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Oh, 2022!

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Back in December of 2016 I took a look at what the next year held in store for us. It spanned three blog posts and ended happily in a nuclear barbecue to put us all out of our misery: start here, continue with this, and finale: and the Rabid Nazi Raccoons shall inherit the Earth.

It is now early 2022 and I clearly wasn't pessimistic enough.

About 15 years ago, when I was working on Halting State, I came up with a rule of thumb for predicting the near-future setting in SF. Looking 10 years ahead, about 70% of the people, buildings, cars, and culture is already here today. Another 20-25% is not present yet but is predictable -- buildings under construction, software and hardware and drugs in development, children today who will be adults in a decade. And finally, there's about a 5-10% element that comes from the "who ordered that" dimension: nobody in 2010 expected Elon Musk's SpaceX to be flying astronauts to the space station in a reusable, privately developed spaceship by 2020, nobody in 2005 expected Donald Trump to be elected POTUS in 2015, and so on.

More recently, 2016 prompted me to rethink this rule of thumb. Global climate change, accelerating technological developments in various fields (notably AI/deep learning and batteries), and political instability (in large part a side-effect of social media) made everything much more unpredictable. We're now up to about 20% of 10-year-hence developments being utterly unpredictable, leaving us with 55-60% in the "here today" and 20-25% in the "not here yet, but clearly on the horizon" baskets.

COVID19 is clearly part of the 20% "who ordered that" collection. Nobody in March 2019 imagined that by March 2020 the UK would be in lockdown and they'd be storing corpses in refrigerator lorries in New York and Milan. It's not entirely a black swan; anyone who knew about the history of pandemics knew to expect something like it in due course, and indeed Laurie Garrett won a Pulitzer prize for her book, The Coming Plague in 1994, which predicted more or less exactly what we're living through today. What she didn't predict in 1994 (writing in 1991-93) is almost more interesting than what she did— nobody in the 20th century imagined that within just two decades we'd be able to sequence the genome of a new pathogen within days, much less hours, or design a new vaccine within two weeks and have it in human clinical trials a month later. If the SARS family of coronaviruses had emerged just a decade earlier it's quite likely we'd be on the brink of civilizational, if not species-level, extinction by now—SARS1 has 20% mortality among patients, MERS (aka SARS2) is up around 35-40% fatal, SARS-NCoV19, aka SARS3, is down around the 1-4% fatality level. If SARS1 had gone pandemic we might plausibly have lost a billion people within two years.

Luckily both SARS and MERS are far less contagious than COVID19, but don't count on this continuing. Those viruses still exist in animal reservoirs, and we know COVID19 circulates between humans and other species and can hybridize with other viruses. The worst easily-imaginable COVID19 variant would be a MERS/COVID19-Omicron hybrid—call it the Omega strain—with the lethality of MERS and the contagiousness of Omicron, which is worse than the common cold, somewhere around the same level as chickenpox. (We don't remember how awful chickenpox was because (a) we're generally vaccinated in infancy and (b) it's not a killer on the same level as its big sibling, Variola, aka smallpox. But the so-called "childhood diseases" like mumps, rubella, and chickenpox used to kill infants by windrows. There's a reason public health bodies remain vigilant and run constant vaccination campaigns against them, despite these campaigns being so successful that deaths from these diseases are so rare, leading perversely to an upswing in vaccine denialism.

Remember, this isn't a simple pneumonia bug. It's a virus that attacks the RAAS/ACE2 system, in particular all the epithelial tissues, and any other cells that express ACE2 receptors on their surfaces. It can mess with your kidneys. It can mess with fat cells, changing their response to insulin. It apparently shows up in brain tissue. Viral RNA can be found in all of these cells many months after recovery from the acute infection: it may have long-term sequelae, like Shingles, which only show up years to decades later. We do know long COVID effects up to 15% of people who are diagnosed with an infection, and can last months to years. We know that immunity is short-lived, and people can get repeat infections (currently mostly by new strains, but reinfection with an old strain is not impossible).

A different "worst case" isn't that we all die of a horrendous Omega strain with the lethality of the Black Death and the infectiousness of the common cold. Instead, we get hit by a new wave every 6 months, and all of us get it sooner or later, and each time you roll 1d6 and if you come up with a 1 you get organ damage, cognitive impairment, and chronic fatigue lasting for years: after a decade, half of humanity are walking wounded.

However. I didn't come here to bore you with COVID19—you can get all the news you want in the media, mass or social. My only COVID-related prediction is that it's here to stay until we develop a temperature-stable, cheap, broad-spectrum coronavirus vaccine that is patent-free, and get round to vaccinating the entire human population, before yet another strain comes along that exhibits immune escape. This may or may not happen before Omega emerges—remember, viruses do not inevitably evolve to be less lethal, they merely obey selection pressure to not kill their hosts before they have infected new hosts. But if we're lucky? We'll dodge the Omega bullet, and by 2030 we might be getting past COVID19 and its long-term consequences.

In fact, let's ignore COVID19. What is the world of 2031 going to look like, bloated graveyards and chronic fatigue clinics and high-profile public health campaigns aside?

The mRNA vaccine technologies that gave us the high profile COVID vaccines are spin-offs of a breakthrough that was creeping hopefully towards deployment years before COVID19 fired up the afterburners and hurled it at a cost-no-object wartime deployment. One of the target diseases for the new vaccine technology is now in advanced human clinical trials: it's HIV, and by 2031 there's a very high probability that HIV (the causative agent of AIDS) will be going into the cocktail of childhood vaccinations that Christianist preachers like to rail against, along with HPV. If we're really lucky the campaign to develop a genuinely broad-spectrum anti-coronavirus vaccine will give us a cure for most strains of the common cold, with influenza on top. Influenza is a real killer, although we tend to forget about it these days, taking it for granted as endemic. We're going to see a lot of research into antiviral drugs and stuff to do with RAAS/ACE2, which incidentally implies possible curative treatments for Type II diabetes and essential hypertension.

Looking further afield: it seems likely that the end of internal combustion engines will be in sight. Some countries are already scheduling a ban on IC engines to come in after 2030—electric cars are now a maturing technology with clear advantages in every respect except recharge time. Once those IC cars are no longer manufactured, we can expect a very rapid ramp-down of extraction and distribution industries for petrol and diesel fuels, leading to a complete phase-out possibly as early as 2040. As about half of global shipping is engaged in the transport of petrochemicals or coal at this point, this is goin to have impacts far beyond the obvious. Toyota in the UK are proposing to remanufacture EVs up to three times in a decade—probably by replacing/recycling the battery systems—which implies a major disruption both to after-sales service for cars, and to the second hand market. Expect a boom in leasing, including cheap "refurbished" cars with 1-3 previous leasing cycles in their logbook, and a sharp decline in the regular second-hand market and car dealerships.

In space ... well, SpaceX seem likely to fly a prototype Starship stack to orbit in early 2022. Whether or not they go bust the next day, by so doing they will have proven that a designed-for-full-reuse two-stage-to-orbit design with a payload greater than a Saturn V is possible. I don't expect them to go bust: I expect them to make bank. The next decade is going to be absolutely wild in terms of human spaceflight. I'm not predicting a first human landing on Mars in that decade, but I'd be astonished if we don't see a crewed moonbase by 2031—if not an American one, then China is targeting crewed Lunar missions in the 2030s, and could easily bring that forward.

Climate: we're boned. Quite possibly the Antarctic ice shelves will be destablized decades ahead of schedule, leading to gradual but inexorable sea levels rising around the world. This may paradoxically trigger an economic boom in construction—both of coastal defenses and of new inland waterways and ports. But the dismal prospect is that we may begin experiencing so many heat emergencies that we destabilize agriculture. The C3 photosynthesis pathway doesn't work at temperatures over 40 degrees celsius. The C4 pathway is a bit more robust, but not as many crops make use of it. Genetic engineering of hardy, thermotolerant cultivars may buy us some time, but it's not going to help if events like the recent Colorado wildfires become common.

Politics: we're boned there, too. Frightened people are cautious people, and they don't like taking in refugees. We currently see a wave of extreme right-wing demagogues in power in various nations, and increasingly harsh immigration laws all round. I can't help thinking that this is the ruling kleptocracy battening down the hatches and preparing to fend off the inevitable mass migrations they expect when changing sea levels inundate low-lying coastal nations like Bangladesh. The klept built their wealth on iron and coal, then oil: they invested in real estate, inflated asset bubble after asset bubble, drove real estate prices and job security out of reach of anyone aged under 50, and now they'd like to lock in their status by freezing social mobility. The result is a grim dystopia for the young—and by "young" I mean anyone who isn't aged, or born with a trust fund—and denial of the changing climate is a touchstone. The propaganda of the Koch network and the Mercer soft money has corrupted political discourse in the US, and increasingly the west in general. Australia and the UK have their own turbulent billionaires manipulating the political process.

COVID brought this problem to the fore by generating a demand shock and also a labour shortage. It gets little news coverage but we're seeing the biggest wave of labour unrest in the USA since the 1930s. In the UK it's muted because the economy also took a battering from Brexit—an estimated 6% contraction since 2020—which COVID provides a convenient scapegoat for. But eventually the bills will come due. We may be entering a pre-revolutionary situation, or the ramp-up to a dictatorial clampdown (the latter is clearly in an advanced stage in both China and Russia). By 2031 it's likely to be resolved in one direction or another; I can only hope, with a minimum of bloodshed.

But this is all predictable. (Except for COVID19 which was wide-screen WTFery, like the second world war—September 1st 1939 was not in fact predictable from September 1st 1929, for example: all that was predictable was that another European war would sooner or later see France and Germany at loggerheads.)

What are the unpredictables of the past couple of years? Not the big stuff like a global pandemic, but the utter WTFery that would give texture to an SF story set ten years out? Here are some recent headlines, just by way of a baseline:

  • Counterfeit Kamov Helicopter Ring Busted: Moldovan police last week shut down a factory in Cruileni allegedly making unauthorized copies of Russian Kamov-26 coaxial rotor utility helicopters. More than 10 helicopters were under assembly in the covert factory when it was raided on June 30. (Charlie notes: yup, the Transnistrian mafia were involved.)

  • Man Upset That Hackers Stole His Bored Ape NFTs: Hackers tricked a man who was selling three NFT images of apes into giving them up for free on Saturday, according to the man, who claimed that the stolen NFTs were worth "over a million dollars." Alternative headline: Everybody loves unregulated derivatives markets until their imaginary wallet full of monkey jpegs gets stolen. (None of this would have made any sense to anyone in 2011)

  • Quantum bible changes: fundamentalists remember reading something in the King James Version, when they try to look it up it isn't there, so obviously something something quantum indeterminacy something woo woo Satan edited the Bible under us!!! because oh I give up. If you thought fundamentalist Christianity was feco-chiropteroid crazy, wait until you see what fundamentalists do when they misunderstand the Many Worlds hypothesis. See also the Mandela effect. As RationalWiki comments, with masterful understatement, "Mainstream, peer-reviewed publications have not explored the Mandela effect, and the claim that some false memories are caused by parallel dimensions going berserk is, shall we say, difficult to falsify."

Anyway, I hope you now understand why I do not believe in 2022: it's only January and it's already too silly for my willing suspension of disbelief.

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wmorrell
6 days ago
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denubis
8 days ago
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brennen
8 days ago
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Highlights:

"we're boned" x2.

"Genetic engineering of hardy, thermotolerant cultivars may buy us some time, but it's not going to help if events like the recent Colorado wildfires become common."

"Everybody loves unregulated derivatives markets until their imaginary wallet full of monkey jpegs gets stolen."
Boulder, CO

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wmorrell
50 days ago
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fxer
50 days ago
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Shy Guy’s can’t read
Bend, Oregon
jhamill
50 days ago
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Haha
California

In Which Bertrand Russell Asks Out a Girl

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Frege:
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wmorrell
90 days ago
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"It's probably not worth the risk."
denubis
91 days ago
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DNA Lounge: Wherein we have some nice press on our vaccination policy.

jwz
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Charles Lewis III writes in The Chronicle:

How to have fun in S.F. during COVID without behaving like you're in Florida:

That was until two weeks ago, when I attended Cyberdelia, the DNA Lounge's annual screening of the '90s cult flick "Hackers." I considered it a measured risk. Since the start of the pandemic, both the San Francisco club and owner Jamie Zawinski have been overly cautious about the safety of their clientele.[...] DNA Lounge now has some of the strongest vaccination and mask requirements of any private business in the country -- requiring a physical vaccination card, not an easily manipulated photo.

Little did I know that San Francisco Mayor London Breed had spent the previous night on Sept. 15 having a mask-free, close-quarters good time at the Black Cat in the Tenderloin. Given that her health officer set the city's mask policy, people were understandably pissed to see her not following it. Confronted with her hypocrisy, she took a hard-line stance against the "fun police" and their silly idea that someone who sets policy is subject to it.

That's the kind of reaction we'd expect from the governors of Texas or Florida, not the mayor of San Francisco.

How the hell can we expect people to respect COVID safety protocols when those who set the rules are the ones who refuse to follow them? Mandates may change but mask wearing is going to be with us for a while. We can't expect all businesses, schools or other venues to be like the DNA Lounge, which decided not to wait for city or state guidance to issue its own mask and vaccination requirements. [...]

Unbeknownst to me, San Francisco writer Violet Blue was also at Cyberdelia, and she wrote about the immeasurable comfort and joy of knowing you're safe around people who all had to meet those same requirements you did.

We all deserve that. For someone in a public position of power and influence to skirt those rules means they think they're better than the very people they're meant to serve.

Relatedly, someone complained to SFDPH about our vaccination policies, and a couple days ago they emailed us saying, "The Health Order provides a number of options for patrons to use to show proof of vaccination, but our understanding is that your policy does not include all of them."

Yeah, that's right, because that Health Order says that taking a photo of someone else's vaccination card and scribbling your name and birthday on it in Comic Sans counts as proof of vaccination.

Or, as one of our managers more politely replied to them,

We require a physical vaccination card or a verifiable QR code, in conjunction with a valid government ID in order to enter our venue at this time. [...] We feel that, given the inherent risks involved in the prolonged indoor exposure at night clubs and bars, anything less than our current policy would be the same as just allowing unvaccinated patrons inside.

I am, however, glad that you reached out, because I am particularly concerned about the absolute lack of vaccination verification occurring at other bars in San Francisco at the moment. As I'm sure you're aware if you've been out anywhere, it appears that nobody is even scanning QR codes, let alone actually verifying cards (or photos of cards) against physical IDs. If you have the time to pursue individual business' enforcement policies I would encourage you to look into it. I know we're all invested in limiting the spread of Covid and the vaccination requirement sure is pointless if it's not actually being enforced.

You will be unsurprised to learn that DPH's reply did not address that second paragraph.

Readers, I'd love to know what your experience been with vaccination checks, or lack thereof, at other venues in town. And whether what they're doing made you feel more safe, or less. More likely to return, or less. Reply in the comments!

Here, I'll start:

At the Folsom Street Fair last weekend, here's how it went at the 11th and Harrison gate: I pulled up my CA DPH QR code on my phone and showed it to the person doing the check. They looked at for less than a second, from about 5 feet away, and waved me through. Not only were they too far away to even see what I was showing them on my phone, they didn't ask for ID to see if it was my vaccination in the first place!

I'm told that at other gates, there were effectively two lines: one for people voluntarily going through this security theatre, and another for the people who just barreled through unchallenged.

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wmorrell
105 days ago
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Same when I've been out in SF. They see the CA DPH logo and a big QR code, don't scan it, don't check the name, and don't validate that the name matches photo ID. They want to glance at it though.
acdha
106 days ago
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Reminder that not being a red state is not synonymous with having done a good job. A virus doesn’t grade on a curve.
Washington, DC
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mkalus
107 days ago
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I’ve been to places twice now that require vaccination proof as well. In neither case did they scan the QR code, just looked at it.

Dunno. Maybe all servers are cyborgs with a built in QR scanner, but that’s just very low effort. Security Theatre if you will.
iPhone: 49.287476,-123.142136

5 News Items: Podcast, Online Teaching, Gene Wolfe, Audiobooks, & Perhaps the Stars

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Hello, friends – I have a proper essay underway, but short-term I have a five pieces of exciting news:

  1. My new podcast,
  2. An online history course I’ll be teaching this fall through U Chicago’s Graham school, which isn’t free but can be taken by anyone from anywhere.
  3. My Introductions to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun,
  4. A new Terra Ignota audiobook series is coming soon from Graphic Audio
  5. The approaching publication of Perhaps the Stars, the fourth and final volume of Terra Ignota.

First I have a podcast now!

It’s called Ex Urbe Ad Astra

Partnering with my good friend and fellow author & history lover Jo Walton (more on her below), we interview fellow writers, historians, researchers, editors, and other friends, talking about the craft of writing, history, food, gelato, and other nifty topics, with some episodes of just me and Jo having the kinds of intense writing or history discussions we enjoy. You can listen for free on Libsyn, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, and on YouTube.  Those who support me on Patreon get new episodes early (and new ExUrbe posts early too.) 

Sample Episode: Speculative Resistance with Malka Older

The episodes in this first season are modeled on the kinds of panel discussions one has at science fiction conventions, and are long (an hour plus), and since our interviewees are all so interesting! Episodes of this season will come out monthly, with occasional bonus episodes, those are the ones with just me and Jo.

For those who aren’t familiar, Jo Walton is a voracious reader in a huge number of genres with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of genre literature, as well as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of more than a dozen novels including Among Othersand an F&SF critic, author of What Makes This Book So Great and An Informal History of the Hugos. Jo and I travel a lot together when I go to Europe for research, and we’ve had such wonderful conversations over the years connecting dots between our shared interests in history and the writer’s craft that we wanted to share such discussions for more people to enjoy.

Interviewees in the first season (to give a sense of the range) include Malka Older, political scientist and author of Infomocracy, Jonathan Sneed, a Mars astrogeologist & astrobiologist, Ruthanna Emrys, a city/state planning & politics expert and author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, Mary Anne Mohanraj a wonderful writer friend and creator of Sri Lankan cookbooks, Max Gladstone, author of The Craft Sequence and a favorite friend to discuss the craft of writing with, David M. Perry, journalist, activist, and Medieval historian, Emily Cambias, game writer & editor/writer for Cricket, the children’s magazine company, and another writer friend Naomi Kritzer, author of Cat Fishing on CatNet.

Second, I’m Teaching an Open-to-All Online History Course This Fall!

I’ve long wanted to find a way to open up my teaching beyond the university, so through U Chicago’s Graham School continuing education program, and taking advantage of the Zoom skills we’ve all developed this year, I’m teaching an online course this fall on Saturdays, 10 AM to 12:30 PM Central Time, called FFAC10100 Monks to Voltaire: European Intellectual Transformations 1200-1750. It’s a version of a course I’ve taught for undergrads which starts with late Medieval thought and looks at four successive major revolutions in European ideas, scholasticism, then Renaissance “humanism,” then the 17th century’s “new philosophy” or “scientific revolution”, then the Enlightenment, presenting them in continuity and showing how they didn’t replace each other (as summaries often make it seem), but rather joined each other, continuing to thrive side-by-side. I’m aiming at a variant on a “flipped” model of a course, in which I will share the lectures as text transcripts people can read, and then the class sessions can be entirely Q&A digging in more intensively. If you’re interested, anyone can register for it, and you can learn more at the discussion I’m going to have about it with the Graham School staff on August 24th, which you can register for here: Conversations @Graham, August 24 | UChicago Graham

Third, My Introductions to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun

Tor invited me to write introductions for the new Tor Essentials editions of Gene Wolfe’s four book Book of the New Sun, collected into two volumes, Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel. It’s hard to express how formative these books were for me, staggeringly brilliant and ambitious SF which showed me how high I could aim, how deep world building can reach, and how complex a narrator can be. I haven’t felt nearly so nervous and impostor syndromy about a project in a long time as sitting down to write about these books, so seminal both for the history of science fiction and for me, but I’m really happy with the resulting essays, so if you’d like to read or reread (these are books designed for rereading!) some incredible SF with a little bit of my guidance, I can’t recommend them enough, especially to anyone who enjoys Terra Ignota.

Speaking of which…

Fourth, a new Terra Ignota audiobook series is coming from Graphic Audio

I’m extremely excited for this project, now up for pre-order. I’m planning to do a blog post about them soon, but while the Recorded Books audiobooks have a single actor, these are a cast recording, with many different performers playing the different roles, and it’s amazing how different that is in terms of things it can achieve. At my suggestion we’re trying a somewhat radical experiment, so the recording begins a note from Gordian saying the performances have been made in line with Gordian’s recommended genderblind casting practices, and then the casting of the parts is largely unrelated to the gender of the performers, so voices of all kinds are playing characters of all kinds, letting performers who never usually get to do a booming-voiced old man or a delicate child exercise those parts of their ranges, and adding an amazing additional layer to the book’s complexly-worked gender confusion, layering on top of how Mycroft’s use of pronouns often doesn’t match physical descriptions of bodies, and now it won’t match voices either, further encouraging the listener to question all Mycroft’s gendered language and to examine even more how perceived gender affects the way we judge or react to different characters. I’m also especially excited that, against this backdrop of intended ambiguity, the amazing casting director Alejandro Ruiz met my requests to be careful about representation, and found brilliant trans woman Kay Eluvian to play Carlyle Foster, and a nonbinary performer, Taylor Coan, to do Sniper.

Alejandro and I are also both excited about how diverse the cast is in terms of race and nationality, even with a performer from Mumbai to play Bryar Kosala, and we’re doing some double-casting, giving multiple roles to the same performers to encourage the listener to think about and compare them (Ganymede & Danae for example), creating intertextual links between different characters, modeled on the way the inestimable Jane Howell did it in her direction of her Henry VI sequence for the BBC Shakespeare project, my very favorite work on film. These recordings will be slightly abridged, as Graphic Audio usually does, adding some music and special effects and cutting things like “he said” “she said” or some of the descriptions designed to remind readers of who characters are or where they’re from since hearing a Mumbai accent will by itself achieve the same information reminder.  It’s been an absolute thrill working on the productions, and I couldn’t be more excited for the new layers they’re adding to what the books are already aiming at in creating a truly global-feeling cast of characters, and stimulating questioning and introspection about gender.

Fifth and last, the publication of Perhaps the Stars is finally close!

The fourth and final volume of Terra Ignota comes out October 19th, and it’s really for sure this time, it has a cover, and the final most finalest final page proofs are done, and all the Latin and Greek and other special characters are taken care of, everything! It’s up for pre-order on Bookshop.org and Amazon and Barnes & Noble and at all sorts of local indie bookstores (please support them if you can!). It may not feel like news that a book which has been planned for months to come out in October is actually coming out in October, but it’s hard to articulate how many invisible steps there are on the back end, including a somewhat-COVID-related continent-wide shortage of printing press time which is making book printers everywhere struggle for time spots to actually get the physical book made at the factory, pushing a lot of things back to 2022…. but not this thing! I’ll definitely be blogging more about book 4 in the coming months, but short version, there are only 2 chapters in the whole of book 4 which, from a craftsmanship point of view, weren’t harder than the hardest chapter in any of the earlier three books, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone!

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acdha
151 days ago
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Neat podcast so far
Washington, DC
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2021 Django Developers Survey

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The 2021 Django Developers Survey is now live. Please take a moment to fill it out. The survey sheds light on how different developers use Django and the related tools and technologies. After the survey is over, the aggregated results and anonymized raw data will be published.

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wmorrell
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