Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Revelation Space (The Inhibitor Trilogy Book 1) by [Alastair Reynolds]
Book One of the Inhibitor Trilogy

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks. It’s helped to make tedious tasks more enjoyable, and it has helped me cross A LOT of books off of my to-be-read list. A few of these books have been Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Trilogy. These books have me obsessed.

For those who don’t know, Alastair Reynolds is a prolific science fiction author who studied astrophysics with the European Space Agency. He holds a doctorate in astronomy and his experience shines through in his writing.

He has an incredibly engaging style that he peppers with just the right amount of scientific jargon to make his settings convincing. He also does an amazing job of bringing seemingly disparate story threads together at the end in ways so obvious in retrospect.

I could go on and on about why I like these books. Instead, I want to talk about one thing that Reynolds does very well. Conflict. Or should I call it fluff? You know those fight scenes that drag on too long or the infiltrations that seem a little too contrived? I know I can’t be the only one, which is why I was so happy when Reynolds chose to fade to black for those scenes that another author might instead drag along for a chapter or two.

That’s not to say that these books don’t have fight scenes or are free of violence, but Reynolds seems to know exactly how much of the fight we need to be shown, and much of the violence in the series takes place between starships. Starships so far apart that a commander will not know if their attack was successful for several hours. In a book like this, conflict is best shown through the thoughts and worries of the commanders rather than the minutia that many authors get stuck in.

Fantastic books. 5/5. Go read.

How To Read More Books

Start listening to audiobooks.

There was a time when I looked down on people who liked audiobooks. I ignorantly thought listening to a book was somehow a lesser experience than reading the words on a page. I was so wrong.

I began with a few books that were gifted to me on Audible, and I was a near-immediate convert. I began with a re-read of Dune, and it reignited my love for the series. Then I started listening to the Great Courses, and I’ve found a whole new way to learn that I wasn’t aware of before. It didn’t take me long to get my own audible subscription, and since I have, the benefits have expanded. Not only do I get one credit each month to buy a new book, but I also get access to a whole library of audible books included with my subscription. I’ve searched for certain titles on multiple occasions and found that they were already included with my subscription. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Now, I’m not just recommending Audible because I will financially benefit if you sign up for a free trial. I think it’s a really great service. But I understand if you don’t want to support Amazon by supporting Audible. So for the rest of this post, I will focus on why you should give audiobooks a chance and a few examples of audiobooks I’ve especially enjoyed.

They’re Efficient

I know I’m not the only one who is busy. These days it’s hard for me to find the time to read a 1000 page doorstopper. As much as I love them, I just don’t have the time. Audiobooks have been a lifesaver in this segment of my literary experience. I can download an audiobook and listen to it while driving, while I’m doing chores, even while brushing my teeth in the morning. All the moments in my day where I turn my brain off while my body does something tedious, I listen to audiobooks. It’s allowed me to make those parts of my day infinitely more enjoyable while finally getting to experience the books I’ve always wanted to read.

They’re More Engaging

I tried to read American Gods on several occasions. I really did. I just couldn’t get into it. Then one day, I was browsing and found the full-cast recording of American Gods. Honestly, it was just better than the print version. A good narrator(s) can do so much to change and enhance the experience.

Recommended

Revelation Space – This is another one of those books that I would not have had time to read if I had gotten the text edition. The audiobook was over twenty hours long, and there are at least five books in the series. The narrator, John Lee, does a phenomenal job with voices. Overall the series is a great example of interstellar hard science fiction.

American Gods – This was a book I tried to read on several occasions and never got past the first chapter. For some reason, it just didn’t work. Then I downloaded the full-cast audiobook on a whim, and I blew through it. There are so many little stories inside the larger one, I know some people don’t like Shadow’s extended stay in Michigan, but that was one of my favorite segments of the book.

The Anatomy of Fascism – I often forget that Audible subscriptions come with a library of free audiobooks now. The Anatomy of Fascism, which I wrote about a few months ago, was one of those books. It’s a fascinating analysis of Hitler and Mussolini’s respective brands of fascism.

The Story of Human Language – This is one of the Great Courses offered on Audible, and I heartily recommended it. It’s a fascinating introduction to linguists and what it can tell us about our past.

How to Start Writing

workplace with laptop and opened diary
Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

I am not a published author, but sometimes I write things, and from what people tell me, it’s pretty good. But what I am is a writer. When you pick this hobby, you are also picking a lot of doubt and imposter syndrome, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

A writer is someone who writes. Not some who is published or writes 2000 words per day. Someone who writes. I would love to get paid for this, and I would love to write thousands of words per day and go to conventions and sign copies of my book for people. But none of those things are why I started writing.

I started writing because I love reading, and after reading enough, I realized that I had stories I want to tell. So I grabbed a pencil and a few pieces of paper, and I started writing. That was about fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve written on and off frequently, but life frequently got in the way. That changes a few years ago when I started this blog and committed to getting better. I would like to think I have succeeded so far. I still have a long way to go, but I’m also proud of how far I’ve come.

I would never have been able to get to this point where I actually feel good about my work if I hadn’t picked up a pen and started dumping word vomit onto a page fifteen years ago. Now I’m getting better and more comfortable with sharing my work.

So if you want to start writing, all you need to do is start. Write because you want to and because you have stories to tell. Accept that your writing won’t be perfect, and start writing. You’ll be happier that way. Confidence will come with time.

A Spacers Life (For Me)

Spacers are, in a way, a nation unto themselves. Even with a Bulgarin Drive, journeys between stars take months at best. Away from the rare corridors where local gravity fields align just right they take years.

All this time the spacers are traveling at the speed of light, or faster, within their Bulgarin bubbles. Time passes differently for them, thanks to relativity they age much slower than their planet-bound fellows, and the worlds they return to are often very different from the worlds they left.

These differences have led to spacers developing cultures of their own. Few ever really return home, most sign-on expecting their journey to be a one-way trip, a way of paying their passage to a new world. Others make the conscious decision to leave the society they have known and live the rest of their now extended lives on ships travelling between the stars.

Faced with these long stretches of time, many choose the comfort of a stasis pod when possible, but not every ship has enough space, and at least a few crew members need to be awake at any given time. With all these long periods spent alone, away from companionship and any likelihood of rescue, spacers have learned how to take care of themselves and keep themselves entertained in the vastness of space.

Reading Material

The average ship has thousands of micro floppies loaded with everything from textbooks to the latest smut. Even private ships regularly take on new media at every time they stop. Bulgarin transmitters can only send some much information in a single burst. Spacers get to read the latest from each world they visit, long before the locals at their next destination have ever heard it.

But paper books are expensive. Most media is transmitted of micro floppys or other digital storage media. Spacers (and most locals) choose to use digital books instead, which project the words onto a sheet of transparent plastic.

These devices are surprisingly sophisticated, with buttons that allow the reader to move forward and backward in the book, and to set a limited number of bookmarks.

Spacers are known for their voracious information appetite. Most ships make it a priority to procure more material for their library at every port of call. In this way even privately owned ships serve to keep the disparate segments of humanity connected culturally.

Technical Tools

Space is huge and filled with tech, tech that tends to break from time to time. Portable interface terminals like this one are a spacer’s best friend.

Terminals are small and handheld, able to be clipped onto a belt or other piece of clothing. Each terminal is able to connect to a wide array of machines including satelites, life support systems, reactors, and more through a standard connector. Once plugged in the terminal displays a set of standard metrics like CPU usage, temperature, and error codes. The menu, which can be navigated by the arrow buttons in the bottom left, allow the user to to do a variety of things internally.

These hand terminals even give the user the ability to type custom commands or lines of code, although this is not the most user friendly option. Larger portal terminals with dedicated keyboards and graphic user interfaces are generally preferred for those more complex tasks.

Explorer’s Kit

All ships, no matter what their purpose, carry basic scientific equipment on board including Ultraviolet/Visual Light spectroscopes, mass spectrometers, and nuclear magnetic resonance instruments. Even if it it not their purpose, any ship might encounter unknown environments that they need to evaluate to determine their safety.

A basic spacer’s sample collection kit.

For things that cannot be easily carried back into orbit, spacers often bring handheld units able records local conditions. These units come equipped with a myriad of basic sensors and can be connected to various attachments such as voltage probes. Data collected with these hand-held sensors can be stored and timestamped on microfloppies

A basic handheld sensor package.

For Safety’s Sake

Radiation from distant stars, nuclear weapons, and leaky reactors are a constant danger. Most ships require their crew to wear radiation badges at all times. The badges are painted with specialized chemicals that cycle through colors as the amount of radiation increases. These colors provide a handy guide for spacers trying to quickly assess the safety of their surroundings using a handy guide.

Green = Good

Yellow=Be Careful

Red = Get Out

Black = You’re probably dead already.

The presence of breathable air is also of importance to all spacers. In response to this danger most spacers also carry small atmospheric field tests. The rods inside are chemically treated to change color in the presence of various gases.

I Submitted My Writing!

(And I won a prize)

It’s been a goal of mine for a long time to submit a piece of my writing to something. I did try a flash fiction contest with little luck, but the contest that I’ve really had in mind for the past three years has been an annual writing contest held by the school of humanities at my university.

Every year, students are invited to submit works of poetry, fiction/drama, or non-fiction. There are three potential winners in each category, although the judges reserve the right to not award any prizes in a particular category. Graduate and undergraduate students also compete separately, so in a way, there are actually six winners per category.

Anyway, I’ve been telling myself I would enter this contest ever since I started graduate school here three years ago. Every year so far, I’ve either forgotten, or I’ve felt that I didn’t have anything worthy of submission. This year, however, was different. A friend reminded me about the award, and I set about polishing a pair of short stories that I had been working on for a while (contests are allowed two submissions per category).

So I did it. I polished both stories, and I hit the submit button. Then I spent about three weeks frantically checking my email.

To be honest, I felt that my chances of winning something were pretty good. It still felt great when I got second place. It was amazing.

The past several years I have grown a lot more comfortable with sharing my work. I’ve even gotten to the point where I am honestly proud of my work. Still, it’s great, fantastic even, to have this kind of affirmation.

Anyway, I won second place in Graduate fiction. I was over the moon. The story that won was “Einherjar” it’s the second entry into an anthology that I’m writing titled “Tales from the Golden Fleece Inn.”

I am actually very proud of what I have done with this series so far. By focusing on vignettes, I really feel like I’ve managed to bring these characters to life. Honestly, I have focused more on the banter than the plot, but I am happy with the result.

The moral of this story is to submit. Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there. The more you do it the better it will get.

And if you want to read the story that won second place you can find it here.

Organized Labor and its Lessons for Fiction

For the past several weeks, commentators and labor activists have been waiting to see how the union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama would turn out. We’ve heard for several years about the working conditions inside Amazon facilities, and the pandemic only brought more attention to the situations that warehouse workers have to deal with. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Amazon employees would start to unionize. I also don’t think it was a surprise that this effort was voted down.

Except for a few groups like police unions, I think labor organization can only be a good thing. Wealth inequality is a big problem on both an individual and societal level. Anything that urges people to advocate for their own well-being and community is a good thing. 

​I also think that this outcome carries with it a lot of lessons. Union leaders are already talking about how they intend to change their strategy in the future with a new emphasis on public relations and national-level campaigns instead of local votes and agitation.

I’ve written before about what I believe the purpose of small businesses should be, but as a writer and worldbuilder, I see a lot of lessons to take from this. As much as many “centrists” and commentators on the right like to complain about politics in television and video games, it needs to be remembered that art is inherently political in all its forms. The creator’s beliefs are bound to find their way into the finished product, even if they did not mean to do so when they first started.

I myself prefer to design settings that are roughly analogous to our world’s 19th and 20th centuries, and if they aren’t directly analogous, there is still a heavy influence.

I tend to do this because I have always had a fondness for steampunk and dieselpunk and gunpowder fantasy. Classic sword and sorcery are still fun, but I like to see fantasy tropes played out in a more modern context and to put characters in environments of intense chance. The industrial revolution generated huge amounts of wealth for the upper class, allowed cities to grow, and pushed workers to organize. Old class systems declined in prominence. New ones rose to take their place. Established oligarchs fought to keep their positions while the lower classes fought to bring them down or replace them. And of course, as we see time and time again, every time a Republican is elected to office, common people can be convinced that their oppressors are their friends.

I am especially interested in this right now because it just so happens that labor unions are a major part of my current WIP. In it, the Whalvian Empire is going through a period of political and economic turmoil after its victory over several of its neighbors. My protagonist is put into a position where many in his company town have decided to unionize. He is torn between his desire for safety and stability and his sympathies for his fellow workers. Reading these articles has already given me a lot of new thoughts about what kind of internal conflicts and pressures our fictional characters might have to wrestle with.

What does the public think of unions?

Unions in America are weak. Many of the things we enjoy today are thanks to unions, but public support has fluctuated over the last fifty years. Fewer people are members of a union or know someone is. Negative biases and misconceptions need to be overcome by organizers both among workers and the general public.

Do the workers feel like the union understands their concerns?

One thing that stood out to me in one NYT article was a quote from a Black woman working in Amazon’s warehouse. She said that the union reps tried to connect Black Lives Matter to their labor organizing efforts. This individual said that they did not feel that racism was a concern in their workplace. Obviously, one anecdote does not give us a full picture of what the working environment is like with respect to race. However, effective campaigning relies on figuring out what potential supporters are concerned about and focusing on how that can be addressed. People are much less likely to care about fixing problems that don’t seem relevant to them.

Do workers feel like they have something to gain?

I was glad to see that workers were taking steps to unionize, but I’m was not surprised to see it voted down. There is a lot that could be done to improve the conditions inside Amazon warehouses, but the pay and benefits that come with working with them are superior to those offered by other employers in Alabama.

In the United States, the days of hiring armed Pinkertons to deal with strikers are long gone, but that doesn’t mean workers who attempt to unionize are not putting themselves at risk. There are basically no protections for workers who are working to organize. If those workers feel like they are already better off than their neighbors, then it’s unlikely they will want to put their job security at risk.

Are workers being told the truth about unions?

Employers have a key advantage. They can require employees to sit through “info sessions” about why unions are bad. They can make employees fear for their jobs. And depending on the employee, this may all reinforce preexisting biases.

Does the government protect workers?

In the wake of this defeat, unions are already talking about adopting a new strategy that focuses on high-profile endorsements and a public relations campaign to influence policy creation. I think this is a good choice. There are a lot of misconceptions about unions, and while I support workers unionizing, we as a country really need to do more to establish an acceptable baseline for workers.

But what does this have to do with speculative fiction? Why don’t you get off your soap box?

Okay, fair. I just spilled a lot of ink to share my own thoughts about current events, but that is because it’s a conversation worth having and because an artist’s environment will influence their art.

And it should influence their art. I generally dislike overanalyzing books in search of deeper meaning, but I think the context of the author’s beliefs can still add a lot to a reader’s understanding. I also think that pitting characters against relatable challenges makes the experience more meaningful for the reader.

A world of wizards and mind control and other fantasy elements would make the experience of workers and striking workers very different. But in the end, people just want a few things. They want safety for themselves and their families. They want to be able to put food on the table. And they (should) want to build a better future for their children.

Real-world events lack the allure of fantasy but trying to understand them yields dividends in inspiration. Fiction changes minds and writers have a big role to play in shaping public opinion.

Animals That Should Have Been Domesticated

Creating fictional animals is hard, but there is another way. Instead of inventing your own animals, just use animals that are dead.

And no, I don’t mean the dead cat that you saw run over in the road. I’m talking about the world’s megafauna. The massive animals that once roamed this world and are now long gone. I know I’m not the only one who has ever looked at a picture of one of those beasts and thought “I wish I could pet that.”

When I see one of those pictures I see a lost opportunity. I see a creature that could have lived alongside humans. Horses and dogs and cats are great, I love them. They have their place in fantasy and I don’t think that they can be replaces. At the same time, why create new fantastic creatures when we can draw on Earth’s past? So here are three extinct animals that I think would have been really cool to have as pets.

Ground Sloths

Modern sloths are cool but I am not sure what they could be used for

Listen, I know that sloths seem useless now. Cute, but useless. But I really think that they are capable of great things. Imagine those claws! Imagine that size! I’m not imagining these things as a mount (but they could be) but imagine how useful those claws would be for diggin or pulling our tree stumps, or how the giant sloths could help to carry heavy loads. A traveling merchant with a ground sloth would be really cool.

Saber Tooth Tigers

I wonder if those teeth could be turned into knives…. Photo from Wikipedia

The decline of megafauna is often linked to the spread of humanity because we tend to kill everything. One thing that may have suffered from the decline of megafauna is the the saber tooth tiger that hunted them.

Now I know, a big cat with teeth that big can be scary, but imagine if we befriended them. They were suited to hunting big things, we were (are) suited to hunting everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t need help. Sure, dogs are great, maybe the greatest, but imagine a giant house cat with giant fangs charging towards your enemy. That beats any dog.

Woolly Rhinos

I’m just saying, one of these would be way scarier than a horse.

Everyone loves a rhino. If you’re like me as a child you only got to learn about the rhinoceroses that are native to far off lands. You might also have been upset to learn that we used to have an animal as ubiquitous as the woolly rhino right here in North America.

If bread in sufficient numbers these animals would have been so much better than horses. They come with horns! Just imagine for a second the rohirrim mounted on rhinos charging into ranks of unprepared orcs.

What extinct animals do you wish were still around today? Let me know in the comments!

If you like content like this and want access to exclusive updates make sure you subscribe to my newsletter. Sign up before 4/15/2021 and you’ll be entered in a giveaway. And don’t forget to check out other posts, like my recent review of the Drop Alt.

Five Months with the Drop Alt

There are a lot of mechanical keyboards out there. Many of them are “for gamers,” and you can find a keyboard with that gamer aesthetic for under $100. However, if you start looking for enthusiast keyboards, the prices can quickly get into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Why are these so expensive? It’s really a matter of supply and demand. Enthusiast mechanical keyboards are a niche market. Many designs are either made by small companies or by enthusiasts. Many of these kits also need to be assembled by the user. The selection and soldering of components can take a lot of time, knowledge, and tools. So if you have a few thousand dollars you can pay someone to build it for you.

Luckily, as the hobby gains steam, there are more and more options for people who want to dip their toes in the mechanical keyboard ocean. One of these options is the Drop Alt.

What is the Alt?

The Drop Alt is a hot-swappable mechanical keyboard, which means that the switches can be added and taken away without soldering. They just pop into place. As soon as I learned this, I was sold, I ordered the high-profile version without switches, but a low-profile variant is available as well.

Once I had the board picked out I went with switches. I knew I wanted linear switches, switches that press down without a built in “clicky” sound of a tactile bump. I settled on the Gateron reds. These switches were great, but I eventually swapped them out for Gateron blacks. This was just due to personal preference, I knew by this point that I like linear switches but I wanted a switch with more actuation force. This is the great thing about the board being hot-swappable. If you aren’t sure what kind of switch you like you can try another.

The keycaps I picked out were the the Drop + Matt3o MT3 /dev /tty keycap set.

I picked these out because I liked the color scheme and I have been extremely happy with them. The PBT plastic that they are made of is durable and the keycaps themselves are nicely contoured for comfort during extended writing sessions.

Mods

One thing I knew going into this is that some enthusiasts have complains about the sounds that some of the keys on the Alt make. Most of these issues relate to the stabalizers, the metal bars that help hold larger keys like shift and enter steady. They default stabalizers on the Alt have been known to rattle. Now, this may or may not bother you, but eventually, it started to bother me, and so I decided to make a few modifications.

The first thing I did was lube all of the stabilizers so that they would move more smoothly. I used a small paintbrush and some Teflon grease I keep around for my trombone slide, but many recommended some kind of krytox grease.

Then I did the bandaid mod. This was considerably more annoying to do, so I only did it on the space bar, which was the one that still annoyed me the most when I was done lubing the stabilizers. The bandaid mod is simple. All you do is cut the pads off of a couple of bandaids and place them between the base of the stabilizers and the circuit board to cushion the stabilizer’s impact against the circuit board when you type.

These mods might sound complex, but they really aren’t. I just made them difficult because I did them impulsively and didn’t really think about what my plan was before I started.

Is the Drop Alt Worth Buying?

In my opinion, absolutely. I wanted an excellent keyboard, one that I could customize to my liking and occasionally tinker with. I was not disappointed. If you don’t want to dip your toes into assembling your keyboard, you might be interested in something like the RK61, but I whole heartily recommend the drop alt.

Buy the Alt if you want:

  • To experiment with different types of switches.
  • To customize your typing experience without a soldering iron.
  • To have a quality mechanical keyboard that you will likely enjoy for years to come.
  • To have something that you can both enjoy and occasionally tinker with.

If you go with the high-profile variant I recommend getting some kind of wrist rest as well to enhance your typing experience.

Three Titles that Prove Academics Do Have A Sense of Humor

Even for academics, it’s easy to assume that academic publications and conferences have to be dry, stuffy affairs where everyone pretends not to be bored out of their minds. In many cases, this is true. Fun and passion are thrown to the wayside and replaced with “formality” and “professionalism.” Luckily for us, there exists an elite cadre of academics who try to inject some fun into their work.

Now I realize that some older academics dislike this disregard for decorum, but I think that it’s a good thing. For two reasons.

  1. Fun titles grab a reader’s attention.
  2. Many people pursue advanced degrees out of a passion for the field. There’s no reason that passion can’t be put on display.

So let’s all take a moment to appreciate these three wonderful academic paper titles.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Flow Chemistry

I’ll be straight with you. This is not the only review paper titled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to ___” that you can find. But it is the first one that I have come across. Other papers following this theme include subjects such as virology and particle imaging.

I like this so much because these are all review articles. Articles meant to describe the state-of-the-art and serve as an introduction to the important work being done in a particular field. Someone trying to familiarize themselves with a new field will read these reviews first. And familiarizing yourself with a new field is hard. That’s why I like these titles so much. It’s the equivalent of the authors offering novices in the field a kind reassurance of “DONT PANIC.”

Rocks are heavy: transport costs and Poaleoarchaic quarry behavior in the Great Basin.

I learned about this paper just the other day while listening to Tides of History. In short, rocks are heavy and because their weight influences how they are prepared at the quarry before being taken to their destination. If home is far away, more work will be done on the rocks at the quarry to reduce their weight. It’s a great reminder of how important practical and seemingly mundane concerns have shaped human history.

Will Any Crap We Put On Graphene Increase Its Electrocatalytic Effect?

This article is a perspective. It’s similar to an op-ed in many ways. The authors did collect data to help make their argument, but the article is in many ways an opinion. In this case, their opinions concern graphene.

Graphene is an allotrope of carbon and is a popular thing to study these days. What makes graphene so interesting is its electrical conductivity. By adding other elements to graphene, a process known as doping, scientists can change these conductive properties. Doped graphenes are frequently studied for use as catalysts.

The authors of this paper basically argue that just about any element appears to increase the electrocatalytic efficiency of graphene and that many researchers who publish these results are looking to increase their publication count rather than contribute to their field. In order to make this point, the authors took bird droppings, added them to graphene, and observed an increase in its electrocatalytic effect.

I love this article. You can almost taste how salty the authors are.

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Win A Free Mug

I love coffee. I love mugs. I have far too many mugs. That shouldn’t be a surprise though, writers are basically required to own too many mugs and drink far too much coffee. Coffee is to writers what ants are to anteaters.

To celebrate the sacred bond between writers and their coffee, I have decided to hold a giveaway.

How do you sign up for this giveaway? It’s simple! Just sign up for my newsletter by April 15th. On April 16th, I will select one person on the mailing list at random, and they will receive one of these mugs. Whichever mug they want, in fact.

Just make sure that you remember to check your spam filter for the confirmation email. Only people who are fully signed up for the newsletter will be eligible to win.

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