Sunday, August 31, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: Living With A Creator

"Living With A Creator" panelists were five spouses of creators (writers and artists): 3 women and 2 men. Perhaps unintendedly, the panel provided material for observations as to how an experience of living with a creator differed along gender lines. Take housework. One writer's husband said one of the perks of living with a professional writer is that he never has to lift a finger around the house. Never needs to rush home to feed the dog, does not have to take time off to wait for a plumber, and hardly knows how to operate a washing machine! It's all his wife's job because she has the flexibility of being at home whenever she needs to. It was apparent that not all spouses viewed it the same way, though. One artist's spouse said her husband's cleaning is a sign that he is in the "incubation phase" of his new work. When he's thinking about about his next project, but haven't started it yet, that's when he cleans -- as a way to procrastinate a little before plunging into work.

This reminded me what I heard on another panel, "Why I Write", in which more than half of the panelists proceeded to tell us why they don't write. Some of them put their writing on hiatus for predictable reasons, such as jobs and personal lives being too overwhelming at the moment. One author said that even though her husband lets her stay home and write, she can't. Instead she spends hours on Facebook. "Perhaps having a regular job to go to would help me structure my life for writing?" she asked. "I feel very guitly not writing, but I enjoy playing games on my computer". Well, well -- it resonated with what I've been thinking, that I am lucky my financial circumstances do not allow me to write full time. Otherwise I would be like her, and I would certainly not be a nice "creator" to live with. :-)

"Creatives" not too willing to collaborate

Do creative professionals and their spouses often collaborate? Is it common for spouses to offer ideas to writers / artists? The prevailing answers were: yes to the second, no to the first. Spouses' suggestions are not taken very often if at all, though some good may come out of unsolicited offering. When Joe Haldeman is facing a roadblock in the plot of a book he's writing, his wife Gay Haldeman tends to offer him ideas on how to proceed; he rejects them all, but after a few rounds of that he often figures out what to do next. So all this bouncing of ideas off of one another is not in vain. And Karen Lansdale once helped Joe Lansdale come up with an ending for his story which he had not been able to figure out himself, probably since he had been looking at it too long. So Joe put her name on that story. (I don't know if didn't mention the title of the story, or I just didn't catch it.)

Creative or not, it's tough to work in solitude

A big part of the panel revolved around the more mundane aspects of writers and artists jobs, that are not much different from any self-employed person's. The panic attacks that set in when you find out you've miscalculated the taxes you owe by $8000; the compromises necessary to balance the interactions between a spouse that works alone all day, and the one that comes home in the evening fried from their job. People who work at home face characteristic challenges of loneliness and lack of motivation. Two panelists revealed their writerly spouses seek distractions from solitude. One writes while watching old movies to keep her company, another works while reading a newspaper and chatting with a friend on the phone. (And I thought I was bad for checking email every 30 seconds while writing! :-) But unlike me, they had produced something publishable. So perhaps not all is lost for me despite my distractibility.)

What about the glamorous aspects of a creator's life?

There weren't many stories about dealing with the more esoteric or glamorous aspects of a creator's life. No groupie stories -- imagine that! Not even in science fiction writers' lives! :-) Perhaps we should have invited Neil Gaiman's wife to the panel. :-) And what about the perception of creatives as brooding, emotional, self-absorbed types -- isn't there a rich vein for stories there? The panelists didn't go far into that topic, except to admit that their spouses' moods are indeed affected by whether their creative project is going well, and what kind of reviews their books have been getting. One panelist put it this way: living with a woman who's writing a book is like living with a woman who's just had a baby. All her attention goes to it, so you have to learn to take a second seat.

The upsides of living with a creative

And the upsides of living with a creative professional? For one thing, you get to go to exclusive parties at conventions; though not all spouses enjoyed convention going, and some found SFWA parties boring, it turned out to be worthwhile for some of them when they unexpectedly ran into a Very Important Person they've always dreamed of meeting.

In a more extreme case, Gay Haldeman recalled someone saying to her: "I'm thinking of stealing your Rolodex", because there were all those famous people from Stephen King to George Lucas in it. "Oh, are they?" Gay replied. I don't know what I should be more envious about: the fact that she had rubbed shoulders with all those people or that it was so commonplace for her she didn't realize it was noteworthy! :-)

Gay Haldeman, David Lee Anderson's wife, Karen Lansdale

Gay Haldeman, David Lee Anderson's wife, and Karen Lansdale. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2008 are available in my photo gallery.

A less tangible perk of living with a writer or artist is that your kids (if you have them) often venture into creative professions too -- if only because they don't know any other way of life. In addition, they may develop other kinds of creativity, such as finding ingenious ways to talk back to grownups. David Lee Anderson's wife said their son never put his name on his homework, even though that was required in school. When asked why he didn't do that, he said: mom, you sign a painting when it's finished. "He never finished his homework," David Lee added.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2008 are available in my photo gallery.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: What You Should Have Read

"The Year is Half Over: What I Should Have Read" is a traditional panel at ArmadilloCon, where a bunch of avid and discriminating readers recommend recent must-read books in the science fiction / fantasy genre. The panelists are an assortment of writers, editors and booksellers. Without further ado --

Rick Klaw recommends "Somnambulist" by Jonathan Barnes. It's a late Victorian era / Edwardian novel about a magician. It's the oddest novel you'll read this year, or perhaps any other year, says Rick. The ending is a little weak, but by that time you don't care. He also recommends Ann and Jeff Vandermeers' anthologies "Best American Fantasy" and "The New Weird" -- a collection of really odd stories. They also have a collection named "Steampunk". When you finish reading it, you'll have an idea exactly what steampunk is.

Rusty Hevelin recommends reprints of Robert Heinlein, and Jack Williamson, who's still as good as when he started selling in the 20s.

Sheila Williams didn't recommend any specific novel or story collection, but mentioned a few new authors she likes very much, such as Ted Kosmatka (especially his story "Divining Light" which came out in a recent issue of Asimov's, and got many fan letters from engineers and scientists, who all wanted to perform the double slit experiment described in the story), also Felicity Shoulders, who has a story "Burgerdroid" in Asimov's. She also mentioned recent stories by Elizabeth Bear (March), Stephen Baxter (September) and Nancy Kress, but I didn't catch the titles of those stories.

Willie Siros' list of this year's must-read books

Science fiction:

Charles Stross: Saturn's Children -- his take on the later Heinlein. If Heinlein hadn't gone crazy and was still writing well.

Iain Banks: Matter -- a new Culture novel. Incredibly fascinating far future.

Greg Egan: Incandescence -- Greg Egan is probably the most out there hard SF writer there is; keeps up with the cutting edge of matehmatics.

Greg Bear: City At The End Of Time

Melissa Snodgrass: Edge of Reason

Joe Scalzi -- Zoe's Tale

Joe Haldeman: Marsbound

Chris Roberson: The Dragon's Nine Sons

Cory Doctorow: Little Brother

Peter Hamilton: Temporal Void -- finishes current duology

Richard Morgan: Steel Remains -- a very bizarre far future world

Alistair Reynolds: House of Suns -- new space opera

Neal Stephenson: Anathem


Thomas Disch: Word of God -- in this novel Thomas Disch reveals that he's God, and that his opponent is Phillip K. Dick, which he's been fighting for all eternity.

Ursula Le Guin: Lavinia

Terry Pratchett: Nation

Diana Wynne Jones: House of Many Ways -- a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle. Willie thinks D.W. Jones is the one who God should have tapped on the shoulder, saying, hey, I'm gonna give you millions -- instead of JK Rowling.

Naomi Novik: Victory of Eagles

Adam. Roberts: Swiftly -- Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels turn out to be real.

Jeffrey Ford: Shadow Year

James Morrow: Philosopher's Apprentice

Gene Wolfe: Evil Guest

Joe Abercrombie: Last Argument of Kings

J. M. McDermott: Last Dragon

Matt Hughes: Hespira

Tim Scott: Love In The Time Of Fridges -- surreal. Too absurd to try to explain in 2 sentences.

Sean McMullen: Time Engine

Steve Erickson: Toll The Hounds

In addition to all this, Willie mentioned "Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse" by Victor Gischler. I'm not sure which category it falls into.


Another person emailed me other recommendations that were mentioned on the panel, that I didn't catch.

Eric Marin recommends: -- crime fiction with a supernatural twist, from TV concepts

Sheila Williams:

-- a Gulliver' Travels redux thingie by Gord Seller

-- "Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons Blues" in the July Asimov's

-- David ????, "Flowers of Nikosia" in December Asimov's, about a Nirvana cover band

Madeleine Dimond: Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Some other people recommended:

-- Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

-- Michael Swanwick, The Dog Said Bow-Wow

Here are lists of books recommended on other "What You Should Have Read" panels: at ArmadilloCon 2005, ArmadilloCon 2006, ArmadilloCon 2007, ArmadilloCon 2009, ArmadilloCon 2010.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Retiring a cliche

There is a word in The New Hacker's Dictionary "marketroid", a derogatory term for marketing people. It encapsulates contempt geeks supposedly have for marketers. They are traditionally assumed to know very little about technology, being the kind of people who have their secretaries type up and send emails for them, yet they are the ones whose opinion executives listen to. They are the ones who promise customers unimplementable features on unrealistic deadlines, leaving poor techies scrambling to get them out of the mess.

Of course, I can't say whether a mutual hatred and contempt between those groups really existed, or if it was a bogus phenomenon manufactured by people who seek comfort in group identification (like Mommy Wars :-)) But if I were to follow conventional wisdom, I would have to stay clear of marketroids.

But I didn't. Monday night I went to a Tweetup where I met a bunch of technically savvy Tweeple (to use the alternatingly cute and cringe-inducing webspeak :-)) who are essentially in the marketing business. They do it in the new media: blogs, podcasts, Twitter, and social networks. So they are well aware how to use the net to engineer human interactions for all kinds of purposes, from commercial to political to saving the world. And I have to admit this is more interesting to me than how to engineer computers. To model real-life human behavior in data structures, to formalize interactions between people by finding an appropriate electronic format for them, and observe how they change as a result -- I find it fascinating. These folks haven't created the internet and don't necessarily know much about its plumbing, but they have ideas on directions in which to push it.

What I liked best about the people I met at the Tweetup is that many of them seemed to be interested in meeting new people and receptive to new interactions. Unfortunately, I haven't seen so much of that at techie gatherings. Those often turn into "I'm geekier than thou" pissing contests. The tone at this Tweetup felt quite different, far more democratic.

Of course, I still don't know whether all these marketing folks aren't guilty of overpromising to customers. :-)

In any case, I think The New Hacker's Dictionary is overdue for some new chapters.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: John Scalzi's Guest of Honor interview

John Scalzi's interview took a different format than the usual Guest of Honor interview. There was no interviewer; Scalzi paced back and forth, shooting the breeze with the audience. He probably didn't say anything one wouldn't find on his blog. It's how he said those things that made him so entertaining. He acted out various stories from his life as little skits. For example, he said, after you win a Hugo, you get only a week to be flaunt it -- and he did a skit of a person who mentions his Hugo award in every other sentence. After a week is over, he said, you're supposed to be blase about it -- yeah, I won a Hugo, it's no big deal.

Then there was a rich vein of humor in his attempts to find out what it's like to be a 16-year-old girl. He had to do that in order to get the "Zoe's Tale" protagonist's voice right. "Hard as it may be to believe, I've never been a 16-year-old girl," Scalzi said. He also never understood girls in high school. "You can ask people I went to high school with. They'll say, "no, John. Noooo."" So what were his options? Hang out with teenage girls at the mall? He illustrated this dilemma with another skit, that began with his sidling up to a girl in the mall, and ended with a restraining order.

And so the interview continued in this spirit. As far as creating Zoe's character, his wife turned out to be his greatest resource. After all, she was a 16-year-old girl once. It took a lot of tries to get Zoe right, but eventually he succeeded, and became proud of Zoe as one of the finest characters he ever created. He also told this story at the writers' workshop to illustrate his point that writers should venture out into unfamiliar territory and not be afraid to fail. In Scalzi-speak that's called "the power of suck".

Later on in the interview he commented on Neal Stephenson, openly admitted to stealing from other authors, and talked about why he could not afford to be as polemical in "Old Man's War" as Heinlein was in "Starship Troopers". Finally, he revealed an unexpected fact about himself.

The whole article is available on my website.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: Getting the Biology Right in SF

On "Getting the Biology Right in SF" the panelists skewered writers for common biology-related blunders we see in books and movies. The aspects of biology covered in this panel ranged from human anatomy and physiology to ecology.

As an emergency room physician, Kimberly Frost was uniquely qualified to educate writers on what kind of injuries a protagonist could sustain and still survive. One of the highlights of the panel was her showing the audience how far her blood would spurt if the arteries in various places of her body were cut. The panelists noted that there are lots of individual differences in how much bodily damage a person can incur and survive, but feats like jogging 500 miles with a gushing wound (one of the panelists has actually read a story where this happened) is flat out impossible. Yet human body is capable of less ridiculous, but still impressive performance under duress. Paige Roberts told a story about her ex-husband, who had half of his right hand blown off by enemy fire; the bullet severed the nerves that controlled the two outermost fingers, but he still had control of his index finger. So he clamped the wound down with his other hand and kept shooting, and saved a dozen soldiers' lives. In a few hours, though, he was flat on his back in a helicopter, being medevac'ed. Adrenaline can only take you so far.

Kimberly Frost has first-hand familiarity with what happens when movies and books use medical facts irresponsibly. For example, too many times in the movies you see people breaking the glass with their limbs when they want to break into a house or out of it, and the glass just breaks away. But in reality it doesn't work that way. Kimberly has seen people who tried to do it: some of them cut themselves only superficially, and doctors were able to fix them up, but others cut their tendons that way. Paige writes erotica, and she is careful not to give readers ideas to try things that would be very dangerous in reality -- like bondage with a rope tied around one's neck.

Later Paige Roberts and John Moore got into an animated argument on whether the difference between your and opponent's body mass is a deciding factor in winning a fight. John Moore argued that it was; Paige, who's done martial arts, thought other factors matter more. She said she would have little difficulty throwing a tall, muscular guy across the room, but would find it impossible to do the same to a short person with a low center of gravity.

On the ecology front, one the most interesting observations was the one Kelly Persons made about Frank Herbert's "Dune". "Dune" is often praised for its ecological theme, but the problem with Dune is that it doesn't have any ecology. "It's a planet with one species on it. There's no energy input into the Dune world," Kelly said. It takes a lot of energy to power a worm that's as big as a locomotive to move underground. What did worms eat? And where does the oxygen come from, given that it's a desert planet? John Moore asked.

Why is carbon, not silicon the basis of life? was a question from the audience. Because, says Kelly Persons, carbon is able to form long chains, while silicon can't. A combination of silicon and oxygen can form long chains, but only under certain conditions. If you are writing about an alien silicon-based life form, the temperatures on the planet where it evolved would have to be very different.

About the writers' workshop from personal perspective

I got some useful critique. But the main points I would need to address to make my story better are nearly impossible to implement due to their paradoxical nature. As I said before, I chopped my story down from almost 8000 words to a little over 5000 words. Naturally, a lot of action and dialogue was cut out. So what was the main advice I got from people who critiqued my story? They wanted to see more dialog and action in some places, showing how certain things happened, instead of just being told in one paragraph "this is what happened". But those were exactly the places where I compressed 2-3 pages into one paragraph! Ironically, they also said I should cut down the story to 5000 words and I may be able to sell it. So, expand it and cut it down. Thanks so much. :-)

To be sure, I'm not blaming the people in the critique group for contradictory advice. It is not their job to be consistent. :-) Their job is to point out the flaws they saw. They are not obligated to also figure out how to fix them. Any kind of feedback is valuable, even if it's contradictory. I have nothing but thanks to the people in my group. But... I still feel the universe is laughing at me. ;-)

The ArmadilloCon aftermath wasn't all bleak. While it's not a direct consequence of the writers' workshop, I got some metaideas on how to salvage my earlier story ideas. Some fairly good ideas from my earlier stories that were so bad they aren't worth rewriting, can be cannibalized into new stories, that will hopefully be short. (Who am I kidding? my inner voice whispers.) However, I started to approach my story ideas by calculating how many scenes it would take to tell a story. I think that to fit under 5000 words a story should have no more than 2-3 scenes. I'm sure other people's mileage would differ, but for me, this calculus is pretty accurate.

Oh -- the bat-watching after the Thursday's pre-ArmadilloCon dinner unexpectedly turned out fruitful for me! While not expecting to see anything more than an underwhelming stream of black specks flowing out from under the Congress bridge, I saw an older man in a skimpy, sparkly cheerleader's uniform, milling about in the crowd. I joined several tourists in snapping a picture of him. He obligingly posed against the Austin downtown skyline. Later I found out this was actually the elusive Leslie, the "keep Austin weird" icon! I say elusive, because for all I've heard about Leslie, I've never seen him -- and I've lived in Austin 9 years! So, now I know that unlike Santa Claus, he actually exists.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

ArmadilloCon writers' workshop: pros' advice and a story construction game

The writers' workshop started with advice panels on writing. Some of the advice the pros gave was debunking common writing myths, so in a way it was metaadvice. Sheila Williams, the editor guest of honor, shared some good, compelling pieces of wisdom. It's all the more valuable coming from the mouth of the Asimov's editor. She identified mistakes made by beginning authors with accuracy that made me hang my head down in embarrassment a s I recognized myself making them in my own writing.

Then Don Webb conducts an audience participation game. He and the audience collaboratively construct outlines for two genre stories: an immuno-defficient woman in a bubble encounters a giant germ (horror) and a little slave boy in the 19th century American south meets aliens (science fiction). For this, the audience needs to decide: the story's genre (SF, F or H), who is the protagonist, where or when the story is taking place, and, most importantly, what is the driving force for the story. If it's horror, what is the protagonist afraid of? If they are aliens, what do they want?

After the critique sessions, ArmadilloCon guest of honor John Scalzi gave a closing speech for the workshop students on the power of suck -- why a beginning writer should suck as hard as he/she can. :-)

The whole article can be found in my web site.

The pictures from the writing workshop and the rest of ArmadilloCon 2008 can be found on my web site.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

William Gibson in Austin, June 11, 2008

William Gibson gave a reading, answered audience's questions and signed books in Barnes & Noble on June 11, 2008. He started by saying he was glad to be back in Austin, a city that 14 years ago was ground zero for the "so-called" cyberpunk movement. Then the microphone failed. The irony of this happening right before the speech of a writer who pioneered a new attitude towards technology in science fiction did not escape the audience. After a few attempts by B&N staff to fix the microphone, Gibson gave up and said he'll do a reading a capella. "I don't let technology get in my way," he said. "People have been reading books aloud for centuries. I'm gonna do it the way Byron did it, the way Dylan Thomas did it, except sober." And he read part of the first chapter of his latest novel, "Spook Country".

Then Gibson answered audience's questions. A few of those questions were specifically about "Spook Country", and they didn't make much sense without having read the novel. Others were about writing and Gibson's view of the world in general. Here are a few questions and Gibson's answers. Does he consider his works to be dystopian? Does he create his characters deliberately, or do they spontaneously generate themselves? The latter is definitely the case, as in an example of a character that grew out of a white room. Is there really such a cultural phenomenon as cyberpunk? Last, not knowing much about technology can enable a SF writer to see the forest for the trees.

The whole article is available on my web site.

Pictures are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Austin High Tech Career Fair

Austin High Tech Career Fair

Was great. Though I'm not actively looking for a job, it was interesting to see what's out there. I was glad to see that C++ seemed to be in demand, and C# / .NET even more so, as I happen to specialize in those technologies. I also took it as a good sign that some recruiters roamed the hall looking for anybody with a software developer's identifying green star on their badge. One of those ultra-enthusiastic recruiters touted the casual office culture as one of the main perks for working at that company; as a visual evidence whereof she spoke, one of the software guys in the company booth wore his jeans low enough to deliberately expose a sliver of his plaid underwear. :-) Hmm. I think even in the days of the first internet bubble you didn't get to see stuff like that in corporate-type events.

My interaction with recruiters and company representatives varied from brief exchange of resumes or business cards, to long conversations that resembled job interviews, in which they asked me about the details of my work. Later, during the networking part, I had a good conversation with an internet entrepreneur about my personal bootstrapping project. He was actually the first person I talked about this with. It's amazing how your pipe dreams suddenly start to take shape and not seem so unrealistic anymore when you discuss them with someone. Once you start talking, you are forced to put your nebulous concepts into words, and suddenly they crystalize.

Steve unexpectedly ran into his former roommate from his graduate school days, and we chatted with him a little. Then a door prize drawing was announced: door64 was giving away Chumbies. And what do you know -- Steve's ex-roommate won a Chumby! People swarmed all around him to take a peek. I was envious, but did not stay long enough for the second drawing. The crowd of people thinned out pretty quickly after that.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Social Media Camp, Austin, Texas, July 30, 2008

The Social Media Camp was modeled after BarCamp (or perhaps I should say it was a kind of a BarCamp). The campers occupied Cafe Thistle, which was partitioned into two areas; plus there was a lounge where a smaller group of people were aving discussions.

Michelle Greer

Michelle Greer. More pictures from the Social Media Camp are in my photo gallery.

"Media" was a key word determining what this camp was about; a lot of people in it seemed to approach social web from a marketer's/entrepreneur's, not geek's perspective. Unlike at a BarCamp I attended a year ago, there weren't many people here to chat about mind mapping via emacs shortcuts :-) But looking at how the web enhances or changes the lives of non-technical people can be more interesting than looking at it from a developer's nitty-gritty perspective.

What data portability means to non-geeks

At times, though, it was apparent we didn't speak the same language. For example, Michelle Greer started her session on data portability by asking the audience to define the concept. Somebody piped up "it's when you make a friend on Flickr and transfer him/her to your Linkedin contacts". Or speaking more generally, it means your contacts are portable across all of your social networking sites. Now that's quite a bit narrower meaning than the one used in computer science. Anyway, according to Michelle, data portability "saves you time so you're not a big loser, sitting at the computer all day, updating your contacts; so that you could live your life! So that you could use social media as a tool." And if that will be attained, she said, it will be through semantic web. Which is, to use another loose definition suggested by the audience, "embedding meaning in what you find on the web. It's data about data."

Actually, who's the geek here? :-)

I would have thought that people who go to conferences like this already know what semantic web is, but I guess many of them really were nontechnical. Michelle, for example, proudly declared herself a nongeek (having been an athlete in high school, she supplied this fact as an incontrovertible anti-geek credential :-)) I don't know about that -- a person who spends some thought on information architecture is a geek in my eyes, but I mean it in the best possible sense, as in "a person who uses technology to solve problems". Anyway, she assured everybody she only needs data portability to make her off-line life more efficient. Then she asked the audience to unleash their pet peeves regarding social web applications -- what do they currently not like about them, and what improvements they would like to see, at least where data portability is concerned.

What people miss in social web applications

Addie Broyles

Addie Broyles. More pictures from the Social Media Camp are in my photo gallery.

Addie Broyles' complaint was of a general kind: "it takes a lot of time to stay on top of all accounts", even though she considers herself a light user of social media.

Another person said she wanted to manage all her contacts on my own site, "not have to chase what's the cool site to go to next. Because inevitably we know that those sites will grow cold after a while." I guess she meant she didn't want to have to create an account and grow another network on friends on the next hot social networking site, when Facebook falls out of fashion. I can certainly get behind this wish.

Another woman said she wanted to maintain a separation between her identity a state employee, and her "social" profiles on Twitter, etc. So how do you have data portability while keeping those things separate? she asked. For some people it's desirable to be able to "port" their friends from one social network to another, but others need to maintain a brick wall between their work and social identities. In that way, she said, her situation was the opposite than that of JMac and Ricardo from Dell, who gave an earlier presentation on how Dell builds communities; they said Dell requires its employees to self-identify as working for Dell when participating in the social web. Other companies, however, have strong policies against that, up to taking sanctions on their employess they catch in online forums. So how do you meet the needs of both kinds of users? I find it a very interesting question too.

Michelle attempted to partially answer it by pointing out that when you are on social sites such as Twitter, and it lets you invite all the friends in your contacts, it gives you a choice which friends to invite. So don't invite your work contacts. Unfortunately, that does not even begin to address the problem of keeping work and social online identities separate.

How old media uses new media

Addie Broyles

Addie Broyles, Rob Quigley, Kristi Kingston and Omar Gallaga. More pictures from the Social Media Camp are in my photo gallery.

Overall I can't say I learned something very deep or unexpected about social media; the presentation topics stuck to the basics; however, it was interesting to listen to how other people use social web applications. And the Half-Baked game was quite eye-opening. (More about that later.) There was a number of industry representatives at the camp, from both "traditional" and Web 2.0 companies. Representatives of the "old industry" shed light on how their companies use social media to communicate with their users and to build their company's image in the community. For example, four journalists from Austin American Statesman -- Addie Broyles, Robert Quigley, Kristi Kingston and Omar Gallaga -- professed to be very much into Twitter; Addie Broyles (@broyles), the AAS food writer, tweets her readers all the time, passing back and forth tips on what's on sale at which HEB, and where to find certain products, and such. Readers have also suggested stories to AAS. Somebody from the audience asked them whether AAS was able to monetize their Twitter efforts, or is it an "editorial initiative" (thus confirming my suspicion that most people here were media people, not techies; as a software developer, I wouldn't know what an "editorial initiative" is if it hit me on the head). An AAS guy replied they've been kind of, sort of able to monetize it is by increasing traffic to their website. A lot of visitors to Austin American Statesman website that come from Twitter don't normally go to AAS website directly.

One thing was definitely worth, though, and that's the Half-Baked game. It's like having a ringside seat to an internet bubble. Here is a separate post about it.

Pictures are available in my photo gallery.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Jay Lake "Mainspring": FACT reading group discussion

10 people attended the FACT reading group discussion of Jay Lake's "Mainspring". Everybody except 2 people started the book. 6 people finished it, 2 more were planning to finish. 8 people had read something by Jay Lake before.

"Mainspring" is set on a world that looks a lot like our Earth, except it's literally a clockwork mechanism. The gears along the Earth's equatorial wall mesh with those of the Earth's orbital track as the planet travels around the Sun. Inside the Earth a giant spring, Mainspring, keeps the planet rotating around its axis. But now the Mainspring is becoming unwound, and world is in danger. A young man named Hethor, a clockmaker's apprentice, is sent on a quest to find the Key Perilous for winding up the Mainspring.

Several people thought the notion of the world as a clockwork mechanism raises interesting points about religion, but they disagreed whether this novel did a good job exploring those religious implications. Hethor's enemies, who try to derail his quest, do so because of religious differences, but it's not clear that the inhabitants of this world have a lot of latitude in religious interpretation of their everyday experiences. As some readers pointed out, faith is a belief in things unseen, but in this world God's presence becomes apparent as soon as you look up. The orbital track could have only been made by a super-powerful designer. So faith, as we understand it, can't really exist here.

Another reader argued that characters' doubts concerning religion are nonetheless justified, because a mechanical universe does not necessarily imply a conventional kind of God. "Did the maker of all these gears put the gears in motion and then walked away? The fact that the creator put the gears in motion doesn't mean there's someone watching day-to-day and intervening," said the reader.

Two people noted that the book has a more religious tone than one would expect from the cover blurb. The blurb promises Monty Python, but the novel is anything but. It's not irreverent, funny, or amusing, said one reader, who saw Hethor as a Christ figure. The fact that the key for fixing the world fit in Hethor's heart only reinforced her impression of "Mainspring" as a very reverent, very religious book. Another person agreed with that impression, pointing out that all the villains were Rational Humanists and all the good people were religious. Yet he thought the view of a world as mechanism wouldn't make a case for religion. So he found the book to be internally inconsistent.

Internal consistency of the world described in "Mainspring" was a fodder for much discussion. For one thing, people weren't sure whether the story should be taken straightforwardly or as an allegory. If this is straightforward science fiction, then, as one reader pointed out, it wouldn't be possible to wind the gigantic Mainspring with a key small enough to fit in one's heart. Another reader saw the clockwork universe as an allegory, and the key as purely symbolic, so the task of winding up the Mainspring wasn't physical, he concluded. Others argued that it's hard to see the gears and springs as mere metaphors when descriptions of the mechanisms that move the Earth are so detailed and tangible. Yet another reader said the notion that the Earth is filled with gears is so nonsensical (in that case what keeps you glued to it? he asked) that he concluded from the very beginning this book should not be analyzed intellectually. So he took out his brain and enjoyed the adventure.

Hethor's adventures -- his travels on airships and encounters with exotic tribes -- were found enjoyable by most readers. In that sense they found "Mainspring" comparable to books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, or "Lost Word" by Arthur Conan Doyle. However, several people were bothered by magic that suddenly appeared in the final pages, after having been absent anywhere else in the book. Nothing in "Mainspring"'s setting indicated there was magic in this world. One reader even said he wondered if the book changed overnight. Before the magic appeared, he didn't see how the character was going to achieve his goal in 30 pages, unless the story continued into the next book. He would have preferred that, instead of author pulling magic out of the hat.

There was also some confusion as to whether the people Hethor encountered in the Southern hemisphere were mechanisms or flesh-and-blood people. Hethor heard gears clicking in those people: does that mean they were, in fact, robots? Does that imply the people of the Northern hemisphere, including Hethor himself, were robots too, and they just haven't discovered that yet? Or was the clicking of the gears some kind of allegory, not to be taken literally? This was yet another confusing aspect of the book.

Yet a lot of people enjoyed the book despite the seeming inconsistencies: they chose whichever interpretation made the most sense to them.

Overall we agreed we were probably seeing more philosophical controversy in the novel than Jay Lake put into it. For example, one reader saw in "Mainspring" a parable for the pressing issues of today. "Here's a person who discovered that the world has a big problem; and there are people who don't believe in that problem and believe that God is going to come along and make it all OK. I wonder where Jay Lake got such an idea?" (he said sarcastically).

"So you think Al Gore inspired this book?" another reader asked.

"If so, a 12-year-old Al Gore inspired it," the first reader replied, "because it's way too naive."

Naivety and passivity were the main reasons why several people didn't like the protagonist, Hethor. Somebody said "He makes a couple of decisions in the 1st chapter, and then pretty much doesn't have any choices. He gets into situations that compel him to move in a certain direction. And then he doesn't make another decision until [halfway into the book]." Another reader commented: "I've never read a quest book where the hero had it so incredibly easy."

Others liked that while Hethor started out as a sheltered character, he learned a lot more about the world during his journey. One reader in particular liked Hethor's humor. Even when things are going horribly, he has a way of finding something darkly humorous about the events.

Everybody seemed to like several of the secondary characters, especially the librarian, who was the universal favorite. Arellya and the drover girl Darby were also thought to be interesting. Some people were disappointed that those characters disappeared quickly and for good.

Many people also liked the images in the novel, such as the image of Earth's brass orbital tracks, the vertical city on the equatorial wall, the airships. For some they were the best part of the novel, making up for its weaknesses.