was it psychologically challenging the first time you spent a substantial amount of money on a vacation or something similarly non-essential? How did you work through your feelings?

Since I can’t recall the first time I spent a substantial amount of money on something “non-essential,” the answer is — apparently it was not psychologically challenging otherwise I’d remember? Also as a nitpick I would argue that vacations are not “non-essential” — people need rest and relaxation and downtime in both a psychological and social sense, and a good vacation does that. That’s not frivolous, that’s an investment in one’s self. It’s not to say one can’t overspend on a vacation, of course. Oh boy one can! Just the vacation in itself is not necessarily a “non-essential.”

That said, even now, when, uhhh, I have money, when I want something I still very often do the do I really need this? dance, in which I think and fret about whether the thing I want is something I should actually get. This is rooted in my former status as someone who doesn’t have a lot a money, but I think it’s not a bad thing, since a lot the time the answer is “no.” For example, I don’t need a new fancy digital camera, even if I want one, because the one I have is still working perfectly well. I’m frequently reminding myself of that fact, so I’ve resisted getting a new one for a few years now. When the answer is “yes,” then I spend money and don’t feel bad about it.

Paul Lankheet:

This will probably be on your quick answers but I have read you complain about your slow internet for years. You are, relative to most of us, very wealthy, you could actually afford to have a T3 installed at the house. Have you considered a hardwired connection or are you waiting on moving to a new house in a few years?

I’m glad you think I can swallow the massive outlay and continuing maintenance costs of such an endeavor without blinking, but personally I don’t see that particular route as a very efficient solution to my particular problem, especially in a world where augmenting my ridiculously slow main internet connection with a 4G hotspot works just as well for my purposes, for significantly less cost. Going back to the question immediately previous, that whole do I really need this? question would be a significant one here. Also, the way to stay wealthy is not to spend more money than one needs to.

the6thjm:

Science keeps finding breadcrumbs leading toward longevity, most recently an article about really old people possess an excess of cytotoxic CD4 T cells. As someone just a few years younger than me, how hard will you be trying to reach the centenarian mark (or higher) … and why?

Well, I had a great-grandmother who lived to 102 and probably would have lived longer if she had been in a single-floor dwelling, and several other relations who lived well into their 90s without a problem, so, it’s not entirely out of the question that I could hit 100 without any extraordinary medical or scientific intervention, so long as I keep myself reasonably healthy. Am I going to work real hard to do that? Other than keeping myself healthy so my day-to-day existence doesn’t suck, no, not really; I’m still gonna die one day, no matter what, and I tend to think quality of life is more important than just sticking around, so that’s my focus.

Susan F:

We are now in a constantly evolving social media landscape with kids interacting in ways online that we didn’t have to navigate at that age. Do you have any suggestions for parents with young children growing up in this environment?

It’s the same advice I’d give any parent in any age: Know where your kids are and who they’re hanging out with. This does require an engagement in one’s kid’s life that will be an effort, but there are ways to do that, that are manageable and also don’t make your kid feel like you’re always hovering. One key thing, and we did this with Athena, was to make it clear that ultimately we as parents were legally and morally responsible for her, even when she reached an age where she felt sufficient to handle her own self, so we would sometimes need her to accept we would be annoying about it. Being upfront about it and explaining why one is doing it goes a long way, or did for us, anyway.

Anne Brack:

Will you consider running for office in Ohio?

Probably not, since it would take a lot of time that I would be more happy to spend writing, and also, so much of our current political system isn’t about governance, it’s about running for that next election, which I find both a problem, and also very likely personally enervating. Also there’s the practical matter that where I live the large majority of people have politics different from mine, so I’d be unlikely to be elected in any event.

Leah:

Do the Scamperbeasts receive fan mail?

Not really, aside from comments on their Twitter feed. They do occasionally receive unsolicited product samples from hopeful pet companies, however.

helenehowes:

You’re a piece of furniture. What are you?

You’ve seen the pictures of Sugar draping herself across my chest as I try to type, yes? I’m a cat couch, clearly.

Morgan Hazelwood:

How do you recharge/refocus when life gets heavy?

I mean, you’re kind of looking at it.

Larry:

Do you have any advice on how to apologize to people whom you have wronged on social media and have blocked you? Or, should you manage such a feat, if they doubt your sincerity?

Yes: You have to accept that your apology may not be accepted or heard, and that there’s not a lot you can or should do about that, except to live your life in a way that shows that the apology is manifesting in how you move forward from that moment. Now, it may that your question is “why apologize if the person you’re apologizing to won’t see it?” The answer is: I’ve written that an apology is directed toward other people but is something you do for yourself, and this is something that continues to be true. Put the apology somewhere out in the open, leave them to find it (or not) and then do the work of making that apology be more than words.

Justin Witt:

Are there people you’d like to know that you’ve not gotten a chance to meet yet?

There are different ways to answer this. One, there are notable people I would like to meet but I don’t know if they are people I would like to know — i.e., there’s a difference between meeting someone for five minutes, saying “I love your work” and getting the selfie, and getting to know people in more than a superficial way. There are people who I’ve been interested in meeting where I discovered that once the meeting had happened I had no interesting in knowing them further — not always in a negative way, just “oh, you’re nice and all but there’s nothing here that suggests we need to go further than this.” And that’s fine! True enough, you have to meet (in some manner of “meet”) to decide if you’d like to know. But honestly I don’t know if I’d want to know them until we meet.

Two, there are probably a lot of people I’d like to know, but they aren’t famous or notable or people who are otherwise on my radar — I just literally have no idea they exist because our paths haven’t crossed yet. When I do meet them, I will know that I will want to know them, because they will be fab people whose company I enjoy. I know this because this is how I’ve met so many people who are important to me now — No idea they were alive, and then suddenly we were in the same space at the same time, and from that encounter sprung the seeds of a lifelong friendship, or indeed something more (see: Krissy). I like the idea that there are people who will be important to my life that I still haven’t met, and have no idea they exist. It makes life interesting. There is always possibility.

Molly:

Why bother?

Because for me, at least, it beats the alternative.

Thank you everyone who submitted questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! We’ll do this again, probably in somewhat less than a year (I’m thinking May/June) to get closer to the usual schedule of things. But this year’s edition had some excellent questions, and I’m looking forward to another round in 2020. Thank you again!

Reader Request Week 2019 #9: Writing Short Bits

And now, quick(er) answers to some of the questions about writing that popped up this week in this year’s reader requests:

Kufat:

Now that you’ve got a bunch of ongoing series, I was wondering how you feel about reader requests. Specifically open-ended things like “I hope we see more of character X” or “Could we see how people in this universe do Y?” Do you enjoy getting that kind of question/request and do you take them into account when writing future books?

Generally speaking I neither like nor dislike them and I don’t generally take them into consideration when I’m writing, because usually I know what I want to address. If what I’m addressing satisfies someone’s request, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. The exception is when I know I’m trying to pull a fast one and someone calls me out on it; when I know I’m caught, and I’m writing a sequel work, I’ll address it there.

Joy Stahl:

I’m still curious whether you write certain phrases solely to hear Wil Wheaton say those things, narrating the audio book. Both in Red Shirts and Android’s Dream, there are phrases that make me think this way.

I didn’t intend this (because at the time I wrote it I didn’t know he would narrate it), but having Wil say “Shut up, Wheaton,” in Fuzzy Nation was a bit of a lovely thing. I don’t generally torture my audiobook narrators, however. I want them to like me and the book they’re narrating.

Formerly Just Craig:

Opinion about Writers that have turned into franchises. Those that hire MFAs to write their books.

I mean, MFAs need to eat, too. More generally, the issue for me with this is not that something has become a franchise with multiple writers, but that the undercard writer (whomever they may be) is fairly compensated rather than exploited in that deal. If the undercard writer is being treated fairly, it’s up to the readers to decide whether there’s a problem with the franchise having multiple writers.

p3t3rp:

On a couple occasions there have been big announcements about film or tv adaptations of your work, but it seems like there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Can you talk about the process of adapting a book for the screen? Why do so many books that get film rights purchased never make it to production?

For just one reason, because movies and TV shows cost millions and millions of dollars to make, most of them don’t make their money back (or if they do it takes a loooong time), so the risk of making them is significant, and in nearly every case it’s much cheaper to not to make it, regardless of where it is in the development cycle. People who option books for movies/TV know this, so they tend to option more than they will ever make, so they have more shots on goal, as it were. Writers who get things optioned probably shouldn’t get too excited about their work making it to the screen; they should get excited that they’re getting some free money, however.

Rick:

Do you plan to retire? If so, when?

I don’t expect I’ll ever want to stop writing, so “retiring” in that sense seems unlikely. As to whether I’ll stop writing books for money — well, that’s not going to be entirely up to me, I have to say. It might eventually become the case that no one will want to pay me what I think is an adequate amount for my work (or perhaps, no one will want to publish my work at all), at which point I’ll stop selling new books. Then I will be “retired,” although not necessarily by choice.

theWallflower:

How much do you tell your wife/family when they ask about your writing? My wife sometimes asks what I’m working on and I’m hesitant to tell her because A) I’m afraid I might spoil her for future reading B) it seems bad luck to comment on something that’s not finished yet.

When I’m writing a book Krissy reads every chapter as it’s written, because she wants to and because she’s a very good first reader. Everyone else has to wait.

Kaci:

If you’re aware of the Twitter dustup involving Sarah Dessen and a university student who criticized her work, what’s your take on it? Who behaved okay, who should have behaved differently, and why?

I was traveling when it happened and didn’t keep tabs on it so I don’t have much to say about it specifically. I will say generally speaking that I think college-age people are allowed to have what I might consider bad takes*, because bad takes are part of that experience.

(*up to a point; if your college-age bad take is “there was no Holocaust” or some such bigoted bullshit, you’re still a dumbass.)

Jennifer L Anstey:

Thoughts about really long books? There seem to be more and more. Do they need to be that long? Are editors being soft?

I’ve read long books that were too long, and long books that were exactly the right length. I have also read short books that were too long, if you get my drift. The reason there are long books is that people like them and buy them. I can say it seems unlikely to me that I will ever write a very long book — somewhere between 80k and 110k is the sweet spot for my novels — but it doesn’t bother me that other writers do.

ubikuberalles:

Is there a genre in fiction you absolutely would not write? I don’t mean the distasteful (and maybe illegal) kind (pr0n, snuff fiction and whatever unsavory stuff that is out there). I mean the accepted kind (western, romance, etc). Heck, if this were the 1930’s would you be willing to write pulp fiction?

First, I would note that several notable and lauded science fiction writers have written porn, as well as its more well-heeled variant, erotica, either because they enjoyed writing it or because they enjoyed cashing the checks that came from writing it. I cast no judgment on them (or any writer) for doing so, because work is work, and someone who writes effective porn or erotica is a good writer within the constraints of that genre.

Second, what would limit me from writing in other genres would be interest and knowledge, both in the matter of writing and of the marketplace. I don’t write Westerns, for example, because that genre doesn’t much speak to me, but also I haven’t done my homework in the genre to know what the best practices are for writing effectively and commercially within that genre. The latter of these two is just as important as the former.

There’s very little I absolutely would not write, but there’s a whole lot I would not write until I understood it much, much better than I do now.

dawnwolfefreelancewriter:

How are you feeling about your ongoing contract with Tor these days? What I mean is, now that you’ve been in the midst of fulfilling that contract for a number of years, what do you find is working for you? Are there things that, knowing what you know now, you might have changed at the beginning? Does the contract allow you enough space to pursue other creative avenues, or do you sometimes feel constricted because the next book is due?

I feel pretty great about my Tor contract. I’m four books in and everything is working well. I am turning the books in on time (albeit at the very last moment in several cases), and Tor has gone a great job of supporting each book as it has come out (as has Audible, with whom I have a parallel deal for audio). The books are being done on more or less the same schedule as they were being done before the contract, so I don’t feel particularly constrained or constricted by the release schedule, and as long as I do my work on time — which is on me, not on Tor — I have more than enough time to do other things as well, including this. So, yes! So far, so good.

 

New Books and ARCs, 11/22/19

We’re moving in to Thanksgiving week here in the US, which makes it a perfect time to ask which of these new books and ARCs you would be thankful have in your hot little hands in the near future. Tell us in the comments what here is appealing to you.

RIP Gahan Wilson

Family and friends of Gahan Wilson are reporting that the master illustrator passed on yesterday. I can’t claim to have known him, but I was a fan of his since I was a child and one of the great highlights of my career was when Subterranean Press hired him to do the cover for the “Judge Sn Goes Golfing” chapbook. The knowledge that my words got to be paired with his sublime and grotesque (in the best sense) pictures made my day, for a whole month. I am honored and humbled to have had our professional lives intersect, even briefly. All condolences, sympathy and good will to those who knew and loved him.

Reader Request Week 2019 #8: 13-Year-Old Me

13-year-old me. Actually, this is from my 14th birthday party, so it’s 13-year-old me + one day.

Judge Zedd asks:

One of my students asked me a question the other day: What would 13 year old you think of your life now? It really got me thinking about the unexpected path my life has taken, and some things that 13 year old me would have been heartbroken about, but adult me is more than okay with (my eyes betraying my dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, for example). I have been asking this of my close friends, and learned a lot about them in the process. So now, I pose the question to you. What would 13 year old John Scalzi think of 2019 John Scalzi’s life?

I suspect he’d be very surprised about the lack of hair.

And actually 13 years old is an interesting time to ask me about. I was 14 when I decided I was going to be a writer (thanks to an assignment for my freshman composition class where I was the only person in three sections to get an “A” for something I threw together at literally the last minute, thus setting a writing trend I have yet to break totally free of). Thirteen was basically the last age where I didn’t have a plan for what to do with my life. I had wanted to be an astronomer, but by 8th grade, which where I was at 13, it was pretty clear that math and I were not exactly getting along, so astronomy was likely not in cards, which left me a bit adrift. To be clear, I wasn’t having an existential crisis about it — I was 13 and so not exactly freaking out about what I should be doing with my life. But I still didn’t know.

When I was 13, my home life was relatively stable; I had friends and I liked school and was generally happy. All of that was relatively recent, however — things had been shaky for a while before that. Thirteen was also the year before I went to Webb, the private boarding school that materially changed the trajectory of my life. In short, 13 was a year that had me in flux with my life, and being 13, and not actually psychic, I had not a single idea that this was the case.

So, wake up 13-year-old me and escort him into a time portal where he could see what 50-year-old me was up to with his life. What would he think? As a guess:

* Probably a little surprised that he’d become a novelist, because it’s not really something that was much on his radar at that point.

* But, probably happy that he’d become a science fiction writer, because he’d been reading rather a lot of that stuff at the time. Also, he did know what the Hugo was by that point, so he would have been smug he’d picked up a few of those.

* Would be wondering how the hell he landed in Ohio, because, dude, he was a Californian all the way.

* Then would have seen a picture of Krissy and understood.

* Also I think he’d be amazed that he’d been married for twenty four years at that point, because, how to phrase this, he didn’t exactly have a whole lot of positive role models for long-term domestic felicity.

* Likewise would be impressed I’d stayed in one place for 18 years, since at 13, he’d had more homes than he’d had birthdays (and had also at that point had been briefly homeless).

* Really, stability in general would just impress the heck out of him.

* I think he’d like, and possibly be intimidated just a smidge by, his future daughter.

* He’d otherwise be pleased with the people he’d not yet gotten to know but would get to know in his life. And also pleased that some friends he did already he’d keeping his whole life long.

* And if I really wanted to blow his mind, I would let him know that he’d met and was pals with Alison Moyet, because “Only You” was already one of his favorite songs of all time.

In general — except for the hair thing, which would be, like, a real bummer for him, although I would assure him it wasn’t all that bad in practice — I think 13-year-old me would like where life would be taking him, and who he got to take along with him in that life.

And since of course we’d have to wipe his memory before we sent him back, if there was one thing I could tell him that he’d get to keep (even if he didn’t know where it had come from), it would be: Don’t worry. Be who you are. Because who you are gets you here. And here, 50-year-old me can tell you, is pretty good.

And who knows? Maybe 13-year-old was told that. And look where he and I are today. I wouldn’t change any of it.

The Big Idea: Colin MacIver

There are few words more laden with negative association than “traitor” — it’s an apparent repudiation of country and of honor. Is there ever a time when there could be more to the word than that? Author Colin MacIver muses on this subject in his Big Idea post for his novel Turncoat.

COLIN MacIVER:

Throughout history and legend, there have been traitors and turncoats. Roland had his Ganelon; Arthur his Mordred. As we move forward, motivation appears more complex, or we simply know more about the actors. Was Benedict Arnold simply a disgruntled subordinate or was he unfairly passed over and therefore returned to his primary allegiance? Approaching the present, we have the English public school graduates who gave UK national information to the Soviets for ideological reasons from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Perhaps most difficult to explain is the case of Robert Hanssen, a senior CIA officer, who for twenty years sold US classified data to the Russians. He was caught in 2002 and placed in solitary confinement. Chris Cooper played him in the 2007 movie “Breach.” It was while watching this movie that I recurred to the eighteenth century agent, code name Pickle, a man deep in the counsels of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who failed a second attempt at rebellion in Scotland after the ’45. Those few authors who have deigned to mention Pickle have concluded that he acted from hope of gain.

My belief, my big idea, is that, while not discounting a mercenary motive, I have discovered a more honorable intent for Pickle turning his coat. He believed that a second rebellion could fail and that the subsequent punishment of clans in arms would bring a retribution so great it would amount to genocide. So he shopped his Prince and his cause.

I cannot conclusively prove this so I wrote my account of PIckle’s actions not as history but as fiction. To bring out the story of Pickle, I have an historical figure, a grandson of the great Daniel Defoe, Daniel Baker, travel to the Highlands to interview one of the last living survivors of the ’45. This format allows for a steady unwinding of the history of the second aborted rising while also allowing for comic and romantic interludes.

Pickle eventually died in an alleged “hunting accident.” For what did he sacrifice his honor and his life? Like him, I do not believe the Highlands could have withstood a second purging. On the other hand, if an invasion by Charles had succeeded in reinstating the Stuart dynasty, the slow progress of the United Kingdoms toward constitutional democracy would have been interrupted, with results we can only speculate upon.

A turncoat Pickle was. A man without honor, I don’t think so. But I leave the reader to decide. And, oh, yes, I have not given you the name of the man both Baker and I think was Pickle. If I did, you probably wouldn’t buy the book.

—-

Turncoat: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

Reader Request Week 2019 #7: How My Wife Can Stand Me

Wayne Kearney asks:

How does your wife stand you? Being a writer/engineer myself, I require a lot of ‘alone time’ to do my thing. My wife tends to alternate between “Why are you bothering me?” and “Why aren’t you paying attention to me?” How do you work out that balance or do you? Failure is an option.

It’s the phrasing of this question that amuses me.

Also, I just went to Krissy and said “How do you stand me?” Her reply: “With pleasure.” Awwwwww.

But it’s not a bad question. I’m an introvert who can quite happily spend days pretty much alone; Krissy is an extrovert who enjoys the company of friends and family. I am lazy and can go for long stretches not doing much of anything other than idly scrolling about on the Internet in a bathrobe; meanwhile Krissy has done eleven things before 10am and feels restless after she’s taken a break for fifteen minutes. I’m an overthinker and Krissy is very much “here, let me hack through this stupid knot.” I’m creative; Krissy is practical (neither of these is a value judgment, each is a mode). On paper, at least, there’s not a whole lot of room for compatibility.

And yet, we’ve been married for 24 years and anyone who knows me knows how much we love each other — as I frequently note, if we meet for the first time and I haven’t shown you a picture of Krissy within the first five minutes, I’m off my game. Krissy, I can state with a high level of confidence, feels similarly about me, although she’s possibly not as quick out the gate with the photos. Krissy can more than stand me; she likes me, as well as loves me. So how does that work despite our at least superficial personality differences?

Well, the answer is, as with any long-term relationship, it took work, from both of us, and still does. As an example, my ability to fall into myself and stare at a computer screen for days at a time was and still can be a point of contention; I had to (and have to) make the effort to overcome my inertia and actually get the hell up and spend time with my spouse. When I do I’m reminded how much I actually like spending time with her, which is nice. Conversely, Krissy has come to understand my introversion is a real thing — particularly after I’ve done a stretch of performative extroversion, like at a public event — and gives me space. We both try to be mindful of what the other spouse wants and needs, basically, and remind ourselves to exercise that mindfulness on a regular basis.

(It does also help that both of us have and have always had, lives beyond just the two of us. Krissy likes spending time with me, which I am heartily glad for, but also, she likes spending time with her friends, of which she has many. I also like her spending time with her friends, because I know it makes her happy to have that time, and as an aside from that it’s not like I can’t keep myself busy when she’s elsewhere.)

I am always mindful of how much I rely on Krissy as my spouse; she bluntly handles most of the day-to-day maintenance of our shared lives, which gives me the time and space to do my thing. There is compensation for this — my work has allowed us a very nice life to enjoy together — but there’s no doubt she’s doing a whole lot of heavy lifting, and that I simply could not do what I do without her doing what she does. For both practical and personal reasons, I never want her to look around and ask herself “why the hell am I doing this? And for this dude?”

So I make it my business to make sure she knows how much I value and esteem her, and how much I appreciate what she does for me and for our life together. I tell her I love her quite a lot — seriously, spend time with us and you’ll possibly get sickened by how much we say it to each other — but I also thank her for the things she does for me, and for us, on a daily basis, and make sure those thanks are more than perfunctory. Thanking her both lets her know that I appreciate what she does for me, and also reminds me of just how much of this life that I have, which I really like, is based on her and all the things she does as a matter of course.

This is not a difficult thing for me! One, because if you make a practice of something you eventually develop mental muscle memory for it, and two, because I like telling Krissy that I love, like and esteem her and appreciate everything she does to make our lives what they are. I mean, she’s great. I’m reminded of it regularly. It’s not difficult to comment on it.

Another thing I think that helps her stand me is that I’m aware I’m not inherently a perfect spouse, which comes part and parcel with not inherently being a perfect person. So I make it my practice to listen when Krissy has a complaint about me, and also (and this is not always the easy part) accepting the criticism and working to correct what’s bothering her. Krissy is not by her own natural inclination someone who complains much, so if it gets to the point where she’s stopping to comment on it, that’s a point where I need to listen (to be more specific, she’ll on the regular call out small things I’m doing that annoy her, and I’ll fix those on the fly; I’m talking larger issues here). Weird how being able to listen and accept criticism will go a long way to helping your spouse stand you, but there it is.

I’d like to note for the record that these things I do for Krissy she does for me as well — if I have a concern or complaint, she listens and works to deal with it. But I’m also aware that over time I’ve been the more difficult spouse in this regard, not because Krissy is more demanding but because I am (for lack of a better term) more self-centered than she is. It’s a known fact that I’ve required more work than she has. I appreciate that she chose to stick with the work; I think she appreciates that I do the work to be a better spouse for her. Never perfect, but hopefully always improving.

It also helps, again, that as spouses, we do like each other. Speaking for myself, she is the person I am the most comfortable with, who I can tell anything to, who I enjoy listening to, and who makes me the happiest just being in the same general area with. This is all standard stuff one is meant to say about one’s spouse, of course, but it’s true, and also, shouldn’t it be that way? Shouldn’t your spouse be the person who makes you the happiest just because they exist and you get to hang out with them all the time and by default?

If you like your spouse, not just love them but truly, genuinely like them, then it’s easy to stand them, in part because you get them and they get you, and the pathways of the work of the relationship are smoother and easier to tread. There’s less risk in calling out a spouse you like when they’re being jerk, or being neglectful, or just plain have their head up their ass on something. Krissy, I know, really does like me. So that makes it easier to stand me, and to call me out when I’m doing something that annoys her. And because I really like her, it makes it easier to be, all, like, “yeah, you right.”

Finally, I make Krissy laugh, which helps a lot.

Again: All of this is work, and a process — being a spouse isn’t just taking vows on your wedding day, it’s living those vows day-to-day and every day. Krissy can stand me because at the end of the day, I’ve done the work. And on the days I haven’t, she knows she can tell me, and I will listen. I can do the same with her. Day to day, we can stand each other because we stand with each other. That’s how that works. That’s how it should work.

Reader Request Week 2019 #6: Being Entertained as an Artist

Acshenglut asks about:

Being entertained as an artist:

I’ve often wondered if it is possible for a writer or other artist to look at work in their medium or a related medium (film and plays are still storytelling, for instance) as mere entertainment.

Is there such a thing as entertainment for an artist, or is picking apart the technique or artistic choices of another artist, even while being entertained?

Does “seeing the strings” another artist is pulling detract from or enhance your appreciation for another artwork or artist?

In my particular case, this covers a lot of ground, since I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction in several formats, have worked on film and TV projects, been involved with video games, and, heck, even released an album of music. Also, I’ve been a professional critic — mostly with film and music, but in other formats as well. So there’s that extra added layer of professional interest in how entertainment works.

And the answer is: Yes, absolutely I can appreciate a piece of entertainment just as entertainment, because sometimes — heck, a lot of the time — I don’t want to have to work when I seek to amuse myself, I just want to stuff my sensory organs full of input and then let my brain sort it out. When I’m off the clock, I am off the clock.

Moreover, I think this is a good thing to do: Being on the clock 24/7 as a creator would be exhausting, and always having to look at entertainment as a residue of process rather than an end result would likewise be dispiriting. Like anyone else, creators deserve their down time.

But I would also say that knowing all the tricks of the trade, as it were, doesn’t necessarily detract from the entertainment value. Knowing how movies get made, either in the technical or the business sense, doesn’t mean it knocks me out of being entertained — and indeed on more than one occasion I chose to see a film at least in part because of a technical process (see: my review of Gemini Man). To the extent I choose to engage with it, it can be an add on, not a distraction.

It’s also the case that being a writer myself gives me a grounding to appreciate when someone is doing some aspect of writing well, even as I’m reading without my “writer brain” engaged. Writing well is a skill, and it’s okay to be cognizant of that skill even if you’re engaging with it primarily or exclusively as a reader. That’s not the writer “showing off,” that’s the writer doing their job admirably.

Also, and independently, and with full cognizance it probably wasn’t meant it this way but even so, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “mere” entertainment. Entertainment as entertainment has immense value for people. Even in its most base state — a passing amusement — it has the potential to make someone’s existence better than it was, and that, as they say, is not chicken feed. A good book or movie or music album can make the difference between a good day and a crappy one. Beyond its base state, for example, people can and do find communities through their entertainment choices; they make friends, meet partners and can even occasionally find purpose. Again, not chicken feed.

(I mean, I’m a writer, after all — I came to it because I was a reader first. “Mere” entertainment became my life’s work, and has brought to me all sorts of benefits, not the least of which was meeting my wife. There’s no way our paths would have crossed had I not been a writer. None. So three cheers, and then some, for mere entertainment.)

In any event: Being a writer and creator generally doesn’t get in my way of being entertained. I can turn off my writer brain and enjoy entertainment for its own sake. But even when my writer brain is on, it’s a plus, not a minus, to the entertainment experience. The only time I’m really taken out of the entertainment experience is if the entertainment is bad. But that would happen whether or not I was writer. That’s what bad entertainment does, to everyone.

Reader Request Week 2019 #5: Civility

In an email, Pablo asks:

Civility: A genuine plea for common understanding, or just another tool to oppress?

I mean, why not both?

Which is to say that one can genuinely wish for “civility” — a sort of courtly and dignified mode of discourse — without understanding all the ways that “civility” generally favors the more powerful parties in said discourse and/or can be used to mask or minimize within the discourse wholly awful ideas, events and opinions. Even the less formal versions of a desire for “civility,” the plaintive cries of “be nice” or “can’t we all get along?” have within them this same dichotomy. And this is why, almost inevitably, “calls for civility” are usually issued by those who have power (or belong to a powerful group): because it’s a rhetorical system of control, whether the person issuing the call consciously realizes it or not.

But let’s back up a bit. When is “Civility” just, you know, civility? Which is to say, two (or more) people engaging each other in a polite and courteous fashion? It can happen, right?

Sure! For example civility is easy when the parties engaged are at or near the same social/power level with each other. If you belong to a country club, chances are you can be perfectly civil to every other member of your country club, because you all are of more or less the same stratum: Probably professional, probably white-collar, probably of a certain level of wealth (those country club fees are a thing), probably possessing a particular world view, and so on. I pick “country club” here because it’s an easy thing to pick — and to pick on. But other organizations or fellowships work just as well. I recently joined a private library, which is a place that holds book events and author tours and so on; just the sort of place where I could meet other like-minded bibliophiles, who also have enough means to subscribe to a private library. I have no doubt the membership is generally perfectly civil with each other.

Likewise, civility is easy when it’s forced on you from above. There’s a near example of this: This very blog, which both has a comment policy and a moderator (waves) who isn’t shy about shaping the conversation, or deleting comments when people go out of bounds. As a result, on average, people here tend to be polite(r) to each other when they comment here than at many other places online. They are, in a word, civil. Because they know if they’re not, they lose the ability to participate in the discourse entirely. I am very clear I am practicing a system of control here — this is my house online. If you don’t want to behave when you’re in my house, you can get the hell off my lawn. Most people get that and play by the rules. Which are, again to be clear, my rules.

(Mind you, I am not enjoined to play by the same rules as everyone else here. Which is also in line with the general facts of a system of control.)

Lateral Civility — the civility of peers — is easy to have because no one person is at a particular disadvantage to any other in terms of power or status (or if they are, it’s because of other factors, and that disadvantage is often temporary). Top-Down Civility can be less congenial because even if it’s “evenly” applied, it favors those people who attitudes, status and world view are similar to the person(s) enforcing that civility, and who better implicitly understand the rules of the civility road, as it were. Civility almost always favors the “in group” whose status is not in question, and whose status is unlikely to be threatened.

So, for example, take me: Hi, I’m white, male, straight, well-off and in the cohort of age whose hands are currently on a lot of the wheels of industry, government and the creative arts. Also for the last decade or so I’ve been at or near the top of my chosen profession. I’m not an outsider in any meaningful sense. It’s super-easy for me to practice, engage with and benefit from the rhetoric of civility, because I have nothing to lose from it. And I like civility! It’s nice when people are polite to each other and we can get through whatever we’re getting through with a minimum of social friction and anxiety. Moreover, as the social primate I am, I don’t like it when people are uncivil, and attempt to make me feel uncomfortable —

— which is, to be very clear, the magic of the rhetoric of civility: It creates the conditions by which being uncivil — not playing by the rules of the “civility” game, however they were created and imposed — becomes the emotional and dialectical equivalent of any possible actual wrong that an aggrieved party brings to an issue.

So: Yes, the water system of Flint, Michigan is literally unsafe and has been made so by bad governance, but you were a dick about it to me in an online discussion, so that’s just as bad. Yes, this oil spill ruined miles and miles of coastline, but then someone had to go and splatter an executive of the company that caused the spill with the blood of a dead, oiled seabird, and that’s just uncalled for. Sure, that smooth-talking alt-right dude would happily murder the Jews if he thought he could get away with it, but then someone punched him and made him cry, so really, both sides are bad, aren’t they?

Which is why people who are not on the inside are wary of “calls for civility”: They are being told that to be heard, they have to engage in a rhetorical system in which the value of their actual injury is held to be the equivalent to the value of the other side’s emotional investment in the rules of discussion. “Yes, you are suffering, but you were also rude to me about it, so my suffering is the same.” Which is, you know, bullshit. And the injured know it, even if the person calling for “civility” is not.

Additionally, when one “calls for civility” one is very often asking people who are genuinely aggrieved to engage in a rhetorical system in which their actual injury is not seen as a problem to be addressed, but an item to be debated — which means a lot of dudes out there with no skin in the game, or who are actively malicious, laying out their “Debate: The Gathering” cards, with the sole object being to “win” the discussion, and to string it out into irrelevance. When “civility” is a stalking horse for crap like this, there is no value for those with actual injury to engage with it; it literally does them no good to do so.

You can’t demand “civility” without understanding what it costs those you demand it from. You can’t demand “civility” without understanding how it advantages you. You can’t demand “civility” without the knowledge that what you are actually saying is “this is a game to me, and you have to play it by my rules.” Or, actually, you can, in each of these cases. But then you can’t really be surprised when other people choose not to play along.

If you want people to engage in civility then the answer is simple: Help to create a world in which “civility” does not inherently and explicitly disadvantage the most injured party — where such rhetoric of discourse isn’t a system of control. It can be done! But, well. It will take a lot of work. And the real question is whether the sort of person who always calls for civility wants that world at all, or is in fact satisfied with the world we have now, because “civility” is just an excuse to treat people in an uncivil manner when they call out the game for what it is.

Reader Request Week 2019 #4: The Things You Outgrow

For this entry, Amysrevenge wants to know about:

Things you fall out of love with as you age. Example: Heinlein was super relevant to 22 year old me in 1997. He was enjoyable to 33 year old me in 2008 in a nostalgic sort of way. He basically isn’t relevant to my interests anymore at 44 years old in 2019. Do you find yourself letting go of things that you’ve… I don’t know if “outgrown” is the right word, but let’s say outgrown, that once were very important to you but now aren’t part of your life, or do you hold on to those older interests?

I generally let them go. For one thing, time is short, both on a daily and on an existential basis, and there is only so much of it that I can devote to enthusiasms. So for the most part I’m going to go ahead and focus on the things that I’m enthusiastic about now, rather than the things I used to like when I was younger (which is a lot of things when one is 50) but no longer really have an interest in anymore. I have enough stuff I like now, you know? It’ll keep me busy enough.

Also, I think it’s perfectly fine to let things go, and to realize that just because something was important to you at a particular time and place in your life doesn’t mean you are beholden to it your whole life. Times change, people change, hairstyles change. Equally valid, it’s okay to still like things you liked when you were younger, but just have them be less important — a thing you were super passionate about ten years ago can be something you interact with only occasionally now, for example (and vice-versa). Additionally, some things you may find you never outgrow, and that’s cool too. It’s okay to have things that are part of you all your life.

I think what can complicate this festival of enthusiasms is when, as sometimes happens, there’s something that you liked or loved that has become part of your self-identity, and thus it becomes much harder to separate it out as you get older. Lots of enthusiasms have communities around them — look at the fandom of science fiction and fantasy as a very relevant example of this — and in those communities people often find friends and partners and an identification that speaks to their soul. Separating one’s self from something like that (not just SFF fandom but any community) is hard. It’s easy to feel like you’re turning your back on people when that happens.

(The flip side of this also happens — sometimes the community and the enthusiasm just plain disappear. 25 years ago I was active on USENET and on the newsgroup alt.society.generation-x. The people there became a community and would have things like get-togethers (called “tingles”) and group events and so on. Then USENET stopped being a thing and people drifted away from the newsgroup (it’s still technically there, it’s just a shell), and the context for that part of my life went away. Some things are bounded externally rather than internally. Moments pass for all sorts of reasons.)

I look at my own life now and I can think of things for which my enthusiasm level is in flux. I used to play video games a lot more than I do now, as an example — I tend to play them less now because I have less time for them, and also because so many of the major video games really really really really want me to have to play with other people (which I mostly don’t want to do) or either pay for things within the game itself, or grind away senselessly to get a hat (or whatever) that I don’t care about. I was really into making electronic music at the first part of the century, then got away from it for years, then picked up guitar and ukulele for a few years, and am now swinging back to electronic music again. I like science fiction fandom about as much as I used to, but these days when I go to conventions I tend not to do a lot of panels, which was a thing I used to really enjoy, but these days I find not as much fun (and also, I get bored with myself on them pretty easily). On the other hand conventions let me DJ dance parties now, and I’m really enjoying that.

Then there are the creative people whose output meant one thing to me when I was younger but means a different thing to me now. To use the example of Heinlein above, I can’t read Heinlein at 50 years old with the same simple joy that I read him at 15 — but this doesn’t mean I don’t still read him. I read Time Enough For Love, Citizen of the Galaxy and Friday this year alone, mostly on airplanes because that’s where I do “comfort food” reading. My reading of him today is, I think, more nuanced and rather more aware that the hand that created these characters and incidents is not neutral. As a result, my relationship with the work and the author has changed. I wouldn’t say I’ve downgraded my opinion of Heinlein; I still admire him and his writing skill. I would say I have a better understanding of him as an author and creator and a person of his time, with work that now exists outside that time and has to be recontextualized because of it. Everything is more complicated there, and that’s not a bad thing.

And also, there’s the fact that at 50 years old, my frame of reference for writing and writers is a much broader and wider one than when I was 15, so Heinlein’s relative position in that frame has changed substantially. It’s not just him, it’s also every other thing I liked and enjoyed at 15: films, music, television, art, etc. I still enjoy Heinlein; I still enjoy the music of Journey and Depeche Mode; I still enjoy a lot of things that were important to me at 15, and acknowledge their significance to me at that age. I also have better idea where they stand in the larger landscape of art. Doing so does nothing to diminish their importance to me in a certain place and a certain time in my life.

With that said, there are some things I enjoyed when I was younger that I just can’t go back to. Jo Walton famously describes this as your favorite work being visited by the “suck fairy” — you re-read (or re-watch, or re-listen) something you remember loving and you’re appalled at how terrible it is. The art itself hasn’t changed, but you have, and that makes all the difference. This too is okay, and a reminder that before you recommend something you loved 30+ years ago to anyone else, maybe check in on it again to see how it holds up. The number of GenX parents who fired up Sixteen Candles for their own kids to watch just to be horrified at the racism and sexism that they totally forgot was there is too damn high.

The gist of all of this is: Yes, I can let things go when they aren’t speaking to me anymore, and I think that’s fine and a natural aspect of life. You can and should too, and when you do, it’s okay not to overthink it. Times change. People change. Hairstyles change. And you’re making room in your life for new things and experiences to speak to you in ways that engage and inspire you. If you’re lucky, you get to have that happen to you your whole life.

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

Reader Request Week 2019 #3: Blogging With Extreme Confidence

David Orr asks:

One noteworthy aspect of your blogging style is your extreme confidence. If you have an opinion to offer, you may caveat it in various ways, but usually not in ways that indicate any uncertainty. For instance, you rarely prefix statements with “I think that” or “Probably” or other indications that while this is your view you acknowledge that you could be wrong.

To what extent is that conscious? Waffling on opinions doesn’t necessarily make for compelling blogging, even if it might be good epistemology. Do you aim directly for “authoritative and confident” as your blogging voice, or is that just how it comes out?

Well, first, I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion that I don’t put qualifiers like “I think” or “probably” in my posts here, since I just did a search for both phrases in recent pieces and they both pop up not infrequently. Second, I’m pretty good at admitting when I don’t know things, because I think it’s fine to admit there are things I don’t know, and that as a consequence whatever I’m saying about a particular subject I don’t know much about will have to be tempered by those facts.

Third, there is a site disclaimer, accessible on literally every page of this site, which covers this pretty clearly:

Everything on the site is my opinion (except comments written by others, which are their opinions). I have strong opinions. At times, you may not agree with these opinions, or how I choose to express them. This is not my problem.

Having written in the site disclaimer that what I write is here going to be my opinion, I don’t feel obliged to hem and haw about things every single time I write a post. It’s covered, you know? And if someone is all “well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man,” I’m all, well, yes, obviously, did you not read the Site Disclaimer? It’s right over there in the sidebar.

So, I don’t think it’s that I write in a way that’s heedlessly unqualified; it’s that I’ve set up the site — and my internal world view — to entertain and accept the possibility that what I’m writing is a) my opinion, and also b) I might occasionally be wrong and indeed c) I might have my head entirely up my ass. Having done so, I’m able to proceed with a minimum of fuss.

It is absolutely true that when I’m holding forth here on one topic or another, it’s of a tone that could possibly be best described as “avuncular omniscient” — the voice of someone who is both confident in their opinion and in the belief that what they are saying both should be heard and heeded, and who pitches that voice to be generally accessible to a wide audience. Why do I hold forth in this manner? Well:

1. I used to be a professional newspaper opinion columnist, and “avuncular omniscient” is (or was) the default tone for newspaper columnists.

2. Before I was a newspaper columnist, I wanted to be one, and read a whole bunch of them both for entertainment, and to internalize the stylistic and rhetorical elements of that format. So one could say the “avuncular omniscient” is part of my baseline writing study.

3. I’m a straight white dude and straight white dudes are used to both expressing their opinions and also assuming those opinions will be heard. As I’ve gotten older and smarter I’ve better internalized the idea that in the great wide world I need to bring more to the table than just “Hey, I’m a straight white dude and I got opinions.” Because that sort of person is not exactly thin on the ground, if you know what I’m saying. In the world outside this blog, I try to be better at making space for people who aren’t like me to have their say. I want to be part of the mix of voices, not necessarily the only voice. But here, in my own personal space that no one has to visit unless they choose to, my holding forth is not getting in the way of anyone else having an opportunity to be heard.

4. Also, and in a general sense, I’m not exactly shy, am I, and have never been. In addition to all the reasons noted above, this particular tone is me, or part of me, at least, the part that is tuned to addressing an audience. And I like addressing audiences — writing for me has always had an assumption of a readership outside of my own head. I’ve always written outwardly. And when you do that, you write to project your thoughts, rather than keeping them small and quiet, and hoping someone who wanders by peeks in to see what you’re up to.

Are there drawbacks to this “avuncular omniscient” tone? Oh, my, yes! This sort of presentation can make one comes across as heedless, clueless and obnoxious, especially if one is indeed some combination of those things. It is the tone of “that asshole with an opinion,” and in recent years one could easily say it’s been weaponized by the sort of alt-right chucklefuck who understands the rhetorical value of swaddling hate and bigotry in a moderate-sounding tone that your grandparents were trained by years of daily newspapers to file under “reasonable” in their brains. These chucklefucks aren’t good at maintaining that tone, I should say, and the minute you poke them they revert to a sort querulous whining. But that doesn’t mean they don’t use it.

Nor have I in my time avoided these drawbacks entirely — not the alt-right bullshit, mind you, that crap has nothing to with me. I’m talking about the “heedless, clueless and obnoxious” part. There’s a non-trivial number of people who find me and/or my tone here exhausting and enervating, and as a result choose not to have anything to do with me or the site any further. Also, there has been more than once where I led with tone and then showed my ass and then had to try to find a way back from that, which usually involves apologies and redoubled effort to do better in the future. As I’ve become a better writer and, I think, a better person, I screw this up less, but it’s not to say that I don’t still screw up, or that I won’t screw up again. Life is a learning process, or at least it should be, and you try to keep doing it better.

At the end of the day, however, I write the way I write because I am who I am, and I while I heartily admit I am and will always be a work in progress, sometimes wrong and always learning, I don’t see the presentation of who I am on the blog changing all that much over time. On balance it’s served me well, and I think it’s served the people who read here well. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

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

Reader Request Week 2019 #2: The War Between the Generations

Cristoph asks:

What’s your take on the generational conflicts of our time, currently manifesting in the “Ok Boomer” saying?

I think it’s par for the course, actually. Generational conflict makes for a good story and for good copy, and for the last 100 years or so in the US, at least, there’s been a low-grade panic about the disrespectful kids flouting the rules of society with their loose morals and bad music. Flappers and jazz! Greasers and beatniks and their R&B! Hippies and their psychedelic bands! Punkers and their, uh, punk music! Then heavy metal! And rap! And grunge! And so on and so forth up to today, with Gen Z and, I’m sure, whatever they are listening to (I honestly have no idea at the moment, which is not a reflection of the quality of their pop music, I’m just a bit clueless. Is it K-pop? I think it’s K-pop. Let’s say K-pop).

The special sauce of this particular moment of generational conflict is that it involves the Baby Boomers for the first time being the antagonists of the generational story, rather than either the protagonists or the somewhat neutral mainstream. The Boomers are now the older generation and are having a moment being seen as the ossified and inflexible group whose opinion is not worth considering, and they don’t appear to like it at all. There is the (some would say delicious) irony of the generation that famously professed it would never trust anyone over 30 having become the generation that those under 30 allegedly doesn’t trust. I’m pretty sure the Boomers don’t appreciate that irony at all.

This is the point were someone will say #NotAllBoomers, or whatever, and I’m perfectly happy to concede this point. Indeed, #NotAllBoomers, and #NotAllGenX and #NotAllMillenials and so on. It’s utterly impossible for any cohort of millions of people — whatever that cohort might be — to be in lockstep on everything. Likewise generational groupings are not the distinct things we like to pretend they are; there’s a squidgy period where whether you’re a Boomer or GenXer is really a matter of personal choice, likewise between GenXer and Millennial and so on. People go positively talmudic on this sort of thing, pulling out their favorite book of generational demographics to inform you that if you’re born in [insert year here] you’re definitely [insert generational name here] and that’s all there is to it. And, meh? Personally I’m not so wedded to the idea of discrete generational cohorts that I feel a need to argue about it at that length.

What is largely accurate is that the choices older generations make in aggregate, affect the world the younger generations in aggregate have to live in, and very often those choices are the focus of conflict. Both positively but also negatively, and the negative ones tend to get more press. For the Boomers, the choices of earlier generations meant they had to deal with (and some fight in) the Vietnam War, and both the Boomers and GenX lived in the shadow of the Cold War. For Millenials and now Gen Z, their world is shaped by earlier generations’ choices after 9/11 and regarding climate change. For Gen Z in particular, they had no say in the election of the current president, whose policies and practices should (and apparently do) fill them with horror.

Again, not everyone in an older generation is to blame (or praise) for these choices — our current president lost the popular vote by millions, after all — but these choices were still made, these events still happened, and each younger generation has to live with the consequences of older generations’ actions (or lack thereof).

I don’t think there’s much to be done about this sort of generational conflict. People are always being born and having to deal with the world made in aggregate by people older than they are. They will not always just accept the world they have been given and will seek to change it. The older generations will die off, the younger generations will have children of their own. Lather, rinse and repeat.

It’s also worth noting that the conflict between generations is often a sideshow to other demographic conflicts. The “generational conflict” in the United States, at least, is often a stalking horse for conflicts between conservatives and liberals, white people and everyone who isn’t white, and the rich and everyone who isn’t rich. “OK Boomer,” as I’ve seen it used (when it is not being used ironically) is less specifically relating to everyone born in that generational cohort as it is relating to the sort of white, conservative, wealth-justifies-everything mindset that typifies the most egregious sort of political actors among older generations, the ones who aren’t listening to anyone else anyway, so sure are they that they both should and deserve to get their way.

An assertion that all Millennials and Gen Z folks despise all Boomers with their one-day-dying breath is belied by the persistence of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the top ranks of the presidential contenders due to their support among the young(er) folks. The issues here are generational but not merely or precisely generational — they are about whose voice matters in the political and social process, and in shaping the world now and in the immediate future.

As a dyed-in-the-wool GenXer, I’m not particularly threatened by the idea that at some point a younger generation might come for an accounting of what my generation did or did not do, because ultimately the older generations should have to answer for their choices, and individuals for their own actions. I think as a political and social actor my generation gets a mixed report card; it pains me that the most prominent politicians of my generation to date have been Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan, for example. But we’ve done some good as well; I think it’s our generation that moved the ball most considerably for the rights of gays and lesbians here in the US. We haven’t been perfect, but a cohort of millions isn’t likely to be.

I accept that there will be a judgment from history, “history” being a very distancing term for “the people who come after you.” Which is to say: the younger generations. Bring it on, kids.

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

Reader Request Week 2019 #1: Strange Experiences

It’s Monday and it’s time for this year’s Reader Request Week! Let’s start this one off on a slightly spooky note, with this question from Mar:

I’d be curious to know, if you’re comfortable talking about it, whether you’ve ever had a “strange”, or for lack of a better term, what we might call “paranormal” experience. Anonymous data collecting seems to show that most people have, but are afraid to talk about it. I have had one experience that was very strange, and so have most of the people that I know. JF Martel on the podcast “Weird Studies” said that if everyone spoke freely about these events, we would be forced as a culture to include such phenomena in any attempt to form a coherent worldview. And probably also learn something about the nature of reality that we don’t understand now.

I’ve had a number of strange experiences in my life — “strange” meaning in this case events so entirely outside the normal range of my daily existence that some part of my brain felt compelled to remark “okay, this is some weird shit going on here” — but none of those things would be things I’d consider to be “paranormal” in the way the word normally gets used, i.e., in reference to things like ghosts and magic and aliens and extradimensional whatever. Every strange experience I can think of that’s happened to me is well-bounded in the physics and natural phenomena that we understand and can describe. At most, these events required extreme coincidence to have happened — but extreme coincidence does happen, so I don’t know that it’s all that surprising that it happens occasionally to me.

Now, I do think that this answer of mine speaks directly to my own view of the world, which is highly rationally based. As a practical matter, I don’t believe in things like ghosts or alien visitations or psychic powers, and I have a distinct bias toward rational answers to events. I’m not someone who believes in “fate” or the “hand of god” or even “we’re all here for a purpose.” So when strange things happen to me, my brain doesn’t see them as evidence of some paranormal activity of one sort or another; it goes “huh, that’s some weird shit,” and assumes it has some rational, physical basis. If you’re like that going in, then the number of paranormal experiences you’re going to have is already low. I am aware that many paranormal films feature someone who is all “everything has a rational basis!” who then gets eaten by, like, angry ghosts or demons or whatever in a gory and highly satisfying way. But that’s the movies for you. Real life is more boring, and more rational.

With that said, I do know a number of people who have reported strange experiences that would be considered to be “paranormal” in one way or another, and these people are folks who I like and love and consider solid people not given to flights of either fancy or delusion. How do I explain their experiences?

I don’t! I wasn’t there when they experienced what they experienced, and I’m not them. If someone tells me they experienced something outside of the range of what is generally considered natural phenomenon, then a) I’m perfectly willing to believe that something happened to them that was well outside their own usual range of experience, b) unless they are specifically asking me to postulate a rational explanation for their experience, I’m not the sort of person who has to be all “well, actually,” about this sort of thing. Something happened to them; this is how they decided to process it, and unless that is actively harming them or others, eh, fine.

This doesn’t mean I think they’ve likely had a paranormal experience, however. I’m aware of a number of things:

1. The remit of physical laws and phenomena is actually quite large, so more things can be explained rationally than many if not most people realize (and generally our culture has done a really crappy job explaining this fact);

2. Our culture enjoys paranormal storytelling to such an extent that when something strange happens, our brains use those familiar storytelling elements to explain what’s happening to us, i.e., if you’ve heard all your life about ghosts and something happens to you that fits the criteria for a visitation by a ghost, you’ll shove it into that slot, even if it has nothing to do with ghosts whatsoever;

3. Human brains are dodgy lumps of sentient fat that are both pattern-seeking and prone to misinterpreting and misapprehending new and strange things that are happening to them, which makes them especially vulnerable to magical thinking.

I also know this:

4. I don’t know everything about everything, and there are many things I cannot prove, so while I am 99.999999999+% percent sure that everything that happens to people has a perfectly rational basis in our universe, I do have to admit that my not knowing everything means I could be wrong about paranormal explanations for strange events. There could be ghosts and vampires and gray big-headed aliens and Nessie and angels so on. I think their existence is so massively unlikely that I don’t bother considering it in any serious way. But intellectual honesty compels me to admit I don’t definitively know one way or another.

So: I suspect most people’s paranormal experiences are probably not paranormal in any sense. It’s just their attempt to explain something that happened to them in a way that’s consistent to their understanding and knowledge of their world, the cultural clues that have been given to them and the manner in which their brain processed the event (and in which they subsequently remember it, memory being another dodgy and unreliable brain process). There’s maybe a >.000000001% chance it was actually paranormal! But probably not, and also, if thinking that it was paranormal allows them to process it and get on with their life without hurting themselves or anyone else, sure, okay, why not. I’m not going to go out of my way to be a jerk to them about it.

(I do think people who use the paranormal, and humans’ tendencies toward believing in that sort of thing, in malicious or detrimental ways are terrible people who I don’t have any problem stomping on. But I don’t think the original question is about con artists or malicious actors, it’s about normal people having experiences they’re having a hard time explaining otherwise.)

More to the point, I don’t think there’s any point in belittling or discounting people who believe in paranormal experiences, simply on that basis. I think there’s a lot to learn about how and why people think these events happen to them, and what more we can learn about the brain and the nature of consciousness from that. Human experience is bounded by how our brains process what’s going on around us.

If you’ve had a paranormal experience, you’ve had an actual experience, and your brain is working on how to explain that experience to you. It’s telling you a story about it — just like it does with every other event you’ve ever experienced. That’s some interesting shit right there.

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

Krissy, As of Yesterday

She’s pretty great.

We like to joke that she doesn’t age; well, she does, in fact, age (the gray hair is a giveaway). She just does it gracefully. More gracefully than I do, in any event, which to be fair is a low bar. I don’t mind. She digs me anyway.

How to Have Time For a Life

On Twitter this morning, the following tweet:

I looked at the tweet and realized that, in fact, I am an adult who mostly manages to do all of those thing (that is, when the cats don’t wake me up at 3am to show me their butts and then I can’t get back to sleep). It made me curious as to what factors allow me to do all of them.

And I have answers! One of them is very general, and the others are specific to me. I answered the very general one in a tweet as well:

The reason that money can increase your bandwidth is that it can let you buy solutions to time-sucking activities. This often in the form of people you pay to do things, but also in the form of goods and services that let you spend less time doing things you don’t want to do (which then leaves time for the things you do want to do). Money also lets you do things like live in nice neighborhoods with fancy stores that have organic meats and produce, go to the gyms with trainers, have decent healthcare, enjoy the wherewithal for hobbies, etc. Money solves problems, and problems take time, so: money makes time.

Sometimes. As noted in the tweet, to make money one often has to be the sort of personality that overcommits to work and/or have the sort of job one never actually gets to leave even when one is not “at work,” so the mere presence of money in one’s life does not mean that one will automatically have any of those six goals enumerated above. Money can solve problems, but the pursuit of money itself creates its own problems, and the latter can swamp money’s ability to deal with the former. Welcome to the capitalist system.

So that’s the general answer. Specific to me, here are some of the things that allow me to hit all six of those goals:

1. I am well off. See above for what that allows. Also, I am fortunate that I neither have the sort of personality that makes a pleasure of the pursuit of money (I like making money, and recognize the necessity of it in our system, but the act of making is not in itself a dopamine rush for me), nor do I have a job that requires time penalties to make money. Speaking of which:

2. I have a creative job with no set hours that lets me work from home (or anywhere else). I have to produce roughly a novel a year. Once I do that I have other responsibilities relating to the production and promotion of the novel, which take up time but also leave stretches of time unoccupied. The novels can be (and largely are) written at home, which means time usually given over to commutes and presence at a workplace (not to mention things like meetings, client maintenance, etc) are not a factor for me. Which means I can sleep in! And, also, schedule time for exercise. Additionally, the work is portable, so if I do travel, I can theoretically at least take the work with me.

3. I’m an introvert who socializes online and/or whose social life often dovetails with work. Being an introvert means that my need for socializing is less than it might be for other people, and means having social interactions via social media, texting, etc actually works for me a lot of the time. Also, a lot of my “real world” socializing happens at things like science fiction conventions, book fairs/festivals or when I’m on a book tour, which is nice because a) in the case of conventions and festivals, there are other publishing pros (writers, editors, etc, and also members of SF/F fandom) who I like who are also there and happy to hang out, b) on tour I see friends in their hometowns. This makes social activities both schedulable and pleasant. Also, you know. On a daily basis I see my wife, whose company I like, and my daughter is nearby too, and I also like her a lot.

4. My hobbies dovetail into my life rather than require space to be made for them. My current hobbies are photography, music and writing. All of them work pretty well with my work/life flow — photography I can do opportunistically as I travel or do other things, music I get to incorporate with my social activities (for example, I now frequently DJ dances at science fiction conventions), and as for writing… well, hello. Thank you for reading my hobby. (I don’t count reading as a hobby; for me that’s like saying breathing is a hobby.) There is nothing wrong, and much right, about time-intensive hobbies like, say, bird-watching or mountain climbing or community theater. But I don’t do those. The hobbies I do have are, for me, low-impact/high-reward, timewise.

5. I have a spouse who handles a bunch of stuff. To be clear, I can, and do, do things about the house (I am at home, after all). Also to be clear, the amount she does is not strictly tied into the amount I don’t do — she has her own plans for things that are independent of anything I want/need/desire. But the side effect of that is I don’t have to do a lot of things relating to household upkeep and maintenance. I’m also not going to pretend that, with regard to the work I do, the division is equitable; Krissy does more. I asked her just now if she thought that was an artifact of our personalities, or just garden variety sexism; she said probably both. More specifically, she said “I don’t think you are a sexist, but I think we both sort of fall into some of society’s expectations.” Which was kind of her, to blame the system and not me personally.

6. I’m 50. Which means a lot of set-up for those goals is already in my rear-view mirror, and I’m currently getting the benefit of those set-up exercises. There were times, mostly in my 20s, where I was not close to hitting all of those goals — my social life was a dead zone from when I left college to when I met Krissy, and when I was working at AOL in the 90s, the job sucked all the hours, because the tech ethos of “we put food and a laundry in the building so you never have to leave” is not a new invention. It all paid off, which is nice for me.

7. I’m healthy. Mentally and, aside from a temporary case of tendonitis, physically. This is not a value judgment; I’m not a better or more virtuous person for being healthy. It’s recognition that health issues burn lots of hours (and in the US at least, lots of money), and can make it more difficult to achieve those goals.

Add all of this up, and there are two conclusions: One, it is possible for someone to achieve all six of those goals; Two, that to be that someone, it helps to have specific conditions to one’s life.

(Additionally, inasmuch as the sleep goal is one I only intermittently hit, it helps not to have cats waking your ass up at 3am. I did bring the cats into my home, so that’s on me, however.)

I don’t think you have to have my life to achieve all of these goals, mind you, especially if you combine factors. If you’re someone who loves to cook, for example, you can hit three of these with one stone: Throw a dinner party and you get to work on your hobby, socialize and (depending on the menu) eat healthy. If you live somewhere you can bike to work, there’s your daily exercise. And so on. But there are conditions to one’s life which are beneficial to realize those goals.

I do think it’s harder for younger people to get all of these goals lined up. Partly because being younger means having to work crappier jobs that require more from you, and that’s been true in most eras, but in this era in particular, in which jobs are more temporary and are stagnant in wages, and younger people’s debt loads are significantly higher, it’s more of a challenge. Obviously, they’re aware of this inequity, and equally obviously, it’s not fair.

It would be nice to live in a world where all of these goals were more achievable for more people, and more achievable without the time solvent of money. Such a world is possible! We’re not there yet, however. Hopefully activism toward that goal will be more people’s hobby, and they will find a way to make time for it.