by wjw on March 22, 2018

So I’m halfway through reading this novel when I realize that the author has been through therapy.

There’s nothing good or bad about this, and it doesn’t affect whether or not it’s a successful story, but while reading I realized that therapy can be apparent in the toolkit that the author brings to the work.

Being through therapy provides you with a method of looking at psychological states, family relationships, self-destructive behaviors, traumatic experiences, addictions, etc.  And it also provides a vocabulary for describing all of that, as well as means of coping with those sorts of problems.

That toolkit is most useful in fiction when describing moments of self-realization, such as “My husband is trying to separate me from my friends so that I will be completely dependent on him,” or “How did I not notice that I’m totally gay?”, or “My sad loner schtick is turning me into an actual sad loner,” or “My friends have all become adults while I have remained an increasingly desperate juvenile,” or “I’m an Internet troll not because I’m a brilliant iconoclast denouncing the follies of our time but because I’m an angry cowardly loser shitbird who lives in my mother’s basement and has utterly failed to get a real life outside of toxic social media.”

(Not that anyone has actually ever had that last realization.)

I’ve never had my head shrunk, so I don’t have that particular toolkit available to me when I write.  I can describe my characters’ emotional states pretty well, and decades of observing the human condition has given me a good idea of how people interact with each other, and how people react to trauma, but for me psychological states retain an element of mystery, and my characters’ response to problems tends to be limited, my favorites being “withdraw deeper into self,” “provide a clever distraction so I don’t have to think about this,” and “let’s blow some shit up.”

The danger of using the therapy toolkit is that the characters’ revelations and solutions can become too pat, but that’s the problem with every author’s toolkit.

And, in the end, authors employ the tools they’ve got.  Hemingway famously said that the best training for a writer was to have an unhappy childhood, but some of us prosper even though we hail from one of Tolstoy’s happy families, all alike.

Probably the most successful writers, in terms of a large audience are those who probe not their own heads, but those of their readers.  They find out what their readers want, and they provide it, usually by the cartload.  These aren’t usually the writers I seek out myself, since I’m not fond of being pandered to; but if the writers are unhappy with that, they’ll have plenty of money to afford the necessary therapy.

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by wjw on March 21, 2018

Via Bruce Sterling and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, here’s how to alter your Facebook settings to opt out of platform sharing.

Facebook has allowed third parties to violate user privacy on an unprecedented scale, and, while legislators and regulators scramble to understand the implications and put limits in place, users are left with the responsibility to make sure their profiles are properly configured.

Over the weekend, it became clear that Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company, got access to more than 50 million Facebook users’ data in 2014. The data was overwhelmingly collected, shared, and stored without user consent. The scale of this violation of user privacy reflects how Facebook’s terms of service and API were structured at the time. Make no mistake: this was not a data breach. This was exactly how Facebook’s infrastructure was designed to work.

In addition to raising questions about Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential election, this news is a reminder of the inevitable privacy risks that users face when their personal information is captured, analyzed, indefinitely stored, and shared by a constellation of data brokers, marketers, and social media companies.

At the very least, this should compel cybercriminals, dodgy offshore data farms, and Russian spies to go through at least a little more effort to nab your data.

Don’t give your stuff away, at least make them steal it!



by wjw on March 16, 2018

So in last night’s dream I enrolled in a workshop in standup comedy.  Which, I should mention, I have never had any ambitions whatsoever to do.

The workshop took place in a barnlike hotel in a place like the Berkshires, with snow and winter sports, and the woman who ran the place kept telling us that we had to look deep into ourselves to find our material, and I tried this but without much success.  It appears I have looked as deeply into myself as I care to, and the rest can remain a mystery as far as I’m concerned.

So I created a character called Mr. Pilcock.  Mr. Pilcock was an energetic working-class Englishman with a job in a boiler factory (which allowed me to do an amusing accent), and his wife had won a lot of money in the pools, and so he decided to go to America to visit his daughter and her husband in Cleveland.  (Cleveland is a funnier name for a town than Detroit.)  And so he decided to travel out on RMS Titanic.

So I developed a monolog in which Pilcock described Titanic being annihilated by an iceberg, and how he’d survived without losing any of his optimism and British pluck, and how if the chaps on the rescue ship would just loan him one of them diving suits, he’d go down and fetch Mrs. Pilcock from where he’d left her, in a cupboard on the berth deck.

And then I thought, “Well, why confine this guy to one disaster?”  So I backtracked to Pilcock’s exploits in the Zulu War.  (“Cocky, my boy, that there’s the Zulu army!  You’d better keep an eye out!”)  Which makes him a sort of working-class Flashman, if you like.

I woke up before I got to deliver Mr. Pilcock to the rest of the class, which is probably lucky, because the routine needed some work before I could get exactly the right mixture of humor and pathos I was aiming for.

If this is the sort of thing that goes on in my dreams, it’s a shame I don’t remember more of them.

I am, by the way, in Florida, at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where dozens of my friends have shown up for the express purpose of keeping me amused.  So I am having a good time, and probably won’t have to debut as a standup any time soon.


Review Too Late: Nordic Noir

by wjw on March 9, 2018

 Over our long winter months, I’ve been watching TV set in brooding northern climes.  How depressing can it get in northern Europe?

Very, apparently.

Bordertown.  Netflix kept trying to get me to watch this, but I assumed it was set on the US-Mexican border, and I’m all too familiar with that.  But then Netflix played me the trailer, unasked the way they do, and I realized everyone was speaking Finnish.  So hey, that’s more interesting!

Bordertown stars acting stalwart Ville Virtanen as Detective Inspector Kari Sorjonen, one of those TV detectives with an eerie, almost psychic connection to the crimes he’s investigating.  After his wife survives brain cancer, he realizes that the depraved, violent criminal underworld of Helsinki is getting between him and his family, and so he gets transferred to the provincial college town of Lappeenranta, near the Russian border, where he assumes things will be more calm.

But this is series television, right? Lappeenranta proves to be chock-full of even more depraved, violent crime than Finland’s slaughter capital of Helsinki.  Much of the crime is leaking over the border from Russia, possibly with the cooperation of Lappeenranta’s creepy mayor, who would like Russian money for his casino project and seems not to much care where it comes from.  (The mayor is also the ex-boyfriend of Sorjonen’s wife, and he isn’t at all stalking her, not really.)

In the first series, young women are going missing, including the daughter of a violent, half-psychotic ex-FSB strike force cop (Lena Sinisalo), in exile in Finland because she arrested the wrong oligarch or something.  Sorjonen has a daughter the same age, and so of course after the usual confrontations in which he and the demented Russian point pistols at each other, they end up joining forces.

It’s good depressing Scandinavian drama, with a few weaknesses.  The two cops’ teenage daughters are thematically woven into the plot of the first story, which is about missing, abused young women, but afterwards the writers found themselves stuck with these two characters who weren’t cops and didn’t have much to do.  They’re both played by good actresses, and it’s a shame to waste them.  And, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the functional purpose of family in genre is to be kidnaped and held hostage.

So in every series, one or both of the young ladies are threatened, kidnaped, framed, poisoned, stalked, and/or investigated for murder.  Because otherwise the producers are just paying them to sit there.

And also, the plots are hyper-twisty.  I normally find this a good thing, but there was at least one series where I never understood what was going on even after Sorjonen explained it.  I suppose the blizzard of Finnish names may just have contributed to the confusion:  “Rikospaikkakuvaaja was blackmailing Satu-Maria over what happened to Satamamestari, but Kaartinen found out about it and let slip to Laakkonen what was going on, and that brought Eläinlääkäri onto the scene . . . “

Anyway, I had no idea Finland was so violent and depraved.  I also had no idea that when teenagers in Finland have sex, they keep their underwear on.  (I assume there’s some law about that.)

Still, it was good enough so that I’ll watch the next season, when it comes around.

Dark.  This German series has been compared to Stranger Things, as if copying Stranger Things is bad, whereas Stranger Things copying everything Spielberg made in the Seventies is supposed to be good.  In any case, I don’t think the comparison holds.

I’d compare it more to the Belgian series Hotel Beau Sejour, though I don’t think it’s as good.  In both series, missing or dead children reveal rifts and conflicts in small-town families, and in both series, there’s a lot of scenes of people traveling alone through spooky forests while being photographed by hovering drones.

In Dark there’s time travel through a series of tunnels partly built under a nuclear power plant, there are people being displaced who can’t get back, there are apocalyptic cultists who are trying to arrange I’m-not-sure-what, and there is loud, persistent synthesizer music to assure us that everything is dramatic and spooky.

I was having a hard time keeping track of who was who in the contemporary plot line, particularly the young German men who all look alike, and then they started time-traveling and I completely lost track.

Nothing actually resolves, in fact the series ends with a new timeline opening and a big “To Be Continued” sign.  I felt cheated, I felt like I’d signed onto Lost all over again.  Though Dark actually had a lot going for it, I doubt I’ll be watching Series Two.


The Muffin Conundrum

by wjw on March 8, 2018

EnglishMuffinOnPlate_wbI have an important scientific question here.  The answer may save the world, or at least my breakfast.

I am fond of English muffins.  (Or, as I believe they are known in England, “muffins.”) Yet these muffins have one peculiarity that I can neither understand nor condone.

When I take a muffin out of the container to drop into the toaster, there is always one corner of the muffin that’s soggy.  (I know a round object can’t have a corner, but bear with me.  You know what I mean.)  Opposite the soggy bit, there’s another bit that’s very dry.

Generally time in the toaster does not fully dry out the soggy piece, though it will turn the dry bit to charcoal.

This has happened both in my current refrigerator and its predecessor.  (I would keep the muffins on the counter instead, but then they turn green.)  This happens no matter how the muffins are stored, horizontally or on edge.

What causes this?  How can it be prevented?

I like my muffins, and I want them to be perfect.  Why is this satisfaction denied me?



March 4, 2018

I haven’t been posting here much, or posting anywhere really.  I’ve been just a little bit slammed. I’m writing Quillifer the Knight.  I’m working on Taos Toolbox.  I’m doing my taxes, and going cross-eyed looking at all the little receipts that made sense months ago, but don’t now, and looking for the little receipts that I […]

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“Searching For Plob Day Smores”

February 27, 2018

Back in the Sixties, I’m sure it seemed plausible to Arthur Clarke that by 2001, we’d have HAL 9000. Instead, by 2017, we got Alexa.

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Sorry, Canada

February 25, 2018

So John Shuster and his buddies went on to win gold in the Greatest Ever Winter Sport, which is to say curling. The US has never won gold in curling before, but taking 5 points in a single end pretty well speaks for itself. On the other hand, Canada has never lost a medal in […]

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Samurai Hat

February 22, 2018

Over the weekend I went to Boskone, which was such a pleasant scene that I spent no time whatsoever thinking of ways to amuse anyone other than myself.  And then I flew back and was ill by the time I got home.  (Note to self, and to the rest of you: don’t ever order the […]

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February 14, 2018

I will be spending the weekend in Boston, attending their excellent science fiction convention, Boskone.  Since the convention is a very fine one, and it’s a large regional convention that is still about books, I urge those of you who can be there to attend. Here’s my schedule, for anyone who would care to connect with […]

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