John Scalzi’s Biography

A brief introduction to me: I was born in 1969 and by 1983 it became clear to me that I had better become a writer because everything else was actual work. Fortunately, so far I’ve managed to pull this off: My first job out of college was as a film critic at the Fresno Bee newspaper in California, and I’ve been working as a writer ever since. Since 1998, I’ve been a full-time freelance writer, which is both fun and occasionally panic-inducing.

As a writer, I’ve done pretty much everything, from the previously-mentioned film reviews to corporate brochures to books. The last of these is the most “romantic” sort of writing I do (i.e., conforms to what people expect of writers), but I find the other sorts of writing that I do equally interesting in their own way. I’m not a snob when it comes to writing — work is work, and speaking from experience, doing a good feels good whether it’s from writing a book or delivering on client needs.

However, at the moment, I am primarily a book writer, writing both fiction and non-fiction. Here’s a quick bibliography:

The Rough Guide to Money Online (2000, Rough Guide Books)
The Rough Guide to the Universe (2003, Rough Guide Books)
The Book of the Dumb (2003, Portable Press)
The Book of the Dumb 2 (2004, Portable Press)
Old Man’s War (2005, Tor Books)
Agent to the Stars (2005, Subterranean Press)
The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Film (2005, Rough Guide Books)
The Ghost Brigades (2006, Tor Books)
The Android’s Dream (2006, Tor Books)
You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing (Subterranean Press, 2007)
The Last Colony (Tor Books, 2007)

Upcoming books:

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: Selected Writing, 1998 – 2008 (Subterranean Press, 2008)
The High Castle (Tor Books, 2008)

Old Man’s War, my debut novel, was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in March 2006. I was also nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author at the same time, which I won. OMW was also a finalist for the 2006 Locus Award for Best First Novel. In 2007, I was a Hugo nominee in the category of Best Fan Writer.

In addition to these books under my own name, I am a frequent contributor to books in the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series. Books in the series to which I have contributed include Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Great Lives, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Texas, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Hollywood, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Michigan, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into New Jersey and Uncle John Presents Mom’s Bathtub Reader.

Aside from books, from 2000 through 2006, I was the Chief Entertainment Media Critic for Official US Playstation Magazine, which means I wrote DVD and CD reviews for the magazine, and discussed the social and legal issues surrounding video games. I am also frequent writer for my local newspaper, the Dayton Daily News, for which I also wrote a DVD review column through early 2007. And if that’s not enough I’m also a paid blogger, working for America Online. You can see my AOL blog at By The Way, and at the Ficlets Blog.

Aside from work, I live in the small rural town of Bradford, Ohio with my wife Kristine, my daughter Athena and our pets Kodi, Lopsided Cat and Ghlaghghee (pronounced “fluffy.”). We all enjoy pie.

Publicist Guidelines

Updated 12/29/06

Interested in sending me a book, CD/DVD, video game, a press release, or any other thing in an evaluative capacity? Increasingly, I’ve found, people are. If you’re one of those people, here’s what you should know.

1. First, about this site: The Whatever is a personal blog written by John Scalzi, on which he (which is to say, I) writes about whatever he damn well feels like. These topics include: Politics, science, writing, blogging, technology, music and film, although — as mentioned — he feels free to write about other things, and often about none of those topics mentioned above for long stretches of time. Currently (December 2006) the site gets between twenty and twenty-five thousand unique visitors a day, and between thirty and forty thousand page views a day. No, I won’t verify those numbers; I’m lazy. Nevertheless, it’s true. You can see a John Scalzi bio here.

2. Yes, I will talk about stuff that gets sent to me if I find it sufficiently interesting and/or it dovetails into a topic upon which I am writing. No, I will not guarantee that I will write about whatever it is you are sending me. As a general rule I will write about something only if I like it (particularly in the fields of books and music).

3. The best way to contact me is through e-mail, at john@scalzi.com. Contacting me in other ways is usually not productive or likely to produce the response you desire. You may send me press releases or queries at that e-mail address. I do try to answer e-mail quickly, but if you do not hear from me within about three days, you may assume the answer to your query is “thanks — not interested.” However, if you prefer to think you simply got accidentally shunted into the spam filter (which to be fair is indeed quite possible — my spam filter is enthusiastic), feel free to follow-up once.

4. I place no restrictions on what you are able to query or send, but as a practical matter, the following are more likely to get my attention:

Books: In addition to discussing books here on the Whatever, I also do a weekly author interview on my America Online site, By The Way, which I promote both on AOL and here at the Whatever. I am always looking for authors to interview. All types of books are eligible for this promotion; variety here is good.

If you are not looking for an author interview but a review/note of the book, then this is the paragraph you should be interested in. In fiction, science fiction novels tend to float to the top of my reading perception (this is due to being a science fiction writer myself), so SF novels are a good bet to get my attention. I also tend to enjoy fantasy, mystery and (some) horror. Straight up literary fiction is iffy unless it’s genuinely funny. Graphic novels of all sorts are okay by me. YA fiction is also acceptable; I’ve got a kid so I’m aware of this sphere.

In non-fiction, science-related, history and humorous books are likely to be a good bet for me to talk about (if you’ve got an amusing tome of the life of Louis Pasteur, you’re golden). Current politics is iffy. Current biography, particularly of celebrities, is likely to fall down a dark hole and never be heard from again. YA non-fiction — sure, send it along. As previously mentioned, I’ve got a kid.

If you’re promoting a book from someone I know personally, it has a marginally better chance of me at least noting it. What can I say. You do for your friends.

Music: I’m open to all sorts of music. You can send CDs but pointing me at a place online where I can listen works just as well — indeed, since I find people actually want to listen to the music one’s talking about, bands/musicians that have full-length song samples online are substantially more likely to get noted here (I do not link to song excerpts. Anything less than a full song is evil and annoying).

DVDs: Up until December 2006 I was reviewing DVDs for Official US PlayStation Magazine (which is no longer in print) and the Dayton Daily News (which is still in print, but I’m not longer regularly reviewing for them). However, I am happy to note new/interesting DVDs here on the Whatever, and will occasionally write feature pieces on DVDs for newspapers and magazines. Offbeat DVDs are welcome along with the standard fare.

Video games/software: I wrote for Official US PlayStation Magazine for six years, so naturally I’m open and interested on the video game front, and in looking at other software applications. I am currently PC games/software oriented. On the Mac my gaming capabilities are limited but I’m open to other software.

Technology: Why yes, if you want to send me techn doodads to look at, I’d be happy to see them, particularly personal tech stuff like music players, handhelds and toys. Stuff that requires me to crack open my computer to install it, not so much. Include a way for me to ship your things back to you if you ever want to see them again.

Everything else: Query me, please.

5. Interviews: I currently write a weekly author interview, and could be open to interview musicians, filmmakers, game producers and other creative types. If you’re interested in securing an interview, mention this with any books, CDs, DVDs etc., you want to send along. I prefer to do e-mail interviews which would consist of me sending a set of questions along and then (if necessary and/or desired) sending a second e-mail for follow-up questions.

6. Additional Media Exposure: As I am a happily working freelance writer, it’s entirely possible I may want to cover your book/CD/DVD/video game/whatever for one of my regular outlets. However, as a general rule you should assume that the primary coverage of your product will be in the Whatever.

Any other questions, please send along an e-mail.

You may send things to:

John Scalzi
RE: Whatever Reviewing
9732 Horatio Harris Creek Road
Bradford, OH 45308

Thanks!

Disclaimer

For everyone who needs one, the following disclaimer:

1. Everything here is my opinion, and mine alone. (Except for comment threads, which are other people’s opinions, and theirs alone.)
2. Occasionally, I am completely full of shit.
3. Well, all right, fine, more than occasionally.
4. On occasion I will also opine on things I know little or nothing about.
5. Which is fine, because the US Constitution says I can.
6. So there.
7. I’m not interested in being fair.
8. I am occasionally petty, nasty, snappish and rude. I’m also occasionally a tremendously sweet guy. You never know which you’re going to get.
9. Unless you have been told specifically by me otherwise, no, as a matter of fact, I don’t care what you think about me or my opinions.
10. I do try to be polite when I tell you that.
11. But I can’t promise anything.
12. This site is operated by me for the purposes of my own amusement, and exists and updates entirely at my whim. If I decide to go away for a day, or a week, or forever, then I will.

I think that’s it for now.

The Hudson and Visiting the Big Apple

I’ve been rather dreadful about updating the last couple of weeks, and the chances are excellent I will continue to be this week as well. My excuse? Work, baby. Freelance writing is like that: Some weeks you have nothing to do and some weeks you simply never stop working. Last week was one of those weeks (as will be this coming one), compounded by the fact that the usual work I could spread out over a week I had to compress into three days because I was traveling on business. Yes, to all my New York friends, I was in town on Thursday and Friday. Sorry I didn’t let you know. But I was in town to work. Here’s how you know how serious I was about working: I actually stayed in a hotel, rather than crashing at a friend’s place. I knew I wouldn’t have time for actual fun this trip, and staying at someone’s place when you have no real ability to spend any time with them is kind of a jerky thing to do.

My accommodations were interesting, however: I stayed at the Hudson, which is one of the painfully hip hotels owned by Ian Schrager (history buffs will remember him as the less publicly obnoxious co-owner of Studio 54). You can tell how hip it is because it doesn’t actually have a sign outside to let you know where it is — the implication being that if you don’t know where it is, they’re not entirely sure they want you to stay there. I personally cheated in locating it: I knew its address, and the buildings on either side of it had their address on display. Process of elimination works every time. Also, I had been informed that it was a hip and trendy place, so I figured that the chartreuse glass wall acting as a door was something someone might see as hip (or a homage to Tupperware colors of days gone by).

The public areas of the Hudson were indeed crawling with groovy-looking Manhattanites (at least those who come out on Thursday nights at 8:45, which is when I checked in). But considering I was up since 3am due to traveling, I didn’t bother with any of those and went straight up to my room, which revealed itself to be more or less the dimensions of a walk-in closet. If you’ve never been there, you may think I’m joking, but I can back this up — information I’ve read about the place says that most rooms are about 150 square feet, and at least some of that space is allocated for a bathroom (think: linen closet). Most of the space that remained was taken up by the futon bed; it was fortunate that everything I brought to New York could be stored in my backpack, because there was no room for anything else. In short, it was almost exactly like my “coffin single” dormitory room in college, except with nicer wood paneling and fewer pizza cartons on the floor.

This is not exactly a criticism of the Hudson’s rooms, exactly. For who I was (a relatively small guy with who brought one change of clothes) and what I did (went straight to sleep), the room was nice and functional, and when I woke up, everything was at less than arm’s length (and the bathroom, which was cramped even for me, nonetheless had admirable water pressure for the shower, which is really all I want out of a hotel bathroom). So I had a very nice Hudson Hotel experience.

On the other hand, were I taller than 5 foot 8, or traveling with someone else, or planning to stay for more than one night, thereby requiring some place to put a suitcase, and I didn’t give a crap about hip Manhattanites loitering in the lobby, I think I’d probably book a room at a Best Western or something, should such a chain actually be allowed to exist on the isle of Manhattan. I realize this destroys whatever small margin of hipness I may have had, but, you know. I already live in rural Ohio and drive the same crappy 1989 Ford Escort I drove 10 years ago. Hipness is not a thing I have been exactly striving to achieve these days.

I’m really beginning to love New York, though. It’s partly because of the extreme compare and contrast with my usual surroundings; when you spend most of your days having to travel 11 miles to get a Big Mac (yes, really), the idea of popping down to the corner to get takeout sushi is just about the coolest thing ever (I won’t eat sushi in Ohio, incidentally, since I have a rule never to eat raw fish unless I’m within 50 miles of a coastline. You may think this is a stupid rule, but then, I dare you to consume a plate of raw fish where I live). I also simply dig the fact that New York never seems to run out of people. They just keep coming, night and day — millions of busy people walking fast, wearing black and talking on cell phones as they navigate. Compare this to the scene outside my home office window, in which I watched my neighbor drive his lawn tractor down his driveway to pick up his mail.

Part of my admiration for New York is of course rooted in the fact I don’t live there — I just show up now and then, just long enough to enjoy all the walking and takeout sushi without having to hang around and, say, watch the garbage bags piled several feet high on the sidewalk slowly marinate themselves into the pavement. Not to mention (as I so often do) that my mortgage here would translate into sufficient rent in New York to get a basement studio roughly the size of my previously mentioned hotel room — not exactly the best conditions for a growing family.

But that’s fine with me. I like the idea that I think of going to New York as a fun treat, even when all I’m doing while I’m there is working ten hours straight on a corporate messaging campaign. God knows it doesn’t work in reverse. People in New York are appropriately envious of my five acre yard, but when I start mentioning that the nearest department store to me is almost exactly the same distance as the length of Manhattan, and that the department store is a Wal-Mart, they start scanning my biceps for NASCAR-related tattoos and edging toward the nearest door. I don’t blame them in the least.

A Threat to World Peace

The European edition of Time magazine put up a poll on its Web site asking its readers which country in the world was the greatest danger to world peace: North Korea, Iraq or the United States. As of this second (8:53 am ET), 423,618 votes are in, and 85.6% of them say that it’s the US that’s the greatest danger — Iraq trails slightly at 7.8%, while North Korea gets 6.6% of the vote. It should be noted that this is one of those unscientific polls, which means that only people who choose to respond participate, so it’s not a random and statistically valid sample. But as this article from Time Europe goes on to show, even if you did run a statistically valid poll, you’d mostly likely get the same answer.

Well, and it’s true: Strictly speaking, America is the greatest threat to world peace right now. Neither the government of Iraq nor of North Korea has any desire to start a war, after all; both governments would vastly prefer to be left alone in peace to build massive palaces and fire up nuclear reactors and treat their people like bugs. Only the United States, of the three, is actively planning to attack anyone; barring a massive stroke on Saddam’s part, there seems to be very little that will keep the US military from tromping through the deserts of western Iraq whenever Bush gives the word. America’s government intends to wage war imminently; when one is at war, one is not at peace; therefore, the most imminent threat to world peace is the United States. This shouldn’t be in dispute.

What is in dispute is whether peace is genuinely the optimal state at this point in time. As I’ve mentioned before, and leaving aside the issue of North Korea, I’m pretty much of the opinion that Dubya’s fundamental reasons for wanting a war in Iraq right now are pretty bad. I believe he’s wanting a war for one part personal reasons (Saddam tried to have his daddy killed), another part personal reasons (to distract from the fact that his domestic programs frighten everyone who cannot buy their way out of trouble and/or believes that Jesus doesn’t want you to have any privacy from an authoritarian government), and yet a third part personal reasons (to hide the fact that his economic plan could have been no less coherently written by goats with crayons tied to their hooves).

But on the other hand Saddam’s ouster is more than a decade overdue, dating back to the first Gulf War, and while the interim peace in Iraq has served Saddam well, it has been of no real utility to anyone else. The people of Iraq have not been well served by peace; they’ve been stuck with a ruler whose squabbles with the UN over the years have kept them sick and starving, and whose own authoritarian rule has kept them afraid and in danger in their own country. The UN certainly hasn’t been well-served by the peace; the fact that Saddam jerked it around for years on inspections (which only resumed when the US rattled its sabers) dramatically undercut the body’s effectiveness and credibility.

The United States hasn’t been at all well-served by the peace, since its hard line on sanctions made it look like a big meanie (the whole “US starves children” thing) and because Saddam’s continued presence has given our current President a useful tool to keep attention away from his administration’s attempts to gouge large, meaty chunks out of the US Constitution and to provide the rich with a sort of economic land grab not seen since the 19th Century.

I’m not especially for a war; I’m not keen on getting our troops in harm’s direct path. But I’m also not at all for this peace either. I don’t see any reason to suffer Saddam in power any longer, as the costs of his personal peace are ruinous to everyone but him. “Peace” is not an absolute good, especially when all that can be said about it is that it is an absence of war. And this particular peace, in this particular place, needs to go.

It may be that the most effective way of doing that is a war, and that the result could be a better peace, one in which the Iraqi people don’t fear their government and have a better chance for prosperity, and the people of the United States can refocus on the damage that’s being done while their attention is being pulled somewhere else. That’s an omelet for which it’s worth breaking some eggs — hopefully more of Saddam’s eggs than our own.

If that’s what we have a chance to gain, I don’t mind if our country is a threat to world peace.

Whoosh

Our house is at the highest point in a couple of miles around us — which is not to say that it’s all that high up (this is Ohio), merely higher up than everything around us. also, our land is fairly treeless, and while there’s a windbreak of trees to our east and direct north, from the northwest (which is where the wind usually comes from), it’s pretty much a clear shot from our house to the north pole. The upshot of this is that when there are high winds, we usually know about it pretty clearly. Most of the time we lose a few shingles, which is no big deal, but the other night we had a slightly stronger wind than usual, and we lost something else — about half the railing off the front porch. Apparently the wind just whipped around our house with sufficient strength to pull one of the railing post right out, which took the railing on either side out with it. That’s some wind.

The good news is that there appears to be no major structural damage — the roof wasn’t injured, just the post and the railing. On the other hand, you know, that’s still going to be a fairly pricey fixit job. We had a contractor out yesterday with the measuring tape and the estimating and whatnot. We’re waiting to hear what the damage will be on the damage we have. This right on top of the new computer and incident involving out furnace, its blower and a distressing lack of blowing on what was the coldest night in a year convinces me that the universe is under the impression that I have more money than I need right now. Well, note to universe: Quit it. Go bug Ted Turner. It’s hard for me to concentrate when the forces of entropy are conspiring to bankrupt me several hundred dollars at a time.

***

Speaking of the universe, I got a note from my editor that The Rough Guide to the Universe is finally off to the printers. I got the note the same day scientists announced all-new information about the age of the universe and the unlocking of several big, big mysteries surrounding the big bang and the fate of the universe, which I found perfectly ironic. Fortunately, nothing in the announcement makes the information in the book obsolete, it just refined much of what’s in there.

This makes me happier than you could know, since the writing of this book was made harder by the fact that every couple of weeks, astronomers would pop up with something that would require me to do a rewrite to a greater or lesser extent (this is one reason why the chapter on Mars took three months). Now, as long as they don’t discover life anywhere else in the universe between now and May (which is when it hits the stores here in the US), I’ll be fine. It really goes against my instincts not to pray for major scientific discoveries, mind you. But it’s only for a couple of months. That’s not too much to ask.

Oscar Predictions

Update: A newspaper article on blogging in which I am quoted is up on NorthJersey.com. Here’s the link. Before I get in trouble with the blogoverse, let me take a moment to clarify this paragraph, since it will surely get someone’s back up, somewhere:

“Scalzi claims to be one of the world’s first bloggers. He says he started in that antediluvian epoch before the term “blog” existed – 1995. Back then, a blogger needed to know HTML, the Internet’s computer code, to create and maintain a blog.”

Now, I did start maintaining a personal site in 1995, to which I updated on a regular basis, and I did wrote a blog-esque column on it about technology: The Scalzi Report (I quit doing it after I got hired by AOL). And of course I started writing the Whatever in 1998, which is somewhat before most “blogs” got going.

I don’t recall saying anything along the lines of “I was one of the world’s first bloggers” — considering I prefer not to be called a blogger at all, it doesn’t sound like something I would say — but I do recall saying to the reporter that I’d been writing on my Web site for a long time, certainly long before most people who consider themselves bloggers, and I guess the reporter simply defined blogging as “writing regularly on your Web site,” which is as good a definition as any, I suppose. Anyway, before y’all slag me for me for the quote, there’s my comment on it.

Now then, on to the Oscar predictions.

This will be the eleventh year I make Oscar predictions — and remember, I was a full-time film critic and currently review DVDs, so I’m a professional! Don’t try this at home. Anyway, here’s how I expect it to go down on March 23rd. These are my educated guesses now; I’ll make a revise closer to the actual Oscar date. Typically in the past I get five out of six in the major categories (I tend to flub the supporting actor or actress category).

Best Picture — Nominees: Chicago; Gangs of New York; The Hours; Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; The Pianist

You can toss out the Two Towers because the film isn’t nominated in any other major category, including Best Director. Next to go is The Pianist, which is brilliant but depressing and it’s not my feeling the Academy wants to be depressing this year (the real world is too depressing right now). Next out, The Hours, which is awfully literary. This leaves Gangs of New York and Chicago. Gangs of New York has a reasonably good chance because it’s going to win the Oscar in another important category (to which I’ll get soon), but its your typical Scorsese thing to the extent that it is incredibly violent and has thugs as its main characters. This leaves Chicago, which has already done very well in the pre-Oscar awards, and which has the novelty of being a musical in an era where people like the idea of Hollywood doing musicals again (the revival of a long-dead genre is why, among other reasons, Unforgiven was Best Picture a decade ago).

Winner: Chicago

Best Director — Nominees: Rob Marshall, Chicago; Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York; Stephen Daldry, The Hours; Roman Polanski, The Pianist; Pedro Almodovar, Talk to Her

Out with Almodovar, who fills the ceremonial role of The One Director Whose Picture Is Not Nominated as Best Picture. None of these guys ever win — or at the very least, I can’t think of one that has. Out with Daldry, who simply doesn’t have the wattage to compete this particular year. Next out: Marshall; the Best Director and Best Picture award go together in most years, but this isn’t most years. It’s down to Polanski and Scorsese. Polanski has revivified his career with a film that lives up to his considerable talent, which is good, and he’s not won an Oscar and surely he deserves one, for Chinatown alone (and you can throw in Rosemary’s Baby as spare change). On the other hand, he did hump a 13-year-old girl and then skip the country to avoid time in the big house, and even in Hollywood, that’s a hard one to get over. And anyway, Scorsese deserves an Oscar more than any other director working today, and Hollywood is finally feeling guilty about not giving it to him for Raging Bull and Goodfellas (both slighted when the Academy, dominated by actors, give the Director award to first-time directors who also happened to be actors — Robert Redford and Kevin Costner). Call it the Scent of a Woman Oscar: The one you get for what you’ve should have gotten if for before.

Winner: Scorsese

Best Actor — Nominees: Adrien Brody, The Pianist; Nicholas Cage, Adaptation; Michael Caine, The Quiet American; Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York; Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

Anyone know Adrien Brody? No? Out he goes. Nick Cage is likewise gone; he plays a screenwriter, for God’s sake, and we all know where they reside in the Hollywood pecking order. Daniel Day-Lewis is returning to acting after a few years making shoes, and everyone’s happy to see him back, but the Academy will be content giving Scorsese the directing award as a career achievement, so the actual Gangs film is an afterthought, and that’s bad for Day-Lewis. Michael Caine deserves a whole lot of credit for pushing Miramx to release the not-exactly-patriotic American in this particular moment in time, and this nomination is his reward for that. He may yet win if Academy members somehow equate giving him an Oscar with a political statement about the war, but it’s a stretch. So we have Nicholson as the last man standing, and though I wouldn’t put it past Caine to make a last-minute surge, I expect Jack will make the podium trip. I personally think that’s too bad — I like Nicholson, but I don’t think he needs a third Best Actor Oscar (and a fourth overall), but everyone loves Jack, and Oscars are about personality rather more than about merit as often as not.

Winner: Nicholson

Best Actress — Nominees: Salma Hayek, Frieda; Nicole Kidman, The Hours; Diane Lane, Unfaithful; Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven; Renee Zellweger, Chicago

Kudos to the Academy for nominating Diane Lane; Unfaithful was mostly dreck, but she was great, and if there’s any justice, Lane will be able to parlay this into a chance to actually make good films for a change. But no one’s going to give her the Oscar for an Adrien Lynne film and she probably knows it. Salma Hayek’s nomination likewise bumps her into the “I’m a serious actress” category but won’t translate into anything more. Renee Zellweger has the juggernaut of Chicago on her side, but despite a couple of previous nominations, the vibe is still that she can be made to wait a bit longer. Julianne Moore is in the same boat, plus she’s also being nominated for supporting actress, so that introduces an interesting dynamic. Nicole Kidman will get the award because she probably should have won it last year (Halle Barry’s win, while not undeserved, was as much about Hollywood politics as anything else), because everyone loves her now, and because she’s playing a major historical figure and wearing a false nose that makes her look far less cute than she usually is. Glamorous girls playing dowdy — that’s a road to Oscar gold.

Winner: Kidman

Supporting Actor — Nominees: Chris Cooper, Adaptation; Ed Harris, The Hours; Paul Newman, Road to Perdition; John C. Reilly, Chicago; Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can

Good category, with no breakaway front-runner. Still, you can toss Paul Newman out right away; the words “Paul Newman” and “Best Supporting Actor” don’t fit together, and anyway, he’s already got a Best Actor and an Honorary Oscar. He’s done. Christopher Walken is likewise out; Catch Me is not a major contender this year. John C. Reilly and Chris Cooper are both in the same boat: Journeyman actors who are finally getting a bit of well-deserved recognition. It’s possible one or the other will pull through (Reilly more likely than Cooper due to Chicago’s current buzz), but I think it’s more likely they’ll cancel each other out. Ed Harris has been nominated three times before, has never won, and had the slight slight of having his Pollock co-star (Marsha Gay Harden) win an Oscar for what was essentially his personal labor of love. He’s owed by the Academy, and this is turning out to be a good year for people who are owed.

Winner: Harris

Supporting Actress — Nominees: Kathy Bates, About Schmidt; Julianne Moore, The Hours; Queen Latifah, Chicago; Meryl Streep, Adaptation; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago

Meryl Streep: Gone. She’s got two Oscars and she gets nominated at this point basically to fill space. Queen Latifah — gone, though bully for her that she gets a nomination; I’m a Queen Latifah fan from way back. Kathy Bates’ nomination serves to remind casting directors that she’s still available for work, and you can do worse than having her around. Catherine Zeta-Jones comes in with a lot of buzz and is obviously well-connected, as she married into one of Hollywood’s best connected families. And she’s beautiful enough to make you feel like the oxygen’s been sucked out of the room. And she can sing and dance! Be that as it may, if a Chicago backlash happens (which it may), she’ll be its victim. It’s a close, close thing, but I think Julianne Moore will pull it out, because she has the body of work, she’s been nominated before, she has the right resume of quirky projects and game big-budget attempts, and since Academy voters will he handing the Best Actress award to Kidman, they’ll want to give Moore the consolation prize. This is the selection about which I have the least confidence, but I’ll go with Moore.

Winner: Moore.

Other random thoughts:

* If Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is nominated for Best Picture next year (which I entirely expect it will), I suspect that you’ll see Peter Jackson awarded a special Oscar for his efforts. This will be a salve for him not getting a Best Director Oscar, for despite the fact he richly deserves it, I expect the Academy’s more serious members can’t bring themselves to celebrate Hobbits and elves in that way. Interestingly, however, LoTR will not be the first trilogy to have all its films nominated for Best Picture; the Godfather films did it first (although, let’s be honest, Godfather III really didn’t deserve it).

* I think there’s a very good chance that Spirited Away will take the Animated Feature Film award. The rest of the field is weak — Treasure Planet was a flop, Spirit was pedestrian, Ice Age was fun but slight. I wouldn’t mind Lilo & Stitch getting the award, since I like it very much, but the creative distance between Spirited Away and all these other films is the distance between lower-order primates and Stephen Hawking. It should get the Oscar, in any event.

* Best Original Screenplay will go to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It deserves something for pulling in, what? $250 million? And it’s not otherwise nominated. And who wouldn’t want to give Nia Vardalos an Oscar for something? I suspect the Best Adapted Screenplay will go to — wait for it — Adaptation. Interestingly, the Academy is going along with the joke of crediting the screenplay to Charlie and Donald Kaufman (Donald Kaufman being Charlie’s imaginary brother in the film). One wonders a) if they’ll have two Oscars available on March 23rd, and b) if “Donald” will be extended membership in the Academy, as all nominees are as a courtesy.

* Bowling for Columbine will win Best Documentary, because it’s the only documentary most of the Academy is aware of, and because Mike Moore loathes George Bush and so does Hollywood.

Slaughter

In the e-mail on Friday, an e-mail from a stranger (but not spam) with a link to a video of an AC-130 gunship taking out a suspected Al Qaeda/Taliban holdout in Afghanistan. Writes the correspondent:

“This video shows one – *ONE* – AC-130 gunship destroying an entire Taliban installation suspected of harboring members of al-Qaeda. I was for the war in Afghanistan, and was initially for the war with Iraq. This video changed my mind, because it demonstrates both the unbelievable power of our armed forces and the ruthlessness of same. In several instances running men blown to [sic] their feet by explosions are visually inspected to see if they are dead. If they move, they’re hit with another round from either the 40mm Gatling Cannon or the 55mm Howitzer that each AC-130 carries on board.

I’m not trying to proselytize you, just give you food for thought. Because any war with Iraq will be a massacre, and here’s the proof.”

I watched the video, which as advertised shows a collection of buildings, vehicles and people being turned into small chunks by the aforementioned AC-130 gunship (the video also features audio of the crew going about its task), but I didn’t have the same reaction as my correspondent. He was horrified at the amount of devastation a single plane could visit on multiple targets (and, I assume, specifically, multiple people). I, on the other hand, looked at the ratio of enemy killed and material damage caused the enemy versus the ratio of death/damage to our troops and equipment in this exchange. The Taliban and Al Qaeda experienced it all; ours troops experienced none. This is a very good ratio.

Let’s leave aside the philosophical question of whether war (any war, or, if you choose, the war we will most likely be conducting within a few weeks) is a moral and correct thing to do, and instead take as a given that two antagonists will soon pit themselves against each other in a contest to beat the hell out of each other, and that one of those antagonists happens to be the US, and therefore our military — with its constituent of American sons, daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, mothers and friends — is presented to take the field. It is my opinion that this military should be presented with every technological and material advantage possible to achieve its objectives as quickly as possible and with as little loss of life as possible.

An AC-130 gunship, as an example, is an excellent way to achieve these objectives: It has a relatively small crew (13) and can project a substantial amount of force (read: it can blow up a lot of things) that would otherwise have to be provided by a much larger number of infantry and equipment. I don’t think anyone is under the impression that a US infantry assault of an Al Qaeda/Taliban installation would have come away with no casualties of any sort; our military was almost certainly better armed and better equipped than the enemy was in this case, but it doesn’t take much brains to pull a trigger, and the number of troops required to do the same job as an AC-130 would have presented a lot of opportunities for targets.

An AC-130 doesn’t fly without risk — from what I know of it, it’s a slow-moving bird, and it’s not likely to be used if the enemy has substantial and successful air defenses — but it seems better able to do a number of tasks that would otherwise fall those with a better chance of getting a bullet in the gut.

Those of us who get our sense of military honor from the Klingons or the 12th Century may grumble at the lack of face-to-face time our men and women have with the people they will have to kill, but I think that’s missing the point of a war. We don’t wage wars (or, at least, shouldn’t) because we want the members of our military to generate honor by killing another soldier mano a mano. We go to war because we have objectives to achieve and (hopefully) we’ve exhausted other methods of achieving them. That being the case, let’s achieve the objectives as quickly as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is utterly overmatch the enemy’s military capability. If you can make it so that your enemy is always bringing a knife to a gunfight, the sooner the gunfights can be over.

I think one of the major objections to the warfare at arm’s length that the US has the option of performing is that it’s dehumanizing — that if you never see the people you’re dropping bombs on, you don’t think of them as human. And I’ll concede that it’s probably easier to kill someone from a few thousand feet up than from a few yards away. But I would also suggest that one of the great dehumanizing agents in history is protracted war — not just for soldiers, who are in the circumstance of having to kill other humans as their job for long stretches of their life, although that’s not an inconsiderable factor — but also to the societies that are in those wars. People in warrior societies don’t spend much time seeing members of other societies as people, particularly those with whom they are at war.

The United States, whatever else is wrong with it, is based on the premise of human equality — the shorter the war, the less time we have to pretzel ourselves against our humanizing inclinations. I’d rather those in our military have an easier time of killing the enemy quickly than our entire society having a harder time seeing an enemy as fundamentally human.

(While we’re on that, I’d make a note that the AC-130 gunship crew in the video was under strict orders not to destroy one specific building — the one identified as a mosque. And so while it destroyed everything (and everyone) else, that building remained standing after the assault.

Now, one can reasonably ask about the utility of leaving a mosque standing when one is blowing up those who would attend it, but I suspect the utility is twofold — one, to remind those on the ground that we’re not blowing them up because they’re Muslim, but that we’re blowing them up because they’re terrorists, and two, as a piece of psychological theater, it’s effective to leave one building standing amid the rubble to point out the fact that, yes, we can hit whatever we want — and not hit whatever we want, too.

Both of these provide interesting proof of American humanism, in that a) you don’t leave sub-humans recourse to their Gods, and b) you don’t waste time and effort psyching out people you’re planning to eradicate completely.)

I’d still be very pleased not to have a war in Iraq, but I don’t think that such a desire is realistic at this point. That being the case, I want the war to be quick and I want it to be as lopsided as humanly possible. I don’t want Iraqi soldiers dead (I’ll be very happy to see them surrender in droves, a la Gulf War I), but if the Iraqi soldiers decide they’re going to fight, I want them taken out of commission as quickly as possible, so that as few as our people as possible find themselves on the wrong side of a bullet. If a display of overwhelming firepower convinces Iraqis to cave, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too, because very quickly what threat they represent will be dealt with. The sooner it’s over, the better off we’ll all be.

That’s why the AC-130 doesn’t fill me with horror. If anything, it gives a sense of relief, in that it’s an indication that we have a reasonable chance of getting this war done quick, and getting our people out of harm — which also means the Iraqi conscripts and civilians will be out of harm’s way as well.

I don’t think it’ll be a massacre. A society that leaves mosques standing isn’t interested in indiscriminate killing. I just think it’ll be fast. As far as wars go, that’s not a bad way to go.

Stupid, Stupid Microsoft

There’s likely to be a brief pause in updating this site — hopefully not more than a week or so — because I need to change the software that I use to update. And therein hangs a tale.

Basically, well over a year ago I purchased Microsoft Front Page 2000 in order to keep this site reasonably well organized — prior to that time I had been using a very basic html editor and wanted something that would actually be useful and make updating more simple. Everything was fine until my most recent computer implosion about two weeks ago. I bought a new computer and so had to load all my previous purchased software onto it, including Front Page.

Microsoft requires you to register Front Page — if you do not you can only use it about 40 times before it shuts down. That’s fine; I did buy the product and I don’t really have a problem affirming the copy I have is legally mine. However, this time the registration process wasn’t working. The program wouldn’t register through the online or through the e-mail version, so I ended up having to register through the phone. And this is when the Microsoft support person told me that Microsoft was no longer accepting registrations for Front Page 2000, and that I would have to buy a new copy of the program (street price: $149.00).

Well, of course, I thought this was ridiculous. I had bought the program, and had been using it for over a year, and had not my computer fried in its own juices, I would still be able to use it. I explained this to the customer service person, and while she sympathized, there was little she could do. Which is not unreasonable — customer service people are not typically empowered to act autonomously, so there’s no reason for either they or the calling customer to pretend they can. I asked to speak to her supervisor.

Her supervisor was marginally more helpful (and here I note for the record that all representatives of Microsoft to whom I spoke were polite and courteous at all times, even as they were being mostly unhelpful) and asked me a couple of questions about the Front Page version I was using, and had an explanation as to why MS was denying my registration. It appears that I had been sold a version of Front Page that was meant for distribution to multi-license users: Big corporations and such. Since I was a personal user, this made red flags go up.

Again, fair enough. But I also told the Microsoft supervisor that I was unaware as to why this should be my problem. I’m not the one that let the wrong version of the program ship to the consumer market, I just happened to be the consumer that got the wrong version. Whether I had gotten the right version or not, I should still be allowed to use the software I had paid for.

The supervisor’s solution, as it was, involved me jumping through some hoops. First, I would need to go to or phone the store at which I bought Front Page and try to convince the clerks there to replace the product. When that failed (as of course it would, since it was purchased over a year ago and I don’t have a receipt), I could call their replacement department and get a new disc. This is obviously not an optimum solution for me, but again, fine. Let me try and see what I come up with.

The retailer, of course, passed on replacing the product, noting that above and beyond the objections that I had already suspected they would have, that Microsoft had a policy not not accepting any software that had been opened — so the retailer (Staples, in case you were wondering) would have to eat the entire cost of the replacement. So as a consequence, Staples has a very strict policy regarding Microsoft returns. The manager (again, very helpful — the service industry’s manners were in fine display during this whole thing) was more than happy to give me his name and a contact number so I could point Microsoft in his direction; I had a feeling he liked the idea of being able to give a Minions of Bill a piece of his mind.

Back to Microsoft, and a phone call to the replacement department, whose representative told me that she would be more than happy to replace the software. But — it would probably take three to four weeks to ship the replacement copy (although she did offer to have it sent overnight as soon as the order was processed, which I thought was considerate, if missing the point), and there would be a replacement copy charge of $23.95 (or some such) plus shipping. All to replace software I legally had purchased and which was running just fine (albeit only for a few more times), and which lacked only an easily replaceable confirmation code.

And so at that point I told her to forget it and that I would be going out to buy a competitor’s product. Because we had passed into the realm of the ridiculous. I saw no reason why I should be penalized because Microsoft screwed up — and I saw no reason to pay Microsoft an additional $30 when it could simply cough up a confirmation code.

So out goes Microsoft Front Page — what you’re reading here is the product of my last ever use of the product. Because, and I want to be clear here, I would rather go out and pay for a competitor’s product — even if it means paying a couple hundred dollars — than pay Microsoft $30 it doesn’t deserve to have because it is unwilling or unable to allow me to use the product I paid it for.

But wait, there’s more. I plan to make this a more expansive boycott than that. I don’t want to suggest that I won’t ever use a Microsoft product again, because that’s just silly, and in some cases impractical. I’m not switching my OS because I have too much invested in Windows at the moment (all my software is here, and I just bought this computer, so I’m not going to rush out to get a Mac). But short of that, I’ll switch everything else. I’ll start by going in and changing all my file associations to non-MS products (i.e., I’ll use Real Player or Winamp rather than Media Windows Player, and Abiword or some other word processing product other than Word).

Given the choice of using a Microsoft product and a competing product, I’ll pick the competing product. I already do this with some products — I use Mozilla over IE because Mozilla is flatly better, and I use Eudora over Outlook because just about the only thing Outlook is good for is letting viruses and worms rampage all over your hard drives — but now it’ll be my default inclination. Microsoft will no longer get any money of mine so long as there is another competing product of roughly equal (or even slightly lesser) utility (I’ll keep reading Slate, though. It’s better than Salon. And it doesn’t cost me anything).

Obviously, I’m aware that Microsoft will not be quivering in its boots about this. But it’s not about Microsoft, it’s about me. Microsoft might not miss my contribution to its bottom line, but I get the satisfaction of knowing that Microsoft’s number of chances to screw me in a pointlessly greedy fashion are now greatly reduced. That’s better than any microscopic dent I can kick into Bill Gates’ compound interest.

Likewise, I’m not calling on anyone else to follow my example as it relates to Microsoft — you may never have the same circumstances I had. But on the other hand, if you’re exasperated by the hoops Microsoft (or anyone else) makes you jump through, for whatever reason, just stop jumping through the hoops. It’s easier than you think.

Anyway, down for probably a week or so. See you on the other side.

New Retirement Accounts

I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m generally of the opinion that the words “Republicans” and “taxes” are just grown-up words for “children” and “matches,” so you can imagine my utter shock and horror at learning of a tax proposal from Dubya and his cronies that (in theory, at the very least) I can get behind. Last week, the administration floated some changes in long term savings accounts, allowing Americans to save after-tax income in accounts that would subsequently be tax-free. You haven’t heard about it because among other things a shuttle blew up. But they’re out there.

These come basically in two flavors. The first would be Retirement Savings Accounts, which would allow people to save $7,500 of their income a year (a figure which would apparently be adjusted for inflation as time goes on) into a retirement account. The money put in would be taxed (i.e., it counts as part of your income for the year), but it’s not taxed when you take it out (which you’d start to be able to at age 58, as opposed to 59 1/2 for IRAs today). Basically, it’s a Roth IRA with a higher contribution ceiling.

Without knowing too much more about the details, I have to say I’m all for this. Roth IRAs rock in a general sense, because they allow you to take a small amount of tax pain now so you don’t have to take a huge amount of tax pain later — which is to say it’s easier to pay taxes on the (currently) $3,500 or whatever you’re putting into your Roth IRA now, then pay taxes on what you take out of it when you retire and your retirement savings count for a large portion of your total income (i.e., when you’re going to need every penny you can get for your heart pills and heat).

And speaking as someone who is self-employed and lacks all the 401(k) bennies worker drones get, my biggest complain about how IRAs are structured is that you can’t put enough of your money into them. I’m showing my class structure here, but a $3,500 yearly limit on IRA contributions is criminally stupid and low. $7,500 a year would put everyone who contributes to a retirement account into a much better position, just from compound interest alone. Also, the proposal would mean that anyone could sign up for a retirement account — currently certain people above certain income levels can’t establish either traditional or Roth IRAs (which, um, came as a mildly panicking surprise to some certain individuals). So by all means, sign me up.

The second flavor is more philosophically interesting but probably politically a trouble maker — the Lifetime Savings Accounts, which allow people to save $7,500 a year, tax-free, for anything they want whenever they want to get it. Ostensibly, these accounts could be used for medical and educational expenses (and indeed, under Bush’s proposal, it would replace current federal medical and educational savings accounts, which could be rolled over into them), but if you just wanted to spend it on video games and gum, you could do that too. The report I linked to higher up in this suggests that the LSAs would work like a traditional IRA (tax-free to contribute but distributions are taxed) while a Wall Street Journal article suggests it’s going to be like a Roth — given who Republicans are and how they’d generally prefer to structure their taxes, I’ll side with the WSJ on this one and assume it’s a Roth-like structure.

This one’s problematic because there are no restrictions on it — unlike the RSA, the money to fund this savings account can come from anywhere (i.e., it doesn’t have to be income from work), and there are no limits on distributions. So in that regard it undercuts the RSA to the extent that most people, given the choice between putting their money into an account where they can’t easily access their cash for decades, and one they can access right this second, are going to pick the latter account — and because they can access the latter account whenever they want, as a practical matter its overall utility as a savings account is likely to be rather low.

Let’s be honest and admit that one of the unheralded benefits of the IRA set-up (and that of the various other federal savings plans) is their stern single-mindedness of utility. No, you can’t have this now, the IRA says, sternly wagging its finger as you try to grab some of your money for that Cancun vacation. You’re going to need it when you’re decrepit and the children stop calling. You’ll thank me later. And we tromp off muttering, knowing that the IRA is right, even though Cancun is calling. Without that waggling finger, the Mexican economy is likely to benefit from a bunch of nice tax-free vacations. And while that’s good for Mexico, it’s not so good for those vacationers’ eventual retirements.

This is the cue for Republicans to chime in and note that people would still have the choice between the RSA and LSA, and anyway, it’s obnoxious of me to assume that people aren’t fundamentally intelligent enough to make the right choices about their own money. But I don’t know that it’s so much a question of intelligence as a question of perspective. The number of 22-year-olds with IRAs could fit on a head of a pin, even though basic compound interest means that even a little saved at 22 is going to translate to big payouts 50 years down the line. But people don’t think about things that are going to happen at a point in time twice as far away as they actually lived.

Given the general savings level in the US (in which half of us save less than $1,000 a year, according to the Consumer Federation of America), and that more than half of us are way behind in our retirement savings as it is (same source), it’s fair to say that people don’t prioritize savings, and that they prioritize more immediate and possibly less-than-critical expenses over retirement.

In short, I have little doubt that people would fund (and withdraw from) their LSAs far more than they will fund their RSAs, and will subsequently save rather less than they could for retirement. So while on a philosophical level I don’t have any problems with the LSA (who wouldn’t want to save money tax-free?), on a practical level I see political trouble ahead for it. Like it or not, people do need something with a penalty involved to get them to save for the long run, and the LSA ain’t it.

So naturally, you can assume that I assume that the LSA is really what Bush and his pals want, and the RSA is a sop thrown in as a distraction. The LSA is, fundamentally, a no-restrictions capital gains tax cut, and while everyone can take advantage of it, again as a practical matter it will be most useful for the high-income sorts who have the ability to park $7,500 a year and not have to think about it again for a couple of decades. The average schmoe making $40,000 a year is neither liable to fully fund an LSA nor liable to resist dipping into it on a regular basis, so while it still has utility for him, its full, most useful benefit as a compound interest engine devolves to the upper classes (who can of course also fully fund an RSA as well). It’s more proof that all the way around it’s simply better to be well off than not — and that’s easier to be rich and stay rich, than to be poor and get rich (or even somewhat comfortable).

Whatever the ultimate fate of the LSA, I certainly hope the RSA makes it through. I could use it, and would use it, and most people are in the same boat as I am with this one.

Columbia; A Trip to Tor

Others have commented extensively on the Columbia explosion, and I don’t have much to add, except to say: I’ll go on the next shuttle. And so will most of the people I know (which would make the shuttle ride crowded, to say the least). And it’s because we all believe that people need to be in space. I don’t think it’s at all out of line to suggest that none of the seven shuttle astronauts who died would have wanted their deaths to signal the end of manned flight into space, and unfortunately there are any number of people who would attempt it to do just that. That would be a terrible mistake.

I’m not one of those people who believes that mankind’s destiny remains unfulfilled unless we colonize Mars, or that colonization of space is our insurance plan against a whacking from an asteroid. But do I want to see a human on the surface of the Red Planet before I pass from our own particular planet? I do. President Kennedy had it exactly right when he said of the challenge of putting a man on the moon that we do these things because they are difficult, and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, every human with the ability to understand (which unfortunately did not include my two-month-old self) was intimately aware of the miracles ordinary men can accomplish through will and through determination.

Every trip into space is an echo of this will. Aside from the practical values of space exploration, it serves to remind us that are capable of literally reaching toward the stars. We should be in space not because our survival as a race depends on it, but because our aspirations as a global nation demand it of us.

Ad Astra Per Aspera — “To the stars, with difficulties.” Columbia, to our great sadness, typifies this. But we do this because it is difficult. And we will go to the stars. Put me in the next shuttle. If I could go, I would. I wouldn’t miss it for this world, or for the one we’ll set foot on next.

***

Aside from the sad task of having to inform a very dear friend about the Columbia explosion, my recent trip to New York was a very positive one. I had scheduled it a while back as a pleasure trip to see friends, but along the way I ended up piling in some work as well, and I’m glad I did, since one of the highlights of the trip was traveling to the offices of Tor Books (soon to be my novel’s publisher) and meeting both Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden.

Two words came to mind when I stepped into the Tor offices themselves: “Firetrap” and “Cool.” “Firetrap” because the entire office is covered with books and paper from floor to ceiling; a mere static electricity discharge could turn the 14th floor of the Flatiron Building into a fireball that would rain down shards of glass and toasted manuscript pages on Broadway and 5th Avenue. I spent no little time looking to make sure I knew where the fire extinguishers were.

“Cool” because I’ve simply never seen so much science fiction in one place at one time. It’s like I had died and gone to geek heaven, although I do have to say that I hope the real heaven, geek or otherwise, does not have acoustic tile ceilings. And of course while I’m standing there looking at the near-infinite shelves of SF and Fantasy, I get to have the giggly thrill of realizing that fairly shortly my own book is going to be up there, nestled against the Orson Scott Cards and Steven Brusts and Robert Jordans and so on. No, I’m not worthy. But then again, ask me if I care.

Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden were also hella swell, and not just because they loaded me down with enough books to strain the stitching on my backpack (including Theresa’s own very interesting collection of essays, Making Book, which she autographed for me, so there). It’s also because they’re what every SF writer and/or fan hopes they grow up to be: Smart, capable, interesting, inquisitive, well-read (obviously), pragmatic yet with a dreamer’s sense of the possible and — this deserves special note — real fun conversationalists.

In short, neat folks, and we had a very good lunch, in which we talked about life, the universe and marketing (it was a business lunch, after all). I had been happy my novel had landed at Tor before, of course (what author of science fiction wouldn’t be), but meeting the Nielsen Haydens gave me that extra added bit of confidence that the novel is in good hands. If you ever have an opportunity to sell a book to them, it’s an experience I recommend for the lunchtime chat alone.

After the trip to Tor, I made a quick stop at my other publisher (bwa ha ha! Two publishers! Bwa ha ha! Sorry, I just get this way sometimes) to find out what’s up with the astronomy book. Turns out the publishing date’s changed: It’s now due for May here in the US (it’ll be out in April in the UK). This is fine with me, as it gives everyone more time to save their pennies. And May is my birthday month, so that’s good too. I did see some of the advance advertising for the book, which are pretty cool — images from the book are on the cover of Rough Guide’s quarterly book catalog, and they’ve also put out an advance flyer to hand out to distributors and booksellers. I also got a copy of Rough Guides’ newsletter, which features an article I put together on Mars. So all told, they’re priming the pump pretty well.

In all, a good day — one of those days when, as a writer, you get to say to yourself, damn, I’m a writer, and you get a moment to reflect that writing sometimes is more than just something you do, it’s something that helps you define who you are. Then you go home and wade back into the actual writing and it’s suddenly a lot less romantic, because you’ve got deadlines and nit-picky editorial changes to make and whatnot and so on.

But that’s okay — it’s a good trade. You do the work and every now and then you get a reward: A visit to an office with wall-to-wall books, lunch with your editors, a brainstorming session to get your book sold in stores, and the nice buzz that comes from knowing you’re for real and for true an actual, not-faking-it author. It’s a fine thing.

***

Also, just in case you sent me e-mail while I was in New York: 1,183 pieces of spam waiting for me when I got back. It’ll take a little time to wade through that and find the real mail. Please be patient.

Palm Pilot; Criticism

One rather unexpected side benefit from my whole recent computer meltdown fracas is that I’ve found myself in possession of a Palm Pilot — an m125 Palm Pilot, which if I follow the Palm Pilot nomenclature correctly is sort of their “Accord” model: Not exactly a Kia, but not as full-featured as a Beemer. I got it for free, so what do I care — for free, the Accord model suits me just fine.

I got it because my mother-in-law won it in a sweepstakes sponsored by Philip Morris (now called Altria, presumably on the theory that it’s okay to blacken the lungs of your customers if your company’s name sounds like that of an affordable import sedan) and sent it along to me to see if I could make heads or tails out of it. Then Krissy let slip that I had gotten a new computer, and mom-in-law started angling for the old one (as soon as it’s been fixed, of course). That had in fact been my plan, and mom-in-law was so excited to hear that that she gave me the Palm Pilot in exchange. And there it is: The one verifiable story in the history of the world of smoking having a positive benefit for a non-smoker.

I have to say that I don’t see too much point in Palm Pilots or most other PDAs, which by and large are a $400 solution to an 89-cent problem, which is — “give me something to write this note on.” Functionally speaking there’s very little a Palm Pilot is good for that pocket-sized spiral notebook can’t do. PDAs are beginning to correct this by getting more and more tricked out — the latest Sony PDA basically has the same processing power as the desktop computer I owned in 1998 — but again the functionality for this $600 beauty (it takes notes! It plays music! It takes pictures!) can be replicated with a spiral notepad, a portable CD player and cheap camera for a total outlay of $50, tops. No, you won’t look as cool, but you’d have an extra $550, which you could use to buy some Manolo Blahnik pumps. And then you would look as cool. Odd how looking cool ultimately requires a stupid expenditure of money.

Which is not to say I won’t use the Palm Pilot. I’m going to New York in a couple of days to meet with clients and publishers; I might as well use the Palm Pilot to stash my notes and directions and phone numbers. Normally I’d use a little notebook, but seeing as one of those would set me back 89 cents (not counting the pen) and the Palm Pilot was free, the Palm Pilot is surprisingly the economical answer in this case.

I have found one entirely useful activity for the Palm Pilot, which is as a storage device for e-texts. In addition to my own book (which I figure it would be useful to have a copy of on hand, seeing as I’m meeting with my publisher), I’ve also downloaded The Innocents Abroad and Mont Saint Michele and Chartres from Project Gutenberg, which is devoted to publishing public domain works online — not that they’ll be getting any new public domain material anytime soon, thank you very much Bono Act (note to self: Make sure that after I die, all works enter the public domain sometime before my grandchildren are in danger of physical decrepitude).

There’s some nicely delicious irony in the fact that the most useful activity I can think of for this bit of 21st Century technology is for it to hold 19th Century works of literature. But then again, why not? There really are worse things than for a pixellated Henry Adams to get a new life on a Palm Pilot. Free literature on a free PDA! It doesn’t get any better than that.

***

On the subject of writing (and, very loosely, literature) a reader sent me an e-mail yesterday letting me know that while he enjoyed Old Man’s War, he had a couple of suggestions about the story that he thought would make it even better, which he then proceeded to provide to me. It was basically all I could do to keep from chewing off the inside of my cheek.

It’s not this guy’s fault, mind you. I understand that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, and I appreciate that he liked the story enough to offer suggestions on how it could be improved. The intentions are good and I wouldn’t want this guy to think I thought he was out of line for making suggestions, or that he should be stomped to death by 40-foot fighting robots for having the temerity to question my prose.

But having said that, “constructive criticism” drives me up a freakin’ wall. To be entirely honest, I like criticism of my work to be generally unconstructive. I don’t mind if, say, you you tell me my dialogue stinks and is unrealistic, but I do mind if you tell me my dialogue stinks and the way to fix it is to do A or B or C. When I had Old Man’s War out to beta testers, I asked them to catch grammar, spelling and continuity errors, and to tell me what they liked and didn’t liked about the story. But I also specifically told them not to offer suggestions on how to fix things. Why? Because I didn’t want to hear them. It’s enough for me to know if you think something’s not working in the writing. It’s my job as a writer to figure out how to fix these problems — or not, since something you might see as a bug in the writing is something that I might see as a feature.

Of course, this little quirk of my writing character comes across as arrogance, and I cop to that. I’ve always been arrogant when it comes to writing; I remember back as a first year student in college getting into trouble with my Art History TA when I refused to participate in classroom peer review of other students’ papers. I refused on the grounds that inasmuch as the other students weren’t actually qualified either as English or Art instructors, any comments they might have would be of questionable utility to me and therefore a waste of my time, and because if I was going to have review other people’s work and basically do the TA’s job, I wanted to get paid. This position assured me of getting reamed by the TA when it came time to get papers graded (I think I ended up getting a C- in the class), but I didn’t care about that. And, irony of ironies, as soon as I’m done with this Whatever, I’ll be starting an article on the Dada movement and getting paid nicely for it. So we can see how the battle of the C-minus-giving-TA vs. my youthful arrogance eventually panned out.

But aside from the question of my arrogance (or at least only tangentially related to it) comes the question of the critic’s competence. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and speaking as a professional critic, I’m all for people expressing their point of view. You don’t need to be a professional musician to know you like a particular piece of music, or a professional writer to know what you like and don’t like about an article or story. Lots of creative people seem to think that that only their peers are qualified to criticize, but that’s just a stupid defensive measure creative types pull out of their ass when they don’t want to admit that being criticized simultaneously stings and deflates the ego.

While everyone’s competent to express an opinion about whether something works, it doesn’t stand to reason that everyone is in a position to suggest how the piece might be improved. Independent of the specific critic, there’s no reason to believe that the piece would be improved if, say, different plot branches were utilized, or if certain motivations were explored, or whatever. The end result of these changes could be worse piece, or better one, or simply one that is equally bad in a completely different way. Changing something is not implicitly equivalent to improving something. Back around the Murmur era of things for REM, people complained that they couldn’t understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics. But if they could would the music have been better? Not necessarily; Stipe’s maddening mumble was part of early REM’s allure. Murmur might have been better if you could hear what Stipe was saying; but then again, it might have been worse.

Then there’s the matter of personal competence as it relates to making suggestions about writing. No offense, people, but most of you aren’t professional writers or editors, and that does make a difference. When Patrick Nielsen Hayden comes to me with specific suggestions about what needs to be done to punch up Old Man’s War (as he’s already told me he will), you’re damn right I’ll listen; he’s Senior Editor of Tor and in that capacity knows how to shape text so that it’s both successful creatively and has a shot in the marketplace, and those are two things I want the book to be. Were another working novelist to offer unsolicited advice on a plot point, I would likewise listen attentively. These people have the real world experience that convinces me they know what they’re talking about.

Short of those categories, however, I’m liable to ask myself how much you know about the dynamics of writing professionally, and if the answer I get is “not much,” I will then ask myself why I should be listening to your specific writing suggestions. Doctors don’t listen to suggestions from their baker on how to perform surgery (or if they do to be polite, they don’t usually take them very seriously). They listen to doctors. Likewise, it it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, I go to writers and editors first. Yes, I realize this goes back to the whole “arrogance” thing. But, you know, look — I’ve been writing professionally for well over a decade now. This is what I do. Financially speaking, this is all I do. This is my day job. When it comes to writing, I’m pretty confident I know what I’m doing (most of the time).

I do try not to be stupid in my arrogance. When I was writing my astronomy book, I had a couple of friends with PhDs in astronomy look over some early chapters, on the principle that they, being doctors of astronomy, were eminently qualified to tell me if and when I had my head up my rectum (it wasn’t, mostly). And I’m not saying that non-writers can’t have excellent suggestions about the craft of writing; they can and do, both in a general sense and specifically relating to my work. I’m not even saying that I don’t sometimes ask for advice from non-writers, or writers who are not yet professional writers; I’ve done both, and my writing is better for it.

What I am saying is that if you’re not a writer or editor, and you offer me specific writing advice without prompting, you should know I’m going to consider the source in evaluating how useful the advice is to me. Please don’t be too offended if my estimation of its utility ultimately differs from yours. I do appreciate the thought, honestly. But this isn’t one of those situations where it’s only the thought that counts.

Bad Mechanical Karma

First, an exchange between me and Athena. It helps to know that she just learned how to count to three in Spanish. Got that? Okay, then:

Me: Hey, Athena. Say ‘three’ in Spanish.

Athena: Three in Spanish.

Just in case any of you were wondering if she was really my kid.

***

I suspect that in a former life I must have been both against technology and a bad person — say, a drunken abusive Amish — because that’s the only reason I can explain why I have such bad luck with technology. This last week had me throwing money away in big fat handfuls as a consequence of my technological bad karma. Yes, I’m bitter. Stupid karmic wheel.

Let’s start with the utterly unsurprising demise of my computer. As many of you may remember, late last year I decided to upgrade my then-current computer rather than replace it entirely, on the idea that a new processor and video card would do me just fine — and that turned into a week-long process roughly as pleasurable as having nails slammed into one’s eyes with a ball-peen hammer. Well, it turns out all that pain and expense was for naught, because in the wee hours of Saturday morning the motherboard (i.e., the primary piece of equipment I decided not to upgrade) decided to fry itself in its own juices.

So just get a new motherboard, right? Well, Mr or Ms oh-so-logical, there are a couple of problems here. First, I live miles from anywhere, so I can’t just toddle down to the motherboard store and get me one of those bad girls. Second, even if I did, the odds of me successfully installing one on my own are roughly equivalent to the odds of me winning the Kentucky Derby riding an alpaca. Third, Because I live in the middle of nowhere, I’m at the mercy of a) computer repairmen who think they should be able to take Saturdays off, and b) computer repairmen who do work on Saturdays but then decide to blow off their appointment with you, leaving you to wonder at 10pm in the evening whether or not they’ve been consumed by coyotes, and at 11pm indeed hoping that was the case. And of course no one works on Sunday, because of the only confluence of God and Football (never, EVER have a computer implode on Super Bowl weekend. That is all).

Finally, I have a clock ticking: I had already over-extended a deadline for an article I was writing on, and I absolutely positively no excuses have to get it in first thing Monday morning, and the revision and all the notes I have for are on my computer’s hard drive (this is where people smugly say — well, you should have backed up. But it wasn’t the hard drive that crashed. It was the computer. Even if it were backed up, I still couldn’t access the information. So bite me). I did take the hard drive in question and attempt to install it on my daughter’s computer, but in one of those quirks that undoubtedly has Bill Gates laughing manically as he snorkels through his riches, the way Windows XP formats hard drives is different than the way Windows 98 formats drives. Don’t worry, I’ve already reserved a nice spot in the sixth circle of Hell for Gates and his idiot information architecture group. No, no, don’t thank me. They earned it.

Long story short (or shorter, at least): I have a new computer, which, in the only bit of good news in this whole story, is both pretty sweet and relatively inexpensive. It’s a vpr Matrix FT5110-PE, “vpr Matrix” apparently being the house brand for Best Buy (which I drove an hour and change to get to — in blowing snow! Uphill! Both ways!). Despite being a store brand, the Matrix line is fairly well-regarded and also sports a design from the Porsche design studio. I don’t actually care about that last bit, personally, but on the other hand, it’s nice to see Best Buy make the effort. I’m rather more taken with the specs: the short form is a 2.8 Pentium 4, 512MB RAM, 100GB hard drive (to which I added the aforementioned hard drive, which is 80GB), DVD-ROM and DVD-R/RW drives, 64MB GeForce4 MX420 (which I’ll actually be swapping out, since the graphics card in my other computer is better), and so on and so forth. In all, a nice upgrade from where I was. I would have preferred not to have to have it, mind you, but now that I do have it, it’s not so bad. And I also got a slightly better deal because I took the store’s floor model. It has a small scratch on it, and that’s 10% off. I can live with that.

One amusing point of the buying process is that, this being Best Buy, the sales dude tried to sell me the extended warranty, pointing out that most manufacturers won’t warranty floor models. I pointed out to him that Best Buy’s policy was to honor the manufacturer’s warranty on any floor model they have. And anyway, Best Buy is the manufacturer. Honestly, now. Buying extended warranties on computers is folly in any event, since there’s little point in having a three-year service deal on an object that’s going to outdated and upgraded in a year. Although I suppose given my luck with computers it couldn’t have hurt.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I got that article done. It’ll pay for the computer, thank God.

Okay, I’m going to try swapping the video card now. Pray for me.

Salon’s New Deal; Editing

After a trial period earlier last year, Salon has decided to go ahead with a new way to stay alive, which is to allow non-subscribers to view its content — if they agree to view an ad first. Essentially, Salon is doing this because its subscription model is a big fat failure.

David Talbot, Salon’s amusingly dissembling editor, spins the rationale for this switch in a really interesting way, first by declaring the subscription fiasco as a moral victory (“Nearly 60,000 of you have signed up to become Salon Premium subscribers — far more than the doomsayers predicted would ever pay for our editorial services”) and then noting in the very next sentence that it’s also a business failure (“But to break even, Salon needs to sign up more of you”). It’s the one article on Salon today that you don’t need to sit through an ad to read, incidentally.

Talbot then rather incompletely lays Salon’s fiscal misfortunes at the door of the collapsing Internet ad market. “Even in the glory days of online publishing,” he intones, “advertising alone couldn’t pay the rent.” Maybe, but Salon also didn’t exactly look for rent in a cheap part of town, if you get my drift. There’s no point in discounting the online ad market collapse, but Talbot also conveniently ignores his own company’s famously prodigious burn rate and propensity for finding really interesting and creative ways to throw money out of high windows, such as spending $5 million to buy MP3Lit.com, a Web site offering spoken word recordings, in May of 2000 (really, how much does it cost to record an author reading?).

If Talbot and his pals had not spent the “glory days of online publishing” lighting piles of Benjamins in bonfire-like stacks to keep warm in those chilly San Francisco summers, it’s possible they’d have more fiscal maneuvering room today. So, yes, the online ad market sucks. But, that’s not the only reason Salon’s in financial trouble. The ad market is a downward slope, but Salon spent millions on a shiny greased toboggan to get down that slope as quickly as possible.

Talbot also paints the picture of a World Wide Web bereft of reading material: “In the past couple of years, the Web has become a graveyard for dozens of creative, independent sites,” he declares. On the other hand, in the past couple of years, it’s also seen a massive explosion in creative, independent Web sites in the form of blogs, some of which provide as good or better reading than the sites that have vaporized, and some of which are arguably now as influential as Salon itself when it comes to certain issues.

Talbot credits Salon for beating the drum on the recent Trent Lott controversy, but most of the early heavy lifting on that came from Josh Marshall and his TalkingPointsMemo.com site, with an assist from Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, who linked to Josh from their own sites and added their own pungent commentary to make the point that disgust with Trent Lott’s comments weren’t only a lefty thing.

Salon does do good work and has good writers — even at its most smugly annoying, the site usually manages at least one good story a day. And it pays writers, a little fact which should never be overlooked. Nor are most blogs prime reading material — just enough of them are to make the daily trip around the Internet roughly the same timesuck it’s been since the 20th Century. But the point is, Salon’s not a lone voice crying out in the online wilderness. It’s merely the one in the most financial trouble.

(The irony here is of course that Salon has tried to capitalize on the blog revolution, literally, by offering up space for blogs on its servers for $40 a year. In Internet cultural terms, this is somewhat akin to one’s mom coming to pick you up from school wearing hip huggers and a midriff-baring cutoff that shows off her belly button tattoo. I don’t think this revenue scheme has been successful, either in attracting bloggers — who can get their own vanity domain and blogging software for the same price or less — or in marketing the bloggers that are there. The most successful blogger on Salon Blogs is Salon’s own Scott Rosenberg, who since 7/11/2002 has registered 337,505 hits (as of this writing), which averages out roughly 1,875 hits a day (“hits” being a meaningless stat, incidentally, since it could refer to page views or unique visits or discrete requests for files, of which several can be used to make up a single page). I get roughly the same sort of traffic — in unique visitors — on a daily basis, and I don’t update every day or have the advantage of one of the leading online magazines flogging my site. Glenn Reynold’s Instapundit, as a comparison, is averaging about 60,000 unique visits a day. It’s like every single Salon subscriber visiting Instapundit on a daily basis.)

All of this may lead you to think that I think the “view an ad, get content” content scheme is a bad one. Actually, I don’t — if Salon can make it work, more power to ’em. As a working freelance writer, I’m in no rush to see a paying market (even one I’ve never been in) vaporize. And while I think a significant portion of people won’t click through an ad every single day (not because they’re anti-advertising — the whole “information wants to be free” mantra is so 1999 — but because they don’t want to waste mouse clicks), I think significantly more will put up with an ad than will shell out $30 for a Salon subscription. Which is the whole point.

I do suspect that Talbot, et al hopes that getting people to view the premium content this way will help convert some of those non-subscribers to subscribers, either because they find they like the premium stuff, or because they get tired of wading through the ads. I’ll be interested to see if this happens. My gut says it won’t — it’s not as if Salon hasn’t been around for a while, and those readers who wanted to avoid advertising have already been signed up (this is why I’ll still pay the subscription fee once mine runs out later this year).

Interestingly, Salon is also offering an intermediate, $18.95 level of access, which allows access to all its content without forcing you to sit through an ad, but still has advertising on the text pages — basically, Salon as it was circa the turn of the millennium. That’s a fascinating idea. I don’t know how successful it will be, since someone who’s willing to pay $20 a year for Salon would probably be willing to pay $30. But it has almost a nostalgic tinge to it, a return to a more innocent time when when online magazines thought they would take over the world, and spent millions on companies whose product could have been easily replicated just about for free. Ah, to be young again.

***

Time is getting close for The Rough Guide to the Universe — final edits are due next Monday, so I’m poring through galleys looking for grammar and formatting errors, of which (of course) there are plenty, primary among them omissions of metric system measurements for temperatures, distances, weights and so forth. The book is to be published more or less simultaneously in North America and the UK, and rather than publish two separate versions, one with metric and one with imperial measurements, we’re putting them both in. So for example, I’d say the Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of 93 million miles/150 million km. Unfortunately, we arrived at this decision halfway through writing the book, so many of the early chapters are missing metric, which I’m now rather laboriously putting back in.

This is, incidentally, yet another reason why it rocks to live in the Internet era, since instead of having to calculate the values with a calculator or in my own head, either of which would be monstrously error-prone, and would drive me to ram a rusty spike through my temple to stop the pain of math, I merely go to OnlineConversion.com and let it handle all the heavy lifting for me. I don’t know why Robert Fogt, the guy who put OnlineConversion.com up, thought it would be a grand idea to do so, but man, I’m glad he did. Bob, if you’re reading this, you get a free copy of the book because you saved my brain from spasming uncontrollably. I thank you. My brain thanks you.

While I’m editing, I’m also getting a kick out of how I’ve been edited in the book by my Rough Guide editor. As some of you may know, Rough Guides is a publisher based out of London, so its editors also (and understandably) tend to be Britishers of some description or another. This means that they tend to “Britishize” the material I send them (or “Britisise,” as they might spell it). The most obvious example of this is the extra “u” in words like “color,” but there are are also distinct British colloquialisms that were inserted to replace distinctly American ones, and incidental comments have suddenly become Anglocentric — a reference to the Boston Marathon is now a reference to the London Marathon.

The end result is a book voice that sounds like me, had I been born and raised roughly 6,000 miles north east of where I actually was. The same thing happened with Money Online, the first book that I did for Rough Guides, so now I wonder if the people who I meet who have read the books first ever find it odd that I don’t have an English accent. I suppose I could fake one. It would never fly in the UK, where apparently accents change depending what side of a street you were raised on, but here in the US if you vaguely imitate Hugh Grant, you’re fine. I already find it easier to sing on-key when I fake an accent (this from spending a significant portion of my teenage years singing along to Depeche Mode and other euro-dork bands), so going wholesale over to the speaking voice would just be a final evolution. And Americans automatically seem to assume that people with English accents are smarter anyway. That would be a real advantage on any publicity tour, because I am trying to sell an astronomy book, after all. It’s something to think about.

On the other hand, the smartest Englishman I know about doesn’t sound British, he sounds like a Speak and Spell. I don’t think I’ll be imitating his voice. Then everyone would know I’m faking it.

Busy Redux; Academic Emergency

I know, I haven’t exactly been a world-class updater these last couple of weeks. My excuse is the same as it was last week around this time: I’ve been hella busy, and it’s been the good “damn if my writing career isn’t just totally coming around” sort of busy as opposed to the bad “holy crap, no matter how much plasma I sell I still won’t make the mortgage” sort of busy. Since a couple of months ago it appeared as though I might have more of the latter than the former, I feel somewhat justified in attending to that stuff first, and the Whatever secondarily if at all. I’ve always said that one of the main aims of the Whatever is to keep my writing skill sharp for when actual pay copy rolls around, and well, guess what. It’s here. And may I just say: Wheee!

The fact of the matter is that it looks like 2003 is going to busy enough (and what’s more, busy enough because I’m writing books, dance, dance, jig, jig) that I really have to reconsider what I’m doing here. This is not to say that I want to stop writing on the site, since it’s become abundantly clear that Scalzi.com is good for me and my writing career, and I’m loathe to desert it. As Molly Ivins is fond of saying, you dance with them what brung you, and recently, what brung me is this site. Also, basically, since I work from home and am hundreds of miles from my most of my friends, this is also, um, much of my social life. I know. I know. Don’t remind me. All I’m missing is the slide rule.

The problem is that writing long-form bits here really is time consuming, so I’ve been considering (as I often have in the — good lord — four plus years I’ve been doing this) writing something more explicitly blog-like. I’ve somewhat stuffily maintained for a very long time that the Whatever isn’t a blog (it was around long before the word gained common currency, for one thing), but these days enough bloggers write long-form think pieces (refer to Den Beste and others) that the distinction between what I do and what some of them do is non-existent, and anyway, writing shorter, punchier and link-ier has some appeal. It’s easier to write a lot of short things than it is to write one long thing and so by necessity I may end up writing shorter (and paradoxically, more).

Of course, knowing me, I won’t do it — Long-time readers will familiar with this pattern of mine where I declare that I’ll be writing less and/or writing shorter and then go off on a multi-week long-form writing spree. Also, of course, the whole point of calling this the “Whatever” is to remind myself it’s not supposed to have any set format, and that I can put up whatever I want, whenever I want. So who knows. I’m just sharing where my mind’s at at the moment. Because, you know, I can.

In any event, if my appearance here is sporadic over the next few months, you’ll know why. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Okay, now I’m done.

***

The Bradford school district, which is the district in which Athena will attend school, is currently in an academic emergency. Ohio tests each district’s students on 22 separate levels of proficiency (which actually breaks down to tests in 5 or 6 different areas in grades 4, 6, 9, and 10). Bradford’s aggregate student scores marked the district for failure in all but six of these categories; only two other local districts are comparatively more awful, one of them being the school district of Dayton, where the district only got passing scores in 2 out of 22 of the tests. Which is pretty awful. But one doesn’t want one’s child attending a school district whose major claim to fame is that it’s not quite as bad as the district in the nearest big city with a rotting industrial core.

Now, there are some factors here which are not immediately obvious. The first is that these test scores reflect the scores from last year, before the kids in town got schlepped over to the brand spanking new super-high tech school for which the residents in town (your truly included) pay some of the highest local taxes in the state. Having a new school won’t make for an inherently better educational experience any more than buying a new car will suddenly make you a better driver. But one can hope that staff and students will take advantage of the new capabilities of the building.

Another thing is that the school district is so small (about six hundred students total) that the poor performance of even a single student makes a significant statistical difference on one of these tests. One really dumb kid in your 4th graders class can pull down the performance of the whole district by a few percent, and of course, generally speaking and alas, dumb kids usually travel in packs. This is why Dayton’s situation is really quite a bit worse than Bradford’s; six kids that were kicked in the head by their farm horse can somewhat artificially deflate Bradford’s district performance, but to do as poorly as Dayton, you have to be endemically failing to sufficiently educate literally thousands of children. So maybe things are not really all that bad.

But now let’s also factor in some other intangibles. A third significant data point here is that Bradford is defined as a “Group 6” school district in Ohio, which means it’s a “Rural Poor District.” Any fan of current American pedagogy will tell you that you being both “rural” and “poor” are two strikes against you right off; from an educational point of view, the only thing that’s worse than being rural and poor is being inner-city and poor (refer once again to Dayton).

I can attest to both the rural nature of Bradford (longtime readers will recall that my eastern and southern neighbors are, in fact, cornfields) and a quick spin through the town gives ample opportunity to reflect on the “poor” portion of that equation as well (the median family income was $43,500 at the time of the 2000 census, compared to the national average of $50K). “Poor” means many things, but specifically for public education it means a small tax base which (despite the aforementioned high local taxes) means the district needs outside help from the state.

It’s also the sort of place where one does not see a lot of adults walking around with college educations. In a town of 1,859 souls at the 2000 census, precisely 41 of them had a BA or higher. It’s not that people here are stupid, mind you — I’ve met enough of the locals to know better than that (also, Krissy is currently lacking her BA, and she’s one of the smartest humans I’ve ever met. Call her stupid and she’ll both outthink you and kick your ass). But it’s a blue-collar town smack dab in an agricultural economy. It’s a “college optional” sort of place, and the kids who do head off for college from here are doubtful to return. The educational dynamics here are going to be different from those of a community in which a larger percentage of the adult population is college-educated and is reaping the economic benefits of that education.

Whatever the causes and rationalizations, and even factoring in the fact that I’m not one of those people that a school’s purpose is to educate children to take multiple choice state assessment tests, an Academic Emergency is still a no damn good situation for Bradford to be in. Even if one bad test performance can create a real percentage dip for the schools, the fact is one single child won’t actually put the schools in trouble — a lot of the kids have to be not making the grade. That’s a problem.

And it’s my problem, since Athena’s four, and she’ll be heading into Bradford school’s real soon now. On one level, I’m not too terribly worried, since no matter what, Athena has parents who value education and we’ll be compensating for any lack in the schools. But on the other hand, and more fundamentally, I shouldn’t have to be compensating for gaps in her education. Parents need to be active and engaged with their child’s education. But unless Athena’s teachers want to come over and do some of my work for free, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to cover the basics for my kid.

I don’t think the solution is to bail out of the Bradford schools. I don’t want to send her to private school (all of which around here are religious — thank you, no) or attempt to homeschool, which would be successful to the extent that I think we could give her a reasonable academic education, but then there’d be the whole issue of not becoming socially adapted; I’m sorry, but every time I see one of those homeschoolers win a national spelling bee or some such thing, they all look like they’ve been kept in a jar since they were infants — they look queer, in the old, non-sexualized sense of the term. No, we’re going to stay in town. I paid for that school (several thousand dollars, if it, anyway); my daughter is going to use it.

Anyway, if one student can drag down an entire school district’s scores, then it’s reasonable to assume that one set of parents can help to yank them back up. I don’t know if Bradford’s educational staff will ultimately appreciate or hate us, but in the end I’m not particularly interested in their feelings. My daughter will show up to be educated, and by God, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s not an academic emergency. It’s an academic imperative.

Steve Case is Smart

Steve Case is stepping down as Chairman of AOL Time Warner sometime in May, and that pretty much clears the deck at AOLTW of any major executives in the company that came from the AOL side of things. AOL may have swallowed Time Warner, but Time Warner then digested AOL from the inside, eventually bursting forth from the apparently surprised online giant’s chest like the creature from Alien (an analogy that would be even more trenchant if Alien were a TW property instead of being owned by 20th Century Fox).

These days it’s fashionable to bag on AOL and the AOL execs, because the online component of AOL had been nothing but a headache for the merged company and will likely continue to be so for some time to come. I wouldn’t argue the latter part of that, but I think that the business smarts of the AOL execs have been vastly underrated. This is particularly the case with Steve Case, who I submit did exactly what he’s always done, and did it superbly — looked out for the future of America Online.

Not AOL Time Warner, which is a clumsy beast at best. Fundamentally, I don’t know that Steve Case actually cares about AOL Time Warner (note that this and everything which follows is pure speculation; while I was employed by AOL for a couple of years and contracted with them after that, Case and I never bonded, or even spoke to each other in the halls). But he does care about AOL; in the early 90s Case grew the company from a third-place also-ran behind (then) giants Prodigy and Compuserve and helped it survive a direct challenge from Microsoft to become the largest online service in the world.

He did this, in part, by keeping focused the consumer. Case was a guy who spent a few years traveling the country thinking up new pizza toppings for Pizza Hut, after all. He knew from the common man. But more importantly, he did it by being scarily prescient, and when he wasn’t scarily prescient, by knowing a good thing when he saw it and snapping up the technology and the people. The man didn’t have a perfect record, but more often than not he zigged and kept on skiing while everyone else zagged and ran smack into trees.

This is why I believe that at some point Steve Case looked at the insane amounts of capital that were funneling into Internet companies and making his lower-level managers millionaires at the age of 26 and thought to himself, there’s no way this is going to last. There was a reckoning coming, and it would (and did) wipe out the value of companies just like his. So Case went looking for an old-line company that could shelter his baby from the coming storm. He found Time Warner. When they merged, he raved about synergy and combining media forces and whatnot. But really, what else would Case say? It’s not like he could come right out and say “I bought Time Warner so that when the bubble implodes, AOL can sustain itself on Time Warner’s vital juices.” That would defeat the whole purpose. And anyway, that whole synergy thing could have happened, right? Okay, then.

Baldly put, the AOL – Time Warner merger was no sweetheart no matter which side of the deal you came from originally — relative to either individual company’s stock price prior to the merger, the stock is way down. However, allow me to suggest that while a merged AOL Time Warner stock price is currently in the basement instead of the penthouse, the value of a stand-alone AOL stock would probably have zipped right past the basement on its way to the lower reaches of the economic septic tank. Time Warner gave America Online stability while it rode out the bubble pop. Without Time Warner, AOL might have survived the last few years, but it would have been an extremely uncomfortable time, with delistings, massive layoffs and Microsoft licking its chops at the idea of merging with AOL for pennies on the dollar, instead of the only moderately uncomfortable time it turned out to be.

This won’t be of any comfort for the people who came into the deal owning Time Warner stock, and who saw the value of their stock decline primarily (but to be fair, not wholly) because of the trials of AOL and the Internet business model as a whole. But if you came in from the AOL side, the next time you see Steve Case, you should give him a big hug. Your stock is worth a fraction of what it used to be, but because of his savvy, it’s almost certainly a much more generous fraction than it would be otherwise.

Case can step aside as AOLTW chairman because AOL is saved — either it will continue to be integrated into AOL Time Warner, in which case it’s got a corporate structure to keep it alive, or it’ll be spun off intact, in which case it’s on its own in a far better state than it would have been had it tried to weather the Net collapse by itself. Also, of course, if AOL is spun off again, Case would logically be the guy to run it — putting him back where he was when this whole adventure began. Which is to say, in charge, and looking ahead at things other people aren’t seeing.

OMW Followup

It’s been an interesting couple of days here at the Scalzi household, in the wake of the announcement about my book contract with Tor. I’m getting a lot of questions about the deal and what I’m doing from here, so I thought I’d answer a few of the questions that have been posed to me the most frequently yesterday.

1. Are you now rich? You’ve got a two-book deal, after all.

Heh. No. Keep in mind that this contract is for my very first novel, and the follow-up thereafter. We’re starting from the ground floor here, and this is a science fiction novel, so it’s in a genre market. The money I’m getting in advance of publication is good but modest, both in real terms and relative to the advances I get for my non-fiction books. Mr. Nielsen Hayden was forthright with me when he offered the deal, noting that the sum of the advance was not “life-changing.” From a purely economic point of view, this is correct.

However, this is just fine with me, for a number of reasons. First, the money you get as an “advance” is just that: An advance on your royalties, based on sales. You don’t start earning new royalties until you earn out your advance. To give you an example, when I signed the contract for The Rough Guide to Money Online, I was given a fairly hefty advance for the book’s category. On the flip side of that, however, I wouldn’t make any more money on the book until (and if!) the book earned out that entire advance. That was tens of thousands of copies in my particular case.

If your book sells to the point where it starts paying out again, swell — everyone likes making more money. If it doesn’t, then things become interesting because technically you haven’t earned out your advance. As a practical matter, this means little to the author in the short run, since the published never asks for the unearned portion of the book back; it’s part of the risk the publisher takes on in trying to make money off your book. On the other hand, if you develop a reputation for never earning out your advances, that’s no good for your long-term career health.

I’m not especially interested in that scenario; I prefer to look over the long-term picture. A modest advance to me today makes it easier for the book to be profitable, thereby allowing me to publish more books, grow an audience and then (hopefully) become rich on the backend, on royalties based on actual units sold. This is to say I have enough confidence in my writing that I think in time I’ll do well based on my work’s actual performance, not just by what I can wrangle out of a publisher beforehand. If I’m wrong, well, I do have a nice business writing corporate brochures and CD reviews. I’ll survive.

The second reason that I’m fine with it is that I have confidence in the people I’m working with. When it comes to science fiction, Tor is as good as it gets — these people know science fiction and book publishing inside and out, and the quality of their writers lends credence to this fact. Given the choice between my current advance and a contract at Tor, and a slightly larger advance and a contract somewhere else, I’d go with Tor, because I believe the people there can market my work really well, to the benefit of us both (now, if someone came in and offered me, like, a half million dollars, I’d probably take the money and run, baby, run. But let’s stay on the grounded side of realism, here).

So in short: I’m not rich because of my book deal. But I am very happy with what I’m getting out of it, both in terms of money and in terms of the people with whom I have the good fortune to work.

2. Why did you take Old Man’s War off the site? Putting the novel on the site is what brought you fame and glory!

Well, yes. But I did just sell the book to someone, and I’d rather err on the side of caution for right now. If Tor and I decide that it’s in our mutual benefit to put the book back up on the site (and we might; I can think of a couple of scenarios where doing so could create a net positive benefit) then it’ll go back up. In the meantime, however, it’s not as if there’s not scads to read around here, including a whole other science fiction novel, freely downloadable as “shareware.” If you haven’t read it yet, now is a fine time.

3. Will you become a full-time author now?

No. To be clear, being an author (which is to say, being a writer who writes books specifically) is going to take up a rather large proportion of my time in 2003, since I have to:
a) Make revisions to OMW as requested by my Tor overlords;
b) Write novel #2 as specified in my two book deal;
c) Proof the galleys of Rough Guide to the Universe (I’m doing that now);
d) Contribute to the upcoming Uncle John’s book;
e) Send my non-fiction agent a book proposal, and if that is then accepted and bought somewhere, write that book too;
f) Book tours and promotion for whichever books need touring and promotion.

(This is where the ability to write quickly and sleep little comes in handy.)

But for all that, my bread and butter will continue to be my corporate writing and freelance work for magazines and newspapers. Why? Because I have a mortgage, silly! And also because I actually like writing all that stuff — yes, even the corporate material, which I like because it’s an interesting intellectual exercise, it keeps my brain fresh for more creative stuff, and because it pays stupid well. Once I get to the point where I’m getting six-figure advances, then we’ll talk about being a full-time author.

I’ll admit in the best of all possible worlds, I’d like to be a full-time author, alternating fiction and non-fiction books for the next, oh, I don’t know, forty or fifty years. But until then, I’ll keep the other writing in the mix. This includes the writing for which I don’t actually get paid, meaning this Web site, which continues to be unfathomably useful in terms of my career.

4. What’s the second book going to be about?

I can’t tell you because I’m still working out the plot. I will say that it is science fiction, and involves a “diplomatic troubleshooter” who is called in to resolve tricky situations, usually through the use of action sequences and snappy dialogue. Also, it won’t take place in the OMW universe. I may revisit the OMW universe at some point in the future (why not, it’s an interesting place), but at this point I don’t really want to put all my creative eggs into one infinitely-sequelized basket. My current plan is to start sketching out the plot starting yesterday and start writing as soon as practically possible, on the reasoning that I want to give myself as much time as possible to procrastinate.

5. Since you’ve sold OMW, do you think you’ll ever sell Agent to the Stars?

I don’t know. Hell, I wasn’t expecting to sell OMW, so it’d be presumptuous to think someone’s going to swoop down and take Agent too, especially since it’s been out there on the site for going on four years now. It also has the same problem it had when I wrote it, which is that it’s hard to classify in the various SF sub-genres, which makes it hard to sell, both as an author to a publishing company, and then for the publishing company to the rest of the world. OMW at least has the benefit of nominally being military science fiction.

(This is, incidentally, mildly ironic since when I wrote Agent, I wrote a supporting essay in which I mentioned somewhat snarkily that the way to get your SF book published was to write military science fiction, and I guess I just proved my own assertion there. My defense here would be that I wrote some military fiction that I personally would want to read, heavy on the personal relationships and a bit lighter on the techno-geek stuff.)

I don’t think I’ll make much of an effort to sell Agent, in any event. I think it serves a rather useful function right now, as a risk-free introduction to my fiction writing style. People can come here, read the novel and then if they like it, can go hunting for my traditionally published books. If someone were to offer to publish it, I probably wouldn’t say no, but I’d also want to keep it up here. I would imagine that might put a damper on any potential sales. But you never know.

I am still open to different publishing avenues in a general sense. For example, I’ve been giving serious thought to collecting up selected Whatever columns over the last four years and presenting them as a book. My non-fiction agent tells me such collections are deadly in book stores; if you’re not Dave Barry, you’re not selling a book of columns, and I’m definitely not Dave Barry. So what I’ll probably do is set them up as a “Publish on Demand” thing and sell it through Amazon or some such. Because why not? Clearly I’m the last person who should suggest personal publishing doesn’t lead to anything good.

6. Think you’ll ever write a novel in a genre besides science fiction?

Dunno. I have a couple of ideas outside SF, but to be honest, I read science fiction more than I read any other genre because science fiction interests me more than other genres, and I don’t see a whole lot of a point in writing a book in a genre I don’t actually like. I realize this may lose me a few readers who choose not to lower themselves into the genre gutter with the rest of us geeks, but, you know, screw ’em. I’ll do what makes me happy, and what makes me happy (right now, at least) is science fiction.

Change in Plans

So, there’s been a slight change of plans. As you may remember (surely 2002 isn’t too hazy yet), I serialized my most recent science fiction novel, Old Man’s War, here in December, and this month I was going to put it up as shareware, a la Agent to the Stars. Well, I won’t be doing that. The reason for this is that, well, I kind of sold it. Instead of being available as shareware, Old Man’s War will be available either later this year or early next year in a hardcover edition from Tor Books, publishers of (among others) Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Steven Brust and Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, really, Teddy Roosevelt. It’s a reissue, I think, not one of those L. Ron Hubbard-eqsue “dictating from beyond the grave” situations.

Am I happy? What a silly question. I’m just glad this is a text medium, so you can’t see the footprints on my desk from where I was dancing on it (yes, I could make a little videocam movie. But, no). And it’s actually a two book deal, so I get to write at least one more novel and have someone pay me for it. As they say, it beats a sharp poke in the eye. Or in the groin. Or just about anywhere else, for that matter. Sharp poking: Bad. Two book deal: Good.

I’m also pleased to say that the book deal comes as a direct result of having the book up here on the Web site; the editor who made the offer (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who in addition to being the Senior Editor of Tor is the author of the Electrolite blog) did so after reading chapters on the site and then downloading the complete book (and by doing so, Mr. Nielsen Hayden’s ranking on my list of People Who Can Ask For a Kidney and Not Be Dismissed Out of Hand has shot up rather dramatically over the last few days. And I can assure you, it’s a very short list).

I’m not 100% positive on this, so please don’t hit me if I’m wrong. But I’m pretty sure it’s the first time that an SF novel that’s been published on a personal Web site has been picked up by a major publisher for traditional publication. It’s not the first book that’s been derived from a personal Web site, of course — James Lileks, for one, turned part of his site into a successful non-fiction book (and has another one coming), and Pamela Ribon’s upcoming novel is in part mined from her Web site entries. But it might be the first time for a novel that was presented in more or less completed form to make the jump. If this is the case, then as you may imagine I’m rather pleased about it. One always likes to be the first at something, or at least near the top of that list. If it’s not, of course, I’m still pleased for me.

(Addendum: MJ Rose reminds me that she did it first, with her erotic-tinged novel “Lip Service.” In 1998, even. But it wasn’t science fiction, so I can still cling to being the first in that genre until someone inevitably comes to knock me off that perch. Come and get me!)

It’s also a confirmation of something I wrote just prior to serializing the novel on the site. I wrote:

There’s also another reason I’m putting it online, which is simply that I’d like to advance the possibility that something like this — self-published and online — doesn’t necessarily have to be automatically shoved into the “loser” box. Over the last year, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to and reviewing independent music through my IndieCrit site, and speaking out of a decade and a half of critical experience, much of this independently-released (and indeed largely “self-published”) music is as good or better than the music that is being shot out of the major music labels. Why shouldn’t independently-released novels have the same chance of reasonable quality? Someone’s got to start making the case for it, and why not me.

And indeed, the fact this sale was possible at all is yet another example of the maturation of the online medium. Many folks still see the online medium as the medium for people who can’t or won’t get published any other way, but that hasn’t been the case for a while now. Over the last year in particular several of the more prominent bloggers have seen their online bylines become useful in transferring their writing into the mainstream media; by the same token a number of old-line writers and journalists used the “blog” format to ratchet up their reputations (my high school classmate Josh Marshall being a fine example of that).

For talented and committed writers, writing on one’s own site is a true alternative medium which can be used for one’s overall gain, and not simply as a catchall for otherwise unusable or unpublishable material. People who write well, and write online, no longer need to feel at an inherent disadvantage to those who write well, and write in a traditional medium (bad writers, alas for them, are still stuck).

Now, before someone gets it into their head that my publishing my novel online was some sort of controlled, Machiavellian plan to forgo the SF publishing slush pile, and that Mr. Nielsen Hayden fell right into my trap, bwa hah hah hah, I’d like to be clear: I’m not nearly that organized, and I don’t know that this sort of thing is easily reproducible. Old Man’s War is a good book, but there are lots of good books out there waiting to be looked at, and typically speaking, your book has a much better chance of getting bought if you actually set it in front of an editor rather than waiting for an editor to come on by.

So in short: Boy, did I ever get lucky. I really cannot emphasize that enough, and to drive this point home, I’ll note that Agent has been online for going on four years and hasn’t had so much as a nibble, traditional publishing-wise. I don’t want to suggest we all ditch the traditional methods of getting work published. They’re traditional because they tend to work (also, if people start hounding Mr. Nielsen Hayden or any other SF editor to swing by their Web site and look at their novel, I don’t want it said it’s because I said that’s what they should do. Please, be nice to the editors. Give them love. And jewelry).

What I am saying is clearly we’ve gotten to the point where it’s no longer the smart thing to automatically dismiss writing online — even an online novel — as “not good enough.” Sometimes, it is good enough. It’s just that simple. I’m happy to be one of the guys who gets to be the case in point for that.

The Child on the Train

About a week after Krissy completed the first trimester of her pregnancy, she went in to the doctor to have a routine checkup for herself and her baby. While she was being examined, the doctor had difficulty finding the baby’s heartbeat. This in itself was not unusual — at just over three months, a fetus is still a small thing. The sound of its nascent heartbeat is easy to lose in the other sounds of the body. But by the next day, Krissy had begun to spot and bleed, and shortly thereafter she miscarried. As with nearly a quarter of all pregnancies, the processes that form and shape a life had stopped at a certain point well short of completion, and for whatever reason this child would not be born. It was a death in the family.

By and large, we kept the matter to ourselves, telling the people who needed to know — family and close friends — but otherwise saying nothing. I had written about Krissy’s pregnancy on my Web site, as I had written about Krissy’s first pregnancy — and why not, since a pregnancy (at least in the context of a happily married and financially secure couple) is a happy thing. For a writer, there’s a lot of material to discuss, so long as it’s done in a tasteful manner that doesn’t have one’s pregnant wife planning to beat one in the head with a pan. But a miscarriage is obviously something different. There’s no way to write on one’s Web site, in a breezy and conversational style, that a pregnancy has ceased.

Even if there were, the event was too close and too personal to share in that way. Celebration should be public, by definition, but grief is a fragile thing. Grief is a small, difficult and necessary visitor that dwells in your home for some little time, and then has to be gently encouraged to depart. Crowds make it nervous and inclined to stay put. We didn’t want that. We figured anyone who learned of it later would understand. We held our grief close and then after enough time, bid it farewell and set it on its way.

And it is gone; its time in our house was brief. Our friends, our family, and most of all our daughter helped see to that. One cannot stand in the face of such fortunate circumstances as we have and wish to cling to grief. There is too much that is good in our lives together to stay sad for long. So we didn’t.

Were you to express your condolences to us today, we would of course thank you for them — we know they’re sincere and we know they’re meant from the heart. But we would hope you would also understand when we said “thank you” and then chatted with you about something else entirely, it’s not because we are pained about revisiting the grief. It’s that the grief is like a shirt that is six sizes too small. It fit once, but it doesn’t fit now, and trying to get it back over our heads would be an exercise in futility.

I mention the miscarriage now primarily because this is around the time that Krissy would have been due, and various correspondents have been asking about it. When I write back that Krissy has miscarried, they’re all deeply apologetic for bringing up what they (not unreasonably) assume is a painful topic. And of course, it’s not their fault at all, since I mentioned the pregnancy but not the miscarriage. I really don’t want anyone else to feel horrifyingly embarrassed because of my decision not to discuss certain information.

I also want to avoid scenes like that one I had in October, in which I was standing around with a circle of casual acquaintances. One of them was discoursing about the danger of asking other casual acquaintances about their personal lives, since there’s always something horrible that’s happened — and no sooner did this acquaintance finish saying this than she asked me how Krissy’s pregnancy was coming along. Rarely has someone posited a statement and proved it with such brutal efficiency. I felt bad that my omission put her in such a situation. So now it’s out there.

I should mention that the fact that we’ve left behind the grief of the miscarry does not mean the event is forgotten; or perhaps it’s better to say that the child we lost is not now nor ever will be forgotten by us. It is, as I’ve said, a death in the family, and while the small absence it created is small indeed, it is yet still an absence. It doesn’t go away, and even though we see it without grief, we recognize it exists. It would be wrong to pretend it does not.

If I could describe to you what a miscarry feels like from an emotional point of view, I would ask you to imagine a dream in which you are standing on a train station platform. While you are waiting, you look through the dirty windows of the train car in front of you and see a small child looking back at you. The child’s face is indistinct because of condition of the windows, but what you can see looks achingly familiar. For a moment, the child is separated from you by only that single, dirty pane of glass. Then the train starts to move, and the child starts to move with it.

And you realize that the reason you’re on the platform at all is because you’re waiting for your own child to arrive, a child you have yet to meet. And you realize that you could have claimed that child as your own. And you know that whatever child eventually comes to you, you will love that child like the sun loves the sky, like the water loves the river, and the branch loves the tree. The child will be the greater whole in which you dwell.

But it will never be that child, the one you could only glimpse, the one who went away from you. All you can do is remember, and hope with everything in your heart that the child who went away from you finds another who will love it as the sun loves the sky, the water loves the river, and the branch loves the tree. You pray and you hope and you never forget. That’s what you do. That’s what I do.

Four Years Old

Athena woke up today to her mother and father thrusting a birthday cake at her and singing “Happy Birthday.” This confused her since she didn’t know that it was her birthday — we don’t tell her until it happens, partly because it’s fun to be surprised, and partly because this way it’s easier to manage expectations. She already knows Christmas is coming up; contemplating Christmas and her birthday together would be enough to cause her little head to pop. In a few years, of course, she’ll probably learn to dislike it because of the whole “one gift for Christmas and birthday” thing people will pull, but hopefully between now and then we’ll have a chance to impress upon her the idea that it’s not the gifts that count. In the meantime, however, we got her this really cool talking globe.

It will not come as news that I adore my child. Indeed, this is the position that one is assumed to have, and I’m quite happy to conform to expectations. Athena is exactly the child I would have wished I would have had: Smart, strong, stubborn beyond belief, and curious in all the sense that the word can be applied to a child. She’s also heartbreakingly beautiful, loving and happy (except when she not. And then she’s very not. But usually this passes quickly). She’s not a perfect child, just perfect for me. The idea that I get to help this quirky little human get a running start at the world fills me with a sense enduring and constant joy.

The bitterest of childless folks that marinate in various “childfree” groups online seem to think that feeling of joy is akin to getting a lobotomy, and as much as I’m inclined to dismiss that as the feculent bleating of the terminally selfish, I will grant that they’re on to something, even if once they’re on it they wallow in it. What they’re onto is the fact that parents fetishize their children, which annoys everyone else (even the folks who don’t endemically hate children for dark, squirrelly reasons of their own) and is really no good for the kids either.

But I think all this fetishism is something different from the joy I’m talking about. And honestly, I don’t know what’s at its root, since I don’t much understand it myself. I’m not likely to become one of those parents who schedules their kid’s life from 5:30 in the morning until 8:00 at night and who then whines, in a petulantly prideful way, about how much time and energy they have to devote to their children’s well-being. I’m certainly not going to be one of those parents who tries to block out anything in a culture that’s not child-safe, if for no other reason than that most of the things that these type of parents see as a threat are things I see as an opportunity to teach my daughter how to mock. It’s already working; when the commercials come on the TV, she typically turns to me and says “Would you mute these, please, daddy? These commercials are evil.” She’s well on her way.

A good friend of mine who is also a parent recently commented that as much as she loves and adores her child, there’s a part of her that misses the freedom she had before, including the ability to actually have a thought process that goes for more than 20 seconds before it’s interrupted by a little human asking for a juice box. And it’s true enough that parenting fundamentally means giving up part of yourself into the service of someone else, who is at first too young, and in the teenage years typically too self-oriented, to conceive of the idea that you also belong a world with which they do not intersect. Everyone remembers the disorientation we felt when we first realized our parents had more going on their lives that we had ever suspected. Now we’re on the other side of the equation.

I’m pretty confident my friend will figure out the right balance in time; she’s smart and if nothing else, in time the kids go to school, and you have several hours in a day in which you can link thoughts together without interruption. For me, it’s always been that what I’ve gained from being a parent has outweighed what I’ve had to put aside. This is partly due to my own personal inclinations — I’m not now nor have ever been one of the 24-hour party people, for whom the introduction of a small person would mean schedule crimpage, and the things I do enjoy are easy enough to juggle along with family. But I also simply suspect I’m one of those people who is reasonably well-designed for parenthood. At the very least, I can be pedantic, which suits having a kid. In the short term, at least, my kid enjoys hearing me rattle on about stuff.

I’m looking forward to the next few years. I was pleasantly surprised by Athena’s early childhood — I thought my assumed particular skills as a parent would be wasted on the infant and toddler years. I learned that they weren’t, and that the skills I thought I had were different from the skills I actually do have. And I do know that I already miss Athena as a baby.

But now Athena’s asking questions about the world — really good questions — and she’s at the point where she’s able to understand answers. And she asks a lot of questions. And boy, am I ready. Finally, all those years of learning pointless information are going to pay off, since it’s no longer pointless. It serves to expand my daughter’s knowledge of the world, and she’s loving the fact that her world is expanding. It’s fun.

I can’t wait to see what the next year brings for Athena and to us as her parents. We are blessed and lucky. And hopefully we can make our daughter feel the same way. We’ll try. It’s what you want as a parent: The hope, the effort and the enduring joy.

Happy birthday, Athena. I love you.

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