Archive for June, 2012

Writing and the ACA

I think we all saw the news yesterday. Those who were watching Fox News and CNN even got to see several iterations of the news. In a complicated decision, the US Supreme Court rejected the individual mandate under the commerce clause but upheld it under Congressional powers of taxation. I’m not here to argue about whether the bill ultimately is or isn’t constitutional. I’m not a constitutional scholar. I’m only going to share a few things in an attempt to make the ACA a relevant topic on what is primarily a blog about writing.

First was a writer who announced he would be able to go to writing full-time under the ACA provisions that go into effect in 2014, especially the provision forbidding health plans for discriminating against applicants with pre-existing conditions. Second was Steampunk artist Kyle Cassidy predicting that “artists will leave crappy corporate jobs they held just to have insurance for art jobs that pay less.”

Now today on Art Info there’s an article titled How Artists Will Be Affected by the Supreme Court’s Decision to Uphold Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which goes into more details about…well, how artists will etc etc etc. While the site largely focuses on the various graphic arts, it’s important to remember that all people who create for a living will have similar effects. Whether a painter, sculptor, free-lancer, or author, we’re all in a position where our creative endeavors result in an unpredictable income stream for all but a very fortunate minority. The probably with this spotty stream is that insurance is, in a word, expensive.

One of the reasons that healthcare is prohibitively expensive for artists and other self-employed people is that they are not part of a larger network, which allows insurance companies to better spread out risk and costs. Even small companies sometimes don’t qualify for group plans. Some 52 percent of artists described themselves as either completely uninsured or inadequately insured in the face of high premiums, high deductibles, and annual limits on care.

Under the ACA, states will set up group exchanges by 2014, which will organize the insurance market and allow individuals and small businesses to band together to form groups, just like if they were part of a large corporation. The exchanges will not be able to consider pre-existing conditions when creating groups — currently one of the biggest reasons why individuals or small businesses have a hard time getting affordable insurance.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t promise that the ACA is going to work entirely as expected. Or that it will be enacted at all. A significant groundswell of anti-ACA emotion could give Romney the White House and enough of a GOP presence in the House and Senate to overturn the bill. It’s going to be a long and weird two years until the majority of the ACA takes hold, and probably a few years after that until we will know how it works in reality versus in theory.

However, I support artists. I support creators. Not just because I am one, but because this world would be a damn boring place without things being created. So I support a safety net for those individuals who dare to dream and want to try creating full-time. Hell, I hope to join them some day. So I hope that Cassidy, Art Info, and the writer planning on going full-time in 2014 are well founded in their optimism, that this will provide a way for more people to be able to create without worrying about what will happen if they get sick.

When asked in 1993 about whether it was easier to be a writer in Canada or America, science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer answered:

I think the biggest advantage a writer has in Canada is free government-sponsored health care…I was able to become a full-time writer because I didn’t need a job in order to get health insurance. Canada — and just about every other industrialized country — considers health care a basic human right, but in the States so many people who might otherwise take the plunge and become full-time writers have to stay shackled to a nine-to-five job so that they won’t be financially ruined should they be in an accident or get ill.

The ACA isn’t full Canadian medical care. But it is a step towards allowing those who want to be full-time creators to do so. Taking aside all the politics about the ACA, whether it’s Obamacare or Romneycare or whatever othercare you care to call it, I applaud a society that better supports those who create for the betterment of that society.

If that’s political, it’s political. It’s also how I feel.

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Geek Dad To Be

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this much in the blog, but it has come up elsewhere. In just over two months my marvelous and wonderful coauthor (and wife) will deliver our first child. It’s a terrifying time, not least of which because my beloved wife now has a creature1 living inside of her that sometimes pushing against her stomach so hard as to make visible bulges from outside. I’m told that’s only half as creepy as actually being the one with life form rolling around, so I’m required to give that point to my wife.

So when not playing out scenes from Alien and Prometheus in my head, or occupying my brain with writing, I’m spending an understandable amount of time FREAKING THE FUCK OUT because for some strange reason I will be entrusted with another human life for the next eighteen years and be expected not to screw said life up. I don’t know who seriously thought it was a good idea that I am the right person to saddle with this responsibility, but there it is.

That leaves me with all the questions that I’m sure all dads-to-be end up with.

Questions like: What’s the right age to introduce my child to Star Wars? And what do I do if she wants to watch the prequels? Certainly, I think it’s important for a child to make some of their own decisions, but isn’t part of the job of being a parent to shelter her from the evils of the world? Evils like Jar Jar Binks?

Who should be her first Batman? Adam West is more appropriate for a child growing up, certainly.  I do know Val Kilmer is the wrong answer to this question. For that matter, who should be her first Doctor? Whomever takes the role over from Matt Smith and will likely be starring in new episodes when she’s old enough to watch them? Eccleston? Tennant? Smith? Go classic with one of the Baker boys?

Is Adventure Time really a kids show?

Are Ace Doubles appropriate bedtime stories?

What if…oh god, what if she doesn’t love dinosaurs?

What are the best Carcassonne expansions to play with a toddler? Is four too young for her to help her mommy and daddy close all the necessary gates to keep Cthulhu from devouring the world in madness? What if her friends introduce her to 3rd Edition D&D? No daughter of mine is going to roll up a Vecna worshiper.

When is it too soon to register her domain name? Email address? Oh god, should I have done so already? They’re still available, but what if a domain squatter figures them out and grabs them first? How many variations of her name should I register to make sure she gets the one she wants?

It’s these questions, it’s a thousand more, that prick at my brain while I watch the calendar get closer and closer to her due date. I’m sure the answers are going to become a regular feature of this blog going forward. You are forewarned.

1. For the damnedest reason, WordPress insists that I meant “creäture.” Did I miss something?

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On the Future of Publishing and Fake English Football

I’ve taken to watching author/professor/humanitarian/professional video game player John Green play FIFA on Youtube, in part because he crafts damn fun narratives for his digital players, and in part because he’ll spend entire games talking about things that have nothing to do with his fake FIFA team.  Such as his views on the future of publishing, why publishing isn’t the music industry, and the problems behind the new Amazon paradigm for bringing books directly from authors to the masses.  His videos are 10-15 minutes long, his thoughts on the future of publishing are nearly 30 minutes, so it’s split into two parts.

Part one, in which he discusses how books are not made by individuals:

Part two, in which he discusses three potential futures for publishing:

Look, it’s no big secret that I’m no fan of the notion that Amazon wants to deconstruct the publishing industry, so I largely agree with John Green.  I like what Amazon is offering.  To an extent.  The new digital ways of distributing writing are fantastic for writers who want to make their back catalogs available, or for authors who are putting out the best material that they can.

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Reading List: The List

I mentioned earlier in the week putting together a summer genre fiction reading list for my brother-in-law.  My wife and I did decide to limit it to books we could loan him, so after going through the shelves this is what we came up with:

  • From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne
  • Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  • Perdido Street Station, China Mieville
  • Watchmen, Alan Moore
  • Small Gods, Terry Pratchett (in case he’s already read one of the other five)

We could easily make a list three times that long, but we’re only talking about one summer.  The goal were stories across a few different sub-genres and ones we thought he’d like.  The point isn’t to torture him, rather to engage him and give him something other than video games to do for the next three months.

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World Building Question: What Year is it?

Yes, it’s time for the standard question of the amnesic or accidental time traveler.  A year, like a day, tends to have an astronomical definition, the length of time it takes the earth to orbit the sun.  Roughly 365.25 days, though not exactly, which is why leap years in the Gregorian calendar happen every four years, except years divisible by 100, unless they’re also divisible by 400.  1900 wasn’t a leap year, 2000 was, 2100 won’t be.

How to number those years?  That’s a little more arbitrary.  Except that it’s not.  Calendar makers tend to pick a point in time as significant enough to be Year 1 and continue from there.  This shows up in both fantasy and science fiction, as a common trope of future civilizations is they do not continue to use the Gregorian calendar.  The advantage here is apparent when we read books like 2001 or 2010.  A ship clearly did not travel to Jupiter and/or Saturn eleven years ago, and I certainly don’t remember Jupiter igniting into the new sun Lucifer two years ago.  Resetting the calendar avoids the problem of reality catching up to the dates set aside in our science fiction.

So…that was easy.  The current year is the number of times the earth has gone around the sun since a significant event in a culture’s history, called Epoch dates.  Unless we’re talking about a purely lunar calendar, like the Islamic calendar discussed last time.  The question becomes: what is a significant enough date?

Many calendars, including the predominant Gregorian calendar, pick a religious date.  Jewish tradition counts the years since the creation of the world, as does the Byzantine calendar, though the years are different in each.  Christian tradition counts the years since the birth of Christ, plus four years for incorrect math.  Islamic tradition counts the lunar years after the Hijra to Medina.  Some calendars, such as the pre-Julian Roman calendar, track the years since the founding of the culture.  Some cultures, such as ancient Rome or modern England, maintain a calendar that starts over with the rise of the new king, queen, or emperor.  There are even calendars that don’t traditionally number years, such as the Chinese calendar.  Any attempt to determine an Epoch year for the Chinese calendar is largely from an external force.

So we’ve got three major questions when it comes to determining epochs and current years.

  1. Does your culture even have an epoch?  Are years numbered at all?
  2. What significant event determined the epoch?
  3. Does the culture recognize negative years.

That third one is important.  In a calendar such as the Hebrew or Byzantine calendar, intended to count the years since the beginning of time, negative years are meaningless.  In a calendar such as the Christian/Gregorian or Islamic calendar, intended to count the years since a historic event, each has a notation for years before that event.  Regency calendars would restart with each king or emperor, so wouldn’t have negatives but would have multiple year ones.

Oh, and an interesting fourth question that can be as important as you want it to be: Is there a Year 0?  Which can be tied to the next question: Is there a number 0?  Which is far too important of a question to go into right now.

This all works fantastically on earth, where we have three astronomical points of reference that are vastly different from each other: the length of a day, the cycles of a single large moon, and the time it takes the planet to orbit the sun.  In our own solar system we see planets that would destroy any of these.  To make things clear, I’ll use “day” to mean rotation and “year” an orbit of the sun.  On Venus a year is just under two days long.  On Mercury a day is twice as long as a year.  Calendars developed on these planets would be vastly different to ones developed on earth.

Alright, I’ve focused this series almost entirely on time keeping.  Which is an interesting subject, but now quite exhausted.  Next up, directions, looking at the way most people overlay two-dimensional directions with three-dimensional directions.

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Mid-Century Modern

Public domain photography rocks.

See this house?  The one there on the right?  Yeah, that’s a pretty awesome house, designed in a style called mid-century modern.  Specifically it’s the Stahl House, which I have picked as an exemplar of mid-century modern because…well, it was the first picture that I could find that typified mid-century modern architecture that had also been released into the public domain.  Thanks, Wikipedian Ovs.  It’s a style of architecture that I live with on a daily basis as I drive past a neighborhood built in the height of mid-century modern.  It’s a design ethos that grew out of the arts and crafts movement, making it the grandchild of art deco, and eventually morphed into the concrete palaces of brutalism.

Unlike brutalism, which is almost entirely an architectural style, mid-century modern describes not just houses built with a certain style in the 1930s-1960s, but also incorporated both graphic design and furniture design, which have a lot of the smooth lines and flair of the earlier art deco and less of the visible craftsmanship of arts and crafts.  Look, this is probably all entirely wrong, but I’m going to go with it because it’s leading me to my next point.  If you want a blog that discusses the history of architectural design, oh boy are you in the wrong place.

What I’m trying to get to is the surging popularity of mid-century modern design.  There is a renewed appreciation of the architecture, and prices for furniture and poster art from the era are as high as they’ve ever been.  This has led me to a rather interesting realization.

Out you three pixies go, through the door or out the airlock.

See this book?  The one there on the left?  Yes, the cover that I’ve posted on this blog at least twice before.  It’s also the screensaver on my smartphone, because I just love that cover, and wish I hadn’t put that fold in it.  Ace published The Sun Saboteurs in 1961, right at the tail end of mid-century modern, at least according to most people who determine such things as when art movements begin and end.  If magazine published the original Earth Quarter stories in 1955.  It occurred to me that what I was reading was not pulp science fiction, because even though “pulp” has become an ethos that people strive for in writing, I’ve never liked the word when applied to old books.  Something about it denotes disposability.  And I’m uncomfortable with the notion of disposing of books.  It just…gives me the creeps, though I can’t explain why.

One time I was picking my wife (then girlfriend) up at the airport.  She pulled the book read on the plane out of her backpack, and chucked it in the closest trashcan.  Something about aliens showing up about 80% of the way into a book that had very clearly not been about aliens before that point.  Which would be a spoiler if I had the slightest notion what book it was.  I must have visibly tweaked when I did that, because she knew something about the action made me uncomfortable.  This story serves no purpose other than me being uncomfortable about the destruction of books.

So I love these old books from the 50s and 60s, love that someone saved them, loved that I now get to carry on protecting them.  And, even better, reading them.  Something dawned on me.  That shelf that is now nearly full of these Ace Doubles?  That’s not pulp science fiction.  That’s mid-century modern science fiction.

Why shouldn’t it be?  Mid-century modern was an ethic that spread through all arts, from architecture, to graphic design, to furniture design, why shouldn’t writing be included under that umbrella.  So call it pulp.  Call the revitalization of that style of story telling modern or neo-pulp.  I’d be glad to have my stories influenced by these doubles called either.  But when I’m sitting down with one of these classics, I’ll just be enjoying my mid-century modern sci-fi.

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The Reading List

Going into my senior year of high school, I was given a summer reading list with four titles on it.  This weekend I learned that my brother-in-law, who is going into his senior year of high school (yes, I have a brother-in-law nearly half my age), was given a summer reading list that was one book long.

When my wife and I expressed our dismay, we were given the opportunity to fix that and assign him a much deeper reading list than the school system has.  And since we’re us, we’re going to focus heavily on genre fiction for the list.  I want to stress, the purpose of the reading list is not to torture the young man, no matter how much he may deserve it, so we’re not looking for laborious tomes that he won’t enjoy.  The purpose is to find a handful of books (which is defined as 2-5) that are enjoyable and give a grounding into genre literature.  We’re looking for just fiction.  To that, I’m open to suggestions.  Note, he is not a complete neophyte when it comes to science fiction.  Fahrenheit 451, for example, is not on my draft list because he’s already read it.

I’d like to include one Verne or Wells story.  I lean towards Verne because the translation process keeps the prose more accessible.  Probably From The Earth To The Moon, but I could be persuaded into Wells’s The Time Machine.  The plan is a single Discworld book, likely Small Gods, though my wife is pushing for The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, read as a single narrative.  Which they are anyway.  For something nice and modern, we’re considering Watchmen.  We’re not the school system, we’re willing to include graphic novels.  We may restrict it to books we own and can lend to him.

So here’s where I ask for some suggestions.  We’d like to get the list assembled by the end of the week.  What should we include from Verne or Wells?  Is there a better Discworld option that the ones I listed?  Why do I always write “Discoworld” then have to go and correct it?  Why hasn’t someone written a book called Discoworld?  Focus!  If we were to include one Steampunk story for someone in his late teens, what would be the pick?

It’s an interesting assignment, and I expect I’ll get some suggestions that I’ve not read myself.

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The Reading Garden

I’ve mentioned my reading garden a few times on Twitter now, but it’s hard to really explain what it is just 140 characters at a time.  Since it’s a drizzly evening here in Northern Virginia, I am trapped inside, so I thought I’d take the time to actually talk about it.

Bad Robot!

First, it’s my literal garden.  Ours, really.  Over the last three years my wife and I have been massaging the side yard of the house, pulling down a chain link fence, getting rid of some overgrown divider bushes, walling off a garden portion for fruits and vegetables, putting in a small patio/cross-through to the backyard, expanding the garden, and putting in some Adirondack chairs.  It sounds like a lot, but we’ve done a little at a time.  The result, the garden to the right.  As, apparently, filmed by J. J. Abrams considering that lens flair.

One evening after work I noticed the chairs were in the shade.  At least, at this time of year they’re in the shade from when I get home until sunset.  So I grabbed the book I was reading at the time, settled in with a glass of water, and did some reading.

It’s become part of my routine, save on evenings like this when it’s raining.  And I love it.  We’re on a cul-de-sac, so there’s not a lot of traffic, it really is about as idyllic as is possible within a subdivision inside the Beltway.

The view from the reading garden back to the beehives.

This has been damn good for me.  My typical evening would see me get home from work, head to the basement where my laptop and television are, and watching…crap, really.  Noise television, excuses to just have the television on making bright pictures.  I’m even doing that right now, as I write this blog post, because I’m still fighting that habit on nights that I can’t go into the garden.  Which is a shame.  I love my new-found evening reading time, I really do.  It’s probably tripled the amount of time I sit with my nose in a book on the average day.  I’m consuming books again at a rate I like.  Going through half of an Ace Double in a few days, or a novel in a week.

I used to read like that.  I’m glad to do so again.  Stephen King shames me best, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”  So I’m making that time again.

Unfortunately, I know my time with the reading garden is fleeting.  In another month we’ll be in the armpit of a DC summer, with heat and humidity that may push me inside no matter how much shade I have.  In a few months beyond that, I’ll have my time split by a new baby.  Beyond that, the days shorten and I’ll get home at night.

For now?  I’m loving it.  Come home, relax with a book, and do more reading.  It’s like my morning writing, it’s amazing how much I can do if I just set aside a little time each day.  So find your place, find your time, and do some reading.  Or, I’ve always got a second chair if you want to join me in the reading garden.

Oh.  Plants currently in the reading garden: four blueberries, nine strawberries, a cherry bush, two cages of tomatillos, two cages of tomatoes, two poblano peppers, a jalapeno, a banana pepper, a cajun belle pepper, peas, beans, rhubarbs, pickling cucumbers, and eggplant.  Edibles elsewhere: a raspberry, two black raspberries, two blackberries, two pawpaws, and a wide selection of herbs.  Kinda awesome when I list them all out like that.

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Flash Fiction: Everyone Comes To Tiny’s

It’s been awhile since I’ve taken Chuck Wendig up on one of his challenges, so let’s get back into it.  This week, there are six settings to choose from.  Unlike last time he offered multiple settings, I’m NOT going to do all six.  Just picking one: Tiny’s Taco Hut.

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Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

I don’t remember if it was middle school or my freshman year in high school.  I do remember the assignment.  We were asked to pick a book off a list, and not just read it, but read it alongside a parent.  The assignment stands out, as it was one of the few times I had a teacher with the temerity to assign homework to my parents.  My mom and I looked over the list, and we easily picked out one title.

The Martial Chronicles.

We’d seen the television version as a family, both as miniseries and cobbled together into a feature length movie.  So we read the book.  And we loved the book.  Later, my mom worked in my high school library both while I was a student and long after I graduated.  One of her jobs was culling books, and one day she brought home an old library edition hardback of The Martian Chronicles for me, one that would be replaced with a new copy in the library.  I sat up and re-read it that night, cover to cover.  It’s one of only two times I’ve read an entire book in just a day.  The dreamy opening tales of Martians turning their planet into heaven for visiting astronauts.  The tragedy of their deaths.  The macabre notion of turning bits of Mars into living Poe stories.  The isolation of standing on Mars and watching the Earth burn.  I visited them all again, and I loved them all.

I read Fahrenheit 451 my Freshman year of high school, one of only two genre fiction books I can remember from my high school reading lists.  It’s the book that taught me that science fiction can be, and often is, social commentary.  I’ll occasionally visit bookstores that are helping schools build up the book quantities they need for English classes.  The schools give their reading lists to the stores, who keep copies behind the register, letting patrons buy one to donate while checking out.  Every time, every damn time, I see a copy of Fahrenheit 451 I have donate it.  And will continue to do so.  It’s one of those important books that I think everyone should read.

More importantly, that everyone should have a chance to read.  It’s one of those books that shows up all the time on anti-censorship lists of the most challenged books.  It’s proof, I suppose, that irony isn’t dead.  And proof that the people who challenge books either don’t read them or don’t understand them.

Yesterday we lost Ray Bradbury.  And it is a huge loss to genre fiction.  While it’s easy to dwell on what we’ve lost, I prefer to think of what we still have.  It’s what I learned in Fahrenheit 451, ideas don’t go away, and books don’t die as long as someone cares about them.

So thank you, Ray Bradbury.  For being you, and doing what you did.  We’ll all miss you.

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