Captain Hammer Physicists

A day after posting about the innumeracy of intellectuals, Chad Orzel asks about the reverse perspective — does the arrogance flow both ways?

This immediately reminded me of a couple years back, when D^2 and the rest of the Crooked Timber crowd got rather annoyed with physicists. Apparently, bored physicists have a habit of diving other fields with shiny new mathematical models — nothing wrong with that, cross-pollination is great — but the kicker is that they tend to do this without first bothering to read any of the previous research in that area.

This tends to A) irritate the hell out of existing scholars in the field and B) generate papers that at best reinvent the wheel, at worst end up being Not Even Wrong. See:

I’m not sure whether this disease is confined just to physicists, or whether the other hard scientists play this game too. Given my brief experience in the discipline, I suspect it’s the former. In any case, I hereby dub this mentality the “Captain Hammer” approach to cross-discipline research:

Stand back everyone
nothing here to see!
A brand new field of research
in the middle of it — me!
Yes, Captain Hammer’s here
hair blowing in the breeze
This data needs my modeling expertise…

“When… you’re the best / you can’t rest, there’s no use / There’s ass… needs kickin’ / some ticking bomb to defuse” … you get the idea.

Mur Lafferty Interview: Playing for Keeps

One of the great pleasures of attending Viable Paradise X was meeting the people — and one of my favorite experiences was meeting the powerfully talented and wickedly funny Mur Lafferty. We bonded almost immediately — “Oh, you like Lore Sjoberg’s Bjork Song? Hey I was just chatting with Lore a few hours ago!” — and perhaps because of this, Mur was kind enough to show me the complete draft of the novel she was workshopping, a piece about arrogant superheroes, manipulative villains, and the folks with “unwanted” powers that fall in between. Happily, that draft became the novel Playing for Keeps — first released as a free PDF and podcast, and now going on sale in printed form this summer from Swarm Press. Mur and I spoke recently about workshops, her novel, and writing in the superhero genre.

Evan: I’ll start with the question I’ve been meaning to ask for a while, about time management. I mean, okay, you’ve got your blog, your Suicide Girls column, podcasts, Twitter, interviews, conventions, the Pink Tornado… oh and then there’s this “writing thing.” I mean, at this point you’re basically Cory Doctorow with more and better hair. Seriously, how do you fit it all in?

Mur: Hah! None of those things, even the Pink Tornado, who’s in school or day camp during the day, has to be done ALL the time. My columns are once or twice a month. Podcasts take maybe 7 hours a week. conventions are maybe 15 days out of the year. So I prioritize and do what I can when I can.

Evan: You’re not one of those “Getting Things Done” / Zero Inbox nerds, are you?

Mur: Honestly, I feel like I procrastinate a lot, and wonder how productive I could be if I could focus more.

Evan: I bet Cory thinks that all the time.

Mur: And no, I couldn’t handle all the details with GTD. I do try to keep my emails down though.

Evan: Let’s talk about workshops. What do you think writers can realistically expect to get out of a workshop? And at what point in their career should a writer think about going?

Mur: What writers will get out of a workshop depends on how open they are to learning.

Evan: Do you feel that a lot of writers come to workshops not open to learning?

Mur: I think you need a certain balance in your confidence level to hit workshops — sure, you need talent, but it’s a personality thing as much as it’s a talent thing. First — yes, I haven’t been to many workshops, but I’ve read many anecdotes, and Wilhelm’s “Storyteller” that state that nearly every workshop will have an attendee who is there for validation, for someone to tell them that yes, indeed, they can write, well done, pat on the head. And when that doesn’t happen, they get discouraged or annoyed. So the happy medium in confidence level is you have to have enough confidence to think your work is good enough for critiquing, but you have to be humble enough to accept that you are there to learn what’s WRONG with your story so you can make it stronger. (And then again you have to have the confidence to believe that you can make it better after the workshop.)

Evan: Seems like a tall order. 🙂

Mur: Hah! Well yeah. I’m sure we all had ego blows at VP, regardless of the state of mind we arrived there with. I know I did. 🙂

Evan: Agreed — I was just astounded at how smart the people were, and how much they knew about all kinds of stuff where I was a total novice. I did want to get to Playing for Keeps, before you fall asleep. 🙂

Mur: Oh I’m with you. Go on. 🙂

Evan: About your villains — I think you did a great job showing them as attractive, but ultimately quite dangerous. In other words, you didn’t fall into the trap of showing them as faux “bad boys” — they were the real thing. Can you talk about how you constructed your villains?

Mur: Well, we’ve known for years in comic books (or any storytelling, really) that villains aren’t all: “LOOKIT ME, I’M EVIL” — and a good villain is someone who believes what they are doing is right, that they are the protags in their own story. And despite what side you fight on, good or evil, that may not change the fact that personally, you’re a charmer. Or a jackass. My villain Clever Jack is a charmer who, incidentally, was treated poorly. My hero, White Lightning, is a jackass who fights crime.

Evan: Exactly right. But I think your take was interesting, because yes, White Lightning is a huge jackass, and yes, Clever Jack is a charmer, but you didn’t take the easy way out. Clever Jack isn’t just a cool tough “bad” guy, he really does some bad things.

Mur: Ah, you mean I didn’t make him “misunderstood”?

Evan: Bingo! Yes. He is who he is.

Mur: Right. I will be playing with more concept of villains soon — people with powers that could be considered “bad” inherently, despite the personality behind them.

Evan: So… the guy who raises zombies from the dead … but wants to fight crime?

Mur: Hah! Something like that, yes. I had an argument with my husband once whether necromancy was inherently evil. There will be a third waver character introduced soon who nobody likes because his nickname is “The Earworm.”

Evan: One of the things that strikes me about the superhero genre is that if anything, it’s actually more self-aware and self-referential than plain old SF. Did you have any trepidation about writing a novel in this genre, and in particular, a novel that is really a commentary about the genre?

Mur: Oh yeah. I was terrified. I started then when there was ONE superhero novel (non-licensed) that I knew of: Nobody Gets The Girl by James Maxey. And it was James’ book that gave me the courage to try out this superhero story that was forming in my head and not stress about finding an artist to try writing comics. I mean, I thought I was writing for a genre that didn’t exist. But now that it’s coming out, there are countless books out. From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust is a good one.

Evan: Perhaps at this point, there really is critical mass here — you’ve got the movies that are wildly successful, and so now there’s room for novel-style commentaries.

Mur: That’s what I’m hoping! 🙂

Evan: Last question about the construction of the book. What do you think were the largest changes you made in response to feedback from your peers and mentors? What made you go, “aha”?

Mur: Debra Doyle helped a lot — I had too many attacks from too many directions, so in rewrite I had the same number of attacks from fewer directions.

Evan: So, fight blocking.

Mur: Well, one villain brings in, shall we say, a new tool to use against the city. Doyle told me it was too much going on. So I had to change the tool, and bring in said tool much much later. And I think that worked.

Evan: “Too much going on” — I think that’s often the case in all the SFnal genres.

Mur: Yes! So that was a major structural change. Beyond that, it was a lot of surface stuff, one minor character changed sex, one changed race. Minor stuff like that.

Evan: Okay, I’ve got one last question for you. Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, or Kyle Rayner?

Mur: John Stewart.

Evan: !!

Mur: I’ve totally lost you as a friend, haven’t I?

Evan: I’ll still post this interview. But I’m going to have to do some hard thinking.

Mur’s novel Playing for Keeps goes on sale August 25, 2008.

Decluttering for Geeks: Computer Components

Welcome to Decluttering for Geeks. This is Part I of a four-part series:

  1. Part I: Computer Components
  2. Part II: RPGs
  3. Part III: Books
  4. Part IV: Media

So after glancing at the current crop of decluttering books, I think it’s safe to say that the subgenre of “decluttering for geeks” is underserved. Which is a bit disappointing, because we geeks have, shall we say, special needs when it comes to decluttering. Sure, some guy like Peter Walsh might give you some general guidelines to follow… but is he going to be able to intelligently advise you whether to keep your old copy of The Temple of Elemental Evil? What about Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil? Is this a trick question? Probably!

Typical decluttering books devote at least a chapter or two about why decluttering is a good thing. To save space, I’m going to assume that you’re already at least partly convinced. Here’s the thumbnail argument:

  • decluttering will save you time (you can find your stuff quickly)
  • decluttering will save you money (you can live in a smaller house, or avoid using external storage)
  • decluttering will save your sanity (you won’t be distracted by constant reminders of abandoned projects and rooms that need cleaning)

And here’s the thumbnail of the thumbnail argument. There but for the grace of God go we all.

Okay, so, computers. Most self-respecting geeks go through a phase of building their own computers. It’s fun to build exactly what you want, fun to compare and contrast different components with your fellow system builders, fun to put together a $500 box that outperforms the $2000 machine of the non-geek. You have powers beyond the ken of mortal men!

But like mathematics and women’s gymnastics, system building is a youngster’s game. Although the truly hardcore might stick with this hobby for decades, the typical geek burns out around their 30th birthday. All of a sudden, debugging overheating problems and scouring the internet for updated drivers becomes… less fun. You’ve reached the magical age where time begins to > money. Maybe it’s because you’re making more money, or maybe it’s because you feel the icy hand of death approaching. Either way, you sell out. You buy a Name Brand Computer, possibly a shiny silver one with a fruity logo. At first you feel guilty, dirty even. Then you get over it.

The end result is closets full of old, decaying systems, plus scads of individual components: Pentium II motherboards, PCI sound cards, and cables. Lots and lots of cables.

The Psychological

Before you can get rid of your computer stuff, you have to convince yourself to get rid of all your computer stuff. This is harder than it sounds.

So we’ll start with an anecdote. When I first started going through my cable collection, I pulled everything out of the desk drawers and tried to save only stuff I really needed. After about fifteen minutes of flailing around, I think I had decided to get rid of maybe two cables.

Sensing that things weren’t going so well, I called my girlfriend in, much like calling in an airstrike. The conversation proceeded as follows:

S: So, what’s this?

Me: Ah… I think that’s a USB A-to-B cable, still in its packaging. Hey, that’s kind of cool.

S: Have you needed this cable in the last two years?

Me: No.

S: Do you think you’ll need this cable in the next two years?

Me: Probably not.

S: Did you even know you had this cable?

Me: Nope.

S: What would you have done if you had decided you did need this cable?

Me: … gone to the store and bought one?

After that, it was pretty easy to narrow things down.

So why is it so hard for us to get rid of our old computer cruft? Here are some of the arguments we make to ourselves:

  • “This stuff is really valuable.” Wrong. Nothing depreciates faster than computer components. With the possible exception of certain cameras.
  • “I’ll save money by resurrecting this old box / building a useful box out of these components.” Wrong. That feeble eight-year-old box does not have enough CPU/watt to be worth powering on at all. Farm those tasks out to a machine that can do the same work for a fraction of the cost.
  • “I paid a lot of money for these components back in the day.” Irrelevant. What’s important is how much it’s worth right now (close to zero), versus how much money it’s costing you to store it (more than you think).
  • “This one is a classic, I’d just be sad to have to lose it.” Wrong. I have a friend, D, who has lovingly restored an original Amiga from his childhood. Maintaining the Amiga and being able to play some of its old games is a source of pride for D. But you are not D. Your “classic” machine is not being set up in a place of honor and shown off to fellow geeks. It’s sitting powered off and buried in a dusty closet. It needs to go.

The Practical

After figuring out what to get rid of, you’re faced with the the second problem: how to get rid of it. Electronics are tricky, because you can’t just toss them in the ordinary recycle bin. And it’s not always easy to sell them or give them away. When it comes to decluttering, I’m a strong believer in the “take time to find things a good home” philosophy… but computer components depreciate so quickly that it’s often hard to find anyone who wants them.

Some of your options include:

  • Donate to schools or charities: A reasonable choice, but only suitable for relatively new hardware that’s in good working order. You don’t want to saddle a school with an IBM Deskstar hard drive that’s mere days away from the Click of Death. Also, most schools and charities are savvy enough not to take old hardware anyway. They don’t have infinite time to tinker with dying machines.
  • Give it away: One geek’s trash is another geek’s treasure. You might know someone who still has the system builder bug. If you work at a large company, you might have a “free stuff” email list, and then there’s always Freecycle.
  • eBay or Craigslist: Getting a little cash for your stuff is always nice. But eBay is a bit of a trap, since once you start thinking about maximizing! my! return! on all this low-value hardware, you’ll end up holding onto it for a long time, possibly forever. The goal of this game is to get rid of the stuff. (It’s like playing Puerto Rico — at the end of the game, money is nearly irrelevant, it’s all about the victory points.)
  • Recycling: The EPA has a list of links for finding electronic waste recyclers and dropoff stations. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, GreenCitizen has several locations and excellent rates, or you can drop your stuff off for free at WeirdStuff in Sunnyvale. They’ll go through your broken and crappy stuff, take what they want, and recycle the rest. Highly recommended. Just make sure you leave the loading dock immediately, and don’t make the rookie mistake of wandering through the WeirdStuff warehouse. There’s only one way to win at decluttering, and that’s not it.

Next time: Role-playing games!