Thursday, June 21, 2007

Best Of 2007, Part 1

By this time tomorrow, I will be on my way to China, so blogging will be infrequent at best for the next two weeks. If you see more than a couple of posts from me that means that I have been spending way too much time in internet cafes instead of seeing the sights and mingling with the people.

To tide you over, it is time for my semi-annual Best Of Post where I catalog the posts that are either the most popular, the ones I’m the proudest of, or just the ones I will need to find the link to most often.

So It Goes. The death of Kurt Vonnegut, the secular patron saint of this blog, was not entirely unexpected but it did come abruptly. KV was a personal inspiration and I said as much. The amazing outpouring of emotion across the internet and beyond stunned even me, so I collected links to all the various remembrances and created Listen: A Vonnegut Meta-Tribute.

Brandy Britton, RIP. 2007 also saw the passing of frequent Foma topic and former call girl Brandy Britton. In the year that I covered this home-grown scandal her life avalanched from farce to tragedy. I vowed never to blog about her again. This resolution was severely tested when it came to light that Brandy was an affiliate of DC Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey, but I resisted the temptation to go to that well one more time.

National Coolest Comics Character Competition. On the lighter side, my multi-post tourney to crown the coolest comics character ran from the kick-off on March 15 until the Best of Show on April 22 when Bucky Katt from Get Fuzzy took the trophy and immediately hit Satchel over the head with it.

Michael and the Magic Foob Closet. In other comics events, the fire at Mike Patterson’s apartment forced him to run screaming out of his burning closet. As the end times of the Foobiverse continue to gather I will have come up with an update soon.

Birthday Love Story. Some of my sappiest posts elicit the best responses. My wife and I share a birthday and I dug out some old photos to really drive home how long we have been together.

You Tube Superstar. At the other end of the scale, there is clearly no limit to the self-degradation I will stoop to in order to come up with a blog post. I found that creating a YouTube worthy video only takes a digital camera, a desk lamp, some song lyrics, and a complete lack of talent. Watch again at your own risk.

Balticon. Now that I am on BloggerPlus, I can string together a group of posts on a similar topic and link them together. I managed to milk three days at a science fiction convention into no less than four full posts.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: As is the Best Of tradition, you are welcome to tell me which of my favorite posts I left off the list. I also welcome links to your favorite post from your blog or another one. It’s all good.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

BooksFirst - May and June 2007

Books Bought

The Smoke Ring by Larry Niven (first edition, autographed)
The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven (first edition)
The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (first edition)
The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven
Ringworld’s Children by Larry Niven
Naked Economics by Charles Whelan
The Best of the Best: 20 Years Of The Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois

Books Read

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven
Ten Days In The Hills by Jane Smiley


Once again I am late with my BooksFirst post. As I will explain later, I hit a road block on a book that I nearly finished in May, but I wanted to get this post out before I forgot everything about the other books I read recently.

I have been eagerly awaiting Boomsday by Christopher Buckley. I read Florence of Arabia last fall and thought current events had passed it by. Buckley avoids this trap by placing Boomsday (the name he gives the day baby boomers start retiring and bankrupt social security) slightly in the future which allows him to satirically extrapolate current trends. Like Ana Marie Cox's Dog Days, which I read in May, the protagonist is a young female blogger with a chip on her shoulder. The plot is convoluted to say the least, but at the center is Cassandra Devine who through her online blog and lobbyist connections tries to throw some light on the baby boom retirement crisis. She only mildly tongue-in-cheek comes up with some old fashioned Swiftian modest proposals. She suggests “voluntary transitioning” or paying aging boomers to knock a few years off their golden years.

I was hoping for a more biting look at the blogosphere, but the virtual aspect of the story is actually pretty slim. More interesting is the sausage-getting-made look at the log-rolling, back-stabbing, and throat-cutting that goes on when trying to pass even ludicrously untenable legislation. There are a lot of broad stereotypes here including a dim-witted president with a conniving chief of staff, a rich but stupid politician with presidential ambitions, a sexually conflicted televangelist, a silk-collar member of the clergy, an unscrupulous internet mogul, and a smorgasbord of even more ludicrous minor characters. The plot itself deftly wraps several threads together, but the initial MacGuffin is never quite addressed. I’m not sure how you do any contemporary story about government assisted suicide without name checking Vonnegut at least once, but Buckley, to his shame, does just that.

This is a fun, frolicking read, but not quite what I wanted. Still, it is one of his better works and side-splittingly funny in a lot of places. It’s going to be even funnier in a few years when it becomes true.

When I go to Balticon, I always peruse the dealer tables for collectible books to get the guests to sign. This year, the best I could find at reasonable prices were some sequels to their more famous books. Since the dealer had a thirty dollar minimum charge, I randomly grabbed a book to fill out the order. The Draco Tavern is a short story collection about a guy who owns the only bar in Earth that serves extra-terrestrial tourists.

While waiting for Jerry Pournelle to move the line along, I asked Larry if The Draco Tavern got compared to the Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series. He kind of annoyed answered, “Well, they both take place in bars.” The Draco Tavern stories are more vignettes or thought pieces than true stories. The formula is that some exotic alien shows up with a problem of some type and after a few drinks, or the alien equivalent therof, a clever resolution is achieved. A few of the longer ones are very good, but the shorter ones come off as writing exercises, which they probably were. Larry Niven is at the stage in his career where his cocktail napkin doodlings sell, and a few of these stories are of that quality. But the tales are quick and breezy and usually humorous. If you need more Niven, these are good quick-bite fun-sized stories.

Ten Days In The Hills is on of these modern literary books that gets glowingly reviewed everywhere. It is loosely based on The Decameron as ten people spend ten days in close quarters getting into each other’s grille. The ten people are a who’s who of Hollywood lefty artsy types. We have an aging mid-list writer/director, his book-writing wife, his sexy starlet ex, and a mish-mash of relatives, agents, old friends, and hanger-ons. The book is divided into ten chapters and each chapter is divided into different points of view. Each time the point of view is switched at least one old tale, anecdote, film treatment, or urban legend unfolds. There is a lot of sex and not nearly enough of the good stuff happens on stage. For such a faux-smutty novel, the language is surprisingly prim.

A long time ago, I read Moo by Jane Smiley thought it was a very clever skewering of academic life, so I was looking forward to 10 Days. I even had a gimmick. Since I had checked it out off the waiting list at the library, I only had three weeks to read it. I intended to read one chapter a night for ten nights. Each chapter is nearly (and suspiciously) precisely 45 pages long. At a rate of a page a minute, that would make a good nightly read. I never hit that pace because the point of view shifts and long backstories bogged me down.

I did manage to get through the first half on track. Then I set it aside for Balticon where I found an advanced proof copy on a gimme table and the deadline of the library due date went out the window. I tried to get back into it but each chapter kept kept getting longer and longer. Day 8 picked up but then the book turned into a roadblock. I was determined to finish before starting something else, but I just couldn’t follow through. The entire first two weeks of June went by in avoidance.

Finally I buckled down and just plowed through. The whole back half of the book where they decamp to a wealthy Russian gangsters Xanadu-like villa is more dynamic, but ultimately confusing and pointless.

The book is set near the start of the Iraq war and the war is an enormous symbol in the book, but of what I have no idea. They keep talking about their dread of “the war” but the characters never seem to have any real connection to it. There is no sense of a parallel with current events like Ian Mcewan pulled off in Saturday. These Ulysses-like time compressed novels seem to be a trend, but not a good one. I could have spent my ten days in much better company.

For the next month I am staying away from heavy lifting both figuratively and literally. I am packing a lot of books for my trip to China and the reading list is being expressly chosen for disposability and lack of bulk. We’ll see how far I get.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mea Maxima Culpa

My Life As A Sock Puppet

In addition to writing this blog, I am a commenter in a couple of on-line communities. Every virtual neighborhood is slightly different in tone and demeanor, but they rely on a lot of mutual trust to remain stable. One I’m a regular in is particularly tight knit. If you are from there, you know who you are. If you are a curious observer, it’s not hard to find.

In this group there is a core group of regulars that go so far as to socialize and relate with each other in the real world. It has a particularly convivial atmosphere free of much of the humorless earnestness found so many other places on the internet. Like any virtual environment with open doors, it attracts its share of trolls, strawmen, and doppelgangers. They usually raise a ruckus, get bored, and eventually leave. In the meantime all sorts of shit is stirred, hackles are raised, and tension is heightened.

More than once, the issue of treatment vis-à-vis newcomers to this group has been raised hypothetically. Is there a clique and inner circle? Is the barrier to entry too high? Is the group too intolerant of differing opinions? Is there an orthodoxy that can’t be questioned? For reasons I still can’t quite pinpoint I wanted to find out. I would prefer to rationalize my motives but I fear it may have been some morbid mix of hubris, arrogance, and mean-spiritedness.

For this prank, I created a personality typical of the many drive-by trolls the site gets, a rabid libertarian with a propensity to SHOUT in CAPS LOCK. I made some ground rules for myself:
  • I would never personally attack another commenter.
  • I would never engage in a conversation between my “real” self and my alter ego.
  • I would not take my fake opinions seriously.
  • I would try to be provocative without being offensive.
It’s the last one that was the toughest line to walk. For one thing, I never quite knew where I wanted to go. Did I want to be an obvious caricature? How should I react to responses from people I respect? What should I do if I was confronted? These were all issues I unsuccessfully wrestled with.

I also couldn't decide how outrageous I wanted to be. My first couple of comments were arguably over-the-top offensive and treated as such. It pained me to be rightfully dressed down by people for opinions I didn’t really hold. I was never willing to go full throttle and I began to pull my punches. Not surprisingly, the better I behaved, the better I got treated. The Golden Rule works to some discernable degree. Still, I knew I had ruffled feathers. Not everybody was taking to the kinder, gentler version of my bombthrower.

I also wondered how long and how far I could and/or should take it. I toyed with being a fake blogger and even set up a website with a few red meat posts. I never published the link, but at least one fellow commenter was able to follow enough breadcrumbs to find it. I have no idea how. People on the web have scary mad skilz.

I got sucked into the role playing and found myself expending too much psychic energy on my other personality. I found myself upset when argued with. I got angry when I was ridiculed, even though it was what I was going for. I was even more dismayed when I was ignored. The silent treatment has always been the most brutal punishment to me.

I also had no end game or exit strategy. I imagined I would eventually grow tired and abandon the personality and it would become just another of the many anonymous provocateurs that had come and gone.

But like many sociopaths, I wanted to be found out and stopped. There was an ego effect at work that made me drop clues. My alias was an obvious spooneristic pun that one anonymous member figured out pretty quickly. And of course, I did get caught. I doubt I'm the first multiple personality on that blog, but I am the clumsiest. I posted a comment under my “real” alias that obviously belonged to the golem. I had nearly done this earlier in the day and knew the risk, but I had to get one last cryptic shot in. The second I hit the submit button I was embarrassed, terrified, and relieved. I frantically kept hitting refresh knowing that I would be called out. I apologized to the group, but I know it’s not enough.

I went too far and I’m glad it’s over. The people on the other end of a wire have actual feelings and emotions. To amuse myself I have damaged real friendships. Maturity is respecting rights and accepting responsibility. That is why chat rooms filled with teenagers are such free-fire zones. They haven’t learned that words have meaning and consequences.

Social experiments always reveal way more about the testers than the subjects. Character is defined as how you behave when no one is watching. I learned that I had created one, but that I hadn’t shown any.

For Boodlers: Can I find redemption or forgiveness?
For Others: Have you ever posted anonymously or under a different identity just to troll?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Slow Boat To China

I’m going to China, but it’s not on a slow boat, it’s really a direct flight. Dulles International now has non-stop service to Beijing. About noon on Friday I will get on a 747 and will get off in China twelve hours later. When I went to Vietnam two years ago, it took twenty-four hours door to door including two transfers. This flight will seem like a milk run.

Why am I going half way across the world? Because my son got invited and I am piggybacking along. As loyal blog readers will remember, last fall my family hosted one of five cultural exchange students from China for a week. Now it is time for the return trip and three of the host families are going to stay for a week in Beijing. The kids will be staying with the families of the students they hosted. The parents will be staying at nearby hotels.

While there, we will see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the clay soldier army in Xian. A good part of the trip will be just our kids shadowing the Chinese students during their typical day at school. And they are still in school because high school kids in the rest of the world get a lot fewer breaks than American students.

Because we spend so much time in and around the school in Beijing, we won’t see anything in the southern part of the country like Shanghai or Hong Kong. I’ll just have to pick that up on a different trip. The next time I am in the neighborhood.

I really have no idea what to expect. China is in the press a lot as it prepares for the Olympics next year. I expect to see construction and smog. Douglas Coupland’s J-Pod made fun of the rather fragrant smell of success that permeates China. On the other hand, the latest issue of Fast Company (in an article that is not online) makes China sound like 1.3 billion emerging hipsters.

We are loaded for bear with three cameras, 10 gigabytes of memory chips, a camcorder, and four hours worth of miniDV tape. We also have a suitcase full of gifts and trinkets that we intend to empty to make room for souvenirs. Today I bought a phrase book so I can ask “Where is the bathroom?” and say “No fried snake, please.” Other than that, I plan to rely on my ugly American obliviousness.

I have no idea if I will find time to update the blog while I am there, but I sure think it would be cool if I could. If not, I will bore you to tears with the travel slides when I get back.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Feel free to offer any travel tips or share some horror stories.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Taking License

The other day at Wonkette, they were making fun of the Virginia DMV website where you can make your own mock-up of vanity license plates. Like Maryland and a lot of other states, you can get tags for nearly any group or organization that you can imagine. In Virgina, you can get personalized messages on them as well. Since the online page gives you a preview of your choice, the lure of mischief is enormous.

One of the most popular types of tags are the college affinity tags, so I decided to play with those. Since Wonkette is a political humor site, most of theirs were ridiculing politicians. In keeping with the Wonkette theme, this one fits their snark level:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

These plates work best as a pair:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

But they don't have to be political to be funny. Here I went for the obvious pun:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Sometimes the DMV will not let you use certain offensive words on a tag. This blog learned that the word "JEW" can't be used in any combination. The forbidden words are a little perplexing. They wouldn't let me use "Nuke" so I had to settle for this:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I found it ironic they didn't like "NUKE" but this tag was just fine:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

It doesn't even need to be a Virginia college to have a tag. I thought it would be funny to put on a phrase that no hardcore fan of the school would ever really have, like these:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

"G8RH8R" is actually already taken, but I doubt it is on a Florida plate.

And when I saw that this college was a selection, I had to throw all political correctness aside to see if this phrase was available:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

It is. And I hope it stays that way.

Finally, I was upset to find this one was taken:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Guess I can't move to Virginia anytime soon.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What would your vanity tag say?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The OTHER Tony Show

As I mentioned earlier this week, I don’t have HBO, so I did not see the final episode of The Sopranos. Instead I was watching the other Tony show, the annual American Theater Wing Awards. The Tonys are the NHL of the major award shows, little watched and hardly anyone knows who won or is even in it. Every year the Tonys are up against the NBA championship which makes me one of the few straight males in the country that watches this celebration of glamour on The Great White Way.

The non-whacking of the other Tony also assassinated the Tonys ratings with fewer than seven million viewers turning in. The theme of night was “There Is A Little Broadway In Everybody”, a demonstrably ludicrious assertion despite Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to usurp Guiliani as New York’s most show-tune loving mayor.

I watch for two basic reasons. I like to root for the shows that I saw that year and I like to preview potential future reasons to travel to New York. This year the only nominated show that I had seen was A Chorus Line which got steamrolled by Company in the Best Revival category. You can’t go up against Sondheim and expect to win. My favorite show, High Fidelity (based on the Nick Hornby book/John Cusack movie) was only nominated for best scenic design where it got beat by Mary Poppins. The bitch!

Since I had no dog in the other fights, I watched the production numbers to see what looked good. Curtains starring David Hyde Pierce looked awful even though it won Pierce an acting award. The number from Grey Gardens was also fingernails-on-chalkboard grating.

The big winner for the night was Spring Awakening which is about horny teenagers hooking up in nineteenth century Germany. The music was written by Duncan Sheik who is following in the proud tradition of lightly talented pop stars taking refuge on The Great White Way. Rupert Holmes and Elton John, among others, have learned that writing rock musicals is harder than it looks. This show seems to pull it off.

The “Bitch of Life” number they performed impressed my wife enough to get her to order some tickets for later this summer. Check out other perfomances on their official site. Since it can now can put “Winner of 8 Tonys” on the poster, I suggest you get tickets before they figure out that not all the orchestra seats have been recategorized as “Premium” seats. We got face value tickets for a matinee in the second row, but other seats further back are nearly twice as much.

In order to maintain my façade of manliness and keep the testosterone level up, I play a little mental game as they go through all the minor awards between 9 and 10 while the other Tony is (or isn’t) getting whacked. I try to determine whose evening gown is the most low cut. Unfortunately, the younger hotter presenters were way too tastefully dressed. The clear contenders in this category were Felicity Huffman and Cynthia Nixon. My wife cattily remarked that when you have nothing to hold in, you can take the neckline down to the waist.

I was feeling a little queasy ogling woman than can be described as “of a certain age”, but an IMDB search reveals that Felicity is barely a year older than me and that Cynthia hadn’t graduated high school by the time I had. Now I really feel old. But the definite winner in the Cougar Category of Deep Cleavage was Swoozie Kurtz.

Yikes! To cleanse the palate, please linger as long as you want on Idina Menzel. She sure cleans up well from her role as The Wicked Witch. I just read in Defamer that they are casting for a Broadway version of Shrek. Idina would be a shoo-in as Fiona since she already looks good in green.

Finally, I have seen both of these television stars on stage, Niles in Spamalot and Doogie in Assassins, but I never quite caught the cross-generational Separated At Birth® resemblance between the two.

Someone needs to put together a script where these two get to play father and son.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Do I need to surrender my RealGuy Card for just watching the Tonys, let alone blogging about them? I even blogged about them last year.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sopranos Finale

My bittorrent finally finished and as a public service to all those without my mad internet pirating skilz, I am posting the shocking finale to The Sopranos:

Hope you enjoyed it.

Yeah, I know it's a lame joke and not even particularly original. That guy beat me to the punch by a day and has 11,000 views to my nine. Such is the nature of the interweb. Time is of the essence.

Feel free to virally pass along my version. Post links to it. Embed it on your site. E-mail it to people that always e-mail you stupid stuff. Just don't use your name if you expect them to remain your friend.

Leave your angry tirade here.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Strange Endings

It's mandatory that all bloggers express an opinion about the final episode of The Sopranos whether they saw it or not. Really. I got the memo and everything. Since I don't get HBO, I only get to watch the mobbed-up drama when I am on vacation at hotels that carry HBO (and I'm usually just waiting for Entourage or Real Sex MCMXLIV to come on) or if I stumble across it channel surfing on basic cable.

I have a rule about watching R-rated movies on basic cable: Don't. After watching the famous "Pine Barrens" episode on A&E this week, I am extending that ban to syndicated HBO shows as well. They sure "do" a lot of "freakin'" when they have to redub all the dialog.

Sorry for no spoiler warning, but you don't get one for The Sopranos. Everyone in the world is supposed to know the ending by now and that means there was no ending. There are only so many ways to end a long running television show. Let's review:

The Big Life Change. This is the most common and tritest. Everybody gets married, graduates from college, gets home from the war, etc. Whatever. Borrrring.

It Was All A Dream. Nothing tops the last episode of Newhart. Ever. And you can't even try. Sure, that ending was a variation of the St Elsewhere snow globe, but Newhart did it best.

Nothing Changes. The previously most hated series finale was Seinfeld where it all came back to the start. David Chase may have been going there, but I don't know. My bittorrent is going pretty slow. I'll let you know if and when I see it.

What I do know is that they better not screw up Battlestar Galactica. The show has announced that next season's 22 episodes will be the last. This has caused some hand-wringing and consternation in the geek community, but I am in favor of the idea.

I have postulated the theory that the whole point of BSG is so that Ronald Moore can give a big "FUCK YOU!" to Brannon Braga and the others that destroyed the Star Trek franchise in excrutiating slow motion starting with Voyager. Despite years of silly Gilligan's Island plots, ST:VOY actually pulled off a decent return to Earth and destroyed the evil robots chasing them across the galaxy in the process. Moore better find a better way to resolve the final showdown between humans and the evil robots chasing them across the galaxy or I will hunt him down and make him watch the season finale to Who's The Boss continuously for a week straight. I mean it.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What is your favorite series finale?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Balticon Diary: Wrap-Up

After Day 2 at Balticon, I had only gotten a couple of hours of sleep, but still had one more morning of events to go.


Balticon 129:00 Getting woken up every two hours while keeping track of my son did not make for a good night's sleep and my goal of another morning in the gym are ruined. I wake up just in time to shower, eat and get to the Pournelle Kaffeeklatsch.

10:00 The full story of a cranky Pournelle was previously blogged.

11:00 We load all the luggage into the car and check out. Since hotel check out is at noon there is a big exodus of other convention goers stuffing junk into their cars. We had a small suitcase and a couple of backpacks. Other people had boxes and boxes of crap including leftovers from the late night parties.

11:30 My wife goes out for one more round of shopping.

11:45 I make one last lap through the dealer room and admire the swords my son wants. I don’t even check the price. I don't want to know, but the craftsmanship is excellent. I suspect some go for well over a hundred dollars. Earlier in the weekend I had inwardly chuckled at some costumed Klingons admiring a batleth. When the Klingons gawk in admiration, you're good.

12:15 I get suspicious that the sign-up sheet for the Niven Kaffeeklatsch had the time wrong, so I go to the celebrity suite and bluff my way into the standing room only crowd. I have to sit on the spiral staircase which gives me a great view of the whole room. At one point the group wanders off into a side conversation amongst themselves while Larry just listens. I interrupt to ask him a question just to get things back on track. I don't want to listen to a bunch of fans yammer at each other when LARRY NIVEN is in the room.

1:00 I find my son in the hotel lobby reading and we call my wife to come pick us up. I get home and take a long nap.


Balticon 38Over the past eight or so years, I have been to Balticon four times. This was the first time we had stayed on site at Balticon, but we had been to other out of town conventions. Several years ago we went to Philcon in Philadelphia (duh) and that is where my son first got into the gaming. He really enjoys the late nights and can easily pick up friends to play the games.

I just can't get into the social aspect of the events. I spend a lot of time standing in line and chat with the people in line, but I never follow up. Since this is my second year in a row, I recognized several people that had been there the previous year as well, but I can't say that I know them. Unlike last year, I don't even run into someone I know from "real" life except for the three kids that are friends of my son.

I do enjoy science fiction conventions, especially ones with guests I am familar with. I like the seminars, panels, and talks. I just can't get into the social aspect and it's not snobbishness. Fandom is very inclusive and is a great safe harbor for people who might otherwise get shunned. It's easy to get all worked up over the stereotypes of the unkempt social misfit (and stereotypes emerge for a reason) but I would say that on average the attendees at a SF con are smarter and more successful than the mean.

I have been to seven science fiction conventions including a WorldCon, but I can't really say I am a serious fan. I go to the ones that have good guests or fit into my travel plans. To the outsider that seems pretty hardcore, but there are people so much more into the scene than I am.

One lady I was eavesdropping on was listing the Worldcons she had missed. It was only a few in over twenty years. I enjoy science fiction and it is my favorite genre, but I have a lot of broader interests. I am lucky to have a spouse that indulges my hobby even though she has no real connection. She threatens to take me to a romance novel convention. I say throw me in that briar patch. I would find my way to stay amused. It could be fun.

Next year's guest at Balticon will be Connie Willis. She is an award winning author, but I don't think she is well known outside the SF community. I went to one of her readings when we were at Philcon and she is very funny. I'm just not sure she is as big a draw as Niven/Pournelle and definitely not the rock star level of Neil Gaiman.

This time next year, my son will be graduating from high school with all the attendant hoopla that entails. I suspect my calendar will be too busy to take several days out of Memorial Day weekend to make a membership at next year's con worth it for me. I'm sure Balticon will get along just find without me.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: So just how big of a geek am I? And do you know bigger ones?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Balticon Diary: Day Two

I spent Memorial Day weekend at Balticon, a major science fiction convention. I talked my family into staying onsite so that we could experience the con 24/7. Some of us more than others it seems as I tell in the summary of our second day:


8:00 I wake up and head down to the hotel gym. I do 20 minutes on the stairmaster and a couple of circuits of the weight machine.

9:00 I return to the room to shower and then go down to the hotel snack bar and eat breakfast. They have the TV tuned to the SciFi Channel.

10:00 I go to the lecture on building self-replicating machines. The few pictures of real examples look like a garage workshop gone fractal. We’re still a few years from needing the Three Laws.

11:00 The artist guest of honor Joe Bergeron is giving a slideshow of his artwork. Larry Niven slips in to watch.

Balticon 3811:45 I sneak out to go stand in line for autographs. The line is already down the hall and around the corner, but nowhere near as chaotic as for Neil Gaiman last year. I chat with the guy behind me in line. We decide a comedian could do well re-telling Jeff Foxworthy jokes as science fiction fan jokes. The audience never thinks the put-downs are aimed at them.

12:30 My wife wanders down from the room and buys an iPod case from the dealers’ room.

12:40 My turn to get stuff signed. My wife gets my picture.

12:45 I get in line to sign up for the Kaffeeklatsches with the guests on Monday.

1:00 I walk in on the comedy singers Funny Music Project in progress. The FuMP is groups of song parodists trying to become the next Weird Al. A song about Quark’s Bar cracks me up so much that I buy a CD from The Great Luke Ski, on of the better members of the ensemble.

2:00 I catch up with my wife and we decide to eat lunch. The main restaurant tells us they are closed but I can see Niven, Pournelle, and other VIPs still in there finishing up. We go to the lounge to order bar grub instead. The whole hotel is now smoke-free, so the atmosphere is breathable. Last year, just walking through the bar made us nearly pass out from the fumes. The Eastern European waitress doesn’t know what a Smirnoff Ice is, so I just order Coke.

Balticon 124:00 Larry Niven gives his talk to a mostly full ballroom. One of the other fans in the audience is wearing a great Battlestar Galactica costume. There were relatively few media themed costumes. I saw one Jedi knight, but it was mostly pirates and generic elves and fairies.

5:30 We drag our kid out of the game room and head out to Silver Spring Mining Company for dinner. Good food in a fake western motif. My son says he wants a samurai sword for his birthday. He pouts the rest of the meal when we tell him absolutely not.

7:30 I head down to the con to kill some time. There is a roast for some podcasters that seem to be popular. A storyteller retells an old joke very well. One of the music parodyists from earlier in the day does a solo show. He does a take-off on a song by internet sensation Jonathon Coulton. The crowd is into it.

9:30 I make my son take a break to come listen to a scientist from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab give a talk about his doodling on the physics of the Ringworld and how seasons could be simulated by oscillating the ring along the axis of rotation but the inertia from the dirt and water would eventually dampen it down. I tell my son to go apologize to his mom for being a jerk at dinner or he is going to have a short evening.

10:30 I scarf some munchies as Niven and Pournelle do their half-hearted talk about the science of Heinlein.

11:30 Larry Niven is in a nearby room listening to the open mic filking. The Bohnhoffs are among the players. They do their Eagles tuned tribute to vintage Cadillacs called “El Dorado”.

12:00 My son is back in the game room. I tell him not to stay out too late. He warns me that his cell phone battery is nearly dead and that he might go over to a different game soon.

12:15 I take the long way back to my room to check out some hall parties being thrown by future conventions. The look lame so I head back. In the far stairwell I have to step over a couple making out on the steps.

2:00 I read about half of my new Niven book and fall asleep.

4:15 My wife is trying to reach my son on his cell phone. I tell her that it’s probably dead, so I go out looking for him. The air conditioning in the game room has failed, which is usually the most fragrant room at a con anyways, so they have spread out into the hallway, but he’s not there. I wander way down towards the 24-hour con suite and find him at a table at the bottom of the escalator playing a complicated looking game. One of the players is a girl he knows from school and they claim the game would be ruined if he had to leave.

4:30 I reassure my wife that he is fine and I go back to sleep.

6:00 My son makes it back to the room. Dawn is cracking through the window.

If my kid is going to stay out all night, it's better in the relatively safe environs of a science fiction convention. As for the sword, his eighteenth birthday falls just short of next year's Balticon. If he wants a bladed weapon, he is on his own once he is an adult. I take a lot of heat for being the "fun" parent, but even I was a little concerned about him just wandering around all night. I think if he wasn't with someone we knew, I might have been more reluctant to let his stay out.

Be sure to read my previous posts about Larry Niven and Day One.

Tomorrow: Balticon winds down.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Your opinion on the late hours or the sword lust?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Balticon Diary: Day One

There was more to do at Balticon than just stalk Larry Niven. With the help of the program guide, I have reconstructed my weekend immersed in the world of fellow science fiction geeks. To avoid boring you all at once, I am going to post my recap in three parts starting with:


9:30 I rouse my family out of bed at least two hours before their normal wake-up time. We grab some bagels and head up to Hunt Valley.

10:30 We get in line for pre-registration pick-up. My son was registered under his internet alias, but I don’t have the courage to go as yellojkt, so I’m there under my real name. I am wearing a Yellow Jacket tee shirt just in case. My son says he’ll be in the game room. My wife takes the car keys and heads off to the Talbot’s outlet store.


11:00 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle give a joint interview. I ask a question about who comes up with the story ideas. They say they both do, but Jerry focuses on plot continuity and character development. Niven concentrates on the big “wow” ideas.

Balticon 1212:00 Time to cruise the dealer room for first editions to get signed. I had brought with me copies of The Ringworld Engineers and Footfall that I had bought second hand earlier. I find a copy of The Gripping Hand and a previously signed copy of The Smoke Ring. The book dealer has a $30 minimum for charges, so I pick up a paoerback of Draco’s Tavern, a Niven story collection I had never heard of.

12:30 I run into a girl in my son’s marching band. She shows off the artwork she has on display in the gallery. They are some small drawings of elves and furry-ish creatures that she is selling for five bucks each.

12:45 I try to check in at the hotel front desk, but they don’t have any rooms ready. I wander the halls checking out the costumes. Since Pirates of the Caribbean 33-1/3 opened the same weekend, lacey shirts, head scarves and eyepatches are very popular.


2:00 The musical guests of honor, Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff, give a concert. Their gimmick is that they do science fiction-y parodies of classic rock songs. “Hotel California” becomes “Hotel Dealer Room”. Their retelling of the Charlotte’s Web story to the tune of the Firefly/Serenity theme song kills.

3:15 The hotel room is finally ready. About the same time, my wife returns from her shopping spree. I help haul her booty up to the room. We leave a message for our son to come get a key. No response.

3:30 Jerry Pournelle gives his talk on inventing the future.

4:30 I go up to the room and munch on the snacks my wife got at the Amish market.

5:00 My son finally shows up to get is room key. He shows off the prize he got in the tournament for a game he has never played before. We all leave the con to take him to a graduation party a friend of his is throwing.

6:30 We show up at Claude’s pig roast, which both he and I have already blogged about.

9:00 The mosquitoes start coming out so we have to get my wife back indoors.

9:30 I check out the Masquerade costume competition but it’s standing room only and they are only on the kid’s costumes. My son calls and tells me his party is winding down so I go pick him up.

11:00 My son heads down to the game room. I head up to the room exhausted.

12:00 Our son calls to tell us the game he is playing is running late. I tell him to come up as soon as the game is over. I fall asleep.

1:30 My son comes up to the room and goes to bed. I sleep through all the change rattling and bedtime routines because I am exhausted. I had no idea how long my day tomorrow would be.

Tomorrow: The big day at the con including a little domestic drama.

Monday, June 04, 2007

When Worlds Collide

My Achenbuddy (and occasional blogger herself) kb sent me this comic because she knows I love strips with blogs in the punchline.

They make a great way for a comic artist to make quick joke about lame self-absorbed people.

I'm not sure I agree with that stereotype, but it's out there. The problem is that many of our family, friends, and coworkers don't know we are bloggers. While I don't blog at or about work, I would dread letting my boss know about my secret obsession. And while my wife knows I have a blog, I'm not sure she realizes the extent of the community I formed.

On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, fellow Baltimore blogger Claude of Baltimore Diary had a housewarming pig roast that he invited me to (and he of course blogged about it). I had a hard time explaining to my wife how I actually knew Claude. Since she knows I read the Comics Curmudgeon a lot, I explained that we both read the same blog and left it at that.

As an ice-breaker, I explained that Claude and she both worked in education, just at opposite ends of the bell curve. With NCLB as a common enemy, they got along fine. Claude's girlfriend and daughter were wonderful hostesses and his girlfriend's daughter is just a riot.

The pig roast was great. It was mostly neighbors with a few bloggers. Since I am not very social in the Baltimore blogging community, I didn't know anybody, but everybody was great fun. I even promised Malnourished Snay that I would get him added to my blogroll. It turns out he is even funnier in person than he is on his blog. If hadn't known that a good part of the crowd was bloggers, you would have mistaken us for old friends sharing some drinks and some great pork.

I just want to make the point that bloggers are just people. People with the overwhelming need to overshare in public to complete strangers. Is that so wrong?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Stalking Niven

Just like last year, I spent Memorial Day weekend at Balticon, the Baltimore area science fiction convention. Last year’s guest of honor was goth rock star Neil Gaiman. This year they went completely the other direction with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, two old-school rock-hard science fiction writers. Last year we just daytripped to the con in Hunt Valley from our home in Ellicott City. Since that is a long roundtrip and many events run pretty late, this year we ponied up for a room onsite.

Balticon 38Larry Niven is easily one of my top ten favorite science fiction writers and his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle are landmarks. I made it my goal to get to every event possible that featured one or the other.

A good convention really makes the guests sing for their supper (in the case of the musical guests, literally). Larry and Jerry were booked into at least three events a day. We blew off the first night of the con, but made sure we arrived early enough Saturday to catch the joint interview. I don’t know how it is when they are working together, but it’s good thing Niven is a fairly quiet individual, because nobody gets a word in edgewise when Pournelle has the floor.

At the joint interview they were very proud that the final draft of Inferno 2 (the sequel to a book I haven’t read) was delivered to the publisher. They are also pitching an epic-sized novel that will examine the response of society to a clear and present danger and if and how society can return to normal once the threat has passed. I expect the plot will involve an extinction event sized threat from space since, as they admit, they have made a good living throwing things at Earth.

Balticon 12Pournelle recycled a talk he gave to a group of international secret agency types that want to guard us against future threats. The theme was that the future can’t be predicted because too many random events disrupt the linear progression of events, but that the future can be invented and shaped if you know your goals as a society. He gave a personal anecdote about how the need for precise guidance systems for ballistic missiles created the computer industry. He also tiraded against Homeland Security, No Child Left Behind, and Robert McNamara.

Niven recycled a speech about how our only defense against the Deep Impact/Armageddon sized meteor is a serious space program. Larry is a pro-space advocate and thinks any excuse to be up there is a good one. He had some good science to back-up his ideas but admitted that raising the sense of urgency in the general public is a daunting task.

Balticon 12Both did a full hour of joint book signing. This attracted the usual smattering of people trying to push up shopping carts full of books of everything they wrote. A three item or less rule got the line moving again.

I had been scouring used book dealers for the past few months and came up with first editions of Footfall, The Gripping Hand, and The Ringworld Engineers. I had plenty of time to try to chit-chat with Larry while waiting for Jerry to find the right page in a very old issue of Byte to sign. I asked Pournelle if he remembered Joel Achenbach interviewing him at a book signing earlier in the week for the Achenblog post called The Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle Show. Jerry could barely remember that there was a reporter there.

Click on the picture to read my tee shirt.

They both showed up for a talk ostensibly about Robert Heinlein’s contribution to science. They found the topic baffling saying that the science in Heinlein’s work was clear and lucid and rarely original. Most of the gee-whiz ideas he used were around all the popular science magazines and showcased in the 1934 World’s Fair. Jerry went on another rant and Larry slipped out claiming it was late. After Pournelle finished pontificating and getting huffy with the unruly audience, I found Niven a few doors down listening to the open filk music session. It seems he likes participating in all the other stuff the regular fans do and knew the musical guests.

Balticon 38The next morning I had signed up for Kaffeeklatsches which are small group sessions with the guests. Pournelle’s was first and got off to a bad start. The room didn’t have any coffee or water or snacks. Jerry had a Ziploc bag of about a dozen pills to take and no way to swallow them. Without caffeine or any way to take his meds, Jerry moves from his normal crankiness right into cantakerous. After a fan ran off to get him a cup of joe, he resumed his rant against public education and pissed off a special ed teacher in the audience. After a long digression about dyslexia and ADD, he finally got steered back to writing. He feels creative writing classes are useless. He sees science fiction magazines as good ways to get into the business because they are so desperate for material since they pay so little. Nevertheless, he’s not keen on the idea of posting his stuff on the internet for free and is especially miffed at other people that post his stuff on the web. He gave some nice personal stories about the early days of Byte and other computer magazines before his time was up.

Balticon 12Because of scheduling confusion, I missed the first half of Nivens’s small group talk but I still got a lot of good insight. He talks slowly and measured but always has a point. Unlike Pournelle, he is quiet and thoughtful when others talk and it sometimes takes effort to steer the talk back to his opinions. Larry just wants to see us in space. It's the mindset of a fan that grew up reading the Golden Age giants. He likes the idea of private enterprise in space aviation because that is how it was always envisioned in things like "The Man Who Sold The Moon" and Destination Moon. He writes short stories just to keep his writing skill sharp.

It was great to see two of the masters still at the top of their game. They sound enthusiastic about their upcoming work and still think the future has a chance. For more pictures of Niven and Pournelle and other sights from Balticon, check out my Balticon 2007 Flickr set.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What author would you like to stalk?