Just a geek who lives in Olympia, WA with my wife, son, and animals, writing fiction that he hopes will make the world a better place someday.
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kickingcones: Boop. Bringing this back. Let’s make the...

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Bringing this back. Let’s make the New Year an unexpected boop from all the poop. 

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Writing… and the Reading Comfort Zone

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One of many things I’ve learned in over forty years as a published science fiction and fantasy writer is that while readers span a great range of interests, backgrounds, and enthusiasm for the printed word, and some of those readers enjoy varying types of work, a great many readers have a fairly narrow comfort zone. Years ago, when I wrote The Towers of the Sunset, my editor, the venerable David Hartwell, asked, “Could you write this book in the third person past tense?”

“Why?” I asked. “It’s a better book in the third person present tense. It wouldn’t work as well in the past tense.”

“Because most readers are more comfortable reading books written in the third person past tense, and you’ll lose readers if this book is published as you wrote it.”

I persisted; David accepted the novel as written in the third person present tense, except he did want an expansion of the last part, and he was definitely right about that. He was also right about a number of readers not liking the use of present tense, especially when the book was first published, but those who liked the use of the present tense really liked it, and, as a result, I’ve gotten the impression, over the more than twenty years since Towers was published, that it has tended to be a reader’s most favorite or least favorite book in the entire Saga of Recluce, despite the fact that, since then, I’ve written other Recluce novels in present tense as well.

Then a number of years later, I wrote another book – Archform:Beauty – in which I told the story from the viewpoints of five different characters – in first person past tense. It got great reviews… and sold only moderately well. At times, a differing approach upsets both readers and reviewers, as was the case with Empress of Eternity, where the interweaving three narrative lines set in vastly different future time periods is based on an actual theory of time [not mine] suggested by Einstein’s work.

Readers also have expectations of a writer, and this was made very clear by the five books of the Spellsong Cycle and by Arms-Commander, the sixteenth book of the Recluce Saga, all of which were told from the female perspective, and all of which sold at lower levels than comparable books of mine told from the male point of view. I actually got comments and emails from male readers saying that they just couldn’t identify with a female point of view, that they weren’t comfortable with it.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of books that have incorporated, shall we say, departures from standard third person, past tense, straight line narrative, and there’s a definite bottom-line cost to continuing to write such books.

In general, the greater the degree of separation from “standard narrative,” the lower the comparative sales numbers were. For those of you who bemoan the “sameness” of so many books, you might bear in mind that professional writers do need to make a living, and when innovation reduces the publisher’s income, and correspondingly, the writer’s income, both tend to become more conservative. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but not, generally, among writers whose works support them. In fact, I’m probably one of a very few self-supporting full-time writers who produces a relatively divergent range of books, under the same name. I know a few other writers who try to avoid the sales drop-off and market to distinct classes of readers by using different pen names for different kinds of books, but I guess I’m just a bit old-fashioned, because, to me, that’s catering a bit too much to readers’ comfort zones.

In the end, I not only want to entertain and hopefully enthrall my readers, but also at least edge them out of their comfort zone to some degree, if not more, to get them to consider anything from a slight to a far different perspective, and like all writers, I doubtless have mixed success. But it’s still worth trying.

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To stop data theft, pull the plug


moneyBack in the 1980s, when I was the networking editor at InfoWorld, one of my jobs was to write profiles of corporate networks. One of those profiles was of the Adolph Coors Brewing Company of Golden, Colorado, Colo., now known as Molson Coors Brewing. I visited the company’s one brewery at the time, interviewed the head of IT and the top network guy, then asked for a copy of the very impressive network map they had on the wall.

“Sorry, we can’t give you that,” they said. “It’s private.”

“But we always print a map of the company network,” I explained.

“Fine, then make one up.”

And so I invented my own map for the Coors network.

There’s a lesson here, trust me.

Back then there was no commercial Internet. The Coors network, like every other corporate computer network, was built from leased data lines connecting the brewery with sales offices and distribution centers in every state except Indiana at the time. Such networks were expensive to build and the people who ran them were quite proud.

Today we just find a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) and connect to the Internet, a much simpler thing. If we want secure communications we build Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that encrypt the data before sending it across the public Internet and decrypt it at the other end. We do this because it is easy and because it is cheap.

IT used to cost a lot more than it does today and cheap Internet service helps make that possible.

Cheap Internet service also made possible every major corporate security breach including the big retail hacks and data theft at Target and Home Depot as well as the big JP Morgan Chase hack revealed just last week that compromised the banking information of at least 89 million customers.

How cheap is IT, really, if it compromises customer data? Not cheap at all.

Last year’s Target hack alone cost the company more than $1 billion, estimated Forrester Research. The comparably-sized Home Depot hack will probably cost about the same. JP Morgan Chase is likely to face even higher costs.

Here’s the simple truth: it makes no sense, none, nada, for a bank to send financial transactions over the public Internet. It makes no sense for a bank or any other company to build gateways between their private networks and the public Internet. If a company PC connects to both the corporate network and the Internet, then the corporate network is vulnerable.

At Target and Home Depot the point-of-sale (cash register) systems were compromised, customer data was gathered and sent back to the bad guys via Internet. Had there been no Internet connection the bad guys could never have received their stolen data.

Taking a bank or retail network back to circa 1989 would go a long way toward ending the current rash of data breaches. It would be expensive, sure, but not as expensive as losing all the money that Target and others have recently done.

This is the simple answer, yet few companies seem to be doing it. The reason for that, I believe, is that professional IT management in the old sense no longer exists at most companies. And public companies especially are so trained to cut IT costs that they’ll continue to do so even as their outfits lose billions to hackers. Besides, those losses tend to be charged to other divisions, not IT.

Back at Coors they loved that I designed my own incorrect network map because it would be that much harder for an outsider to gain access to their network and steal data. IT people thought about such things even then. Until we re-learn this lesson there will always be network hacks.

Some corporate and government data simply doesn’t belong on the Internet. Why is that so hard to understand?

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The Enemy in HR

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bigdatacartoon2 Right now, depending who you speak with, there is either a shortage or a glut of IT professionals in the USA. Those who maintain there is a shortage tend to say it can only be eliminated by immigration reform allowing more H1-B visas and green cards. Those who see a glut point to high IT unemployment figures and what looks like pervasive age discrimination. If both views are possible — and I am beginning to see how they could be — we can start by blaming the Human Resources (HR) departments at big and even medium-sized companies.

HR does the hiring and firing or at least handles the paperwork for hiring and firing. HR hires headhunters to find IT talent or advertises and finds that talent itself. If you are an IT professional in a company of almost any size that has an HR department, go down there sometime and ask about their professional qualifications. What made them qualified to hire you?

You’ll find the departments are predominantly staffed with women and few, if any, of those women have technical degrees. They are hiring predominantly male candidates for positions whose duties they typically don’t understand. Those HR folks, if put on the spot, will point out that the final decision on all technical hires comes from the IT department, itself. All HR does is facilitate.

Not really. What HR does is filter. They see as an important part of their job finding the very best candidates for every technical position. But how do you qualify candidates if you don’t know what you are talking about? They use heuristics — sorting techniques designed to get good candidates without really knowing good from bad.

Common heuristic techniques for hiring IT professionals include looking for graduates of top university programs and for people currently working in similar positions at comparable companies including competitors. The flip side of these techniques also applies — not looking for graduates of less prestigious universities or the unemployed.

The best programmer I know is Paul Tyma, 2014 Alumnus of the Year alumnus of the year of the College of Engineering at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Paul later got a PhD from Syracuse University and that is what scored him an interview at Google where he became a senior developer, but it’s doubtful that would have happened had he settled for the U of T degree where he learned most of his chops.

It’s very common for the best programmer in any department to have a low quality degree or sometimes no degree at all. This person, this absolutely invaluable person, would generally not make the HR cut for hiring at their company today. Those interviewers from the IT department would never know they existed.

Same for the unemployed. Layoffs are deadly for IT reemployment. If you don’t know who to interview it’s easier just to decide you’ll only talk with people who are already working somewhere. A bad employed programmer is viewed as inherently superior to a very good unemployed programmer. This of course eliminates from consideration anyone who was laid-off for any reason. Speaking as a guy who was fired from every job I ever had (you’d fire me, too — believe me) if I was trying to find a technical job today I’d probably never work again.

It doesn’t matter why you lost your job. The company moved and you couldn’t move with it for some family reason. Your startup failed. Your boss was an asshole. You were an asshole, buta brilliant one. You were older and dumped (illegally I might add) to save money. It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are if HR won’t even put your name on the interview list.

One way around this is the moment you are fired or laid-off go back to school. When you graduate with that new degree or certificate you’ll be desirable again — in debt, but desirable.

And so we have the appearance of IT labor shortages at the same time we have record IT unemployment. And because the head of HR isn’t going to admit to the CEO that such bonehead policies exist, they are kept secret and the CEO urged to lobby for immigration reform.

Headhunters don’t help, either, because they see the source of their hefty commissions as luring working programmers from one company to another. Unemployed programmers don’t need luring and so don’t need headhunters.

There are exceptions to these trends, of course, but they are rare.

Those ladies down in HR are typically damaging their companies while simultaneously working very hard trying to do what they believe is good work. It’s a paradox, I know, and one that’s for the most part unknown by the rest of society.

The answer, of course, is to either improve the quality of HR departments, making them truly useful, or make them dramatically less powerful, maybe eliminating them entirely from hiring.

I’d recommend doing both.

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2 public comments
114 days ago
While I agree with a lot if this, I guess I just don't see the relevance of gender in HR.
Olympia, WA
123 days ago
A) Any good hiring manager (not HR!) is looking for candidates everywhere, all the time.
B) The best opportunities come from networking, not applying to companies through systems that heuristically mine resumes for potential candidates. Who do you know there? Who do you know who knows someone there? It's about relationships. Firing your resume off to a company through a system (ahem, "Jobvite") is fraught with peril.
C) The sad thing is I've seen from personal experience that candidates can graduate from a Bachelors or Masters programming in Computer Science or Engineering and literally not know how to program at the new grad / new hire level. As in, they don't pass even my pseudo-code test. (And I'm a manager.)
San Rafael, CA

Not a Manifesto

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I'm just not that interested in writing science fiction this decade. Nope: instead, I'm veering more and more in the direction of urban fantasy. Here's why.

My personal take on science fiction is that this narrow slice of the literature of the Fantastika (hint: if you haven't met that term of critical art before, follow the link before reading on) is about the study of the human condition under circumstances which might plausibly come to pass. By "plausibly" I thereby try to exclude the implausible (wizards, elves, surrealist intrusions from the subconscious) and to include stuff that doesn't exist but which plausibly might exist (artificial intelligence, aliens).

Now, as various SF and fantasy writers have observed, our baseline definitions of what is plausible and implausible change over time. In part, this is because formerly plausible ideas have shifted gradually into the penumbra of implausibility (the luminiferous aether, for example: phlogiston: the other detritus of discredited scientific hypotheses; arguably time travel and faster than light travel might be heading this way too). In no small part, the Mundane science fiction movement is a response to this: if we have no plausible evidence to support large scale causality violation in the observable universe, doesn't it follow that FTL starships are little more plausible than fire-breathing, flying dragons?

(Meanwhile, some items which would have been pigeon-holed as implausible without an eye-blink a few decades ago are not merely plausible today but are probably sitting in your pocket right now. About which, more later.)

In addition to the redrawing of the plausibility/implausibility frontier, we have other factors to consider: notably, our relationship with technology and science. As Vernor Vinge remarked in his novel Rainbows End many modern technologies come with no user serviceable parts inside. Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, personal computers were (by modern standards) a bit crap, but they offered an unparalleled opportunity to open the lid and learn by tinkering. For example, the BBC Micro in the UK—which sold by the million—had an analog i/o port, user-accessible DMA ports, and ROM sockets into which users could install additional firmware; it was designed for learning. The Apple II similarly featured a fairly simple expansion port architecture. But today's personal computing devices (with very few exceptions) come as shiny sealed boxes; their expansion options exist but are complex and require considerable expertise to develop: they're not designed for learners and tinkers but for users or highly trained developers.

Similarly, in other fields our technologies have developed in a way that's hostile to monkey-see monkey-do learning. You can't credibly learn to service a modern automobile in your own garage. You can't formulate a new pharmaceutical preparation in the back of your dispensary (which, believe it or not, actually happened right up until the late 1930s: even in the late 1970s/early 1980s it was possible for a medium-sized company with perhaps 20-30 researchers to develop and bring to market new medicines).

In part, this is a side-effect of market globalization: to survive even locally a product has to reach a planetary market, which means competing with large organizations and getting access to huge supply chains, which means you need to be big ... and market regulations are structured to lock out upstart small competitors. But that's not the only reason for it. Lots of our technologies have become so complex that just learning how to use them is a full-time job; understanding the interlocking specialities that go into them is beyond individual comprehension.

As brilliant new fantasy author Max Gladstone notes:

Old-school fantasy is a genre of the unknowable. Magic in Tolkien's works is big and vast and ancient. His characters relate to that magic with awe, with fear, and occasionally with love. No one tries to hack the One Ring. Certainly no one tries to build a new one! People acquire the One Ring, or the Palantir, and use each within its limits.

But consider the smartphone I have in my pocket.

No single human being knows how to make this phone. I acquired the phone, and I use it. People who know more about the phone can tell it to do more things than I can, but they're still bound by the limits of the hardware. A few communities are dedicated to modding and hacking phones like mine, yes, but for most people most of the time a smartphone is a portable magic mirror. We make mystic passes before the glass, address the indwelling spirit with suitably respectful tones, and LEARN THE FUTURE. ("Siri, what will the weather be like tomorrow?") The same thought experiment works for many modern technologies.

Max then goes on to make a point that I might well have made myself if I'd thought to put it so explicitly: while the technologies in our far-future SF now look more and more like numinous magical powers, our daily life is perfused by magical devices that obey relatively predictable rules—utter the right incantation and Siri tells you the weather. Which means we as readers are coming to expect an almost mechanistic causality to inform the magic in our fantasies.

(And if that makes sense to you, go try one of Max's novels. No, seriously: if you like near-future SF there's a rather good chance that this fantasy novel will speak to you. Weird, isn't it? Because he's writing SF set in a world perfused by mechanised, systematized magic. We need a word for this: the standard genre tags are too limiting.)

So here's my next step: we are living in a 21st century that resembles a mutant Shadowrun—by turns a cyberpunk dystopia and a world where everyone has access to certain kinds of magic. And if you want to explore the human condition under circumstances which might plausibly come to pass, these days the human condition is constrained by technologies so predictably inaccessible that they might as well be magic. So magic makes a great metaphor for probing the human condition. We might not have starships, but there's a Palantir in every pocket (and we might not have dragons, but some of our wizards are working on it ).

Over the past few years I've found myself reading less and less far-future SF and more and more urban fantasy. If you view it through the lens of the future we're living in rather than the future we expected in times gone by, that's not so surprising. Starships and galactic empires and aliens are receding into the same misty haze of unreality as dragons and demons: instead we're living in a world with chickens with tails and scales and teeth, magic mirrors with answers to every question (many of them misleading or malicious), dominated by abhuman hive minds.

So it shouldn't be any surprise to discover in the world I'm now living in I can engage better with the subjects of my fiction by writing urban fantasy, rather than by extruding good old-fashioned space opera just like grandpappy wrote. This doesn't mean that I consider traditional space opera to be dead (any more than high fantasy with elves, dwarves and dragons is dead): but it's not something I'm engaging with much, if at all, these days.

And now for one final thought.

Traditionally fantasy works were set in a mythologized past: frequently faux-mediaeval, occasionally classical, sometimes (as is especially the case with the more recent steampunk sub-genre) only 1-2 centuries removed. Some fantasies are set in the present: we often mislabel these urban fantasy, although very often contemporary fantasy is rural/wilderness oriented while it's quite common for urban fantasy settings to be historic (Ankh-Morpork, I'm looking at you). But it's still very rare to find a fantasy that's set in the cities of the near future: and I find this genre blind spot fascinating, because the future of humanity is overwhelmingly urban and magical ...

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114 days ago
I 100% agree with his assertions, and he explained far better than I ever could why Urban Fantasy is important. I was JUST explaining to my SO that I prefer the genre over SciFi, but couldn't explain why.

Also, read Max Gladstone, he's a fucking powerhouse.
114 days ago
just so long as urban fantasy is code for "moar laundree" I'm down with that.
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
108 days ago
You can also tell he's clearly hinting at stuff to come in the soon to be finished Merchant Princes The Next Generation. I'm excited about that.
114 days ago
Seattle, WA


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I recently ran across a Pew Research Center national poll about the police actions and killing of Michael Brown, the eighteen year old black male shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. The poll’s results were interesting, in that roughly 2/3 of black respondents said that the police had gone too far, while only 1/3 of white respondents felt that way. Now, many people would immediately claim that such differing reactions represent either white racism or black overreaction. While some of the white response likely is racist, and some of the black response overreaction, I have strong doubts that majority of the difference between whites and blacks represents those at all. I suspect it represents something far deeper than hatred, racism, or prejudice, not that I’m condoning or excusing any of that.

The problem with ascribing the differing reaction of whites and blacks to racism is that racism and overreaction are too simple an answer, and, more important, attacking the problem by trying to eliminate racism or overreaction won’t solve the deeper difficulty lying behind that difference in opinion.

From what I’ve observed, both directly and indirectly, over a moderately long life, and what is also revealed by various studies, is that, in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, blacks and whites react differently to authority, particularly “white” authority. Like it or not, white authority has a history with the various black subcultures of supporting white suppression of black rights. It doesn’t matter that this white authority today ranges from not very much different than in the past in some areas to close to equal treatment in others. The perception by all too many blacks, particularly young black males, is that police authority is to be distrusted, avoided, and sometimes even flouted. Given history, and given the way the enforcement and provisions of law, particularly drug laws, where drugs prominent in the black drug culture receive far stiffer sentences than the same drugs used by whites, if in different formulations, this distrust, anger, and resentment has a basis, if sometimes tenuous, in fact.

On the other hand, whites, again in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, have a far more positive experience in dealing with law enforcement.

This difference in outlook further gets exacerbated by economics and by reality. Again, like it or not, police are far more likely to encounter violence and life-threatening situations in economically depressed areas, and far more areas where blacks live are economically depressed. Then add to that that young males are more likely to act out and do stupid things than any other age group, and unemployed young males even more so, and add onto that the factor that a greater percentage of young black males are unemployed. All of these factors make police far more wary and frankly skeptical of groups of young blacks. That skepticism, especially when overtly displayed, in turn fuels resentment and anger among minorities, especially blacks. By the same token, the often seemingly arrogant reaction by young blacks when stopped or questioned by police doesn’t make matters any better… understandable as that reaction is when those stopped are innocent.

All of the outcry over Michael Brown also tends to ignore that being a police officer in the United States is a dangerous job. According to FBI figures, over the last ten years, on average 170 police officers died every year in the line of duty, roughly half of whom were shot. More than 50,000 officers were assaulted each year, and more than 15,000 were injured every year. With 300 million firearms in circulation and a long history of violence, the United States is not the safest nation in the world for police officers, and the majority of areas with high levels of economically depressed blacks are even more dangerous. The leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 44 is homicide, and in something like 90% of those shootings, the shooter was black.

Compounding this problem is that the statistics show police distrust, in general, nation-wide results in black arrest rates that are far higher than for whites – even when the statistics show that blacks are no more prone to certain types of law-breaking than are whites. Marijuana use rates, for example, are the same for whites and blacks, and with more than six times as many whites as blacks in the U.S, one might think that the arrest rates would be similar, but a New York Times study noted that blacks are four times more likely to be arrested and charged than whites.

In an interesting counterpoint, there have been demonstrations, but no violence to date, in Salt Lake, where last week a “non-white” police officer shot and killed an unarmed 20 year old white male. Unlike in Ferguson, the officer was wearing a body-camera, although the photos have not yet been made public. I do think that body and police car cameras would be a very good start in Missouri, and everywhere, since at the very least, they would eliminate much of the speculation about who did what and when. So would better training in how to approach individuals about whom police have concerns. Again, studies show that greater politeness by police actually reduces violence and confrontation, which actually makes the police safer as well. More ethnic balance in police forces is also useful, particularly in places like Ferguson, where only three out of fifty-three officers are black.

Nonetheless, with all these factors in play, in some respects, it’s amazing that there aren’t more incidents between police and young black males. I frankly don’t have an answer, easy or otherwise, but I do have great concerns that the extremists on both sides are making matters worse, one side in demonizing the police and the other in demonizing young black males. Both sides have legitimate concerns and worries, but a “them” versus “us” confrontation isn’t going to do much to improve things in Ferguson… or anywhere else.

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