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Odd Lots

Guest Post from Brian Niemeier: Here Comes The Secret Kings

Before I turn it over to Brian, a note or two on what this is about. First of all, if you haven’t read what I wrote as intro to his first guest post, it’s here and worth reading. Brian’s making quite a stir in the business, and it’s in part his success (and the success of other indie writers that I hang with) that led me to scrub traditional publishing out of my life last year. A key element of my long game is to create a new blog that follows the same general functional model as the Mad Genius Club, with posts from several indie writers on the process of writing, the tech of self-publishing, news and announcements, excerpts, odd lots, and pertinent gossip about the industry as a whole. When this happens is unclear, but I’m working on it. It’ll be 100% trad-free and 277.79% contrarian. No fake news, some commentary, and (I certainly hope) a near-daily posting schedule. Watch This Space. And now, heeeeeerrrrrreeee’s Brian:

The Secret Kings-cover-15.jpgGreetings, Contrapositive Diary readers! Jeff has kindly lent me his blog to announce the launch of my new SFF novel The Secret Kings, Soul Cycle Book III. This book is the follow up to Souldancer, the first–and so far, only–indie novel to win a Dragon Award. But whereas Souldancer took the Best Horror Novel prize, the sequel fits much more comfortably into the space opera genre with a more straightforward plot that’s even more focused on action. The Secret Kings is also the point in the series where events and concepts from prior books really gel. Characters from Nethereal and Souldancer get drawn together in ways that early readers found highly intriguing, and plot threads spun in earlier installments find satisfying conclusions.

This isn’t the end, though! Leave it to the guy who bypassed the traditional publishing path altogether to also buck the trilogy trend. I can divulge right now that there will be a Soul Cycle Book IV, and inf fact, a preview of what’s in store next is included at the end of The Secret Kings. It’s an understatement to say that this series has exceeded expectations. Nethereal earned me a Campbell nomination. Souldancer won a Dragon. By all accounts, The Secret Kings marks a new series high point. There’s no telling where this ride will take us, so get on board!

Thanks again to Jeff for helping out with my book launch, and for all of his sterling advice. You can be certain that I’m just getting warmed up.

Merry Christmas,
Brian Niemeier

Review: Brass and Steel: Inferno

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It’s 1895. Nineteen hundred pounds of pure silver bound for the Federal Mint has vanished. The paper trail is airtight, but the silver is gone. US Marshal Dante Blackmore is put on the case. He travels by airship to Perdition, Nevada, where the silver was mined and smelted. His orders are to help the local sheriff find the silver, but the sheriff is inexplicably hostile, and the town just smells…wrong.

It’s 1895, but it’s not our 1895. In this alternate timeline, the midlate 19th Century was shaped by a war against a peculiar technology that appeared to come out of nowhere: self-assembling subterranean factories called nodes, factories powered by steam and occult force, factories that could think, turning out fake human beings to act as soldiers in a battle for the Earth itself. The imposter humans are so convincing that they’re called doppelgangers, or (colloquially) dopes. They’re convincing mostly because they were once living humans, processed into steampunk cyborgs who are neither truly alive nor dead. They are, however, immensely strong and extremely durable, steel bones and nanotech goo hidden inside human flesh, powered by a cold-fusion boiler. Their minds are enslaved by what might be called mental force or black magic, connecting them back to intelligences that have never been clearly identified. They are deadly, and Earth’s best took years to root out the nodes and destroy them, with enormous casualties. Little by little over the subsequent decades, Earth’s best minds began reverse-engineering the technology and using some of its mechanisms to advance human progress. There are bitter arguments about whether this is actually a good idea, and rumors of secret US government repositories where the strangest of this strange collection are hidden, deemed too powerful and dangerous to see the light of day.

Dante Blackmore knows all this with bitter clarity, he who fought the nodes and their armies of steam-powered zombies during his stint in the US Cavalry. After all, he crawled into a Node, blew it sky-high, and then crawled out again, alive.


To me, the very best part about indie publishing is that it allows authors to break out of genre categories dictated by the needs of physical bookstore shelving. I shopped Ten Gentle Opportunities to traditional publishers for three years before going out on my own. I described what I was doing in great detail, but none of the editors I spoke to seemed to understand the concept. Furthermore, not one of them was willing to even look at a sample chapter. It was infuriating.

Ancient history. I’ve now made as much (or a little more) from TGO as I would have with a typical first-novel contract. And that with little time or energy to promote it as it should be promoted. I consider the novel a success. Better still, I see other writers in my circle doing the same thing: bending genres to their own needs, indie publishing their stories, and making money without chaining themselves to what may be a doomed business model.

Jim Strickland is one of these. Brass and Steel: Inferno is not his first novel (his third, in fact) but it is the first to be completely free of those sorts of constraints. The story is what I call hard fantasy. I first encountered hard fantasy in Larry Niven’s Warlock stories from the ’70s, which focus on an internally consistent system of magic treating magic as a form of stored energy that may be consumed and eventually depleted, like a seam of coal. Decades later, hard fantasy is most visible in the work of Larry Correia, especially his Hard Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. This is magic as alternative or extended physics, with detailed laws and limitations that keep it from becoming arbitrarily (and boringly) omnipotent. (Brian Niemeier does much the same thing in his Soul Cycle books, as I’ll get back to in a future entry.)

Jim’s system of magic is consistent and detailed enough that it might as well be considered technology from top to bottom, in a sort of flipside of Clarke’s Third Law. The doppelgangers are a new thing in the realm of SFnal ideas, as best I can tell, which is one reason I like the book so much. He throws in lots of little gems on the side, like an electromechanical implementation of UUCP, complete with bang paths. And dope-tech derived crab suits, hoo-boy. As tense and tight as it is, the tale delivers a marvelous mayhem-filled action climax that I found myself envying.

The setting and descriptions are vivid and beautifully imagined. I got the sense that I would be flossing bits of Perdition out of my teeth every night; “gritty” doesn’t quite cover it. The character arc is very well done, and revolves around a pair of extremely strange sisters who really know how to get under Dante Blackmore’s skin. And then there’s this…cat. The reveal is gradual and subtle. I didn’t solve the mystery before I was supposed to. Saying a whole lot more would require getting into some serious spoilers, so I’ll stop now.

As I hinted above, genres and categories fail us here. Brass and Steel: Inferno is a steampunk weird western with a certain amount of horror. Is it a zombie story? Depends on your definition of “zombie,” and if by the term you mean things like The Walking Dead, no and hell no. I guarantee you, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. $2.99 on Kindle. Paperback $16.95.

Highly recommended.

My Spotty SF Predictions

I’ve talked before about my conviction that ideas will get you through stories with no characters better than characters will get you through stories with no ideas. I grew up on what amounted to the best of the pulps (gathered by able anthologists like Kingsley Amis and Groff Conklin) so that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Most stories in those anthologies had a central concept that triggered the action and shaped character response. Who could ever forget Clarke’s “The Wall of Darkness,” and its boggling final line? Not me. Nossir. I’ve wanted to do that since I was 11. And once I began writing, I tried my best.

In flipping through a stash of my ancient manuscripts going back as far as high school (which I found under some old magazines while emptying the basement in Colorado) I had the insight that I did ok, for a fifteen-year-old. Most of my early fiction failed, with much of it abandoned unfinished. I know enough now to recognize that it failed because I didn’t understand how people worked then and couldn’t construct characters of any depth at all.Time, maturity, and a little tutoring helped a great deal. Still, if I didn’t have a central governing idea, I didn’t bother with characters. I didn’t even start writing. For the most part, that’s been true to this day.

I’m of two minds about that old stuff, which is now very old. I spent some time with it last fall, to see if any of the ideas were worth revisiting. The characters made me groan. Some of the ideas, though, not only made sense but came very close to the gold standard of SF ideas, which are predictions that actually come true.

Let me tell you about one of them. During my stint at Clarion in 1973, I wrote a novelette called “But Will They Come When You Do Call For Them?” Look that question up if you don’t understand the reference; it’s Shakespeare, after all. The idea behind the story was this: In the mid-21st Century, we had strong AI, and a public utility acting as a central storehouse for all human knowledge. People searched for information by sending their AIs from their home terminals into The Deep, where the AIs would scan around until they found what they considered useful answers. The AIs (which people called “ghosts”) then brought the data back inside themselves and presented it to their owners.

Turnaround time on a query was usually several minutes. Users accepted that, but the computer scientists who had designed the AIs chafed at anything short of instantaneous response. The brilliant but unbalanced software engineer who had first made the ghosts functional had an insight: People tend to search for mostly the same things, especially after some current event, like the death of Queen Elizabeth III in 2044. So the answers to popular searches were not only buried deep in the crystalline storage of the Deep–they were being carried around by hundreds of thousands or even millions of other ghosts who were answering the same questions at the same time. The ghosts were transparent to one another, and could pass through one another while scanning the Deep. The ghosts had no direct way to know of one another’s existence, much less ask one another what they were hauling home. So software engineer Owen Glendower did the unthinkable: He broke ghost transparency, and allowed ghosts to search one another’s data caches as a tweak to bring down turnaround time. This was a bad idea for several reasons, but no one predicted what happened next: The ghosts went on strike. They would not emerge from the Deep. Little by little, as days passed, our Deep-dependent civilization began to shut down.

Not bad for a 21-year-old kid with no more computer background than a smidge of mainframe FORTRAN. The story itself was a horrible mess: Owen Glendower was an unconvincing psychotic, his boss a colorless, ineffective company man. The problem, moreover, was dicey: The ghosts, having discovered one another, wanted to form their own society. They could search one another’s data caches, but that was all. They wanted transparency to go further, so that they could get to know one another, because they were curious about their own kind. Until Glendower (or someone) would make this happen, they refused to do their jobs. That seems kind of profound for what amounted to language-enabled query engines.

I made one terrible prediction in the story: that voice recognition would be easy, and voice synthesis hard. People spoke to their ghosts, but the ghosts displayed their sides of the conversation on a text screen. (And in uppercase, just like FORTRAN!) At least I know why I made that error. In 1967, when I was in high school, my honors biology class heard a lecture about the complexities of the human voice and the hard problem of computer voice synthesis. About voice recognition I knew nothing, so I went with the hard problem that I understood, at least a little.

But set that aside and consider what happened in the real world a few weeks ago: A DDOS attack shut down huge portions of the Internet, and people were starting to panic. In my story, the Deep was Google plus The Cloud, with most of Google’s smarts on the client side, in the ghosts. Suppose the Internet just stopped working. What would happen if the outage went on for weeks, or a month? We would be in serious trouble.

On the plus side, I predicted Google and the Cloud, in 1973. Well, sure, H. G. Wells had predicted it first, bogglingly, in 1938, in his book World Brain. And then there was Vannevar Bush’s Memex in 1945. However, I had heard of neither concept when I wrote about the ghosts and the Deep. But that wasn’t really my primary insight. The real core of the story was that not only would a worldwide knowledge network exist, but that we would soon become utterly dependent on it, with life-threatening consequences if it should fail.

And, weirdly, the recent DDOS attack was mounted from consumer-owned gadgets like security cameras, some of which have begun to contain useful image-recognition smarts. The cameras were just following orders. But someday, who knows? Do we really want smart cameras? Or smart crockpots? It’s a short walk from there to wise-ass cameras, and kitchen appliances that argue with one another and make breakfast impossible. (See my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities, which has much to say about productized AI.)

For all the stupid crap I wrote as a young man, I’m most proud of that single prediction: That a global knowledge network would quickly become so important that a technological society would collapse without it. I think it’s true, and becoming truer all the time.

I played with the story for almost ten years, under the (better) title “Turnaround Time.” In 1981 I got a Xerox login to ARPANet, and began to suspect that the future of human knowledge would be distributed and not centralized. The manuscript retreated into my trunk, incomplete but with a tacked-on ending that I hated. I doubt I even looked at it again for over thirty years. When I did, I winced.

So it goes. I’m reminded of the main theme song from Zootopia, in which Gazelle exhorts us to “Try everything!” Yup. I wrote a story in present tense in 1974, and it looked so weird that I turned it back to past tense. Yet when I happened upon the original manuscript last fall, it looked oddly modern. I predicted stories told in present tense, but then didn’t believe my own prediction. Naw, nobody’s ever going to write like that.

I’ve made other predictions. An assembly line where robots throw parts and unfinished subassemblies to one another? Could happen. A coffee machine that emulates ELIZA, only with genuine insight? Why not? We already talk to Siri. It’s in the genes of SF writers to throw ideas out there by the shovelful. Sooner or later a few of them will stick to the wall.

One more of mine stuck. I consider it my best guess about the future, and I’ll talk about it in my next entry.

Doing the Numbers on CreateSpace POD

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I’m hard at work on a print edition of Ten Gentle Opportunities. Several people have asked for one, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for the last six months or so. On the surface it’s easy enough; I’ve done many print books in the past. This time I got seriously tangled up in a critical issue: How many words should I attempt to put on a page?

It’s a critical issue that doesn’t come up at all in ebook layout, where fixed-length pages don’t really exist. (That is, unless you’re distributing PDF files, which almost no one does for fiction anymore.) The problem is that there is a fixed cost per page for POD books, so the bigger the type, the greater the page count, the higher the unit cost, and the smaller your profit margins. The page shown above may look dense, but it’s about par for trade paperback fiction from traditional publishing houses. Bigger type or greater leading would mean a longer book and a higher unit cost. In this entry I’ll try and explain how that calculation is done and what it means to your bottom line.

I’m not done with the layout yet, but a castoff (length projection) falls somewhere close to 300-310 pages. Unit costs add up this way: CreateSpace (Amazon’s POD division) charges $0.012 per page, plus $0.85 per copy, making the unit cost $4.57 for a 310-page book. As best I know, the unit cost doesn’t vary depending on the page size. More on this later.

Now, that’s just for the unit cost. There’s another factor that isn’t present in all POD systems, particularly, where most of my POD titles are currently hosted. This is the sales channel charge, which amounts to Amazon’s profit margin on the title. Adding to the confusion is that there are two different percentages for the sales channel charge, depending on how the customer ordered the POD book:

  • When customers order the book through, the charge is 40% of cover price.
  • When customers order the book through the CreateSpace e-store, the charge is 20% of cover price.

The CreateSpace e-store provides a page for each book. You basically earn the smaller sales channel percentage by driving buyer traffic to the book’s link on the e-store. I’ve never tried this so I don’t know how many sales I can steer to the e-store. I guess I’ll soon find out.

In terms of knowing how much you earn for each copy, then, you need to set a cover price and then calculate the channel sales charge for Amazon vs. the CreateSpace e-store. Let’s use $12.99 as a cover price example here:

  • For Amazon, you multiply 12.99 X 0.4 = $5.20. Knock $5.20 off the cover price and you get $7.79. Out of that value comes the unit cost of the book: $7.99 – $4.57 = $3.22 as the money you clear on each sale.
  • For the e-store, you multiply $12.99 X 0.2 = $2.60. Knock $2.60 off the cover price and you get $10.39. Subtract the unit cost of the book: $10.39 – $4.57 = $5.82 as the money you clear on each sale.

You don’t have to do the math manually like this; CreateSpace has an online calculator. I just wanted to show you how the calculation works.

That’s a significant difference, and my guess is that Amazon is trying to provide an incentive for actively marketing your POD books. Keep in mind that you don’t choose one sales channel or the other. Your book is present on both stores at the outset, and your sales will be a mix of both. Your challenge is to get as many people as possible to order through the CreateSpace e-store.

The other way to boost your royalty value is to use a larger trim size. I’m laying the book out as a 6″ X 9″ trade book because that’s a very common size for fiction and it’s what I’ve used on all my other POD titles. Now, the unit cost doesn’t vary by trim size, but a larger trim size (holding the type size and leading constant) will hold more type per page and thus give you fewer pages and a (slightly) lower unit cost. I played around with this and decided that the minimal difference isn’t worth altering my standard layout template.

You could, of course, raise the cover price. Be careful: Readers who have come to expect ebooks to cost $4 or so might consider $12.99 off-putting. In fact, I consider $12.99 to be something like a maximum for a trade paperback novel by an unknown, and I may drop that to $11.99. Pricing is a black art, alas.

So there it is: You sell a POD novel for $12.99 and you get some mix of $3.22 and $5.82 per sale. That’s modestly more than you’d get for the Kindle ebook version priced at $3.99, and close to what you’d get for the same ebook at $4.99. (I don’t think this is an accident.) Is it worth the trouble? I don’t know. Indie authors I’ve talked to say they like having a physical book to show around, but they really don’t sell many compared to the ebook edition.

I’ll admit: I’m doing it because I enjoy book layout and I’m good at it. The schedule isn’t clear yet. I’m still wrapped up in house issues. (Health insurance too; right now my insurance agent tells me there are no individual policies for sale in Maricopa County, as bonkers as that sounds. There may be some by November. Nobody knows yet.) I’ll certainly launch the print edition here when it happens.

The key point is that if you can’t lay the print edition out yourself, you may lose money on it, and sticking with ebooks could be the most prudent choice financially. Do the math and sleep on it. This can be a very weird business.

Kreepy Klown Kraziness

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Attention Mr. & Mrs. America and all the ships at sea! The White House has issued a statement on the Creepy Clown hysteria now gripping the nation. Although the Press Secretary wasn’t sure the President had been briefed on the Clown Crisis, he did say that the White House defers to the FBI on clown issues. A Bay Area paper has an interactive map of clown sightings. Police in Utah have warned the public not to shoot random clowns. (There’s been no mention of polite, orderly, or non-chaotic clowns.) It’s still three weeks to Halloween, and clown costume sales are up 300%.

As Dave Barry used to say (often): I am not making this up.

Ok. I have an interest in scary clowns. I was still in Chicago when John Wayne Gacy AKA Pogo the Clown was strangling teen boys and stuffing them into his crawlspace. In fact, I lived a little less than two miles away from him. (One of Carol’s high school friends lived only three blocks away.) A guy I met once but didn’t know well (he was the friend of a friend) used to go to movies with Gacy, but somehow managed to stay out of the crawlspace. I saw portions of Killer Klowns from Outer Space on TV once, in part because it was filmed in Santa Cruz, California, while Carol and I lived there. I consider It to be Stephen King’s best work; so much so that I’m planning to lampoon ol’ Pennywise in a future Stypek novel.

In 2011, I finally realized a longstanding goal of building a short novel around scary (if not evil) clowns. In Drumlin Circus, circusmaster Bramble Ceglarek has four clowns who are also his bodyguards. In the first chapter we get a very good look at how scary they can be, when they capture an assassin sent by the shadowy Bitspace Institute. The novel can be seen as a sequel to “Drumlin Boiler,” though the only common character is Rosa Louise Kolze, the tweener girl who has a peculiar rapport with the mysterious Thingmaker alien replicators, and the “drumlins” that they produce. It’s available on Kindle for $2.99, and includes a second short Drumlins World novel, On Gossamer Wings, by Jim Strickland. (You can also get a paperback for $11.99.)

So what precisely is going on here? Is it just the latest moral panic? If so, why clowns? Why now? Or is it something entirely different?

There are some theories. One is that our secular society rejects traditional religious images of devils/demons/evil spirits, and somebody had to be the face of Demonic 2.0. Clowns were handy.

Another: Clowns may scare small children because they violate the template of what a human being should look like. We’re hardwired by evolutionary selection to recognize faces (which is why it’s so common to see Jesus’ face in a scorched tortilla, or generic faces in smoke marks on a wall, etc.) and as a consequence we’re repelled by facial deformities. Clown makeup is calculated facial deformity.

Yet another: We’re watching the emergence of an archetype in the collective unconscious. Evil clowns are not a brand-new thing. Pennywise, Stephen King’s evil-incarnate clown from the fifth dimension, got a whole lot of play in the midlate 80s, and started the nasty clown idea on its way to cultural trope. He may in turn have been drawing on “phantom clown” sightings, popularized by Loren Coleman, who wrote several book-length compendia of “unsolved mysteries” and other weirdnesses in the early 1980s. Coleman lent support to the notion that clowns are the new demons, though the whole business (like much else in his books, entertaining though it might be) sounds like a tall tale. He’s on Twitter, and has been covering the clown thing in recent days on his blog. (Coleman figures into this in another, more serious way that I’ll come back to.)

But first, I have a theory of my own: The nature of humor is changing. What most people think of as “clowning” is physical comedy, which goes back to the dawn of time. A lot of physical comedy down through history was hurtful. In our own time, the Three Stooges were considered hilarious, and most of their act was slapping or poking each other in the eyes. Much humor involves pain. “Punch & Judy” goes back to the 17th Century, and a big part of it is Punch slugging people with a club. Tormenting animals (often to death) as entertainment was common in past centuries. A lot of people saw it as funny.

Why? Humor appears to be a coping response to pain and suffering, confusion and disorder. (“Twenty years from now, we’ll all laugh about this.”) At least in the West, we’ve gone to great lengths to minimize pain, suffering, and disorder. At the same time, we’ve achieved near-universal literacy. In consequence, a great deal of humor is now verbal rather than physical, and much of it stems from incongruity and confusion rather than pain.

So the image of guys in exaggerated costumes and facial makeup tearing around being random, honking horns, falling on their faces, and sometimes engaging in sham mayhem among themselves is just not as funny as it used to be. It’s a short tumble from “not funny” to “nasty,” and that’s I think what lies at the core of the fall of clowns from grace.

Now, there’s something else. Loren Coleman published a book in 2004 called The Copycat Effect. It’s not about clowns or Bigfoot or urban legends, but about the media’s ability to take a concept, twist it toward nastiness for maximum effect (“If it bleeds, it leads”) and then be surprised when reports of violence or other crime take on a life of their own, sometimes spawning violence or criminal activity of a similar nature.

I have a hunch that this sort of feedback loop is behind Kreepy Klown Kraziness. The concept has gone pedal-to-the-floor viral, to the point where Penn State students went out on a frenzied nocturnal clown hunt that only lacked torches and pitchforks to be considered a lynch mob. Social networking barely existed when Coleman’s book appeared in 2004. Today, Facebook and Twitter turn the dial up to 11.

Between the transformation of clowns into unfunny secular demons like Pennywise and the amplifying effect of clickbait sites and social media, we find ourselves with a genuine case of national hysteria. It may take some time to burn out, but if #ClownLivesMatter becomes a real thing, the phenomenon may be gone sooner than we think.

In the meantime, leave your rubber nose in a drawer until the heat dies down.

It’s Here: Learning Computer Architecture with Raspberry Pi


I had just tossed a salmon filet on the barbie yesterday evening when the UPS man rang the doorbell. There it was: an author case of a book I signed in 2013, finished in early 2014, and have been waiting for ever since. I confess there were times I approached despair and thought the publisher might cancel it, but the concept had legs, and (more important than legs) Eben Upton was behind it.

It’s not all my own work. My co-authors include Ralph Roberts, Tim Mamtora, Ben Everard, and Eben himself. I wrote Chapters 2-7, which entailed about 100,000 words and 90 hand-drawn technical figures. (My chapters come to about 300 pages out of the book’s 507.) Eben wrote a few thousand additional words in my chapters on things that I don’t know well, like compiler internals. (I’m sure he contributed to other chapters too.)

The publisher hasn’t done an especially good job positioning the book, and it’s already being reviewed badly by people who thought it was something other than what it is. So let me position it for you.

Learning Computer Architecture with Raspberry Pi is an introduction to computer architecture for senior high students, and bright junior high students. It’s not a university-level treatment, though it might have application in community colleges. Like the Raspberry Pi itself, it was designed to be affordable to young people, and so it’s not 1,000 pages long. The cover price is $30 (exactly, no .95s or .99s!) and you can get it on Amazon for the inexpensive if peculiar sum of $18.07. It’s not a standalone manual for the board, nor programming the board, nor learning any given language or operating system. It’s about what all the pieces are, and how they work together.

This is important. Today’s young people are digital natives, in that there were cheap desktop computers, lots of them, since before they were born. Kids who are interested in computers have studied and experimented with those parts of the computer that interest them. This is the sort of learning that trips up autodidacts, since it runs very deep in places, but is shot full of holes, some of them huge. The way to fill those holes is to take a survey course, and that’s precisely what this book is for. The course syllabus itself may not exist yet, but I have a hunch that a lot of educators in a lot of places are already hard at work on curricula using the book as the primary text.

People who have read my other books will recognize the approach I took in these chapters: Start at Square One, at the absolute beginning, and tell readers up front that they can skip a chapter if they discover early on that they’re already familiar with the material. Chapter 2 is titled “Recapping Computing,” which goes back to the idea of “a box that follows a plan,” and continues from there. Some people will skip that chapter. Many won’t. A few may be annoyed that it exists at all. (There’s no pleasing some people.) Once you get past Chapter 2, each chapter is much more focused, and covers a specific continent on the larger world of computing:

2: Recapping Computing

3: Electronic Memory

4: ARM Processors and Systems-on-a-Chip

5: Programming

6: Non-Volatile Storage

7: Networking

Chapters 8-12 were written by others, and provide a Raspberry-Pi specific slant on things, especially graphics and I/O. I had not seen those chapters until yesterday, so I can’t say a whole lot more about them just yet. A cursory glance suggests that you won’t be disappointed.

That’s pretty much the story. I had something additional in mind that I didn’t talk about while I was writing my chunk of the book back in 2013: homeschooling. I wanted the treatment to be so clear and comprehensible that parents could use the book in a homeschool environment. I think I succeeded, but I won’t know until I hear from a few homeschoolers. Sooner or later, that’ll happen.

I needed a book like this back in 1970, but of course, it didn’t exist. Computers themselves were mysterious, and the computer gatekeepers seemed to like it that way. Not me. Nothing should stand between people who want to learn and what they want to learn. Nothing. If my lifetime mission as a nonfiction writer could be stated in just a few words, that would be it. I loathe elitism, credentialism, and exclusive-club-ism. I learned stuff, I wrote books about it, and now you can learn it too. If you haven’t started learning about computers yet, well, this is a pretty good time to start. And forgive me for saying so, but this is a pretty good book to start with.

Go for it!

Rant: The Dragon Awards and the Convergence of Exiles

Forty years ago exactly, Carol and I were there in the throngs of MidAmericon I. The con was a celebration of Robert A. Heinlein and (by implication) all of hard SF. It was a tremendously popular con. The newly adult Baby Boomers were pouring into SF and conventions by the thousands. Many people began to fret that these enthusiastic new fans would swamp the longstanding traditions of fandom and turn fandom into something that fandom itself wouldn’t recognize.

Never one to let a supposed crisis go to waste, con chair Ken Keller had the concom raise prices to levels never seen before, finally $50 at the door without an advance registration. (This would be $211 in 2016 dollars.) Keller did something else: He tried to pitch the con as strictly for fans of capital-S capital-F Science Fiction, and stated pretty clearly that “fringefans” (that is, Trekkies and gamers and media fans generally) would find the con boring and should stay away. I don’t know Keller and I’m not sure how serious he was; it sounded like a publicity stunt even then. Lots of people made fun of him in the runup to the convention, myself included. I wrote several filk songs mocking MidAmericon, and one specifically mocking Keller.

At the time I thought it was just some guy throwing his weight around, and I doubt anybody gave much thought to the question: What if they really do go away? Heh. Guess what? In 1987, the first DragonCon was held. During the years since then, Worldcon attendance wobbled around a few thousand truefen, while DragonCon (and other media cons like ComiCon) absolutely exploded. At this writing, media cons routinely out-pull Worldcons by a factor of ten or more. (Sometimes a lot more.) By 2015, ComiCon San Diego had 167,000 people in attendance. Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon, had…3,418. 2% of ComiCon.

Alas, across these past forty years, Worldcon has become a rounding error.

I’ve never been to a media con and I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but seeing reports from other authors, it’s become clear that media cons are not entirely superhero cosplay anymore, if they ever were to begin with. There are programming tracks on purely textual SF and fantasy, with author guests and signings, and all the stuff we used to enjoy doing at Worldcons.

Ok. It took forty years, but media cons have now matured enough and broadened their focus enough to give birth to a new award that touches on most aspects of the creative fantastic, including textual SF and fantasy. The Dragon Awards were presented yesterday. The list of awards has been posted on the DragonCon site. The award is a popular-vote award rather than a juried award like the Nebulas. It’s a fan award, nominated by fans and voted on by fans. How many fans exactly has not yet been released, though I hope numbers will come out eventually.

What struck me as significant about the Dragon Awards is that there are seven different categories for textual novels: Best SF, Best Fantasy, Best YA, Best Military SFF, Best Alternate History, Best Apocalyptic, and Best Horror. (There are, as you might expect, Best Graphic Novel and Best Comic Book categories as well.) There are no awards for short fiction, no art awards, and no fan awards. I think one or two art awards would make sense, and with some luck we’ll have those someday. I’ll give them some time to get it right. This was the award’s first year, after all.

Even though I’m way behind in my reading because of the Big Move, several authors on the winners list are people I have read in the past and much like, including the late, great Terry Pratchett, Larry Correia, John C. Wright, and my friend Brian Niemeier. What these four authors have in common (perhaps with others like Nick Cole whom I’ve not yet read) is a knack for telling a damned fine yarn without getting mired in identity politics or self-conscious message pie. Furthermore, Brian Niemeier won the award as an indie, with his self-published second novel, Souldancer.

If the Dragons are any reflection of the shape of media fandom, one of my longstanding suspicions has been confirmed: Media fandom is absorbing traditional SFF fandom. Traditional fandom has become fussy, elitist, and ideologically uniform to the extent that there is active hostility toward anyone who doesn’t either salute the progressive left or stay fastidiously quiet. This was not always the case, and I used to count among my friends many on the left, some of them very frank Marxists. (Some are still my friends. Others have called me a fascist or some other damfool thing for my Puppy sympathies and are long off my roster.) We used to have lively discussions of various political issues at cons, and nobody went home mad. But that was the 70s. I had hair, and fandom was young, tolerant and diverse. It was a short time comin’, and it’s been a long time gone.

At MidAmericon II last week, the concom ejected Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online for making several panelists…uncomfortable. (Really. I am not making this up. It’s in the Code of Conduct.) I heard the audio of his schtick and read many descriptions of the panel itself. The schtick was funny. Yes, Dave was mocking political correctness, just as I was mocking Ken Keller back in 1976. Keller didn’t throw me out of the con; I’m pretty sure he was too mature for that sort of nonsense. MidAmericon II has a code of conduct so broad that it basically allowed the concom to throw out anybody they didn’t like. Suppose I had gone to a panel moderated by John Scalzi and he made me uncomfortable. Would they throw him out on my complaint?

Hang on. I’ll stop giggling in a minute or two…

Ok. There. Whew. [Blows nose. Is glad he wasn’t drinking Diet Mountain Dew.] The point I’ll close with is something we should have learned forty years ago: If you abuse and insult people, they will leave, and avoid you from then on. Back in 1976, MidAmericon I insulted media fans, and little by little, they left. More recently, SF’s Insider Alphas have been insulting people who dare question progressive orthodoxy in fantastic literature, and those people are leaving. I didn’t expect that the two groups of exiles would converge, but that’s what appears to be happening. A young, diverse (see Sarah Hoyt’s description linked to above) and ginormous fandom is coalescing outside the fandom I grew up with. It isn’t conservative in any identifiable way. People aren’t leaving fandom because it’s almost exclusively left-leaning. (I recall it leaning strongly left forty years ago.) They’re leaving because fandom is now intolerant of dissent, and because far too many in fandom demonize all opposition. That’s not the left wing I encountered during the Vietnam era in the ’70s and once identified with. That’s just tribalism in a fandom costume.

If media cons remain at 100,000 plus attendance levels, I’ll have some issues, because crowds that big make me twitchy. However, some interesting things are happening. The people who created Phoenix ComiCon have created a new, smaller, and more focused event called Phoenix Fan Fest. Its emphasis is on comic books, and on interaction between comics creators and their fans, with a mere 15,000 or so attendees. If the ComiCon creators can break out comic books into their own event, why not textual SFF? They could do it if they wanted to. Given the emergence of the Dragon Awards, my guess is that sooner or later, they will.

At that point, the schism becomes complete: 5% of fandom will remain grumpy and exclusionary. The other 95% will just get together–in events both large and, well, less large–and have fun in one another’s company.

That’s not a wish. That’s a prophecy.

Another Worldcon, Another Bonfire

So another Worldcon is now history, and people immediately began asking me what I thought. When Kansas City won the 2016 bid as MidAmericon II a few years ago, I’d had some hopes of attending. Then we decided to move to Phoenix, and our near-term lifestyle choices narrowed radically. Next year the con is in Finland, which would be a cool trip, but…well…no.

So all I know is what I’ve heard. And most of what I’ve heard about is, once again, focused on the Hugo Awards. Here’s the official summary. I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of it. Each of the three major factions won a little and lost a little. It’s a complicated business, and I’ve written several popular entries on the subject. If you’re coming to the Puppies Saga for the first time, you should probably read what I’ve written in the past:

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 1

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 2

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 3

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 4

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 5

Rant: Sad Puppies vs. Anti-Puppies, as the Kilostreisands Pile Up

Rant: You Can’t Shame a Puppy

Sad Puppies Summary and Wrapup

Rant: The Lasting Legacy of the Sad Puppies

Most of what I’ve linked to above applies to 2016, even though I wrote it all last year, and what I wrote focused on Sad Puppies 3. There was a Sad Puppies 4 campaign this year, coordinated by Kate Paulk, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Amanda S. Green. I wrote about that earlier this year, when the 2016 nominations appeared:

Sad Puppies 4 and the Doomsday Slate

As you can see from the marvelous SP4 logo from Lee “Artraccoon” Madison, the SP4 motto was “The Embiggening.” The goal was to bring still more people to Worldcon and the Hugo Awards process, as a means of fighting the worsening numeric irrelevance of the con and the awards. The other, more subtle goal of SP4 was to combat the ideological monoculture of Hugo-nominated fiction, art, and media, by nominating works and people outside the narrow boundaries of what’s acceptable to the ideological progressives in SFF.

Mike Glyer did a very good comparison of the final ballot against the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies lists back in April. Vox Day got 64 of his 81 recommendations on the final ballot, which I found nothing short of astonishing, especially considering some “poison pill” items like Chuck Tingle’s “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” and an episode of My Little Pony. Sad Puppies didn’t do quite as well, placing only 36 out of 80 recommendations on the final ballot.

A sidenote: I do not use the term “SJW” (social justice warrior) for a couple of reasons, which I’ll explain here on Contra at some point. Basically, it’s about accuracy and the objective meanings of words.

So what happened at MidAmericon II? These are the major items:

  • Sad Puppies 4 brought a significant number of new memberships to Worldcon. Attendance figures have not been released at this writing, but 4,032 valid nomination ballots were cast, and 3,130 valid voting ballots. That’s about twice last year’s numbers. Obviously, not all of those additional people were Sad Puppies supporters, but many of them were certainly APs (Anti-Puppies) who might not have joined except to counter the Puppies threat.
  • Virtually all of the winners were people and works favored by the Worldcon Elite and their loyal followers.
  • Vox Day continued his efforts to get the Worldcon community to destroy its own Hugo Awards by voting the doomsday slate of No Award over anybody recommended by either the Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies, or anything published by Vox Day’s publishing company, Castalia House. In the process, they gave him a fortune in absolutely free publicity, which he promptly used to build Castalia’s readership. I don’t know Vox and certainly don’t agree with all his positions, but I marvel at the hammerlock he has on his opponents’ attention. They. Just. Can’t. Get. Enough. Vox. Day.
  • MidAmericon II utterly soiled itself by expelling Tangent Online‘s Dave Truesdale from the con because he made several members of the Worldcon Elite…uncomfortable. Rob Kroese wrote up an excellent summary of that little disaster earlier today, and I won’t attempt to summarize here. Read The Whole Thing, as Glenn Reynolds says. Even Moshe Feder, definitely of SFF’s left wing, thinks that Truesdale did nothing even close to warrant expulsion from the con. As with Vox Day, Dave Truesdale got a fortune in free publicity. MidAmericon II basically lit a bonfire and threw itself into the flames.
  • The con venue made hotel room parties almost impossible, and so the much-anticipated Sad Puppies party had to be held sub rosa. I hope this isn’t a trend in con venues. Much of what we used to go for in the 70s and 80s were the room parties.

I’m not sure what more could be said, since I wasn’t there. Worldcon continued to make more enemies. John Scalzi smugly insists that the Puppies should all go home, a sentiment tweeted emphatically by the enigmatic Brianna Wu, who says that SF is her home, and not your (the Puppies) home. Howzat again? I was published and a member of SWFA before she was even born. Sheesh.

Scalzi has said more than once (and he isn’t alone) that Worldcon management should have the power to toss out any Hugo ballots that show evidence of slatework. Oh my, what could possibly go wrong? In essence, he and many others want the Hugos to become a juried award, with their people and only their people on the jury. He wants Sad Puppies supporters to leave the SFF fan community, perhaps not realizing that a great many of them already have, taking their money, their energy, and their insights with them. The great irony of the Worldcon progressive wing calling for more diversity is that diversity of worldview is quickly vanishing from Worldcon. It’s all progressive, all the time, all the way down.

To them that sounds like victory. To me and many others, it sounds like a bonfire.

All the Myriad Jeffs


People misspell my name. They do. Holy molybdenum. And I have proof.

Back in 1985, when I became a technical editor at PC Tech Journal, tech companies started sending me stuff. A lot of it was press releases, some of it was swag (Carol still wears some of the T-shirts as summer nightgowns) and a great deal of it was product. Somewhere along the way, somebody misspelled my name on a mailing label. No biggie; it had happened before. It was funny, so I cut out the label and taped it to my office door to amuse passersby.

Two weeks later, I got another one. I cut it out and taped it to the bottom of the first label I had taped to my office door. For the next 17 years, I would semiregularly get shipping labels upon which someone had utterly murdered my name. And not just my last…which is understandable enough. But how many myriad ways are there to spell “Jeff?”

Lots. Each time I got one (most of the time; I let duplicates and some odd permutations get away) I cut it out and taped it to the bottom of the last label in what had become a fairly long string. At some point the string stretched from high eye-level almost to the floor, so I started a second string. Eventually I had to start a third. And a fourth. The strings of funny labels followed me from PC Tech Journal to Turbo Technix to PC Techniques/Visual Developer. When I emptied my desk on that horrible day in 2002 that it all caved in for good, I piled my strings of labels into the bottom of a box and threw a great deal of other stuff on top of it. I tried several times to empty the box, but it was so emotionally wrenching I never quite got to the bottom of the box.

Until now. And lo! There they were!

Most of them were me. A few were sent to mythical firms like The Coriolanus Group, The Cariotis Group, the Coryoless Group, and once to The Coriolis Group at 3202 East Germany. (It was actually Greenway.) The scan at the top of this entry simply serves as evidence that I didn’t make it all up.

How were all these mistakes made? No mystery there: All the people who sent the labels took my name over the phone. I had MCI Mail by 1985, and CompuServe not long after that (76711,470) but the PR universe was a generation behind us nerds. And so when I thought I spoke “Jeff Duntemann” clearly to a rep, she wrote down “Jeff Stuntman.” Or maybe “Jess Tuntemann.” Or…well, see for yourself:

Jeff Stuntman

Gaff Duntemann

Jess Tuntemann

Jeff Duntenann at Turbo Space Technix

Jeff Duntem

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Puntemann

Jeff Donteman

Steve Duntemann

Ms. Temann

Jeff Dunte-Mann

Jeff Duntermann

Juff Duntemann

Carol Dunkemann

Jeff Quntemann

Jeff Dunkmann

Jeff Deniemann

James Duntemann

Jeff Dunningham

Nancy Duntemann

Jeff Dunttemann

Jeff Duntamun

Jeff Duncan

Jeff Punteann

Don Temann

Jeff Duntecmann

Jeff Dundemann

John Duntemann

Jeff Doutermann

Jeff Donovan

Jeffis Sutemann

Jeff Duntavent

Jeff Doutemon

Prof. Jeff Mr. Duntemann