Pluralistic: 21 Sep 2021

Today's links

The cover for Monica Byrne's 'The Actual Star.'

The Actual Star (permalink)

This month marks the publication of "The Actual Star," a new, wildly ambitious, wildly successful novel by Monica Byrne, spanning 3,000 years of history from the ancient Maya to a distant future.

The tale braids three moments: the collapse of the Mayan royal dynasty in 1012, 2012, when a Maya girl raised in Minnesota returns to her father's birthplace in Belize; and 3012, when the 8m humans who survived the climate emergency inhabit a high-tech, nomadic civilization.

All three are a mix of mysticism, blood, carnality, and a deep love of place and the Earth. They all tell the tale of schisms, when different views of how to live a right life in harmony with nature are contested with rage and violence, and they all connect to the Maya faith.

Byrne's deep historical research into the Maya of 1012 and her imagining of a radical new wandering society of 3012 are both profoundly, gorgeously foreign, reminiscent of Ada Palmer's books (one of the few sf writers who can conjure a truly different set of social norms).

The Actual Star challenges the linear, efficiency-driven "rationality" that has brought our civilization to the brink of collapse and asks us to imagine utterly new ways of understanding the world, even as it probes the flaws inherent in any system of knowing and being.

And for all that, it's an sf novel. It's got a plot (three, actually), that's intense and gripping, as mystical symbols like ancient haunted caves and godlike jaguars aren't just symbols – they're physical things that characters we care about have to cope with.

It's a book about sacrifice, about the long view and deep time, about the universality of human experience and the particularity of any given moment. It's a first-rate work of sf, and a hopeful and fearful book about the climate. It's just great.

Screengrab of Judith Merril introducing Doctor Who on TVOntario, in the 1970s.

Ignore career advice from established writers (permalink)

"Breaking In," is my latest column for Locus Magazine; it's both the story of how I broke into science fiction, and an explanation of why there's so little to learn from that story.

When I was trying to sell my first stories, I obsessively sought career advice and memoirs from established writers. I sat in on countless sf convention panels in which bestselling writers explained how they'd butter up long-dead editors to sell to long-defunct publications.

None of them ever mentioned that as interesting as this stuff might be as an historical artifact, it had zero applicability to the market I was trying to break into.

Not only did these writers enter a fundamentally different – and long-extinct publishing world than the current one, but their relationship to the current market was fundamentally different from my own.

Editors solicited work from them, not the other way around. When they wrote something on spec, they could directly contact editors with whom they'd had long and fruitful professional associations – bypassing the whole "slush reader" apparatus.

I don't know if these established writers failed to mention that none of this applied to the would-be writers in the audience because they thought it was obvious or because it never occurred to them, but either way, it didn't do me a lick of good.

What worked for me? Well, that's the point, isn't it? What worked for me won't work for you. Not only was my path into the field pretty idiosyncratic – any generally applicable principle to be derived from it has been obsolete for decades.

But some things don't change. I benefited immensely from the kindness – sometimes protracted, sometimes momentary – of writers who spoke to youth groups, served as writers-in-residence, guest-lectured to my summer D&D camp.

Above all, I benefited from Judith Merril, a towering writer, critic and editor who went into voluntary exile in Toronto after the Chicago police riots of 1968, and opened the Spaced Out Library, now the Merril Collection, the largest public sf reference library in the world.

Judy didn't just serve as writer-in-residence, reading my manuscripts when I took the subway downtown to give them to her. She also did writer-in-the-schools programs, founding serious writers' workshops that endured for decades.

My high-school workshop was one such; I kept attending it for years after I graduated (I wasn't alone). Judy also steered the writers she critiqued into peer groups, like the still-thriving Cecil Street Irregulars, which I joined in the early 1990s.

Other writers were likewise kind and generous with their time. Tanya Huff worked behind the counter at Bakka bookstore; she sold me the first sf novel I ever bought with my own money (H Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy).

Tanya was immensely patient with me, and even read manuscripts I shyly brought down to the store, giving me encouraging – but unflinching – feedback. When Tayna quit to write full time, I got her job in the store.

Ed Llewellyn and Ed Greenwood were guest speakers at the D&D summer camp I attended. Both were incredibly encouraging when I approached them after their talks to tell them I wanted to write.

Parke Godwin was guest of honor at the first con I ever volunteered at; when I brought him his coffee, he patiently listened to me as I told him I wanted to write and took me seriously, telling me about the importance of good habits.

These writers didn't have any career advice for me per se, but I wouldn't have had a career without them – without them taking me seriously, even at a very young age. I try to pay them forward, by encouraging the young writers in my own path:

As to commercial advice, there's very little I can offer, I'm afraid. I like Heinlein's advice ("1. Write. 2. Finish. 3. Submit. 4. Revise to editorial spec.").

I have a general method ("Find publications that feature work like yours, research their submission process, send your story to the highest-paying ones first").

As for specific market advice, that's something that you should get from peers, not the people who came before you. When I was starting out, other would-be writers and I obsessively shared notes on new markets, editorial tastes, and other nuts-and-bolts.

Writers who are at the same place in their development as you have advice that is far more likely to be applicable to your situation. What's more, they're also the kinds of writers you should be seeking out to join in a critiquing group – your peers.

The reality is that "breaking in" is a grind. It took me a decade from my first submission to my first professional publication; 19 years before my first novel hit the shelves.

Perseverance is the greatest predictor of success here, and support from your peers is the best source of strength and resiliency over that long road.

A Framework computer, disassembled.

The Framework is the most exciting laptop I've ever used (permalink)

Update 22 Sept 2021: This article erroneously described the Framework laptop as the first system to receive a 10/10 from Ifixit. A few other laptops have received this rating. I regret the error.

The Framework laptop one of a very small number of systems to ever score a 10/10 from Ifixit for repairability. But it's no thick-as-a-brick throwback the size of a 2005 Thinkpad – it's approximately the same dimensions as a MacBook.

Mine was delivered at the end of Aug. I got it set up by the first of September and have been using it ever since. Yesterday, I put my 2019 Thinkpad on my pile of "laptops to refurbish and donate." I've bought a new Thinkpad almost every year since 2006. I think that's over.

I switched to Thinkpads as part of my switch to Ubuntu, a flavor of GNU/Linux that was designed to be easy to use for laypeople. My Unix systems administration days were more than a decade behind me when I made the switch.

I loved Thinkpads…at first. Not only were they rugged as hell, but they had an incredible warranty. For about $150/year, IBM guaranteed that a service tech would come to your home or hotel room, anywhere in the world, within 24 hours, and fix your machine.

Prior to my Thinkpad switch, I'd been a Powerbook user and a prisoner to Applecare. I made a practice of buying two Powerbooks at a time and keeping them in synch so that when one inevitably broke down, I could leave it for weeks or months with Apple and use the other one.

I was a heavy traveller then (I was EFF's European Director, on the road 27+ days/month – I even stopped plugging in my fridge because it was costing me $10/month to keep my ice-cubes frozen), and a dead laptop meant that I was beached, unable to do any work.

I loved Macos, but the Powerbooks were really shitty machines, with incredibly poor build quality and a captive repair chain that was run in a way that made it clear that its managers understood that its customers had no alternative.

Switching to Ubuntu was disorienting…at first. It was a lot like the time we renovated our kitchen and moved everything around, and I spent a month reaching for a cutlery drawer that wasn't there. But then, one day, I just acclimated and never noticed it again.

So it was with OSes. If you're noticing your OS, something's wrong. With Ubuntu, I got a GUI that was similar enough to Macos that I could retrain myself, and when things went wrong, I had access to an (admittedly esoteric but) incredibly powerful suite of command-line tools.

This turned out to be an ideal combination. When everything worked, the UX was effectively identical to my Macos days. When things went wrong with my hardware, I never had more than 24h downtime – even when some of my RAM went bad while I was in Mumbai!

And when software got wonky – something that happened with the same approximate frequency as I experienced with Macos and when I was a CIO administering large heterogeneous networks of Mac/Win systems – the recovery tools were far superior.

But it wasn't to last. IBM sold its Thinkpad division to Lenovo and everything started to go to shit. The actual systems acquired layers and layers of proprietary crap – secretive Nvidia graphics cards, strange BIOS rubbish – that made installing Ubuntu progressively harder.

The hardware got worse, too. When I lived in the UK, my Thinkpads always shipped with a UK keyboard. I'd order a US keyboard for <$20 on Ebay and swap it myself – I even managed it one-handed while holding my then-infant daughter in my arms. Took less than a minute.

By 2015, Thinkpads required a full disassembly with multiple specialized tools and tape-removal to fix the keyboards. Also, the keyboards got worse – I had to have three keyboard replacements in 2015, and I couldn't perform any of them,

Things really came to a head in 2019. That was the year I bought and returned two Thinkpads because I couldn't stabilize Ubuntu on them. The third, a giant, heavy Carbon X1, took three months and several bug-fixes by Lenovo's driver team before it worked.

Still, I was ready to buy another Thinkpad by last spring. What else was I going to buy? I wanted something maintainable, and I loved the hardware mouse-buttons and the Trackpoint. But Lenovo was estimating 4-5 months to fulfill orders, so I closed the window and bailed.

Then I saw Ifixit's teardown of a Framework laptop. They described a computer whose hardware was fully user-maintainable/upgradeable. The system opens with six "captive" screws (they stay in the case) and then every component can be easily accessed.

There's no tape. There's no glue. Every part has a QR code that you can shoot with your phone to go to a service manual that has simple-to-follow instructions for installing, removing and replacing it. Every part is labeled in English, too!

The screen is replaceable. The keyboard is replaceable. The touchpad is replaceable. Removing the battery and replacing it takes less than five minutes. The computer actually ships with a screwdriver.

All this, without sacrificing size or power – it's so similar to a Macbook that a friend who came over for dinner (and who knows about my feelings about proprietary Apple hardware) expressed shock that I'd switched to a Macbook!

The computer performs as well or better than my 2019 Thinkpad, but it doesn't need the Thinkpad's proprietary, ~$200 dock – a cheap, $60 device lets me easily connect it to all my peripherals and my desktop monitor, over USB-C. No drivers or configuration needed!

Installing Ubuntu was (nearly) painless. I had been loathe to upgrade the version of Ubuntu I was running on the Thinkpad, lest I kick off another cascade of brutal, tier-2 bug-hunting in the system's proprietary drivers. As a result, I ran the 2018 "Long Term Support" OS.

When I installed Ubuntu on the Framework, I used the latest version – the Framework ships with a very up-to-date wifi card that the older version of Ubuntu couldn't recognize. Then I simply dumped all my files over from a backup drive.

Jumping three years' worth of OSes in one go, moving over my preferences and configuration files from a Thinkpad, did not work perfectly. A single trackpad config file didn't play nice and I had to hunt it down and delete it, and then everything else was literally flawless.

The hardware is also nearly flawless, though I do have a few minor caveats. The computer ships disassembled: you have to open it and install your RAM, SSD, and wifi card. The first two were easy – the third was a major pain in the ass.

The standard wifi card antenna cables are absurdly fiddly, and the Framework documentation wasn't clear enough to see me through. However, when I tweeted to the company about it, they responded swiftly with a video that demystified it.

Another caveat. I really miss my Thinkpad Trackpoint (the little nub in the middle of the keyboard) and the three hardware mouse buttons on the trackpad. I'm finding it really hard to reliably hit the right region on my trackpad to get the left-, center- and middle-buttons.

I've drawn little hints on in sharpie, and I'm working with Canonical, who make Ubuntu, on remapping the button areas. But judging from the Framework forums, I'm not the only Thinkpad expat who'd like to swap the keyboard and trackpad.

But the good news is that if anyone wants to make that keyboard and trackpad, I can swap them in myself, in minutes, with one tool.

That tool – a small screwdriver – is also sufficient to upgrade the CPU or replace the screen, speakers, webcam, etc.

These are all just fine. The webcam and mic both come with hardware off-switches (not just covers, but actual electrical isolation switches that take them offline until you switch them back). The speakers are loud enough.

The screen is sharper than the one on my Thinkpad (though it's glossier and a little harder to read in direct sunlight).

I haven't even mentioned the ports! The Framework has four expansion ports that fit square dongles for HDMI, Ethernet, various USBs, etc.

An animated GIF depicting a Framework Expansion Card being clicked into place.

The Framework site lets you buy as much or as little computer as you want. If you have your own RAM or SSD, you just uncheck those boxes. If you don't bother with Windows (like me), you save $139-200.

Having used this system for nearly a month, I can unequivocally recommend it! However! Most of my use of this computer was from my sofa, while I was recovering from hip-replacement surgery. I haven't road-tested it at all.

But I'll note here that if it turned out that a component failed due to my usual rough handling, I could replace it with a standard part in a matter of minutes, myself, in whatever hotel room I happened to be perching in, using a single screwdriver.

It's been a long time since I owned a computer that was more interesting with its case off than on, but the Framework is a marvel of thoughtful, sustainable, user-centric engineering.

A Framework laptop with its case removed.

It puts the lie to every claim that portability and reliability can't coexist with long-lasting, durable, upgradeable, sustainable hardware.

I started buying a new laptop every year as a reward to myself for quitting smoking.

The environmental consequences of that system weren't lost on me, even given my very good track-record of re-homing my old computers with people who needed them.

But with the Framework, I'm ready to change that policy.

From now on, I can easily see myself upgrading the CPU or the screen on an annual basis, or packing in more RAM. But the laptop? Apart from the actual chassis falling apart, there's no reason I'd replace it for the whole foreseeable future.

This is a beautiful, functional, sustainable, thoughtful and even luxurious (Framework offers a 2TB SDD, while Lenovo has been stuck at 1TB drives for years and years) computer.

Based on a month's use, I am prepared to declare myself a Framework loyalist, and to retire my last Thinkpad…forever.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Open source prosthetics*/,71797-0.html

#15yrsago Bruce Sterling story: How kids’ lives will be ruined by Internet control;action=display;threadid=36318

#10yrsago William Gibson in 1994 discussing ebooks, online radicalization and internet balkanization

#10yrsago OnStar vows to track your movements forever, even if you cancel the service

#5yrsago Making Conversation: 59 lively and delightful essays from Teresa Nielsen Hayden

#5yrsago RCMP: Former Canadian mint worker smuggled out $180K by hiding it up his butt

#5yrsago What yesterday’s hilariously awful testimony by Wells Fargo’s CEO portends for his future

#5yrsago Really excellent advice for finishing a book

#5yrsago Free trade lowers prices — but not on things poor people need (and it pushes up housing prices)

#5yrsago Lickspittle consigliere: how the super-rich abuse their wealth managers as loyalty tests

#5yrsago Novum Pharma’s $240, semi-useless acne cream now costs $10,000/tube

#1yrago California's fire-debt

#1yrago Fincen (they fucking knew all along)

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 259 words (19326 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Disneyland at a stroll
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla