Monthly Archives: March 2006

Updates, Spam, and Forms

First, a general comment: with the sale of my dayjob employer from one high-tech firm to another high-tech firm about six months ago, practical issues about updating the website and monitoring e-mails have become much more difficult. The new owner is much more restrictive about all things Internet, as I’ve alluded in previous posts; one consequence is that I’m no longer able to update the site via FTP from my workplace computer (roughly 8-5 Pacific time), and a more recent consequence is I’ve had to cut off auto-forwarding of Locus-related e-mail to my workplace computer completely. (The IT department was noticing how much spam came in from that account.) I’ve taken great care over the years — obviously — not to abuse company policy about e-mail and Internet access during work hours, using those facilities only when urgently needed to meet the responsibilities of maintaining the site, but in recent weeks I’ve been unable to do even that.

The mitigation plan that’s been put into place is that I’ve detailed instructions for the Locus magazine office staff in Oakland on how to update the website when I’m unavailable to do so. This plan went into effect for the first time this past Monday, when I first learned of Stanislaw Lem’s death shortly after arriving at work about 8 a.m. that morning. I found enough time (during breaks, between meetings, etc. — obviously) to consult various references and write a brief death notice about Lem for the website, but since I couldn’t post the updated homepage myself, I emailed the updated index.html page to Locus in Oakland, where Tim Pratt kindly FTP’d the page to the Locus Online server. (Meanwhile, of course, Tim was busy writing a much more comprehensive obituary for Lem for the next issue of Locus Magazine.)

Second, there’s been an apparent disruption in processing of the various webpage forms on the site, including the Locus Poll and Survey form, and the Subscription form. This seems to coincide roughly with a remarkable drop in the amount of SPAM I’ve received each day. I first noticed this Monday, when I got home from work and launched Outlook and saw that it had only about 200 e-mails to download since 7:30 that morning…whereas usually it had been 800-1000 e-mails each weekday during that period. Spam reduction is great; I assumed this was some new service provided by the website hosting service, CI Host. It took a couple more days for me to realize that during that same period no new Locus Poll ballots had been received, and for me to confirm that with the Locus Magazine folks in Oakland (who get cc’d all the Locus Poll ballot submissions). Since I was effectively incommunicado at work today, Tim Pratt for a second time updated the homepage this morning with the ‘Important Announcement’ about these technical difficulties.

I suspect the Spam filtering and the disruption in form e-mail responses are related; but, though I filed a ‘trouble ticket’ with CI Host as soon as I got home this evening, I haven’t yet gotten a response from them about the cause, much less a fix. They are usually fairly decent about responding to problems, so hopefully by morning this will all be resolved. That might still require some folks to resubmit Locus Poll ballots…

Third–a final comment: it’s almost April 1st, and one of my indirect (via Gorilla Nation, the ad service who provides all those random rotating ads in various spots) advertisers has set up a special ad for that day, which requires pop-up windows for full display. I’ve already installed the pop-up ad tags for the homepage this evening, so for the next couple days try clicking through to allow those windows, if you can. I usually resist them, but just this once. I’ll turn them off again on Sunday…

Links Portal update

I spent some time today auditing the Sf/F/H Magazines section of the Links Portal, discovering 8 or 10 newer titles that I’d neglected to add over the past year or so — including Postscripts, Subterranean, and Flytrap.

I also broke down and re-ordered the SF Blogs links by author, with just a few that are well-known by name or are group efforts listed at the top by title. I like the playfulness and individuality of many blog names, but it was getting so that even I, who maintains the list, had trouble remembering where in the list so-and-so’s blog was… I couldn’t remember all their titles. I did retain a bit of eccentricity by listing them alphabetically by *first* name.

Suggestions for additions to Links are always welcome — especially bloggers out there who comment provocatively on the field. My web surfing time has been especially constrained lately, and I’m sure there are bloggers out there I haven’t come across myself yet.

Contest Fallout; Hugos

As it turned out Bantam Spectra said they were very reluctant to ship copies of the winning book outside of North America; they’ve had problems with deliveries. Three of the 10 announced winners are in Europe. I should have thought of this possibility before I announced the winners, but I didn’t. So I sent Bantam names of three runners-up, including two who got only 9 questions correct, and told the 3 Europeans I’d send them a copy of the book myself, via Amazon. Seems they have no problem getting books from Amazon…

Next time I’ll have to establish more restrictive rules for entrants.

In retrospect, though, I think the difficulty of the test was about right. Most of the questions were easily answered by anyone familiar with Locus Online — the interview index, the awards index, etc. — while the final question required either knowledge of Locus Magazine itself, or an especially canny Googling ability. About 1/3 of all entrants got all 10 questions correct. I just had to remind people to keep submitting…

As for the Hugo nominations… I was surprised not to see Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys on the final list. I was disappointed not to see any of my favorite short stories on the list. I was unsurprised to see Hugo regulars Resnick, Burstein, and Sawyer on the final list; they seem to have their constituencies, regardless of what reviewers and anthologists think (disclosure: I haven’t read their stories here yet). Happy to see Stephan Martiniere, my current fave artist, make the ballot. Interesting to see that Locus has three editors this year. Predictions: Stross for novel, Willis or Link for novella, Doctorow for novelette, Resnick or Lanagan for short story, Scalzi for the Campbell. And am I a teeny bit happy that the Best Interactive Video Game category collapsed..? (Actually, I nominated Myst V.) When there could have been a wildly popular Best Website category, whose contenders, granted, change every year…?

Not at ICFA

I’m not at ICFA, where all the cool people in the field gather every March; finances and circumstances didn’t permit, this year. Instead, I’m sitting at home posting blinks.

The VanderMeer giveaway contest seems to be stalled; no new submissions in almost 48 hours now, and of the 20 or so received thus far, only 8 have provided a complete set of correct answers. Was the quiz too hard, then? Or do most Locus Online readers already have the book? Anyway, per the initially announced conditions, the contest will remain open for a week, and if there aren’t 10 complete sets of correct answers, then the nearest runners-up will get the remaining copies.

PS– I see now that the post I attempted last night, which seemed to fail 3 times, in fact got posted 3 times. I’ve deleted two of them. Sorry for the redundancy.

Quiz Update 2

Responses to the quiz have quickly dried up — no new submissions at all today. Was the quiz too easy, or too hard? Of the 16 responses received thus far, half of them got at least one question wrong… I won’t say which one. Still short of 10 winning entries. Per the originally posted conditions, the quiz will stay up until March 21st, though I’d thought after the first 12 hours that it could have closed much earlier….

Quiz Update

Just 8 sets of correct responses received so far, plus another 4 responses with one or more incorrect answers. Plus an email wondering how the quiz fits into a website offering “News, Reviews, Resources, and Perspectives” of SF–which is it? There’s no pleasing everyone.

A Little Quiz

After passing on a couple previous requests from Bantam Spectra, I’ve agreed this time to set up a giveaway contest for 10 free copies of the latest title they’re promoting and which I’ve posted an exclusive excerpt from… they provide the copies, I set up the contest, and all I have to do is send them the 10 winners’ names and addresses. So I’ve decided to create a little quiz to cull the entrants, and I’ve incorporated some suggestions from the Locus Magazine staff of questions pertinent to Locus Magazine, to give readers of the magazine (and the website) some advantage. Still, I’m not at all sure if the quiz I’ve created is too easy, or too difficult. Most of the answers are easily found by anyone conversant with the web, and the Locus Online site… yet I regularly get e-mails from folks unclear about information I thought was perfectly apparent on the website. So we’ll see. First 10 respondents with all correct answers get a copy of Jeff’s book. Will 10 sets of correct answers appear, in the next week? I’ll let you know.

UPDATE, next morning. As comments point out, there was an obvious error in one of the questions, which has now been corrected. My fault! (though I sent it to the magazine staff for their feedback, and they must have missed it too). Obviously no one will be disqualified for not being able to answer that question correctly.

Five correct sets of answers have already been received, so it looks like it won’t take long at all to get 10… and next quiz will have to be harder.

Distillations, 2005

For the past three weeks I’ve been reading short fiction from 2005 so that I’d have something to nominate for the Hugos, and later the Locus Poll, as well as to respond to an invitation to nominate stories for the Theodore Sturgeon Award (I’m running a bit late on that). As most readers here know, I used to read lots and lots of short fiction every year, and reviewed stories in a monthly column in Locus Magazine. That ended at the end of 2001, and since then, without that monthly obligation, I’ve read far less, though personal circumstances that have constrained my reading time in recent years is also partly to blame.

I’d meant to post comments about stories from 2005 I particularly liked out of this remedial reading, for what it might be worth to other belated readers looking for stories to read and nominate; I’m a bit late on that too, with only a few hours left for anyone to nominate. Well, there’s still the Locus poll, if you haven’t already voted.

So in those three weeks I read 34 short stories, 10 novelettes, and 3 novellas, guided by tables of contents of forthcoming best-of-the-year anthologies that have been posted online, Rich Horton’s lists, and Locus’ own recommended reading list. I’m not done — I’ll read more before filing my own Locus poll vote — but here’s my summary so far.

So, short stories: my two favorites are Michael Swanwick’s “Triceratops Summer” (Amazon Shorts), a charming and clever story about dinosaurs in a small town that craftily provides an answer (“ten weeks or 3 months”) and the implications of that answer before revealing what the question is, and Robert Reed’s “Finished” (Asimov’s Sept.), which explores the social and personal consequences of a variation of immortality (in which the personality is left forever unchanging) with remarkable efficiency (for a short story), complete with an ironic semi-surprise ending.

I also liked two stories by Stephen Baxter, “The Children of Time” (Asimov’s July), about the future of the human race, and “A Signal from Earth” (Postscripts Autumn), about the last member of an alien race, both involving potential explanations of Fermi’s paradox (if aliens exist, where are they?). Joe Haldeman’s “Angel of Light” (from the Australian science magazine Cosmos, fiction edited by Damien Broderick) imagines a future Islam society in which an old magazine and a visiting alien provide moments of wonder, while Gene Wolfe’s “Comber” (Postscripts Spring) imagines a surreal city floating atop waves in which a threat to the city and marital tensions collide. Mary Rosenblum’s “Search Engine” (Analog Sep) extrapolates electronic tagging of merchandise and people into a complex tale of a drug sting gone bad.

My favorite fantasy short stories include two extrapolations of religious myths, both stylish in very different ways, Jeffrey Ford’s “Boatman’s Holiday” (F&SF Oct/Nov), about Charon, and Neil Gaiman’s “Sunbird” (from the Noisy Outlaws etc. etc. anthology), about–but that would be telling. M. Rickert’s “Anyway” (Sci Fiction Aug) is a moving contemporary fantasy that considers a profound moral question about sacrifice. Carol Emshwiller’s “I Live With You” (F&SF Mar) is a playfully subjective story about a lonely woman and an unseen presence. Theodora Goss’ “Pip and the Fairies” (Strange Horizons Oct 3rd) is a sweetly subjective tale about the daughter of a popular children’s writer that considers where fantasies come from. Kelly Link’s “Monster” (Noisy Outlaws etc) is a wryly surrealistic tale of boys at summer camp who discover what really happened to the kids from another bungalow. And Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” (Postscripts, Spring, and his book) is a remarkably assured tale about a horror anthology editor confronted by new experiences that play off his sense of cliche.

A few others left me less than completely satisfied; sometimes it’s hard not to build expectations of where a story should go that then result in frustration, due to no fault of the author. I wanted a more substantial climax to James Morrow’s “The Second Coming of Charles Darwin” (Amazon Shorts), for example, in what for the most part is a potent confrontation between Charles Darwin and a time-traveling cyborg sent by religious fundamentalists to disrupt his visit to the Galapagos islands. Ken MacLeod’s “A Case of Consilience” (Nova Scotia) considers religious proselytizing aboard a space station devoted to extra-terrestrial contact, with an ending too patly ironic. A few others are just extended jokes–Charles Stross’ “Snowball’s Chance” (Nova Scotia), Jeff VanderMeer’s “The Farmer’s Cat” (Polyphony 5), Neal Asher’s “Mason’s Rats” (Asimov’s Apr/May). Amusing, but not stories I’d nominate for awards.

There are quite a few more novelettes I need to read, and of those I have read it’s been more difficult to find any I can’t quibble with a least a bit. My favorites include Wil McCarthy’s “The Policeman’s Daughter” (Analog June), a recomplicated tale set in the author’s Queendom of Sol future about two people whose careers and relationships are threatened by young, immature copies of themselves — fascinatingly extrapolated, though it’s one of those stories where the complications it explores verge on undercutting its entire premise. Cory Doctorow’s “I, Robot” (Infinite Matrix) has a lot of fun undercutting the verities of Asimovian robotics, conflating them with a repressive social state, in a detective tale about a missing teenaged daughter and an ex-wife who defected to Eurasia. Vonda McIntyre’s “Little Faces” posits, somewhat grotesquely, a fascinating far-future space culture of women in which competition for reproductive rights persists, via elaborate social interactions and millennia-long relationships, even without males. Howard Waldrop’s “The King of Where-I-Go” (Sci Fiction) is filled with evocative personal reminiscence of growing up in Alabama, though its change-the-past story is fairly routine. Michael Swanwick’s “Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play” (Asimov’s July) is more fun with Darger and Surplus, this time dealing with satyrs and mad scientists. A couple stories popular with list-makers left me cool. Alastair Reynolds’ “Zima Blue” (Postscripts, Summer) is a fascinating discussion of art and memory, with a revelation that is, ah, anticlimactic, if not outright silly. Somewhat similarly, Daryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense” has some fascinating infodumps about brain functioning, but the human story of a teenaged girl and her parents could equally well describe a case of total amnesia… couldn’t it? Did I miss something?

I liked all three novellas I’ve read so far. Connie Willis’ “Inside Job” (Asimov’s, Jan) is classic Willis screwball comedy about psychics, debunkers, and a famous psychic presence, that manages to have its premise and debunk it too. Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess” (Asimov’s Jun) is a detailed and evocative tale of a girl in 21st century Nepal who journeys from figurative goddess to something more literal, courtesy time, chance, and technology. And Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” is great metafictional fun about five friends and their favorite TV show; despite its playful allusiveness, it’s the most substantial story I’ve read by an author whose stories, for my taste, often talk about their subjects more than they are about them.

We Get Letters (Once in a While)

The advent of a new SF reviewer at the New York Times has revived Locus Online’s letters page, which hasn’t been active in over a year and a half. The page has been dormant only partially due to my constricted schedule; mostly because we haven’t received any letters. Perhaps the popularity of blogs for people to air their views is a factor?

Perhaps Gary Westfahl’s latest essay, posted today, will generate some feedback for a letters page, too.

Locus Poll Voting Patterns

As I’ve threatened to post several times over the past couple years, here’s some statistical commentary on voting patterns in the annual Locus polls, using completed results from the past two years as data samples.

What has always struck me in looking at the ballots as they come in, and as they’re compiled and tallied in the database, is how few voters submit a complete or even mostly complete ballot. Consider that there are 14 or 15 categories — 4 for novels (sf, fantasy, first, YA), 3 for short fiction, 3 or 4 for other books (collection, anthology, nonfiction, and in some years a separate art book category), plus magazine, publisher, editor, and artist. That’s 70 or 75 nominations a voter can make.

In 2004, there were 14 categories for a potential 70 nominations per voter. Of 629 valid ballots, only 29, or 4.6%, filled out every category. At the other extreme, 19 voters submitted ballots without any votes at all. They did fill out the survey, and all but 2 indicated they were subscribers, so perhaps they just wanted the free issue that comes with submitting the survey.

The average number of nominations per voter in 2004 was 29.8, with a standard deviation of 19.5.

In 2005, there were 15 categories, and 913 valid ballots. Of them, 55 voters, 6%, filled out every category, and 20 didn’t vote for anything at all. The average was 30.2 votes, with a standard deviation of 22.

The most noticeable difference from 2004 to 2005 was the number of online voters, including nonsubscribers. That trend seems to be increasing in 2006, with over 600 ballots received in the first month of voting and 6 more weeks to go.

Which categories are most popular with voters? Here are the numbers, where the counts of voters are the number who nominated at least one item in the category.

category 2004 voters 2004% 2005 voters 2005%
total 629 913
SF novel 538 86 756 83
Fantasy novel 514 82 768 84
YA novel 346 55 558 61
First novel 408 65 660 72
Novella 360 57 511 56
Novelette 374 59 503 55
Short story 356 57 519 57
Magazine 453 72 639 70
Publisher 502 80 699 77
Anthology 440 70 544 60
Collection 413 66 563 62
Editor 402 64 595 65
Artist 330 52 540 59
Monfiction 351 56 408 45
Art book 390 43

Unsurprising conclusion: More people vote for novels, with magazine and publisher categories also very popular, while short fiction, artist, and nonfiction book categories are least popular. I would guess without checking that these trends are similar to Hugo voting patterns.

It’s also interesting to quantify the results of the voting in terms of the number of voters. To an extent you can observe this from the published results of the poll in Locus Magazine, which give the total number of ballots received each year and show the number of votes each item received (as well as number of 1st place votes, and total number of points). Consider that the winning novel in 2005, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle pair, attracted 219 votes (97 of them first place votes, for a total of 1503 points). That’s 219 votes out of 913 voters, just 24%. It’s only 29% of those who voted in the category at all, and keep in mind each voter has 5 nominations per category.

Even a perhaps more generally popular book, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, attracted just 426 votes (in the first novel category), i.e. votes from 47% of all voters, 65% of those who voted in the category at all.

Clarke’s results are exceptional; much more typical for novels and short works are numbers in the 20-25% range. In 2004 the most-voted fiction work was the winning SF novel, Dan Simmons’ Ilium, with 198 votes from 629 voters (31%) of whom 538 voted in the category (37%). In contrast, the winning novelette that year, Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”, got just 69 votes from the 374 voters who nominated in the category–18%.

The point is that it’s extremely rare for an award winning book or story to actually by favored by a majority of the voting population. Certainly there are extenuating circumstances; some books take a while to become well-known, while many readers don’t get around to books until they’re in paperback. But as a voting result, I suspect this has always been true, even for ‘classic’ works that are now taken for granted as the most popular works of all time. Even Dune tied for a Hugo in its year!