Pixel Buds Pro First Impressions

John Scalzi

I’ve been using Google’s Pixel Buds since their first iteration a few years back, and just picked up the newest version, the Pixel Buds Pro (seen above in their “Lemongrass” colorway) because I was curious how this new “premium” version of the buds, complete with active noise cancellation, stacked up to the previous versions I’ve had. I got them today and have been fiddling with them since; here are some first impressions.

1. To begin, the ear buds themselves are both larger and have a different shape than the previous versions of the Pixel Buds, in part to accommodate the active noise cancellation. I understand that, but I preferred the previous design, in no small part because the last two iterations of the buds included little plastic “wingtips” that helped secure the buds into the ear. These don’t, and I’m already having problems with the left bud, because my left ear canal shape is such that non-secured buds of any sort have historically never stayed put without effort. I went for a short walk and the left bud fell out twice.

Some of that I can probably fix by changing the little rubber flange that fits inside the ear to a different size (the buds come with three different sizes for these), but it would have been even nicer — for me, anyway, your mileage may vary — if Google could have kept the wingtip design feature. As it is, for now I’m unlikely to use these particular buds for vigorous exercise or running.

2. Does the new active noise cancellation make up for the (slight) inconvenience of the missing wingtip? I suspect for a lot of folks, the answer will be yes. The ANC is pretty decent; it doesn’t block out noise like my Sony wh-1000xm4 headphones, but then I didn’t expect them to, because these are earbuds and the Sonys are over-the-ear headphones. A one-to-one comparison isn’t fair. The Pixel Bud Pros do bring the outside noise way down; I can still hear the world with the noise cancellation on (provided I’m not blasting music at a ridiculous level, which I don’t do much anymore because I am old and my hearing is a precious resource), but it’s unobtrusive and easy to ignore.

When one does need to pay attention to the outside, the Pixel Bud Pros come with a “transparency” mode, which is different from simply just turning off the noise cancellation mode — in my experience it bumps up frequencies for speech, and one presumes some other critical noises, so they can cut through whatever else you are listening to. I tried it to speak to my wife and mother-in-law while listening to music; it does the job just fine. You can swap between noise cancelling and transparency modes with a long touch on the buds. One may also simply just turn off noise cancellation entirely in the settings.

3. With regard to music, it sounds pretty good out of the buds. Again, these are earbuds with tiny drivers, so don’t expect monster bass response, but by and large everything I threw at the buds sounded decently full (especially electronic/EDMish things), and I could pick out little details in the music that I would miss with lesser earbuds or if I’m listening to something off my two-watt computer monitor speakers. They’re the best-sounding Pixel Buds, certainly, and I’m happy to listen to my music with them. I also used them for a phone call with Krissy earlier in the day; again, they did perfectly well in letting me hear her, and they had no problem picking up my voice to talk to her.

4. The buds are touch sensitive and you can control volume, pause, play and noise cancellation with them (you can also assign touch for Google Assistant if you want it). All of these work perfectly well, as they did with previous versions, but I’d also add the caveat that if you have to fiddle with the buds to any extent — hello, weirdly shaped left ear canal! — you’re gonna trigger the hell out of these various functions as you fiddle, which is vaguely annoying.

On the subject of Google Assistant, I have it set to be voice activated, and in the times I used it, it worked exactly how it was supposed to, without any hiccups or problems. Google Assistant is simultaneously the most useful and most colorless of all the virtual assistants, and that’s fine with me. I don’t need it to be vivacious and interesting, I need it to access things on my phone when I want it to. It does that really well.

5. Speaking of things done really well, the Pixel Bud Pro integration with my Pixel 6 Pro (yes, I’m well sucked into the Google ecosystem) was flawless and ridiculously easy; I literally just flipped open the lid of the Pixel Buds Pro holding case and my phone said “Oh, hey, look, Pixel Buds, you want I should connect?” Why, yes, Pixel 6 Pro, I do, thank you. So much easier than having to do the usual Bluetooth sacrificing of chickens to get something to connect, or whatever. And there’s no lag or (so far) any dropped connections or connectivity static that was a problem with earlier Pixel Buds before software/firmware updates.

For things that aren’t Pixel Phones (or Pixelbooks, as I understand the integration there is similarly easy), there is regular Bluetooth connectivity available. You’ll have to check with someone else about how it does with that. I’ll be over here, enjoying my seamless connection experience.

6. Other things: I’ve had these for less than a day so I can’t speak to battery life, but Google claims an up to seven-hour listening session before they need to be slipped back into their case for recharging, which is something like a 40% boost from the previous iterations, and the case will handle 20 hours of charging before needing a recharge itself. Google’s previous versions of the buds/cases hit their advertised marks in this respect, so I don’t have any reason to doubt this estimation.

The carrying case for the Pro Buds is marginally larger than the ones for previous iterations but not by enough that I could see it by looking at it on its own; I had to actually put the Pixel Buds A case up next to it to see it. This iteration of the case can wirelessly charge if that’s a thing you want. The buds come in four colorways; I got the “lemongrass” colorway because it stands out, and that way when my left bud falls out of my ear I can find it more easily on the floor.

7. Are the Pixel Buds Pro worth the $199 Google is charging for them? If you’re as deep into the Google ecosystem as I am and you want noise cancellation in your earbuds, I’d say yes; even with my annoyingly troublesome left ear canal, at this early stage I’m very much enjoying the overall sonic experience they provide. If you don’t care about noise cancellation, still want Pixel Buds and want to save $100, you’ll be fine with the Pixel Buds A iteration, which is still available for purchase, and with which my user experience was perfectly good.

But, yeah: So far, the Pixel Buds Pro are pretty nifty. More updates as warranted.

— JS

The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout

Even in fiction, pets are a big responsibility. Author Greg van Eekhout makes that extra clear in his new novel, Fenris & Mott, where we’re introduced to a new version of a particularly legendary dog. Follow along in this Big Idea as the author tells you a little about a dog ownership in a world in the midst of major change.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

By the way, the world is ending. I don’t mean Earth is going to do a Krypton, but our way of life is causing mass extinction and extreme weather and generally making the planet a less hospitable, more difficult, more dangerous, and more costly place to live. I know you know that, but the reason I bring it up is that I decided to write a middle-grade novel (i.e. marketed to readers aged 8-12) in which Ragnarök is taking place now, and to describe massive floods and fires and storms without acknowledging climate change seemed dishonest. 

What I’d set out to do was write a book about promises. When Mott finds a baby Fenris abandoned in an alley, she promises to take care of him no matter what. Even when she learns that Fenris isn’t a dog puppy but rather the wolf of Norse mythology destined to bring about destruction and eat gods in the twilight of the universe, she is determined to keep that promise. And even when Fenris’s appetite grows and he starts devouring pick-up trucks and A-list movie actors, she remains undeterred. Not even the gods who are using Ragnarök to their own benefit can stop her. Mott’s a tough cookie when it comes to keeping promises because she knows how lousy it feels when someone breaks a promise. But what is the Ragnarök prophecy if not the universe’s promise to end in mayhem, disaster, and strife? 

It can be a little tricky writing about kids who take action to save the world. Too often we look to them as the solutions to the problems we created. We shrug our shoulders and say, “Sorry, youngsters, we failed you, but we have no doubt that, through your heroic efforts, you’ll turn things around, because you’re awesome.” That’s lazy, irresponsible, and hugely unfair. Do I want to promise kids they can beat the gods (in this case, the gods being fossil fuel companies and those who owe their fortunes and political careers to fossil fuel companies)? Sure. But to paraphrase Jewish scholar, Shlomo Bardin, it’s the job of every one of us to mend the world. We’re not required to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to quit. That means we adults still have to fight this battle. 

I like my books to be layered, so it’s not all climate catastrophe and musings about promises. There’re also musings about root beer and sleep overs and a young Valkyrie who doesn’t understand why she can’t just stab people in Los Angeles. And I went through pains to make sure Fenris was both as cute and chaotic as any puppy with the capacity to eat the moon. I hope the book is funny, fun, exciting, and hopeful. 

Finally, I’ll close by making a promise of my own, the same one I make to readers of all my books: The dog doesn’t die. 

—-

Fenris & Mott: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Sim Kern

The change of climate around the world brings a wide spectrum of thoughts and strategies about it — no less in fiction writing than anywhere else. In Real Sugar is Hard to Find, author Sim Kern is thinking about their own thoughts and strategies to bring the topic to their own writing, and what their own choices here mean.

SIM KERN:

Get two climate fiction authors together, and you’ll hear a debate about the most useful kind of climate fiction. We don’t fear the criticism of being “too didactic.” Rather, many of us have explicit agendas that we’re happy to debate at a moment’s notice—whether to communicate climate science, inspire people to action, or even dismantle global racial capitalism. One of my favorite cli-fi authors, Aya de León, author of A Spy in the Struggle, calls herself the “Minister of Climate-Justice-Fiction Propaganda.” We agree that everything is a culture war; stories are the most powerful weapons in a culture war; so if you’re trying to change the world, you better think critically about your themes.

Among sci-fi writers of climate fiction—those of us rendering how the biosphere and humans might adapt to climate change in the years to come—the recurring debate is: dystopia vs. utopia. Which genre is a better kind of propaganda?

There’s no question that dystopian worlds dominate both science fiction and near-future climate fiction. The old adage holds true: it’s easier to publish the end of the world than the end of (extractive, oil-soaked) capitalism. Solarpunk, however, is challenging dystopian domination. Mostly coming out of small presses or short story outlets, authors are increasingly envisioning radically optimistic, abolitionist, anti-capitalist, green and sustainable futures.

Dystopian cli-fi authors, meanwhile, are doing important work translating scientific climate predictions into narrative; setting urgent, human stories in hothouse, fire-drought-and-flood-ravaged worlds. A dystopian-leaning editor friend of mine recently announced he’s no longer interested in stories set in utopian worlds, because he just can’t suspend disbelief that our fossil fuel addiction gets magically solved in the next few years.

In this debate, I agree with everyone, even when their points are contradictory, because my feelings about climate change are contradictory. It isn’t useful to ask us to choose one modality over the other—despair or hope. I feel a huge range of emotions about living through mass extinction. I want to write and read stories that let me feel all the things. Real Sugar is Hard to Find, my collection of cli-fi stories, contains both dystopian and utopian worlds, and stories that fall somewhere in between.

The titular story, “Real Sugar is Hard to Find,” follows a mother and son’s quest to bake a cake for their suicidal family member, in a world where common baking ingredients are scarce. The story explores how climate change will disrupt agriculture and food supply, but it’s also a reminder to the climate nihilist inside me that there will be cake—and birthday parties, joy, jokes, dancing, babies, and falling in love—even during environmental collapse, even after 2 or 3 or more degrees of warming. For as long as there’s a handful of humans left, there will be joys worth celebrating.

“The Propagator” comes from a place of screaming rage about living under the threats of rising sea level and rising Christofascism. Set in a flooded, future Houston, a woman who is forced to carry an unviable pregnancy to term turns to a life of crime: propagating houseplants. In the soilless city, all reproduction is tightly controlled under a carceral surveillance state. Written in 2018, the story has proven horrifically prescient, as the protagonist mulls a cross-continental journey to obtain an abortion, fears even searching the term on the internet, and her job takes her to a designated “repro crimes” ward at a county jail.

We also need stories that don’t ask us to force a smile, or call us to action, or do anything—stories that simply let us grieve. “The Listener” is born from the grief I felt in the drought of 2008, when 300 million trees died across the state of Texas. The protagonist is a queer, closeted scene kid, kicked out of her house and in love with her best friend, who eats too many mushrooms and gains the ability to talk to trees. At a really bad time.

“The New Nomad” and “The Night Heron” unpack the torments of parenting in a time of ecological collapse, while the last two stories in the collection are wildly, unabashedly utopian. More than out of any political allegiance to the solarpunk movement, I wrote them because I was tired of both living in a dystopia and trying to imagine even-worse-dystopias in my head. Ironically, the less hope I feel for reality, the more I’m called to write optimistic futures. It’s looking increasingly likely that I won’t live to see a better world, but at least I can escape to one in my mind.

“The End of the Nuclear Era” presupposes a green, anti-capitalist revolution that’s already occurred, and explores what would happen if children had the right to free themselves from abusive, neglectful families. The story kicks off as a runaway teen approaches the gates to a “Children’s Center,” where any kid can show up and find food, lodging, safety, and education—no questions asked.

I dreamed up “The Lost Roads” while buckling my three-year-old into her car seat in the blistering Texas heat. The premise is: What if there were no roads? Fuck car culture. Fuck asphalt. What if we figured out green mass transit and purposeful communities, so we could dig up all the roads and rewild them? It’s a story of unbridled hope, joy, and reconciliation with the natural world and each other. 

Whatever you feel about climate change—despair, denial, grief, rage, hope, and fear—all those feelings are justified and valid and needed. So I guess my overarching “agenda” for Real Sugar is Hard to Find is to invite you to feel those feelings along with me. Hopefully, these stories offer some badly-needed catharsis as we stand amidst climate change and mass-extinction and wonder how much worse things are going to get before (and if!) they ever get better.


Real Sugar is Hard to Find: Publisher | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a NASA spacecraft! Come along in Alan Smale’s Big Idea, as he tells you about his new novel, Hot Moon, where an alternate history involving Russia and the moon has occurred.

ALAN SMALE:

I’m writing this blog post on one of my very favorite anniversaries: July 20th. Which, in this noble year of Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, is the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. 

My love for the Apollo Program has been deep and abiding, and has played a critical role in my life. It strengthened my interest in science from a very early age, influenced my most significant career decisions, and has given me some of my most powerful memories and experiences. And, given the various groups I hang with these days, I know I’m not alone in that. Show of hands?

Nice.

When Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon I was an eight-year-old living in Yorkshire, England, fascinated by every detail. I studied up and memorized everything I could about the Apollo astronauts (from all the missions), the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets that took them into orbit and beyond, and all of the technical details of their Lunar Modules and Command and Service Modules that were available to me. I was gripped by the dramas, like Apollo 8’s orbits of the Moon, the Apollo 11 landing, and the Apollo 13 Lost Moon mission, but also had an insatiable appetite for the small stuff: the meticulous and extensive engineering testing they did on the earlier Apollos, the minutiae of the spacesuits and the ALSEP experiments, the dorky aluminum golf carts of the Lunar Rovers, the routes of their surface excursions. The rocks. The rolling. The entire package.

Back then I really, really believed I’d be living in space by the time I reached the age I am now. I mean, why wouldn’t I? 

In 1969, some of the pundits were saying we’d be on Mars by the 1980s. And even back then I knew that might be a stretch, but hey: I didn’t need to go to Mars, exactly. I just wanted to slip the surly bonds of Earth, meaning its gravity, and get up there to live and work in space. 

Well, dang it, that didn’t happen, and I’m still subject to those surly bonds, but I gave it my best shot. Took physics and astrophysics at college. Even ended up working for NASA, though not on human spaceflight – I do astrophysics research, manage one of NASA’s Big Three astro data archives, and help others to do science. But, bottom line: here I am, still stuck on Planet Earth. Le grand sigh.

What I’m leading up to is this: Hot Moon was the book that I always wanted to write. My labor of love, my tribute to the Apollo Program that inspired so many people way back there in the dark ages, shortly after the dinosaurs perished and just a few moments before Vietnam and Watergate crushed the idealism of a nation. Because: it was Space, people! 

My Big Idea was not that the Soviets get to the Moon first, although in Hot Moon they do, and I do believe it would have changed everything if it had happened that way in real life. The Big Idea is that the Apollo program continued. And it was ambitious, and glorious, and exciting. And of course there’s conflict: the book features war in space, this world’s first ever space battle, between clunky Apollo and Soyuz craft, maneuvering around a Skylab in lunar orbit. Honestly, a lot of things don’t go well for my characters. But the technology, science, orbital maneuvering, and just the sheer risk and excitement of spaceflight: all of that is as accurate as I could make it, and I hope the heady thrill of those years comes across.

Just like me, the commander of Apollo 32, Vivian Carter, loves the Moon. She’s utterly dedicated to her ten-day exploratory mission to the Marius Hills area. A mission that … she ends up losing, due to the Cold War turned hot. In space.

Hot Moon is a thriller with a nerd’s beating heart, and perhaps a hint of competence porn. It’s MacGyver on the Moon, trying to figure out how to beat back an armed-and-dangerous Soviet threat with rocks and model rocketry, ingenuity and improvisation. And once everything hits the fan, there may be a touch of Andy Weir in the math that will keep Vivian Carter alive, and eventually help her solve the book’s deeper puzzle about What’s Really Going On. How to defeat the relentless KGB/Spetsnaz cosmonauts arrayed against her, on the surface and on the captured Columbia Station in orbit. And, how to survive the hostile Moon itself.

Have there been other alternate-space-program stories recently? Yes: it feels like this is our moment. You should obviously check out Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. Rosemary Claire Smith has a nifty story in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of Analog, “The Next Frontier”, which you should read too. There’s also a certain TV show with a similar premise. I started writing HOT MOON in 2017, long before I knew anything about For All Mankind, and had delivered a complete draft to my agent and beta readers before the first episode aired (publishing is a slow business, especially when you toss in a pandemic). But Hot Moon has a very different feel and direction than other alt.space stories I’ve seen. For one thing, it takes place entirely on and around the Moon. And it’s very much a technothriller rather than a soap opera, though hopefully one with heart. Suffice to say that there’s room for a few different alt-Apollo takes, and those listed above are all very different. 

I’m here for all of it. I have a thing for the Moon, and so do Vivian and her crew, and the astronauts at Columbia Station and Hadley Base, and those tough guys from USAF Special Ops, and some of the more sympathetic Soviet characters whose viewpoints we get to see along the way. I hope you’ll join us all for high jinks in one-sixth gravity. 

Obligatory PSA: if you’re about to fire off a social media post along the lines of: “The Moon landings were fake! How do we know they really happened?” I’d ask you to pause, take a very deep breath, and consider: the 400,000 people who worked on Apollo were all lying? And the Soviet Union, our adversaries in the Space Race, would have let us get away with such a brazen deception? 

Nah. NASA really did it. And if they’d kept on doing it, maybe we’d now be in the future that I assumed I’d be living in, having passed through a 1979 something like the one in Hot Moon along the way.

And that would have been really cool.


Hot Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Trying Out A New Recipe: Blueberry Crumb Cake

Athena ScalziThe first time I got into cooking videos on YouTube was back in 2012, when I was thirteen. And the channel that got me into cooking videos was a channel called Kin Community. There were several different content creators that all made their own videos and then posted under Kin Community’s channel, but the only one I was interested in was a woman named Beth.

I’m not sure when, but eventually she broke off from Kin Community and became her own channel, Entertaining With Beth, and I stopped watching Kin Community (now just called Kin) after she left. She ended up being my favorite cooking person on YouTube for years to come, and just generally my favorite creator on YouTube for a while there. I even wrote a post over her back in 2018 talking about how awesome her recipes are and how much I love her channel.

Funnily enough, I’ve only made a handful of her recipes throughout the years, but there is one that I have consistently made that I love, and that’s her Blueberry Lemon Muffins. I used to have a screenshot of the recipe, but when I went to make the muffins recently, I couldn’t find the screenshot. I checked her website to see if she had it there. And in my searching, I found a Blueberry Crumble Cake recipe. I thought I’d move on from the muffins and try something new. And boy am I glad I did! This recipe was surprisingly easy, and the results were super yummy!

For the ingredients list, it’s all standard stuff that you probably wouldn’t have to make a trip to the store for, other than the blueberries (but I had blueberries which is why I had been looking for a way to use them in the first place). There’s no complicated ingredient like Dutch process cocoa powder or vanilla bean paste, there’s pretty much just regular ol’ flour, some vanilla, butter, a couple of eggs, and sugar. Easy peasy.

You just put all that in a bowl and mix until you get this:

A silver mixing bowl with off-white batter in it. An off-white rubber spatula rests in the batter.

After you gently stir in the blueberries, you just put it in your greased pan:

A square silver baking pan with the batter spread in an even layer in it.

And then you make the topping, which is just more of what was already required for the cake itself! So convenient. I will say, though, that my butter wasn’t very cold by the time I got to this step so my topping ended up much more cohesive than a “crumble” topping probably should be:

A white mixing bowl with a lump of light brown sugar/butter mixture in it. It looks like wet sand.

This was definitely supposed to be more like dry sand and less like wet sand, but it’s fine, I covered the surface perfectly if I do say so myself:

The square silver baking sheet, filled with the batter, which is now topped with the cinnamon/sugar/butter crumble top mixture.

45 minutes later, BAM:

The fully baked crumble cake, with a golden brown top. Some blueberries are visible.

Golden brown, baybee.

I was so excited that I cut into them way too soon, and my first piece completely lost all its structural integrity.

A black plate with a completely fallen apart piece of blueberry crumb cake sitting on it. It's a total mess.

I was upset because I didn’t realize the only reason that this happened was because I didn’t let them cool. I just thought they’d all be like this and that it was a total failure. But that was not the case! I had more patience, and the second one came out like this:

Me, holding a piece of the cake so you can see the insides and all the blueberries and whatnot.

And don’t ask me why I’m holding it like I have LEGO hands.

Four squares of the cake sitting alongside each other on a black plate.

So, yeah, badda bing badda boom, blueberry crumble cake!

I highly recommend giving this recipe a try. It was so easy and came together quickly. Also, it tastes awesome! I will for sure be making this again in the future.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

In blank we trust. Who is that blank for you? Are you that blank for others? Trust is a valuable thing, and according to author Dan Moren, the lack of it is prevalent in his new novel, The Nova Incident.

DAN MOREN:

Who do you trust? 

It’s a harder question than you might think. Maybe because trust is in such short supply these days. Nowhere is that clearer than in our relationships with the institutions in our lives—especially the ones that nominally exist to look out for all of us. From the police to the highest levels of our government, trust isn’t something that can be taken for granted these days. (And, indeed, the idea that we’ve ever been able to trust those institutions is one deeply rooted in privilege.)

There’s an element of this lack of trust that is decidedly personal, though. As of this fall, I’ll have been a self-employed freelancer for eight years—longer than I ever worked for any single organization. The reason for that isn’t precisely rooted in distrust, but it’s certainly played its part. 

My longest run at a single workplace ended when I was abruptly laid off in 2014, along with the majority of my colleagues, as part of a cost-cutting measure. Unsurprisingly, that experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I’d been good at my job and I’d thought my performance and loyalty would count for something in the long term, that the company was as invested in me as it expected me to be in it.

Not the case. 

That certainly colored the way I view large institutions and made me less inclined to go work for another large organization (something that I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to do). 

I won’t say the genesis of The Nova Incident necessarily stems from that specific event, but a mistrust of institutions is definitely a major theme. Nova may be a sci-fi adventure story, but it’s also a spy thriller (two great tastes that taste great together, trust me) and a classic spy trope is that when you’re in a duplicitous business, you can’t really trust anyone—even (or perhaps especially) the people who are supposed to be on your side. In this line of work, being too trusting can get you killed.

Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team have been through a lot together throughout the Galactic Cold War series thus far; they’ve taken on planet-sized corporations, megalomaniacal royalty, and brutal crime lords, just to name a few. But suddenly they find themselves dealing with a threat much closer to home: when a bomb explodes on Nova, the Commonwealth’s capital world, an organization called Nova Front claims responsibility, demanding that the planet withdraw from the galactic alliance.

To reveal too much more of the plot risks spoiling some surprises, so let’s say this: issues of trust—or the lack thereof—run throughout this story. In investigating the attack, Kovalic and his compatriots quickly find themselves in murky waters, questioning if they can even trust what they think they know about Nova Front and the bombing itself.

Meanwhile, trust is fractured from within as well as from without. Despite everything that this group has experienced together, there are still undercurrents of uncertainty among them. Pilot Eli Brody has lingering suspicions about the death of former teammate Aaron Page; sniper Addy Sayers is given information that plants seeds of doubt about the team’s true loyalties; even the stalwart Sergeant Tapper knows something is amiss, even if he’s not sure what. 

But what really defines the story is the team’s relationships with the larger institutions that they come into conflict with, especially organizations of their own government. After all, the team is itself the instrument of that government, and if they question the motives of its other arms, they must by necessity question their own. 

Ultimately, The Nova Incident delves deep into the big questions about trust: can we ever really trust an institution to act in the best interest of people it represents? Should one expect loyalty from an organization that demands it from you? And, when the chips are down, who really has your back? Because trust might get you killed, but going through life without it is an awful lonely way to live. 


The Nova Incident: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram.

Upscaling and an Important Note About Photo “AI”

One of these is a photo. One is a digital illustration.
John Scalzi

Because I’m a digital photography nerd, I have a lot of programs and Photoshop plugins designed to tweak photos and make them better, or, maybe more accurately, less obviously bad. One of the hot new sectors of digital photography programs is the one where “Artificial Intelligence” is employed to do all manner of things, including colorizing, editing and upscaling. Some of this is baked into Photoshop directly — Adobe has a “Neural Filters” section for this — while other companies are supplying standalone programs and plugins.

Truth be told, all of these companies have been touting “AI” for a while now. But in the last couple of iterations of these tools and programs, there’s been a real leap in… well, something, anyway. The quality of the output of these tools has become strikingly better.

As an example, I present to you the before and after picture above. The original picture on the left was a 200-pixel-wide photo of Athena as a toddler. There had been a larger version of it way back when, but I had cropped it way down for an era when monitors were 640 x 480, and then tossed or misplaced the original photo. So the blocky, blotchy low-resolution picture of my kid is the only one I have now. The picture on the right is a 4x upscaling using a program called Topaz GigaPixel AI, which takes the information from the original picture, and using “AI,” makes guesses at what the picture should look like at a higher resolution, then applies those guesses. In this case, it guessed pretty darn well.

Which is remarkable to me, because even just a couple iterations of the GigaPixel program back, it wasn’t doing that great of a job to my eye — it could smooth out jagged edges on photos just fine, but it was questionable on patterns and tended to make a hash of faces. Its primary utility was that it could do “just okay” attempts at upscaling much faster than I could do that “just okay” work on my own. This iteration of the program, however, does better than “just okay,” more frequently than not, and now does things well beyond my own skill level.

It’s still not perfect; some other pictures of Athena from this era that I upsampled didn’t quite guess her face correctly, so she didn’t look as much like she actually did at the time, and more like a generic toddler. But that generic toddler looked perfectly reasonable, and not like a machine-generated mess. That counts as an improvement.

Now, it’s important to acknowledge a thing about these new “AI”-assisted pictures, which is that they are no longer photographs. They’re something different, closer to a digital illustration than anything else. The upscaled picture of Athena here is the automated equivalent of an artist making an airbrushed painting of my kid based on a tiny old photo. It’s good, and it’s pretty accurate, and I’m glad I have a larger version of that tiny image. But it’s not a photograph anymore. It’s an illustrated guess at what a more detailed version of the photograph would have been.

Is this a problem? Outside of a courtroom, probably not. But it’s still worth remembering that the already-extremely-permeable line between photograph and illustration is now even more so. Also, if you weren’t doing so already, you should treat any “photo” you see as an illustration until and unless you can see the provenance, or it’s from a trusted source. This is why, incidentally, AP and most other news organizations have strict limits on how photos can be altered. I’d guess that a 4x “AI”-assisted enhancement would fall well outside the organization’s definition of acceptable alteration. So, you know, build that into your world view. In a world of social media filters turning people into cats or switching their gender presentation, this internalization may not be as much of a sticking point as it once was.

With that said, it’s still a pretty nifty thing, and I will play with it a lot now, especially for older, smaller digital pictures I have, and to (intentionally) make illustrations that are based from those upscaled originals. I’m glad to have the capability. And that capability is only going to get more advanced from here.

— JS

The Big Idea: Ruthanna Emrys

The way our world is going now, there might not be much of future to look forward to. For author Ruthanna Emrys, she tried to imagine what that future could possibly look like in her new novel, A Half-Built Garden. Follow along as she talks about how we all can get there.

RUTHANNA EMRYS:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” 

Ursula Le Guin’s quote has become a touchstone for resistance, and a source of hope in seemingly inescapable circumstances. But how do you imagine something better than the circumstances that shape everything around you? What looks as different from modern global capitalism as capitalism looks from god-touched emperors? And what parts of modernity will stick around and cause trouble even after they’re supposedly relegated to the past?

A Half-Built Garden started as an effort to imagine that different, better, world – and to imagine what could crash into its assumptions as dramatically as climate change crashes into the market. Living in 2017 Washington DC, I saw how desperately agency workers worked to keep the basic functions of government going, even as other parts of that government were taking away their power to do good and prevent harm. The first seed of my future, then, was the idea that nation-states would continue to move towards authoritarianism and away from basic societal maintenance, leaving gaps where new forms of governance might step in.

That replacement was shaped by earlier, happier DC experiences, working with the Environmental Protection Agency on citizen science projects. The Dandelion Networks that dominate 2083 started as groups working on bioblitzes and personal air quality sensors and public pothole reporting – and who ultimately took on the responsibility of solving the problems they were measuring. They’re aided in this by algorithms to enforce the biases that they want to shape society, weighting decisions toward protecting ecosystems and human rights.

By 2083, Dandelion Networks built around watersheds control most of the planet, living in an uneasy truce with the remnant governments of nation-states. The descendants of billionaires and CEOs live in exile on artificial islands, playing power games and looking for some way to return to power. I had a lot of fun coming up with the little details of life in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network, and the everyday problems that people still face. The nuclear family is a thing of the past, but sometimes you need matchmakers to find coparents. People argue about everything from carbon budgets to knitting patterns. And sensors regularly pick up water pollution, which might be just a fluke or might be corporations testing the boundaries of their fencelines.

Or it might be aliens. Aliens would change everything.

It was often hard, writing a hopeful future from within an inescapable present. Some days fascism and climate crisis and pandemic took up all my brain space. Others, they just made me question whether there was really a way to get from here to there. Another of my favorite quotes is Mariame Kaba’s “Hope is a discipline” – a better future isn’t something to have faith in, it’s something to work towards, regardless of how scary or frustrating or unlikely it feels. So on the days when I had brainspace, I opened my computer and tried to map out a way. 


A Half-Built Garden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Universal Yums: July 2022 Review

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Universal Yums review! Today’s review features my dad as a co-reviewer, so you get double the opinion for the same low low price of free!

July’s box full of snacks comes to us all the way from India. Here’s the assortment:

All the snacks from the box laid out on the table. There's a few packages that look like chip bags, a couple packages that look like rectangular boxes, and a few pieces of individually wrapped candy.

There are ten snacks total, and three of them are the candies at the bottom.

Getting right into it, we started off with the Tikka Masala Corn Chips:

An orange chip bag. The text on the bag reads

The triangular shaped corn chips spilling out of the bag onto the table.

Athena ScalziAs you can imagine based on the appearance and the fact that they’re made out of corn, these were very Dorito-like. They’re even called Cornitos, so it’s not surprising that they resemble them so much, both in appearance and in texture. These chips were very strongly scented, and honestly they smelled exactly like Tikka Masala. Upon eating them, my dad said “they’ve got a kick”, meanwhile I was dying from the spiciness. These bitches are HOT. I needed milk, but we didn’t have any, so the suffering lasted a while.

I can see how these would be good for someone who isn’t a huge baby about spice, so I deem it a 5/10. My dad settled on a 7/10.

Moving on to something less painful, we have these Almond & Pistachio Cookies:

A green rectangular box with the words

A singular cookie, beige and round.

Not quite as glamorous looking as on the box, but that’s okay because this cookie actually tasted super good. It was crunchy like a shortbread and subtly sweet. My dad and I both agreed that it had a bit of a floral note to it, and we suspected it was cardamom, but upon reading the ingredients, we discovered there was no cardamom in it, though we could’ve sworn that was the exact flavor we were tasting. Overall, it was a 9/10 from both of us.

Next up was this bag of Sweet & Salty Rice Flakes:

A blue chip bag, with the words

A small black bowl filled with the snack mix from the bag. There is a variety of things in the mix, such a nuts and rice flakes and lots of things I don't know. It's mostly all yellow in appearance.

This snack was especially odd because there was so much of it in the bag that it was actually pretty hefty for a chip bag. Plus, the contents are not really something you can eat easily straight from the bag. We ended up pouring some out into a bowl. There’s just so many small pieces in the mix that it makes it hard to eat by hand, especially if you don’t put it into another container first. My dad said it felt like a “forbidden cereal”, and that it was similar to a “bar mix” type of snack.

Aside from the inconvenience of eating it, it was strangely addicting. It was crispy, but sometimes sort of softer crisp, like unexpectedly delicate. My dad also said that for being something sweet and salty, it should be saltier, and that the flavors were unbalanced, and that the flavor palette overall was incomplete. I can agree it was a bit on the bland side, certainly not that usual balanced flavor palette you get from sweet and salty mixes, but then again, I plowed through this stuff like it was nothing, so I gave it an 8/10. My dad went for a 7.5/10.

Bringing another cookie into the mix, we have this Chocolate Flavored Sandwich Cookie:

A red and white package with the words

Two of the brown, rectangular sandwich cookies, one of them broken in half to reveal the cross section of brown creme filling.

These were so mid-tier that there honestly isn’t much to say about them. Artificial chocolate is always just artificial chocolate, and if you like that taste, great. If you don’t, well, these cookies are not for you. My dad and I aren’t a huge fan of anything chocolate that isn’t actual chocolate, so these cookies didn’t really do it for us. I did think they tasted exactly like a brown Tootsie Pop, though. I decided on a 6/10 for these, while my dad went with a 6.5/10.

Back to the spicy things, we tried these Mini Lentil Samosas:

A purple chip bag type package, with an image of several samosas on the front, one of which is cut in half to reveal the orange lentil filled inside.

One of the mini samosas, being held between my thumb and index finger.

Listen, samosas are great. These are not. You can’t take something that’s crispy, fried perfection, and try to package it and send it overseas, because you will end up with something that feels very stale. The texture was deeply unpleasant. And the taste? Also unpleasant. AND SPICY. Way hotter than the chips, even. My dad said he was craving a real samosa after this utter disappointment of one, and I agreed. I gave it a 2/10, and my dad so generously gave it a 4/10.

Swinging back into sweets, we have these Coconut Flavored Sugar Biscuits:

A blue and yellow package that features an image of a coconut cracked in half alongside one of the beige, rectangular cookies.

Two rectangular beige cookies sitting alongside each other. They have the word NICE imprinted on them and are sprinkled with sugar granules.

Another very simple biscuit cookie thing, much like the chocolate ones mentioned earlier. If you like coconut, great, you’ll probably like these cookies. If not, then you would not enjoy these! These are just very normal shortbread cookies that taste like coconut. They have a pleasant crunchy texture and not much else going on. They earned a 7.5/10 from me and a solid 7/10 from my dad.

Now, for the most unique snack in the box, Soan Papdi:

A red rectangular box, with the words

Have you ever wanted to eat insulation? Based on the box and the image of the snack on the box, my dad and I were expecting something like baklava, but what we got was insanely delicate cubes of asbestos.

A cube of the soan papdi being held by my dad. It is a light pale yellow color.

Here is my dad holding a carefully procured cube.

The cube, now partially fallen apart, being held in my palm.

And here is how much it fell apart upon transferring the cube into my hand.

The cube, now without any structural integrity, just a pile of what looks like wheat shreds.

And this was after I tried to take a bite. All structural integrity has been lost, reducing it to a million little strands of whatever it’s made out of.

A million little pieces of the cube, resting in my dad's palm.

As you can see, my dad had the same issue. This snack was insanely messy and difficult, and honestly after one bite you gotta call it quits because it’s so strongly flavored. It tastes perfume-y and really is not that great overall. This got a 5/10 from me, and a 6/10 from my dad.

Finally done with all the regular snacks, we moved onto the candies, starting with this Caramel Choco Éclair one:

Two purple and gold wrapped pieces of caramel candy.

One of the candies, now unwrapped, revealing the brown rectangular caramel.

I was expecting a soft, chewy caramel, but got a rock hard caramel instead. It was much harder than I anticipated, and not all that tasty. It was very mediocre. There are certainly better caramels out there, so I wouldn’t waste your time with this one. For my dad, he said it tasted just like a candy he used to have as a kid, so the nostalgia-inducing flavor of it made him give it an 8/10, but his actual rating of it was 5/10. As was mine.

Next up was the candy I was most excited for, this Creamy Pistachio candy:

A pink and white foil wrapped piece of candy.

The foil wrapper unwrapped, revealing the white rectangular piece of candy inside.

The cross section of the candy, mint green in color, the candy being held between my thumb and index finger.

You know when you’re a kid and you see something food shaped that looks delicious, and you learn the hard way it’s actually soap? This candy tasted like that painful realization that sometimes things that look edible are not actually meant for eating. Not to mention the texture of this was like a wax melt cube, so that only contributed to the idea that this was more like soap or a candle than actual food.

Good lord this candy was so fucking bad. Probably one of the worst candies I’ve ever had in my entire life, second only to Jelly Belly’s intentionally disgusting flavors. Do not eat this candy. 1/10 from me, and a 2/10 from my dad, though I can’t understand how he’d rate it so high.

Finally, this Apricot Hard Candy:

A light blue package alongside a small peach colored hard candy.

My dad popped this bad boy in and look perplexed, and asked me what flavor the candy was. I said “apricot” and he said he would not have guessed that. I asked what would he have guessed, because it seemed quite apricot-y to me, but he said “sandalwood”. I didn’t even know you could eat sandalwood, I just know it as that scent that all my grandma’s candles seem to be. The description for this candy in the booklet said that it had a milky center, but my dad and I both agreed after cracking it open with our teeth that there was like, maybe one small drop of liquid in the center, and whatever it was certainly had no flavor or was really detectable at all. Overall, it was pretty meh, it was just a fruity hard candy, not bad or anything but not amazing. 6/10 from both of us.

In the end, we ended up having the same favorite snack: the almond and pistachio cookies.

And the same least favorite snack: the pistachio candy.

What looks good to you? If you got this box too, do you concur with our thoughts? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Jackson Bliss

Life is full of decisions, and sometimes those decisions can be tough. For author Jackson Bliss, making decisions was the driving force behind his newest novel, Dream Pop Origami. Read on to see how one’s decisions will impact the story.

JACKSON BLISS:

Dream Pop Origami is based on a single big idea I had in grad school with lots of interesting and unexpected consequences: what if a memoir about mixed-race/AAPI/BIPOC identity was structured like a choose-your-own-adventure novel? How different would the reading experience be if readers got to choose what the next “chapter” of a memoir? How differently, if at all, would the idea of memoir change if readers had agency in their own act of reading someone else’s life? How differently, if at all, would the construction of text and mixed-race identity change if the reader, not the author, decided its structure, narrative speed, major themes, and level of emotional interiority? 

I came up with the idea of Dream Pop Origami during my MFA. I wrote the first—and horrendously disjointed—draft between 2012 and 2014 when I was working on my dissertation and from 2014 to 2019 when I was commuting from LA to Orange County to teach writing/rhetoric at UC Irvine. I revised the manuscript from 2019 to 2021 in Ann Arbor and LA. Never in a million years did I think I would publish this memoir because it’s so heterodox, multimodal, experimental, and stylistically eccentric (both literally and figuratively). What excited me was the idea of creating an interactive work of nonfiction, something I’d never seen before in any form except hypertext (I’m thinking of Shelley Jackson’s My Body, which I’ve read and taught many times, finding new layers in every new reading). Though I didn’t realize it at the time, much of the excitement I had for this book was based on two important things from my childhood.

The first was choose-your-own-adventure novels. Until these novels became available, I thought I hated reading since the shit we had to read for history, social studies, and English classes in elementary school were fucking horrendous. The reading assignments were unbelievably boring and the book reports they made us write were so formulaic. They were also low in content and historical accuracy too, written in a dry style, stripped of any and all imagination, and totally lacking in literary merit or creativity whatsoever. But when I started reading first choose-your-own-adventure books, they changed my fucking world! I saw for the first time what a strong narrative arc could do for storytelling. I learned that giving your characters (and readers) agency was a natural way of giving them their humanity by forcing them to make their own decisions and then live by the consequences of those decisions.

In other words, there’s a necessary relationship in literature, I think, between causality, ontology, and humanity. When characters get to make their own choices and live by those choses, they get to exist in the text and we get to study their existence. And as a consequence, their humanity is both tested and developed on the page. I guess it took a niche fiction market for me to see how exciting this could be!

The second thing was my reconnection to video games. Being a mixed-race kid and the son of Japanese immigrants on my mom’s side, I was an Atari 3600, IBM PC, and arcade gamer as a boy. Sometimes, video games kept my company when I came home to an empty house. Years before I became a dedicated book lover, an emerging writer, or literature scholar, I first found joy, companionship, and interactive storytelling in video games. Whether it was in Oregon Trail (where everyone got dysentery), Treasure Island (which required you to type in the exact command or die by bluebeard), and King’s Quest, there was never a time when I didn’t have access to a (narrative) video game in my childhood. Years later when I was getting my PhD, I bought an Xbox 360, which was a terrible idea for my sleep schedule, but great for my creativity.

Once I began teaching at UCI, I bought myself a PS4 as a reward. I became kinda obsessed with Detroit: Become Human, and the Fallout, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Life is Strange, Mass Effect, and Final Fantasy series. I found exhilaration in the organic multimodal storytelling of those video games, the way that music, dialogue, gameplay, backstory, side missions, character arcs, and graphics could work together to create a multidimensional text that could be so rich, so powerful, so of-the-moment, and so emotionally impactful. I also found exhilaration in the power of my own decision making as a player. Most of these video games give you agency to make your own decisions and those decisions not only affected the ending, but the plot lines and the character arcs as well.

For all these reasons, Dream Pop Origami is as much the product of a literary fiction/creative nonfiction writer, electronic musician, and literary scholar as it is the product of an avid traveler, lifetime gamer, hypertext creator, and conceptual artist. This memoir is the product of choose-your-own-adventure novels and to RPG/action video games but it is consciously and unconsciously responding to those media too in many different ways. Just to give you one example. At the end of each chapter in Dream Pop Origami, readers get to pick the next chapter like this:

次に/Next:

  1. To see Jackson going through culture shock, go to page 62.
  2. The Tower Records in the East Village was church and the coffee table books were the hymn books of pop culture, all on page 239.
  3. To read about the first time an Argentine boy stole Jackson’s cell phone, go to page 34. 
  4. Or just turn the page gently and with understanding.

It’s not necessary to have read a choose-your-own-adventure novel, played a video game, or stayed up to date with the most critically acclaimed/experimental works of creative nonfiction in the past thirty years to appreciate this memoir. But if you have, this book will have so many more layers available to you. Ultimately, there’s no wrong way to read Dream Pop Origami and there’s no previous knowledge needed to enjoy it, but there are definitely rewards for readers who can see the other discourses that this book is part of and also responding to.


Dream Pop Origami: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Spice, the Mighty Hunter

I came downstairs this morning to Spice on the kitchen counter, which is a place she is generally never on, so I figured something was up. Sure enough, Spice was hunting prey, in this case an adult antlion, which had positioned itself just out of paw-swatting reach. The antlion was escorted outside via a small plastic container; the cat was escorted to the floor, mildly protesting all the way, by my hands. No one died, and nothing on the counter was destroyed by a fast-moving predator. And Spice was praised and petted for her diligence in keeping the house safe from invaders. So in all, a good morning for everyone.

— JS

The Big Idea: Clay Harmon

Power dynamics in relationships always have the capacity for drama… but what happens when some of that power is magical? Author Clay Harmon is thinking about this in his Big Idea for Flames of Mira.

CLAY HARMON:

Can members of a relationship exist on equal footing when power imbalances exist between both parties? This is one of the questions Flames of Mira seeks to explore. Ig, our main character, is bound to several chemical elements (think the periodic table) which lets him dodge the blades of his enemies, break through walls of rock, and coat his arms in lava. But despite all his power, he’s bound to obey the magically-enforced orders of the people he works for.

While the power he wields makes for some dazzling fight scenes, I found myself more interested in Ig’s powerlessness at the hands of those he’s bound to and the dynamics this can create. It was an opportunity to explore various relationships someone in Ig’s position might find himself in, whether they be healthy or extremely toxic, and it brought into focus a theme of power dynamics and how a skewed power balance in a relationship can cause it to become toxic in nature.

Constructing and responsibly navigating the relationships I wanted to include in Flames of Mira was a delicate process that was important to get right, given how damaging unhealthy power dynamics can become. The first question I asked myself while writing Ig was how his behavior might change as a participant in a power-skewed relationship over the course of several years.

He employs various strategies to deal with this, whether he’s falling into a tenuous coexistence or becoming friends with the people he serves, with only the occasional, painful reminder of the power imbalance that exists between them. Over time, this leads to a mental health crisis as he starts to wonder if he’s become friendly with these people so he can cope with the futility of escaping. The power he has—the ability to control the elements—makes him uncomfortable, and he starts to believe that over time, his mere existence damages the healthy relationships in his life.

As the story progressed, it created another opportunity to explore power imbalances but within romantic relationships. What happens when you become codependent in a relationship where your partner holds all the power? In this situation, Ig develops an impaired sense of power and feels that his purpose in life is to help his partner achieve their goals, thinking that his own wants and desires aren’t important.

This relationship is so dysfunctional that it results in Ig’s warped rationalizations for his partner’s actions, such as tricking himself into thinking he’s in love or believing he can change their nature. He comes to have an overblown idea of the influence he’s capable of exerting, to the point he thinks he is solely responsible for his partner’s wellbeing and happiness.

This exploration of the inherent toxicity in Flames of Mira’s romantic subplot served as an opportunity to write the reversal of the popular enemies-to-lovers trope, which pushed me outside my comfort zone as a writer since I hadn’t read many books with a lovers-to-enemies story to use as guideposts. This trope fit perfectly within the magic system that binds Ig to those he serves and lent itself to one of Flames of Mira’s central themes.

Ig hopes that the people he serves will change, thinks that he’s the only one who really understands them while refusing to acknowledge the actions they regularly take that reveal their true nature. He believes them when they tell him they’ll stop taking advantage of the power imbalance in the relationship.

Over the course of years Ig has found himself entangled within multiple power-skewed relationships, to the point it will become paramount for him to realize that equality among other participants in these relationships is impossible. Once he does, he will finally experience hope of breaking free.


Flames of Mira: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

I Was Left Unsupervised: A Twitter Thread

Recorded here for posterity, which will question why I bothered.


I have been left unsupervised.

Hey, package of Oreos and a jar of Hellman's real mayonnaise.

They say we have strayed from the sight of God. I say, God sees all… And chooses inaction.

A healthy dollop of mayo in a glass ramekin, with the Oreos still in their package.

It is time to move humanity out of its comfort zone, beyond its antiquated ideas of what should and should not be. A new age is dawning. You are all witnesses.

Several Oreos are now out of the package and into their own ramekin. The mayo still sits in its ramekin, waiting.

NO GODS
NO RULERS
BECOME UNGOVERNABLE

The Oreos are now being crushed into smaller bits while the Mayo sits, waiting. Expecting.

They say genius is not understood in its time

Finally I know the infinite awe of Robert Oppenheimer as he beheld his terrible creation

The Oreos and Mayo, finally, inevitably, joined.

We pause to let the flavors steep for a bit. Here's a dog whilst we wait.

Yes, she has been watching the whole thing. She doesn't judge. She knows important work is being done.

Back to it

Mayoreo, sweet gerkins, bananas, gummy chicken feet and macaroni salad, and, of course, tortillas.

First, split the banana lengthwise and set it on the tortilla.

The banana being gutted with a butterknife.

Step two: add the mayoreo to the center of the split banana.

By this time, the Mayo Oreo combination has taken on a disturbing dark brown color.

Step three: time to add the gherkins!

The dark green gherkins are now on the dark disturbingly brown myo Oreo combination, this is a color profile that was perhaps not meant for culinary discovery.

Step four: lightly nestle macaroni salad to the side of the mayoreo-and-gherkin-filled banana.

The macaroni salad in this case has pasta shells with more mayo and more pickles. So actually it's just almost recursive at this point.

Step five: gummy chicken feet at both ends of the banana, because, I mean, OBVIOUSLY

Honestly this is yellow and red gummy chicken feet are probably the most controversial aspect of this incipient burrito.

Step six: wrapped and rolled and into the microwave

Step seven: garnished with whipped cream and crushed Oreos. Charlie silently bears witness to history.

Let's face it, this burrito is not the worst thing that Charlie has ever seen me make.

The all-important cross-section.

You can see the banana! And the gherkins! And the macaroni salad! It's all there! Don't forget the mayoreo! It's that brown stuff right in the middle!

And now the moment you've all been waiting for and/or fearing was inevitable: the taste test.

Epilogue: To atone for my sins, I have made a donation to a local food panty serving my county. If you have somehow made it to the end of this thread, I encourage you to do likewise in your own community.

Also: Don't make Mayoreo. It's not good. Thank you.

/end

(Food pantry, not food panty. LOOK I HAVE A STOMACHACHE OKAY)

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on July 23, 2022.

— JS

Late to the Party: Stranger Things Season Two

Athena ScalziAfter totally tearing through season one of Stranger Things, I was eager to start season two. Upon actually starting it, I realized I did watch it when it came out. I had completely forgotten about season two entirely. I thought, “okay, maybe I did watch an episode or two and then quit”, but that wasn’t the case. By the time I reached the end of the season, I remembered I had watched all of it. However, I couldn’t remember what had happened until it already did, so in a way it was like watching it for the first time.

But why had I just completely forgotten about it? The first season seemed so memorable, so why wasn’t the second? Had it been so bad that I forgot it entirely until actively watching it again?

Well, no, actually, it wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t particularly good, either. And not anywhere near as good as the first.

(Warning: Spoilers for season two!)

The second season had all the characters we knew and loved from the first season, but with almost no development from any of them by the end of the second. You’d think after a year passing, they’d all be a little different at least? I’m not saying they have to go through some major revolutionary change that makes their character completely different, but it just felt sort of repetitive to have almost every character acting the exact same way they did throughout the first season.

I will say that Steve is starting to become the man I’ve heard he is from all the memes. He was definitely much less of an immature dickhead, and had a lot of selfless moments where he protected others and even risked his life. Other than him, and slightly Eleven, I wouldn’t say any of the characters really changed at all.

But, there were new characters, so let’s talk about them.

First, there’s Max, the new girl in the group that causes conflict between all the boys. Just like the last girl did. For each of these girls, they were gladly accepted by some party members, and rejected vehemently by the others. And in both cases, the boys got jealous regarding how much the other(s) liked the girl. This seems very true to how children act in real life, but it was hard to watch happen a second time to a different girl. I’m tired of girls being used as a dividing force between boys. Girls being used to make them fight, or be jealous, or get mad at each other. They feel reduced to their roles in this sense.

On the flip side of that, there is a scene where El gets jealous when she sees Max talking to Mike, so a case can be made that the show is not just limiting jealousy to the boys of the show. But it sure feels that way sometimes, especially when you add in Steve’s jealousy regarding Nancy, too. It’s a lot of drama. Which makes sense, because again they’re all kids, trying to figure out their feelings and relationships. But still, it gets old.

As for Billy, he was an asshole older brother character, sure, but he was scary. It’s not every day you see a mean older brother that is more than just obnoxious, and actually manages to instill some level of unsettling feelings in you. He felt… evil. He felt like he was really capable of doing something awful, and I hated that about him, but it made him a good character. And I have never felt so bad for someone so shitty before I saw the scene with him and his dad. Genuinely saddening. I went from despising him to sympathizing for him. Doesn’t give him an excuse to treat Max that way, of course, but damn.

And then we have Bob. He who was surely destined to die. To be the throwaway character the season needed to help advance the plot, nothing more. If it was so obvious that that’s who he was meant to be all along, then why did his death feel so unnecessary? He had made it through the entire lab, all the way to the front doors where everyone else was, and then got got by the demadogs. I know it’s done that way intentionally to make the emotional punch hurt more, but it’s so goofy. He was right there, there was no reason that his death should have happened that way, or happened for nothing. He didn’t do some kind of big sacrifice hero moment, he literally just let his guard down and then got tackled and munched on. It shouldn’t have happened like that. It was sad, though.

I won’t go too in depth about Kali, because I did think she was cool and a good character, but I will say I thought her and her crew’s introduction was odd. To start off the second season with a scene of them, and then not show them again until practically the very end of the season seems like a strange choice. Why would you start the season with them? Starting the episode that features them with that scene seems like the better option to me. I say this mostly because I had forgotten that scene entirely until I saw Kali as a child in the Rainbow Room and then suddenly remembered she existed at all. Just seemed like their introduction to the show could’ve been better timed.

Actually, having an entire episode showing only El and her journey to find Kali was a bold choice for the show to begin with. Does it work when there’s so many other characters’ stories to tell at the same time? Interestingly enough, every episode from season two has an 8.2 star rating on IMDb or higher, except episode seven, which has a 6.1. That’s a significant difference. It’s the outlier of the season both in the construction of the episode, and in ratings.

Moving onto the plot, I was curious what they would do for a second season when El had clearly just beaten the Big Baddy at the end of season one. The answer: they made an even Bigger Baddy. This is not an uncommon thing for shows to do in order to make more seasons, but it has me wondering if this is just what they’ll keep doing for all the following seasons. Making bigger and badder villains until they can’t make them any bigger or any badder.

Speaking of the antagonists, I did respect the fact that they changed the monster from a demogorgon into demodogs. I was glad they didn’t just have the exact same monster being the threat again. The design of the demodogs is, to me at least, less scary than the humanoid demogorgon, but the fact that there’s so many of them makes them far more dangerous than the lone monster from the first season.

This season felt much slower than the first, and part of that is because everything was already established in the first season, so they didn’t have to spend any time in this one telling you backstories, establishing the world and all the characters. There was even one more episode in the second season than the first. But the whole season really seemed to drag. It wasn’t the captivating, edge of your seat show the first season had managed to be.

Again, this season wasn’t bad, and I liked it well enough. Certainly enough that I will be watching the third season. But still, it was lacking, and overall not as interesting or memorable as the first.

Oh, also, one more grievance I had was after everyone escapes the lab full of demodogs and goes back to the Byer’s house, why the hell do they spend what I can only imagine to be at least an hour emptying out the shed and hanging up all those tarps and shit so Will wouldn’t know where he was when THEY COULD’VE JUST BLINDFOLDED HIM. They wasted so much time STAPLING TARPS TO THE WALL when there were demodogs on the fucking loose. If they didn’t want him to know where he was, just make sure he can’t see, you don’t have to disguise your whole fucking shed to talk to him. Ugh.

What did you think of season two? Did you like it better, or not as much? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and have a great day!

Also, on my post over season one, someone commented asking me if I would be interested in doing reviews like these professionally. The answer is yes! I would love to be a professional reviewer, whether it’s over movies, video games, food/restaurants, or even products and services! I love trying and experiencing new things and then talking about it. And I wouldn’t be able to do it if y’all weren’t here to listen, so thank you all for your interest in my reviews. It feels nice to have my thoughts heard, which is why I always want to hear yours in the comments, too, so don’t be shy!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Chris Gerrib

When robbing a bank becomes too mainstream, try hijacking a spaceship! Author Chris Gerrib tells us a little about how he came up with the idea for his newest thriller, One of Our Spaceships is Missing.

CHRIS GERRIB:

Stories sometimes have more than one Big Idea.  For my latest novel, I had a lot of big ideas.  For this post, I’d like to discuss the two biggest of the Big Ideas.

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared while on a routine night flight from its home base of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  The aircraft was a new Boeing 777, which had (and still has) a very good safety record.  Needless to say, there were a lot of theories as to what had happened.  At the time and while writing the first draft of this novel, I thought it was a hijacking gone bad.

That then was the seed of the first Big idea – a heist novel.  “Hey, gang, let’s steal a spaceship!”  Well, heist stories are thrillers, and so I had an opportunity to play with Standard Thriller Subplots.   And that’s where I got my first Big Idea.

Standard Thriller Subplot #3 is this – hunky, honest and not-terribly bright man is paired with sexy, mysterious and smart (oh, and did I say she was sexy?) woman and asked to investigate something.  Whenever the author needs to pad their wordcount, the two characters have hot sex until the requisite wordcount is reached.  There are subvariants of this – #3A is where the female character is really working for the Bad Guys, #3B is where she used to work for them but now is reformed – you get the picture.

I decided to take this subplot and stand it on its head.  I do have a hunky and not-very-bright male investigator – Ray Volk, Special Agent, FBI.  He’s gay, single and a player – he’s wrapping up a one-night-stand when he gets called to start investigating.  He’s paired with a sexy and to-him mysterious man.  Alas, his partner is not into sex with anybody, male or female.  This opens the door for Standard Thriller Subplot #4 – A Girl In Every Port.  And actually Ray has an opportunity to tick that box; alas he’s not looking for a girl.  

Going back to Malaysia Flight 370, I now think that one of the pilots decided to commit suicide by depressurizing the plane and flying it over the ocean until it ran out of fuel and crashed.  This “suicide by airliner” has happened on several occasions now – Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed because the copilot locked the captain out of the cabin and flew the plane into the ground.  

This was the second Big Idea – spaceship safety.  Germanwings was a classic MIAR – Madman In a Room disaster.  (As far as I know I’ve invented that acronym.)  In the tight confines of an airliner, you might not be able to prevent MIARs.  But on a large passenger ship?  Maybe you could prevent it.

You would need two things – one, dual control, such that critical functions require two people to perform them.  Second, you’d need to ensure that nobody can truly lock themselves in a room.  You’d need a way to bypass the locks.  And wouldn’t having a way to bypass a lock be helpful in hijacking a ship?

As I mentioned in the beginning, I have a lot of Big Ideas in the book.  I’ll just list a couple of them here.

  1. The US now only has 48 states.
  2. We’re not a superpower, at least not in space – Mars is.
  3. The same historical events that caused items #1 and #2 above created a lawless region in our Solar System that’s just perfect for a spaceship to disappear into.

They say science fiction is the fiction of ideas.  I believe that One of Our Spaceships is Missing is an example of that.  I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you have fun reading it!


One of Our Spaceships is Missing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Trent Jamieson

With all things in life, balance is the key. This is also true for author Trent Jamieson’s newest novel, The Stone Road. Follow along with this Big Idea to see how he found balance between novels, and in his own life.

TRENT JAMIESON:

A week after I turned forty, the seventh cranial nerve on the right-hand side of my face was severely damaged by an infection, I literally woke up to a different face in the mirror. I couldn’t speak clearly, I couldn’t blink my right eye, the right side of my face drooped painfully: everything changed. 

I went back to work a couple of days later, and after the tenth person asked me what was wrong, and I mumbled my response for the tenth time (Bell’s Palsy is almost impossible to say when you have it) I sat in the storage cupboard behind the counter at the bookstore where I work and cried.

I’d written five novels in the previous couple of years, and I was exhausted. Everything had been rush, rush, rush, while holding down a day job, and teaching at night. My life was a wreck, and I’d lost the face that I’d known all my life. I needed to slow down. But it’s a risk to slow down. All my books had been fast-paced, rollercoaster rides, that rattled from scene to scene. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to write novels any other way. I wasn’t sure if I slowed down that I would even have a writing career left.

The answer was in my short fiction. Before I ever really thought about writing novels, I had been a short story writer. Bittersweet was my happy place. Slower, more reflective work the kind of material I leaned into. It was the sort of fantasy that I liked to read as well, the Earthsea Books in particular, but I had never been confident enough to bring it into my fiction.

I had been working on a novel based on a short story of mine called Day Boy. It was a dystopian fantasy about a wild kid that worked for a vampire in a small country town. It was a book of grim fathers and violent sons, and the choices we all must make between dark and light. It was epic in a quiet way, it was a heart breaking, and an angry voice shouting defiance. I decided to write it as an episodic novel, building slowly to a wild ending, a sort of violence as dislocating and sudden as losing your face to Bell’s Palsy.

Day Boy was the best book that I had ever written, and people liked it. It even won two Aurealis awards, and was short-listed for a few other prizes.

But I felt it needed another story to balance it. And that balance found itself in The Stone Road. It is a book of grandmothers and granddaughters and the boundaries that they must walk to protect their town. I imagined it in a weirder, wilder part of the Day Boy world, and I wanted it to address the violence at the heart of Day Boy

Like Day Boy, it had begun as a short story, but it went in directions that I had never expected. In Day Boy, the vampires protect people from the monsters that threaten their communities by fighting them, in The Stone Road, Jean and her grandmother must deal with monsters by outsmarting them. It’s a book about community, death and family secrets: a slow burning fire that blazes by the end. 

Both books reflected my bewilderment at life, at the abrupt change I found in the mirror, and both taught me a lot. That there is power in the quiet and the slow, and that resilience isn’t found quickly, and even when it’s found it’s fragile, but we move on. We have to.

It’s been a decade since I got Bells, my face never quite recovered, I have a crooked smile, my right eye waters when I eat, and sometimes the nerve will start ticking in my eyelid or locking up when I am nervous or tired. My body will never let me forget. I wrote these two, quiet books, about community, and fathers and sons, and grandmothers and granddaughters, and I became a father myself. My life is richer, different, but it’s still me. I write for the joy it gives me, no matter how hard writing often is. 

I look back at that sad broken person who started their forties, and I hardly recognise him, but together we took the path into the quiet, slower places, and we’ve done alright. You can tear yourself apart, but you can also put yourself back together again. Maybe that’s a little idea, I don’t know, but it feels big to me.


The Stone Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

An Imperfect Apple

John Scalzi

While walking the dog earlier today we walked by the neighbor’s apple trees, on which apple are coming in nicely but are not yet ready to be eaten. One thing I note about all the apples is that, even in this still-early stage of growth they are, largely, wildly misshapen and would never make the cut for a supermarket produce section. It doesn’t mean they won’t taste good (previous apples from other years confirm they do), it just means that they are lumpy and gnarled and would be destined for applesauce or juice or some other end where their cosmetics don’t matter.

I will still eat them, happily, however, with my neighbor’s say-so. I reject artificial beauty standards for real fruit! Long live ugly apples! Until, uh, I get them in my belly, anyway.

This post is clearly written so I can have an excuse to post this picture of an apple. Lumpy or not, I think it looks pretty cool.

— JS

The Big Idea: Will Wiles

Over time, little things can add up. This is the case for empires falling, governments collapsing, and sickness spreading. In Will Wiles’s Big Idea, he goes into detail about how being aware of these little things can lead to big changes. See what changes await in The Last Blade Priest.

WILL WILES:

Decay, that’s the thing. I wanted to talk about decay. Not physical decay, but the decay of cultures and institutions – an awful creeping fear that the familiar world is crumbling, and might have been crumbling for some time. It was 2016 and I didn’t much like the way the world was going – in the UK, at least, the existing order was fracturing, a rupture that felt quite sudden, but also the result of fault lines that had been growing and rumbling for years. The outlook seemed ominous, but within it were intriguing glints of possibility.

At the time I was reading John Julius Norwich’s immense, wonderful history of Byzantium, and I was struck by how long decline can take, and how it can be interspersed with periods of relative quiet and even recovery in between flashes of irrecoverable disaster. The scenery can appear quite normal, before it falls over with a bang. A character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked how he went bankrupt, and he answers: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” 

You’d think, when an institution is entrusted with a vital responsibility, it would never lose sight of that trust. But it happens all the time, throughout history. Armies become more interested in bribes and kingmaking than defence of their state. Religions sink into luxury, or become hidebound and pedantic and incapable of change. The watchdogs of democracies drift into slumber.

These processes, the workings of decay, fascinated me as an undergraduate student of history, and they fascinate me today. The gears turn, and then – crash. Gradually, then suddenly. Sometimes, the occupants of these systems are unaware of the slow-turning disaster. Sometimes, they are aware, but powerless. Sometimes, it’s their efforts to change course that hasten the final crisis. 

Gloomy thoughts, you might say, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but tremendous narrative. It’s fascinating for a reason, and it’s an underpinning of the Gothic. Decay is, after all, a process of life – the dead whale sinking to the lightless floor of the ocean makes that desert blossom with weird and wonderful creatures. Of course, it’s best enjoyed through the pages of a book, in an armchair in a stable and prosperous society, rather than witnessed in the fabric around us. But reflecting on these things can help us keep alert to the warning signs and the wicked problems.

So, an institution is entrusted with an awesome responsibility. At the heart of the world there is a Mountain, a Mountain completely unlike the mountains around it, with a dreadful ever-shifting countenance that repulses anyone who looks at it too long. Perhaps it’s not a mountain at all, but it is the size of a mountain and among mountains so it is called the Mountain.

The Mountain is the source of all magic in the world, and can grant godlike powers to any person willing to journey to it and strike a bargain with its monstrous protectors. And it has spawned a world religion based on human sacrifice to appease the avian necromancers that guard the Mountain, and a simple mission: ensure that no human ever gives themselves the power of a god. 

Simple. A typical fantasy set-up maybe, a hidden kingdom defending a magical resource of incalculable value. And my earliest outline had a fairly typical approach to the set-up: a questing party, from an upstart nation that doesn’t respect the old ways, aims to penetrate this mountain fastness. The sprawling monastery-fortress of the decadent priests and their monstrous demigods would naturally be the destination of that story, held for the end.

But the more I thought about that rotten religion and its factional battles in a demon-haunted fortress, the more time I wanted to spend there. Why store them up for the end, and then see them only from the outside? Why not spend a little more time with them? 

Moreover, what if some of the priests at the heart of this ancient religion weren’t entirely blind to their decayed state, and had some awareness that the world outside was changing? And, in fact, even the gods realised things had to change? Suddenly there were two stories to tell: the brash, infidel newcomers, and their quest to open up this secret religious kingdom; and the struggle within that religion between reform and tradition.

At the heart – excuse me – of this battle is the question of human sacrifice, an ancient necromantic rite to bind men to their gods, which the gods now say isn’t needed any more. For one of the young priests in training to deliver death to the gods, this comes as a great, secret, relief – but puts him in vastly more danger than he realises. 

This seemed like a great opportunity to get inside some of these questions of decay and renewal, and competing visions of progress in a world gripped by a gathering crisis – but also to have a lot of fun with a story of intrigue, murder, betrayal and human folly. And at the heart – sorry, again – would be the vital question of responsibility, and who gets to wield power, when those best placed to take it are not the ones you’d want using it. 

Also there are abominable snowmen. 


The Last Blade Priest: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Follow the author on Twitter.

An Attempt At Binging With Babish’s Ube Roll

Athena ScalziDid that look super difficult or what?! I certainly thought it did, which is why I was hesitant about making this dessert. I knew I had to put aside my reluctance and just go for it. What was the worst that could happen?

So, I started by looking for the ingredients on Amazon, because I had a feeling the Dollar General in town wouldn’t have powdered ube. I wasn’t sure what kind to buy, so I watched through the video and paused when I saw his package of powdered ube, and just bought the exact same kind. Luckily, the one I bought actually came bundled with a McCormick brand tiny bottle of ube flavor, which I also needed. This bundle was thirteen dollars. I also had to buy violet food coloring, which was six dollars for a small bottle.

Other than those oddities, everything else needed is super standard ingredients that most people already have on hand. Except maybe the cake flour, but that’s not too terribly hard to acquire. I will say, though, that you need a full dozen eggs for this recipe, so if you’re like me and break yolks when trying to separate, or are just clumsy and drop one on the floor, buy an 18 pack of eggs instead of just a dozen. Leave room for mistakes.

Once I had acquired all the ingredients, I got to work and started by mixing the powdered ube with boiling water, resulting in this purple paste.

Dark purple paste in a white bowl. The end of a wooden spoon sits in the paste.

Then I combined the eggs, sugar, flour, rehydrated ube, ube flavoring, vegetable oil, and food coloring together in a stand mixer. Unsurprisingly, it came out purple.

A silver bowl filled with lilac colored batter.

This batter looked to be the same color as Babish’s end result roll, so I thought I was off to a strong start. I did find it odd how the batter was sort of frothy, though. I’ve never really seen a batter be foamy before, unless it has yeast in it, but this didn’t, so it was a little off-putting.

Babish says to put the batter on a quarter sheet pan (a 9×13 baking sheet), but I don’t have one of those, so I opted for this glass casserole dish that is also 9×13. I had a feeling this would alter the bake time, since it didn’t get to spread out quite as thinly.

A glass baking dish filled with the purple batter.

The recipe says to let it bake for 10-15 minutes, but mine ended up baking for twenty before I decided it was about as done as it was gonna get.

It came out not quite right, to say the least.

A purple spongy looking cake in a glass baking dish.

Why was it so spongy? And sticky? And grossly colored?

I flipped it over onto a plate and started to peel off the parchment paper, but kept tearing the cake apart because it was so stuck to the paper. My dad ended up getting the paper off far more cleanly than I was, and here was the bottom-side of it.

The purple cake flipped over, revealing the strangely greenish grey underside.

Bruh. It looked like a sheet of seaweed. And it had so many weird lines in it?! I was disheartened. But I figured buttercream could save the day, so I started on that.

I’ve never actually made buttercream before, so I was shocked to learn about the inclusion of eggs in it. The recipe says to combine the ingredients (except the butter) in a bowl and put it over a pot of simmering water until the mixture reaches 160 degrees. Well, I still don’t have a thermometer, so I didn’t know how hot it was, but eventually I got bored of waiting and figured I’d risk the potential salmonella. So I put the mixture into the stand mixer and whipped the hell out of it until it looked like this.

A stand mixer, the bowl of which is filled with white meringue, the whisk attachment pulling it in a soft peak.

After adding all four sticks of butter, it looked like this!

The silver stand mixer bowl, filled with what looks like extra fluffy butter.

It honestly just looked like super fluffy butter, and I half expected it to just taste purely like butter since there was a whole four sticks in it, but it actually tasted so good I could hardly believe I made it. It was better than any icing I’d ever made before, or any icing I’d ever had, for that matter. It was dangerously delicious.

So, I got my ugly little cake ready to roll.

The purple cake, laid out on a green silicone sheet.

And rolled it did! Without cracking, I might add!

The purple cake, rolled up and filled with buttercream.

As you can see, it is significantly darker than it’s supposed to be, and also browner. And also has weird spots and marking all over it. This bitch was UGLY.

Also, I overstuffed it.

The ube roll cut in half to reveal the cross section.

You can barely see the swirl of cake with how much buttercream I loaded into this bad boy.

So, it was definitely not perfect, appearance-wise. But how did it taste? I don’t really have a reference for how it’s supposed to taste, but it wasn’t half bad! The cake was a little too dense and chewy, but it sort of tasted coconut-y and was very mild flavor. It was mostly just overwhelmingly buttercream-y. But, not horrific for my first attempt, I’d say.

Charlie would say, too.

Me holding a slice of the ube roll above Charlie, who is looking up at it hopefully.

Have you tried making this before? Would you try a slice? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

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