Butterfly Mind

Whenever I try to concentrate on writing this page, distractions flood in. Sometimes I wish I had the gall to write a column about writing a column, like that chap Tim Key who regularly used to fill his page in The Independent magazine with exciting thematic material like "How I Wrote This Column In A Café", and as his swan song managed to wring two whole columns out of how, presumably through popular editorial demand, he'd no longer be writing the column. But Langford is made of sterner stuff.

Where was I? My SF newsletter Ansible is a regular distraction. Every month, dozens if not scores of readers expect their news fix, enlivened by one or even both of my famous jokes. In the recent issue #333, that fine cartoonist Steve Stiles contributed a picture of a cute puppy: "333, Mark of the Domestic House Pet!" But Puppies – see SFX 262 – are a painful subject right now.

Ansible brings me kudos but also some criticism. One SF professional who shall be nameless (and didn't like being named) called it an infantile shitsheet; the British Fantasy Newsletter once complained it was "Not nearly as controversial as its reputation belies". Its US rival File 770 announced: "As a newszine, it is the Emperor's New Clothes", an accolade I was proud to publish.

Similarly, the File 770 website masthead now carries the blurb "... the 770 blog, that wretched hive of scum and villainy ..." – an accolade from John C. Wright, who thanks to Sad and Rabid Puppy rigging of the Hugo nominations had an unprecedented six items (one since disqualified) on this year's Hugo ballot. Which led to much discussion of his works at F770 and elsewhere, the tone of which you can imagine from his response.

I didn't want to revisit the Puppies controversy so soon, but the whole mess has provoked some interesting debate on reforming the Hugo nominations process to prevent slate voting by an organized minority from dominating the ballot. By tradition you can nominate up to five items in each category – five novels for Best Novel, and so on – and the five most popular choices appear on the final ballot.

Many reformers suggested variations of the "4+6" plan: four nominations per category, with the top six becoming finalists. That stops a single slate from sweeping the nominations... but fandom's voting wonks soon deduced that if slates (formerly Just Not Done, Old Chap) become a standard tactic, "4+6" simply divides the final ballot between the two strongest slates.

Are the Hugos doomed to an eternity of party politics? Maybe not! An expert in electoral theory has devised a system that dilutes the effect of slates to ensure minorities can't easily rig the ballot. It's called "single divisible vote with least popular elimination" (SDV-LPE), nicknamed E Pluribus Hugo, and it's been explained at numbing length online. If you're curious, Google is your friend.

Meanwhile, though I should be writing a wise and witty column for SFX, I keep being distracted by ebook production chores. It's fun converting my old books into digital form, and even more fun when people buy them. See also taff.org.uk for some freebies.

How, you ask, am I dealing with the nightmare of VAT on ebooks as introduced in January and horrifically described in SFX 258? Sshh! (Come inside these brackets where no one can hear us. I'm refusing to sell to the EU countries where problems arise. So far I've got away with this.) Vigorous campaigning against a tax regime so unfair to microbusinesses has admittedly produced some response from EU high-ups. Roughly: "Ooh yes, there's a problem but we can't do anything about it this year."

Meanwhile it looks as though I'll never finish this damned column.

David Langford used to have a butterfly mind but can't remember where he put it.