New day job, new routine

So I just got a part-time day job with Monsanto, here in the Des Moines area. My brother-in-law works as a scientist there, so he was able to connect me with the right people. It’s basically a warehouse job, handling all the shipping and receiving as well as the inventory. The hours are perfect, the job is interesting, and the people are really awesome, so I think things are going to work out really well.

Of course, that means adjusting to a new daily routine, which is why I neglected this blog all last week. Writing takes priority, so I’ve been focused on that first. I’m currently working on a short story prequel to Gunslinger to the Stars, which should be done later today and up for you guys to read before the end of the month.

I’m really, really excited about Gunslinger to the Stars. I think it’s my best sci-fi adventure novel yet. It’s coming out right around the same time as Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which also looks really awesome. Think Guardians of the Galaxy meets Monster Hunter International, with a heaping dose of Firefly mixed in for good measure. That’s Gunslinger to the Stars.

Gunslinger to the Stars

Gunslinger to the Stars

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Sam Kletchka here, freelance gunslinger and interstellar privateer. This, my friends, is how I went from being stranded in the armpit of the galaxy to becoming the luckiest human being in the universe. More info →
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Lots and lots of stuff going on, but it looks like things are finally settling into a new routine. I should have a lot more for you guys in the future.

Have a fantastic weekend, and thanks for reading!

A fascinating journey of discovery

I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.

It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.

In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.

As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?

The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.

But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).

The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.

The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.

So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.

That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.

So why did they fall?

The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.

My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.

When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.

In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.

Sound familiar?

The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.

And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.

Seven out of ten Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Half of Americans would have to beg, borrow, or steal if slapped with an unexpected $400 expense.

Twenty percent of American households do not have a single person that is working.

Fully one-third of America is in debt collections, meaning that they have an unpaid debt more than 180 days past due.

Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.

And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?

So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.

The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.

Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.

Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.

I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.

So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.

Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.

It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.

So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.

Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!

The Decline and Fall of Fandom and the Hugo Awards

Lately, I’ve taken a serious interest in family history. A huge amount of records have gone online in the past decade, making it far easier to trace your ancestors. Before that, my father was able to trace the Vasicek line to the Czech lands (places with cool names like Frenštát, Vratimov, Trojanovice, Staříč, etc), but that was as far as he could go. Just a couple of years ago, however, my sister found the parish records for that region. They’re mostly all scanned and online, and they go back as far as the late 15th century to the start of the Hapsburgs. The pieces are all there—all we have to do is put them together.

Needless to say, this has got me really excited. It also made me wonder: how far back is it possible go? According to my sister, who is also a certified genealogist, the European records start to get really sketchy around the 7th or 8th century. Only the royal lines go back that far, and since they were all trying to connect themselves to mythical figures and Biblical characters, the records are not very reliable.

So I went to Wikipedia to look up the period of Late Antiquity leading up to the 7th century, and soon became completely absorbed in it. This is the period when the Roman Empire collapsed, leaving Europe in a hot mess. The Vandals, Franks, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, and Saxons were running around all over the place, sometimes fighting for the Romans, sometimes fighting against them, constantly fighting each other, and migrating clear across the continent in their search for new homelands.

As clear as I can make it out, this is how it basically went down:

There once was a tribe on the Italian penninsula that built a city called Rome. Through innovations in engineering, warfare, governance, and philosophy, they conquered virtually all of the known world and built a mighty empire. Rome became legendary as the center of it all.

Over time, however, the Romans became decadent and corrupt. The empire slowly began to disintegrate and fall apart, though great pains were taken to preserve the appearance that all was well. By the end of the third century, it had effectively split into two halves: the eastern empire and the western empire. This division fell roughly along cultural lines: the Greco-Roman culture in the east, and the Latin-Roman culture in the west.

Around this time, a barbarian tribe (or alliance of tribes) appeared on the northeastern frontiers of the empire. Known as the Huns, these barbarians launched an invasion of Europe that completely shuffled the deck. They only briefly threatened the Romans, but had a much larger impact on the barbarian tribes of Europe, displacing them from their homelands and forcing them to seek a new home. This launched what is known as the migration period.

There were a lot of barbarian tribes seeking a new homeland: the Franks, the Saxons, the Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and the Vandals. With the Huns at their backs, they invaded the Roman Empire, which was the weaker of the two.

…except “invade” isn’t quite the right word. Many of these tribes became allies or foederati of the Romans (often after defeating them). Even some Hunnic tribes were absorbed into the empire in this way, and were often employed as mercenaries to fight against the Frankish, Gothic, and Vandal tribes that hadn’t allied with Rome. The salient point is that Rome had become weak, and thus had to make concessions to these barbarians who were starting to flood the empire.

At the end of the fourth century, a tribe of Visigoths that had settled in the eastern empire became upset with the way that the Romans were treating them. After being starved, taxed, and treated as sub-human, they took up arms under a leader named Alaric the First. They were unable to make much headway against the eastern empire, so instead they went west and invaded the Italian penninsula.

Over the course of the next two decades, the western empire vacillated between accomodating them, backstabbing them, and declaring outright war. This was mostly due to internal power struggles that had little to do with the Visigoths. Even though Alaric threatened the heart of the western empire and laid seige to Rome three times, they treated him with outright contempt, blatantly violating previous agreements and going so far as to ambush him under a flag of truce.

In 408, the internal power struggle eliminated the faction that was willing to accomodate the Visigoths. Shortly thereafter, Alaric decided that he’d had enough and marched on Rome. In 410, he sacked the city, shocking the civilized world.

Up until that point, Rome was considered sacrosanct. Sure, the barbarians were overrunning the frontiers and threatening vast swaths of the empire, but Rome was the cultural and spiritual center of the world. How could it possibly fall? But it did, and following the sack in 455 at the hands of the Vandals, the Roman Empire never regained its former glory.

Reading up on this history at the same time as the 2015 Hugo Awards played out has made me notice a bunch of similarities between the two events. Obviously, the decline and fall of Rome is not a perfect analogy for the decline and fall of the Hugo Awards, but there are some very interesting parallels.

The Hugo Awards were founded in the 1950s, back when SF&F fandom was a tiny community of geeks on the fringes of society, and not taken seriously by anyone in the cultural mainstream. Over the next several decades, the geeks took over the world, dominating the popular culture with things like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, etc.

But somewhere along the way, this happened:

Fandom (with a capital F) became decadent and corrupt as the Truefen jealously guarded their turf, creating all sorts of weird Hugo categories (“related work”? “short-form” editor vs. “long-form” editor?) and pushing back against the mainstreaming of the SF&F field. As a result, Worldcon went from the premier SF&F convention to a second-tier convention that falls well short of Dragoncon, Gencon, San Diego Comic Con, Salt Lake Comic Con and Fan Ex, etc, all of which are 1-2 orders of magnitude larger than Worldcon now. The once-prestigious Hugos were now decided by mere hundreds of votes.

Around this time, a tribe (or alliance of tribes) of cultural Marxists began to invade the cultural space. Also known as Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), they began to dominate multiple forms of media, pushing out many of the more conservative readers and viewers who resisted. Fandom (with a capital F) gradually embraced them, using them as mercenaries in their internal power struggles.

By this time, Fandom had split into two broad divisions: Baen and Tor. Baen books were more about action & adventure, while Tor books were more about social issues (though of course there was some overlap). These two houses dominated the field, but it was the Tor side of Fandom that had more ownership in the Hugos than the Baen side.

The SF&F fans who had been displaced by the SJW invasion formed the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. To Fandom, however, they were all just “wrongfans”—essentially, barbarians. And it wouldn’t exactly be right to say that the puppies “invaded” Fandom, because many of them were already there or were willing to coexist and make alliances. Others, of course, were not.

Vox Day entered the scene as one of the disgruntled puppies who had had enough of Fandom. The Tor side was far more susceptible to his machinations, responding to him in knee-jerk fashion at every turn, so he went after them. In 2015, he sacked the Hugos, causing “no award” to sweep five categories (and place in eight more).

To an impartial observer, Vox Day was the only clear victor of the 2015 Hugo Awards. How else can you explain all the “no awards”? His stated goal was never to win the Hugos, it was to destroy them, and he accomplished that spectacularly. When an esteemed professional such as Toni Weisskopf loses to “no award” purely out of guilt by association (on a ballot decided by less than 6,000 total votes, no less), how can anyone possibly take the Hugos seriously anymore? What was once considered the most prestigious award in the SF&F field has now proven to be a narrow, exlusivist club of politically like-minded elitists.

Fandom (capital F) accomplished many wonderful things back in the days before SF&F entered the mainstream. In a very real sense, they conquered the world. But by doggedly trying to hold on to their turf and refusing to let others play with their toys, especially those who see the world differently than them, they are declining. Like the sack of Rome in 410, the sack of the Hugo Awards in 2015 was a watershed moment that demonstrated just how much the old order had decayed.

Can the Hugo Awards be saved? I seriously doubt it. The “truefans” will jealously clutch it to their chests until they die, and with the graying of fandom, that will probably be accomplished fairly soon. But just as the Renaissance rose from the long-cold ashes of the Roman Empire, so too I hope that something good will eventually come out of all of this. Because really, there is a place in fandom (lower-case f) for everyone, and that has never changed.

The Self-Sufficient Writer: How I Got Started

One of the best things my father ever did for me was tell me that when I graduated from college, I was on my own. No more rent money or financial support from my parents—I had to become financially independent, and I had to do it soon.

I had a rather unusual college experience. I went to BYU, one of the most affordable colleges in the United States, and I had a full-ride scholarship for all four years. In addition, I started at 21, so that I qualified for the Pell Grant my junior year. Because I was studying Arabic, I also received the Smart Grant. And as if that weren’t enough, I worked an on-campus job for seven out of eight semesters while I was there. My parents paid for my rent probably just because it was the only expense left that they could help with.

All of those scholarships, grants, and jobs allowed me to graduate 100% debt free, which was extremely helpful later on. But the truth was, as a college student, I knew almost nothing about money. I didn’t know much about the world outside of academia either, since that was where I spent all my time. Even the jobs that I worked were all on-campus jobs that only put me at 20 hours per week, doing stuff that didn’t feel all that different from school. So when I graduated in 2010, I was in for a really big shock.

I graduated in the middle of the so-called “jobless recovery,” which was basically a euphemism for “the worst economic collapse in a generation, but hey it’s getting better, right? Right??” Things weren’t nearly as bad in the US as they were (and to a large part, still are) in places like Europe, but still, it was pretty hard. At the height of the recession, a job ad on KSL (the Utah equivalent of Craigslist) would get hundreds of applications in the first 24 hours, never mind how horrible the job was. People were desperate for some kind of income, and so was I.

Fortunately, I had enough time to see this coming. In 2009, I started keeping a daily budget in order to track my expenses and learn how to manage my money. At first, I used the same spreadsheet template that my father uses, but I soon figured out that that wasn’t going to cut it. So I started from the basics, dividing wants from needs, and made separate categories for things like food, rent, health, transportation, etc. I learned very quickly that I was spending too much on food, so I subdivided that into groceries and eating out. It took a while to organize my personal finances to a place where I felt I had a handle on it, but by the time I graduated, I was pretty much on top of it.

A lot of my peers were (and to a large extent, still are) moving back in with their parents after they graduated. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to do that. First of all, my father told me that if I was going to move in with them, I would have to pay rent. I’m sure that if things were really tough, they would have waived that requirement long enough to let me get on my feet, but the arrangement would not have made anyone happy. Second, all of the people I knew—and therefore, all of my best opportunities for getting on my feet—were in Utah, not in Massachusetts.

Now, a little bit of background. I was raised in a devout Mormon household, where we were all taught about the importance of self-reliance and emergency preparedness. Growing up, we had a modest food storage, and we even ground our own wheat to make bread (the most delicious bread you will ever eat is always homemade!). That said, I had never really connected any of that with my own situation. In college, I figured that I wouldn’t worry about stuff like that until I was comfortably established in my own home.

But then, things got tough. I went from working in a call center to taking temp jobs while looking for other employment. Then the temp jobs dried up, and I had to scramble for paying gigs on Craigslist. At the lowest point, I was distributing phone books from the trunk of my car just to earn enough to eat (it’s a decent paying gig if you have a pickup truck and four or five kids (ie slave labor) to do it quickly, but if you’re just one guy with a beat-up Buick, forget it). Money was drying up fast, and I didn’t know what to do.

I learned a lot from the experience, though. Probably the most important thing I learned was that 90% of the time, “security” is just an illusion. If you think you’re secure because you have a job that gives you a reliable paycheck, think again. Markets change, and your company could go down at any time, taking your job with it. That was a lesson we all learned the hard way back in the Great Recession. And if you think the government is there to help you, think again. In a lot of ways, the government only made the recession worse.

I realized very quickly that the only security I could ever hope to have was the security that I provided for myself. In other words, if I didn’t learn self-reliance, I would never have any control over my future. I wanted control—I craved it. I found myself trapped in a system where I had to trade time, one of the most limited and valuable resources, for money. No matter how much (or how little) value I created, I was still paid the same for it. It was a soul-sucking system, and I wanted out of it.

It was around this time that I started self-publishing. I saw the opportunity to take control of my own career and leaped at it. But I was still scraping by on only four figures a year, and while that’s not as bad as it sounds when you’re a healthy single man with no debts and no dependents, it was still pretty tough. With my books barely selling a dozen copies each month in that first year, I knew I couldn’t keep it up for long.

So I ran away—literally. I left the country and decided to start over.

The Self-Sufficient Writer (Index)

 

A cast iron birthday!

CAM00207

So my 30th birthday is this month, and my parents gave me what may quite possibly prove to be the best birthday present ever: the family’s old cast iron skillet! These things are AWESOME for cooking–they heat evenly, hold warmth for a long time, have a better non-stick surface than teflon (if you care for it properly), can be used on anything from ovens to electric stove tops to campfire coals, and are virtually indestructible. I can’t wait to start using mine!

CAM00204As you can see from the photo, though, it needs quite a bit of work. There’s a lot of old gunk and rust that needs to be scraped off, and it needs to be tempered and seasoned. Tempering is the process where you heat up the iron to let the oil soak into the pores, so that when it cools down, you have a thin layer of oil bonded to the surface. That’s what gives it the nonstick properties and keeps it from rusting. If you wash a cast iron skillet in soap, it scrubs off that all-important layer of oil, leaving it exposed to water which makes it oxidize and rust. That’s what happened here.

Fortunately, these things are so indestructible that a little bit of rust isn’t going to ruin it. It’ll take some work to get it cleaned up and functional again, but I could use a fun side-project to keep me busy. Besides, I have a writing buddy down the street who can help me out with it. He’s a pretty interesting guy: he has a 3D printer, grows most of the food he eats, worked on film sets for a few years, does some gunsmithing on the side–like I said, he’s an interesting guy. I believe the Grantville Gazette has bought a couple of his stories, though they have yet to come out in print. We’re thinking about collaborating together, or maybe starting a podcast.

In any case, this is going to be an AWESOME project that I’m sure will keep me occupied for the next long while. I can hardly wait to fry some bacon in this thing! Bacon, and baked beans, and cornbread … mmm!