Adventures In PC Building

There are a number of adjectives I could use to describe the computer I’m using to type this post. In particular, ancient comes to mind and maybe venerable, if we’re feeling generous. My current computer started out life as a pre-built HP Pavilion, I think was the model? Let me put it to you another way; I left all the little stickers on the front of the case from when I first got it. Here’s what those look like:

img_20190228_102643-e1551378589721.jpg

ATI Radeon and Intel i7 . . . okay, sure, fine whatever. Windows Vista, okay, wait, what?

That is correct, friends. This particular computer started life as a Vista machine. To be fair, I think I purchased it about a month before Windows 7 launched because I remember it came with a free upgrade to 7, which I immediately pounced on and was happy to do so.

That i7, by the way? That’s an i7-920. If you haven’t kept abreast of what’s current in CPUs, most of them are in the 8000-9000 range now.

Over the years, various components died out, as will happen. A friend replaced the original video card for me. I remember thinking he had some sort of mystical knowledge, being willing to open the case and actually move components around. It seemed supernatural. Let’s keep this feeling in mind. We’ll be coming back to it shortly.

I don’t even remember how much RAM it started with and I’ve lost track of how many times new RAM got stuck in there. Currently, it’s at 8 GB and I believe the motherboard maxes out at 10 GB, which I remember thinking was a magical number in 2009.

I’d played around with the with idea of doing my own PC build for years, but I never really committed. It seemed like I was always able to squeeze just a little more life out of this machine.

I think it was last year that the hard drive died. I didn’t know that’s what died, only that one day it didn’t turn out. I took it to a repair shop and they inspected it and told me the hard drive was toast. “We could rebuild it,” the guy said, “for about $2,000.”

I looked at him. I looked at the computer, which, even when it was brand new, out of the box, was worth maybe half that price.

“It’s just the hard drive?”

“Yeah, it’s totally dead.”

“Okay, then.”

I took my machine home and now, having decided there was nothing to lose by playing around inside it, cracked open the case and taught myself how to replace a hard drive.

Turns out? It’s super fucking easy. The hardest part was remembering which screws held all this shit together.

I popped out the hard drive, popped in a new one that I’d gotten for like $30 bucks, installed Windows 10 on it, and just like that, my computer was back. Then I copied all my data from my backup drive which I judiciously keep and everything was back to normal, and GFY repair guy and your $2,000.

That shop was also terrible because both times when I went there, nobody bothered to come to the desk and I had to walk into the back area to get any service, because the guy was playing video games. In retrospect, that should have been a sign. Also, they marked up the inside of my case with a sharpie and I’m still grumpy about that, too.

By the way, I know it’s the data equivalent of your dentist telling you to floss more, but for the love of God, get an extra drive and run regular backups!

Since then, I realized that a lot of what I thought was some sort of mystical knowledge was actually just more of the same thing we’ve been doing all along when it came to the Internet or blogs or whatever else. You just start playing around with stuff and see what happens.

For me, though, I needed the permission to fail that was only granted by the fact that without attempting anything, the computer was going to be dead anyway. For many, many years, I never wanted to try to get inside the hardware, because what if I screwed something up? What if I shorted out a component? The fact that I’d been able to buy this computer at all had stretched my finances back then and without a backup or the funds to replace something, it was too scary to imagine something going wrong.

But once the pressure was off, once it was a matter of “well, it can’t get any more not-working, so why not?” An entire world opened up to me. All of a sudden, it was okay to disconnect the power supply, which holy shit I really should have been doing more often because the design of this particular computer has this one corner that escaped all my regular cleanings over the years and when I took it apart and cleaned it, I came away from the experience looking like a coal miner, I’m not even kidding.

The mystery was gone. I realized what others have said; that for as cool as it sounds to “build your own PC,” it’s basically just LEGO for grown ups.

That’s when I slowly began to accumulate parts and pieces here at there. Nothing crazy. A friend gave me a spare case. I’d gotten a video card for cheap after prices finally stabilized after the Bitcoin boom. I actually tried to stick it into my HP, just to see if there was anything left I could squeeze out of this old rig, but the 2009 power supply just didn’t have the right connectors. I think by then, we were just down the the PSU, the mobo, and the CPU as the original stock components.

So, with that in mind, I finally put the final touches on my build and ordered the rest of the parts yesterday. My needs are pretty simple. This will be a budget build, although compared to trying to play games on a 2009 relic, the difference is going to be pretty cool. Getting a realistic understanding of my needs was one of the final hurdles; I’d do some research on different parts, tell myself that I needed the biggest and the best and suddenly holy shit, my list of parts is up to $2,000.

But what’s most striking to me about this experience is where I am now with regards to the resources and attitude towards this project.

I don’t want to say I was ever poor. I don’t think that would be accurate. But for much of my adult life, I was financially insecure. If something broke, it had the potential to be a catastrophe. I once had to leave a Subway without my food because my credit card was maxed out and my debit card was empty and I wasn’t going to get paid for a few more days.

Having the ability to recover from potential mistakes gives me the freedom to experiment, which helped me learn and grow.

Join us next week, when I try to put all of this together and probably do something really dumb, like short out my mobo because I didn’t clear the static electricity or something, and we’ll see how fucking sanguine I am then.

But that’s the thing, right? Because no matter how much it might be a frustration if something goes wrong with this project, there’s no scenario where it becomes a catastrophe. There’s something deeply satisfying about knowing that.

Thoughts From A Still New Father

My son was born six months ago tomorrow. It’s put me in a reflective state of mind, or at least, it does on the rare occasions when I’m rested enough and the baby is calm enough that I can be reflective. Currently, he’s sitting in the exercise pod thingy that we lovingly call “the Circle of Neglect” and is intensely examining his own fingers, which means I have a bit of time to write, at least until he decides this whole thing is bogus and we have to go do something else.

So what have I learned in six months of fatherhood? Turns out, a lot!

I’m not as smart as I used to be, and also I’m worse at things involving my brain

Since becoming a father, my spelling has gone from pretty damn good to see me after class. I usually don’t need to rely on spell check except for words like rythym rhythm, but in the introductory paragraph above, it took me ten tries to get the word “occasions” spelled correctly and the only reason I didn’t just let the spell check get it was because I had to prove to myself that I could do it. There were also numerous examples of poor typing throughout that didn’t used to happen.

I think this is a combination of getting much less sleep than I used to, not sleeping as deeply as I used to, and the fact that I’m tired. And between the two of us, I’m the one who is getting the lion’s share of the sleep between my wife and I. This is due to the unfair genetic advantage I have, as when I do sleep, I’m a deep, heavy sleeper. Which means that by the time I’ve heard the baby fuss long enough to rouse me, my wife has already been awake for fifteen minutes and has been working on soothing him. Add to that the fact that even when roused, I’m basically still in Low Power Mode mentally speaking, and you get situations like this:

Baby: *cries loudly*

Me: *awakens with a start* OH NO, FUSS BUG!

Me: *goes back to sleep*

My wife: . . .

Baby: *still crying*

Add to that the unfair burden of responsibility created by breast feeding (which is to say, she does all of that, I do not) and you’ve got a situation where we’re both sleeping less than we used to and even though I’m getting more sleep than she is, my brain just isn’t where it used to be compared to when I could clock in a leisurely 8 hours uninterrupted.

There’s also the constant state of distraction, in that at any given time, there’s about a 10% chance that he could do something to endanger himself, so even when he’s happily playing in a safe environment (like right now), I’m still keeping some of my attention on him, just in case it turns out the toy that was specifically engineered to not be a choking hazard turns out to be a choking hazard.

Which brings me to my next point . . .

I’ve reached a stage of acceptance with regards to worrying about him.

When he was first born, I was terrified of SIDS. Even though he’s been perfectly healthy and we have the safe sleep environment and we don’t smoke, etc. etc., there was about a two month period where I was convinced he’d just . . . stop breathing at some point while he was asleep. And then I’d go and check on him and he’d be fine, of course.

There was one night where I got up to check on him so many times that I finally just had to give up. If he’d suddenly stopped breathing, there was nothing I’d have been able to do about it, so it would just have to be a problem for Tomorrow-Matt.

I also carried him with all the attentiveness of a student driver who is committed to hands in the 10 and 2 position. Every movement was planned and executed like I was carrying around a Fabergé egg. At any moment, I was certain his neck would snap and his head would fall off.

Six months in, when we need to go somewhere, I kinda just sling him under my arm. A lot of this, admittedly, has to do with him these days; he’s much stronger and he can support his own head, so he just doesn’t feel as fragile as he did as a newborn. But even so, I can feel the change in my mind. I know I’ve got him safe and secure in the “Dad Side Carry” position, I’m not going to drop him, and he’s having a good time.

But I imagine it still looks weird to people, especially people that don’t have kids, and I’m sure they have opinions about it even if they don’t say anything. Which brings me to . . .

Everyone has advice and opinions on what you should do, what you should read, what you should buy.

For the most part, I don’t mind. My brother once started a phone call that began with “you’re going to have everyone telling you what you should do on how to raise a kid and it’ll get really annoying” and then, guilelessly, told me everything he thought I should do.

I have a  philosophy, let’s say, when I’m in the car with my wife. Sometimes she’ll point out something, like “look out” or “car’s coming” or any number of other alerts, advisories, or guidance. And then she’ll apologize for backseat driving, acknowledging that I probably already saw the thing she was pointing out. I, however, prefer that she tell me rather than not, because in the worst case scenario, I’m hearing something I already knew (which doesn’t cost me anything) and in the best case scenario, I’m hearing about something I didn’t know, such as an oncoming car (which would cost me a lot, possibly everything). And so I take a Pascal’s Wager mentality, in that I’d prefer she say something rather than assume I already knew, because the potential benefits outweigh the costs.

Thus, I don’t mind getting opinions and advice from other people about parenting. You never know when you’ll learn a trick that unlocks something you were stuck on. I don’t feel threatened by well-meaning advice, because I know that while I’m not an expert on babies, I am one of two people on this planet I can say is an expert on my baby, having spent more time with him than anyone else save my wife. So I don’t feel like my status is threatened.

That said . . .

I get a lot of well-meaning advice from people that don’t have kids.

Maybe they have a niece or nephew somewhere that they see once in a while. Maybe they babysat a kid twenty years ago. Regardless, while I appreciate the intention behind the action, I really would prefer to not have to go through the emotional energy of being gracious while being advised “to try white noise, or get him on a schedule, or baby massage, or . . .”

I appreciate the intention. I really do. But you can tell within about 5 seconds whether someone actually knows what they’re talking about when it comes to babies. It’s okay if you don’t know babies! I didn’t know any babies until the one came along, and even now I’m really only qualified to tell you about him, and even then, half the time my answer is probably “fuck if I know, I just try things and see if it works.” And that’s after a six month intensive study of this one particular baby.

I remember the first time we had several friends over after he was born, and one of my friends was giving him a bottle, and I made a few adjustments, like “hold it a little more like this.” And even though it looked like this effortless wisdom, like I just knew what I was talking about, that’s only because I’d had two months of trying a hundred other ways and managed to develop a semblance of understanding through trial and error.

So, please. If you have people in your life that you love or even just like, and they have new babies and you don’t . . . please don’t advise them. It’s well meaning, but it’s annoying and I really need to marshal all my patience reserves for other things, like my baby.

That said, let me give you some advice (hah) . . .

There are many baby raising philosophies, but this one is mine.

For me, the thing that made it click was the “Circle of Security.” You can look it up if you’re interested, but in a very abbreviated version, it explains why kids do the thing where they want you to put them down so they can play with a thing and then five seconds later, they cry and want you to pick them back up again, then ten seconds later they’re done with you, so put them down again, now it’s been a whole minute, pick me up, and so on and so on, seemingly for the rest of time.

It turns out kids have a reason why do they do this! And knowing that reason helped me immensely, because what seemed like random caprice was much easier to endure when viewed as a fledgling approach to learning and exploring. It continues to help me every day.

That said, it’s something that works for me and my baby. Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe not. I don’t know your baby. Try it and see. Or don’t.

One nice thing is how much easier it is to have a “try and see” approach with your own baby. When it’s someone else’s baby, you’re terrified of fucking it up, especially if you don’t have any experience.

For example, when my brother’s first child was about a month and a half old, he said “okay, it’s time to learn how to change a diaper” and tried to walk me through it. And I was so afraid of making it too tight, or too lose, or wiping too hard, or not wiping hard enough, that I basically minced around the entire process, which resulted in a diaper that worked only until her next big production and the diaper came off, to the horror of my sister-in-law who was holding the kid at the moment it happened.

But when it’s your baby, you’re okay trying things. What’s the best way to do (anything involving the baby?) I dunno, I’ll try a bunch of stuff and see what works. And half the time what worked the previous time won’t work the next time, because replicability only matters for science, not babies. Since then, I’ve put on diapers that came off because I didn’t do a great job. You shrug, clean him up, then jump in the shower, having learned one more way to not put a diaper on.

It sounds like that shouldn’t square with how much I worry about him, as mentioned above, but all I can say is that I’m now capable of holding a paradox in my mind and being fine with it. Every single thing I’ve learned about my baby, all the casual confidence I have now, came in slow, furtive attempts. Most people don’t get to see that, which is a good thing, because if you did see how slowly and painstakingly that confidence is earned, I think the human species would die out. Just kidding, it’s easy and fun. You’ll do great.

Here’s something else I learned during the pregnancy phase and which continues to be true in the first six months of fatherhood . . .

The standards for fatherhood are very low.

Let’s say it’s your turn to watch the baby. You want to know if you’re doing a good job or not. Here are the standards of success for parenting:

For mothers: “is your baby thriving? Is he perfect? Is everything perfect? Did you read to him? Did you mentally stimulate him? Did you protect him while also allowing him freedom to explore? Did you speak to him in at least three languages today?”

For fathers: “is the baby still alive?”

When we found out we were going to have a baby, my wife got a bunch of books about babies from the library. I grabbed a couple and started reading through them. Most of them automatically assumed the reader was a mother, but there were occasionally mentions of things dads should do. Unfortunately, these scintillating pearls of wisdom included things like:

  • try holding the baby sometimes
  • ask your partner if she needs a break if she looks like she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown
  • tell your partner she’s pretty, even though you don’t think so
  • change a diaper once

I can only imagine what the advice was forty years ago. “Try remembering the names of your children,” perhaps.

Fortunately, there are slightly better books out there and I picked up a few of them and got some better guidance. But it doesn’t change the fact that things I considered basic were somehow looked at as something special in most of the reading material.

I think fatherhood is what realized my understanding of what privilege is; she’s expected to do everything and do it perfectly or the baby is ruined forever, and for dads, it’s like “hey, you tried to change the diaper and even though you put it on his head and that’s not where it goes, good effort, champ, way to contribute equally! You’re a modern parent!”

There are some things in this whole parenting gig that aren’t fairly distributed and there’s nothing you can do about it, like the unequal burden created by breastfeeding and the random biases of the baby himself (sometimes Mommy holding him soothes him in a way that Daddy can’t do). So you already need to be working pretty hard to carry your share of the load. And then you look around and wonder, okay, what does my share of the load look like, and you get this feedback loop that praises you because you changed a diaper once this week and everyone is like oh my god, you’re so involved with your baby and it’s like, please, stop. Don’t praise that. It’s like praising me for not dropping the baby on his head, which should only be praiseworthy in extreme circumstances, such as slipping on a patch of ice or while baby is slathered in soap or something.

In conclusion

Having a kid has been great. I’ve really learned a lot. I look forward to sharing more of this wisdom in the days to come, but not right now, because he’s crying and there’s a chance he’s crying because he swallowed a battery or something and I should attend to that. Bye!

Writing Fantasy: The Problem of Lineage

“I have encountered a vergence in the Force . . . a boy. His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorian.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“The Force is strong in my family.”  -Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi

“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I’ve ever seen in a life form. It’s possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship.” -Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The examples of the problem are countless, though that hasn’t stopped us from trying to count them anyway. Whether it comes from destiny or something about who your dad was, we know this much; in fantasy fiction, it really fucking matters who your parents were. Your real parents, at least. Your powers are something you are born with. Sure, maybe you need training, maybe you need an eccentric mentor type to help you hone your talent, but that all comes later, typically after you inherit your ancestor’s cool weapon.

We could be talking about Star Wars, like with the above quotes. Or maybe we’re talking about Aragorn and the Lord of the Rings. Or with a bit of stretching, we could include any superhero whose powers are the result of their inborn biology as opposed to what they might have constructed in a cave, with a box of scraps.

In fact, because there are so many examples and variations on this theme, we’re going to narrow it down to Star Wars, not simply because Star Wars (and more specifically, the prequels) are the most egregious offender, but because there is such a clearly defined timeline that explains the problem. Even though I’m talking specifically about the Force and the Jedi here, these are themes that can be found in almost any fantasy story that has some kind of magical power and a specific group of people that can wield that power. So you could substitute “magic” and “mages” here, if you really wanted.

We begin with the original trilogy. Despite all the references to Luke’s destiny as a Jedi, because his father was a Jedi, by the time we get to Yoda, we see someone who doesn’t seem to give a shit who your dad was. If you want to be a Jedi, get off your ass and work on it. You better have the deepest commitment and the most serious mind if you want to make it through Jedi training, or your ass isn’t levitating anything.

Sure, there’s still privilege here in the story as presented. Not everyone gets to be a Jedi. But why not? Maybe you don’t have the natural patience to sit still long enough to let a green elf lecture you while inhaling swamp gas. Or maybe you couldn’t afford to take a top-of-the-line military starship and fly off to some random swamp planet to meet the right teacher because you have to ride the space-bus every day. Maybe you don’t believe in hokey religions and ancient weapons, so the whole thing is just a waste of time.

Regardless of the barriers that might keep you from Jedi training that exist mentally, physically, or practically, at this point, the metaphor is still clear; if you really want to become a space wizard, you can. It’s going to be hard as hell. You could fail and die, or turn into an evil tyrant instead. But you can still try. It doesn’t matter what your blood type is. It doesn’t matter who your dad is. The Force is everything, even in the trees and rocks.

And then it turns out that none of that is accurate, because while it is true that the Force is super-cool and it’s all things and we’re all luminous beings, it’s also true that you won’t have a chance in hell at graduating from Jedi school unless you won the genetic lottery the moment you were born. A single check of your blood type (so to speak) determines whether you can be a space wizard . . . or, you know, something else. Maybe a queen, if you’re lucky enough to live on a planet with a democratically elected monarchy system.

Sorry, the Force isn’t for you. You don’t have the right blood for it. Even though the number of little organisms in your blood isn’t actually the source of the power, it’s still the bridge, the gateway, but ff you don’t have it, you never will. If you do have it, you can start working hard on developing it.

The parallels to fantasy fiction’s love of the aristocracy should become apparent here, if they aren’t already. The special people get all the best perks because they were born special. Again, and again, we see this theme.

You could argue that this accurately reflects real life and I’d agree with you. Unfortunately, the circumstances of your birth determine a lot about what opportunities are open to you and which ones are closed. Even before we consider anything else about me, the fact that I was born straight, white, and male meant that I had fewer barriers starting out than other people.

But my feeling is that it’s not the role of fantasy fiction to tell us how the world is, but how it should be. We don’t live in a world where good always triumphs over evil . . . but we should. Our fantasies tell us a lot about what we value, what we consider to be important. And so we come to the actual core problem: our Jedi fantasy started telling us that we believed anyone could become a hero, but shifted into telling us that only special people can be heroes.

We learn from stories. In particular, we learn about what’s important because we intuit what people want to tell stories about. Overcoming evil is more important than making breakfast in the grand scheme of things, so we usually focus our grand narratives there. And at one point in time, Star Wars knew this.

REVENGE OF THE JEDI STORY CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT, JULY 13 to JULY 17, 1981—SUMMARY
Participants: George Lucas, Richard Marquand, Lawrence Kasdan, and Howard Kazanjian
Location: Park Way House
Note: Many of the ideas here are conceptual only and should not be considered canon in the Star Wars saga.
[…]
THE STORY OF ANAKIN
Lawrence Kasadan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
George Lucas: Yes, everyone can do it.
Kasadan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

That’s the solution. It’s the direction that I went with in my books, although I hadn’t read this transcript at the time. If you make the magic powers a skill that someone can learn, you reinforce the idea that what you do matters more than who your parents are.

In Dinomancer, I intentionally keep it vague on whether or not I think of the ability to wield the Geas is a supernatural power or not. Where does it come from? What powers it? Right now, I’m not saying (gotta save material for future world building).

What I do explore is the relatively egalitarian nature of the skill itself; it really is true that anyone can learn it, just like anyone can learn French. But just like learning French, just because anyone can learn it doesn’t mean the deck isn’t still stacked in some people’s favor more than others.

Obviously, the easiest way to learn French is to be French. Barring that, going to France and living there for a while probably works. Barring that, taking a class or having a French teacher. Barring that? Maybe a book or something; at this point, you have fewer advantages working for you, so most people don’t really try. Sure, there’s the occasional self-starter who really manages to pull it off, but most of us don’t.

Anyone can train to be a dinomancer, which is my current working title and term for the protagonists until I can come up with something better. As discussed in the aristocracy post, this creates a form of social mobility, in that anyone can learn the skills needed to become a dinomancer, and the skills are so valuable that you’re guaranteed adoption into a noble House if you can master it. In theory, anyone can raise his or her station. All it takes is a bit of hard work, can-do attitude, and know-how . . .

Oh, and you need to be willing to stand in front of a bull tyrannosaurus as it charges toward you while all you do is hold out your hand and think really hard to make it not want to eat you and somehow believe that this will work even while your instincts are screaming at you to run away.

And the mortality rate for learning the skill is about 50%, but this risk isn’t evenly distributed. It’s lower if you’re a highborn, considerably higher if you’re lowborn.

Highborn will train for this challenge their entire lives. You can’t take your title or be considered a true member of your noble family unless you’re a trained dinomancer. Those highborn kids that don’t or can’t learn might remain comfortable all their lives as their parents care for them, but they won’t inherit any land, titles, or power ever, so if they don’t want to end up out in the cold one day, they best get to work.

Fortunately, there are plenty of trainers available for these highborn kids to help them prepare. Most families specialize in breeding one particularly powerful species, such as a Tyrannosaurus or Spinosaurus, but many smaller, less dangerous dinosaurs are common enough to be used for early training. From the time they can walk, these kids will grow up around dinosaurs, learning to interact with them, care for them, and everything else they’ll need once it’s time to learn the skill. They’re given every possible advantage to help them succeed.

The lowborn kids . . . are not. Any lowborn can send a child for dinomancer training to the noble family that rules over them. In point of fact, anyone of any age can go to learn, but culturally, it’s just better economic sense to send your little tykes off when they’re young so that if/when they fail, you’ve only invested six years into raising them instead of sixteen. You’re playing a numbers game when you’re lowborn; all you need is one kid to survive long enough to graduate, then they’ll have enough resources to care for you. You don’t get to become noble yourself, obviously, but most former lowborn provide enough for their families to lift them into a pseudo-middle class. Not all do, but it’s common enough.

Unlike the highborn, lowborn don’t have to send kids for training. There are plenty who don’t, since there’s no social expectation for them to do so. Lowborn kids can grow up and live lowborn lives. But the rewards are great enough that for most lowborn families, it’s worth risking a few sons or daughters.

The system isn’t fair. The powerful hoard their resources to ensure their own progeny retain their grip on power. We’re not creating a perfect world here, after all; we still need enough problems so there are things for our heroes to overcome. But the important distinction is that the core philosophy of the world itself is coded as “anyone can learn” instead of “you must have the right blood to learn.”

The elite of this world twisted things to serve their own interests. If someone more enlightened came along and wanted to open a dinomancer public school, there’s nothing inherent in the setting that would stop them. In contract, you don’t get to be a public school Jedi if you’re not born for it. Don’t even try.

How we construct our pretend worlds says a lot about us. My hope is that we’ll continue to see fantasy settings that trend in this direction. You can still make magic and magical powers rare and special without making them restricted to the genetically gifted. I still love magic and hidden places and lost arts. I just hope we see more things like the Jedi as envisioned in 1981 (“it’s like yoga”), instead of 1999 (“microscopic organisms living in your blood”).

Writing Fantasy: The Glorification of Aristocracy

Last time, I talked about two of the things in the fantasy genre that I wanted to change while working on my novel. Today, we’ll look at the first one: the Glorification of Aristocracy.

In The Lord of the Rings, we needed the rightful king to resume the throne after centuries of Gondor’s misrule by the Stewards, whose line famously flamed out (ha!). In Game of Thrones, even though the excesses and brutality of the ruling class are thoroughly on display (Joffrey, the Lannisters, most of the Targaryens), chances are pretty good your favorite characters in the series all came from the noble class. Good and evil are well represented in the upper classes; the working class, not so much. Off the top of my head, the only Point of View character who is working class is Davos Seaworth.

You can argue that the lives of peasant farmers aren’t terribly interesting, since most of them live and die on the same plot of land and don’t really get to go on crazy adventures most of the time. That’s fair, and for fantasy series that go low-magic (like Game of Thrones), that makes sense. But not all fantasy settings try to recreate the Middle Ages in all their dung-strewn glory. The High Fantasy genre certainly does not; you have magical broomsticks sweeping the streets and everyone is literate, except for D&D 3rd Edition barbarian characters and even they can suddenly read if they multiclass.

In these instances, you have enough science and technology in the form of magic, which is often understood in a scientific fashion rather than a supernatural or faith-based source. You likely have characters who have walked on different worlds due to teleportation. And you have timelines with civilization that dwarf our own, yet no where in any of these scenarios do you see someone point out that maybe hereditary monarchy or feudalism should be replaced. And I think the reason why that happens is because of how we view social classes.

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans don’t really get the idea of class. We think we do, in that we understand that if you’re upper class, you’re wealthy. But that’s not quite accurate:

Class is what you are born and raised in; getting a windfall of money during adulthood doesn’t make a person who grew up working class into an aristocrat, it makes them working class with a pile of money. Trust me, this one is a subject I actually know something about. –Rich Burlew, creator of the Order of the Stick

Although the modern fantasy genre’s common ancestor is English by way of Tolkien, our more recent influences like Gygax and Martin are decidedly American. Which is why I think we’ve arrived at this weird fascination the genre has with aristocracy. Aristocracy is great if you’re an aristocrat and we all have this American Dream-esque notion that if we were to wind back the clock, we’d be aristocrats, too. Seriously, raise your hand if you go to the Renaissance Faire and imagine your past life as a peasant. The most humble “if I lived back then, I’d be…” musing I’ve ever encountered are the people who think they would be priests, and even that is still winning the social lottery compared to most people. We all imagine we’d be lords and ladies, but just by running the numbers, that isn’t the case. Unless you’re upper class right now, odds are pretty good your ancestors were commoners, just like the rest of us.

And so we arrive at the class problem in the fantasy genre. Either your most interesting people are nobleborn, because the aristocrats have all the education, wealth, and power to actually do something other than farm, or your commoner is a chosen one or bearer of some secret legacy, like Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars. The Chosen One and the Secret Legacy are related to this issue, but separate enough that I’ll discuss them in a later post.

Since the modern fantasy genre is the pop culture version of older mythology, you could say it’s fair that everyone important is a noble, since most myths are about the same groups of people: kings, king-like people, or chosen by/descended from gods, which is also incidentally how kings presented themselves much of the time. People tend to tell stories that are interesting, and kings and kingly people tend to be the most interesting, therefore those are the stories.

But here’s the question that really got me thinking: why aren’t there more settings that twist this around? Our brethren in the science fiction genre seem to delight in twisting the conventions of the genre, so that the sparkling clean and technology advanced society is the protagonist in one story (Star Trek) and the villains in others (FarScape, Firefly). One setting’s tech utopia is the next’s hellish nightmare concealed behind a shiny facade. The good Federation (Star Trek, again) has the same aesthetic as the evil Institute (Fallout 4).

But over here in the fantasy world, we’re still working for kings, or aspiring to be kings, or killing kings . . . and then replacing them with other kings. We desperately hope that the Game of Thrones will resolve in a good king or queen taking the throne and replacing the bad ones that have existed so far. The show has flirted with the idea that Daenerys wants to destroy the system (“I’m going to break the wheel”) but thus far, she hasn’t indicated that she’s going to usher in a representative democracy

So when I started to work on the setting for Dinomancer, this was very much on my mind. And while my during my first draft, it seemed like an easy thing to address (just have my protagonist espouse some democratic leanings!), I realized I had more to say.

The world of Dinomancer is fundamentally about power. Humans like us find ourselves in a scenario with medieval levels of technology (swords, armor, longbows, etc) having to content with dinosaurs roaming the countryside at every turn. No guns, no cars, no planes. We’re completely outclassed.

Fortunately, humans do have a weapon they can use to fight back, which is called the Geas (prounced “gesh” instead of “gee-ahs” if you’re like me and learned this word from a fantasy book). The Geas lets a person take control of a dinosaur and direct it psychically. It’s a huge advantage.

And because it’s such an advantage, it’s something that’s hoarded by a small number of people. In fact, it’s so useful that if you have the power of the Geas, you are automatically part of the noble class. The noble families will fight to adopt you into their ranks and make you one of them. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

How does someone get the ability to wield the Geas? We’ll talk about that later. The main thing is, if you have it, you’re noble. Your social class is noble. But how does that square with the earlier quote, about how class is what you’re born into? The truth is, it doesn’t. Your class is always your class, regardless of whether you earn a pile of money or develop a super power.

If the nobles are honest (with themselves and with the general people of this world), they would be forced to admit that this entire social structure exists to benefit them. Rather than using the Geas to keep people safe, nobles use it to capture and train dinosaurs to use as weapons. Commoners huddle together beneath the umbrella of safety their nobles offer, but it’s all to further the grip of power. This should sound familiar, because it’s basically how most of human history has progressed.

But just like with actual history, few people ever want to come out and say this. Instead, you get these remarkable contortions that people go through to justify themselves, such as the divine right of kings or similar ideas that the ruling class is the best and the most worthy, instead of just being the most privileged and powerful. The nobles in this world do something similar; if you’re adopted as a noble, it applies retroactively to your entire life. You were always a noble if you become a noble, because they’re trying to preserve this idea that it’s something you were born into, that you can’t change, in a world where you can.

With this in mind, it’s important to note that the protagonist of the story doesn’t think about any of this. He’s noble himself and just thinks that this is the way that makes sense. Other characters don’t, and realizing his own privilege is part of his own development as a character, which, not coincidentally, is a story that I feel qualified to write about as a straight, white male in the current age.

The difference, then, is the direction of the text itself, the “truth of the setting.” In Return of the King, the reestablishment of the monarchy is unambiguously a good thing. In most fantasy settings, it’s the existence of the evil wizard or the demon lord that’s the bad thing to be overcome. But for me, as I’m writing, this is the world state I’m keeping in mind: this social system sucks for most of the people that live in it. We should not glorify this idea of noble houses and titled lords. This is the problem. We should do better.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not writing a philosophical book here. It’s still a fantasy novel with dinosaurs and people getting killed by dinosaurs. I’m not creating high literature here. But even the pulpiest of fantasy stories have something to say, even if it’s just “man, it would be so cool to be a knight” and that’s what I’m keeping in mind with my work. Will it pay off? Will those ideas be communicated? Hard to say. We’ll see what happens when I finish it.

Next, I’ll talk about the Bloodline Legacy issue, also known as the Midichlorian Problem that turned Jedi into the bad guys . . . from a certain point of view.

Thoughts on Writing Fantasy

I really like the fantasy genre. Out of all the interests in my life, I think it’s my love for fantasy that’s had the biggest influence. My mom reading me the Hobbit is one of my earliest and most influential memories. It was a fantasy video game that got me into writing stories of my own, which set me on the path where writing became a thing I wanted to do. It’s even how I ended up meeting my wife; I mentioned that I was running a Dungeons & Dragons game, she asked to join and that was how it all started for us.

I’ll note that every time I say fantasy here, I really mean the entire fantasy genre, not just the idea of thinking about pretend stuff, but “fantasy genre” is tiresome to type out.

Anyway, fantasy is important to me. It’s something I look forward to sharing with my son when he’s older, even though I’m emotionally preparing myself for the possibility that someday he’ll want a football and a pair of skis instead of a Crown Royal bag filled with dice.

My first major writing project was a novel I started when I was about fourteen(ish). It mostly stands as a testament to how much I was enthralled with R. A. Salvatore at the time; you’ve got fifteen page long swordfights, for example. There’s also a romance plotline that reflects how the largest influence on my understanding of romance was the Star Wars movies, and not in a good way.

After that book, I sketched out some ideas for a sequel and a prequel. The sequel actually ended up getting pretty far in a first draft (I think around 60,000 words) but eventually I lost steam and the years started to pile up without much progress. In 2008, I learned about NaNoWriMo and in 2009, I wrote my first successful NaNo project, 50,000 words which eventually became the novel Unrepentantwhich you can read right here on this very website if you so desire. In fact, I had so much energy going through November 2008 that I kept writing every day even after the month was over and eventually ended up with a 120,000 word first draft.

Unfortunately, after that first shot of adrenaline, I think NaNoWriMo started to become more of a distraction than a help. I spent 2010 writing and rewriting Unrepentant and I was making pretty good progress, but then November rolled around and it was time to start another NaNo novel. The rules strongly encourage you to start a new novel instead of working on an existing project to give yourself the creative freedom to write quickly, so I started a prequel called the Fey Queen. I worked on that long enough to win the month, then it was back to Unrepentant. That was 2010. In 2011, I started a sequel to Unrepentant called Angel’s Descent. For some reason, perhaps a holdover from my first ventures into writing, I really had a thing for the writing pattern of novel > prequel > sequel.

You can see the pattern that started to emerge. I would spend most of the year working off and on, only to start a new project each November. After my three forays in an urban fantasy-esque romance, I tried cyberpunk, then a frankly bizarre attempt at a murder mystery, then back to cyberpunk for a sequel. Each of these hit 50,000 words for the NaNo goal, but then I would shelve them because each one would require extensive work to go from a NaNo draft to something resembling an actual draft. I think I planned to build up this pile of half-done jobs, pick the ones I liked best, then finish and polish those up.

By the time Unrepentant was in a draft I considered decent, I realized it had been almost eight years since I’d started working on it and frankly, I didn’t really know why I still was. The religious nature of a story about fallen angels, the devil, the Apocalypse; that’s interesting, but it’s also not really me. I don’t have much to say on religious themes much these days. I was just working on the story because that’s what I’d put so much time into working on.

And man, if I didn’t think I had much to say about a religious-themed urban fantasy, I don’t know what the hell I was doing trying cyberpunk or murder mystery, even if it was “murder mystery, but with snakes!”

I think that’s what made me realize it was time to come back home to writing fantasy. It’s what I spend the most time thinking about and frankly, it’s where I have the most to say in terms of story and world. And that’s how we got to Dinomancer, which is as you might have guessed, “fantasy, but with dinosaurs.” Because I love dinosaurs and I know a lot about them, and when I started this one, I didn’t know the late Victor Milan was going to do his own dinosaur fantasy series (I’ve avoided reading it to avoid cross pollination of ideas). But even after learning about it, I figured dinosaur fantasy is large enough to have more than one (or two, or five, or whatever) novels about it.

One thing that was great about working on a fantasy world for my novel was that I could talk to my wife about my ideas in a way that I couldn’t when it came to our D&D campaign, since she was a player in that campaign and I didn’t want to spoil the stories. A lot of those discussions got me thinking about some Big Concept ideas that ended up going into the framework of my dinosaur story, and some of which I think are pretty interesting.

One of the most influential blog posts I ever read was also the one I wanted more than anything to refute. In 2011, author David Brin wrote a post called Pining for Feudalism that basically set my mind on fire. Brin presents an argument against many of the classic fantasy tropes; really, more of a denunciation against all of Romanticism, which of course is where the modern fantasy genre is firmly situated. Chief among his complaints are the tropes of “hidden knowledge” as represented by wizards and elves, and the glorification of aristocracy.

And damn it, you know . . . Brin’s right. There’s a lot in the fantasy genre that’s, well . . . problematic. Try explaining to someone who’s even the tiniest bit woke why the drow mythos isn’t horribly racist; to wit, the evil elves are banished beneath the earth and cursed with dark skin, to reflect their dark hearts (even though living in a lightless world should have made them lily-white albinos). You can still tell great stories with these tropes and dark elves remain some of my favorite stories to this day . . . but there’s baggage there.

And while it’s tempting to just say, eh, fuck it, the whole genre’s busted, toss it out, science fiction is better anyway, I’m not willing to go that far. For me, this felt like an opportunity, even though it would take a while for the seeds to germinate. When I came back to the idea that I wanted to do a fantasy novel, I thought a lot about some of Brin’s objections and what I wanted to say about the issues.

Eventually, I settled on two “Big Concepts” that I wanted to explore, and while there are many others (such as the aforementioned racism), these were two that inspired me to realize I had something to say.

The “Glorification of Aristocracy” Problem: fantasy is filled with kings and lords and knights and other people who derive their power from their lineage. The restoration of the monarchy is typically seen as a good thing, or even the only way to bring about a golden age. Basically, the idea is that lineage is what makes heroes heroic and feudalism is awesome.

There are precious few democracies in fantasy fiction, but plenty of “rightful kings” who should rule, who deserve to rule, and often them not ruling leads to widespread disaster. But even if the story isn’t a “Return of the King” scenario, the nobles are frequently the best, brightest, and most interesting people.

Most of us like to pretend we’d be part of this group; we fantasize (hah) about which House we’d be in Game of Thrones. There are very few stories that glorify the struggle of the commoner, or even talk about it most of the time.

The “Magical Inheritance” Problem: The Jedi and their midichlorians, which are “the tiny microscopic organisms living in your blood that communicate the will of the Force.” Or how about “Yer a wizard, Harry.”

Most protagonists in fantasy are born with some special attribute derived from who their parents were. The Jedi and the wizards of Harry Potter are the most obvious examples, but there are many, and while this isn’t limited to the fantasy genre, I think fantasy is the most brazen about celebrating it.

Basically, even though your special powers might require study or effort to develop, you were fundamentally born with traits that others don’t have and if you didn’t inherit whatever “the gift” is, there’s nothing you can do about it. In Star Wars, you can’t just study the Force to become a Jedi, you have to be born “Force Sensitive.” It doesn’t matter how much of a heroic journey Han Solo had, he’s never going to pick up a lightsaber.

In Harry Potter, although children born to normal parents can learn magic, you can also be a squib, which is someone who was born to wizards but cannot use magic no matter how much they study.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I approached the first problem, “Glorification of Aristocracy” in writing the world of Dinomancer.

Pardon The Dust

Every time I pick a WordPress theme, I tell myself that this time it’s going to be permanent. There’s no way this theme could ever look dated, I think. And then a few years go by and I realize time has moved on and the thing I thought was cool now looks outdated and lame.

So then I have to spend two hours tweaking settings and playing with previews until I find something that feels not lame. And all the while, a little voice whispers in my ear that it’s time to get out of the bush league and buy a professional theme for real money dollars because the lack of professional theme is the only thing that’s keeping me from realizing my dream of being an author. And then I start to think, you know, maybe that’s a good point; 80 or 100 bucks for a theme isn’t an extravagance, it’s an investmentIn my FUTURE CAREER.

And then I see a perfectly good free theme that meets my needs and I go with that, because otherwise I have to justify to my wife (and to myself) why I spent 150 bucks on what basically amounts to a different usage of white space and a different font choice.

Yeah. Better stick to the free themes. When I find a good one, I play around with it until I’m happy and then I tell myself that this is the one, this look is timeless and will never, ever look lame.

So anyway, if you’ve been trying to read anything over the past few hours, that’s probably why things keep shifting. It’s not just you. Unless your graphics card is starting to fail, in which case it might be you.

Beginning Again

One of the the things that always came up during my monthly (or so) phone call with my dad was that he’d mention how I’d stopped updating my blog. He was right, of course; my last post was in May of 2017 and since then, I’ve been silent.

I don’t remember what I said each time he mentioned it.

Maybe something about how writing for my blog had felt weird lately, the fact that I was no longer comfortable writing my thoughts and sending them out into the open void. The internet got a lot more unfriendly after 2016 and given that it was never particularly friendly to begin with, that’s really saying something.

Or maybe it was something like how I just didn’t feel like I had that much to say anymore. That’s always been a common problem for me and in the past, I’d fill it up by looking around for something that made me angry and then I’d write about that. You don’t have to go back very far to find posts like that. I’ve disabled access to a couple of the ones that make me cringe the most, but otherwise I’ve left them alone.

I don’t know why I stopped, really. I could say I was too distracted (probably true, I’m frequently distracted) or I just didn’t feel like it anymore (also probably true, there are so many video games I’d rather be playing at any given moment). But that’s all just probably and maybe. I don’t really know, because I never really decided. I just stopped.

But I do know that my dad never stopped asking me about why I’d stopped and that meant he never stopped checking in.

The relationship between my dad and my writing has always been complicated. He’s never read any of my work, to the best of my knowledge. I wrote my first fantasy novel when I was sixteen and started six or seven other projects since then. I don’t remember if he read it at any point. Maybe I showed him a chapter or something?

Unrepentant was the second one I finished, but I was ready to move on from that world by the time I had a finished second draft, so I posted it up here for the hell of it. And there’s my current project, a fantasy novel with dinosaurs, which I’m pretty excited about even though at this point it’s been a couple of years since I started. No one has seen that yet, not even my wife, although I’m close to having a draft I can share.

The truth is, most of my writing is littered among half-finished projects that I never got around to finishing. So it’s not surprising that my dad never read any of those. It’s not like I was going to share them.

But he always kept coming back to this blog. He never stopped asking about what I was doing here.

I don’t think he realized it, but it kind of annoyed me at times. I don’t really consider this ‘real writing’ in any sense. It’s just something to do, something that leads to real writing the way running on a treadmill on a rainy day leads to going out on a hike when spring rolls around. It’s not writing, but it’s better than what I usually do when I sit down at my desk, which is play video games. That almost never leads to writing, not since I put my fanfiction days far behind me.

But even though I didn’t consider any of this to be my writing, it was interesting to my dad and he never stopped asking about it. I think he might have been my only dedicated reader.

The fact is, I’ve been sensitive about which of my things he showed an interest in ever since I was that teenager working on that first fantasy novel. At the time I was finishing up my first fantasy novel, I’d developed a bad problem with wanting to be good more than I wanted to learn how to be good at writing. I’d already decided I was a good writer at that point and I was hopelessly insecure about it. And the only thing that alleviated that insecurity was praise.

Have you ever had a moment in your life where you heard someone else tell a funny story or a joke or something, and later on, because it’s so funny you want to tell someone else the story you heard, but you realize it won’t be as funny if you say “my friend told me about this time . . .” so you just go ahead and make it a story about you instead? I don’t think I’m the only person who’s ever done this (I hope), but maybe I am.

The point is I wanted praise more than anything and at some point, I remember reading this short story that I thought was so goodso goddamned good that the ending gave me chills and I wanted to share it and talk about it. So I printed it out, but when I went to give it to my parents, I told them it was something I’d written, not something I’d found on the internet.

They loved the story. My mom said it was good enough to publish. My dad said it was the best thing I’d ever written.

I got the praise that I did not earn. They could tell at the time that I was upset by this and asked me what was wrong, but I didn’t want to admit that I’d stolen the story and lied to them about where it came from. I said something about how I was mad that something I’d put “no effort into” got all this attention, while the novel I’d been working on for a year wasn’t as good.

Which, if we’re willing to take the Obi-Wan Kenobi approach, might be true enough “from a certain point a view.” But let’s be honest: it isn’t true, not really.

I don’t think I ever told them the truth about that story. Maybe I told my mom at some point, I don’t know. Maybe they suspected the truth since I never brought up that particular story again after that day.

Regardless, since then I’ve always been a bit sensitive about which of my work gets attention and what doesn’t. And if you’re thinking, yeah, but you never invite people to see most of your work and you don’t really seem keen on finishing most of what you start, so are you really that surprised if the blog is the only thing your father asks about, given that it’s the only thing you ever ‘published’ in a way that was accessible for him?

And I’d say those are all really good points, annoying voice in my head. Well said. But he still could have asked about any of the manuscripts. He only ever asked about the blog, the thing I didn’t even really care about. The thing I stopped liking in 2017. For some reason, that’s what my dad liked.

And so he’d ask me, hey, when are you going to update your blog again?

He’d say, you haven’t updated your blog in a while.

And I’d say maybe someday I’d get back to it.

I’m getting back to it today. It took about a year and a half, but I got back to it. A year and a half is a long time when you’re a kid, less so when you’re an adult. But it’s enough time that a lot can change.

I’m a father myself now. My son is four and a half months old. His birthday is July 21. He’s taking a nap beside me as I write. He’s a good baby. I like him a lot. His mom and I are very happy.

I think my dad would like him, too. And I think he’d be pleased to see I’m finally back to updating my blog.

I say I think that’s how he’d feel, because I’ll never really know for sure. My dad won’t see that I updated my blog again and he won’t see any of my stories, because my dad died on July 24th, three days after my son was born.

I wish I’d started writing again sooner. I wish he’d lived long enough to see one more post. I wish I’d written something for him to read.

I wish he wasn’t gone.

I wish, I wish, I wish.

There’s a lot I wish was true. I wish I could say sorry it took so long for me to get back to this. Sorry for not thinking it mattered, even though it mattered enough to you to ask about it, to keep checking in.

But I’m here now. Picking it back up again. Writing down what I’m thinking, not knowing who it’s for or who (if anyone) will read it. Maybe my son will discover it some day. Maybe I’m just talking to myself at this point. I don’t know. But it feels good to do it again, regardless of the reason.

Four Months In

It’s been four months. 

On one of the teams I work for in my day job, we’ve been talking about the decrease we’ve been seeing in ebook readership growth. Overall, ebook consumption is still growing, but the rate has slowed. Corporate-type people will be the first to tell you that slowing growth isn’t per se an issue that sets off alarms; it’s more like the prickly feeling you get when you perceive that something might be wrong on the horizon. We don’t have data yet on why this trend is happening, but it’s a sign we can’t get comfortable. We need to prepare for the possibility that ebooks might go into decline and plan accordingly.

Anecdotally, the team lead raised one point; the slowdown coincides with the election of the current president. It’s possible that ebook consumption is down because time that used to be spent with ebooks is now being funneled into obsessively checking the news feeds for the latest drip of drama and turmoil.

While I’ve never been one to shy away from the headlines, I know that my digital news consumption has skyrocketed in the past months as I search for the slightest hint of reprieve, the first glimpse of relief that we’re on course to put the current nightmare behind us and get back to something resembling normalcy.

I’ve had to force myself to put down my tablet and refocus on reading print books just to break the cycle. And even then, my phone is out between chapters, just to see what I missed. This is what bothers me most about the current political environment, on a personal level. I can feel my thoughts changing, my attention span warping, even as I try to resist it. We are in the Age of Spectacle and Spectacle demands our most precious commodity: our attention.

It reminds me of alcohol, which is to say that it’s a poison, but it’s a very tasty sort of poison that one grows addicted to the more one is exposed to it. Like alcohol, I’m experimenting with stopping or limiting my consumption as much as possible.

So far, I’ve been succeeding at cutting back on the alcohol. Not so much on obsessively cycling through Allsides.com for new headlines or the various blogs I frequent or Twitter or Reddit.

It’s been hard to know what to say about everything. This is a frustrating state of being for a person who typically says too much on too many subjects, the unfortunate side effect of reading too many books and have too much access to the internet. I don’t envy people that have to do this professionally; it must be agonizing to have to choose between taking your time and getting it right, but risk getting left behind, or rushing out the door before the next cycle begins and risk getting it wrong. It’s safer to be an amateur, in this case. I’m happy where I am.

I have predictions about the future, although I’ve been so spectacularly wrong thus far I no longer trust whether I’m capable of perceiving the world as it is or if I perceive it as the way I hope it might be. I don’t think Trump will finish out his term; if he does, it’s only because investigations are slow, laborious affairs. Investigators like to be thorough, which is good, but I worry about the damage that can be done while they go about their business. I think there’s a pretty good chance of the House flipping in 2018; it’s what I’m hoping for, at any rate, as I keep an eye on the president’s popularity numbers.

Most of all, I hope that everyone eventually realizes that this level of turmoil and division cannot continue. I hope that collectively, we get so sick of the way things have been going that the pendulum swings back the other way and the next round of potential leaders are chosen because they’re stable, experienced, and/or reasonable. At the very least, that they’re capable of listening.

But hey, I’ve been wrong before.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to read more books.

Review: Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage

Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital EspionageCyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage by Gordon Corera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Cyberspies” is exhaustive, but in the way that climbing a mountain is exhaustive, where the reward is worth the effort. It’s comprehensive, leaving you with the sense of no stone having been left unturned. Most importantly, however, it is neutral. By the end of the book, I couldn’t suss out author Gordon Corera’s allegiances on the privacy vs. security debate. Does he think Snowden is a traitor or a hero? Are groups like the NSA doing necessary work or have they become the latest incarnation of the Stasi?

Based on the book alone, it’s impossible to say. And for an issue as contentious as cyber-security, surveillance, spying, and information, it’s a rare treasure to not have politics get in the way of the presentation of the facts. Corera’s work offers up the information in a careful, thoughtful way, and invites us to draw our own conclusions. What does digital privacy mean to our lives? What are we willing to trade for it?

Another interesting aspect of Corera’s work is that we get a British perspective on things, which is a refreshing change of pace. If you read about the history of computers for long enough, eventually you start to the see the patterns and the same names over and over. And while Americans did, indeed, create the internet as we know it today, the history of computers and cyber-security isn’t an American-only topic. Corera’s perspective, both informed and directed by his identity as a Brit, means that this isn’t the same old story.

Even as he maintains authorial neutrality, he makes observations that don’t seem to occur to American authors in quite the same way. “Americans trust their corporations and mistrust their government,” he notes, “while for Brits, it’s the other way around.”

If you’re interested in the topic of cyber-security, espionage, or information privacy, this book is a strong recommendation. It might not be my first foray into the subject if you’re a novice; Corera assumes his readers have a baseline proficiency with computers even if he takes care not to overwhelm them with technical jargon. But if you’re just now starting to think about topics like cryptography and digital privacy, this might not be the best starting place. Add it to your list of books to come back to once you’re comfortable with the topic.

Regardless, Corera feels like an author to watch. His style is direct and pleasantly journalistic, which feels increasingly rare in an era that seems to treat information and entertainment as synonyms. That doesn’t mean that this is a boring book in the slightest, but it feels pleasantly old-fashioned in its aims, rather like the Cold War-era spies that Corera writes about. And like those old time-y methods like invisible ink and typewriters, this writing style might just be exactly what we need in today’s world.

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Review: On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

On the Trail: A History of American HikingOn the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started hiking as a kid with my family and later as a boy scout, I never gave much thought to how trails were made or who made them. Even as a teenager and then as a young adult, I had some vague sense that these trails were probably created by the CCC half a century ago. It wasn’t until I joined a local trail organization myself and started working to maintain and build new trails that I began to understand the sheer amount of man-hours (person-hours?) that go into keeping the trails open and enjoyable.

“On the Trail” describes the evolution of trail walking and hiking, from its inception of nature and rural graveyard strolls to organized clubs to the current incarnation of largely solo and ad hoc group hiking. Chamberlin’s history focuses on a few key groups and areas, such as the Dartmouth Outing Club, the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Trail, and (briefly) the Pacific Crest Trail, though many other organizations and trails get some coverage. His work nicely bridges the gap that seems to exist in outdoors-nature writing, which often goes “Thoreau > present.”

If you’re a hiker, backpacker, or outdoors enthusiast, this is a book I’ll happily recommend. It’ll give you something interesting to contemplate or discuss while you’re out on the trail yourself and make you wonder: “who built the trail I’m on now? Who takes care of it?” It might even make you feel inspired to get involved in a local trail organization of your own; always a good thing! Certainly, I felt a sense of vindication and pleasure knowing that I’ve shifted my hiking style from “net consumer” of trails to “net producer” (terms that Chamberlin uses to describe the shift).

If you don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the outdoors or if your sense of what hiking should be is largely associated with forced family gatherings that are to be endured rather than enjoyed, there’s nothing here that’s going to make you want to strap on a pair of boots. But that’s okay, because this book is really aimed at the crowd of hikers who like to go out, enjoy the woods, but maybe haven’t thought too much more about how they can give back to their hobby. If nothing else, it’ll make you appreciate how much work went into, and still goes into, created all the paths we enjoy.

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