« August 2002 | Main | October 2002 »

September 29, 2002


All right! One of my books for 2002 is now out: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe (my other book for 2002, The Rough Guide to the Universe, now looks like it's going to be released in 2003. Which is good -- too much product released at the same time is no good, especially when both books have the word "Universe" in the title). Of course, I advise you all to run out and buy this book as soon as possible -- if you can't wait to get to a bookstore or are otherwise incapacitated (you're being held down by stoats, say), then head on over to Amazon.com. I'm all about facilitating purchases.

The Uncle John books, if you're not familiar with the series, are compilations of short articles (sized just right for light bathroom reading, hence the title); this particular one has a science theme -- not just astronomy, but also health and earth sciences. I should note for the sake of clarity that I am not the "Uncle John" of the title: Indeed, technically, this is not my book at all. I am but a mere contributor. However, I wrote 40 articles in the book, which by page count is about a quarter of its total, and I think what I've written is pretty interesting. And I have very high regard for the Uncle John's folks, so even if I hadn't written a fair chunk of this book, I'd want you to go out and buy it anyway.

So what did I write about? Here is a sampling of the titles of articles I wrote for this one:

*Cool Astronomical Terms to Make Friends and Impress People
*Read a Weather Map Like a Pro
*How to Make a Black Hole
*"You Think I'm Mad, Don't You?" (Mad scientist movies)
*The Body's Second String (Little-known organs and systems)
*Big Moments in Forensics
*10 SF Books Even Nongeeks Would Love

And there are 33 others spread around the book. No, I'm not going to tell you which ones they are. I want you to guess.

In fact, let's make this a contest. Go out and buy Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe (or, if you're cheap and can weather annoyed bookstore staff, thumb through it at the store) and then send me the list of articles you think I wrote. The person who gets the most correct will win a John Scalzi Multimedia Gift Pack, which includes an autographed copy of The Rough Guide to the Universe (which is solely written by yours truly), an autographed copy of The Rough Guide to Money Online (a classic of the online money management genre!) a personally-burned CD compilation of Musicforheadphones plus extra tracks, and an electronic copy of Old Man's War, the novel I'm currently shopping around. It's a fabulous gift pack with a street value of, oh, I don't know, $28 or thereabouts. The winner will get it sent whenever it is I get my author copies of Rough Guide to the Universe.

The rules: First, you have to send your list of guesses to me by December 31, 2002. Second, put "Universe Article Guesses" as your e-mail subject header, so I can filter them to a special mailbox and keep track of them. Third, if you were on the list of readers that I sent the Uncle John articles to while I was writing them, obviously you're not eligible (and if you are one of these people, don't tell anyone the titles of the articles; that's just not fair). In the event of a tie, I'll pick a winner by flipping a coin or whatever. No purchase necessary, but you'll look fairly cheap if you don't.

To give you a taste of the tone of the articles in the book, all this week I'll be posting articles that I wrote for Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe but which didn't make the final cut for whatever reason (4 didn't make it; 40 did. I have no complaints). The first one is below. I'll post another on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday (after which I'll be out for a few days while I travel). So enjoy, and good luck with the contest.


You Smell Great!

Thinking about getting that pheromone-laden cologne? Hold that thought.

There's a new special ingredient to cologne these days: Pheromones -- chemicals your body secretes, or so you're being told, that can help you attract the sort of hot mate that will get all slobbery with little or no prompting (or even noticeable social skill) on your part. And you think to yourself Finally. That whole flowers-and-chocolate-and-pretending-to-be-
interested-in-the-conversation thing was killing me. And off you go, to buy your pheromone cologne and let the chemicals do the talking for you. Well, before you pull out your credit card, let's have a quick reality check about pheromones, humans, and you.

First off: Yes, pheromones really do exist, and they are chemicals that living things give off, not unlike a scent, in order to communicate with other members of their species. These pheromone communications are all over the board: Ants and termites, for example, will use pheromones to lay down a trail that other ants and termites can follow. Queen bees use pheromones to signal bee pupae that they're going to be worker bees and not queens themselves. Wounded minnows will release pheromones to alert the rest of the school of fish to danger, a sort of fish version of the wounded soldier who says arrrrgh, I've been shot, go on without me.

However, many species use pheromones specifically to attract sexual partners. Insects are famous for this: Certain species of moths are so sensitive to a female moths' pheromones that just a couple of molecules of it can get them running (well, flying. You know what we mean). Male wild boars have a pheromone that will actually cause a female of the breed to lock her hind legs into a sexually receptive position: No flowers-and-chocolate routine needed there. Even non-animals get into the act: Fungi, slime molds and algae all use pheromones to makes themselves super-sexy to other fungi, slime molds and algae. It's not love, the fungi/slime mold/algae says to its excited new friend. It's just pheromones.

So there you have it: Pheromones = instant sex appeal, right? Sure, if you're a slime mold. But it's never been proven that humans use pheromones to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. In fact, until 1998, it wasn't even clear that humans were receptive to pheromones at all. There were several reasons for this, not the least of which was that the organ used by many animals to receive pheromone signals -- a thing called the vomeronasal organ -- is all but non-existent in humans. What small vomeronasal organs we have are tiny notches tucked away in our noses, and it's not at all clear that they're connected to anything.

What changed that was a study performed at the University of Chicago by researchers Martha K. McClintock and Kathleen Stern. While an undergraduate at the U of C in the early 70s, McClintock noted that the menstrual cycles of the women in her dormitory eventually synced up (it is, by the way, very typical U of C undergraduate behavior to notice this sort of thing), and suspected pheromones might have something to do with it. To check this, she collected sweat samples from nine women (by having them wear gauze in their armpits), and noted where in their menstrual cycle those women were. Then she took those sweat samples and daubed them under the noses of 20 other women. Yes, yes, total icks-ville. Science is not for the squeamish.

What she found was that the women who sniffed the sweat had their menstrual cycles noticeably lengthened or shortened, depending on what sweat they were sniffing. Sweat from women early in their cycle caused the sniffers to shorten their own cycles, while sweat from women later in their cycle had an opposite effect. There you had it: The first strong indication that humans can and do pay attention to pheromones. McClintock's study left open many questions, such as how exactly the pheromones did their signaling, or even whether pheromones would work on other people who weren't actively sniffing sweaty gauze. But those are details to be worked out.

There are some indications that humans use pheromones (or something very much like them) in helping to determine mates -- in other studies, women appear to be attracted to the smell of men who have immune systems that are different from their own (this study involved women sniffing sweaty shirts). But again, it's important to note that so far, there's no conclusive study that specifically identifies a human pheromone that actually makes one sex more attractive to the other sex (or one sex attractive to the same sex, if you want to go that direction).

What does this mean for your pheromone-laced cologne? Basically that it's a waste of money. The only thing we're reasonably certain human pheromones do is manipulate the menstrual cycle, and generally speaking, that's not something you really want to fiddle with, for everyone's piece of mind. Your best course of action at this point is to stick with your current cologne and try to brush up on your social skills. Hey, people have been finding love the old-fashioned way for millennial, without the use of pheromones (so far as they knew). It could work for you too. Flowers and chocolate can't hurt either.

Posted by john at 09:04 PM | Comments (0)

September 26, 2002


Here's an interesting question for you: Considering that the music industry essentially dictates the shape of the youth culture, how can it be so thickheadedly clueless about talking to teens about file sharing? The latest music industry salvo in this direction is a Web site called MusicUnited.org, which is designed to bring home the point that nearly all file sharing is illegal and wrong. Let's take a moment and discuss all the ways that this site is going to fail miserably.

1. It's not a cool site. It's not cool in its intent, of course, since its intent is to keep kids from doing something they want to do, which is to share files with each other. But you can get past that if you can get your message across. The site totally screws this up right from the beginning: One of the headlines on the front page says of file sharing: "It’s illegal and it’s a drag!"

A drag? I mean, good Lord. I'm 33 and I winced when I saw that. It immediately calls to mind your junior high health teacher trying to use hep slang to tell you about why drugs are bad. The worst thing an adult can ever do when speaking to "the kids" is try to use current slang and fail (the second worse thing is to use it and use it correctly, and yet still sound like you have no clue). The site immediately sets itself up to be mocked purely on the basis of how it presents its message, which means the message won't even get considered.

2. The site threatens. Despite the nice (but too conservatively-designed) graphic design, the textual tone of the site is one of distinct and total menace. Every bit of text reinforces ominously that file sharing is illegal (and wrong), and that there are severe penalties if you're caught: The site's favorite bit of trivia in this respect is the maximum penalty for copyright violations, which is five years in the stony lonesome and a $250,000 fine. "Don’t you have a better way to spend five years and $250,000?" asks the site.

Please. The minute the music industry actually ever pressed for the maximum sentence for copyright violations to be imposed on an actual teenager is the minute the shit really hits the fan. No one in their right mind believes that the penalty for a college student downloading the White Stripes album from Kazaa should be half a decade of prison rape and being traded in the exercise yard for a carton of Kools. If the RIAA actually pressed for this for a single casual downloader of music, the backlash of public opinion would destroy the music industry. They know it, and more importantly the kids know it, too. Waving around a big threat stick when you have no ability to use it makes you look sad, desperate and weak, which is certainly no way to get a teenager to listen to you.

3. The site romanticizes file-sharing. The music industry is using the same style of rhetoric against file-sharing as responsible adults used against drug use in the 60s and 70s, during which time, you'll recall, the kids made drug use pretty much the cornerstone of youth culture. Because anything that really pisses off the grownups is worth doing more than once.

Now, this is not going to be an exact analogy, and thank God for that, since the last thing the world needs is a Cheech & Chong-like pair of wacky file sharers making movies about ripping off the music industry. But it's good enough, and is certainly more than enough to make the kids feel that by downloading Vanessa Carelton, they're striking a blow against the Man, or whatever it is the kids are calling "the Man" these days.

The site additionally compromises its position by featuring an area that details the civil and criminal penalties parents can face when teens download files, thereby informing the kids that here is yet another way that they can get back at their parents for having birthed them and forcing them to grow up in suburbia. Good move.

4. The site picks the wrong musicians to plead its case. On the site and in a newspaper ad that runs today, the music industry hauled out the stars to make its point, featuring quotes by Britney Spears, Nelly, Dixie Chicks and (wait for it) Luciano Pavarotti. This is supposed to reflect the depth of diversity of the musicians want you not to share files. The problem is, each of these artists is a multi-platinum artist whose net worth is in the millions. Britney Spears is worth over $100 million personally, as she noted recently in a People interview. The kids are not going to be sympathetic to a bunch of millionaires complaining they money is being taken from them. I know this because I'm not sympathetic to them.

The sort of musicians who should be highlighted in a campaign like this are the ones who actually will get hurt by file sharing: New musicians, musicians with smaller followings, musicians who aren't already millionaires. The Web site features a couple of these, hidden so far down that their quotes are buried. But you tell me, which of these quotes is more compelling to you?

"Would you go into a CD store and steal a CD? It’s the same thing, people going into the computers and logging on and stealing our music. It’s the exact same thing, so why do it?" -- Britney Spears


"I live with my drummer and guitarist and we have no money. Our survival is based solely on the purchase of our music. Music is not free. Even the street performer gets a dime in his box." -- James Grundler, Singer/Songwriter, Member of Paloalto.

Personally, I think the "Dude, I'd like to eat" line from a struggling musician carries rather a bit more moral weight than the "Golly, it's like stealing from a CD store!" line from a 20-year-old woman who has more money than she can reasonably expect to spend in a lifetime. If nothing else, the kids who want to be musicians will feel closer to the situation of the guy in Paloalto than to Britney.

The final problem, however, is one that the music industry made for itself, which is widely-held perception that music is both absurdly expensive and that the vast majority of the money that gets paid for a CD goes to everyone but the people who actually make the music. The reason for the perception is that it's true. Why should a kid believe that $18 is a fair price for a CD when he or she can burn one at home for about 50 cents? The economics of record contracts are now common knowledge as well, and when a kid realizes that his or her favorite band can sell millions of CDs and still be in the hole to the record company, there hardly seems to be an incentive to support a system that appears to screw the people who make the music.

The site notes that making an album these days can cost $1 million or more, but this doesn't argue against pirating music, it argues against spending so damn much to make a record. I review indie albums every week on my IndieCrit site, and the sound quality of a sizable percentage of those recordings rivals anything you'll hear from a major label. I can guarantee you those indie artists aren't spending a million making their CDs. They're also not to blame for creating a system of promoting music that requires an outlay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get music added to the playlists of ever-more consolidated radio stations, which play ever-safer music.

I'm not suggesting the kids are striking a blow for artists rights by boycotting the unfair system. That'd be a little much. Most of them just like not having to pay for the music. It's more that they can spend on video games. But it wouldn't hurt if the music industry wasn't perceived as a bloated, vaguely vampiric entity that appears to survive by sucking the life force out of the people who make the music that kids respond to.

If I were the music industry, I'd scrap the MusicUnited.org site and try for something that starts with the assumption that the kids aren't the enemy and have to be threatened, but are actually reasonably intelligent people who might be persuaded to spend money to support their favorite musicians if it could be intelligently explained to them why this is actually a good thing to do. In the meantime, the site is the music industry equivalent of "Just Say No" -- The right message, perhaps, but the utterly wrong way to say it.

Posted by john at 09:08 PM

September 20, 2002

Stinky Cheese

Krissy came home the other night with Who Moved My Cheese? It was pressed onto her at work by one of the managers at her new place of employment, who told her that all new hires were actively encouraged to read it (Here's a clue to the sensible Midwestern frugality of her new place of work: Rather than buying a copy for every new hire, which would cost $20 a pop at list price, they simply lend out the same copy over and over). My understanding is that it's arguably the number one business motivational book on the market. Well, I'm in business, and I prefer to be motivated, so I read it. And now I can say, if this is what people are using to motivate themselves in corporate America today, no wonder the Dow is where it's at. It is, without exception, the stupidest book I have ever read.

The motivational lessons in the book come in the form of a parable, suitable for reading to your three-year-old, about four creatures in a lab-rat maze. Two of them are mice, and two of them are little mice-size humans, and they eat the cheese that's placed in a certain location in the maze. Eventually, the amount of cheese decreases and then disappears. The mice, who noticed the decreasing amounts of cheese, take off through the maze to find more cheese. The little humans, on the other hand, bitch about the loss of cheese and reminisce about the days when cheese was plentiful. Eventually one of the humans gets off his ass and heads out to find more cheese, and in doing so, has a motivational epiphany every few steps, which he feels compelled to scrawl on the walls of the maze.

Eventually he finds more cheese in the maze, as well as the mice, who have grown fat and happy with their new store of food. The little human considers going back for his friend, but then decides that, no, his friend must find his own way through the maze. He leaves his old pal to starve, as that's almost certainly what his dim, stubborn friend does, and feels all shiny and self-important for finding his new cheese.

The entire parable is framed with a conversation between several friends, one of whom is telling the parable, and the rest of whom spend the parable's epilogue wondering how they ever got through their professional and personal lives without hearing about the cheese (an interesting rhetorical cheat, incidentally -- the author is confirming the usefulness of the book by creating characters that are helped by its philosophy, but which don't actually exist in the real world. This is a very Ayn Rand thing to do).

The overall idea of the book is that change is inevitable and if you're smart, when it happens you won't spend much of your time bitching about how you don't like change; instead you'll adapt to the change and get on with your life. The "cheese" represents all the things you've come to rely upon. Well, let me save you 20 bucks and boil the lesson of the book down to exactly five words: Shit Happens. Deal With It.

Also, the book throws in a few other lessons, which are hopefully unintended:

1. Life is a maze that has been laid out without your control or consent. The best you can do is run through it and hope you run into the things that make you happy.

2. You have no control over the things that make you happy -- their quantity and quality are controlled totally by outside forces, with whom you cannot interact, and which have no interest in your needs.

3. The mice in the parable understood that the "cheese" was decreasing but neither informed the little humans nor seemed interested in helping them once the cheese was gone. Mice represent the "other." You cannot trust the "other." Stick to your own kind (alternately, the mice represent management, who know more about the reality of the situation, and the little humans are the rank-and-file, intentionally kept in the dark by management. Either way: Not to be trusted).

4. The one little human found more cheese but decided not to return to help his friend, rationalizing that it was up to his friend to find the way. Moral: Once you've got yours, you don't need to share. It's not your responsibility to share your knowledge with others, even if the cost of sharing that knowledge is trivial and doing so will immeasurably improve their lives (i.e., in this case, keep the other little human from starving to death).

In other words, the formulation of the book posits a world that is confusing and sterile, in which the things that might make us happy all exist outside of ourselves, and in which the ultimate successful qualities are selfishness and paranoia. I wonder how popular this book was at Enron and Global Crossing.

Look, people. If you ever find your "cheese" decreasing, don't run around frantically in a maze, looking for something else to replace it. Simply learn to make cheese. Which is to say, be responsible for creating your own happiness internally instead of relying on something outside of you to provide it, and living in fear that it will go away. This way, when the cosmic forces take away your cheese, you can look up and say, screw you and your stinkin' maze. I'll move when I damn well feel like it.

Even better, you won't have to compete with others for your cheese. Heck, eventually you'll have surplus cheese to give to your friends who might be starving for some. You can teach them to make cheese, too. Give a man a piece of cheese, and he has cheese toast for a day. Teach him how to make cheese, and you've got a life-long fondue party pal.

Mmmm. Fondue. Much better than scampering blindly through a maze. Or paying $20 for a book that condescendingly tells you that's what you should be doing with your life.

Posted by john at 09:13 PM | Comments (1)

September 18, 2002

Bob Greene Redux

Interesting feedback from the Bob Greene thing the other day. Aside from the journalistic schadenfreude of watching Bob Greene fall -- which is considerable, so that's a warning to all of you who wish you had his career up until last weekend -- the largest spate of e-mail I got about it came from 40-plus-year-old men who wanted me to know that they don't like 18-year-old girls. Not at all. My universal response to these fellows was: Good for you. I'm sure your wives are proud.

As it happens, I'm not so keen on 18-year-olds myself; in the grand scheme of things, procuring one today would be more trouble than it's worth. This has nothing to do with their physical charms (about which I'll comment in a minute) and pretty much everything to do with the fact that at the age of 33, the only two things I have in common with the typical 18-year-old girl are that we are both human and speak the same language, plus or minus a couple dozen words of slang. To be terribly male about it, I suppose I could have sex with an 18-year-old if I had to. I just wouldn't enjoy the post-coital conversation very much. So if it's all the same I'll pass. Fortunately for me, there are not great throngs of 18-year-old hotties at my door, licking the window panes to entice me to let them come up for a romp. You can imagine my relief.

Over at Slate, Mickey Kaus begs to differ about my point concerning Greene's encroaching mortality being a consideration for his boinking a teenage woman; Kaus writes:

"Why do men -- like Scalzi here, or Warren Beatty in Shampoo (or whoever wrote Warren Beatty's lines in Shampoo) -- have to explain their desire to have sex with attractive women in terms of a struggle against mortality ("middle-age-death-denying" in Scalzi's words)? You mean they wouldn't have sex with young women if they were in good shape and knew they were going to live to be 300? They didn't want to have sex with young women when they were young themselves? It's sex! Millions of years of evolution have designed men to want it and enjoy it.. It's stupid to try to explain this urge in some highfalutin' literary or spiritual way -- and revealing that even relatively no-BS men like Scalzi (or Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, to name another) feel that they have to."

Let's separate this out. There's the first point, on which Kaus is entirely correct, which is that boinking hot young women is really its own excuse. You all know the drill concerning the genetic and cultural reasons for this, so let's pretend I've made all those points so we can move on. There is the point to be made here that (some) men are turned off by the yawning chasm in life experience between themselves and the average 18-year-old, and therefore prefer the company of women nearer their own age. As I mentioned earlier: Good for them.

On the other hand: Provide a man with the brain of a 45-year-old woman (yes, he'll suddenly become smarter, ha ha ha, thank you very much) and tell him he can put it either into the body of a fit, attractive 45-year-old woman, or into the body of a fit, attractive 18-year-old woman. Let's all not pretend that the 45-year-old body is going to do anything but sit there with a blinking neon "vacancy" sign flashing over its head. In a perfect world (for men) women would hover around age 23 forever (In a perfect world for women, I expect you'd see a lot more variation in age, from a Heath Ledger 22 to a Pierce Brosnan 49, with the median being a Brad Pitt 38).

Still, conceding this point, which I readily do, doesn't mean that middle-age dudes still don't actually see (or at least rationalize) porking the young as a fist in the snout of death. It's not especially highfalutin' to point it out, it's actually pretty sad and common. If you're thinking about death, or how you've squandered your potential in middle management or wherever, you want to do things that make you feel alive. Having sex with young women is the male mid-life crisis version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It doesn't keep you from dying, but at least you get to go to the Magic Kingdom one more time.

Whether this is the particular case with Bob Greene is another matter entirely. As journalist Nancy Nall notes on her site, Greene has had a reputation as a skirt-chaser for a while now, so if these scandalous rumors are true, he's merely pursuing a modus operandi honed over decades (eeeeew). In which case Kaus carries the day. This encounter really is less about middle-aged angst than it is just about making a fast and easy booty call on the Youth of America: Dinner and dessert. Let's hope it was at least an expensive dinner. Taking the girl out to Harold's Chicken Shack before slipping her the drumstick would just be chintzy and sad.


Moving away from the realm of horndog newspaper columnists and the teenage girls they cavort with, let me take a minute to bow down to my own superfabulous wife, who as you may know started a new full-time job on Monday. She was at the job roughly six hours before she got a promotion into another department; the department had an opening, saw her resume and made a (barely) internal hire. This is a testament both to Krissy's fabulousness and her new company's ability to judge talent. I'm pleased because at this rate of ascent, Krissy will be able to support us all on her income alone by about this time next week. Which means I can retire and spend more time on the important things, which are, of course, video games. Yes, I'm aware that this last statement means that if anyone in this relationship is going to be traded away for a new hot and young plaything, it's going to me. It's a risk I'm willing to take.

Posted by john at 09:16 PM | Comments (0)

September 16, 2002

Bob Greene Gets Canned

Header in my Spam box today: "Barnyard animal rapers take it to the extreme!!!" Jesus. Aren't they there already?


Speaking of taking it to the extreme, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene resigned his position over the weekend because someone blabbed to the Tribune (in an anonymous e-mail, no less) that Ol' Bob had a sexual encounter with a teenage girl a decade ago (he would have been in his mid-40s at the time). He had met the girl in connection with his newspaper column. Interestingly enough, it's that last part that seems to be the smoking gun, not that she was a teenage girl and he was a middle-aged guy with what looks like a bad haircut, although all of that looks bad enough. Apparently she was the age of consent, even if she was a teenager (there's a couple of years where those two overlap). But having sex with someone you meet in connection with a story is a no-no.

That Bob Greene would have sex with a teenager while he was huffin' and puffin' away at middle age is not much of a surprise. First off, he's a guy, and if the average 40+ guy gets a chance to boink an 18-year-old without penalty (or in this case, a penalty delayed by several years), he's going to take it. Undoubtedly he'll have a good rationalization (we always do, and Greene, being a writer, probably has a better one than most), but to cut to the chase, he'll do it because she's hot and young, and because during middle age the Veil of Male Self-Deception, even at maximum power, can no longer hide the fact that one day the man will die, and that between now and then, the number of truly hot young women he can have without paying for them is small and getting smaller, fast. So that's reason number one.

Reason number two that it's not at all surprising is that Bob Greene is, by self-appointment, Boomer America's Newspaper Columnist. Well, was. Anyway, as a chronicler of the Boomer Nation observing itself, it was only a matter of time. Boomers have never done anything that wasn't eventually about them; it's the funky never-ending narcissism thing they've got going. No, that doesn't make the Boomers evil -- every generation has its annoying tics (my generation, for example, has a tendency to whine like kicked puppies being shown the boots that will get them in the ribs), and this is the Boomers'. Also, rather unwisely, the Boomers made a fetish of their youth when they were younger -- hey, they were young, what did they know -- and they're not handling the inevitable decrepitude well. Narcissism + Getting Older = Irrational Behavior, often involving younger women in ill-advised trysts. As Boomer America's Newspaper Columnist, how could Greene not do this? He's just staying true to his demographic.

Reason number three is that Bob Greene telegraphed the idea he'd do (or did, depending on the timeline) something like this a decade ago in his perfectly awful novel All Summer Long. The story involves three life-long high-school chums, who when confronted with the stirrings of middle-age do what all newly-middle-aged men do in mediocre quasi-autobiographical fiction written by newly-middle-aged Boomer men: Take a long vacation away from their families and responsibilities to "find themselves" on America's byways. This, of course, often involves extracurricular sex with hot babes. In the case of Bob Greene's obvious stand-in inside the novel (a nationally well-known TV journalist named "Ben"), this means having sex with a graduate student roughly half his age. In real life, Greene diddled with a high school student closer to a third his age, but, speaking as a writer, one always tries to make oneself look better in fiction.

Now, Greene didn't have to follow through on the whole sex-with-a-much-younger woman thing just because he wrote about it. Mystery writers write about killing people all the time; most of them don't actually attempt to follow through. But sex with a younger woman won't kill you (just your career) and anyway let's revisit points one and two here. It wasn't inevitable, but when a guy draws himself a roadmap and hands himself the keys to the car, it's not entirely surprising he ends up in Whoops-I-slept-with-someone-my-daughter's-age-ville, looking for a motel that rents by the hour.

Be all that as it may, I do have to wonder what the problem is here. Greene's sleeping with a teenage woman is gross to think about, but they were both of legal age, and even if she was just barely so, "just barely so," counts as legal. So far as I know, Greene applied no coercion other than his not-especially-dazzling celebrity, and as everyone knows, if a great many celebrities didn't do that (especially the not-especially-dazzling ones, and especially ones, like Greene, who have a face for radio) they wouldn't get any action at all; they're just as lumpy and furtive as the rest of us.

Journalistically speaking, having sex with someone in one of your stories isn't very smart and is definitely suspension-worthy (a nice long "leave of absence" would have been good), but it's not a crime. From what I can tell, Greene even waited until after he had written about the woman to hit her up. The Tribune is labeling it a "breach of trust" between journalist and subject, but if he did in fact wait until after he had written about her (and did not write about her post-boinkage), where is the breach? What I see is simply middle-age-death-denying sex, which God knows is common enough. Unseemly, sad and more than a little creepy, but there are worse things a journalist can do. Hell, it's not plagiarism.

There's probably more here than what we know now, that's my only guess. It's worth noting that the Trib didn't fire Greene; he apparently offered to resign and the resignation was accepted. If I were a corporate suit, I'd've taken the resignation too, since it was an easy way to distance my company from Greene's compromising position.

Also, I think Greene should have been cut as a columnist years ago, not because he's morally tainted, but because he's a boring columnist. He stopped being interesting and started being filler long before he did his questionable after-school activities. From a purely utilitarian point of view, there's no downside to Greene hightailing it out of town, excepting that there will be the painfully rationalized mea culpa six months down the road as part of Greene's inevitable comeback (America loves a reformed sinner).

But based on what we know now, this isn't the way Greene should go out. If he needed to be yanked, he should have been yanked on the merits of his writing (or lack thereof), not because of sex he had a decade ago with a legal adult who apparently gave her consent after she was no longer his journalistic subject. Greene is getting popped on a dubious technicality, and though I would have never imagined I'd say something like this, I think he probably deserves better. Getting canned for being a boring columnist would probably have been harder on the ego, but at least it would have been a reasonable excuse for getting escorted from the building. I won't much miss Greene's columns, but even I wish he could have had a better final act.

Posted by john at 09:19 PM | Comments (1)

September 06, 2002

Blogging Network

People have asked me when I thought that blogging would finally "pay off" -- that is, that it will finally become a viable way for a writer to make money. This question comes coincidentally close to the debut of the Blogging Network, a sort of "United Artists"-model concern in which a number of bloggers have offered up content on a "premium" model. From what I understand, the reader pays $3 a month for access to every blog on the Blogging Network. Half of the money collected goes to support the network itself, and half is distributed to writers, the percentage based on their popularity. Probably the highest-profile blogger to put material up behind the subscription firewall is Bill Quick, who is also a prolific science-fiction writer, and an Internet acquaintance of mine for several years. Former San Jose Mercury News writer and columnist Joanne Jacobs is also on hand and is putting up adaptations of her book in progress. So overall, it's a good time to be thinking about blogging and money.

Let me start with the Blogging Network economic model first before I get to the general concept of bloggers making money. Simply put, I'd be very surprised if the Blogging Network worked to any financially useful extent for the bloggers involved.

Content subscriptions are a risky model online. Bill Quick holds up Salon's 40,000 premium subscribers as proof that people will pay for good content online. However, it's worth remembering that those subscribers comprise between 1% and 2% of Salon's total readership -- meaning that more than 98% of Salon's readership didn't want to pony up the cash. Considering a "successful" blog is one with a few thousand readers (not the couple million Salon has), a similar paid conversion rate would come out to 50 subscribers or so.

This seems consistent with the number of subscribers the network appears to have so far. Blogging Network posts its "annual run rate" -- a public announcement of how much they grossed so far, which at the moment is $1255.80. This is their first month, so running the math, that's 420 subscribers (one of them, in the interest of disclosure, being me). There are 16 bloggers currently participating, so presuming I've run the numbers correctly, if each of them brought an equal number of their readers to the Blogging Network, each of them has managed to convince 26 or 27 readers to convert to the paid model. It's still early, so they'll probably grab a few more. However, the payment for the site is month-to-month, so after the first month, it'll be a matter of keeping the old subscribers as well as gaining new ones.

This is where things will begin to get tricky. Existing bloggers can only convert readers they already have; once they're behind the subscription firewall, the only people who will see their new material are those who have already signed up. Potential readers will have no access to material to see if they like it enough to sign up -- unlike a paper magazine, you can't just thumb through a subscription site (at the very least, you can't thumb through the Blogger Network site, so far as I can see). Readers probably won't sign up for things they can't read. One solution to this is for the blogger to continue his or her free site as a loss leader to convince people to sign up for the premium material -- again, a trick from the Salon playbook. The problem with this is, look where's it's gotten Salon: a 1 to 2 percent conversion rate.

Blogs are by and large a solitary pursuit, so the blogger has increased his or her workload considerably: He or she has to create a free blog which is of sufficiently high frequency and quality to convince readers to convert to the premium material, and then a premium blog of similar frequency and higher content quality to justify a continual $3/month purchase. I would imagine a counter-argument to this might be that the $3/month buys access to several blogs, not just one, so it's not accurate to put all the weight on a particular premium blog.

But as a practical matter I don't see how you can avoid it. If you advertise your product as premium (which you do implicitly by charging for what has been essentially a free resource up to that point), all the content has to meet that higher standard. If a reader perceives that one or two of these "premium" blogs are good stuff but the rest are slack, they're reasonably likely to believe they're not getting their $3 worth. There's also the matter that as far as I understand it, the Blogging Network rewards high page views, which -- presumably -- would be generated by high quality content. Coming or going, the blogger has cut out more work for himself or herself.

There's also the problem with the format of blogs, in terms of justifying their status as paid content. Most blogs are essentially agglomerations of links with short, functional commentary added; one reads the commentary, but it's usually dependent on the link for context; if you don't link, you're missing half (or more) of the story. In this way, blogs represent a new kind of content: Conduit Content, in which the primary idea of the content is to lead to you somewhere else. This is opposed to Destination Content, the much more traditional brand of content, in which the primary idea of the content is to keep you engaged with the material at hand (This site, incidentally, deals primarily in destination content, which is one of the reasons I'm deeply ambivalent about it being called a blog, or me a blogger).

Conduit content is a truly fascinating concept and probably worth study academically, but it doesn't make a compelling case for being paid for. It's fundamentally about the link, not the writing surrounding it, and any idiot can make a link. The very best examples of conduit content, as writing, are not terribly far removed, in terms of utility, from mediocre examples. Many of the best-regarded bloggers (Glenn Reynolds being one, and Bill Quick himself being another) will frequently simply air a link with minimal commentary at best, making that link indistinguishable (as writing) from that of the dittohead blogger who feeds off better-written sites for links in the first place. Indeed, blog indexing sites like Blogdex and Daypop are frequently more compelling as functional blogs than the blogs they track and chart -- not at all unlike how the S&P 500 Index outperforms 90% of living, breathing fund managers. In short, if an automated indexing tool can create a blog that is functionally competitive to a human-created blog, why would one want to pay for a human-created blog?

One way to answer this would be to make the premium blogs destination content, which computers can't yet create (at least, not very well) -- Joanne Jacobs could be thought of as an example of this, since she's offering up adaptations of her book in progress in her Blogging Network blog, and I think it's a fine idea. But here's the catch on that: How many bloggers -- even the good ones -- are actually good writers? And of those, how many are so good that you'd actually want to pay for their work? For the former of these categories, the answer is few, and for the latter the answer is even fewer.

It's not at all a coincidence that many of the most popular bloggers write professionally; despite the egalitarian nature of the Blogoverse, very good writing needs to be developed over time and usually in the presence of an editor or two (writers hate that fact, but there it is). There are indeed "non-pro" bloggers who can and do write compelling and consistent (important when you're thinking of charging) destination content. I'm fond of citing Steven Den Beste, who was an engineer by trade, as an example of this (although he shows no interest in blogging for dollars). But they are thin on the ground relative to the number of bloggers who can't.

This is true even on the Blogging Network, which outside of Bill Quick and Joanne Jacobs appears to be populated by writers whose level of writing quality is no better than the large majority of blogs and online diaries that are available for free. In one sense, this is fine news for Bill and Joanne, since I suspect the lion's share of net proceeds of the Blogger Network will be going to them. But it's not so fine in the sense that the average quality of material on the Network doesn't justify the cost. It certainly doesn't justify $35.88 a year, which is five dollars more than what Salon charges on an annual basis, and more than what I pay for my combined subscriptions to Esquire, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones (which I got as a premium for my Salon subscription). And I don't think the potential financial return will at all justify the amount of effort Quick, Jacobs and others will have to put in to make the Blogging Network function at even a modest level.

In a larger sense I'm not optimistic that blogging will ever be a profitable endeavor in itself. I think it's instructive that the vast majority of professional writers who blog are realistic enough to understand that the value of a blog lies in its promotional value. My high school classmate Josh Marshall is a fine example of this: He's parlayed Talking Points Memo into a reputable advertising platform for himself -- his work there is frequently referenced in the Washington Post and the New York Times -- which he can then use to logroll into a higher profile in the world of political writing. James Lileks has wrung two books out of his Web site and his sizable online audience no doubt appeals to his publisher as a potential book audience.

As a professional writer, I've certainly used this site to build professional relationships: A fair chunk of my income comes from people who found out about me through material on this site. But it's not at all worth the effort to make the site a profit center in itself, if for no other reason than the cost of lost opportunities is substantially higher than the potential income the site could produce. Andrew Sullivan is reputed to have made somewhere in the area of $30,000 off his Web site last year, which is boggling for a personal site offering nothing but writing and links to an Amazon store, so good on him. But relative to the amount a writer of his reputation could have made otherwise, 30 grand is less. Sullivan has his reasons, I'm sure, for choosing the less remunerative route, and bless him for it. But most writers prefer to take the path of least financial resistance.

I also don't think it's a bad thing if blogging, in itself, never becomes a profitable enterprise. The act of blogging (or of writing online in other forms) offers some tremendous advantages for writers and readers that are fundamentally based in its "we're doing it because we love to" nature. Amateur -- in the classical sense of someone who does something out of love -- is not at all a dirty word, and financial success is almost certainly the wrong metric by which to judge the success of blogging as a medium. Blogging may never be profitable, but it is already useful, to some extent it is influential (not as much as bloggers like to think, but more than mainstream media gives it credit for), and in any event it is usually pretty fun. It's worth doing, even if from a dollars-and-cents point of view, it's not worth much.

Posted by john at 09:23 PM | Comments (0)

September 03, 2002

Personal Things

Someone wrote in not long ago to ask me why I haven't written about Athena recently. The short answer is that what with the books and all, I haven't actually been writing about much of anything here, much less Athena. But the other reason is that simply that I haven't much felt like it. As most of you know, while I'm usually pretty personable in this space, I don't really get all that personal -- I try to avoid talking about my neuroses on a constant basis, for example, and as far as any of you know, my wife and I have never had a cross word or misunderstanding. I prefer to keep it that way. I know many of you feel you know me (and in some cases that feeling is actually true), but some things are my own, and not yours, and I have no problem keeping them that way. This isn't a confession booth or a therapy couch, at least not directly. Not every thing needs to be said in public.

In the case of Athena, as she grows older I grow more cognizant that her life is not merely an extension of my own, or just fodder for the space here or with some other writing assignment. Don't get me wrong, I will still blather on about her and about being a dad, and so on and whatnot (especially if there's money involved! Mmmmm...sweet, sweet money). But on the other hand I'm not in a rush to chronicle every last adorable moment or pride-bursting achievement. Others do that, in traditional media and online, and more power to them. I don't intend to do it as often as they. I heartily intend to bore my audience in other ways.

And yet (and of course), I love talking about her, and writing about her. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, one of the great surprises about fatherhood has been how consistently fascinating having a child has been. Before having Athena, I had expected that a kid of mine wouldn't really become interesting until it could actually speak; therefore the first two years of your child's life was something of a waiting game, counting down the time until you could actually engage your spawn in conversation. Like most of my assumptions involving parenthood, this one was spectacularly wrong; Athena was interesting from the get-go, and she gets more interesting as she goes along.

Every parent thinks that, obviously (or should think it, in any event), and the fact that we do makes me wonder where along the way we forget that kids are capable of surprising leaps of, if not intelligence, at least intuition and imagination. It's probably because most of everything before five is kind of a haze. I once interviewed Orson Scott Card, a novelist who has written several novels with incredibly precocious children, and I asked him if he had ever met a child who was as self-possessed as the kids in his books. His response was that children had the same subtlety of thought as adults, they just lacked context and experience. The children he wrote about were exceptional, but in some sense he was simply translating the inner life of children in a way that adults could understand.

In my opinion Card's a little overgenerous in the general sense (he never really did write about anyone but truly exceptional children, the sort that write extended political essays or fight multi-tiered battles with aliens, rather than the kind that like Fruit Roll-Ups and Blue's Clues), but he's correct in the basic premise that children can be sophisticated thinkers rather more often than adults give them credit for being so. Athena has yet to best either her mother or me in a game of logical reasoning, but that's mostly because we have the better part of three decades on her. Like a raptor poking at the fences in Jurassic Park, she's constantly testing for weaknesses and slip-ups, and it's really actually enjoyable watching her try to get one past us. It's only a matter of time before she does.

Mind you, when she doesn't, she's still not above having a tantrum to try to get her way, so she's still very much the three-year-old. These tantrums typically don't work. But hope spring eternal. In the meantime, and as you can see from the picture, she's strong-willed, smart, and sporting a 'tude, and no, I have no idea from where she might get that. I don't expect she's all that different from other children her age, although I wouldn't mind terribly if she were. I wouldn't mind her being an exceptional 'tude-sporter.

In any event, Athena will continue to make her appearances here, and probably on a not-infrequent basis. But I hope you don't mind if I keep some (many) things to myself, between me, her mother and her own little person. Eventually, she'll be old enough to tell you more about herself and her point of view, if she wants to. If she wants to, I think it'll be worth the wait.

Posted by john at 09:27 PM | Comments (0)