Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas, then Cancer

I'm going to say Merry Christmas. Even if you're Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, or anything that isn't a Bible-believing Baptist. Have a great holiday season even if it's for completely different reasons.

There's a precedent for this. Just after Christmas in 2001 I was diagnosed with Cancer. This freaked me out a fair bit and I had my surgery scheduled for early January. Between that time and the surgery I told all my friends about the Cancer and the surgery.

I have a wide circle of friends. Despite being a Christian who believes the same as that unpleasant person who tried to save you, I try to be a friend to people who I believe differently than I do.

So, when I told my friends about my impending surgery, the response varied quite a bit. A lot of folks prayed and not all of them prayed in Baptist ways to the God of Christianity. My name was mentioned in the local Synagog. A Neopagan friend did something involving tossing stones into the sea.  People belonging to different religions prayed to different gods in my behalf. A dozen different Christian denominations interceded with the Almighty on my behalf. And my surgeon told me he said a Hail Mary for me. I replied, "Great! Thank you." My Atheist and Agnostic friends didn't exactly pray, but they did think positive thoughts toward me.

So, I went under the knife and they took out a grapefruit-sized tumor plus a handful of involved lymph nodes. During recovery, it seemed like I had a hotline to heaven. I'd pray for something and BAM God seemed to expedite delivery. It was impressive. I was tempted to ask for a winning lotto ticket and the thought came back, "don't push it."

Now, a stern old Baptist might object that God didn't hear those prayers addressed to other deities, but I figured the God I worship being omniscient overheard those prayers. I encouraged everyone to address the deity of their choice for me.

I'm not shy about what I believe and I try to always be ready to give reasons for why I believe as I do. This means I've enjoyed quite a few disagreements with folks who aren't Bible-believing Baptists.

When I got out of the hospital, I realized that I might doubt what my friends believe (or disbelieve) and I might deny it with reasons I find compelling, but when all those people were praying on my behalf, I could not deny that they cared.

The fact that they cared for me means a lot even if they expressed it in ways I didn't believe.

So, I'm going to tell you Merry Christmas. You may not give a fig about the Christ of Christmas, you may deny Jesus was born, and everything else I say about his life.

But don't deny that I wish you all good will and peace.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Climbing Glass Walls

You may have heard that the Apple Mac is supposed to "just work" without a lot of muss and fuss. Largely, this is true. When you need to do something on a Mac, all the commands are straightforward and clear.

Yet, beneath that beautiful face that Apple shows to the world is a beast. It's like you learn that the cute blonde cheerleader is also a vampire hunter.

And not lame pursuer of sparkly metrosexual vampires. A hard-core sort who'll drink Professor Van Helsing under the table then go on to stake the most powerful vampire on the continent.

My latest brush with the beast in cheerleader clothing happened this evening when I went to print a draft of "Gallows Pole" a story in my upcoming anthology Grimm Futures. I didn't want to print using my Ink Jet printer, and I had a Laser Printer I wanted to use.

So, I queued up the print job and nothing happened.

I kicked the printer and it was happy and healthy. The Wireless Print Server less so. Somehow its DHCP settings got bolluxed up so I couldn't set it on my network. This unit has been a pain since I bought it years ago. I tried a factory reset and couldn't get it to talk to my Mac, my work PC, or an ancient XP laptop.

He's dead, Jim.

So, I went googling for a solution. My first stop was a USB to Parallel port cable. It might work, but Apple warned of compatibility issues preferring I use a network printer. I googled network adapters that had a parallel port and I saw my solution on the web for sale at $230. But, hey, I recognize that device in the printer, someone gave me one a few years back and it's sitting in my junk box.

Then I went about finding the darn thing's power supply. It took some looking.

I got everything hooked up and managed to ping the print server.

Then came configuring the thing. When you print on the Apple, you use something the Unix boys put together years back called CUPS. It's a very powerful printer management tool. And Apple doesn't want you to see it, so they hide it in the attack like an autistic savant who embarrasses the family. But I have the knack.

I goto CUPS and it tells me that Apple has shackled, and where the key to the handcuffs are. So, I unlock the CUPS Web Interface. Ah, yes, I remember you old friend from configuring my Linux boxes a decade ago.

Five minutes later, I've created a new print queue, and moved the print job I'd started four hours earlier. And the print job comes out. Huzzah.

The lesson is that all that hard Unix stuff lies beneath the OSX surface. Apple does a good job of hiding all the really powerful--and dangerous--functionality. But every once in a while, particularly when configuring a 20 year old printer with a 15 year old print spooler, that Unix stuff is invaluable.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Romancing Economic Inequality

The destination of Economic Inequality is not as important as the way in which we get there.

When I proposed the notion of a magic wand either doubling, or halving everyone's wealth, on at least two occasions, I've heard the objection that this wealth-doubling would cause inflation. This happened despite the fact that I proposed the hypothetical taking pains to avoid the inflation objection.

The trouble with hypothetical scenarios is that an objection can posit a 2nd hypothetical on top of it to cloud thinking.

I just realized a powerful, real source of Economic Inequality and like most social problems it was caused by an earlier cure to another social problem.

Contrast this with the 1950s where we had a male breadwinner and a female housewife. He was 100% responsible for breadwinning and she was doing whatever Donna Reed did. If she made any butter-and-egg money, it was off the books.

These were the times past when men were men, and women were property. This was unfair to the fairer sex and enlightened societies like ours went along with women's liberation. Instead of being shunted into traditional female occupations in the secretarial pool or in nursing, women sought and acquired the right to follow traditionally-male vocations like doctoring and lawyering.

You've come a long way, baby, and nowadays we see women succeeding in all of the high-status, high paid jobs. This is good. A woman needs a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle, but Cupid did not get the memo. Liberated women fall in love and marry. Ain't love grand!

BUT romance is not completely random. People are attracted to people with whom they share interests and experiences. Despite what Hollywood might tell you, a hotshot lawyer guy will not be as strongly attracted to the chauffeur's daughter as he will be attracted to the girl in his law school study group. Same goes for the hotshot lady doctor and the dashing internist.

Consider three classes of wage-earner:

  • Ms. Big Lawyer can hook up with Mr. Big Lawyer and buy the nearest McMansion. 
  • Ms. Average Worker can hook up with Mr. Average Worker and buy one of those little pink houses for you and me. 
  • Ms. Minimum Wage can hook up with Mr. Minimum Wage and live in subsidized housing.

In the inflation-adjusted, women barefoot-and-pregnant, 1950s, these three households would have yearly incomes of, say $80k, $50k, and $15k, respectively with one breadwinner carrying one housewife. The economic difference is $65k. But when both partners work full time incomes double to: $160k, $100k, and $30k and the inequality doubles to $130k.

You can't blame this Economic Inequality on Republicans or Democrats.

It's Cupid's fault.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Amazing Productivity

I woke up Saturday with a single thought in mind: Make sure the first thing I do each day is write 500 words.

I grabbed my computer and sat cross-legged on the bed. As soon as I launched Microsoft Word, the phone rang. It was my wife, Mary. Would I like to go to breakfast with her? Yes, I would.

I jumped up, showered, and went to my favorite breakfast joint.

My wife was delightful company and we talked about the story I'm working on. And about wiring the Christmas lights. And how she'd like a light in the space under the basement stairs.

Mary suggested we go to my niece's basketball game, but I explained that I had to finish the story I'm working on.

Since Lowes was nearby, I stopped to buy Christmas lights, a battery-powered light, and other stuff. I got what I needed and as usual a lot I didn't. In the back of my mind those 500 words nagged me.

When I got home, I brought in the stuff I'd bought and installed the under-stairs light. And I rewired the Christmas tree. And I got a ton of things done. I really felt motivated and I got a lot done.

But I didn't write 500 words.

It is amazing how productive you can be at non-writing tasks when you're procrastinating writing.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Is Economic Inequality a Bad Thing?

It depends on how the scales of economic justice become imbalanced. There's more than one way for economic inequality to occur. And some of those ways are a lot more toxic than others. I suspect the good or the evil is not in the destination, but in the road we take to get there.

The Savior said the poor will be with us always. Simple mathematics bears him out. You are rich if you have one dollar more than I do and you are poor if you have less.

When in school I always liked to grade on a curve. I found it easier to learn a little bit more than average than to master 100% of the material.

Grading on an economic curve sorts us into "the rich" and "the poor."

This isn't Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian. It isn't Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. It's just math. It's comparing two numbers--my wealth, your wealth--, so don't tell me you can't understand it. (I think you can understand multiplication and division, too. Can you double a number or divide it half? I promise not to do anything harder than that.)

I saw a TED talk recently by a woman named Chrystia Freeland wherein she described increased economic inequality and "The rise of the new global super-rich." She says the things you'd expect about the rich getting richer.

BUT the poor aren't getting poorer as The Economist says in Not Always With Us. Their headline appears to contradict the Savior.

Or maybe it doesn't.

I think the Savior, and Ms. Freeland are grading poverty on a curve, whereas The Economist and you'll see Bono are working with an absolute scale.

I asked my wife how much it costs to eat for a day. We guessed about $5, then rounded it up to $2,000 a year. At some level, without enough money, you starve to death. And that's what Bono has in mind with his TED talk The Good News On Poverty.

For sake of argument, let's assume $2,000 is what you need to not-starve.

Let's suppose you're John Doe with only $2,000 to your name. You may not vacation on the Riviera, but you'll feed yourself. However, Forbes magazine says Bill Gates has $67B. The difference is not chicken feed: $66,999,997,000.

Let's suppose the ghost of Milton Friedman waves a magic wand and make everyone richer. And I don't mean inflation, I mean real wealth. The magic wand takes all debts and makes them half as big, and all savings twice as big and all the prices are the same as before.

Consider John Doe: he now has $4,000 and he can move up from Ramen Noodles to Macaroni & Cheese with a MacDonalds hamburg on Sunday. He's not yet puttin' on the Ritz, but he's got more money for a better life.

The bad news is that Bill Gates is now worth $134B. And the difference between John and Bill has more than doubled to $133,999,997,000. If you're grading on a curve, that's very bad news, but John's happy, and Bill is happy, too.

It gives both Bono and Chrystia Freeland topics for happy and unhappy TED talks, respectively.

Now, let's consider an alternate parallel universe. Like the one where Spock has a beard. And the ghost of Karl Marx shows up with his own magic wand to make everyone poorer. Everyone's wealth is cut in half and prices don't go down to compensate. Now, let's look at Bill Gates and John Doe.

Bill "only" has $34.5B and has to adjust to the straightened means the Koch brothers now enjoy.

But John starves to death. He can go to his grave enjoying the thought that he's only $34,499,998,000 poorer than the Microsoft billionaire. Bono won't be happy because a lot more people like him will starve to death, but Chrystia Freeland can cite the dramatic decline of economic inequality.

This is just math. It just requires a feel for the way in which numbers move when they are multiplied and what kinds of stats do or don't make sense.

Frankly, I'd rather live in a world where nobody starves to death.

But what if that is a world where poor get ahead, but the rich get much farther ahead?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why So Serious?

A bit of disclosure is in order. I don't know Bryan Thomas Schmidt, but I do know RayGun Revival, the magazine that inspired it--having sold a couple stories there.

So, I felt a pang of guilt over not pledging any money to the Kickstarter campaign for Raygun Chronicles.

Fortunately, they didn't need my help and the campaign reached their goal and the project went forward.

I recently had occasion to take another look at the Kickstarter page and I found reasons to find fault with it. I hope this fault-finding will be taken as it is intended: coaching on how to do better at managing communications with the stakeholders of a Kickstarter campaign.

The campaign has come to the time when all the rewards that have been promised need to be fulfilled. And I understand that there have been difficulties. Every project is a bit like the Passion of Christ. There come times Gethsemane--the olive press--where the pressures on the project manager come to a head.

I took a fresh look at the video that Mr. Schmidt created and remembered why I didn't underwrite this campaign. Though I like the concept, though I believe in what RayGun is doing, though I read the sort of SF that is in this project, I found Mr. Schmidt's video to be creative, but annoying.

I listened to about 10 seconds of it and stopped--that's when I remembered why I did not subscribe to this project in the first place. The video chased me away.

So, I forced myself to give it another go.

You have to balance serious and goofy as I've mentioned before. The video is a mash up of a guy in a golden-age of Science Fiction getup getting ready to go out and do something (cool) and a web-cam quality cut to Mr. Schmidt enthusiastically describing the anthology--sounding too much like a used-car salesman.

He had a sale until that used-car spiel, whereupon I put my billfold away.

Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy, but I think a Kickstarter campaign has to avoid the look of being flippant. Looking at the web page now, I see this: "Risks? Your head may explode from too much space opera awesomeness!"

Does this mean there is no chance of schedule slip? Or a new vendor will wig out? Or a hurricane will interfere with deliveries? What about people getting sick and family crises? These are the risks you can't mitigate or predict. There are other risks you must rack your brain to enumerate, and have plans to mitigate should they occur.

There were real schedule risks that did occur. It is really easy, AND UNDERSTANDABLE for difficulties to attend order fulfillment.

When risks come to pass, that head-exploding joke does not inspire trust.

Kickstarter is about trust, because you're asking people to trust you first to the extent of putting their hopes into the campaign and then to the extent of putting up their money if the campaign goes forward.

As the project winds down the people running the campaign need to keep stakeholders in the loop, make themselves vulnerable to stakeholders, and give whatever information possible about why anything is not perfect and what steps are being taken to remediate the situation.

I was told that when Mr. Schmidt did so, they looked like spammy emails: "When you get an email of an unkempt editor and the caption on the video is that he's going to sing (I did not listen to it) well, you kind of stop paying attention so closely."And because they were easy to ignore, this stakeholder felt she'd been scammed. Her complaint prompted a defensive response and things got quite ugly.

It may look like I'm dumping on Mr. Schmidt. I feel he is a good person. I don't believe he has any intention to scam anyone.

It looks like he needs to do more to inspire trust. There is a reason why bankers are boring: you trust them with your money.  Bankers wear ties and dress in starched clothing. Their hair is neatly trimmed and combed. They don't do this to enrich barbers and clothiers, but to inspire trust.

There's a correlation between trust and an over-serious (boring) affect.

Banker Cosplay does not come natural to creative types. To make things worse: looking like a banker violates a lot of fannish trust cues. (Like Mom said, life isn't fair.) But you need some of it when you're asking for money.

And more importantly asking for faith: Faith in you. Faith in your project.

I know precious little about building an author platform. But I realize a publisher-platform is even more important.

The first and only thing I can say about building an author platform is that I must exceed your expectations of me.

I fail at this all the time, so I have no business throwing rocks at Mr. Schmidt for seeming unprofessional or being quite professional while giving an impression of unprofessionalness. And no, unprofessionalness is not a word.

It is great to have a light touch and not take oneself too seriously. But there's a time and a season for everything. when people have put money on the table and you promise them stuff, you can't just treat things seriously, you have to look serious, too.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Not Another Vacuum Story

A friend, Martin Shoemaker lamented the fact that when one writes near-future hard science fiction stories one risks copying from one of the grand masters.
One of the tricky parts of my preferred writing niche -- near future, near space hard science fiction -- is avoiding rehashing of crises that were already explored by Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and others 80 years ago. There are some obvious, critical dangers in space, and I'm tempted to write about them even though better writers have already written about them.
Any story has setting, character, and plot, but the science fiction story can make the technology a quasi-character that's worthy of consideration in and of itself. Boy can meet girl in any coffee shop on the planet, but if it's on a space station built into an asteroid, the reader of science fiction will be more interested in the space station than other readers will have in the coffee shop. If the coffee shop is in a space station, the writer may want to put some thought into the problems of zero-gee coffee brewing.

The difficulty that Martin addresses here is how to incorporate a likely hazards near-future hard science fiction that the grand masters already wrote about. Space has vacuum, radiation, and zero-gee. You aren't going to do a better job than the grand-masters if you write a plot-heavy story wherein these hazards are encountered and solved in the same way they solved them.

What I believe the writer should do today is update any science/tech that has been learned since the Golden Age, then make his/her story fresh via unique characters. For this reason, when I wrote High Rail Breakdown, I made the female lead character a convicted murderer with anger-management issues.

Maybe Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov never wrote stories with the same plot devices I put into my story, but even if they did, I know they didn't have her.

There's a taxonomy of basic plots for stories that date back to Aristotle. And it's been updated many times. Golden Age Science Fiction was unique in that it added fantastic new settings beyond Earth's atmosphere. This freshened a number of stories by making these settings almost a character in and of itself.

We don't have that luxury today. Thus our stories need to rely upon distinctive characters to be fresh. So, take another look at your Spaceman Spiff, and ask yourself if maybe he would be more distinctive if he was a Calvinist.
What sort of character traits do you think belong in your characters in a near future, near space hard science fiction story? I have some ideas, but want to hear yours.

Those more worthy than I: