Now It Can Be Told

I’ve been playing coy about some big news, but now I’ve signed the contracts so I can spill. Here it is:

In a couple of weeks, I start blogging for AOL.

To expand: As many of you know, America Online has built a new blogging tool and area, which it is calling AOL Journals. Jeff Jarvis and other selected bloggers got a peek at the tool a little while back (here Jeff’s entry on it, as well as his AOL beta blog); and the buzz was pretty good — the general consensus was that AOL was making a pretty good attempt to provide a useful and usable tool for its members.

Well, to that end, consider me an extension of that attempt for the usefulness and usability of AOL Journals; broadly speaking, my job will be to show AOL members how blogging and journaling is done, both by example (i.e., by blogging and opining myself) and by acting as a sort of tutor/instigator/spotlight operator for AOL Journals. I’ll also be doing time as a general cheerleader for the concept of writing online in all its forms.

So, for example, during the day I’ll link to some interesting thing out there, ask a few thought-provoking questions about the subject, invite people to write about the subject in their AOL Journals (and outside blogs) and send me the links, which I would then post as an update. I’ll also be doing the time-honored stomp through the AOL Journals and the rest of the blog world to find other worthy linkables. And on top of all that I’ll be doing some other stuff too, which I won’t talk about now but which will hopefully be neat.

So basically, my job:

1. Demystify the journaling and blogging process for AOL members so they can jump in and start doing it.

2. Encourage the writing, reading, and linking of blogs and journals on AOL and in the blogoverse.

3. Write a kick-ass blog worth reading.

Why me? Well, why not? Also, as many of you know, I have a long and involved history with America Online, both as an employee and as a contractor, and I also have a long and involved history with writing online, having been a participant in both the early (journaling) and later (blogging) waves of online writing. And of course I’m a professional writer. So I know more than a little about AOL, online writing, and writing in general. I’m qualified. I’m biased toward myself, of course, but I think I could be good for what AOL wants to do with this thing, and as helper for AOL members, and also as a bridge between AOLers and the blogoverse. We’ll see how it goes from here.

Let’s go to the questions:

So you’re a corporate tool now?

You betcha. And I’m getting paid to be a corporate tool, too. And as we all know, a paid corporate tool is the best kind of corporate tool there is.

Does this mean you’ll have the awesome power of AOL at your command?

Yes! Fear me!

No, no, no. I mean, yes, the idea is to be something of a guide to the blogoverse and beyond for AOL members, so they have an easy entry into the concept of writing online. I’ll be doing a lot of linking out into the world, which means that (presumably) some of you will get some more AOLers coming your way to sample your wares (and hopefully vice-versa: That you’ll be coming in to read the new blog and to check out the people who blog and journal on AOL).

Will they be life changing, Instapundit-esque numbers of visitors? I don’t know. What’s more, I’m not really going to worry about that. My job is to make a useful, fun blog. Whether it gets read is a factor of how successfully I pull off that particular job.

So, yeah, no pressure there.

Also, another reason for me not to get delusions of grandeur: My contract’s fairly short. I view this as a intro gig to help AOL Journals and AOL Journals writers get going. If it goes longer than the current contract, groovy. We’ll see where it goes from here.

So you’ll be blogging using AOL Journals?

Yup. That’s the idea. The first step in encouraging AOLers to have fun with AOL Journals is to have fun with it myself.

So what happens to the Whatever?

I’ll still be writing here; my gig for AOL entails blogging of the “many short entries” variety, and as you know I do enjoy going on about things. So I expect the Whatever will continue to be the repository for the longer sort of blatherings you’ve all come to know and love. So keep dropping by from time to time.

Having said that, don’t expect tons here in August and September. In addition to building out my space on AOL, I’m cramming through Book of the Dumb and also plugging away at The Android’s Dream. Dumb is due September 1, and Android October 1, so between those two and my AOL duties, I’ll be a bit busy.

But it’s not as if you won’t be getting a lot of me over at my AOL gig. Trust me, kids, I’m planning to have more fun with this than you might think is humanly possible.

More details as they come.

Sharon Short

I’m giving a quick shoutout and mad props to my literary homey Sharon Short, whose first novel Death of a Domestic Diva just came out. Sharon’s a fellow Dayton Daily News freelancer; she writes a weekly humor column for them (as do I, except it’s cleverly disguised as DVD reviews). Diva’s a mystery novel that takes place in small-town Ohio and features as its protagonatrix a laundromat owner who may have the best stain-removing powers in the entire of the United States. To which I say, yeah? Come down and tackle my carpet after Rex has done his daily yakk all over it. Be that as it may, you can be assured of lots of murder, skullduggery and cleaning tips, and really, I don’t know how much more you can ask out of a novel. Here’s a link to the sample chapter excerpt.

It occurs to me as I’m giving Sharon a shout-out that all the novelists for whom I’ve done a logroll recently have been female: Sharon, Pamie and Naomi Kritzer. I don’t have anything against male novelists, I guess I just don’t know any personally. So, male novelists: Who wants to be my new pal? Anyone? Anyone? Hmph.

Note to Music Industry

Hey, guys:

Now that the favorite type of music theivery involves downloading albums from the Internet — and indeed this sort of theft is several mega multiples of a problem than physical in-store theft — can we please, please, please lose the stupid sticky plastic strip you place across the top of every CD? I can download an entire album in less time than it takes to open up a CD.

That’s a threat, incidentally.

Slaking My Techno Thirst

Yesterday someone asked me if the creation of the wireless network at the house meant that I had gone off and bought one of the toys I was thinking about getting in the “I Want” entry a couple of weeks ago. The answer to this, yesterday, was no: I had just decided I wanted a wireless network at home so I could do work without having to schlep discs around and also cruise the Web with a broadband connection and not tie up the phone.

However, today, in fact about six minutes ago, I did buy one of the toys: The tablet PC. Sometime tomorrow, my new toy will arrive, all shiny and new: A Toshiba 3500, with a 1.3 Ghz PIII processor, 40GB hard drive, 512 RAM, and a 12.1-inch screen and of course, built-in wi-fi, and other bells and whistles. I’m giddy like a school girl. Here are the gory tech details, if you’re interested. I got a good deal because I went the refurbished route, which is to say it was a probably a review loaner that was eventually returned to Toshiba, who then tricked it out (its specs are like those of the slightly more advanced 3505 model) and pumped it back out onto the market. Since the fact that someone else typed on it for a while means that I save several hundred dollars off the asking price while still having the same warranty as a new model, I don’t mind the pre-typing.

Hyper-observant readers will note that my purchasing said tablet was contingent on me hearing about a thing I was waiting to hear about. Well, I’ve heard, and barring an act of God or upper management, it’s a go. I can’t tell you what it is, however, until I sign the contract. Suffice to say it could be pretty damn cool. Sorry to tease you like this, but it’s one of those things where if I announced what I was doing before it happened, and it didn’t happen due to the aforementioned acts of God or upper management, I’d look pretty sad. So no point in jinxing it. You’ll know when I do (or more accurately, after I do and then have told a few other people by phone, e-mail and IM).

Okay, off to work for me — got some CD and DVD reviews to do. And soon, I’ll do them sitting on the couch! With my new toy! Bwa ha ha ha ha! Ahem.

I Partially Rock!

Y’all don’t have to call out the animal control; I got my home network up and running. Sort of. Which is to say that I’ve managed to connect two of my computers together, although the third computer, which is the one in Athena’s room, stubbornly refuses find the wireless network. I think it’s connecting to itself, which is sort of sad, in a computer-y sort of way. But I’ll figure that out later.

I also somehow managed to get my Internet connection grafted onto my network (I’m writing this on the laptop downstairs), which is an impressive feat inasmuch as Starband, my satellite ISP, intentionally goes out of its way to defeat your ability to network the connection. It’s because they want you to buy their “Small Business” package, which cost twice as much but allows multiple users. To which I say, Dear Starband: Eat me. Next year I’ll be switching over to the new satellite ISP that will be bundled with Dish Network, which will be twice as fast and will let me network myself silly. So enjoy my money while you can, you difficult, difficult people.

So how did I manage to network my Internet connection? Got me. I just kept fiddling with stuff until it did what I wanted (this required about six system restores). Having now achieved some semblance of what I want my home network to do, I will now proceed never to touch anything on it ever again. I’ll fiddle with Athena’s computer some more, but then again, she’s four. It’s not like she needs to be networked.

Speaking of Athena and her computer, her computer today is a new one, which is to say, my old one, which was a pretty good one until the motherboard fried in its own juices. The nice thing there was that the motherboard was under warranty, so replacing it was free, it just took forever for the motherboard to get here. After upgrading Athena’s computer, I figured I might as well upgrade her desk at well, so I spent part of the morning assembling a student desk for her (her old desk was just a table which was too small for both the keyboard and the trackball at the same time; now that problem is solved.

So I basically spent the day doing two things I totally suck at — assembling things and doing technical stuff — and I managed not to screw either of them up. I partially rock.

Pray for Me

I am about to attempt to install a wireless network in my home. If you don’t hear from me by the end of the day, please alert the proper authorities, because it is highly likely that I have smashed every single bit of technology in my home with a hammer out of sheer, unadulterated frustration and will need to be tranquilized.

That will be all.


For the last several weeks, I’ve been referring to the new cat Ghlaghghee as “he.” Turns out, upon closer inspection, that Ghlaghghee was either a female cat all along, or sometime in the course of her tenure with us experienced spontaneous gender reassignment, not unlike a clown fish. I suspect the former, although the latter, let’s admit it, would really be kind of cool.

However it happened, Ghlaghghee will henceforth be referred to as “she” and other appropriate gender descriptors. We are all pleased to have caught this early on, before a lack of concrete gender identity could cause our fluffy friend serious psychological trauma.

In other news, Athena remains female. We’re pretty positive about that one.

Workshop Fracas

This is interesting to me: Gene Wolfe, the noted fantasy writer, was the author-in-residence at the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop earlier this month. As Wolfe began his critiques, some of the members of the workshop were apparently taken aback at his style and his bluntness; after a few days of this, one of the workshop members submitted a letter to Wolfe complaining about his style. Wolfe’s response to the letter was to pack up and leave. Wolfe tells his side of the story here; workshop member Sarah Totten provides her point of view here, and here’s another perspective, from workshop member Natalia Lincoln.

I should note that coloring this commentary is my personal aversion to the workshop concept, which has more to do with my own personality than it does the relative value of sitting around talking about your writing with other writers. For some people it works. On my end — and this is my raging egotism here — I’d rather spend my time putting my work in front of people who are going to pay me for my work, than pay to have people read it. We can talk about the value of workshops in becoming a better writer, whatever that means, but being that I write for a living, I’m more interested in becoming a commercial writer, and unfortunately commentary on my writing from a bunch of other unpublished writers is of little utility in that regard. Being a better writer is something of a moot point, since if you’re not a commercial writer to some extent, very few people will know whether your writing is any good or not.

(This snotty attitude toward writing is not new by any stretch of the imagination; I believe I’ve mentioned before that while I was in college, I refused to participate in “roundtable” paper criticisms with other students on the grounds that they, as students, weren’t qualified to critique my papers, and I, for my part, wasn’t going to do the TA’s job for him unless I got paid, too. My TA got back at me by giving every paper I wrote a C+, but the joke was on him in that I didn’t care about my grades, and I grew up to become a professional writer. Ha! Ha, I say!)

But of course it works the other way, too — were I an unpublished writer, any comments I could give other writers would be of questionable utility, since my experience with being published would be minimal. I could offer my thoughts as a reader, but then, so could any literate person. So, to get back to the workshop thing, I don’t see what the value is in paying a couple grand to have a bunch of readers read my work. I could get that done for free (look what you’re doing right now).

Now, at this point in my life, I’d be willing to participate in a workshop environment because I’m on the other end of the stick — I’ve been a professional writer for 15 years, I’ve published (or will have published) a number of books, and I’ve also been a commercial editor, charged with buying and then editing submissions from writers. In other words, I now have a level of experience that means that when I make a comment or suggestion regarding the writer’s work, it would have some practical, real world value. I wouldn’t feel like a total ass telling an aspiring writer what I thought were the pluses and minuses of the work. This is professional pride in action: I’ve been around the block a few times now. I know whereof I speak. Mostly.

So, in short: Workshops — eh. I’d go for the pros and their comments. Everything else is group-huggy self-affirmation.

Alas for the people at the Odyssey Workshop, many of them seem to have gone for the group-huggy self-affirmation rather than the useful aspect of having their work read and commented upon by a professional — and to have the exposure to how a professional writer approaches the work, and how the professional world approaches writing as well. One of the most interesting and telling comments came from Ms. Totter, who wrote in her journal about Odyssey, after first being exposed to Wolfe and his critical style: “Since when did writing become a competitive sport? We’re supposed to be fostering camaraderie here, not cutthroat one-upmanship.”

Anyone who believes professional writing is not a competitive sport needs to take a field trip to any of the major publishing houses and take a long loving look at the slush pile. Professional writing is intensely competitive. I’ll trot out my favorite personal example here: When I was editing that humor area on America Online lo those many years ago, I had 20 open spaces a month to fill with submissions. I got, on average, 1000 submissions a month. This means that for every piece I accepted, I rejected 49, which is (if my spotty math holds up) a 98% rejection rate. And when you consider that after the first couple of months, more than half of my available slots went to people I worked with before and knew could provide me quality material, the real world rejection rate for someone sending me something blind was 99+%. It was substantially easier to get into Harvard than to place work with me.

In fact, the sports analogy is an interestingly sound one when it comes to publishing (especially book publishing). Each major publisher is like a major league baseball team, which has a certain number of slots to fill on its playing card every year and a certain amount of money to spend to fill those slots. The all-stars are few and get the most money, and the rest of the holes are filled with utility players just happy to be in the game instead of having to lift appliances for a living (which one am I? Are you kidding? I know what I got for an advance. Right now, I’m a utility infielder all the way. I just hope I can help the team, and God willing, everything will work out).

Every year, some potentially exciting new players get picked up, some underperforming old players get dropped. Some have Hall of Fame careers. Some go back to their day jobs and are glad they at least got into The Show. Writing is a business as well as everything else it is, and if you’re going to go pro, you have to perform. Someone is ready to take your place in the publisher’s lineup if you don’t. Competition is built in. Maybe it’s not fair, but the real world isn’t like t-ball, where everybody gets to bat.

As for camaraderie, I think it’s a great idea: I know other writers, I like other writers. I like seeing other writers I know succeed. But ultimately it’s not what professional writing’s about, any more than great dugout camaraderie is the point of a professional baseball team. The Detroit Tigers could very well have the most self-affirming dugout in the major leagues, but the fans would probably rather the players hated each other’s guts and won 100 games. A writer’s audience cares about what’s on the page; the professional writer’s job is to give the readers a reason to care (and hopefully to care with their wallets and charge cards). No amount of group hugging will matter if your writing doesn’t sell itself.

Ms. Lincoln, in describing her reaction to Mr. Wolfe’s critique wrote: “Wolfe’s critique didn’t give me anything the rest of the class couldn’t deliver, only more tactfully.” Ms. Lincoln, with no disrespect to her follow workshoppers, is probably wrong on this: Mr. Wolfe has published a couple dozen novels across four decades, as well as innumerable short stories over a longer span of time, many of which have been nominated for (and on several occasion have won) the various top SF/F awards. This means he has an excellent combination of overall writing skill and commercial savvy; no one gets continuously published over four decades if he doesn’t know what he’s doing in both departments.

Writing skill doesn’t necessarily imply teaching skill, however. But in this case Mr. Wolfe has taken part in workshops at Clarions East and West and at Florida Atlantic University, and taught creative writing at Columbia University. So all the way around, Wolfe has the personal and professional experience to provide useful criticism, in a way that the others in the workshop almost certainly could not (otherwise they wouldn’t be there).

Wolfe’s crime, as far as I can see, was to provide criticism in a manner not to the liking of the workshop members. And this is where I, both as a professional writer and as a professional critic, have to ask: So? Is it the instructor’s job to be liked, or is it his job to provide useful information? When I was in high school, I remember telling one of my teachers one day that I thought his classes would go more successfully if he tried connecting with the students in a way that was more on their level.

He tried it the next day, and whether he was intentionally mocking me or merely making a sincere attempt, I couldn’t say. But I can say it was probably the most deeply embarrassing experience I had as a student, in that I suggested something that was so obviously ill-suited to the man. It was also the first time I realized that teachers who don’t teach us the way we think we want to be taught aren’t always bad teachers. Maybe the way they teach in itself is a lesson. I can’t say that I became a better student in that particular class, but I do know I paid more attention to how my teacher tried to teach me.

And maybe that’s what Wolfe was doing, too. Wolfe’s critical style was by all accounts confrontational, comparative and deeply subjective, to which I say: Welcome to criticism. Constructive criticism doesn’t have to be “nice”; it can be abrupt and offensive. Criticism can shock you out of your complacency and remind you that the world is not in fact a cozy circle of workshop buddies. I’m not Wolfe, so I can’t say what he was thinking, but I do know that the real world of writing is confrontational (unless you think rejection is a passive act), comparative (in that editors always have something else in the pile to go with instead of your piece) and deeply subjective (editors like some things more than others).

This may have been these workshop writers’ first exposure to this point of view, but if they intend to be professional writers it won’t be their last, guaranteed. It could be that Wolfe wanted them to get an idea of what they’d be getting into for the next few decades of their lives. Those who couldn’t hack Wolfe getting into their faces about their writing might want to rethink their plans. In which case they might want to thank Wolfe for helping them bail out early.

Had I been in Wolfe’s shoes, I would not have quit. I would have gone into that classroom and told them (those who would listen) that if they thought he was being rough, that they should just wait until their first batch of book reviews rolled in. The professional writing life is not for people who need to be affirmed. It’s 98% rejection on a good day.

Writers also need to learn to stand their ground in the face of withering criticism. If your response to being slagged is to run away and write whiny letters about how your critic was unfair, man, are you ever in the wrong line of work. If you believe in your work, you fire back and you give as good as you get. You take your fight to your critic and make him or her back up the criticism. When your critics have a point, you learn and you move on. But when you think you’re right, you argue it, tooth and nail, and you win or die trying.

Maybe Wolfe was trying to see if anyone in his group of writers would fight back. In her reportage, Ms. Lincoln prides herself on not losing her cool in the face of a barrage of criticism. I think she got it all wrong — I think she should have blasted back and made Wolfe explain his points. For all his experience, in the end he’s just a man, not a burning bush. His word is not law. For all his experience, he could be full of crap. I can’t speak for Wolfe, quite obviously, but if I unleashed a barrage of criticism and the response was a prissy, passive-aggressive letter of complaint, I could see how leaving might appear to be a viable option as well. I wouldn’t leave — but I could see thinking about it.

Wolfe wrote: “Whatever rumor may say, the fault was entirely mine. It was my job to communicate with the students. I tried to, but I failed.” He is bearing too much of the burden on his shoulders. Like my high school teacher, he taught his material in a way he knew worked, not in a way that was comfortable for his students. Students are not passive vessels; they have to meet their teachers halfway. It doesn’t sound like these students made much of an effort. If this is their Odyssey, they’re stuck eating lotuses, preferring a pleasant fiction to the harder road of writing — and defending their writing — in the real world.

Update: Ms. Lincoln posts a followup here.

Update 2: Harlan Ellison, among others, offers commentary in Locus Online’s Letters Page.

Update 3: Ellison again, on his own site, getting the full story from the Odyssey coordinator. You’ll need to scroll down to the entry dated “Saturday, July 26 2003 15:43:5.” The fracas seems to be primarily the work of one person, presuming to speak for the entire class, when in fact he spoke only for himself. The class has also likewise since written a letter of apology to Wolfe, which was nice of them. Ellison also has some comments about the Workshop format as it exists today, which I think are consonant to what I’ve written above (although Ellison, of course, allows himself to be more pungent).

Another Review of “Universe”

Another positive review of The Rough Guide to the Universe, this one from New Scientist, a British science magazine. It’s always nice when people whose job it is to know about this stuff say you’re doing a good job. Here’s the entire review, and if you don’t want to click through, allow me to excerpt:

“Once again, Rough Guides have successfully turned their hand to an alternative project… those stepping out with their first cosmos-bound Inter-rail pass will find what to look for and where to find it. This has always been the Rough Guide ethos, and it will serve budding star travellers as well as it did me on my first visit to the Cyclades.”

Yay, I say.


I’d like to leave you all with the impression that my child is so pleasantly spirited that we never ever have to suppress the urge to wring her adorable little neck, but alas, I cannot. Our child, like every four-year-old you’ll ever meet, is perfectly capable of being a raging butthead when it suits her to be so. The picture to the right is one of those moments, in which Athena is doing her level best to press her mother’s buttons and is in fact doing a pretty good job of it.

I’d like to say that she doesn’t press my button with equal facility, but aside from being a lie, it would get me in trouble with Krissy because it would be insinuating that I’m a more together parent than she is. And then I’d get the same look that she’s currently giving Athena. That’s a scary look and unlike Athena (who as you can see is practicing her own glare), I have enough experience with that look to want to run and hide. It’s not that I’m scared of my wife. I just know that she has the potential to make me scared of her.

The funny thing about our difficult child is that she is kind of amusing, as long as she’s not being specifically difficult towards you. Truth be told, I really don’t know why Krissy didn’t punch me out as I was taking this picture, since she was trying to make a serious point to Athena about something and here I was giggling as I snapped pictures of them going at it with my digital camera. But on the other hand, there have been times when I’ve been doing the same thing as Krissy is trying to do here and been aware of Krissy standing behind Athena’s shoulder trying hard not to bust up. So we’re sort of even on these things.

Objectively speaking, Athena’s difficulty is not disturbingly frequent nor terribly high. She’s incredibly stubborn and often moody, but she doesn’t break things, or hurl objects, or stab stuffed animals or anything of that nature. It’s not to say that when she’s difficult, she’s not difficult, merely not unhinged. She’s smart enough to know that there are some boundaries that are not to be crossed without repercussion, although of course she’ll tromp right over them, just to dare us to do something. Yeah, we’ll have fun when she’s a teenager. At least our personal property will stay in the correct number of pieces. And she gives every indication of getting over stuff quickly. There are worse ways for the kid to be. — a Review

So, being that I’m not a member of the Mac tribe, and am unlikely to become so anytime soon, I was thrilled that has started today. It’s an iTunes-like service which features something on the order of 300,000 downloadable songs, all available for those of us of the Windows persuasion — indeed, since the files are all in the Windows Media format, it’s not available to Mac users at all (they already have iTunes, so they’re probably not crying). You can download individual tracks for prices ranging from 79 cents to 99 cents, and albums starting at $7.99, although newer albums get into the $12.99 range and above, which is probably indicative of the music companies’ desire for you to go out and actually buy the disc. Like iTunes, you don’t need to subscribe — you can buy stuff a la carte. So I did.

My initial impressions are that the service is adequate-to-good with a lot of space to improve. To begin with, I found the restrictions on the site kind of annoying for me specifically: can only be accessed with Microsoft’s IE browser. Since my default browser is Mozilla’s Firebird, this is something of a hassle, but this is probably not an issue for the 96% of you who use IE as your default browser.

My second problem is that for some reason is under the impression that my IP address is from out of the country, which it is not, unless Ohio seceded from the rest of the US overnight. I suspect this has something to do with my satellite modem. But as does not allow people from outside the US and Canada to download music, the site wouldn’t let me buy anything initially. My workaround for this was to connect with my dial-up AOL connection through the purchasing process, thereby providing the site with a onshore IP address, and then switch off AOL when I came to the download page in order to use the broadband connection I have through the satellite. It’s pointless and stupid, but isn’t that just life for you. I’d be interested to know if any other satellite and/or broadband users have the same problem.’s music selection is interestingly spotty, although that’s not entirely unexpected at this point. The selections are largely confined to major labels for now, and many of the major artists aren’t represented, or if they are, it’s just some of their work. U2, for example, is limited to their last full album (All That You Can’t Leave Behind) and their “Greatest Hits” collections; there are no tracks from the Beatles or the Stones. Obscure bands are likewise somewhat randomly represented: Spandau Ballet and Haircut 100, for example, get only a track of an 80s compilation, whereas the equally one-hiterrific When in Rome has an entire album for download. At this point it’s hit and miss as to what you’ll find.

Rather more of a drawback is that some albums advertised for sale either aren’t downloadable as full albums (only selected tracks available for download) or aren’t downloadable at all. I purchased Depeche Mode’s 81-85 singles collection for download and wasn’t provided any download page at all. This is a real big issue, obviously; nothing’s going to irritate customers more than paying for an album that they then can’t download (I sent a note to the help desk, which theoretically at least will deal with the issue within one working day. We’ll see).

Each .wma file is encoded at 128Kbps, which presumably provides CD equivalent quality music, although I found the music replication to be variable, even within albums themselves. For example, Barenaked Ladies’ “The Old Apartment” for their greatest hits package sounds just peachy, but “Pinch Me,” from the same album, sounds statically sibilant in that way that .wma files often do (.wma files in my experience have a real problem with higher frequencies).

Each track also has varying amounts of digital rights management restrictions encoded into them, relating to the number of computers the file can be downloaded onto, how many transfers to portable players it allows, and how many times the track can be burned onto a CD. Newer tracks typically more restricted than older tracks: “Woman in Chains,” a 12-year-old track from Tears for Fears that I downloaded, for example, offers unlimited burning and transfers, but can only be downloaded onto one computer; the Barenaked Ladies album tracks allow you to download them onto three computers and make unlimited file transfers, but you can only burn the track to CD three times. Clearly these restrictions are of nominal concern to anyone with minimal technical knowledge and/or a desire to burn the track more than the number of allotted times, but it serves the purpose of keeping casual listeners tied down, and that’s fine.

The download process itself is pretty simple (it’s like downloading any software from the net), although when you download an entire album, you have to download it track by track instead of having an option to have the whole thing downloaded as one file. This is a kind of work-intensive, especially if the album has a lot of tracks (the Barenaked Ladies disc had 19 tracks).

I thought the design of the site itself was pretty kludgy, in that it’s not at all easy to do any real browsing for tracks. If you’ve got a specific band or track in mind, the search function finds it (if it’s there), but otherwise it’s a hard slog through lots of screen to find interesting stuff.

Right out of the gate, I give a C all the way around: The music collection is adequate but could be larger and definitely needs indie artists, the UI is tolerable but needs improvement, and the music files themselves are generally okay but of inconsistent quality. The good news here is that I suspect this is only the first such store for Windows users: iTunes will have a Windows version later, and if Amazon, et al., don’t start doing this stuff soon, I’ll eat my hat. In the meantime, this is a serviceable but not spectacular way to do the right thing and actually pay for music online.


Here’s an interesting article by the former girlfriend of Jonathan Franzen, the now-famous writer of The Corrections, and of other books I haven’t read but which I am told are very good (and not just because Oprah thinks so). It’s mostly about her observing herself observing her ex-boyfriend’s literary fame, which is a matter of personal import since she is herself a writer, and simply put, it’s not usually a very good thing when the person who you are with does the same thing you do and does better (in terms of finances and fame) than you do. This is especially true of writers, who live much of their lives internally and therefore have more time (and ability of expression) to stew and envy and plot and pick.

One should never generalize about these things, but I personally think that a real good recipe for misery would be two writers in a romantic relationship with each other. Others may disagree: They may say that a spouse who writes understands what you’re going through, might be able to offer perspective and guidance and assistance, and all that happy crap. But as valuable as those things might be, there’s another far more detrimental dynamic, which is that unless they are writing wholly disparate things — say, one writes fiction and one writes science textbooks, and neither has the ambition to dabble in the other’s area — two writers under the same roof are always competing with each other, for the cleverest lines, the most sales, for the most raw talent.

And what’s more, the happy couple are competing with each other in a medium that encourages the author to digest the minutiae of personal life and disgorge it onto the page. The two authors will soon be feeding on each other for material, and if that isn’t incestuous and recursive enough, when one of them becomes more successful than the other, the other will hate them for it. Not all — some writers are secure enough in what they’re doing (or relish their indie cred enough) that they don’t see the success of their spouse or lover as a negative commentary on their own work. I even know a couple. But, shall we say, they’re remarkably secure people in a field filled with twitchy types.

One of the things that I have always been relieved about regarding my own marriage is that Krissy and I have no cause to compete on a professional level. She has no ambitions to write for a living, and I have no desire to do what she does, and that leaves the both of us to be wholeheartedly supportive of each other without even the slightest hint of envy or unhappiness. I want my wife to be madly successful, and she me. If she manages one day to become a VP or CEO, I’m not going to sit around wondering if I should be at the same place in my own career; if I write a bestselling book one day, she’s not going to wonder why I was doing so well when her book of short stories was being remaindered. Marriage is work enough without having to define your success relative to your spouse.

Success is a funny thing anyway, especially for creative types. You have to train yourself not to begrudge it to others, and indeed to want others to succeed in your field. Writers are supremely passive-aggressive (again part and parcel of that whole spending too much time in your own head thing), and it’s an effort not to wonder what someone else’s success means for your own or your own lack thereof. Eventually you have to realize that success is not a zero-sum game (well, technically it is, because there’s a finite number of publishers with a finite amount of resources, publishing a finite amount of books every year — but all those numbers are large enough that for the individual author, the point is moot). Despite what you may think, the success of others is not a referendum on you.

Eventually you realize there’s a positive value in the success of others, especially if you know them or are connected to them in some way. I am tickled six kinds of pink that Pamie’s book has been flying off the shelves and that my friend Naomi’s fantasy series has been so well received. I know Cory Doctrow only through the “Six Degrees of Separation” group-hug that’s known as the blog world, but I feel invested in the fine performance of his novel because it’s proof that you can put your work online and people will still choose to shell out for it in traditional form. Everyone who succeeds shows that success is possible; I’ve also found that those who have success usually want their friends to succeed as well. I know in my own case that I can name a couple of writers who I can’t wait to be “next” — I want them in the same club I’m in because I like being with my friends.

But I’ll also note I’m not married to any of these people, and although I like to think of myself as genially secure in the success of these other writers, I’m also pleased not to be in a position where I have to worry about how my dealing with their success affects our mortgage and children. As I said, romantic relations are complicated enough. The possibility of envying the success of the one you love shouldn’t be a part of it. I’m glad in my case it’s not.

A Good Bad Day

Today was in many respects a remarkably crappy day, easily the worst I’ve had for the year, and I expect it’s the topper for what has been not one of my best weeks on record. The bad news hit early enough in the day that I had something of an adrenaline rush by the time I usually drive Athena off to day care, and it put me in a depressed enough mood that I realized that any chance of getting any substantive work done had pretty much gone right out the window. The prediction for the day had me sitting in front of the computer screen all day long, glowering sullenly and uselessly and occasionally repressing the urge to take a hammer to something expensive.

So I went with plan B: When Athena woke up, I told her that she wasn’t going to go to school today. And then she and I spent nearly the entire day playing. We went shopping for a new computer game for her, and also bought a ball. Then we came home and played “tag ball” in which you play tag, but with a ball (it’s good for hand-eye coordination. Honest). We ate fast food. We had cookies. We watched (in no particular order) Spongebob Squarepants, the Powerpuff Girls, and Courage the Cowardly Dog.

We talked about stuff: She wanted to know why there were seasons, and I told her. She wanted to know what flowers were for, so I told her. She wanted to know why it was so cold on Pluto, and I told her. I also gave her a representation of the diameter of Jupiter, using her new ball and my own body (which was, conveniently, to scale if the ball represented earth). She played with chalk while I took pictures. And I told her a lot that I loved her.

And it worked, because today was in many respects a remarkably good day. I realize that many of you parents out there don’t have the option, as I have, of deciding that a particular day is going to be Screw It All And Play With Your Kid Day, but if you do have that option, you should take it (or simply call in sick). It’s not a cure-all for your various problems, but it’s nice to spend the day in someone else’s world, especially someone whose day revolves around finding new and exciting ways to plug into what the world has to offer.

At one point in the day, Athena told me that when she grew up, she was going to play all the time. I imagine today would have been very much like a day in that life. It’s a nice life to visit. I can’t stay in it — work calls, I’m too much of a grown-up to ignore it for long, and anyway I like to work — but a day in the life is enough if it’s done right. Athena and I did it right. I’m glad we did.

I Want

Thanks to high winds and storms, my power is flickering on and off, and so is my attention span for work. So I’m going to take a few minutes to talk about the things I want, and not in that holistic, wishing-for-world-peace-and-harmony way. No, I’m talking about physical things I want. It’s all about my materialism.

Because, why not admit it? I’m materialistic. I better be, since I’ve got a house full of crap, and if I pretended like it didn’t matter to me in my extreme Dali Lama-ness, the rest of the world would be fully justified in slapping around my hypocritical ass. I don’t think I like having stuff to such a degree that it runs my life — I don’t sit around with the nagging fear that someone somewhere has neater toys than I. Also, I shop at Wal-Mart and Meijer and Target (an artifact of living out in the middle of nowhere), and it’s hard to get all precious about possessions that are spurted out into the universe in the mighty torrents required to satisfy a discount retailer’s gaping maw.

So: I don’t live and die by what I have. But by the same token, sometimes it’s just neat to have stuff, and right at this moment there’s some neat stuff I just want to have. What kind of neat stuff? This kind of neat stuff:

1. A Tablet PC. And specifically, a Toshiba Portege 3505 Tablet PC. Three reasons. One, my current laptop shows all the signs of a death rattle, including random, inexplicable overheating, and that’s my cue to start looking for something a little less prone to heat death. Two, it has a lot of features I can use, including built-in WiFi, which will let me wander around the house and do work, which will be useful in the next couple of months when I have both a couple of books to top off and a wife who would prefer I don’t spend 20 hours a day cooped up in the same room, away from her and normal family life. At least with a tablet PC I can interact with her while typing up stuff. Three, because tablet PCs are the bomb. They’re like living in the future! And if I can’t have a rocket car to the moon, this would be a nice stopgap.

2. A Palm Tungsten C. This is also the bomb, as it has nearly the same processing specifications as my computer two computers back, and that’s just cool. It also critically has a tiny little keyboard, which is (pardon the pun here) key for me. My handwriting is awful, and if I had to use it to communicate I would probably starve to death.

I have little or no use for a Tungsten C — hell, I already have a Palm Pilot that’s been sitting in its cradle for so long that it’s got dust on it, but let’s note here that the title of this entry is not “I Need” but “I Want.” Want, as many a moral philosopher and/or thief will tell you, often has very little to do with need. Although I’m sure if I got one, I would find something to do with it. I’m just creative that way. And at about $500, I’d feel the financial duty to do so.

3. A Honda Element. After 12 years, my piece of crap 1989 white Ford Escort (pony!) is so close to death that you can hear the motor grinding through the Kubler-Ross stages, and I’m pretty sure we’ve come to “acceptance,” which means it’s time to look at something new. I am inexplicably drawn to the Honda Element. I’m aware it looks like a Tonka Toy, but that just triggers the irony button in me, so that’s not bad (especially if I could get this in Tonka Yellow. That would be sweet).

It also has some practical assets which appeal to me. First, the inside is rubberized, so you can hose it down, which is cool because I’m a slob and that would be an efficient way to deslobify the car; second, the thing is configurable to carry stuff or people, and that’s useful since there’s three of us and a large dog; third, it’s pretty cheap (the model I want is about $20K) which is good for me since, as I clearly admitted with my note about shopping at Wal-Mart, I’m not one of those people who worries about status through possessions. It’s also a Honda, which means I can drive it for at least the next twelve years and reasonably expect it to run. Yes, I’m the car industry’s worst nightmare: I buy cheap and I drive it into the ground. Hey guys: At least I’m thinking of buying new.

Living as I do in the sticks you might think that I would be inclined to buy American, so as not to get egged by the patriots what live near me. But Honda has a big-ass factory in the nearby town of Troy (my brother-in-law works there, even), so Hondas get a pass. Also, we currently tool around in Suzuki Sidekick and no one gives us any crap, because that just wouldn’t be neighborly.

So these are the things I want at the moment. The reason I’m thinking about things that I want is that I’m waiting to hear about a thing. If I get it, I’ll be able to get one or more of these things. If I don’t, then I probably won’t. Since I’m still waiting to hear about the thing, the acquisition mode in my brain is having a full-out war against the economically prudent mode of my brain, which will only end when either this thing happens or it doesn’t. It’s really distracting; it’s one of the reasons, aside from the flickering electricity, I’m having a hard time focusing. No, I can’t give you any more details than that.

In the meantime: I want, I want, I want. Poor, poor, pitiful me.

Strippers With Swords

All right, I’m officially a science fiction writer (I’ve got the SFWA membership to prove it) so let me just say this: Please God, never let me have a book cover whose images would be equally at home airbrushed onto a van. This fervent prayer came to me while I was looking at this, a cover for the Science Fiction Book Club catalogue I got in the mail (not the regular catalogue but the one they send to get you to join).

In it, as you can see, strippers from the Kitty Kat bar unsheathe their weapons and do battle with orcs. We know these women are brilliant fighters because while the orcs are all compactly and heavily armored, our gals feel confident wearing flowing, flimsy robes which conveniently ventilate in the ass and breast regions. They are so good, in fact, that they don’t even bother looking at the enemy which they are slaughtering in its vile dozens; instead, their gaze is affixed upon you, as if to say, yes, it’s vitally important that we skewer these vile creatures in order to acquire the Orb of Thangulzon, thereby allowing the anointed King of The Many Globes to return to Gingdor Castle and once again rule all breeds justly and fairly. But what we really want to do is service each other while you watch and then jump your scrawny, pale 14-year-old bones. After all, that is the dream of all strippers-turned-fantasy heroines. They’re just pneumatic with desire.

This is not be read as a slam on Luis Royo, the artist who provided this bit of nonsense to the SFBC. Royo is a fine artist, if you go for this sort of thing; in the genre of “improbably clad people with weaponry,” he’s on the tier just below Boris Vallejo. The fact SFBC, in its infinite wisdom, determined that this graphic would be just the thing to suck in new members indicates that someone somewhere thinks this sort of thing is popular, which means that it probably is. I know enough to know that when I was 14, I would have sensed this picture’s ridiculousness, yet at the same time I’d still want to have sex with the brunette one, so there you have it.

Be that as it may, I wouldn’t want this, or something thematically like it to grace the cover of one of my books. Neither I nor writers other than the most very successful have control of these sorts of things. We can make suggestions but the publishers sign off on the artwork, and you have to trust them, because it’s their job to know how to sell these books. But in my dream world, my cover artwork is clean, visually arresting, contextually appropriate, and devoid of random boobies and ass shots. SF/Fantasy is full of fanservice shots; let the geeks go elsewhere for that. Give me something I’m not going to be embarrassed to show to my mother-in-law.

That still leaves a lot of latitude — my mother-in-law is not a prude or anything. But it does leave out strippers with swords. I’m good with that.

%d bloggers like this: