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April 30, 2003

The Whole Day Off!

Hey, kids! I'm taking the day off because my pal Ted is coming round the house (yes, THAT Ted), and I have to clean up the place and ram through some work before he gets here. Now, now, don't cry. I'll be back tomorrow, I'm sure, with even more pointless and random crap.

See you then --

Posted by john at 07:40 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

April 29, 2003

IndieCrit Review Up

There's a new IndieCrit review up. I dragged myself off my sickbed to write it. If you don't read it, I'll just lay here and moan pathetically.

Ow.

Ow.

Ow.

See?

Posted by john at 05:38 PM | TrackBack

Meet Phlegm Boy

Some of you have asked: If yesterday was picture day, how come there were no pictures of me? After all, I am not notably modest -- anyone who babbles on a site like this enjoys the delusion that people are interested in him. Well, the short answer is that I've been sick the last couple of days, and when I'm sick I tend to look like the very living definition of hell. Nevertheless, to satisfy you people, here I am, in the throes of agony, clutching my binky bear in a sad, sad attempt to eke some comfort out of a virus-laden world. I hope you're all happy now.

Personally, I'd think you'd all rather look at my wife, whose exquisite beauty is enough to block out the fact that she's sitting in the festering stinkhole I call my office. See for yourself:

Okay, that's it for the pictures for a while. I'm wearing out my digital camera (well, its batteries are running low, at least). Leave me to my misery, why don't you.

Posted by john at 02:40 PM | TrackBack

More Book News

Another quick note: The Rough Guide to the Universe now has an official release date: May 12, 2003. Which is two days after my birthday. So send no presents! Just buy the book.

Note the Amazon page to which I am linking says it will be released in July. That's just wrong. And sick.

Also this is a good time to remind one and all I'm still very much looking for suggestions for The Book of the Dumb -- follow this link to get all the details. Tell all your friends and relatives. The more suggestions I have, the less time I will spend in a massive panic trying to come up with stuff. And that's a good thing.

Posted by john at 12:31 PM | TrackBack

iTune This

I love me the iTunes music store, even though I can't access it right now because Steve Jobs has initially limited it to Macs and iPods, and I have a PC and a Creative Nomad Jukebox. But it's the first online music model that's not mired in total stupidity: You pay a buck for a song or ten bucks for an album, and then you're done. Easy. The music you download is portable, which signals that Apple assumes its customers both actually like listening to their music away from their computers, and are smart enough to get around any lame-ass copy protection they might slap on. It also assumes that people will actually pay for the music they like from the bands they admire.

And will they? I think so, especially the older music listeners like myself, who both have the money and like the idea of putting cash into musicians' pockets so they can make more music for us. But even the "kids" will probably do it to a fair extent, with the bands they like. Which is what they've always done anyway. When I was in college, there were two types of music -- music from the bands you liked, whose albums you would actually go out and pay for, and music from everybody else, whose CDs you borrowed from your dormmates to tape that one song you liked for a road mix tape. The mix tape music never would have been bought by you in any era, so as a practical matter, the music industry isn't losing money on that music -- in other words, much of the music being traded now is music that never would have been paid for in any era.

This isn't a defense of file trading, which I do think has cut into the music kids would have purchased legitimately (partially because kids feel the money they spend isn't actually going to artists; partially because kids want their music the way they want it), but a recognition that music industry is largely counting money it never would have had anyway. College kids, like everyone else, will support the bands they like if you give them the opportunity to do it the way they want.

The 99 cent per song idea is also incredibly useful for someone like me who has a long list of bands who have that one song I like but which I have no interest in buying an entire album. I'm at a point in my life where I'm not going to spend $16 or whatever for a single song I know I'm going to like, and 10 or 11 I might not ever listen to again. It's not that I don't have the money, it's just that I don't have the inclination. Thereby there are a large number of bands out there who will currently never see a speck of my cash. Would they (and their labels) like me to shell out $16? Sure they would, but I'm not going to do it. That being the case, they'll be happy with the $1 instead. It's better than nothing.

It's also to the point that for most practical purposes the album -- that is, a collection of songs from a single artist -- is pretty much dead in the water. Aside from what I do for OPM and IndieCrit, I can't tell you the last time I actually pulled out a CD and listened to an album all the way through. Right now my primary recreational music listening mode is the random shuffle on my Winamp player. The last album I thought deserved to be listened to start to finish as a coherent whole is Emmlou Harris' Wrecking Ball, and that came out eight years ago. I'm sure there are other albums since then which deserve a full run-through, but I haven't found them personally.

This degredation of the "album" concept is partially due to the CD format itself, which allows for 74 minutes of music. They heyday of the album was the LP, which could only manage 46 minutes total. It's not too difficult to keep a mood for 46 minutes, but doing the same for an half-hour taxes most musicians' capacity. Also, simply put, some bands are singles bands -- they make great songs, not great albums. I want the song, and I'm willing to pay for it. But if I don't want the album, I won't pay for that just to get a song.

I already have a backlist of bands who have single songs I'd love to get, and I'm willing to drop some serious cash to get those songs. I could get them on KaZaa right now, but as I've said, I actually prefer to support the bands I like, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. All I have to do now is wait for the iTunes store to start supporting Windows. Sorry, Steve, I'm not going to buy a Mac and an iPod just to access your store. But when I can access it, I'm going to be a big customer. Count on it.

Posted by john at 10:50 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

April 28, 2003

Picture Day Part 9: Strange Room

And so, we come to the close of picture day here at the Whatever, and I hope you've enjoyed our little photographic excursion. I leave you in what I call The Strangest Room in The House:

The story here is that the previous owner of the house decided he needed a bathroom in the basement. Which is fine, but then I guess he got to thinking: Why stop there? So he built a whole, actual room instead of just a little bathroom. Then his oldest child, who was 14 or so if I can remember correctly, had one of those "I'm 14 Years Old And I Need My Privacy From Everyone and Everything" moments and apparently appropriated the room as her bedroom. One questions why one would want to have a bedroom that doesn't have windows but does have a freestanding toilet. But I guess when you're a 14 year old girl you make do with what you have.

I believe it was also the 14 year old who painted the room in a sort of multicolor spackle motif, which I have been too lazy to remove because, really, like I spend any amount of time in my basement. Right now the room is used primarily as a place to put my drum set, although I suppose if we every really wanted to imprison someone against their will, this would be the room to do it in. Aside from being coercively detained, it's hard too see how they could argue. Heck, they've got a toilet and everything!

Posted by john at 06:02 PM | TrackBack

Picture Day Part 8: Lawn Goes On

Every once in a while I note that I have a fairly big lawn. Here's some perspective on that:

The lawn goes out to the telephone poles you see there in the distance. I'm at one end, and from where I'm standing it's about 500 feet to the nearest of the poles. Bear in mind that this is only the front yard; there's the back yard too (and a side yard). There's also the matter that this isn't the full front yard -- there's a fairly substantial strip of land to the left that you're not seeing. It's a big yard.

The reason you shouldn't construe this as bragging is because all that lawn is a real pain in the ass to mow -- it literally takes several days, unless you want to spend an entire day vibrating up and down on a tractor. Which is not a really great idea.

We got a lot of land because of some boneheaded idea I had that what I really needed was a chunk of earth, that whole "You're not a man unless you have some land" thing that caused America's European forebears to schlep over the ocean and mug the people who were already here. Now I have a bit of land and I wish I had someone else to mow it. Well, to be entirely honest, I do -- Krissy does most of the mowing. But I bet she wishes she had someone to else to mow it.

Too late now. We're here, we've got the yard, we gotta mow. With land comes responsibilities. Let that be a lesson for you.

Posted by john at 04:16 PM | TrackBack

Picture Day Part 7: Woof!

See, now, this is a dog:

By which I mean that you can look Kodi and say to yourself, "I believe this is an animal descended from packs of killers that brought down bears and moose." As opposed to, say, a Shih Tzu, at which you look and say to yourself "This is what happens when you put a mop and a stuffed animal in a room with a Barry White CD." Any grown dog that can fit inside a purse inherently has no dignity. Kodi doesn't have to worry about that.

Now, bear in mind that the picture above has gotten Kodi at a rather photogenic moment, all big and happy looking and appearing as if at any moment she were to rush off and save Timmy from falling down a well. However, it's worth noting that most of the time, she's looking like this:

What's going on here is that that is the door from which Krissy left the house today. And Kodi really loves Krissy. So Kodi will lay by the door for almost all the day, moping that Krissy is gone and she's left in the house with me, who is not particularly interesting to her. Eventually Krissy will come home and the dog will undergo spasms of joy which are frankly embarrassing to behold (I am also happy to see Krissy again, mind you, but I have some restraint).

I once told Krissy that the Best Day Ever for Kodi would be one in which she came back to the house every ten minutes. Krissy notes that Kodi would get just as excited about me when I came back to the house, but that would require actually leaving the house every now and again. There's always a catch.

Posted by john at 02:34 PM | TrackBack

Picture Day Part 6: Road to Nowhere

Jon asks:

"Umm, where's the fence? And the neighbor's house that needs a paint job? How come I can't see the car behind your neighbor's garage with three flats and one wheel taken off? Why aren't you showing us the crowded street with no parking spots available?"

Actually, Jon, in that first picture (the one with the cherry tree), there is a fence, but it's not one that works very well, in the sense of keeping anything out. It's mostly there to prop up raspberry vines and demarcate the edge of my property (or more accurately, the edge of my neighbor's property, since he put it up, long before I got here). As for the neighbors' car, it's better than the piece of crap White Escort I'm still tooling around in (because it simply refuses to die). And as for the street, well, here's the view looking east:

And the corresponding view looking west:

I suppose you could park on the street, but that would cause the two or three cars that go by every hour (and the occasional Amish buggy) to go into the other lane, and I don't think that's very nice, do you?

Posted by john at 01:26 PM | TrackBack

Picture Day Part 5: Bust a Move

Athena, showing the world the "I'm Four Years Old and Mugging for the Camera" dance, which I suspect is taught to every four year old through the magic of educational television:

Bear in mind I have some shots here in which the "cute mugging for the camera" level reaches the level of lethality normally reserved for highly radioactive materials or Carpenters tunes. So be grateful I'm showing some restraint.

Posted by john at 12:52 PM | TrackBack

Picture Day, Part 4: Cats

Here are the cats:

Rex of course has been featured here before (he has his own page on the site, in fact), but this marks the first appearance of Lopsided Cat, who you'll see to the left. Lopsided Cat is so named because his head is always tilted at an angle. The cause for this is medical -- apparently he had an ear infection for a very long time -- but now the ear infection has been cleared up and his head still tilts, so we suspect at this point it's just habit. We got Lopsided Cat because he walked into our yard and started loving up Athena, which is one thing Rex won't do. We suspect he was a neighbor's cat first, because among other things he's missing a couple of things that don't fall off on their own accord. But he was either abandoned or just likes it here better (or still lives with them part-time, which is possible because he's primarily an outdoor cat, and who knows what he's doing out there).

Long-time readers will look at Rex and be surprised at his relative litheness; there was a time when Rex topped 30 pounds, which made him substantially heavier than Athena for much of her life. However, about a year ago, Rex got a tooth infection and dropped quite a bit of weight and has now stabilized at about 10 pounds, which is normal cat weight anyway. Having the tooth infection was no good for Rex, but the end result will probably be that he'll live longer than if he continued his tub 'o' lard ways. Aside from the weight, however, Rex remains the same anti-social, prone-to-random-vomiting feline he's always been. It's good to have some consistency, I suppose, although personally I wish it didn't involve partially digested food.

More pictures coming later in the day. Stay tuned.

Posted by john at 11:57 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Book Pages

A quick deviation from the Picture Day theme:

Here's the page on The Rough Guide to the Universe from Penguin UK. It's already out there, so be sure to buy it if you happen to live there. Buy one for your neighbors, too. They'll like you better then.

Nothing on the Penguin Group (USA) Web site, but here's the page from the Rough Guides site, which include an ordering link for Amazon (both US and UK). So there you have it.

Posted by john at 11:28 AM | TrackBack

Picture Day, Part 3: Another Tree!

Since you were all such good sports about not screaming at the condition of my desk, here's another pretty picture of a tree.

This one's in the front lawn, and I believe it's a crab apple tree -- it eventually provides small hard fruits which I am told are inedible (I haven't confirmed this for myself, nor am I likely to since I am an agricultural coward and will only eat plants I recognize and/or can buy in the store, the reasoning for the latter being that if the plant turns out to be poisonous, there's someone to sue). Anyway, it's still in the process of blooming and really quite lovely, I think. There are lots of bird that make their home in the tree, too. Which the cats enjoy.

Speaking of which, come back around noon, and I'll display the kitties.

Posted by john at 10:53 AM | TrackBack

Picture Day Part 2: Office Horror

Allow me, if you will, to provide you a tour of my desk on this Picture Day.

My filing system, needless to say, is opaque to the novice. Be that as it may, there is method to the madness. Current work is at the top of the pile to the right, closest to the computer and where I sit (you can see the papers for the financial campaign I am working for there right now, underneath which is a book I'm using for research for one my own books, and some CDs for IndieCrit. Less critical work slowly moves to the left towards the end of the desk, where it eventually falls off the desk into a pile. See? Curious yet efficient! Underneath all the papers you'll see my keyboard; to the far left you'll see my guitar. I play each equally well, and the less that is said about that the better.

The nerve center of the Scalzi empire. The little piggies, incidentally, are swag created to promote my first book, The Rough Guide to the Money Online. I am told the little piggies were a big hit at book fairs, although the book, shall we say, was not an extreme success -- something about a book about the Internet coming out when the Internet was imploding. This will not be the case with The Rough Guide to the Universe, however, since the universe is expanding still. Although I wouldn't put it past the universe to start contracting, just to piss me off. On the actual computer tower you'll see a pile of IndieCrit CDs I really need to get to, plus the infamous Chocolate Creme Filled Marshmallow Eggs described in this entry.

Lots of interesting stuff over here. Near the top center you can see the stack of DVDs I've been sent in my capacity as a DVD critic; in the center middle, more CDs, these relating to Official PlayStation Magazine. Various bric-a-brac line the top shelf, including pictures of Athena, little glass sculptures made by my niece and, my pride and joy, a snow globe representing a plague of locusts. Yeah, how many of you have got one of those? Huh?

My desk isn't always like this, incidentally. Usually it's worse.

Posted by john at 09:56 AM | TrackBack

Picture Day!

You lucky, lucky people. Today is picture day, for the following reasons.

1. I just got a new 64MB Smart Card for my digital camera, which means I can take hundreds of pictures without worrying if I'm running out of memory.

2. I just got a Smart Card reader, which means I am no longer a slave to the depressingly slow software Olympus software that came with the camera, and which doesn't work on my XP-OS anyway.

3. It's a pretty day at the Scalzi Compound (as was yesterday, when some of these pictures were taken).

4. I'm really busy today and can't write one of my usual gassy bloviations about the state of the world.

5. It's the end of the month and I haven't yet blown my allotment of bandwidth. So here we go!

So your first photo of the day:

This is a picture of the dwarf cherry tree in the back yard. A weekend ago, there were blooms all over it and it was very pretty, but now it just looks not unlike the Swamp Thing, which is not so bad either. To the left of the picture, you can see a portion of the garden that Krissy and her dad are working on. Inside those little green things are tomatoes; underneath the white strips are infant corn stalks. In both cases, the selective application of plastic is designed to keep the plants inside and underneath warn and happy. Because, really, who among us is not happy, when wrapped in plastic?

More pictures soon -- about every hour or so. Because, you know, it's picture day!

Posted by john at 09:16 AM | TrackBack

April 25, 2003

Strawberry Shortcake and Penny Arcade

People who know I'm a fan of the Penny Arcade site have asked me what I think of the recent controversy there, in which American Greetings, the greeting card company who apparently owns some or all the intellectual rights to the Strawberry Shortcake line of dolls, threatened legal action against Penny Arcade if they didn't take down an image that used the name Strawberry Shortcake to parodize video game developer American McGee's tendency to nick young female literary characters to create creepy, bloody video games. McGee's done it once with Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and will apparently be doing it again with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. In their parody, the Penny Arcade guys had an unfortunate parody choice in that unlike Alice or Dorothy, Strawberry Shortcake is not in the public domain; they probably should have gone with Raggedy Ann and Andy instead.

Bear in mind I'm not a lawyer -- I don't even play one on TV. Be that as it may, the question is whether American Greetings actually has a case here, of if they're just being corporate assholes lashing out at someone who dares to use their copyrighted property for parody purposes with which they don't approve. The first blush is of course that Penny Arcade didn't do anything wrong -- Parody is covered by the First Amendment. However, that coverage is not absolute, and it could be that Penny Arcade has gotten snagged in an interesting loophole, which is that if you use a copyrighted entity to parodize something other than that entity specifically, use of that character for parody is not necessarily covered under the first Amendment.

To which you say: Wha? It's simple: American Greeting's argument here could be that Penny Arcade's image is using the Strawberry Shortcake name to parodize American McGee's tendency to appropriate young female literary characters for his dark and bloody video games, not Strawberry Shortcake herself. Therefore, using Strawberry Shortcake for that purpose is not covered under parody. It's an interesting assertion.

However, I wonder if this line of reasoning, if indeed it is the one American Greetings is using, is as strong as it might appear initially. This line of reasoning works only to the extent that Strawberry Shortcake herself does not fit the rubric that the Penny Arcade is parodizing, namely that Strawberry Shortcake is not a young female literary character. In fact she is, the main character in dozens of books: Strawberry Shortcake: Meet Strawberry Shortcake, Strawberry Shortcake at the Beach, Strawberry Shortcake: The Berry Big Storm, and Happy Halloween, Strawberry Shortcake are just some of the titles in her oeuvre. And in an interesting literary note, in several of these titles, Strawberry Shortcake is either planning or having a party of some sort or another, which makes her activity in the parody (planning a party with her friends) not an atypical activity for her. Although to be fair she's not typically whipping her friend Plum Pudding at those parties. But that's part of what makes it a parody.

If you grant that being the main character of dozens of books does make one a legitimate literary character, I would say that Penny Arcade's use of Strawberry Shortcake is indeed well within the parameters of parody here, because, remember, the boys are parodizing McGee's appropriation of young female literary characters for his video games. If American Greetings wants to argue that she's not a literary character, the evidence is rather against them. Thus are the perils of cross-merchandising.

Note again that I'm not a lawyer, so I may be entirely misreading this. I personally would check this with one of them people with a JD. But I'm personally confident enough about being right here that I'm not especially afraid of posting the offending illustration. In my opinion, the only copyright I need to worry about violating here is Penny Arcade's, since I'm posting it here without their permission or foreknowledge (I got the image from somewhere other than their site). And I'll be happy to reimburse them for its use if they ask.

Posted by john at 09:10 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 24, 2003

X Prime Followup

Mmmmm. Lots of activity here over the last day or so thanks to the "X Prime" posting, which received more than 100 comments (even once you subtract mine) -- almost all of them engaging and interesting. I have good commenters. I'm so proud. It'd be Herculean task to compress all the ideas that are getting bounced about in that thread, so I'm not going to bother with that. But I would like to comment on and expand upon a couple of ideas brought up in the thread.

* At least one person brought up a potential flaw in my "I don't have a problem with X, I have a problem with X' " argument, which is that there are several instances in which it makes perfect sense: For example, "I don't have a problem with circumcised men, I have a problem with circumcision."

This is not a bad point, and requires me to make the following modification, which is that X' has to be an affirmative action willingly entered into by the person performing the action. In our culture, for example, most people who are circumcised don't agree to it themselves, it's chosen for them by someone else, so it doesn't fit. But one does (as another example) choose to register Republican, so that one does.

* A number of people suggested that Santorum's "I don't have a problem with homosexuals, I have a problem with homosexual acts" statement is just a clumsy and rather specific variation of "love the sinner, hate the sin." The implication being that "lts, hts" is a more acceptable argument on several levels. But on purely technical grounds, it doesn't track. By Christian theology, the act of being a sinner fundamentally requires no conscious affirmative act on our part; that's handled by Original Sin. Unless you don't want to love anyone, you have to "love the sinner."

Naturally, this means that the "love the sinner" argument doesn't fit into the X/X' argument, and it leaves you free to love sinners all you want. Now, I understand that that's not exactly how people mean the argument to go, and thereby I'm avoiding the argument on a technicality. But, you know. I didn't make up the sin schema in Christian theology. I'm just telling you what it is.

Anyway, the "love the sinner, hate the sin" argument is somewhat less than compelling for those of us who, by dint of having no religion, likewise dispense of the concept of sin. In my world, there's not a thing that's sinful, although there are a number of things that are immoral, and even more that are simply stupid. However, homosexual acts are in themselves neither.

* Someone asked me about the "is homosexuality a choice or inborn" question, trying to ascertain my views on the matter. My view is, primarily, who cares? No one ever seems to ask if, say, being Republican is a choice, or if people are born with some tendency that expresses itself in our particular culture by signing up for the GOP and clamoring for tax cuts. Maybe someone should.

To be entirely honest about it, my thoughts about the choice/inborn debate have been pretty much limited to the suspicion that the end result of finding a "homosexual gene" would be that a lot of religious conservatives would suddenly find themselves to be perfectly okay with abortion. Aside from this, it's a tiresome and pointless red herring, deflecting from the point that regardless of how people get to being gay, they are gay, and there's not much that's wrong with that.

*The question comes up as to whether creating a new words (like "homophilia") and new definitions for old words (like "homosexual") actually does anything of any semantic use. If instead of saying "I don't have a problem with homosexuals, I have a problem with homosexual acts" you say "I don't have a problem with homophiles, I have a problem with homosexuals" how does that change anything?

Well, for one thing, it's now less ambiguous. Currently "homosexual" has a number of interpretations, and which interpretation you choose makes a difference for how you perceive the sentence (note the length of the comment thread for the previous entry). By parsing out one of the meanings and providing it with a new word, communication now becomes more clear. Obviously, that may not be of benefit to Santorum, or other people who use words ambiguously to give themselves wiggle room. But it is of benefit to those of us trying to figure out what others are really trying to say.

It also has the additional benefit of no longer divorcing "acts" from the people who perform them. One of rather annoying rhetorical things about complaining about "homosexual acts" is that the phrase seems to imply that the action is an object in itself -- for example, that out there in the world there's a disembodied, whirling vortex of male-male fellatio that men somehow (you should pardon this pun) get sucked into. Obviously this is stupid. Homosexual acts are performed by homosexuals. If you have a problem with the act, quite naturally you have a problem with those who perform them.

*People have brought up the "slippery slope" argument Santorum has raised, the gist of which is that if people are able to have gay sex in the privacy of their own home, it's just a hop, skip and jump to bigamy, polygamy, incest, sheep fondling, and so on. These sort of arguments always amuse me, because they offer insight into a fearful world in which the slavering hordes of immorality are poised at the door, wanting to violate innocent children and household pets. It really seems to be that lots of the people who want to hold the line on sodomy laws genuinely believe the rest of us are simply lascivious pigs who hold off boinking our sisters only because the cops have the right to bust in and pry us off her.

It's a messy argument anyway. The path from gay sex to bigamy and polygamy is particularly unclear, since the former is homosexual sex activity, and the latter two are heterosexual marriage structures. But the point of the argument is not to make sense, it's to pile on perceived deviances until the reader or listener's ganglions are misfiring in sweaty, moistened fear. So if it's all the same, I'll pass on getting all worked up about it.

However, I'll personally be willing to make Rick Santorum a deal -- stop getting worked up about homosexuals having sex, and I promise not to sleep with my sister. Heck, I'll even promise not to sleep with my brother, and I'll throw in not sleeping with my parents as a freebie. That's a hell of a deal, Rick. I don't see how you can pass it up.

Posted by john at 09:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 23, 2003

X Prime

"Rick Santorum, the Senate's third-ranked Republican who is under fire from gay-rights groups and Democrats, says he has 'no problem with homosexuality - I have a problem with homosexual acts.'" -- Associated Press

In logical terms, you could write this as "I have no problem with X, I have a problem with X' " in which X is any particular human condition, and X' is the action by which the condition of X is ascertained; indeed, without X', X exists in an unverifiable state if it exists at all, since it is the performance of X' that establishes X definitively. Thereby, in purely practical terms, if you have a problem with X', you must necessarily have a problem with X.

Saying that you have no problems with homosexuals but have a problem with homosexual acts is logically equivalent, for example, to saying that you have no problems with Christians but have a problem with them accepting Christ, or that you have no problems with Republicans but have a problem with them registering as Republicans, or that you have no problem with Marines but have a problem with them enlisting (or receiving commissions in the case of officers). Each X' is an affirmative act of association and identification, without which the identification of X cannot exist.

The way to check this is to determine whether the condition of X can exist without X'. So, to go back to our examples -- can you be a Christian without accepting Christ? Pretty much not. Can you be a Republican without registering as a Republican? Not really. Can you be a Marine without enlisting or being commissioned? Can't do it. In each case it's absolutely possible to manifest an outward appearance of each group -- lead a Christly life, vote Republican, or swagger around saying "Semper Fi" to people -- But until you get baptized, register or enlist/are commissioned, you're not one of the members of these groups. The act matters; thereby, having a problem with the act means you have a problem with the condition because the only way to the condition is the act.

Well, you say, the difference is that in each of the cases mentioned above your X' is a one-time act, while homosexuals do their acts over and over and over again. Couldn't they just do it once and be done with it? Well, from a logical point of view, the occurrences of X' is neither here nor there; it doesn't have to be a one-time thing. The act of hunting confirms the condition of being a hunter; the act of writing confirms the condition of being a writer. People who hunt or write don't do their things just once, either. Also, of course, even those whose X' has an initial and discrete affirmative action may adjudge that the X' requires continual affirmation: A Christian may decide that his acceptance of Christ requires weekly visits to Church.

The other objection I see is one that can be raised by both homosexuals and others who prefer to weasel out of the fact they actually have a problem with homosexuals, and that is the idea that one doesn't have to have homosexual sex in order to be homosexual. But, come on, people. If we're going to make the distinction (and it is a fairly recent semantic distinction, since the word didn't enter the language until 1892), it has to mean something, and what it means is right in the word itself.

Allow me to make the following suggestion to clear up the confusion, if in fact no one's done this before: Let's make concrete this distinction between desiring members of the same sex and actually having sex with them. Let's call the desire for members of one's own sex homophilia, and actually having sex with them homosexuality. Likewise, the desire for members of the opposite sex is heterophilia, while actually having sex with them is heterosexuality.

Let us also note that these are two distinct conditions, since the desire for something is not the same as an action. Everyone is born with a "-philia," but it's acting upon it that makes it a "-sexual." So, one can be a homophile heterosexual (meaning you desire people of your own sex, but you actually have sex with members of the opposite sex), or a homophile homosexual(same sex desires, same sex sex), or even a heterophile homosexual, which probably means you're in prison or a single sex boarding school. Let's also give a shoutout for biphilia and bisexuality -- you love everyone! -- and aphilia and asexuality -- you don't want to be bothered!

This is clarifying in a number of ways, but the most obvious advantage is that it helps pin people down. If "homosexual" simply means having sex with members of your own sex, then people like Santorum can no longer wiggle around saying "I have no problems with homosexuals." He will in fact have to admit he does have problems with homosexuals; the population he has no problem with is in fact the homophiles -- the relatively few ones that are heterosexual or asexual, that is. And that's not at all the same thing.

Santorum and others like him will no longer be able to deny that X is inseparable from X' -- In short, they'll have to admit their own bigotry, even to themselves. And what a refreshing change that will be!

Posted by john at 11:55 AM | TrackBack

What Would Jesus Surf

Before I begin, I should note that as I start this entry, there are exactly 666 comments in the comment threads on the site. That's some irony.

So, I'm wading through my referrer logs, because I'm exactly the sort of geek who does that sort of thing, and I notice that one of the spiders hopping through the site is from "ChristCrawler." This is a new one on me, as well as something that is not, by name, an entirely savory image (Jesus walked, but I don't think Jesus did much crawling) so I follow it back to this page, and read the goal of ChristCrawler, owned and operated by ChristCENTRAL:

"ChristCENTRAL.com focuses on providing the highest-quality search results for our own users and for corporate [users]. It is our goal to provide a unique, powerful way for Christians and non-christians to search the Internet, finding useful information while knowing that we strive to provide and filter all non-christian web sites."

"Provide and filter all non-christian web sites" seems to me to be a rather contradictory statement; typically in regards to the Internet, when one "filters" that means one is actually excluding a site. So you're either providing non-Christian links or not. The site's not very well copy edited, so I'm thinking there may be a word missing here, and the search engine itself isn't up, so it's hard to say what they're doing. But I suspect by its very name, it's meant to be a search site that presents Christian-related links first or exclusively while excluding or demoting non-Christian-related links.

This brings up a couple of interesting points. The first being that I would be interested in seeing the technology that ranks and evaluates a site's Christ level. Current online content filters are of course notoriously bad at this sort of contextual evaluation, so unless there's a human on the backend, checking each site for its presumed Christliness, I don't know how useful such a search will be. I mean, my site has a number of references to Christ, hardly any of them non-complimentary (he's a righteous dude, on any number of levels), but it's pretty emphatically not a Christian site. That'd be a pretty interesting nut for an automated search engine to crack.

The second is, if indeed ChristCrawler excludes "non-Christian" sites, should it really be called a "search engine"? An engine that searches information to determine if it should be excluded should probably be called an "exclude engine" (or, to go back to more common phrasing, a "filter"). No doubt there are millions of Christ-oriented pages out there, but there are billions that aren't, so the majority of search cycles will be spent throwing stuff out.

There are of course a number of Christian search engines out there (here's one, here's another), but they're pretty poor analogues to the Web in general. One boasts a catalog of over 30,000 links, which is nice but a drop in the bucket compared to the general Web.

Which may be how the people who use these sites like it; they've got their own Christ-centered thing and they're not interested in stuff outside of it. Which is fine, although I have to say that doesn't seem very Christ-like to me. I would even go so far as to suggest that the recent wave of Christian cocooning in which some evangelicals have engaged in -- in which they endeavor to live entire lives shielded and isolated from the rest of the world -- is emphatically non-Christian.

Jesus, you'll recall, was not someone who spent a whole lot of time sheltering himself against the unbelievers and the scumbags. He was not even unworldly, to the extent that he recognized there was a world concerned with the issues of men and he knew what they were; Matthew 22, verses 15-22 is a fine example of that. And of course, Jesus hung out with some real unsavory types -- hookers, thieves and so forth. Jesus was engaged in the world of his time, including and especially the parts of it that some Christians today wall themselves off from.

Jesus was not exclusionary. He had confidence that his message could thrive in the marketplace of ideas. When he searched the Internet, I'd guess he'd probably use Google.

Posted by john at 09:47 AM | TrackBack

April 22, 2003

In Case You're Wondering...

There is in fact nothing cooler in the world than having Fed Ex roll up to your house and deliver a big-ass box of free books.

Nothing.

Posted by john at 02:45 PM | TrackBack

The Terror of Bad Chocolate

Some people believe bad chocolate is like bad sex: Even when it's bad, it's still good. This formulation is nonsense at its root. Bad sex is definitely not still good. It's actually tremendously depressing, sort of like getting all worked up go to Disneyland just to find that the only ride open in the whole park is the monorail to and from the parking lot -- and that the monorail seats smell kind of funky.

Secondly, bad chocolate is worse than bad sex. We accept that sex may occasionally be bad -- it's the inevitable side effect of being human and letting hormonal surges replace rational thought -- but chocolate is supposed be above that. Chocolate is supposed to be an absolute good. Occasional bad sex is regrettable, but bad chocolate is a betrayal.

What's even worse is when you see a Bad Chocolate Moment coming, and yet there's not much you can do about it. One of those happened last night, when Krissy tossed me a small plastic tub of something pink and asked me to open it for her. I looked down at the tub, and saw that they were, in fact, Frankford MarshMiddles Chocolate Creme-Filled (artificially flavored) Marshmallow Eggs, inexplicably left unopened during the orgy of Easter candy.

Immediately, several issues presented themselves:

1. For people over the age of 10, marshmallow candies are not meant to be eaten so much as they are to be used for various scientific experiments, generally involving microwave ovens, liquid nitrogen and/or bunsen burners. That's because people over the age of 10 generally understand that Marshmallow comes from gelatin, which comes from something that was scraped off a rural route with a shovel or that once participated in the Kentucky Derby and finished somewhere between 8th and 12th. Also the freshness of marshmallow candies has a half-life shorter than even the most unstable of transuranic elements. The tub proclaimed it was a "Resealable Stay-Fresh Tub!" which was nothing more than a contemptible lie. A stainless steel holding chamber filled with inert helium can't keep marshmallows from going stale. All told, there are better ways of getting a sugar high than tolerating stale sugar suspensions whose origins inevitably lead back to something with a mane, big soulful eyes, and a small Guatemalan in checkered pants sitting on its back.

2. "Chocolate Creme" -- "creme" in the context of candy almost always means "unnatural chain of sucrose polymers." It's edible only to the extent that your white cells won't actively attack it as it courses through your small intestine.

3. "Artificially Flavored" -- Artificially flavored chocolate is to chocolate as grape soda is to grapes, which is to say a concoction whose only relation to its natural analog is that it is within 10 Pantone strips of being the same color.

4. On top of this the marshmallow eggs looked like decapitated Peeps, and that's just wrong.

The artificial flavor theme was reinforced when I cracked open the tub, exposing myself to the sort of chemical smell one typically associates with killing weeds.

I looked over to my wife. "Sweetheart," I said.

"Yes?"

"This might not be an optimal chocolate experience," I warned.

She looked at me blankly, as if this might not be an optimal chocolate experience were words from a Tristan Tzarza poem, pulled out of a hat and set down in random order and thereby devoid of all semantic value. Then, "Why did you say that? Did you eat one?"

No," I admitted, with my voice providing a subtext there signifying that while I might smear one across a new picture to stop the photographic development process, I wouldn't actually put one in my mouth. "It's just a feeling I have. I just don't want you to be disappointed."

My wife gave me a look as if to say, you dear, silly man, give me the chocolate before I am compelled to gnaw on your aorta. So I did, and went back to the magazine I was reading.

For this reason, I missed the part where Krissy gagged and actually spit the chocolate creme-filled marshmallow egg back into her hand rather than have it inhabit her mouth any longer. However, I didn't miss the part where she picked up the small tub they came in and stuffed it as far down into the trash as it would go. Then she looked over with a face that suggested that she'd just been fed the rancid gut of a raccoon (which, considering what gets used to make gelatin, there's a small possibility she had). But more than that, it was a tragic look of betrayal. Chocolate isn't supposed to do that to your mouth. Thus the quick trash stuff. It was too late for Krissy's innocence about chocolate to remain unshattered -- but not too late to spare our daughter. By plunging the Pink Menace into the garbage, Athena might be spare the same horrible fate. Krissy did it for the children.

As for my Krissy, I just happened to have a bag of Cadbury solid chocolate candy eggs, so quickly enough the crisis had passed. But I guarantee you from now until the end of time, I could say to her, "hey, remember those chocolate creme-filled marshmallow eggs," and it will generate a hearty shudder. It was Bad Chocolate. And you just don't forget a thing like that.

Posted by john at 10:48 AM | TrackBack

New Review at IndieCrit

Yes! New music! It's here. If you don't go visit it, nothing bad will happen to you. However, your karmic balance will adjust ever so slightly, and that will mean the difference between coming back as human, or as, say, an aye-aye. Still a primate, yes, but even so. No pressure.

Posted by john at 10:06 AM | TrackBack

April 21, 2003

Rehab Has Begun

When the Bob Greene scandal came to light, I noted that he'd probably be back in about six months. And so he is -- the Esquire article from last month primed the pump, and then last week Greene popped up on CNN to offer some thoughts about Michael Jordan retiring. I expect he'll do some more of this sort of thing for a while, then start popping out the occasional column or two about subjects near to his heart (basketball being an obvious one), and then probably somewhere along the way he'll write something about his wife's death, as she passed on during Greene's exile.

I will expect that to be an excellent column, by the way -- snarkiness about Greene should not extend to his relationship with his wife, since one does not stay married to the same person for 32 years without love, effort and a clear understanding of who each other are. But I also don't doubt that such a column (into which a gentle, knowing mea culpa about the philandering thing, in the context of their relationship, will no doubt appear) will also serve as the final probationary act of absolution that will allow Greene to get back to the business of being Bob Greene.

And should he? Well, sure. Why not. If Roman Polanski can win an Oscar after having sex with a 13-year-old girl, it's difficult to begrudge Greene a career based an ill-advised but consensual sex. The major difference is that now most people know enough to put him in the category of Men Not To Leave Your Daughter Alone With, along with Bill Clinton, R. Kelley and the aforementioned Polanski, which will undoubtedly have some effect (although, clearly, given the financial and cultural status of each of the aforementioned, not always the effect one would presume).

Hopefully the one thing that might come out of it is that Greene no longer phones in his writing. One Near-Career-Death experience should be enough to make him appreciate what he has left. And if not, well, Greene will no longer be scandalous, just utterly irrelevant. Which is something he can't really blame on a scandal.

Posted by john at 12:32 PM | TrackBack

Your Thought For Monday Morning

Busy morning, so I'll save major ruminations for this afternoon. In the meantime, however, a philosophical question:

Pilfering candy from your child's Easter basket: Pathetic and sad, or a subtly heroic attempt to ensure your adorable offspring is not too sugar-wired for the whole of the next week?

Discuss.

Posted by john at 10:57 AM | TrackBack

April 19, 2003

Easter Programming

Weekend. Family. Easter. Etc. See You Monday. Here's an appropriate re-reun to amuse you until then.

Interview With the Easter Bunny

With the possible exception of Santa Claus himself, there is not a busier mammal on the face of the earth than the Easter Bunny. Once a year, the Easter Bunny hops into the home of hundreds of millions of boys and girls all over the globe, dropping off chocolates, candy and eggs as part of the celebration of Easter. We spent a few minutes with the Easter Bunny as he was preparing for this year's task, for a tell-all, no-holds-barred interview. If you thought you knew the Easter Bunny, you just may be surprised.

John Scalzi: Thanks for talking to us.

Easter Bunny: No problem. Do you mind if I eat while we talk? (takes out a packet of small green pellets) I've been in a rush recently.

JS: Go right ahead. We've got a list of questions here, compiled from our members, and I'll just go down the list if you don't mind.

EB: Ready when you are.

JS: The first question comes from Ted, in Dayton, Ohio. He writes: "We all know that Santa's Workshop is located at the North Pole. Does the Easter Bunny have a workshop, and if so, where is it located?"

EB: Well, Ted, the answer is yes, I do have a workshop. It's located in San Bernardino, California.

JS: San Bernardino?

EB: That's right.

JS: You have to understand that most people would have figured some place like Easter Island.

EB: Have you been to Easter Island? What a rock! It's the single most isolated piece of land on the planet. By the time we shipped fresh eggs there, we'd have chickens. Besides, San Bernardino has the sort of motivated labor pool we need.

JS: Elves?

EB: Laid-off aerospace workers.

JS: They would seem to be a little overqualified.

EB: Maybe. But now we have some lovely chocolate stealth bombers.

JS: Our next question comes from Cindy, in Tempe. She writes: "Why is the Easter Bunny a bunny? Why couldn't it have been the Easter Kitty, or the Easter Puppy?"

EB: That's a very good question. In fact, in the late 70s, we as an organization decided to play around with the whole "bunny" thing by recruiting prominent local animals to deliver Easter baskets. In 1978, when the experiment was at its height, we had an Easter Bunny, an Easter Coyote, an Easter Manatee and an Easter Komodo Dragon.

JS: What happened?

EB: It just didn't work out. The komodo dragon ate the eggs, the coyote flaked out, and the manatee, if I may say so, was just about as dumb as a stick. There were some other problems with the program, too. The less we talk about the whole Easter Man-Eating Bengali Swamp Tiger episode, the better. Now we stick with bunnies. We know bunnies. We can work with bunnies. Bunnies don't eat anyone.

JS: Bob in Honolulu asks: "Is there is just one Easter Bunny? Moreover, has the same Easter Bunny been the Easter Bunny for the last couple of millenia?"

EB: The fact of the matter is that there are quite a few Easter Bunnies, and we've never made a secret about that. Unlike the Santa Claus operation, which works under the improbable assumption that one guy delivers all those presents -

JS: Are you saying that Santa is a sham?

EB: I didn't say that. I never said that. What I am saying is that we don't work under the same sort of constraints. I mean, think about it. One bunny delivering baskets to several hundred million homes across the planet? The friction from the atmosphere alone would turn the poor guy into a bunny briquette. There'd be hideous charcoal smudges all over the baskets. "Easter Bunny" is a job description, not a proper name. It's like "Postal Carrier," except our employees very rarely become disgruntled.

JS: So why are you THE Easter Bunny?

EB: Because I'm boss. You're not an Easter Bunny until I say you are.

JS: How does one become an Easter Bunny?

EB: Well, it's not just hopping down the bunny trail, I'll tell you. First, for reasons already explained, you have to be a bunny. After that, we have a psychological evaluation and a battery of physical tests you have to pass. We can't afford to have an Easter Bunny cramp up at the beginning of his run.

JS: Any famous rabbits turned down for the job?

EB: I don't want to name names. But one bunny who's making a living in the breakfast cereal industry, we had to let go. Any time a child would try to get an Easter basket from him, he'd back away and start snarling. He was a silly rabbit. Easter baskets are for kids.

JS: He seems to have gotten better since then.

EB: Prozac helps.

JS: Albert from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, wants to know what are the occupational hazards of being the Easter Bunny.

EB: There are several. Large dogs are always a problem, of course: one moment you're delivering a basket of goodies, the next, a rottweiler named Pinochet is on you like a meat- filled sock. Nervous homeowners with guns wing a couple of bunnies a year, as do edgy cops and private security guards. We don't even bother trying to deliver to the children of militia members anymore; first they'll plug you for being on their land, then they'll make you into jerky and a pair of gloves. But you know what our number one problem is?

JS: What?

EB: Sliding glass doors. Sometimes we'll just forget they're there. Man, that's embarrassing.

JS: Here's an interesting question, from Amy, in New York City. She writes: "How does the Easter Bunny get along with Santa Claus? It seems like Santa gets all the attention." And I have to say, I did notice some tension earlier, when you brought him up.

EB (Looking uncomfortable): Well, you know, look. I don't want to say anything bad about the guy. He does what he does, and I do what I do. Professionally, we get along fine.

JS: But privately?

EB: Is that tape recorder turned off?

JS: Uh... sure.

EB: He's a big ol' pain in this bunny's bottom. For one thing, he's a prima donna: always me, me, me, where's my highball, where's my corned beef sandwich, tell this dumb bunny to get his own dressing room. I'd rather be trapped in a sack with Joan Crawford. For another, he's totally paranoid of other large men. He thinks that Luciano Pavarotti is trying to move into his territory. Last year it was John Goodman. He actually danced when Orson Welles kicked, waving his pistol and bellowing "Rosebud!" from the top of his lungs.

JS: Wow. He seems a little scary.

EB: You think? And yet he gets all the publicity. Why? We do the same job. Mine's actually tougher, since I'm moving perishable stuff. You can't have bad eggs or stale chocolate, you know. Folks wouldn't stand for it. I have to maintain strict quality control. The only food product he has to worry about is fruitcake. You could tile the Space Shuttle with fruitcake.

JS: We're sure you have your own fans.

EB: It's like opening for the Beatles, is all. And he is the walrus, if you know what I mean.

JS: One final question, from Pat, in Rockford, Illinois; "Does the Easter Bunny actually lay eggs? How does that happen, since the Easter Bunny is both male and a mammal?"

EB: Well, platypuses are mammals, and they lay eggs. So it's not impossible.

JS: That still leaves the male part.

EB: We're quibbling on details, here.

JS: Maybe there should be an Easter Platypus.

EB: Sorry. We tried that in '78.

Posted by john at 03:19 PM | TrackBack

April 18, 2003

Oddly Appropriate For Easter Time

The Return of the King? Or a Sign of the Apocalypse? You decide.

This makes perfect sense, however.

Here's the main page.

Posted by john at 09:51 AM | TrackBack

Birthday Girl (and Boy)

My superfabulous wife Kristine is having a birthday today -- conveniently enough, because she was born on this day a number of years ago. I hope you'll join me letting her know that the world is notably improved by her presence within it. However, please don't feel you need to tell her that you'll love her eternally, without reservation and with a growing sense of wonder and appreciation each and every day you spend with her. Because that's my job, you see. I hope you'll understand.

Coincidentally, tomorrow is the birthday of my friend Kevin, one of my best friends since high school, with whom you can currently see me squabbling about drugs in the comment thread for "What I Do When I'm Not Here." Also feel free to tell Kevin the world is a better place with him in it, and if you want to tell him that you'll love him eternally, without reservation and with a growing sense of wonder and appreciation and so on, well, that's all right by me.

Posted by john at 09:23 AM | TrackBack

April 17, 2003

Piling On CNN

Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby has a fairly sane take on the CNN controversy that's gotten bloggers into a high moral dudgeon these days. The gist is that CNN is not the first news organization cuddle up to fascist bastards in exchange for access and it won't be the last either. I don't think CNN necessarily made the best moral choices, but I think the people who are saying "well, they should have simply not reported from Iraq," or whatever have a smugly naive view of both the nature and business of news gathering. The absence of any other news organization coming forward to admit the same actions does not mean that other news organizations did not indulge in them; I think the folks at CNN deserve at least a measure of credit for coming forward as early as realistically possible to admit to what the organization had done.

Posted by john at 12:39 PM | TrackBack

What I Do When I'm Not Here

Being a freelance writer, I do a number of writing jobs, ranging from columns to corporate work. In the interest of showing you a little bit of what I do when I'm not doing this, let me show you some of the stuff I've been doing for Network For Good. Network For Good is a non-profit that uses its Web site to make it easier for people to get involved in various non-profits, both in their communities and in the categories that most interest them. What I do for Network For Good is put together packages based on themes they provide.

So, for example, when they need a package on drug abuse, I'll go out and find links on the subject, which include information on the topic, opportunities for people to volunteer with organziations that combat drug abuse, and opportunities to donate money to non-profits in that area.

Like a number of my writing gigs, this one is a lot more interesting than you might expect. I really enjoy researching just as a general rule, and it's interesting to see the width and breadth of non-profit organizations out there. Apparently a lot of Americans spend a lot of their time working in the ways they think will make the world better.

Anyway, here are three packages I help write and/or collect links. Here, one on humanitarian aid for Iraq, one on drug abuse and one on Earth Day. Enjoy and be sure to dig around the site -- you'll probably find information on non-profits you'd want to give cash to.

Posted by john at 10:07 AM | TrackBack

"Free" Speech -- and its Enemies

"In this time when a citizenry applauds the liberation of a country as it lives in fear of its own freedom, when an administration official releases an attack ad questioning the patriotism of a legless Vietnam veteran running for Congress, when people all over the country fear reprisal if they use their right to free speech, it is time to get angry." -- Tim Robbins, addressing the National Press Club, 4/16/2003

"Now, applying an equal amount of absurdity to this ridiculous notion that Robbins attempts to gain credence with, I have a question. How is it that Tim Robbins is still walking free? Wasn't somebody supposed to pick him up in a black helicopter? Who was it that blew that assignment? Didn't the order go out for this guy to be behind bars a long time ago? How in the world is he still able to go to the National Press Club and say whatever he wants to say? Somebody has fouled up. Tim Robbins should have been silenced long ago…" -- Rush Limbaugh, on his Web site.

Both of these guys are right, which is a fact that in itself should be enough to signal the apocalypse. But both are also running on a couple of interesting assumptions.

Tim Robbins is operating on the assumption that free speech means speech without personal consequence -- that because one can say what one wants that everyone else's proper reaction is to say "well, you have your right to say that," and then go about their lives. But as we know, people aren't like that. Politics are to grown-ups what boy bands are to 11-year-old girls: Criticize their favorites and you've got a blood enemy for life. Speech is a full-contact sport (metaphorically), and if you're going to use it, you've got to be willing to take your lumps for it.

Therefore you have to accept that people are going to hate you and revile you for your positions. You have to accept that with your right to speak your mind, you accept that your opinion can have repercussions, particularly among the dim-witted who cannot hold two thoughts in their brain at the same time. These are the people who think that if you think gay people should be able to marry, that you spend a lot of time in public toilets cruising for action, or that if you'd like to keep a gun in the house that you eyeball the mail carrier through a rife scope every day because, after all, he's from the government. Repeat after me: Stupid people are everywhere. It's just the way it is. But let's not pin it down entirely on stupid people. Stupid people are a continual problem, but it's the smart people who know better that are the real problem.

Tim Robbins complains that too many people fear the repercussions of voicing their opinion. I sympathize, but I also have to ask what the value of an opinion is if you're not willing to express it even at the risk of personal cost. This is why, paradoxically, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garafalo are deserving of a certain amount of respect -- you may think they are right or wrong (I personally think they were wrong about the value of the war), but you can't deny they are out there voicing their opinions regardless of the backlash. They're standing up for their views, and as far as I can see the problem is not that they're standing up, but that those who want to but don't, aren't.

And the First Amendment is always under attack, from all sides, by well-meaning and/or ignorant people who believe free speech is fine and all most of the time, but now is a moment when we should all stand behind the president/ we should all think of the children/ we should all know that whatever that person is speaking about is just not right. The opposition to the first amendment is bi-partisan; the opposition to the first amendment is based in fear, based in ignorance, based in politics, based in distaste. We will never reach a point where people won't have to accept the consequences for having controversial opinions. If you want to speak, you have to have the guts to stand by it. Robbins is right that it's time people should get angry. Their passivity is a bad, bad sign.

But now let's flip things around. Limbaugh's opinion is that simply the right to free speech is enough, and really, it's not. Granted that those who want to speak their minds must be willing to accept the personal cost of doing so, but on the other hand it's not a positive thing when people go out of their way to imply that exercising one's first amendment rights is something illegal, immoral or dangerous. This is exactly what conservatives are doing right now; switch on MSNBC's Michael Savage, and he'll tell you that people who are exercising their first amendment right to protest the war are guilty of sedition and treason. I don't want to give Michael Savage too much credit for intelligence, but I suspect he knows that protesting is neither of these things; he just prefers to be partisan and dishonest about it. The good news is that more people watch curling than watch MSNBC. The bad news is that Fox News is still out there.

Conservatives, with their apparently-inbred inability to think of anything outside of the immediate political advantage, are cheerfully and cynically painting protest as something that should be made to shut up; they're helping to create an atmosphere where free speech is regarded as suspect. Why would you think that? What's wrong with you? That's treason and you know it. It's disingenuous to say that it's only conservatives who do this sort of thing (recall the "politically correct" uproar of a decade ago), but it's not inaccurate to say that at this moment, conservatives are leading the charge against the first amendment, for the worst of short-term reasons -- after all, the war is already over -- and with the worst of long-term implications.

It's a little much to ask Rush to celebrate Tim Robbins' right to free speech, but it's not too much to have him acknowledge that some of his conservative brethren right now are actually saying that Tim Robbins and those with his opinions should be picked up by that black helicopter, and that is wrong. Conservatives have benefited from their right to free speech over the last two decades. It's too bad they don't think others should have those same rights -- and that by their very words they're working to create a world where dissent equals crime.

We should be willing to accept the consequences of our right to speak. We should also be willing to acknowledge the right to speak is a right to be celebrated. I don't really see how you can have the one without the other.

Posted by john at 06:47 AM | TrackBack

April 16, 2003

Scene From an Uno Game

SCENE OPENS on John and Athena, playing a game of UNO.

John (setting down a red four card): Four. Your turn, honey.

Athena (sets down card): Draw two, daddy.

John: Okay. (draws two)

Athena (sets down another card): Draw two again, daddy.

John: Um, okay. (draws two more)

Athena (sets down yet another card): Now you have to draw two more, daddy.

John: Wow. Three Draw Two cards in a row. That's pretty evil, Athena.

Athena (reprovingly): That's not a very nice thing to say, daddy.

John: You're right, honey. I'm sorry.

Athena (sets down another card): Draw four, daddy.

Posted by john at 09:00 PM | TrackBack

The Right to Virtually Assemble

As many of you know, in addition to all the other pointless and stupid but mortgage-paying crap I do, I also do something important, which is to write a bi-monthly column about video games and social issues for Official PlayStation Magazine. Shut up. It actually is important stuff, thank you very much. One of the things I've been following for the column is a case in St. Louis about the what first amendment protections should be afforded to video games. About a year ago, a judge in St. Louis ruled that video games should not be afforded First Amendment protections, a decision he came to after watching about fifteen minutes of videotape, prepared by the prosecution, of some of the more gory moments of Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat.

It's worth noting that the judge making the ruling was so unfamiliar with the titles he was adjudicating upon that he didn't even get their names right (he called Resident Evil "Resident of Evil Creek"), which doesn't inspire much confidence in his jurisprudence. Needless to say, the decision was appealed, and at the appeal the video game makers submitted complete scripts to a couple of video games to show that there was indeed some artistic effort put into the games that afforded them first amendment protection. They're waiting for this decision to come back now.

I think video games do have first amendment protection, if for no other reason than because off the top of my head I can think of several that have better stories than a whole raft of movies I could name -- it's nearly axiomatic that video games almost always have better stories than movies based on them (see: Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and -- God love it -- Super Mario Brothers). In the case of Star Wars, the recent Jedi Knight II video game has a story that kicks ass over the story in Attack of the Clones, which is a real embarrassing development for George Lucas. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is reportedly preparing an Aliens Vs. Predator movie, and given his craptacular past (he directed the Resident Evil movie and the Mortal Kombat movie) there's almost no hope it'll be better than the stories in the video game series, which are pretty damn good (especially the second one). If any of these God-awful films meet the standard for protected speech, these video games certainly do as well.

But I think there's also an interesting wrinkle in the first amendment argument for video games that I'd like to toss out there for comment and criticism (which, of course, I'll use for background in my next OPM column). So far all the arguments for first amendment protection for video games is founded on freedom of speech from governmental intervention. But what about freedom of peaceable assembly?

Follow: one of the fastest-growing genres of the video game market is that of the Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game (also known by the unwieldy acronym MMORPG, which I would assume is pronounced "more-pig"). These games feature persistent universes in which players all around the US (and the world, but let's keep focused) send virtual versions of themselves to do whatever they do in that world. The virtual worlds range from fantasy-themed worlds where people go on quests, to more contemporary worlds (like The Sims Online) where online-created characters simply go to exist.

Beyond the MMORPGs, there are also more simply multiplayer-enabled games which while lacking persistent universes, still create "places" where game players congregate online to play their games -- lots of first person shooters (most obviously the various Quake and Unreal Tournament iterations) do this. The games themselves are sometimes violent, particularly as it concerns first person shooters, but in the real world sense, they are less violent than, say, your average softball game, at which you have the potential to get beaned or to rip up your leg sliding into a base, or your average Society for Creative Anachronism meeting, at which you might get impaled if you're not careful.

I think that one could reasonably argue that video games allow like-minded people to assemble peaceably, to pursue their interests and so on and so forth. And thus, attempts by the government to restrict such assemblies is an imposition on first amendment rights.

Some objections I can possibly see to this line of reasoning:

1. Assembling online may or may not be recognized as the same as assembling at the park -- I don't know what the case law on this is;
2. The implements of this assembly are commercial products, most of which have EULAs that might make such claims to constitutional rights moot (but -- a little help here -- only as it relates to a player's protections against the manufacturing company, not the government);
3. Likewise, the servers on which the MMOPRG "worlds" exist are also frequently privately owned, which may have ramifications for Constitutional issues (on the other hand, might not multiplayer games on servers at a publicly-funded institution, like a state university, be explicitly protected).

So: Your thoughts. Is there a first amendment right to assemble through video games? And if not, why not?

Posted by john at 12:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 15, 2003

Speaking of Taxes

Compare and Contrast. The major difference here is that one of these Republicans has to live with the consequences his budget decisions on a day-to-day basis while the other one gets to defer them to someone else's administration.

Posted by john at 04:52 PM | TrackBack

Um....Stuff. Yeah.

I'm going to pull the Lileksian maneuver of announcing that writing here will be light today on account of real live work -- I whipped up four articles this morning for the Uncle John's "Great Lives" book (short articles), and then I'm likely to spend part of the afternoon thinking of taglines for a financial services company to convince brokers to sell their funds to their clients, and the other part finding non-profit resources for mental disabilities. You can't say I don't keep busy. Be that as it may, here are a couple things I'm rolling around in my brain.

* This is good news, if it's true. I understand for many there would be a great temptation just to ram on through into Syria, since we do happen to have a quarter of a million military folk just across the border, and a three-week war is kind of unsatisfying, I mean you hardly have time to get your war on and everything. Be that as it may, I say we try a little diplomacy and economic thumb-screwing first. You know, just to see if they'll work. The prospect that Dubya, at least, knows when enough is enough is also heartening.

*Hope you all have your taxes in. This is the second year we had someone else prepare our taxes for us because we have a tax situation, involving rental property and home offices and whatnot, that is beyond the competence of myself and whatever tax software is the cheapest to use this year, and once again our accountant has come through for us with a fairly whopping tax return. Yes, I realize that just yesterday I said that if you're smart you don't have any return at all, but I have a good excuse in that, being a freelance writer, I don't have what you would call a stable income situation, and some months I make lots o' green, and some months I, um, don't. This tends to make estimating my tax burden more of a shot in the dark than it would be for someone who gets the same amount every two weeks. I'm not complaining -- this is one of the few jobs in which a man in his 30s is still allowed to lounge about in pajama pants at noon and not get fired -- but it does explain why, in this case at least, I don't practice what I preach. Anyway, it's not like I saw any of that whopping return. We just rolled it into the quarterly estimated tax payment we're supposed to be making today. It's no fun to pay taxes with your return, but on the other hand it's like paying 15 months of taxes with just 12 months of income, and that's not too shabby.

I happen to fall into one of the tax brackets in the upper half of the tax scheme, so my annual tax bill is pretty steep (it's more than I actually made in any one of my first four years out of college -- a statement rather less impressive when you realize I made what in technical economic terms is known as "diddly") but I don't think it's unfair. I think it's not unreasonable to spring for a certain level of communal things, even if I don't tend to use them myself, and I don't even mind paying, proportionately and in real dollars, more than most other people. What's more, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of putting a bunch of governmental spending on a tab my kids will pick up in order to slash a bunch of taxes that uniformly benefit a small, rich number of people.

I often joke that I'm unlikely to oppose Republican tax cuts since I wouldn't want them spending my money anyway, but there's joking and then there's reality. I'm well off enough that many of the cuts Dubya wants to enact will benefit me personally, but I'm also here to tell you that I don't need any more tax cuts right now, and I very seriously doubt that anyone who makes more than me needs them, either.

Or, let me put it another way: The largest book acquisition my local library has had recently came from me -- when I got an extra copy of my astronomy book, I took it and about ten other recent astro books I used for research and hauled them over to the librarians (who sent a very nice thank you note). I don't mind playing a miniature version of Andrew Carnegie for my local branch, but I would have vastly preferred it if the library had the wherewithal to buy some recent astronomy books on its own (not to mention could have sprung for mine). Given the choice between paying taxes and having a good local library and getting a tax break and having my local library's most recent astronomy book date from the mid-80s (as it did right up until about 10 days ago), I'll be happy to keep paying the rate I pay now.

*Spring has finally, like an action hero, stabbed that evil Winter through the heart and it appears no longer able to make that final lunge at us, and I have to say, about damn time. Unfortunately, tomorrow and Thursday appear to be bringing rain towards us, which is bad to the extent that it could rain out the baseball game we're going to in Dayton (AAA! Whoo-hoo! 80% as good as the majors (not counting Tampa Bay, which is AAA in drag) at 50% the price. That's value!). So no offense to the farmers around me -- and I do mean around me -- but I'll be doing my Yoda-like hand wave and muttering "Rain, it shall not" for the next couple of days. You can have all the rain you want on Friday, promise.

Off to create corporate positioning statements. Have fun, kids.

Posted by john at 11:55 AM | TrackBack

April 14, 2003

Mmmm..music.

New review is up at IndieCrit. You should visit it. It's been saying how much it's looking forward to seeing you.

Posted by john at 09:42 AM | TrackBack

Comments, Taxes, Oil

A visitor named Ron asks in one of the comment threads:

"Any commentary on the IRS giving returns instantly (say, a week), for a nominal charge just as private tax services offer? Also, since oil rhymes with spoils, who should pump the oil in post-war Mesopotamia, in your opinion? After finding out who supplied some of the weapons to Iraq, the 'Shock' in the 'Shock & Awe' slogan seems only appropriate."

Thing is, he asks this in the comments for the entry about Athena learning to read and taunting me about her ability to do so. Ron has not done anything bad, it just never occurred to me that people would post totally random things in a comment thread. So, if you please, I'd like to make a couple of refinements to my comment thread rules:

1. Please try to be "on topic" -- which is to say make sure that what you're writing about in a comment thread is at least tangentially related to the posting with which its related, or at the very least a previous post in the thread. Wild digressions are amusing and fine, so long as the starting point can be traced back to the original post.

2. If you have a great urge to ask me a question that you'd like me to consider writing about, simply e-mail me and say something like: "Hey John, I'd really like to see you bloviate on the following question/topic/observation" -- and then enter your suggestion there. I'm very open to this, since I love each and every one of you, my readers, and want you to feel I am responsive to your needs, to the extent that they involve this site (i.e., don't be asking to borrow cash). Also, every topic you suggest is one less topic I have to think up on my own, so I win, too. So don't be shy in asking me what I think about things. Just don't post it in an inappropriate comment thread.

No penalties for Ron, however, since he was unaware I might have this line of thinking (totally fair, too, since I was unaware I had it until about 20 minutes ago). So to answer his questions:

1. I'm against the IRS charging anyone for a "quick refund," since inevitably someone at the IRS would find a way to abuse it, and also it would be an excuse for the IRS not to improve their response time for "non-quick" refunds. I mean, if IRS created a revenue center out of "quick returns," eventually some go-getter at the IRS (inasmuch as such an organization would have one) would figure out that they could increase revenues by delaying all other refunds to such an extent that people would feel they have to sign up for the "quick refund" to get their refund at all. This seems like a bad idea.

Incidentally, I'm pretty much against "instant refunds" from tax preparers and others as well -- what you're essentially doing is receiving a high-interest loan for the dubious privilege of getting your own money in your hot little hands a couple of weeks early. Ideally, you shouldn't be getting a return anyway, since any return you have means that you're allowing the US government to take money you don't owe it and use it interest-free until it decides to give it back to you (yes, I sound like a conservative ogre here, but, damn it, they're right about this). But if you are getting a return, don't you want to get all of your money back? Exercise a little patience, for God's sake, and wait a couple extra weeks.

2. As to who should pump oil in Iraq, in the short run (say, the next 2-5 years) I think it's pretty clear we'll be doing it, and in the long run, it should be pretty clear that the government of Iraq should be able to award the oil contracts to whomever it pleases. That's the exciting thing about having one's own government -- it does what it wants (hopefully, although clearly not always in the case of this region, backed by its people).

I think what you may be asking here is if France and Russia, who currently have a number of pumping rights in Iraq, should be allowed to continue to have those rights. I feel reasonably confident we'll find some way to screw France out of theirs, since as a nation we have it in for France at the moment, and we'll no doubt want to give them an object lesson in the price of messing with our plans. Russia I suspect we'll allow to keep pumping, because there's more of a long-term value in keeping Russia on an even keel, and anyway, it's not exactly an "ally" in the same manner as we have expected France to be, so a little backdoor dealing with Saddam (and front-door opposition to our plans) isn't going to be held against them in the same way.

I don't know that Germany has any oil interests in Iraq, but I would expect that we'd deal with them in a more conciliatory fashion than with France, who will be singled out for the pummeling because it's easier to thump on one country than two or three, and once everyone else realizes our government only means to ream France, they'll probably get in line and look they other way. Fear will keep the local systems in line! Fear of this battle station!

Yes, it'll all be very realpolitik and being such, there's a good possibility that one day it'll rise up and just bite us in the ass. But isn't that the fun of being alive.

Posted by john at 07:27 AM | TrackBack

April 13, 2003

War Lessons

"Young Arab toughs cannot tolerate insults to their manhood. So, as American armored columns pushed down the road to Baghdad, 400-watt loudspeakers mounted on Humvees would, from time to time, blare out in Arabic that Iraqi men are impotent. The Fedayeen, the fierce but undisciplined and untrained Iraqi irregulars, could not bear to be taunted. Whether they took the bait or saw an opportunity to attack, many Iraqis stormed out of their concealed or dug-in positions, pushing aside their human shields in some cases, to be slaughtered by American tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles." -- The Secret War, Newsweek, 4/13/2003

There's something that is just off-the-scale bizarre about the fact that US forces scored a massive victory in Iraq at least in part by taunting their enemies to the point of fatal stupidity. And I think that this point is the one that US enemies may wish to truly fear -- not that we've got better guns, tanks and planes, but that we can make you kill yourself through the power of sheer, unadulterated mindfucking. Those Fedayeen would have rather have died than be told they've got limp noodles, and so they did. Darwin Awards all around.

At the same time, one has to wonder how applicable some of the major lessons of this war will be against an enemy who is not Iraq. In the various post-mortems of the war which ran in the newspapers this Sunday, three things were consistently listed as major factors in the Coalition forces effectively wrapping this up in three weeks: Unprecedented cooperation between military branches and the adaptability of our forces to existing circumstances (both supported by technology), and by the utter incompetence of the opposing Iraqi forces. While taking absolutely nothing away from these first two factors, the Iraqi incompetence seems to be the overriding factor here. Let's face it, when you're dealing with an enemy that can be teased into suicidal attacks, you're not dealing with an opponent that can be called formidable by any rational definition of the word. Brig. General John Kelley said of the Iraqi fighters that "we shoot them down like the morons they are," and while that's not a very nice thing to say, it's hard to come up with a better word to describe a fighting force that willfully charges an Abrams Tank armed with only with a machine gun and a vague hope that everything they've heard about getting into paradise if you die in battle will turn out to be true.

(A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I thought that the fighters doing these things didn't actually expect to win, they just expected to lose with such style that they became an inspiration to others. But to some extent, that estimation was predicated on the idea that the Iraqis could hold out for a while with such harassing tactics. Clearly, that didn't work -- partly due to the adaptation of our forces, and because we just went ahead and flattened Saddam's regime in three weeks, thereby overshadowing any propaganda value of the attacks. I think we can all be glad for that.)

The incompetence of Iraqi forces allowed our military forces to engage in some audacious maneuvers that might have otherwise been folly, the dash across the desert on dangerously extended supply lines and the armored column push through the heart of Baghdad being two examples of this. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al have been feeling vindicated in the last week that their plan, so roundly doubted two weeks ago, has been pulled off -- as well they should. But I don't think the retired generals who were sniping at the Rumsfeld plan were wrong. Coalition victory was never in doubt, but had Saddam's defenders had the slightest bit of competence, it's very likely we would have paid a far higher price for it, in blood and treasure, than we have so far.

The rest of the world is taking a moment to let the ease in which we won this war sink in, and stories like the one about goading the Fedayeen into becoming bullet holders will undoubtedly have an effect. But I do hope that on this end of things people factor in who our enemy was this time around. Just as war protesters need to get over the idea that every military engagement is going to be a quagmire with ten of thousands of innocent civilians dead, so too do the neocons and hawks have to need to come to grips with the idea that every war we fight from now on isn't going to be a cakewalk with fewer deaths in the whole war than we'd take in a single day in Vietnam. Not every enemy will respond to a challenge to his manhood, broadcast over a loudspeaker.

Posted by john at 04:49 PM | TrackBack

So There, Daddy.

A couple of weeks ago, Athena and I were looking at educational software at the local office superstore, and trying to decide on which one to buy. I was favoring the Jumpstart advanced kindergarten software, whereas Athena wanted some software featuring Clifford, the polyploidial red canine.

"But you like Reader Rabbit," I said, recalling the fact that until my death, certain Reader Rabbit "songs" will rattle about my head like unwanted spiky marbles. "And look, this Phonics stuff will teach you how to read."

Athena was unconvinced. "But I want Clifford," she said. Eventually I gave in because a) she's already got tons of educational software with material, Phonics and otherwise, which is aimed at boosting her reading skills, b) buying your child educational software she doesn't want seems like a great way to make sure it never gets used, and c) it was five dollars cheaper anyway. We take the Clifford software home and Athena's been playing it merrily ever since.

Fast forward to last night, when Krissy calls me into Athena's room and points at the book they have open, Are You My Mother?, P.D. Eastman's classic tale of avian child abandonment. "She's reading," Krissy said, with all the due excitement a parent is supposed to have at a moment like that. "She just read this by herself."

I agreed it was a wonderful thing, and bent down to give my daughter a kiss and to let her know how proud of her I was. And my darling child, beaming with pleasure at her parents' happiness at her newly-acquired skill, looked up at me, dimpled adorably, and said:

"See, Daddy? I told you I didn't need that software."

I'm happy that my child is actually reading. But I'm throughly amused that she also has perfect "Ha ha ha so there" timing. The first of these is truly useful. But the second shows that she's my kid. I'm pleased as punch.

Posted by john at 01:16 PM | TrackBack

April 11, 2003

Making the Other Guy Die

Here's an interesting little fact for you. If you add up every single combat death the United States has experienced in every single war it's ever fought, from the Revolutionary War to this one, you'd find that in about 230 years, it tallies up to just over 650,000 deaths (fewer if you throw out the 74,500 combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy on the grounds it was a separate political entity, but for now, let's just assume they were merely rebellious states and toss them back in).

650,000 deaths are nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but the remarkable thing here is how few combat deaths that number represents over the course of time, especially when you add totals from other countries in the same period of time. And thus we learn the United States' real secret weapon in war: Not our technological edge or our productive capability, but the fact that relative to other combatants, we die a hell of a lot less -- as a nation we adhere to the maxim, put forward in the film Patton, that the object is not to die for one's country, it's to make the other poor son of a bitch die for his.

As an object lesson of this, let's take World War II. The US lost more men in that conflict than any other before or since: about 295,000 dead in combat. But to put this in perspective, that's fewer than were lost by Yugoslavia (300,000), Austria (380,000) or Romania (580,000) -- these are combat deaths, and don't include civilian casualties -- and far fewer than were lost by China (1.3 million), Japan (1.5 million), or Germany (3.25 million). And, of course, you could add up the combat deaths of every major and minor participant in WWII and still not even come close to the number of combat deaths from the Soviet Union -- a staggering 13.6 million. Now, the US number is mitigated somewhat by the fact that we came into the war over two years after everyone else started mixing it up, but on the other hand it's not as if we didn't make up for lost time by fighting extensively on two fronts.

The first 80 years of America's history saw fewer combat deaths than a single battle of the Civil War; in fact, twice as many US soldiers died at Antietam (21,000) than in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars and the Mexican-American War combined (9,500). Basically, in order to really rack up American deaths, we had to fight ourselves. Even in defeat, we made the other guy bleed more: We had 47,000 combat deaths in Vietnam, but North Vietnam had over 600,000.

The lopsided combat death totals in Gulf War I (about 150 combat deaths for the US versus and an estimated 100,000 for Iraq) and the current war are extreme -- the day the US entered Baghdad we estimate we killed somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Baghdad defenders and lost one Marine, which has got to be a record of some sort -- but as a part of a continuum of the US' relative ability to not to lose a lot of combatants, you can't really say they're entirely surprising.

Simply put, and especially in the last 100 years, we've made a science of making the other guy die for his country, while not dying for ours. We're merely getting better at it as we go along. That's good news for us, of course. It's not so great for the poor sons of bitches who get to be the other guy.

Posted by john at 06:26 PM | TrackBack

I Don't Know What This Means, #43,226

I don't want to alarm any of you living in the Pacific Northwest, but last night I had a dream that Mount Rainier erupted. Pop, there it went.

The two reasons you probably shouldn't be alarmed by this:

1. I make no claims toward having psychic abilities. I've never once had a "psychic" dream that came true.

2. What was erupting out of Mount Rainier were huge, flaming pieces of Honeycomb cereal.

I don't that anyone should be concerned that a pyroclastic flow consisting of crunchy, honey-flavored oat nuggets might suddenly descend upon them. On the other hand, if your homes are suddenly engulfed in a nutritious part of a complete breakfast, you can't say you weren't warned.

Posted by john at 09:42 AM | TrackBack

Contribute to the Book of the Dumb

So, hey, wanna help me write a book?

As many of you know, I've started research on a book titled The Book of the Dumb, which is (as the title suggests) a book on the march of stupidity over the years. This is, as you might imagine, a tremendously fertile topic, especially these days, and one could end up writing a whole series of books on the subject (and indeed, that's the plan). I'm making considerable progress on finding a whole bunch of stupid people and events, but at the same time I just know there are some really great dumb moments in the history of our species that I'm just not thinking about. And that's where I'm hoping you can help.

I'm looking for suggestions on topics to include in the book -- events, discoveries, inventions, people, political events, sports moments, military maneuvers, movie/music/tv stupidity, and so on, which represent, in your opinion, a really stellar example of stupidity on the hoof. Obscure and esoteric stupid events are fine, and even desired (not every prime example of stupidity has been relentlessly publicized). Everyone has their favorites, and I'd love to hear yours.

In return, for every suggestion I use, I'll give credit within the book (i.e., "topic suggested by [your name here]"). Also, Portable Press (the publisher) will be providing me with a fair number of books to give to idea contributors, so depending on the number of books I get and the number of ideas I use, I'll either pass out a book per idea used or -- and this is more likely -- put all the contributor names in a hat and randomly select winners of a free copy of the book.

Please note that I'm looking for ideas only -- I'm not asking for full essays that I'd cut and paste into the book, for which, quite obviously, a name credit and maybe a book would be woefully inadequate compensation. Just a suggestion will be fine. I'm guessing most people have a good idea of something they think is really, really stupid. Let me know about it -- I'll take it from there.

If you're wondering what the end result would look like, go over to my "Best of the Millennium" section -- many of the topics there were suggested by readers, and a large portion of the book will be in essay form just like those. I'll also post a couple of sample topic suggestions at the top of the comments thread.

Well, you say, stupidity is everywhere! I have many suggestions! What should I do? Easy:

1. E-mail me your suggestion at a special address I've created for just this purpose: suggestion(--at--)scalzi.com. Just replace the (--at--) there with an actual @ symbol to send (my token attempt to defeat the spam spiders, there). When you e-mail your suggestion, if you want to include a couple of sentences as to why you think that particular person, place, thing or event is really lame, that would be swell, although don't feel you need to go into great detail (much of my fun in writing is in researching things for myself).

Please e-mail suggestions instead of using the comment thread. It's easier for me to collate and organize that way (you can use the comments thread to ask questions about what I'm looking for, however).

2. In the subject heading of your e-mail, please put the word "SUGGESTION: " first, and then whatever you like afterwards. This will allow me to filter out the inevitable piles of spam that I will get.

3. Please provide your full name with your suggestion (or alternately, however you wish to be referred to), so if I use your suggestion, I can credit you appropriately for your idea. Don't worry about sending your address; when I send out the books, I'll notify people and ask for addresses then.

4. You can make as many suggestions as you like, but be aware that I'll typically credit one suggestion in the book (in order to give more people a chance to be named). In the cases where more than one person suggests a topic, I'll credit the first three people who have suggested an idea, in order of when I receive them. The more topics you suggest, the more chances you have that I'll use one.

5. I'm open to any suggestion in any category of the stupidity of the human experience, but I do have a couple of caveats.

a) I'm trying to avoid explicitly "Darwin Award"-like examples, since the people who do the Darwin Awards, you know, have that corner of the stupidity market well covered, and more power to them. Most particularly, don't send me ideas from the Darwin Award web site or from the books. "Urban Legends" are also out, because stupidity is more interesting when it actually happens.

b) In terms of presidential politics and stupidity, I'm not taking suggestions on the sitting President, George W. Bush. Those of you who know me know this isn't due to a particularly pro-Bush stance; I do it because I don't want to politicize the book. All previous presidents, from Washington to Clinton, however, are fair game.

c) Don't write me to tell me how your friend/sibling/random person you know is really stupid. It's not that I don't believe you, but aside from the possible libel issues, I'm looking for topic ideas I can actually research. Also, it'd be uncomfortable to call someone up and say -- "so, someone you know thinks you're a real idiot."

6. If you have any friends who you know would have some suggestions (and who doesn't?), by all means send them to this entry (you might point at the archived version), or link to it from your own site/blog/online journal/whatever. I'm hoping for one of those "power of the blogosphere" moments here, where friends tell friends and people link and I get a lot of great ideas I never would have thought up of on my own.

(Mind you, the flip side of this is people saying to me, hundreds of times over, "do your own damn work, you sad little man." It's a chance I'm willing to take.)

Separately but related: I'm looking for a select few people (30 or so entire) to become part of what I call the Book of the Dumb Brain Trust. This elite but entirely unpaid group will act as a sounding board for specific topic ideas and will be the "go to" brains that I pick when I need fresh perspectives. The benefits? You'll be e-mailed book entries fresh from my brain (all the better to provide withering feedback) and you'll receive special acknowledgment in the book. Also, you'll go to heaven. I've cut a deal. It's a group rate.

If you're interested, let me know at braintrust(--at--)scalzi.com. Depending on how many people want to join in, not everyone who asks to be in will be included (and at least a couple of the spots are already filled). But I will be looking to add a wide range of people and at least a couple of total strangers. That could be you!

Thanks -- I'm looking forward to seeing your ideas on stupidity.

Posted by john at 05:53 AM | TrackBack

April 10, 2003

My New Sister

If y'all don't mind, I'd like to take a moment to introduce you to Andrea Perez, who is today officially my new sister: My mother got the go-ahead to formally adopt Andrea today, and as you might imagine, we're all very excited about it. It's a little weird to be getting a new sister at this late date, but on the other hand, it's also pretty cool. And a lot less weird than it would be if, say, my mom had actually gestated a new kid at age 54. I hear that's possible these days, but it has so many layers of I don't want to think about it attached to it, it's hard to know where to begin. So let's not. Adoption. It's a good thing.

Also, now I'm officially a middle child, and I just can't wait to try out all those "middle child" developmental issues I've heard so much about, from books and articles and, lest we forget, Jan Brady. The good news here is that it seems highly unlikely I'll have very many sibling issues with Andrea, being that she's nine and I'm about to be 34; and anyway, if I did, it'd look pretty bad on me, wouldn't it.

This was a fairly difficult adoption process, in part because Andrea is a Mexican citizen and my Mom is a US citizen, living in Mexico (she runs a children's home there, as part of her religious calling -- yes, yes, I know, what happened to me. It's a long story), so there were a lot hoops to jump through before it finally happened. Nevertheless, mom persevered and here we all are, formally expanding the family by one.

So congratulate me, damn you! I have a new sister. And that's just neat.

Posted by john at 03:46 PM | TrackBack

Women at War

I'm wondering if this is the war in which we get rid of the polite fiction that women aren't capable of serving in forward combat positions in the military. The first point to make is that in a war like this one, every position inside Iraq could reasonably have been assumed to be a "front" position -- if you'll recall, there were those couple of weeks in which Iraqi irregulars were whacking at supply convoys as they sped by, and while I'm not a military expert, I'd be guessing that no matter wherever you are, when the enemy is trying to kill you, where you are has suddenly become a front for you.

The second point is that this war has had prominent examples of women serving and fighting with equal facility as the men. In the comment thread of the post I made about the Marine reservist shocked to find out that Marines kill people, someone called Stephen Funk a "pussy" for his position. I deleted the reference, not only because it's a rather pedestrian insult, but because inasmuch as American and British women are pulling their weight out there in Iraq, so the insult literally makes no sense. If "fighting like a girl" means blasting the hell out of advancing Iraqis until your ammo runs out, as Pfc Lynch so famously did, we should all fight like girls.

I'm sexist enough to note that I'd personally have a vague, rather irrational preference that women not be placed in direct combat positions, but I'll note that my reasoning here has nothing to do with what I understand are the official reasons against it, which is a presumed male superiority in size and strength or whatever. I speak from personal experience that this presumption is just plain wrong. My wife is three inches taller than I am and demonstrably stronger as well; the idea that I am fit for combat duty while she is not is entirely stupid.

My reasons come down to two mostly indefensible positions -- one, the desire not to see women shot up like Swiss cheese in combat (which is entirely sexist, and considering how many women are civilian casualties of combat, really tremendously futile), and two, men are more expendable since they don't actually, you know, grow babies. One of the big stories prior to the war was how so many soldiers were storing their sperm so that if they were killed (or just had their sexual organs blasted off, I suppose), they could still father children. A woman, by contrast, can't just leave her uterus frozen in a lab somewhere to be defrosted and used, should she not make it back home alive (she could leave behind her eggs, but from what I understand extracting eggs is neither as simple or easy as, ahem, extracting male gametes in quantity).

This is a wholly irrational position because in a nation of some 280 million, whose population is not in decline and is unlikely to decline any time in the next century, the placement of women in military combat positions is not at all likely to impede the production of future little citizens to any significant degree (and, of course, looking at women solely in reproductive terms is a fine way to get a punch in the eye). But as I said, I don't claim for this to make any sort of rational sense; nevertheless, when someone says "Women in Combat," some weird part of my brain says "but they're more reproductively useful! Send a man!" I can't explain it. But there it is.

My indefensible leanings aside, if women want to be on the front lines, I don't see at this late point any reasonable rationale against it. Again, at this point in time, it's merely a polite fiction that they don't fight on the line, and the thing about polite fictions is that they are inevitably condescending to someone, and in this case, it's to women in uniform. Personally, I wouldn't want to condescend to a woman in uniform; I'm pretty sure she could kick my ass. Obviously, this makes my larger point.

Posted by john at 08:56 AM | TrackBack

April 09, 2003

Note to Canada

Dear Canada:

Please stop shunting your cold-ass refridgerated Arctic air in my direction. You know I love you, but, damn.

Thanks.

Love and kisses,

JS

Posted by john at 07:12 PM | TrackBack

For the Record

As most of you know, I would rather attempt to swallow a live, angry wolverine in a single gulp than vote for George Bush for just about anything, much less President of the United States. I consider him basically an incompetent largely surrounded by smug apparatchiks of dubious morality.

So you can believe me when I say to you: His removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq is an unambiguous good thing in itself, for which he deserves thanks, and the appropriate respect for his decision to do it, and his focus to follow through.

I don't doubt the all-too-near future will offer me numerous opportunities to get riled up at his general disastrousness as the Chief Executive of the United States, and as for my confidence that he can manage the rebuilding of Iraq... well, we'll just have to see. However, from now to the end of time you won't hear me say that the man never did anything right. He did, and what he did right has a pretty big thing. And were I ever to meet him, I would say to him: Fine job with Saddam. You did well.

No, it's not painful in the least to say that. What would have been painful would have been to have to say, well, you screwed up on the Saddam thing, too. Because the implications of that -- for our troops, for our country, and for the planet in general -- would have been immeasurably bad. I can live with Dubya having done a good job with Saddam. Happily.

I'm still not voting him. Not even close. But I'm not going to let that get in the way of recognizing the fact he's done something good for the world.

Posted by john at 06:24 PM | TrackBack

Is It War?

Leaving aside the pedantic strategy of consulting a dictionary for a definition, here's the question: Does what's happening in Iraq actually qualify as a war in itself? I wonder.

Primarily, it's because the span of fighting has been awfully short. From first strike to occupation of Baghdad, it's been three weeks. The "hard" part of the war, which is to say taking operational control of the enemy's stronghold, is done. Three weeks is sufficient time to get a lot done in a war -- Nazi Germany blitzkrieged its way through much of Western Europe in a similar span of time -- but it's not very frequently the entire war itself. Operationally speaking, this is one of the shortest wars on record, shorter (in the sense of from first shot to last) than even the first Gulf War, itself a model of brevity. In one sense, I guess you could say this is simply another example of the production and manufacturing superiority of the US: No one makes a war faster than the Red White and Blue. Our assembly line for these things is frighteningly efficient.

Of course, no one ever said wars had to be long. Indeed, during the Cold War, the going line was that the entire of World War III would last just as long as it takes for an ICBM to arc over the pole. Granted. Even so, in a real-world sense, "war" isn't just a condition of military activity but also a matter of national psychological adjustment, and a three-week war isn't going to do that -- It's a shot of adrenaline jammed into the cerebral cortex of the national psyche, but adrenaline wears off. As some have noted, this is a war where the national willingness for material sacrifice to support the war was not only not implied but discouraged -- no one is rationing, no one is buying war bonds, no one is told that when they ride alone they are riding with Saddam. The only things Americans have been asked to sacrifice recently have been their personal liberties (which, ironically, are things that worldwide are on a continual scarcity basis). I'd rather ration sugar, personally.

The more logical response here is that obviously what's going on in Iraq is not a war, but merely a campaign in a war that begun on 9/11 -- the famed neocon transformational war of the Middle East. And this makes sense. Three weeks is enough not time for a psychological transformation, but 19 months sure is, and anyone who doubts that the US is psychologically a different place than it was on September 10, 2001 is ignorant to an embarrassing degree. Saddam found this out on the tip of a JDAM, while France is likely to get a few additional economic and political lessons on this one as well before everything is sussed out.

(I don't say this last one as a newly-transformed frog-hater; I like France and the French as much as I ever have (which is to say, I'm categorically indifferent). The French did what the French do, which is to pursue their own self-interest; what they failed to appreciate was that the United States and its citizens are now less inclined to be forgiving of self-interest when it conflicts with our self-interest, because the motivating factors of our self-interest -- revenge and national security -- are adjudged to be rather more consequential than France's reasons -- mulish, reflexive opposition to the US and incomprehensible Euro-centered diplomatic rigmarole.)

My major problem with Iraq being the second campaign in a wider, undeclared Middle East war is simply that: It's an undeclared war, the contours, goals and designs of which are secretive and hidden, not from our putative enemies -- believe me, Syria and Iran know they're next -- but from the us, the American people (and in a larger and to my mind far less critical sense -- sorry guys -- the rest of the Western world).

If Iraq is indeed just part of a larger war, it's a larger war that the American public is being told doesn't exist (just ask Ari Fleischer), which means that once again the Dubya administration is telling us that we don't need to know the details. And either we don't need to know the details because the Administration is doing its patronizing, paternalistic "trust us, we know what we're doing" thing, which is insulting and scary (and of course, so often wrong), or we don't need to know because they don't really know what they're doing and there's no point burdening us with their lack of insight. This is also insulting and scary, but in entirely different ways, and given the constantly surprised, backtracking, "I meant to do that" nature of this Administration, is the one I'd personally suspect is in effect. Either way you slice it, it's troubling that our government's war intentions are probably more transparent to our eventual enemies than to its citizens.

On the other hand, maybe the Iraq thing simply is its own thing. In which case, we're back to the original question: What is it? It's too small for a war, too big for a battle, and too singular for a campaign. Is there a word for something inbetween all these things? Maybe now is a good time to consult the dictionary.

Posted by john at 10:19 AM | TrackBack

April 08, 2003

I Am a Science Fiction Convention Virgin

Oh, before I forget: I'm giving serious thought to attending Torcon 3 this Labor Day Weekend. It is this year's host of the World Science Fiction Convention, at which they give out the Hugos, and I think it might be a fun introduction for me into the world of SF fandom. Also, Toronto is a nice town.

Having said that, I am -- what's the best way to put this -- a complete SF Con virgin. I know, I know, hard to believe. And yet there it is. Well, there was that one time I went to a Star Trek convention. But I went as a reporter! I was working! I interviewed Armin Shimerman, for God's sake! So I couldn't actually soak in all the SF-y goodness. I was on the clock.

Basically, if I go, I don't wish to comport myself as an ass, at least not unintentionally. So those of you who have attended an SF Con or two who might wish to pass along your words of wisdom about what I can expect and should steel myself for, please do so in the comments or in e-mail, and tell all your friends to come by and offer their advice as well.

See, I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a virgin. And I want to make sure I know enough so that when it comes time for my first time, well, that it's, you know, special. So there you have it. Please, be gentle.

Posted by john at 03:45 PM | TrackBack

Random Crap

* First off, you all realize that if Saddam is in fact dead, we're six weeks away from the End of the World. Please refer to the seminal film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for all the details. The truly ironic thing about this is that relations between the US and Canada at the moment are very nearly as bad as they are in that film, not in the least because Canada actually hasn't repeatedly apologized for Bryan Adams.

* Got word from Tor today that Old Man's War has been slotted into a May 2004 release, slightly later than the late 2003/early 2004 release Tor had been mulling over. I'll need to go through the site and update references, but for now, you've heard it here first. I'm not known as being the world's most patient man, but I'm actually pretty good with this release date, since previously there's was a chance that OMW and The Book of the Dumb would be released right on top of each other. That would have been no good because I can't reasonably expect people to buy two books of mine in the same month, no matter how much guilt I apply. However, now they'll be six months apart -- more than enough time for people to have save up their pennies once more. Everybody wins!

* The Movable Type - increased readership thing is definitely confirmed -- I'm now operating at double the unique visits per day than I got pre-MT even on weekdays, which is pretty neat (and doesn't even count the RSS feed access). I wonder if other people who switch over to MT have noticed a similar bump in traffic with a switchover.

On the flip side of this, the amount of spam I get also seems to have doubled in the last couple of weeks as well -- about 250 pieces of junk mail daily on my spam trap accounts and another 50 or daily on my main account. Yes, I actually get 300 pieces of spam a day. And yet, I still don't want to buy a Dale Earnhardt commemorative wrench set! I wonder if people also have noticed a corresponding spam increase after they switch.

Back to work. Done with Scandalous Women, now I'm onto Inventors of Fads. Yes, it is a truly random life I lead, thanks for asking.

Posted by john at 03:29 PM | TrackBack

Morbid Thought for the Day

Phone meetings and essays to write on Scandalous Women, so contributions here will probably fairly light today. But I leave you with the following question:

I am I the only one whose first impulse, when he doesn't see any of his New York friends on his IM list, is to click over to the CNN site?

Discuss.

Posted by john at 10:10 AM | TrackBack

April 07, 2003

Defense of the Flag

As anyone who reads this knows, I'm no fan of the new Georgia flag, which despite having the virtue of not being based on the Confederate Battle Jack is still steeped in Confederate imagery. Be that as it may, a reader forwarded me a link to a floor speech by Georgia Rep. Bobby Franklin, arguing for the new flag at the expense of the 1956 Battle Jack flag. Franklin, an admitted "Southern Heritage" sort of dude, has some very interesting things to say about the Confederate Battle Jack flag which he had previously supported, including the following "Nixon to China" moment which I will pull out here:

"Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure -- a failure of conscience and courage -- is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage."

Here's Rep. Franklin's entire speech.

"Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to explain why HB 773 is an excellent means to bring reconciliation, healing, and unity to our state.

"In 1993, when Governor Miller proposed eliminating the Confederate Battle Flag from our state flag, Southern heritage concerns lead me to consider running for the legislature. In 1994 I did run unsuccessfully, but then was elected in 1996.

"In 2001, I voted against changing the flag. In the next legislative session I sponsored a bill calling for a referendum. This session I introduced HR 1, calling for a referendum.

"My motives for defending the use of the Confederate battle flag have always been totally unrelated to race; I have simply regarded it as an honorable symbol of Southern heritage.

"However, political reality now argues against returning its imagery to our state flag.

"The General Assembly is the place to resolve the flag issue. The governor's call for a non-binding referendum means this responsibility will ultimately devolve upon us.

"So let us decide now. Let us rise to the challenge of leadership. Let us lay aside the past. Let us lay aside prejudice, partisanship, and politics. Let us bring healing, reconciliation, and unity so that we may focus on making Georgia a better place for all our citizens.

"Let me ask you four simple questions:

"1. Is it not true that the political campaign leading up to the referendum is not likely to be characterized by intellectually honest debate and enlightened discussion that will bring us together as one people?

"2. Is it not true that the far greater likelihood is that such a campaign will drag us through the mire of racially-charged and racially-divisive demagoguery from extremists on both sides?

"3. Is it not true that a referendum over the flag will be counterproductive, not only in terms of stirring up racial animus, but also in terms of negative national publicity injurious to our business climate in the midst of an economic crisis?

"4. Is it not true that this entire process is a distraction and a diversion that interferes with our concentration on the more essential issues of education, economic development, environmental quality and transportation?

"As a proud Southerner who is a former member and camp commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and while continuing to believe that the battle flag is not inherently a symbol of racism, oppression or hatred, I have gained a better understanding of why it is deeply disturbing and offensive to many.

"There is a reasonable alternative which will allow us to honor Southern heritage without including the Battle Flag image on our state flag.

"To those who argue that the battle flag has been misappropriated and misused by hate groups and white supremacists, but that it is only a symbol of heritage, I offer three answers:

"1. Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure -- a failure of conscience and courage -- is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage.

"2. Even if those who argue that the battle flag is a symbol of hate, etc. are absolutely wrong in their interpretation of history, can we not have the grace and the sensitivity to be considerate of their feelings? In order to honor our ancestors and the Confederate war dead and wounded, must we insist on a means that hurts and offends over one-third of our fellow Georgians?

"3. In the Scripture, I Corinthians, Chapter 8, the Apostle Paul discusses things that while not inherently sinful might create a stumbling block or give offense to others. He concludes in the final verse of the chapter, verse 13 "that if eating food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble." The spirit of Christian charity is to surrender my right, even though there is nothing wrong with it, so as not to offend my brother. The analogy is clear: While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Confederate Battle Flag, to some it is the cause of grievous offense. Therefore, in the spirit of Christian charity, let us choose not to offend.

"I ask Southern heritage advocates to search their hearts and be willing to agree to a plan that does not restore the perceived negative and offensive messages associated with the battle flag.

"I also ask those opposed to the use of the battle flag to be willing to compromise so as not to alienate, anger, and injure citizens of good will who, without negative race-based intent, merely wish to honor their ancestors and heritage.

"Together, as legislators elected to do the peoples' will, if we act in good faith and with mutual respect, in the spirit of charity, we can achieve a solution that will satisfy the concerns of all our citizens.

"What do I propose?

"1. That the General Assembly repeal the current state flag.

"2. That the General Assembly adopt the following flag. (He held up a photo of his Stars and Bars design.)

"This flag is specifically based upon the first national flag of the Confederacy, popularly known as the "Stars and Bars," with the Georgia state seal and the phrase "In God We Trust" added.

"If the true motive of "heritage advocates" is to honor the South and those who fought for Southern independence, what better symbol than an actual national flag of the Confederacy with reasonable and timely modifications?

"Unlike the Battle Flag, the national flag has never flown at a Klan rally or at a lynching. Thus, it does not carry the racially-charged and racially-offensive perceptions of the Battle Flag.

"This is an attractive design around which all Georgians of mutual respect can rally.

"Finally, let me stress that returning to the pre-1956 flag, or some new variation thereof, is absolutely not a satisfactory compromise. There is absolutely nothing specifically and uniquely Southern about the pre-1956 flag. Some proclaim, and the media seems to promote, the idea that its red and white stripes are taken from the Stars and Bars. However, there is at best only an oblique and tenuous connection. Without the context of the actual Stars and Bars alongside for illustration, these stripes are merely generic. They could well appear on any state or national flag without reference to Southern history. Certainly just as good a case could be made that it derives from the Austrian flag.

"Adopting a flag that is not clearly Southern will guarantee ongoing unhappiness and uproar. Many will view it as capitulation, not compromise. Let us avoid this by adopting a flag that while distinctly Southern is free of negative, racially-divisive imagery."

Posted by john at 04:18 PM | TrackBack

Mission to Mars

Oh, hey, look at this -- a short article I wrote for the Rough Guide quarterly magazine on what to pack for a Vacation on Mars. I wasn't aware that they had actually put it online.

Posted by john at 12:44 PM | TrackBack

New Review at IndieCrit

Why don't you go read it? All the cool people are reading it. You want to be cool, right?

Posted by john at 11:19 AM | TrackBack

A Briefing From the Information Minister

"In an apparent show of defiance, Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf stood in the streets of Baghdad Monday morning amid a U.S. raid on the capital, issuing denials of coalition advances... He denied certain buildings, such as the al Rashid hotel, were under coalition control. 'The Americans, they always depend on a method what I call ... stupid, silly. All I ask is check yourself. Do not in fact repeat their lies.'" -- "Sahaf: U.S. troops will be burned," CNN, 4/7/2003

Reporter: So, Minister, the US says they've taken over another presidential palace.

Sahaf: The Americans infect us all with their putrid filth. Their so-called advances are illusions and shadows. We have gutted them like the fish our noble Saddam hauls out of the river.

Reporter: Well, they're actually broadcasting from the Palace. See? Look, there's a US Marine waving in front of a collapsed statue of Saddam right there.

Sahaf: How easily you are taken in by their prevarications. It is obvious that is in fact an image manufactured on a sound stage in Hollywood. Undoubtedly they are filming "Wheel of Fortune" right next door. That gaunt temptress Vanna White is even now turning over a vowel, and some flatulently sedentary housewife from St. Olaf is winning an oven. Listen. You can hear her squealing in joy through the cheap plasterboard of the Marines' soundstage.

Reporter: Actually, I think that's the sound of some of the elite Republican Guard surrendering. See, look.

Sahaf: Just because you are taken in by advanced computerized special effects does not mean I have to be. Our Republican Guard would never surrender. Even now, just a single one of our immortal fighters is slaughtering an entire division of American Marines at the airport we let their foolish forces take in order to lure them into a false sense of security. And he's doing it with nothing more than a ball of twine, some hard cheese, and a kitten. They are like a legion of MacGuyvers, our Republican Guards.

Reporter: Minister, I'm getting a report that Marines have in fact entered this very building.

Sahaf: Why do you repeat their despicable nonsense? The Americans will never enter this building. The citizens of this city would not allow it. They would rise up, yes, even the toddlers and the infants, among whom even the newborns can disembowel one of their vaunted Army Rangers with one swift thrust of his chubby fist.

Reporter: The Marines seem to be carrying you away even as we speak, Minister.

Sahaf: It is all lies. I am stationary. It is the room that is receding.

Posted by john at 08:43 AM | TrackBack

April 06, 2003

Old Friends

It's been old friend week here at the Scalzi Compound, as pals of mine have renewed their acquaintance with me after separations and silences ranging from several months to the better part of an entire decade. I don't know why this week has occasioned such a repatriation of friendly affection; perhaps last week was National Google Your Old High School Pal Week and I just didn't get the memo.

There's something exciting about catching up with someone you used to know so long ago that there's a good possibility that the person they are today hardly resembles the person you knew back then. I myself am an enthusiastic exhumer of long-lost friendships; I will occasionally call up someone from elementary school just to see how they are. That's always fun because, of course, they have no freakin' clue who I am talking down the line to them -- I like to think I retain many youthful qualities at age 33 years 11 months, but the vocal timbre of a second grader is not one of those qualities. And if you think I'm kidding about occasionally ringing up, say, my best friend from the second grade, here he is:

Kyle Brodie, now a Deputy Attorney General for the Department of Justice out there in Los Angeles. He prosecuted the guy who killed Ennis Cosby, so watch your step in the City of the Angels. He also plays drums, rather better than I do (he was a professional musician at one point in a band called Nothing Painted Blue. He wore his hair longer then). I call him up roughly every five years or so, just to check in. He's usually very polite, although I do wonder if he thinks I'm a little insane. The answer is: Well, of course. What other sort of person randomly calls up his best friend from second grade? Fortunately it's a harmless sort of insane, which is good, because Kyle has the prerogative to get all Ashcroft on my ass. And no one wants that.

The many-years-later-reconnection often has a small tinge of guilt to it, because generally speaking there's usually no good reason that you stopped talking to the people who were once so close to you. In each of the cases where an old friend reconnected, there hadn't been a falling out or even a lessening of affection; it's just that whole "life" thing getting the best of you. You would think that, given the ceaseless exhortations of the phone companies to get on the damn horn and prop up their failing long-distance businesses already, more of us would keep in better touch. But we don't.

Fact is, from the ages of 18 to 35, it's just damned hard to keep track of people here in the US -- we move all over the place. The phone numbers and e-mail addresses I have for people are typically ones from two phones and four e-mail addresses ago. One of the primary reasons I got the Scalzi.com domain was simply so I would never have to change my damned e-mail again. Then there are the other usual excuses of work and family and new friends and just not wanting to call because the prison only allows you to call collect, and it's not like you wouldn't have enough to explain about your circumstances already without trying to slip that one by. So many excuses, but so very few of them any good.

The secret, I've found, is simple: Assume that the friendship has survived. These people are your friends, after all. If you're calling, they'll be glad you're calling. If you get the call (or the e-mail, or whatever), you should be glad to hear from them. Do the obligatory "So this is what I've been doing over the last decade or so" to get them caught up on the story so far and then just reinsert them back into the calculus of your life. Your friends are your friends, and friendship is always contemporary.

I love that these old friends of mine are coming back into my life, especially because it coincides with a time when I seem to be making quality new friends as well. A new friend who I sincerely hope I will one day have the honor to call an old friend wrote recently: "I want to discover beauty and strangeness and kinship in new friends." Rediscovering all of these things in old friends is just as sweet. It's truly a good life when you have both.

Posted by john at 12:59 AM | TrackBack

April 05, 2003

Lessons From Heinlein

I was re-reading the postscript I had on Old Man's War just before I sold it, and which I subsequently removed from the Web site. I think it's interesting enough as a discussion of the mechanics of writing that I'll go ahead and repost it here. Astute observers will note that I wrote it before I actually sold OMW, and so the entire discussion of writing successful SF is a little presumptuous. On the other, it is sold now, so there you have it. The first graph, talks about OMW a little bit, but the meat of article -- what I call Heinlein's Theory of Characters -- is generally applicable. Anyway, here it is.

Lessons From Heinlein

A number of readers have commented that Old Man's War is strongly reminiscent of two classic science fiction novels: Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. In both cases, the comparison is flattering, although in the case of Forever War, it's an entirely coincidental thing, since I haven't read the novel and (horrific as it is for an sf reader and writer to admit) I'm only vaguely aware of the plot. I'm aware there's a war going on, and I think there's the matter of long distances taking a long time to travel, but beyond that… nope. Drawing a blank (although I have read other Haldeman stories and have enjoyed them, which is how I know the comparison is flattering).

The Starship Troopers correlation, on the other hand, is emphatically not a coincidence, since Old Man's War is modeled after that novel in several ways. The most obvious is of course the military setting and the introduction of a starry-eyed protagonist into that milieu, and the subsequent progression from recruit to grunt to seasoned veteran. More generally, however, Old Man's War follows roughly the format of a number of Heinlein "juvenile" novels (of which Starship Troopers was one originally): It's meant to have the "boy's own adventure" feel that RAH jammed into those books. One could easily say it's a classic "juvy," just with a 75-year-old as its hero.

I adopted the "juvy" format for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I like the format, which lends itself to classically linear storytelling and a pace that allows the reader to get comfortable with characters and situations. Second, I like the irony of marrying the format to the story of a senior citizen, whose motivations and interests are emphatically not the same as those of, say, Starship Troopers' Johnny Rico, who is fresh out of high school when he joins the military.

The flip side of so consciously appropriating such a well-known sf format as Heinlein's juveniles is that Old Man's War cannot be accused of being breathlessly original, either in concept or execution. I think that's a fair enough assessment. To speak of novel in musical terms, it's best described as a variation on a theme or an improvisational riff off a classic tune. I don't think there's anything wrong with approaching a science fiction novel in this way; writers intentionally chain themselves to established formats all the time, or reimagine old concepts and old stories in new, subtly altered ways. Given the persistence of Heinlein juvies on the bookshelves, there's a market for the format. I think readers will note the points of departure from the original formula and judge them on how successfully the riffing works.

In a general sense, I think Heinlein is a fine writing teacher -- his enduring popularity after many of his sf contemporaries find themselves slipping out of print suggests there's something about the writing that is atemporally appealing; that is to say, as fresh today as when it was first written. And whatever that is, it's worth study and worth emulating (so long as it's married to one's own individual narrative gifts; no point writing exactly like the man, after all).

But one has to be careful not to focus on the wrong lessons. One of science fiction's misfortunes is that what many people take away from Heinlein is the man's penchant for "hard SF" wonkiness and his polyamorous libertarianism. Few of the writers who try to replicate these aspects of Heinlein's corpus do it very well, and indeed, with the latter of these subjects, Heinlein himself had a tendency to go overboard. In any event, not everyone likes reading (or writing) hard SF or polyamorous libertarianism.

More enduring lessons from Heinlein come in how the man handled characters -- both in how they existed in his writing and how they talked and interacted with other people. If I could boil down what I see as Heinlein's Theory of Characters. It would come to these four lessons:

1. Your Characters Doesn't Exist in the Story; Your Story Exists For Your Characters. Starship Troopers concerns itself with obligation and duty, but it's about Johnny Rico's development as a person who recognizes the importance of these qualities. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress addresses freedom and the cost of achieving it, but in the context of the relationships between its main characters (which include a self-aware computer). Friday mulls over what makes humans human by providing us a warmly human heroine who worries that she's not human at all. The character is the context; Heinlein books that are more about ideas than people (such as I Will Fear No Evil or Job: A Comedy of Justice) aren't anywhere as good.

2. Make Room in Your Characters For Your Reader. One of Heinlein's great talents was creating characters that the readers felt they could be, either because the character was a more or less average person (Troopers' Johnny Rico is a perfect example of this), or because even if they were special in some way they were still nevertheless subject to uncertainty and doubt (Friday fits here). Heinlein was also smart about immersing his reader into his characters by degrees, rather than frontloading the character development and dumping a complete character into the reader's lap before the reader knew how to handle it. It's like boiling a frog: Do it slowly enough and the frog doesn't realize it's in hot water. By the same token, if you get your reader comfortable with your character bit by bit, by the end you can do anything you want and the reader will willingly follow.

3. Make Your Characters Talk Like People Talk. This is not to say that you populate your characters' speech with "ummms" and "uuuuhs" and fractured sentences and grammar. But you do help your readers by not torturing them with strange usage. Nearly all of Heinlein's books feature recognizably contemporary language usage, and that fact is a great part of their appeal -- the reader can focus on the story rather than the language used to tell it. This is probably the lesson that will be the most ignorable, since not every story wants or needs language with an easy-to-read, contemporary feel. But on the other hand, unless you've got a reason to make your language difficult, don't.

4. Make Your Characters Act Like People Act. A corollary to lesson three: Give them doubts, fears, amusements, petty fears, indecisions, conflicting thoughts, space to learn and grow. This note is especially evident in Heinlein's juveniles, which makes sense because their "heroes" are meant to be teenagers. But Heinlein does it with his adult novels, too -- Valentine Michael Smith famously has to learn how to laugh in Stranger in a Strange Land and copes with a continual failure to fundamentally grasp human nature. The plot of Friday depends on its character's doubts and needs. Characters who are recognizably people are a comfort to reader, since it implicitly suggests that extraordinary things can happen even when one is having ordinary emotions.

Now, bear in mind that not every story is going to be well served by this Theory of Characters. One major science fiction classic that would be flatly ruined by it would be Frank Herbert's Dune, an outsized story if there ever was one, in which even the primary character of Paul Atreides is ultimately little more than a very mobile and integral chess piece. One also shudders to think of the mess this theory would have made of the Lord of the Rings books.

But by attempting to incorporate the ideas found in this theory, your average writer has the opportunity to try something interesting: Incorporate big events into stories on a human scale. Heinlein did this on a regular basis, even in his juvenile fiction -- and indeed the format of his juvenile books feels implicitly designed to support this character theory.

This theory also informs Old Man's War. It touches on topics such as the utility of war, the responsibilities we have towards others (particularly those we don't know and will probably never know), and the uses of both youth and old age. But ultimately what it's about (or what I think it's about; as a writer I cheerfully acknowledge that readers don't have to get out of the novel what I wrote into it) are the relationships that make us fully human. One of my favorite comments about the novel came my friend Erin, who read an early version of the novel and noted that the novel comes on like a sci-fi action thriller but is really a love story. This is exactly right and I was thrilled that this fact came through in the writing.

Whether Old Man's War is actually successful is another matter entirely, and I'll leave that up to the reader to decide. Certainly it doesn't try to be exactly like Heinlein. For better or worse, I'm my own writer, and even if I could write exactly like Heinlein, why would I want to? He left enough books lying around. But as I've said, I'm happy to play with some of the forms he's championed and see what I can do with them. If you're thinking of writing a book, think about fiddling with them as well. You might be surprised (and happy) with what you come up with.

Posted by john at 12:15 PM | TrackBack

The John Scalzi Store

Just a quick note: I've updated my Published Works page, so now it's current and includes links to every book I have out, including The Rough Guide to the Universe, which is available for pre-order. Buy now and avoid the Memorial Day rush!

Posted by john at 11:31 AM | TrackBack

April 04, 2003

Another Georgia Flag

A reader was so good as to send me a link to this article about this proposed new flag for the State of Georgia, which as you may know has had a contentious time of it recently with its flags. For those who don't know, in 2001, Georgia ditched the state flag it had been flying since 1956, which prominently featured the Confederate Battle Flag (just in case anyone should think that this switch didn't have to do with white folks gettin' all angrified at them there black folk, it should be noted that the switch to the Battle Flag design coincided with Georgia being ordered to desegregate its schools), for a flag that featured it only as a tiny historical element. This enraged the "Southern Heritage" folks to no end, and since then there's been a push to bring back the 1956 flag by way of referendum.

This new flag is designed to sidestep bringing back the battle flag design in an interesting way. The Georgia Legislature could adopt this new flag immediately, and then about a year from now, there's to be a referendum asking Georgians if they like the flag. If they do, it stays. If they don't, then they'll have another referendum on whether to bring back the Battle Jack flag (or the one that flew before it, which, as it happens, was also modeled after a Confederate flag). Obviously, the lege will be banking on the hope people will like the new flag just fine.

I think the new flag is interesting because it plays to both the pro- and anti- Battle Jack crowd in a really cynical way. For the "anti-" crowd, it has the attraction of not being the Battle Jack, which is, of course, the internationally-recognized symbol of small-brained racist white folk. But for the "pro-" crowd, it has the attraction of still being explicitly modeled after a Confederate flag -- the "Stars and Bars," the first flag of the Confederacy, and the model for the Georgia state flag that flew from 1872 through 1956.

The "Stars and Bars" is not nearly as infamous as the Battle Jack, but it's still a nice Confederate memorial flapping in the breeze, representing the State of Georgia, and even the smallest-brained of the racist white folk can appreciate that if they just keep their yaps shut about it, this subtle bit of Confederania will slip right by all the folks who get het up about the Battle Jack. The "In God We Trust" part, I imagine, is just there to sweeten the pot for the approval of God-fearing partisans on both sides.

In short, in one fell swoop, this new flag plays on the ignorance of some, the racism of others, and the cheap religious sentiment of yet a third subset between the first two. Make no mistake, this new flag is just as racist and hateful as the Battle Jack flag, specifically because of the fact that it is just as modeled on a Confederate flag as the 1956 flag was, and all Confederate iconography (or vexillography, to be more accurate here) equally represents the only government in the history of the world that specifically encoded the enslavement of human beings into its Constitution. Were I a Georgian, I'd be no more excited to have this flag flying across my state than I would the Battle Jack.

My correspondent wonders how long it would take for this flag to generate a lawsuit. I don't imagine it will be very long. I suspect the "In God We Trust" part would be the bit that gets the action, because it's not a bit of language traditionally associated with Georgia (whose state motto, ironically in this case, is "Wisdom, Justice and Moderation"), so its sudden inclusion here is fairly questionable. Sure, it's on our money (added in at the height of Godless Communism fear-mongering, incidentally), but I don't know how well that argument would stand up in court.

Mind you, it's not my state, so I don't have to live with this flag or any other Georgian flag. If you Georgians want to go on fetishizing the dumbass Confederacy, thereby reminding a significant portion of your population that you continue to be proud of a period of time in which they would have had the same personal rights as a table lamp, by all means, go right ahead. As I've said before, I prefer my small-brained racists clearly marked. This will help.

Update: A correspondent from Georgia writes to note that "In God We Trust" is actually on the current flag as well. And so it is! Interesting.

Posted by john at 05:53 PM | TrackBack

Posters for Dubya Haters

Having won the hearts of many right-wing folks yesterday with my excoriation of the Marine reservist who didn't know that the Marines occasionally kill people, let me just as quickly alienate them by promoting my pal Ted Rall's latest bit of Dubya bashing: Downloadable "Bush is an Unelected Usurping Warmongering Nitwit" posters. Choose from two conservative-enraging designs:

Before you post comments I'll inevitably have to delete (unless they are truly creative): Yes, yes, I know Ted is an affront to all right-thinking patriotic Americans, and by linking to him I'm showing my own personal contempt for those who are fighting right now for my freedom, and so on and et cetera. Please refer to this document for my response. Thanks!

Posted by john at 11:09 AM | TrackBack

Music is the Message

Over on IndieCrit, I review a Christian album and use part of the review to discuss why by and large Christian music doesn't work for me (hint: It's not because it's about God). I think it's worth a read. I've opened the comments on that particular entry, so if you've got comments, go ahead and put them there.

Posted by john at 10:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 03, 2003

Your Gratuitous Link of the Day

Here's a good essay about growing up at age 36.

Grabber quote:

"You never know, until you suddenly aren't alone, how much of your old life was about loneliness."

Posted by john at 11:17 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

They Shoot People, Don't They?

"'They don't really advertise that they kill people,' Funk said. 'I didn't really realize the full implications of what I was doing.'" -- Marine Reservist Stephen Funk, on why he refused to report for active duty, "Marine: 'I refuse to kill'," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/2/03

You have to be a really interesting sort of ignorant not to know that the Marines kill people from time to time. Your first hint: The big rifle so many of those Marines carry around. Your second hint: All those movies, books and television shows, widely available to the general public, in which Marines are shown, you know, killing people. Your third hint: The fact that the Marines are widely acknowledged to be a branch of the military of the United States, and militaries are likewise widely known, by most people who are smart enough to stand upright on two legs, to kill other people on occasion (typically members of other nations' militaries, though sometimes they're not so picky, depending on country and context).

This rather goopy column on Stephen Funk describes a kid who got over 1400 on his SATs and got accepted to a number of excellent colleges, including my own University of Chicago, which is widely known (when it is widely known at all) for being the sort of school that remarkably stupid people don't usually have high on their wish list of collegiate destinations (Funk eventually landed at University of Southern California, which is not nearly as an encouraging indication of intelligence, but never mind that right now). In short, Funk is portrayed as a very smart kid, not the sort of person who, for example, needs a reminder that coffee may be hot, so please don't place it near your genitals, or, as another example, that the Marines occasionally go to war and kill people, being that they are an arm of the military.

The column piece suggests that the Marine recruiter filled Funk's head so full of tales of wild adventure and technical training that our young hero couldn't even contemplate the idea that Marines might go to war, which I would expect is true as far as it goes. The armed forces of the US spend a lot of time and money in their recruiting commercials pushing things like skills training, money for college and seeing the world, and less time pushing things like no showers for weeks, endless Meals Ready to Eat and the possibility of having to put a bullet into the gut of someone who wants to do the same thing to you but is slightly less quick on the draw, and who will then go down screaming because you've just turned a large portion of his small intestine into a crimson mess with the consistency of Libby's potted meat food product.

But even then, there's always the indication that the military is not exactly a peaceable organization. Take the Marines recruiting site. On the front page are three pictures, one of which features Marines handling rifles. Put your mouse over the pictures, and Java script pops up text. "Those Who are Warriors. Those Who are Driven. Those Who Belong." Click on "About the Marines" and the text that pops up reads, right from the beginning: "Marines are warriors. Comprised of smart, highly adaptable men and women, the Marine Corps serves as the aggressive tip of the U.S. military spear." The picture on this page is a squad of Marines, rifles sighted and ready to shoot, stalking the photographer. To be strictly accurate on Funk's immediate point, there's nothing on the Marine recruiting site that I can see that specifically says anything about killing people. But on the other hand, all this talk of warriors and pictures of rifles doesn't give the indication one is signing up for day care training, either.

The part of Funk's quote above that rings true is the second part: "I didn't really realize the full implications of what I was doing." This, I believe. I think it's entirely possible to sign up, get into training and then realize, holy crap, am I ever in the wrong place. Moreover, I think there's absolutely no disgrace in realizing that -- indeed, it's better for everyone if you do, because the last thing I would want if I were a Marine would be a squadmate who's not sure he's ready to kill if he absolutely has to. Moral quandaries are fine, just not when an Iraqi Fedayeen is shooting at you wildly from the back of a fast-moving technical. Out with him.

But Funk and others in his situation should place the responsibility for this where it belongs: Not with a fast-talking recruiter, who promises adventure and fun and sort mumbles the fine print about having to shoot people under his breath, but with himself. He may not have realized what he was made of, but he almost certainly knew what he was getting himself into.

Update: More details to flesh out Funk's reasons for wanting out. It's looking less like he didn't know killing was involved. Also, a gratifying admission: "Ultimately, it's my fault for joining in the first place." My respect for Mr. Funk has just gone up a tick or two.

Posted by john at 09:55 AM | Comments (46) | TrackBack

April 02, 2003

Caution: Stupid People At Work

"White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, seeking to put the shortest stamp on the duration of the war, said today that the White House did not consider the war starting with the March 19 aerial attack that targeted a Hussein bunker. Rather, he said, the White House was considering March 20, when troops first entered Iraq, as the official start, followed by the beginning of the massive aerial assault a day later." -- "U.S. Smashes Through Iraqi Lines," The Los Angeles Times, 4/2/2003

Just to be clear: Trying to assassinate a nation's leader via guided missile is not an act of war.

I wonder which egghead over at the White House glommed on the idea that trimming 12 hours off the start of the war is going make that much of a perceptual difference to anyone. Probably the same fellow who had advised Rumsfeld on that "49 miles" thing.

Posted by john at 03:47 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Spat

This is interesting to me: A newgroup thread on the Coke-thowing spat between authors Jo Walton and David Brin. The short introduction to this is that Walton and Brin apparently crossed swords during a panel at this year's Boskone science fiction convention, and then later at a party sponsored by Tor Books (my publisher, as well as the publisher of both Walton and Brin) Walton was sufficiently annoyed with and/or by Brin to douse him with a Coke she had in her hand. Walton blogged the event on her site shortly after it happened; some weeks later Brin found the blog entry and the comments that followed and responded, re-igniting the controversy afresh, and of course since then much of SF fandom and not a few authors have chimed in with their opinions of Walton, Brin and the entire spat. It's a heck of a pile-up.

I have no horse in this particular race; I don't know either Brin or Walton personally and so I have no opinion as to whether Brin deserved his cola shower, or if Walton was justified in administering the same. In a general sense, I try to live my life so that I neither throw nor am the recipient of thrown fizzy, carbonated beverages, and indeed, I encourage each of you to live your life in the same peaceable, non-sticky manner. But it is interesting to me in the sense that I am now a science fiction author (or will be soon enough) and will be entering the community of both of other SF authors and those who read SF; these little squabbles are now within my little sewing circle, as it were, and it's fascinating to see how the dynamics of the interaction work here.

What is especially interesting is not so much the interaction between Walton and Brin (My only comment about the two of them is that each is the gardener of their own crop of karma, and so long as they are tending in a manner that makes them happy, more power to them) but the interaction of the peanut gallery of SF readers and their opinions of one or both of the authors. From what I observe, (popular) science fiction authors inhabit an uncomfortable intersection of reality and celebrity -- notable enough that they're up for grabs about speculation about themselves and their lives, but not such high-grade celebrities that they've developed the psychic callouses that allow those poor people to get on with their lives without collapsing into a heap under the weight of what everyone in the world has to say about them.

In short, they seem prime candidates for being really cheesed off by random burblings from the people who know them from their books and what other people have said about them based on third-hand reports from friends who went to conventions. And of course, what they read on newsgroups and comment threads. Combine that with the fact that SF readers can be, well, not nice, and the fact that writers tend not be the most magnificently socialized of people in the best of circumstances, and it's no wonder SF writers can be a little twitchy.

Not to blame the readers, mind you (please buy my book when it comes out). If two authors hadn't gotten into it in public, all the comment threads simply wouldn't have happened. It's just interesting to watch it all in play.

Posted by john at 01:50 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Right and Wrong

Irony abounds, if you care to look. The Dubya administration's problems in selling its war plan exactly mirror the US troops' problems in implementing the war plan -- in its massive rush forward toward its goal, it left itself vulnerable to sniping from its flanks. The US military is dealing with the problem by killing Iraqi irregulars; the administration is dealing with it by trying the kill the messengers. In both cases, it's far more trouble than expected; not entirely surprisingly, the military is doing a better job of it than the administration.

The interesting thing about the erupting tiff concerning the war plan is not whether the plan has been successful or not -- the fact is, griping aside, the US military is currently in ass-kicking mode in what is still a pretty short and casualty-low pocket war. We may still get the actual killing-and-bombing thing done within a month. The interesting thing is just how bad a job the administration is doing in convincing anyone that the successes of the war have anything to do with it. The current line about this thing seems to be that the troops on the ground are making good progress despite the fact that the administration -- particularly Rumsfeld and his pals -- cut its legs out from under it by underestimating the number of troops needed initially and overestimating just how quickly the Iraqis would fold. This has thrown Rumsfeld into highly visible and somewhat amusing fits, and put the administration in the position of defending what is, from a pragmatic, results-oriented point of view, a pretty successful plan so far.

But isn't that like this administration to have to justify its successes. It comes in part from the growing realization that the boys have done so many things badly (mismanaging the economy, bungling foreign diplomacy, and meting out blunt force trauma to the Bill of Rights are the things that immediatelycome to mind) that any assertion of continuing, ongoing incompetence in any aspect of their organizational purview comes across as sounding just about right.

(Of course, some folks on the hard right seem to think this sort of thing isn't a bug, it's a feature -- by swelling the deficit, going unilateral and hammering on individual rights while they're in power, they make it so less like-minded administrations have to spend most of their time cleaning up their messes rather than pursuing their own agendas. I think this is a very interesting political philosophy, since it seems to incorporate the idea that failure is built-in to the mechanics of their administration (you don't plan to sabotage liberal administrations if you don't expect they will eventually win), which is a refreshing admission of the limitations of their politics. It's either that or the hard right actually feels we as a citizenry are actually better off isolated, in debt and stripped of our rights. Either way, these sorts of maneuvers do not engender trust.)

The more prosaic factor to consider is simply that the Dubyites are reaping what they have sown. When you deal with people in a smug, high-handed manner, they're more inclined not to feel terribly wracked with guilt about messing with you even when you're right. This is why the US had to grovel in the UN for Security Council votes it ultimately didn't get but should have gotten, no grovelling involved, and why Pentagon colonels are now falling over each other to anonymously whack at Rumsfeld as if he were a piñata at a New Yorker inside source party. It's not enough to be right; you need to be right in a way that doesn't make people actively hate you for it.

This is a little factor the Dubyas don't understand, which is why they have such a hard time dealing with it. They really ought to get used to it. It's not going to get any better from here on out.

Posted by john at 10:01 AM | Comments (25) | TrackBack

April 01, 2003

Book Season!

Happy April Fool's Day. I hope you're telling someone a big fat lie even as I type this. I haven't done a major April Fool's prank since the time I convinced the woman who was trying to prank me into thinking she got a new job (she was looking to get a job with me at AOL at the time) that I had taken her seriously and given the job I had open for her to someone else. There's nothing sweeter than pranking those who are trying to prank you, especially when it involves money and/or employment. Alas, these days, the only people I have to prank are the pets, and they're no fun. The cats would just run away and the dog will merely look up at me with her sad, sad eyes, as if to say, but why would you want to prank me? I love you. Stupid unconditional love.

In celebration of April Fool's Day, however, allow me exhume an April Fool's Guide to Pranking that I wrote, um, about seven years ago. And let me just say, good friggin' lord, am I getting old. Enjoy.

Other people are celebrating April Fool's, but April 1 has a different significance for me this year -- it's the opening of book season, the period in which my primary occupation will be grinding through the books I have contracted to write this year. In order to do so, I've largely cleared the deck of most freelance work except for a couple of specific clients who help me cover the mortgage, and I'll be adopting (this is where you may gasp in shock and horror) -- a schedule! Yes, a schedule, because nothing says "bite me, I'm writing" like a set in stone writing routine. Also, without a routine, I tend to flail and panic and instead of writing, I'll give myself over to multiple bouts of first-person-shooter bot deathmatches, which is really unbecoming in a man of my advanced professional stature and level of male pattern baldness.

The two books in question are The Book of the Dumb and the second novel for Tor, which currently is running around without a title -- I had thought of one, but then Patrick Nielsen Hayden, upon hearing it, said "Hmmmm... that sounds like a fantasy title." Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that I'm not writing fantasy, I'm writing Science Fiction, which needs sharp, metallic, reflective pointy titles. Which, although I've never thought about it before, makes perfect sense. A science fiction book, no matter how good it is, isn't going to go anywhere with a title like The Fluffy Ponies in the Candy-Coated Space Station of Love! Which is really too bad, if you ask me. So, title to come.

It's a very interesting time to be writing my particular science fiction novel -- the idea I sold to Tor was of (here's the actual quote) "a diplomatic troubleshooter who solves problems through the use of action scenes and witty dialogue," and at the moment, we're living in a time where both diplomatic troubleshooting and witty dialogue have almost nothing to do with our current administration's plan for resolving thorny international problems (although, to be fair, it's very big on action scenes).

I don't think there's going to be any doubt that the current world situation here on Earth is going to leak into the adventures that will transpire in the book. Not directly, of course -- it's that whole idea of "If you want to send a message, use Western Union" which I whole-heartedly endorse -- but certainly it's food for thought whilst I write.

The temporal appropriateness of writing The Book of the Dumb at this moment in time is of course all too obvious, so I need not belabor the point. Let's just say that for both books, the timing for me is good, almost too good.

Incidentally, regarding The Book of the Dumb, I'll have an announcement to make fairly shortly -- basically, I'll be hoping for some audience participation, and I'm writing up the details for that right now. More is coming, so stay tuned.

So I am actually going to start writing the books today? Well, no -- for all my deck clearing, I've got a couple of barnacles: A couple of assignments for my beloved masters at Official PlayStation Magazine (Hi, Joe!) and a series of additional articles for Uncle John's which will actually take me a couple of weeks to complete. I'll begin writing the novel probably as early as tomorrow, with the writing on Dumb to commence after I complete the assignments for Uncle John (they're being published by the same people, so I'm sure they'd endorse this); in the meantime for Dumb I have some concrete setting-up exercises I need to do (which as I said, I'll be sharing with the rest of you soon).

What it means that from now through the end of September, I'm primarily in book mode. I'm very excited about this of course -- the natural habitat of a writer is to be writing books. Well, that and scrounging toothpick-speared finger foods from wine-and-cheese author events (other author's events, of course). Unfortunately, I'd have to commute for those. Guess I'll just have to write instead.

Posted by john at 10:50 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack