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June 30, 2003

Technical Post

I'm trying out the Firebird browser from Mozilla, and let me just say: Wheee! I particularly like the tab option that lets you open up all the bookmarks in a folder simultaneously. It makes for much more efficient blog and online journal reading.

I hear good things about the Safari browser too, but I don't have a Mac, so I can't say for sure. No offense to Mac people, but I'm not going to get a Mac just to try the browser. The iTunes store is tempting, though.

Posted by john at 10:39 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Pretty Picture Overload

Today I will (in no particular order) take Athena to preschool, have a conference call, write up a fact sheet and presentation on an actually pretty interesting bond fund, bang out material for The Book of the Dumb, do invoices, sand down some details in Android's Dream and kiss my wife. Also, today is the last day of the month and I have bandwidth to burn! So for you today, I give pretty pictures of some of the things that are growing around our house: rose bushes, daffodils, wildflowers, crab apples and, for my ex-girlfriend, our cat Ghlaghghee. With the exception of the last of these, I am not responsible for the care and tending of any of the above; if you admire any of them you can thank my wife.

So here you are. I may be back later in the day, but then again (all things considered) I may not. I'm busy, and busy is good.

Posted by john at 07:32 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

A Free Tip

Don't eat Honey Mustard Pretzel Nuggets just before going to bed. Tasty through they may be, they don't go away. Even with repeated brushing. And when you wake up in the morning -- well. You don't want to go there. That's my tip for you today.

Posted by john at 07:09 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 27, 2003


Well, that's taken care of: I am now represented in fiction by the Ethan Ellenberg Agency of New York, or will be as soon as I officially sign the contracts which they are sending along. I continue to be represented in non-fiction by the Robert Shepard Agency of San Francisco, and I live in Ohio, so I suppose I'm well-represented nationwide.

Posted by john at 11:37 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Making Bets

So, how long until gay marriage in the US? A year ago, I wouldn't have even tried to give you an estimate. But today, with a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling kicking the government out of bedrooms and our neighbors to the north letting boys marry boys and girls marry girls, I'm feeling saucy. So I say: Within ten years, at least one US state will allow gay marriage; probably one of those commie states up there in the northeast. And then the fun really begins, because all the other states in the union, including the 30-some-odd who have passed "defense of marriage" laws, will be up against it. I should also note that I think the "ten years" date is too conservative, and that I wouldn't be entirely surprised if it happens sooner -- much sooner.

Also, I don't think those "defense of marriage" laws would last terribly long after the first US gay marriage, and the reason for this is is simple: Money, baby. Let's say that Massachusetts becomes the first state in the US to allow gay people to marry. Every gay person who wants to get hitched starts planning his or her wedding -- in Massachusetts. Well, what a huge financial windfall for the state: All those weddings need wedding locations, hotels, catering, DJs, tuxes and/or dresses, blah blah blah, so on and so forth. Massachusetts wedding-related businesses will be so busy they won't know what to do with themselves.

Meanwhile, wedding-related businesses in, say, Ohio, will be looking at all this potential wedding money going out of state and will say to their lobbyists (whom I assume would be the various chambers of commerce): Hey, that's our income going to Massachusetts. Fix that. NOW. Hard-liners might not like gay marriage, but they do like free enterprise, and what these "defense of marriage" laws would constitute at that point is restraint of trade.

At this point, the big news won't be the first gay marriage in America; I can't imagine that some Americans haven't already gotten married in Canada by now, since it has no residency requirement. No, the big deal will be the first gay divorce: It'll be vibrant proof that gays and lesbians are just like the rest of us, and sometimes their marriages will go ker-pop. It will be reassuring to the straights, who already suspect that gays and lesbians have more fun in their relationships, just because they're gays and lesbians, and it'll be a nice cautionary tale for gays and lesbians, to keep them from getting hitched just because now they can. After the first few gay divorces, everyone will just settle down. And won't that be nice.

Anyway: Ten years. Starting... now.

Posted by john at 10:36 AM | Comments (29) | TrackBack

June 26, 2003

Sodomy For Everyone!

I'm sorry, I really have nothing to add on the matter of the Supreme Court ruling. I just wanted to say, "Sodomy For Everyone!" Because now we can all sodomize any consenting adult we choose in the privacy of our own home. And while mutually consenting sodomy is not what one traditionally thinks of as a thing that Makes America Great, it certainly does Make America Slightly More Interesting During Drunken Games of "I Never." And that's almost as good.

Posted by john at 02:23 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Support Lileks

Just a quick note: Readers of James Lileks' Bleat know by now that his wife just got canned from her job, and today's Bleat shows the typical uncertainty one goes through when one's household income takes a big hit. Glenn over at Instapundit has suggested everyone hit James' tip jar; I second that emotion.

Back in the day, James helped me by being a marquee name for an online humor site I created for AOL. It was a nice arrangement; he lent me his credibility, I paid him money. We've been friends since. Later on, his site and the Bleat specifically were inspirations for me creating my own site and starting up the Whatever, and beyond that there are a number of other parallels between his career and mine: We both write books, have worked for newspapers, went to live in DC and then got the Hell out, and dote on our wives and precocious children. When I want to figure out what I'll be doing about a decade up the time stream, I just see what he's up to (and that includes his hairline). We're obviously not the same person -- just look at our politics -- but I tend to think of him as a pretty good example of a good life, well lived. And of course, he's a fine writer to boot.

If you've ever enjoyed the Bleat or one of his books, go leave him a nice tip. James is not claiming poverty or hardship, nor is he suggesting that what's going on in his household is the end of the world. He's not even asking people to hit his tip jar (aside from the fact that his tip jar exists at all). My suggestion about you leaving him a tip isn't about that. It's just a way to let him know you appreciate the Bleat, and that he and his lovely and talented wife will soon see the backend of this blip, and in the meantime, here's what you'd pay to buy him that drink you'd undoubtedly have together if you happened to be in Minneapolis at the moment.

Anyway, that's my pitch for James.

Posted by john at 09:31 AM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

What I'm Writing When You're Not Looking

My mind is a complete and total blank at the moment, and later, I'm off to have my teeth cleaned. So in lieu of writing something new here, allow me to provide you a glimpse of what I'm writing when I'm not here -- this chunk of text from my in-progress novel, which for the moment I'm calling The Android's Dream. What you're reading here is a chunk from chapter three.

I'm posting it for two reasons. One, it's sort of an aside, so it gives away no material information about the novel's plot, so it's a relatively safe and non-confusing excerpt. Two, it's a good snapshot of where my brain is these days; at any one moment if you ask me what I'm thinking, there's a good chance I'm thinking something freakish and science fiction-y. Just like this: A description of a race of people I call the Kathungi.

The Kathungi were a people with a beautiful and artistic culture and a procreation process that utterly disgusted every other sentient species they had come in contact with. After a nearly month-long fertility phase in which the female Kathungi was enticed into a fertility cycle by her mate, both male and female Kathungi were pheremonally trapped into an uncontrolled "spew" phase: The female Kathungi would be randomly seized by a contraction of her egg sac, which would spew a milky, rancid-smelling fluid embedded with hundreds of thousands of eggs onto anything in the vicinity.

At the sight and smell of the eruption, the male Kathungi would follow suit with a greenish and even more foul-smelling milt that would coat the egg spray. The two substances would them congeal into a gelatinous mass whose purpose would be to protect and nourish the fertilized eggs until they hatched. By which time the Kathungi parents would be gone; rare among sentient species, the Kathungi were not nurturers. Kathungi eggs hatched into voracious, cricket-like larvae which ate everything in their path (including other larvae); it wasn't until a much later phase that members of the vastly-thinned ranks of surviving larvae entered a pupae phase in which they grew the brains required for sentience.

The particulars and repercussions of Kathungi reproduction were visited upon earth not long after the UNE allowed non-diplomatic Kathungians to visit Earth on tourist visas. One young Kathungian couple decided to drive across the United States on a road trip and got as far as Ogallala, Nebraska before they were overcome by the spew phase. The two rented a room at the Sav-U-Lot Motel off of Interstate 80 and spent the next day and a half with the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door, coating the interior of the room with goo more than an inch thick in places. The cleaning crew quit rather than touch it; the manager ended up scooping up the goo with a dustpan, depositing it into the bathtub and running the shower head to dilute the stuff enough to let it slip down the drain.

One week later, guests of the Sav-U-Lot ran screaming from their rooms as millions of larval Kathungi, who had consumed the contents of the Sav-U-Lot's massive and poorly maintained septic tank, migrated en masse through the plumbing in search of food. The manager rushed into one of the rooms armed with a flyswatter and a can of Raid Ant & Roach Killer. The Kathungi larvae ate everything but the plastic zipper on his pants and the metal grommets of his shoes; seven guests were never found at all. After consuming every organic morsel the Sav-U-Lot had to offer, the larvae, with their natural predators far away on the Kathungi home planet, set on the town on Ogallala like a Biblical plague.

The Nebraska governor imposed martial law and sent in the National Guard to eradicate the larvae. After it was discovered that the insects were in fact Kathungi larvae, the governor was hauled into CC court on the charge of xenocide and hundreds of thousands of individual counts of murder of a sentient species member. The bewildered governor served out the remainder of his term of office from the federal prison located (gallingly for a Nebraskan) in Leavenworth, Kansas. Shortly thereafter the UNE changed its visa policy requiring that Kathungi females visiting earth to be on birth control; under no circumstances would a female Kathungi who had begun her fertility cycle ever be allowed to set foot on planet again.

No, I don't know where this stuff comes from, either. It just happens.

Posted by john at 08:45 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

June 25, 2003

Not Too Bright

Some people are wanting to euphemistize (and no, I'm not sure that's a real word) atheists and agnostics with the word "bright." So instead of saying "I'm an atheist" or "I'm an agnostic," like you do today, you'd say "I'm bright," and everyone would know that you have what these people would term a "naturalistic worldview." And also, one assumes, you'd continue to get the benefit of the word's current association, which means "intelligent." So what you'd really be saying is "I don't believe in God, and I'm pretty smart to think that way."

This is a pretty dumb idea, on several different levels. To begin, there's absolutely nothing wrong with either "atheist" or "agnostic." Both are widely understood, and as an added benefit, both are etymologically descriptive. Taken down to its roots, "atheist" clearly states that the person described does not believe in a god or gods; likewise "agnostic" means "unknowable," which fits in with the agnostic world view that the existence of god is unknowable. "Bright," on the other hand, does not have anything to do with god (it ultimately comes down from a Sanskrit word which means "it shines"). It is not descriptive of the things these people wish for it to describe.

Now, in many languages and especially in English, we attach new meanings to old words all the time ("cool," "hip," "gay," etc); this is obviously what these people are trying to do (they make the assertion that they're breaking new ground by claiming "bright" as a noun, which will come as news to the detergent industry, which has been trying to get my brights their brightest for years). But as purveyors of words, one should ask why it's necessary. It's not necessary for an etymological reason -- as noted, "atheist" and "agnostic" perfectly describe their condition, while "bright" confuses it. And we're not borrowing a word to describe a previously unnamed condition or phenomenon.

There's only one reason to use "bright," as far as I can see, and that would be as a euphemism. But I'm not very keen on euphemisms. Euphemisms are basically pleasant ways to describe unpleasant things -- or, more accurately from a sociological standpoint, things a society deems to be unpleasant. This is why homosexuals are called "gay." So implicitly, the people pushing "bright" are saying that it's unacceptable in society to be known as either atheists or agnostics -- that it's better to hide your thoughts behind a nice happy word than to just be what you are. This is nonsense, and I think it shows a certain level of self-loathing, and a desire to foist that self-loathing on other people.

(Does this mean that gay people, or other people who use common euphemisms, are self-loathing? No. For one thing, in the specific case of "gay," the euphemism is so common that it's not a euphemism anymore -- "gay" when referring to a person means "homosexual" to the exclusion of all other meanings. Call someone "gay" and no one will think you mean they are sunny and cheerful; they'll think you mean that like having sex with people of their gender. Go on, try it.

The word's been in that usage for longer than today's gay people have been alive; indeed, "gay" as a word describing homosexuality predates the actual word "homosexual," which was coined at the turn of the 20th century. Be that as it may, initially people didn't start using the word "gay" because they wanted to celebrate the happy dispositions of the homosexual men they knew.)

I'm agnostic, which I feel is the intellectually honest thing to be as regards god; in my opinion, I sort of doubt a god exists, particularly one that spent any time raising plagues or smiting people with boils. But I could be wrong, and I'm perfectly fine with that. As an agnostic, I'm happy to be known as an agnostic; my own self-image does not need to sugarcoat my belief (or lack thereof), and I certainly don't feel the need to sugarcoat my beliefs for anyone else. So I won't be calling myself "bright" in this context.

Nor do I think should any atheist or agnostic with the slightest bit of personal courage. The people pushing the word call it "fresh, free, and unencumbered." On the contrary, it's arbitrary, self-loathing and encumbered with assumptions about the words whose meanings its promoters intend it to cover, all of them bad. It goes to show that while many bright people are atheists and agnostics, not all atheists and agnostics are that bright. In the accepted sense of the term, of course.

Posted by john at 11:47 AM | Comments (31) | TrackBack

June 24, 2003

Day Off

I'm taking the day off. Why? Cause I feel like it! Yeah, that's right -- I have no compelling reason not to write here today except that I don't wanna. I think I'm gonna play video games instead. Mmmm... pixellated violence.

You all have a swellacious day, and I'll see you tomorrow.

Posted by john at 09:38 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 23, 2003

Reader Request Wrapup

Thanks everybody for sending in the reader request questions. I had a lot of fun catering to your whims, and I think it's something we should do again real soon. In fact, I urge you all to remember there's no need to stand on ceremony -- anytime you want to send me a topic just go right ahead. It saves me the trouble of thinking up something on my own, and you know how much I appreciate other people thinking for me.

As a wrapup for the week, here are short answers to a bunch of reader requests I didn't get to last week.

I'd like to hear what John thinks of the remainder of the upcoming summer movie season, and which flicks he thinks are gonna be actually good.

There's not a lot out there that really trips my trigger, and quite a few -- say, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II, and Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life, which I expect to be excruciating. I have a passing interest in the following: Terminator 3, 28 Days Later, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And while I like animation, I have almost no interest in Sinbad. This is partly because of what has developed as Dreamworks' default traditional animation style, which is high on craft but just seems so fussy. This is one of the reasons why computer animation is kicking traditional animation's tail in the movie theaters recently: Traditional animation seems to want to call attention to how gorgeous its process is, while nearly all the computer animated movies have great stories. Stories win.

For reasons I don't fully comprehend, I'm somewhat homesick, so could you talk about your adventures at the University of Chicago?

Heh. Well, here are some tantalizing bits from my University of Chicago history:

1. There was the time I took a class in Joseph Conrad and attended exactly two of the actual class sessions (the first and the last one) and didn't read any of the books until the night before the final, during which time I read roughly 2000 pages of Joesph Conrad in less than 24 hours. And as it happened, the final was completely passage identification -- that is, name the book from which a particular passage was from. I aced it. I rock.

2. Then again, there was the time I actually lived the student nightmare: I was sitting in my pal Darnell's room and said to him that I had a statistics final in an hour, and he said, well, Heather (a friend of ours) went to her stat final an hour ago, and isn't she in your class? At which time I said, Hmmm, maybe I should check that out, and so I went to find my entire class an hour into the statistics final. I rarely attended that class either, but unfortunately, you can't BS in stat like you can in Conrad. Needless to say, I failed the final, and failed the class. I suck.

3. There's the fact that I founded a right-wing publication at the University of Chicago, which, if you remember how much I loathe most right-winginess, is really amusing. What happened was there was this left-wing section of the newspaper which had been given rather too much autonomy from the rest of the paper and used the power basically to be assholes in a parliamentary and procedural sense (it wasn't about their lefty politics, it was about them trying to run the newspaper from the confines of their cadre). So when I became editor, to cut a long story short, I gave them the choice of either giving half their pages to a conservative section or being tossed out the paper entirely. They realized that there was no way a basically marxist newspaper insert would ever get the advertising necessary to survive, so they gave in. Enter a bunch of young conservatives, for whom I was ironically a hero. So in one swoop I both crushed my opposition on the staff and brought in new people intensely loyal to me. Aren't I the Machiavellian one (bear in mind this is just my version of events -- other versions undoubtedly have me in a much worse light. Or would, had I not killed all those who opposed me and sunk them into lake Michigan! Hmmm, maybe I should just stop talking about this now).

4. There was the time I interviewed Sonic Youth for the school newspaper, and Kim Gordon kept staring at me and saying, between bowls of pot, "I know you, man. I know we met somewhere before." Kim Gordon is way super cool, but I have to tell you, she was freaking me out.

That's enough U of C stories for the moment.

I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the subject of tracking where sex offenders live and the publicizing of that fact to neighbors, non-neighbors and employers/potential employers and the general public.

Well, true child molesters -- the ones who are actually fixated on children, and not on well-developed 14-year-old girls who they swear told them she was 18 -- I think are unlikely ever to stop having their particular affliction; it's psychological and therefore different than the guy who opportunistically robs the Circle K. The latter is something you can get over, the former isn't. So I think child molesters are very likely to abuse again; because of the nature of their sickness, from a practical sense as a parent I would want to know when someone with the sort of sickness moved into my neighborhood, and as an employer I would want to know, especially if I was hiring for a position that would put the guy in the path of children.

On the other hand, having the desire is not the same as following through on it; and if the offender has done his time and is not offending again, he should be able to live and work in peace. So I don't know where the line is. I suppose that if I found a convicted sex offender had moved into my neighborhood, I'd go to his house, tell him I was aware of his history and that I would assume he's making the attempt to control himself, so we'll treat him with the same respect we treat any of the neighbors, with the caveat that if he ever comes within a 40-foot radius of my child, I'll beat him to death with the flat of a shovel. I think that strikes the balance of civility and personal responsibility for my kid.

I'd like to know your take on "mainstream media." Too corporate? Too sold out? Too liberal? Too conservative? etc. And along those lines, since you are encouraging independent thought, according to your T-Shirt, what is your take on independent media and its role?

The mainstream media is largely neither conservative nor liberal; it's self-interested, and it always has been. In this era, this self-interest has not been especially good for readers, due to the business of consolidation, but I'm always an optimist. I think things will eventually swing in the other direction -- if not with the large media corporations breaking up then at least them realizing that their bottom lines will be better with more aggressive reporting of events in the world. As for independent media -- it's just tomorrow's mainstream media today. The New Yorker magazine was pretty radical in its day, you know.

Monogamy, Facial Hair, and the Yankees. In no particular order :)

Monogamy has done well by me so far. Your mileage may vary. I'm currently sporting facial hair, so I guess I'm for it, but it's also scratching the hell out of me and I'm planning to shave it off, so I guess I'm also against it. I am reflexively against the Yankees (I'm from LA and a default Dodger fan), but just like anyone I enjoy watching a lot of good athletes work together as a team, and the Yankees do that more often than not.

Clowns: Scary or funny?

Scary. I mean, yeeesh.

The relationship between violence in media and violence in those who experience the media. Do violent video games and movies create violent people?

I'm typically of the opinion that simulated violence creates as many violent people as simulated sex creates babies. Actual sex is required for babies; actual violence is required for violence. Statistically speaking today is far less violent time in which to live than nearly any era you could choose that did not have either video games or films. Or to put it another way, over there in Africa, they're currently butchering the hell out of each other in a mad rush to genocide. How many of them have are going to be able to use Grand Theft Auto as an excuse? Yes, a wildly unstable person can be triggered by violence in games and movies. But then, a wildly unstable person can be triggered by a lot of things. It's inherent in the phrase "wildly unstable."

You could also write about how science is nothing more than a hole-riddled fairy tale of how man aspires to become a god.

I could, but I don't think it's true. I think aside from a few megalomaniacs, most scientists have no interest in being God, they just want to know how things work.

Sometimes I feel like a major evolution in computing must be coming. It seems like people need a faster way of getting info in and out of the personal computer. The extinction of the mouse? The extinction of the keyboard? Expound on technology and timeframes if you find that at all interesting.

I actually think the keyboard is a pretty decent information retrieval metaphor, so I don't think it's going to go away soon; it's gong to be with us, in one form or another, for a while (I also think it's pretty essential to writing, which is a fundamentally different from of communication than speaking, but I won't get into that now). I think the mouse may eventually go extinct as touch sensitive screens become more of the norm, but I also think they're here for some time, either as a primary or secondary input device. To be entirely honest, I think the one part of the computer that's due for the biggest change is the monitor. I personally can't wait for the day that the big-ass monitor on my desk is replaced with a pair of non-dorky-looking glasses which feature a computer screen superimposed on my field of view. I mean, how cool will that be? Drop the monitor, and suddenly full-function computers can get really tiny. I figure within 10 years we'll see people walking around with their computers just like they walk around with their cell phones. I'm all for this. I want to do more computing outside.

Raising children. And how to do it without going utterly insane when your 2 year old is more stubborn than you are.

Well, in the old days, that's when the spanking would come in. But we don't do that so much anymore.

We still had Athena's crib up when she was two, so during those times she was feeling more stubborn than we were, we'd put her in it and let her be more stubborn than us by her lonesome. It was a fairly successful tactic, and overall she's not been deeply psychologically damaged. I don't think it's useful to fly off the handle at toddlers -- they're not mentally or emotionally equipped to handle it -- but I think it's perfectly all right to let them know when they're being exasperating and to let them know there are repercussions for that.

You've used a number of posts to debunk the arguments of creationists. I'd love to see a single post that covers all the major arguments and why you think they're wrong.

Good lord. I don't have time for that. Go here.

A science fiction writer and a tech evangelist? I'd like to hear you expound on NASA and the future of space exploration. Is the shuttle program done? Is a space elevator practical? How long until we start making practical/profitable use of space (mining asteroids, colonizing, exploring Mars, etc)?

I don't know if "practical" is really the right goal. The problem with NASA is that we're basically running it as a business and not as a mission. Getting to the moon in under a decade didn't happen because it was practical; it happened because we thought it would be cool (and to stick it to the Russians). Likewise, if we wait to get to Mars until we develop the technology, we'll simply never get there. What we should do is say: We're going to be on Mars in 2020, and we're going to do what it takes to get there. Make it a big ol' financial sinkhole, develop a lot of really exciting technology, use the technology we already have in new ways, and just do it, for God's sake. I want someone to go to Mars before I die. Really, it's not too much to ask for.

Re: Space elevators -- I use one in my Old Man's War novel, but in real life I don't know how practical they are. It'd be another one of those "let's build and then think up uses for it" sort of things.

I hang out on your site quite a bit and probably post more comments here then I do on most others. What I'd like to here is how you feel about your readers?

I like them, quite obviously. I do like the fact that the site seems to attract a pretty big range of people, and that people want to be engaged in the writing here. I do notice that a number of people here post regularly; when I talk about the site to other people, I note that I seem to have developed my own "usual gang of idiots," to borrow a phrase from Mad magazine. Most everyone who posts here seems both intelligent and civilized and there have been some really interesting back and forth debates. How much of that is due to my calm and insightful leadership is (highly) debatable, but I'm glad that's how it's worked out.

So thanks for reading, thanks for posting, and thanks for being part of what I do here.

Posted by john at 08:02 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 20, 2003

Book of the Dumb Headlines

I spent most of the day writing articles for The Book of the Dumb, and while I can't share those with you right at the moment, I thought you might enjoy the headlines to some of the articles. Puzzle at their context-free non-sequitur-ositiy! Contemplate what they might be about! Pre-order the book! (Actually, you can).

Anyway, headlines:

* And Iowa's Streets Will Flow Cornhusker Red!

* Later in the Day, The NRA Went Through The Halls Shooting Blanks

* You Know, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Had a Fabulous Singing Voice

* For Extra Credit, Fight Off the Burly Cellmate Who Calls You "Girlfriend"

* And Every Sunday, She Buys New Pumps To Dance on His Grave

* On The Other hand, Give Them 15 Minutes And You'll Have a Danielle Steele Novel

* 50,000 Volts Is Just God's Way of Telling You to Play Through

* First We Take Austria. Then Lichtenstein Will Fall Like a Plump Grape.

* Also, When You Send Your Pet Cow to Kansas City, Don't Expect it to Go Sightseeing

* Hakencreuzing For a Bruising

Yeah, I'm having fun.

Posted by john at 07:59 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Reader Request #8: Writing

Bill Peschel wants to know about my writing. He asks:

OK, a chance to annoy a writer. How about this:

where do you get your ideas?

Just kidding. Really. But I am curious about a few writing-related subjects.

1. What kind of freelance work do you do. I'm not so much interested in the record reviews, which you've linked to before, but the other work that don't get mentioned as often.

2. The recent Writer's Digest ran another article by Robert W. Bly about how to make $100,000 a year freelancing. (Basically, work hard, make your time count, charge high prices, work for the big companies, write books about how to make $100,000 a year freelancing, etc.) Are you nodding your head in approval or spraying Coke at your monitor?

3. Fiction writing. Do you prefer plotting or letting it rip? Have you discovered some insights into the mechanics of writing over the course of these novels? Do you have specific goals as a fiction writer?

The answers:

1. Well, aside from the aforementioned CD and DVD reviews, much of my freelance work is in the corporate sphere. A significant amount of my income comes from writing for marketing companies who subcontract with me to write text for their projects. Most of these are in some way financially related; if you ever wander into a broker's office and he or she hands you a mutual fund brochure, there's not a bad chance you're looking at my writing (that is, if the fund brochure makes sense. If it's obtuse and confusing, that's somebody else).

Another recent project had me writing collateral for a trust company that primarily deals with the very rich: $25 million in assets and above. So I spend a reasonable portion of my writing time figuring out how to get wealthy people to hand over their assets. I need to figure out how to make that work for me personally.

Aside from financial services writing, I also do marketing collateral for other types of businesses ranging from book publishers to high-tech companies, and I do a fair amount of work with a non-profit Web site called Network for Good.

I've mentioned before that much of this writing is not what people romantically consider "writing," but I enjoy it for a number of reasons. First off, business writing pays well, which provides me a financial foundation for other less profitable writing (I think of it as my "day job"). Second, speaking as a writer, it's often a relief to have "directed work" -- that is, work with definite, achievable short-term goals. When you're slogging through writing a book and wondering what the hell you're doing and if the pain will ever end, it's nice to switch over and do a short, quick job where you quickly see the results in terms of client appreciation and pay.

Third, it's an interesting writing challenge -- you might think it takes no great skill to write a financial brochure, but since I not infrequently get calls from clients begging me to take over a piece from another writer who's not quite getting the hang of it, I would have to differ with you on that. We can have the conversation as to whether the skills needed for commercial writing are as exalted as the ones needed to create telling fictional prose, or a good sonnet, but that's another matter entirely.

Not counting my ongoing gig with Official PlayStation Magazine, I also typically write a few magazine and newspaper articles a year on various things (most recently a cover story for JD Jungle magazine). But freelance-wise, I'd have to say my primary focus is in the business sphere.

2. I'd be nodding my head, particularly about the "charge high prices" bit. One of the things I learned early on about writing -- and specifically about writing for business -- is that when it comes down to it, many clients are not primarily concerned with what you charge, they're concerned that the work they need to get done gets done. Much of my business writing work comes to me by people recommending me and then me getting a phone call that goes something like this: "We hear you're good. We've got this project. It's due tomorrow (or yesterday). Can you do it?" For that person at that point, money's not so much an object. The project just needs to get done. That being the case, I can charge a pretty solid amount, and I do.

(As an aside, I can also charge a high rate because I'm honest, which is to say that I charge clients for actual writing time, as opposed to time when I'm, say, reading blogs or writing here, and because as I writer I tend to follow directions, which means relatively little rewriting. Clients tell me of writers who charge less per hour but end up costing them more for various reasons. I don't point this out to toot my own horn -- relatively few of my clients read the Whatever -- but to point out that good business practices pay off. The short-term advantage of padding your hours nets a long-term loss in loss of clientèle. It's just that simple.)

I know anecdotally that I make more than the average writer, and the reasons for that are myriad, ranging from luck (I've been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion, and I'm not shy about exploiting that) to certain aspects of my writing abilities (like the fact that I write fast, which increases my bandwidth for work). But one of the underappreciated aspects of doing well as a writer has nothing to do with writing per se; it's the fact that I approach it as a business. I have a reasonably good business mind (much to my surprise) and I have extremely competent financial help in the form of my wife, who handles much of the accounting both of my business and of our overall financial life. It's hard to overemphasize the importance of the business aspect of writing, if you intend to make writing your business. I've always been upfront -- I write for many reasons, but one of the big ones is to make money. It's my business and I treat it that way.

3. Typically with novels, I make 'em up as I go along. I have a tendency to have one or two scenes in my head, usually the opening scene and the end scene, but how I get from one to the other is usually a mystery to me before I start writing. This means that I'm often as surprised as anyone else at the stuff that comes out of my head. It also allows me to go where the story takes me; more than once in my writing I've found a story heading off in an unexpected direction because something that I've written has suddenly seemed really interesting. This also relieves the pressure of freaking out because I've deviated from an outline.

Most of the time I like writing this way but on occasion it can lead to angst; Sometimes I'm writing something I'm really enjoying but I know I'll have to kill it later because it's way too far afield. Still, even these excursions have their value, since I can often repurpose that material in a more sensible way, or at the very least have it as the "background" stuff that writers have for their work that everyone else never sees.

As far as the mechanics go: Dunno. Much of the mechanics of structure and plotting come automatically through the simple fact that I've been writing more or less constantly since the age of ten or so. The way I approach the writing is fairly simple: I want to write the sort of books I like to read. Most of the time I like to read books with fast dialogue, action and at least a shiny coat of ideas; underneath all that I like characters who are actually concerned with each other's lives. So that's what I try to write, and what I keep my focus on.

At this point, part of the mechanics of writing is not writing to my weaknesses. For example, description tends to bore me; I have a tendency to believe that a lot of writers enjoy description because it allows them to use obscure, multisyllabic words. But not very many writers use those words well. Those that do are glorious (for example, Mark Helprin, whose Winter's Tale is arguably my favorite book ever, and one I could never write in a million years), but they're rarer than you might expect. The fact is, I get bored writing description, and if I'm bored writing it, I assume readers will be bored reading it.

So I tend not to have a lot of description in my novels. For example, in Old Man's War, you'd be hard-pressed to find any indication of the main character's race (I think he's white. But maybe not). I do think that as I continue to write, I get better at many of the things I don't like to write, and learn to see more value in them. But I let that experience happen as it happens, while focusing on what I know I do well.

For example, dialogue. I tend to use dialogue heavily in my writing because I find it easy to write and easy to convey information in. It also speeds up the reading pace, which I find (in a mechanical sense) to be very useful. One of the interesting comments about my novels is that people tend to think that they're short, but in fact both Agent and Old Man's War are close to 100,000 words, which is on the longish side of average length. They seem short because they're dialogue-rich; you don't get bogged down in long paragraphs of description.

I'll note here that there are those who do criticize my dialogue, the main beef being that all my characters sound alike -- and sound like me. I don't believe this is true myself, but I can see where the folks are coming from. I do have a tendency to make most of my primary characters have certain similar traits, primarily a well-educated smart-assery, on the principle that it's more fun to write and read dialogue coming from smart, interesting people than dull, boring ones.

But the point to be taken from the criticism, and it's a fair one, is that I need to increase the diversity of voices in my writing. And indeed, it's on my "to do" list as a writer. In the meantime, however, I'm pretty happy with the level of dialogue in my work as it exists: It's clear, it's interesting, and in terms of plot, it's load-bearing. It does a lot more than many writers expect out of their dialogue.

Also, as an aside, there's a lesson to be learned here, which is that if you wait as a writer until all your "tools" are at their highest level to really begin writing, you'll never actually begin writing. My dialogue, for better or worse, is good enough to get published; getting published is the best way to continue to be published. It's perfectly acceptable to learn on the job; that's what writers do. Nearly every writer gets better after their first novel, and those who don't (like, for example, Joseph Heller) have a karmic load to bear that's difficult for anyone to imagine.

In other words, the correct answer to the question "How good does my writing have to be to be published?" is "just good enough."

As for my specific goals as a fiction writer, they're pretty simple: I want to be able to write more fiction, and I want to get paid reasonably for it. That's pretty much it. I'd be happy to be a best-selling author, of course, and to be JK Rowling rich. But if all I ever sell of my books is just enough to get to write the next one, that's no so bad, either, as long as I'm enjoying myself with the work. When I was 20, I wanted to write the Great American Novel; when I was 25 I was slightly obsessed with the fact I hadn't written the Great American Novel yet. By the time I was 30, I realized that the author doesn't get to decide what the Great American Novel is, anyway. At 34, pretty much what I want to do is write novels I'd be happy to read. Does this signal a diminution of ambition? It might, although I'm still pretty ambitious. If you think I'm not going to do everything I can to promote myself, well, just you wait.

But it might also be a recognition of the idea that the best writing you can do is the writing you want to do. The Great American Novel is an abstract concept; the novels I'm writing exist in the real world as actual things. People attempt the Great American Novel primarily for everything but the actual writing; I'm writing what I write now because I enjoy what I'm doing, and I enjoy watching my experience grow. I used to worry about being hailed as brilliant from the very start; now I don't mind learning on the job. If each novel I write is a little better than the one before it in terms of craft, I'll be ahead of the game.

So that's the goal: To keep doing it. I'll let everything else happen as it happens.

Posted by john at 11:39 AM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

June 19, 2003

Whoo Hoo!

The first review I've seen of The Rough Guide to the Universe, and it couldn't get much better:

"It's difficult to avoid the cliché, 'If you could only buy one book... ' when this book is the topic of conversation. Anybody with even a smidge of interest in astronomy should have this book on hand, novice and expert alike, no question about it."

Read it for yourself. Having a positive review of this particular book is a huge load off my mind, I have to tell you.

Posted by john at 12:28 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Reader Request #7: Ohio

Paula wants to know what I think of Ohio. She writes:

"Although some readers requested specific details relating to Ohio, I'd be interested in a general description of life in the Buckeye State. As a New Yorker, I've always had a romantic view of the place, and I'd like to compare the dream with the reality."

Well, like any place it has its positives and its negatives. I think anyone who has read the Whatever for a while knows that it wouldn't have been my choice to move to Ohio; I'm a southern California native who has spent most of his life in urban or suburban areas: Los Angeles, Chicago, Fresno (which, before you snicker, has a population of about half a million) and Washington DC. However, Krissy's family is in Ohio and she wanted to be close to them, and as a freelance writer I can write from anywhere. Krissy had at one point packed up and moved all the way across the country from everyone she knew because I asked her to; now that she asked me to move I couldn't really say no. So that's how I came to Ohio.

My bit of Ohio is of course rustically bucolic, as you can see from the photo, and as mentioned has its pluses and minuses. Pluses: Dude, I've got a hell of a lot of land and a honkin' big house for the same monthly cost as a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn or San Francisco. I have lots of fresh air, no urban aggravations, and I can go out at night and see the Milky Way from my porch. I've never been able to do that before. Everyone in town waves to everyone else as they drive by, my neighbors will plow my driveway when it snows without us even asking, and my dog runs around without a leash and no one gives a damn. It's cool to watch the Amish roll on by on Saturdays. It's quiet. A traffic jam here is a line of pcikup trucks waiting to pass a tractor on the road.

Minuses: Well, to put it bluntly, I'm kind of a freak around these here parts. Of my immediate neighbors, more than half drive trucks for a living, and most of the others are farmers of some sort or another. My neighbors are excellent people, but I don't have many intellectual points of reference with them. This is not saying they -- or I -- am stupid, merely our interests and our life of the mind are fairly divergent. On the "let's have an intense conversation" level, I pretty much have to commute. Or go online -- I'll be honest enough to note that this online thing is a bit of a release valve for the side of me that wants to have geeky conversations with people. Really, I'm glad y'all come by and talk to me.

Expanding on this a bit, living in the sticks does limit one's cultural pursuits to some extent. This is not as bad as it could be -- as I've noted, the great thing about being in the middle of nowhere in Ohio is that the middle of Ohio is still usually within of hour of somewhere (in my case, Dayton, which is more on the ball with local culture than you might expect), unlike, say, the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, in which you're really in hell and gone. And of course having the 'Net and satellite TV alleviates many of the symptoms of cultural isolation. But the fact remains I'm not able to just pop down the street for Thai food and a night of Celtic tunes down the pub. And if I were out here in the middle of no where and single, well. I'd just shoot myself.

And, as I've noted here before, I live in a very, very, very white little town. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but having lived in urban and suburban areas all my life, I default to expecting to see more shades of skin than I do, and when I don't, it gets me sort of twitchy.

As regards Ohio in a general sense, it's not so bad. It's in many ways an ideal state in that it's large enough in population and diversity to have a critical mass of cultural identity, and in most respects it's a very pleasant place to be. It's sort of like America's Suburb, in that it's a groovy place to grow up in, and then, between the ages of about 18 and 30, it's a fabulous place to get away from while you're off to college and doing that 20-something "I'm Exploring My Life" thing. After about 30, you're married and have the Children Expansion Pack, it begins to look a whole lot more attractive again.

I have a very good friend from college who encapsulates this exactly: At college, she had a not a very high opinion of her home state, and she's spent the last decade and a half in San Francisco. But the last time I saw her there (we had thai food!) she was saying that her and her SO were giving very serious thought to going back. It's that whole "our family is there and it's a good place to raise the kids" thing.

There are specific things that do bother me about Ohio, primarily that there are lot more very thick people here than I've ever seen before. The first time I went to the local grocery store, when we moved out here, I marveled to my wife that I didn't know how these folks could even move. Say what you will about urban America, the fact is that the number of obese people, and more specifically obese people my age and younger, is nothing compared to out here. This says nothing about these obese folks as people -- as I've noted, people here are very pleasant in a personal sense -- but it's just not healthy.

I'm not especially pleased with Ohio politics, either -- but I'll also note it's not as bad as it could be. The state and national representatives in these here parts tend to be Republican, but they also tend to be reasonably moderate Republicans. Now, my own personal US Representative is John Boehner, and the less said about that the better. Be that as it may, in general, if you're going to go GOP, better Ohio GOP than some other, more pointlessly conservative variant.

Also, I could not possibly care less about Ohio State football, which makes me both a rarity and possibly a communist rat bastard in these here parts. But, look: a) football -- who cares. b) Ohio State -- see a). I wasn't born and raised in Ohio, so I didn't get Ohio State-ness pounded into my head.

Given the choice to live anywhere in the US, would I live in Ohio? No. To be totally honest about it, I think the place that was the best fit for me personally was Northern Virginia, where we lived before we came here: It was suburban, it had lots of things to do thanks to the presence of Washington DC, it was diverse, and I had a peer group I had a whole bunch in common with. But having said that, Ohio is all around not a bad place. If you're married and raising a family, there are worse places to be. And my wife and child love it here, and that's a pretty good recommendation for any place. Swing on by sometime, Paula, and I'll show you around.

Posted by john at 09:53 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

June 18, 2003

Reader Request #6: Immigration

Hey, everyone. Sorry about the late update today; I knocked out a tooth yesterday and it's kind of messed with my schedule. Before you ask: I'm fine. It's fixed. And you wouldn't know the bottom half of my top left incisor was fake unless I just told you, which I just did. Now then. S Rajaram wants me to opine on immigration. He (I'm assuming he's a he) says:

"How about the uncontrolled immigration that is plaguing America. 10 million immigrants in the last 10 years and more on the way!"

Well, I don't particularly think immigration, as a concept, is something that's plaguing America overly much. It's a hoary concept that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and it's an equally hoary concept that everyone thinks immigration should have stopped right after their ancestors slipped over the borders. Being that my own immediate family has ancestors that arrived here anywhere from less a century to more than 40 millennia ago, I tend to take a wide-spectrum approach to immigration, which is: You got something to offer? Come on in.

I don't know where my correspondent came up with the "10 million in 10 years" stat, so I can't speak for its accuracy, but if it is true, it's not without precedent in this county: At the turn of the 20th century, more than a million immigrants a year came to the US, including (at the early end of that wave) my Italian forebears. People bitched about the immigrants then as well, although at this point in time I think it's difficult for anyone who is not currently physically or spiritually wearing a pointy white robe to say that the US would have been notably improved by the absence of the Italians and the Jews that came across at that time.

These days people are largely bitching about the Mexicans and other Latins, but as my own wife is partially from that gene pool, as is my daughter, I'll not be one of them. Among my very good friends, one of the best is an immigrant (born in India, although he came over as an infant), and another of the best has immigrant parents (Poland and Chile), and of the rest more have immigrant parents than I care to think about. My extended family has genes from four continents at least, and I think that's just peachy. I can't consider immigration a problem because if I do I pretty much have to say to either family or friends that they need to go back to where they came from, and they're not about to let me get away with that.

To be honest about it, the problem is not immigration but the fact we're so stupid about it. All those illegal immigrants who pick your lettuce at rock bottom pay so you don't have to pay $10 a head for it would love to get guest work visas that would allow them to come up from Mexico, pick produce and then head back. Give 'em visas, make 'em legal, and thank them for their utterly thankless work. You've just solved America's primary illegal immigration problem.

Beyond that, the USA ought to be aggressively cherry-picking the best minds from other countries to live here. The best windfall the United States ever got was from the Nazis, who decided to use Jews for oven kindling rather than for their brains, forcing waves of Jewish scientists to our shores. It's not a joke (well, maybe a very dark one) that the United States got the nuclear bomb directly from the Nuremberg Laws. Look at the big minds behind the Manhattan Project and you'll see the value of letting really smart people into the United States.

Today, really really smart people from all over the world are itchin' to come to the US. What, we want other countries to benefit from their brains? One of the biggest complaints around these here parts is that native-born American kids can't be bothered to get worked up about science and math. Until we decide it might be nice to fund our high school science labs as well as we fund our high school football teams, I don't mind resorting to nabbing the best minds from elsewhere.

America is a country of self-selectors: With the terrible exception of the African slaves, there is no segment of our immigrant population, from the land-bridge-crossing Asians of 40,000 BC to the Nigerians settling in Queens today, who didn't choose to take the risk to come to this continent (and in the last couple hundred years to this country) to have the opportunity to live up to their potential. These are motivated people, and by and large people who appreciate what we offer and who want to give back in return. It's often said that the most patriotic Americans are the newest ones, and I can believe that, since they understand what the alternative is.

So that's my take on immigration: Not a plague, but a blessing. We can talk about how we let people in, if you want to do that; I wouldn't mind us being a little more systematic about that. But as to whether it's a good or bad thing, well, that's not even an issue. And if you don't like the way I feel about it, then you're free to go back to where to came from.

No, no. Just kidding. You can stay.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at 03:28 PM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

June 17, 2003

Reader Request #5: Jealousy

Question from Matthew Rider, and a nicely provocative one, as today just coincidentally happens to be Krissy's and my 8th anniversary:

"Jealousy, and I guess as a part of that your relationship with your wife. You've recently mentioned ex-girlfriends a couple times and on indiecrit have mentioned that if you weren't already with your wife you'd happily marry at least one of the artists (and have mentioned how others are hot). Are you jealous, is your wife jealous? Do you end up having a big discussion about the hot new artists you just reviewed (or maybe it never gets back to her if she doesn't read the Whatever)?"

Well, Krissy definitely reads the Whatever, since she's commented here a couple of times. I don't think she reads IndieCrit, where the review in question was posted, but I know she knows about that particular review, since I told her about because I thought she might find it amusing.

Neither Krissy nor I am much of the jealous type for the very simple reason that jealousy implicitly threatens your relationship, and Krissy and I made the decision very early on to put a very high standard for the category of Things That Threaten the Relationship. What the particulars are for that category, of course, exist in the realm of None of Your Damn Business. But suffice to say that so far, neither of us have come close to getting over that bar. Specifically relating to jealousy, neither getting goofily moony after a hot musician or being friends with an ex-girlfriend is much of a trigger; in the former case, it'd be like her getting worried that I also think Angelina Jolie is kind of cute; in the latter case, well, the operative prefix there is "ex-". People become "ex-" for a reason, you know.

Also, jealousy implies that one feels one's relationship can be threatened by other people, and that's just not the case here. It's difficult for me to put into words how totally not concerned I am in this regard, so I won't bother. This is not just a matter of believing that Krissy is so totally mine that others don't enter the picture, but the other way around as well. I am so totally jazzed to be married to my wife that I don't see why I would even want to be married to anyone else. Sure, on a theoretical level I can look at particular women and say, I could have married her, but as a practical matter that would mean not being married to whom I am married. And that's just no good. No offense to all those perfectly wonderful women out there I could theoretically marry, but the marriage I've got is just way too fabulous.

So how do you get a relationship so superfabulous that there's practically no jealousy involved at all? Well, I don't know how it works with other people, but in our case it's a few things:

1. We agree on nearly all critical things. This is not say we agree on superficial, pointless things, like music or fashion or favorite books and authors. Really, who cares about that crap. No, I'm talking about relationship and family stuff which we're both in agreement with, right down the line. And we came into the relationship agreeing on almost all these things -- i.e., are views were in line even before we met. So that's helpful.

2. We understand each other. By and large, we get where each other are coming from, and that understanding informs how we work with each other in the relationship.

3. We talk (and listen) to each other -- yes, yes, I know. We're supposed to do this. Even so.

4. We're honest with each other -- and if you're already doing one through three up there, doing this one is a lot easier.

As a consequence of all this, and as it relates to jealousy, Krissy's never managed to do anything that triggers a jealous response in me, and vice-versa. So in that sense we don't really have to deal with jealousy because it doesn't come up, and we work on it (and all the other stuff about a relationship) so it continues not to be something that comes up. Inasmuch as we've been married eight years and together as a couple for 10 (wow!), we're doing well so far. We'll keep at it.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at 03:32 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Reader Request #4: Testing Preschoolers

Reader Alina asks my opinion on a wacky thing they're doing out there in New York City: Testing kids to get them accepted to elite preschools. She writes, in part:

"Basically, in New York City, three and four year olds take the ERB's or, as I call them, Baby SAT's, which you then submit to the private (and some public) schools of your choice. It is, of course, imperative to go to a private school, because the right pre-school puts you on the road to Harvard. The wrong one, I presume, leads to... um... Brown?

Now, my husband and I have a young lad who turns four next week. He is a fine young lad, to be sure (except for the whining and the food spilling and the general acting like an almost-four year old). But is he Harvard material? How the heck should I know! Not to mention the fact that, my feeling is, if he wants to go to Harvard, let him figure out his own road to getting there - isn't that part of the fun?

So, I guess what I'm asking John is, not only how do you feel about testing the pre-school crowd, but the whole concept of parents wanting to give their kids 'the best advantages.' And what are those 'best advantages,' anyway?"

I feel sorry for the preschoolers being tested, basically. I'm a tremendous believer in the value of education, even and especially at an early age, but I also think this sort of thing is rather more about status than it is anything else, and that's of course a big problem. Your average three or four year old is not going to lay awake nights wondering what the neighbors will think if he doesn't get into a particular preschool -- or if he does, his parents need to be taken out behind the brownstone and brained with a squash racquet. In many fundamental ways, one of the goals of parents should be to shield their egos from their children. If junior doesn't get into a particular preschool his parents need him to go to for their own purposes, he's going to know that his parents are disappointed in him, he just won't be able to understand why. That's a grand way to mess up your kid from an early age.

I'd also be worried that all this testing and competitive pre-school hoo-hah grinds into a child at a very early, critical age is that learning is work rather than fun. If you're three and your parents are drilling you mercilessly with flash cards so you can pass a test you don't understand for a goal that's conceptually beyond your grasp, what's going to be your takeaway from the whole learning experience? Primarily that it's a pointless grind, and that's it's no fun. And somewhere along the way, the kid is going to wake up to the realization that he or she is expecting to pitch in to this pointless grind for another couple of decades. That's not going to be a happy day for that kid. And what follows from there aren't going to be happy days for the parents.

My daugher is four. She can read and write, she can add and subtract, she knows the name of all the planets and tell you a little bit about each of them and she's known how to operate her own computer since the age of about sixteen months. She's curious about the world and how and why things work and she asks a lot of questions and makes a lot of observations. There are a number of reasons why she's as aware and engaged as she is, and I think one of them is the philosophy of her parents regarding her education at this point, which is: Offer but don't insist. Encourage but don't require. Make it fun, not work.

That's the best advantage you can give your kids, really: The understanding that learning can be a pleasurable experience rather than just another chore to get through. Which is why even if I lived in New York City, I wouldn't be bothering with having Athena tested to get accepted for preschool. It just doesn't seem like it would be much fun for her. And anyway she's got lots of time for standarized testing later. At age four, I'm happy just to let her play. This joy for life and learning will serve her later in life, as she's blowing past all the people who ground away so long as kids that they never learned how to do much of anything else.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at 02:22 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Reader Request #3: TV

Okay, here's one from Wendell, who wants to know about my television habits. He writes:

You've written little about the beloved Idiot Box (TV) in your years on the Whatever (I Googled to make sure there wasn't something I'd missed that you'd already done), awarding "The Simpsons" the title of Best TV Show of the Millennium, and declaring your "recent TV choices" 15 months ago as "Nickelodeon (for SpongeBob Squarepants), Cartoon Network, CNN Headline News, the Science Channel, and The West Wing."

Anything to add?
What did you think of the season finale of West Wing and its future without Aaron Sorkin?
Ever seen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", or what have you said/done to people who say "You ought to watch Buffy"?
Have you ever seen Alton Brown's "Good Eats", or will you find out which channel is 'Food Network' in order to watch Lileks' guest appearance on Al Roker's show?
What's your favorite show on Cartoon Network?
Please please please explain the appeal of 'Spongebob Squarepants' (I have enjoyed many cartoons in my adult life, but NOT THAT ONE).
Can you name all the spin-offs of "Law & Order" and "CSI" (trick question)?
How would you use TiVo if you had it (I'm assuming you don't but you know what it is)?
Is it possible to spend too much time online AND watch too much TV?

Last question first: Yes, of course, especially if one considers how little TV (or how little Internet) one truly and actually needs.

I don't write about television much for the simple reason that I don't watch a whole lot of it. I'm busy enough during the day (thank God) that I don't get sucked into its vortex of glowing pixels, and during the evening it seems wrong to stare at a glassy box when one has family to stare at. Also, unlike most people, I don't default to TV as a boredom cure; this is a combination of being a reading nut very early on and having the TV habit broken for me by my high school, which was a boarding school that did not allow the students to watch TV on a regular basis. There was this idea that we might have homework they need to do instread. I surely resented it at the time, but not so much now.

As I result there are lots of shows people like that I've never seen on TV, which include but are not limited to: CSI, Buffy, Seinfeld, American Idol, Survivor, Enterprise, Everybody Loves Raymond and The Osbournes (some of these I've seen in their DVD packages). I stopped watching West Wing last year because I sensed it was getting a little too loose with the writing -- I blame the cocaine (nevertheless I think it's not long for the world without Sorkin), and I stopped watching most NBC and FOX shows I used to watch -- Friends, Fraiser, Malcolm in the Middle, even (sadly) The Simpsons -- when I moved to Ohio, on account that I live too far out to get the broadcast signal for their channels, and yet the local affiliates won't allow me to get their network alternates on satellite. I'm aware of all these shows, as I am on most pop culture -- it freaks my wife out that I know who's who on American Idol even though I'd rather rub my lips with splintery wood than to watch it -- but with the exception of The Simpsons, I don't feel like I'm missing out much.

This lack of concern about television does weird people out a bit. If you ever want to see a conversation come to a complete stop among certain age groups, simply note that you've never seen an episode of Seinfeld; people literally stop and stare like you've suddenly sprouted an arm straight out of your nose. Buffy-ites I have noticed will actively try to prostyitize and get you to watch; I visited by ex-girlfriend a couple of years ago and she sat me down with the intent of viewing an episode but I think we ended up taunting her cats instead (they were cute cats). I tend to short-circuit Buffy-ites early on by being agreeable as to the quality of the show and agreeing that just because the original movie stank (and it did) that didn't mean the show couldn't be brilliant. That usually calms them down.

My active TV watching these days is confined to Nickelodeon and CNN Headline News and in the morning, Disney Channel with Athena (she loves her the Rolie Polie Olie). Cartoon Network has fallen out of favor with me because it's replaced most of its lineup with anime of varying quality, and while I appreciate good anime as much as any geek (I just got sent my copy of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie), there's only so much of the stuff I can watch, and that amount is also fairly low. And with the exception of some of the Adult Swim bits, most of the new original shows from Cartoon Network are crap: Codename: Kids Next Door, for example, needs to be wiped from the planet (my favorite Cartoon Network series ever: Cartoon Planet, the sillier, gentler spinoff of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which I also love).

Nickelodeon's series in general are also not fabulous: Rocket Power, Chalk Zone and especially Rugrats bother me. But the network has the early 21st century kid's programming trifecta in Spongebob Squarepants, The Fairly Oddparents and Jimmy Neutron, all of which have the right mix of kid goofiness and sly adult toss-offs to make them enjoyable to watch for everyone. As for the unnerving popularity of Spongebob, well, it's just the show's time, like it was for the Powerpuff Girls a couple of years ago, and South Park before that (and Ren and Stimpy before that). The best way to understand the popularity of Spongebob, without being four or without being stoned, is simply to watch three complete episodes, which is the minimum required amount for an unaltered adult to get hooked by its charm. Fewer than that and your forebrain rebels at the pleasing colors and beguiling shapes. But then it gets you. Fairly Oddparents works on the same principle. As for Jimmy Neutron, the key to enjoying it is simple: Watch Sheen.

As it happens, I do have a TiVo, or more accurately, the Dish PVR, which despite the branding succeess of TiVo in becoming its own verb is actually the best-selling personal video recorder (it's because it doubles as the satellite cable box). I don't talk about my TiVo-ing adventures here, primarily because it's already abundantly clear that I'm a yuppie tech dork with too many toys as it is, and I don't want to be just another dweeb spooging about his TiVo. Yes, it's like crack cocaine for your television viewing habits. But you already knew that.

A glimpse into the programs I've recorded on the PVR would show 13 hours of Spongebob, a couple hours of Fairly Oddparents, and an assortment of films that run in the wee hours of the night that I've recorded to view later: Currently these include The Anniversary Party, A Beautiful Mind, We Were Soldiers, and 48 Hours. Whether I'll actually get around to watching any of these is another matter entirely; one of the dark secrets of being able to watch any show you choose at any time is that you end up not watching a lot of the stuff you idly record. The being the case, I make myself erase any film I've recorded that sits unwatched on the PVR for more than a month. Since erasing an unwatch movie feels vaguely akin to throwing out a book just because you haven't got around to reading it, this is tougher to do than it seems. But our satellite TV setup has 50 movie channels. Sooner or later they all come back, so I can record and ignore them again. It's the circle of life.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at 08:03 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

June 16, 2003

Reader Request #2: Life Online

Reader Request Topic #2 comes from Rick McGinnis -- who, incidentally, is a brand-new father to a brilliant baby girl, so give up the love for the man -- who asks:

Life online. I have my own thoughts, based on a website nearing its fifth anniversary. (Fifth? Sixth? I can't remember just now - my wife is giving birth in the other room...) As someone who's a contemporary, with a website as old as mine - what's your take? What's changed? What's the same? What's it all about, Alfie?

I've actually had a Web site up, in one form or another, since 1994, when I uploaded my very first hand-typed html document (through Unix commands!) to the Cybergate servers in Fresno. It'd be a little much to call me a Web pioneer, but I've been around for a while. Scalzi.com has been around since 1998, and that's when I started writing regularly on the site. Let's confine the discussion from that time frame forward.

What's changed is that the online writing since 1998 is that it has simultaneously become more amateurish and more professional. In 1998 was part of the first Golden Age of the Internet, in which people were funding magazines and Web sites brimming over with "real" (i.e., paid) writing and expecting that they'd make money with it somehow, some way. Well, we all know how that went -- with the exception of Slate (owned by Microsoft) and Salon (the recipient, apparently, of some complicated deal with the devil by David Talbot), most of Web-only literary sites, and most Web-only magazines in general, are dead and dust. Or to put it in another, personalized way, in 1998 nearly 80% of my income came from writing online, by way of newsletter contracts with AOL, developing Web sites for businesses, and a weekly music column for Media One's DiveIn portal. Today, in 2003, probably 15% of my income comes from writing online, and my largest single source of income at the moment is from books, which have been around (in their mass-market iteration) for several hundred years.

What's left, of course, are the personalized sites. In 1998, the personalized sites that updated daily were in a certain style -- primarily the "online journal," which were generally deeply introspective things devoted to the minutiae of the writer's life, and the "tech blog," in which Unix geeks or Mac lovers or whatever obsessed about their thing. Both groups -- how to put this gently -- tended toward certain inward-looking social constructs, and lived in highly specialized job bubbles, typically tech geeks and/or the overeducated underemployed.

That has changed dramatically. I don't need to rehash the reasons for the rise of the blogs, and God knows that the blogoverse doesn't need to be told how interesting it is yet again. But the point of fact is that the composition of the blog population is tremendously more diverse than any other previous iteration of online community, and many if not most of the truly prominent bloggers are professional people who write about what they know, not just what they think about what they think they know. So you have lawyers discussing law, economists discussing the economy, writers discussing writing, so on and so forth.

They all also write about whatever else they want -- i.e., they're as happy to spout off beyond their area of expertise as any of the rest of us poor schmoes -- but the point to made here is that these personalized sites are no longer simply "amateur"; there are enough people in enough fields writing in blogs that you can look to the blog world as a resource to understanding the real world, not merely a place that is reacting to it. And that's mostly new and mostly useful.

What hasn't changed is the social dynamic of people who live a substantial part of their lives online. Back in the early 90s when I first got online, you could see newbies trying to suck up to the cool kids on the various hip newsgroups; later I saw the newbies trying to get a mention from or make friends with the really popular online journalers. Today all the young dudes are itchin' for a shoutout from Instapundit and a few other selected bloggers (I'll note for honesty's sake that after I'm done writing this entry I'll send a note about it to Glenn to see if he'll link. And why not). And always bubbling below the surface are various pointless and petty arguments (such as the recent "I'm the real Moxie" tiff between the administratixs of Moxie.nu and Moxiepop.com), the positioning for popularity and the constant lunch-room grade intrigues as to who is on the "A List" and who is not.

If you're wise you learn not to worry about any of that, of course. Those who don't learn from high school social dynamics are doomed to repeat them until they die, and how sad is that. On my end of things, I don't worry about my social standing in the blog world, or in any online social sphere. I write, I read, I consider myself lucky to make a few good friends along the way, and a whole passel of acquaintances, and I keep a good perspective on how what I do here integrates into the rest of my life.

The next step, which is already happening to some extent, is another level of professionalization of blogs. Already a number of bloggers have begun to get paid for what they do, either through direct reader support -- Andrew Sullivan has been salting away a fair amount in this manner -- or by being hired to blog by some corporate entity -- Glenn Reynolds with MSNBC.com is an example here. Still others have capitalized on their online notoriety to get writing gigs: Eric Olsen of Blogcritics now regularly contributes to MSNBC.com as well.

Will this create a tiered "haves and have nots" situation in the online world? I don't think so, any more or less than it already exists. Most of the "pro" bloggers seem to see their role as promoters of the blogoverse, boosting its potential both as a resource for knowledge and commentary, and as a unique, emerging social construct. The pro bloggers, as far as I can tell, don't see themselves as "graduating" from the online world as much as evangelizing the online world and the advantages of communicating online to everyone else -- the people who are offline, or the people who are online but haven't begun to add their voice to the mix. They're excited to be on the front lines of something big -- and to get paid for it. As well they should.

So that's where we are at the moment.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at 10:57 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Reader Request #1: The Middle East

Welcome to Reader Request Week, in which most entries will be on topics suggested by readers. Why? Why not? I'm still taking requests, by the way, and will be all week long. Put them in the comment thread here.

Our first request, from "Ohako": I'd like to hear you jaw on about the Middle East, from the way things are now, to the way things should be, to the 'Pundit Fights' that CNN stages every now and then.

When people say "Middle East," my brain says "Israel and Palestine," and I'm generally not very optimistic about that. To give you an indication of how not optimistic I am about that, I'll note that in the science fiction novel I'm currently writing, which is set an unspecified number of centuries in the future, a Secretary of State comments to another character about how this year's negotiations were going along just fine until another suicide bomber blew himself up in Haifa. It's not a major plot point in the story, just an aside, but there you have it.

As a matter of personal philosophy, I'm very pro-Israel, and I'm very pro the US guaranteeing that nation's existence. I think life would be tremendously easier if "Israel" wasn't where it is geographically -- If it were in South Dakota, say, we wouldn't have nearly the problems we do now -- but there's not much that can be done about that now.

I think the current Israeli government is treating the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza badly, but on the other hand, it's difficult to treat any people who send their teenagers into malls packed with nail studded C4 with any real measure of respect. Israel's governments may have varying levels of interest in peace, but the Palestinian government, such as it is, is utterly worthless on this score. I have some mild hopes that the new Palestinian prime minister might be the sort of pragmatic leader who prefers to see his people live in peace with Israelis, but I don't discount Arafat's ability to keep screwing things up, either.

The one thing I always come away from the Israel-Palestine thing is the idea that I'm lucky to live in the New World, which is were people came to get away from the people who were holding grudges against them for something that happened several centuries ago or whatever. The US is not an entirely blameless country (it did sweep the then-current inhabitants off the land), but the fact is that by and large in today's America, anyone can live anywhere they want and not have to worry about the neighbors holding a grudge from the old country. You don't see Jews and Muslims at each other's throats, or Armenians and Turks, or Serbs and Muslims, or Greeks and Turks, or Protestant and Catholics, Hindu and Muslim or whatever other penny-ante centuries-old crap they're carrying around in the rest of the world. And while not in the least excusing our own racial problems, ours today tend not to leave piles of bodies lying around.

Ultimately, Americans would rather live together than live apart, which is something that differentiates us from the Middle East and indeed from most of the world. It helps that Americans, while not ignorant of past hatreds and wrongs and whatever, also have a tendency to be willing to leave them where they are, in the past, and work with what we have today and what we want for the future. We're pragmatic and unromantic in that way, and that's a very good thing. What I wish for the Middle East, and indeed anywhere, is some of that American pragmatism and unromanticism.

Re: Talking heads on CNN -- I don't watch them. It's like ESPN for Wonks, and I don't even watch regular ESPN. Anyway, when I want to see people snarl back and forth about a subject, I read blogs.

Posted by john at 08:01 AM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Officially a Geek

My descent into the realms of total geekdom is complete (it was a short trip): I am now officially a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I got my clubhouse pass this weekend in the form of the SFWA Forum, the in-house magazine of the group, in which my name was officially listed along with several other initiates. This means two things. First, the check for membership dues cleared. This is always a positive. Second, I'm in with the grownup version of the Geek Table in the high school cafeteria.

Excited? You bet. Geeks always have the best conversations; it's something about being so involved with the life of the mind, whether or not that's by choice. Sure, they may have some social and/or motor skills deficiencies, but, honestly now. Who doesn't? Anyway, now I'm married. I don't want a date, I just want to associate with other people of my geek writing tribe.

The only way I suppose I could be come any geekier would be to join Mensa, but since I think I rather file my teeth down to points and then tear out my own femoral artery than to do that, I'll stay at my current geek status. It's enough.

Posted by john at 06:44 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

June 13, 2003

New Book! New Book!

Hey, kids! Got $12 or so to blow? Well, your bookstore should now be stocking Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Great Lives, to which yours truly contributed articles on mediocre presidents, "fifth Beatles," Looney Tunes creators, the Dangerous Lives of Philosophers and the proverbial much more. If you're not already running out the door to buy copies for yourself and every other person you've ever known over the course of your life, well, I just have to say I'm disappointed. Look, here's the cover:

Posted by john at 10:53 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Submit to Reader Appreciation Week!

Here's a trifecta of photographic vanity: Me, my kitten, my merchandise. Thank you, thank you very much.

But enough about me. Let's talk about you. My logs tell me that a few thousand of you drop by each day, which I think is darned nice of you all. Thank you for making me part of your work avoidance routine. Normally in this space I prattle on about whatever it is I feel like prattling on about (hence the name), but I thought that for a refreshing change of pace for all of us, and to recognize the fact that it's my readers who have made me what I am today (i.e., some guy in a small room in Ohio, typing out missives to people he doesn't even know), for the next week I'd prattle on about whatever it is you want me to prattle on about.

That's right, for the next week, I'm taking requests. If you ever wanted to know what I thought about any topic you might think of, now's an excellent time to ask it: I'll be posting answers as new "Whatever" entries. Any topic, general or personal, is up for grabs, although sometimes (probably as regards personal questions) the answer might be "none of your damn business, bub." But for the most part I'll be forthcoming and full of prattle-osity about the topic of your choosing. Serious or silly, thought provoking or maddeningly random, whatever topic you want. I'm here to perform like a monkey just for you.

So go on, ask me anything. Just drop it in the comment thread for this entry or send it in e-mail. The more requests I get the less work -- er, that is, the more fun -- it will be for me! Thanks in advance for playing.

(In case you're wondering: I'll start writing reader request entries on Monday.)

Posted by john at 10:23 AM | Comments (56) | TrackBack

June 12, 2003

The Stupidest Criticism of a Clinton, This Week

Gregg Easterbrook, an ESPN2 columnist and senior editor at the New Republic, takes a whack at Hillary Clinton and her bookwriting prowess, presenting some interesting evidence that she's a "liar" in his column (you'll have to scroll down to find it):

"Living History" is a 562-page book. A work of that length would take an average writer perhaps four years to produce; a highly proficient writer might finish in two years, if working on nothing else. Clinton signed the contract to 'write' the book about two years ago. About the same time, she also was sworn in as a member of the United States Senate. Clinton took an oath to protect the Constitution and to serve the citizens of New York. So in the last two years Clinton has either been neglecting her duties as a United States Senator -- that is, violating her oath -- in order to be the true author of 'Living History,' or she is claiming authorship of someone else's work. Considering that Clinton has made almost daily public appearances during the period when she was supposedly feverishly 'writing' her book, let's make a wild guess which explanation pertains."

What Easterbrook ultimately appears to be wound up about is that it's probably very likely Clinton used a ghostwriter for some or all of the book and yet she's taking all of the credit. Well, this is a stupid argument. I don't think anyone's terribly shocked that politicians and celebrities use ghostwriters for their books. It's unlikely that Easterbrook will find much traction for this outrage up on the Hill, since just about every politician up there who has published a book has used a ghostwriter for it.

And if Easterbrook wants to get exercised about Clinton, he'll also need to get exercised about JFK, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage was probably written by Theodore Sorenson, and Ronald Reagan, who reportedly said of his own autobiography that he had heard it was a great book and that he should read it sometime.

With politicians there's the accepted fact that their words are written for them all the time -- they have speechwriters. When a president goes up and gives a State of the Union address, no one in his right mind believes that he's written that speech himself (this is particularly the case with the current resident of the White House). However, news reports don't say "Tonight, President Bush, as written by David Frum, announced sweeping new tax proposals." The words are attributed to Bush. The same thing happens with columns and articles produced by politicians for newspapers and magazines. Be that as it may, most of us accept the words as the politicians. I don't see the nation rising up to contest this apparent theft of work. We get the concept.

Also, it's not as if ghostwriters are typically abused by the agreement. By and large, ghostwriters for prominent celebs and politicians get a hefty upfront payment and some cut of the royalties. And of course the ghostwriter him or herself is known to the publishers, which positions the writer nicely for another profitable ghostwriting assignment or for his or her own works. If Clinton used a ghostwriter, it's unlikely you'll hear the ghostwriter complain about the arrangement. By and large, it's a good deal for the writer.

(Well, this time, anyway -- the ghostwriter for Clinton's It Takes a Village got into an argument with her about credit and complained to the media. Presumably Clinton and her publisher made it clear with whatever ghostwriter they might have used this time what the situation would be.)

Probably the best way to look at the ghostwritten works of politicians and celebrities is to approach them like you would "solo" albums by musicians. Solo albums are anything but -- usually there are songwriters, producers, engineers and other musicians who contribute to the effort. When you think about solo albums by celebrities, usually soap stars, the "solo" aspect of it becomes even less accurate. No one expects the singer to do every single thing on the album, unless they are Prince.

Well, you say, at least these people sing on their albums. True enough. But it's not as if Clinton, if she did use a ghostwriter, was totally uninvolved. First off, it is her story, and whatever part of the book she did not write herself she had direct supervision of its writing; rest assured that nothing in that book got past her without her approval. Clinton may have not scribbled out every word of it herself, but the book says exactly what she wants it to say. It's undoubtedly her book. She's the producer. So, I suppose, you could think of it as the literary equivalent of an Alan Parsons Project album.

Thereby, I don't think it's especially dishonest of her to present it as her own, with her name solely on the cover. Easterbrook is merely being intentionally obtuse about how politicians write their books in order to take a whack at Clinton. Easterbrook mentions that some politicians include their ghostwriter's names on the cover. Sure. And some don't. Clinton's not the first, and she won't be the last, from either side of the aisle. And unless she specifically comes right out and says "Yes, I wrote every single word in my book with no help from anyone else whatsoever" -- which I'm unaware that she has done -- she's not lying.

Speaking of obtuseness on the part of Easterbrook, his comment that it would take the average writer four years to write a 562-page book is complete and total crap. In four years (1999 through 2002) I wrote three books under my own name (each about 90,000 words, or roughly 300 pages each), and contributed to another three books to the tune of about 60,000 words, or another 200 pages. Currently I'm working on two additional books, one due in September and one in October, both of which will also come out to about 90,000 words, or yet another 300 pages each.

So, in five years, I will have produced five books under my own name and contributed to three other books for a grand total of about 510,000 words and about 1,700 pages. Note this is on top of writing newspaper and magazine columns and articles, corporate writing assignments and writing untold thousands of words here on this site. To put it simply, if I could only produce 560 pages of writing in four years, I would starve. I'm glad the "average" writer can only write that much. It means more work for me. But in fact the "average" writer can write substantially more than Easterbrook (himself an author of three books) claims -- as could a working senator, I'm sure, if she put her mind to it.

No matter how you slice it, Easterbrook's moral outrage concerning Clinton's book is pretty much bogus. Either he's obtuse about how publishing works, or he's misrepresenting what he knows. I'll assume the former. I would hate to think Mr. Easterbrook has a problem with honesty.

Posted by john at 11:31 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

June 11, 2003

Death to VH-1! Death!

I'm going to pop on my music critic hat here to say something painfully, painfully obvious, which is that VH-1's list of the 100 Greatest Songs of the last 25 years (That would take us back to 1978) is so horrifyingly wrong on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin. Even factoring in that this is VH-1 we're talking about, which means that the songs under consideration a) have to be mainstream pop; b) usually have to have a video involved, this list reeks. It gets props for tagging "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the greatest song since 1978 -- a totally debatable choice, but inarguable that it's up there -- but everything else about this list is bad. To put it succinctly, any list of music which places Britney Spears' "... Baby One More Time" above "Born in the USA," "Brass in Pocket," and "Beat It" is a list whose creators must be rounded up for the good of society and placed in cages surrounded by rotted produce which all right-minded persons could fling at them.

Other major errors:

* Guns "n' Roses "Sweet Child O' Mine" at #3 -- Totally wrong G'n'R song. Replace with (duh) "Welcome to the Jungle" or "Paradise City," neither of which is in the Top 100.

* Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" at #8. Aside from the fact that the song dates to 1974 (written by Dolly Parton, don't you know), in neither this nor any other world should it outrank Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" by 11 places.

* The presence of any of the following artists: Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Shania Twain, Meat Loaf, Backstreet Boys.

* Poor song selection for the following artists: Def Leppard ("Photograph" rather than "Rock of Ages" or "Pour Some Sugar on Me"), Janet Jackson ("Nasty" instead of "Miss You Much"), Aerosmith ("I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" rather than any three tracks off of "Pump"), John Mellencamp ("Jack and Diane" rather than "Pink Houses"), Hall & Oates ("I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" rather than "Maneater")

* Low chart rankings for Devo, Oasis, Metallica, Radiohead, The Ramones, LL Cool J, Chic, and Marvin Gaye; dumbfoundingly high chart rankings for TLC, No Doubt, Cyndi Lauper.

* The absence of the following songs: "Let's Dance," "The Boys of Summer," "Come on Eileen" and/or "Walking on Sunshine," "Bizarre Love Triangle," "Sledgehammer," "Jungle Love," "Been Caught Stealing," "There She Goes" (the version from The Las), "Groove is in the Heart," "A Million Miles Away," "Here Comes Your Man," "Save it For Later," "Today," "Head Like a Hole," "How Soon is Now" -- for starters.

Anyway, at the very least, the sequencing on this list sucks. Allow me to rearrange the top 20 songs, using only songs from the current list. These top 20 songs are in no particular order:

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
U2, “One”
Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
Prince, “Little Red Corvette”
Grandmaster Flash, “The Message”
Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”
Pearl Jam, “Jeremy”
Peter Gabriel, “In Your Eyes”
The Clash, “London Calling”
Michael Jackson, “Beat It”
Marvin Gaye, “Sexual Healing”
Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”
Pretenders, “Brass in Pocket”
R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”
Culture Club, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”
Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
Metallica, “Enter Sandman”
Nine Inch Nails, “Closer”
Madonna, “Ray of Light”
Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin”’

Yes, that last one made the VH-1 list (#49). Yes, I know it's a credibility-destroying choice. Bite me. We all have our weaknesses. Be that as it may, this Top 20 beats VH-1's by a considerable margin.


Posted by john at 03:00 PM | Comments (48) | TrackBack

GhlaghgheeFest 2003

My ex-girlfriend has requested more pictures of Ghlaghghee because, as she puts it "they're the only reason I come to visit your site." Well, now. Considering how much pain and aggravation I caused her while we were going out, I suppose it's only fair to give her something in return. Also, men, here's a quick lesson for you: If you can help assuage decade-long memories of your relationship buttheadedness through the exhibition of a few pictures of your new kitten, for God's sake, do it. (I should note that the ex in question and I are excellent friends, and not just because of kitty pictures.)

Having said that, our first picture of Ghlaghghee:

Here he is taking a nap underneath my desk in my office. At the time this picture was taken, it was about 4:30 in the afternoon. Rest assured that 12 hours later, he was wide awake and doing his best to attack my extremities while I slept. We're going to have to work on that. Speaking of which:

Here's Ghlaghghee attempting to consume my big toe. Aside from being a balanced part of any cat's complete breakfast, this particular toe has been discovered by Ghlaghghee to be the Root of All Evil, which must thereby be attacked whenever possible. This battle will end only when the toe has been vanquished, or Ghlaghghee has been turned to the dark side (the toe is not his father). Inasmuch as losing a big toe would really impact my ability to wear flip-flops, you should probably expect pictures of Evil Ghlaghghee, complete with pointy goatee, sometime in the reasonably near future. And here's our last photo of the day:

This is what I imagine is very close to the last thing an unsuspecting cricket ever sees before it is pounced upon. Yes, Ghlaghghee is very cute. Just not if you're the aforementioned cricket.

Okay, that's enough adorable fluffiness for one day.

Posted by john at 10:14 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

June 10, 2003

Next August in Toronto

Just an FYI for my friends, admirers and stalkers: After waiting a few weeks to see if Toronto would indeed become a plague area, I've gone ahead and made my reservations to attend Torcon 3, which is also and simultaneously the 61st World Science Fiction Convention. On Labor Day weekend, I and a couple thousand other SF geeks will descend on Canada's most populous city to hand out Hugo awards, dress up like space creatures and hope for at least one prominent author to pour a drink over the head of another. Hope springs eternal.

For those of you attending, I'll be camped out at the Fairmont Royal York, which is as I understand it the headquarters of the whole shindig. I paid a little extra to get one of the "Fairmont View" rooms, which from what I'm told are located on one of the higher floors (i.e., away from the convention anarchy), and feature lake views and a King-Sized bed. I briefly considered getting one of the Deluxe rooms on offer, which include a nice little anteroom (the Canadian dollar being what it is, I believe it could have been gotten such a room for an additional 63 cents American -- just like SuperSizing your meal!), but then I realized that would fairly obligate me to actually have people into my room in a party sort of way, and I prefer to have my hotel rooms be places of rest. Which is not to say I won't go to the other party rooms. Indeed, no. I'll be there to schmooze.

(Before you ask if you can crash in my room: One bed, people. And I generally sleep nekkid. Oh, stop with the screaming. It's not that bad.)

It'll be an interesting timing to be at a convention for me, since I'll be at an interesting stage between convention classes: My book has been sold but not yet published, so I'll be The Invisible Author No One Knows About. I think this is kind of groovy state in which to be, because I'll get to experience the con from the perspective of a fan and the perspective of an author (in the latter guise, I've been asked to participate in a couple of writing workshops -- still trying to decide whether I should do those or not). And anyway, it'll be my first convention. No matter what it should be, as they say, a true experience.

If you're going, let me know.

Posted by john at 04:18 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Jesus Christ, This Music Rocks!

The New York Times has a really interesting article on the newest generation of Christian bands, who are all basically breaking the long-established rules of Christian music -- i.e., that the music has to be a pathetic imitation of safe, already existing musical forms, the lyrics all have to mention God and Christ every other line, that it can't freak out parents who see The Powerpuff Girls as examples of secular evil, and that any attempt to reach a larger audience beyond the already-saved will result in an immediate shunning. In short: boring, unoriginal and paranoid. The new kids are saying to hell with that (well, you know) and are making music they like, tackle themes that give the safely saved the jitters, and make no bones about reaching a larger audience.

Good for them. Beyond the fact that no creative person should have to make art that sucks simply because they believe in a higher power, in showing the willingness to present their relationship with God on their own terms, these bands exemplify one of the best traits of Christianity, which is its total plasticity and it's ability to adapt to changing situations. Part of this is the simplicity of its core message, which is to accept Christ and to love one another. Once you've got that down, the rest is mostly window dressing (don't tell the Pope. Or Jerry Falwell). This makes Christianity portable, malleable and adaptable, which is why there are over nearly 21,000 denominations of Christianity, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia.

Implicitly this suggests that Christianity (and Christians) also have problems with authority: If a Christian feels you're getting in the way of his or her relationship with Christ with your rules, you'll be told to go hang. This is particularly the case here in the United States, what with that whole freedom of religion thing we've got going in our Constitution, but it's been going pretty much as long as Christianity could officially have been said to become a religion. Anytime Christianity gets too far boxed in, someone takes it out of the box and starts over. In other words, Christianity evolves, although I know some Christians (but tellingly, not nearly all), who would wince at that description.

So what you're seeing these new Christian bands do is part of the great Christian tradition of adaptability -- and a new generation of Christians saying "I'll experience Christ my way, not yours, thank you very much." Many evangelical Christians may fret that these bands are losing their way by breaking off from the current Christian mainstream thinking, but that's an interesting perspective coming from any evangelical Christian, whose current state of Christian understanding is itself informed by numerous doctrinal and social schisms. I expect these kids will be fine. I also expect the kids they reach with their music will also have a new appreciation for the message of Christ, namely that it doesn't have to be painfully dweeby. Christ can rock.

Posted by john at 11:24 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

June 09, 2003

Shiny Happy Scalzi

What's a good day in the life of John Scalzi? Well, I'll tell you.

1. The sun is shining.

2. The birds are singing.

3. The clouds in the sky are of the nice, fluffy "we're just like your four year old would draw" variety, not the dark, brooding "we're going drop hailstones the size of Volkswagen Beetles on your roof" variety you've been seeing so much recently.

4. You're listening to Sam Bisbee's "Miracle Car."

5. You just got a bigass check for work you'd completely forgotten you had done for an amount which quite capably pays off the quarterly estimated tax payment you have to mail off at the end of the week.

6. And you didn't need that bigass check to pay your taxes.

7. And now you have to decide: Start another chapter of your novel? Or work some more on that book about ridiculous people doing ridiculous things?

8. And in a few hours, your wife and kid will be home, and you'll go outside and play on the swing set, and be that happy all-American family you've heard so much about in all those political ads.

Thankful? Oh, yeah. Happy? You bet. I imagine that life could actually get better. But right off the top of my head, I'm hard pressed to figure out how. It's a good day.

Posted by john at 02:46 PM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Like War of the Worlds in Reverse

Your bit of zany science for the day: Scientists suggest SARS came from outer space! Interestingly, this news brief is not from Weekly World News but from National Geographic. The idea here, as I have gleaned from my quick read, is that a group of scientists believe the SARS virus is morphologically different enough that rather than being a mutation of an existing virus, it comes from "outside" -- which is to say, from space, possibly carried by a comet. These scientists also believe space viruses may have appeared before -- they might have been the cause of the Influenza epidemic of the early 20th century, for example. It also raises the spectre of the idea that life (or at the very least, the building blocks thereof) ultimately did not originate on Earth, but landed here in very simple form through impacts and evolved from there.

It's an interesting hypothesis, although I think it's probably too elaborate an explanation for a virus that probably jumped from another animal species to ours. The fact that SARS is substantially different from other coronaviruses we know about doesn't require that we postulate an arrival from space so much as it requires us to recognize that until a virus exhibits a detrimental effect on humans or one of our livestock animals, we probably simply don't know it exists. This is one of those Occam's Razor moments in which simplest explanation is probably more correct, and that pretty much dispenses with space viruses.

There is some mild irony here in that Toronto, which had recently been under a WHO travel advisory thanks to the presence of SARS, is home this year to the World Science Fiction Convention. Normally, the attendees of that convention would be exactly the folks you'd think would be thrilled to hear about space viruses. But in this case, they might be willing to make an exception.

Posted by john at 11:54 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Making Partner

Hey, how about that: My cover story for JD Jungle magazine is now online. It's called "Are You Partner Material?" and it's a quiz that presents a number of lawyer-related situations where you can compare your response with the responses of partners at some of the nation's biggest and most respected law firms. Have fun finding out if you've got what it takes to make hundreds of thousands each year! Personally, I think I'd probably fail. Fortunately, I'm not a lawyer. So it works out well.

Posted by john at 11:21 AM | TrackBack

Lies Lies Lies

Leaving aside the central issue of whether the Bush administration lied (or at least overstated) about the Iraqi weapons of mass destructions, there's the tangent but still compelling issue as to why people are so willing to believe the Bush administration lied (or at least overstated) about the Iraqi weapons of mass detruction. From my point of view, there are two not mutually exclusive explanations.

1) The people bitching about Bush hate him with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns, and will use any excuse to bring him down. This is naturally the position of the conservatives and most people who supported the war. It also has the virtue of being true: People who hate Dubya really hate Dubya. It would be interesting to find some way to gauge whether people who truly hate Dubya hate him more intensely than the people who truly hated Clinton hated him; possibly the best way to discover this would be to lock them all in a very large box, toss in some bludgeoning implements, and see who eventually crawls out of the box's bloody interior. Naturally, I'm for doing this right this very second.

2) The Bush administration appears to many people to be patronizing, guarded and stingy with the truth, an appearance based on fact that the adminstration is patronizing, guarded and stingy with the truth; it's not even so much that the Bush folks lie as it is about the overall impression that they don't feel obligated to share what they know with the likes of us. Let's face it, any presidential administration that wants to classify information already in the public domain is not an administration that engenders many feelings of trust and goodwill.

The first of these is of course nothing the Bush people can do much about -- Bush haters would hate Bush even if he were to up the top marginal rate to 80%, line the pockets of the poor with gold, and ban oil drilling within 1000 nautical miles of the United States shoreline. But the second of these is definitely of their own doing. If you want people to trust you, don't give them the distinct impression that their role is to shut up and unquestioningly do as they're told, because you know what's best for them, and that should be enough.

As I've mentioned before, I'm entirely at peace with our having gone to war with Iraq. It was the right thing to do, and I'm glad we did it, and I'm glad that Bush decided it needed doing. But I'm also perfectly peachy keen with the Bushies being accused of dishonesty and duplicity regarding what was the primary reason for going to war, and taking their lumps therein. I don't expect it'll make the Bush administration any more open -- rather the opposite -- but I think it'll remind people that we should be able to hold our government accountable not only for its actions, but for the stated reasons for those actions as well. Despite the whining of Conservatives crying foul, this expectation of accountability is not a bad thing.

Posted by john at 11:06 AM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

June 08, 2003

Where's the Pith?

Punning Pundit was good enough to purchase The Rough Guide to the Universe for his girlfriend (her reaction -- "You are the best boyfriend, ever" -- should be enough to get the rest of you lugs to the bookstore), and put up a review on his site, here (you might have to scroll down an entry or two to find it). He liked it, but he was mildly surprised at the style:

"I had expected funny, pithy, and clever. While all those elements are present, they are muted, toned down. This is a book about the stars, constellations, and that sort of thing. This is not a book for fun, but rather a guide to fun things you can do. It’s a well written travel book, but ultimately it is just as functional as any other piece of luggage."

This is pretty accurate, especially if your primary entry to my writing is this Web site, in which I have no editors and no goal other to amuse myself and others. Universe's primary goal is utilitarian, in that by design people should be able to open it up and get a clear dose of information. Style is definitely an issue -- I would happily argue it's got more style than any other basic book on astronomy -- but if it were the main thrust of the book, the book would be in trouble. No offense to myself, but (hopefully) the vast majority of the people buying the book have not the slightest clue as to who I am. They're picking up the book to learn about the universe, not to read me riff about black holes. So while I, the authorial voice, am still definitely there, I dial back the Scalzi-osity to focus on the rest of creation.

So yes, to be clear: If you're getting the book in order to drink from the Scalzi firehose of prose, as it were, you're better off holding off for The Book of the Dumb this November or Old Man's War early next year, both of which are rather a bit more of me. Alternately, you might pick up Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe, which has much the same science but with amped up humor and snarkiness (although ironically, none of the articles I wrote in there are specifically attributed to me -- if you get it, write me and I'll tell you which of the articles are mine).

I'm immensely proud of Rough Guide to the Universe, and it came out almost exactly as I would have intended, but it's not about me. And I'm definitely all right with that. If I was supposed to be presenting you entire glorious reach of the universe, but ended up jumping up and down, waving my hands and asking you to pay attention to my prose style, well. That's a level of hubris that even I am hesitant to approach.

Posted by john at 08:55 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 07, 2003

Impeachable You

The other day someone suggested that I had written that President Bush should be impeached for lying to the American public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. I had not, nor do I at this time suggest we've gotten anywhere near the point of impeaching Bush on anything. I did say that if we impeached Clinton for lying about sex, it was not entirely inappropriate to grill Bush about the possibility he lied about WMDs. After all, everyone lies about sex. Lying about weapons of mass destruction occurs only within a rather more specialized population. But to be clear: No, no impeachment necessary. Just a straight answer from the Bush White House. Which is, alas, apparently asking a lot.

Which is not to say others aren't seriously discussing whether impeachment is in the future: Here's an article on it from John Dean, who knows a little about what happens when a President lies to the American public. It's interesting reading: Dean comes to the conclusion that if the President did lie (and notes that this is a rather huge "if," a position I agree with), "he is cooked." And this would probably be true enough, regardless of whether he were impeached or not.

Although I'm not for impeachment, I will be clear on this much: Lying to the American public about the reason for starting a war is rather more of a legitimate excuse for impeachment than lying to the American public about getting a hummer. Anyone who suggests otherwise has his partisan head so far up his partisan ass that his utterances can be ignored as abject stupidity.

Posted by john at 11:31 AM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

June 06, 2003

Personal Product Review

My personal order from my Café Press store came in today, and I'm pretty pleased. First off, despite multiple spell-checkings, I was paranoid I had misspelled something somewhere, but I did not, so that was good. I got my myself my "I Hate Your Politics" White T-Shirt, my Athena Starchild Mouse Pad and the "I Hate Your Politics" Mug, and all came in nicely printed and legible -- the last of these being of mild concern because, after all, there's a lot of text on these things. Of all the pieces, I think the mug comes out looking the best, probably because it's got a bit of color to it. I actually got two mugs because Krissy wants to take one to work -- here's hoping she doesn't actually get fired for it.

Anyway, at this point if you feel you must buy a single John Scalzi product, I'd go for the mug. This is not to dissuade you from buying anything else, mind you, if you have your heart set on a t-shirt or the mousepad. But if you just can't decide, go for the mug. If you feel like you can get through life without having something with my name on it, I'll live. Somehow.

I'm giving some thought to adding more product, since it costs me nothing to do so and I'm vain. I'll mull it over and let you all know what I decide to do. In the meantime, enjoy this picture of Ghlaghghee perusing my new mug and apparently objecting to something in, around, or about it. Can't please everyone.

Posted by john at 03:56 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

How Does Our Garden Grow

Being that we live the country life and all, it's only natural that we should have a garden, and by "we," I mean my wife and my father-in-law, since any attempt my me to grow something from the earth is doomed to hideous, depressing failure. My wife and FIL do not have these problems; they plant something in the ground and it grows, joyfully, sprouting and blooming and growing until the two of them come along to yank the literal produce right from them. Talk about alienation from one's work. If plants had political affiliations, they'd all be Marxists.

The garden is pretty large -- larger, in fact, than our entire front yard back when we lived in Virginia, and large enough that there's no way each year that we can possibly eat all the produce that grows in it -- we end up canning enough tomatoes to power Chef Boy-ar-dee for a year and foisting Ball jars of preserves on friends, family and random passersby. Come along to the house in September or October and when you get back home all your neighbors will think you stopped off at a farmer's market. That's a hint.

In this year's garden we have potatoes, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, radishes, and several other plants that I am assured are edible at some point. In terms of long term investments, we have asparagus, growing in that box in the front of the picture, and blackberrys, whose trailing vines are supported by wires hung from those crosses (so, no, we're not crucifying our produce). Neither the asparagus nor the blackberry plants will produce anything appreciable in the first year, so by planting these things, we've signaled our intention to stick around, I suppose (our 30-year-mortgage also suggests such, just not as verdantly).

Our house is situated on former farmland, and we're surrounded by farms as well, so not entirely surprisingly, the garden grows like gangbusters. Even someone with a black thumb like myself can understand why New England farmers crawled over each other to abandon their rockstrewn plots of land and head west to the Ohio territory as soon as it opened up: There's rich soil, hardly any rocks, and humid but largely temperate weather. If you can't grow something in Ohio, it's likely you can't grow it at all (except maybe bananas and palm trees), or, like me, everything green thing you touch dies screaming.

I don't mind. I'm not the gardening type anyway. I'll just enjoy some of the couple thousand tomatoes we'll undoubtedly have by the end of the summer. My contribution to the gardening process is consumption. And that, I do well.

Posted by john at 11:21 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

June 05, 2003

A Couple of Thoughts. You Know, On Stuff

Here are a couple of reactions to stuff I've been reading on sites and blogs.

* I'm awfully sick of the New York Times bashing that blogs seem to be on these days, and the reasons for this are very well encapsulated by Virginia Postrel in comments she made on her own site. While entirely true that the Jayson Blair reality check will be a good one for the Times, the fact of the matter is that most of the people whacking on the Times are just bloviating about things they know little about. Virginia is especially correct about the stupidity of bloggers painting reporters with the same brush they're using for the editors; the former have very little to do with the political machinations of the latter.

I worked on a paper for a number of years and almost without exception reporters did their best to get as much of the whole story as possible under deadlines, no matter what damn fool thing was going on in the executive editor suite. I was not a reporter myself -- I was a critic and a columnist, which is emphatically not the same thing -- but I had a ground-eye view of the work and journalistic ethics of my co-workers. They were all proud of what they did, and they all worked to do a good job (Virginia also has positive things to say about editors, too -- and once again she's right. In my experience, most dumbassery from editors has less to do about political slantings than other, more mundane administrative issues).

As Virginia noted, although she didn't put it in the term I am going to, most of the people whacking at the Times and journalists in general have a parasitic relationship to the newspapers and news sources, which they've somehow managed to confuse with a position of superiority. Listen, folks: if it weren't for the Times and their compatriots, you'd all be blogging about your cats, 24-7. Blogs can have an interesting and vital role spot-checking the facts and the received wisdom from these news sources -- be beneficial parasites, in other words. Newspapers aren't called "the rough draft of history" for no reason, and rough drafts are often refined. But starting from the position that reporters don't care about their work or aim to slant is both stupid and wrong. The reason for the controversy surrounding Jayson Blair is that Blair is, emphatically, a wild aberration from the norm, not just for the Times, but for any newspaper you'd care to mention.

Treat reporters with respect. They're working hard, and they're working hard to get it right.

(Update: NYT editors Boyd and Raines resign. I'll be a busy day in blogdom, to be sure.)

* Likewise, I've been following the WMD fracas with some interest. This one's pretty simple, people: Bush and his folks said pretty clearly that the big reason to go into Iraq were the WMDs -- not only the ones that Saddam could create, but the ones he already had. The inability to find much of anything in that direction of things (so far) means that either our intelligence was grossly poor -- which is bad -- or that Bush, et al went a-warring' on false pretenses, which is rather worse. Or it could be some tantalizing mixture of the two, and you can imagine how bad that would be.

Folks are countering that regardless of the reason we went in, the obvious and evident atrocities of the Saddam regime justify our presence. But I think this is crap reasoning. Prior to strapping our guns on, we all knew Saddam was killing his own people left and right. This was no big secret. Yet for some reason that was not a justifiable reason to invade. We needed another excuse to get in, and the WMD weapon was what we used. Now that we're in, we can't just backtrack. If the obvious humanitarian rationale wasn't enough to start a war then, why should it be able to be used as a back door excuse now?

Mind you, my conscience is clear on this one. Longtime readers will remember that while I supported the invasion, I pretty much always thought the WMD rationale was cover, and my personal interest was in dislodging Saddam, which in itself was a perfectly laudable goal. As I wrote last October:

"Let's get down to brass tacks. On balance, the end results of fighting this war will be (cross fingers) the removal of Saddam and the dismantling of his political state and (incidentally) a clearing out of whatever weapons capability that may exist. For those reasons, I'm not opposed to fighting a war with Iraq now. Be that as it may, even those people who fully support a war against Iraq are rather painfully aware that the stated reasons that the Dubya administration wants to gear up for war are window dressing for a revenge fantasy. It is possible to fight a just war for less than entirely just reasons. We're about to do it."

The point here for the Bush administration is that regardless of the substantial benefit of removing Saddam from power, especially for the Iraqi people, the fact is that the primary reason it gave for invading appears to be largely bogus, and it needs to reconcile its rationale with the facts as they exist on the ground.

Let's all go ahead and grant that the removal of Saddam was a good thing, and Bush deserves credit for that. But let's also grant that lying to the American public to get a war, if that's what he did, is an extraordinarily bad thing, and Bush should get the blame for that. This isn't a case of ticketing someone for jaywalking because he rushed across the street to pull children out a burning building. Lying to the public to get them to back a war is pretty serious stuff. If we were willing to impeach a President for lying about getting some off an intern, lying to start a war is worth at least a glance or two.

Posted by john at 10:34 AM | Comments (32) | TrackBack

June 04, 2003

Something to Chew On

"THE first birds with teeth since the age of the dinosaurs have been created by an Anglo-French team of scientists, raising the prospect of new dental treatments for people — and even a cure for baldness.

A batch of chicken embryos raised at a French laboratory have been coaxed into growing rudimentary teeth, after researchers managed to re-awaken a gene that has lain dormant in birds for at least 70 million years." -- "Birds with teeth turn the clock back 70m years," The Times of London, 6/4/2003

These are the sort of discoveries which vex creationists; there's nothing like dormant DNA, which is "junk code" in the current iteration of animal but useful for an antecedent animal, to mess up the idea of outright creationism. A perfect God presumably wouldn't bother with dormant DNA, since such code would be inefficient, and a God who is inefficient is not perfect. A good response here would be that God's will is ineffable, therefore that dormant code may be there to serve God's purpose. But if you admit that, then you'd have to likewise admit that evolution might also serve God's ineffable plan, since by it's very nature, that which is ineffable is unknowable. With or without God, you get a better case for evolution.

Don't worry, however. Creationists are well versed in raising objections. They'll think of something novel to get out of this one too. Creationists are, by their very name, creative.

Posted by john at 02:48 PM | Comments (61) | TrackBack

Here We Go Again

"WASHINGTON (AP) - In what Democrats called an annual GOP rite of spring, the Republican-controlled House on Tuesday passed an amendment to the Constitution to criminalize flag burning for the fifth time in eight years.

The one-line change to the Constitution - ``The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States'' - was approved by a 300-125 vote as a pair of holidays approach - Flag Day on June 14 and Independence Day in July." -- "House Approves Ban on Burning U.S. Flag," Associated Press, 6/4/2003

If this shows anything it's the fact that a large swath of our legislators are perfectly happy to chuck out the first amendment if they think they can get a vote out of it. And each time they do, it's worth re-reading a newspaper column I wrote on the matter EIGHT YEARS AGO which rather unfortunately is still as relevant today as it was then. Rather than make you hunt through the archives to find it, I'll reprint it here. Enjoy.

"I Can't Believe It's Not The American Flag!": How to Defeat the Flag-Desecration Amendment.

The hideous, bloated mass of cane toads that we endearingly call the 104th House of Representatives has gone and done it again: they've voted to amend the Constitution of the United States in places it needs no amending. This time it's a "flag-burning" amendment, a proposal that reads in its entirety "The Congress and the States shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

In one swipe, this proposed amendment guts the entire purpose of the First Amendment (to provide for free expression of ideas, no matter how unpopular), and alters the symbolic content of the American flag from a proud ensign of freedom and liberty to a suspect banner whose supposed protection flies against everything it had previously represented. In short, the flag will change from something well worth cherishing to something well worth burning. This is in character for the House, which is apparently incapable of reading the Constitution of the United States without moving its collective lips.

My first impulse, of course, was to go out and do a little flag toasting myself. But I figure every other excitable boy and girl in this great land of ours is thinking the same thing. Besides, if the Senate loses its bladder control, and the States do likewise, it's entirely possible I'd go to the slammer. And while being a political prisoner in the previously politically free United States has an appeal, jail itself is a bummer. I'd be inside, where large, tattooed fellows with bad teeth would be calling me "girlfriend", while the idiots who passed the amendment would be roaming around freely, thinking up of new ways to chop the Constitution into a fine pate. Which is the exact opposite of the way it should be.

No, the best way to fight this amendment is to undermine it from the word Go, to prove (without having to be incarcerated) how stupid and pointless this thing would be. So right here and now I promise: the day the 38th state legislature passes this amendment into law, I go into business for myself. Making what? Flags, of course.

What kind of flags? Well, I'll tell you. The flag I have in mind has 13 stripes, alternating red and white. In the top left hand corner, I figure I'd put a blue rectangle, and fill it with white, five-pointed stars, in alternating rows of five and six, numbering, oh, about 50 or so. But where that last star would go, maybe I'd put a circle instead, or a square, or a pentagon, seeing that's it's five sided and all. It'd be 99% the Flag of United States of America, and 1% filler.

It would look like that American flag, it would feel like an American flag, and if I ran it up a flagpole, someone would probably salute it like an American flag. And why not? It's close enough in form and content to evoke all the responses that the American flag would. I'd bet you that even from a close distance, most folks would swear that's what it is. But it's not. What to call it? Something catchy, like "Not The Flag of the United States," "United States Flag Substitute," or, my personal favorite, "I Can't Believe It's Not the American Flag!"

What could I do with my new flag? Why, just about anything I wanted:

Bob: Say, John, what are you doing over there?

Me: Well, Bob, I'm thinking of roasting this here entire pig on the hibachi! But first I must stoke the cooking fire!

Bob: Say, John, isn't that the Constitutionally-protected American flag that you are laying over those red hot charcoal briquettes?

Me: It sure looks that way, doesn't it? But see that tiny white dot over there?

Bob (squinting): Why yes I do! It's so small!

Me: Thanks to that trivial detail, this is Not The Flag of the United States! And I can burn it at will!

Bob: Hey, that's great! Could I use your United States Flag Substitute? I've got a heap of leaves in the back yard I need to take care of!

Me: Sure, Bob! It makes great kindling!

I could wear it, wax my car, swaddle small, incontinent children, potty-train my turtle, towel off after mud wrestling, turn it into a hammock, use it as bandages in a emergency situation or just shred it into fibers with a weed-whacker. Whatever I wanted. God forbid I would want to burn something in political protest, I could set it aflame outside the steps of the United States House of Representatives.

I'd be in the clear, burning my exactly-like-an-American-flag-except-for-one-small-detail flag, while all the anti-flag burning types would seethe, because they know and feel in their guts that I'm burning the American flag and getting off on a mere technicality. All their work would be for nothing, which is precisely and exactly my point.

If you want people to revere and honor the flag, you should let it stand for principles that are worth honoring and revering. Compulsory reverence is no reverence at all. Just remember, I'm standing by with my new flags. I bet you I'd sell a lot of them.

Posted by john at 09:46 AM | Comments (27) | TrackBack

June 03, 2003

Go Go First Amendment!

Turns out that video games are protected by the First Amendment, at least according to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which today overturned a St. Louis ruling that video games do not constitue prtected speech. The entire 8th Circuit Court Opinion is here, but here are some choice quotes:

"If the first amendment is versatile enough to 'shield [the] painting of Jackson Pollock, music of Arnold Schoenberg, or Jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll,' we see no reason why the pictures, graphic design, concept art, sounds, music, stories, and narrative present in video games are not entitled to a similar protection. The mere fact that they appear in a novel medium is of no legal consequence."


"We reject the County’s suggestion that we should find that the 'graphically violent' video games in this case are obscene as to minors and therefore entitled to less protection. It is true that obscenity is one of the few categories of speech historically unprotected by the first amendment. But we have previously observed that '[m]aterial that contains violence but not depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct cannot be obscene.' Video Software, 968 F.2d at 688. Simply put, depictions of violence cannot fall within the legal definition of obscenity for either minors or adults."

And, critically:

"While it is beyond doubt that 'parents' claim to authority in their own household to direct the rearing of their children is basic in the structure of our society,' Ginsberg v. New York, (1968), the question here is whether the County constitutionally may limit first amendment rights as a means of aiding parental authority. We hold that, under the circumstances presented in this case, it cannot."

Rock on, First Amendment! And welcome to the 21st Century.

Posted by john at 03:51 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Curse You, Habitat For Humanity!

I cannot tell you how much personal inner strength it took me to reject Habitat For Humanity's new Poverty Theme Park for inclusion into The Book of the Dumb. Because, truth to tell, it's a friggin' horrible idea: "See life-size Habitat houses from countries around the world. Learn about the devastating effects of poverty. Try your hand at making compressed-earth blocks or roof tile." All for five bucks (four for seniors and three for the kids).

Sure, it's a cheap day out, but if you get the kids all riled up by telling them they're headed to a theme park and then force them to make bricks all day long, well, that's years of therapy right there. This a place for People Who Mean Well, and unfortunately most People Who Mean Well have had their sense of fun leached out through years of empathy, folk tunes and hammering crossbeams. Most likely the kids will ask if they can just stay home, so you can get them the souvenir that says "My Parents Went to the Global Village and Discovery Center And All I Got Was This Organically Printed T-Shirt Made From Hemp."

No Joke: There's a "Living in Poverty Area." "Experience firsthand the conditions poor people in the world today," the site proclaims, thankfully leaving off the expected exclamation point. Well, hell; if I want to experience that, I'll just hang out in front of the Wal-Mart.

But I just can't bring myself to include this in the Book of the Dumb. Because it's Habitat For Humanity, for God's sake, and making fun of Habitat For Humanity is like kicking your sweet ol' grandmama. They build houses! For poor people! For fun! Well, or whatever it is that passes for fun for these folks. I'm sure that someone somewhere has something bad to say about Habitat For Humanity, probably someone who'd call some grindingly poor Habitat For Humanity house recipient a "lucky ducky" for getting a new home cheap, or someone who's convinced Jimmy Carter is the true source of all evil in the world today. But I'm just not one of those people. I just can't do it.

Curse you, Habitat For Humanity! Curse your fundamental goodness! You're spoiling my fun! Arrgh! I mean, really. For all the fun I'm having, I might as well just make a brick.

Posted by john at 02:26 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Where the Hell is June? And OPM. And IndieCrit. And the Cat.

I try not to comment overly on weather, but come on. It's June, and here in my little corner of Ohio, the temperature outside is 65 degrees. It was only marginally warmer yesterday, and will be only marginally warmer tomorrow. It's also raining. I'm sorry, but my contract clearly specifies that so long as I am in the northern hemisphere, my Junes are to be warm to hottish warm (say, 75 to 90 degrees) and generally sunny. The only option not specified is humidity, which why June in these here parts is generally sweatier than I like. Even so.

If I don't start getting some service around here, I just may take my business elsewhere. Let that be a lesson for you all.

On a completely an utterly unrelated note, I got a spot of good news yesterday from one of my employers. Those of you who read Official Playstation Magazine know that I write a column for them every other month on social and legal issues involving video games, called "Watchdog." Well, now it's going monthly. So for Scalzi fans, OPM becomes even more of a wacky hot value: CD reviews, DVD reviews and me acting all serious and grownup-y in my column (that's right. I'm a magazine columnist. Stand back, y'all). Add that to the fact that it's a damn fine magazine on its own and you've got yourself roughly 124 to 158 pages of fun every month. Honestly, I don't know why you don't just drop what you're doing right now and race out to buy a copy. Don't be afraid to elbow aside that twelve-year-old loitering in front of the magazine rack. You're a paying customer!

Another quick note: I'm taking a break from IndieCrit for June, for the usual work-related excuses I provide whenever I take a break. I don't know how many of you trundle over there for music reviews (actually, I do, because I look at the referrer logs, but never mind that now), but I guess you'll just have to play your old records until I come back. Or let someone else tell you which music is good. But know you'd never do that. Would you? You would? And here I thought what we had was special.

Yet another quick note: Ghlaghghee likes to sleep directly in front of my keyboard. I thought this would be annoying but in fact resting my wrists on his furry little kitten body is helping me avoid RSI. He's like one of those gel rests, in fluffy mammalian form. Try it yourself. You'll have to get your own cat, however.

Posted by john at 11:39 AM | Comments (20) | TrackBack

June 02, 2003

Exploiting My Hunger For Flattery

I noted a couple of entries down that I might link to people if they flattered me enough, so Amanda of Metamanda made that attempt. However, even this craven flattery would not have been enough if she had not noted that her Marathon Blog was a thinly disguised attempt to get people to donate toward her marathon run for the benefit of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She's promised to find people to cough up $3700 by 9/5, and she's got $350 so far. Well, I think that's a good enough reason to link. Well, that and the craven flattery. Plus, she said "If you link to me, I will be eternally grateful, where eternally is aleph-null years." Mmmmm... aleph-nullicious! So go on over and give her attention. And cash.

And Amanda, yes, I'll chip in. Let me raid Athena's college fund and get back to you. But I warn you -- you don't run the whole 26.2 miles, and I'm gonna complain loudly about not getting my money's worth. And we all know how whiny I can get.

Note to other people wanting links: The "craven flattery + worthy cause" avenue has now been filled! Please try other avenues. The "craven flattery + revealing photographs" avenue, however is wide open, as is the "craven flattery + cashier's checks" avenue. Your call.

Posted by john at 06:30 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Gettin' Bloggy Wit It

Just a quick note: Probably for most of this week, I'm going to be even more blog-esque than I have been recently, mostly on account of I have some longer stuff to write elsewhere, so my contributions here will most likely limited to five-minute swoop ins. But I figure I did enough brain-busting think pieces last week. This week I'm all about the quick, snarky comment. Variety. That's what it's all about.

In the absence of anything other interesting to say just this second, here's a picture of Ghlaghghee, doing that cute kitty thing of trying to grab the cursor off my screen as it's moving. Isn't he so adorable you could just spontaneously combust. And he's pretty darn cute most other times, although at the moment he's climbing up my leg like it's a tree trunk, and while that's cute too, it's also surprisingly painful. I like Ghlaghghee quite a bit, but I am hoping he'll be growing out of the "attack anything that moves, especially at 3am" phase of his kittenhood real quick now.

Off to do other writing. Be back soon for other five-minute entries.

Posted by john at 10:01 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

June 01, 2003

An Opposing View of My Writing

Jim Valvis, longtime online journaler, calls me a bad writer here. It follows an exchange of comments in my Me Rite Guud comment thread.

Here's my favorite graph in Jim's essay:

"My debating friend may think he’s a writing polymath, but he’s not. He’s simply writing his corporate brochures over and over again, disguised as novels here and poems there and whatever else elsewhere. Anyone interested in writing, especially if he wishes to write in more than one genre, should caution himself against this guy’s example. Each kind of writing is its own skill to master—and you will have to struggle to learn each as if they are different things, because they are. But take heart. Even if you master one, just one, you’ll be a far better writer than my know-it-all-poorly and do-it-all-badly friend will ever be."

The crux of the issue is that Jim believes that fields of writing are rather separate and that the skills one learns and uses in one field are not necessarily applicable in any other writing field; whereas I believe that skills you learn in one writing field are often applicable in other fields. Aside from Jim's personal opinion of my writing (which, incidentally, is entirely unsurprising; my only defense to his position I do it all badly is that my various publishers and clients appear largely to disagree), his position is an interesting point of view. It's an interesting point of view which I happen to think is stupid, inefficient and wrong, mind you, but interesting nevertheless.

Objectively speaking, it's difficult to say which of our opinions has more "truth" to it; the process of writing is different for each person and I tend to think that the right process is the process that works for you. The argument I can make for my point of view being useful is that I have books and novels sold and/or in the bookstore, and I make a very good living doing all sorts of different writing for all sorts of different people. So I know purely on a practical level that my opinion is based on a practice that works. This is why I suggest it to others. You'll have to ask Jim what practical application his writing philosophy has had for him.

Posted by john at 05:16 PM | Comments (31) | TrackBack