A land where the trains always run on subjective time. Stories and reflections by Fred Warren.

So, You Want to Be a Hugo Award Voter — April 24, 2015

So, You Want to Be a Hugo Award Voter

“Look at me, look at me, look at me now! It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” — The Cat in the Hat

Okay, I said I was finished talking about the Hugo Awards, but for those who are still trying to figure out why everybody connected with science fiction and fantasy seems to have lost their collective mind and conglomerated into a pair of rock-chucking political action committees screaming about blocs and slates and logrolling and voxxing/doxxing/foxx in soxxing and whisper campaigns and nuking from orbit and some guy named Noah Ward, I thought it might be helpful to review how the actual Hugo voting works.

I expect this voting system will seem a bit odd to most of you, because it’s Australian.

Yes, that’s right. From the Land Down Under, home of the bloomin’ kangaroo, “what’s got a pocket in front where it carries its young nipper and goes bouncin’ around like a bloomin’ jumpin’ jack, ‘ippity-‘oppity, ‘ippity-‘oppity,  ‘ippity-‘oppity…”


"One ballot, Madam, but you must specify your preferences!"
“One ballot, Madam, but you must specify your preferences!”

If you want to split hairs, it was invented in the U.S., but it was first used in Australia, and has been most popular there. The Australian System is also known as “preferential voting,” since voters rank-order all the candidates for each office on their ballot in order of preference. It’s also called “instant-runoff voting,” for reasons we’ll get to later.

The Aussies use preferential voting in elections for their House of Representatives and most State governments. It’s also been adopted in other places and has come and gone and come again in a few U.S. localities since 1912. Some people are pitching it as a way to ditch the Electoral College, so there’s yet another reason to keep an eye on how this Hugo thing works in practice, even if you don’t care who wins.

Preferential voting doesn’t necessarily elect the most popular candidates, but it gravitates toward those likely to not inspire a strongly negative reaction from most voters. In a sense, it’s electing the candidate the electorate dislikes the least. There are some practical advantages: no long, expensive runoffs in tight elections (as you’ll see in a few moments); less impact when like-minded voters split their votes among multiple candidates, and every entry on the ballot matters. That last one is very important.

Let’s say you’ve taken an interest, you’ve got your Worldcon membership, and you’re ready to vote. You’ve read all the stories in contention (You did read them, didn’t you? Of course you did). You vote by ranking each nominee on the ballot for each category in order of preference, 1 through 5, or however many there are. You also have the option of voting a rank for No Award (which is treated just like a nominee, hence the nickname, “Noah Ward,” tee-hee), or not ranking a particular nominee at all, which is equivalent to voting them in last place, except they won’t be included in the tabulation of your ballot. That is also very important.

The votes are tabulated in a series of rounds. In the first round, all the first-place votes are counted, and if one nominee gets more than 50% of the votes, they win. If not, the nominee that got the fewest first-place votes is removed from consideration, and the second-place votes on all the ballots that ranked the eliminated nominee first are treated as first-place votes for the second round, and the votes are counted again (so those second-place and below votes still carry some weight, even when your favorite is out). The process is repeated until one candidate gets a majority of the votes, even if the candidate is “Noah Ward.” Tee-hee. If Noah wins, nobody gets a rocket, though I think some folks plan to dance around a bonfire on his behalf.

All clear? Yeah, I hear you. Here’s a handy flowchart, courtesy of io9, for all us visual learners:


In theory, the tabulating and recounting could go to several rounds, and those lower-ranked nominees will begin to have some impact. If the voting is scattered enough, they could climb a place or two in the final results or make the difference between close contenders for first and second place, though it’s unlikely they’d win. Brandon Sanderson presents a scenario from a past Hugo vote here, with the actual numbers.

Then there’s one more count, called the “No Award Test,” and I’ll let the Hugo Awards site describe this one itself:

The final check before a winner can be determined is known as the No Award Test. The valid ballots are divided into three piles: those in which No Award is ranked higher than the prospective winner (PW), those in which the prospective winner is ranked higher than No Award, and those in which neither No Award nor the prospective winner have preferences listed. Note that a ballot that contains a preference for the prospective winner but does not contain a preference for No Award goes into the “prospective winner higher than no award” pile. This is because lack of preference is, by definition, lower than any preference. Having got the three piles, the votes in the “prospective winner higher than No Award pile” and the votes in the “No Award higher than prospective winner” pile are counted. If the number of votes with the prospective winner placed higher is greater then the result is confirmed. If the pile with No Award placed higher is greater then no award is given in the category that year.

It’s important that you realize that we count the ballot at this stage if the prospective winner is ranked OR No Award is ranked. You don’t have to rank them both. The only ballots that don’t count here are those that rank neither the PW nor NA.

Once again, we see it makes a difference what you rank or leave blank on your ballot, including “Noah Ward.” Tee-hee.

For second through fifth place, the votes that selected the winner in first place are removed, and everything gets counted again as before, with lagging nominees dropped and their votes redistributed and recounted for each place until a majority count is attained. Then the results are announced, and there is binge drinking and gnashing of teeth. There’s always a clear winner—by now you can probably see how the tabulating process eliminates ties and folds a runoff for close votes into itself.

“You can never come baaaaack!”

If it’s important to you that the stories you hate with incandescent fury not win, place, or show, but vanish from the final results altogether to burn in a sulfurous pit of Hades until the end of time, the preferred technique is to rank only the stories you like, followed by No Award, with no other rankings marked on the ballot. This ensures the nasty stories will not have a vote from you counted in any way, shape, or form, period. It will be as if they never existed. These two posts widely circulated before last year’s Hugos explain this bit of inside baseball in more detail, with examples:

For 2015, John Scalzi offers a more concise example, with yogurt, here.

There’s also this popular voting guide, guaranteed to keep one’s ballot sparkly-clean and ethically unimpeachable, that walks the conscientious voter through the proper ballot entries with no need to fear tripping over the subtleties of Australian Rules Voting.  It seems some other people this year are conspiring to vote as a bloc, from a slate, and they must be stopped.

For the actual Hugo voters of any affiliation, as that guide says, It’s your choice. Hey, it’s not as if you’re a zombie who would vote in lockstep with some yahoo’s agenda simply because they posted a list of suggestions on the internet.

Happy voting, mates.


Ink & Paint XXVII: Puella Magi Madoka Magica — April 22, 2015

Ink & Paint XXVII: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

There’s a way that looks harmless enough; look again—it leads straight to hell.     — Proverbs 16:25

This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends.     — John 15:13

(There are spoilers here–stop reading at the Madoka Magica poster if you haven’t seen the series and would rather not be spoiled)

Oh, this story, this story…where do I start?

mm_dreamscapeMadoka Kaname is an ordinary girl from a happy family, without a worry in the world except the disturbing dreams she’s been having lately. Maybe they’re connected to Homura Akemi, the mysteriously familiar transfer student at school who seems to know her, though they’ve never met before.

On the way home from school one day, Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki suddenly find themselves in a surreal nightmare landscape, with a host of grotesque creatures closing in on them. Out of nowhere, a tall, elegant girl swoops in and dispatches the creatures with an impressive array of artillery. The scary environment is dispelled, and the girl reveals herself as Mami Tomoe, an upperclassman at the same high school Madoka and Sayaka attend. She invites them to her apartment for some tea and explanations.

Mami is a Magical Girl, tasked to defeat evil entities that feed on human despair. These creatures, “witches,” manifest within labyrinths like the one Madoka and Sayaka stumbled into and lure people into violence and suicidal acts. Most human beings can’t see witches—it seems Madoka and Sayaka might just have the potential to become Magical Girls themselves.

Accompanying Mami is a sleek, catlike being named Kyubey, who tells Madoka and Sayaka that he will grant whatever wish they can name, if they’ll contract with him to become Magical Girls. It’s a dangerous job, but in light of all the good they can accomplish, it’s well worth it. Someone has to defend the world against witches. Why not them?

mmPuella Magi Madoka Magica is an anime that subverts one of the genre’s most beloved icons. We’ve seen Magical Girls, those frilly, beribboned soldiers of truth, beauty, and justice, vanquish evil again and again with their ridiculously overpowered weapons, pure hearts, and unyielding faith in the power of love and friendship. Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, Pretty Cure…power up, fight the big bad boss, rescue your pals, save the world, all before teatime. Piece of cake.

There is always cake. What young lady of a certain age wouldn’t leap at the chance to become a Magical Girl?

So, here we are. Submitted for your approval, a world where becoming a Magical Girl is the price of seeing your fondest wish come true—and it’s a brutal, cold, merciless, expensive payment.

Madoka and Sayaka don’t recognize the nature of the price they’re asked to pay, at first. Mami is the embodiment of everything they’ve ever dreamed of being, and with plenty of encouragement from Kyubey, she offers to let them tag along on a couple of witch-fighting missions, something like Magical Girl 101, with no commitment necessary. She knows it’s a big decision, and she wants them to make their choice freely.

Then things go horribly wrong.

Kyubey. Isn't he cute?
Kyubey. Isn’t he cute?

Kyubey doesn’t seem bothered. Yes, it’s dangerous being a Magical Girl, but that free wish is ample compensation, and don’t they want to protect their friends and loved ones from this evil that feeds on human misery, that nobody else can see? Think of how many people they could save with a Magical Girl’s power. Don’t they want to help?

Sayaka makes the contract and uses her wish on behalf of a sick friend, only to discover a horrifying detail about the Magical Girl bargain that Kyubey neglected to mention. And the stakes get higher, and the revelations more terrible. Madoka wavers, wanting to protect Sayaka and stop the evil herself, somehow, but the enigmatic Homura intervenes again and again, and her desperation is difficult to explain, until we learn why Homura’s trying so hard to save Madoka—and Homura discovers the true futility of her efforts.

Because, you see, there’s a final, vicious catch to the whole Magical Girl arrangement, a catch that destroys their friendships, corrupts everything they touch, and leaves them alone and broken in the dark. Then it turns them into a monster. All for the greater good. Every single thing they do makes their fate more certain.

And Madoka’s fate will be the worst of all.

About now, you’re probably wondering if there’s anything redeeming in this story, something that won’t leave you pondering a few pleasant hours on the couch chatting with your favorite therapist.

There is, actually.

In the end, only Madoka has the faintest prayer of changing her own destiny, but she does, at a cost so staggering it makes everything suffered to that point seem trivial in comparison. And by that ultimate act of utter selflessness, she rewrites the rules of her universe and mends the wrongs caused by Kyubey’s exploitation of the Magical Girls.

It’s not a perfectly happy ending. Magical Girls are freed from the cruel fate of becoming the very curses they fought, but evil still exists on Earth, and someone must fight on until it’s vanquished altogether, however long that may take. The difference is the fight is no longer futile. Madoka has in a very real sense become hope itself, the hope that had been drained from the world as it was.

There's no symbolism happening here, I'm certain of it. Move along.
No symbolism here, I’m sure. Move along.

The 12 episodes of Madoka Magica are an absorbing, mesmerizing watch. The phantasmagorical nightmare dreamscapes of the witches and their labyrinths resonate with the vaguely unsettling architecture of Madoka’s city. The air seems heavy with the weight of forboding, the nagging sense that something inexpressible is somehow wrong with even the mundane elements of this world. We’re treated to a constant interplay of light, shadow, color, and reflection that makes the line between reality and illusion harder and harder to distinguish. Space itself feels simultaneously claustrophobic and terrifyingly vacant. The battles between witches and Magical Girls are swirling epics of thunder and lightning, deadly marksmanship and flashing blades. There’s also enough symbolism at play to keep a film major gainfully employed for a semester or two.

This isn’t kid stuff. It’s sad, and tragic, and there’s more than a little horror and bloodshed, though the worst of it is shadowed or obscured. These are characters you will care about. They have their share of weaknesses and foibles, but they are strong, unselfish, and heroic. Some of them will die, courageously, but not easily. The loss will feel both painful and unjust, and it should. Teens and up, and better with parents, if possible. Talk this one out.

There are plenty of big questions to discuss along Madoka Magica’s harrowing journey, and the characters wrestle with all of them:

What is your greatest wish, and what would it be worth to have it come true? What might it cost?

How might we end up doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons?

How should we respond when someone offers us a deal that sounds too good to be true?

What’s wrong with Kyubey’s ethics? Is “the greatest good for the greatest number” a sound moral guideline?

When we help others, is it really because we want the best for them, or because we want them to be grateful to us? What’s wrong with acting purely from our own self-interest?

Is our fate already written? Can we change it?

Is good really more powerful than evil? Is there anyone we can truly rely on except ourselves? How can we have hope in a world that often seems so hopeless?

How can we help a friend who is overwhelmed with sadness or despair?

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) is a 12-episode anime series currently available on Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Hulu. There are also three Madoka Magica movies—the first two, Beginnings and Eternal (2012), recap the original series, and the third, Rebellion, continues the story.

Random Randomness, 4/13/2015 — April 13, 2015

Random Randomness, 4/13/2015

“So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.” — Sidney Poitier

It looked something like this.

I’m a Lumberjack, and I’m Okay: My Lovely Wife announced it was Fred Trims the Trees Day a couple of weeks ago, and who am I to argue with a beautiful woman whose college transcript includes courses in Ornamental Horticulture? I proceeded to snip, saw, and curse the superfluous branch-age from our much-neglected complement of maple, crabapple, peach, juniper, cottonwood, and redbud trees. In the following days, I slowly hacked the resulting enormous pile of deadwood into bite-sized fragments suitable for scooping into the tidy paper bags mandated by our refuse-collection company.

That left me with the equivalent of three or four small-tree-equivalents of lumber too thick to cut into tiny pieces with manual tools, and My Fair City Government (perhaps prodded by one of my friendly neighbors) grew impatient with my progress and left me a polite note characterizing the stack of tree limbs on my lawn a “public nuisance.” This required drastic action. I bought an economical and sort-of eco-friendly electric chainsaw (it consumes lubricating oil as fast as my mower consumes gasoline) to finish the job. Besides making me feel quite manly and Bruce Campbell-ish—Hail to the king, baby!—it made short work of the heavy branches, which I now must tie into tidy little bundles of cordwood with the biodegradable jute twine mandated by our refuse-collection company. I hope to finish by first frost.

No, smart guy, I can’t afford a wood chipper. Not after buying the chainsaw.

Kickback (chainsaw): “The most common cause of serious chainsaw injury accidents. It may occur when the moving chain at the nose or tip of the guide bar touches an object, or when the wood closes in and pinches the saw chain in the cut. Can cause a lightning-fast reverse reaction, kicking the guide bar up and back toward the operator.” Ouchies. My chainsaw includes several safety features that help prevent kickback injuries, including a tip guard, handle guard, and dead-man switch. Yes, that last one is very reassuring.

ddWhat I’m Watching on Netflix: Daredevil and Gilmore Girls. Make of that what you will. So far, I think this Daredevil is the best screen adaptation of Marvel’s two-fisted, powers-lite, urban vigilante to date (which isn’t saying much, but that doesn’t diminish the quality). There are plenty of both funny and thoughtful interludes between the brilliantly choreographed action sequences, and the characters are making a great first impression. As for Gilmore Girls, you’ll find it listed in the encyclopedia under “Witty Banter.” Rory Gilmore has not a little in common with my Darling Daughter, who is away at college and missed greatly at home.

Kickback (bribery): A form of negotiated bribery in which a commission is paid to the bribe-taker as a quid pro quo for services rendered.” In Daredevil, for example, insolvent lawyers Foggy Nelson and Matt Murdock provide Cuban cigars for NYPD Sgt. Brett Mahoney’s mother, in exchange for Mahoney’s tips on potential clients. Okay, that’s not exactly a kickback, but you get the idea.

What I’m Reading: Hugo-nominated short stories. I’ve compiled a list of links to all the fiction nominees, free or otherwise, here. Summary of the ongoing nomination/voting kerfluffle, here. A couple of good posts from prominent authors on either side of the kerfluffle that serve to frame the debate, here and here. My reactions to the short story nominees, in brief:

“Turncoat,” by Steve Rzasa: A transhuman warship reconsiders its role in an interstellar conflict. Good mix of action and thoughtfulness. I liked it.

“Totaled,” by Kary English: Life beyond death, after a fashion, trapped inside a disembodied brain and fighting against time to salvage both meaning and peace at the end. Brings all the feels. I liked it.

“On a Spiritual Plain,” by Lou Antonelli: Ruminations on death and immortality as an inexperienced chaplain tries to help the lost essence of a human being on a planet of alien ghosts find its way home. I liked it.

“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds,” by John C. Wright: Who will inherit the Earth at the End of Days? I wasn’t so enthralled with this one. It felt too ponderous and emotionally detached to be effective as a short.

“Goodnight Stars,” by Annie Bellet: Haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. I’ll update later if I can get hold of the anthology it’s in.

UPDATE: 15 Apr 2015: Ms. Bellet has withdrawn her story from the Hugo ballot. Details here. I’m still planning to find her story and read it (Further update: It’s available for free reading in several formats on the anthology website). No word yet on whether another nominee will move up to take its place.

Bottom-line, I think there’s enough quality among the stories in this category, when I compare them to last year’s nominees, that there’s little justification for voting “No Award” overall other than as a symbolic protest against the Puppies. My opinion only, your mileage may vary.

Kickback (social): “A get-together consisting of close friends, partying and drinking.” I understand there are a lot of kickbacks at Worldcon, for both winners and losers, after the Hugo Award presentation.


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