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What Makes Decisions?

There are few platitudes I despise more than "Everything happens for a reason." While the statement is clearly true, it's not true in the way everyone who says it means it. Everything does happen for a reason, but I see no reason to believe that said reason comes from a higher power, a benevolent universe, or some sort of guiding force or fate. From my reading of the evidence, it seems to me that everything happens for a reason because life is just part of a long causal chain going back to the big bang (let's set aside the cause of the big bang for now).

Which leads me to my current belief that there is no such thing as free will. Unless you accept some sort of cartesian dualism, I don't see room for free will within the framework of what we know about the world. It's becoming clearer and clearer that the "mind" is purely physical, a function of neuronal activity in the brain. When parts of the brain get damaged, so do corresponding parts of the mind. Accepting the likely truth that thinking is entirely physical, then it is in turn entirely subject to physical stimuli - a super-complicated machine reacting to the rest of the world. What we think of as "choosing" is just an illusion our brains create. Sort of. 

Over at Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True blog they've been talking free will, and he links to an interesting study from a couple years back. It certainly doesn't disprove free will on its own, but its a fascinating piece of evidence. In short, subjects were put in an FMRI which scanned their brains while they were asked to make a decision about which button to push. The scans showed that the brain made the decision 7 or more seconds before the person was conscious of having chosen a button. The moment they thought they'd picked a button came long after the choice had already been made.

Obviously it's very early days in all this fascinating brain science stuff, but with each passing study it seems more and more evidence against dualism accumulates. 


Perils of Travel and Starcraft Makes me Old

Ahh, a nice two week break before traveling begins again. I've been spending my days catching up on work, preparing to leave, and wishing friends a bon voyage as they move away.

My trip back home from Atlanta was largely uneventful, except for this:

Which was kind of exciting. No one was hurt, but that car burned for a long time while we all sat there. So that added about 45 minutes outside of Gainesville to me trip. You know, I've never been to Gainesville, which sometimes seems weird to me.

In other news, I just bought Starctaft 2 this morning, and have finished installing it. I promised myself I wouldn't play until I'm done with the day's work and have gone to the gym. We'll see how that goes. While I was at Best Buy, there was a mom and her 10 year old son looking at buying Starcraft as well. He had the $99 collector's edition in his hand, but mom was trying to talk him into getting the normal version. I tried to set a good example for him (which she pointed out to him) by picking up the normal box.

It left me reminiscing about LAN parties at Stellar Semiconductor when I first moved out to San Jose in 2000. We played a TON of Starcraft in those days, but I haven't played at all since then. Which is to say, I haven't played the first game since that kid looking at the collector's edition was in diapers. If he was even alive. So yeah, I feel old. Again. 

At least my car's not on fire.


An Actual Vacation

So I realized the other day that I can't remember the last time I took a trip just for the sake of taking a trip. I've always got some other, usually book-related, reason for my many travels. But last week I got in the car and headed north to South Carolina to see some friends in Charleston and then on to Atlanta to see other friends (where I am now). It's been really nice and relaxing and all that. Plus I've had a ringside seat for two family groups and their young children, which has been fun and sweet and interesting. They're all great kids, and I had fun introducing them to Angry Birds on the Ipad, but I definitely prefer visiting to, you know, having to raise one of my own.

In Charleston I actually did some touristy things, like eat she-crab soup and shrimp and grits and take the ferry out to tour Fort Sumter. The fort's kinda smaller than I thought it would be, but the boat ride was a pleasure and the historical site pretty cool (despite my general disdain for all things Confederate). Here in the ATL (well, Suwanee actually) I'm pretty much just chilling out, playing games, and of course chatting the night away with Becky and Matt.

Oooh! I've also seen Inception twice, once in each city. It's really cool, and I think better having seen it a second time. So you should check that shit out. Tomorrow, I head home, and then start gearing up for the serious traveling that starts in August...


The Passage by Justin Cronin: Rambling Thoughts

I don't know Justin Cronin, but I know lots of people who do. He was a teacher at my MFA program up until the year I got there. He didn't leave just because I was coming in as a student. Instead he left because he got a multi-million dollar contract to write a series of vampire novels and needed to devote himself full time to that. Awesome for him, definitely, and given the size and scope of the first novel, The Passage, I can see that he's clearly been hard at work.

I've been hearing mentions of "Justin's Vampire Book" for three years of MFA residency now, so I was quite curious to read the book when it came out. I got the kindle version and last week finished reading it on my ipad (I love the kindle app, I really do). The Passage isn't being sold in the sci-fi section I don't think, but it's definitely a piece of science fiction. That's a discussion for another time. It's also being sold as a vampire novel, although it's not what most people think of these days when they think vampire. There's absolutely not Twilight or True Blood style vamping going on here - it's really more of a zombie story than a vampire one. And really, really, it's actually the same basic premise as I Am Legend/Omega Man. 

The Passage is a big, well-written, mostly exciting book. The "vampires" here are the result of scientific experimentation gone wrong and aren't of the supernatural variety. They're really just monsters - humans transformed into super-strong, super-fast, hard to kill monsters with lots of sharp teeth and strange psychic-ish powers. Although the book starts in the near future - 2014 if I recall - after the first quarter or so it jumps ahead 100 years to a world overrun by monsters, where only a few humans survive. The overwhelming majority of the novel (and the rest of the trilogy I assume) takes place in this post-apocalyptic wasteland where monsters rule the night. 

First of all, my biases: I'm tired of post-apocalyptic anything. Maybe it's because I've played more video games in this setting than most people, but I think the America gone to hell setting is really just not that inherently interesting to me anymore. Cronin does a fine job realizing his world, although I think he's maybe playing a little fast and loose with what would actually be around 100 years from now. So the set-up didn't grab me. I much preferred his vision of America circa 2014, and even though I think the book would be fine and more fun and a better read if the first 200 pages were condensed down to 25 or 30, I liked that setting more (if not those characters). 

So, with the setting not grabbing me, the next issue is the plot. It's solid, and moves along on the macro level, but it seldom really grabbed me. And there are some real howlers in there, including the cheesiest, most random B-movie out of nowhere death of a main character I've ever seen. It was a sequence that would've made me throw the book across the room if it were a paperback instead of on my ipad. As the book climaxes, there seem to be more and more of these cheap thrills/scares, culminating in a couple of false notes at the end that are crass and manipulative on the level of Dan Brown's latest novel. These moments, word count wise, are small set against the entirety of this well written, big novel. The characters are mostly really solid and while it feels bloated, it mostly moves along. But those false notes mostly come at the places where the book is meant to thrill, all of which left me feeling very lukewarm about the whole experience.

I'm left with the puzzling question that's really not fair to Cronin or any author. What here was worth the reported $3 million advance and movie deal? I have no idea. It's no better or worse than a dozen other books I've read this year, and it's certainly not the most exciting or thrilling or original vampire story out there. But hey, I'm probably just jealous or something. 


The Evolution of Barnes and Noble in the Face of E-Books

I've got some half-baked, anecdote based punditry for you on the subject of bookstores.

I go to Barnes and Noble a lot. Years ago I worked there, and I have a certain affection for the place (an affection only for my local store, not the chain as a whole). It's a comfortable place for me, and I can always spend a nice hour there every week or so. But I buy less and less with each passing month. As I've stated earlier, if I can get a book in electronic form I always will over the print version. At this point I absolutely prefer reading on my ipad over reading a printed book, both for convenience and cost reasons. So I browse the store for new titles and then, if I can, buy them on Kindle. So for me, the store is like a big display window.

I think B&N sees this coming. Our store has a big Nook display that hits you right as you walk in the door, with regular "classes" on how to use the company's e-reader device. I don't know how many they're selling, but I see people at the counter a lot.

Now my store has gone through some new changes. They've added a hugely expanded game section, with four big shelves of board games right in the center of the store. They've also added in a huge new educational materials section, aimed at parents and kids. Being neither, I haven't really looked at what's in there, but it's a huge new section. 

These new sections mean that other parts of the store have been condensed down. The area that used to hold Sci-Fi and Romance now adds Mystery into the same amount of shelf space. Sci-fi has definitely shrunk down. I imagine Romance and Mystery have as well. The Science section also got condensed down from two full rows to one and a quarter. The shrinkage seems to be universal through the store. 

I asked at the customer service counter and they assured me that they have the exact same stock, it's just now shelved more efficiently. I don't think that's true, but I don't know for sure. What I do know is that the store is putting things besides books into prominent positions, and I think that's probably a good move on their part.

Look how the CD section in Best Buy has shrunk. As e-readers come on strong in the next decade - and I promise you they will - book stores are going to face the same challenges from people buying digital instead of physical. There may come a day when Barnes and Noble isn't even primarily a bookstore anymore, although I don't know what exactly would replace it. 

People will still be reading paper books in ten years, I'm sure. But will enough people be buying them to support big box stores? I'm much less sure.


Pre-Event Cocooning

Do you do this? When something big is coming up, do you sort of just sit back and wait for it to happen, knowing that things will be different afterwards? It's like, after next week (or whatever) you'll have done or experienced this cool thing and you just want that to happen and it becomes hard to get motivated to do something else before then. Do you do this?

I totally do this, and I think it's a pretty terrible habit. I'm only now, as I write this, becoming fully aware of both the habit and my guess as to the psychology behind it, but I think it's a real phenomenon and I wonder what I can do to break the cycle. Of course, very soon I won't have to worry about breaking the cycle, because all these cool things are about to happen and I'll be very busy:

1) Tomorrow night (June 29th) is my Book Release Party for The Cthulhu Cult - it's at Pastry Art cafe on Main Street in Sarasota - 7 to 9 pm. I've got about 50 RSVPs and there was a write-up in Creative Loafing, so it looks like turnout will be great. Speaking of which, I need to go buy some wine...

2) I'm going to The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas next week. That's awesome. I was supposed to go a few years back (had tickets and everything) and the night before canceled for medical reasons. Dumb medical reasons. I'd been feeling bad and not going to the doctor, but if I had gone to the doce just a day or two earlier, everything would've been fine. Everything was fine two days after I did in fact drag my ass to the doctor. See above about putting things off.

3) I'm not just going for fun. I'm going as part of my new and exciting position as Science Evangelist for This new non-profit will allow researchers to solicit donations for their scientific endeavors directly from the public, who get to help cool science and take a nice deduction in the process. When the site launches I'll be doing daily blogging, weekly podcasting, and other stuff for them. This will be a big deal, both for me and in general, and I've been doing work for the site for a couple months now. We're launching later this summer. 

4) Then, the weekend after that I'm driving up to Charleston SC for a little adventure. More on that right here.

5) Then, in early August, I graduate from my MFA program. That means flying out to Tacoma for ten days. It also means everyone will henceforth have to address me as Master. That's my understanding anyway.

6) Then, the day after I get back from that, diploma in hand, I'm off again. This time to Berlin. For five weeks. Oh do I love Berlin. Why? Secret project, that's why.

So I'm excited for all of that! Which means I've been lazy on other things. I've been meeting my obligations - sciflies work, wrote a short story, doing podcasts, etc., but I haven't been doing the extra stuff I totally should. Like blogging here. Which is, on balance, a huge mistake I think. I need to get better about that. Fortunately, I don't have time to be worried about it, because I've got so much going on...


Video Games Are Art.


See and Hear More of ME!

So I've let that ad for The Cthulhu Cult sit in the position of pride long enough that everyone probably stopped coming by to see if I'd post anything new. Which was probably not the best plan in the world, really, as I've had plenty to post about. 

First of all, my new podcast, Lovecraftian Obsession is now up and running. I just posted the second episode, an interview with S.T. Joshi, and I've already recorded three more great interviews plus there's the inaugural episode with the erudite and in interesting Ken Hite from two week ago. So really, check these out. You can subscribe via itunes by following this link. And if you could give me a review, that'd be swell!

I'm also having a book release party here in Sarasota. It's on June 29th at 7:00 pm at Pastry Art cafe (1512 Main Street). Freed food and drink and books for sale, so come on down and get hooked up with some lovely Lovecraftian goodness. Tell everyone you know they should come along too!


Now You Can Buy THE CTHULHU CULT. Right now.

Well, that much-anticipated (at least by people sitting at this desk) day has arrived. I'm satisfied with the print version, I've sorted out the ebook package, and I've set up the store. So, right now, and hopefully for all of eternity to come, you can buy new book, The Cthulhu Cult. 

This is all part of an experiment/proof of concept on my part. I'm proud as hell of this book, and I've gotten some great reviews and serious interest from publishers on it. But I think I can do better for myself and for the book if I do it all myself. So I'm doing the whole self-pub thing this time around, and am willing to embrace both the advantages and disadvantages that come with that. I'm almost positive I can make more money, and I'm enough of a control freak that I want to send the book out there as is. 

I didn't do it all by myself though. I've learned some lessons. I paid a significant amount to hire a professional copy editor and cover designer, decisions that I don't regret even the tiniest bit. Obviously that means I have to sell a certain number to recoup those costs (about 320 of them). I'm sure I can sell that many, and probably many more. 

I also have some cool promotional plans in mind, including some sort of release event here in Sarasota and an exciting new limited run podcast. More on that in weeks to come. For now, the book is done and ready and boy oh boy do you want one!

Buy The Cthulhu Cult right here!