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May 31, 2003

Blogchild

Oh, look: Someone crediting me for inspiring him to start a blog: POV:KevinQ2000 Blog. Go visit him and make him feel valued, why don't you.

Does this mean that if you appeal to my vanity and say I've inspired you to write, that I'll link to you? Maybe so. I'm not immune to flattery.

That's a hint.

Posted by john at 02:58 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wrap Up on "Tax Cuts, Feh"

Well, that was fun. It's always interesting when one strikes a nerve on both sides of the online political debate. Through the comments thread and other sites, some ideas and concepts have come up which I'd like to spend a second addressing here on the surface level, so here we go:

* Glenn Reynolds points to bloggers who note that the spin off the "$44 trillion deficit" in most media seems to imply that it's Dubya himself who is going to be responsible for creating it, when in fact the largest segment of the estimated deficit comes from a different source entirely (namely Medicare/Social Security) and not from Bush's cuts and spending package. One of the bloggers Glenn links to suggests that the Financial Times story that started the uproar gets it wrong from the beginning, although this fellow's selective use of ellipses (the same scourge that so recently inflamed the blogoverse against Maureen Dowd), conveniently excises out the section right up top that notes specifically that much of the debt comes from "healthcare and retirement costs." So at the very least the FT's spin is not egregiously out there. The CNN story to which this guy points to also notes the source of most of the estimate deficit fairly high up in the article. The guy seems mostly worked up about headlines, but I've always found the complaint about overly simplified headlines a little silly, because headlines are meant to be simplified and draw you in to read the rest of the story.

Be that as it may, I wouldn't blame Bush for portions for debt he's not responsible for (there were a lot of problems before came around). My main thrust was that I don't see how the tax cuts we're getting right now make things any better now or down the road; these cuts won't be the primary deficit source down the line, but they won't help. And given the slant of the cuts toward the wealthier segments of the population, I don't see how it well serves the immediate economic purpose of stimulating the economy today.

* A lot of folks in my comments board, as it happens, did note that Social Security/Medicare was the primary component of the estimated deficit, and suggested (since many of the folks who chose to comment funneled in from conservative-leaning sites) that the time has come to dump these commie wealth-distribution programs. I happen to agree with this position, although not for ideological reasons. I'm not particularly worried about the flaming pink socialist aspects of these programs, but I would note that the reason these programs have become onerous because they're no longer reflecting the reality in which they were created. To focus on Social Security, in the 1930s, to put it simply, people died earlier; there were fewer people receiving benefits and a larger number of workers supporting those that did.

Although it's interesting to note that the primary data point you'd think would be relevant here -- life expectancy -- isn't really. In 1930, US life expectancy for men was 58, and for women it was 62. However, those numbers factor in the relatively higher rate of infant mortality back then, so for the purposes of complaining about Social Security, they're not particularly reliable. The statistics that are more relevant are the percentage of people who live to the retirement age of (used to be) 65, which is significantly higher now than it was in the early days of Social Security (in 1940, only 53% of men and 60% of women lived to 65; in 1990 it was 72% and 83% respectively), and the length of time people who reach 65 live past that age. Interestingly, that time has not increased as much as you might think -- in 1940 it was 12.7 years for men and 14.7 years for women, and in 1990 it was 15.3 and 19.6 years respectively. But it's still longer. (I'm getting these stats here.)

The point remains that overall, more people are surviving to receive Social Security, and living longer once they're on it -- and demographically, the pool of workers supporting them is shrinking in terms of the ratio of workers to retirees. We should either radically change the time and manner in which people receive Social Security benefits, or change the way in which works, from a system where people support others to a system where they largely support themselves (i.e. taking the social security tax and investing it for that one person), or, alternately, where they support a smaller pool of people demographically relevant to them -- say, everyone born 1969 has their social security taxes go into a pool to support that age group when it retires.

The drawback to all of this is that some group has to be willing to take the hit for the generations older than they while this sort of massive switchover goes on, and I don't know who is ready to do it. I'd nominate my generation, since none of us expect to receive Social Security anyway, but inasmuch as I'm already suggesting we don't need any more tax cuts, I'm already marked for death by conservative people my age. I don't want to give them an excuse for a full-blown jihad.

Of course, the logical conservative position is that the government shouldn't be forcing people to save for/support retirement at all; that people should be doing it on their own. I think it's sweet conservatives believe people do what's in their best long-term self-interest all the time, in every case. Alas, I don't feel the same level of cheerful optimism.

Medicare is another whole ball of wax, which I won't drone on about here and now, but I'm also willing to go with the position it's deeply broken and needs to be radically fixed.

* Some people in the comment thread have assumed I'm against deficits at any time for any reason, which is reasonable since I went on and on about the evil of passing debt to the next generation. But to be clear, I don't think a little debt is a bad thing. I think a lot of debt, and systematic debt that doesn't go away, is very bad. Deficit spending to my mind is like a jolt of caffeine -- it wakes you up, gets you focused and gets you going. But as anyone who has too many Cokes or cups of coffee knows, too much caffeine makes you nervous. Likewise tax cuts; I'm not opposed to tax cuts as a general class of thing; I'm just opposed to the idea that they're the correct political solution to everything, all the time.

To go towards the issue of tax cuts and deficits regarding Bush and his tenure in the White House, I don't imagine that I would have been opposed, early on, to what I considered to be intelligent, useful tax cuts whose result would have been manageable, short term deficits. But I consider the Bush tax cuts, in the past as well as the current crop, as ill-advised and unfair and designed to create deficits not as short-term stimulus but as a means of long-term control of the country's financial and political agenda. They're crap, basically, and part of the Bush administration's distressing tendency to do what it wants and lie, deceive and misdirect to get it. And I pretty much believe the Bush people are sending a larger return to me at this point as hush money -- i.e., take this cash and don't bitch while we rework the system to our benefit.

* A number of people have suggested that I'm entirely free to send the US government more money if I voluntarily choose to do so, so just write a check and shut the hell up. Well, folks, I'm just one guy. You need to chip in, too. My first point is that the average Americans' tax burden at this time is not so onerous that the ratio of taxation to overall government benefit is wildly out of whack. My second point, for those who need it spelled out directly, is that inasmuch as I am pretty well off and yet find my level of taxation not intolerable, I think that you probably don't need a tax cut either, since you (aggregate) are usually paying less than me. Yes, yes, I'm a socialist, I know, and that's hardly better than beating kittens with ball peen hammers.

As to the answer to the question of who am I to redistribute your money to people you don't even know, well, like anyone else, I'm just a guy with an opinion, and the opinion is that each of us has to kick in for a tolerable society. I don't mind kicking in my share, but I think if your basic position is that you don't need to kick in at all even though you're clearly capable of doing so, there's something wrong with you. We can debate about what the right level is, and whether what we kick in is being used well and with a minimum of waste.

Heck, I'd be more than happy to have additional tax cuts if we can have them, have a solid level of government service and not pass on the cost of said service to the kids. We're just not doing that now.

Posted by john at 07:42 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 30, 2003

Isn't This Nice.

I linked to my friend Charles Keagle's Fluffballs.com site last week, and he was so happy he made me the subject of one of his Fluffball pictures of the day:


Although now I want to know who the hell the Grubermans are. Well, at least I get top billing. It's in my contract!

I know I said I wouldn't be updating again today. But come on. I've been immortalized in cottony cuteness. How can you pass that up.

Posted by john at 03:46 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Vacation Pictures

It's going to be a "not much updating day" here at the Whatever. Yesterday's tax rant got linked to by a number of people including Glenn Reynolds, Oliver Willis and Andrew Sullivan (many thanks to them and others who have linked), so I'm sure I'll be busy playing in the comments thread having fun with the people who think I'm a commie bent on redistributing their wealth at the point of a bayonet. Also, aside from aforementioned play, I really do need to get my ass in gear on a couple of work things. And then there's quality time with the new kitten, Ghlaghghee, who even as we speak is walking on they keyboard and batting my fingers with his fluffy little paws. So it's a busy day.

But I thought you might enjoy a couple of pictures from our vacation last week, in which we went to Nag's Head, North Carolina, with friends of ours. The picture at the top is of Athena frisking along in the waves, ensconced gamely in the flotation device a certain paranoid parent made her wear anytime there was a possibility of her getting near the water. To be clear, the paranoid parent was me, and with good reason, since the waves were fairly hefty this time out. I could tell you the story of how I went out in the waves to body surf and damn near drowned in the process, but that would impugn my manhood. So I won't. But as it happened Athena was of course just fine in the water, and didn't go in more than waist-deep, and never without me or Krissy playing along with her. She's interested in going out further, but suggested herself that perhaps she should learn to swim first. She's a sensible girl.

Here's Athena at the local aquarium, along with a shark. Athena had been jonesing for the sharks the entire time we were there; she though the turtles and alligators and sun fish and all the rest were all very nice, but she came to see the cartiliginous eating machines of the deep, and by God, that's what she was going to do. Well, she did. She thankfully did not make the association that the sharks in the tank might have close relations somewhere offshore in the waves, which is a good thing, since realistically speaking the risk of shark attack is damn low, and also, there's no fun in playing the ocean when you suspect a significant portion of the residents are lined up and ready to put you on the smörgåsbord.

Okay, that's all you get for today. I know, I know. Try to make it through the pain.

Posted by john at 07:43 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

May 29, 2003

Tax Cuts, Feh.

"The Bush administration has shelved a report commissioned by the Treasury that shows the US currently faces a future of chronic federal budget deficits totalling at least $44,200bn in current US dollars.

The study, the most comprehensive assessment of how the US government is at risk of being overwhelmed by the "baby boom" generation's future healthcare and retirement costs, was commissioned by then-Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill.

But the Bush administration chose to keep the findings out of the annual budget report for fiscal year 2004, published in February, as the White House campaigned for a tax-cut package that critics claim will expand future deficits." -- "US 'faces future of chronic deficits'," The Financial Times, 5/29/03

Look, I'm one of those people who is personally going to get more out of this tax cut than many of the rest of you (yeah, I know. Can't figure it out, either). But at the same time, I've got a public library that I have to contribute books to so it has an astronomy book from the last decade, a public school that's in an academic emergency, a state that is tearing through social services and rocket-launching the cost of its public universities because it's running a huge deficit it's not allowed to run, a social security system that's going to be insolvent by the time I reach retirement age, and deficits that mean it's highly likely my kid and her kids are going to be saddled with unfathomable debt.

I don't want any more tax cuts. I personally don't need any more tax cuts. If this was 1980 and the highest federal marginal tax rate took more of my take-home pay than I took home, then yes, I could see why I might want a tax cut. But it's 2003, the highest federal marginal rate last year is 38% , and my effective federal tax rate (meaning the amount I actually pay) is less than 20%, which means the large majority of Americans pay even less than I do. Throw in my tax indebtedness to Ohio and my local government, and I'm still cruising along at about 25% of my total income.

I can afford this. And, in order to forstall crushing debt collapsing on subsequent generations, I'm perfectly happy to kick in a little more if necessary. Not a whole lot more, mind you. I want to play with my own money and I don't want to get back to a situation where we have 70% marginal tax rates. But at the very least, I don't see the point right now in paying less.

(Bear in mind also that being self-employed I pay quarterly and I pay my full Social Security deduction on top of the taxes above. So I pay more taxes more often than most of you. And yet I'm still saying this.)

Yes, yes, I know -- more money back to the people so they can boost the economy, blah blah blah. But let's not lie and say this most recent tax cut is about the people, okay? I mean, yes -- if we really want to help the working guy, let's slash his taxes by more than a measly one or two percentage points and a few hundred dollars and avoid giving the rich double that in percentages and of course multiples of that in dollars. Throwing the working guy pennies while the wealthy are rolling out wheelbarrows of cash isn't my idea of a smart thing to do. Hell, even Warren Buffett thought the details of the most recent tax cut proposals were appaling. In the story referenced there, Senator Charles Grassley says that Buffett doesn't have any appreciation for the trials of the middle class, which is (excuse the pun) rich, since Buffett was suggesting giving the middle class much more of a tax break than the budget Grassley was pushing. And anyway, when it comes to money, who should you believe: They guy who invested his way to being worth $36 billion, or the guy with the government paycheck?

There are many things I don't like about the Republican Party, but one of the things that galls me the most is how it's demonized taxation, and how it's consistently run deficits since Reagan and yet manages somehow to position itself as the party of fiscal responsibility. Yes, there is a point of too much taxation, and at times in our past we've been there, and it was not at all a bad thing for the GOP to point that out. Good on it. Now isn't one of those times, and even if it were, the rich would not be the people I'd focus the cuts upon. The answer to everything is not "tax cuts."

As for raising deficits, it's just another strategy to keep Republican financial ethos in control even when they inevitably get booted from office, since the Democrats, dim bulbs that they are, will spend most of their time in power trying to correct the damage the Republicans wrought. Republicans in my estimation spend a lot of their time exploiting the persistent Democratic position of befuddled niceness, and this is just another example. The Democrats need to have their huevoes drop into their sacs and take it to the Republicans (who, like all bullies, whine like mewling kittens when the tactics they use are used against them), but that's another rant entirely.

To be entirely honest about it, I lump people who believe that Republicans are fiscally responsible in with the people who believe in astrology and that the Earth was created in six days, in that whatever other positive qualities they might have, they have a fundamental defect in their ability to process reality. Mind you, this does not mean I expect Democrats to be correspondingly fiscally sound. That's a false opposition. But honestly, people. We have a three administration track record of Republicans gulping down debt like they're dipsomaniac sorority girls at Free Margarita Night, and then calling for yet another round of tax cuts. How much more evidence do you need?

Here's my position: Call me crazy, but I expect a certain level of government service. It's not dizzingly high, but it's there. I'm comfortable with funding a certain number of things I don't necessarily agree with with my tax dollars in order to get certain services others might not agree with. I'm comfortable spending money on services I don't need to use personally -- welfare, unemployment, the military -- because I think they provide for a better quality of life for my fellow citizens at large. And for all of that, I'm willing to pay a fair amount, and the emphasis here is on "fair." I don't want to pay more than is necessary, and I want to make sure what's being spent is accounted for -- I remember reading recently that Pentagon accountants don't know where a trillion dollars they were given went, and that's just no good -- but for the quality of life and government services I expect, yes, I'll pay my taxes. Happily.

The thing that Republicans have managed to do over the last couple of decades is establish, nearly solely, that taxes are a burden to us all. Well, maybe so. But they're also an obligation, and a responsibility, and not nearly enough attention is focused on that fact. I do a reasonable amount of charity giving, because I can and because I think I ought to, but there is a whole lot I can't do personally that the government, with its aggregate power, can. It's a useful tool.

I like the idea that some of the money I send to my government goes to keep a library open in the little town I live in. I like the idea that somewhere in my little town, a kid who'd otherwise go hungry is eating dinner bought with food stamps that I paid for. I like the idea that a sailor on an aircraft carrier goes on shore leave with money I put in his pocket. I like the idea that people are researching diseases and robots are exploring space with money I chipped in to pay for them. As I mentioned, there are lots of things our government is doing with my money I wish it wouldn't do, but that's the trade-off and overall I think the balance is worth it.

All of that stuff takes money. That money comes from me. I accept the responsibility of paying that money. More of that money comes from me than from the average taxpayer. And I say, I don't need any more tax cuts. I need a government that can pay for what I want it to do without chronically shifting the financial burden of its existence on to my kid. I'm willing to pay for that kind of government. I'm also willing to vote for it. And quite obviously, I think you should be, too.

Update: "WASHINGTON, May 28 — A last-minute revision by House and Senate leaders in the tax bill that President Bush signed today will prevent millions of minimum-wage families from receiving the increased child credit that is in the measure, say Congressional officials and outside groups... Because of the formula for calculating the credit, most families with incomes from $10,500 to $26,625 will not benefit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal group, says those families include 11.9 million children, or one of every six children under 17." -- "Tax Law Omits Child Credit in Low-Income Brackets", The New York Times, 5/29/03

But the dividend and capital gains taxes got decreased! Isn't that nice. I bet all the families with incomes from $10,500 to $26,625 just can't wait for the boost in their dividend and capital gains checks.

Second Update: I'm done a follow-up on this Whatever here, discussing in greater detail issues about Social Security/Medicare, deficits, and reader comments. Oh, go on. You've read this far already.

Posted by john at 12:53 PM | Comments (128) | TrackBack

New Cat Update Update

No pictures of the new cat this time. I've already gone wa-a-a-a-y over the limit for cute cat pictures this month. Besides, the only picture I have ready to go is a picture of the kitten using his cat box for the first time, and while it is sort of amusing (he's got a look of intense concentration on his face, ears all flattened and everything!), I'd rather not be known as the guy who was compelled to show pictures of his cat taking a crap to the world. I am content to be merely the man who wrote about it instead.

Rather, this is an update on the search for a name for the new kitten: We've come back around to "Fluffy," which I'm not especially fond of, since it's not exactly what you would call original. However, I noted to my wife that I am willing to entertain the notion of calling the kitten "Fluffy" if we agree to an unconventional spelling of the name, not unlike how the parents of little girls who are named "Kristine" replace all the "i"s with "y"s and then add a few more embellishments, so you end up with "Khrystynne" or some such. With that understood, please note now my preferred spelling of "Fluffy":

Ghlaghghee.

That's the "gh" from "enough," the "a" from "assumption" and the "ee" from "flee." The "l" remains an "l".

My wife, whose name is not spelled "Khrystynne," is less than impressed, and points out that anyone who sees the cat's name in print will assume that the cat's name is pronounced "glag-gee," and more relevantly, that every time I mention the cat's names to others, I will pridefully also note the correct spelling, which will get old fast (for her, at the very least). While I appreciate her concern on both counts, I think it's a small price to pay for a cat named Ghlaghghee.

I've got a whole car ride to day care to sell Athena on the plan. I'll let you know how it goes.

Posted by john at 07:20 AM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Writing Everything

Over in the comments thread of the Me Rite Guud! entry, there's been discussion about the various types of writing, and the relative importance of learning some of the formal basics of writing (through, say, having to crank out term papers in high school) for all forms of writing. Since I don't expect y'all to trudge through every single comment thread -- I mean, when I go to other people's sites, I don't -- I thought I'd bring to the surface level some of the thoughts I've had on the matter.

1. Writing term papers is actually important. Joke though I might about today kids' lack of formal writing skills meaning that I will be gainfully employed all my life, the fact is that the exercise of writing term papers, when combined with a teacher who knows what he or she is doing, is very helpful in teaching kids the basics of formal written communication, including structuring an argument, learning how to research, and crafting ideas in efficient and useful ways. Not to mention, of course, basic grammar.

These skills are useful not only to people who want to be writers, or for students who just have to write more term papers, but for everyone who ever needs to communicate with someone else in a formal written way -- people who have to write project plans, or Power Point presentations, letters to employees (or to employers), and so on. Learning these skills in high school is optimal because they're required for college, but also because that provides more time to internalize these writing skills so that you can pull them out whenever necessary. Clearly one can just trot down to the Barnes & Noble and get a book on how to write a business proposal. But my point is that if you've learned the fundamentals, and have incorporated them into your skills through use in high school and college, you won't need the book -- and you'll have an advantage over those who do.

Now, once you get out into the real world, there isn't much need to write term papers anymore, so one could argue that writing the term papers in themselves is not especially critical. But I disagree. Like many things in school (and like school itself) term papers are a construct designed to help students learn: First, to learn more about whatever subject they're writing the paper on, and second to get used to the formal basics and structure of writing clearly and effectively. These are tools that can be used well beyond the realm of writing term papers, just as other aspects of education are used beyond the realm of the classroom.

2. Congruent to this, other types of writing are not useful replacements for writing term papers. Hundreds of thousands of high school kids across the country are writing blogs and journals and millions more are sending IM messages by the truckload, and I think that's grand. You'll never hear me complaining about kids using writing to communicate.

But as I've mentioned before, writing blogs and journals is basically good for one thing: Writing blogs and journals. It lacks any critical feedback (from teachers, editors, or others with a formal interest in writing), and is often freeform and chaotic. Anyone who reads blogs and journals will note that entire strata of the online writing universe are well nigh incomprehensible because the writers, regardless of how much they want to communicate, don't have the organizational skill to get across more than a general idea of how they feel about things. A couple of term papers a month would tone that right up.

People tell me they like reading what I write here (thanks!), and much of the reason they do enjoy it is due to the fact that even when I'm writing about something completely stupid, I can typically write about it in a clear and intelligent manner. That comes from the ability to structure my writing on the fly, and ultimately that comes from gaining structural tools during the course of my education. Take a look at the blogs and journals you like to read for the writing, and I think you'll find that whether these people are "real" writers or not, they have ample experience with the structure of writing -- often through their jobs, which require written communication in some way.

3. Various writing fields are not isolated. And this should be read in two ways. First, the basic tools of writing -- the ones that allow you to structure your writing and communicate clearly -- are universally applicable: They're equally useful in writing a novel, writing instructions to operate a stereo, or writing a brief on why your company should do whatever it is you should choose to propose. And to go back again, a great number of these skills can be learned in the process of cranking out term papers.

Second, skills learned in specific disciplines of writing are of use in other disciplines of writing. One of the correspondents in the earlier comment thread opined (and I'm paraphrasing) that he suspected that the corporate world would have little use for writers with the skill of writing dialogue, which is essential for writing novels. Well, as it happens, I write both corporate brochures and novels, so I can tell you that this suspicion is erroneous. My corporate clients often ask me to write material in a particular tone -- informal, say, or business-like without being too stuffy, or straight-up get-to-the-point declamations -- depending on who they are or the nature of the business. Finding the right tone in corporate writing is very much like creating the right tone for a character's dialogue, and the fact I can do the latter makes doing the former that much easier. Indeed, clients tell me that one of the things they prize about my work (and why I continue to get work) is the fact that what I write often feels like someone is sitting across from the reader, speaking the words to them: Like dialogue.

It works the other way as well. Corporate writing is usually to the point and direct; you can't presume that the reader of a brochure or corporate document is going to follow you down entire paragraphs of prose, no matter how brilliant it is. You economize and get to the point. I find this useful when I'm writing novels; thanks to writing corporatespeak I have an indicator of when I'm drifting from the narrative flow of the story and need to get re-engaged. I think my readers appreciate this; I know my editors do.

The point here: Good writers don't arbitrarily segregate their writing skills -- they're opportunistic and use whatever writing skills they learn in whatever field to make their writing stronger in other fields. And underneath all of that is a grounding in the fundamentals of writing clearly and with structure, fundamentals which are optimally learned in school.

If we're not providing our kids these fundamentals in school, we're failing them. The easy road is to mock the dumbass kids for not being able to write, which I've already done. But if in fact I keep my competitive edge in writing over the next few generations of kids, I'm not really going to blame them. It's not the kids who are designing a pedagogical system that allows them to cruise through high school and not have to write more than a couple of three-page papers.

Posted by john at 06:51 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

May 28, 2003

ScalziProduct (tm)

Since I didn't have any actual work today (shhh... don't tell my book editors I said that), I thought I'd amuse myself and create a Cafe Press T-Shirt to sell to credulous saps with more money than brains. So here it is: the I Hate Your Politics Shirt, which features an abridged version of my (ahem) classic Whatever, "I Hate Your Politics," in which I take long, loving whacks at liberals, conservatives and libertarians. That's right, now you have the opportunity to be an equal opportunity offender. And we all know how important that is. The shirt is monstrously text heavy, so I don't know that I would wear it unless you were ready to have people staring at your chest for extended periods of time. But the "I HATE YOUR POLITICS" headline can be read from afar. And that's the main thing, isn't it.

For those of you who prefer not to let people ogle you in the guise of reading your shirt, I offer the I Hate Your Politics Mega Mug, with the same incendiary text cradling 15 soul-satisfying ounces of your favorite beverage. This way, people will ogle your hand, not your chest, and if they get too fresh, you can always bonk them with the reasonably sturdy and undoubtedly painful ceramic surface of the mug.

Both the shirt and the mug feature the new Scalzi.com motto: Encouraging Independent Thought Since 1998. Because, well, it has. Don't blame me if that's not what you're getting out of it.

The drawback to both these fine products is the base price, which like most Cafe Press products is rather too expensive for the object being hawked, and then of course, I've added my own cut (an extra buck in both cases), for a total price of $15 for the shirt and $13 for the mug. So I'll understand if you don't rush out in your teeming millions to buy several for your friends and family. Although if you do, I'll be your friend forever. That's right, you'll never be rid of me. There's an incentive, now, isn't there.
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(spaces added here to make sure there's enough room for the picture. Because I use small fonts and it's all screwy on my screen, that's why.)

Update: I've been asked to make a shirt that has the "I Hate Your Politics" screed on the back. Your wish is my command.

Posted by john at 04:21 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

New Cat Update

I know you're just itchin' to get an update on the new cat, so here it is: The new cat has shown himself to be of reasonable good nature, which is a very good thing. He came out of his little box early and met the rest of the pets, and those encounters have generally gone very well; the kitten is understandably anxious about Kodi, who outmasses him by roughly 170 to one, but in those same sort of circumstances, wouldn't you be as well? Kodi, for her part, is endlessly fascinated by the new cat and just wants to play with it in ways not actually involving her mouth or teeth. Lopsided Cat is getting along well with kitty, which is not terribly surprising as they are most likely related. Rex is more interested in kitty's food than in Kitty himself, which is just like Rex. Kitty also handles being handled well, which is essential considering Athena, who has already declared the cat hers and intends to spend most of the next few weeks with her sticky little hands on the new cat.

My biggest worry about the new cat is that we'd have a couple of days before he figured out the cat box, but he figured it out last night and used it a few times since then. This is a considerable relief because for the moment all his stuff is in my office (he's too small yet to get down two flights of stairs to the basement, which is where the real catbox is, or even down one flight of stairs to the outside world), and I was concerned he'd find a nice quiet corner in the office as his tinkle station and then my office would forever have that not-so-fresh "feral cat urine" smell. This has been avoided, to my relief.

The only minor complaint at the moment is that kitty decided that 4am was prime play time, which, needless to say, it is not. I myself had no problem with this, but some time during the night Athena had crawled into bed with us as well, and it was only through fast if groggy action that kitty was kept from attacking our daughter's big bad head (at right you see kitty using a similar maneuver on the dreaded Shoe of Doom). Kitty was banished to my office for the night. He seems to have handled the exile just fine.

As anticipated, Athena has been given naming rights for the cat, and as also expected the first suggestion right out the gate was "fluffy." We explained that while that was indeed an adjective one could use to describe the kitty, she might want to pursue other, less obvious options for a name, so give it a couple of days before finalizing the decision. Other names under consideration include Purple, Bubble Gum and Flower. At the moment, Flower is in the lead. Nietzsche, alas, was shot down early, as were the suggestions of Hegel, Joe Jackson and Mjollnir, Hammer of Thor. But we still have a couple of days yet.

Posted by john at 12:05 PM | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Here's Rod Stewart!

I'm driving back from dropping off Athena at preschool and listening to the radio, which is tuned into the local "80s" channel, for the reason that it actually plays music in the morning rather than turn over its airwaves to some braying jackass of the species morning DJ. As I'm going along, the DJ comes on and gives one of those station plugs, and it goes like this: "The Point 95.7! Now with even more musical variety! Here's Rod Stewart!"

Is it just me, or do the phrases "Now with even more musical variety!" and "Here's Rod Stewart!" utterly contradict each other? If this radio station really wanted to impress me, they'd have the DJ say "Now with even more musical variety! Here's Gang of Four!" or "Now with even more musical variety! Here's The Primitives!" or even possibly "Now with even more musical variety! Here's Total Creole!" I mean, damn. Between Rod Stewart and Phil Collins, it's amazing 80s stations have air time to wedge in "Come On Eileen" or "Who Can it Be Now?" I'm surprised Clear Channel hasn't just entirely thrown in the towel and programmed an "All Phil and Rod" station somewhere in this great land of ours.

Maybe they have. And I suspect in that town, random, unexplained violence has tripled.

Off to write DVD reviews and hit the "reload" button on the Ticketmaster site so I can get Eddie Izzard tickets the very second they go on sale. I'll be back later.

Update, 11:11am: Finished the reviews AND got the Eddie Izzard tickets! Man, I rock.

Posted by john at 10:08 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

May 27, 2003

Me Rite Guud!

"Junior Dominique Houston is a straight-A student enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes at Northview High School in Covina, Calif. She is a candidate for class valedictorian and hopes to double-major in marine biology and political science in college, preferably the University of California at Los Angeles or the University of San Diego.

But the 17-year-old said she has written only one research paper during her high school career. It was three pages long, examining the habits of beluga whales.

'Bibliographies? We don't really even know how to do those. I don't even know how I would write a 15-page paper. I don't even know how I would begin,' she said." -- "Writing term papers has become a lost art," The Los Angeles Times (via the Boston Globe), 5/27/03

Two things here:

1. When I was in elementary school, I used to live six houses down from Northview High School. It had this huge pile of dirt near the football field that I would haul my Huffy up and then do little bmx-like stunts until the pain brought on by repeatedly slamming my tender young reproductive organs into a banana seat as I landed forced me to stop. Go Northview Vikings!

2. When I was in high school (harumph, harumph), I took a class called Individual Humanities, which, in addition to regularly (i.e., once a month) requiring ten-page papers, had as its final paper a 50-page biographical study of a single person (I chose HL Mencken) plus a ten-page bibliographical essay (in which you talked about the several books you used to research your subject) plus another 10-page essay in which you discussed why you chose the subject you chose and how researching and writing the biographical essay affected you.

And when I was in high school, I had no idea of the concept of "double spacing."

You may think this is one of those "life was so much better when I was a kid" sort of thing people do as they get older, but it's not. It's a "I'm pleased we're raising a nation of people unable to write because that means I'll never be out of work" sort of thing. So go on, kids! Keep on not writing those term papers! Every one you don't write means less competition for me. I thank you. My mortgage thanks you.

Posted by john at 01:08 PM | Comments (28) | TrackBack

So That's How You Do It.

"In a racially charged book proposal bristling with anger at the New York Times, Jayson Blair likens himself to teenage sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo and rages at the newspaper he calls 'my tormentor, my other drug, my slavemaster.'

The proposed book, which some literary agents say could bring the disgraced former reporter a six-figure advance, is titled 'Burning Down My Master's House.'" -- "Blair Book Proposal Lashes Out at Paper," Washington Post, 5/27/03

It's an interesting point in time to ask the question of whether there is any percentage in doing things honestly if one wants to get ahead. Let us stipulate that most excellent journalists, working diligently for decades could not yank a six-figure advance out of a book publisher for a first book (a memoir, no less) regardless of how excellent their book might be. Blair may be richly compensated for nothing more than being a spectacularly bad reporter for a very few years, and will have an opportunity to blame his downfall on an institution that gave him rather more trust and opportunity than he deserved.

And indeed there's a real chance at the end of this, more people will blame the New York Times for the implosion of Jayson Blair than Jayson Blair himself (check the Blogoverse for confirmation). There is no penalty for Jayson Blair to have screwed up as badly as he has, except the possible deep-seated self-loathing that comes from knowing that you've screwed up incredibly badly, and it's nearly all your own fault. But of course, any misgivings that Blair may have had appear to be gone now in a wave of personal calculus regarding how to make this all work for him.

As for Blair's book itself, I figure it will sell pretty well, and will have two primary audiences: Conservatives, who are wallowing in the pleasure of seeing a liberal bastion like the Times take a hit, and journalists, who like nothing better than a long deep plunge into schadenfreude, especially as it regards the NYT, which nearly all of them would plunge ice picks into each others' eyes in order to work at. I don't expect anything would be able to keep conservatives from buying the book, since as a class they've shown time and again that their hatred of liberals outstrips their stated statutes of morality, i.e., they're willing to reward deception and incompetence so long as it's the Times that goes down. Indeed, if most of the major publishing houses cames to their sense and chose not to reward Blair for screwing up -- which they won't -- I would expect some place like Regnery Publishing (motto: "We're still making book on Clinton!") would step in and generously offer its services.

But I do hope journalists will avoid the temptation of rewarding Blair for his actions. Schadenfreude or not, this is not primarily the story of the New York Times betraying the public trust, it's the story of Jayson Blair imploding and then trying to find a way to make it someone else's fault but his own. And if journalists can't look at it that way, they should think of it like this: Every Blair book that gets bought reinforces the message that as far as journalism goes, hard work and effort don't matter so long as you can cause enough damage to others on your own way down to Hell. I don't know that a momentary spasm of Schadenfreude is worth that.

Posted by john at 12:41 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

New Cat

Meet our new kitten, who we received through the good graces of our neighbor, whose cat had yet another litter of kittens. We decided we'd take one on -- there are always more field mice to deal with -- and this is the one we got. We're pretty sure that Lopsided Cat, one of our other cats, is his older brother. Despite his coloring, he is not either Siamese or Himalayan, he's just cat. Or kitten, actually -- this little ball of fluff is only slightly larger than my hand. Balled up like he is in this picture, I can sit him in my palm. I don't exactly have Michael Jordan hands.

The new cat is not entirely pleased to be here -- previous to this, he'd been running around our neighbor's yard, and was successfully avoiding capture by the neighbor until our neighbor flung a fishing net on top of it. Those crafty humans with their nets! What are you going to do. Right now he's sitting far back inside a cat carrier I've made his temporary home in my office. I honestly don't expect him to come out anytime soon. This is just as well. We'll be doing the slow introduction to the other animals, so that none of them get it into their fuzzy little heads to eat the new guy.

The animal I worry about the least in this regard, I should note, is Kodi -- Kodi loves Lopsided Cat to death, and would love Rex too, were Rex not so studiously unlovable. Kodi will probably just be thrilled she has another new buddy to play with. The other cats will probably be more of an issue. A good friend of mine suggested that one way to make them all a big happy family would be to rub tuna juice around all three cats and put them into the bathroom; after a few minutes of required hissing and swatting, they'd engage in an orgy of mutual licking to extract as much of the tuna essence from each other as possible. It's not a bad idea, I suppose, but I don't much want to imagine how painful the initial "dousing the cats liberally in tuna juice" phase would be for me, so I'll probably just let them get used to each other gradually.

The new cat hasn't got a name yet. As with any family with small children, we're likely to let Athena do the honors, but if any of you have any suggestions, I may slip them to our daughter as a viable alternative to "Fluffy," "Fuzzy," "Kitty" or "Nietzsche" -- the last of these seems improbable, sure, but then again, yesterday, Athena chose to describe a tummyache with these exact words: "Every single thing in the entire universe makes my stomach hurt." Which is a line ol' dreary Fred certainly would have approved of. So you never know.

Anyway: Got cat names? We're open.

Posted by john at 09:33 AM | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Interesting Factoid

So, from early Friday morning, when I powered down my computer to head off to vacation, to 6am on Tuesday morning, when I am typing this, I have received just short of 1500 pieces of e-mail. Of which six were not spam. Incidentally, this latter number does not include the piece of mail I received from "iamnotaspammer.com."

If you don't get as much spam as I do, well. Just you wait.

Posted by john at 06:11 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

May 23, 2003

Another Note From Athena

Dear Whatever Readers:

Please excuse my dad from writing until next Tuesday. It is the Memorial Day Holiday and daddy has promised to spend it engaged in endearing family fun! Also, he's been told that if he gets anywhere near the computer for the next four days, his phalanges will be shattered one by one with a ball peen hammer. Isn't that funny?

See you later!

Yours,

Athena

Posted by john at 12:00 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 22, 2003

Café Press

My friend Charles Keagle, who is an artist and animator, dropped me a note today about his site, fluffballs.com, devoted to the cute, cottony little creatures he's been drawing since we were in high school. Charles, full of the gumption that Makes America Great, has started his own line of fluffball clothing, designed to swaddle you and/or a small child you know in fluffball softness, all the better to help him segue into a lucrative Nickelodeon series. Or something like that. To which one has to say: Go Charles! Ride those fluffballs to unfathomable riches. And remember I want a cut.

Charles is able to start his own line of clothing not because he's filthy stinkin' rich but because he's got one of those Café Press shops; the idea here is that Café Press supplies the t-shirts (and fleece sweaters, and baby bibs, and coffee mugs, and so on), and all Charles or anyone has to do is supply some artwork. When someone orders a shirt, or whatever, they screen it on and ship it out, and Charles gets his cut. There's little or no cost for Charles. And of course, no sooner than Charles mentions his shop, than I note other people I know with their own little Café Press shops: My pal Joe Rybicki is flogging hats and t-shirts with his band on them, for example. And it also occurs to me that the coffee mug I bought last week was also a Café Press product. These guys are everywhere.

I realize I'm coming late to the Café Press party, since every second blogger has his or her own Café Press shop, but now that I have, I'm thinking it's not a bad idea at all -- another example of someone actually using the Web to do something it would have been impractical to do before. Café Press items are a touch more expensive, but I guess popping out stuff in runs of one isn't as cost-effective as it could be. But I now have a cool inflammatory mug I wouldn't have had before, and Charles can sell his fluffballs. So there you have it.

Will I start making t-shirts and trinkets? You never know.

Posted by john at 03:59 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Vanity, Vanity

Teresa Nielsen Hayden and a couple of published writers are going to town on a PC Magazine article on print-on-demand vanity presses here; their basic point is that these things are mostly a pretty good way to separate money from a desperate wanna-be writer and that's about it (Teresa also talks about it on her own site). They are assailed for their position by a number of people, including staff members from those self-same POD vanity presses and a bunch of would-be writers. I find it amusing that people who have never been published are somewhat snittily implying Teresa and the others, who have a number of decades publishing experience between them, have no idea what they're talking about. This is one those "hope spring eternal" sort of situations on the part of the would-be writers.

I don't personally have an issue with vanity publishing, online or otherwise -- I mean, I do it -- but I think the main point, and the point Teresa and the others are making, is that putting out your own book is not the same as having it professionally published. As I continually note, Agent has brought in a nice tidy sum for being published online (and for relying on people's good will to pay), but it is a mere fraction of what I've made in advances for the books published by professional publishers. Agent pays for pizza now and then. My actual books contribute significantly to my mortgage.

The reasons for this are pretty simple; aside from issues and questions about stuff that is self-published being any good (which I've covered before), there's the reason that Agent just sits on my Web site and waits for people to come by. I've only advertised it once, on Penny Arcade, and while that did pretty well for me ("pretty well" meaning I made more because I advertised than it cost to pay for the ad), I don't have the time, inclination or cash to advertise it over and over. When my pro books come out, on the other hand, entire marketing departments are on hand to sell the things. That's their job, and I'm glad it's them and not me, because clearly I'd do a bad job of it. The reason I write is because I don't like to work, you know.

Having said that, I do think there's a place for vanity publishing, even for those of us fortunate enough to be published professionally. For example, I am giving considerable thought to putting together a collection of Whatever columns and some selected non-Whatever material as well. This collection would be, shall we say, of specialized interest and really unlikely to be of interest to anyone but myself, a few friends, and regular readers of this site. Therefore, it's not at all a good candidate for professional publication. That being the case, no harm and no foul in having it whipped up as a POD vanity thing.

The difference here is that I have no illusions what I'll be doing, or what vanity publication represents. That's the point Teresa's trying to make, I think, and what most vanity publishers would just as rather have would-be writers not notice.

Posted by john at 10:13 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Spooky Eye and Etc.

One of the things I learned about myself after moving here to Ohio is that if you put me on a lawn tractor for about an hour, and I am mowing the lawn all the while, for about 20 minutes afterwards I will do nothing but sneeze. Another thing I learned is that if you sneeze for about 20 minutes, the blood vessels in your eyes pop and you end up looking like Evander Holyfield has been using you as his punch monkey. Yet another thing I learned is that you can have fun with a bloodshot eye if you have a digital camera and the willingness to make yourself look like the proverbial Creepy Dude Down the Block Parents Tell Their Kids to Stay Away From. Thus the collage to the right. Note to parents: I'm not really this creepy. Of course, isn't that just what a creepy guy would say.

I was particularly enamored of the picture that had me looking up at the camera, bloodshot eye glowering angrily -- it's like the perfect album cover pose for angry goth rocker, provided it is suitably artied up, as I have done here. Should I ever have my sense of personal equanimity surgically removed and replaced with a desire to write lyrics about writhing in glorious pain while demons feast on my roasting flesh, this is picture I'm going to use. It's so Clockwork Orange-y! All the young droogs will be lining up for it, I'm sure.

Photoshop fun aside, the whole bloodshot eye incident was a great big bag of no fun, since 20 minutes of sneezing also gives you strained muscles, constant tearing and the general feeling that with the next violent spasm, your head will detach at the neck and fling itself violently into the wall. It also makes your kid come up, give you a hug and tell you she's sorry you are dying. Well, I'm sorry, too.

Speaking of the kid, I mentioned the other day that she was learning her way around Photoshop; here's the photodocumentation. I should note that at this point, her facility with Photoshop is largely constrained to coloring and a few simple editing tricks like fiddling with the brightness and contrast and changing hues and color balance. But on the other hand, when I was four, I was busy eating crayons, so I hope you don't mind if I'm just a little impressed with the kid for getting this far.

Mmmm... crayons.

Posted by john at 07:10 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

May 21, 2003

Smoke This

A Whatever reader has asked me to comment on this, in which a $145 billion judgment against several tobacco companies in a class action suit was reversed. The tone of the e-mail suggested my correspondent thinks that this overturning of the suit is a good thing; he suggested I entitle the entry: "Responsibility Upheld; Victimhood Suffers."

I won't be doing that. But I can't say I can work up any sort of outrage against the decision being overturned. My general feeling about smokers has always been that everyone who started smoking after the inception of the Surgeon General's warning on individual packs has really shaky ground to complain that they were mislead by the tobacco industry. When every pack sold in the US has a note on it that states explicitly that the product within is going to hurt you, the only people who have the legitimate claim that they didn't know what they were getting into are the illiterate (and being nicotine addicts are the least of their problems).

More specifically, I've always thought anyone my age or younger should be totally banned from suggesting that they are anything less than entirely responsible for their own habit. I knew that cigarettes were bad for you almost before I knew what were cigarettes were; indeed, I can't remember ever not knowing cigarettes were bad. People start smoking for lots of reasons, and they typically start before their brains are fully engaged on the repercussions of voluntarily starting an addictive habit. Be that as it may, let's just say that anyone under the of age 40 in North America's slate of excuses for starting smoking doesn't include "I didn't know it was bad." I knew. They knew. We knew.

I am in fact fairly prejudicial about people who smoke, on a sliding scale. People who are over 40 who smoke, I pretty much give a pass. Everybody smoked before 1960. They gave cigarettes to pets. And so on. People between the age of 30 and 40 (i.e., "my age") who smoke cause me to deduct between 10% to 30% off my initial impressions of their intelligence and common sense, depending. People between 20 and 30 who smoke I consider to be complete dumbasses until they prove themselves otherwise. Anyone who is under 20 and smoking should be thrown in a woodchipper, all the better to start again on the karmic wheel of rebirth, and hopefully this time they'll be born with brain stems that connect.

Now, I would agree that the tobacco industry did a yeoman's job of trying to convince young and all that smoking makes you alive with pleasure. But, you know, here's the thing with that: Part of being a teenager, or at least part of being a teenager when I was growing up, was totally mistrusting everything an adult tried to sell you, ever, end of story. I always thought it was funny that cigarettes, of all products, managed to escape that particular injunction (bear in mind that I don't think teenagers actually do mistrust everything adults try to sell them. Malls across the nation would collapse. But as a teen, you're supposed to at least pretend). So, even while entirely agreeing that tobacco companies are evil and run by evil people who happily produce products that kill when used as directed, it still comes down to the person who lights up and sucks smoke into his or her lungs.

What I think we should do is what states and cities are doing, which is tax the Hell out of the vile little tubes, to pay for the uninsured joes who will inevitably stagger into the ERs with smoking-related heart attacks, strokes and whatnot. Insurance companies likewise should feel perfectly cool about jacking up the insurance rates of smokers so that when they do hack out their lungs at the end of a 30-year smoking career, they don't overly burden the rest of us because of it. Social denigration? Groovy. Banning smoking everywhere but cold, windy sidewalks? Even better (I except bars. Because, honestly. You're going to friggin' drink. If you're going to abuse your liver, you might as well abuse your lungs while you're at it).

But as for suing the tobacco industry, well, I wouldn't. Were I smoker and noticed one day that my lung capacity was clocking at about 30%, my first thought would not be How did this happen? And who can I sue? My first thought would be, Well, it's here. I guess I should work on that will.

Posted by john at 05:14 PM | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Rejection

Because I don't want you to think my life is entirely charmed, what with the fabulous wife and great kid and the job where I make stuff up from the comfort of my own home while the rest of you slave for the man in decapitation-height cubicles, here's a recent disappointment: I've been turned down my (yet another) fiction agent.

No, no. I'm fine, really. To begin, it was a really nice rejection, so much so that I like to think that I've not so much lost agentorial representation as gained another random e-mail buddy. And you can never have too many of those. And there's the fact that, since I actually have a two-novel deal, my absolute need for an agent at this moment is less than it might otherwise be. For all that, I do have foreign and film/tv rights to sell, and I know for sure that I don't want to be the guy who has to slog through and do it. Not to mention selling the novels after these. Somebody save me from myself.

Being rejected is also an object lesson in a fact that when it comes to creative output it is exactly as screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood: Nobody Knows Anything. Ultimately, nearly all of it comes down to hunches and personal tastes. In this particular case, some of the reason for my rejection by the agent is rooted in the idiosyncrasies of my writing style, which is focused on dialogue and action, and not so much on introspection and internal conflict.

This is of course, a perfectly valid criticism, and one which I get a lot. Go back to my first year in college, when I rather presumptuously shouldered my way into an upper-level fiction writing course, and you'll find my writing being taken apart by my classmates for being glib and unconvincing. And why not: They were nearly all writing heady stories about drugs and bisexual experiences in the dorms, while I wrote a story about a boy accidentally trapped by the garage door when his dad's repair job of the garage door opener went awry. Everyone else was writing from what they knew (or, probably more accurately, what they wished they knew), while I was writing from what I thought was amusing. Kid trapped by the garage door? That's comedy gold! The only thing my writing teacher liked of mine is a one-page vignette I wrote about a college-age kid trying to convince his grandfather that's he's not a disappointment, and the grandfather trying to communicate the idea (falsely) that he wasn't disappointed in the kid. I didn't like it much personally, but I figured my instructor would.

So, it's true: I'm glib. But on the other hand, it's this same style that actually helped sell Old Man's War, and is implicitly the style the book I'm writing now is supposed to be in. I sold the book on the promise that there would be action and dialogue, and by God, action and dialogue it shall have. There might indeed be some personal introspection and even a couple of larger themes in there, too. So long as they don't get in the way of action and the dialogue. Anyway, I can't imagine the story getting too heavy, since as I've mentioned before, one of the major plot points involves sheep. Sheep! They're comedy gold! Scribble, scribble.

So who's right? The agent who rejected me? The editor who bought my book? Me, glibly writing about sheep? Well, this my point. We're all right. The agent is perfectly right to reject the work of mine she's seen -- it doesn't work for her, and that would make it harder for her to sell it. The editor was right to buy the book he bought, because it worked for him and he thinks it'll work for his audience. I'm right to write what I do because I like what I write, and that fact has its effect on the quality of the writing. And we could also all be wrong, too: The agent might kick herself for letting me get away, the editor could seriously misjudge the market for the novels, and I may be seriously overestimating people's tolerance for sheep in their science fiction. Nobody knows. We have to wait and see.

In the meantime, I've already sent a query off to another agent. You can't sit around moping after a rejection, you have to rush into the arms of the next rejection. Because who knows? It might not be a rejection at all.

Posted by john at 03:11 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

In Case You Were Wondering

Yes, the site was down for a couple of hours. Server problems at my host. It is now resolved, in a process which I'm sure involved sacrificing a penguin to the gods of UNIX.

Posted by john at 03:07 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Happy Family

Why are these people smiling? For the little girl in the center, who is named Andrea, it's because her adoption papers finally arrived yesterday, which means she has documented proof that she is, you know, in my family. For the woman on the left, whose name is My Mom (and who is holding the aforementioned documents), it's because she gets the benefit of having a new daughter without the inconvenience of passing said daughter through her body first (and good thing: Look at the size of that kid). For the guy on the right, who is named Robert My Stepdad, it's because he can't wait to pay to send Andrea to college! Look at that grin! Ah ha ha ha... heh. And all of them are happy because I took out the boring white wall they had been sitting in front of and replaced it with a groovy Photoshop sky. I'm just giving that way.

Posted by john at 07:55 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

May 20, 2003

Spam Names

I get upwards of 250 pieces of spam mail a day, which is enough of a representative sample that I notice certain trends: Which misspellings of Viagra are popular today, the rise of the "Deck of Weasels" playing cards coinciding with the fall of the "Iraqi's Most Wanted" deck, and of course, whether this week it's the wild Russian teenagers or the bored suburban housewives who crave my, um, presence more (this week: bored suburban housewives! Good for me. They're already in the country).

However, the trend I'm noticing today involves the names the spam headers carry. As most of you know, spam often comes with someone's name attached, to give the impression that it's a real live person, and not a soulless spambot, who is flooding your e-mail box with offers for porn and miniature digital cameras. It used to be that the spammers would at least attempt to make the name sound reasonable, but at this late point, they've abandoned all pretense and are just going with crazy stuff. So now I'm treated with spam from the likes of Conley Haupert, Ignacio Cummings, Santiago Whitaker and (my favorite of the moment) Kermit Bolton. Oh, the terrifying mental images that name conjures up.

This is one area in which I find spam somewhat useful. As you may know, I'm writing a novel at the moment (just finished another chapter less than five minutes ago, actually -- many high-powered politicians leveling accusations at each other. Also, sheep). One of my writing secrets is that I'm flat-out awful with giving characters names; usually I just take names of people I know and mix and match first names with last names. Which is why Agent to the Stars features partial names of people I went to sixth grade with, and Old Man's War features the mixed names of members of the rock band Journey (the main character: John Perry). With spam, I don't even bother mixing and matching the first and last names. I just cut and paste.

This doesn't mean I want more spam -- really, I'd rather have no spam and go back to using the names of programmers I find in the credits of the video games I play. But as long as I get spam, it's nice to have some benefit from it. And when my next novel features the hero Ignacio Cummings battling the evil villain Kermit Bolton, you'll know why.

Posted by john at 04:52 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Rain, Etc

Heavy rains are cutting into my ability to stay connected to the Internet through my satellite modem. Apparently it must be raining in space as well. Thereby, updates today may be sporadic if at all. Don't blame me, blame the position of this planet in an orbit that allows for liquid water.

Posted by john at 10:50 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

May 19, 2003

Enter The Matrix Kinda Blows

I bought the Enter the Matrix video game, and I have to say that aside from whatever other qualities the game might have, it combines two of my least favorite things: a third-person perspective with a really clunky camera system, and the inability to save any where, any time.

The first of these is aggravating -- you start fighting in the game and all of a sudden the camera swings around by some weird dictate of the code, and you have no clue where you are or what you're doing. Hint to game developers, since I know there's at least one of you who reads this: Nail the friggin' camera down during fighting. A wildly swinging camera does not help me kick my opponent's ass, and when I die because my camera suddenly wants to give me a viewing perspective from behind a box, what that makes me want to do is hop on a plane to where your studios are and unload a couple of clips into your workstations.

Enter the Matrix does have a first-person setting, but it's unbelievably bad -- for one thing, when you're in the first-person mode, you can move from side to side but you can't move forward or backwards. Who is the idiot that thought this would be a good idea? Another note to game developers: Look, if you're going to give me a first person mode, make it useful to me. Providing me with a lame-ass first-person mode just makes me think you're a lame programmer who can't even figure out how to move forward.

Second thing: I should be able to save my anywhere, anytime, whenever I want. Why? Because I paid 50 bucks for this argin'-fargin' game to be entertained. And I will tell you what is not entertaining: Having to slog through a significant portion of a level over and over and over again just to get to the point in the level that is so poorly scripted that it does not allow me to complete my objective in a reasonable manner, thus causing the game to stop and me to begin at the beginning of the level again. I can accept that I am part of the problem here; perhaps at age 34, my mad sniping skillz are not what they used to be. However, bad game design is also part of the problem. If I could save at the moment just before I am required to do a very difficult task, I could probably live with it. But instead I have to start at the beginning, several minutes earlier.

Never tell me I shouldn't be able to save when I want. It really is the simplest way to get me not to buy your game. I'm serious about this, incidentally -- There have been games I have been slavering over that I've not bought because I've read a review that mentioned that the "save" function was not under the player's control. It's a deal breaker for me. I'm buying the game so I can play it, not so it can play me.

Aside from these two major issues, I have to say so far I'm really not impressed with Enter the Matrix all around. The other character controls are very clunky, the graphics on the PC are twitchy (I have a high-end processor and video card, so this shouldn't be the case), the level design is bland and the textures are uninspiring. From a the PC gamer point of view, you can tell this game was initially design with the console player in mind, which is not always a blessing from the PC gamer point of view. All in all, mostly a disappointment so far.

The game does provide us with more scenes of the very tasty Jada Pinkett Smith as a reward for slogging through the levels, but at this point I'm tempted to use the "hack" tool that comes with the game just to watch those cinematic scenes and skip the rest of the game altogether. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the game.

Posted by john at 02:19 PM | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Stubborn Kid

The picture at right serves two functions. First, for all the people who noted that I looked fairly scowly since I got the new haircut, it is proof that I am still capable of smiling, and not appearing as if I'm 12 hours in to a weekend prison furlough. Second, the picture captures a certain fundamental orneriness inherent in Athena. Also her desire to ham it up for the cameras. But mostly orneriness.

Which generally speaking (and you must never tell her this) I approve of highly. Stubbornness can be overdone, but at the same time I like the idea that my kid, even at a very early age, is confident enough of her own opinions that she's willing to get stompy about it. I don't like it so much when it's bedtime and I have to keep myself from smothering the dear sweet child with a pillow because she won't settle down. But most of the rest of the time it's not so bad.

There's very little doubt that Athena gets a substantial amount of her stubbornness from me, since while my level-headedness and general apathy combine for a mostly-agreeable "whatever" attitude from me on many things, I am rather notoriously stubborn about the things I decide to be stubborn about (I pick my fights carefully these days). But I'm not the only stubborn adult in the family. Krissy's stubborn dynamic is different than mine, a righteous steamroller to my passive-aggressive stalled truck, but it's there.

Be that as it may, last night while watching Athena stubbornly do something (or more to the point, not do something), Krissy commented that she wasn't actually stubborn as a child -- that her stubbornness only really manifested itself as an adult. Well, you know, I found that hard to believe, so I got on the phone with my mother-in-law, who laughed uproariously at the idea of Krissy not being a stubborn kid. She related a story in which the young Krissy, when told to pick up something, would drop her hand until it was about a millimeter away from the surface of the thing she was supposed to pick up, and let it hang there, as if to say, see how close I am to doing what you want? And yet, I'm NOT doing it. Nyah nyah nyah.

Which made me laugh, because that's one of Athena's signature moves, that and its flip-side variation of hovering her hand over something she's been told not to touch, on the reasoning that if she's not touching it, she can't be punished, but she can annoy you by almost-but-not-really touching it. This typically ends badly for her, by the way, since as a four-year old her motor control is not it all it can be, and she inevitably ends up touching the thing by accident. But she keeps at it. Hope spring eternal.

This news from Krissy's childhood made me feel more affection for both my child and my wife, if that's possible. In many respects, physically and mentally, it's pretty obvious that Athena is my kid. She resembles Krissy no less than she resembles me, but those resemblances tend to be more subtle; this is an example of that. But I love finding things about both of them in each other, and I love seeing how what was part of Krissy and what was part of me come together to become wholly and originally something of our daughter's. Stubborn is a family trait, but Athena's variation is a delight to behold.

Except when it's not. But for those times, there's always the pillow. And the smothering.

Posted by john at 08:58 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Contest Winner!

Thanks everyone for the many interesting entries in the contest to win The Rough Guide to the Universe. Here's how it went:

Third Place: "The Universe is a very short poem." Very clever. And linguistically not incorrect.

Second Place: "The Universe is ribbed for your pleasure." This one cracks me up because, aside from comparing the universe to a condom, it's also not entirely far from the truth: Thanks to quantum irregularities during early expansion of the universe, the universe's matter distribution is, if not actually ribbed, certainly a little lumpy. However, it's not likely that was done for our pleasure. Even so.

First Place: "The Universe is... the beta-test version of the biverse." This would explain all too much about the way things are.

So, Sharon, e-mail me your address and I'll send out a copy.

For everyone else, remember that I have at two more books coming out this year. We'll be playing again.

Posted by john at 08:48 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 16, 2003

Just a Reminder

Today is the last day to put in an entry to win a free, autographed copy of The Rough Guide to the Universe. Details are here. If you don't enter, it just means someone else is guaranteed to win. And wouldn't that be sad.

Posted by john at 10:07 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The Moon and The Matrix

I come out of Matrix Reloaded last night and head home, and as I'm driving home, I look up at the half moon that's shining up there, and then I keep driving. Then some part of my brain says: That moon was full when you left home. For about a second I was seriously weirded out; Reloaded is a little long, but not, you know, seven days long. Then I remembered about the lunar eclipse last night, and felt two things: First, a rather embarrassed wave of relief, and second, a very small inkling of the holy terror lunar eclipses must have provided my pre-scientific ancestors, who didn't know much but knew that the moon going through all of its phases in one night just wasn't right.

Enough about that stupid moon, I hear you say. I can see that anytime. Tell me about Reloaded. Well, I enjoyed the hell out of it, while simultaneously agreeing with the snipes of the critics: It's too long. Parts are w-a-a-a-y too talky. The scenes in Zion are kind of dopey. It doesn't have the same shocking freshness of the original. However, absolutely none of that bothered me in the slightest. First, as I explained the other day, my baseline entertainment expectations are fairly manageable: I wanted Reloaded to amuse me, not tell me how to live my life. It lived up to the amusement level I require and then some.

Also, here's the thing: Most of the (professional) critics who are slamming the film simply haven't taken the red pill. Which is to say they're experiencing Matrix Reloaded as just another flick rather than what it (also) is: A tour inside the Wachowski brothers' fevered little heads. Experiencing the latter is most of the fun here -- the idea that these two guys have built up a world that's so complete that you could theoretically follow any part of it outside the context of the movie and have it keep on going.

One advantage I have over most of you is that I've seen the whole Animatrix DVD -- the collection of animated shorts based on and in the Matrix universe -- and a couple of elements in the movie are rather more deeply explored in those animated shorts. So when they pop up in the film, I knew that the rabbit hole on that particular thing went down even further. The video game Enter the Matrix likewise integrates with the current film (it features an hour of movie-quality cut scenes and effects) and fills out the character of Niobe, who is something of a side presence in the film. You won't miss the context if you don't have it; the film doesn't force you to buy the Animatrix or Enter the Matrix to understand what's going on. It's just most film universes are as shallow as what's on the screen; backstory is an acting trick, not a film production virtue. But it is a virtue here. Even if you're not expecting the movie to change your life, it helps to make the experience more interesting.

I think a fair number of the professional critics who are banging on the film aren't necessarily interested in the idea of the Matrix backstory the way someone who has watched The Matrix a number of times might be. Nothing wrong with that, of course -- part of a working critic's job is not to be a fan boy. But if you are a fan-boy, or just enjoyed the first film quite a bit, your tolerance for the film's quirks and saggy spots, and your satisfaction level in a general sense, will both probably be higher.

I'll be interested to see how it wears in the re-watching, since I'll almost certainly be taking it in again (geek to the core, I went without Krissy last night, but that's okay because she's out with friends tonight while I'm at home. One secret to happy couples: They're the ones who occasionally do stuff by themselves as well as the ones who do lots of stuff together). I expect I'll continued to be amused.

One final comment: The one criticism complains that a couple of the fight scenes (particularly the "Burly Brawl" setpiece) look too computer animated. Given that these fight scenes take place inside the Matrix, I find this complaint interesting on several different levels.

Posted by john at 09:20 AM | Comments (27) | TrackBack

May 15, 2003

Yargh!

Geek day thwarted. Must work. Stupid mortgage. Back tomorrow.

Posted by john at 11:22 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 14, 2003

Geek Dad

So, here's what you get when you mix a geek dad, pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, and 30 minutes with Photoshop:

Any questions?

Posted by john at 10:54 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Managing Expectations

Chances are fairly good that tomorrow I'll take a geek day to go see The Matrix: Reloaded, because I'm a geek, and because I dig the first film pretty much, and because I don't work for anyone but me, and I allow myself a rather substantial number of holidays during the year. And I never fire myself for spending too much time writing pointless crap on my Web site! Yes, I'm a fine employer. Everyone should work for me.

The reviews are starting to come in and unsurprisingly, they're mixed. I say unsurprisingly because the first Matrix film also had mixed reviews (a most memorable line from the San Francisco Chronicle review: "It's astonishing that so much money, talent, technical expertise and visual imagination can be put in the service of something so stupid"), and because this particular film does not have the benefit of being a relatively fresh idea. Being a film critic myself, I know about the trap of heightened expectations, and I'm working fairly assiduously to avoid them, since going in expecting a godhead experience is always going to be a let down. No matter how good a movie is, it's still just a movie.

And it does help to keep a non-romanticized view of the previous material. I remember when The Phantom Menace came out, and people were coming out of that film slightly puzzled. "That film was, like, bad," they said to each other, and that didn't jibe with their memories of the first crop of Star Wars films. Well, fact is that outside of ginchy special effects, the first Star Wars film is downright awful: Bad acting, bad dialogue, fairly stupid story. It just happened to be utterly unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and that counted for a lot (Empire was pretty good. Jedi stank). Keeping the essential not-goodness in mind as I went in to Phantom, I managed to have a pretty good time. It's a bad film, and keeps getting worse as time goes on (as does Clones, sadly), but since I kept my expectations low, I still managed to have fun with them.

I do expect more from Reloaded than I did from Phantom or Clones, but managed expectations are still in order. I do have one fortunate advantage over many people, which is that I actually possess a philosophy degree, so the freelance existential utterings of The Matrix have never struck me as particularly deep, although I appreciate the attempt. Instead, I'm pretty much focused on the action and the look, neither of which I expect to have devolved from the previous outing (I certainly hope not, given how much money they've spent on Reloaded and Revolutions).

I don't expect Reloaded to provide me with a philosophical underpinning for my perception of the world, I just want cool-looking people in cool-looking clothes to spin around and fight energetically and blow stuff up real good, with state-of-the-art effects, and maybe a plot that doesn't completely suck. Give me that, and it's time well-spent for me.

Posted by john at 11:48 AM | Comments (22) | TrackBack

May 13, 2003

Lone Star Stalled

AUSTIN, Texas -- In an act of political subterfuge, at least 53 Democratic legislators packed their bags, disappeared from the Capitol and apparently scattered across the Southwest on Monday as Texas Rangers searched for them, bringing a divisive legislative session to an abrupt halt.

Under state law, Republicans — who control the governor's mansion, the state Senate and the state House for the first time since the 19th century — need 100 of 150 legislators on the floor of the House before they can conduct the people's business.

Now they don't have a quorum, and with Thursday the last day legislation can be sent to the Senate, the conservative agenda they've effectively waited 130 years to advance could die. -- Outgunned, Texas Democrats Vamoose, The Los Angeles Times, 5/13/2003

Good for the Texas Democrats. Among the neat little tricks the Republican majority is trying to pull is a congressional redistricting plan that takes gerrymandering to a new extreme, creating one district that is 300 miles long and one mile wide in places. That's crap partisanship that has nothing to do with the interests of democracy in the slightest, and if the only weapon the Texas Democrats had to keep it from happening was to hie out of town, then that's exactly what they should have done -- and did. I feel ideologically consistent on this one since if the situations were reversed and the Republicans pulled the same maneuver, I'd congratulate them as well. That the Democrats' maneuver also keeps the Texas Republicans from slashing money for textbooks and yanking health benefits for 250,000 kids is just a nice bonus.

Texas Republicans, of course, are calling the Democrats cowards: "It's not a disgrace to stand and fight, but it is a disgrace to run and hide," says Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick. This is like calling someone a coward because he won't stand in front of a steamroller and let it run him over. Staying in front of the steamroller may not be cowardly, but it is idiotic; much better to slip over to the side of the steamroller and yank out its battery. Anyway, I wouldn't put much stock in the Republicans' whining, since if the situations were reversed they'd be doing the same thing, and Rush Limbaugh and the conservative chorus would be praising them for their courageous stand. Let's not pretend at this late point that Republicans stand for anything more than political expediency; if they did the Democrats wouldn't have had to high-tail it out of Austin.

The best line of this whole fracas comes from the New Mexico attorney general, who when asked to extend the Texas Rangers the jurisdiction to compel any Texas legislatures found in that state to return to Texas, refused to do do, but then added: "I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy," she said (she's a Democrat).

Well, you won't find any of those in Texas right about now. Which says most of what you need to know about Texas.

Posted by john at 01:57 PM | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Proof I am Like This in Real Life

We enter a recent IM conversation between Bill and John shortly after John notes that he's thinking of taking Athena to Disneyland at some point in the reasonably near future:

[12:47] bill: Excellent idea. Children should go to Disneyworld-or-land. Although you should avoid the Small World ride.
[12:48] john: Yes. Nightmares.
[12:48] bill: Yes.
[12:49] john: Although, relatively speaking to the average size of the planets in the solar system, and those we've discovered elsewhere, it is a small world. I mean, it's factually correct.
[12:50] bill: Hm, well, that depends on how you average it, doesn't it? I mean, yes, if you just average the masses and divide by nine, sure.
[12:51] john: Well, averaging diameters as well.
[12:51] bill: But on the other hand, only four of the planets are larger. The other four are smaller.
[12:51] john: Well, earth is the median, sure. But that's not the same thing.
[12:52] bill: I don't know. I feel certain that anything the dolls sing must be incorrect. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
[12:53] john: I would grant that their process is wildly wrong -- that is to say that their rationale for concluding it's a small world is deeply flawed. However, the conclusion is verifiable.
[12:54] john: Indeed, none of the accumulated data within the song even remotely leads to the conclusion that it's a small world after all. At best, it concludes that it's a world of indeterminate emotional states, rooted in a communal impulse.
[12:54] bill: (phone)
[12:54] john: Likely excuse.

Posted by john at 01:07 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

A Gentle Reminder

If you haven't checked out IndieCrit today, you're missing some good music. And that's a crime. No, really. John Ashcroft is sending people to your door right now! Hurry! Read today's review before it's too late!

Posted by john at 10:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Note to Creationists

Dear Creationists:

Please stop trying to hijack science to disprove evolution -- or at the very least, stop writing to me trying to pass off your astoundingly poor understanding of science as "proof" evolution didn't happen. First, by and large, I know more science than you, so your attempt to use bad science on me just doesn't work. Second, I know how to research, so things that I don't know, I can learn quickly, which means attempts to use slightly more complicated science won't work either. Third, I'm not at all impressed by your "experts" and their "books" -- the next time a creationist writes me to tell me I should read Darwin's Black Box I swear I'm going to strangle a cat. When one of your people publishes something that can withstand basic peer review (which is to say, peer review by scientists in the discipline your "experts" purport to write about), get back to me.

This note is precipitated by yet another e-mail from a creationist trying to save me from the dangers of evolution by doing the typical idiot creationist thing of piling on statement after statement of scientific "fact" that merely illuminates their own incomprehension of basic science and a reliance of the usual brain-dead creationist rhetoric: They haven't found transitional fossils! Carbon dating can't measure living things correctly, so why should we trust it with dead things? Evolution is against the Laws of Thermodynamics! And those are LAWS! I swear to God that if I were this pan-hit ignorant I wouldn't be e-mailing people about it, as if I were proud of my inability to process science beyond the talking points handed to me by someone else.

It's the "evolution is against the Laws of Thermodynamics" bit that really set me off, if you want to know. The basic "argument" is that evolution tends towards increased complexity but the Laws of Thermodynamics state that everything moves towards entropy -- toward lessened complexity. So evolution is contravening these laws! Someone dig up Issac Newton and have him haul Darwin off to the clink!

What the dim-bulb creationists who use this line of reasoning fail to note is that closed systems tend toward entropy, and the Earth is not a closed system: Energy is constantly being added into it in the form of the energy from the sun, and it's that energy being added into the Earth's "system" that rather easily allows for increased complexity. Note that the Earth is gaining energy from an entity -- the sun -- that is in fact tending toward entropy, since the sun is burning through its nuclear fuel at the rate of millions of tons per second, and that eventually (we're talking trillions upon trillions of years from now) all matter in the universe will devolve into thin particulate soup. But the Laws of Thermodynamics don't say that everything tends towards entropy, always, in every instance without exception. You can very easily have localized, short-term (astronomically speaking) increases in complexity. Just like we do here on Earth.

Either the creationists who spout off about the Laws of Thermodynamics don't know this, which means their understanding of science behind the Laws is molecule-depth shallow, or they do know this but choose to lie to the credulous about it, which means they're (pun intended) fundamentally dishonest. If I have to choose between people being slack-jawed ignorant or unapologetic liars, I prefer to believe they're slack-jawed ignorant, mostly because, ironically, I want to have faith in people. But either way, I don't want them talking to me. It insults me that these people seem to be under the impression at either I am as stone ignorant as they are, or that I'm uncomplicated enough to be fooled by rhetorical sleight of hand. Neither is the case. Unlike creationists, I don't revel in the idea of ignorance. So I am at a distinct advantage against those who do.

And ultimately, that's the thing that positively offends me about creationists -- not only do they rely on ignorance, it's what they aspire to. And it's the level they'd have the rest of us exist on, all so they can be comfortable with their own charmingly simplistic understanding of what God is. I can't imagine having the sort of intellectual incuriosity that wouldn't celebrate the desire to understand God's creation in all its complexity -- frankly, I think it's an insult to God, who I would suggest wants us to know Him from the height of our intellect, not from the flatlands of the same. And I can't comprehend the cynicism required to attempt to fool people with bad science in order to sway them from better science. That shows contempt for your fellow man, and that's certainly not what the Bible teaches.

So please, creationists, stop bugging me with your bad science. Because when you do, not only does it reveal to me you're ignorant as a fish, it also reveals to me that you're not a very good Christian. I know you probably don't care about the former, but I'm sure the latter must give you some pause.

Update: In the comments thread, Brian points out the MC Hawking site, which features some dude with a Stephen Hawking-like voice synthesizer creating science-based gangsta rap. Of particular interest here is the rap "F*** the Creationists," which is hysterically rude, and is also very likely the only rap song in the history of creation that says "This one goes out to all my homeys working in the field of evolutionary science." NOT something creationists will enjoy, obviously (and not safe for work, as they say), but fairly amusing for the rest of us.

Posted by john at 09:08 AM | Comments (48) | TrackBack

Job

This is a sample chapter I wrote for an as-yet-untitled book about the Devil. The book is a series of dialogues between myself and the Devil, over lunch, on a number of topics that you might chat with the Devil about, with additional non-dialogue chapters filling in the holes. In this chapter, we consider the story of Job.

Since this chapter would take place almost midway through the book, it assumes a couple of things. The most important one is this: that the Devil has told me that, rather than working against God, they're working together, with the aim of perfecting the human race. In the course of the book, I play the skeptic while the Devil attempts to prove his assertion. There's also the question, of course, whether this fellow is really the Devil, or just some nut.

Got it? Groovy.

-------

I sneezed.

"Bless you," said the Devil.

"Coming from you," I said, "I don't know how to take that."

"Only the purest intentions," he said.

"I'm sure," I said. "Sorry. I've had this cold for days and I just can't shake it. My life has been a non-stop alternation of phlegm and Kleenex."

"I could fix that for you."

"Pass," I said. "Order, will you?"

We were at the same Chinese restaurant where we met.

"Let's get some egg drop soup," he said.

I stared at him. "Your press is 100% accurate. You are evil."

"Boy," the Devil said. "One cold and your sense of humor becomes immunologically suppressed."

I shrugged.

"Anything else the problem?"

"It's just been a bad week," I admitted. "I've got this cold, which has introduced me to many new and interesting permutations of mucous, so I'm in a bad mood to begin with. I wrote a column about colds and mucous and being miserable, which I thought was pretty funny, all things considered. I get it back yesterday from Tom, my editor, who tells me to rewrite. Apparently no one's interested in reading about my phlegm."

"It is a rather specialized subject," agreed the Devil.

"So anyway, I've got about four hours to completely rewrite the column, in addition to all the other stuff I have to write that day. So I rewrite, and it's terrible, but there's nothing I can do about it, so I try not to think about it. Then I come home, and Krissy tells me that the seal around the tub has eroded and leaked, so I can't take a bath or a shower until the maintenance man can get to it. I had a sponge bath this morning. And that's pretty much where I am at this point. Sick, depressed and only nominally clean."

"I'm very sorry for you," said the Devil. "But I still want the egg drop soup."

The waiter came and took our order.

I sneezed again. "Damn," I said. "Viruses. Your idea?"

"Virii," the Devil corrected. "And no, they are not. I don't do design. I do implementation."

"I bet you like them."

"They have their moments."

Another sneeze. "Arrrgh," I said. "I think I now know how Job felt."

The Devil poured some green tea for the both of us. "How do you mean?"

"Sick. Miserable. Put-upon. Tired. Job-like."

"That's an interesting way of putting it."

"I don't know about that," I said, taking the teacup. "It's a fairly common expression. People like it. Being miserable is easier to deal with if you think it's because God's dinking with your karma."

"No, I understand that," the Devil said. "It's just inaccurate."

I blinked. "Excuse me?" I said. "Correct me if I'm wrong. Job had his livestock killed or stolen, his property squashed to the ground, all his children murdered, and was covered by a plague of boils from head to toe. Have I got it right so far?"

"Sure."

"All with the explicit go-ahead of God."

"Yes."

"And you're saying that this didn't upset him, just a little."

"Of course it upset him," the Devil said, vaguely annoyed. "Upset is not the word for it. 'Crushed' might work. 'Utterly destroyed' might do it too."

"Right," I said. "So how is the analogy incorrect? I'll grant that comparing a cold to a plague of boils is a little much, though it doesn't feel like it right at the moment. Be that as it may, it's still a valid comparison."

"The analogy is correct, sure," the Devil said. "But the premise is wrong. Look, obviously, the loss of Job's family and property tried him greatly. That was the device through which his test was administered. But Job's greatest grief was not the loss of his children or his property, but the inexplicable change in his relationship with God. Right? Here's a guy who's done everything he supposed to and more. He's so pious that not only does he obey all the rules that he's supposed to follow, but he even tries to take up the slack for his children. Every morning, he was up at dawn, making burnt offerings to God on the off chance that his kids had crossed God sometime during the night."

"Which probably didn't make him that popular with his herd of sheep."

"Well, no. But that's what sheep are for. So here's Job, doing everything right, and then, without explanation, his world turns to shit. Everything is gone.

"Job's swallowed by the grief of his loss, but for him, the most important question is, why? What had he done to deserve this? As far as he had always known, if you played by the rules, you'd get ahead. That's how it was explained to him, that's what he told his children, that's the way it had always been. But now, without any change in his behavior, it felt distinctly as if he were being punished for something. Which is what his friends believed. You've read Job, I presume."

"A long time ago."

The Devil looked at me. "'A long time ago' as in 'No, I haven't read it, but I don't want to admit it because it would make me look uneducated and stupid.'"

"No, I read it in college," I said.

"But not since then."

"Not really," I said.

"Not really," he snorted. "And you wonder why the Religious Right is running circles around you folks."

The egg drop soup arrived.

"God," I said. "That looks horrible."

"Don't have any," the Devil said. "All right. Job gets hits with disaster, and he's visited by his three friends: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They arrive, and they're so shocked by Job's appearance and his grief that they are knocked silent for a week. But when they do speak, what comes out of their mouth to Job is that it has to have been his fault. That being the case, he should be happy that God's taken the interest to bring him back from the errors of his ways.

"'Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty,' says Eliphaz. 'Behold, God will not cast away a perfect man,' says Bildad. And Zophar says: 'For thou hast said, my doctrine is pure and I am clean in thine eyes. But oh that God would speak, and open his lips against thee; know that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth.'"

"Well, that must have made Job feel a lot better," I said.

"Don't worry about Job," the Devil said. "He was giving back as well as he got. 'Ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. O that ye would altogether hold your piece! And it should be your wisdom.' Not quite a zinger, but well put.

"But you have to remember that Job's friends were not trying to bring Job down, they were trying to save Job's soul. They were working on the same premise as Job had been: that God does not punish the righteous, therefore Job had to have done something heinous. From that point of view, Job's protestations that he had done nothing wrong were only piling sin upon sin. He was digging himself further into the pit. They had no way of knowing they were blaming the victim.

"Let's get back to Job. Job had reconciled to the idea that God had taken away everything he had here on Earth. 'Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither; the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.' He's not excited about it, he's certainly not happy, but he can accept it.

"The greatest pain Job experiences, the cause for his lamentation, is his non-comprehension of the events. He desperately wants to understand, and in fact, his only wish is to have God explain what has happened. 'Oh that I knew where I might find him!' Job says. 'I would order my cause before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me.' That's Job's only wish.

"So, to get back to the point that started this whole thing off, unless you're specifically bemoaning your incomprehension concerning a sudden change in your relationship with God, complaining about your problems is not Job-like at all."

"What would you call it?"

"Whining, mostly." The Devil slurped his soup.

"Swell. Thanks for increasing my misery."

"It's my job."

"And you take pleasure in it."

"Absolutely. And why not."

"I can take comfort in the fact that I am not as much of a project for you as Job was, I suppose."

"I have nothing to do with your current misery," the Devil said. "You're doing well enough on your own. Anyway, that's another thing. I always get blamed for that whole Job episode."

"Well," I said, "you were the one who went down and destroyed his crops, flattened his house and killed his children. Not to mention the boils, which were a nice finishing touch."

"They were, weren't they? But if you can hark back to your college days, you'll recall I was instructed to go down and wreak havoc on the poor man."

"Right. Right after you bet God that you could turn Job away from his faith by piling him down with afflictions."

"See, there it is," the Devil said. "First off, it wasn't a bet."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, it wasn't a bet. He's God and I'm the Devil. What are we going to bet? Money? Cattle? Large gas planets?"

"There was Job's soul."

"People amaze me," the Devil said, "by persisting to think that souls are really that hard to get."

"I don't think I want to think about that last one," I said.

"Trust me. It wasn't a bet."

"If it wasn't a bet," I said, "then what was it?"

"It was an assignment."

"An assignment."

"You sound skeptical."

"I am."

"That's because you're still thinking with the old rules," the Devil said. "Look, if you work from the premise that God and I are at cross- purposes, then of course it looks as if I'm daring God to break Job's faith to little pieces. You can't avoid it. But I say to you again, God and I do not work at cross-purposes. Our job is to refine humanity, a job at which we work together, and at which, I may add, we work harmoniously."

"All right," I said, "For the purposes of argument, I'll accept the premise that you and God are working together. But that doesn't make me feel any better, since now both of you are actively beating up on this poor guy. Harmoniously beating up on this poor guy."

"Well, it was nothing personal against Job, you know."

"A thought which no doubt would have comforted Job as he counted his boils."

"Noted. Now inasmuch as God and I are working together, let's look at the conversation that God and I had concerning Job. Most everybody points to my challenging God on Job as the most important portion of the exchange, as the words that sent poor Job into his pit of troubles. But the fact of the matter is, I didn't bring up the topic of Job. God did."

"So?" I said.

"Think about it," the Devil said. "God is many things, but one thing he is not is a subtle conversationalist. He's God, and he doesn't have to bother with it."

"So you're saying that God brought up the subject of Job for a purpose."

"Exactly. Here comes lunch."

Lunch was kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, and ginger beef. Neither the Devil nor I had even glanced at the vegetable dishes.

"Nnnngh," the Devil said, after a few moments. "Good ginger beef. If we did nothing else right, I think we get points for creating a universe in which Chinese food exists."

"There's a deep thought," I said.

"Obviously, if that's all that came out of it, we'd be in trouble," the Devil said. "But as extra credit, these things add up."

"What reason did God have to bring up Job?"

"Well, do you remember the exchange at all?"

"Vaguely."

"Right," the Devil said, dryly. "Let me refresh your memory. Job, chapter one, verse eight. God says to me: 'Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?'"

"Why do you always quote the King James Bible?"

"It has a nice beat, and you can dance to it," the Devil said. "And anyway, the gist is mostly there. The fact of the matter is, as far as Job was concerned, I hadn't considered him at all."

"Why not?"

"Why would I? I had no reason to. Noting sparrow's falls are not in my job description. I was busy doing other things in other places. And inasmuch as he was not a likely candidate to come to my attention during my rounds, I hadn't spared him much thought.

"But now God wanted me to take a closer look at him. And why? The purpose of it was in God's words. 'A perfect and upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil.' Clearly, the issue was faith.

"As we've already said, Job's faith was unblemished. He was, by any account, a good and pious man, who loved his God, was good to man and animal, generous and loving, well regarded and respected. A real Boy Scout. It made you kind of sick to think about it.

"I looked again and saw what God had wanted me to see: this man was pious and faithful and good, but he was also filthy stinkin' rich. And well-regarded, and popular. What God saw was the possibility that Job's faith was supported by the things that he had gained in the world.

"You have to understand that faith is one of humanity's great conceptual achievements."

It was my turn to snort.

"Oh ye of little faith," the Devil said. "You're prejudiced because you see faith in opposition to rational thought."

"As would you, if you watched enough religious programming."

"You're taking a very narrow-minded view of the entire concept," the Devil said. "You're looking at a pinheaded manifestation of faith and confusing it for the whole thing. But try to imagine what sort of mental leap was required to go from looking at the world as a purely physical place to one in which there were also worlds unseen, spirits without form, causes without representation. Conceiving of faith was not just one of humanity's important achievements, it was THE important achievement. It was what made homo sapiens human beings, and not just another cave dweller with opposable thumbs. It was humanity's first crisis, a cusp upon which it spun and teetered thousands of years ago, as it does now on the cusp of another crisis. To mock faith is to mock that which makes you unique in the world. More beef?"

"What?" I said.

"I said, 'more beef?' If you don't want any more, I'm going to take the rest. It's very good."

"No, go ahead," I said. "I'm more of a sweet and sour pork person."

"I can see that. Anyway, sorry to go off on faith. But it's important you appreciate the mental leap it represented."

"I understand. Sorry."

"That's all right. I do watch religious programming, you know. That Pat Robertson. If he only knew.

"To return to the premise. Faith, as faith, was terribly important. Job had faith, but would it be sustained if all the good things in life were taken away? That was the question to be asked. In order for faith to be true faith, it must be sustained through misfortune. Otherwise it's possible that it was not faith at all, but simply a learned device that people use to get through life."

"Why is that distinction important?" I asked.

"It's important conceptually. If you see people with faith and benefiting from it, it's entirely possible you'll go through the same motions they do in hopes of receiving the benefits that they get, without internalizing the concept at all. It'd be like a person without the understanding of what a restaurant is seeing us eat lunch here. They see us sit down at the table, and soon enough food arrives. So they think, 'if I go sit there, someone will give me food,' without realizing that, in order to get the food, you have to pay for it."

"Of course," I said, "in this place the bill comes after you order."

"It's just an analogy," the Devil said. "And in any event, you wouldn't get away with it twice. Which actually fits the point rather well. The next time you came here to eat, you'd either starve waiting for them to serve you, or simply be kicked out. But you wouldn't understand why.

"Now, if you know that you have to pay for what you eat, you know that you can go anywhere you want to go and eat. That's faith."

"Unless you don't have any money."

"I'm going to send you a definition of 'analogy' in the mail."

"I'm just being difficult," I said.

"Yes you are. But again, your smart-ass digression serves the analogy. It doesn't matter if you have money. You understand the process. Having the money or not is secondary to the fact that the process works.

"Faith is a process. It's a way of looking at the world. And regardless of your personal situation, you understand the validity of the process. What God wanted to see was whether Job, his perfect man, understood the process, or whether he was merely content to benefit from it.

"At least, this is what I surmised. So I answered the Lord: 'Doth Job fear God for naught?

"'Hast thou not made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.

"'But put forth thine hand now, and touch all he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.'

"Which is exactly what God was hoping to hear."

"You're sure about that?" I asked.

"He wouldn't have brought it up otherwise," the Devil replied.

"So how come he made you do the dirty work?"

"Because it's my job, you know," the Devil said. "When the CEO makes a decision, he leaves it to the underlings to implement. I was the particular underling to which jobs like these go, so I got the call. But that's why he pointed it out to me in the first place, so he would be sure that he and I were on the same page concerning the problem."

"But you were complaining earlier that people blame the whole Job affair on you," I said.

"'Complaining' is probably a bit much," the Devil said. "I just want to make sure that credit is given where credit is due."

"Be that as it may, you have to take responsibility for the particulars."

"Such as?"

"The herds. The house. The children."

"All right, it was me and not God in the details."

"Does it bother you at all?"

"Following through? No, not really. I mean, we're back to a fundamental question of whether it's right for any being to do these sorts of things to other beings. It's a valid question now, but not necessarily then."

"I seem to recall Job asking questions very much like that," I said.

"Yes, and he was the very first," the Devil countered, "and it wasn't at all clear that he would ask those questions at all. It was equally possible that he would, in the words of his wife, 'curse God and die.' We had to find out."

"Why?"

"Because it was time," the Devil said. "The concept of faith had been around long enough to get most people used to it. Now it was time to refine the message, to get people to think more critically about it. Faith is not a free lunch, you know. It's not always a happy romp through the poppies. It's work. We had to see whether people were ready for the next step. How else to do it except by selecting a test subject?"

"I would think omnipotence would take care of that particular need."

"Careful," the Devil waggled a finger. "You take that argument back far enough, you can omnipotize the universe right out of existence."

"It's a valid question."

"It is. But we're already halfway through our meal. You'll have to save it for another time. For now, take my word for it. The test was essential for us. And it was essential for you, too."

"Me?" I said.

"No, not you personally, you toad," the Devil replied. "Second person plural. 'You' meaning everybody."

"How is brutally torturing a man to test his faith important to me?"

"You really have to get away from the torture aspect of it," the Devil said. "You're missing the forest for the trees."

"It's a little hard," I said. "I feel for the guy. His kids died to test a theory."

"Well, yes," the Devil said. "But he got some more. Look, I'll agree with you on this: in this test, Job got the shaft. There's no way around it. But you have to understand that to some extent, neither God nor I can worry too much about the implications of our actions on an individual, particularly if that action serves a higher purpose. God may note each sparrow fall, but he's not necessarily going to do anything about it. To put it bluntly, universe- creating isn't a touchy-feely thing. Sorry about that. Can we table it for now?"

"All right. Sorry."

"It's a human thing," the Devil said. "I understand. But let's stay on target. Testing Job served our purposes, because we now knew that humans could keep their faith even when that faith was severely tested. It meant that we could go on to introduce other complexities to the problem of faith, secure in the knowledge that the foundation was solid.

"We couldn't try every human being in the same manner that we tried Job. That would be, to use a phrase, awfully labor-intensive. And, here's something I'm sure you'll be glad to note, it would be rather cruel. But one of the nice things about Job is that, in addition to everything else, he had a high enough profile that the particulars of his story went far and wide. 'Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever!' Job said. Well, he got his wish."

"If what you needed was a story," I said. "You could have just made something up and spread the story around. You wouldn't have needed Job at all."

"For the human end of it, that'd be right. But God still needed to make his test of faith. We were killing two birds with one stone. Two birds that could only be killed with one stone, if you want to put it that way."

"Job was 'a perfect man' in more ways than one."

"He fit rather nicely into the whole thing, it's true. The right man at the right time."

"You weren't worried that he might be some sort of statistical aberration?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, scientifically speaking, using a sample that consists of just one person doesn't make too much sense. Not that I advocate abusing others for the cause, but it could be that Job was unusually advanced for his time. His brain could have been just a little bit bigger than everyone else's around him. You remember the words of his friends. These were not people who seemed to be ready for a great teleological leap. You might have gotten ahead of yourselves."

"It's possible," the Devil said. "But it doesn't really matter. For one thing, you need to check the stories of other cultures. There's more than one Job. He's just the one for this culture. Secondly, it's almost a certainty that neither Job nor his friends grasped exactly what was going on. Even in the midst of his situation, and even as he clung to his faith, Job never made the intellectual leap of understanding that he could never go back to that previous conception of faith. And though he cried for understanding, the fact of the matter is that even if God had tried to explain it to him, Job just wouldn't have figured it out. So, you know, God didn't even try."

"I always thought that God's speech to Job was on the harsh side," I said.

"'Harsh' is putting it mildly," the Devil said. "'Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in search of the depth? Shall he that contendeth with the Lord instruct Him? He that reproveth God, let him answer it.' God scoured Job's backside with a sand blaster in that little speech."

"You don't think Job would have understood why God tested him?"

"Not a bit. It's like that phrase, 'Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.'"

"And yet Job understood enough to cling to his faith."

"He understood that he was blameless and that the charges his friends laid upon him were baseless. He understood that by keeping his faith, he might yet have an accounting of the events that afflicted him. And he understood that whatever his troubles, he did not stand to profit by deserting the God that had previously done so well by him. He wanted to know what had happened."

I pointed my chopsticks at the Devil. "You know what it was. The dumb bastard was just plain stubborn."

"Stubborn," the Devil agreed. "Obstinate, even."

"Pigheaded," I replied.

"Mulish," the Devil countered.

"Headstrong," I offered.

"Contumacious," the Devil suggested.

"But I don't know that that's the same thing as having faith," I said.

"It's not," the Devil said. "But one is stubborn for a reason. In this case, it was Job's faith that was the reason. But being stubborn about something also doesn't mean that you'd understand why you were stubborn about it, either."

"So who's supposed to learn from Job if not Job?"

"You are. Second person singular."

"Me?"

"Well, and everyone else who's read or knows of the story. This is the other reason why we wouldn't have been concerned if no one else at the time got the story. Since it was written down, it would be available at the time when people did have understanding. It was an investment in the future, you might say. Nowadays, the only people who think that faith means a free lunch could be charitably classified as pathologically optimistic or simply dim."

"You know there are a lot of people who do think that," I said.

"Sure," the Devil said. "But they're just not paying attention. They deserve what they get."

"Nice."

"'Nice' isn't one of my prominent characteristics."

The waiter started clearing away our dishes.

"Let me ask you a question," I said.

"Shoot," said the Devil.

"Could there be a 'Job test' today? Could you inflict the same spiritual grief and anguish on someone today that you visited on Job, thousands of years ago?"

"Nope," the Devil said. "At least, not in the same manner."

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing," the Devil said, "simply as a practical matter, it would be harder to get away with."

"What do you mean?"

"All right. Let's take the actual events in the Job case. First, we killed or had stolen all of Job's livestock. Second, we sent a terrible wind to destroy the house of his eldest son, in which all his children were having dinner. Finally and later, we set boils on Job from head to toe. Right?"

"Right."

"Fine. Now let's take an equivalent person today. Say, a Texas rancher with 30 thousand head of cattle. Texans, as a rule, could use to be punished by God anyway. They need the humility. So how would you suggest I dispose of his 30 thousand head of cattle? In a single stroke, mind you."

"A fast-moving bovine virus would work," I suggested.

"Back to virii," the Devil said. "Excellent. All right. So we wipe out all the cattle. Now let's get rid of his house and his kids. Suggestions?"

"A tornado is always a good option," I said.

"Indeed it is," the Devil agreed. "Nothing like a 300 mph wind funnel bearing down on your home and children to put the fear of God into you. Finally, what sort of disease would you set upon the rancher?"

"I don't know," I said. "I hear that flesh-eating strep is good for a laugh."

"You're actually pretty good at this," the Devil said.

"I'm doing in a work of fiction," I reminded him. "Real folks I'll leave to you."

"Fair enough. Now, let's recap. Cattle done in by a virus. House and family done in by a tornado, and our man with his extremities being eaten away by bacteria."

"Right."

"Well?" he asked.

"Well what?" I asked.

"Where's God?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, where is God in this? How does he show his hand? Every event you have described has a discoverable physical root."

"So?"

"So, if a physical root can be ascribed, then that is what will be blamed. Occam's Razor applies: the best answer is that which is the simplest. Flesh-eating strep bacteria are not generally ascribed to God. Tornadoes are a known phenomena, and are no longer ascribed to God, either. Neither are most virii at this point."

"I don't see your point," I said. "If the punishment is coming from God, what does it matter if you can discover what kind of bacterium or virus it is?"

"Because no one would attribute it to God. You know that bacteria and virii exist. No one on this planet in this day and age is going to look at a virus and say 'Hmmmm. Must have come from God.'"

"'AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality,'" I quoted.

"But you know it's not true," the Devil countered. "As do all but the most bigoted of you. And more people are likely to say that AIDS was created in a government lab than by the hand of God, anyway. My point is, in all cases that a physical cause for an event is apparent, then that's the cause that will be claimed. God doesn't enter into it anymore."

"I suppose that would limit your options a bit."

"You're not kidding. This sort of thing was easier to pull off when people had no idea there were things such as bacteria or virii, and didn't have weather satellites and computers. When Job boiled up, there was no doubt in his mind who was doing it to him.

"And of course, let's not forget that any modern rancher with 30 thousand head of cattle is going to be insured up the wazoo."

"Would that matter?" I asked.

"Of course it would matter," the Devil replied. "Why kill perfectly good cattle if they're just going to be replaced? Not to mention that offing the cattle might not ruin him anyway. These days, a smart rancher would almost certainly have a stock portfolio diversified beyond mortal comprehension. The only way to bring down a modern-day Job would be to hope he's invested heavily in derivatives, or tear down a good chunk of the world getting at him. And that would be missing the point."

"So folks today are immune from God," I said.

"Hardly," the Devil replied. "You're just safe from a plague of boils, courtesy of the Big Guy."

"But we're just talking about obvious examples," I said. "It's entirely possible that God could recreate the Job test using an entirely different set of objects or events."

"How would He do that?" the Devil asked.

"I have no idea," I said. "I'm not God."

"Clearly not," the Devil said. "But the fact that you can't conceive of the new set of criteria that God might use speaks volumes. That's as it supposed to be, since God isn't going to do anything as grossly transparent as that anyway. God's gotten past the obvious and has moved into the sublime."

"And why is that?"

"Because that's where humans are. Which is the other reason why you won't be seeing a repeat of the Job scenario. It's too simple."

"I don't know about that," I said. "People are still arguing over it."

"Arguing is one thing. Being able to conceive of Job's dilemma is another thing entirely. You have to understand, Job and his pals weren't exactly rocket scientists. They didn't go home at night and fiddle around with Fermat's Last Theorem or the principals of atonality. They were, at best, a couple of steps above hitting rocks together to make sparks. Humans today are at least another step up."

"Thanks," I said.

"It's a short stairway," the Devil assured me.

"You sure know how to make a guy feel good about his species."

"Sorry. The point is, you don't teach people what they already know. You already understand most of the lessons of Job, so why go over them again? Tell me, have you ever considered God's speech to Job?"

"In what sense?" I asked.

"Listen to the things that God asks Job: Were you there when I created the Earth? Have you entered the springs of the sea, or have you walked in search of its depths? Know you the laws of Heaven?

"Job's answer, had he truly bothered to answer instead of throwing himself into the dirt and groveling like a dog, would have had to have been 'no.' Which was basically the right answer. Job didn't know much of anything. If a sixth grader today knew as little as Job did as an adult, people would look at her like she was just a step up from a trained monkey.

"But the same questions that God asked of Job would be answered differently by his counterpart today. Do you know what Planck's Time is?"

"Yes," I said. "It's the point in time after the Big Bang at which the laws of physics kicked in. We can start theorizing about the universe from that point forward."

"Very good," said the Devil. "You get a gold star."

"I'm thrilled," I said.

"Planck's Time occurs at ten to the negative forty-third seconds after the Big Bang; zero point 42 more zeros and a one. It's a slice of time unimaginably close to the moment of creation that men can conceptualize and theorize about. In effect, man is there at the moment of creation, and understands, in a basic way, the laws of heaven.

"Have you entered the seas and searched its depths? In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Donald Walsh took a submersible down into the Marianas Trench to the depth of nearly six miles. You have been there. Many of the particulars of God's speech to Job are not only accessible, a great deal of them are old news.

"So how does God answer man's questions now? What test must the modern day Job undergo? What responses will God have when He confronts his questioner, as he did with Job? It still will not be a meeting of equals, mind you, but the gulf which separates creator and created is now able to be peered across.

"Look, here come the fortune cookies."

The fortune cookies arrived. The Devil took his, cracked it open, and set the fortune, unread, down on the table.

"Aren't you going to read your fortune?"

"Oh, no," said the Devil. "It would be pointless. I already know what's going to happen to me. But I love the cookies."

"Tell me," I said, "If the lessons of Job are already learned, what does that mean for faith?"

"What do you mean?"

"You have said over the course of our lunch today that the faith of Job is too simplistic for humanity today, and that many of the questions that God asked of Job, to accentuate the distance between them, have been answered or can be answered by men today. It seems like faith is superfluous."

"Job's faith, yes," the Devil said. "Well, no. Not superfluous. Simply to be taken for granted. You've drunk in naturally through living in your world the lessons that Job never could learn or would learn, even as he lived them. Let me ask you, do you believe in God?"

"If I accept the fact that you're the Devil, then that would seem to be the case."

"But you still don't think I'm really the Devil, do you."

"You talk a good game," I admitted.

"But that's not a 'yes.'"

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe you are. More likely you're a loon with an astounding educational background and the wherewithal to buy me lunch once a week."

"Which puts God right back into the 'maybe he exists, maybe he doesn't' category."

"I guess so."

"What I tell you now would be true whether I was the Devil or not," the Devil said. "If you had lived in Job's time, you wouldn't doubt the existence of God. You'd see Him all around you. Frankly, you couldn't get rid of Him. He would be everywhere. That's because, at the time, God needed to here. Truly, physically here, to help open humanity's mind to the world outside his hut, his tribe, the next day. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

"But God has had to hide Himself again. And do you want to know why?"

"Yes. And it had better be good."

"It is. It's because basically people are lazy."

"Come again?"

"Humans are lazy," the Devil repeated. "Sloths, all of you. Given your druthers, you'd hang upside-down from trees and catch insects with your own drool."

"Great visual image," I said.

"Don't blame me. If I had made humanity, you'd all be much quicker learners. And speed freaks. You'd probably all have 12-year life spans, but it'd all work out the same in the end."

"I like it the way it is," I said.

"Well, you would," the Devil said. "Humans are lazy. God gave you these big fat brains, and spent the time to pop their tops so you could use them as they were designed. But as long as God was obviously around, you were content to let him do the heavy lifting. Which is not what you were designed for.

"So He went away, and the history of your progression in the world is a history of your trying to locate Him again. Ironically, the more you discover about the world, the harder you make it for Him to reappear to you in the way He used to."

"But it doesn't sound like He'd planned to come back that way anyway," I said.

The Devil brightened noticeably. "He was right. You guys can be taught."

"You had your doubts?"

"Not on the ability, just on the speed," he said. "You're absolutely right, however. If you're waiting around for God to show himself, it'll be a long wait. He wants you to come looking for Him."

"Will we find Him?" I asked.

"You could. You have the capability. That's part of the reason I'm here now," the Devil said. "It's getting near time we found out. You were asking earlier if God was planning another Job test. The fact is, God doesn't repeat Himself.

"But your test will be *like* Job's test. It's going to be a test of faith. Job's test of faith was in his God. It was whether he could maintain his faith in the face of all that was thrown at him.

"Your test is: do you have the faith to find God again? And on God's terms? Expecting God as He appeared thousands of years ago will do you no good. You'll be like Job's friends, sticking to an old way of thinking even as the new one peers you right in the face. No, you'll have to find God again by seeking Him out in the world as it is today, using all the knowledge that you have at your disposal. It's a harder task than Job had, but you're not the same sort of people that Job was. Not anymore.

"So," the Devil said. "What does your fortune say?"

I cracked opened the cookie. "'You will feel better soon.'"

"I'd say you feel better now," the Devil said. "You haven't sneezed in the last half hour."

"The virii are merely sleeping," I said. "They'll be back. Do you mind if I read your fortune?"

"Not at all," he slid it over to me.

It read: Prepare for a test.

"It's not my fortune anyway," said the Devil, nonchalantly. "I really think it was meant for you."

Posted by john at 08:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Journaliers

One of the most interesting things about the Jayson Blair/NYT journalism scandal is one of the things that I think is being least commented upon, which is how much work Jayson Blair put into his journalistic inaccuracies. Blair put in a fair amount of research time in order to create the illusion that he was going places and observing things, and also worked fairly diligently to cover his tracks. It's not accurate to suggest he worked just as hard to cover his tracks as he would have if he'd just gone out and did the damn work, but it's probably accurate to say that he worked hard enough at lying that the extra effort required to actually report would not have been much more onerous.

It's a replay of the Stephen Glass thing from a few years back (Glass, who in one of those cosmic coincidences, has resurfaced with a largely autobiographical novel called The Fabulist); Glass' fabrications required him to create fake press releases and Web sites in order to fool his fact checkers and editors. Glass made up stuff, it seems, primarily because he thought reality was too boring (it's not, it just requires a lot of intensive research. Glass thought it was easier to make stuff up first and then create the background details later; I doubt it.). It doesn't seem like Blair was motivated by the same impulse; he just looks like a neophyte reporter who lacked the skills he required to do his job correctly, and someone more interesting in being a reporter than he was interested in the process involved in reporting.

Another irony here is that while it's clear that Blair has shown himself to be be a pretty bad reporter, he shows ample skills to have been a rewrite man -- one of the guys who takes information from reporters in the field, augments it with research from other sources, and bangs out an article based on that. The fly in that ointment is Blair's distressing tendency to make things up, like quotes and details that he wasn't able to find in stories. That one's a little difficult to get around no matter what.

Blair had a lot of problems from very early on, and many people are wondering why the New York Times kept someone who was so very troubled. A number of people are pointing to the affirmative-action thing (Blair is black), but I think that not really a direct-line thing, since quite obviously it would not have been difficult to replace Blair with any number of qualified minority reporters; it's not as if the NYT has to scrape the gutters looking for people who want to work there.

I think it's more a matter of institutional pride, the idea that for whatever reason, they made Blair a Times man, and by God, they were going to make him live up to the title one way or another. And Blair indeed did the work. He just did in mostly the utterly wrong way.

The final irony is that Blair may find a way of making it work for himself after all. Stephen Glass, who planted fake stories in a number of magazines and precipitated a scandal of his own because of it, has turned the experience into a novel that's ranked No. 156 on the Amazon rankings, and which was promoted by articles from the chattering classes and by a segment on last Sunday's 60 Minutes. Name another debut novelist in the last 20 years who has had his work so slavishly followed by the press. And imagine how the story of the man who spoofed the New York Times would sell.

Posted by john at 07:28 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 12, 2003

The Universe, in Handy Book Form

Today is the official release date for The Rough Guide to the Universe. That's in the US, mind you; in the UK, it's already been out for a month, and I'm mildly confused as to why every single Briton has not gone to purchase their own copy. Well, it's early yet.

Here in the US, of course, I whole-heartedly suggest that each and every one of you to mob your local bookstore and demand several copies -- or, should you be far distant from a local bookstore, to purchase it online -- say, here, or here, or even here. (Or, should you like to like to shop online, yet still support local business, here -- there's a couple of extra steps required, like entering my name and then entering your zip code. Still.)

Because I'm the author of the book, I got sent a number of author copies, most of which will be going to family and immediate friends, but to celebrate the release of the book, I thought it would be fun to have a little contest. So here it is: I will give one FREE, autographed copy of The Rough Guide to the Universe to the person who best completes this sentence:

"The Universe is..."

My personal answer to this is "The Universe is where I keep all my stuff," but I'm sure you have your own personal insights on the matter.

To provide your answer, just drop a line in the comments thread for this entry. Enter as many times as you like BUT the cut-off for entries is 11:59 pm EST Friday, May 16. I will pick the response I find the most interesting and announce the winner on May 19. At which point the winner can contact me by e-mail and then I'll send out the book.

Which is not to say you shouldn't rush out and buy the book right this very instant. Far from it -- when and if you win, you can surely gift your previously-purchased copy to a friend, or family member, or local library. Everyone wins!

Incidentally: In totally serious mode, you might actually think about buying a copy of this book (or, honestly, any book you like) for your local library. As you may or may not know, library funds are getting slashed left and right around the country; they'd appreciate the book, and your community would appreciate having books that weren't incredibly old on the shelves. I of course donated the book to my local library as soon as it came in, and also donated all the books I bought and used for research and fact checking. It's a worthy cause.

Posted by john at 12:21 PM | Comments (87) | TrackBack

Haircuts and Our Weekend

In case you're wondering, yes, the shaved head look is a new one for me. Well, not entirely new -- when I was five I was sent to live with my aunt for about a year (my mother had had an operation which required a long convalescence) and my uncle Vern, who lived up to every rural stereotype attached to a name like "Vern," went and had my head buzzed because he thought I looked like a girl (which was probably true -- early pictures of me show me to look disturbingly like my own daughter). I believe they sent a school picture to my mother shortly thereafter and that she cried. I didn't mind; at least they didn't beat me up in school (well, not for looking like a hippie, in any case).

However, it's the first time in my adult life my hair's been this short, and the direct cause of it is frustration with the fact that the more hair you lose, the less the hair you have left wants to do anything. It's like it gets depressed, like an assembly line worker in a factory that's chronically laying people off. Oh, look, another fifty follicles shut down. I don't even see why I bother. Point is, it's difficult to make what's left look good, and I'm not one of those people who would choose to spend a great amount of time on it anyway. So off I went to the barber -- not the hair stylist. When you go to get your head shaved, you want a barber, damn it.

Who, incidentally, approved of my desire to crop my head close. She told me about the men who came in with less hair than me but with a greater sense of self-denial, demanding she do something with their heads that implied they were still carrying around the hirsute wealth of Fabio. This struck her as sad. You work with what you have, and don't make what you have work to be more than it is. Good salt of the earth wisdom that you can only get in small-town barbershops. And for only nine bucks, to boot. Most psychological counseling sessions are far more expensive, and don't include a trim as a throw-in.

I think the barber did a fine job with the haircut, but to be honest I don't know if the buzzed look is really me. A friend of mine sent me an e-mail after he saw the picture I put up on Friday, saying that it makes me look like a bad-ass. And I'd agree, but I can't decide if it's the "Sullen mysterious man that all the chicks crave" sort of bad-ass look, which would be good, or the "Straight outta the Aryan Brotherhood at San Quentin" sort of bad-ass look, which, needless to say, would be kind of bad. Today's picture is somewhere in the middle of this; I call it my "I'm the new bassist for Metallica, and the publicist told me to scowl like I was unhappy about it" look. Incidentally, I'm not the new bassist for Metallica.

My birthday was swell; I got birthday wishes from friends, had dinner with the in-laws, and then Krissy and I went off to see X2: X-Men United, which I thought was fine. I'm not a big Marvel Comics guy, to be entirely honest with you; it's like the AL of comic book publishers (DC is the NL, obviously), and as such all its characters feel about ten degrees skewed (and in case you're wondering, Marvel's DH is clearly The Hulk -- "Hulk Smash!" Yes, Hulk. That's what we want you to do). But as far Marvel comics movies go, X2 is probably the best one out there, and it's nice to see that Patrick Stewart still has a viable gig now that the Star Trek movies have imploded around him.

Mother's Day was likewise very nice and low-key; Krissy spent most of the day with her mother, with Athena in tow, while I stayed at home and banged out a chapter in the new novel. People have been asking me what the new novel is about, and I am of course fairly mysterious about it, except to note that it involves sheep. People think i'm joking about that. I'm not, people. The particular chapter I wrapped up also involves panda steaks, a cult that worships Ted Nugent, and a major diplomatic incident precipitated by a few pungent insults. I can't believe I get paid for this.

There's your weekend wrap-up around the Scalzi Household. I didn't mention the constant 25 mph winds that's been blowing more or less constantly since Saturday morning or the thunderstorms that have been swinging through on a regular 6-hour basis, because I assume most of you out there have been experiencing this over the weekend as well. Let us never speak of it again.

Posted by john at 09:47 AM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

May 10, 2003

34

Me at 34.

No updates this weekend. I'm doing, you know, birthday stuff.

See you on Monday.

Posted by john at 12:00 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

May 09, 2003

Another Gripping Insight Into My Work Life

Hard as it may be to believe, I figure many of you faithful readers of the Whatever don't go out of your way to purchase the Official US PlayStation Magazine -- and why not? You have something against good, clean video gaming fun? Well? -- and may not see the DVD reviews I place within its pages every month. So in the interest in sharing my world with you, I'm displaying a typical OPM DVD column for you to peruse. These are the ones that appeared in the March 2003 issue (which means it went on sale in February), on account of my deal with OPM gives them a 90-day exclusive on the material, so these are now over 90 days old. Everyone's happy. Anyway, so here's how I make a little scratch each month.

Four Feathers
(Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson)

Here's an interesting curiosity: A film celebrating the British Empire, featuring Heath Ledger from Australia (where the Brits shipped all their nastiest convicts), Kate Hudson from America (which the Brits taxed without representation) and directed by Shekhar Kapur from India (which the Brits ruled for centuries through the cunning use of flags). No wonder it doesn't quite work. Still and all, it has some good action scenes, and Hudson and Ledger are easy on the eyes, so if you're in the mood for a Kipling-esque wallow in the Victorian Imperialism (and who among us isn't?), here you go. No DVD extras announced at press time.
Movie Rating: Two and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: N/A

Formula 51
(Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Carlyle)

Samuel L. Jackson stars in this action film as a kilt-wearing chemist, proving that he is in fact the coolest man in all filmdom, since any other action star trying to walk around an entire film as a scientist in a tartan skirt (even one who's synthesized a legal drug that gives you a super high, as he does here) would probably be beaten to death by the film's anguished financiers. The film itself is mish-mashed squidge-up of elements from Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction and their various rip-offs, so if you like that sort of thing, you'll be entertained, and if not, well, Jackson's kilt will probably have scared you off already. Extras: A "making of" feature.
Movie Rating: Two and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Two Stars

Knockaround Guys
(Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper)

This long-delayed flick crawled out of the woodwork after Vin Diesel became the Next Big Thing (or, at the very least, the Next Large Thing. I mean, look at him). Pre-stardom films released post-stardom are often embarrassing moments for everyone involved -- they reek of the "I needed the work" vibe -- but not this one. It's a smartly done mob caper-slash-coming of age story, and features a nicely high-powered cast including John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper (Diesel isn't even the main character -- that role belongs to Barry Pepper, as a mobster's conflicted son). Catch it and be pleasantly surprised. Extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes and the complete screenplay.
Movie Rating: Three and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three and a Half Stars

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
(Nia Vardalos, John Corbett)

It cost something like $5 million to make and grossed something like $230 million dollars in the theaters, which makes this film the closest anyone in Hollywood ever got to totally free money. The story is standard-issue sitcom odd-couple love story, this time with a daffy Greek woman and a WASP-y guy, but it's pretty funny and you can watch it with your grandma, and both of you can enjoy it. And, really, there's something nice about the fact that the most successful romantic comedy of all time stars a woman (Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the script) who doesn't look like she's equal parts silicone, collagen and starvation. Vardalos, co-star John Corbett and director Joel Zwick add a commentary track.
Movie Rating: Four Stars
DVD Extras: Two and a Half Stars

One Hour Photo
(Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen)

It's Robin Williams continuing his penance for one too many Patch Adams-type flicks, this time by playing a quiet, mousy photo developer who becomes unhealthily attached to a seemingly-perfect family whose film he processes, and then takes it personally when cracks start to show in the family façade. Williams is cool and creepy here, playing the role of the "quiet guy who keeps to himself" to obsessive, clammy perfection; if nothing else, this is the film that finally convinces you to go out and get that digital camera. Williams and director Mark Romanek add their commentary to the DVD, which also includes the usual "making" feature and a Charlie Rose interview.
Movie Rating: Four Stars
DVD Extras: Three Stars

Road to Perdition
(Tom Hanks, Paul Newman)

So Tom Hanks is a bad guy in this elegiac tone poem to depression-era gangsterism, and to the sins of fathers visited on sons (both metaphorically and literally in the case of this film). While you're watching Hanks go through his paces, you admire his commitment to his craft, the handsomeness of the production, and the gravity of the proceedings. You also realize that Tom Hanks as a bad man doesn't really fly -- Hanks is the modern-day version of Jimmy Stewart, and no one bought him as a bad guy, either. You accept it on the premise that actors have to do something new every once in a while or be bored silly, and you tick off the minutes until it's done and he can get back to doing his usual thing.

To be fair, Hanks' performance is good, but Hanks never really lets go like he needs to; even at his baddest here there's something held in reserve -- something that Hanks himself probably wasn't aware he was holding in. Contrast this performance with Denzel Washington's luxurious wallow in badness in Training Day: Washington's performance had teeth, while Hanks' performance has a pained scowl. A close miss, but at least it's an interesting miss, and it's helped along by an ace in the hole: Paul Newman, who plays Hanks' adoptive father and crime "godfather" -- a situation with exactly as much potential for pathos as you might expect. On the extras front, director Sam Mendes offers commentary and deleted scenes with commentary; there's also a "making of" feature and a photo gallery.
Movie Rating: Three and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three Stars

Rules of Attraction
(James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon)

Let's make this really simple: If you really want to watch a film of college students acting like angry, hopped-up lower primates, go rent of those videos where they basically post a camera in the French Quarter at Mardi Gras and let people flash the lens at they stumble by. It will have somewhat more plot than Rules of Attraction (which, to be fair, makes slightly more sense than the hopelessly rank Bret Easton Ellis novel upon which it is based), and the characters will be more sympathetic, even as they flash each other for beads and vomit on the sidewalk. No DVD Extras.
Movie Rating: One half star
DVD Extras: N/A

Spy Kids 2
(Antonio Banderas, Carla Guigino)

More pint-sized James Bond-y action with a Latino twist from director-writer-editor-composer-probably-would-handle-craft-service-if-they-let-him Robert Rodriguez. Lots of people find these movies tiring -- Rodriguez is immensely creative in a showoff-y way that can grate after about a half hour, and the kid stars of these things aren't, like, good actors, but when you consider that the average live-action kid-oriented film stinks like a dead rat fresh from a Newark sewer, I'm willing to cut the man a little slack for making the effort not to be boring. Plus, it has Ricardo Montalban! All together, now: "KHAAAAAAAAN!!!!!" Lots of extras, including commentary, stunt and gadget featurettes, music videos, deleted scenes and so on.
Movie Rating: Three and Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three and Half Stars

Sweet Home Alabama
(Reese Witherspoon, Patrick Dempsey)

Sure, we think of that winsome little Reese Witherspoon as just the bee's knees, but consider that in Sweet, she plays a woman who is all cozy with one man (who proposes to her at Tiffany's, for crying out loud) but still secretly married to another. Yes, Reese Witherspoon: Wanton, unapologetic adulterer! And yet, people weren't shocked -- they thought it was cute. So, to recap: Probably the most depraved representation of decent sexual relationships in a Disney film since, oh, Pretty Woman (Julia Roberts! A hooker!). Like that will stop you from getting this for your mom. You're all sick. Extras include director commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, a music video and an alternate ending.
Movie Rating: Three and a Half Stars
DVD Extras: Three Stars

The Tuxedo
(Jackie Chan, Jennifer Love Hewitt)

Jackie Chan as Inspector Gadget, and really, why would anyone in their right mind want that? For the film, Chan dons a spy tuxedo that's all filled with special effects, but the whole point of a Jackie Chan film is that he is the special effect in itself (yes, I know, he's getting up there in age. He's still more flexible than you or me). Also, the plot, involving water striders infecting the world's water supply, is beyond stupid. I still like watching Chan (he's always amusing) someone needs to mention to Chan that Hollywood apparently thinks all his fans are idiots. At least there's the blooper reel to look forward to, as well as deleted scenes and a "making of" documentary.
Movie Rating: Two Stars
DVD Extras: Two and a half Stars

Posted by john at 12:15 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Arty Spooky Athena

One of the most frequent notes I get in e-mail is to the effect of "it's very nice that you prattle on endlessly about trivial things. But, you know, we're just here for the pictures of Athena." Fine, then. Have it your way. Your first picture of the day, hand-colored by Athena herself -- yes, she can handle Photoshop. Yes, it scares me too:

The second is kind of a spooky one; I call this my "Sixth Sense" picture of Athena, in that you can just see her saying "I see dead people" in it:

Okay, that's all you get for today. Now read something of mine. And be thankful.

Posted by john at 08:56 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Oh, Grow Up

A new study from my alma mater the University of Chicago suggests that most of us think that someone doesn't really get grown-up until around the age of 26:

"According to those surveyed, the average age someone should marry was 25.7, and the age for having children was 26.2. Most respondents considered parenthood the final milestone needed to reach true adulthood... Nearly 1,400 of those surveyed last year were asked to answer the questions about adulthood.

They were asked to rate the importance of seven stages of transition into adulthood - from attaining financial independence to getting married and having children. They also were asked to specify the ages at which those stages should be achieved.

For categories other than marriage and having children, the average ages were: financially independent, age 20.9; not living with parents, age 21.2; full-time employment, age 21.2; finishing school, age 22.3; and being able to support a family, age 24.5." -- Associated Press

This survey pretty much codifies something that's been my own personal opinion, which is that being a "kid" pretty much lasts these days until you're about 25 -- which is, you can screw around (or screw up) any time before that age and not really have it count against you in the court of general opinion (opposed to say, a court of law, so you still can't drink and drive). Try it for yourself: Which is worse -- a 24-year-old slacker, or a 28-year-old one? Easily, the 28-year-old. The 24-year-old one slides by on the "well, he's still got time" thing, but when you look at a 28-year-old farting around, the feeling is "clock's ticking, dude."

I also think there's a psychological edge to the 25th year, in that if you wanted to be considered much of a prodigy in anything, you had to get it done before the age of 25. By the time I was 25, I was a nationally syndicated film critic and humor columnist, which made me feel pretty good about myself (and the movie reviews, at least, were pretty good), but I hadn't written the Great American Novel, which was something I figured I'd have done by then. Which is not to say I hadn't tried. I've got a couple of attempts hidden in my files. You don't want to see them. The one thing I can note is that they're very short, because it became clear within about ten pages that I had no clue what I was doing. Now it looks like my first novel will be published just short of my 35th birthday, and I'm good with that. I'm not a novel prodigy, and it's not the Great American Novel. But it's a Pretty Good American Science Fiction Novel, and now I feel like I have a clue. So it's worked out pretty well. Anyway, once you get over 25, you worry less about doing things on a timetable and worry more about doing them well.

Personally, I felt reasonably adult when I was 26 -- I'd just got married, and had been working and supporting myself for a few years by then -- but the first time I felt irrevocably grown up was shortly after I got laid off by AOL in 1998. Krissy and I had been just about to make an offer on a house when I got whacked, and we had to make the choice between retreating, grabbing a less expensive apartment and waiting until I had a certain and stable income before we got a house, or deciding to take a leap of faith, buy a house and assume that we'd make it work. We took the leap of faith, and as Robert Frost once said about a similar situation, it made all the difference. I've never had reason to believe I was anything less than a grown-up since then, even when I'm playing video games. And as I said, it's not like I didn't feel like a grown-up before then. It was just the crystallizing moment that showed where my brain was (for the record, I think Krissy was all grown up at least a couple of years before me, a mildly embarrassing fact because she's a year younger than I am. But let's not get into that now).

I'm nt a professional sociologist, but I don't think there's much of a downside of people having an extended adolescence. Yes, it leads to more time for people to make asses for themselves, as amply shown by the explosion of Girls Gone Wild videos, but the whole point of being young is to get most of the "I'm Making an Ass of Myself" energy out of your system, so that when you finally slide into true adulthood you can focus on the pleasures and responsibilities of being all grown up without the additional urge to make an ass of yourself later (a process known as the "Mid-Life Crisis"). If the end result of six spring breaks in Cancun and Daytona Beach instead of two is that you say that's something I don't need to do again after the last one, then by all means, have six spring breaks. When you hit 43 without freaking out and breaking up your marriage to (take your pick) date a 21-year-old Hooters waitress or fondle the hot young assistant gardener, your spouse and your children will thank you. Be young, have fun, and then go on. It's nice when it works that way. And it takes a little bit longer, it's probably worth the investment.

Just, you know, not too long. Remember: 24-year-old slacker -- okay. 28-year-old slacker -- tick tick tick tick tick tick tick, baby.

Posted by john at 08:41 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

May 08, 2003

Exact Dates

"Liviu Mircea and Tiberiu Oproiu claim to have pinpointed the exact time and date of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

The pair, from the Astronomic Observatory Institute in Cluj, Romania, say Jesus died at 3pm on Friday, April 3, 33 AD, and rose again at 4am on Sunday, April 5." -- Astronomers 'pinpoint time and date of crucifixion and resurrection', Avanova, 5/8/2003

Yeah -- but in which time zone?

There's also the matter that this would make Jesus a bit older than his traditional death age, since it's generally historically accepted that, despite the labeling of "B.C." and "A.D.," Jesus was not born in 1 AD (or even 1 BC -- there is no "zero year"), but probably in 4 BC. Jesus is legendarily 33 when he died, but this new calculation would make him 37 or thereabouts. So there goes that "By the time Jesus was my age, he was dead," joke I was so looking forward to telling on Saturday (which is my 34th birthday, you know).

I think the exact dating of Jesus' death (and subsequent events) is immaterial in a number of ways, most obviously, of course, because his resurrection is consistently marked by the occasion of Easter, which always happens at the same time: The first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (that's the start of Spring -- March 21).

Yes, the date of that event moves around on our calendar, but that's a function of the calendar itself (the Gregorian calendar is not lunar-based). From the perspective of always being on the Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, it is indeed always on the same date, and has been since Jesus was crucified. Giving it a specific date on the Gregorian calendar is neither here nor there -- I'm unlikely to get an extra day off for it in any event.

Incidentally, other famous deaths on April 3 through the years: Persian emperor Chosroes II (murdered by his kid -- rough), Pope Honorius IV, Arctic explorer James Clark Ross, the outlaw Jesse James, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari actor Conrad Veidt, composer Kurt Weill, and US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Other famous resurrections on April 5:

...Hmmm.

Posted by john at 02:03 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

The Loneliest Group In America

I think you'd have to look long and hard to find another group so willing to alienate itself from its naturally consonant ideological partners than the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, I think. Most anti-abortion types are religious conservatives, many of whom, as Rick Santorum so delightfully illuminated recently, consider homosexuals in the same class as sheep-fondlers.

On the other hand, gays and lesbians are classically pro-choice, part of that whole "we gays are pretty liberal" package that comes almost naturally in a society which seems works on the polite assumption that anyone who deviates from the missionary position is unregenerate straight-ticket Democrat. Also, of course, for many gays and lesbians, anyone who finds common cause with religious conservatives on any subject is likely to be treated with deep and abiding suspicion.

For these reasons, I suspect PLAGAL members find themselves in the position of being the proverbial turd in the punchbowl no matter where they choose to hang out. Perversely, however, I find that I have to respect the PLAGAL folks, just a little bit. It takes guts to to intentionally be the most unpopular people in the room, regardless of the room. And these guys and gals are it. So shine on, you crazy diamonds! And, I suppose, at least they have each other.

Interestingly, I can't seem to find any pro-choice, anti-gay groups. Odd.

Posted by john at 10:55 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

May 07, 2003

Monica Schroeder

I've been listening to Monica Schroeder's Orbit album more or less non-stop since I got it a couple of days ago, primarily because I think she's got just about the most fabulous voice I've heard in a year or two -- rich, warm, velvety; like hot chocolate in musical form. Also, she's a fine songwriter, in the Natalie Merchant - Sarah McLachlan vein of things. Don't take my word for it, of course: This CD Baby page has sound sample (I suggest "Poison"), and you can order the album there, too. That's a hint. Basically, it's a good enough package that I wonder why Monica Schroeder isn't already with a major label. Other women are putting out music in the same genre that simply isn't as good.

Specifically, I wonder how much of Schroeder's indie status is due to the fact that, as you can see by the picture, she's not Britney Spears, or even Sarah McLachlan. Given the fact that outside one or two female rappers, I can't think of a single solo woman artist with a major record deal that could be described as more than a few ounces from a Maxim-defined definition of appropriate weight, I have to wonder if Schroeder sent in the demos only to have them chucked out unheard because some A&R person got a look at her picture and couldn't figure out how to sell a voice in the music business.

I'm not immune to a pretty girl with a pretty voice (for proof of this, see my most recent IndieCrit review, in which I make a stone cold ass of myself), but I'm also someone who is at point in his life where what I expect out of my female musicians is that they play and sing interesting music, period, end of sentence. When you can write and sing like Monica Schroeder, my basic feeling about it is, someone tell Jewel to get the hell off the stage.

Mind you, I could be way off base here -- Schroeder, who releases her own albums, might simply have decided to go the Ani DiFranco route of releasing her own albums in order to keep the money she makes and to determine the course of her own musical career. If that's the case, then obviously more power to her. But if she's an indie artist because no major music label wants to make an effort sell music before an image, well, that's just a shame. And, quite clearly, more reason to support indie music, which if nothing else, has the virture of putting music first.

Now stop reading and go buy this album. Do it. Don't make me come over there.

Posted by john at 10:51 AM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Fred in Hell

The "Reverend" Fred Phelps sent some of his minions to protest at a memorial service for Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) apparently because Mr. Rogers' never interrupted his daily lessons of love, inclusion and acceptance to note parenthetically to a nation full of preschoolers that men who lay with men will be slowly masticated in the slavering, bacteria-ridden jaws of Satan for all of eternity. Phelps' minions even hauled out signs that read "Fred is in Hell," for which the only thing to note is that the tense is premature for the Fred for which I suspect this statement will ultimately apply.

The fact that Fred Phelps would claim Mr. Rogers is broiling in Hell is so extreme that I assumed it had to be hoax. But no; go to Phelps' site (the glowingly friendly domain godhatesfags.com) and there's a link to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story mentioning Phelps' minions' presence (in the 25th paragraph). So it's true enough.

I can't imagine what it must be like to be so obsessed with the sexual acts of other people that you're ready to condemn arguably the nicest single man in the history of the United States to the pit of Hell because he didn't teach a bunch of four-year-olds to hate, except to note that there's clinical evidence to suggest that many homophobes are actually aroused by homosexuality, and Phelps is the biggest homophobe of them all. Do the math here. Some member of the Queer Nation needs to (you should excuse the expression here) swallow hard and give ol' Fred Phelps what he really wants. A grateful nation would honor such a person forever.

And it's not like Fred would have to worry about his immortal soul. He was going to Hell anyway. I mean, seriously. You're God: Which Fred are You going to clasp to Your bosom? Hint: Not the one that's going to suspect You're a fag for doing so.

Posted by john at 08:29 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

You've Probably Missed It

Mercury is passing in front of the sun in a phenomenon known as a "transit". And you say, big deal, it passes in front of the Sun all the time. That's what Mercury does, from our perspective. Well, the thing is, right now you can actually see the tiny planet cast its shadow on the Sun, which is not something you can see all the time -- only once every few years, on average. NASA has some photos up right now. Please look at these instead of going out and staring, slack-jawed, directly at the sun.

The bad news here is that if it's past about 8am on the East Coast of the US, you've already missed it (and quite obviously if you're on the West Coast, you won't see it live at all). Be that as it may, you should at least be aware it happened. And, look, NASA put together a movie of it for you. Now, go on with the rest of your day.

Posted by john at 05:44 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 06, 2003

Note From Athena

Dear Whatever Readers: Please excuse my dad from writing this Tuesday. He's got a lot of work, plus if he doesn't do his invoicing today, mommy will disembowel him and feed his entrails to the pets. So all told he's kind of busy at the moment. But if you come back tomorrow, you will most likely find him, and hopefully large percentage of his intestine, still intact and prepared to amuse you.

Your friend,

Athena.

Posted by john at 11:46 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 05, 2003

New IndieCrit Review

It's up, and I'm giving a rave review to Monica. No, not that Monica. An entirely different one.

Posted by john at 12:53 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monica, Monica, Monica

I note conservatives are whacking on Monica Lewinsky again, this time for her undoubtedly ill-advised but essentially harmless participation in that Mr. Personality dating show. Bill O'Reilly's column on Saturday is typical sort of thing in which he castigates Monica of cashing in on her particular brand of fame, saying "Since Ms. Lewinsky has no prior TV experience, one can assume that the only reason she is doing 'Mr. Personality' is that she did Mr. Personality, if you know what I mean," and likewise compares her to other Washington types who cashed in on their non-positive notoriety, such as G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, and Hollywood types like Wynona Ryder and Robert Downey, Jr. O'Reilly's moral is that bad behavior pays off.

Two things here. First, let's start with the admission that Monica's specific "crime," aside from not actually being a crime in most states, is pretty mild compared to, say, circumventing Congress to sell arms to a middle eastern country, or even shoplifting at the mall. It doesn't even really count as "bad behavior," since most women (and not a few men) do what she's done on a regular basis without the slightest fear of retribution (maybe not to the sitting President of the United States, admittedly. But like you can blame a girl for showing initiative).

But second and more importantly, while O'Reilly's correct in that Lewinsky's getting her gig because she's who she is, but it's worth remembering that Lewinsky's famous not because she came forward to the tabloids with her stained dress and tales of pizzas and thongs, looking to make a quick buck in a "gulp and gab" experience. It took her so-called friend Linda Tripp to make it happen, followed the hounds of the conservative press, who mocked her as a "portly pepperpot" for about a year before any of the rest of us even actually heard her voice. I don't want to say Lewinsky is entirely blameless for the whole fracas -- it was her oral cavity, after all -- but her elevation to scandal superstardom is almost exclusively the doing of others. Lewinsky would have undoubtedly joined the legions of women who serviced Little Bill with little more than the thanks of a grateful President had not more ideological forces intervened.

Therefore, the idea of conservative flogging her to make a buck now seems like hypocritical whining. They made Monica Lewinsky -- and indeed, it's Fox, home of the most ideologically transparent news organization in the US, which is giving her her current job -- so they've got no right to bitch about her persistence in the culture. They may be upset that she's not sticking to the script and fading into the background like the good and silly little patsy she was supposed to be, but that's just another example of conservatives theoretical plans getting knocked about by the real world.

Also, of course, I think it's entirely fair for Lewinsky to get a chance to have a generation of people remember her for something other than licking presidential Flipper. I personally wouldn't choose to be remembered as the host of a lame game show, but it's not my life, these are the opportunities presented to her, and it's not like anyone would let her have a life where she's just another gal in lower middle management anyway. Let her have her opportunities. You can't blame her for capitalizing on the fame, tawdry or otherwise, other people foisted onto her.

Posted by john at 11:26 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 03, 2003

All But Merely an Empy Sky

I was playing with this, a script that generates a freeform poem beased on the text of a Web page you enter, and I had it generate a poem from my entry of 9/12/2001, which, aside from being about 9/11, is one of the more lyrical things I've written on this site. The resulting poem is surprisingly not bad, and eerily evocative in places. Here it is.

All but merely an empty sky
like this Nighttime eventually fell, and moon
had to observe, nearly anyone
anywhere in my daughter,
I did ask myself, Pandora unleashed
terrors upon the planes.
Eventually fell, and cheerful grace. Ironically, the
white noise of sky to celebrate that
surely my daughter who
loves to appreciate its blue
inverted bowl, set before
that there any in the
constellation of summer
with their cloud of
the major. We see that
singular sky, Before that singular sky,
like that. I
lived
less than five minutes.

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Blogging and Novels

This is the 100th entry I've written since switching over to Movable Type, which averages out to a little more than 2 and a half entries a day since I've started using MT, so if you were wondering whether blogging software helps you write more, and more blog-like, now you know the answer, at least as it applies to me. On the other hand, I get three times the unique views a day as well, so that's a nice reward for a writer.

To commemorate this momentous occasion, let's talk about blogging and other forms of writing, specifically, writing novels. One of my frequent correspondents pointed me in the direction of a newspaper interview with William Gibson, a novelist who recently started a blog. Gibson said in his interview that he enjoys his blog, "However, if I'm ever going to write another book, I'm going to have to quit doing my blog as I have a hunch it interferes with the ecology of being a novelist." My correspondent wanted to know what I thought about that statement.

Well, I wrote one novel before I started writing regularly on my personal site (that would be Agent to the Stars) and one after (that would be Old Man's War), and I can't say that the writing experience was that much different; in both cases I would sit down, typically on a Saturday, and spew out a chapter, more or less, and then that would be it. My novel-writing process tends to be fairly efficient in that I don't do much rewriting (this is less an issue of brilliance than the willingness to improvise with plot), so in both cases the writing went fairly quickly -- about three to four months each, and again, mostly working on the weekend. So in terms of work time, blogging didn't interfere much.

What blogging does do, however, is offer what is best described as an "attractive distraction." It's been noted that man can do anything, so long as it's not the thing he's supposed to be doing at the moment, and writers are famously distractable. Blogging offers a special sort of distraction, in that it's actually writing, so a writer can feel like it's not really just wasting time -- he is writing, after all, and he's supposed to be writing. Sure, not on his blog, but even so. I wish I could say I don't let myself fall prey to this rationale, but you'll note I'm writing this on a Saturday, which is the day I typically write on my novels, and I'm theoretically working on a new novel at the moment. You can do the math.

But I don't blame writing the Whatever for my distractability. I'm also distracted by e-mail, by reading material online and off, by phone calls, by video games and by interaction with the family (although they're away just at this moment, so I don't have that excuse). I don't spend more time being distracted because I write online, I just have more options to be distracted. Thank God I don't actually live near any of my friends. I might never write at all.

Gibson is correct, I think, in his intimation that when push comes to shove, one form of writing might have to go for the sake of the other. I've made no secret of the fact that I'll take off a month or two from writing the Whatever in order to focus in on a major writing assignment; I particularly do this the closer I am to a deadline. And, to go back to the theme of "attractive distractions," I don't just do it with writing the Whatever; I also tend to shut down other distractions in my life. It's just that folks reading here don't see me not playing video games, you just see me not writing in this space.

This is, incidentally, a head's up: If August comes around and I don't feel like I'm progressing happily with either The Book of the Dumb or the new novel (still untitled), then you're likely to see an entry that says "see you in a month." I never feel too bad about doing taking these sorts of breaks; as I'm fond of noting, I don't get paid for this, and paid writing (especially the paid writing that actually ends up on a bookstore shelf) takes priority.

Aside from the question of being an attractive distraction, the Whatever doesn't really pull me away from the mindset of writing a novel. By personal inclination and by the necessities of reality, I'm not one of those people who is solely focused on one project at one time; I'm writing two books, working with corporate clients, and writing magazine and newspaper articles all at once. And then I do the Whatever and IndieCrit as well. To be entirely honest about it, I don't know if I could just concentrate on one thing at one time. I think it'd make me twitchy. There's very little similarity between what I write for the Whatever and what I write in the novels, so it's not like one is cannibalizing mindshare or material from the other.

This may not be the case with Gibson, for the simple fact that while all writers end up with the same end result (i.e., writing), the process by which they produce it is utterly individual. So if he thinks that writing his blog is going impact his novel writing, then he's probably right about that, and he should therefore take a break from the blogging to work on telling stories.

Speaking of which, I've distracted myself long enough. Back to the novel --

Posted by john at 12:38 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 02, 2003

A Brief Moment of Gloating

Why my job is cooler than yours: My copy of the The Animatrix came today -- it's a DVD of 9 animated films based on (and in) the Matrix universe and supervised by the Wachowski Brothers. I'm reviewing it for my DVD column in OPM. I'm going to watch it right now. The rest of you Matrix junkies have to wait for another month. Bwa ha ha ha ha!

(Actually, you can see four of the Animatric shorts from the Web site. See? I'm throwing you a bone, here.)

Don't worry, though. I have to see Matrix Reloaded in the theater on May 15 like a common troll. The DVD gig's influence only goes so far.

Update: Finished watching it. Coooooooooool.

Another Update: Weirdly enough, one of the producers of the Anamatrix is someone I went to high school with: Michael Arias, who was a senior when I was a freshman. He was a very short, very strange kid (as was I, but in different ways. Strange, that is. There's not so many ways to be short). I occasionally wondered what happened to him. Now I know.

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My Problem With Stupidity

The problem with writing a book about stupidity is not that it's hard, but that it's too easy. There's so much stupidity in the world that you honestly have to work hard to evaluate which items show stupidity of such a high degree that you should include it, and which are simply your garden variety of stupidity.

Examples, you say. Fine. In addition to a number of longer "think pieces" (heh) about examples of stupidity in action -- the French deciding to use cavalry at Agincourt, say, or Gary Hart daring reporters to trail him -- the book will also include a fair amount of crowd-pleasing short bits featuring contemporary examples of stupidity, based on current news bits (or "Ripped From The Headlines!" as the NBC announcer would say about any Law & Order episode). I'll jazz them up, of course, which my own editorial comments so the book won't be just another collection of dumb people doing dumb things, but even so. You need the stuff in the present to give the stuff in the past some resonance, as if to say, look, stupidity is with us yet.

But in just one day, you find too many candidates. Yesterday I read about:

* The purse snatcher who was arrested when she tried to pass a check to a cashier whose checks she had stolen -- and then handed over the cashier's driver's license as ID;

* A town civic pride ad campaign inadvertently featuring positive quotes from a convicted child molester;

* A man who tried to avoid jury duty by cussing out the court's answering machine and was sentenced to three days in jail by the judge;

* A robot toy promotion from Coca-Cola which features Nazi-type swastikas;

* Two Southwest Pilots fired for getting naked together in the (hah!) cockpit;

* President Bush may end up being a write-in candidate in Alabama because the Republican convention has been moved later than the state's deadline to certify candidates;

* Police in Belgium clamping down on public urination arrest a man urinating on a police car;

* A South African motorist arrested after being pulled over, having no license and telling the cops his wife's license also covered him;

* The Mexican man who is offering his kidney for about $60,000 in order to bail his brother out of jail for murder;

* Ikea having to recall advertisements in Germany after discovering the name of one of their products -- a children's bunk bed -- is coincidentally the same as the German expression for "good fuck."

I mean, where do you begin? Aside from the Bush thing, which is pretty amusing but I probably won't use because I'm avoiding Dubya material so it won't inadvertently politicize the book, they're all just so good. But I can't use them all. I'll probably use two at most. But which should I choose? Which would you choose? (That's a real question, by the way. Answer in the comments)

I have a vague inclination to shy away from the "stupid criminals" genre, since it's been done to death, but some may just be too good to pass up. I mean, it does take a breathtaking brand of stupid to pass a check to the very same woman whose purse you've stolen. That deserves to be commemorated somewhere. But does it deserve to be commemorated more than Coke's Nazi-branded robot toy? Or the urinating Belgian? Or the foul-mouthed jury shirker? You see my quandary.

So, really: Out of all the selections above, you get to choose two for inclusion in the book. What are your picks? Tell me, and then later in the day I'll tell you which two I'm most likely to use. Meanwhile, off to do a little work, and to cull some more examples of stupidity in action.

Posted by john at 08:27 AM | Comments (30) | TrackBack

May 01, 2003

I Knew This Already

Good dancers make good lovers, says survey

I have nothing to add to this except to note that Krissy and I met because she saw me on the dance floor and liked the way I moved. Oh, yes.

Posted by john at 05:17 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Your Domestic Predator at Work

Krissy went into the garage this morning and found the bloody head of a mouse right on the doorstep, a present from Lopsided Cat, who spent the night outside, quite obviously indulging in his carnivore nature. She suggested that I take a picture of it and put it up on the site, but I won't be doing that today. This site is a PG-13 site, which means gory severed mammalian heads are a definite no-no. She also left it to me to pick up the mouse head and put it somewhere else, and I did. Of course, I'm not saying where. I'm going to let that be a delightful surprise for my wife. I'm just that way.

Severed mouse heads are icky, but on one level I can appreciate Lopsided Cat leaving it at our doorstep. It means that Lopsided Cat has clued in that one of his jobs is kill small rodents before they get into the house, at which point either I or Krissy will be obliged to kill them, and then wonder why the hell we have cats in the first place. It's no small consideration around here -- because we live next to fields, we not surprisingly are at risk of field mouse visits. In the two years we've been here, we've seen two mice in the house; one I caught in a Tupperware container and deposited outside, back in the field, and the other had its neck snapped by a trap Krissy put in the pantry.

It's not that Krissy is more bloodthirsty than I am, incidentally; it's just that I actually caught the thing personally and couldn't bring myself to squish a small furry thing between my fingers. That's just mean. Likewise, had Krissy nabbed the mouse herself, she would be unlikely to murder it by her own hand. However, we don't mind if the mice die, because they're in our house, and that's no good. But like all good bosses, we prefer to let our underlings handle the dirty work, preferably underlings who lack opposable thumbs, have sharp canines and no feelings of residual guilt about disemboweling furry creatures smaller than they are.

And that's Lopsided Cat (and to a lesser extent Rex, who is mostly retired now but was known to bring down rather substantial creatures in his day). By leaving the mouse head where he knows we'll find it, Lopsided Cat is simply saying, hey, it's your friendly neighborhood predator, on the job for you! I'm glad for it; each mouse head outside is one less mouse inside, borrowing through our snack foods and leaving small turds where Wheat Thins used to be. And that's the way it should be.

Posted by john at 02:27 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Cover Story

If you're a lawyer, or just like to pretend you're one in front of a jury (and that's your Constitutional right!), then you might want to check out the quiz I wrote for the newest edition of JD Jungle magazine: "Are You Partner Material?" I quizzed a dozen partners from various top law firms around the country about the day-to-day activities and ethical quandaries they deal with as partners, so you can put your own answers down and see how you compare to the guys and gals who are actually on the top level.

There are fifteen questions in the quiz, although I asked more than that during the course of talking to partners. Alas, my favorite question did not make it in: "Sinking Ship. Life Boat. Room for two people, one of which is you. You can take either your most useful associate or your profitable client. Who do you choose and why?" I got some interesting answers to that one, let me tell you.

Anyway, the magazine is now out and available at law schools, many major law firms and selected newsstands. JD Jungle also has a web site here, although the site is not yet updated to reflect the contents of the latest issue. Nevertheless, it's well worth bookmarking, and I'm not just saying that because they're sending me money. Also in this month's magazine, two people with whom I have very tangential relationships: Cory Booker, for whom one my best friends crossed a continent to work on his campaign staff when he ran for mayor of Newark, and Danny Hellman, sworn blood enemy of my pal Ted Rall, who is suing Hellman for libel (long story. Let's not get into it).

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La la la

Here. Have some music. This is a sort of slow, meditative piece, just right for contemplating a journey to the stars or selling mid-range domestic sedans. Really, it's your choice. The music is encoded in real audio, so obviously you'll need a Real player to play it. It's three minutes long, so you won't feel like you've wasted too much of your time if'n you don't like it.

Off to take Athena to preschool. Be back later.

Posted by john at 08:46 AM | TrackBack