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] comcast.net

I'd love to hear from you.

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Appearances

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"The Forgotten Taste of Honey", Asimov's Science Fiction, October/November 2016 (upcoming)

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

"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

 

Friday
Apr292016

Just call it semitasking

I've never been good at multitasking. It does take me a long time to get back to a task once interrupted. Now, of course, part of that is that I interrupt myself, and I interrupt myself when I don't really feel like doing what I'm doing.

Still, multitasking is part of our world, and no matter what strictures there are against it, everyone somehow feels like a warrior defeating three different opponents wielding different weapons when they deal with multiple tasks at once.

In reality, of course, one of those warriors would inevitably kill you, even if you were individually stronger and more adept than any one of them. So it is with the tasks we face. We'd be well advised to knock them off one at a time, and avoid challenging any other opponents until the blood of each earlier one is soaking the ground.

This was brought to mind via Kevin Drum, referring to a recent NYT story, Monotasking Gets a Makeover. It's message is simple: task switching is mentally expensive. It takes time and energy to do it.

We all know this, really. We know we should stop. Yet we still do it.

Part of recovering from this would be to rename the process. Multitasking does sound admirable, calling to mind busy parents also running a small business and keeping the house fabulous. That's dumb. It's not a place you want to be.

So I suggest a more accurate, but duller sounding term for it: call it semitasking. Try boasting to someone, "I'm really good at semitasking". You're really saying "I never use more than one cheek on any job!" The less pleased you feel with yourself for doing it, the more likely you are to avoid it.

Now, I should get back to what I was working on....

Sunday
Apr242016

SF words, generic and otherwise

The modern world is reworking its use of gendered pronouns and other references. While I am, in most circumstances, what David Foster Wallace's family called a "SNOOT" (in his essay "Tense Present"), intolerant of any Trotskyite deviationism in usage, it's surprising, at least to me, how latitudinarian I am about it: I go for the singular "they" in circumstances where the referent's biological sex is unknown or irrelevant, rather than the once-standard "he", the alternating "she" and "he", or any deliberately created new pronoun, like "ze".

Is part of the issue that "they", "them", and "those" are actually Viking in origin, unusually intimate examples of loan words from another language? I hardly think so, but it would be fun if opposition to the usage coalesced around a specifically anti-Viking, pro-Anglo Saxon axis, going for my personally favorite combo of pedantic and perverse.

That will at least give you context for some of the issues I am facing in a story I'm currently trying to wrap up.

It's the first in a planned series of stories set in an city on another planet inhabited by a wide range of intelligent species, and I'm feeling the lack of certain easily used words. Now, SF's history is long, and a vast critical, responsive, and fan literature exists in which these issues may well have been resolved, but if it has, I have not found the answers.

One problem is simply how to refer to these various species. You can already see the slight strain of not using "alien". None of them is alien...or rather, they all are, since none evolved on this world. And how about the other side of the relationship, "human", which is making a kind of tribal, exclusive claim? What is a term a member of one intelligent species uses for all other intelligent species, or for all the species including themselves? And what do Earth-evolved humans call themselves as a species? That might well be a formerly pejorative term used by some other species, which they now use for themselves.

Right now, I'm pretty much avoiding that issue, though am toying with humans calling themselves Oms, or something like that. Part of the issue is how much overhead to impose on the reader, who already has a lot of context to grab in this complex setting.

Then there is the issue of those pesky pronouns. What is the generic pronoun for a representative of an intelligent non-human species (sheesh, you can see how much I need that easy replacement for "alien")? Biological sexes are either different, or manifest in a way that's not clearly read by humans. But "it" seems wrong. Any attempt to use something like "they" brings our current transitional moment into distracting relief. "It" is certainly ungendered, but has a non-intelligent feel, since it's the term we currently use for objects and animals, or for newborns, if we're apprehensive that assuming a sex will let us in for criticism. For now, I'm using "it", albeit uncomfortably.

Finally, and less importantly, what do you call some squirmy segmented thing?  "Bug", while generic, really seems to imply something with an exoskeleton. "Worm" implies something really squishy, without visible segments, at least to me. And I do think a lot of smaller creatures throughout the universe will be segmented: that allows your developmental program to pump out a series of standard parts that can then be modified, adding legs, antennae, wings, or whatever, as arthropods do. "Pest" or "vermin" is more about their role in the consciousness of various intelligent beings, rather than about their appearance or biology. "Larva" or "parasite" make judgments about biology or ecological role. "Millipede" is too specific.

But I think I am supposed to be revising this story....  I was hoping that writing through my issues, I would come up with a snappy solution, but that hasn't happened. I don't want the reader to have to do extra work puzzling out non-standard terminology or pronouns, when that really isn't the point of the story.

What is the point of the story? The answer to that will only come when you read it--which you never will if I spend too much more time doing this!

 

Friday
Apr222016

Why "Elvira Madigan"?

I listen to classical music while I work. Few classical music announcers are permitted much personality, and they seldom say much about the music they are about to play.  Whenver someone plays Mozart's 21st piano concerto, they do feel obliged to say the music (the 2nd movement Adagio) was used in a movie, "Elvira Madigan", and some people call the concerto after that.

It's a great piece. I have a collection of Alfred Brendel playing those late piano concertos, and it's always tempting to listen to more than one. It's kind of a sin against self to listen to this music while doing something else in the first place, but letting these works blend into each other is even worse.

But why "Elvira Madigan"? Has anyone actually watched or even heard of this Swedish movie from 1967? Why do the announcers feel obliged to say this? What are we supposed to get out of it? It's an odd tic, no doubt originating with some marketing person at a record company. People who feel themselves immune from influence of any kind are often slaves of some defunct marketing person.

Tuesday
Apr192016

I'll be at the Cambridge Public Library on April 20, 6:30

Anyone who lives around Cambridge and Boston can pop over to the Cambridge Main Library at 6:30 pm on Wednesday April 20 to hear me, M. T. Anderson and Gary Braver talk about science fiction, writing, n' stuff.

Books for sale too, and a prize for the best question, so work on something that will annihilate our very sense of self. We writers love that kind of thing.

Monday
Mar282016

Politics and personality

Personality Traits and the Dimensions of Political Ideology is a paper from a few years ago, where the authors analyze political tendencies in relation to the Five Factors Model of personality. It's nice to think that we take our political positions based on reason, or something, but we are reliant on our core personality traits to relate to the world, and our political traits are strongly affected by those.

I like the Five Factors Model better than other personality typing methodologies, such as MBTI, which I find mostly a way for businesses to have some consultants come in and waste staff time for a week.

If you're not familiar, the Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (this last makes some people nervous, so they flip the numbers and call it Emotional Stability...only a neurotic would worry about that).

I'll go over their findings, then reveal just a bit about how much my own Five Factor results agree with their theory.

The authors say:

The strength of the association between ideology and the personality traits Openness and Conscientiousness suggests that personality is a powerful factor shaping political attitudes. In fact, these traits can affect outcomes such as political ideology as much or more than canonical predictors such as education and religiosity....Openness is negatively related to political conservatism, while Conscientiousness is positively related to political conservatism...

This has been known for some time.  But the authors found it odd that the other three traits seemed to have nothing to do with political attitudes. Then they decomposed issues into two domains: social and economic. They say:

...we focus on how personality traits affect attitudes in two important issue domains: (1) attitudes about economic policies such as health care and taxes and (2) attitudes about social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Although the issues in these two domains may be constrained by an overarching ideological disposition, we see little reason to expect the traits that affect attitudes about tax policy will necessarily also affect attitudes about gay marriage. Indeed it is curious that we expect people who support less government involvement in the economic system to support more government involvement in other areas.

That, in fact, has always been my issue with putting myself on a political spectrum: I favor both personal freedom and economic freedom. Which means that disagreement with others is almost inevitable at some point. "Gay marriage and free markets? What kind of a jerk are you?" I also like nuclear power! But I'm aready giving away too much.

They found that in social attitudes, the general relationship held, with Openness being associated with liberalism and Conscientiousness with conservatism.

As for economics:

However, when we examined the relationships between personality traits and economic attitudes we found evidence of other important relationships. Specifically, we found substantial evidence that Emotional Stability is associated with conservative economic attitudes and Agreeableness is associated with liberal economic attitudes.

Or that Neuroticism is associated with liberal (ie., given our weird political lingo, anti-free-market) atttitudes, since the authors use the friendlier, more recent term.

Extraversion had a much smaller correlation to either stance.

Now, the natural thing to do is to use these findings to explain why "those other people" believe what they do, so Arnold Kling, whom I got the pointer from, says:

People who dislike markets tend to score higher on agreeableness, meaning that they like to be seen as pleasing to others. They tend to score low on emotional stability, meaning that they are prone to worry and fear.

I'm a big fan of Kling's. He does tends to dislike liberals, though he does his best to deal with it (his theories are interesting and enlightening, and I would like to get to those at some point). According to a source I will get to below

Agreeable individuals value getting along with others...Agreeable people also have an optimistic view of human nature...agreeableness is not useful in situations that require tough or absolute objective decisions.

I've left a lot of that definition out. Still, you can see that it much more complicated than Kling seems willing to admit. Although that attitude seems like it would be tied to a willingness to make mutually beneficial financial agreements. Why is it tied to trying to intervene to suppress markets instead?

As for Neuroticism, neurotics

...respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, and their reactions tend to be more intense than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult.

That is pretty much as Kling observes.

Maybe you need both Agreeableness and Neuroticism to make a liberal suspicious of free markets, Agreeableness to trust other people, Neuroticism to worry that others don't trust people as much as you do.

So how about me?  I took a test here, and this is where those definitions above come from as well. You can take the full 300 question inventory here, and I highly recommmend it.

Why? Because that many questions let the test break down each of the traits into subtraits.  And those subtraits are where the action is.

For example, for Extraversion, I come out as average, a not very helpful result. But broken down, a couple of things pop out.  I rate high on Friendliness, which means I have lots of friends and like hanging around with them, but low on Gregariousness and Excitement-Seeking, which means I dislike crowds and loud parties.  All of these things are true, but somewhat cancel themselves out in the overall measure.

For the politically significant traits, if you must know, I am above average on Openness, and average for the other three. So I guess that explains my political amphibiousness....or namby-pambiness, if you want to see it that way. For me, the key subtrait in Openness is Psychological Liberalism, which means a readiness to challenge authority and tradition. No surprise, mine is high, and I suspect that is a big one for making a political liberal as well.

Except that most liberals nowadays seem no more willing to challenge authority and tradition than conservatives.  They just have different authorities and traditions.

This is all extremely interesting. But anyone dealing with it should resist what I see as a universal tendency in the current political climate:  the urge to weaponize what is meant to be an analytical tool. It's a bit like a fight in a decaying marriage, which uses previous trusted confidences as weapons in the conflict: "You always told me you were worried about your sanity!"

And you snore. I know I always said you didn't. I lied.

Ah, politics.