Category Archives: opinion

Dear Scientific American, Left hand, meet right hand

I get that third-party vendors of digital magazines like Zinio may not share subscription information with the source magazine in question. So when I subscribed to New Scientist through Zinio and I kept getting renewal messages from New Scientist, it kind of made sense, in a bizarro-world kind of way. New Scientist simply didn’t have any way of knowing that I was still a subscriber through Zinio.

But Scientific American is another story. I love Scientific American and have been a subscriber for 15+ years now. Recently, I let my paper subscription lapse and replaced it with a digital subscription. The digital subscription is not through Zinio, but through Scientific American‘s website. You’d think all of this would be associated and recorded in the same database, but I keep getting e-mail from Scientific American with urgent warnings that my subscription has lapsed and I am going to miss out on vital scientific reporting, to say nothing of great savings on my subscription.

Wrong. I am not missing out on anything. I have the latest issues, all of them. I got them using my subscription to the digital (PDF) version of Scientific American, to which I subscribed through the Scientific American website. Why can’t their subscription department figure this out and stop pestering me? You’d think that a magazine that reports on science and technology–including articles on information technology–would have a clue and get their act together.

Come on, folks, you can do better than this. After all, you are Scientific American for crying out loud!

FAQ: How can you be a science fiction writer/fan if you don’t like sci-fi movies/TV?

I get asked quite frequently what I thought of the latest blockbuster sci-fi movie. “Do you have your ticket for Prometheus?” or “What did you think about the season finale of [fill in the blank with your favorite sci-fi show]?” This reached its peak after I posted the picture of the TARDIS that parks in our visitor parking area and the countless Doctor Who fans out there learned that I was a science fiction writer who had never seen a single episode of Doctor Who. “How can you be a science fiction writer and never have seen Doctor Who?” they asked. (Eventually, based on a straw poll, I did watch “Blink.” I liked it, too.)

Still, I get the question often enough to where it is worth having a post to which I can point the incredulous masses to explain why I’m not a fan of sci-fi movies and TV shows. There are several reasons:

  1. Written science fiction (which I loathe to call sci-fi) is a different art form than sci-fi on the screen. I grew up mostly with the former, not the latter. It was pure luck, I suppose, but those early influences stuck. Thus, given the choice between spending my time reading a science fiction story or novel and going to see a sci-fi movie, I’ll almost always choose the former.
  2. I don’t see much originality in sci-fi movies. It seems to me that the vast majority of sci-fi movies that are produced are based on works of written science fiction. Many of these works I have read and enjoyed and have images in my head that I don’t want altered by a director’s vision. Then, too, if I’ve read the book, why see the movie? It seems repetitive to me.
  3. My experience tells me that sci-fi movies based on the book generally suck. Obviously, this experience was gained through actually going to see sci-fi movies when I was younger. I had no reason not to go. Generally, however, I was disappointed. I can recall reading Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters in a single sitting, breathless by the end. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was invited to a focus group screening of the movie The Puppet Masters starring Dennis Southerland. It was horrible. That may very well have a been the turning point for me. When Starship Troopers was made into a movie, I never even bothered.
  4. I am a science fiction writer. I am not a director. I don’t have a director’s eye. I’m not sure why being a science fiction writer should mean one is also, ipso facto a fan of sci-fi movies.
  5. As a science fiction writer, I prefer spending my time writing. It is extremely rare when I have 2-3 free hours available period. When I do, I’d much rather spend those hours working on a new story than going to the latest sci-fi movie or watching a science fiction TV show.
  6. Economics. To go to a movie these days (assuming Kelly and I go together) costs about $20 for the movie. Throw in another $20 for popcorn, soda, a hot dog. Then there is another $30-45 for a babysitter. All told, that’s between $70-85 just to go a see a movie! It has to be something that really stirs my interest for me to spend that kind of money. (That’s between 7-8 Kindle books!)

The above items are generalities and there are exceptions to all of them, of course. Indeed, there have been sci-fi movies that I’ve really liked. Even a couple of TV shows. I’ll list some of the movies and shows that have made good impressions on me.

Continue reading FAQ: How can you be a science fiction writer/fan if you don’t like sci-fi movies/TV?

Science literacy

The Christian Science Monitor has a quiz going around that allows you to test your science literacy. The 50-question quiz was not a particularly easy one. It covered a wide range of sciences including biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and mathematics. I took the quiz and ended up answering 43 out of 50 questions correctly. Here are the 7 questions that I got wrong (I won’t tell you the correct answers in case you want to take the quiz yourself):

  • How many nanometers are there in a centimeter? (I was off by 1 order of magnitude.)
  • What is the heaviest noble gas? (I should have known this one.)
  • Named for the 19th century English physicist, what unit of measurement is defined as the energy exerted by the force of one newton acting to move an object through a distance of one meter. (I mistook the nationality of the scientist I selected.)
  • If you were to apply a net force of one Newton on a 200 gram object, what would be the acceleration of the object? (Forgot the formula.)
  • Geologists categorize rocks into three types: Igneous, sedimentary, and what? (Guessed.)
  • Over half the world’s supply of what element, which gets its name from the epithet of the Greek goddess Athena, is used in catalytic converters. (In hindsight, I should have known this based on the Greek epithet hint alone.)
  • In quantum mechanics, the physical constant used to describe the size of quanta–denoted as h–is named after what German physicist.

Overall, however, 43 out of 50 isn’t too bad for someone without a degree in a physical or biological science. It amounts to an 86%, or a solid B. That I could manage a solid B in science literacy without having majored in a science is due to three things, I think:

  1. A good science foundation in high school. I took AP biology and AP physics in high school. I took the standard chemistry course. That AP physics course was taught by an outstanding teacher, Dr. Goldman. It was my first introduction to physics and it left a real impression on me.
  2. Isaac Asimov’s science essays. After graduating from college, I gradually made my way through all 399 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) from 1958 through his death in 1992. These essays taught me science in a way that I never learned it in high school or college–from a cumulative, historical perspective. This perspective made many of the concepts much easier to understand because you always started at the beginning, when nobody knew anything about a subject. You could also see the mistakes scientists made along the way and how they recognized them as such and corrected them. I was able to answer a good number of the questions on the quiz because I’d read Asimov’s essays.
  3. Keeping up with science through magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, and Discover. Science is constantly evolving and there is no way for any one person to keep up with all of it. But my intent in reading these magazines (aside from the enjoyment I get from them) is to do my best to stay current with the trends and discoveries in all branches of science.

I wonder what the average score on the science literacy test is, but I am almost afraid to ask. I fear that an number I chose that seemed sufficiently low, would turn out to be not low enough.

Using words

I take some occasional heat from friends, family and coworkers for my vocabulary. There are, it seems, times when I use a word that those around me are unfamiliar with. I am asked what the word means, and give the definition to the best of my ability and then try to move on. It is not always that easy. Sometimes, I am accused (mostly by close friends or family) of using a “fancy” word when another more common word would have suited. This is not at all my intention and I generally have two responses to this:

  1. I try to use words that precisely convey my meaning. Often times the word I chooses means exactly what I say, whereas substituting a simpler word subtracts from the meaning.
  2. What is the point of learning all of those SAT words if not to put them to practical use.

I sometimes get the feeling that people think I am joking when I make that remark about the SATs, but I am not. I try to put to some practical use everything I have learned. Else, what’s the point in learning it in the first place? There has to be more to learning than just grades and degrees.

This is on my mind today because I had the need to make use of the word “holographic” in its pre-modern sense this morning and hesitated to do so, thinking of the grief that people give me. A coworker had sent me an email which contained a scanned-in article upon which he’d made some handwritten comments. In forwarding the article to my boss and grandboss, I asked them to take particular note of the “holographic comments” in the article. Most people today are probably familiar with the term holographic as a trope of science fiction. But it has an even older definition that means “of or being a document written wholly in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears.” Clearly the term “holographic” in this sense is a much more succinct description than a phrase such as “so-and-so’s handwritten comments.”

Continue reading Using words

Do you really want your flying car?


Flying cars have been a staple of science fiction for 70 years. Once the ground car became a popular thing, and traffic increased with increasing popularity, it was inevitable for people to imagine cars that could fly above the traffic, and didn’t need roadways. Robert Heinlein featured flying cars frequently in his stories of the 1940s (“Beyond This Horizon–,” for instance). Isaac Asimov included them in the opening story of his “Foundation” novel. The Jetsons featured a flying car in the 1960s. In the 1980s, they were featured prominently in the Back to the Future sequels. And today, Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels feature flying cars. This is just a small sample of the long history that the flying car has in science fiction.

It is a joke in the science fiction world, among fans and writers alike, to ask, “Where is my flying car?” We wonder why, after 70 years, we don’t have them yet. I don’t believe it is the technology for the car itself that is the problem. Indeed, I read with increasing frequency of the development of flying cars. We don’t yet have flying cars because of two unspoken assumptions that I think were built into the science-fictional notion of a flying car: (1) an infrastructure to support such vehicles; and (2) autonomous vehicles; that is, cars that were controlled by computer as opposed to by human.

Without an infrastructure a flying car is nothing more than a gimmick vehicle out the reach of most people. An infrastructure includes not only the ability to mass produce the vehicles, but also includes how the cars would make use of airspace; how they would share such airspace with other aircraft; how the vehicles would be licensed and inspected; safety regulation, etc. While I have read many stories about flying cars, I can’t recall reading a story about the first flying car, or the Henry Ford-type man or woman who invents the assembly line process for making flying cars practical.

The second unspoken assumption is, in some ways, even more critical. Flying cars come complete with an autonomous system for getting you where you want to go safely. I couldn’t imagine drivers today in control of their own flying cars. As a former private pilot, I know just how much training and skill is required to safely pilot a small aircraft and the level of skill I see on the highways around the country is at least an order of magnitude below what would be required to pilot a flying car. You, gentle reader, might do perfectly fine piloting a flying car, but would you trust those around you to do the same? Do you really want your flying cars without an autonomous system to make sure that the people inside them don’t screw things up?

Self-driving road cars are just coming into being. Google has done significant research in this arena. Self-controlled flying cars are another story entirely. Certainly we have autonomous drone aircraft, and that is a start, but I think we are a long way from a point where people would trust their lives to a computer controlling their ground vehicle, let alone a similar vehicle that could fly through the air. They’d rather fly it themselves, and that would be a disaster.

I want my flying car just as much as the next fellow, but I don’t quite trust the next fellow to fly his car safely with thousands of other cars zipping through the skies.

Some political observations

Over the last few years, the bickering in Congress has pretty much ruined politics for me. Not long ago, I got a call from the Democratic fund-raising machinery asking me for money. I’ve given them money in the past, but I refused to do it this time. When asked why, I told them that I was fed up with how both sides did nothing but bicker and point the finger. I wasn’t going to give another dime until I saw some real leadership. Naturally, the fellow on the phone bickered with me, but I held firm.

It’s been so bad that I’ve really just tried to stay away from the news. Of course, you can’t stay completely away from it. So just a few observations, at least one of which contains profanity, which I don’t normally use, but which I am compelled to use out of pure frustration.

  1. Maryland has legalized gay marriage and that is awesome. On the other hand, it is a shame that people must still fight for rights that should be available to everyone. I shudder to imagine what future generations will think of us when they learn that there were people opposed to gay marriage.
  2. Rush Limbaugh is a dick. But come on, we all knew this. This is not news. He’s a hypocrite, too. He calls a student activist testifying before Congress a slut and a prostitute? Really? And now even some Republican leaders are distancing themselves from him. Look, let’s face it, Limbaugh gets paid to make waves. His behavior is meretricious. It’s exactly what I’d expect from him.
  3. Big government vs. small government? How about just a government that, you know, governs for a change. I know three-year-olds who could run the country better than the current leadership. They are great at name calling, great at issue-dodging, great at raising money. But they suck at leading. I try to avoid being an “issue-voter” but I swear I’m on the verge of voting for the first person in my district, regardless of affiliation, who stands up and says, “No more pointing fingers. We’ve got problems. Who created them is immaterial. My job as your leader is to lead us through them, and try to solve them as best as we can.” But my gut tells me if I voted based on that issue, there’d be no one on the ballot.

It seems to me our biggest problem is that we lack leaders. They’ve been traded in for career politicians. A career politician can never be a leader: their career comes first. Now, it might be argued that these folks are leaders and career politicians, that the two are not mutually exclusive. But being a leader takes courage and all I’ve seen is the most cowardly bunch of politicians ever to take oaths of office, as far as I can tell.

If it were as easy to raise courage as it is to raise campaign funds, we’d be in good shape. Forget the oil crisis, we seem to be in the midst of a backbone shortage.

Comments closed on this one because I’m not in the mood to debate. Just venting steam here, folks.

Doctor Who’s “Rose”

Last night (while in the grips of a battle with nausea) I finally got around to watching the first episode of the “new” Doctor Who series. The episode is called “Rose” and it is the episode that kicks things off for the rest of the series. It is only the second Doctor Who episode I’ve ever seen1

“Rose” was a pretty entertaining episode and I enjoyed watching it, but I did not think it was nearly as good as “Blink.” There was one thing about the series that struck me right away, and perhaps long time fans of the series can confirm by perspicacity on this (or tell me that I’m imagining things). Doctor Who is a “dramedy,” a kind of combination of a drama and a comedy. Not only that, the humor in Doctor Who is distinctly Wodehousian.  So many funny things are said with a completely straight face that I could not help but think that if P. G. Wodehouse wrote science fiction, this is what it would be like. This is to the show’s (and the show’s writers’) credit. I think this is a very difficult humor to pull off, but Doctor Who did it successfully in “Rose” and for me, that’s what made it a worthwhile episode to watch. I do not think this type of humor would have succeeded or worked if the show were done in America.

One thing I will say is that unlike some series, I did not feel compelled to immediately watch the next episode. But I think this works in the shows favor, too. As I’ve said before, I prefer “series” over “serials” and the first episode of Doctor Who felt like a series show to me. (I understand that there are multi-episode arcs, but I’m just talking about “Rose” for now.) In any case, I enjoyed the episode and will watch another one when a free time slot comes available in my schedule.

One last thing. I mentioned in the previous post that I was feeling pretty horrible last night and among the horrible things I was feeling was fever dreams. I don’t remember them clearly, but what I do recall of them were all Doctor Who-related.

  1. The first was “Blink” which I watched back in December after many people recommended it as a good introduction to the series.

Dear Apple

Dear Apple,

I love you guys, but you must really curb your obsession with big cats. Mountain Lion? Really? Pickings are growing slim, eh?


Jamie Todd Rubin

A shout-out for Christopher’s Confections

For Valentine’s Day, Kelly got us a box of chocolates to share. She got the chocolate’s from Christopher’s Confections as part of a fund-raising shindig for one of the Little Man’s Gymboree teacher’s who died unexpectedly a few months ago. We were actually so busy on Valentine’s Day evening that we never got a chance to try the chocolates, but for the last two nights, we’ve had two of these chocolate bonbons each and they have to rank among the finest chocolates I’ve ever tasted.

What makes them unique is their flavors. Kelly got us a box of 12, which contained 6 flavors (2 candies of each). Among the flavors are:

  • Champagne
  • Peanut Butter Caramel
  • Chambord
  • Extra Old Cognac
  • Butter and Scotch
  • Noisette

They are all just so outstandingly good. So far I think my favorite is the Extra Old Cognac and the Champagne. Sadly, tonight will be our last night. There are four candies left and we’ll each have two after dinner.

The candies are pricey, but (a) it was for a very good cause and (b) they are well worth the price. They are works of art themselves and you almost don’t want to eat them because each one looks so beautiful.

If you are in the market for some outstanding chocolates, both Kelly and I highly recommend Christopher’s Confections.

Is it cheating to pay for a book review?

A few days ago, I arrived home from work to find a package from Amazon. I didn’t recall ordering anything, and when I opened the package, I discovered it was book I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of. Included was a gift receipt and a note from the author. The note indicated the author was a member of SFWA and then asked for me to read the book and give it a Nebula nomination. It noted further that the book received high praise from a prestigious review outlet. As I’d never heard of the author, I checked the SFWA directory and found the listing.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sit right with me, being sent a book and being explicitly asked to consider it for Nebula nomination. Everything I’ve ever been told about this business is that an award season post, letting people know what you are eligible for is acceptable. You do not ask people for a nomination. Certainly you don’t send them a book unsolicited. If I give the author in question the benefit of the doubt, the book was sent to me as a gift with no obligation whatsoever. But the note clearly had a purpose and whether or not it was intended, it made me feel really uncomfortable. And why send it to me? Simple research would show that I am not a book reviewer. Was it because I am a SFWA member? Does that mean a book was sent to every SFWA member? I imagine that if a Nebula nomination was being sought, SFWA members would be the people to go to.

I’d pretty much forgotten about it until today when I was reading a newsletter from a prestigious review outlet and discovered the book I’d been sent featured rather prominently in the newsletter. Curious, I read the review and clearly the reviewer liked the book. But I also discovered that the program under which the book was reviewed was geared toward independent authors. An author can pay nearly $600 to have their book reviewed and then use that review for whatever purposes they like.

I suppose there is money to be made in the business of reviewing books, but to me, it seems kind of like cheating to pay for your own book review. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe paying for reviews is the new way of doing things, but if I get recognized, I want it to be because of the buzz my stories generate, not because I paid someone to review them.

I have not read the book I was sent. It may well be as good as the review indicates. But if it was really that good, why did it need a paid review in the first place? Wouldn’t I be hearing other people talking about it? And yet, I haven’t seen any buzz anywhere, not on Twitter, Facebook, not in the usual SF news and review outlets.

I come away from this whole thing feeling dirty for reasons I can’t quite explain. Both practices–asking for Nebula nominations and paying for book reviews–seem like cheating to me. If you want to be a writer, be a writer, work at it, earn your nominations and reviews, don’t pay for them. I would think you’d be more satisfied in the end.

Am I totally off base here?

A good analysis of the United States v. Jones decision

Over at Freedom To Tinker, my friend Paul Ohm has a good analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Jones. This is the “GPS privacy” case that’s been in the news today. Paul is a lawyer and law professor at the University of Colorado Law School and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

Stop SOPA!

Tomorrow, this site will be participating in the Stop SOPA protest. When you come to the site tomorrow between 8am and 8pm EST, you will see a splash screen in protest of SOPA with information on how to take action. You will be able to continue to the site, and if I have configured things correctly, you should only see the splash screen the first time you visit. You can preview what this will look like here.

You know those dystopian futures where books are burned, libraries are censored and people have to be careful about what they say? Think it’s just science fiction? Think again. Tomorrow, with many sites on the Internet going “dark,” we’ll all get a preview of a dystopian future we must avoid.

Just a heads-up to folks who visit tomorrow and are thrown off by the splash screen.