Why I’ll never be a great copy editor — or, the beauty of ambiguity

Why English is difficult to learn. (click to embiggen)

I often comment upon how people don’t understand grammar. But I don’t usually mean that they have poor grammar, or that I think they are undereducated, or that they aren’t smart. No, most of my examples of people misunderstanding grammar comes from my 31+ years working in the telecommunications and software industries surrounded by extremely bright engineers, technologists, and the like—people who are used to looking for patterns that can be turned into algorithms, or used to identify anomalies. Therefore, they either slightly misunderstand grammar rules, or think that all grammar rules work like algorithms. So I will get asked, “Settle an argument about grammar for me…” and then they will outline something that isn’t actually about any rule of grammar at all, but is more a matter of style.

They aren’t always happy when I tell them that this thing they have gotten into spirited arguments with their spouse/relative/co-worker over doesn’t have a clear answer.

They are even less happy when I tell them that it does have a clear answer, and they are partially correct but have misunderstood the actual rule. I’ll give an example.

Which of the following do you think is correct:

  1. A FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police.
  2. An FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police

I’ve had a huge number of engineers who insist the first sentence is correct because “you only use ‘an’ when the next work begins with a vowel.” And they are sort of right, but completely wrong. Whether one uses the indefinite article “a” or its variant “an” isn’t determined by the spelling of the following word, it is determined by the pronunciation. Because most people pronounce that three-letter initialism FBI as if it were spelled “eff-bee-eye.”

It isn’t whether the next word begins with a vowel, it’s whether the next word begins with a vowel sound.

If that’s still a little too vague for you, you can use the instruction given in the Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer: “Use the indefinite article a before words in which the first sound is a consonant, a sounded h or a long u… Use the indefinite article an before words in which the first sound is a vowel, except long u, and before words beginning with a silent h.”

The reason that pronunciation determines which word is used is because written English is not a programmatic system for creating sentences nor an algorithmic apparatus for manipulating the alphabet. Written English is a methodology for representing the speech of English speakers. And when you try to pronounce a phrase like, “a hour” it feels wrong. The “uh” bleeds into the “ow” sound. Some people literally can’t force themselves to say it without the “nnnn” sound in there to break them apart; that’s how deeply rooted the habit has become.

This is a bit of a ramble to get to my point (and to introduce a new series of posts I’ve been plotting for a while): using language is not like assembling a piece of furniture. Language can be ambiguous and still be proper from a grammatical standpoint. Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sentences usually provide enough context that which meaning the author wants is clear. But sometimes the ambiguity is the author’s intent. That’s how much of poetry works; a line or group of lines are constructed in such a way that several meanings of a particular word are evoked, in order to create a synthesis or a juxtaposition of the concepts.

One of my problems when I am copy editing someone else’s work is not just that I have a bad habit of unconsciously decoding common typographic errors (so I literally don’t perceive the wrong word a person has written in some cases), but also because I love the many variant ways that language can work. Enforcing a standard style guide is difficult, because sometimes, even though a sentence in a particular article or instruction violates the guide, it more elegantly conveys the meaning than one which followed the guide.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my own style preferences that I will enforce on others if I’m in an editorial role (copy editors I have worked with can tell you about the long rows we’ve had because I insist that the only acceptable spelling is “okay” and not “OK” for instance), but I also know that those instances are preferences that I’m insisting on because I like them, not because there is an absolutely right or wrong answer to the particular question.

There are times when ambiguity is bad. There are times when you have to make the meaning crystal clear leaving as little doubt as possible about the exact meaning of a particular description or instruction. Most of those cases have to do with procedures which people are undertaking: instructions related to medical conditions, or repairing equipment, or recording legal documents. But quite often in fiction, a little ambiguity is required; it provides the wiggle room necessary to breathe life into your story.

“Semicolons revel in ambiguity; ambiguity is beautiful.”
—Jeannette Ng


This is hardly the first time I’ve written on this topic, of course: Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana.

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Friday Five (rich a-hole edition)

“Here's why it would be a mistake for the Democrats to do anything that inconveniences rich assholes by Some Rich Asshole”

(click to embiggen)

It’s Friday! And we’ve already reached the second Friday in August. My, how the time does fly.

Weather forecasts last week had implied (or in some cases explicitly said) the region is was in for a persistent cool down. I don’t know if they were being hopeful or just really f-ing wrong, because several days this week have been as hot as the record-breaking hot days of just over a week ago. Supposedly a cool down is on its way, but I’ll believe it when I experience it.

Let me present to you this week’s Friday Five: the top five (IMHO) science stories of the week, top five stories of general interest, top five stories of people behaving badly, top five stories of interest to queer people, the top five videos, and a notable obituary (plus my blog posts).

Science stories of the Week:

Sequenced fox genome hints at genetic basis of behavior.

The Ineffectiveness of Employer Wellness Programs, and the Importance of Randomized Trials.

Too Many Jobs Feel Meaningless Because They Are.

Men who wear boxers have a much higher sperm count, says study.

Pairs of small colliding galaxies may seed future stars.

Stories of the Week:

Counterpoint: I Don’t Hate Pineapple Pizza, Because It’s Pizza.

#BlackSpecFic is back for your fleeting attention but with better news this time!.

Why We’re Sharing 3 Million Russian Troll Tweets.

Do You Have “Advantage Blindness”?

The Bayeux Tapestry with knobs on: what do the tapestry’s 93 penises tell us?

People behaving badly:

Pastor Convicted for Child Porn Now Arrested for Trying to Meet Teen Boy for Sex.

Cops Called On Point Boro Family – For Having ‘Library’ For Kids.

Apple Kicked Alex Jones Off Its Platform, Then YouTube And Facebook Rushed To Do The Same.

Twitter says Infowars hasn’t ‘violated our rules.’ It looks like that’s not the case.

Sen. Nelson Reveals that Russians Have ‘Penetrated’ Florida’s Voter Registration System.

Queer stories of the Week:

How Bob Mizer came to be the gay Hugh Hefner.

Man pours glitter into car after driver calls him a ‘faggot’.

Lights, camera, action! Not one but two iconic gay films are getting sequels.

‘Pose’ Is A Fierce And Flawed Addition To The Evolving Queer Pop Culture Canon. In my opinion, this review is infinitely more flawed than the show it reviews…

Ireland’s Gay Prime Minister Will Challenge Pope on Same-Sex Parents.

In Memoriam:

Bisexual Polyamorous Goose Love Triangle Ends In Tragedy.

Things I wrote:

Slippery slopes and projection.

Course Correction vs Necromancy—a follow up on exclusion at sf/f conventions.

Videos!

Stephen Colbert: Looks Like Alex Jones Just Lost The War On Info:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Prosecutors: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO):

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The Spy Who Loved the NRA :

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Cher – GIMME! GIMME! GIMME! (A Man After Midnight) [Official HD Audio]:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Jake Shears – Big Bushy Mustache (Official Video):

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Course Correction vs Necromancy—a follow up on exclusion at sf/f conventions

“Brad T, Larry C's critique of WorldCon was never in substance ANTI-gatekeeping but rather them wanting "SJWs" gatekept OUT. Brad T in particular wanted Hugos to go to trad "Nutty Nugget" style works *REGARDLESS* of what fans wanted. Both Brad & Larry have been vocal in wanting SF cons to be traditional & to keep programming the old guard. I suspect if SHoyt could reanimate the corpse of RAHeinlein, that's who would be on every panel in perpetuity. SP was about being against the *NEW* & different.”

More commentary on the programming issues (click to embiggen)

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about problems with the Worldcon Programming, and more particularly some of the very telling comments some programming staff members made.

The con chair asked Mary Robinette Kowal (who I quoted in one of those posts) to assist in repairing the programming grid. She’s run programming for more than one Nebula conference (and I believe a few other conventions) and seemed a good choice. She made a couple of short comments online right after agreeing, in which she said she had several volunteers to help, and would be too busy for the next several days to answer any questions from people not directly involved.

The con has subsequently published a new schedule, which looks much more diverse (in both topic and participation). I’ve seen several of the pros who had previously said they would withdraw from programming to make room for others since post that they had agreed to participate in at least one event in the new schedule.

I’m sure it was a mad scramble, and my hat’s off to the staff for realizing they needed to fix the problems, for being willing to accept help when it was offered, and to everyone who pitched in. It looks like a great program. I hope this was a learning experience for some people.

And I hope everyone who attends has a fabulous time.

But the best commentary I’ve seen on the topic of convention programming, the desire some fans have to only include popular/well-known/established writers, et cetera, has got to be the amusing short story Cora Buhlert posted a few days ago: Convention Programming in the Age of Necromancy – A Short Story. You should go read it there, because it’s hilarious, but I will include the opening to give you a taste:

At the daily program operations meeting of a science fiction convention that shall remain unnamed, the debate got rather heated.

“We absolutely need to hold the ‘Future of Military Science Fiction’ panel in Auditorium 3,” the head of programming, whom we’ll call Matt, said.

“And why?” his fellow volunteer, who shall henceforth be known as Lucy, asked, “Is military SF so important, that it needs one of the bigger rooms, while we shove the ‘Own Voices’ panel into a tiny cupboard?”

“No,” Matt said, “But Auditorium 3 has air conditioning.”

Lucy tapped her foot. “And? Are old white dude military SF fans more deserving of coolness and air than own voices creators and fans?”

Matt sighed. “No, but Heinlein’s reanimated corpse is coming to the panel. And trust me, he smells abominably. Oh yes, and he’s declared that he wants to attend the ‘Alternative Sexualities in Science Fiction’ panel, so we’d better put that in a room with AC, too.”

A personal note: The first time I was in charge of programming for a convention was an accident. I was on staff as the convention book editor (and I was also responsible for laying out the pocket program), and had previously been a panelist at the same convention. The person who was in charge of programming missed a couple of meetings as we were getting down to the wire, and she wasn’t responding to e-mails or phone calls from anyone. I was getting frantic because I didn’t have content for the program books. Many of us who had responded to the programming survey were worried because we hadn’t heard what panels (if any) we were on.

Turned out that the person in charge of programming had had a massive stroke and was in the hospital for an extended time. The hospital had not been able to contact her daughter (who was also on con staff, but she lived on the other side of the country, and her job at the con was strictly on-site. The daughter was on an extended business travel thing during the weeks all this was going down). The upshot was that at nearly the last minute to finish the program books, we found all this out, and suddenly I was in charge of programming. With the help of a couple of other people (and with a pile of email messages once we redirected the programming alias), I put together a programming grid in about three days. It wasn’t the best programming grid I ever saw, but we got it done.

And panelists were happy. We got a lot of compliments on the programming.

And that’s how I ended up in charge of programming for the following two years at that convention. We had a slightly less frantic process the next two years.

The woman who had the stroke did get out of the hospital and even attended the next couple of year’s convention in a wheelchair. Sadly, one of the things my successor had to put in his first grid as programming lead was a memorial service for her.

I wish I had a more upbeat ending to this tale.

The only conclusion I have is: running programming for a convention takes you in directions you never expected. It is an adventure, but remember that one of the definitions of “adventure story” is something really awful that happens to someone else.

Slippery slopes and projection

“First they came for Alex Jones, and I said nothing because the entire point of that poem was a warning against letting fascist assholes like him have a voice in the first place.”

(click to embiggen(

There were a lot of people posting on social media about several of the big tech platforms removing Alex Jones’ podcasts, videos, and so forth from their services for repeated violation of rules against hate speech. A huge number of the alt-right types were making posts in the from of the poem, “First They Came For…” by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. Niemöller’s poem was a critique of the German intellectuals and religious leaders who sat quietly after the Nazis rose to power and began targeting various groups for harassment, imprisonment, and execution. It has been quote many times. Niemöller said that he never really wrote down a definitive version, but would recite variants of it at speeches me made in the years after the war. One of the most frequently quoted versions goes like this:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.

In case you aren’t familiar, Alex Jones is a radio host who also puts out his show on various Youtube channels and the like (or he did until this week) where he traffics in conspiracy theories and extreme rightwing fearmongering, while convincing people to buy his crappy dietary supplements and apocalypse survival gear. He spent years denouncing the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook, claiming that the murdered children never existed and that the parents were actors perpetuating an anti-gun hoax. His rants inspired his ravening fans to so harass some of the parents to the point of having to move several times over the years to escape the harassment, death threats, and vandalism.

Some of those parents have finally got a lawsuit going against Jones, and I am among the many people who hope they take him for every penny.

But the Sandy Hook parents aren’t his only victims. And people have been complaining to the various service providers who host his programs for years to take some action. Which they finally have.

Anyway, now that Jones’ podcasts and such have been removed from the Apple podcast library, YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify, everyone on the right is in a tizzy that this is the first step in a coming progrom against all conservative people. And because I retweeted a few of the best responses to this nonsense I saw, I suddenly had a bunch of them trying to convince me that this was a clear example of censorship whose slippery slope would lead to the oppressing of queer people such as myself.

There are several problems with these arguments. The first is that, despite what all these folks claim, Jones is not being targeted because he is Republican. He is not being targeted for who he is. He has been banned for things he has said and done. Specifically, the hate speech and the incitement to harass and worse. The justification of removing his content is clear, egregious, and repeated violation of long-standing policies forbidding hate speech and the like. Example: Facebook bans InfoWars and Alex Jones after calls for drag queens to be burned alive There’s no slippery slope from there to banning large swaths of people.

Second, this is, in some ways, like closing the barn door after the horse has run away. These platforms should have banned him years ago. He was allowed to spew his hate and lies and harass and cause the harassment of innocent people for years, all while profiting from the hate and lies. This is severely delayed justice, at best. He isn’t being censored, he is instead facing consequences for immoral, unethical, and in some cases illegal things he has done many, many times for many, many years.

Third, queer people are already punished by several of these services. YouTube is particularly notorious about disallowing ad revenue for videos that advocate for queer rights and so forth. They label any mention of queerness at all as sensitive “adult” material, even when it is just a trans person giving people make-up tips. I’ll believe these rightwing a-holes are concerned about oppression when I see them protesting YouTube’s treatment of queer people now.

Fourth, this isn’t censorship, it’s consequences. And the consequences aren’t coming from the government. Jones isn’t being carried off to a concentration camp by armed officers. There are people in this country being hauled away by armed officers of the government where they are being locked up for who they are, rather than anything they have done. And it isn’t rightwing people like Jones that it is happening to. So it is particularly infuriating that they’re making this argument now.

There are things happening in this country that could be described by Niemöller’s poem, but those actions are being undertaken by the Trump administration, all the while being cheered on by people like Alex Jones. Jones isn’t a victim, he’s one of the culprits.

Friday Five (sharks and catfishing edition)

Just one of the many cool graphics you'll find if you click on the first story...

Just one of the many cool graphics you’ll find if you click on the first story…

It’s Friday! It’s August! How did that happen?

Sunday was the hottest day of the years, and Monday was still pretty bad, but the weather took a turn for the much more pleasant after that. We had drizzle yesterday and today! I’m so happy! I usually do my Friday Five on Thursday night and schedule it to publish in the morning, but I only got it half done because it’s been a crazy week and I decided to binge some things off the DVR. Anyway, only took a few minutes to finish up today.

Let me present to you this week’s Friday Five: the top five (IMHO) stories of the week, five stories of people behaving badly, the top five videos, and a few of notable obituaries (plus my blog posts).

Stories of the Week:

Here’s How America Uses Its Land. The interactive graphic is amazing!

The Bullshit Web. This essay is about technology, bandwidth, how we use is… and so much more.

Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason. The paradigm determines all…

Newsrooms must stand up to targeted campaigns of harassment.

What we know about blackberries – That galloping sound? The rising darkness? Look out! Here they come!

People behaving badly:

Democratic Donor Accused Of Killing A Young, Gay Black Man By Injecting Him With Drugs Will Face No Charges.

Possibly Craziest Story Ever (New Innovations in Politicians Doing Revenge Porn). GOP politician got off on the idea of other men sleeping with his girlfriend — it was such a turn on that he catfished other men and got them to tell him what they would like to do with her by pretending to be her.

Shark from San Antonio Aquarium returned after thieves are caught on video using baby stroller to carry animal. There’s more: Man Who Stole Shark from Aquarium Says He Was Just Trying to ‘Help’.

Kris Kobach’s Lucrative Trail of Courtroom Defeats – For years, the candidate for Kansas governor has defended towns that passed anti-immigration ordinances. The towns have lost big — but Kobach has fared considerably better..

Rep. Jordan Pressures Coaches to Get His Accusers to Recant.

In Memoriam:

Model Zombie Boy from Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ Video Dead at 32.

Things I wrote:

I finally stopped fiddling with my Hugo Ballot.

Future hazy, or we’ll take our weather blessings as we can.

Videos!

Shazam! | SDCC Trailer:

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Rudy Giuliani Doesn’t Know If Colluding Is Crime:

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Rudy Giuliani Says Collusion Is Not a Crime: A Closer Look:

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Anderson Cooper calls out Sarah Sanders’ promise:

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Boy George covers YMCA and asks Why Not?:

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Future hazy, or we’ll take our weather blessings as we can

“My birthstone is a coffee bean.”

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Monday evening when I left the office I noticed the slightly smoky or hazy look right away. I thought, at first, that perhaps a big truck with a load of gravel or something had just driven by and left a lot of dust in the air? Or maybe something had blown up a bunch of dirt from one of the several large construction sites near our building, you know. But as I proceeded to do my semi-random walk1, it became apparent that there was a slight haze everywhere, include, when I could see it, on the horizon. This was a bit worrying, especially remembering last year and the long stretch of days when we were blanketed in smoke from region wildfires, turning the sun a scary red, and sending everyone with hay fever and/or asthma into a bad way.

But the closest wildfires I had heard about in the news were in California. Also, since we’ve been in a heatwave, I have been paying attention to weather reports and prevailing wind directions, if for no other reason to pick which direction to aim the fans in the windows at home. And the wind had been coming from the north or northwest very consistently for days, which is the wrong direction to bring California smoke to us.

Of course, Professor Cliff Mass’s blog had the answer (including satellite pictures): Most of the of smoke has not been local, but rather came from huge fires over Siberia!

There was a silver lining to the globe-spanning smoke: it was blocking enough sun to pull region temperatures down by 1-4º Fahrenheit. Given that Sunday was the hottest day of the entire year, even a few degrees of cooling is greatly appreciated!

Wednesday morning while I was waiting for my bus, and then later walking from the bus to the office, I kept feeling phantom raindrops. My weather apps showed 0% chance of rain, and the radar showed nothing nearby. Also, the clouds didn’t look right for rain. At one corner, while waiting for the crosswalk to change, I was looking up at the cloud cover and I figured it out.

It wasn’t clouds. It was June Gloom in August. June Gloom is often a bank of fog on the region which doesn’t look like fog on the crowd, it looks like 100% cloud cover, but the bank only extends a thousand feet or so up. The air is very moist and cool, and water droplets aren’t falling from the sky, but they do occasionally form in the air around you.

And that’s a great feeling after a heatwave, let me tell you!

For the next several days, at least, the daily high temperatures are forecast only in the 70s, which is much more pleasant than we’ve had for a while. And we’re supposed to get some rain. I don’t know if it will be enough to get the creek and river levels back up from their current very low levels. And the long term forecast has some high 80s again next week, so we aren’t completely out of the woods, yet.

But I’ll gladly take several days of normal temperatures and a little rain.


Footnotes:

1. Since home is now too far from work to walk home, in an effort to replace that lost exercise, I set me watch to an open-ended outdoor walk, and walk around downtown, letting whichever crosswalk is showing WALK when I get to each corner2, until the watch says I’ve walked a mile, than I turn and head toward the bus stop.

2. I say semi-random above because, for instance, the first three blocks are not random. I walk straight up the steepest hill three blocks until I get to the mostly-flat part of downtown. And there are two major thoroughfares after that which I treat as bounding boxes. If I hit either of those and the crosswalk is green, I don’t cross, but instead circle the block and head back.

I finally stopped fiddling with my Hugo Ballot

The 2016 trophy, awarded at MidAmericaCon II, designed by Sarah Felix. photographed by Fred Teifeld.

The 2016 trophy, awarded at MidAmericaCon II, designed by Sarah Felix. photographed by Fred Teifeld.

In some previous years I posted my ballot (or some other indication of my choices) on the blog, in part because some followers had asked me to. But this year was difficult in the most wonderful ways. I kept fiddling with my choices in all of the categories because so many of the nominees were so good. I really enjoyed all the stories that I read (the fact that a bunch of works and creators that I nominated made it in various categories didn’t hurt this year). Still, between all the categories there are 114 nominees, and out of that whole bunch there is exactly one that I didn’t think deserved the award.

So, to re-iterate, the hardest part this year was picking which things to put in first place in each category, since I thought pretty much everything this time around was award worthy.

Technically I still have several hours after this post will publish when I can go back in and move things around on my ballot, but I really think I need to stop dithering and just leave it.

Two categories that I almost always decide on last are the Editor, Long Form, and Editor, Short Form. For short form, usually if I recognize which publication an editor worked on, and I’m familiar with it, I feel confident I can rank them. It’s when I don’t know the publication well that I feel a little less certain.

Editor, Long Form is easy if, like this year (and as I recall last year) every nominee provides a list of all the books that they worked on that were published in the year under consideration. Then I have something to judge them on. This category was previously one of the hardest for me in the nominating phase, until I read a suggestion on someone’s blog: look at the list of the books you’ve decided to nominate, go to the publisher’s web site for each, and find out who the editor of that book was.

I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this during the nomination phase with regards to professional artist. If a book that I know is eligible has a great cover, I should nominate that artist. So, next year I hope to have more than one nominee in that category!

Anyway, it’s been a fun couple of months reading the stuff that made the ballot. Now that I’ve finished my voting, I can go back to reading other things in my big to-read pile!

Friday Five (hearing is believing edition)

(Click to embiggen)

It’s Friday! Already the fourth Friday in July.

Another week of hotter than normal temps here, which we’re managing to get through, but I’m spending a lot more time sitting out on my veranda after dark sipping tea or ice water or LaCroix or gin & tonic…

But enough about us. Let me present to you this week’s Friday Five: the top five (IMHO) stories of the week, five stories of people behaving badly, the top five stories concerning queer people, the top five videos, and a few of notable obituaries (plus my blog posts).

Stories of the Week:

First Successful Test of Einstein’s General Relativity Near Supermassive Black Hole.

America Needs Better Democrats.

American white people really hate being called “white people”.

Women and Femmes Unite: A Structural and Political Analysis of Femininity.

The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure.

People behaving badly:

Tony Perkins longs for the days when he could have LGBTQ people jailed.

Forbes deleted a deeply misinformed op-ed arguing Amazon should replace libraries.

‘Cockygate’ Author Faleena Hopkins Backs Down From Trademark Dispute After A Settlement Is Reached.

Brock Turner Presents “Outercourse” Argument at Appeals Court.

Terrorized By Extremists, Sandy Hook Parents Accuse Facebook CEO Of “Providing A Safe Haven For Hate”.

Queer stories of the Week:

The Queer Art of Failing Better | Laurie Penny.

Queer Rapid Response Team for WorldCon 76.

Judge’s ruling supports Dallas School District’s transgender policy.

Oklahoma woman offers to be a stand-in mom at LGBTQ weddings.

Delaware Just Banned Gay Conversion Therapy For LGBTQ Youth.

In Memoriam:

Raymond Hunthausen, liberal pro-gay Seattle archbishop censured by Rome, dies at 96.

Lincoln Brower, Champion of the Monarch Butterfly, Dies at 86.

Black Panther Party co-founder Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard dies at 80.

Things I wrote:

Subtracting homogeneity, fighting erasure—reflections on exclusion at sf/f conventions.

Malice or ignorance — more reflections of exclusion at sf/f conventions.

Videos!

Michael Cohen Releases His Secret Trump Tape: A Closer Look:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Trump Whines ‘This Never Happened To Obama’:

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Jake Shears – Sad Song Backwards (Lyric Video):

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Troye Sivan – Dance To This ft. Ariana Grande:

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Sam Smith – Baby, You Make Me Crazy (Acoustic):

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Malice or ignorance — more reflections of exclusion at sf/f conventions

I need to do a bit of a follow up to my previous post about the issues at Worldcon. I didn’t touch on everything that happened, and since the issue blew up, Mary Robinette Kowal, whose tweet from years ago on a related subject I quoted in that post, has agreed to help redo the programming. Kowal has been running the programming tracks at the annual Nebula conferences for a while, and she had posted a nice summary of their process for trying to put together a program that appeals to many parts of the community. So many of us are provisionally hopeful that the situation will be a bit better at the actual convention than they appeared just days ago.

I have also been reminded that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between ignorance and actual malice. Now, I was thinking that most of the bigotry that seemed to be motivating the issues were likely unconscious—all of us are often unaware of just how many prejudices we have absorbed from society. Alis Franklin, in particular, has pointed out another explanation for much of the problem:

“This all feels very much like people used to running a small-town parochial con with an established member-base suddenly getting in a twist because they have to accommodate (gasp) outsiders.”

And she’s likely on to something. A lot of this does sound like the people in programming are speaking from their past experience running their local convention, where they believe they know their audience and what those attendees expect. But even if that is the case, I still suspect that their local crowd includes a lot more queers, people of color, and other folks who are interested in topics that their local con doesn’t recognize in programming—because as I said, we’re everywhere, and we’re all used to being excluded and dismissed; so much so that when we raise an issue and are shut down, we often just hold our tongues thereafter.

On the issue of the one pro whose submitted bio was edited to change all of eir pronouns to “he” and “him”, and the insistence for a few days that this was a bio taken from the web (when no one can find such a bio and they can’t provide a link), that gets into the conscious versus unconscious bias. Either the person who copied the bio was simple too ill-informed about non binary people and nontraditional pronouns, and simply assumed it was some kind of extremely consistent typo (which I think is a stretch), or they’re one of those people who balk at pronouns to the point of refusing to use any they don’t agree with and decided to change the bio and then claim it was a mistake if they were called on it.

I don’t know if the same staffer is the one who decided not to use another pro’s usual publication bio and photograph, and instead write a different bio using information that usually was not released publicly and use a photo taken from the pro’s private Facebook. In any case, it is difficult to construct an “honest mistake” excuse for that one. And if it is the same staffer, I think that is more than adequate proof that the changed pronouns on the other bio was an intentional aggression.

In several of the discussions online I’ve seen a lot of people not understanding what the problem was with requesting semi-formal wear for the Hugo ceremony. Foz Meadows summed it up better than I did:

”…the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.”

I also note that a few days ago Mike Glyer posted a link to a letter from decades back from E.E. “Doc” Smith (the author of the Lensmen books, among others) when the 1962 WorldCon asked for all the ladies attending the award ceremony to wear long formal gowns. Smith commented that his wife had not owned formal wear since entering retirement and thought it was unreasonable to expect people to go to such an expense.

Which is a nice segue to this: until the 34th WorldCon (MidAmericaCon I, 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri) the Hugo Awards were given out at the end of the convention banquet. The banquet consisted of eating (obviously) while the guests of honor gave speeches. Fans who couldn’t afford the extra expense of the banquet were allowed in (usually in a separate area such as a balcony) for the awards portion. The awards ceremony was separated from the banquet in 1976 for a couple of reasons, but one was to make it easier for everyone who wanted to attend to do so. The conventions had gotten so large that the fraction who wanted to see the award ceremony was too much for the banquet halls of typical convention hotels to accommodate, and there had always been the problem of people who couldn’t afford the banquet ticket. I wanted to close with that because I have seen a number of people arguing that the people who are feeling unwelcome because of this con’s actions are making unreasonable demands to change traditions of the conventions.

The traditions change over time for many reasons. It isn’t about change for the sake of change, it is change of the sake of practicality and realism. People have, in the past, believed that science fiction and fantasy was only created by straight white guys, and was only loved by other straight white guys. That has never been true, but the illusion was maintained through a variety of societal forces and some willful ignorance. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain that willful ignorance, and besides, ignorance is never a good look on anyone. It’s not about whether fandom is diverse, it is about to what lengths some people are willing to go to ignore, silence, or push out that diversity.

Subtracting homogeneity, fighting erasure—reflections on exclusion at sf/f conventions

James Whale who directed Universal's Frankenstein in 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 was an openly gay director in the 20s and 30s.

James Whale who directed Universal’s Frankenstein in 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 was an openly gay director in the 20s and 30s, just one example of a queer person who created classics in the genre. The movies were adapted from the book Frankenstein written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, a woman, who is credited with creating the science fiction genre with said book.

So a problem that had been brewing for a while with this year’s WorldCon came to a head this weekend. There had been hints and rumblings. I’d heard that many pros were mentioning having problems communicating with some members of staff. Then there was the request to all the Hugo nominees to wear semi-formal wear to the award ceremony, so it would be “elegant and professional looking.” That one rang alarm bells for me because almost everytime I’ve ever heard anyone use the term “professional looking” it was a dogwhistle for everything from “please don’t be obviously gender non-conforming” to “please don’t look like the kind of person who can’t afford a bespoke suit” to “please don’t dress ethnic” and so on—in other words, trying to enforce some homogeneity.

So how things came to a head: a professional writer who has been nominated for a Hugo this year was told they weren’t going to be on programming because “there is a kind of creator who appeals to Hugo nominators, but are totally unknown to convention attendees.” The email also managed to misgender the pro and… well things went downhill, after the pro and their spouse posted some of this information online. The programming people contacted the spouse, asked the spouse to convey their apology and expressed disappointment that they went public instead of handling this privately.

And that prompted many many other writers and creators to come out of the woodwork, posting their own many attempts to deal with similar issues (such as, “why did you discard the bio my publisher sent you, and pull information from my private Facebook account instead?” “What do you mean that people like me aren’t of interest to convention attendees?”)—indicating that a whole bunch of people had been trying to address this privately to no avail.

Only when it became public and dozens of authors who were on the programs wrote in to either withdraw, or at least suggest that other, newer, less well known writers could take their place on some panels, did the con chair issue a real apology (there had been a “we’re sorry if anyone’s offended” style non-apology the night before).

Because the thing is, the people who were being excluded weren’t just new writers to the field, it was overwhelmingly the queer creators, the non-white creators, and the women creators. And at one point, the programming person explicitly said, “Do you expect a WorldCon to be like WisCon?” WisCon being famously more feminist-friendly and queer-friendly than most other conventions.

Other people have written about this situation, and probably better than I, but there’s a part of this whole thing that just really presses my buttons, and it aligns with a theme I’ve written about many times on this blog: to wit, queer people, trans people, people of color, women, and people of many religions and cultures have been fans of sci-fi/fantasy (and created sci-fi/fantasy) for as long as it has existed. We aren’t new. We aren’t exotic. We aren’t fringe or band-wagoners. We’ve always been here, we just have seldom been allowed to be visible. As Mary Robinette Kowal observed at least four years ago:

“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”
—Mary Robinette Kowal

Let’s go back to the explanation that was being given before the backlash forced them to scrap their programming plans and start over: “There is a kind of creator that appeals to the Hugo nominators who is not known by the convention attendees.”

I have at least three responses to that:

First, nominators are attendees. In order to nominate for the Hugo Awards and in order to vote for the winners, one must purchase a membership to the convention. And you know who else are attendees? The pros who are coming to the con that the con com doesn’t want to let on the program. Sure, not every attendee participated in the nomination process, and not every one of them nominated ever finalist, but some fraction of the attendees did. And the number of people who nominate is more than large enough to be a statistically significant sample of fans. So it is an entirely misleading and useless distinction to try to draw between attendees and nominators.

Second, this argument is a form of gaslighting. I’ve seen some people compare it to the old TrueFan arguments (and the more recent Real Fan claims from melancholy canines), and those are good comparisons, but I think a better model is the Moral Majority. I know I hark back to that particular group a lot, and I admit I know so much about them because they originated in the denomination in which I had been raised and they came to national prominence literally as I reached legal voting age, so my earliest election experiences included being told again and again that, because I disagreed with them, I was a member of the implied immoral minority.

This is the same kind of argument: “attendees” are implied as being the vast majority of fans, and these majority of fans don’t find “that certain kind of creator” interesting, unlike the “nominators.” The nominators are, by inference, supposed to be viewed as a fringe, extremist minority whose interests can’t possibly overlap with the implied majority. And just as the Moral Majority’s very name contained two lies (they were neither moral nor a majority), this notion that type of fans who are not interested in a “certain kind of creator” must consititute such an overwhelming majority that virtually no programming to appeals to anyone else is worth having.

Third, the majority/minority part isn’t the only form a gaslighting being attempted. Because here’s the thing: in most of the Hugo categories, it is not people who are nominated, but works of sci-fi/fantasy. The authors are referred to as nominees, but technically it is a specific novel, novella, novelette, short story, et cetera that is nominated. But that phrase, “a certain kind of creator who appeals to the nominators” puts the emphasis on the creator and the creator’s identity. In other words, they are arguing that the nominators really didn’t like the specific story, but have chosen the story to fulfill a quota or something.

In other words, the person who made this statement believes that the story nominated doesn’t really deserve to be nominated, and believes that the nominators don’t believe that either. It’s the same racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist arguments that the melancholy canines were making. A “certain kind of creator” is a dogwhistle. The nominators may want queer/trans/women/people of color, but “normal” people don’t. That’s what that statement says. And this is why I still fervently believe the person who said that should be fired from the con com.

Fourth, finally, they are arguing that attendees are only interested in seeing creators they already know and love. Completely ignoring the fact that most fans want to both see old favorites and to find new writers/stories/shows/what-have-you that might become favorites. One of my favorite parts of attending conventions are when I am exposed to new authors I’d never heard of before, and new works that I’d never seen. I’m always writing down names of authors and stories and ‘zines and so forth, and then going to look them up after the con.

Many of the authors who are currently in my personal list of favorites, are people who I learned about at a convention panel. Yes, once they become a favorite, I will look for their names in the programming grid and try to see some of their events, but I’m not just there to see the folks I already know.

The conventions where I ran programming were all smaller than WorldCon, but I have run programming at conventions. I know it is hard work. I know it can feel like thankless work. But one of my goals with that programming was to provide convention attendees opportunities to learn new things, to find new artists or writers and so forth that they didn’t previously know about; to introduce the work of many people to new audiences, while also giving fans a chance to see the people whose work they already liked.

If you don’t see that both of those goals should equally drive the programming of a sci fi or fantasy con, then you absolutely should not be working on programming. Go work for a commercial convention where the only point is to sell autographs. Do not volunteer for a World Science Fiction Con.

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