I Have No Brain and I Must Veg: The Virtue of How It’s Made

There are times when your brain turns to cheese, and is not good for anything useful, and yet you are not tired enough to sleep. For times like this, I turn to How It’s Made, the TV show where, to bland-yet-weirdly-compelling background music, the creation process of every day objects is documented and explained. Are these explanations interesting? Not as such, but they have the form and function of being interesting without actually demanding, you know, thought. It feels like you’re learning things but it actually requires nothing of you. It slides into your eyeballs and falls right out of your brain five minutes later. I love it and could easily watch 14 hours of it without interruption.

What is your “my brain is cheese and yet I cannot sleep” distraction? I crave your answer.

— JS

Housekeeping Note For Big Idea Pieces, re: Bookshop.org

John Scalzi

This is a small thing but worth noting: Inasmuch as Bookshop.org is taking over sales for Indiebound.org starting March 1, I’m going ahead and making Bookshop.org one of the default bookseller links for the Big Idea pieces, along with Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s. Existing Indiebound links will stay in place (because I am lazy and there are hundreds of Big Idea pieces in the archives), but moving forward it’ll be taken out of the default link list. I’ll be updating information here to reflect this change.

Also a reminder that the sales links at the end of each Big Idea piece are not affiliate links and that I don’t make any money off them; they’re there for your convenience. Don’t ever feel obliged to use them for my sake or the sake of the site, especially if there’s a local bookstore you prefer to give your money to. But if you’re so excited reading a Big Idea that you just can’t wait to buy the book, I want to make sure you have options.

— JS

The Big Idea: Bruce Schneier

The world has systems. Systems have rules. Or are they more like guidelines? In today’s Big Idea for A Hacker’s Mind, security expert Bruce Schneier takes a look at systems, how they are vulnerable, and what that fact means for all of us.

BRUCE SCHNEIER:

Hacking isn’t limited to computer systems, or even technology. Any system can be hacked.

What sorts of system? Any system of rules, really.

Think about the tax code. It’s not computer code, but it’s a series of rules — supposedly deterministic algorithms — that take data about your income and determine the amount of money you owe. This code has vulnerabilities, more commonly known as loopholes. It has exploits; those are tax avoidance strategies. And there is an entire industry of black-hat hackers who exploit vulnerabilities in the tax code: we call them accountants and tax attorneys.

In general terms, a hack is something a system permits, but that is unanticipated and unwanted by its designers. It’s unplanned: a mistake in the system’s design or coding. It’s clever. It’s a subversion, or an exploitation. It’s a cheat ­- but only sort of. Just as a computer vulnerability can be exploited over the Internet because the code permits it, a tax loophole is “allowed” by the system because it follows the rules, even though it might subvert the intent of those rules.

Once you start thinking of hacking in this way, you’ll start seeing hacks everywhere. You can find hacks in customer reward programs; in financial systems; in politics; in lots of economic, political, and social systems; and against our cognitive functions. Airline frequent-flier mileage runs are a hack. The filibuster was originally a hack, invented in 60 BCE by Cato the Younger, a Roman senator. Gerrymandering is a hack. Hedge funds are full of hacks. So are professional sports: curving a hockey stick, hitting a cricket ball over your head, or showing up on the Formula One track with a six-wheeled car (the Tyrell racing team in 1975 — really).

I use this framework in A Hacker’s Mind to tease out a lot of why today’s economic, political, and social systems are failing us so badly, and apply what we have learned about hacking defenses in the computer world to those more general hacks. There’s a lot of value in looking at these systems through the lens of hacking.

All systems are hackable. Even the best-thought-out sets of rules will be incomplete or inconsistent. They’ll have ambiguities, and things the designers haven’t thought of. As long as there are people who want to subvert the goals of a system, there will be hacks.

What will change everything is artificial intelligence, and what will happen when AIs start hacking. Not the problems of hacking AI, which are both ubiquitous and super weird, but what happens when an AI is able to discover new hacks against these more general systems. What happens when AIs find tax loopholes, or loopholes in financial regulations. We have systems in place to deal with these sorts of hacks, but they were invented when hackers were human and reflect the human pace of hack discovery. They won’t be able to withstand an AI finding dozens, or hundreds, of loopholes in the financial network. We’re simply not ready for the speed, scale, scope, and sophistication of AI hackers.

Hacks aren’t necessarily bad. They’re how systems evolve. Curved hockey sticks made for more exciting play, as did scooping a cricket pitch — they both became part of the games. A six-wheeled race car was declared against the rules in 1983. Mileage runs are legal, but airlines have modified their frequent-flier programs to make them less effective. Gerrymandering is still mostly legal in the US, and the filibuster is still a thing in the US Senate.

A Hacker’s Mind is my pandemic book, started in 2020 and finished in 2022 It represents another step in my continuing journey in thinking about security and its relationship to broader society.) And I really like the cover. 


A Hacker’s Mind: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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

She’s a Little Bit Rebel Senator, He’s a Little Bit Moisture Farmer

John Scalzi

Me: Hey, you wanna know what’s the weirdest thing in the world?

Krissy: (sighs) What’s the weirdest thing in the world?

Me: Why did you just sigh there?

Krissy: I didn’t sigh, I just exhaled heavily.

Me: That’s actually the definition of a sigh.

Krissy: You were telling me about the weirdest thing in the world.

Me: Okay, so, In 1977, the Donny and Marie Osmond show did a whole bit on Star Wars and Donny played Luke and Marie played Leia.

Krissy: Okay.

Me: They are brother and sister, and they were playing Luke and Leia, who were brother and sister, too, but no one knew that at the time. They were the first people in any media to accurately portray the relationship between Luke and Leia. They were totally ahead of the curve. Donny and Marie. Osmond.

Krissy: George Lucas probably knew.

Me: Did he, though? The whole thing about Luke and Leia being siblings didn’t come out until Return of the Jedi. It was kinda hinted in Empire but that Yoda utterance about there being another was really open ended. Look, I’m a writer. The whole idea that we have any idea how a whole trilogy is going to while we write the first installment is mostly bullshit. We’re all making it up as we go along. I think George Lucas was thinking about what the hell he was going to do with Luke and Leia in future movies, had no clue, then watched this episode of the Donny & Marie show and was all, like, “oh, siblings, that’s a really good idea,” and then tucked it away for later. Then, bam, Jedi, and suddenly they’re twins.

Krissy: You seriously think George Lucas got the “Luke and Leia are siblings” idea from Donny and Marie.

Me: All the evidence fits!

Krissy: And you think this is, in fact, the weirdest thing in the world.

Me: Can you think of anything weirder?

Krissy: Not off the top of my head.

Me: There you go.

Krissy: Are you saying this came off the top of your head?

Me: Well, no, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.

Krissy: How long?

Me: (checks watch) About 46 years.

Krissy: (sighs)

— JS

Everything Pop Punk

John Scalzi

I’m traveling today to DJ a friend’s birthday party this evening (yes! You can hire me as a DJ! For weddings, birthday parties and bar/bat mitzvahs!), and aside from what I usually play, this friend also requested a sprinkling of mashups and/or reinterpretations of popular songs into other musical subgenres. Well, as you may know, YouTube is positively rife with such things, so I spent last night a couple of hours trawling about for fun and/or surprising takes on hit music.

Alex Melton, the fellow you see above, has made a nice YouTube career on taking hits and swapping their genres, particularly making them “pop punk,” so I thought it would be fun to show you one I’m not adding to my DJ mix, not because it isn’t good, but because I’m just more likely to play this actual particular song itself. But it’s fun to listen to this take of it. It is relevant to my musical interests, shall we say. For the actual DJ set, I have some nice mashup/revisions that I think people will enjoy. I guess we’ll find out tonight!

And, yes, in fact, no one is more surprised than me that I have developed this weird little side gig as a DJ. To be very clear, I am not one of those DJs who beat matches and has a light show and wears head-encompassing masks, since all that sounds like too much work to me (and in the case of the masks, very stuffy). I am the quintessential “wedding DJ,” i.e., the guy who will play the biggest damn hits of the last several decades so that everyone, even your grandma (heck, especially your grandma) will hit the dance floor.

But it seems to work, since I get asked a lot to do it, especially at science fiction conventions, where, aside from anything else, the fact that a Hugo-winning novelist will be your DJ for the evening has some weird appeal. And of course, I enjoy doing it, not the least because if I’m DJing then I at least know there will be music I want to dance to, and I enjoy dancing a lot. It’s how I met Krissy, after all. “Science Fiction Convention DJ” is a deeply specialized subgenre of the field, but one I can reasonably say I’m at or near the top of. I am in fact an award-winning Science Fiction Convention DJ. I should put that on my CV.

(Also, actually, I have DJ’d a wedding. And, clearly, a birthday party or two. Maybe don’t hire me for your kid’s bar/bat mitzvah, I don’t think they’ll really want someone who looks like their dad up there spinning tunes.)

Anyway, I’m off for the weekend. Enjoy yourselves while I’m off spinning tunes.

— JS

State of Personal Social Media, February 2023

Aside from being here, of course.

John Scalzi

1. I’m still mostly on Twitter, because aside from the “fun” of watching it slowly break down, and Elon Musk and his crew fumbling about trying to understand this thing he now owns and must make debt service on, it’s still the place where I have the most followers and the most engagement. The exodus of 2022 seems to have stabilized (I’ve actually gained a couple hundred followers in January, after having lost several thousand from Oct – Dec ’22), and while I don’t expect that “stability” to last — Twitter just announced it’s fucking with its API services, almost certainly because it’s desperate for cash and Musk is under the delusion that access to API is going to be a profit center for him, rather than another reason for people and businesses to leave — it makes the point that Twitter’s collapse is looking more like a drawn-out deflation than a sudden crash.

I mentioned that I was planning to post less on Twitter in 2023 and actually I’ve managed that so far: In January I tweeted less than half of what I tweeted in December. It doesn’t seem to have done me any harm to tweet less, in terms of engagement with what I did tweet, so, yeah, I’ll try to keep at that.

2. Aside from Twitter the place I’m posting most is my personal Facebook account, which I keep private and “friend” only folks that I know in the real world. I tend to think of it as a “backstage” online area for me, since everywhere else (including here) is open to the world, so there is some iteration of public persona at play. The Facebook page has, well, less of that. I don’t let it all hang out there — there is no place online that is truly private, and I never say anything anywhere online without the expectation that it might show up in public, in bold print, with spotlights on it. But the dynamic is different and one I find increasingly enjoyable.

Which I admit is unexpected; honestly, if you’d told me a couple years ago that I would find Facebook the most enjoyable of my social media spaces, I would have looked at you like you just sprouted tentacles out of your face. But here we are. It helps that I don’t talk politics at all there; I do “kids, cats, careers” instead. I do enough politics everywhere else. It’s okay to have one place where I don’t.

3. And after those two… well, I post on Mastodon a few times a week, Instagram about once a week and on Post every couple of weeks. Spoutible, which is actually the closest thing to a Twitter clone, UI-wise, just came out. I signed up for it, but it’s so slammed with starting-up woes that I’m not expecting to get a real bead on its usability for weeks at least. I’m posting at the various places to keep a hand in and to keep options open, and I’m happy to do it and to see where these sites land, in terms of community and usability.

At the same time, it’s a little enervating to try to keep up with all of them, and there’s a real dissipation of conversation and community that comes from picking up online media stakes and heading somewhere else. I like the back-and-forth of things that I had at Twitter; that’s harder to come by in other places. Mastodon is closest in terms of it, because it’s been around longer and has a larger userbase (and I have the most followers there), but even there it’s a little off-kilter for me and I have to work at the conversational flow more. This is a “me” problem, not a Mastodon problem, to be clear; Mastodon is doing its own thing and has done so for years now. But it’s still a problem.

4. I think we’re in a real moment of change for social media, where some older brands are beginning to sunset and some newer ones are going to come up. But the feeling I get now is that this change is going to take longer than I (and I think others) initially expected, and that 2023 is going to end up being a transitional year with no sharp breaks between the now-old-line sites, and the new ones coming up. I’m half excited and half dreading this, because change has to be endured, whether one is looking forward to it or not.

Fortunately, as noted, I still have this place. It just keeps going. Hello! Glad you’re here.

— JS

The Big Idea: S.B. Divya

Today — finally! — we tackle the actual meaning of life! No one has ever done this before in the history of the world! Or, perhaps, no one has done it quite like S.B. Divya is doing here, in this Big Idea for her novel Meru.

S.B. DIVYA:

What if consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like mass or spin? This is the question posed by a branch of philosophy called panpsychism, and I first came across it while listening to Philip Goff on the Mindscape podcast. I was instantly fascinated by the idea.

I began college as a physics major (as did half the incoming undergraduate class at Caltech), but after a couple years, I decided to shift away from the cosmic unknowns to a more local mystery: the brain. I ended up designing my own major with the computational neuroscience department, and one of my advisors was Christof Koch, who has written multiple books on the topic of consciousness. Needless to say, it’s a topic that fascinated me then and continues to do so today.

Panpsychism the way Philip Goff sees it lies at the perfect intersection of physics and the mind–in other words, catnip for someone with my interests. Can we build a systematic model of the universe such that everything in it has a degree of consciousness? Can we predict emergent macro properties in brains that don’t exist in, for example, rocks? If so, then not everything conscious has intelligence or agency or is even alive. So naturally I had to ask, what is life? How do we define a living thing vs. a nonliving thing, especially in the context of fundamental properties?

These are big, weighty philosophical and scientific questions, and I wanted to have fun with them. I love exploring ideas in my science fiction, so I decided to answer these questions for myself, which is why my novel Meru starts out with two short lists: The Axioms of Life, and The Principles of Conscious Beings. I used these to set up a world that’s over a thousand years in our future, where panpsychism has gone from the realm of philosophical speculation to practical science.

How would a society of humans–and our genetically engineered post-human descendants–interact with a universe in which everything has a certain amount of consciousness? For one, I decided (rather optimistically, I admit) that people would respect nonliving things much more than they do today. In a way, they’re trying to follow the rule of first, do no harm, though it’s more of a do the least harm possible. In this future society, people minimize their impacts on everything from plants to planets. They don’t discriminate based on size or intelligence or physical ability. And most of all, they try to espouse a post-necessity mentality rather than the post-scarcity (or abundance) model that forms the modern utopia.

In order to accomplish this, the post-humans live in outer space. Not on Death Stars or mining stations–these people are biologically adapted to hard vacuum. They have only a few permanent structures and possessions. Meanwhile, the humans have voluntarily confined themselves to living on Earth because it’s the least harmful approach (and they already botched the terraforming of Mars several centuries earlier).

All of this provides the setup for the story, which features a human, a post-human, and a planet that’s uniquely suitable to human life–a rare find. Conflicts ensue (with minimal violence because that would go against the Principles), but everyone in this world acts in accordance with the natural laws of panpsychism. They don’t question it any more than you and I would doubt the existence of electricity.

Do I believe in this particular philosophy? Not really. I didn’t drink my own Kool-Aid, but I would like to believe it. Modern society has doubled down on ideas like human exceptionalism and expansionism, and I think we could do with a course correction before we exploit or annihilate everything in our way. It’ll take some radical events to make the kind of large-scale paradigm shifts that I go for in the novel, but perhaps a rethinking of the fundamental laws of physics would set us on the right path. Until that happens, I’ll settle for the world of science fiction.
—-

MERU: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Mysterious Galaxy

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

A Crumbl Cookies Location Opened Up 45 Minutes Away From Me So Obviously I Had To Go Get Some

Athena ScalziHello, everyone, and welcome to my second post over Crumbl Cookies! You may remember my post from October where I tried them for the first time while in Minneapolis. I hadn’t gotten the chance to try them again until recently, because a new location popped up not too far away from me. It is far enough away that I won’t eat them all the time, though, which is good.

I was planning to get a 6-pack so I could try all their flavors, but two of the flavors this week were ones I’d already had. As per usual, they always have their milk chocolate chip, and this week they had the Pink Sugar again. I’ve been seeing a lot of people online saying they basically always have the Pink Sugar, so I decided to go with the 4-pack box.

Four cookies in a row in a box. The one furthest left is a beige cookie, the top is covered in a thick swirl of light brown colored icing. The second to the left is a super dark brown, basically black cookie, with chocolate cookie crumbles and white chocolate chips. The second to the right cookie is another beige colored cookie, with blueberry muffin streusel on top. Finally, the rightmost cookie actually looks more like a tart than a cookie, and is filled with a thick white filling topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a slice of lime.

Here we have, Churro, Chocolate Cookies & Cream, Blueberry Muffin, and Key Lime Pie.

I asked my parents to try them with me, and my dad agreed but my mom said she would pass. Then she ended up taking a bite of them all, anyways. Classic.

We started with the Churro one, because my dad is a churro fanatic. The cookie aspect of this cookie was pretty good, it was like a snickerdoodle, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, with a rich, thick cinnamon buttercream that was super indulgent. It was definitely good, very cinnamon-y, but for me there was an odd sort of saltiness underneath all the sweetness that was kind of weird. Still yummy, though!

We just went down the line after that, so the Chocolate Cookies & Cream was next. This one was nothing special. It just tasted like an average chocolate cookie, and the chocolate cookie pieces on top didn’t really add anything. Honestly, it tasted more like a brownie. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good Brookie every now and again, but this one just wasn’t doing it for me.

Thirdly, we have the Blueberry Muffin. This cookie has blueberries baked in, and then has a blueberry muffin streusel on top. The cookie itself was very scone-like, as my dad put it. Something about the texture made it much less like a cookie, not at all like a muffin top, and more like a scone than anything. It tasted great, though! As for the topping, to me it was weirdly dry. Like when you bit into it it turned into dust that kinda fell apart and got crumbs everywhere. It was a little hard to eat without making a mess, but that might just be a me problem. Loved the taste, though.

Finally, the Key Lime Pie, which my dad insists is just a tart and not a cookie at all. I can’t really argue with him, as the description on the website doesn’t even say “cookie” in it like all the other five do. It really is just handheld key lime pie. And it’s delicious! Personally, I’m a huge fan of graham cracker crust, and I love key lime pie anyway, so there was nothing not to like here. I will say, if you’re a fan of a very tart or citrusy key lime pie, this one may not be for you, as it’s quite sweet, with just a hint of tartness. Though, I’m sure if you squeezed the lime on top it would add some acidity to cut through the thick filling.

All in all, I really enjoyed this week’s flavors. My dad says that his theory on Crumbl Cookies is that they are just other desserts masquerading as cookies. A churro, a key lime pie, a blueberry muffin? None of these things are cookies! Well, whatever they are, they’re pretty dang good!

My dad’s rankings are as follows: Churro, Key Lime Pie, Blueberry Muffin, and Chocolate Cookies & Cream.

My rankings are: Blueberry Muffin, a tie for Key Lime Pie and Churro, and Chocolate Cookies & Cream.

My mom said: They were all fuckin’ delicious.

There you have it folks! Which one looks best to you? Are you a fan of key lime pie as a dessert? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Dan Rice

It’s been said that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Author Dan Rice is exploring the topic of unwanted notoriety in his newest novel, and the second installment in his Allison Lee Chronicles, The Blood of Faeries.

DAN RICE:

Allison Lee, the eponymous protagonist of The Allison Lee Chronicles, has her first brush with fame in Dragons Walk Among Us after being blinded during an unprovoked assault and having her eyesight restored by an experimental medical procedure. She didn’t like the notoriety one bit. All she wanted was to fly under the radar, although she didn’t mind being recognized as a brilliant photographer.

Little did Allison realize being known as the girl with the robotic eyes would be only her first brush with fame. Allison becomes caught up in an adventure to save the planet from an invasion of aliens after having her abilities as a shapeshifter unlocked. In a world where 90% of the population has a recording device in the palm of their hand, she becomes first an Internet sensation and then a global celebrity in The Blood of Faeries. Websites track her movements, and the press hounds her for sound bites. Protesters stalk her, some celebrating her as a savior while others condemn her as the daughter of Satan.

Allison doesn’t want anything to do with fame. She wants to survive high school and be a teenager, like how Jennifer Walters wants to be a high-powered lawyer, not a super-powered one in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. However, that’s the conundrum. Allison’s supernatural abilities are out in the open and inseparable from her public identity. Like the Hollywood actors of today, she can try going out in public incognito. But no disguise is foolproof, and constantly worrying about being recognized is exhausting.

Unsurprisingly, the government takes an interest in Allison for her paranormal talents. She is followed by a security detail she doesn’t feel she needs. She’s far stronger than ordinary humans, after all. But she is told the bodyguards are more to protect the crazies from her than the other way around. Still, she chafes at being followed everywhere. Sometimes she wants nothing more than to ditch the security, but she can’t. Not if she wants to live in a civilized society and attend high school. She is tempted to tell the government, the protesters, and everyone else in her business to go to hell, but that’s the stuff of dreams. That is unless she’s willing to live as a hermit on a deserted island like Hulk does in an episode of She-Hulk. Allison most definitely does not desire that.

The side effects are some of the most fascinating aspects of a character gaining superhuman abilities. Fame is just one of many possible outcomes. Of course, one could always try to keep a low profile and hide their skills but is that really possible in a world obsessed with social media, where virtually anyone can be recording anybody at any time? I argue not easily. That is unless you’re willing to live off the grid as a recluse, and most people are not.


The Blood of Faeries: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks

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

Ranking My RPG Stats

Over on Twitter last night, Gail Simone asked:

John Scalzi

This is a fun little exercise to consider, and while I answered this briefly over on that service (because everything on Twitter still needs to be brief), I thought it would be fun to rank them out over here in more detail. I won’t be offering a d20 number for each, because I’m not nearly objective enough for such gradations, but I think I can roughly guess where each of these attributes stand in a general ranking. So:

1: INTELLIGENCE. Look, I’m a pretty smart guy. Also, I have tons of information, useless and otherwise, rattling around in my skull. Up until the rise of Internet search engines, I would semi-frequently get 2am calls from drunken friends, asking me to settle bar bets about random shit, because there was a rather-better-than-average chance I would know the answer (within an order of approximation serviceable for bar bets). Additionally, I am usually fairly quick-witted, and pretty good at communicating ideas and concepts to others. The downside is that I am still occasionally guilty of doing “-splaining” of various sorts, but that’s a function of wisdom, I suppose, not intelligence. Point is, this is easily my top stat, and I think people would look at me funny if I suggested otherwise.

2. CHARISMA. I am, at best, average-looking, and my “at best” becomes more infrequent the older I get. But beyond that, I can be pretty charming, engaging and persuasive. I can work a room pretty well, make people happy to see me, and generally make a good impression. Also, and no one was more surprised to learn this than me, I am a decent manager of humans, partly because I take time to understand folks and use that knowledge to (eventually) get everyone harmoniously pointed in the right direction. Because I am a socialized introvert, there is a time limit on how long I can do all these things, and after a few hours I usually need to run away and take a nap. But while I’m on, I’m on.

3. WISDOM. Wisdom is the Dunning-Kruger stat in the real world, by which I mean people who will tell you they are very wise are probably fooling themselves, and people who actually have a decent amount of wisdom are wise to the fact that they are, shall we say, deeply fallible across several categories. My own take on myself is that younger iterations of me believed they were wiser than the current iteration of me does. I know a lot of my own personal failings, and I’m aware there are probably more than a few I’ve missed. That said, what I do have a lot of, at age 53, is experience, and experience is a good teacher, even if all it tells you is how much of what you’ve learned isn’t applicable anymore. Mostly as I get older I realize that when in doubt, the right thing to do is to be kind. Is that wisdom? Debatable, but it means I’m not a raging dickhead all the time, and I will take that.

4. CONSTITUTION. I think I have a very average amount of constitution, and it could be better; I was exercising a lot a year or two back and that helped, but I fell off recently and that’s been catching up with me now. Be that as it may, I am mostly healthy, with no major issues other than laziness. I don’t get sick very often, and when I do (last year’s COVID brain befuddlement notwithstanding) I usually just take a 20-hour nap and my body bounces back. I’m mostly okay, you know? Could be better! But okay.

5. STRENGTH. I also think I have a very average amount of strength for a man of my age, build, and life activity. It could be better but that would require effort, and, ugh, effort, whhhhyyyyyy. Also, bluntly, when feats of strength are required at the Scalzi Compound, they usually fall to Krissy, who is, no joke, just freakishly strong and thinks nothing of the fact. Several years ago some Internet wits were trying to negg me by suggesting my wife was stronger than I was; my response to that was a) it’s not a neg, she absolutely is, and b) she is probably stronger than they are, too. I think it’s awesome my wife is a fuckin’ Amazon, personally. I’m perfectly happy to have her be the strong one in the family.

6. DEXTERITY. I mean, I once cut myself on yogurt. This is definitely my dump stat. There is a reason that the day I turned 40 I started training myself to grab for the railings on whatever set of stairs I was about to use. I have no illusions that they will be the death of me if I don’t.

How would you rank your own RPG stats?

— JS

The Kaiju Preservation Society Wins a 2023 Alex Award

John Scalzi

Last week I was asked to participate in a Zoom meeting about PR stuff, but when I signed in what was really going on was a bunch of librarians telling me The Kaiju Preservation Society had won an Alex Award this year. Which, I’m not going to lie, was a much better Zoom meeting to have than a general chat about PR stuff.

For those not up on the Alex, it’s given annually by the American Library Association to “ten books published in the adult market that have special value for teens as well “the ten best adult books that appeal to teen audiences.” Basically, these are the books librarians felt really good recommending to teens this year. And Kaiju is one of them!

Here’s the full list:

  • “A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting,” by Sophie Irwin, published by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House;
  • “Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution,” by R. F. Kuang, published by Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers;
  • “Chef’s Kiss,” written by Jarrett Melendez, illustrated by Danica Brine, published by Oni Press, an imprint of Oni-Lion Forge Publishing Group;
  • “Daughter of the Moon Goddess,” by Sue Lynn Tan, published by Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers;
  • “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” by Jennette McCurdy, published by Simon & Schuster;
  • “Solito: A Memoir,” by Javier Zamora, published by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House;
  • “The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.,” written and illustrated by James Spooner, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers;
  • “The Kaiju Preservation Society,” by John Scalzi, published by Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group;
  • “True Biz,” by Sara Nović, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House;
  • “Wash Day Diaries,” written by Jamila Rowser, illustrated by Robyn Smith, published by Chronicle Books.

That’s an excellent group of books, if I do say so myself.

This is actually the second time I’ve won an Alex, the first time for Lock In in 2015. Then it was just an announcement; now it’s a surprise Zoom call, and, I’m told a medal that will be sent to me. Which is awesome, I love getting actual award bauble.

Congratulations to my fellow Alex winners!

— JS

Black & White Concert Photos Are Totally the Best

Jonathan Coulton
John Scalzi

When I was on the JoCo Cruise last year I took my usual literally thousands of photos and intended to post a curated selection of the ones that weren’t blurry, as I usually do. But I went straight from the 2022 cruise into my Kaiju Preservation Society book tour (seriously; I had one day at home between the cruise and the tour, just enough time to do laundry and pet my cats and dog), and by the time I got back the photos had sort of fallen off my radar of things to do. It wasn’t until today that, at the request of Storm DiCostanzo, who wanted to see them, I finally started going through the photos from last March to pick out the ones I wanted to upload. While I was picking the photos and editing them in Photoshop, I also decided to do black and white versions of each of the pictures I selected.

Paul and Storm.

Why? Because black and white is kind of inherently nifty, and also, black and white gives you a lot of options to save photos that might be a bit, uh, messy in color. This is particularly the case with photos taken during a concert, which has tricky lighting conditions to begin with — it’s very dark in the theater, except for the stage, where it is very bright, which is exactly the kind of contrast that confuses a camera and makes for blurry and/or over-exposed photos.

Janet Varney

Modern photoediting can deal with a lot of this – I have an array of Photoshop plugins now that can sharpen and denoise photos to such an extent that previously unworkable photos are now salvageable – but for the photos where the colors are too tricky to work with or the image is so contrasted-out that a color version is never going to look great, switching the photo to black and white to work on it in that (lack of) color space can give you excellent and sometimes surprising results. Mistakes and shortcomings are suddenly transformed into aesthetic choices.

Jim Boggia.

Even when the picture looks perfectly good in color, black and white gives you the opportunity to focus on some things that tend to get overlooked in color photography: textures and contrasts and details that might otherwise elude the eye show up to great effect in black and white. It’s like you’ve taken two images with the same photo; you make different choices in the editing and the two versions of the photo tell different but related stories.

Aimee Mann

Now, contrary to the implication one might get from the headline above, I don’t think black and white is inherently better than color photography. Each has their own strengths. Some photos look better in color. But again, in a situation like concert photography, black and white photography offers another avenue to take a photo that might not fully work in color, and make it shine in monochrome. And doing a black and white version of the photos I’m selecting, even the ones that work just fine in color, is a good practice for me, to find out what’s in the picture I might otherwise miss. It’s fun and educational. And I get some cool photos out of it, too.

Backstage at the Joco Cruise opening concert.

— JS

Winter Meander

I downloaded a new synth and fiddled a bit with it today, and this is what came out. As the title implies, it’s a bit of a meander rather than a proper composition, but it was still fun to put together. At some point I’m going to some actual songs, with, like, lyrics and stuff. Until then, here you go.

— JS

A Gentle Reminder

John Scalzi

There’s a current kerfuffle in the speculative fiction space and some folks are wondering why certain authors/notables in that space haven’t chimed in (this has not been directed at me, as I’m not in that particular space, but some others I know of). This is a good time to link back to this, which I wrote several years ago about a not-entirely-dissimilar situation that did involve me, or at least, involved people expecting it to involve me. The basic outlines of what I wrote there apply to other people as well, when their public response to a blow-up is asked for, and sometimes, demanded.

The short version is to please remember that when you’re asking someone to respond to some event, they may not want to or be able to, for all sorts of reasons, and maybe keep in mind that there’s an actual person on the other end of your request, trying to process things in real time along with everybody else. What you do with this reminder is up to you, of course.

— JS

Where is My Mind

I’ve had a ridiculously good week this week, enough so that it’s done my brain in just a bit. Some of it you know, some of it you will know soon, and some of it I won’t be able to tell you for a while. Just know I’m happy but mildly discombobulated at the moment. It’s good! But, yeah. Brain dead in the best way. I’ll get myself back together soon.

In the mean time, here’s Postmodern Jukebox, Featuring Allison Young, doing some entirely appropriate Pixies.

— JS

I Cleaned Out My Bathroom Today (Yes, That’s Really What This Post Is About)

Athena ScalziI’ve mentioned on here a few times that I have a bit of a hoarding problem, and I really do mean that genuinely. My life is seriously impacted by it, and every once in a while I get a super strong urge to fix it. That feeling struck today, so, I took a big step and cleaned out my bathroom, which contained years worth of stuff.

Tons of expired skincare in the back of drawers, bobby pins from freshman homecoming, perfumes I hate the smell of, thirteen packs of that floss the dentist gives you at your checkups, and more. So much stuff I thought that maybe one day I’d have a use for. But I realized that this “maybe” mentality is ruining my life.

Maybe I’ll need that extra nail file some day, I think as it sits there for four years, untouched. Maybe I need to keep this product in the box, and keep the original packaging, as it expires two years later and was never even removed from the box. Maybe I’ll use this moisturizer again, even though I bought a new one specifically because I didn’t like this one. Maybe I need this backup comb in case I misplace my three hairbrushes.

It was just… so much. And so tiring. My bathroom looked like a tornado went through it, with tiny tubes of toothpaste scattered around, four different facial cleansers on the counter, a pretty jar for Q-tips that sat empty because I never remembered to fill it with Q-tips.

But, today, I cleaned off every shelf and cleaned out every drawer, and threw away two trash bags worth of stuff. And it hurt me. It genuinely hurt my soul to throw away makeup I wore in college, unopened things I’d gotten in subscription boxes, products I’d received as Christmas gifts I never really touched because I didn’t want to use them up since someone I cared about gave it to me.

My shelves were so dusty, and all the products that sat on those shelves were just as dusty, proving that I never touched them or used them. They had to go. It was time, y’know?

I’m happy I did it, and it honestly only took me a little over an hour. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to doing it, but I did. And that progress is honestly substantial for me, because for some reason, there’s a mental toll that comes with throwing it all away.

It was hard in the moment, but I feel so much better now. And I’m actually proud of myself, which is a really, really good feeling.

-AMS

A Mildly Disappointing Snowpocalypse

John Scalzi

We were told for the last couple of days that today we could expect anywhere from four to eight inches of snow, and that we should probably all just stay in our houses and hunker down while the stuff blanketed the earth (and roads, and electrical wires, etc). So we did — I mean, I would have anyway, I work here and don’t actually leave the house much when I’m not traveling — and prepared for a hefty winter onslaught.

What we got was anticlimactic: an inch or two, and not even enough to completely cover the lawn. The snow we have is slushy and heavy, and a temperature drop later in the day means that slush will turn to ice and make the roads a menace. So I don’t want to completely discount the weather, or how it will mess with getting around (and possibly the electrical, if the ice weighs down the wires). But there’s a difference between being told you might have to dig yourself out, and whatever this is.

I’ll still take it over a snowpocalypse! I don’t actually like being trapped! But, yeah. Mildly disappointing all the same.

— JS

The Great Leveler

The house that we bought on the property adjacent to our church is no more; neither is the rubble of that house when it was torn down. What’s left now is dirt, laid over the former basement space of the house by the machinery you see here, and soon to be blanketed in snow thanks to the storm that will hit overnight. But it was good to see the expanse of the property, and get a sense of what we have to work with in the spring, when we decide what to do with it (we already know we want parking in back and a garden in front; I mean the specifics). For one thing, it gets more sun than I thought it would, and it’s winter. That’s useful for planning.

It’s been a good day, folks.

— JS

HBO Max Subtitles Need To Get With the Program

Athena ScalziI, like many others, have been watching The Last of Us on HBO Max. I have also been watching it with subtitles, and I’m shocked at how garbage they are. You would think that such a huge, expensive, and widely-anticipated show would cater better to its subtitle-using audience, but you’d be severely disappointed.

What do I mean by “bad” subtitles, though? How can subtitles be bad, and what would good ones look like? I’m glad you asked! I was frustrated by the subtitles for The Last of Us, because they left out entire words on several occasions, they don’t indicate who is speaking, or in what tone anyone says anything, they don’t include things like sighing, gasping, exclaiming, or include any background conversation. They also include no SFX, which means no “monster screeching”, “zombie clicking”, “guns shooting”, “explosions”! How are you going to leave out the zombie noises entirely, in a zombie show?!

Aside from all this, I’m also upset about the lack of choices when it comes to the subtitles themselves. Unlike Amazon Prime, on HBO Max you can’t choose the size or transparency of the subtitles. Amazon Prime gives you four choices of font size, as well as the choice to make the background of the subtitles opaque or solid. These are important aspects of subtitles! And there’s zero choice of this on HBO Max.

So, I started to wonder if other shows/movies on HBO Max were just as bad, or if it was just their newest, most popular, biggest budget show that had shitty subtitles.

I turned on Teen Titans to see how they compared. For Teen Titans, I was surprised by the fact that the subtitles were all in caps lock. Why would you ever put subtitles in nothing but caps?! It also did not indicate tone, who was speaking, etc.

Next, I tried The Book of Life. This one was actually a little better. It indicated when someone was singing rather than speaking by putting a music note before the line, included background conversation, and showed when a character sighed, grunted, etc. The subtitles on The Book of Life were weirdly delayed though, not by much, but enough that I noticed it.

Following that, I tried South Park. Again, no indication of which character was speaking, or in what tone. How are you going to watch South Park without knowing who is speaking sarcastically?! It’s important stuff!

Finally, I tried HBO Max’s big seller, Game of Thrones. At first, I was happy that it would specify who was speaking, but it was short lived, as it was completely inconsistent. Sometimes it would say who was speaking, then for the next five times someone spoke it wouldn’t. It was occasional at best. Plus, there was a huge mix of caps lock VS not caps lock. It was very strange.

All this is to say, HBO Max needs better options for their subtitles, and better ACTUAL SUBTITLES. STOP LEAVING WORDS OUT ENTIRELY.

The fact that a 100-million-dollar show has fucking garbage ass subtitles says a lot about how much they care about accessibility. People who use subtitles deserve just as good of a viewing experience as non-users, and deserve the same amount of information that non-users get. whether it be background conversation, SFX, or indication of tone.

Do fucking better, HBO.

-AMS

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