Sale to Asimov’s!

I just got email from Sheila Williams that she’s buying my story “Watch Bees” for Asimov’s! I’m terribly excited—this is my first sale to one of the “big three” sf magazines.

No word yet on when the story will appear. I’ll post here as I know more. (One of the cool things about a sale is that you get to appreciate it over and over again—when you get word of the sale, when you get the contract, when you get paid, when the story comes out. . . .)

New website theme

As if I didn’t have better things to do with my time, I just spent most of the morning making changes to my website, including updating to a new theme and then fiddling around making changes so that things would display right in the new theme.

I like it.

Safe automatic backups with Scrivener

In a blog post that’s no longer available, David Hewson described a great alternative to keeping manuscript files in your Dropbox (which seems slightly risky, even though there is a local copy as well as one in the cloud) while still getting the benefit of having an up-to-date copy in the cloud if you unexpectedly want one.

Since the original post is gone, I thought I’d update this post with a quick description of the idea.

First, get an account at Dropbox. (Another cloud storage place would probably work just as well.)

Second, go into Scrivener’s Preferences and point the location for backups at a folder in your Dropbox folder. (Choose to save as a zip file; choose to include the date in the file name; choose to save some reasonable number of copies.)

I’ve been running with Scrivener set this way for a couple of years now, and I really like it.

My master copy is on my desktop machine, not vulnerable to any glitches on the internet. But every time I close Scrivener, a copy is zipped up and put in the cloud. It’s reliable enough that I don’t bother put a fresh copy of my file on my laptop when I head out to work off-site somewhere. When I’m ready to work, I just grab the latest backup off my Dropbox, unzip it, and work on that file. When I get home, I do the same thing again, grabbing the latest backup (the one saved at the end of my off-site work session), unzipping it, and swapping that file in for my master copy.

[Updated 25 February 2013 to remove the dead link and provide a description of the procedure originally described by David Hewson.]

Writing—and exercising—daily

Theodora Goss has a good post about writing every day, comparing it to exercising every day. She makes the point that, when you’re used to exercising every day, missing a day makes you feel crappy.

My own experience has been different, perhaps because my choices of preferred exercise include lifting weights and running, which both tend to wear your body down. They make you fitter, but only if you give your body a chance to recover.

When I exercise several days in a row, I gradually feel more and more beat up. I get sorer and sorer, weaker and weaker. Then, when I take a day off, I feel great. The next day I feel even better. I’ve often joked that it was like the old joke: “Why are you hitting your head on the wall?” “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

It’s actually pernicious. Some stupid bit in the back of my brain notices that feeling great is associated with skipping workouts. It conspires with the parts of my brain that would rather I sleep in and then sit around. It’s not smart enough to understand that I only feel great on a rest day if I had a couple of hard workouts in the days leading up to it.

Despite my particular experience with exercise, though, my opinion on writing matches hers—I do much better when I write every day. It keeps me in the flow of my work. When I write every day, I don’t need to spend as much time warming up, getting started. I definitely don’t need to spend as much time getting back up to speed on an on-going project, but I think it helps even when I’m switching between projects.

Like Dora, I’ve pondered the parallels between daily exercise and daily writing. In some ways they’re the same—there’s a discipline involved that’s definitely self-reinforcing—but in other ways I’m not so sure.

I’ve sometimes overdone the writing—written too many words or for too many hours. When I do that, it’s tough to write the next day. I don’t know what I want to say next, and when I figure it out, it’s harder to find the words. I need to take a day or two off—do some non-verbal work, mull things over for a bit—before I’m ready to get back to work writing. And by then, something has often gone missing. The carefully maintained mental construct of what I’m working on deteriorates very quickly, if I’m not writing every day.

And there, I think, is why exercise is sometimes different. Exercise is all about stress followed by recovery. Writing is about inhabiting the world I’m writing about—something that works best if I do it every day.

Writing in 2010

I sold one story in 2010 (“Like a Hawk in its Gyre” to Redstone), which I’m expecting to appear in early 2011. I’ll post here when it comes out.

The other big fiction-related news is that I got together with some local friends to start the Incognito Writers Group. We’ve been meeting monthly since July, and having a great time.

I sold a group of articles to Amex Currency, a new personal finance website:

I resold my article Bankruptcy is a Good Thing to Gale Publishing, to use in their book Bankruptcy (Introducing Issues With Opposing Viewpoints).

I wrote two guest posts at other blogs:

I wrote 42 articles for Wise Bread. I’ve bolded a few where I thought I managed to say just what I was trying to say:


Wore a tie

It happened this way:

We were going to brunch with Barbara at Windsor, where they prefer that people not wear jeans in the dining room, so I wore khakis. Then, since I was wearing those, I decided to wear my khaki linen shirt. I don’t wear it much, for various reasons. (It’s long sleeved, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s hot, but it’s linen, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s cold. Plus, since it’s linen, it needs to be ironed. Plus it’s been ever-so-slightly on the snug side, but I’ve lost a little weight, so it’s now fitting quite well.)

That outfit was going to have me looking just a bit dressed up, so I though maybe I’ll go whole-hog and wear my tweed jacket. That, plus the fact that the linen shirt has a button-down collar, made me think that maybe I wanted to wear a tie. And then, since it was the day after Christmas, it occurred to me that I could wear my Christmas tie—a very red, very shiny tie that my mom made about 30 years ago. It’s so red and so shiny that there’s not really much other opportunity to wear it.

To go out, I wore the trench coat my dad gave me last summer. It used to be just a bit on the snug side as well, but fits just fine now (even over my tweed jacket). But it’s not quite as warm as a parka, so I added the grey scarf Jackie wove for me last year. It’s the newest of my many handwoven scarves, and perfect for when one of my more colorful scarves would be insufficiently understated.

I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Wow. I look just like a grownup.”

Then I put on my grandfather’s homburg and headed out to brunch.

Optimal city size

Is there an optimal city size? A lot of it comes down to personal preference, of course. If you want to go to the symphony, you need to live in (or near) a city big enough to support a symphony orchestra.

Putting mere preference aside, though, there are some things that ought to be more generally applicable. I remember back in the late 1970s, playing with some data my dad found that reported a bunch of metrics for all the villages, towns, and cities in Michigan.

My dad had hypothesized that there was considerable benefit to the earliest stages of growth (when a town got big enough to move from a volunteer fire department to a professional one, big enough to move from wells and septic tanks to a municipal water and sewer system), but that further growth beyond that stage came with costs that outweighed the benefits.

The data I looked at did show some support for my dad’s position, but I found it hard to make a good case with just the Michigan data. There was only one big city (Detroit), which was something of a special case even then, and only has become more so. I produced some graphs that seemed to show reasonably linear improvements in various metrics of “goodness” as cities grew, on which Detroit appeared to be an outlier—gaining less-than-linear benefit from its growth. I wrote a brief report of my analysis for an economics class, but didn’t have time to delve any deeper.

Just in the past few days, though, I saw the New York Times magazine article “A Physicist Solves the City,” reporting on the work of Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt to produce a model that describes urban performance as a function of population. Very briefly, they have found that both good things (GDP, income, patents) and bad things (traffic, crime) grow super-linearly with population growth: Increase the population by 100% and you get a 115% increase in most of the measurable aspects of urban life.

I looked at West and Bettencourt’s article in the magazine NatureA unified theory of urban living” (article is behind a pay wall), which lays out the case in a little more detail, and offers some references. It shows a graph of crime, GDP, income, and patents versus city population. The log/log graph does look strikingly linear (suggesting a super-linear relationship). However, the data come from just US 360 metropolitan areas. That suggests (assuming that they’re working with the largest US cities), that the authors have excluded cities with populations below about 100,000 people. (The 360th largest metropolitan statistical area from the 2000 census was Ocean City, NJ, with a population of 102,326.)

So, this work doesn’t really test my dad’s hypothesis. I’d be really interested to see what the similar curves look like for smaller metropolitan areas. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that growing your population from 1,000 to 10,000 produced rather more than a 15% boost over linear growth.

Obfuscating your email addresses is pointless

I’m with Cory Doctorow here: Keeping an email address secret won’t hide it from spambots.

When I had to change email addresses a couple of years back, I considered not posting the new address on my site, to keep the spambots from harvesting it. (My previous email address had been published before there even was spam, so keeping it secret from spammers had never been an option.)

In the end, though, I decided—just as Cory has—that there’s no point. The benefits are very small (the spammers will get your email address anyway), and the costs are significant (all your correspondants have to go through extra work to track down and de-obfuscate your email address).

In the end I did make one concession to the spambots. My email address is no longer in the footer of every page, the way it used to be. Now it just appears in my “contact” page (linked to from the sidebar). That hides it from the very most lazy spambots (which seems to be a large fraction of them). But my email address is right there as a clickable mailto link. Not obfuscated. Not presented as an image. Not hidden behind a contact form.

If you’ve got something you want to say to me, send me some email!

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.