Serial Releases

I just learned about John Scalzi’s new story in thirteen parts, The Human Division. The series is set up to release a new $.99 episode every Tuesday. Up front, I’ll say that I’m a huge fan of John Scalzi. His Old Man’s War books are a premium example of what I think modern social science fiction is about. There’s plenty of action, lots of nicely built science fiction worlds and toys, and the whole series is inspired by the tough questions about what it means to be human in some very challenging circumstances.

What’s really interesting is that I released my first story in serial format, mostly by accident, I’ll admit, and it has done far better than I ever hoped. Hugh Howey (another excellent choice) was right behind me with his Wool series. For all I know, he was way ahead of me. I’m just going by release dates. I know it has gone even better for him.

So, now we have a top-of-the-line, bestselling science fiction author like John Scalzi taking a crack at the $.99 serial release method. I know I’ll buy it. Thirteen bucks is a lot cheaper than the hardcover books that I purchased with his name on the cover. (Bonus! Only one of those hardcovers has been chewed by a dog) I wonder, with his name, if Mr. Scalzi will get as many people as I did asking him if selling his story in one-dollar chunks is a scheme to rip them off. I certainly hope not.

Doping for the Win

There are a number of scary issues that I’m thinking about right now, but one of the simplest is the very thorough dismantling of Lance Armstrong’s career.

First off, the entire effort to regulate drug use in sports is a lost cause. That fight has been over for decades. Why? It’s simply not possible. Find a way to test for a substance or process, and everyone has moved on to the next substance and process. Unless we want to live in a world where trophies are retroactively pulled all the time, thus never knowing whether someone should be on the Wheaties box, we are wasting our time. Controlling illicit substances may be one of the most futile efforts humanity has ever made. We are much better at the easy stuff, like fair taxation and thought control.

In the illicit drug race, laws and regulations don’t work. They just don’t. In every case, there is a certain segment of the population, any population, who will find the benefits to outweigh the risks.  Until the government figures out how to watch every last one of us every second of every day – the idea of which I’m sure attracts bureaucrats like crack attracts crackheads – that segment will always find a way to ride the chemical diversion of choice. Feel free to look up prohibition…

Second, for every elite athlete in every professional sport, there are at least a double handful of people who are making significant amounts of money off that athlete, which means that in every case, there is someone working as hard at promoting the sport at large as the athlete is working to reach the top of it. In the case of cycling, which here in the American breadbasket of overpaid athletes has never been particularly popular, there are undoubtedly a large cadre of promoters who have been more than happy to quietly encourage the most spectacular performances from American cyclists, even if meant a little EPO here and there. The surprising part to me is that Lance Armstrong is likely still protecting his sport by failing to talk about the pressure that he and every other pro cyclist is under to win at all cost.

Third, the argument for drug controls in sports is to protect the health of the athletes, right? Or is it to keep reminding ourselves that drugs are bad m’kaaaay? Either way, we have created a false argument that any seven-year-old could spot without too much prompting, and it’s a particularly insidious argument as well. “Total safety is possible.” Uh, no. Try as we might, we cannot escape the fact that everything involves risk. Without ranting off on a tangent, let’s just pause to think about what we have given up for the false elimination of risk. In order to be an elite athlete, one must take risks and one must make sacrifices. There are well paid athletes that sacrifice an entire normal life to reach their peak. Others break bones on a regular basis. Pro football players are running incredible risks with their long term health, with or without banned substances. So, to observe the risks that athletes must take to be any good at what they do, and then to say that the real risk comes from drugs… well, it doesn’t really fly in the face of sacrifices already made.

And if you are worried about  the message to children, guess what? We make such minor deities of our top athletes that our children will ignore the risks altogether. If they somehow manage to be good enough, they may see an opportunity to be the next version of their own heroes. If they reach the point where the winners and losers are only separated by another, slightly illicit, risk… Well, we’re back to the crack and crackhead place. Our athletes are powerful symbols, whether they deserve it – as many absolutely do – or not.

Finally, top athletes are masters of another game altogether. Let’s jump back to Lance Armstrong. How many hours do you think he trained to even reach the jumping off point for competition? How many miles? Let’s say you want to become great at anything. How many hours does it take? I’ve heard it takes a minimum of 10,000. Is it possible to do anything for 10,000 hours without a massive amount of mental discipline? Did Lance Armstrong wake up every day with the immediate desire to train in the rain, in the cold, in the heat. No. He put away his immediate urge to sit on the couch and eat a pizza, and replaced it with a deeper urge, once that demanded the discipline to play a longer mental game. If you wanted to be the world’s best chainsaw carver, would you have the will to wake up every morning, fire up that chainsaw and carve until your artfully crafted log bear was lifelike enough to scare the neighbor’s dog? All high performance endeavors are a mental game after the basic requirements are met. We know this because the best athletes in the world can lose. The underdog can win. How many times has the dominant favorite in, say… Olympic gymnastics, spent his or her entire life getting to the Olympics, only to make a microsecond error in judgment and blow the whole thing? What happened to Michael Phelps at the beginning of the last Olympics? He sucked. Two days later, he was dominant again. Did he suddenly achieve a higher level of physical training? No, he just flipped the switches in his head that allowed him to push harder, unless of course, someone doped him up after the tests were over.

Once more to Mr. Armstrong. He’s in a sport which is about as doped up as any we can name. He specializes in an event with a “No Dope, No Hope” motto, and he wanted to win. In all likelihood, everyone who could pose a serious challenge was doing the same thing, and in all likelihood, the governing body of the sport was tacitly in on it, because they wanted the sport to grow, and the best way to grow it was to make it as exciting as possible. So, yeah. He doped up. The thing is, he still won. He still turned every pedal stroke. He pushed harder, from the inside, suffered more pain than a whole field of other elite dopers, and he dominated for years. The dope was the entry level. The mental game was the win.

So here we are, trying to destroy the man, and granted, he’s looking like a world class jerk. Unfortunately, he’s also a world class target, and he makes the best example, but of what? In a sea of pain and sacrifice along the road to victory, who are we to say that any risk, doping included, is more than an athlete should make. Who wins? Armstrong loses, cycling loses, but the odds of a clean sport in the future don’t seem promising. It seems to me that the only control for illicit substances for any purpose is to let them go and see what happens. The only real lesson is the one that is taught when our heroic athletes develop a tendency to drop dead at age 40. Life and death are great teachers, with great motivation. When a high school kid drops dead on the basketball court thanks to an ignorant round of juicing, you can bet he teaches a valuable lesson to the kids around him. Artificial limits, laws, and regulations do not. The more we enact, the better we ignore them. Why bother at all? I’m fairly sure that the athletes can discover their own tolerance for risk, even if a few of them need to die in the process.

What do we want? Greatness or safety? And yes, that goes far beyond sports and worlds beyond doping for the win.



A Tale of Two Kitties

Two days ago, Sharon and I made the hardest decision for a pet owner to make.

Jenny the cat was suffering, failing. Of that there was no doubt. She was having trouble moving. She had lost a lot of weight in the past few weeks. She was eating much less and throwing up much more. Her front legs had collapsed to the second joint, and she was peeing over the edge of the litter box. We took her in to see our vet, and discovered that her body temperature was well below normal.  The evidence mounted.

We had known that she was suffering from kidney disease for several years, and we knew that made her days finite. The vet was good. In all honesty, I came away from the experience understanding what a fine line a veterinarian must walk in that kind of case.  He knows us well enough to know that we generally opt for aggressive treatment. In fact, with our weighty pack of animals, he probably has a hot tub named after us. Over the course of a lengthy philosophical conversation, he understood that we may not opt for treatment this time, and managed to walk deftly between the two extremes. In each case, he kept it as scientific as he could manage. In a nutshell, he told us that treatment would involve a lengthy unraveling of problems, and could kill Jenny at any point.

Sharon and I have different approaches. She calculates and analyzes. I fly on instinct. My instincts told me the cat was suffering badly and was ready to depart. I had no doubt. Sharon needed to cover all the contingencies, and we are thankful that our vet handled it so well. In the end, we decided to euthanize Miss Jenny. She had nearly 18 years of the most conscientious pet ownership a critter could hope for.

The end was incredibly peaceful. Of course, we’ll never know what the cat experienced, but while I was in the midst of my sadness, Sharon’s sadness, and the hollowed out professionalism of the two caring techs, I watched her little blue-green eyes go out. I felt a sudden strange sense of relief and happiness. The incongruous mix of emotions was strange, but I was left with the understanding that she was indeed done with this life, and that we did the right thing.

The problem, for me, is that powerful events are something to understand as fully as possible. I understand Sharon’s relationship with Jenny. They were together for Jenny’s entire life. Sharon was the only safe place in the world for a prickly little feral cat. Only when everything was settled and safe did Jenny venture out of the bedroom closet, and only to go straight to Sharon. My relationship, my presence, was a minor threat to Jenny. Only in the last year or so did she learn to ignore me, and then only if I made sure to move slowly and keep my distance. If I sat still long enough, I could pet Jenny without witnessing a rapid kitty escape over the side of the bed.

Not being a cat person, I’d realized that the only way I could really frame Jenny was with our other feline. Donner was a happy accident in my life, and the exact polar opposite of Jenny. Donner was adopted for a step daughter in a former life, and as I’ve heard said happens with cats, he picked the least cat oriented person in the house – namely me. I have no idea why that cat thinks I’m so great, but he finds a hundred ways to show it during the course of any day. He’s not exclusive, though. He’ll greet anyone in his almost dog-like fashion, he’ll come when I call, and we can negotiate the terms of his cushy imprisonment without any trouble.

Before our close friend and neighbor passed away, Donner spent a good portion of his day across the street, hanging out with Bill. I can’t count the number of times Bill would come to watch me work in the garage with Donner in tow. Bill would say, “Hey, Jim,” and Donner would say, “Squeak!” Bill would always say, “I call him Squeaker. You know why?” I would think, “Because he squeaks?” And Bill would say, “Because he squeaks,” and laugh like he had discovered a particularly ironic secret. It was a ritual, until Bill was gone, and Donner lamented his passing for weeks.

Right now, Donner is coming to grips with the disappearance of his grouchy old girlfriend, and Elke the OCD dog is still staring at the closet door, waiting for Miss Jenny to make one of her rare appearances. I’m left wondering about how long it will take before two animals give up on their friend, and what it says about the way that animals feel about such things.

I’ll be the first to remind Sharon that our pets are here for us, and that there is a limit to what we can and should do for them. We can feed them, love them, buy them fun toys and fluffy beds. We can train them and play with them until they drop into contented sleep. But in the end, at the ultimate and hardest point of decision, the best thing we can do for them is to save them from pointless suffering, and hope that the next hard decision doesn’t rear its head for a very long time.

(Apologies for the title. I couldn’t resist) Thanks for reading!




Okay, it’s 2013, which blows my mind. As a kid, I distinctly remember thinking about how incredibly old I would be in the year 2000.  Note: I’m not that old. Kids…

Anyway, I’d like to point out a couple of news blog links to your right. One is a link to Trinity Mountain Homestead, a blog I should have linked long ago. I’ve been in touch with the author long enough to know it’s good stuff. The other is for Preserving Abundance, which is from a new internet acquaintance. I checked it out today, and it’s also chock full of good thought, good information.

Now for the elephant in the room: Decay. Where the heck is it? First let me point out that it actually pains me that it hasn’t been released yet. As I’ve hinted, but haven’t really explained, some significant obstacles dropped into my path last year. I still can’t explain, but if they happened to you, you would understand. Second, I’m painfully aware of the strengths and weaknesses in the Renewal series, and I’ve not only tried to address them in my writing, I’ve worked hard on creating a system that allows me to keep improving over the long haul. I’ve got a long list of check boxes that need to be filled in the Breakdown universe, and an even longer list of other stories to write. I’ve got stuff to say. It seems reasonable to learn how to make the system work in the near term, so that I can work more efficiently in the long term. The good news there is that I think I’ve found an editor who can call me to task on the larger structural issues in my books. That’s something I need. Let’s not forget that I’m still new to all this. I’d rather be realistic about the fact that I’ll be learning to write for the rest of my life than to blunder headlong into a huge pile of idiocy.

In any case, I feel like I’m on track again and rapid progress is being made. I’ll not make any promises about dates until I know more, but I’m quite sure that we won’t be having these kinds of chats for much longer. In the meantime, I appreciate all of your feedback, all the reviews, all of your patience, and all of your support. Thanks for reading!