I’ll be at WorldCon 76 in San Jose

While I’ve been remiss in blogging (as usual), worth mentioning: I’m going to be at the San Jose (California) WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, this weekend. While I’m not doing any programming, I’ll be in and out of the dealers’ room, as my publisher, Argyll Productions, has a table there (and my previous publisher, Sofawolf Press, also will have a table there).

If you’re interested in catching me somewhere, the best way to ping me is on Micro.blog or Twitter. I’ll be there Thursday evening through Sunday, with possible spot appearances at other times—I’m not only a local to the con this time, I actually work just a couple blocks north of the convention center.

Feed housekeeping

I finally remembered that I’d been using FeedPress for, er, feed stuff (remember RSS?) on the original Coyote Tracks, and I’ve updated it to pick up the feed from the new site instead. So if you were one of the couple hundred people who’d been reading posts that way, hi!

Since the new blog merges what was Coyote Tracks and my rarely-updated writing blog, Coyote Prints, you may get more than what you want here. If you only want tech posts, you can subscribe to the tech category feed. If you only want writing posts, you can subscribe to the writing category feed. (You can get a feed for any of the categories by going to the category page itself, if you really insist.)

And, if you’re following this as a link from Goodreads (hi?), note that the Goodreads blog is only pulling from the writing category.

Last but not least, if you’re subscribed to the Tumblr feed directly somehow (tracks.ranea.org/rss), you’re going to get what’s cross-posted to Tumblr, which is going to be mostly tech but probably kind of random.

A new home

Over the years, I’ve ended up with multiple “presences” online:

  • The original Coyote Tracks, hosted at Tumblr
  • “Coyote Prints,” an attempt at a writing news-ish weblog, generated with Jekyll
  • My Ranea.org website, made with a hacky homebrew static site generator
  • The occasional foray onto Medium

That’s not even inclusive of earlier attempts at this, like a LiveJournal and, before that, a very simple bloggy thing that worked by putting files with names like 1999-01-01-entry.txt in a specific directory that were picked up by a small PHP script. (That was back in the days when PHP was just used to embed bits of interactivity in HTML pages, just like that, which is something it’s pretty good at. I’m pretty sure I was doing that in early 1998, which by some measure might make me one of the earliest bloggers, or would if there had been just one damn person reading my home page.)

While this hodgepodge of bloglike objects had good intentions—separation of concerns, trying new platforms, keeping up with the cool kids—it’s become too unwieldy. The decision where to post is sometimes kind of arbitrary. Many of the people who read about my writing are interested in tech; while the reverse isn’t as true, I’d actually kinda like to expose some of my tech audience to my writing, especially stories that involve techy things.

A bigger concern, though, comes down to fully controlling my own content.

This isn’t a new concern; Marco Arment was writing about owning your identity back in 2011. Some blogging services let you bring your own domain—Tumblr does it for free, which is why you go to tracks.ranea.org instead of chipotle.tumblr.com—and others, like WordPress.com, let you do it for a modest charge. Medium makes it possible, but only for publications (and at a fairly high cost); many other services don’t offer this at all.

So: Welcome to coyotetracks.org.

But while owning your online identity is necessary, it’s not sufficient: you need to own your content, too. I don’t mean that in a legal sense—despite the headless chicken dance the internet goes through every time somebody changes their legal boilerplate, no reputable service ever has or ever will tried to steal your copyright. I mean it in an existential sense.

I still like Tumblr, despite its foibles, but as far as I know it was never profitable on its own, it was never profitable for Yahoo, and it’s on track to never be profitable for Verizon. As for Medium, I love what it’s trying to do, or maybe I love what it was trying to last business model and not so much now, or maybe vice-versa, or maybe it was three or four business models ago. What other businesses call pivots, Medium calls Tuesdays.

I’ll circle back to that, but the upshot is that I decided I needed a POSSE: “publish own site, syndicate everywhere.” (Look, I didn’t make it up.) And that brings me to…WordPress.

I’ll be blunt: I don’t like WordPress. Internally it’s a dumpster fire, full of arcanely formatted non-OO code, bloated HTML, and a theming engine designed by bipolar squirrels.

So I looked at other things. I know there are ways to make static site generators quasi-automatic, that Matt Gemmell swears it’s faster to blog from his iPad with Jekyll. I’ve done it, with a system not too dissimilar from the one he describes. It works, but I don’t love it. I’m comfortable at a shell prompt, but I don’t want it to be necessary for blogging, especially if I’m on an iPad. (I’m moving back to the Mac for portable writing, but that’s another post.)

I also looked at Ghost, which started with some fanfare a couple years ago as a modern take on WordPress that focused back on blogging essentials rather than shoehorning in a content management system. Now they’re a “professional publishing platform,” and all their messaging is we are not for you, casual blogger, pretty much the opposite of their original ideology.

But I can publish to WordPress right from Ulysses. Or MarsEdit. Or the WordPress web interface, desktop app, or iOS app. The WordPress API is, at least for me, a killer feature. And its ecosystem is unmatched: I have access to thousands of plugins, at least six of which are both worth using and actively maintained.

So: I’m still finding my way. I’ve added a cross-poster which can theoretically post everywhere I want, although I’m not sure if I’m going to use its Medium functionality—I want to be able to vet what it’s posting before it goes live there, so I’ll probably just use Medium’s post importer. And I don’t want to syndicate everything everywhere: I want to syndicate selectively. (This post probably won’t even go to Medium, for instance.)

The semi-ironic footnote: I don’t know if this is really going to make me post more, when all is said and done. I’ve always been guilty of being more interested in building things than running them. But we’ll see.

On reviewing in a small community

So here’s the thing: bad reviews are fun.

Sure, good reviews can be fun, too. But let’s face it—stuff you hate gives you more occasion for zingers. Roger Ebert opened his review of one infamous movie with “Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time.” (My favorite review opener, though, is from Mary Pols of TIME: “More than 24 hours has passed since I watched the new Adam Sandler movie Jack and Jill and I am still dead inside.”)

But a good review can’t be just zingers, and the point of a review is not to show off how witty the reviewer is. Ebert explained—without rancor—just what it is that made “Battlefield Earth” suck. He didn’t accuse the movie of being an assault on all that is good and holy; the movie’s creators and stars needed a thick skin to deflect the barbs, but they weren’t personal attacks. No one was writing, say, “This is a steaming pile of shit.”

“That may be vulgar, but it’s not a personal attack.”

Well, see, that’s kinda the heart of the matter.

When you’re just talking trash to your friends about something, you can get away with that defense. In a printed or filmed review, saying that becomes considerably nastier. And if that review isn’t of a movie but is of something that a single person created—like a book—the review is personal, because the work is personal.

I’ve avoided mentioning the reviewer—and specific review—that inspired this, but if I reveal that it’s a furry story, some of you may quickly guess both. When it comes to writers and publishers, this is still a small community. The phrase “steaming pile of shit” comes from that review, as does the assertion that the book under review somehow “tricked” the reviewer into thinking it would be good, except that it really isn’t. It tricked him! Then he recovered from its evil spell and realized it was shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. (I suspect I’m undercounting the number of “shits” he used.)

Without knowing the book in question, the chances are you’re already thinking gosh, even if this is self-published fanfic spewed out by a fever-gripped teenager who left no comma unspliced, you’re making the reviewer sound a little unhinged. Well, he comes across as a little unhinged. To some degree that’s clearly a schtick, but it’s still startlingly vicious.

This is, in fact, a book I saw in draft form. It’s well-written. You could definitely make the case—as the reviewer did, with stentorian profanity—that the protagonist isn’t sympathetic. Neither is the influence character. (He’s charismatic, but not sympathetic.) They’re both con men. They make bad choices. I wanted to slap both of them at multiple points. Some readers might genuinely hate both main characters.

From The Oatmeal

But a badly written book—a “steaming pile of shit,” to wit—would hardly be powerful enough to make anyone angry with it. Whether you like a character or a setting has little to do with the quality of the work. The problem isn’t that this is a negative review. It’s that it’s an unfair review.

I mentioned before that the furry writing community is small, and bluntly, it’s small enough that this edges past merely irritating toward flat-out irresponsible. I doubt it’s going to hurt this particular book’s author, but public viciousness can be genuinely damaging at the scale we’re still at. Also, keep in mind reviewers earn—and lose—reputation currency as well. Authors and publishers do talk. And I can assure you I’m not the only one who’s saying, “Hey, can you believe this guy thinks this is an appropriate way to review a book?”

Let me underline that I’m not suggesting we never say negative things. Furry truly needs good criticism to advance, and we have a history of denying glaring problems in work by our community. But good criticism is well-reasoned. It distinguishes between this has objective problems in its storytelling and this story just isn’t my cup of tea.

And if you really don’t think something has any redeeming value at all—whether it’s competently written but just makes you want to pluck out your eyeballs, or it really is self-published fanfic spewed out by a fever-gripped teenager who left no comma unspliced—then you need to stop and ask yourself what your intention is in reviewing it. I’m betting the honest answer is “I want to mock this so everyone can laugh at my witty zingers, and I can be a capital-P Personality.”

If so, my advice is don’t do it. Because your review will probably be a steaming pile of shit.

(Nothing personal.)