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May 28, 2004

Mail Woes

Another quick note, which will go a long way to explaining my e-mail woes as of late: Apparently AOL has banned the server I'm on because of spam issues (someone is spamming and it's not me). Since my mail has apparently not been arriving to more than just AOLers, this makes me wonder how many systems from which my mail has been banned.

I don't seem to have problems with mail coming in, but of course I don't really know if any mail's being dropped.

So: If you've been expecting mail from me and haven't got it (especially if you're on AOL), this is my new excuse. I've already told my host provider if they can't get this cleared up and fast I'm looking for new hosting. Since I actually do work for AOL, it's not exactly convenient not to send mail to the damned place.

In the interim I will be looking for a new mail solution. If anyone wants to gift me with a GMail account, that'd be swell.

In the meantime, if you're going to send me mail, do me a favor and cc: my AOL account as well: JScalzi2@aol.com.

I swore I wouldn't update again, but the net keeps pulling me back in...

Posted by john at 03:52 PM | TrackBack

Oh, One Thing.

No, I'm not back. I just forgot to link to this: A short interview I did with Randy Quaid about his upcoming SciFi Network miniseries Five Minutes to Midnight.

Okay, now I really am off until the 7th.

Posted by john at 08:56 AM | TrackBack

May 27, 2004

Open Thread 1

While I'm not updating, here's an open thread for y'all to play in, the very first on the Whatever. Remember to play nice and don't wreck the joint. I still gotta live here, you know. See you on 6/7.

Posted by john at 01:01 AM | TrackBack

Summer Break 2004

The picture above is an excellent metaphor for my presence online through June 6th: I'll be around, but you won't see much of me. I'm taking a 10-day summer break, partly because it's a holiday weekend and I'll have family fun to experience, and then I'll be traveling to Chicago, but also because I think it's an excellent idea to take a week or ten days and just let my brain lie fallow, catch up on my reading and sleep and generally do nothing in an aggressive sort of way.

I won't be entirely gone. I'll be putting up a couple of posts a day over at By The Way. It's that whole "they're paying me" thing. But if I were you I wouldn't get my hopes up that there are going to be a lot of them -- it'll basically be minimum maintenance (don't worry; I told AOL not to expect a lot over the next week).

Likewise, I will be checking my e-mail (if only to clear out the spam so it doesn't clog my box), but unless I'm trying to schedule a time to meet you in Chicago during Book Expo, I wouldn't hold my breath expecting a reply until after the 6th. Also, for you Book of the Dumb 2 beta readers: I'm taking a break over there, too. Breathe easy.

Basically, to reiterate: Don't expect to see much of me for several days.

I will say this: When I get back online, I expect I will have exciting news to share. No, I won't provide you with any more details than that. Because I'm a sadistic bastard, that's why.

Have an excellent Memorial Day weekend if you're in the US (have a great weekend if you're anywhere else) and I'll see you back 'round here on the 7th.

Posted by john at 12:59 AM | TrackBack

May 26, 2004

Sunset

Here's what sunset looked like tonight. Just thought I'd share.

Posted by john at 09:23 PM | TrackBack

Catblogging 5/26

Ghlaghghee has been with us a year as of tomorrow, and in that time she's gone from being a tiny ball of fluff to being a rather substantial-sized cat (as you can see from the picture above) and also from being a "he" to a "she." Actually, she was a she when we got her, but we had been assured she was actually a he. I continue to be confused by this mix-up; sexing kittens is not as complicated as sexing baby chickens. But never mind that now.

I have to say we're generally pleased with her as a pet. She's loveable and active with a distinct personality, tolerates Athena well and adores both Kodi and Lopsided Cat (Rex, not so much. But Rex doesn't like anyone, anyway). And she's a gorgeous cat, which is always a nice bonus. Best of all, she loves to catch and eat flies, so we've hardly had to get out the flyswatter so far this year. She earns her keep.

Athena's been hinting that she'd like another pet, but we've told her that three cats and one very large dog are more than enough for now. We'll probably acquire a new cat once Rex kicks off, which I expect to be sometime reasonably, but then I've been expecting him to kick off for five years now, and he's stubbornly hanging in there, too mean to die. I respect that, personally. It's why he's still my favorite pet.

Anyway, there's your catblogging for today.

Posted by john at 02:22 PM | TrackBack

You Are Here

Here's a link to a video for Sam Bisbee's song You Are Here, off his most recent album, High. It's a pretty clever video, sort of like what you'd come up with if you wanted to do something in the vein of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" but had only $83.25 to work with. Although I'm sure this cost more just in developing fees. The song's pretty good too -- I prefer the live version off his Live at Arlene's Grocery CD, but this one works, too.

Posted by john at 01:25 PM | TrackBack

May 25, 2004

A Speech Too Late


No, I didn't watch it. I've stopped watching Bush speak live on the notion that since every time he speaks he seems like a bored third grader dutifully if uncomprehendingly reciting his line in the class play. I find it so aggravating I can't actually concentrate on what he's saying. So I skip the speechifying and go straight to the transcript. And of course the president's speech looks fine in the transcript, as it always does. The president's speechwriters have created the Platonic ideal of George W. Bush, the one that speaks in plain, common language about big ideas and big truths (which then has to be filtered through the actual Dubya, alas; see above comments about the bored third-grader).

The major problem about the speech as far as I can see is not that it wasn't a fine speech, but it was delivered exactly one year too late. And the real problem is not even that it's a speech made one year too late, but that it's one year too late and the administration doesn't even know it. Calling for the destruction of Abu Ghraib would have been brilliant in May of 2003. In May of 2004, it looks like a large-scale application of Rumsfeld's recent decision to forbid US soldiers to have camera phones: A move rooted more in a desire to negate evidence of wrongdoing rather than wrongdoing itself. By all means, let us destroy Abu Ghraib; it's a hateful place. But how much better it would have been if it could have been destroyed before we had a chance to plaster a fresh coat of hate to the walls ourselves.

(To cut away from the main thrust of this, let's talk for a minute about digital cameras and Iraq. I have been loathe to make any comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, but here's an analogy that works. Digital cameras are to Iraq what television was to Vietnam: The medium through which the folks back home are getting to see images of war the Pentagon doesn't want us to see. The irony here is that the Pentagon had learned the lesson of Vietnam by "embedding" journalists, who happily lapped up the quasi-access. But as the saying go, the problem is the generals are always fighting the last war. They didn't comprehend the damage camera phones could do until it was far too late. Banning camera phones won't work anyway, particularly on a generation of soldiers who spent the last several years with a cell phone attached to their heads everywhere they went.)

Bush and co. have their defenders, many of whom want to accentuate the idea that real progress is being made in Iraq, in the day to day details of Iraqis getting through their lives. This idea is probably true, but the problem with doing things spectacularly wrong is a) it's rather more newsworthy than the "good things" -- which incidentally is not cynicism on the part of the news media any more than covering the damage of a 10-minute tornado instead of 16 straight days of sunshine is cynical -- and b) it lends itself to a formulation of events that is not especially positive for the administration; i.e., that some good things are being done in spite of the administration's monumental incompetence rather than through an intelligible plan. Credit for good things simply does not accrue. No, it's not fair. However, by and large I find it really interesting when this administration or its fans complain about people not being fair.

I've never made a secret of my dislike for the administration, or my opinion that it's incompetent, or that Bush, while not out-and-out stupid, is nevertheless one of the most intellectually incurious Presidents we've ever had (I was saying this three years ago). That's saying something coming from the modern Republican party, which prefers its presidents genial and dim, so they will not impede the actual busy work being done by others.

But for all that I've doubted that Bush would be pried out of the White House in November. The GOP is simply too tenacious and skilled for that; any organization that can take George W. Bush, an Ivy League millionaire son of an Ivy League millionaire -- a man who might not be able to pronounce "nepotism" but has surely benefited from it -- and pass him off as a man for the NASCAR crowd is not an organization without skills. I've been fully expecting Four More Years for the last three, and given my own utter lack of enthusiasm for Kerry -- me, a fellow who would rather dive into a wood chipper than vote for Bush -- I'm still not ready to breathe easy on the matter.

Even so, and even considering the impressive strength of the GOP Reality Distortion Shield, there comes a time when even the best efforts of the spin masters can't hide the incompetence. Let me put it this way: Bush has messed up the Iraq war so badly that he's lost Tom Clancy. When someone like Tom Clancy is sitting there saying "good men make mistakes" in reference to Bush, think of how many of his readers -- generally not tree-huggers -- he's just enabled to make the same judgment (Clancy has even less kind things to say about some of Bush's advisors). These people aren't necessarily going to go out and vote for Kerry -- God forbid they should vote for an actual veteran and commander of men, you know -- but that doesn't mean they're going to vote for Bush.

That's what Bush needs to be scared of. The speech last night was designed to shore up the support of the people who are supposed to vote for Bush anyway; I don't know if it's going to work. It's a year late and $200 billion short, and thanks to those digital cameras, Americans already know the worst of what that time and money has bought us, and given us an inkling of what how much more we're going to have to pay for it before it's all over.

In reality, Bush isn't campaigning against John Kerry. He's campaigning against the Bush his speechwriters have created: The Platonic Bush, the Ideal Bush, the one of simple strong words and big ideas, the Bush we keep being assured is there. Well, he's not there. The Bush we've got is the flickering shadow on the cave wall, the one that fades with the harsh light of reality. Again, the tragedy for Bush is not that he's campaigning against a better version of himself, but that he doesn't even know it.

Update: Wired News reports that the "banning camera phones" is a rumor, so that's good. Interestingly, however, Secretary Rumsfeld's comment about the camera phones makes the point I made above:

While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may not have signed a ban on new consumer digital-imaging technologies, he did express clear concern about the unforeseen impact of such technologies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 7.

"People are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon," Rumsfeld said.

Posted by john at 05:05 PM | TrackBack

May 24, 2004

Bye-Bye IndieCrit

I've decided to stop updating IndieCrit, not because I'm bored with doing it -- I like finding music that other people haven't heard before -- but for the simple fact that hardly anyone visits it. In the average week, it lags behind the visitors to the Whatever by about a multiple of 30. Since the whole point of doing IndieCrit is to spotlight cool indie music, it doesn't make much sense to sequester off the music in a corner of the Scalzi.com empire to which people don't actually travel.

So what I'll be doing from this point forward is to take the music I find interesting and put it on the Whatever proper. Ideally I'll put something up on a daily basis, but realistically (particularly in the next couple of weeks, with a mess of work as well as some travel on my part) I'll put up something two or three times a week. It'll benefit me, since I will no longer feel terribly guilty if I skip a day, and I figure it'll benefit the indie artists, since presumably more people might sample their wares.

Having said that, here's today's: Sunset Drive, by The Speeds (their latest EP is here). It's a slow song by a band who clearly usually rocks faster. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

Posted by john at 01:56 PM | TrackBack

Author Appearance

Let me put on my author hat for a second: I'll be at Book Expo America -- that's a huge annual publishing industry thing in Chicago -- on the 5th and 6th of June (I'll actually be flying in on the 4th, but it'll be fairly late and then I have to check in and have dinner with my publishers, so it's not like I'll see anyone). What's more, I'll be doing an author appearance and signing books on June 5th from 10am to 12pm at the Portable Press booth (booth #3840). The book I'll be signing is the first Book of the Dumb.

I'm not entirely clear on whether the Expo is open to the public (I'm pretty sure you need to be at least tangentially related to the book industry) but if you're planning to go, you know where I'll be at least part of the time. I do expect I'll do some wandering about the Expo -- we're talking thousands or books and hundreds of authors, which seems like a fun way to spend a day or two -- so if you're attending and want to meet up or something, shoot over an e-mail and let's see if we can coordinate.

Posted by john at 12:13 PM | TrackBack

May 22, 2004

Other Whatevers

Look at this: There are at least two other blogs named Whatever. Here's one, and here's the other. Interestingly, I haven't found another blog or online journal (or whatever) by someone named "Scalzi." Lots of people writing online named John, of course.

Posted by john at 11:24 PM | TrackBack

May 21, 2004

Your insufferably Cute Athena Moment For the Day

Work, work, work for me today, so no long screeds about writing or marriage or politics or whatever. Instead I'll pass along a cute moment between me and Athena, when we were in the car and I was playing one of my CDs. Athena, who does enjoy her music, piped up and made a new request, which was "Wouldn't it Be Nice" by the Beach Boys.

"I didn't think you liked that song," I said to her.

"I do," she said. "The part that goes 'wouldn't it be nice to live together' is so beautiful and sad that it breaks my heart."

Brian Wilson should be as proud as I am.

See y'all later.

Posted by john at 12:20 PM | TrackBack

Double Posts

I'm noting quite a few more double posts in comments recently, which probably has something to do with the fact that in the last week or so it seems like the comments pop-up is taking more time to upload the comment -- and in some cases may not give an indication the comment has been uploaded at all. I don't know why this is happening, but I'll see if I can figure it out.

In the meantime: If you've commented but aren't given any indication that the comment has uploaded after a reasonable amount of time, do this before you press the "post" button again: Reload the main Whatever page to see if the number of comments on the entry has gone up by one or click on the timestamp for the entry to go to the archived page, which has all the comments following, including (hopefully) the one you just added.

If you don't see evidence of your post going through, go ahead and hit post again, of course.

Also, if you do accidentally doublepost, don't feel you have to add in an additional post apologizing for the double post. I assume they're accidental and won't hold them against you, much.

Posted by john at 11:20 AM | TrackBack

May 20, 2004

Someone Who Wouldn't Benefit From Tips For Stupid Criminals

Oooh, how embarrassing: I wrote up one of my Book of the Dumb entries and accidentally put it up here instead of the Book of the Dumb blog. Well, I guess if you had an RSS feed you might have seen the whole thing, but the rest of you will have to wait. It's been expunged. Sorry. Go back about your lives; nothing to see here.

Posted by john at 11:47 PM | TrackBack

Todd Pierce Responds

Because I'm a firm believer in not saying anything to anyone's back that you won't say to their front, I e-mailed Todd Pierce (the fellow whose very bad cover letter advice I wrote about here and Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote about here) to let him know he was being whacked upon. Here is his reply in full:

Hey,

It'd be great if you could post this on the various newsboards of which
you are a member.

My basic advice is this: do whatever it takes to give yourself the courage
and permission to put your work in the mail when you, as an author, feel
your work is finished. Is it foolish to claim your work has appeared in
Plowshares, The New Yorker, GQ, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review
when in fact has not? Yes, of course it is. No doubt. You will be
caught, called out, and look foolish. And if anyone is curious, I've
never lied on any cover letter I've written. But if creating a very small
literary review with your friends, naming it, and then, in some sense,
"publishing" it, helps give you the courage to send your work out on a
larger scale, do it. No editor is going to publish a book simply because
a short story appeared in a very small journal of which you are an editor.
But might an editor look at the sample pages? Maybe. Possibly. In my
world, everything depends on the quality of the writing, the clarity of the
story. There is no substitute for this. But if there are people out there
who don't think that dirty deals--of insider favors, etc.--don't go down
on a daily basis in New York publishing, you are foolish and haven't been
following publishing closely at all. One of my greatest pains in life is
the realization of the sheer number of insider publishing contracts inked
in New York where the books published depend on favors and friendships,
not on the quality of the writing in question. Work on your writing.
Love your stories, your characters. Write the best damn novels you can.
And then do what you can so that these novels will have a life in the real
world.

Hope that helps,
Todd

It was good of Pierce to respond, and for that I thank him. Now, of course, I'll offer my thoughts.

What he's saying here is different than what he was saying in his tips for cover letters: He's not saying to lie about your publishing track record (which is good), he's saying to go ahead and start a literary review of your own that also just happens to publish your work (and the work of your friends). I don't think it's a bad thing to start one's own literary review -- I encourage it, if you really plan to do it, which means fearlessly critiquing each other's work and opening up submissions outside your circle of pals and also keeping at it for a year or more. But if the literary review in question lasts exactly one issue and has only one story and a circulation of your small circle of friends, it's not really a literary review, now is it. At best, it's something akin to a writing workshop for you and your pals and at worst it's just a cynical literary circle jerk.

And you really are doing it only for you. And as a practical matter, these teeny tiny credits one sees fit to manufacture are of questionable value to a professional editor. Speaking as a former pro editor, when I didn't personally know of a market in which someone claimed to be published, I assigned it a value of zero, i.e., listing it made no more or less difference than if the writer noted he or she was previously unpublished. I can't speak for other editors, but I suspect most feel the same; they have a solid grip on the markets, large and small, that matter for their own place of publication, and if your created market isn't one them, then for the purposes of the editor the value of your having been "published" there is negligible.

And as TNH noted, listing your own personally-created literary review can actually hurt:

If your manuscript is sufficiently interesting to make me want to know more about you, or if I catch a whiff of BS while reading your letter, it’s the work of a moment to type “Martha Green Award” or “West Coast Fiction Review” into Google. Real awards and publications will turn up dozens or hundreds or thousands of hits. If I don’t see that evidence, my willingness to have anything to do with you or your manuscript will plummet. I’ll cease to believe without hard documentary proof that any of your other claims are legit, including your claim to have written the work in hand. Unless you’ve written a book so awesome that its manuscript glows in the dark, you are now more trouble than you’re worth. Furthermore, your name will be remembered.

I'm all for ginning up confidence to submit material, but here's the thing: You don't practice for your driving test by constructing a car out of cardboard boxes and pretending to drive down the road. You certainly won't convince the driving instructor you've been on the road. Creating a fake literary journal is very much like creating a cardboard car, and like a cardboard car it doesn't actually ever get you anywhere, and is unlikely to get you what you want.

If you want to gain confidence in your writing and submissions, do something practical: Get into a workshop, create a blog or online journal where people you don't know can see your work and comment on it (even if the comments are negative), and submit to small but legitimate publications you won't be crushed to be rejected by, but which will be of actual value if your work is accepted.

To sum up: As a practical matter, listing fake or quasi-fake credits on a cover letter is unlikely to do you any good and might in fact have an opposite effect. Personally, I'd list only pro credits -- i.e., publications where you got paid in some form. Additionally, creating quasi-fake credits may give you a short-term psychological boost but ultimately is unlikely to be of real use to you as a writer. You're wasting your time with unconstructive confidence-builders as opposed to constructive ones.

From the letter, it's clear that Pierce believes that the publishing game is rigged in favor of people who know people, who are (in this context) the luckiest people in the world: "if there are people out there who don't think that dirty deals--of insider favors, etc.--don't go down on a daily basis in New York publishing, you are foolish and haven't been following publishing closely at all."

Well, you know. Yes, some people get work through the fact that they know someone. This is true of all fields: Replace "New York publishing" with "Hollywood filmmaking" or "Nashville songwriting" or "Silicon Valley VC funding" or "DC lobbying" or even "Florida vote-counting" and it still works marvelously well. Some people get where they are by knowing people.

But some people don't. Some people get where they are by their work being good. I never deny that I have been extraordinarily lucky in my career to date, but that luck has to a very great extent been predicated on the work I've done. I didn't know anyone at the Fresno Bee when it hired me to become its movie critic; I got the job because they could see my work was good. My non-fiction agent sought me out because he liked my work; I had no one introduce me. I started getting work from AOL because people there saw my writing online; for the first year I did work for them, they had no idea what I looked like. My work got me my gig as National Music Writer for MediaOne -- another example of working with people I never actually met. My work there in turn got me my gig at Official PlayStation Magazine, because an editor there liked my writing; I didn't actually meet him face-to-face for a couple of years. My work -- not connections -- got me through the door with the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader people, for whom who I do the Book of the Dumb series. My writing landed me the two-book deal at Tor; before Tor made the offer, I could not have picked either Patrick or Teresa Nielsen Hayden from a line-up, and I'm sure the converse was also true.

There have been times where my personal connections paid off in work, sure. But it's been more of the case that it was the writing. As it is with any number of writers; I'm lucky, but I don't think my story in its broad strokes is ultimately that unusual.

Point here is: Even if publishing is peppered with insider dealing (or whatever), if you have talent and you do the work, you have a good chance. Not a sure deal. But even all those "insiders" don't have that -- personal connections will get you work one time, but if you can't back it up with the work, well, then you're going to get shown the door. Who you know is ultimately inferior to what you can do. I believe it, because that's what's worked for me.

Todd Pierce and I agree you should do what you can to be confident and to get your work out there. What we disagree is on what is useful and practical, and that, I believe, is predicated on our different perspectives on publishing. He sees it as a place where the personal supersedes the professional; in my experience it's been the opposite. Of course, we may both be right. Publishing is a big field; it looks different from where you stand. If you're starting off as a writer, what you want to ask yourself is which of these perspectives (among all the rest) best suits how you want to approach your career.

Obviously, I think you should lean toward mine. It's more fun. And less likely to trip you up in your cover letter.

Posted by john at 11:47 AM | TrackBack

May 19, 2004

Book Cover

So, this is what you'll be looking at when Old Man's War comes out later this year:

Very classically science-fictiony, no? And I mean that in the good way, not in the bad "breasty heaving centaur-women" sort of way. The artist, incidentally, is Donato Giancola, who everyone tells me I was lucky to get, and of course I agree. He's worked on books by Steven Brust, Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Heinlein, and Mike Resnick among many other authors far more published than I. I don't mind having this in common with them.

I'd actually seen the artwork before and as I noted then, it was interesting to look at because for the first time I had could see what my main character actually looked like. Didn't have that before. I think he looks pretty good. Not exactly sure who the people in the background are supposed to be, but mentally I've assigned the the roles of two of the book's characters. The only thing I'm slightly confused about is the presence of what looks to be an unlit lightsaber on my guy's belt. I'm not complaining. I want a lightsaber; I assume my character does too. Who wouldn't?

Overall, very pleased. I'll be even more pleased when I have a copy of the artwork in my hands, wrapped around a book. Patience. Patience.

Posted by john at 05:42 PM | TrackBack

Cover Letters

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has unsheathed her mighty Hammer of Editorial Whackination and is applying it liberally to one Todd James Pierce, a writer who has issued what TNH believes (and I for one concur) is some spectacularly bad advice on the topic of cover letters. Among the very bad advice: Lie about your writing credits, and be sure to accompany your submission with a phone call.

If you're a writer or would like to be one, I commend you to TNH's dissection of all that is truly stupid about this advice (her posting also has a link to the bad advice in question). The reason you should trust TNH on this and not Mr. Pierce is simple: TNH is one of the people cover letters get sent to. Her husband Patrick concurs that Pierce's advice is bad (with the immortal line: "This is stupid. I now have stupid all over me") and as he's Senior Editor of Tor Books, that's two veteran front-line cover letter readers against one somewhat deluded cover letter writer.

TNH's evisceration is complete enough that I'll not replicate her efforts here, but I do want to call out the one piece of "advice" from Pierce that I think is well-near criminally wrong, excerpted below:

Tip Four: Still worried? Never published anything? Lie a little. Yes, lie. A cover letter is a persuasive document designed to do one thing: entice an editor or agent to read your manuscript. Say whatever you have to, within reason, to accomplish this.

Uh, no.

First reason, as TNH notes: There's this thing. It's called Google. It allows an editor to fact-check your ass in 30 seconds or less. Now, it's understandable that Pierce may not have heard of it -- this whole InterWeb thingy is new-fangled and all -- but be assured that whatever editor you're attempting to scam has.

Second reason: It assumes editors are incompetent, which -- surprise! -- by and large they are not. If you don't think an editor knows all the major and most of the minor writing awards applicable to his or her genre, you're an idiot. Here's what's going to happen if I submit a manuscript to a science fiction house and note on my cover letter that I am the recipient of the prestigious William Booth Award for Science Fiction Writing, which doesn't exist. First, the editor is going to say, I don't know this award. Then there's the quick Googlefest to confirm the William Booth Award has been pulled out of my ass. And then there's the sound of my manuscript getting plonked, because why would an editor want to work with someone whose very first communication was full of lies.

Third reason: It's disrespectful. In this particular case, what you're saying to an editor is you're stupid enough to fall for this, and conversely I'm clever enough to pull this off. You're probably wrong, and if you're right, you won't be right forever. Read TNH's comment threads and you'll note that literary types and the people around them don't need much of an excuse to pull out their knives. Also, of course, and apropos to point number eight here, people never forget people who disrespect them. Lie to an editor, and for the rest of their life, any time your name pops up in their consciousness, it comes with a sticky note attached, one that says Big Fat Liar. Also, it's a small business. Word gets around.

As for the "make a phone call," let me tell you a story. When I was an editor, I specified no phone calls. So on the rare occasion that someone did call to follow up, what I would do is chat with them amiably and then when I was off the phone I would go and find their submission and stuff it into the SASE and send it back unread. Because they failed. You must follow directions. That's why they're called "directions." I had and most editors have hundreds of submissions from people who have followed directions. All of them deserve more consideration than someone who can't or won't.

Both of these examples of "advice" go to the heart of why much of Pierce's advice is rotten: It's not actual advice, it's a list of tricks designed to game the system -- to cheat your way through. Well, as a writer, here's the thing to know about the editorial submission system: It's not designed for you. It's designed for the editors, to make their jobs easier. Is it fair? No, but so what? The editors are the gateways to money and publication. It's their ball, bat and field. They set the rules, and if you want to play, you have to play by their rules. It's simple.

Every attempt you make to game the system makes the editor's job harder. In the entire history of the world, no one has ever wanted to work with someone who makes their job harder. Sometimes they will, if the reward is substantial enough. But in the case of writing, you gotta remember: It's a buyer's market. Sure, you're brilliant. But there's a guy over here who is brilliant and who doesn't make the editor's job harder. Guess which one the editor is going to go with.

Here's how I would write a cover letter for a manuscript. Assume, please, that usual addresses and contact information are attached, and that I have done the research to know the name of the editor and the submission policy (which in this case we can assume has said to send the entire manuscript):

Dear [Editor's Name]:

Hi there. I'm John Scalzi. Enclosed you'll find the manuscript for [name of book], a novel. It is approximately 98,000 words. I've also included a chapter synopsis.

I'm a full-time writer and author of fiction and non-fiction books. My most recent novels are Old Man's War (Tor Books, 2004) and The Android's Dream (Tor, 2005).

I've enclosed an SASE for your comments. Please feel free to recycle the manuscript.

Best,

John Scalzi

And that's pretty much it. I'm a big believer that the cover letter exists to present minimal factual information that doesn't go out of its way to prejudice the reader concerning the actual manuscript. It says who I am, what I've sent, my relevant track record, and how to get hold of me. That's all it needs to do.

What if I didn't have previous publication? I imagine I'd say "this is my first novel" and be done with it. Lying won't do me any good (see above) and if it does turn out to be good enough to be published, wouldn't I be covered in the glory of hitting one out of the park the very first time? There's no shame in admitting you're starting out.

Don't lie. Don't be tricksy. And for God's sake don't make an editor's job harder. Be confident that your writing stands on its own merits. Ultimately, if you lie in your cover letter, what you're really saying is that what you've written isn't good enough to make it on its own. It's a bad message to send to editors. It's a bad message to send to yourself.

Posted by john at 08:27 AM | TrackBack

May 18, 2004

Sorry

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the latest tactic some doctors and hospitals are using to bring down the costs of lawsuits and insurance: Saying "I'm Sorry" and actually meaning it (here's a link to the story outside of the WSJ.com site). It seems that if people think you're genuinely sorry for screwing up, they're less inclined to sue the pants off you -- and also (or so the article would make it seem) even if they do sue, juries are less inclined to award massive damages. This tactic, of course, runs counter to the long-established "never apologize" doctrine which states that any admission of wrong-doing is an invitation to a big fat lawsuit.

The problem with the "never apologize" doctrine for me is what it assumes: that most people are venal moneygrubbers who rejoice in malpractice because it means they finally get to graduate from the doublewide. What doctors and hospitals in the story are finding out is something that's obvious to anyone who lives in the real world: People care less about money than they care about respect and truth. Fact is, you don't apologize to people you don't respect -- we're talking a real apology here, not the pro forma "I'm sorry that some people felt distressed" sort of apology that makes the rounds (which is somewhat more insulting than no apology at all, since it implies that the person is sorry you're an idiot for wanting an apology). When a doctor or hospital doesn't apologize for legal reasons, the psychological message people get is: We don't respect you (and there's nothing you can do about it). I doubt there's a better way to get most people to lawyer up than not to show them the respect they think they are due.

This is true in other ways as well. Over the last ten years I've been pulled over several times by cops for driving like a bat out of Hell; I've been ticketed exactly once. It's certainly not because I'm a hot chesty little number in a tight t-shirt. I'm pretty sure it's because, when they ask "Do you know why I stopped you?" I say "Probably because I was speeding. You got me. Write me up." I think they're simply so delighted I don't try to pull the "my speedometer isn't working" routine or otherwise lamely avoid responsibility, or treat them like a jerk because they did their job and caught me violating a law that they reward me with a stern warning and let me go about my business. Heck, even the guy who did write me up thanked me for being honest.

I'll give you another example. About twice a year we need to have shingles replaced on our roof -- we live in a windy place and a few of them go flying every time there's a particularly big wind. We've used various contractors and the service ranges, as does the price. I was here when the most recent contractor drove up in his truck, and I was frankly delighted to see that he had one of those beards generally associated with the Amish.

The guy was a Mennonite, and the SOP for a Mennonite is: If we don't do a job to your satisfaction, we'll keep at it until we get it right. It's part of their ethos and so deeply ingrained into it that Mennonite (and Amish) home contractors aren't required to show proof of liability insurance by the state of Ohio. So I was reasonably assured right off that the fellow would do a good job and would also not try to rip me off (correct on both counts, as it happens). And I knew if something did go wrong, he wouldn't try to duck responsibility. He'd say sorry and he would make the good faith effort (literal on his part) to make it right. That works for me -- and I'm pretty sure I'll have him work for me again too.

Are we on the precipice of a new age of American responsibility, where people routinely say "I'm sorry" and mean it? I doubt it. I'd be happy to be proven wrong, though. And I wouldn't be sorry for that.

Posted by john at 12:12 PM | TrackBack

May 17, 2004

Just Checking

Me: So, gays and lesbians have had the right to marry in Massachusetts for more than twelve hours. How's our marriage doing?

Krissy: (Pause) Does the statement beforehand have anything to do with the question?

Me: Well, you know, some people think that gays and lesbians being able to be married threatens marriage. I just wanted to check, you know, to see if our marriage was in danger. Is it?

Krissy: No. Not unless you do something really stupid.

Me: So you're saying you haven't felt the waves of threatenation emanating from Massachusetts.

Krissy: I did not feel a ripple. Had I not watched the news or read your Whatever I wouldn't have even known.

Me: So, what you're saying is that you still love me.

Krissy: The mostest.

Posted by john at 01:08 PM | TrackBack

A Quick Note to About-To-Be Married Gays and Lesbians

I have married nine people. One of them I am married to; the other eight I have married to each other (two at a time). So I have some experience on the whole wedding and marriage thing. Please allow me the honor of sharing some of it with you.

Remember to breathe.

It's all right if you stumble over words during the vows, but don't screw up the name of your spouse.

If you feel yourself crying, go with it, but remember to sniffle strategically -- tears are endearing in a wedding ceremony, a runny nose less so.

Don't lock your knees.

The old saying that if the ring gets jammed as you slip it on it means it'll be a troubled marriage is a contemptible lie, so don't let it worry you. But strategic use of talcum powder wouldn't hurt.

You will almost certainly have trouble focusing on anything but the face of your beloved during the ceremony; that's why there's a third person up there to direct traffic.

Even if you've written your own vows, you'll barely remember what you say. So don't sweat most of the words. It's the "I do" that counts.

Speaking of which, I think it's always better to say "I do" than "I will." You're going to be married in the future, but you're getting married now.

But remember, it's your wedding. Anyone else's opinion about what the two of you should do or say during the ceremony is strictly advisory.

When you're told to kiss your spouse, do it like you mean it.

Be aware that this last piece of advice will be almost entirely unnecessary.

When you plan your wedding, try to cover all contingencies. When the one thing you forgot could go wrong does go wrong during the wedding itself, accept it and keep going. Weddings are often imperfect, like the people in them. It doesn't mean they're not still absolutely wonderful (like the people within them).

Before the ceremony, pee early and often. I know. But look, you want to be up there with a full bladder? You'll be nervous enough.

Some people don't think you should invite your exes to the wedding. But I think it's not such a bad thing to have one person in the crowd slightly depressed that they let you get away. They'll get over it at the reception. Trust me.

There will not be nearly enough time at the reception to spend all the time you want with all the people you want to. They'll understand and will be happy for the time you can spare them.

Smashing wedding cake into each other's face is strictly amateur hour.

It's your best man's (or the equivalent's) job to remind people that at a wedding reception, as at the Academy Awards, speeches are best very short. You didn't spend an obscene amount on the catering just to have it grow cold as Uncle Jim blathers on.

Remind the DJ or band that they work for you, and they'll damn well play anything you want. For some reason I think this may be less of a problem at gay weddings. Thank God.

There will be drama of some sort at the reception. If the wedding party lets any of it reach the newlyweds, they haven't done their job.

Don't fill up on bread. You'll have to dance later.

The first dance should be a song people expect from you. The second dance should be a song they absolutely don't. It gets things going.

Try to remember as much as you can. Don't worry if you don't; what you absolutely will remember is how it feels to be with those who love you, who are pouring their love and happiness over you. Weddings are testimony to your clan of family and friends. You put them on to give them a chance to share your joy. They come to them to remind you that they already do.

In case this is in any way an issue, let someone else clean up the reception hall. You have better things to do on your wedding night.

There are very few things in the world that are better than the very first time you wake up next your spouse.

In some ways, your marriage will be like every other marriage out there. In other ways, of course, it won't. Those of us who are married now will certainly offer you advice, whether you ask for it or not. But there are some things where you'll be the first married people to experience them. In some ways, those of us who are married now will be glad we don't have to go through them. In other ways, we're deeply envious.

Marriage is work. It never stops being work. It never should.

I'll be married nine years next June 17th. During all that time, there hasn't been a single day where I haven't said "I love you" to my spouse -- several times if at all possible. The two facts are related.

Other short phrases which also occasionally come in handy: "I'm sorry," "You're right," "I'll get that" and "Of course I'll go down to the freezer and get you some ice cream, even though it's 3am and you woke me from a dead sleep. There's nothing I'd rather do." Okay, so that last one is not that short. Think about all the times you're entirely unreasonable, and then go get the ice cream.

The thing about marriages -- even the really good ones -- is that human beings are in them. And you know how people are. Keep it in mind.

I have no advice to give you for the people who have decided that your marriage threatens their own. Only remember that some of us out here would wish to give you the strength to endure them.

I cannot speak for all married people, but I can speak for myself. Marriage has been so good to me that I cannot imagine not sharing it with anyone who wants it. I celebrate your weddings, and I offer the greatest gift I have: That you receive in your married life the joy I have had in mine, and that you share that joy, every day, with an open and loving heart. You're about to be married. There is nothing better.

To those about to be married: Welcome, friends. It's good to have you here.

Posted by john at 12:00 AM | TrackBack

May 16, 2004

Counteracting the Bloody Toe

All right, apparently the picture of my bloody stubbed toe caused a pregnant woman to toss her cookies and to swear off visiting the site for a few days until she was sure the offending toe had moved far enough down the queue that she wouldn't see it first thing. Well, of course, the last thing I wanted to do was to make people vomit -- it's just an unexpected side benefit. Be that as it may, many apologies, although I have to admit that I'm pleased it's not the prose that makes you sick to your stomach.

With the specific intent of moving the bloody toe picture down the picture queue, please accept these three photos of Athena at play:

Plus, sufficient white space to push the toe down even further:
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There, that should about do it.

Posted by john at 04:56 PM | TrackBack

May 15, 2004

The Perils of Hide and Seek


Don't ever let them tell you there's such a thing as a friendly game of hide and seek. There are no friends in Hide and Seek. There is just hunter and quarry. If you're not one, you're the other. And if you're the prey, you should expect to get bloody.

Alternately, if you're going to hide behind a door, as I did, make sure your toe is not jammed up against the door, so that when your wife pushed the door back without knowing you're there, you don't get your toenail ripped off. Either way, I ignored both these sage pieces of advice, and look at me now: Wounded! I guess this will be what I call my "old sports injury."

Here are Athena and Krissy admiring the wound:

The subtext being: Let's see how bad we can hurt him next time! No, I'm not paranoid. When we play Hide and Seek around here, we play for keeps.

Posted by john at 01:34 PM | TrackBack

Feed Me

Anyone who thinks writing a blog or journal is like feeding an ever-gaping mouth should try writing a book on a very short deadline. The Book of the Dumb 2 is on just such a deadline -- it's due in a couple of months -- and so that means that that in order to finish it, one must be both relentless and methodical. Relentless in the sense that each day and every day, I need to crank out five entries (which is 2,000 words, more or less).

Methodical in that the schedule needs to be adhered to; excepting an official holiday like my birthday, any day I write fewer than five entires, those entries need to be picked up on another day. Thursday I didn't write any entries -- I had errands to run and it's Krissy's school night, so I had to keep Athena amused -- and yesterday (Friday) I only did five (although I finished up the last two after midnight), so I need to pick up the other five over the weekend, probably by doing seven entries one day and eight the next. The good news, as I noted before, is that 2004 appears to be a bumper crop year for stupidity, so I'm not lacking in topics.

The issue is not one of creativity, it's one of mechanics. I'm having fun with the book -- it's hard not to, given the subject -- but no matter how you slice it, 2,000 words a day is a grind. I enjoy writing the entries once I begin, but I procrastinate something fierce before I start. This is why the last two Friday pieces actually got written after midnight on Saturday.

What's the upside? Well, in two weeks I've written 60 entries, and 22,000 words. Another 60 in the next two weeks (which is actually less than five entries a day, but never mind that for the moment) with a similar word count and then suddenly half the book is done. Another month of that, and then I'll still have a month to do tweaking of content and some special targeted entries. And still be able to take a week off to depressurize (which will be important, believe me). It's doable, and it's not too hard from the creative writing standpoint. But it means sticking to a schedule.

And after that? Well, then right off to other projects (although I will probably take an additional few days off at the very end to sleep). In addition to the gaping maw of this book, there's the gaping maw of life, which must be fed. That's my job around here: Feeding the maws. Most of the time, there are worse gigs.

Posted by john at 01:20 AM | TrackBack

May 14, 2004

Meet the New Toy

I went out and bought myself a new digital camera yesterday: A Kodak EasyShare DX4530, photographed here by the Olympus Camedia C-21 which it is replacing. Which almost seems cruel, doesn't it. Like the guy who's being laid off being made to train the new guy who's taking his job. Fortunately, they're objects, without sense and feeling, and anyway, as I noted over at By The Way, the Olympus is destined for Athena duty, since we already know she likes playing with the camera. I can't say that we're frugal here in the Scalzi household, but we're definitely "waste not, want not."

I was hesitant about the Kodak at first, more or less for the same reason I don't like shopping at Sears; it seems like the last century's brand name. But it it was well-reviewed, reasonably priced ($300, which is what I bought the Olympus for about four years ago), and it had a nice range of features yet provided me the ability not to do anything but snap pictures if that's what I wanted (and it is; I'm not the guy who is sitting there fiddling with f-stops). Also, it uses AA batteries and a non-proprietary storage system, which recommended it over other cameras in the same price and tech range. The camera has a 5 megapixel resolution, which considering that nearly every picture I have gets cropped and resized, is more than I probably need on a day to day basis. I in fact currently have it set for the "medium" 3.1 Mp resolution, since it allows a nice balance between number of pictures on the memory card and picture detail. I won't be printing posters of my shots, after all. But's nice to have.

I'm pretty pleased with the camera so far, particularly in its color reproduction; the Olympus would be a little washed out, but the Kodak hits it. For example, the trees outside my house really are this shade of green:

So it's nice not to have to fiddle with a picture in Photoshop to get it closer to correct. I'm still trying to figure out the various quirks of the thing, mostly having to do with exposure and focus, but it's got a pretty shallow learning curve. I'll get it.

One thing I did not buy the camera for but which I can tell will be something I am going to use is its ability to record moving pictures (it has a little built-in microphone, so you can have sound, too, but it's not exactly super high quality). I surprised Krissy when she came home last night with a little film of Athena saying all the reasons why she loved mommy, which was so cute that Krissy didn't even ask what I paid for the camera. I don't have any illusions as to where Athena gets her manipulation super powers, you know. Anyway, I expect to take lots of little movies of my little girl. Don't worry, I won't inflict them upon you.

Should you expect more pictures now? No, just expect them to look marginally better. See, I'm all about customer service.

Posted by john at 02:07 PM | TrackBack

May 13, 2004

Evaluating Stupidity

As most of you know, I'm spend a lot of my time recently banging out The Book of the Dumb 2 ("Now with 30% extra stupidity!"), and I imagine as most of you suspect, the task is not especially onerous, since there's a whole world of stupidity out there. The hard part is not finding stupidity to write about, the hard part is choosing what not to write about.

To give you an example of this, let me recount for you today's stupidity selections (as of around noon today -- yes, this is just in the first twelve hours of a 24 hour period), and tell you which of these I'm like to write up today and why. The rest will not be thrown away; no, they'll be stored in a stupidity archive, if you will, into which I can go if for some unfathomable reason there comes a day that has hardly any stupidity in it. This doesn't seem likely, however.

Also be aware that a) these are selections from just one of my stupidity harvesting stops -- they're from FARK.com, which to my mind is probably the best Web site ever, for me, because of these books. However, I have other sources I also hit, just not yet today; and b) these are the selections after I've thrown out quite a few other similar stories that I can't use. For example, the story about how two Ukrainian soldiers caused three-quarters of a billion dollars in damages by smoking in an ammunition dump (it has people dying, and the BotD books cede the "stupid and dead" arena to the Darwin Awards).

Okay? Here's today's stupidity harvest, so far:

Beermats explain EU to Welsh drinkers
Concept: Welsh people woefully ignorant about EU, so try to get them to read about it when they're drunk.
Use It: Oh, yeah. However, this will the third EU story I've written up so far; unless I'm planning a whole section on EU stupidity (which isn't a bad idea, actually), this is the last one.

Globe caught with pants down: Paper duped into running porn photos
Concept: The Boston Globe runs pictures of what they thought were Iraqi prison atrocities; actually, it's just staged porn.
Use It: Maybe -- On one hand, it's always amusing when the media does something really stupid; on the other hand, the Iraq prison atrocities are still not funny, and may continue to not be funny through September-October, which is when the book comes out.

'I Want You': Love Letters To Student Land Teacher In Trouble
Concept: Female teacher writes male student love letters, which are discovered in his locker.
Use It: Maybe, but probably not. To be sexist about it, it's the fact the teacher is female and the student male that makes it usable; it's kind of creepy and sad, but if the sexes were reversed it'd only be creepy and sad. I'll store it and see if any better sex-related stories come around, which they almost certainly will.

Coffins mixed up
Concept: Undertakers bring the wrong coffin to a funeral; funeral delayed an hour as they go back to get the right one.
Use It: Oh, yeah. Bringing the wrong coffin to a funeral is classic stupidity.

Man Says Tornado Made Him Try To Kill
Concept: Man uses a "Twinkie Defense," only in this case the Twinkie is a rampaging cyclone.
Use It: Maybe. The case isn't settled yet, and it'd be better to see how it turns out. The good news here is that the murder here is only attempted, and therefore I can use it.

Woman Commutes for Welfare Benefits
Concept: Women pretends to live in San Francisco to get city's comparatively generous welfare package, but actually commutes from Lake Tahoe to get take her appointments.
Use It: Probably, since there's a point to be made that all the effort and initiative the woman is making to secure a few extra bucks from Welfare could have been probably better used to get, you know, a job.

'Pirates' may lose some loot
Concept: Teenage kids posing as pirates walk in a kiddie parade as a prank; are cited and charged $100 each.
Use It: Eh. Maybe. It's definitely B-list material.

Bourbon sold in soft drink can
Concept: Four year old thinks she's drinking a Pepsi, but there's actually a Jim Beam and Cola mix. A screw-up at the factory.
Use It: Sure. You can never go wrong with corporate stupidity that involves getting a preschooler wasted (so long as the preschooler is not actually seriously injured, and this one was not).

Man leads officers to his own pot plants
Concept: Man, fearing hallucinated intruders, calls cops who can't help but notice his agricultural enthusiasms.
Use It: Duh. Of course. Don't do drugs, kids!

"Dead" Fugitive Found In California
Concept: Wanted man fakes his own death, but can't change his fingerprints.
Use it: Probably. This is a good "Tips For Stupid Criminals" story.

A Failing Grade For "Friends"
Concept: NBC Research report from 1994 says the sitcom Friends isn't funny.
Use It: You bet. It's timely and it's also correct in its details. Well, it is.

Audience Lied to at Reality Show Taping
Concept: Producers making an anti-American Idol tell audience members that the terrible singers they're about to hear all have terminal cancer, so please treat them nicely.
Use It: Absolutely, if only to get in the following comment from an unconvinced audience member: "I said to myself, 'There should be some cancer patients who could actually hold a note.' "

Naughty gnomes made to cover up
Concept: Guy buys naked gnomes; is told to paint clothing on them.
Use it: Possibly. This is one of those that I'd probably have to work myself up in the writing department to really make it fly.

Kid brings mercury to school
Concept: Teen thinks it'd be amusing to show friends a cup of poisonous liquid metal; resulting clean up costs school district $163K.
Use It: Eventually. I just wrote a piece on a kid bringing a live artillery shell to school, though, so I'll probably sit on it for a couple of weeks to think of some new way to write it up.

Lightning Close Tap On Beer Giveaway
Concept: Pro hockey team thinks nothing could go wrong by giving away free beer to season ticket holders; everyone else in Florida disagrees and force the team to change its mind.
Use it: Hockey? Free beer? Florida? How could one not use it?

Just remember: I do this every single day. And some of you wonder why I'm cynical about humanity.

Posted by john at 02:05 PM | TrackBack

Science and God, Part Mumble Mumble Mumble

Via Metafilter (which got it via Boing Boing, which got it via Slashdot), a really fascinating interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno, Curator of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. Among the number of things in the interview is a view of science as it relates to religion and to the appreciation of the universe, a few which is pretty much sums my own opinion why science and religion are not inherently incompatible (I'll use bolding here rather than italics because it's a long quote):

And there's two things going on there. One is the sense that, if God made the universe, and he made it good, and he loved the universe so much that, as the Christians believe, he sent his only son, it's up to us to honor and respect and get to know the universe. I think it was Francis Bacon who said that God sets up the universe as a marvelous puzzle for us to get to know him by getting to know how he did things. By seeing how God created, we get a little sense of God's personality. And that means, among other things not going in with any preconceived notions. We can't impose our idea of how God did things. It's up to us to see how the universe actually does work.

And the other assumption you have to make is that it's worth doing. If your idea, if your religion is to meditate and rise above the physical universe, this corrupting physical universe, you might say, you're not going to be a scientist, you're not going to be interested in Mars. So it's a religious statement to say the physical universe is worth devoting my life to. Seeing how the universe works is worth spending a lifetime doing.

Interestingly (or not, depending on your point of view), this reminds me of something I wrote quite a long time ago now, with a book idea about a man who has lunch with the Devil (or more accurately, a man who claims he is the Devil -- it's not something that gets proven during the course of the book), and the Devil, who claims to be working with God, not against him, explains why humans today will come to know God differently from the way they know God thousands of years ago:

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

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

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

I'm willing to believe such an idea -- that God wants us to explore the universe in order to better understand Him -- has more credibility coming from a Jesuit scientist working from the Vatican than it does coming from the 25-year-old iteration of me who was trying to sell his first book.

(Incidentally, if you want to see the whole sample chapter upon which that bit was based, it's here. I think it's still interesting, although if I were writing it now I might edit it down a little -- or a lot. It's funny what a decade of writing experience will do to your perspective of your own prose.)

In any event, read the interview with Brother Guy. It's well worth your time.

Posted by john at 09:07 AM | TrackBack

DeLay, and the Frat Meme

Someone forwarded me a link to this story noting lawmakers' general horrified reactions, and suggested I take special note of Tom DeLay's reaction to the pictures, which is thus:

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he thought "some people are overreacting."

"The people who are against the war are using this to their political ends," he said.

Well, but that's Tom DeLay for you, isn't it? Tom DeLay is the sort of partisan hack who, if the Devil showed up in his office sporting cash for the GOP, would be on the horn telling the Republican caucus that he heard that Jesus fellow was a goddamn liberal commie who'd get the crap kicked out of him if he ever set foot in Texas.

I don't think DeLay is utterly without the capacity to appreciate the pictures, which he described to the AP (not in this particular story) as "Pretty disgusting ... Looks like someone was trying to put together a porno film or something." (Which makes you winder what porn DeLay's been watching.) However, I don't imagine it even occurred to DeLay to look at those pictures except through the filter of what advantages they afford his enemies, and therefore, how they must be refuted.

The way to test this is to check to see if you really believe that if this had happened in the Clinton era, that DeLay would say the same thing. There'd be about as much chance of that as there is of me sprouting butterfly wings out of my nostrils. Long story short: DeLay's a sad little man, and this is just more of the same from him. Let's move on.

I do note an interesting meme going through the right side of the aisle regarding the torture, which is comparing it to fraternity hazing:

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Houston, said some of the photos were violent, most showed humiliation of the prisoners and some were simply juvenile.

"A number of the photos were just sophomoric like fraternity prank stuff that left you shaking your head, like hazing almost of the prisoners," Brady said.

Rush Limbaugh also ran with the meme, saying "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation." Which of course makes one ask: So they're sodomizing initiates with glow sticks at Yale? Interesting.

Two things going on here: One, someone needs to do a study why the most ready metaphor for torture a GOPer can reach for is a fraternity hazing, because that's gotta mean something. Two, in the case of the Limbaughs of the world, it's an explicit attempt to minimize and infantilize the problem for no other reason than "their side" is under attack, which is a shameful thing to do.

As much as I dislike the general concept of fraternities, I somehow doubt that any of them regularly have initiations where the initiates are anally violated until they bleed (which one of the lawmen reported seeing in the new pictures), or have dogs bite them to the point of severe injuries. And if they do, it's the same as what it is in Iraq: Torture.

Posted by john at 12:25 AM | TrackBack

May 12, 2004

Because I'm a Technical Idiot

Does anyone else out there using the Mozilla Firefox browser have problems viewing Blogspot-based blogs?

The problem I have is that after the first couple of paragraphs all I get is gibberish that looks like this (taken from this blog):

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Sometimes reloading the page works, sometimes it doesn't. I don't have the problem at all in IE. The Firefox version I'm using is 0.8.

Anyone else having this problem? Any ideas as to what might be causing it?

I mean, I don't read that many Blogspot blogs, but that doesn't mean I don't want to read the ones I do. Opening up a separate browser just to look at them is kind of annoying.

Posted by john at 09:40 PM | TrackBack

Iraq Prison Follow-Up

Some various follow-up thoughts on the Iraq prison scandal:

* A reader was wondering what I thought about the comparison (made in this commentary in the NYT by Luc Sante) of how the soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison appear more or less like the white folk in pictures from the first part of the 20th century -- the ones in which they've lynched a black man:

In photographs that were taken and often printed as postcards in the American heartland in the first four decades of the 20th century, black men are shown hanging from trees or light fixtures or maybe being burned alive, while below them white people are laughing and pointing for the benefit of the camera. There are some pictures of whites being lynched, too, but these tend not to feature the holiday crowd. Often the spectators at lynchings of African-Americans are so effusive in their mugging that they all seem to be vying for credit. Before seeing such pictures you might expect the faces in them to express some kind of collective rage; instead the mood is giddy, often verging on hysterical, with a distinct sexual undercurrent.

Sante goes on to make the point that "a fundamental lack of respect for the enemy's body becomes an issue only when the enemy is perceived as being of another race." I don't know that I buy this last assertion, which strikes me as too easy a formulation, unless Sante means "another race" as meaning "not human at all." Which he doesn't, but which for me makes sense. I think it's not unreasonable to suggest that the soldiers of Abu Ghraib dehumanized their charges to the point that they were able to do whatever they felt like doing.

I do think there's a significant difference between the lynching photos Sante references and the photos from Abu Ghraib, although I leave it people with more time for meta analysis to consider. And that is that the lynching photographs tended to be entirely posed (nighttime photography was no small thing in the 1920s). A lot of the Abu Ghraib photos I've seen are of posed scenes (particularly the scenes of sexual humiliation), but the photographs themselves have all the hallmarks of the digital camera era: they have a casual snapshot feel to them. The lynchers formalized their moments of atrocity, but the Abu Ghraib picture takers took photos more opportunistically; I suspect partially because they could (you never run out of film in a digital camera), and partly because it's this generation's film vocabulary. Again, what it means, I'm not entirely sure.

I'm hesitant to directly equate the soldiers in the pictures to the people who lynched other Americans. There's no doubt the lynchers were on the wrong side of the law no matter how you slice it; while I believe the soldiers at Abu Ghraib did morally repugnant things, it's not clear how much was their own initiative and how much was ordered from above. There's an ethical grey area there which deserves further examination. One thing I do find to be an exact analogue: Just as lynchers sometimes made their pictures into postcards, some of these soldiers made their pictures into screensavers.

* I doubt very seriously that the murder of Nicholas Berg was related to the Abu Ghraib prison events in any sense other than opportunistically, i.e., this particular cadre of terrorists saw it as a way to get more publicity for something they were going to do anyway. Also, beheading an American and putting the tape up on the Web shows these guys have a complete lack of understanding of the American psyche. They figured they could ride the wave of disgust to make their point and compound American doubt about our presence in Iraq, but for the average American this goes a long way to counteract the events of Abu Ghraib. The average American, I suspect, values one American life more than an entire prison full of Iraqs who, to use dumbass Senator Inhofe's words, "are not there for traffic violations" (even if some of those in the prison apparently aren't there for any particularly good reason at all). In other words, if you want to make the average American feel better about Abu Ghraib, beheading a civilian American who had nothing to do with it and claiming the act as retaliation is just about the perfect way to do it.

* Back to Inhofe: What a moron. The best counteraction for Inhofe speaking directly from his anus comes from Senator Lindsey Graham, who said: "When you are the good guys, you've got to act like the good guys." This is exactly right. How we treat prisoners is not a reflection of what the prisoners "deserve," it's a reflection of who we see ourselves as being, and I don't want our nation to be what Inhofe is willing to settle for it being. I expect better.

* Aside from Inhofe's gaseous emanations of stupidity, I do think the response on Capitol Hill has largely been correct so far. This is a serious issue that goes to the core of the success of the mission in Iraq; it needs to be taken seriously and it needs to be corrected. It's going to be extremely difficult to overcome, but I think some amount of genuine and public examination and self-flagellation is useful for us and useful for the rest of the world to see. Useful for us in that it allows us to correct our course and have a dialogue on what the hell is actually going on in Iraq -- a dialogue worth having again and again, for roughly the same amount of time that we are in Iraq. Useful for the rest of the world because it shows the part of the American political character that wants get to the bottom of a problem rather than dismiss it or minimize it. It won't matter to the people who genuinely hate the US, quite obviously, but it'll go some way to keeping most other people from total despair.

It would have been better not to have this discussion at all and to have had our prisons in Iraq run competently. But there's no point in going over what would have been better. In the world right now, I think we're doing okay dealing with the aftermath. Congressionally speaking, in any event. Don't get me started on the Executive branch.

Posted by john at 10:14 AM | TrackBack

May 11, 2004

Rant Arrives

My personal copies of Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 -- 2004 arrived today, and I thought I'd display a copy with a thematically appropriate face. Overall it looks pretty nice, although I would say the cover seems susceptible to humidity, so if you decide you'd like a copy of your own, be sure to store it in a cool and dry place. If I've received mine, than some of the folks who bought copies of their own should be getting theirs as well within the next couple of days. Hopefully they will enjoy them. Remember to pick up a copy of your own: They make fine gifts and table balancers.

I should note that looking at the picture above, I'm always a little surprised at how little I look like my mental image of myself. Now, admittedly, when one's face is contorted in mock rage, it's not likely to look like anyone's mental image of one's self (and if it does, there are some fine medications one may wish to consider); however, even when my face is rather less twisted up I don't look like I think I look.

It's not actually a matter of getting older, although I admit my mental image of myself has more hair than I actually do. I also don't think I look bad. I mean, I'm no looker, but I clean up decently. I think it's more about the fact that when I was younger I spent substantially more time looking into a mirror than I do now, so anytime I look at my face today for an extended period it's always mildly surprising.

Having shared with you a picture of myself at my most dweeby, allow me to continue this entry of extreme narcissism by sharing a photo where I think I actually approach looking somewhat cool. My AOL overlords wanted a couple new pictures of me and specifically asked for a couple with me in sunglasses (for a particular promotion that's coming up this next week). So that's why I took this one:

Should I ever decide to write a cyberpunkish novel, I think I'll use that for the author photo. Rather unfortunately, for as much as I think this latter picture is more "cool," I have to admit the first picture is quite a bit more in line with my personality: Heavy on the ham. I suspect this is why I was never actually cool in my life -- "cool" implied a certain level of remove, and I'm pretty puppy dog-ish in my enthusiasms. Oh, well. There are worse things than not being cool.

Posted by john at 08:32 PM | TrackBack

The Right Message

Knicked from Instapundit, a church sign that well encapsulates my opinion on what faith should be about:

I'll be back later today. Before then I have a book proposal to revise, some Book of the Dumb entries to write, and, I don't know, some sweaters to knit.

Posted by john at 10:07 AM | TrackBack

May 10, 2004

A Moment of Really Lame Introspection

Look, it's me being all, like, pensive and grown up and crap like that. Don't worry, it won't last.

I was going to write some massive retrospective of my life to date here, being that 35 is the Biblical midpoint of life, but I've tried starting it three times now, and even I can't swallow the crap I was writing, which means I certainly can't inflict it on you. So let's just pretend I said something funny and insightful and full of wisdom about being a grown-up and living life and being glad for a span of years that actually lets you appreciate more about the world than just yourself. Because I guarantee you what you're imagining I wrote is a damn sight better than what I actually was writing. Restraint. That's a key to a writer's success.

Frankly, I have no wisdom to impart. But I'll have you know I'm both gratified and somewhat relieved to have made it to age 35 only to discover that I have the coolest wife in the history of wives, the greatest kid yet spawned, and a career that a) is actually what I wanted to do when I grew up and b) has yet to show signs of stalling out from under me. There may in fact be ways that my life could be better. But off the top of my head it's difficult to think of how without coming across as entirely selfish and ungrateful. So I won't try. I've been unfathomably lucky in this life, and I think I'll spend the rest of this life working to earn out the karmic credit I've been advanced to date. That's fair.

In short: Life is good. To those of you who have been part of it, I thank you. Now, let's keep going. Lots to do. Lots to see.

Posted by john at 11:14 PM | TrackBack

35

Birthday today. I'm outta here. See you tomorrow.

Posted by john at 10:46 AM | TrackBack

May 09, 2004

Torture

A German reader who was appalled at my suggestion last December that we make Saddam Hussein spend of the rest of his life in a box into which videotaped depositions of the victims of his regime were streamed endlessly (he thought it would be torture, whereas I would be more inclined to call it karmic justice), wanted to know what I thought about the US treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

Well, in no uncertain terms: It is shameful. But more than that, it very simply marks the moment at which I believe the United States has unequivocally lost the larger war for the future of Iraq and of the Middle East, the war, if you will, of the hearts and minds of the Iraqis and of those of good will in the region. Whether one believes that deposing Saddam was a good thing or not, our armed forces have given the enemies of the United States the evidence they need to posit a moral equivalency between us and him, regardless of whether it is true. We have no one to blame for this but ourselves: If one does not wish to be compared to a brutal dictator who crushed and tortured the Iraqi people, one should not, in fact, crush and torture Iraqis in that brutal dictator's most infamous prison.

We tortured Iraqis, and the impassioned appeals that such treatment is not representative of our nation's ideals is utterly aside the point. Those people writing about how noble it was for us to quickly own up to our failings gloss over the salient fact that we have something we need to own up to. Everyone who wants credit for everything we've done right in Iraq fails to appreciate that you can't get credit for doing a bunch of little things right if the things you get wrong are so goddamned spectacular. It's nice that people are sending toys and school supplies to Iraq. But plush toys and pencils are no match for pictures of US soldiers setting dogs upon naked, cowering Iraqis. It's not even close.

There's a word for this sort of thing: Incompetence, and that word sticks to just about everything this current administration has done in Iraq from the moment our forces stabbed into Baghdad. The military offensive was bold and brilliantly done; the occupation of the country has been utterly abysmal, and everything about it seems to have been designed to squander what good will we accrued by freeing the country from Saddam's grip. This could have been a "good war" -- not an easy war -- had our administration showed some indication that it actually cared what happened to Iraq and the people within it once Saddam was kicked out of power. But it didn't, and to a large extent still doesn't -- which is not entirely surprising to me since I personally never believed that George Bush had any interest in invading Iraq except to avenge his father. I had hoped that those around him might show some evidence of long-term thinking once Dubya's limited objective had been accomplished, but I guess I was wrong about that.

I'm still not sorry we went in and got rid of Saddam -- it was an action too long in coming. But everything since then has been nothing short of a disaster; Abu Ghraib is not an exception but the end result of systematic incompetence that plagues the entire enterprise. The abuse and torture the Iraqi prisoners suffered is the fruit of lack of forethought, lack of planning, lack of intent, and lack of care. To put it bluntly, this simply wouldn't have happened if those at the top of the food chain actually gave a shit about Iraq. But they don't. Dubya stopped caring the instant they flushed Saddam out of his bug hole; everything since then as been (literally) killing time until we can bug out and claim some sort of moral victory. Well, Abu Ghraib robbed us of that.

Who is responsible? Well, there certainly seems to be enough blame to go around, doesn't there. Those at the top didn't care or didn't want to know or at the very least seem more annoyed that truth is out there than they are of the fact of the torture itself. Depending on who you believe, those at the bottom were either untrained to serve as prison guards and left without real supervision or instruction, or they were following orders from above which explicitly condoned torture. One is malignant neglect, the other is simply evil. It all stinks, from head to tail, and it seems unlikely to me that anyone is going to come away clean.

Personally, what I wish were that it were November so I could cast my vote and register my disgust with this current administration, which in this as in nearly every other thing it has done has shown little but contempt for anyone and anything that is not of its own narrow ilk. Bush and his people are staggeringly bad at their jobs -- they are so bad that even their good ideas rot and fester as soon as they are taken out of the bag. This is what you get when the President of the United States is a man who has a level of self-introspection that is best described as canine, and whose cadre of cronies appear outraged at the idea that they can and should be held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof).

This is the worst president and administration since I've been alive -- yes, even worse than Nixon, because as paranoid and bad as he was, some of his administrative policies did more good than harm. Nixon was criminal, but he wasn't an incompetent. It's rather terrifying to say that I'd prefer a competent criminal in the Oval Office than the contemptuous incompetent who is in there now. But there it is. As I've said before, Bush isn't the worst president ever -- Buchanan, Harding and (probably) Grant are ahead of him in the queue -- but if someone else wants to be the worst president of the 21st century, he or she is really going to have to work at it.

Abu Ghraib is a defining image of the incompetence, contemptuousness and stupidity of this administration; if it eventually helps boot Bush from office, then some good may come from it. I'm sure that the more agitated Bush supporters will try to find a way to make a parallel between Abu Ghraib and the Madrid Bombing; i.e., that it was an example of terrorists gaming the system to get rid of an adversary. But Abu Ghraib is a self-inflicted wound. Al Qaeda didn't make US servicemen and women torture Iraqis.

I'm sure my German correspondent would want to know how I can declare what happened at Abu Ghraib shameful and yet be perfectly content to inflict what he feels is torture on Saddam Hussein. The answer is simple: I am not my government or my military. It's one thing for me to concoct what I feel are karmically appropriate punishments against mass murdering dictators in the privacy of my own mind; it's another thing for my government and military to condone torture or through incompetence or inaction allow torture to occur. As a private individual I'm allowed my fantasies, but my government and my military exist in the real world. I'm not going to be allowed to mete punishment on Saddam, so I am free to creative imaginative sentences. My government and my military are meting out punishment, however, on actual people, none of whom approach the high stinkin' evil of Saddam. So I would that their creativeness be somewhat less terrible than my own.

Posted by john at 11:30 PM | TrackBack

May 08, 2004

Reality TV, Magazine Style

From the cover of the Popular Science magazine that came in the mail today:

We Force a Geek to Live on Tech From 1954

Now, that's just cruel.

Posted by john at 02:00 PM | TrackBack

May 07, 2004

I Feel It In My Bones

Bad weather is here. Satellite connection is already out and if you think I'm going to spend the day on dialup, you can go back to 1996, where you came from. I'll catch you later.

Posted by john at 11:54 AM | TrackBack

May 06, 2004

Shocking the Shockable Classes

Over at Electrolite, Patrick Nielsen Hayden is more than a little frustrated that the general discussion he wished to have about the utility of shocking the bourgeois has become a specific discussion of Ted Rall's recent attempts to shock the said class, through the Pat Tillman cartoon and a column this week, which begins: "Now it's official: American troops occupying Iraq have become virtually indistinguishable from the SS." Well, that's the nature of allowing just anyone to step up to the mike (in the form of blog comments): It makes you aware of the schism between what you want to present and what the readers take away.

However, I am interested in the question of the utility of shocking the masses, and I find myself largely in agreement with Patrick in wondering what the point of it is. In my particular case, it's because a) given the ubiquity of extreme views in our culture, and the enthusiasm of (at least the appearance of) deep ideological divisions in our country, the rhetorical value of shock is somewhat less today than it might have been at other times, and b) people of opposing viewpoints are, I suggest, less than genuinely shocked when someone comes out and says something "shocking," and indeed crave the outrageous statements from the other side. This is particularly the case in the blogoverse.

Not to nitpick on the various right-ish bloggers who spun themselves up into a tizzy about this week's Rall cartoon and column, but to be bleakly cynical about it, I have rather large doubts that all of them were so terribly upset that Ted went off on another one of his flights of outrage, since the reaction was exactly as it ever was:

1. Look! Ted Rall's Gone Insane Again!
2. He's Just Another Example of the Depravity of the Left!
3. We Should Boycott Everyone Who Has Anything To Do With Him, Ever!
4. And, We Should Ignore Him Forever From This Point Forward! That'll Teach Him!

But they can't do that last one -- they won't -- because he's too useful an example of #2. Which is why in six months or whenever, when Ted does another cartoon or column that seems especially cracked, they'll all get the vapors and declare how disgusting Ted is and post their links to his stuff so all their readers can share in the outrage. Replace "Ted Rall" with "Ann Coulter" for the opposing team, and everyone's as happy as punch through the election.

I'm not saying these people aren't actually disgusted or appalled or whatever. Some of them probably are. But their moral disgust is far outstripped by that part of their brain that suggests that this would be an excellent thing to blog about; they are, in effect, rather more opportunistic than outraged. A blog is its own gaping maw: It must be filled. And it must be filled in ways that readers expect. Or so I suspect most bloggers believe and have internalized; outside of the Livejournal ramblings of teenagers describing their day at school, I think vast swaths of bloggers have either consciously or unconsciously tailored their output to what they think will sell - "sell" meaning to encourage others to link and/or retain what readers they've already accrued.

So, yes, allow me to suggest that if folks like Ted Rall and/or Ann Coulter (or Michael Savage and Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh and Janeane Garafalo, blah blah blah) didn't exist, the blog world would be bereft and inconsolable and filled with more pitures of cats than it already is. Which is not the same thing as being shocked. We are opportunists when it comes to selling our viewpoints, and cheap and easy extreme opposite opinions attract us like a brightly colored and scented lure attracts a rainbow trout. The difference is we know what we're biting on and we bite on it anyway.

(Ted, by the way, is posting some of the more colorful of his hate mail in his own blog. If you scroll down from there, you'll also see some further comments he has on the Tillman thing.)

It's not the blog world alone, of course -- in the larger universe, the blogverse is still an inbred and slightly mangy playpen in which geeks play. All media outlets get play out of this stuff. The blogs didn't invent the appropriation of shock for feigned moral outrage; they learned it from other media. Someone wondered if more than five of Ted's usual clients would run the Pat Tillman piece, but when you consider that Ted got newspaper editorials and radio interviews and an appearance on Bill O'Reilly's television show out of it, honestly, what does it matter? Criticize Ted if you will for making the cartoon (and for capitalizing on the ensuing controversy), but save at least a share of your outrage for folks like Bill O'Reilly, who see Ted as a useful tool for their own agenda. And all that manufactured outrage from the right in turn gets made into useful fodder for the left-leaning folks. It's the circle of shock, and it moves us all.

I'm not personally shocked by much of what people write or say anymore, and I think generally speaking I don't pretend to be. At best I'm irritated, which I think comes through when I rant about something here, but I don't see much value in suggesting that I'm more worked up about something than I really am. Like any bloviating writer, I can get myself worked up if I really want to. But to be genuinely shocked about something, it would have to run deeply counter to my expectations of humans in the real world. There's not much that does that.

What would be nice is to have some way of knowing what is actually shocking to people. Sometimes you can tell: For example, I think the Iraqi prison story is genuinely shocking: Our image of what our country is runs deeply counter to the pictures and news, which is why by and large there has been unanimity nationwide in the revulsion we feel that some of "our" people have done that. But it's not trivial to note that this is not a shock manufactured by a writer or artist -- it's a shock that comes from real life.

It's interesting -- and a good thing -- to note that our thrill at providing ourselves fake outrage to play with has not blunted our ability to feel genuine shock when it's warranted. At least, it hasn't blunted it yet.

Posted by john at 01:20 PM | TrackBack

May 05, 2004

Another Internet Milestone

I always wondered when the day would come when someone would auction off one of my book on eBay. It looks like today is that day. Actually, yesterday was -- this auction's already on its second day. Even so.

The guy who's selling it says of the book: "If you like the stupid criminals on Jay Leno's headlines, this is the book for you! A quick read, hilarious, and will make you shake your head in disbelief!" To which I say, yeah? If you like the book so much, why are you selling it?

I kid, I kid.

Posted by john at 02:26 PM | TrackBack

New Bathroom Reader

If you're still looking for a gift for mom this Mother's Day, allow me to suggest the Mom's Bathtub Reader. This particular book was mostly written by Sue Steiner (which is why it's her name on the cover), but I pitched in a few pieces on mom-related movies and music, and aside from that it's got the usual Uncle John's-type panoply of subjects, all at least tangentially related to motherhood. Krissy is already threatening to swipe my contributor copy to give to her mom on Sunday, so you could consider than an endorsement on her end. This book is out in bookstores, so, you know, look for it there.

I'll also be contributing to a couple other Uncle John's books this year (in addition to Book of the Dumb 2, currently in process) and of course I'll let you know when those pop out of the oven as well.

Posted by john at 10:27 AM | TrackBack

May 04, 2004

Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 - 2004

I've been muttering for some time about collecting up some of my most memorable rant-like Whatever entries into convenient book form, and since I won't have another book out this year until at least September, now seems an excellent time to do it.

So behold! Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 - 2004 -- Five years and 284 pages of lightly-edited online bile, now on sale through my CafePress shop, for the outrageous vanity press cost of $16.95 ($15.28 of which goes directly to CafePress. This is the peril of the Publish-on-Demand cost structure).

The book is loaded with most of my most famous rantings, including the following classics:

* I Hate Your Politics
* How to Write Hate Mail
* Leviticans
* Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice

As well as my various bashings of creationists, Confederates, the childfree, conservatives, squishy Salon-reading liberals and anyone else who has aroused my wrath and ire over the last half decade. What it doesn't feature are my various nice and light Whatevers -- no, this is all about outgassing. Which is what I titled it Rant. I figure truth in advertising counts for something.

Why go the CafePress vanity publishing route? Well, because -- and not to put too fine a point on it -- it's not a very commercial book. The people who are going to be interested in owning it are the people who know me and/or the people who already read the site. There are several thousand of the latter, which is nice, but it's probably not enough to convince a publishing house to bother. My non-fiction agent informs me that basically the only books of columns and essays that actually make any money are written by Dave Barry, so a collection of entries by a mostly-unknown fellow venting on the Web is likely to do dramatically less business.

Fair enough. As I'm fond of saying, I'm in the fortunate position of not having to do everything strictly for the money. And in any event, I've sold six books already, so I don't have to worry about whether it's a "real" book or not. This is entirely a vanity sort of thing -- low-volume but also low-risk, since I'm not required to lay out any cash to make it happen. I've not violated the holiest dictum of professional writing, which is "money flows to the writer." Should any money flow here, it'll flow in my direction. And that's the important thing.

I should note that putting these Whatevers into book form doesn't mean I'm taking them down off the site. No, everything in the book is on the site and will likely remain so. As I said, this isn't a fantastically commerical endeavor -- it's mostly a way to let interested folk read me away from their computer screens.

So if you've ever wanted my rantings in book form, here you go. Enjoy! It also makes a lovely gift for dads and grads (or if you go the one-day shipping route, for moms, too). I'll be interested to see how it does.

Posted by john at 09:43 AM | TrackBack

Ted at it Again, Again, Again

For some reason I appear to be the guy online who gets to be Ted Rall's Keeper, since any time he writes something outrageously controversial I get e-mail going "See what your friend has done now? What do you think about that? Huh? huh? huh?" This time around it's the cartoon about Pat Tillman that's got everyone worked up, and people want to know what I think about it and about Ted doing it. Fine.

Cartoon first: It's not my thing. I differ from Ted on my opinion of the morality and the goals of the war in Afghanistan, so this is not terribly surprising. However, even if I did agree with Ted about the morals of that particular war, I'd suggest that even those who fight in a war of dubious morality can fight well and with honor -- and indeed be heroes. This is why, for example, that even though I continually note how evil the Confederacy was, I can also note that many of those who fought for the Confederacy did so honorably. I don't equate the recent occupation of Afghanistan with the Confederacy, and Pat Tillman, from what I understand, died trying to save his squadmates under attack, for which he received a posthumous Silver Star. For that action alone, "hero" is not a bad description of Tillman. So for my money Ted's wrong here.

Ted next: People, look. I don't know why any of you are surprised at this point that Ted's going to take a whack at sensitive areas. He's been doing it for well over a decade now; he's going to keep on doing it until he keels over at his desk, pen in hand. He's a superlefty who is not shy in his opinions and certainly doesn't mind antagonizing people. This isn't a defense of Ted; I'm merely noting a fact. This is his business, and he's good at it. By all means, rail against him and support boycotts of outlets that syndicate his work if you believe it is going to have some sort of effect. If I were you, however, I wouldn't labor under the illusion that you're going to shame him into silence, directly or indirectly. It's a big country. There are too many media outlets, even if you just count the ones on the left. And on either side of the political spectrum there's no lack of opportunity for those with extreme views. I mean, hell. Ann Coulter keeps managing to scrape up enough dough to eat and hang clothes on her frame. You think Ted's not going to be able to do the same?

Also, I'd note that before he was a cartoonist, Ted worked in investment banking. So conservatives may want to ask whether it's worth it to drive him out of cartooning. He just might end up handling your investments.

I do have a couple of comments to make to all the people who call Ted a coward and declare that they'd fight him if they saw him. On the latter, Ted's not a small fellow, nor does he run from things in my experience. And he's extraordinarily litigious. If you're thinking of throwing a punch, don't expect Ted to fold like a liberal sissy man; he's likely to fight back. And after he does, he'll be happy to sue your ass for damages and keep the suit going until the very heat death of the universe. So if you're going to make that punch, make sure you can take the hit.

On the former, unlike most of the rest of us, Ted's actually been to Afghanistan, both before this recent war and during it. He didn't have to go to Afghanistan, and not a few of us who knew him told him that he was insane to go. But he felt that he needed to go and be a witness to what was happening there. At one point in his most recent stay he came one doorknob turn from being shot and likely killed. There are many things Ted may be, negative and positive, but I guarantee you that "coward" is not one of them.

Posted by john at 09:08 AM | TrackBack

May 03, 2004

Pragmatic Idealist

I was doing one of my daily Technorati ego surfs when I noticed this new blog, which says that it will match up bloggers of various political stripes and have them debate, Iron Chef style, for the edification of the masses. After which they'll be judged by whomever the judges are on their style and delivery and whatnot. No word on whether there will be fabulous prizes, although I somehow doubt there will be.

What interests me is not the "Iron Blog" concept, which I think is a little shaky; one has to wonder what the advantage of going to someone else's blog to snipe and argue is when one can just as easily do it on one's own site, without the artificial restrictions imposed by rules -- i.e., freeform venting which is what makes blogging so much fun in the first place. Especially if there are, in fact, no prizes involved.

No, what interests me is that whomever it is running the site has created two blogrolls, one for lefties and one for righties, and I am located on the right side of the blogroll. Anyone who reads the site on a regular basis should find this amusing, given my open disdain of the GOP and my kneejerk (and not entirely fair) mental classification of conservatives of any stripe as people who primarily wish to rationalize their own fear and greed. The reason I suspect I'm on the right side of this fellow's toteboard is that that he lumps libertarians with conservatives, which is a correct pairing, to the extent that functionally speaking your average libertarian's goal of being left alone dovetails into the conservative's goal of dismantling government so no one can stop their nefarious plans for global domination.

A lot of my personal opinions dovetail with libertarians -- I too wish to be left alone and encourage others to leave other people alone as well -- so I suspect this is why I'm on the right side of that blogroll. But this is not the same as saying that I am a libertarian. Without getting too much into detail about it, the reason I'm not a libertarian is that it's a political philosophy that can function only if the average person wants to let other people do their thing, and the fact is most people don't. That's because most people don't trust other people to be smart/honest/noble/whatever enough not to screw things up for the rest of us.

The reason for that, alas, is that most people aren't smart/honest/noble/whatever enough not to mess things up. People are often dumb, greedy short-term thinkers who don't give a crap about you as long as they get theirs, or they've got their eye on a long-term plan for global domination for their god and/or ideology. Frequently they're both, which is a lot of fun to deal with. Now, I'd like to think most people will do the best thing given time, education and the opportunity to look at things long-term. But simply as a matter of experience, it's nice to be able to rein them in from time to time. I'm not an optimist when it comes to people and their behaviors. So no libertarian cookie for me, I'm afraid.

My politics are neither left nor right in any consistent fashion; I'm not conservative, or liberal, or libertarian, or whatever. Chart me on a traditional political map and the only real conclusion you'll come to is that I need medication for my multiple personalities. I like to think my politics are on the "z" axis, which is defined by idealism -- what we'd like to believe people would do -- and pragmatism -- what we need to have people to do so that the country is a reasonable place to live. The real world is rather more in need of the pragmatic approach at the moment, and I'm fine with that. I'm an idealistic pragmatic (and on my good days, a pragmatic idealist). No wonder I write science fiction.

Posted by john at 11:18 AM | TrackBack

30 Minutes

A quick note that doesn't have anything to do with anything: Back in the day (which you can read as 1998/1999, when I started babbling through the Whatever), I always tried to impose a 30-minute time limit on whatever I was writing here, partly as a writing exercise but also because, you know, I have work to do. Now, as anyone who spends time reading here knows, my actual success in sticking with a 30-minute writing session has never been entirely good -- I do tend to run on -- but for the month of May, I'm going to try incorporating it back in. It's very busy month, and the alternative is to take one of my famous mercurial hiatuses while I bust through other writing. But I don't really want to do that; I've been enjoying the Whatever quite a bit recently. So we'll try the 30-minute thing instead for May and see how it goes.

And now I've wasted five minutes explaining the 30-minute plan to you. Tick, tick, tick.

Posted by john at 10:22 AM | TrackBack

May 02, 2004

Also

A quick note to those of you who are Book of the Dumb 2 beta readers and have been wondering when I'd actually start posting stuff: Stuff is now up. Sorry for the delay. I could give you excuses, but no.

Posted by john at 05:43 PM | TrackBack

Spoilage

Please understand that I realize this is almost unforgivable spoilage on my part, but I've given up the ghost in the form of my Yamaha keyboard and have transported it from my desk, where it's collected dust for the last nine months, to my daughter's room. Athena is always wanting to play it, and most of the time it's inaccessible under piles of papers and books; now she can play it any time she wants to, without bothering me.

I feel mildly hypocritical in handing over a keyboard worth a few hundred dollars to my kid, not in the least because just yesterday I wrote over at By the Way about how amused she was by a $2 maraca, and used that as an example of how stressing about buying "the best" toys and such for your kids is a little pointless since kids amuse themselves with whatever's at hand, no matter how much or how little it costs. I didn't buy this for Athena, or with her at all in mind, but it's still not a cheap little bauble to pass over to her.

But I look at it this way: It's a question of use vs non-use. Fact is, I'm not using it, and am not that likely to use it again in any meaningful way (nearly all the music creation I do at this point is with my sequencer in the computer). Athena will use it, and as a nice bonus, might actually learn to use the damn thing over the course of time. It can be a massive paperweight on my desk or something that's played with on hers. In that light, it's worth a bit of spoilage.

Athena's reaction to the news I was giving her the keyboard, incidentally: "Cool, daddy! Can I have your guitar, too?" The answer to that was no. But if I don't play the guitar again over the next year, I may have to change my mind.

Posted by john at 05:02 PM | TrackBack