Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My advice for writers

I actually heard this from Garth Nix, but I've said almost exactly the same thing, and I wanted to get it down before I forgot that Garth said it. Here's his advice on how to be a successful writer:

Write what you love. And get lucky.

It's so true. Nobody knows what the market will reward, so you can't write to the market even if you could force yourself to do that and still produce good work. Sure, you can sell out, toss in a few gratiutious sex scenes, an unnecessary explosion, a syrupy moral or two - who hasn't done that? But in the end, you have to write what you love, and hope someday the market catches up to you.

So, here's my program for becoming a professional writer.

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Submit
  4. Go to step 2.
I would add "marry a professional editor/author and steal her agent," but that's probably a little too specific.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why I am not an agnostic

"In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." *
Everyone has heard this old adage, and everyone understands its basic truth. The humor lies in comparing a political evil to a physical one, a contrast between the abstract and debatable, and the concrete and undeniable. My point here is that death is understood by all adults as inevitable; indeed, one could plausibly claim that the dividing line between childhood and maturity is the knowledge of the inevitability of death. If there is to be any meaning to the word "certainty," it must include the certainty of death.

Yet the central thesis of Christianity is the outright rejection of this self-evident truth. The message of the cross is Jesus' triumph over death; the message of His ministry is that death can be defeated. To speak of the Christian god is to implicitly assert that death is not certain. By death I don't mean a brief sleep before the bodily resurrection, or the trivial shedding of our physical bodies; but actual death: the final goodbye, the eternal absence, the hard lesson we all learned when a pet or a relative passed away.

Here, then, is reason enough to justify atheism (at least with respect to Christianity). If we can know anything, we know that people die, and that means we know that Christianity is false. When I say I am certain that God does not exist, what I am really saying is that I am certain that death is real.

Therefore, the existence of God is not a neutral proposition, unweighted by evidence for or against; it is an active denial of what we all know to be true. To make that assertion requires a positive act of faith; to lack that faith is to be functionally indistinguishable from an atheist. There is simply no room for agnosticism with respect to the Christian god. One either believes; or one does not; one either has faith, or one does not. One does not simply not know whether or not people die; rational adults do not lack sufficient information to form an opinion on mortality.

Thus agnosticism, with respect to Christianity, is philosophically untenable, however socially useful (an agnostic is sometimes defined as an atheist who doesn't want to argue about it). The only way to pretend that the claims of Christianity are in a state of uncertainty is to revert to a child-like innocence on the topic of death.

Well, there is another way, which is to redefine terms and conditions until all meaning is lost: but that way lies solipsism.

* Attributed to Ben Franklin, although, ironically, we are not certain it originated with him.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The role of mockery

There is currently a kerfluffle going on between the Gnu Atheists and the Accommodationists about tone and strategy. Unfortunately, most of the complaints by the Accommodation camp miss the point.

The role of mockery is not to deconvert believers. The goal is to delegitimize authority, thus creating space for people to deconvert on their own. Or not, actually: your average Gnu Atheist is less interested in creating unbelievers than they are in creating thinkers. If you've got a really good reason for being a theist, one so good you think other people should share it, we'd like to hear about it. Or, if you don't have a good reason, but you want to privately entertain your own private fantasies, that's fine, too, as long as we don't hear about it. The only thing the Gnus want to shut down is the presumption that you can assert unbelievable things and have them automatically respected because you somehow worked in the word "faith".

Anyway, as most people have heard, you can't reason a man out of a position he didn't reason himself into. And since most believers hold their position for social or emotional causes, rational argument is simply not going to accomplish anything. How does one go about calling into question social orthodoxy, then?

The answer is obvious. Mockery is the traditional, time-honored way of challenging social orthodoxy. As long as faith is the socially dominant position, it will be the appropriate target of mockery. As long as the inflated fabulisms of priests are taken seriously, they will require puncturing.

When you find a believer who has a rational argument, send them to me. When you find a believer who has an emotional crisis, hold their hand and explain how we have made good, happy lives without faith, despite the inherent indifference of our cold universe. But when you find a believer who believes because Very Important People said it was Right and Wise, then by all means, point, laugh, and scorn.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why I don't like traveling

The Aurealis Awards were great. Coming home from them was something else entirely.

First, we stopped at a cafe outside of the hotel for breakfast. They brought my plate out promptly, and I have to admit the scrambled eggs were so good I ate them instead of fobbing them off on Sara. It's true I was disappointed in the sausage, but that's just an Australian thing (I temporarily forgot what continent I was on, and was expecting Jimmy Dean). The bacon, as always, made up for it.

However, twenty minutes later, my plate was empty and they hadn't brought Sara's pancakes, despite being reminded at least once. I went in to ask, and I could see that the grill didn't even have pancakes on it. I wanted to just walk out, but Sara made me pay for my dish and her latte. The waiter was apologetic, but as I pointed out, "sorry" didn't get my wife breakfast, now did it? Seriously, how hard is it to not bring out two plates until both of them are ready? Isn't that like one of the first things you learn in waitering training?

If I believed in prophecies, I would have recognized it as a sign of things to come.

On the way to the train station, we saw a cab, so we asked what the fare to the airport would be. The cabbie assured us it would be $35 or so, which was close to the $30 a pair of train tickets would cost. Since the Sydney train is a noisy, filthy sty (unlike the Melbourne trains), we went for it.

It turns out the cabbie was wrong. After a sickening ride (literally, Sara almost lost it from the curves and hills), we were presented with a bill for $43. But not until after being subjected to a racist rant by an ancient, decrepit cabbie so hard of hearing I had to communicate the name of our airline terminal by pantomime.

Which brings us to the true villain of the day, Tiger Airways. We got to the airport so early our flight wasn't even on the board yet. When it did show up, it had the word that I can never really comprehend when associated with flight information: cancelled. What does that even mean? It's not like I cancelled the freaking check I gave you. It's not like I can just go home and come back the next day - the whole point is that I'm trying to get home.

So we're standing in line, talking with a few other dispossessed travelers (hi Robin & Sharon!) and the fact emerges that Tiger has a reputation for this. Being me, I stepped out of line (a very long line, I might add), went up to the desk and asked a clerk what they were planning to do about it.

His response was that they had 4 seats on a later flight, and everyone else would have to wait until tomorrow. I walked backwards through the line, asking people if they were going to Melbourne, and when I got to six, I stopped counting.

After a brief conversation with Sara, I went off to Jetstar to buy a pair of tickets for $400. Considering that staying in Sydney another night would have cost us as at least $250, not counting me losing a day of work, it seemed worth it even if I didn't have a baby-deprived wife jonesing to get back to her bundle of joy.

I asked the Jetstar clerk if I could cancel the tickets if Tiger got us on a flight, but of course the answer was no: one-way tickets bought at the counter for a flight in the next two hours are pretty much the definition of not refundable.

"Are you sure?" she asked me. I shrugged and handed over my debit card. Literally two seconds after I pressed "Enter," Sara came running up to tell me that Tiger had given us seats. I yanked my card out of the machine, but this wasn't a Hollywood movie. It was too late.

But the Jetstar clerked was an angel. She hadn't completed the booking in her computer, so she immediately escaped out of the booking screen. Then she spent the next thirty minutes trying to figure out how to give me my money back. Apparently it had been so long since anyone in the airport had issued a refund that nobody knew how to do it anymore. Eventually she just cleaned out her cash drawer for us.

I stopped by the Tiger desk to give the clerk a bit of a debate on an epistemological phenomenon that seems surprisingly unfamiliar to many people: namely, that the wrong answer is actually worse than no answer at all. I am not sure he was as appreciative of the information as he should have been.

However, I found our discussion to be quite informative, as I've now learned that Jetstar will bend over backwards to help someone who isn't even their customer, while Tiger can't be trusted to count their passengers, let alone deliver them to their destinations. Good to know, I think.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Aurealis Awards

The Aurealis Awards were great fun, even though Sara didn't win. :(  Garth Nix was the presenter, and he did a masterful job of it. He was entertaining, telling  funny stories without slowing the pace of events, of course, but he also managed to be personable without overshadowing the event, the other presenters, or the nominees.

Afterwards I told him that although I hadn't read any of his books, I recognized his name because I'd seen him on bookshelves in America. He was quick with a quip: "Well, that's the first step."

He also had a good insight into why YA is such a growing market, pointing out that more and more adults are reading them. He said that YA novels have all the traditional elements of a novel, which I took to mean that people who buy a YA novel know they'll get the conventions of a novel - you know, plot, character arcs, resolution, that stuff. The kind of stuff you don't necessarily find in literary or experimental writing. As I'm a big fan of that stuff, I'll have to rethink my relationship to YA.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Publisher's Lunch

Michael Planck's debut FIRAXE, in which humanity's first contact comes in the brutal decimation of the planet Firaxe and together a mismatched pair of rescuers discover that an imminent alien invasion might be the least of humanity's concerns and that the cruel truth about the planet's destruction lies closer to home, to David Hartwell at Tor, in a nice deal, by Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency (NA & UK).
Well, then. It's official - even if they spelled my name wrong. But then, who doesn't?

It was the only sci-fi/fantasy sale announced today, although one of the general fiction books was about moon colonization. I guess that's not sci-fi anymore?

Anyway, look for it on the shelves sometime next year. Don't worry, I'll remind you again. :D

Saturday, May 7, 2011

More TV

We called the estate agent (that's what they call realtors around here) about the TV antenna. She wasn't very encouraging, but the very next day the landlord sent an antenna guy around. So now we have a nice, new digital antenna on the roof.

Since this is Hi-Def digital TV, the fact that American TVs use NTSC and Aussie TVs use PAL no longer matters. Except. Apparently, the American Hi-Def standard is also different. I plugged the PS3 directly in my Samsung, and everything worked fine. Until I put in a DVD. Then I got "Mode not supported."

Hmph. I guess I need my converter box after all. It's also a TV tuner, with nine different standards... but none of them are Hi-Def. Seriously, the brand-new international tuner box I bought last year will be obsolete next year.

We went down to JB Hi-Fi to get a tuner box and possibly a DVR, so we can record the Daily Show and watch it later (like, the next day. Just to be ironic). This time, instead of buying anything, I poured out my tale of woe to the poor clerk. As soon as I said PS3, he took his hand off the $400 box and sent me to the game section.

The clerk there sold me a Sony PlayTV rig. It's a box the size of a cigarette box and connects to the PS3 via a USB cable. That's right, every DVR box has a dozen connections on the back - HDMI, Co-Axial, Component, maybe even Optical, and all you need is USB. It's all just data, people! (By people I mean electrical engineers, an admittedly unusual use of the word.) He said it was only $140. Sara took one off the shelf and said, "But this one is marked $124."

He took it, scanned it, frowned, and said, "Don't tell anyone else." While he corrected the prices on the rest of them, we went to check out. He found us in the checkout line and warned me that some people had complained of reception problems, so that might be an issue.

Man, I love that store.

Anyway we now have 27 channels... and nothing on. The Daily Show stopped being shown on ABC and went back to the Comedy channel. Half the rest of the channels are repeats (the networks are hogging bandwith for future expansion) or sport. Aussies are nuts about sport.

And I have to change channels through the PS3 controller. It's so complicated it might as well be its own video game. But it's not at good game. There's a lot of dull repetitive grinding, and the winning end-game cut-scene is "MasterChef" boiling leeks.