Monthly Archives: January 2012

Some interesting thoughts (some for writers, some not)

•Writer Tamago discusses the challenges of getting the writing done, and how to balance it with the rest of your life. Especially if you have a life.
•Vanity Fair asks why the styles of today—music, movies, fashion—look so much like 20 years ago? I think writer Kurt Andersen has a point: This is not something we’d have seen in any 20 year span in the 20th century. Hullabaloo focuses on one reason Andersen suggests for this, that corporate America is generally very risk averse. Staying with what works is better. Andersen lists other possibilities: That the sheer amount of retro material available to us digitally has slowed down the rush to try anything radically new, and that as the substance of our lives has changed so much, we’re compensating by putting the brakes on style. This reverses past eras when style compensated for underlying stable substance: Cars didn’t change much in the 1950s and 1960s, but the look certainly did.
I can’t help wondering if this isn’t true of book covers: Despite the innovations in digital art, I don’t think I see anything as weird or strange as the Powers covers from the fifty years ago. Or is that just a surface impression?
I do think genre fiction can make a claim that we aren’t just cloning ourselves, despite the huge growth in media tie-in novels over the past two decades. Subgenres such as steampunk and paranormal romance have bloomed from nowhere, which I think proves we’re not completely stuck in a rut yet.
•Hullabaloo also discusses an article reporting the shocking news that President Obama did not tie up Washington’s partisan divide and lead to a glorious utopia of bipartisan cooperation. As Digby points out, this has been obvious for a while, but it’s a radical statement for the DC press corps, where bipartisanship and centrism represent a holy grail (as witness Dana Milbanks’ claim that his centrism is superior to both sides of the abortion wars).
•Slacktivist points out the gender differential in the way things are marketed: “Toys for kids” vs. “Toys for girls” or “family doll” vs. “Asian family doll”
•Last year, Newt Gingrich warned America (or at least Republican voters) that atheists wouldn’t stop until they’d imposed Sharia law on us. Now he claims that gay marriage is a “pagan” behavior that violates “our civilization.” As the Wild Hunt blog notes at the link, the Greeks and Romans who are usually considered the founders of Western Civilization were, in fact, pagans.
•If women are forced to get ultrasound before abortion, maybe men should face the same experience when they get their penis checked out.
•And to wrap up, some thoughts interesting for their lack of thoughts: Jonah Goldberg explains that when Obama praises the military, he’s trying to subvert American freedom! (for bonus idiocy, Goldberg attempts a witty putdown of vegetarianism).
And some Tennessee tea party memberswant history teachers to stop mentioning that our Founding Fathers owned slaves and that our country stole Indian land. Despite one Tea Partier’s argument that the Founders were radical for their time—certainly true—the fact remains that the abolitionist movement existed in 1776, and most of them were not riding that train. So I don’t think criticizing Jefferson and Washington on slavery is us judging them retroactively by modern-day standards.

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Elites again

Earlier this month, the Daily Howler critiqued a Frank Bruni NYT column criticizing Gingrich attacks on “elites.” As Bruni points out, Gingrich—political insider, highly educated, wealthy—constitutes a member of the elite. Bob Somersby at the Howler seemed to find Bruni wilfully blind: Obviously when Gingrich talks of the elites, he’s “talking about the type of people who look down on average Americans and their values.”
This is a theme Somersby brings up a lot: Too many people on the left look down on conservatives and assume the worst possible interpretation of their politics and attitudes. A lot of times there’s merit to this point, but this time it feels like he’s the one who’s forcing an interpretation on Gingrich and his audience. Admittedly, I’m no more a mind-reader than Somersby, but there’s nothing implausible in Gingrich denouncing the elites even though he is one: Career politicians have been condemning Washington DC and the “inside the Beltway” mentality for as long as I’ve been voting. And if conservatives can forgive Gingrich’s adultery while still condemning Bill Clinton’s, why shouldn’t they decide Gingrich is an acceptable elitist?
And while it’s true “people who look down on us” is one interpretation of his remarks, so is “people who don’t think the right things.” Having lived in the Bible belt for well over 75 percent of my life, and watched the tone of right-wing punditry and Internet debate, I’ve seen how that for some right-wingers (not all), the mere fact some politicians and pundits do and say non-conservative or even liberal things is taken as a sign that the country has been taken over by its enemies.
As pundit Charles Murray puts it, when some conservatives reference “elites,” they’re referring to anyone who doesn’t understand “real Americans”—which Murray specifically defines as the one-third of the population still living in small towns and rural areas. But I don’t think it’s just about understanding: For some of that one-third, there’s no difference between not understanding them and not passing the laws and rules that they think God intended.
It’s the logic by which one local columnist back in Northwest Florida explained once that Gore didn’t really win the popular vote in 2000: Sure, he won the most votes, but that’s because all those liberal cities voted for him; the real America, the small towns and farms, went for Bush. So he won all the votes that really count.
Curiously, in a more recent column, Murray discussed how the upper class should stop being nonjudgmental and lecture the poor on their moral failings (which he proclaims the real cause of poverty). Now he has a book switching back to how elites are just jerks who don’t understand Real Americans, and even provides a quiz to check your understanding. The quiz was soundly and deservedlymocked here: Among other things, Murray’s doing a lot of cherry picking. One test is if you’ve eaten at one of America’s top ten chain restaurants, except it’s only nine because he doesn’t think Chipotle is a Real American kind of restaurant (the same way New York voters don’t really count).
Murray also insists that this is a one-way deal: It’s important for elites to know how blue-collar, small-town America thinks, but it’s not important for Real Americans to know how anyone else lives. Elites who don’t know any evangelical Christians are frowned upon, but it’s no problem if evangelicals don’t know any atheists, Jews or Muslims.
Which shows the complications of figuring what Gingrich and his audience mean. In different venues Murray evokes the elite as more moral people than the poor, in another he makes them out as snobbish phonies. The working class are shiftless and immoral, except when they’re hardworking and all-American. Possibly his thought is incoherent. Possibly he’s confident his target audience will assume that they’re part of the hardworking lower classes, not the shiftless poor (plenty of people see no conflict between getting federal flood insurance or Medicare and condemning “welfare.”). Gingrich may be able to pass as non-elite because he expresses the right things to his audience. As I note here, years of right-wing propaganda about evil liberal elitists probably help (he’s not liberal, so he’s not elite).
Thoughts?

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And now the screaming starts

It’s official! I have both an eLance project (due early March) and the magazine article to work on.
So today I started to freak out just a little at the challenge of getting them both done, plus my regular work—neither of them is going to turn enough of a profit that I want to cut into my other activities very much. It didn’t help that I spent part of the morning working on my next And column. As I’ve mentioned before (but I can’t find the post to link to it), my last year at the Destin Log was very stressed (both stressed for time and stressful for me, for various reasons). Now that I’ve gotten used to a normal stress level again, I react adversely increased stress or really steep demands on my time.
Rationally, I know it’s not going to be that bad, but that doesn’t help my lower-brain reactions. But I know once I’m actually started and don’t find myself overwhelmed, it will be calmer.
I’m also hoping a Mac widget I downloaded—a project-timing clock—will help. Working on special projects with uncertain time elements—how many calls will I have to make to find an interview? How long will the interview take?—it’s easy to lose track of how many hours I’ve put in or how much fiction or eHow time I need to make up. Hopefully, by clicking on the widget when I start making calls or sending out letters, I’ll be able to manage my schedule better. I will have to remember to turn it on and off though—I’ve had it for about a month and I’m only now getting used to doing that.
Wish me luck!

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Books

John LeCarre’s THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR, has a minor branch of military intelligence, largely reduced to shuffling papers since WW II, convinced its glory days have returned when an agent uncovers evidence of a Soviet missile base in East Germany. In some ways this comes off as LeCarre’s real anti-Bond novel, as the department’s dreams of excitement and adventure are largely, obviously delusional; also bitingly cynical in showing the turf wars between agencies, as it becomes obvious Control (the head of Smiley’s outfit) is setting the group up to fail to eliminate a possible rival operation. Very good.
BPRD: Being Human is a so-so collection of BPRD stories by Mike Mignola and various artists, wherein a teenage Liz gets her first field mission, Roger the homonculus learns to kill, and ectoplasmic agent Johann Kraus takes on a conniving, soul-eating mystic. The latter story was far and away the best.
SUPERSTAR: As Seen on TV is a pair of stories by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen featuring Superstar, a super-hero who derives his powers from draining other peoples’ life force; to use his power for good, he has to promote himself so that millions of people will donate a small percentage of their day’s bio-energy to the cause. The good news is, he’s able to fight against adversaries such as the poetic machine Robo Sapiens; the bad news is, setting up his marketing requires working with his greedy, manipulative father. A one-shot, but an interesting one.
RESURRECTION Book One by Marc Guggenheim, Justin Greenwood and David Dumeer takes place in 2007, 10 years after the alien Bugs launched an unstoppable invincible invasion (though there’s lot of flashing back to the invasion and times in between). Now the Bugs have disappeared, their ships all crashed … but why? Will the good guys or bad get to rebuild the government? Is it true the military knew about the Bugs before they attacked? Art is so-so, but the story is interesting enough I’ll check the next volume out of the library eventually.
DEJAH THORIS: The Colossus of Mars is a spinoff from Dynamite’s Warlord of Mars series, set 500 years before John Carter arrives on Mars. In this era, Helium’s twin cities are at war, which soon pales as a problem next to a scheming jeddak (monarch) who’s reactivated an ancient weapon of war to conquer everything with. Enjoyable, but not up to the best of Marvel’s John Carter Warlord of Mars series.

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Movies and TV

You wouldn’t think Christopher lee as Mr. Hyde could be dull, but I, MONSTER (1973) is proof that faithful adaptations aren’t always a good thing, After a slow opening establishing Dr. Marlowe (Christopher Lee) as a Freudian (so Hands of the Ripper would be an obvious double-bill) whose new drug unleashes the human id, Amicus’ take on Jekyll and Hyde follows the source novel faithfully, and thereby becomes unbearably dull. The opening, for example, in which Utterson (Peter Cushing) hears about one of Hyde’s brutal acts (stepping on a child that fell in front of him), is told at second hand, which follows the book but makes it visually boring (and I’ve always thought it a great scene), and Marlowe’s “Blake” alter-ego doesn’t do anything terribly evil at least on screen. Shows why the movies usually use add women into the mix (a fiancee for Jekyll and a mistress for Hyde)—and why does a movie that uses most of the characters from the novel give Jekyll and Hyde new names? “Blake has fled to Europe.”
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) is the fine follow-up to Frankenstein in which the Creature’s desperate efforts to escape the torch-wielding mobs lead him first to a kindly hermit (who teaches him to enjoy wine and a good cigar) and then to Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) who plans to combine his research with Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) to create the title monster and breed a race of superhumans (the audio commentary states that contrary to myth, there was never a plan to have Frankenstein’s bride killed to become the Bride of Frankenstein—though the film historian speaking thinks it would have been a great idea). Some of the humor doesn’t work so well for me (like the Creature taking up smoking) and there’s an awful lot of the Creature just wandering over the countryside. On the other hand, Karloff’s performance (and it’s a sign of his standing that he’s identified in the credits just as “Karloff,” no first name) is brilliant, conveying the monster’s desperate longing for a friend, and then a bride—while I don’t entirely credit Stan Lee’s claim to base the Hulk on the Creature, Karloff’s loneliness here could be a model for the bronze-age treatment of the Hulk as a tormented loner. “It’s the devil that prompts you—there is only death in this, not life!”
I was pleasantly surprised to find ANNIE HALL (1977) is as good as I remembered it, as Woody Allen gets Diane Keaton, loses Diane Keaton, gets Diana Keaton back and loses her for good (making this the first film where he doesn’t end up with the girl). Extremely funny while also very serious in handling the relationship (the ending in which Allen rewrites the romance in fiction to end up with Keaton seemed heartbreakingly sad when I first saw it), with lots of breaking the fourth wall and yet another foreshadowing of Allen’s Bergmanesque phase (they’re attending a Bergman movie at one pont). The cast includes Tony Roberts, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken, Shelly Duvall, Carol Kane, Janet Margolin and a cameo by some guy named Jeff Goldblum (“I forgot my mantra.”). Well worth rewatching. “Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience—I mean that as a compliment.”

BLACK BUTLER is an anime series set in Victorian England where a grieving orphaned noble makes a pact with Hell that nets him Sebastian, the world’s most perfect butler and a superhuman warrior who will help Sebastian hunt down his parents’ murderer, while investigating crimes for Queen Victoria on the side. The first season of this is a complete arc (the second season reboots the characters in a present-day setting), stylishly entertaining. “I’m just one Hell of a butler.

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The camel’s hump is an ugly lump

(Title courtesy of Kipling).
I’m beginning to suspect I have a problem with Wednesday, aka hump day.
Back at the Destin Log, Thursday was always my off-day—close enough to week’s end that I felt pressured to get everything done, but far enough away I couldn’t actually finish and relax. Lately I’ve noticed that while Thursday is fine, my focus seems to flag consistently on Wednesday. It was particular acute this week, partly because I got up late (having to rush through my morning routines always throws me off) and partly just … well, Wednesday, I guess (imagine me saying it the same way Jack Nicholson’s partner in Chinatown says “It’s Chinatown.” Just because it’s cooler that way).
That aside, the week went very well.
•Having learned from my writing group that I have a tendency to omit “he saids” and “she saids” to the point it’s impossible to follow the conversation (and believe me, they’re quite right), I went back over my old novel, Questionable Minds with that awareness. While I didn’t find a huge number of glitches, I did find a fair number. Hopefully it will do better when I send it out next month.
•I held a critique session for some of my fellow group members at my house, the subject being The Impossible Takes a Little Longer; the bribe for reading the whole thing being food (chickpeas with tomatoes, garlic and parmesan; white bean soup with pine nuts and peas; and a granny apple crisp). Only one of my cohorts turned up (the food didn’t go to waste, as TYG and I have been munching on it since), but he and TYG (who generously read the novel in the two days before the meet) gave me some excellent critiquing.
I would loosely divide the criticism into a)stuff I hadn’t thought was a problem, but is; b)stuff I that’s a problem because I didn’t set it up right; c)stuff I may decide is not a problem at all; d)a couple of great honking problems which will be a real bear to fix. I will set the critique aside (it’s safe on my computer for now) until some time next month when I take a look, decide what needs changing and figure out how (the “d” problems will be a challenge, but my unconscious may have coughed up an answer by then).
•The only short story I got any work on was Savage Years, but it went great. I didn’t finish it, but I got three quarters through and everything looks better: The individual character arcs, the 1960s background, the level of tension. So, yay!
•I think I mentioned a magazine had expressed interested in an article proposal, then broke contact. They emailed today and said they’re interested in the article. Pay is low. Very low. But I’d like a new magazine clip for my portfolio and for various reasons I’d like to do this article, so I’m going ahead (I’ve scoured the magazines that pay well without success).
•One of my Elance bids (for a film treatment) got a nibble, but I don’t know if we can agree on price. However, even getting interest is cheering.
•I applied for a bunch of other jobs as well: A couple of magazine freelance gigs, an online humor slot and a trivia-question writer. I don’t know if any of them will pay off, but it’s been a while since I came across anything that felt like a good prospect, so I’m encouraged.
And last but not least, eHows:
•What Is Used to Combine and Transmit Data on High Speed Lines?
•What Happens When You Reset IE for Silverlight?
•The Atoh Function in C
•What Is an Antenna Mask Filter?
Torque Problems for a Turntable
•Sirius Display Problems
•How to Read Audio Levels in the Android Developer App
•Just-in-Time Debugging in Adobe
•Allegro Vs. OrCAD
•What Are Linear Programming Computerized Systems?

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Nonfiction, Short Stories, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Writing

Bookmarks accumulating again

So here we go!
•Working on eHow, I’ve frequently been frustrated by discovering relevant papers I have to subscribe to. This article discusses why that is, and why it’s bad.
•Echidne of the Snake explains why the free market isn’t making healthcare more efficient.
•It’s easy to think we were better off 50 years ago if you’re not, say, a black woman. Related blog posts of mine here, here and here.
This Hathor Legacy post discusses why stock minority characters are a bigger problem than stock white male characters. I touch on the same thing (but not as well) here.
•The US has a new bird species … that may already be extinct.
•Good news: A genocidal dictator we backed for years in Guatemala may be coming to trial. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald discusses some examples of American jurisprudence.

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Hulk will smash again!

Last month, I described how the Atlantic’s economics writer Megan McArdle explained that, if Americans are poor, it’s their own fault for making bad life choices—and, in fact, it’s insulting to the poor to think social situations, the economy or bad luck might have anything to do with it.
This month, she goes that article one better, asserting that its a Bad Thing if the poor get to rise above their station and make more money (it’s not a direct link but you can click through to McArdle’s piece).
Why is this bad? Because if the poor get better jobs, they’re taking them from someone in the middle class or better. Do we really want to risk our kids losing out and getting crappy job because the talented poor kids beat them out? Sure, liberals say they want economic mobility, but they’re lying! It’s a zero sum game and they’re going to protect what they’ve got, just like everyone else!
While McArdle insists that she’s really, really concerned about lack of social mobility (and currently in America it’s very, very low), her actual arguments amount to endorsing a class system: It’s perfectly natural and understandable and reasonable for people who already have the money to keep out the filthy unwashed hordes trying to take the nice things away. And everyone who claims to want to change that is lying.
First off, her argument that we can’t all have nice things is false. It’s true “we can’t all be above average,” but we can all be above poverty level: Back in the 1940s and 1950s, we had a country of steadily rising income for the upper, middle and working class alike. The poor were still below average, but the average was constantly rising up.
Likewise, while some schools will be worse than others, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a country where even poor inner city schools (or backwoods country schools) rise above some basic level of quality, so that everyone can have a decent education rather than just swapping which demographic gets in the good school.
Second, why stop with the poor? After all, even if the poor don’t have economic mobility, that doesn’t secure the jobs for the middle and upper classes. Someone in the same class could come along and take the job. Some other rich person’s kid could take the slot in the elite private school you wanted your kid to get into. Why is it that only competition from the poor is a problem? Why isn’t McArdle worrying about that threat? (My personal guess would be because the subtext of her article is “The 1 percent should feel completely justified in hogging everything.” Or it could be that aspect didn’t even occur to her).
Third, isn’t the reason rich people get the big bucks supposedly because they’re the big risk takers? They gamble their money to start new businesses, make investments, open new product lines? Yet according to McArdle, they actually can’t handle the idea of competition: They’re so timid about it, they want a system where they and their kids can’t lose, ever. And that this is actually meritocratic.
This isn’t a new thought. Multiple liberal blogs have tracked the arguments from the business sector that they must have “certainty” in order to run their businesses. They can’t be expected to invest when the economy is uncertain. So government’s priority should be to baby them and make them feel they’re completely secure and won’t lose any money down the road.
The words “free market” and “meritocracy” do not mean what these people think they mean.

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Filed under economics, Politics

Why I read what I read and watch what I watch

In theory, what I read and watch should reflect what I like. In practice, it reflects my life just as much.
Not in the sense that I read to make sense of life or my personal dilemmas, because I don’t do that. It’s more that my taste shifts and adapts to what’s available.
When I was in my twenties and dead broke, for example, what I read depended on what was available in the library, and what turned up at the used book store. A lot of standalone novels, partial series and obscure authors in my collection come from those days. Buying new was something almost unthinkable, except for a few favored authors.
During this period, I didn’t have anything but basic cable, so I wound up watching lots of crappy recent films that showed up syndication (slasher films, horny teen comedies, etc.).
As my situation changed, so did my entertainment. When I acquired more cable, including TNT and American Movie Classic, I watched more classic films (TNT, when it started, ran the same kind of fair TCM does now). When I had enough money for The Movie Channel, I watched more recent films (but better quality than syndication). When I had Bravo, I watched foreign films and indie stuff (AMC and TNT having dropped most of the movies I liked). Then I got Turner Classic and it’s back to classics.
I no longer have cable, but between Netflix and my own DVDs—well, there’s not really any pattern. I watch Shakespeare. I watch horror. I’m working my way through James Bond and Woody Allen. There’s actually more available than I can hope to watch (which, while frustrating, is a Good Thing).
With books, it’s not quite the same. With more money and a wide array of used-book services over the Internet—not to mention Durham’s excellent library, and my own collection to reread, my options are pretty much unlimited (unless I decide I want a mint copy of Action #1 or a first edition of Tale of Genji). Yet my reading overwhelmingly skews toward history and fantasy—apparently my tastes are a lot narrower in print than in video.
Perversely, now that I can afford to select what I want, I’m also slightly overwhelmed by the options. The days when I had a serious chance at reading all the published fantasy (at least from the big publishers) are gone. Interestingly, without that impetus, I don’t feel quite as eager to read new fantasy at all; except for a few favorite authors, I’m just as happy reading what I’ve already got.
Comic books, on the other hand, are definitely a money thing. I stopped buying all but a few books because I had limited funds (back when my previous employer was underpaying me) and I could get more entertainment with a Showcase Presents or Marvel Essentials than spending the same amount of money on new books. So I shifted accordingly.
Oh, plus the DC Reboot has now wiped out the few comics I was still buying.
I’m not sure there’s any lesson to draw from all this. Other than that what I read isn’t as simple as “I know what I like.”

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Undead sexist cliches: There’s only one way for goverment to support marriage

David Brooks has stated, repeatedly, that the government’s top priority in the current economic crisis should be cutting the deficit by cutting Social Security (though taxes on the rich is also very important).
That makes it a little surprising that David Brooks actually favors increasing welfare—as a way to make it easier for guys to get married.
In an earlier January column, Brooks asserts that one of the things he likes about Rick Santorum is that Santorum understands that “If you believe in the centrality of family, you have to have a government that both encourages marriage and also supplies wage subsidies to men to make them marriageable.” I can’t find any reference to Santorum supporting such a thing, so maybe it’s just what Brooks imagines he’d say, but either way, Brooks clearly thinks it’s a fabulous idea.
It is true, as James Taranto notes, that poor guys are more likely to stay single than guys with more money. It doesn’t follow that therefore having more money will make them more marriageable. If a woman’s only objection to marrying a guy is that he doesn’t make enough to support her (or that combined, they couldn’t afford kids), maybe; but there are an awful lot of reasons people don’t get married and finance is only one of them.
The idea government should intervene to create traditional 1950s marriages has been around for a while. Back in the late 1980s IIRC, a writer arguing that we needed to boost the native American birthrate asserted that the government should start paying women to stay home with kids. Pat Robertson expressed a similar thought a couple of years later. Pat Buchanan has demanded white women stay home to boost the birthrate but didn’t suggest paying them extra.
Almost all these ideas seem to rest on the principle that what this country really needs is a return to 1950s nuclear family life. Man at work. Women at home raising babies. I see a whiff of that in Brooks’ argument too: There are a variety of ways the government could structure an aid program to support families but the one he focuses is on seems specifically designed to make men the breadwinners.
Alternative family structures are not on the table. Nobody has suggested (that I’m aware of) financial aid for men who stay home and raise the kids while the mother works. Nor are Brooks, Robertson or Buchanan advocating that government should make daycare more affordable or come up with other approaches that would make life easier for two-parent working families. A number of right-wingers actively decry programs of that sort because they run against traditional gender roles: A family where the mother works outside the home isn’t the right sort of family to deserve help. The only fit place for a woman is in the home.
I guess when Brooks discussed his love for Victorian morality, he wasn’t kidding.

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