Category Archives: Rants

Love Trumps Hate

I’m saddened by the results of last week’s election. Tuesday night felt like this:

 

I was so wrong about the direction my country wants to head in and found out so suddenly.

I draw some comfort from the fact that the election was legitimate. I applaud the current administration for paving the way for a peaceful transition of power and Hillary Clinton for conceding with dignity.

The events have me thinking about my grandmother’s generation. Elizabeth Serbell was born in July 1920, a few weeks before women earned the right to vote in the U.S. Her family lost its fortune in the Great Depression when she was nine years old. She went to college before it was popular for women to do so. In the 1930s and 1940s, she saw the rise of right-wing authoritarian regimes throughout the world. After Elizabeth Serbell graduated from college, she worked as an oil chemist for the U.S. home front.

Democracy was sorely tested during World War II and won. After the war, my grandmother would have liked to go to medical school, but because of an influx of returning GIs, she didn’t get accepted. She earned a Master’s degree in biology instead. She divorced before it was common for women to do so and raised three daughters by herself.

Elizabeth Serbell lived just long enough to see Barack Obama elected president in 2008. She died three weeks later.

I think the worst things my country has ever done are the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and HUAC. The underlying institutions of democracy survived these storms, though democracy did not necessarily come back quickly.

I am extremely disheartened that a man on the campaign trail can refuse to show respect for women, or people of color, or the press, or the rule of law. He can do everything wrong with his campaign, flub debates, run with disorganized leadership, and be rejected by his own party. He can be destined to face a fraud trial later this month. And voters accepted these things. At any rate, they failed to punish him for them.

I am married to a man who is a legal immigrant and a naturalized U.S. citizen. This election feels like a violent rejection of our family.

Now I hope that Donald Trump will break all of his campaign promises. My thoughts also turn to what to do now. On Facebook the day or two after the election, there was an outpouring of fear and anger. But there was also a surprising amount of solidarity. Here are some examples.

One ironclad pledge: If you know me well enough to be seeing this, and you or one you love feels unsafe from threats and violence where you are, my guestroom is yours, night or day, with or without prior notice. I will collect you and I will protect you. If you don’t already have my phone number, message me now to get it and save it in your phone.

In Florida, we know how to handle a hurricane. You put plywood over your windows, bring in the lawn furniture, and wait for the whole thing to blow over. You’ve got a limited window to operate in before the hurricane arrives. You do what you can early, because once the storm hits, ain’t nothing gettin’ done.

Many of the legal changes we’ve seen over the past decade have come about via executive order. A small (but important) number have come about via Supreme Court rulings. The former are likely to disappear come January 20th, while the latter have a plausible chance of disappearing over the coming years. Many folks are talking about taking advantage of the narrow window left to us to avail themselves of these options. I don’t pretend to be a legal expert. I won’t give you advice on how to proceed.

But I’m here to provide any help you need. No one accomplishes anything alone. This is especially true when we’re pressed for time.

You should know this is a standing offer, and it always has been. It doesn’t disappear on January 20th. But when you’re feeling lost and overwhelmed, sometimes things like this bear repeating.

To all my queer, poc, non-christian, immigrant, and lady friends and neighbors – to all of you out there who now feel worried about your continued safety – I am here for you. You are amazing. If you need a listening ear, a hug, a shoulder to lean on in the days to come, I can do that. If there is some concrete thing I can do to help you feel safer (beyond donating to causes designed for these needs), tell me and I can try to do that too. I can’t magically make things ok, but we can stand together in solidarity and protect each other.

My Facebook friends are behaving better than I would ever have asked them to. The roughly 52% of the electorate who voted for Clinton or for a third-party candidate are still here. We have so much work to do. There really is no guarantee that anything is going to be okay, but we should still stand together and love one another.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

220px-TheLatheOfHeaven(1stEd)How in the world did Ursula K. LeGuin think that an Earth with seven billion people in it would be on the brink of starvation?

This is just one of the issues I had with one of LeGuin’s more well-known works, The Lathe of Heaven. It’s still an excellent read despite all these issues. George Orr is an ordinary man with a very weird problem. Sometimes his dreams come true. Not in the sense of prophetic dreams, but his subconscious somehow retcons the entire universe so the dream has always been true, since the dawn of time. Naturally Orr winds up referred to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber, starts to manipulate Orr’s dreams for his own purposes…

Over the course of the book, Orr runs through a lot of universes, exploring a bunch of mostly dystopian science fiction ideas along the way. (Notice his name is a pun on George Orwell?)

At the beginning of the book, the year is 2002 and global warming has melted all the ice in the world, including Antarctica. This is even true in realities where the human population – and thus CO2 emissions – nosedive sometime in the 1970’s. In realities where the world’s population is still seven billion, the people of Portland are crammed in so tight they can barely move, and the state of Oregon has to build several more cities in the desert, each containing millions of people.

I can’t fault LeGuin for getting the details of global warming wrong, since this book was published in 1971. But she’s too smart to miscalculate how many people a world can physically hold. All one needs to figure that out is the square footage of a typical one-bedroom apartment, the square footage of the world’s urban areas, and some math.

Another objection I have is to Dr. Haber. The book’s meant to present a moral dilemma: How far would you go to make the world a better place? That’s a fine dilemma and one I’d like to see explored. Dr. Haber’s meant to be a sympathetic character who makes questionable choices. But in practice, Dr. Haber behaves so despicably that this book does not work for me as a dilemma.

I am a scientist. I have a thing about scientific ethics. And Dr. Haber blazes past the bounds of acceptable behavior within the first dozen pages. He is literally performing medical experimentation on an unwilling patient with no protocol, no control group, and no institutional oversight. And he’s stupid. When one of his experiments on Orr kills six billion people, does it occur to Dr. Haber that this project is dangerous and he should stop? No.

There’s merit to watching a monster version of my own profession in action. And Dr. Haber makes a great villain. But a moral dilemma he does not make. I want to see him squashed like a bug. (I found the end of the book quite satisfying, but I’ll leave the reader to discover the details on their own.)

The Lathe of Heaven is meant to critique utilitarian ethics. But like I said earlier, Dr. Haber inadvertently kills six billion people for the sake of the remaining one billion. Sacrificing the many for the sake of the few is far from a utilitarian ideal. One of LeGuin’s short stories, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” does a much better job of critiquing utilitarianism.

And LeGuin puts Taoist philosophy into characters’ mouths when they don’t have any in-universe reason to know these things.

But that’s enough ranting for now. Though I have all these objections to the book, at no point does LeGuin slip into shoddy writing. The book’s beautiful. And I disagree with it. And I like it when books bite back.

It’s wonderfully ambiguous what’s actually going on with Orr’s mind. There is a Blade-Runner-like blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment at the beginning of the book that changes everything.

All the universes Orr surfs through remind us how weird our universe is compared to what science fiction writers expected. We live in the world where the Soviet Union sort of evaporated in 1991. Where obesity now poses a greater worldwide health burden than undernutrition. Where Eastern Europe and Japan aren’t having enough babies. Where it’s 2015 and we still haven’t conquered space, but we’re still managing to do some really awesome things with it.

Not amused, Amazon

Here's a pretty picture of the Amazon from KHS applied geography.

Here’s a pretty picture of the Amazon from KHS applied geography.

I woke up this morning, made myself a cup of tea, then discovered a wall-of-text e-mail from Amazon in my inbox. You can see the entire wall of text in this blog post below, but here’s the gist: Amazon is reaching out to its authors via e-mail to portray itself as the good guy in the Amazon-Hachette fight. And would I please undermine this campaign by publicly voicing my support for Amazon?

No, I won’t.

The fight between Amazon and Hachette (a large traditional book publisher) is a thorny issue. For those who haven’t been following it, we don’t know the details of the dispute because neither side is publicly airing them. But we can be reasonably sure that the fight is about money. Large book publishers want to price e-books at $14.99 or $19.99, or the same price as a hardcover book. Amazon wants to sell e-books for much cheaper.

Back in 2012, Amazon sued Apple, accusing it of colluding with other e-book publishers to raise the price of e-books. In 2013 it won the suit. A few weeks ago, in its ongoing fight with Hachette to make e-books cheaper, Amazon made all the Hachette books on its site mysteriously unbuyable. The writing community freaked out. Now Amazon has a public relations problem on its hands.

In the long e-mail I got this morning, Amazon portrays itself as a crusader against corrupt corporate executives who want to make e-books too expensive. While I agree that colluding to raise the price of e-books wasn’t very nice, it’s also over. Amazon already won that lawsuit. And throwing your weight around as the world’s largest online retailer of books to lower book prices isn’t very nice, either.

Right now, the fight’s about money. But how do I know that in the future, Amazon won’t make books that it doesn’t like disappear?

So no, I won’t rally to Amazon’s banner with this blog post. In fact, I’m going to use this space to make a plug for Calibre. It’s free, feature-rich, and easy-to-use software that lets you manage your e-book collection. The best part is that it easily lets you convert e-books from one industry file format to another. So you can, you know, read e-books from other retailers on your Kindle.

So, without further ado…

The excessively-long e-mail from Amazon.com

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

Oyster and Scribd

There’s two new developments in the book industry that are making me salivate, both as a reader and a writer. They’re called Oyster and Scribd, and they’re both recently-opened startups that promise to let you subscribe to an ebook service, a la Netflix.

Here’s how they work. You pay a monthly subscription fee ($9.95 a month for Oyster, $8.99 for Scribd) to get in. Once you’re in, you have access to the service’s entire database of ebooks. You can read as much as you want. So why doesn’t somebody sign up for one month, download a few hundred books, and run? You can only read the books while you’re a paid subscriber. Once you let your subscription lapse, the books disappear.

Why I’m excited as a reader

Both services are still hammering out deals with the major publishers, but if they do this right, their databases will have all the books. All the books. Right now, I agonize over book purchases because it’s a $10 investment, I have to give it shelf space, and I’m not at all confident I’m even going to like it. But if I could pay to have access to all the books, I’d start trying all sorts of new things I didn’t even know I liked.

Why I’m not going to sign up quite yet

I’m not a voracious enough reader of new stuff for this service to make financial sense to me, personally. I’m still a library and Project Gutenberg fiend. But there’s enough people out there who want the latest Jodi Picoult now that I think the system is going to work.

Why I’m excited as a writer

Did I mention that you get to read all the books?

So, about those aforementioned voracious readers. These services are going to be like the buffet to them. You pay once to get in, and then what? Try everything. I don’t know about Scribd’s terms yet, but for Oyster, every time you read more than 10% of a book, the author gets paid.

This is a great deal for obscure books (like, erm, me, a very obscure fantasy writer). I wouldn’t be willing to pay $3.99 for a self-published or $9.99 for a traditionally-published book I know nothing about. But if it’s free once you’re in, people will be willing to try new things.

This will be a good thing for writers if Scribd and Oyster wind up paying writers and publishers a fair price for their work. We’ll have to wait and see how that works out, but I’m hopeful.

Steam Powered Giraffe

Since I spent last week complaining about how steampunk art can go so wrong, it seems only fair this week I should point out a group that gets it totally right.

Steam Powered Giraffe calls itself a band, but it’s really a mix of music, comedy, and storytelling. Not to mention that each of their three front performers goes through the entire set while miming “the robot.” That’s right, mimes who sing. The band plays as three robots who were built in 1896 to be musicians. Each robot gets an extensive backstory that the band adds to all the time. There’s even a webcomic.

This band has a remarkable range. Not only has it built up a fantastic story about three robots who cope with the horrors of the twentieth century through music, but they can play rock, rap, and pop. They’re not trying very hard to be steampunk. They’re trying to be entertaining, and if the show happens to have an 1890’s vibe, then fine.

This is something that us folks in the steampunk community ought to remember. It’s not supposed to be about corsets and gears, it’s supposed to be about breaking out of the mold of medieval Europe to tell the best damn fantasy story you can.

Check out the awesomeness:

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The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

9780385267472_p0_v1_s260x420I picked up this book because I’d read Hyperion and I wanted to find out what happened to all of the characters. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The first book in the series had a Canterbury Tales conceit. Seven people from all walks of life set off on a pilgrimage to see a mysterious creature, the Shrike. In The Fall of Hyperion, the Canterbury Tales is abandoned and there’s nothing left but straight space opera. The unique voices of the main characters, as they told their own tales, are gone. The entire galactic empire is at stake in this book, but somehow I don’t care.

And it drags. The Fall of Hyperion takes about 500 pages to describe a week’s worth of events. There is an entire chapter devoted to Meina Gladstone wandering through the network of worlds and worrying about things. Entirely too much time is spent rehashing events from the previous book.

Did not finish.

Art and Science

I found a thought-provoking article on the Science Careers magazine the other day.

Adding an Artistic Dimension to Science

The article profiles several practicing scientists who are also simultaneously pursuing a career in the arts. These two ways of looking at the world, art and science, may seem disparate, but they can exist in the same human mind. I am one of those human minds, or at least I hope to be.

By day, I’m a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I’m about halfway through a program to earn a Ph.D. in plant biology. I spend the days in a laboratory studying how rice plants transport nutrients over long distances – from the roots and the leaves to wherever they are needed. By night, I’m an aspiring spec fic and science writer. I have a short story and a couple of nonfiction pieces out in magazines, a couple of Smashwords novels, and even a few fans.

How long can one keep up doing both? The prospects of ever earning enough to survive from writing are dismal. Pursuing a career in research science requires ultimate commitment, one that might not leave much room for an artistic pursuit on the side. And yet art and science careers do positively reinforce each other. Writing helps me be more creative in the lab, and I might sneak a few references to antimatter into my writing. The Science Careers article describes people who have made it work, so I should feel hopeful.

Robots: Neither Menace nor Pathos

Last week’s blog post about cyborgs got me to thinking about Isaac Asimov.  I got to thinking about Asimov because Leilane Nishime says in her article that most cyborgs in fiction fall into one of two groups: they’re either dangerous machines that want to kill us all, or they’re tragic figures that try desperately to stay in touch with their human side.  Very few cyborgs in fiction embrace their cyborginess and do something different with it.

Well, over two decades before Nishime’s article was published, Isaac Asimov had almost the exact same thing to say about robots.  The following is an excerpt from The Complete Robot, an anthology of his robot stories that was published in 1982:

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The Mulatto Cyborg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The things you read about in academia…

As part of my job, I have access to the University of Minnesota library system and all its digital subscriptions to academic research journals.  Mainly I use this library to keep up with what’s latest in the field of plant cell biology, but it does let you stumble across stuff in other fields sometimes.

In 2005, LeiLane Nishime of Sonoma State University published an article in Cinema Journal called “The Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future.”  I wish I could share this article with you, but I’m going to have to go over the gist of it instead.  Nishime makes the argument that we use science fiction to tell stories about social issues in our own real life.  Since it’s at one step remove (we’re talking about space aliens, not humans), writers can be more daring than if the story was set in the real world.  So far, so good.  Anybody who’s seen that infamous Star Trek episode where the people are black on one side and white on the other side … yep.  We sure use science fiction to explore our own issues.

The second part of Nishime’s argument is this: if robots are our science-fictiony slaves in the future, then cyborgs are mulattoes.

Okay.  Let’s just never mind that a union between Data and Tasha Yar is not where cyborgs come from, and examine her argument a little more closely.  She says that movies deal with these mulatto cyborgs in one of three ways: they’re bad, good, or truly cyborgean.  Bad cyborgs are more roboty and want to destroy all humans (like the Terminator).  Good cyborgs have a stronger human side and want to become human.  And the truly cyborgean cyborgs come to terms with their half-and-half nature and are not really either.

I’m curious what Nishime would have to say about Inspector Gadget.

There’s just one other problem with this paper.  Robots with high-quality silicone skin aren’t cyborgs.  Nishime argues that Bishop from Aliens and that little kid from A.I. are good cyborgs who are trying to become more human.  But they’re robots.  Whatever these characters are made out of, the other characters treat them like 100% robot, and there’s nothing borderline or half-and-half about them.  That little kid is a robot trying to be a human.

And that’s my nerd rant for the day.

If you want to try to get your hands on “The Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future,” here is a link to Cinema Journal’s website.