Book Review: Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy NationFuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of John Scalzi’s writing style. Let’s get that out of the way right off. He has an easy narrative voice that I enjoy reading, and it’s easy to breeze through just about anything he writes. So even if it were a lame book, I’m saying I’d be more inclined to have a great time reading a Scalzi book than another on the same topic.

But Fuzzy Nation is far from a lame book. A snarky surveyor with dreams of striking it rich finds the Mother Lode on a far off distant planet. Things look seriously up for a good few days, until a motley group of alien cat monkey things show up in his house and exhibit alarming signs of possible sentience. Could the Mother Lode belong to them? Yes, if they’re sentient and count as people. No, if they’re just smart animals, like trained Spaniels.

The book tackles a number of very weighty topics, and it does so with a breeze and finesse that hard to find these days. It’s not often you get a great plot that also makes you reanalyze larger implications of life in general. It’s a book that makes you think, even while you’re having a great time.

But Scalzi doesn’t shrink back from having terrible things happen to his characters, no matter how much we might like them. It’s the George RR Martin principle. I’m not saying everyone you ever loved in this book will die, but I am saying anything’s on the table, and those sort of stakes really up the ante for me.

I blazed through this book in a few days, and I gave it an easy 10/10. A bit of language here and there, but other than that, just a smashingly good read. If you like science fiction at all, you should check this one out. If you like cats and/or dogs, check it out too.

If you like cat monkeys, then I assume you stopped reading this review a few paragraphs ago and are already deep in the narrative.

View all my reviews

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Longfellow Writing Camp and a Reading Tonight

As I blogged a few months ago, I’m the fiction instructor at this week’s Longfellow Writing Camp. I finished my second day of instruction today, and it’s been a real blast so far. Class sizes are around 10 students, all of them high school aged. I’ve been impressed with how dedicated they are to improving and learning. They’ve been a talkative group.

I’ve had each group for three hours, and I’ll say that trying to get through an overview of fiction in three hours is . . . daunting. There’s a ton of material to cover, and I feel like I’m doing it with a fire hose. Part of me feels like it might be better just to focus on a couple of principles. Another part wants me to just blurt out all the stuff I can think of on the hope that different pieces of it will stick with different people, depending on what they need.

Either way, it seems like they’ve been having a good time so far. A ton of them really want to write fantasy, so I’ve had plenty to say about that. The trick has been keeping things broad enough for a larger audience. Next class period, we’ll be workshopping most of the time, so it should be a different approach then, that will be more tailored to each student. Should be fun.

And tonight, I’ll be doing a public reading as part of the camp. I’ve been thinking about what I want to read, and after talking to my students today, I think I’ll go with the first chapter of UTOPIA, most likely. They were all much more interested in hearing something they couldn’t hear anywhere else than they were with having me read something they could buy. Fair enough.

Though I do wonder how the writing will play out, narrated. The voice in that piece is so . . . unique. There’s a chance I chicken out and just do chapter one of MURDER CASTLE, instead.

We shall see.

In any case, if you’re in the area tonight at 7pm and want to come by the Emery Arts Center, please do!

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Lightning (Hopefully) Only Strikes Once

I was away in Newport on Sunday, attending a different congregation, and I got a text from Denisa.

“We came home from church, and half the power is out.”

That’s a first for me. I’ve had all the power out plenty of time, but some of the outlets were working, the rest weren’t, and the appliances were all making strange buzzing noises. Not a good thing. She reset the breakers, but that didn’t do anything, so she called the neighbors to see if something had happened.

Apparently while we were all at church, lightning had stuck someplace close by. Like, “sparks coming out of the outlets” close by. It played havoc with all of our electronics. Killed a window fan. The electric company came over and got the street patched up, and most things are working again now. My theory is it hit a telephone wire or something, though, since it totally blew out our modem and our phone, which weren’t on surge protectors.

We’ve called our ISP, and they’re sending a new modem. I’m hoping the wiring itself is okay. We were without internet yesterday and today and at least through tomorrow. The kids . . . they are restless. You don’t want to get between a 5 year old and her Netflix addiction.

Speaking from personal experience.

Of course, I figured that was the extent of it, but when I came over to the library today, the same storm had knocked out the electrical system over here, leaving us without AC. It’s not sweltering outside, but it’s still stuffier in here than I’d like.

First world problems.

Glad our house is more or less okay, and everything should be back to normal soon.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

One Bed to Rule Them All

Denisa and I have been married over 17 years now. And so we finally decided it was time for the two of us to have some more space between each other. Hmm. That didn’t come out right. How about . . . “We decided to find alternate sleeping arrangements?”

Nope. Still not great.

We bought a king-size bed. When you’re talking about sleeping, I guess the direct approach is best.

The main impetus behind the bigger bed was that Denisa wasn’t crazy about the new bed we got after the one we’d used for 10 years had reached its end. So we had a new bed, but that one only lasted a four years or so before we got a different one, which has also not been super. Denisa’s back has been hurting when she slept on it, to the point that some nights she’d just go find a different bed to sleep in.

Not ideal.

So when we saw a beautiful king-size sleigh bed go up for sale, we bought it, sans mattress. The plan was to buy a mattress later. But buying a mattress is a bewildering experience these days, or at least it can be. When we first got married, it was more streamlined. You went to a department store, you lay down on a bunch of mattresses, and then you paid a bunch of money ($1,000+ at least) for a good mattress. Because you should pay a lot for a mattress, seeing as how you spend so much time sleeping.

This time, I’d heard a lot of good things about foam mattresses you buy online. Denisa wanted one that was more environmentally friendly. After a fair bit of research, we settled on the Tuft and Needle mattress. It has a ton ton ton of good reviews, and all the sites I saw said it was really solid. Better yet, many of the people I spoke to about mattresses said they’d bought that one.

But we didn’t buy a king size mattress for our king size bed. No no no. We decided to buy two XL twins, because they fit the frame just as well, and because this way, when one of us moves at night, there’s no chance at all of it shifting the whole bed. The best thing? It was only $750 total. (Yes, this is still $50 more than just one king size mattress, but whatever. It’s still a ton less than the fancy pants beds we’d bought before.) We had gotten old twin size box springs, and these mattresses don’t even need box springs if you don’t have them anyway. Score.

It’s one thing to have a plan and another to actually put it into play. What if we got the mattresses and hated them? (Tuft and Needle has a 100 night guarantee. If you don’t like it, they donate your mattress to a local shelter and give you a full refund. Very nice.)

Well, they arrived. And after taking down the queen size mattress and box spring, disassembling the old bed, taking it to the garage, bringing up the new frame, assembling it, bring up the box springs, and putting out the new mattresses . . .

I’m happy to say we both love the new bed. Super comfortable. Better than any foam bed I’ve slept in before. Feels plenty firm (we’d worried it would be too soft). Really, no complaints at all.

Though a king size bed is huge. It’s like we’re sleeping in two different hemispheres, really.

Anyway, if you’re in the market for a new bed and want a great sleeping experience and don’t want to pay a lot of money, definitely check out the Tuft and Needle. Highly recommended.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

On Proficiency Based Education

I first really heard about Proficiency Based Education (PBE) the exact wrong way: by finding out my school was transitioning into it, and that it would be coming right away. That’s definitely on me. I know I must have read about the process in the past, but I just hadn’t paid any attention to it. There didn’t seem to be anything that I really needed to worry about, so I ignored it.

Perhaps you’re in the same boat I was. You see “Proficiency Based Education,” and you wonder what in the world it might mean. Allow me to explain.

In a nutshell, PBE moves students away from the traditional grading system (A, B, C, D, F, on a 1-100 point scale) and over to a 1-4 scale that’s based entirely around a student’s ability to show mastery of a subject. The school comes up with a number of different academic areas within each subject and in order to pass the class (get a 2.5 or higher), the student must demonstrate the ability to do that skill.

So imagine one subject area was “can tie their own shoes.” It’s pretty simple. Either the student can or the student can’t. For our district, a student would be rated on shoe tying as follows:

1: Can’t tie their own shoes at all.

2: Can tie their shoes if the teacher helps them.

3: Can tie their shoes by themselves.

4: Can tie other knots, not just shoe knots.

On the surface, there’s a lot about this system to like. The idea that each student can show mastery of individual subject areas is appealing. Each test covers a range of areas. A student might score a 2 on one part and a 3.5 on another part. Instead of having to retake the entire test, the student could just focus in on the part they were having trouble with. In the classic design, a student on that test might have gotten an 80%, but if you looked more closely, they had one area mastered to more like a 95% level, and another was just like a 70% level.

So in that manner, it’s more granular. Students can get a better idea of what they’re doing well in and what they still need help with. That’s a good thing.

The trouble arises in the application of this new grading system. A few years ago, the state of Maine mandated that all schools switch to PBE models by this coming January. It became law. And so our school began the process. Last year was the first year that the transition was completely made for Freshmen. Tomas encountered it then because he was taking Honors Algebra II at the high school, a year ahead of the rest of his 8th grade classes.

The transition was far from smooth. First of all, the messaging that went out to students was confusing. (At least, it was confusing by the time it reached me. I found out much of it at first through Tomas, until about halfway through the year, when I finally started going to meetings on my own to try and make sense of it. I think I missed out on the early meetings because they were aimed at parents of 9th graders, and I was the parent of an 8th grader. Or maybe I just spaced it. It might have been on me.)

Students were told again and again that “a 3 is a great grade.” The takeaway Tomas had from it was to shoot for a 3, and if he managed to get a 4 on something, great. But no big deal if he didn’t. As a parent used to traditional GPAs, a 3 meant a B, and I had a hard time with the concept that we’d all be shooting for B-level work. But Tomas repeated his “3 is a great grade” line often enough, that I began to believe it.

Until I went to meetings and discovered 4s were supposed to be attainable, and to get high honors, a student would need a 3.75 average or higher. Getting a 3.75 average means you’re getting 4s and 3.5s.

Then I started worrying what this would look like for college admissions boards. I was reassured that college admissions boards deal with PBE scales all the time, and it’s no big deal. Which makes sense on the surface. But it’s not the surface that matters here. It’s the underpinnings.

Because the actual application of this grading system has left a lot of parents and students scratching their heads. I get that some parents just blow off the question entirely, saying parents who worry about what college their kid will get into so early on are just being overly intrusive into their kids’ lives. Harvard or University of Maine? Big deal. Well, I suppose I’m guilty as charged.

I’m a BYU graduate. I love my alma mater, and I’d really like my kids to be able to go there. But getting into BYU isn’t a gimme. Yes, it’s got a 65.1% acceptance rate, which seems not too bad compared to Princeton’s 6.4% acceptance rate. But Princeton admitted 1,990 students last year, and 1,314 of them attended, a yield of 66%. BYU admitted 6,520, and 5,246 of those attended. A yield of 80.5%. What does that mean? It means that students who apply to BYU really want to go there. Badly. There’s a fair bit of self-selection that happens when students apply (or don’t apply) to BYU. It’s probably a topic for a different blog post, but suffice it to say getting in isn’t a cakewalk.

Which is to say grades mean something. Good grades mean something. And even setting aside my personal stake in the game, good grades mean something to our district. A district that produces students capable of going to top name schools is a district that attracts parents who want their children going to those same schools. This doesn’t mean we should have all our teachers grade easy, but it does mean we should be sure we’re grading accurately.

And that’s where my biggest frustration with PBE comes in so far. The difference between a 1, 2, and 3 is clear and distinct. It makes sense. But how exactly a student gets a 4 is much murkier than I’d like. I’ve since learned that each teacher is supposed to be very clear about how students can get 4s. What goes into it. And so this coming year I’m going to push to find that out as soon as I can, so that I can help Tomas succeed.

Because this isn’t about me. It’s about him. He wants to succeed. He wants to get into BYU as well.

This is all coming to a head because the state legislature just changed its mind about the PBE requirements. Suddenly, going to PBE isn’t mandatory anymore. And so the question arises: should our district stick with PBE or go back to the old way of grading? There are many teachers in the district that want to stick with it, because they feel it’s a better way of grading. There are some who would rather go back to the old way, because they felt it was fine.

Having read some of the back and forth around it all, I know there’s a whole bunch of parents who are very frustrated with PBE. They feel it doesn’t bring enough to the table to warrant the unrest. I personally lean that direction as well. I feel like PBE has potential, yes, but getting to that Promised Land will come with a price: we’re experimenting with a class or two or three of students, where teachers are learning the ropes at the same time as the students.

The result of this will be that we have some years of graduates who might suffer when it comes to college entrances. I don’t see any other way to put it. Teachers haven’t entirely figured out what makes a 3 vs a 4, and how to teach in a way that everyone can reach their full potential. That’s a problem.

Is it a problem that means we need to do away with PBE? I’m not sure. But I do believe we need to do something right away to fix this gap and make sure our best and brightest students aren’t harmed in the process. That might mean changing the messaging. That might mean developing clear communication channels for parents who are confused. That might mean having sit downs with parents and teachers to make sure everyone understands what’s what.

But I’ve heard of some teachers being very resistant to giving out 4s, and others giving them out more easily. That’s the exact sort of thing PBE was supposed to move away from, was it not? So if we go through all of this sound and fury and end up with another system that isn’t really that much different than where we started, it will have done nothing but harm.

I don’t want that. I don’t think anyone does. I’ve heard reassurances from the district that won’t happen, but the proof is in the pudding.

I suppose in the end I’m willing to give PBE another year. But if we do, I think the district should have very clear procedures in place to measure whether or not its working. Compare the grades of students pre-PBE with the grades post-PBE. Have they improved significantly? Are students, teachers, and parents happy with the results? I’d rather the district be surveying those groups and going forward based on facts and figures, not promises and hopes.

Because it isn’t the law anymore. So the question shouldn’t be “How do we implement PBE as best as possible,” but rather “What’s the best system for our students?”

Yes, we’ve already invested heavily into PBE. So what? It’s a sunk cost. We should ignore the time and effort already spent and make a decision based purely on what’s best for us now. Pretend all that money and time hadn’t been spent. Is PBE still the right choice?

And move onward from there.

Here’s hoping the journey only gets smoother . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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