Thursday, December 22, 2011


I have been very negligent lately about blogging, as holiday preparations and parties consume my time. However, here is a random round-up of information, observations, and recommendations:

I just finished reading Jack McDevitt's novel FIREBIRD. Set in the far future, it concerns an art historian, space ships mysteriously disappearing in the space-time continuum, and AIs that may or may not be worth considering equal to humans. I enjoyed it a lot.

January 10 I start teaching a critique class in fiction at Hugo House in Seattle. This runs for ten Tuesday nights, along the lines of a mini-Clarion. If you're interested, you can find out more on-line at

I have finished the second draft of my fantasy novel. Still untitled, it is also still too long (139,000 words). This is being written on spec, and my agent as yet does not even know I've been working on it (he will find out soon). One more draft, after the holidays are over.

Christmas Day, Jack and I fly East to visit my family. Last year we made it out of Newark Airport two hours before a massive snowstorm shut it down, stranding travelers for days. Send good thoughts my way that we don't get storms this year.

David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer have taken my story "Eliot Wrote" for their Best of the Year volume.

Happy Holidays to All!

Friday, December 16, 2011


The December 12 NEW YORKER contains an astonishing article by Michael Specter, "The Power of Nothing." It is an overview of clinical studies of the placebo effect, including an interview with the world's foremost researcher into placebos, Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School. The article, carefully non-biased, nonetheless shows determined believers in "alternative medicine" chipping away at the medical establishment. Kaptchuk's presence at Harvard, as a full professor, is proof of that. He holds neither a Ph.D. nor an M.D., yet has published in the most respected journals in the world.

The trouble with alternative medicine, in my view, is that it's such a hodge-podge. It includes out-and-out nuts, serious practitioners of herbology, religious faith healers, good doctors, and evil scams (remember laetrile? I had a friend who died of cancer, refusing conventional treatment and instead going to Mexico for dosing with apricot pits.) How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

One way is by clinical trials. The article says that some of these have shown impressive results from placebos, especially in the areas of pain and chronic illness. Not so much with straightforward infection -- if you have bubonic plague, you need an antibiotic. But the whole basis of alternative medicine, that the mind can profoundly influence the body, has shown to be true in other types of disease.

These studies get very specific. Among the findings about placebos:

Conditioning techniques affect outcomes. People first given morphine and later a placebo have a different neurochemical response than those first given ibuprofen and later a placebo.

An injection of saline into a patient who has Parkinson's disease and has been told that the saline will help him, then produces more of the dopamine that his brain lacks.

As placebos, capsules produce a greater effect than tablets, and injections a greater effect still. Colored pills relieve pain better than white ones. Two pills produce more effect than one, even if both are no more than sugar.

Most astonishing of all: In some studies the placebo effect works even when the patients are TOLD it is a placebo, if the telling is done right. In the end, Ted Kaptchuk maintains, much comes down to the nature of the patient-doctor interaction. And this is where American medicine may often be lacking.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Saturday night Jack and I gave a Christmas party, at which we all played Charades using titles of science fiction movies, stories, and novels. Aside from some dissent on the fairness of including some difficult titles (how do you act out "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"?), a good time was had by all. The undisputed star at both performing charades and guessing them was Ted Chiang. Here is Ted performing, while Jack looks on, either bewildered or unimpressed:Vonda McIntyre and Eileen Gunn discuss possible titles:

Nancy Kress gives up guessing in favor of drinking, while John Berry protests having his picture taken:

What did any of this have to do with Christmas? Not much. But it was fun.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Divided at the Movies

Last weekend I saw Martin Scorsese's new movie, HUGO, with Jack Skillingstead and Ted and Christine Kosmatka. Seldom have I been with such deeply divided movie goers.

HUGO flirts with science fiction but never truly gets in bed with it. There is an automaton, suggestions that the entire world functions as a giant clock-work mechanism, a few quasi-magical moments in which objects (such as drawings released from a box) do not behave as objects actually do. But for the most part, the movie sticks to a sort of heightened, highly-colored reality, which is appropriate because it is the world as seen through the eyes of a child. It's also, and primarily, a movie about making movies, specifically the early fantasy silents of Georges Melies, an actual person but now largely forgotten. Scorsese is fascinated by those early movies, and whether or not you like HUGO depends in part on whether you share that fascination.

Jack loved the movie; Ted and Christine hated it (see his blog for just why); I thought it has a certain pallid charm but is too long and self-conscious. Also, since I'm not interested in early silent movies, I was slightly bored. HUGO is visually arresting, something to which I'm only intermittently sensitive, but there is not much story. What there is, occasionally feels strained. Melies, for instance, does not maintain enough of a consistent character for me to believe in this version of him.

I prefer Scorsese's less sentimental movies: THE DEPARTED, TAXI DRIVER, GOODFELLAS. But you may disagree.