Archive for April 1, 2012

Books and E-Books

A while back there was an article in the Telegraph with the provocative title ” Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society .” I wasn’t familiar with Franzen, and the extent of what I know about him now are that John Hodgman portrayed him as Oprah’s right-hand man in That Is All , and that some of my friends who read more literary fiction than I do have described him as being really phenomenally overrated.

E-books are a challenge to the way things have worked for books for a long, long time. [1] I don’t want to accuse Franzen or other e-book haters of being luddites or whatever, and I would expect some people to dislike using a Kindle for purely subjective reasons alone. However, calling e-books a threat to civilization is a bit much. At least as quoted in the Telegraph article, Franzen explains why he has a personal preference for paper books, along with some trite complaining about the capitalism of e-book readers [2] , but utterly fails to connect that to anything of greater significance to society. Given how great of a writer he’s supposed to be, it’s rather strange that he makes such a weak argument.

The permanence of print is a great thing, but I for one don’t only read Certified Classics that I’m sure I’ll read over and over, and some of the widely praised classics are overrated anyway. There are books I treasure in print, but (for example) the book on iPhone app design I’m currently reading will be obsolete in a few years, and I’d just as soon not add that bit of wood pulp to the clutter in the basement. I also don’t have unlimited space for books–it’s getting pretty ridiculous and I’ll have to sell some off before too long–and being able to put countless books on my Kindle is useful from a purely pragmatic standpoint. It also makes it much easier to get certain out of print books, and public domain classics can be had for free to boot. When I decided I wanted to re-read The Devil’s Dictionary , I went on Amazon and got a free e-book sent to my Kindle instantly. I didn’t get a Kindle in order to do away with paper books, especially because I own a lot of RPGs, [3] but rather to expand my options. I can put smaller RPG PDFs, fan-translated manga, free e-books from the likes of Cory Doctorow , and independent weirdness on there, along with professional e-books from the Kindle store proper.
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At the Plant

This is another excerpt from I Want to be an Awesome Robot , and shows off the less wacky but still not quite true aspect of the book. It’s a sort of elegiac tribute to a shopping center near where I live. I took the pictures myself.

“The Plant” is a shopping center near where I live, a soulless conglomeration of chain stores. The name comes from how the space used to be a General Electric plant, though the one building left over from the GE days now contains an Edible Arrangements, because that’s apparently how the world works these days. There is more than one Edible Arrangements store in my city, and for that matter in the universe, and no one seems to know why.

No one is here to welcome you, but please come in all the same.

The heart of the Plant is a row of big chain stores. Target, OfficeMax, Toys ‘R Us (with a Babies ‘R Us), and Home Depot, plus PetSmart and Best Buy forming the short part of an L-shape of capitalism. When it first opened the only restaurant was Rubio’s Mexican Grill, a step up from Taco Bell, a step down from real Mexican food. When it first opened, there always seemed to be men in polo shirts looking at blueprints. Once I asked one what he was doing. “This is the new shape of the world,” he replied. It was true. There was the Market Center and a hundred others, shopping centers in orange and yellow, all across America, striving for the same set of chain stores like fevered poker players.

“Just kidding,” he added sheepishly. “We’re doing the electrical work for the new Radio Shack they’re putting in.”
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I Want to be an Awesome Robot: Inspirations and Influences

Involvement in the indie RPG scene impressed on me the idea that there’s no shame at all in openly discussing your interests and inspirations. I want take some time to talk about the things that inspired I Want to be an Awesome Robot and instilled in me the kind of humor that makes the book work. Remembering, researching, and writing about these things turned out to be intensely nostalgic in some cases. Does everyone have works that influenced them when they were young, little treasures dug out of weird corners of pop culture? I didn’t expect this project to lead me to dig up quite so much of my own past. I ended up ordering new copies of a bunch of books I used to have too.

Ask Dr. Science

“Where does the other sock go when you unload the dryer? The answer is of course B. Demons take it.”

Way back when I was in elementary school my dad got an audio tape and then also a book by “Dr. Science,” a comedy character from Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater. It was first and foremost a radio show on NPR, but I never managed to actually catch it on the radio. Instead I listened to that tape over and over, sometimes even letting Dan Coffey’s voice lull me to sleep, and I read the book cover to cover more than once. Duck’s Breath seems to have disbanded apart from the occasional reunion, and Dr. Science is down to a WordPress blog . It was my first exposure to the kind of beautiful lies delivered with an air of unflappable authority that John Hodgman later perfected. Dan Coffey would explain, without any shred of doubt in his voice, how money is a kind of fungus, about the kind of protective clothing he wears to divide by zero, about how to create life in your own bathtub. There was also a single TV special, The Ask Dr. Science National Science Test , which someone put up on YouTube, presumably from a VHS tape. It’s exactly the kind of relic of my past that I wish were better preserved than it is. The local PBS and NPR stations (KTEH and KQED) loomed large over my childhood.


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Washington DC

I don’t do very much traveling, so when I do it’s kind of a big deal for me. In recent years I’ve averaged about one plane trip per year, and they’ve tended to be either for conventions or to visit my sister Rachel. My trip to Washington, D.C. was in the latter category. Her husband Chuck is an all-around awesome guy, and his IT job has a way of flinging him around the country every now and then. Before they were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I got to visit them there twice and it was really amazing. When I got my 2011 tax return I decided to spend it on two things: a new TV and a trip to see Rachel. So, I got a 40″ Sony TV and plane tickets to D.C. It took a while to figure out what local stuff I wanted to do there, but I knew for sure I wanted to go see the Library of Congress, and I had ever since I first learned of its existence on Reading Rainbow.
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I Want to be an Awesome Robot

A while back I hit on the idea of putting together some weird comedy stuff about RPGs. This had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been obsessed with John Hodgman and his trilogy of Complete World Knowledge, and I started writing a thing tentatively called “Beautiful Lies: An Untrue History of Role-Playing Games.” I had been thinking of making it into a series of blog posts and/or podcasts. On the other hand I also hit on the idea of doing a daily calendar type thing like Hodgman did in two of his books. Coming up with 365 things just about gaming was a pretty daunting task even if I allowed myself to make stuff up, so I ended up expanding the project to encompass just about anything I could convince myself to write about. The calendar became “Today in Geek History,” and I started working on sections about anime, Japan, food, conventions, and more. I also started writing some sections that are simple, honest memoir.

I haven’t settled on a title for the book yet. I was initially using “Yaruki Zero: The Book” as a placeholder, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s definitely much broader than my RPG blog. It’s a mix of parody, almanac, and memoir, and covers just about everything that interests me. Looking at other books in the “collection of comedy stuff” genre for title ideas isn’t all that much help, and the only thing I’ve got so far is something like, “I Want to be an Awesome Robot.” Then the cover could be a stock photo of a vintage toy robot.

The almanac aspect is pretty interesting by the way. I hadn’t thought to look at them for ideas before Hodgman mentioned that they were a major inspiration to him, but I’ve been looking at the Old Farmer’s Almanac and other books of trivia. These books feel like they come from another world, and yet they’re oddly charming. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is full of useful information on dates, weather, astronomy, gardening, etc., plus stories, recipes, and corny jokes. And while the contemporary almanacs are very well-researched and use legitimate meteorological data, the ads in them are for the weirdest fringe stuff: strange religious tracts, blatant snake oil, and psychic healers. I can’t help but imagine there are kids in rural areas who attended the FFA at school, and for whom the almanac was a window into a bigger world in the same way that Radio Shack and Bud Plant catalogs were for me. That also gave me some ideas for some new sections to add to the book, most notably one called “My Dumb Recipes.”

I’ve got about 40,000 words written already, though I want to get up to at least 60,000 and fill in several of the sections I started before the first draft is done. I also want to commission some artwork, and I’ll need some stock photos and layout and so forth. I’m thinking of self-publishing it when it’s done, but that’s a ways off anyway. It’s a very different kind of writing from what I’ve been doing so far. I’ve written comedy stories, and I’ve written non-fiction blog posts, but I’ve never really tried to blend the two. Delivering silly lies with a straight face is tremendously fun.

Over on my Tumblr I posted up some rough excerpts from the book, including several entries from the Today in Geek History calendar. I also put the list of 700 catgirl names up on the Neko Machi site. I’ll most likely be posting some more excerpts here as I make more progress, and I aspire to do a daily podcast of the calendar next year.

Image source: Josh McIntosh

Ufology

And apparently I’m still getting over the shock of having the new site up and running and going nuts posting stuff. Since the site is named “Studio UFO” I suppose I should do a post about the actual subject of UFOs. [1] By and large I’m a skeptic and a materialist. That doesn’t stop me from finding wonder in the world, but there’s plenty of wonder to be had without making shit up. Human beings have a tremendous capacity for acts that inspire me to hope, even if they’re at least as capable of evoking despair. I prefer to put the phenomenon of ufology in the former category as much as I can, despite the fact that I can’t take the actual truth claims seriously.

In a universe that contains, at a conservative estimate, 9 sextillion stars, it’s all but guaranteed that there’s intelligent life out there somewhere , but the observable universe is also 46 billion light years across. The idea that spacefaring aliens have visited us is not impossible, but certainly improbable. More importantly, I’ve yet to hear of an alien sighting that couldn’t be explained by the treacherous nature of the way the human brain processes things. Memories are a thing we construct rather than record, and the pattern-matching system that let early hominids spot predators before being eaten has a way of producing false positives. The kinds of false positives that lets you mistake a clump of leaves for a wolf that wants to eat you don’t interfere with your ability to survive, but the kind that let people see patterns in politicians and natural phenomena interfere with our ability to rationally understand the world.

None of which means I think UFO believers are bad people. I’m sure some of the things I think are true will turn out not to be, and I suspect that includes some of the stuff that helps me get through the day. UFO believers come in many varieties, but I think a lot of them are people who want something to give them hope and a way to make sense of the world. [2] A while back I read Gregory L. Reece’s book ” UFO Religion ,” [3] a skeptical but warm look at the many ways people relate to UFOs. Some people are just following what they think is the truth, and try to maintain a scientific approach. Others have founded religions, and I very strongly suspect that the founding of the likes of Raëlism wasn’t so different from that of Christianity and its ilk. The dividing line between cynicism and sincerity can be hard to see, but the people preaching about aliens seem to have by and large bypassed teachings of hellfire at the very least.
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