Alexander Jablokov


I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction, with a new novel, Brain Thief.

The name is pronounced Yablokov, and the legal name is Jablokow.  My best friends can't spell or pronounce it, so you shouldn't worry about it either.

More here

Write me at alexjablokow [at]

I'd love to hear from you.





"The Return of Black Murray", Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2016 (upcoming)

"The Instructive Tale of the Archeologist and His Wife", Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014

"Bad Day on Boscobel", The Other Half of the Sky.

"Feral Moon", novella, Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2013

"Since You Seem to Need a Certain Amount of Guidance", Daily Science Fiction, November 6, 2012

"The Comfort of Strangers", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2012

"Blind Cat Dance" reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Best Science Fiction of the Year 28

"The Day the Wires Came Down", novelette, Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2011

"Plinth Without Figure", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2010

"Warning Label", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine August 2010

"Blind Cat Dance", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine March 2010

Brain Thief, a novel, Tor Books, January 2010


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Reboot blog



The satisfaction of solving a tiny problem

I'm a long-time Windows user, and, unlike some people I've encountered, I like Windows 10 just fine. It seems fairly efficient and stable, and I have no trouble finding out how to do things.

It does have one pesky thing, as far as I am concerned. I like autohiding my taskbar. It might seem silly, but I like the clean look it gives the screen when it disappears. The problem with Windows 10 is, if there is some notification, somewhere, even one that doesn't actually show up for you, the taskbar pops back up, and stays there. And since it is officially hidden, it covers up the bottom parts of various program windows.

I fiddled with it and cursed for weeks, and searched for a solution. Most involved a lot of thinking and analysis. I hate doing those. At least, I hate doing them for something as dumb and minor as this.

Then I found someone on Reddit who had the solution: got to Task Manager and restart Windows Explorer. Boom! Works every time. I always have Task Manager open anyway, because some of my programs disappear but still have a process running somewhere and thus can't be restarted unless I hunt down and kill that process, so this is easy, and, actually kind of fun.

Yeah, somewhere a program is frustrated and eventually puts out another unread notification, but I'm not going to figure out which one it is. So, if you have my "clean workscreen" fetish, and have had this problem, this will make you happy.


I need a "significance meter" on my news feed

Most of the news that I see recently is about "controversies":  Starbucks cups, safe spaces, Syrian refugees, cultural appropriation, Adele...OK, Adele, at least, does not seem to be controversial.

But the number of stories I see about a controversial topic doesn't seem to have much relationship to 1) how important an issue it is, or 2) how many real people actually care about it. As far as I can tell, the Starbucks cup iteration of the "War on Christmas" seems to be pretty much puffed up out of nothing. It's something secular leftists can feel superior to, without having to worry about any ambiguous details.

Most of these stories have that feature. They're just chum for the ideologically committed.

Not that there aren't real issues, real conflicts and real controveries. It's just hard to pick them out of the mass of frantic headlines.

I'd like some simple meter on the story that lets me know, roughly, how many people are involved in the discussion, and how many variations of opinion there are on it. A low number with a low variation implies a media-manufactured controversy. A high number of involved people with low opinion variation implies "important as an ideological litmust test, but probably doesn't have much basis in actual fact". Etc.

Of course, I'm asking the media outlets themselves to give me a sign that I can ignore the stories they are promoting, so they are an unlikely source for this basic "news significance dashboard". But someone who can parse language from comments, tweets, stories, blog posts, etc. and automate the results could do this as a public service, or to promote their own news feed (if their point is that their news is more meaningful, and this proves it). Actually, now that I write this, I see this as great marketing for someone who wants to tout their content, because rolling out these metrics would be...really controversial.

Something like this could similarly be used to tell which stories are so similar to each other that they clearly derive from a single press release, and which seem to be actually reported.

I look forward to a few simple indicators on each news story to tell me whether I should ignore it.


The difficulty of writing scripture

A few weeks ago there was a story in the NYT about historical controversies about Temple Mount, in Jerusalem: Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place. One of the issues is what various holy scriptures say about the place, given that they seem completely unaware of the specifics of the current conflict.

Because that's where the real challenge for a diety comes. You want to inspire your most loyal prophet with the words that will become the holy books of the religion dedicated to worshipping you. You want these confused and somewhat dimwitted humans to get this right. So you tell them all sorts of things relevant to their historical moment so that they get it.

But now you have a problem. You're not just the god of this generation, or even this century. The religion you are establishing is will last for thousands of years. People on continents not yet discovered, speaking languages not yet evolved will also take knowledge and inspiration from these holy books. How do you write something that is credible to a goat-herding, bronze-weapon-wielding audience that also covers all sorts of complex issues that will only be important in two thousand years?

When I had this thought, I realized that this, really, is the origin of all esoteric interpretation of scripture. How many differen ways did the diety encode information in these simple words? The actual text can only carry a limited number of messages. Too many, and it is incomprehensible to its intended original audience.

So how to communicate to future generations? Since you are a god and can do anything, you can write text transparent to its readers that also, simultaneously, encodes messages comprehensible to all those future generations. So it makes sense that each generation would interpret the text using a different method.

But what method for which generation? It can't just be up to us, can it?

So the book of the Bible that's missing is not any Gospel or other specific piece of content. It's the Users Guide. It is the "When it gets to be 2015 translate all the words into Urdu and take every fifth letter. This will be a set of instructions on how to build a small device that will scribe the interpretation you should use into a giant slab of granite. Do not use this interpretation after July 2016".

If we had that, it would be so much easier.


Back from the Tetons

A few weeks ago I went on my annual hiking trip with my friends. We did the Teton Crest Trail, which winds around behind the iconic view of the Tetons above Jackson Hole that you always see.

It's a fantastic trail, and had the great advantage of being accessible by an aerial tram, usually serving skiers, which let us skip 4000 feet of what sounded like a strenuous but uninteresting climb up Granite Canyon.

I look forward to our hiking trip all year, and then look back at it with fondness, so, in a real sense, it is part of the structure of my life. I've had to miss it a couple of times, and still regret what I missed those years. I mean, how many trails can I manage to hike in what is left of my life?

Enough of that. We're already discussing what we're going to do next year. Meanwhile, here are just a couple of pictures of 2015:

Beautiful sunny weather, except for that last day, as you can see. But still beautiful.


Learning the wrong lesson: the Battle of Lissa and the resurgence of the naval ram

Last week's discussion of how to win WWI got me to thinking about how you draw lessons from history--more specifically, in this case, military history. You won a battle. Or you lost one. Why? What about your approach, your weapons, your generalship, was the decisive factor? Deciding this is much harder than historical fiction makes it sound, because the easiest (and laziest) way to make a historical character seem smart is to have them anticipate the future and be able to easily distinguish between the necessary and the contingent in a way that was completely impossible for any real person living in the confusing flow of actual events.

This, incidentally, is how doctors in historical fiction work. They anticipate the past couple of centuries of data analysis, experiment, and many false paths just by being smart and observant, so they never ruthlessly bleed people, blister their heads, or make them throw up, and then blame them for not getting better, unlike real historical doctors. I've never read a credible doctor in a historical or fantasy novel. Stephen Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian books comes closest, I guess, but even he has a too-high success rate.

The entertaining Great Courses class The Decisive Battles of World History, by Professor Gregory Aldrete, starts out with a description of the 1866 Battle of Lissa, in the Third Italian War of Independence. Don't worry if you've never heard of either the battle or the war--I never had either.

Lissa was a sea battle between Italians and Austrians off the coast of Croatia, and involved both ironclads and wooden sailing ships. The Austrians won, but since they lost the significant Battle of Königgrätz (also called Sadowa) to Prussia the next month, this particular victory had little effect (Aldrete uses it to lead off a discussion of what actually makes for a decisive battle). But during the Battle of Lissa itself, several ramming attacks helped decide the issue.

As a result of this, all European navies for the next 40 years put rams on their battleships, as if they were giant, steam-powered triremes (perhaps the example of ancient Greek naval warfare encouraged over-educated procurement officers to make this odd decision), even though they would prove to be utterly useless in an era of long-range gunnery.

Here are a couple of examples.  First, the American ship USS Alarm, 1874:

Then there is the HMS Polyphemus, 1882:

It's not just the name: the Polyphemus really did look like a trireme:


During the US Civil War, in 1862, the USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by the CSS Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads, but Europeans tended to neglect the instructive experience of those crude Americans during their internecine squabble. It was Lissa that was influential.

In retrospect this seems completely crazy. But there were real reasons for making this choice. Naval guns were still weak and inaccurate, while armor had already become quite good. So shells tended to be ineffective in sinking opposing vessels. The ram promised a useful form of offense that would even the odds. They never actually ended up being used in battle. And naval guns quickly became more accurate and more powerful.

But these rams were not only useless.  According to this Center for International Maritime Security article, they were actively dangerous, because ships on the same side tended to sink each other on maneuvers, or in bad weather. It was running with scissors, naval style. You ended up poking your eye out.

It is incredibly difficult to figure out what is the important fact from a chaotic, fast-paced, and contingent set of experiences. And don't ignore the influence of trends, conventional wisdom, and fear of being wrong or ridiculous.The people who make influential decisions are always embedded in a complex and interactive social matrix. If they aren't, no matter how smart they are, they have no influence over events.

It would be incredibly hard to write a novel where you show a really smart person being repeatedly and completely wrong--and still smart. But that is what history is all about, how truly hard real lessons are to learn.

None of the many ship models I made in my youth was an ironclad with a ram. But now I'd like to find one.

And maybe I can work one into a story somehow.