Monthly Archive: December 2008

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, everyone. Wanted to get that in before I’m, er, overserved. Let’s do our best to make sure 2009 is nothing like the Sci Fi we write and read, ‘kay?



The Decline and Fall of Quality

Sometimes the advance of technology that is leading us inexorably towards a Skiffy Future (flying cars! face transplants! digital monies!) isn’t all that great. Take, for example, digital music. Most of us know that the popular MP3 format for digital audio is not the greatest as far as quality goes – it is, after all, a compression algorithm that takes the huge tracks you find on a CD and makes them small enough to be easily transmitted over Internet connections or to be stored in mass quantities on tiny handheld devices. The advantages of such a format are obvious to all of us – hell, not only is every CD I own residing on my hard drive as MP3s, every cassette tape I own is also sitting there as MP3s. Everyone loves MP3s exactly because they are portable and infinitely copyable.

At a price, of course: The MP3 format, I am told, is not so hot when it comes to audio quality. It’s compressed, after all, and that means that data that sits comfortably on a CD or in a FLAC file gets squeezed in. Which is all well and good if you’re taking a pristine, uncompressed format like a CD and making personal files for yourself – if you’re corrupting your music for portability’s sake, that’s on you. But now we hear that the music industry is mixing thier songs specifically for MP3 (this via BoingBoing via Slashdot), because they know that everyone is just going to rip the songs into that format anyway, and this means the source data on your CD is going to be sucky to begin with.

In other words, the advance of technology has ruined the technical quality of your audio. And you know what? I don’t care.

I have what Scientists of the Future call Tin Ears. My friends mock me for the large sampling of 96Kbs MP3 files I have in my collection, most made long ago before I clearly understood the process, yet I can’t be bothered to re-rip them into better quality, because, frankly, I can’t tell much difference. Which puts me in a quandary: On the one hand, if nothing is done our future will be a dystopia filled with tinny highs and muddy lows. On the other, I won’t be able to tell the difference personally, and it’s not like there isn’t a good trade off here. Personally, even if I could tell the difference between CD-quality and MP3-quality, I might accept the downgrade in exchange for the portability and ease-of-copying.

I also think there’s a certain Quality Horizon, a point beyond which improvements become meaningless. I consider, with heavy thoguht, those fancy new Blu-Ray DVDs. And I ask, who cares? Sales are sluggish precisely because folks look at the roughly 1000 DVDs they’ve bought over the last few years, peer owlishly at the supposedly greatly improved quality of the new issues, and can’t really see the point. Why bother? There’s no obvious mechanical upgrade like there was between cassettes and CDs or VHS and DVD – no better portability, longevity, or bonus features. Just the assurance that the overall quality of the thing is better. Which it probably is, but not necessarily to an extent that makes upgrading worth it.

My personal Quality Horizon, when it comes to audio, is pretty low. I’m a man whose music collection was at least 65% songs taped off the radio, commercials and all, at one point. Do I look like someone who can tell whether I’m listening to a CD or an MP3?

That’s one good thing about being a writer: Electronic formats don’t necessarily threaten to downgrade my words. I mean, sure, it might downgrade my royalties as you all gleefully download my books from torrent sites, but at least the super-high-quality prose itself will be preserved, right? Don’t answer that.

Catching Up

So, back in the welcoming arms of New Jersey. Travel sucks, and unpacking is the tiny boil on the tip of it all. Crap is just piled everywhere.

And even in this gilded age of Living in the Future, with its sexy wireless Internet available just about everywhere, I am still about six hundred years behind in my correspondence. Although this is partially because I am a jackass. There are two things that are me-centric that I want to post, though:

1.  The fine folks at Fantasy Book Critic asked me to give them an idea of what I read in 2008, and what was coming for me in 2009, and that’s been posted. Check out my sad reading habits!

2. Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist named The Digital Plague #13 on their SFF Top 10 of 2008, which is damned cool.


Once I have regained some sanity here I’ll start posting my important thoughts on the world and writing and single malt whiskey and, naturally, cats and pantslessness. Cats and Pantslessness, coming to you in 2009.



Writing on the Road

Okay, since that last entry I’ve a) had about six gallons of coffee and b) had a shower so hot things melted. As a result, I’m feeling somewhat better. I’m not a very good traveler, as anyone who’s read The inner Swine can tell you; I’m a whiny and unappreciative tourist. Here’s a sample of what it’s like to travel with me:

YOU: Look, Jeff, the Sistine Chapel!

ME: Bugger.

See? Not fun. I freely admit to being a terrible traveler. Add in traveling for the holidays, and damn, my ass, it is kicked. Because after hours on planes, trains, and automobiles, I then stand around for sixteen hours or so eating heavy food and drinking whiskey in random bursts. I know, I know – good food and booze, friends and family, poor Jeff. I get that kind of sarcastic response a lot.

Trying to write on the road is weird. On the one hand you’ve got lots of time constraints – right now I’ve got about half an hour before The Duchess gets back from her run and Round Two of Extended Family Holiday Extravaganza begins. On the other hand, I work well with time constraints. The less time I have the more I produced, and vice versa. On the one hand, I also don’t get a lot of time to just sit and ponder plot points et al, but on the other hand there’s a wealth of observable material that differs tremendously from what you’re used to seeing.

And then, there’s hotels.

I love hotels. Which is weird, since I just went out of my way to complain about traveling, of which hotels are often a necessary part. But hotels are great for writing, especially old hotels with lots of history and architectural detail. The older the better, in fact, for writing science fiction, I think, because they’re like time machines, giving you a glimpse into the past and also standing as testament that just because you’re writing a story set in the future, you don’t need to assume everything’s been destroyed and replaced, which some writers do. You see a lot of future fiction where the world has apparently been scrubbed clean and everything replaced with shiny new versions, when in reality it’s probably the opposite: A lot of very old things, like ancient hotels, just retrofitted, applied to new uses, and lingering there with their aura of old, old charm, the ghosts of the past howling about silently.

That, and the fact that I can get anything delivered to my room with a phone call. Hotels rock. I tried that back at home and got a sneer from The Duchess for my troubles.

Happy Holidays, everyone, and if these ain’t your holidays, happy Friday.

Fakin’ It

The Adlerian made a comment on my “Sweet Romance” Battlestar Galactica post which he ended by saying “Generally though, the show is a bit like Lost and X Files in that I doubt the writers ever had a point, thus it’s sort of a waste to watch.

This is an interesting point; over at they have as part of their “Morning Spoilers” today a discussion of the first two episodes of the coming season of Lost. I’m a big Lost fan, but I think most of us will agree that there was a point somewhere in there where we would have totally agreed that the writers were just making shit up as they went, without any overall plan. Which is horrifying, since shows like this are structured around revelations and mysteries and the idea that there is no well-planned ultimate point kind of stabs me in the liver. I was a big X-Files fan too, at least for a while, until it became painfully clear they had no overall plan. Bastards.

Lost feels like, if they didn’t have a plan to begin with, they’ve actually regrouped and made one. Which I hope turns out to be true. Even if the ending is a let down (which of course it will have to be), at least if it ties things together and feels like an organic ending to a real story, I’ll be happy.

I sympathize, though. When creating stories, it’s foolish, sometimes, to assume that you’re going to get the opportunity to tell a long, complex story. You can’t always assume you’re going to get a 12-book deal to tell your epic cycle, and TV producers must have it worse because even if your show gets picked up, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the 5 seasons or whatever to tell your story. Sometimes you just focus on the great idea, the beginning, the 2/3s of the overall story you can see in a flash of inspiration, and you just coast along hoping to have a second flash before you have to write that last act.

Heck, if I have 2/3s of a great idea for a series of books and someone wants to publish it, I’m not going to worry about coming up with the actual ending until I have to, y’know?

With Avery Cates, it was a bit different; The Electric Church was conceived as a standalone story, but the nature of the character and the universe left it very naturally open to sequels; Avery’s a guy who, you can easily imagine, has an exciting life and there are a lot of stories to tell. The universe itself I always saw as changing, evolving (or devolving), and that’s going to increasingly be part of the story – but I didn’t have to have that mapped out back in 2005 when I originally sold the book.

I don’t like to write that way; If I map everything out, I get bored with actually writing it. I prefer to start with a spark and see where it leads me. I usually have a vague idea of where I’m going, but I prefer to rely on instinct. Of course, my schedules for writing books are a little more leisurely than coming up with entire seasons of TV shows, and the budgets involved are lower. Lost probably costs multiple millions per episode when you factor in everything from Craft Services to Post-production to Marketing, whereas my budget for writing Cates novels is basically liquor costs. Which are considerable, but still an order of magnitude lower.

Death of Print Might be Televised

Over at The New Yorker (via Slashdot), there’s yet another article about how newspapers are dying. I don’t doubt this is true, and that the day may come when print newspapers are no longer a part of our daily lives.  My real question is, why do we care so much?

The death of print newspapers does not equate with the death of news, after all; something will take its place, whether it is shiny new digital newspapers of some sort (the kind in the movie Minority Report would be nice) or blogs or, I dunno, psychic news beamed into your head until you can hear the screams and smell the coppery blood. There will be some sort of news delivery, is my point. Yet when it comes to the Death of Print (including my beloved, cherished, fetishized books), we all get very hand-wringy and upset.

I love print. My love for books as objects is pretty well-established, and my wife and I actually get a newspaper delivered (sadly, it is the entertaining but news-dubious Daily News) and we actually read our local paper (The Hoboken Reporter) every week. Of course, we’re old and stodgy, and we also read a huge volume of Internet-delivered material, from blogs to While I would miss print if its death should ever actually arrive, but I don’t doubt for a moment that there’ll be something to replace it. So why get all weepy about it? I mean, I’m one of those annoying folks who has gone on record about never buying a Kindle, yet I view the death of print with something approaching apathy.

I think the worry people have about it has more to do with not wanting the world to change than with any real concern for the Future. We all get to know how the world works, and we don’t like sudden, cataclysmic change (which rarely happens anyway). When we think of the Death of Print (it would be helpful to imagine a flash of lightning and a roll of thunder – possibly with a Wilhelm Scream – every time I use that phrase) we tend to imagine it all happens in one week: bookstores bulldozed, newspapers vanished, and the wall-sized televisions that never turn off installed without our knowledge or permission, and us older folks left to the mercy of Teh Kidz who know how to work all the new tech. Change is scary, and it’s natural to imagine that a world without Newspapers would be a worse place simply because none of us have ever known such a world.

Personally, I think print is going to be replaced – at first – with print-like things. E-book Readers are made to resemble books, and I think E-newspapers will resemble newspapers. At least until the usefulness of mimicking an old technology is past, if it ever is. After all, Word Processors still look very much like a piece of virtual paper in a typewriter, for no reason whatsoever. (I still own and sometimes use an ancient manual typewriter, as well – I am a Secret Luddite, ain’t I?) Change is seldom sudden and jarring, for the simple reason that sudden and jarring doesn’t sell well, and the main goal of all these products is to get you to part with your pesos. No one is going to want to scare you away by insisting you have a small device surgically implanted into your brain so you can view the new HoloNews Needlecasts, after all.

And really, if we enter into a Brave New World where you get your iNews on your iPhone via Steve Jobsian avatar speaking with a Max Headroomish stutter, will it be so bad? Trust me, thugs will still be robbing bodegas in The Bronx and terrorists will still be lobbing bombs into trains in Mumbai, and someone will still be writing about it all.

That’s the key: The writing. That’s why when authors (even dimwits like me) write up dystopian futures, we always remove literacy and make everything be televised somehow.

Snow Day

Kids, I dunno where you live, but here in Hoboken located in the northeastern United States, we’re expecting a lot of snow sometime today. Which means that I will be shoveling until I collapse and fall asleep in a drift, leaving to fate whether I am discovered by neighbors in time.

I grew up around here, so I’ve been shoveling snow my entire life. Even when I went away to college and rented for a while, I usually had to shovel around my car quite a bit in order to free it. When The Duchess and I bought a house a few years ago I cleverly selected a rowhouse which has only 12.5 feet of sidewalk in front of it, thus limiting my legal liability for shoveling snow (my parents instilled in me a great fear of the Random Meanspirited Lawsuit stemming from some poor soul slipping in front of your property). Unfortunately my Sainted Mother still lives in the house I grew up in, a mere 15 minute walk away, and thus I get to shovel her sidewalk every time it snows too. And she lives on a corner lot. With a driveway.

My frail physical condition aside, the main question is one of gear: Sure, it’ll be cold out, but snow weather always seems warmer than it actually is (or maybe that’s a tumor making me feel that way, who knows?) and once I get a real wheezing sweat going, being bundled up can become swampy and uncomfortable. And frequent nips from my Survival Flask will only worsen that condition, as I dehydrate and actually lower my core temperature while the alcohol makes me feel otherwise. All this leads inexorably and unfortunately to me shoveling snow with no pants on, in order to stay cool.

There: A shocking glimpse into my personal life. Aren’t you glad you stopped by? And if you live in the area, for god’s sakes come help me shovel. I’ll pay you in unbought copies of Lifers.


1000 Words a Day

Last night I was examining the sadly shrinking wet bar here at the Somers Compound, and pondering the ravages of time. This time of year I’m always faced with this dilemma: Everyone I know is well aware of my love for whiskey, so every holiday I am bound to receive several really nice bottles of the Good Stuff. So every year begins with Jeff rolling around on the floor clutching bottles to his chest, laughing in joy.

But by the end of the year I’m low and hesitate to buy my own, because I don’t know what I’ll be getting from well-meaning loved ones. So I hem and haw and wait to see. And ponder how in the world I drank all that whiskey during the year (well, of course we know how, the question is, how did I survive? That’s a lot of whiskey).

Anyway, this somehow has driven me to try and write a novel in the next few weeks. All that thinking about time made me realize that I have a very thin period of downtime over the coming weeks, and I decided that hell or high water I was going to accomplish something. So, 1000+ words a day it is, and we’ll just see how it goes.

I’ve never done something like this before – never tried NaNoWriMo or anything. I’ve never had any trouble putting words on paper, and generally prefer a more hippie-ish we get there when we get there kind of attitude when it comes to writing. But I do like to shake things up every now and then, changing my mechanics a little. I get into ruts where writing books becomes a fixed process, and that erodes inspiration, so every few years it’s good to try something different – a different schedule, different approach, whatever. So, something new: I’m going to write 1000 words or more in a novel, every day (though I should note: not an Avery Cates novel, a separate wholly personal project). Why not? It should be fun. Or soul-crushing. We’ll see.

If it gets soul-crushing, at least the posts on this blog will be interesting. Especially after the holidays, when delivery of gifts of spirits will make my endrunkening easier.


The Reflexes of a Dead Otter, I Tell You

I have reached that stage of life where waking up is almost impossible. Meaning I’ve somehow reverted to age 14. There was a time when I slept until noon every day I could, but then I grew up and started waking up early on purpose, because I had a lot of stuff I wanted to do. Recently, though, I guess my sleep debt has caught up with me, as waking up is sort of like climbing a mountain.

Thank god for coffee.

So I’m sitting here in wet, snowy Hoboken, coffee steaming, and I’m thinking that I need a new video game. There’s really only one type of video game I’ve ever really loved: The First Person Shooter. I was there when my friend and then-roommate Ken brought home both Wolfenstein 3D and a SoundBlaster card for his PC so we could hear the Nazis scream in German when we shot them, and I was hooked immediately. I’ve played most of the FPS games since then, and no other type of game (aside from Text Adventures) has ever really grabbed me.

The last one I dug into was Portal, which was fantastic, but that was some months ago. I need something new. I’ve been mentally fondling Left 4 Dead from my beloved Valve, but I’ve heard it’s more a co-op game than a single-person game, and I don’t play co-op or multiplayer. Why? Because I have the reflexes of a dead otter. Back in The Day, Ken, my other friend Jeof (those of you who actually read The Inner Swine may know the names) used to go to Ken’s office after hours to play deathmatch games on his office network (first Doom; later Unreal) and here’s how it went for me at first:

ME: <spawns> Hey! Wow! Lookit this!

Jeof: <standing behind me> Hey.

ME: Wha? <turns around>


See? Believe me, no one wants me out on the servers, getting cheesed up by every 10-year-old with a frackin cable modem. Besides, hard lessons like that one led me to become that most despised FPS gamer: The Camper. I learned to find a dark, shadowed spot, locate and acquire whatever sniping weapon there was, and just sit back and relax, waiting for someone to wander past me. Muhahahaha!

So, anyone play L4D single-player? Is it worth $50? ‘Cause I won’t be playing it any other way.