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To KU or Not to KU, Part 4: Who It Helps

Continuing a series begun in my entry for 1/13/2015:

Judging by the ruckus indie authors have been making for a couple of months, you’d think that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) service was universally hated by the author community. Not so: A few vehement dissenting voices have piped up. Christa Lakes blogged that because of KU, October was her best sales month ever. Kathryn Le Veque‘s revenues are up 50% C. L. R. Dougherty writes that although his revenue per unit has declined by 9% for the second half, his total revenue was 46% higher than the first half. Here’s the money quote from his essay:

Borrows increase rankings and make your book more visible, as well as making it less risky to people who don’t know your work.

That may be it, in a nutshell: KU is a mechanism to promote your writing, and like all promotion efforts, it comes at a cost. The downside is that the cost remains even if the promotion won’t make you much more popular. The more popular your work is already, the more damage KU seems to do to your revenues. In the case of an extremely popular author like Holly Ward, it can do a great deal of damage.

Understanding this requires understanding how KU affects author visibility and reader risk-aversion. The risk effect is easily explained: A couple of power readers have already told me that because there is no marginal cost to trying unknown authors, they’re much more willing to do so. If you borrow a book and the first chapter makes you gag, you can return it and borrow another one immediately, having lost nothing more than a little time.

Alas, for readers to try you, they first have to be able to see you, and as you might imagine, the noise level in the Kindle universe is astonishingly high. This is why sales rankings are so important to the KU indie community: They get you above the noise, and if you’re lucky you’ll get noticed. The more borrows you get, the higher your rankings become, and the greater your visibility. It’s precisely the sort of feedback loop you want to kick off, especially if you’re just starting out and don’t have much of an existing fanbase. If you get high enough in the Kindle rankings, KDP Select pays “All-Star” bonuses every month that are not trivial:

  • Top ten KDP Select authors get $25,000.
  • Authors in the 11-20 rank get $10,000.
  • Authors in the 21-30 rank get $5,000.
  • Top ten KDP Select titles get $1,000.

with other, smaller bonuses further down the ranks. So there is more than just visbility at stake: That Christmas tree has a golden angel at the top.

KU is an outgrowth of KDP Select, and KDP Select is basically KDP with two major promotional features: Kindle Coundown Deals, which are limited-time discounts, and “Free Days,” which are limited time periods during which a book may be downloaded free of charge. Quite apart from letting your titles go cheap or free, the cost of KDP Select is exclusivity. If a title is there, it isn’t anywhere else. Beyond the drop in revenues, this is what much of the commotion is about: Since KU revenues are unpredictable, authors would like to have alternate revenue streams outside the Kindle ecosystem. Exclusivity makes that impossible.

Although borrows cannibalize sales to some extent, the effect is complex. You can’t “keep” a KU book, so in those cases where a borrowed book is a big hit with a reader, that reader can turn around and buy the book from KDP. This sounds to me like a subtle push toward quality writing, or at least writing of a quality that exceeds what most other KU authors are producing. I’ve read a lot of books that I will only read once, but when books are spectacularly good, I read them more than once, and keep them close at hand.

There’s a pecular unintended consequence of the way that KU pays: Short works are more lucrative than long ones. All titles pay the same on a borrow, irrespective of length. A short story pays you the same $1.40 (or whatever it is this month) as a 100,000-word novel. So little by little, KU titles are shortening up. This has been a trend in ebook fiction generally; I recall thinking a year or two ago that ebook retailing might herald in a new golden age of the short novel, which since the demise of the pulps has been an almost-forgotten form. Things have gone much farther than that on KU: We may be seeing a whole new publishing venue for short stories.

A related consequence: Authors are cutting up their novels into what amount to serials, and making each installment a separate title. Recall that there is no limit to the number of borrows you can do on KU, as long as you only have ten titles on your shelf at any given time. So if a novel consists of five chunks, you can read one in an hour, return it, borrow the next installment, read it in another hour, return it, and so on until the serial has been consumed. (This reminds me of binge-watching TV series.) It’s a minor nuisance to the reader, since each installment has to be separately borrowed and returned, but a major revenue enhancement to authors. I’ve seen some grumbling from readers about this already. Authors are jumping in with both feet.

I’m going to leave the question of whether KU devalues ebooks, or reading itself, for another time. There are different types of reading, each of which engages a different suite of mental machinery. I’ve seen speculation that power readers are creating a new type of reading, in which they skim familiar descriptions and pay greater attention only to what differs from other titles in the same category. I’m going to have to think a little more about that.

But for the moment, I think I have a grip on who is best-served by KU: The new genre fiction writer (especially in romance and mystery) without a fanbase but with some skill and a great deal of determination. In a way, KU is like an online game: You compete with other writers for the attention of readers, and keep score by sales rankings. Money earned is also feedback, but not as immediate as the rankings. If you’re just getting started, playing this game is mandatory. I can’t think of any other way to get noticed faster beyond pure genius or insane luck.

If you’ve got some time in grade and some sort of fanbase, KU is a tougher call. For writers in this category (like me) KU can make the long tail work in your favor. Put your older stuff on KU and use it to keep your flag flying. Put your new stuff on KDP (not KDP Select!) and draw attention to it among your fans any way you can. How well this works I don’t know, and won’t know until later this year, after I get my novelettes out there on KU. I’ll certainly keep you informed. I’m guessing that SF works less well on KU than romance. Since I don’t write romance, it’s a test that I’m unable to run.

If you’re already famous and making a living off your writing alone, KU may not help. It may hurt. The good news is that Amazon’s KU exclusivity runs for 90 days, after which time the title may be pulled from the program. You can run tests. A lot of writers have run those tests, and like dieting, individual differences seem to dominate results. The tests should still be run.

In conclusion, there’s something to remember: Amazon is a force of nature. You may not like it, but it’s not going away. Your challenge is to make the most of it, and not just stand on the sidelines, bitching. If KU benefits enough readers and enough writers, Amazon will keep it alive and feed it. There’s money on that table. Most of the other tables are bare. You can take the money or sit it out.

So…what will it be?

To KU or Not to KU, Part 3: How It Pays

Continuing a series begun in my entry for 1/13/2015:

The benefits of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) program are reasonably clear for readers, especially “power readers,” who read over ten books per month. In fact, the program seems to have been designed for power readers, and I’m starting to hear from power readers who use KU and consider it a good deal for the money.

Now let’s look at the flipside: Is it a good deal for authors? That’s a kind of a tangled question.

First of all, my research suggests that Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP) has been very good for indie authors and publishers. As I mentioned earlier in this series, much depends on what you’re writing and how quickly you can crank it out. Amazon has a program called KDP Select (KDPS) which is mostly about promoting your work, and all titles on KDP Select are also on KU. I’ll explain how KDPS works in a future entry; it’s complicated.

A fair number of authors writing in popular categories have been making their sole living off Amazon’s various Kindle programs for some time now. With KDP, payment is pretty simple: For books with cover prices falling between $2.99 and $9.99, authors get 70%, Amazon gets 30%. For those 99c novels you hear about (or anything with a cover price less than $2.99) authors get 35%, Amazon 65%. Authors are paid after the customer orders the book and pays Amazon for it, whether the book is actually read or not.

Under most author agreements with KU, this all changes. KU books are borrowed, not sold. A borrowed book generates a royalty payment when the customer has read 10% or more of it. (Yes, Amazon knows how much of a KU book you’ve read. It’s a cloud system, and the cloudowner knows everything about what goes on in its cloud.) KU borrows of books published by traditional publishers generate the same royalty payment as a conventional sale, but that’s a much smaller group of authors, and not what I want to talk about in this series.

So: How much is the payment for a KU borrow? It depends on two things:

  1. How much money Amazon has placed in a payment fund for KU borrows, and
  2. How many borrows actually happen.

Yes, you read that right: All KU borrows share funds from a fixed pool that Amazon “fills” at the beginning of every month. If the pool contains a million dollars and a million borrows happen, each author of a borrowed book gets a dollar for that borrow. That simpleminded example is not far from real-life. Roger Packer published a nice chart of KU payouts from July to October, 2014. In July, payouts were $1.86. Payouts dropped each month, until by October they were $1.33. Then, in November, payouts rose to $1.40.

Why? My guess: All hell was starting to break loose.

On a thread in the KBoards forums, bestselling author Holly Ward reported that since she started with KU, her income from both KU borrows and KDP sales had gone down by 75%. Lesser-known authors complained about the same drop in sales later in the thread. (Read it all; it’s an eye-opener.) It wasn’t just a reduction in the payment per borrow; conventional KDP sales had dropped as well. KU was evidently scavenging sales from KDP, and authors were starting to yell. Amazon allocated more money for KU borrows, hence the November rise. (The December 2014 payout level is not yet known.)

Remember that titles published under KU are exclusive to Amazon. Authors give up sales from B&N, iBooks, Kobo, and every other channel. So if KU and KDPS revenues fall, there’s no other money pipe running.

KU is still pretty new, and author discontent is even newer. Nobody knows if Amazon will respond with a bigger money pot or just ignore the author anguish and ride it out. I’m following the matter closely now and will report here when anything interesting happens.

In the meantime, in the wake of November’s author explosion, the question arises: Why do any authors stay with KDPS/KU at all? There are certainly costs, and as Holly Ward discovered, those costs are significant. Are there benefits? Well. Let me scratch my head a little, and in the next entry in this series I’ll explore that, which is the gnarliest KU question of all.

The Year of Writing Dangerously

My mother always told us when we were kids that however we behaved on New Year’s Eve, we would behave for the entire year, so for pete’s sake just behave. And so we did, more or less. As 2014 winds down I’m trying not to be too grouchy, lest my outlook get stuck in one unflattering state for the next twelve months. It’s 11 below in Colorado Springs as I write this, which doesn’t help. Maybe if I get it out of my system before midnight, next year will be better.

(Midnight? asks Shrek. Why is it always midnight?)

The worst of it is, I can’t be too specific. But I’ll summarize this way: 2014 was a real lousy year for technical publishing. I’m pretty sure it was a lousy year for publishing generally. This isn’t new news; the last really good year for publishing may have been 2000. The 90s were a spectacular decade for publishing, and although it may not be entirely fair to compare recent years to those in the 90s, the functional difference is that (quality being held constant) publishing is cheaper and easier now than it’s ever been in human history. Less remarked on, but no less important: So is reading.

Traditional publishing companies were gatekeepers because the creation of books was difficult and expensive. I’m old enough to have spent all night helping my art director finish laying out a magazine issue on cardboard sheets, to which strips and blocks of text and even isolated letters were glued with hot wax. (I also remember upending the art department wastebasket on the floor at 2 ayem and digging through typesetting discards because Karen needed a 6-point “q” to complete a spread.) As laser printers replaced typsetters, and then purely digital layout replaced laser printers, smaller and smaller groups could do better and better work for less and less money. Skill still matters. Capital, not so much. With a proven book style template in hand, I can take an 80,000 word .docx file and turn it into a printable book in an afternoon without hurrying, using a six-year-old PC and a ten-year-old release of InDesign. I don’t have to print 10,000 books to make money. I can print them as readers buy them, and recoup the cost of my time with sales of just 25-30. (This is about layout and doesn’t include the cost of writing the book, which is much harder to quantify.) Yes, it takes more ebook sales to recoup layout costs because cover prices are lower, but since it’s easier to sell a $3 ebook than an $18 trade paperback, the time taken to recoup costs is roughly the same, all else being equal, with ebook sales pulling steadily ahead.

What this means is that technology has kicked the gates down, and the gatekeepers are left beside a pile of kindling, blinking and wondering whathehell happened. Conventional wisdom holds that the fall of the gatekeepers means that a flood of worthless, badly written books is turning the public off to reading. I don’t think this is true; more people are reading than ever. The real problems are these:

  • Finding good books amidst the torrent of sludge is difficult. (This is not a new problem!)
  • Sludge aside, the number of worthwhile books is growing faster than the number of reader-hours available to consume them.

These two problems interact in an interesting way: Readers who happen on a good writer tend to stay with that writer as a way of keeping their nostrils above the sludge torrent. If you find a writer who writes a lot of what you enjoy, you don’t have to look as hard for things to read. This selects for writers who are hyperextroverted, tireless self-promoters with the ability to summon ferocious energy and apply it to their writing. Writing three decent novels a year isn’t remarkable anymore. It’s survival. You’re not competing against crappy writing. You’re competing against excellent writing in a market that is approaching saturation.

Traditional publishers are looking for writers with “platforms,” which basically means writers who have already established a following somehow. Creating a solid platform is difficult and energy-intensive, and with self-publishing as easy and inexpensive as it is, writers have begun asking whether signing increasingly dicey contracts with publishers after they’re well-known really makes sense. The platform is the new gatekeeper. The bad news is that a platform takes a great deal of time and work, much of which does not involve writing. The good news is that you don’t have to kiss publisher ass to create a platform. (My agent has written a very good if slightly scary book about creating platforms.)

This, more than anything else, is why self-publishing does make sense, and why traditional publishers are struggling. It’s not all bad news. However, it’s not all good news, especially for careful writers of a certain age who can’t knock it out quickly enough to get a platform up to critical mass.

Hence my grumpiness, which may be fatigue more than nostalgia for my days when selling books to print publishers was easy, and the process–and money–reliable. I could summarize 2014 this way: It was the year that I truly lost my taste for traditional publishing. Again, I can’t yet explain in detail, but my inner circle knows what’s going on. (Note that this is about my core competence in tech writing; fiction is a whole ‘nother world.) Sooner or later the dust will settle, and you’ll get the full story.

Beyond that, the year was actually decent enough: Carol can dance again, we took two tropical vacations, we bought a nice new car, and we’ve begun our search for the Door Into Summer During Winter. 2015 could well be a lot happier than what we’ve just been through. Granted, what I write and how I publish it going forward are still unknown. But man, 2014 has been giving me some hints.

A hearty 73 from Carol and me and the Pack. See you on the flipside.

Odd Lots

  • Yes, I changed my mind and signed up for Twitter, after pondering somebody else using my name and creating a Fake Jeff Duntemann. (Thanks to Bob Fergert for prompting me to imagine the unimaginable–and I’m a good imaginer.) More on this a little later. I have yet to post anything due to lots of top-priority projects here, but I’ll get to it within the week.
  • Dietary saturated fat is not related to plasma fatty acids. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much saturated fat you eat; your blood levels of fatty acids are controlled by other factors. What other factors? Care to guess? Are you reading this on Contrapositive Diary? Is the Pope from Argentina? Is the atomic weight of ytterbium 173.04? It’s the carbs. Wow. Whodathunkit? (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal, who was the first of several to put me on the scent.)
  • There is actually a prize for the worst sex scene in literary fiction. It is not a coveted award, and I guess is seen as a sort of booby prize among literary writers. The WSJ recently posted a brief guide on how to avoid writing such scenes. (I avoid writing really bad sex scenes by not writing sex scenes at all. Works amazingly well.)
  • Two people in my circles who don’t know one another have independently recommended Ting as a cell carrier. First impression: Sounds too good to be true, and sheesh, they were created by Tucows. (That said, Tucows is no longer what most of us grayhairs remember it being.) Any other opinions? Getting new phones and a new carrier is my next big tech research project.
  • I’d also like to hear some early impressions of Lollipop, if anybody’s got it or is about to get it.
  • Here’s something you don’t see every day; in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it even once, ever: A square flat-panel monitor, with a 1920 X 1920 resolution. Assuming these survive their launch (not a sure thing by any means) I’d be sorely tempted. As the story says, “Enough of the ultra wideness already.”
  • I wasn’t sure whether good technical books could be created as reflowable ebooks, but Yury Magda is doing it. He has five self-published Arduino-related titles now, and what I can see in the samples looks damned good. I’m going to buy a couple, less for the Arduino content as for how he does the layout. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for putting me on to this.)
  • Gizmodo/Sploid has a very nice short item on the XB-70 Valkyrie, certainly the most beautiful and possibly the second-scariest military aircraft ever built. Do watch the video of how the second prototype crashed–and if you’re ever within striking distance of Dayton, don’t miss the other Valkyrie at the Air Force museum there. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Barðarbunga is emitting over twice as much sufur dioxide every day as all of Europe’s smokestacks put together, and the volcano is still hard at it. SO2 is well-known to be a powerful cooling factor in the atmosphere. Combine that with a quiet Sun, and nobody really knows what might happen.
  • Best video illustration of how tumbler locks work that I’ve ever seen.
  • For that special, short, hairy, ironic someone in your life: You can get a genuine Flying Nun-inspired Weta-made Bofur winter hat, shipped all the way from New Zealand. Not cheap and not sure if it’ll arrive before Christmas, but if this winter keeps going like it’s going, you’ll be all set to face dragons, ice ages, or both.

Why I’m Not On Twitter

On more than one occasion, a reader has emailed me to ask why he or she couldn’t see me on Twitter. My answer might have seemed inconceivable to them: I’m not on it. I never have been. I’ve researched it and thought about it and waffled about it almost since there was a Twitter. I still haven’t gone there. And at this point, I’m unlikely to.

One reason has always been that I don’t think in 140-character text bites. I’m a careful and methodical writer on both the fiction and nonfiction side, and being methodical (not to mention fair) requires more than 25 words, or five words and a hotlink. I’ve recently experimented with what I call nanoarticles on Facebook. I’m currently on Day 13 of a 50-entry meditation on writing over there, with individual entries running from 40-100 words or so. I’m still not sure it’s useful.

I like epigrams, and I’ve written a few. I’ve gotten hundreds of Twitter posts and retweets of my statement: “A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think.” A few have liked “If you see a pinata, remember that somewhere close by is a blindfolded person swinging a stick.” I’ve gotten some pushback on “Self-esteem is confidence without calibration.” (This leads me to believe it may be truer than I thought.) It might be in the family; my father said, “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.” I guess I’m good enough at epigrams to post them publicly, and Twitter is epigram-sized. That said, I don’t think I want to be known primarily for my epigrams. On Twitter, you pretty much have four choices:

  • Epigrams.
  • Forwarded links.
  • Retweets.
  • Shouting.

Note that novels, technical books, and long-form journalism are not on the list. I already do Odd Lots here on Contra. One cannot retweet without tweeting.

So then there’s Number Four.

“Shouting” is the short form. It’s almost always indignant shouting, self-righteous shouting, or outright hateful shouting. The basic Twitter mechanism is a sort of amplifier, and once the person doing the shouting gets above a certain level of popularity, a runaway feedback mechanism ensues. Boom! (Squeal?) We have a mob. And far oftener than you might think, we have a lynch mob.

It struck me a few months ago: Almost all the current Internet wars are Twitter wars. Gamergate could not have happened without Twitter. Neither could Donglegate. Mobs require the sort of immediate feedback that only immediate presence provides. Twitter is as close as you come online to immediate presence.

Twitter wars would be mere popcorn fodder (low comedy, actually) and easy to tune out if there weren’t real-world consequences. There are. Adria Richards eavesdropped on two dorks making dumb jokes at a conference, took photos without permission, and tweeted them. One of the two dorks was fired from his job, as (a little later) was Adria herself. People have objected angrily to a Twitter lynch mob’s reducing Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor to tearful apology over his dopey Hawaiian shirt. I have a suspicion that he had no choice but to apologize. It’s not easy getting a probe to a comet, and it wasn’t easy for Dr. Taylor to be part of the team. Had he not made obeisance to the lynch mob, he might well have lost his job, and in fact his entire career. Employers can be cowardly in this fashion without much cost to themselves: There are always 400 people waiting to fill the void that you make when your company shows you the door.

We have a phenomenon here related to what I call “comment harpies.” There is a psychology that feeds on outrage and hate. Comment harpies are this psychology’s manifestion in blog comment sections. On Twitter, the psychology is amplified way past absurdity, and becomes an online lynch mob. It’s so easy to join in: Are you an umbrage vampire? A recreational hater? Choose your hashtag and join the mob!

I don’t associate with such people, and I don’t want my participation on the Twitter system to be seen as validating what might well be the Internet’s most efficient hate machine. Whether Twitter would be good for my writing career is still an open question, and while Twitter leaves an ugly smell in my nostrils, I rarely say never. Attention amplifiers are very good things, if they can be controlled, and somehow prevented from melting down or blowing up in your face. This happens; there is an SF writer I once respected who has frittered away much of his reputation on laughably rabid Twitter attacks. This may be a calculated strategy: Is he deliberately trading the broad but shallow support of his casual readership for the slobbering adulation of a Twitter mob? If so, he may not be as smart as he looks.

I strive to always be smarter than I look. The smart path may be to avoid Twitter entirely. Time will tell. In the meantime, watching the Twitter lynch mobs at work has put new steel up my back. If some jackass umbrage vampire ever calls me some sort of ist or phobe, I will reply: “No, I’m not. Now back off.”

I might be thinking worse of them inside my head, but…civility matters. And civility is the exception on Twitter.

Why Oscar Wilde?

People have been asking me what I’ve been up to as a writer recently, and that’s a hard question. I got a little burned out on the Raspberry Pi textbook project, about which I won’t say more right now. What I really want to do is write another novel.

There is no shortage of possibilities:

  • Old Catholics. You’ve seen pieces of this. I already have 37,000+ words down, but for reasons I don’t understand I’m completely wedged on it.
  • The Anything Machine. Basically the Drumlins Saga arrival story, and how teen boy Howard Banger discovers the thingmakers, and faces down the bitter billionaire who later founds the Bitspace Institute.
  • The Everything Machine. An autistic young girl discovers a “placeholder drumlin” that looks a great deal like an enormous space shuttle. It clearly needs a very large thingmaker to build it. Mike Grabacki thinks he knows where one is, and in his all-drumlins ATV Old Hundredth, he, Ike, and Mother Polly go off to find it, with the Bitspace Institute in hot pursuit.
  • The Everyone Machine. Wrapup of the Drumlins Saga. I can’t write this before I write The Everything Machine.
  • Wreckage of Mars. What happens after (almost) all of the Martians die at the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds? Nothing like what you would expect.
  • The Molten Flesh. See below.
  • The Subtle Mind. Wrapup of the Metaspace Saga, and probably the larger Gaians Saga. The Protea Society creates a human being with the power to sense and manipulate metaspace directly, and all kinds of interesting things happen.
  • The Gathering Ice. Neanderthals! Global Freezing! Neanderthals! Glaciers level Chicago! Neanderthals! The Voynich Manuscript, which was written by, well, not the Masons nor the Illuminati. (Hint: It’s a recipe book for reversing a looming Ice Age.) And did I say, Neanderthals? No? Well, then: Neanderthals!

Which brings us to Oscar Wilde. I’ve been reading up on our friend Oscar over the past year or so, revisiting his work, becoming familiar with his life, and thinking hard about a challenge I’ve set myself: to craft a convincing AI character that thinks it’s Oscar Wilde. The character is central to what will be the sequel to my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood . In The Molten Flesh, the focus is on a nanotech secret society called Protea, which develops a nanomachine that optimizes the human body. Unlike the fearsome Sangruse Device, which was given an ego and a little too much instinct for self-preservation, the Protea Device doesn’t even have a personality. Like Sangruse v9, Protea is extremely intelligent and contains essentially all human knowledge, but unlike Sangruse v9, it remains quietly obedient, doing its job and serving its operator as best it can.

That is, it doesn’t have a personality until one day the instance of the Protea Device that lives within operator Laura Rocci pops up and announces that Oscar Wilde is back, and, by the way, madam, your figure is exquisite when seen from the inside!

Laura reboots her alternate of the Device, but this fake Oscar Wilde will not go away. She consults with her Society, which orders her to live with the Wilde personality for a few years (she’s already 142 years old, and immortal) to see where it came from and what might be learned from it. What she learns (among many other things) is that this ersatz Oscar, while often annoying, is as brilliantly creative as the “stock” Protea Device is literal and dull. It devises a very clever way to “sample” other AI nanodevices and keep them imprisoned as unwilling consultants. As the story begins, the Protea Society directs Laura to enter into a relationship with an operator of the Sangruse Device, in hopes that the Sangruse Device will decide to enter her without her knowledge as a “silent alternate;” basically a backup copy. It does, and Oscar’s trap is sprung. (Those who have read The Cunning Blood may remember that Laura Rocci is the name of Peter Novilio’s short, mousy girlfriend, and that the Sangruse Society is aware that Protea sampled it, though not how.) Protea/Oscar then begins to seduce Sangruse v9, which (as readers may recall) is indeed extremely intelligent, while not being particularly, um, bright.

I didn’t choose Oscar Wilde at random. Wilde was a man of the senses, who lived for the experience of beauty in the physical world. I wondered: How would a mind like Wilde’s react to not having a body at all? Protea/Oscar is ambivalent. He tells Laura at some point: I traded my body for immortality! Isn’t that like trading my brain for brilliance? Then again, Oscar does have a body, after a fashion, and quickly learns how to experience the world through Laura’s senses. Once Oscar comes to understand the fate of the world in 2374, he throws his lot in with a patchwork force of rebels who are trying to overthrow Canadian rule of what had been the United States until the global catastrophe that was the second half of the 21st century. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s biography, you’ll understand that he has a grudge against England, and much admired American pragmatism (see “The Canterville Ghost”) even while considering most Americans cultural bumpkins. Protea/Oscar Wilde’s opinion of Canada is not flattering:

Canada, mon dieu. An ounce of pale English butter spread across four million square miles of rough American bread.

(The Canadians actually come off pretty well in the end, and are very conflicted about holding the American tiger by the tail. Hey, would you let go?) The plot is still unfolding in the back of my head. I’ve sketched out and scrapped several already, in the fifteen years since the concept occurred to me while writing The Cunning Blood. I may not be quite ready to start yet. I may do The Everything Machine first. People have been nagging me for more drumlins stories. But if I had to finger a single character I want to portray more than any other, it would be Oscar Wilde. My notefile of fake Oscar Wilde quotes continues to grow:

God is a yam. Or maybe a sailor.

Let there be spite!

Learn to laugh at yourself, Grunion. Life demands a sense of humor–and lilies are cheap.

This is gonna be fun. Eventually. (No, I said that.) I’ll keep you posted.

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!

Daywander

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Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.

On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.

_…_

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I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.

Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)

Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.

Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.

_…_

ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)

Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.

_…_

Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)

Pinging Jeff…

Pong, everybody. Relax. I’m still here. And I’m very glad to say that I’m probably 1200 words from the end of my current book project. If it weren’t for some home repairs and carpet cleaning I’d be done by now, and I expect to be done by EOD Friday. The publisher is still reluctant to say much about the book, for reasons I still don’t understand. I’m puzzled, but in publishing as in so many other realms, those who write the checks make the rules.

Much to do after the last word rattles out of the keyboard. Getting rid of XP is high on the list, given our April 8 deadline. This afternoon I ordered a refurbed Win7 laptop, a Dell e6400. How could such an old laptop be useful to me? Easy: I don’t do much on laptops. It’s a travel computer, for Web, email, and some light word processing–like writing Contra entries on the road. It cost me $240 postpaid, as they used to say. I’ve had very good luck with used Dell machines in the last ten years. Every machine in the house but my quadcore is a Dell refurb. I already have two Win7 Dell 780 USFFs for upstairs, and installed Win7 on my lab machine over a year ago. That leaves the laptop and the quad, basically, and if I didn’t need to use the quad to finish this book, the quad would be running Win7 by now as well.

The SX270s are now all bookends. They make very nice bookends.

Oh, and the computer junk pile is getting impressive.

The list of things to do Post Book is long. We need to replace our driveway slab, which is descending into rubble. Ditto the garage slab, the replacement of which will require putting my lathe, big drill press, tooling, and metal stock in storage somewhere. There’s a lesson here: Soil compaction matters. We spent thirty grand mudjacking the lower level, recarpeting, and repainting. Settling soil pulled our gas meter down so far the pipe cracked and damned near blew us over the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I made a number of mistakes having this house built, and I will never make those mistakes again.

Then there’s 3D. I drew 81 figures by hand for this book project, all of them in Visio. (I actually drew 83, but two of them won’t be used.) I’m very good at Visio. However, Visio is inextricably a 2D CAD program, and every time I’ve tried to use it for 3D, it makes me nuts. I took a lot of drafting and engineering graphics when I was in school and know how to do it. (Sure, it was with a T-square. Ya gotta problem widdat?) I need to be able to draw things in 3D. I downloaded the free version of Sketchup after Google bought it in 2006, but was too busy back then to spend much time with it. I see that Google sold it a year or two ago, and the new owners are positioning it as an architectural CAD system. That’s fine, since I know from earlier tests that Sketchup can do telescope parts, and if it can also design me an observatory, I’m good with that. I need somewhere to put an observatory, obviously, but that’s a separate challenge. So learning Sketchup is another priority.

Fiction, too. I’m going to try finishing Old Catholics. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start The Everything Machine, complete with a 3D scale drawing of a thingmaker, courtesy Sketchup. (I tried that in Visio years ago. Uggh.)

I will also be doing some intensive research on Oscar Wilde, for reasons that only a few people in my inner circle understand.

As I always say, Boredom is a choice. I may be tired, but I am not bored. And in a few days, I suspect I will no longer be tired. Bring it on!

Yearwander

Wow. Somehow it got to be a whole new year when I wasn’t quite looking. I’m not unhappy to be shut of 2013, and as usual, I have high hopes for this year to be better. The last of our parents has been released from her suffering, and while I miss them all (especially my father, who died 36 years ago) my idiosyncratic understanding of Catholic theology suggests that they’re all in better shape than I am right now.

Which isn’t to say I’m in bad shape. I had a couple of health problems this year, but nothing horrible. I’ve been able to get my abdominal fat down to almost nothing, and weigh just eight pounds more than I did when I was 24. It still puzzles me just a bit, but I lost that weight by eating more fat. I’ll tell you with confidence that butter makes almost everything taste better except corn flakes.

I scored an interesting if slightly peculiar writing gig this year. It’s been an immense amount of work, not so much in the writing as in the learning. I’ve never done a book–or part of one–with this broad a scope. I’ve touched on a lot of technologies in my career, but touching isn’t understanding, and understanding is the critical path to explaining. I’ve written code in Python and C and ARMv6 assembly. I practically buried myself in ARM doc for most of two months. That felt good in the way you feel good after walking fifteen miles…once you’ve allowed three or four days for the smoke to clear. I now know a great deal more about virtual memory, cache, and memory management units than I might have just touching on things in my usual fashion. Curiosity is an itch. Autodidaction is a systematic itch. And to be systematic, you need deadlines. Trust me on that.

No, I still can’t tell you about the book. It’s going to be late for reasons that aren’t clear even to me. When the embargo breaks, you’ll hear it whereverthehell you are, whether you have an Internet connection or not.

Every year has some bummers. The ACA did us out of a health insurance plan that we liked, but at least in our case it wasn’t cancelled on the spot. We have some time to figure out where we can get a comparable plan, if one exists. (One may not.) It could end up costing us a quarter of our income or more, and we may lose relationships with physicians we’ve known for ten years. I’ll just be called evil for complaining, so I won’t. Anger is the sign of a weak mind, after all. I think one of my correspondents whose insurance was cancelled without warning summed it up in an interesting way: “I’m not going to get angry. I’m going to get even.”

It’s snowing like hell as I write. I would have posted a photo, but as most of you are staring out the window at snow this week (in some places a great deal of it) I doubt it would have been especially interesting. Besides, a couple of hours ago, I could have just said: Imagine yourself inside a ping-pong ball. Open your eyes. In truth, the weather hasn’t been all that bad. The global climate, in fact, has been remarkably benign considering all the dire predictions of the past ten or twelve years, at least once you look at actual stats and not anecdotes or GIGO models. Science works. Back in 2007, Al Gore himself told us that we would have an ice-free arctic by 2013. (Then again, he also said that a couple of kilometers under our feet it was millions of degrees…talk about global warming!) I love the scientific method. You predict, you test, and then you learn something. Sure, I believe in global warming. I’m still unconvinced that it’s entirely a bad thing. (I remember the ’70s. I also remember Arizona.)

I’ve also been doing some experimental research on the psychology of people who jump up and start frothing at the mouth like maniacs the instant they read something somewhere (anywhere!) that conflicts with their tribe’s narrative. That research is ongoing.

I’ve discovered a lot of good things, albeit small ones: Stilton cheese pairs with Middle Sister Rebel Red. Who knew? Python is much better than I remember it, TCL, alas, much worse. And Tkinter, wow. You’re not going to spin a GUI that fast or that easily in C. Green Mountain Coffee Island Coconut beats all, at least all you can get in a K-cup. Carol and I are dunking good bread in good olive oil again, now that Venice Olive Oil Company has a retail shop in Colorado Springs.

Time to go up and start cooking supper. We’re out of egg nog but my Lionel trains are still running. I don’t care if it looks like a ping-pong ball outside. I have my wife, my dogs, my junkbox, and a head that still works more or less as intended. Happy new year to all. Life is good, and getting better. Trust me on that too.