Category: observations

On LinkedIn Endorsements

I‘m not sure I get the point of LinkedIn “endorsement.” I suspect that the original idea was that people in your social network could endorse skills that you’ve listed and as the endorsements accumulated, someone could get a picture of how skilled you are in a given area of expertise. I suspect this is not how it is working out in reality. For one thing, I’ve noted that I’ve gotten quite a few endorsements from people who I don’t actually know, on skills for which they have no basis for judgement. For another, I get the feeling there is a quid pro quo to the endorsements. But why would I endorse a skill for someone just because they did it for me? What if I didn’t think the skill was endorsement-worthy, for instance?


For example, I’ve received 6 endorsements for PHP, but so far as I can tell, only two of the people who have endorsed me for this skill actually have experience working with me on some PHP-related project. Two of the six people I don’t even know.

Then, too, I can’t be the only one  getting endorsements from people I don’t know, for skills they are in no position to judge. And if it is happening to others it means that to some degree, large or small, the endorsements you see in LinkedIn come from people who don’t know the person they are endorsing and have no way of judging that person’s ability at a given skill. So how could I trust the endorsements in the first place? Certainly some of the endorsements are genuine and reflect actual experience with the person and skill in question–but how do you know which and to what degree? You can’t.

It makes it seem like a big waste of time. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate people taking the time to endorse a skill that I’ve listed on LinkedIn, but I take it more as someone trying to say something nice about me, as opposed to having any real value.

On Ribs, Texting, and L.A. Story

Last night, around 2am, I couldn’t sleep. It was my ribs again. The cough that I’ve had since before Christmas finally seems to be waning, but the damage is done. My right ribs and the soft matter just beneath them feel shredded. The slightest pressure irritates them. I’ve taking to sleeping on my left side, but even that doesn’t completely solve the problem. So when the Little Miss woke us up around 2am last night, I had trouble getting back to sleep. As often happens, I let my mind wander. Kelly was also having trouble sleeping and had gone downstairs for a snack. After a while, I considered texting her to ask if she was okay. I thought I’d text her: “R U O K” but I wasn’t sure that would make sense to her. (Are You O.K.?)

Considering that, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies, L. A. Story. I’ve written about L. A. Story before. But tonight, as I was laying there in mild pain, trying to get back to sleep, I had a sudden realization. In that scene where Steve Martin first encounters the signpost, and the signpost asks him, “R. U. O. K.?” Martin is essentially predicting the “texting” phenomenon that would arise a decade later. Indeed, when Martin’s character doesn’t understand what the sign is saying at first, the sign responds, “Don’t make me waste letter.”

Moreover, there is another scene which anticipates social networking. While driving to brunch with his disgruntled girlfriends (played by Marilu Henner), Martin asks, “Who are we having brunch with again?”

Henner replies, “Friends, and friends of friends…” When I heard this line last night, I immediately thought of Facebook, and how you can share things with friends, or even with “friends of friends.”

As you may have guessed, I ended up watching the entire movie last night between the hours of 2 and 4am. I’d guess that I’ve seen the movie one hundred times, but there are new little things I notice each time I watch it. The funniest new thing I noticed last night:

Early in the movie, when Harris is at the stationary bicycle park, quoting Shakespeare about L.A., we see in the background a man fall off a recumbent bike; apparently he is having a heart attack. I’d noticed this many, many times in the past. But what I never noticed before is, as the paramedics are carting away the fallen man, another man quickly jumps onto the recently occupied bike. I’d never noticed that before and it was a very funny touch.

Each time I watch L. A. Story, I expect to find it has lost something. This has happened with other movies that I’ve admired. But it has not happened with L. A. Story, at least, not yet. I get into the movie and laugh, and recall my own years (nearly 19 of them) living in Los Angeles.

Perhaps the most startling revelation, watching the movie last night: the movie came out in the summer of 1990, nearly 23 years ago. Steve Martin is currently 67 years old, which would have made him about 44 in 1990, and more than likely 42 or 43 when the movie was made. He was only two or three years older than I am right now when the movie was made. That’s a little scary for a guy who saw the movie opening weekend, in a movie theater in L.A.–and was only 18 years old at the time.

What’s With All of the Adult Toy Stores In North Carolina?

We are spending New Year’s Eve at a hotel off the I-95 corridor in central North Carolina. Tomorrow, we will be home after being away on a terrific vacation for nearly three weeks.

I may have mentioned this in an earlier post, but it really stood out today while driving through North Carolina:

What is up with all of the advertisements for adult toy and video stores along the I-95 corridor?

I think I saw more billboards for these establishments1 in North Carolina than one might find on 42nd Street in Manhattan in the 1970s. I’m not really sure what my notion of North Carolina was, but it wasn’t “Adult Entertainment Capital of the East.”

  1. I have no objections to the stores or the ads. They just seemed incongruous to my notions of life in North Carolina.

Where Are the First Person Bookstores?

Recently, John Scalzi announced a new first-person shooter game that he is involved with. I’m not a big gamer, but I’ve played my fair share of first person shooters. The original Call of Duty was my game of choice many years ago. I was always impressed with the details of the surrounding world, how you could walk through all kinds of terrain, open doors, look in cupboards, break windows. The physics models that go into those kinds of games–to say nothing of the art in the renderings–is impressive. And the technology is always improving. These games must be almost life-like today in their visual experiences. Add in gesture-based control and 3D and you really do find yourself immersed in a virtual world.

And so it amazes me that with all of this technology available, no one has yet used it to create first person bookstores. I simply cannot believe this hasn’t happened yet.

Despite its massive catalog, one of the biggest complain of Amazon, or Powell’s, or even those independent bookstores that maintain an online presence is that you lose the ability to simply wander the stacks and browse. But it seems to me that this doesn’t have to be the case. The technology is out there to recreate a physical bookstore in a virtual environment. Imagine wandering through a virtual bookstore using the same technology that first person shooter games use. You could walk down the stacks, pausing to browse at what’s on the shelf. A gesture could select a book, which you could then browse portions that the publisher had made available for preview. If you wanted the book, you could add it to your “cart” and move on, continuing to browse until you are ready to check out. You don’t even need to be willing to read the books online. If you wanted e-book editions and they were available, upon checkout, they’d simply be downloaded to your e-reader. But if the virtual bookstore maintained a live inventory and only allowed you to add “physical” copies of the book when they were available, upon checkout, the paper books would be shipped to you.

Moreover, many games these days are online and you can interact with your friends and other players. You can see their avatars and team up with them to fight a common enemy–or each other. The same would be true of the first person bookstore. You could meet up with friends in the virtual bookstore and wander the stacks together, recommend books to one another. It wouldn’t matter if I was in Virginia and you were in Portland. We could hang out in a virtual rendering of a used bookstore on Second Avenue in New York City and wander through it, seeing it as it would appear if we were there.

It seems to me that this is one way brick and mortar bookstores might reclaim some of the patronage they lose to places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. They would no longer be depended on just their physical presence, because anyone could wander through their stacks and browse for books, just as if they were in the store itself.

I’m not saying this technology comes cheap. But the technology does exist, and to my knowledge, no one has yet described exploiting first person shooter technology in quite this way. I, for one, would be lost for hours at a time wandering the virtual stacks of bookstores that were too far away for me to visit in person.

And I’d be spending my money in them as well.

An Alternate Star Wars

I was watching Star Wars1 with the Little Man. It was his first time seeing that particular movie and he had endless questions about the good guys and the bad guys and the good guys ships and the bad guys ships. It was fun watching him watch it.

But what struck me most about this re-watch—the first time I’ve re-watched Star Wars in at least 10 years–is how the ultimate fate of the galaxy rest on the utter incompetence of the Imperial leadership.

Very early in the picture, R2-D2 and C3P0 escape from their ship in an escape pod and plunge down to the desert planet of Tatooine. There is a moment when a gunner on board the Imperial ship is ready to shoot down the escape pod, but since no life is detected, they let it go. Why do they let it go? Were they wasting lasers somehow by shooting it down? It seems to me that an Empire with the capability of destroying a planet doesn’t have much concerns over available energy. There should have been an order from on high to shoot down anything that jettisoned from the rebel ship. That no such order existed shows an appalling lapse of strategic thinking within the leadership of the Empire–and no wonder they ended up losing.

But consider: suppose such an order had existed. Would it have been followed? If it was not followed, that would demonstrate further incompetence within the machinery of the Empire and serves them right.

But now consider: what if such an order existed and what if it had been followed and the escape pod carrying the two droids was destroyed as part of a routine chain of command? The pod was carrying more than just the droids. R2 carried the plans to the Death Star. If those plans were destroyed, the Rebels would not have found a weakness. Furthermore, without R2 seeking out Obi-Wan, it is unlikely that Luke would have been pulled into the fray. He may have lived his whole life on Tatooine, quietly, while the Empire continued their dominance.

All of this, I considered as I watched the movie with my little boy. It seems now to be a gaping hole in the overarching plot of the movie. It doesn’t make the movie any less fun, but it does bring to mind the notion that even the low man on the totem can have a truly significant impact in the fate of the galaxy.

  1. When I refer to “Star Wars” I mean the original, that I first saw in the drive-in theater with my parents in 1977.

A Lord of the Rings/Hobbit Marathon, Three Years Hence?

With the first part of The Hobbit coming to theaters mid-December, I started thinking about the inevitable 24-hour marathon watchings that will start taking place roughly three years from now. My logic goes something like this:

  • December 2012: The Hobbit, Part 1 released in theaters
  • Fall 2013: The Hobbit, Part 1 released on BluRay (or equivalent)
  • December 2013: The Hobbit, Part 2 released in theaters
  • Fall 2014: The Hobbit, Part 2 released on BluRay (or equivalent)
  • December 2014: The Hobbit, Part 3 released in theaters
  • Fall 2015: The Hobbit, Part 3 released on BluRay (or equivalent)
  • December 2015: The Complete Extended Edition Hobbit released on BluRay (or equivalent)

It makes sense that the individual BluRay versions would be released shortly before the next installment as a primer for fans. This means a release of the final film on BluRay in the fall of 2015 with no new movie coming out. However, there will be, of course, the extended editions, which might arrive in time for the holidays of 2015. If that is, in fact, a rough schedule of events, then we can expect to start reading about the first marathon 24-hour watching of all 6 films back-to-back in late 2015 or early 2016, little more than three years hence.

I recently rewatched the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy (makes long plane rides speed by) and I think it clocks in just shy of 12 hours. Figure that the extended editions of The Hobbit will come in around the same (ironic for a single, much shorter book) and that’s where I get my 24-hours from.

I can imagine the parties being planned in advance and announcements flooding the social media three years in our future. And it would actually be a fun thing to do were it not for the fact that it is utterly predictable. Still, I’ll be interested to read those first posts from folks who give it a try–writing, of course, a day or more after the event when they’ve finally managed to catch up on sleep.

Thoughts On Last Night’s Election

We voted yesterday, along with everyone else, but I did not stay up to watch the returns come in. I can’t stand the overly-hyped coverage on TV these days. Plus, the fact of the matter is that either way the election went would have affected me, personally, very little. That said, I do have a few thoughts now that it is all said and done.

  1. I’m pleased with the outcome. I voted for Obama the first time around and I voted for him again yesterday.
  2. I was pleased to see Maryland’s referendum on same-sex marriage pass. I’m glad to see people becoming more accepting. Science fiction writers have been making this prediction for decades.
  3. I was disappointed to see Maryland’s gaming referendum pass. I no longer live in Maryland, but I did live there for 6 years. I hate the idea of raising money through gambling, even if it is for education. If that is the only way we can get more money for schools, it tells me we are really in trouble.
  4. I was pleased to see Tim Caine win the Senate seat for Virginia.
  5. I was pleased to see Elizabeth Warren win in Massachusetts.
  6. Perhaps most of all, I’m happy that the campaign is over. No more phone calls, no more commercials, no more commentary on debates. Driving into work this morning, I saw a van picking up political signs from along the road. I think it was the best thing I’ve seen in this election.

I do have sympathy for my friends who voted for Romney and who were and are Romney supporters. Any loss for something you believe in is very tough to take. I imagine that I would have been bitterly disappointed had Obama not won reelection. But it seems to me that, where the rubber hits the road, the choices were not all that different to the vast majority. The outliers are the ones most affected one way or another. This is something that I think most people miss. For the average American, I don’t believe life would change very much, other than the couple of days of glory in victory or agony of defeat. A representative democracy virtually ensures this.

The Political Phone Call Blitzkrieg

I cannot wait until this election is over. We live in a swing-state (Virginia) and both parties have launched on all-out assault on voters. It’s not just getting out to vote, naturally, it’s getting out to vote for them. We probably received 30 calls this weekend–no exaggeration–from various politicians, parties and PACs, reminding us to vote, and vote for them. Between about noon and 4pm, it seemed the phone was ringing every few minutes, which was particularly annoying because I was (a) trying to write and (b) the Little Man was down for a nap.

How can the various parties involved in these blitz campaign not think that they are being annoying? I joked earlier on Twitter that the next political call I received would lose my vote–I’d vote for the other person. Not really, but it’s still annoying in the extreme to get all of these calls. Not only that, but the folks from Obama for America have been by our house three times to remind us where our polling place is. I knew where my polling place was before they came by the first time. But three times? I might be amused if it was a different person each time, but it has been the same person each time!

If the politicians involved in this election put in as much of an effort running the country as they do running for reelection, I think we’d all be in much better shape. For one thing, a billion dollars or so could have been put to better use–like helping the recovery in New York and New Jersey.

What’s missing is a national opt-out system. If you know where your polling place is, if you already know who you are voting for, you should be able to go to a website, fill out a form, and say, in essence, “Save your dime, kids, no need to call. I’m good. I know where go. There’s gas in the tank. And I’ve done my research (such as it is) and I know who I am voting for. Go bug someone who is still undecided.” Maybe we need big red, white, and blue pins to go along with it, pins that read: “I am not undecided!”

Wednesday morning can’t come soon enough.

Cute Animals and Politics

I am just catching up on some debate-related news. I know–I am days behind. I lead a busy life, what can I say.

I caught Mitt Romney’s comments on PBS and Big Bird and it got me thinking about cute animals and politics. Despite the notion that most Americans are issue-voters, it seems to me that nothing trumps issues like a cute animal. We are, when all is said and done, simple people. We love our dogs and cats. We visit zoos because we are fascinated by animals. And sometimes, a cute animal can sideline all other points of formal debate (such as they are) and make or break an election.

It happened in the fall of 1944 when President Roosevelt gave his famous “Fala” speech, in which he said:

These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala.

That speech may very well have sealed an election victory for Roosevelt.

And, political viewpoints aside, Mitt Romney’s comments on Big Bird may have sealed his doom this time around. If you’re a politician, you just don’t go messing with cute little animals. Do we learn nothing from history?

Just another beautiful morning on Mars

There was no way that I could stay up to watch the dramatic events unfold as the Mars Science Lab‘s rover, Curiosity arrive on Mars. But when I woke up this morning, bleary-eyed, I grabbed my phone and checked Twitter and knew at once that Curiosity had arrived safely. I knew because Twitter looked different. Instead of the usual political commentary; instead of Olympic dramatics, or reports from writer-friends of progress or frustrations with various projects, my entire Twitter feed read like a resounding, stadium-shattering cheer for the Mars Science Lab and for Curiosity.

Once again, we have reached Mars.

Saying it that way makes it seem almost routine, but reaching Mars is anything but. And Curiosity is bigger and packed with more instruments than its predecessors. Shortly after skimming through all of the congratulations and thoughts on the landing, the Little Man came wandering into our room, still only half-awake. “Guess what happened last night?” I said to him.

“What, daddy?”

“A robot landed on Mars.”

“Whoa!” he said.

I explained to him that Mars was another planet and that we sent the robot there to go explore. He asked if it went through outer space on a rocket and I told him that it did. I wasn’t sure how impressed he was by the fact until I dropped him off at school, and he said to his teacher, “A robot landed on Mars!” It is really rather extraordinary to live in times in which you can tell your kids something like that.

Glancing up at the bookshelf next to my desk are scores of issues of Astounding Science Fiction, going back to May 1939. In these issue are stories about space exploration, wars with alien life forms, all kinds of interplanetary adventures that must have seemed so exciting to a twelve-year old–say a kid born in 1927 or so–when he or she flipped through the magazine on the newsstands. The stories read a little dated today but are nonetheless packed with action and adventure–and occasionally some valiant efforts at real science. But the real thing seems so much more exciting. No, we are not fighting wars with aliens (thank goodness). No, there doesn’t appear to be any life on Mars. But we are no longer describing it in terms of just imagination. We’ve been there. We’ve taken pictures and video. We’ve seen the sun rise and set from the surface of the red planet. And I have to think that some of our willingness to make it so stemmed from sense of wonder stirred up inside those twelve year olds reading Astounding.

Astounding sometimes seems like an overly dramatic name for a science fiction magazine (perhaps that’s why the name was changed to Analog in 1960), but not on a morning like today. Curiosity‘s journey to Mars and its dramatic descent through the thin Martian atmosphere to its landing site are perhaps best described as astounding.

It represents exactly what we are capable of when we put our minds to it.

Remembering science fiction writers who serve(d)

In Episode 38 of my Vacation in the Golden Age, which covered the August 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, John Campbell had this rather telling news to report in his In Times To Come column, regarding what the War had done to science fiction:

As previously stated, L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein were both regular navy men. With the outbreak of war, they were in, and Astounding out two top writers automatically. In rapid succession since, we’ve gotten word that “This one’s probably my last for the duration” from Anson MacDonald, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov.

Schneeman was drafted in the spring of 1941, released as one of the over-twenty-eight group in the fall of ’41, and, of course, taken back after December 7th. Cartier went in late last fall. Rogers is in the Canadian army now.

I sometimes have a vision of these Golden Age writers as being cooped up in their tiny apartments, or gathered together in some basement doing their writing without much concern for what is going on in the outside world, but when you look at the history of the genre in the Golden Age, it is clear that nearly every able-bodied science fiction writer served in the military in some capacity. Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke did. Frederik Pohl served in Europe. Cyril Kornbluth was in the Battle of the Bulge. H. L. Gold also saw combat in World War II. Jack Williamson served, as did L. Sprague de Camp and many other writers who went on to some measure of fame within our genre. Some of them never fully recovered from their service.

I find it interesting that we know many of the names of the writers who served during World War II, but we know few of the names of the men and women of our genre who serve today; this despite the power of the Internet. I know, for instance, that Hugo-, Nebula-, and Campbell-award-nominated writer Brad R. Torgersen serves in the reserves. I know that Myke Cole also serves. I saw him present an award at the Nebula Weekend in his dress uniform.

I’m grateful for the service of all the men and women who volunteer (and those who were drafted, back when the draft still existed), but I am also humbled by those of my fellow writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror who have put their beliefs into action. Often times, as a writers, our words are our weapons, but we sit safely behind out computers when we write them. It is an honor to know folks like Brad and Myke–and there are certainly others that I am not aware of–who have made sacrifices that include their writing careers, to help protect our freedoms.

So on this Memorial Day, I’m thinking of Brad and Myke, but also of Isaac and Robert and Sprague and Arthur and Cyril and Frederik and Jack and all those other who had the courage, voluntary or not, to serve our country.

Charming Asimovian modesty

Isaac Asimov was known as a bit of an egoist1 but this was something that he openly acknowledged. He called these “charming Asimovian immodesties” and later referred to his attitude as “cheerful self-appreciation.” However, once in a while, he could come across as brilliantly modest. For instance, this quote from him which I read a few days back. I think it is especially applicable today, when the Internet acts as a gigantic megaphone-without-filters and we see follies magnified all around us, from those within and without the spotlight.

It is always a little difficult for me to laugh freely at the follies of mankind. If I look closely enough, I find that I share them all.

Would that we could all take this attitude from time-to-time before making dumb decisions.

  1. That is a bit of understatement.