Tag Archives: scalzi

2015 Gift Guide, Snowman Style

I’ve slightly edited my gift guide for 2015, based on availability, practicality, and functionality. It’s what to get for people who have things, or for whom gift giving is remarkably hard, or who have unique tastes, or if you just want to elicit the massive exhalation upon gift wrap deconstruction.

Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers as a bas-relief link between construction and destruction. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. Be good and look good. (About $250).

Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. You can buy the case (in case you upgrade or in my situation, lose, your phone) and keep the same lenses, or just buy specific lenses: iPro Lens System Trio Kit for iPhone 6 For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $300).

Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip, or you want to use an extra wide aperature lens to shoot an event without having to invest the equivalent of 100 tickets in the process. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. You can now pick up your lenses at their retail locations in New York City and the San Francisco bay area, which saves on shipping and time. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

Sonos Play:1 or Play:3. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a Play:1 in the kitchen, and I use a play of SONOS PLAY:3 Smart Speaker
in my office. Having music follow you around makes doing any sort of repetitive labor fun, whether it’s prep work in the kitchen or filing those expense reports with the four crumpled paper receipts from Taco Bell. Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1. $300 for a Play:3)

Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

Live Music, Later. Very early in 2015 I started taking bass lessons after 30-plus years of wishing, thinking, procrastinating, and rationalizing my misunderstanding of the bass clef (old saxophone and clarinet players have this treble clef preference that took years to unwind). It’s one of the most fun things I’ve done. Find a studio that accepts adult students, and buy a month of lessons — it’s very important to find a teacher who likes the same music as your potential student, and whose styles mesh. In my case, a huge hat tip to Max at So I Heard Music in Millburn, who has taught me that so much of the music I love goes down in a minor key. (About $150 for a month)

Meaningful Reading. My go-to is something personalized and signed by John Scalzi for the sci-fi fan on your list, but recently reading through the middle-aged Facebook lamentations of a kindler, simpler Long Beach Island made me think of Tales from an Endless Summer: A Novel of the Beach (A Cormorant Book). I’m also promoting high school classmate James Campion’s Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon. (Under $20)

Strong Community Memberships. My personal new favorite is “Cash Or Trade,” a site that pairs fans sick of Ticketmaster fees and Stubhub market pricing to buy and sell tickets at face value. I’ve used it several times when my late spring Phish tour planning didn’t quite coincide with work or other obligations and I found myself needing to shuffle paper. A gold membership is $24 and is the best value for using the site, since you can get real time notification when new inventory arrives. Slightly more Phish-y and related is a donation to the Mockingbird Foundation, a non profit founded by Phish fans to support music education (see previous idea for music lessons; crowdsource this for someone you don’t know through Mbird). And finally, the Music Maker Foundation fights for the rights, recognition and remuneration of Southern musicians who have suffered poverty, poor contracts, and obscurity.

The Snowman 2014 Holiday Gift Guide

Based on the rousing success (about seven people read it and based on amazon.com click-through rates, at least ten products were viewed) of last year’s Holiday Gift Guide, I humbly present the emergent, annual (almost), carefully researched and field tested Snowman Guide to Getting Gifts For Geeks Who Seem To Have Everything, But Need Something To Ooooh About.

Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers intact. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. The Talisman collection is much more accessible price-wise, and could be a fun gift for that poker player in your life; the “In Gratitude” collection supports women in Uganda. Be good and look good. (About $250).

Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. There’s an iPhone 5S version and an iPhone 5 version and it appears you can get the lenses individually with just the snap-on case as well. For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $200).

Next year the Turn-I-Kit will be added, once it’s available through some retail/online channels. I got mine through the Kickstarter campaign, and while it’s still a bit rough to use, it is quite cool dangling your iPhone off the back of a 200mm f/2.8 lens.

Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

53 tablet pencil. How quaint – a pencil. Yet if you express yourself in the Stern 14.6 point font on whiteboards enough, you know sometimes it’s just easier to draw. Now draw on your iPad, and share the images, and you have a whiteboard to go where you do your best thinking (yes, even in that room). I’m loving my Pencil by FiftyThree Digital Stylus since it “feels” like a pencil and has a variety of brushes (pencil, marker, paint) that’s somewhere in between drawing with a mouse and using a Wacom tablet. (About $50-70 depending upon finish)

Sonos Play:1. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a SONOS PLAY:1 in the kitchen, and it makes breaking down cauliflower fun (recommended: Springsteen’s “Darkness On The Edge of Town”, it’s perfect for anything in the cabbage family). Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1)

John Scalzi autographed books. I have waxed, fawned, and exhibited the full spectrum of fanboy behaviors when it comes to John Scalzi. In addition to being a superb science fiction writer, he captures the zeitgeist of life in this decade with aplomb and poise. Each year, Scalzi offers personalized books for the holidays. Support a great writer, and a local bookstore. ($20 and up)

Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

Live Musc, Then. Gift a year-long membership to Concert Vault and the recipient can stream access to the entire Bill Graham Presents catalog of classic shows, along with $5 pricing on downloads of those shows. Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, and a seasons’ worth of Yes shows — all in one place. Personally, for the prog rocker on your “nice” list (as opposed to “The Nice” on your rock list, or the nice on your Unix process, but I digress), the 12-10-74 Yes show is worth the entire subscription price. It’s one of the few recordings of the “Relayer” tour (now 40 — yes FORTY — years old) with Patrick Moraz on keyboards, and the “Sound Chaser” opening freaked out a lot of long time Yes fans. Now, of course, it’s classic, and for $40 you can relive the moment (stream it to your Sonos Play:1!)

John Scalzi’s “Fuzzy Nation”

John Scalzi is definitely one of my favorite sci-fi authors. While I enjoy books that leaving me thinking, head-scratching, pondering serious questions and sometimes collapsing all of those mental states around a quantum mechanics problem centered in the harder sci-fi, Scalzi’s books are uniquely hopeful. I wouldn’t go so far as to call his writing happy because I think that makes potential readers somehow discount his ability to tell a thought-provoking story.

Fuzzy Nation pits man versus The Man in a money or morality mining pit story. An independent prospector on a remote planet discovers a vein of gemstones that will make him wealthier than several corporations. He also discovers the “fuzzys” – cat-like aboriginal creatures who appear to be sentient. If the fuzzys are people, his claim is worthless; if the fuzzies are merely animals then he only has to maintain his (fighting) arm’s length relationship with the mining company that controls the planet. Scalzi’s story unfolds in a way that makes you question every slippery moral slope, and the value you place on selling your moral judgements about people, places and things.

As I read, I found myself thinking about aggression diamonds, conflict-free tantalum, and the early days of South Africa’s precious metals mines — all cases where the human costs were not nearly as precious as the materials extracted. I’m not the only one fascinated by Scalzi’s latest, as the book has hit the NY Times bestseller list. Reading it was the best two nights of this week.

Scalzi/Wheaton Book Of Awesomeness

One of my summer projects was to spend more time writing, and I used a variety of writing contests (Erika Napoletano, ESPN/Stymie and Scalzi/Wheaton) to force action on that thought. I think I had the most fun working on the Scalzi/Wheaton fanfic contest, mostly because it was the first time I’d written science fiction, fan fiction, or even any kind of fiction excepting a few Little League board meeting minutes that needed the extra sauce.

I didn’t win the fan fic contest, but it was fun.

The winners, along with stories by Scalzi, Wheaton and others (and some insane stuff like a song, an interview with Scalzi, and sci-fi poetry) are now published in Clash of the Geeks. This is beyond awesome in so many ways: it’s free, it’s DRM-free, it’s instantly downloadable, and it’s free. But it’s also meta-awesome, because if you want to download the book, you really should also make a contribution to the Lupus Alliance of America, per the directions and incentives on the right sidebar; the whole project started as a fund raising idea and if you are inclined to participate in the “free as in beer” part of the deal you should support efforts for some “free as in freedom” for those suffering from lupus.

Robert Heinlein Had His Bad Days, Too

Robert Heinlein was the first science fiction author that I read. Not read as in one book or one story, but read as in going to the library (pre-Amazon days), finding every single piece of his work, and checking them all out early in the summer and using those long, hot days by the YMCA pool to work through what is essentially the sci-fi canon. In the 35 or so intervening years I’ve taken the same approach to Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Greg Bear, and others, but Heinlein definitely imprinted a love of the genre.

Scalzi has a blog entry about Heinlein as seen through a new biography of his life, as part of Tor’s online forum dedicated to Heinlein. What I liked about Scalzi’s commentary was the way in which he captured Heinlein’s bad days as a writer. When I half-joked about crossing “writer” off of the potential career list, I did so knowing that there are authors who are more prolific and creative than me, and many late-night slots, plane trips and hours spent in proximity to outdoor water are made wonderful because of them. I never thought that being a writer meant having a bad day at the office. Scalzi shines the same light on science fiction authorship that Rush drummer Neil Peart aims at the rock and rock lifestyle in Road Show.

8 Track Tapes Make Me Laugh

8 track tapes make me laugh. Anything involving 8 track tape references makes me laugh.

Whoever invented the format thought it would be OK to fade songs in and out so they fit the impossibly short lengths of the tape loop.

The player moves the heads between track pairs, ensuring that you’ll never approach any kind of playback fidelity, but gives you a re-assuring thunk as a flam between the fade-in and fade-out in the middle of Renaissance’s Ashes are Burning or Yes’ Close to the Edge.

The format isn’t convenient for anything. If you were ever in a Cadillac (or dare I say, a customized van with a bubble window) with 8-tracks swimming all over the backseat, you know that they didn’t fit anywhere.

By the late 1970s you could find 8 track tapes in the cut out bins at your local record store, and invariably the artists were either those too obscure to sell cassettes or those with songs too long to sell to the mainstream. Or both. My proclivity for listening to Renaissance and Yes frequently intersected 8 track bin searches when I had to kill an hour at Sam Goody’s.

My parents owned an 8-track tape player system that was relegated to the basement as soon as a proper turntable and amp were purchased. It was the size of a small microwave. The amp might have been tube powered. One of the five 8-track tapes we owned was the Mantovani Orchestra, and it’s a wonder I’m not scarred for life as a result.

So anything with an 8-track tape reference cracks me up. My all-time favorite was a Ready.gov parody that interpreted the boom box image as “If your 8-track of Pieces of Eight does not play correctly, you may have experience an electromagnetic pulse”. That pretty much set the bar until I discovererd John Scalzi’s missive this morning about his new term of President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Quoting from his list of ex-officio benefits:

Use of the company car, a 1973 AMC Gremlin, complete with Levi’s jean interior and state of the art 8-track sound system (note: 8-track cassette of ELP’s Tarkus album permanently stuck in player; have been advised by SFWA’s mechanic that removing it will cause car to explode)

What a great start to the second half of the year.

“Don’t Touch My Stuff” FanFic Entry

It’s been exactly a month since I was last employed full-time. One of my goals for the inter-gig session was to spend more time writing, and branching out from snarky blog entries and technical content in particular. I entered two short stories in the ESPN/Stymie Magazine sports fiction contest, and then only two days into free agency I discovered the Wheaton/Scalzi fan fiction contest. I decided I had to enter.

Minor problems include: I’ve never written fan fiction, and haven’t read much of it to get a sense for the range and scope. Aside from my two sports stories, I’ve never written fiction of any sort. It’s the kind of thing that takes years of practice to get character development, voicing, and plot development out of rambling mode and molded into something that others might want to read. Finally, since the two characters involved are one of my favorite sci-fi authors (John Scalzi) and a former sci-fi TV show actor (Wil Wheaton), I felt I had to wade into the sci-fi pool a bit.

On the other hand: The contest will benefit the Lupus Alliance of America, and knowing a few people who battle this chronic illness, if there’s a chance my writing might help then it’s great leverage. I set a simple goal for my time off and intended to meet it. And I figured I could start with “write what you know” and see where it took me.

One old idea about quantum physics expanded into a 500 word outline. One new idea that tied together two of my favorite things in Las Vegas (that write what you know bit) and provided a sensible plot and setting for the story helped. Two good writing sessions, two hours of editing, a bit of effort to refine and fix cross references and it was done. There’s a 2,000 word limit, and I started north of 2,800 before coming in perilously close to the upper bound. Breakfast with equally unemployed buddy Sluggo helped tremendously; I was on the fence about finishing this and after sharing my goal of “writing some more” with him I felt obligated to finish. He’s also a bond trader by profession, and was therefore indirectly responsible for some of this. Thanks, old friend.

Within a minute of hitting “Send”, I got an acknowledgement from Scalzi’s web site that my text was received and ready for entry. That’s significantly better than ESPN did; I have no idea if they got what I sent or even care. The Scalzi-Wheaton fest is also non-exclusive, so with only a mild set of disclaimers, I’m including the entire story here for comments, criticisms and perhaps enough sympathy to warrant someone sending me a box of chocolate chip cookies. Letting others read your writing (especially something that might truly suck) is like hearing your own voice coming out of a 1970s-vintage Radio Shack cassette recorder. You wince, until someone says that you sound like that all of the time and they don’t mind.

Disclaimers: (1) It’s not entirely safe for work. There are four letter words in it, but nothing you haven’t heard me say before and no f-bombs. (2) What’s below is the whole story, but I added links to relevant bits of context for the uninitiated. (3) Reading this you might think I dislike bond traders, banks, or action figures. All untrue. This is a fictional story, not news reporting. (4) If you haven’t clicked on the link above that points to the contest announcement, do so, or none of this makes any sense whatsoever.

Without further ado, here’s Don’t Touch My Stuff.

I am walking overhead. BD4 repeats this at least twice a day. He is a bond trader at our very large bank. Merely casting his throaty screams into code, turning math in money, is all overhead in his moneyed game. BD4 reflects neither his proper monogram nor surname subscript; it’s how I differentiate him from BD1 through BD3, who are better traders and entrusted with even more capital. BD4 is compensating. I may be walking overhead, but they are the Big Douches, one through four in a fortunately very limited series. As long as they don’t touch my stuff, they can name-call all they like, because I get paid mid-six figures to sling code in an office graced with well-placed, highly visible action figures. It’s my only outwardly visible affectation. Very few people know about my wide variety of death and dead body phobias, for example (I’ve never been to a funeral). What matters is that everyone in the office is clear on the basic premise that nobody can touch my shit, or the code will not flow.

I’m in this job because I’m really good at math but pretty much suck at accepted physics. Dabbling in string theory was fun during my brief period as a physics major, because it relied on the mathematical power that comes from being able to describe the obvious and invisible parts of the universe with a pencil. I did, however, learn some politics in the physics mix. You don’t challenge local convention; you don’t question the Albert’s intentions; you don’t use the word “entanglement” in a situation without double entendres. Fail any of these implicit intelligence tests and you’re beaten back into the math building by the higher-order nerd phyla.

So here I am with the guys with the nice hair and nicer clothes and nary a femtosecond of appreciation for science fiction, online comics, or the feng shui of properly selected and placed geek accoutrements. It’s a job. In the words of a much-revered engineer, I only work to pay for my hobbies, and this weekend, that hobby entails a comic and sci-fi convention road trip to Vegas. If there’s a ticket to be purchased, or a line in which to stand, I will be there.

Thursday evening’s itinerary: bolt out of the office, subway to train to Newark airport. Once through security I drop myself next to the gate to catch up on today’s web comics, having been denied the guilty pleasure by BD4’s early morning insistence on a code change. Knowing that Wil Wheaton is speaking at this con, I dig through the Diesel Sweeties blog archives to find the pixelated image of Wheaton wearing his bête noir clown sweater. Stitches stretched to the point of visual pain are captured perfectly by cartoonist Richard Stevens. Re-reading the backstory on Wil’s blog takes the edge off of the pre-travel cattle herding with a few laughs. It’s visual schadenfreude – Wil looks miserable and that picture has been disseminated so broadly on the internet that it’s effectively indestructible. It will, in fact, survive a nuclear attack. I know I’ll be punished for even mere bad thoughts about someone who has become one of my favorite blogger-authors. But it doesn’t stop me.

My flight is called. I clam the laptop and slip it into my backpack only to recoil in horror at seeing That Thing in my bag. I know I had not double- and triple-checked my packing with enough thoroughness. The karmic payback will begin very shortly, I fear, because I’m upsetting the quantum balance of our known universe in a Very Bad Way. That Thing isn’t the spawn of one of the Fantastic Four, nor a not safe for work toy that one of the BDs slipped into my office. That Thing is why I’m a financial engineer and not a physicist.

Einstein never liked the idea of quantum entanglement. He called it “spooky action at a distance” and was mildly freaked out that particles in one part of our visible world could affect the states of others, possibly far away, instantaneously. It’s tantamount to faster than light travel. It’s the fictional stuff of hard science fiction. Hard core quantum physics experimentalists have been trying to entangle photons in their “don’t cross the streams” uber-cautious and utterly precise manners. They were less than impressed when I saw the whole thing as a huge stack of probability functions that could be manipulated using much more mundane devices. Any physical event that bumps into these quantum probability functions serves as a starting point, like writing and rewriting the same sector on a USB memory stick to force a quantum tunneling effect in the semiconductor substrate.

My physics potential was shunted to ground when I suggested a bit too publicly that FTL information conveyance could be stimulated through an act as regular and simple as repeatedly copying a porn collection to removable media. Physicists have such shitty senses of humor when kicked in their quantum mechanical nads.

Here’s the rub: I found a way entangle USB memory sticks if you blast the bits through them with the precision of a nanometer scale gem cutter. That’s the genesis of That Thing, which seemed like a good idea to reduce latency on the trading operation, giving our guys a few milliseconds of lead time over the rival banks. It was a thoroughly good idea, but screwing with quantum mechanics has messy side effects. Instantaneous communication between floor and exchange was great until I root-cause diagnosed the side effects of forcing probability waves to be somewhat less random. Remember that day when the market crashed in about twelve seconds, and then mysteriously recovered?

This shit works provided you tolerate its random behavioral and environmental artifacts. Then again, I’ve never separated the Thing pairs more than a few miles, and I’m not really sure what happens at distances quantified in measurable fractions of a light second. The side effects never bother me, because they are no worse than the real-world crap I get from real-world co-workers. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in the real world, not in the trading floor world, and not in the quantum world. Einstein wasn’t completely wrong. You get action at a distance from the entangled pairs, but it comes at the cost of injecting more randomness into the local region on the other end. Heisenberg also plays here: forcing quantum states on one end means you get whopping weirdness waves on the other. And of course it’s highly observer dependent. You need a pretty graphic imagination to even attempt to make sense of what might – and does — happen.

I land in Vegas and make it to the MGM Mirage hotel. Actual time, jet lag, excitement about three days of nerd festivities and abject horror at the little friend I’ve accidentally brought along conspire to make me pass out immediately after checking into my room. I’m anticipating tomorrow in every possible way. Perhaps more than I’d bargained for.

John Scalzi hosts the first session Friday morning and it’s a pitch-perfect way to start. I love Scalzi; he’s decanting old people into new bodies and laughing at politics and social situations all at once. I keep a copy of his Judge Sn Goes Golfing in my office, mostly to make the BDs think I know something about life on the links. This thought is foremost in my mind as terror rears its quantum entangled skull only moments after I sit down.

Scalzi takes the stage as an orc, looking as though he just stepped off a Hollywood back lot.

One of the BDs has obviously touched my shit; I’m guessing he moved the limited edition battle orc (custom green skin, done by my friend at the comic shop in Midtown) on top of the Scalzi novella. The randomness has been injected via the New York lunch break side of That Thing’s peer.

Scalzi has some kind of creepy green makeup on his skin, and very high quality rubberized mask that blends with the skin tones perfectly. He looks like the love child of Sue Sylvester and a badly rendered Shrek with armor. The visual is so lifelike, so real, so horribly frightening that I do what any properly trained engineer would: find a unicorn chaser in a new browser tab.

Wireless connectivity in the Mirage hotel isn’t great to begin with, especially in the revamped “Event Center” that used to be home to Siegfried and Roy and their fluffy tiger friends. I’m hoping that I can purge the persistent image from my retinas before Scalzi brings local comedian Mac King to the stage for whatever comes next. Mac King is yet another of my heroes; he lambasts the established entertainment circuit and yet pays pretty serious magic homage to old S&R. In his regular daytime gig, King trades places with a stuffed tiger flying over the audience in a box. That funny combination of artistic allusions goes horribly wrong expanding into a set of probability wave functions when King uses the same mechanic to summon Wil Wheaton onto stage.

The next tenth of a second goes something like this:

A flash thunderstorm rumbles over the Strip as the fake volcano in front of the Mirage erupts. The front of house is hit by lightning, making the volcano interesting for the first time this decade.

My MacBook sucks enough packets out of the ether to load a Boing Boing unicorn chaser story, painting over the Evil Clown Sweater image last seen as I left the East Coast. Shit shit shit bad bad bad.

A peripheral flash of light tickles my eyes; a few photons confirm a disturbance of the quantum balance in the local region.

Wheaton roars, somewhat literally, out of Mac King’s cardboard box suspended over the stage. He’s wearing the clown sweater, riding a large cat with a unicorn’s horn (uh oh) that’s attempting to fly with wings that look like they were grafted (badly) from a model shop Pegasus and OMG THAT GEL HAIRED SON A BITCH TOUCHED PEGASUS I’M GOING TO CRUSH HIS THUMBS WITH MY THOR HAMMER.

My saving grace, if there can be one at this point, is that I wasn’t skimming the archives of alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die as this scenario unfolded. I can explain some things, but not the repercussions from that one. I am not a dick, even though I work with some.

There are more camera flashes at this very moment than I can believe; some are people trying to capture the absurdity of the moment and the rest are more classically trained attendees trying to illuminate the guy wires and effects props they’re certain are responsible for this reality-bending visual.

This huge influx of photons helps nullify the effect of entangled bits wreaking havoc. Local region stability improves when there’s a puff of smoke and Wheaton walks across the stage to Scalzi, who is removing his rubber orc head and putting his glasses back on so the two of them don’t trade weapons blows by accident. I wish that I had hallucinated the whole thing, but there’s photographic proof. Images devoid of JPEG artifacts and Photoshop defects surface and are circulated wildly after the session.

Along with a few hundred other people, I dutifully walk the perimeter the casino floor to get in line for a Wheaton signing, hoping that I’ve exhausted the randomness stored in my little quantum stowaway. I want to enjoy a randomness-free fifteen seconds of fame encounter that were a primary reason for making this trip.

When I finally get to the table, he fixes the best Evil Wil Wheaton stare at me, and says plain as day “There’s a dead body by the monorail tracks.”

Balance is restored and I still like him.

Wheaton Unicorn Kitty Versus John Scalzi Orc



My wonderful wife and I often conclude a rather improbable, highly entertaining or four sigma to the right of center story with “You just can’t make this shit up.” For instance: What if Wil Wheaton, recently joining the ranks of my favorite authors, was riding a unicorn kitten (not a unicorn chaser, mind you, but you get the idea) and attacking sci-fi favorite author John Scalzi who had morphed into an orc? And of course, there’s a volcano in the background, WoW-style weaponry, the kitten is flying Pegasus-style, and that sweater is involved.

Scalzi looks like the love child of Shrek and Glee’s Sue Sylvester on a bad Cheerios hair day. And I’m not saying that just for the Google hits on Glee searches gone horribly randomly wrong, although it helps.

Don’t believe me? There’s (generated) photographic proof right here. You just can’t make this shit up.

Actually, you can.

Wheaton and Scalzi are promoting a fan fiction contest to benefit the Lupus Alliance of America. Just (it’s always “just”) explain the picture. This is just so good on so many levels that it makes up for the extreme randomness of the picture, and welcomes second and third derivative cultural references. It’s conceiveable that some entries will maim the judges’ artistic sensibilities, permanently.

You bet I’m entering. I have had a sci-fi story idea kicking around for several months, and never had the right framing for it. The trick will be keeping it to 2,000 words.

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“Old Man’s War” Triology Plus One

Once I hit cruising altitude on any vacation, I can typically read a sci-fi book a day. That rate of consumption assumes ample idle time by some body of water (bathtubs included) for reading and ruminating along with the complete lack of late-night calls or slide tweaking. The hallmarks of a real vacation, in other words.

This past week I finished John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” trilogy – Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony. As an added bonus Zoe’s Tale arrived the day I finished Last Colony and I was able to devour it before I had filed the first three on the “books to share” shelf. Zoe’s Tale is the third book retold from the perspective of a character principal in both the second and third books, and it fills in a few of the plot holes left by the close of the trilogy. The books read quickly and had me thinking about imperialism, colonialism, emerging markets and politics. It’s much more of a political science than hard science read – comparisons to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers on the jackets of the books are appropriate.