Monthly Archives: February 2003

The Hudson and Visiting the Big Apple

I’ve been rather dreadful about updating the last couple of weeks, and the chances are excellent I will continue to be this week as well. My excuse? Work, baby. Freelance writing is like that: Some weeks you have nothing to do and some weeks you simply never stop working. Last week was one of those weeks (as will be this coming one), compounded by the fact that the usual work I could spread out over a week I had to compress into three days because I was traveling on business. Yes, to all my New York friends, I was in town on Thursday and Friday. Sorry I didn’t let you know. But I was in town to work. Here’s how you know how serious I was about working: I actually stayed in a hotel, rather than crashing at a friend’s place. I knew I wouldn’t have time for actual fun this trip, and staying at someone’s place when you have no real ability to spend any time with them is kind of a jerky thing to do.

My accommodations were interesting, however: I stayed at the Hudson, which is one of the painfully hip hotels owned by Ian Schrager (history buffs will remember him as the less publicly obnoxious co-owner of Studio 54). You can tell how hip it is because it doesn’t actually have a sign outside to let you know where it is — the implication being that if you don’t know where it is, they’re not entirely sure they want you to stay there. I personally cheated in locating it: I knew its address, and the buildings on either side of it had their address on display. Process of elimination works every time. Also, I had been informed that it was a hip and trendy place, so I figured that the chartreuse glass wall acting as a door was something someone might see as hip (or a homage to Tupperware colors of days gone by).

The public areas of the Hudson were indeed crawling with groovy-looking Manhattanites (at least those who come out on Thursday nights at 8:45, which is when I checked in). But considering I was up since 3am due to traveling, I didn’t bother with any of those and went straight up to my room, which revealed itself to be more or less the dimensions of a walk-in closet. If you’ve never been there, you may think I’m joking, but I can back this up — information I’ve read about the place says that most rooms are about 150 square feet, and at least some of that space is allocated for a bathroom (think: linen closet). Most of the space that remained was taken up by the futon bed; it was fortunate that everything I brought to New York could be stored in my backpack, because there was no room for anything else. In short, it was almost exactly like my “coffin single” dormitory room in college, except with nicer wood paneling and fewer pizza cartons on the floor.

This is not exactly a criticism of the Hudson’s rooms, exactly. For who I was (a relatively small guy with who brought one change of clothes) and what I did (went straight to sleep), the room was nice and functional, and when I woke up, everything was at less than arm’s length (and the bathroom, which was cramped even for me, nonetheless had admirable water pressure for the shower, which is really all I want out of a hotel bathroom). So I had a very nice Hudson Hotel experience.

On the other hand, were I taller than 5 foot 8, or traveling with someone else, or planning to stay for more than one night, thereby requiring some place to put a suitcase, and I didn’t give a crap about hip Manhattanites loitering in the lobby, I think I’d probably book a room at a Best Western or something, should such a chain actually be allowed to exist on the isle of Manhattan. I realize this destroys whatever small margin of hipness I may have had, but, you know. I already live in rural Ohio and drive the same crappy 1989 Ford Escort I drove 10 years ago. Hipness is not a thing I have been exactly striving to achieve these days.

I’m really beginning to love New York, though. It’s partly because of the extreme compare and contrast with my usual surroundings; when you spend most of your days having to travel 11 miles to get a Big Mac (yes, really), the idea of popping down to the corner to get takeout sushi is just about the coolest thing ever (I won’t eat sushi in Ohio, incidentally, since I have a rule never to eat raw fish unless I’m within 50 miles of a coastline. You may think this is a stupid rule, but then, I dare you to consume a plate of raw fish where I live). I also simply dig the fact that New York never seems to run out of people. They just keep coming, night and day — millions of busy people walking fast, wearing black and talking on cell phones as they navigate. Compare this to the scene outside my home office window, in which I watched my neighbor drive his lawn tractor down his driveway to pick up his mail.

Part of my admiration for New York is of course rooted in the fact I don’t live there — I just show up now and then, just long enough to enjoy all the walking and takeout sushi without having to hang around and, say, watch the garbage bags piled several feet high on the sidewalk slowly marinate themselves into the pavement. Not to mention (as I so often do) that my mortgage here would translate into sufficient rent in New York to get a basement studio roughly the size of my previously mentioned hotel room — not exactly the best conditions for a growing family.

But that’s fine with me. I like the idea that I think of going to New York as a fun treat, even when all I’m doing while I’m there is working ten hours straight on a corporate messaging campaign. God knows it doesn’t work in reverse. People in New York are appropriately envious of my five acre yard, but when I start mentioning that the nearest department store to me is almost exactly the same distance as the length of Manhattan, and that the department store is a Wal-Mart, they start scanning my biceps for NASCAR-related tattoos and edging toward the nearest door. I don’t blame them in the least.

A Threat to World Peace

The European edition of Time magazine put up a poll on its Web site asking its readers which country in the world was the greatest danger to world peace: North Korea, Iraq or the United States. As of this second (8:53 am ET), 423,618 votes are in, and 85.6% of them say that it’s the US that’s the greatest danger — Iraq trails slightly at 7.8%, while North Korea gets 6.6% of the vote. It should be noted that this is one of those unscientific polls, which means that only people who choose to respond participate, so it’s not a random and statistically valid sample. But as this article from Time Europe goes on to show, even if you did run a statistically valid poll, you’d mostly likely get the same answer.

Well, and it’s true: Strictly speaking, America is the greatest threat to world peace right now. Neither the government of Iraq nor of North Korea has any desire to start a war, after all; both governments would vastly prefer to be left alone in peace to build massive palaces and fire up nuclear reactors and treat their people like bugs. Only the United States, of the three, is actively planning to attack anyone; barring a massive stroke on Saddam’s part, there seems to be very little that will keep the US military from tromping through the deserts of western Iraq whenever Bush gives the word. America’s government intends to wage war imminently; when one is at war, one is not at peace; therefore, the most imminent threat to world peace is the United States. This shouldn’t be in dispute.

What is in dispute is whether peace is genuinely the optimal state at this point in time. As I’ve mentioned before, and leaving aside the issue of North Korea, I’m pretty much of the opinion that Dubya’s fundamental reasons for wanting a war in Iraq right now are pretty bad. I believe he’s wanting a war for one part personal reasons (Saddam tried to have his daddy killed), another part personal reasons (to distract from the fact that his domestic programs frighten everyone who cannot buy their way out of trouble and/or believes that Jesus doesn’t want you to have any privacy from an authoritarian government), and yet a third part personal reasons (to hide the fact that his economic plan could have been no less coherently written by goats with crayons tied to their hooves).

But on the other hand Saddam’s ouster is more than a decade overdue, dating back to the first Gulf War, and while the interim peace in Iraq has served Saddam well, it has been of no real utility to anyone else. The people of Iraq have not been well served by peace; they’ve been stuck with a ruler whose squabbles with the UN over the years have kept them sick and starving, and whose own authoritarian rule has kept them afraid and in danger in their own country. The UN certainly hasn’t been well-served by the peace; the fact that Saddam jerked it around for years on inspections (which only resumed when the US rattled its sabers) dramatically undercut the body’s effectiveness and credibility.

The United States hasn’t been at all well-served by the peace, since its hard line on sanctions made it look like a big meanie (the whole “US starves children” thing) and because Saddam’s continued presence has given our current President a useful tool to keep attention away from his administration’s attempts to gouge large, meaty chunks out of the US Constitution and to provide the rich with a sort of economic land grab not seen since the 19th Century.

I’m not especially for a war; I’m not keen on getting our troops in harm’s direct path. But I’m also not at all for this peace either. I don’t see any reason to suffer Saddam in power any longer, as the costs of his personal peace are ruinous to everyone but him. “Peace” is not an absolute good, especially when all that can be said about it is that it is an absence of war. And this particular peace, in this particular place, needs to go.

It may be that the most effective way of doing that is a war, and that the result could be a better peace, one in which the Iraqi people don’t fear their government and have a better chance for prosperity, and the people of the United States can refocus on the damage that’s being done while their attention is being pulled somewhere else. That’s an omelet for which it’s worth breaking some eggs — hopefully more of Saddam’s eggs than our own.

If that’s what we have a chance to gain, I don’t mind if our country is a threat to world peace.

Whoosh

Our house is at the highest point in a couple of miles around us — which is not to say that it’s all that high up (this is Ohio), merely higher up than everything around us. also, our land is fairly treeless, and while there’s a windbreak of trees to our east and direct north, from the northwest (which is where the wind usually comes from), it’s pretty much a clear shot from our house to the north pole. The upshot of this is that when there are high winds, we usually know about it pretty clearly. Most of the time we lose a few shingles, which is no big deal, but the other night we had a slightly stronger wind than usual, and we lost something else — about half the railing off the front porch. Apparently the wind just whipped around our house with sufficient strength to pull one of the railing post right out, which took the railing on either side out with it. That’s some wind.

The good news is that there appears to be no major structural damage — the roof wasn’t injured, just the post and the railing. On the other hand, you know, that’s still going to be a fairly pricey fixit job. We had a contractor out yesterday with the measuring tape and the estimating and whatnot. We’re waiting to hear what the damage will be on the damage we have. This right on top of the new computer and incident involving out furnace, its blower and a distressing lack of blowing on what was the coldest night in a year convinces me that the universe is under the impression that I have more money than I need right now. Well, note to universe: Quit it. Go bug Ted Turner. It’s hard for me to concentrate when the forces of entropy are conspiring to bankrupt me several hundred dollars at a time.

***

Speaking of the universe, I got a note from my editor that The Rough Guide to the Universe is finally off to the printers. I got the note the same day scientists announced all-new information about the age of the universe and the unlocking of several big, big mysteries surrounding the big bang and the fate of the universe, which I found perfectly ironic. Fortunately, nothing in the announcement makes the information in the book obsolete, it just refined much of what’s in there.

This makes me happier than you could know, since the writing of this book was made harder by the fact that every couple of weeks, astronomers would pop up with something that would require me to do a rewrite to a greater or lesser extent (this is one reason why the chapter on Mars took three months). Now, as long as they don’t discover life anywhere else in the universe between now and May (which is when it hits the stores here in the US), I’ll be fine. It really goes against my instincts not to pray for major scientific discoveries, mind you. But it’s only for a couple of months. That’s not too much to ask.

Oscar Predictions

Update: A newspaper article on blogging in which I am quoted is up on NorthJersey.com. Here’s the link. Before I get in trouble with the blogoverse, let me take a moment to clarify this paragraph, since it will surely get someone’s back up, somewhere:

“Scalzi claims to be one of the world’s first bloggers. He says he started in that antediluvian epoch before the term “blog” existed – 1995. Back then, a blogger needed to know HTML, the Internet’s computer code, to create and maintain a blog.”

Now, I did start maintaining a personal site in 1995, to which I updated on a regular basis, and I did wrote a blog-esque column on it about technology: The Scalzi Report (I quit doing it after I got hired by AOL). And of course I started writing the Whatever in 1998, which is somewhat before most “blogs” got going.

I don’t recall saying anything along the lines of “I was one of the world’s first bloggers” — considering I prefer not to be called a blogger at all, it doesn’t sound like something I would say — but I do recall saying to the reporter that I’d been writing on my Web site for a long time, certainly long before most people who consider themselves bloggers, and I guess the reporter simply defined blogging as “writing regularly on your Web site,” which is as good a definition as any, I suppose. Anyway, before y’all slag me for me for the quote, there’s my comment on it.

Now then, on to the Oscar predictions.

This will be the eleventh year I make Oscar predictions — and remember, I was a full-time film critic and currently review DVDs, so I’m a professional! Don’t try this at home. Anyway, here’s how I expect it to go down on March 23rd. These are my educated guesses now; I’ll make a revise closer to the actual Oscar date. Typically in the past I get five out of six in the major categories (I tend to flub the supporting actor or actress category).

Best Picture — Nominees: Chicago; Gangs of New York; The Hours; Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; The Pianist

You can toss out the Two Towers because the film isn’t nominated in any other major category, including Best Director. Next to go is The Pianist, which is brilliant but depressing and it’s not my feeling the Academy wants to be depressing this year (the real world is too depressing right now). Next out, The Hours, which is awfully literary. This leaves Gangs of New York and Chicago. Gangs of New York has a reasonably good chance because it’s going to win the Oscar in another important category (to which I’ll get soon), but its your typical Scorsese thing to the extent that it is incredibly violent and has thugs as its main characters. This leaves Chicago, which has already done very well in the pre-Oscar awards, and which has the novelty of being a musical in an era where people like the idea of Hollywood doing musicals again (the revival of a long-dead genre is why, among other reasons, Unforgiven was Best Picture a decade ago).

Winner: Chicago

Best Director — Nominees: Rob Marshall, Chicago; Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York; Stephen Daldry, The Hours; Roman Polanski, The Pianist; Pedro Almodovar, Talk to Her

Out with Almodovar, who fills the ceremonial role of The One Director Whose Picture Is Not Nominated as Best Picture. None of these guys ever win — or at the very least, I can’t think of one that has. Out with Daldry, who simply doesn’t have the wattage to compete this particular year. Next out: Marshall; the Best Director and Best Picture award go together in most years, but this isn’t most years. It’s down to Polanski and Scorsese. Polanski has revivified his career with a film that lives up to his considerable talent, which is good, and he’s not won an Oscar and surely he deserves one, for Chinatown alone (and you can throw in Rosemary’s Baby as spare change). On the other hand, he did hump a 13-year-old girl and then skip the country to avoid time in the big house, and even in Hollywood, that’s a hard one to get over. And anyway, Scorsese deserves an Oscar more than any other director working today, and Hollywood is finally feeling guilty about not giving it to him for Raging Bull and Goodfellas (both slighted when the Academy, dominated by actors, give the Director award to first-time directors who also happened to be actors — Robert Redford and Kevin Costner). Call it the Scent of a Woman Oscar: The one you get for what you’ve should have gotten if for before.

Winner: Scorsese

Best Actor — Nominees: Adrien Brody, The Pianist; Nicholas Cage, Adaptation; Michael Caine, The Quiet American; Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York; Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

Anyone know Adrien Brody? No? Out he goes. Nick Cage is likewise gone; he plays a screenwriter, for God’s sake, and we all know where they reside in the Hollywood pecking order. Daniel Day-Lewis is returning to acting after a few years making shoes, and everyone’s happy to see him back, but the Academy will be content giving Scorsese the directing award as a career achievement, so the actual Gangs film is an afterthought, and that’s bad for Day-Lewis. Michael Caine deserves a whole lot of credit for pushing Miramx to release the not-exactly-patriotic American in this particular moment in time, and this nomination is his reward for that. He may yet win if Academy members somehow equate giving him an Oscar with a political statement about the war, but it’s a stretch. So we have Nicholson as the last man standing, and though I wouldn’t put it past Caine to make a last-minute surge, I expect Jack will make the podium trip. I personally think that’s too bad — I like Nicholson, but I don’t think he needs a third Best Actor Oscar (and a fourth overall), but everyone loves Jack, and Oscars are about personality rather more than about merit as often as not.

Winner: Nicholson

Best Actress – Nominees: Salma Hayek, Frieda; Nicole Kidman, The Hours; Diane Lane, Unfaithful; Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven; Renee Zellweger, Chicago

Kudos to the Academy for nominating Diane Lane; Unfaithful was mostly dreck, but she was great, and if there’s any justice, Lane will be able to parlay this into a chance to actually make good films for a change. But no one’s going to give her the Oscar for an Adrien Lynne film and she probably knows it. Salma Hayek’s nomination likewise bumps her into the “I’m a serious actress” category but won’t translate into anything more. Renee Zellweger has the juggernaut of Chicago on her side, but despite a couple of previous nominations, the vibe is still that she can be made to wait a bit longer. Julianne Moore is in the same boat, plus she’s also being nominated for supporting actress, so that introduces an interesting dynamic. Nicole Kidman will get the award because she probably should have won it last year (Halle Barry’s win, while not undeserved, was as much about Hollywood politics as anything else), because everyone loves her now, and because she’s playing a major historical figure and wearing a false nose that makes her look far less cute than she usually is. Glamorous girls playing dowdy — that’s a road to Oscar gold.

Winner: Kidman

Supporting Actor — Nominees: Chris Cooper, Adaptation; Ed Harris, The Hours; Paul Newman, Road to Perdition; John C. Reilly, Chicago; Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can

Good category, with no breakaway front-runner. Still, you can toss Paul Newman out right away; the words “Paul Newman” and “Best Supporting Actor” don’t fit together, and anyway, he’s already got a Best Actor and an Honorary Oscar. He’s done. Christopher Walken is likewise out; Catch Me is not a major contender this year. John C. Reilly and Chris Cooper are both in the same boat: Journeyman actors who are finally getting a bit of well-deserved recognition. It’s possible one or the other will pull through (Reilly more likely than Cooper due to Chicago’s current buzz), but I think it’s more likely they’ll cancel each other out. Ed Harris has been nominated three times before, has never won, and had the slight slight of having his Pollock co-star (Marsha Gay Harden) win an Oscar for what was essentially his personal labor of love. He’s owed by the Academy, and this is turning out to be a good year for people who are owed.

Winner: Harris

Supporting Actress – Nominees: Kathy Bates, About Schmidt; Julianne Moore, The Hours; Queen Latifah, Chicago; Meryl Streep, Adaptation; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago

Meryl Streep: Gone. She’s got two Oscars and she gets nominated at this point basically to fill space. Queen Latifah — gone, though bully for her that she gets a nomination; I’m a Queen Latifah fan from way back. Kathy Bates’ nomination serves to remind casting directors that she’s still available for work, and you can do worse than having her around. Catherine Zeta-Jones comes in with a lot of buzz and is obviously well-connected, as she married into one of Hollywood’s best connected families. And she’s beautiful enough to make you feel like the oxygen’s been sucked out of the room. And she can sing and dance! Be that as it may, if a Chicago backlash happens (which it may), she’ll be its victim. It’s a close, close thing, but I think Julianne Moore will pull it out, because she has the body of work, she’s been nominated before, she has the right resume of quirky projects and game big-budget attempts, and since Academy voters will he handing the Best Actress award to Kidman, they’ll want to give Moore the consolation prize. This is the selection about which I have the least confidence, but I’ll go with Moore.

Winner: Moore.

Other random thoughts:

* If Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is nominated for Best Picture next year (which I entirely expect it will), I suspect that you’ll see Peter Jackson awarded a special Oscar for his efforts. This will be a salve for him not getting a Best Director Oscar, for despite the fact he richly deserves it, I expect the Academy’s more serious members can’t bring themselves to celebrate Hobbits and elves in that way. Interestingly, however, LoTR will not be the first trilogy to have all its films nominated for Best Picture; the Godfather films did it first (although, let’s be honest, Godfather III really didn’t deserve it).

* I think there’s a very good chance that Spirited Away will take the Animated Feature Film award. The rest of the field is weak — Treasure Planet was a flop, Spirit was pedestrian, Ice Age was fun but slight. I wouldn’t mind Lilo & Stitch getting the award, since I like it very much, but the creative distance between Spirited Away and all these other films is the distance between lower-order primates and Stephen Hawking. It should get the Oscar, in any event.

* Best Original Screenplay will go to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It deserves something for pulling in, what? $250 million? And it’s not otherwise nominated. And who wouldn’t want to give Nia Vardalos an Oscar for something? I suspect the Best Adapted Screenplay will go to — wait for it — Adaptation. Interestingly, the Academy is going along with the joke of crediting the screenplay to Charlie and Donald Kaufman (Donald Kaufman being Charlie’s imaginary brother in the film). One wonders a) if they’ll have two Oscars available on March 23rd, and b) if “Donald” will be extended membership in the Academy, as all nominees are as a courtesy.

* Bowling for Columbine will win Best Documentary, because it’s the only documentary most of the Academy is aware of, and because Mike Moore loathes George Bush and so does Hollywood.

Slaughter

In the e-mail on Friday, an e-mail from a stranger (but not spam) with a link to a video of an AC-130 gunship taking out a suspected Al Qaeda/Taliban holdout in Afghanistan. Writes the correspondent:

“This video shows one – *ONE* – AC-130 gunship destroying an entire Taliban installation suspected of harboring members of al-Qaeda. I was for the war in Afghanistan, and was initially for the war with Iraq. This video changed my mind, because it demonstrates both the unbelievable power of our armed forces and the ruthlessness of same. In several instances running men blown to [sic] their feet by explosions are visually inspected to see if they are dead. If they move, they’re hit with another round from either the 40mm Gatling Cannon or the 55mm Howitzer that each AC-130 carries on board.

I’m not trying to proselytize you, just give you food for thought. Because any war with Iraq will be a massacre, and here’s the proof.”

I watched the video, which as advertised shows a collection of buildings, vehicles and people being turned into small chunks by the aforementioned AC-130 gunship (the video also features audio of the crew going about its task), but I didn’t have the same reaction as my correspondent. He was horrified at the amount of devastation a single plane could visit on multiple targets (and, I assume, specifically, multiple people). I, on the other hand, looked at the ratio of enemy killed and material damage caused the enemy versus the ratio of death/damage to our troops and equipment in this exchange. The Taliban and Al Qaeda experienced it all; ours troops experienced none. This is a very good ratio.

Let’s leave aside the philosophical question of whether war (any war, or, if you choose, the war we will most likely be conducting within a few weeks) is a moral and correct thing to do, and instead take as a given that two antagonists will soon pit themselves against each other in a contest to beat the hell out of each other, and that one of those antagonists happens to be the US, and therefore our military — with its constituent of American sons, daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, mothers and friends — is presented to take the field. It is my opinion that this military should be presented with every technological and material advantage possible to achieve its objectives as quickly as possible and with as little loss of life as possible.

An AC-130 gunship, as an example, is an excellent way to achieve these objectives: It has a relatively small crew (13) and can project a substantial amount of force (read: it can blow up a lot of things) that would otherwise have to be provided by a much larger number of infantry and equipment. I don’t think anyone is under the impression that a US infantry assault of an Al Qaeda/Taliban installation would have come away with no casualties of any sort; our military was almost certainly better armed and better equipped than the enemy was in this case, but it doesn’t take much brains to pull a trigger, and the number of troops required to do the same job as an AC-130 would have presented a lot of opportunities for targets.

An AC-130 doesn’t fly without risk — from what I know of it, it’s a slow-moving bird, and it’s not likely to be used if the enemy has substantial and successful air defenses — but it seems better able to do a number of tasks that would otherwise fall those with a better chance of getting a bullet in the gut.

Those of us who get our sense of military honor from the Klingons or the 12th Century may grumble at the lack of face-to-face time our men and women have with the people they will have to kill, but I think that’s missing the point of a war. We don’t wage wars (or, at least, shouldn’t) because we want the members of our military to generate honor by killing another soldier mano a mano. We go to war because we have objectives to achieve and (hopefully) we’ve exhausted other methods of achieving them. That being the case, let’s achieve the objectives as quickly as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is utterly overmatch the enemy’s military capability. If you can make it so that your enemy is always bringing a knife to a gunfight, the sooner the gunfights can be over.

I think one of the major objections to the warfare at arm’s length that the US has the option of performing is that it’s dehumanizing — that if you never see the people you’re dropping bombs on, you don’t think of them as human. And I’ll concede that it’s probably easier to kill someone from a few thousand feet up than from a few yards away. But I would also suggest that one of the great dehumanizing agents in history is protracted war — not just for soldiers, who are in the circumstance of having to kill other humans as their job for long stretches of their life, although that’s not an inconsiderable factor — but also to the societies that are in those wars. People in warrior societies don’t spend much time seeing members of other societies as people, particularly those with whom they are at war.

The United States, whatever else is wrong with it, is based on the premise of human equality — the shorter the war, the less time we have to pretzel ourselves against our humanizing inclinations. I’d rather those in our military have an easier time of killing the enemy quickly than our entire society having a harder time seeing an enemy as fundamentally human.

(While we’re on that, I’d make a note that the AC-130 gunship crew in the video was under strict orders not to destroy one specific building — the one identified as a mosque. And so while it destroyed everything (and everyone) else, that building remained standing after the assault.

Now, one can reasonably ask about the utility of leaving a mosque standing when one is blowing up those who would attend it, but I suspect the utility is twofold — one, to remind those on the ground that we’re not blowing them up because they’re Muslim, but that we’re blowing them up because they’re terrorists, and two, as a piece of psychological theater, it’s effective to leave one building standing amid the rubble to point out the fact that, yes, we can hit whatever we want — and not hit whatever we want, too.

Both of these provide interesting proof of American humanism, in that a) you don’t leave sub-humans recourse to their Gods, and b) you don’t waste time and effort psyching out people you’re planning to eradicate completely.)

I’d still be very pleased not to have a war in Iraq, but I don’t think that such a desire is realistic at this point. That being the case, I want the war to be quick and I want it to be as lopsided as humanly possible. I don’t want Iraqi soldiers dead (I’ll be very happy to see them surrender in droves, a la Gulf War I), but if the Iraqi soldiers decide they’re going to fight, I want them taken out of commission as quickly as possible, so that as few as our people as possible find themselves on the wrong side of a bullet. If a display of overwhelming firepower convinces Iraqis to cave, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too, because very quickly what threat they represent will be dealt with. The sooner it’s over, the better off we’ll all be.

That’s why the AC-130 doesn’t fill me with horror. If anything, it gives a sense of relief, in that it’s an indication that we have a reasonable chance of getting this war done quick, and getting our people out of harm — which also means the Iraqi conscripts and civilians will be out of harm’s way as well.

I don’t think it’ll be a massacre. A society that leaves mosques standing isn’t interested in indiscriminate killing. I just think it’ll be fast. As far as wars go, that’s not a bad way to go.

Stupid, Stupid Microsoft

There’s likely to be a brief pause in updating this site — hopefully not more than a week or so — because I need to change the software that I use to update. And therein hangs a tale.

Basically, well over a year ago I purchased Microsoft Front Page 2000 in order to keep this site reasonably well organized — prior to that time I had been using a very basic html editor and wanted something that would actually be useful and make updating more simple. Everything was fine until my most recent computer implosion about two weeks ago. I bought a new computer and so had to load all my previous purchased software onto it, including Front Page.

Microsoft requires you to register Front Page — if you do not you can only use it about 40 times before it shuts down. That’s fine; I did buy the product and I don’t really have a problem affirming the copy I have is legally mine. However, this time the registration process wasn’t working. The program wouldn’t register through the online or through the e-mail version, so I ended up having to register through the phone. And this is when the Microsoft support person told me that Microsoft was no longer accepting registrations for Front Page 2000, and that I would have to buy a new copy of the program (street price: $149.00).

Well, of course, I thought this was ridiculous. I had bought the program, and had been using it for over a year, and had not my computer fried in its own juices, I would still be able to use it. I explained this to the customer service person, and while she sympathized, there was little she could do. Which is not unreasonable — customer service people are not typically empowered to act autonomously, so there’s no reason for either they or the calling customer to pretend they can. I asked to speak to her supervisor.

Her supervisor was marginally more helpful (and here I note for the record that all representatives of Microsoft to whom I spoke were polite and courteous at all times, even as they were being mostly unhelpful) and asked me a couple of questions about the Front Page version I was using, and had an explanation as to why MS was denying my registration. It appears that I had been sold a version of Front Page that was meant for distribution to multi-license users: Big corporations and such. Since I was a personal user, this made red flags go up.

Again, fair enough. But I also told the Microsoft supervisor that I was unaware as to why this should be my problem. I’m not the one that let the wrong version of the program ship to the consumer market, I just happened to be the consumer that got the wrong version. Whether I had gotten the right version or not, I should still be allowed to use the software I had paid for.

The supervisor’s solution, as it was, involved me jumping through some hoops. First, I would need to go to or phone the store at which I bought Front Page and try to convince the clerks there to replace the product. When that failed (as of course it would, since it was purchased over a year ago and I don’t have a receipt), I could call their replacement department and get a new disc. This is obviously not an optimum solution for me, but again, fine. Let me try and see what I come up with.

The retailer, of course, passed on replacing the product, noting that above and beyond the objections that I had already suspected they would have, that Microsoft had a policy not not accepting any software that had been opened — so the retailer (Staples, in case you were wondering) would have to eat the entire cost of the replacement. So as a consequence, Staples has a very strict policy regarding Microsoft returns. The manager (again, very helpful — the service industry’s manners were in fine display during this whole thing) was more than happy to give me his name and a contact number so I could point Microsoft in his direction; I had a feeling he liked the idea of being able to give a Minions of Bill a piece of his mind.

Back to Microsoft, and a phone call to the replacement department, whose representative told me that she would be more than happy to replace the software. But — it would probably take three to four weeks to ship the replacement copy (although she did offer to have it sent overnight as soon as the order was processed, which I thought was considerate, if missing the point), and there would be a replacement copy charge of $23.95 (or some such) plus shipping. All to replace software I legally had purchased and which was running just fine (albeit only for a few more times), and which lacked only an easily replaceable confirmation code.

And so at that point I told her to forget it and that I would be going out to buy a competitor’s product. Because we had passed into the realm of the ridiculous. I saw no reason why I should be penalized because Microsoft screwed up — and I saw no reason to pay Microsoft an additional $30 when it could simply cough up a confirmation code.

So out goes Microsoft Front Page — what you’re reading here is the product of my last ever use of the product. Because, and I want to be clear here, I would rather go out and pay for a competitor’s product — even if it means paying a couple hundred dollars — than pay Microsoft $30 it doesn’t deserve to have because it is unwilling or unable to allow me to use the product I paid it for.

But wait, there’s more. I plan to make this a more expansive boycott than that. I don’t want to suggest that I won’t ever use a Microsoft product again, because that’s just silly, and in some cases impractical. I’m not switching my OS because I have too much invested in Windows at the moment (all my software is here, and I just bought this computer, so I’m not going to rush out to get a Mac). But short of that, I’ll switch everything else. I’ll start by going in and changing all my file associations to non-MS products (i.e., I’ll use Real Player or Winamp rather than Media Windows Player, and Abiword or some other word processing product other than Word).

Given the choice of using a Microsoft product and a competing product, I’ll pick the competing product. I already do this with some products — I use Mozilla over IE because Mozilla is flatly better, and I use Eudora over Outlook because just about the only thing Outlook is good for is letting viruses and worms rampage all over your hard drives — but now it’ll be my default inclination. Microsoft will no longer get any money of mine so long as there is another competing product of roughly equal (or even slightly lesser) utility (I’ll keep reading Slate, though. It’s better than Salon. And it doesn’t cost me anything).

Obviously, I’m aware that Microsoft will not be quivering in its boots about this. But it’s not about Microsoft, it’s about me. Microsoft might not miss my contribution to its bottom line, but I get the satisfaction of knowing that Microsoft’s number of chances to screw me in a pointlessly greedy fashion are now greatly reduced. That’s better than any microscopic dent I can kick into Bill Gates’ compound interest.

Likewise, I’m not calling on anyone else to follow my example as it relates to Microsoft — you may never have the same circumstances I had. But on the other hand, if you’re exasperated by the hoops Microsoft (or anyone else) makes you jump through, for whatever reason, just stop jumping through the hoops. It’s easier than you think.

Anyway, down for probably a week or so. See you on the other side.

New Retirement Accounts

I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m generally of the opinion that the words “Republicans” and “taxes” are just grown-up words for “children” and “matches,” so you can imagine my utter shock and horror at learning of a tax proposal from Dubya and his cronies that (in theory, at the very least) I can get behind. Last week, the administration floated some changes in long term savings accounts, allowing Americans to save after-tax income in accounts that would subsequently be tax-free. You haven’t heard about it because among other things a shuttle blew up. But they’re out there.

These come basically in two flavors. The first would be Retirement Savings Accounts, which would allow people to save $7,500 of their income a year (a figure which would apparently be adjusted for inflation as time goes on) into a retirement account. The money put in would be taxed (i.e., it counts as part of your income for the year), but it’s not taxed when you take it out (which you’d start to be able to at age 58, as opposed to 59 1/2 for IRAs today). Basically, it’s a Roth IRA with a higher contribution ceiling.

Without knowing too much more about the details, I have to say I’m all for this. Roth IRAs rock in a general sense, because they allow you to take a small amount of tax pain now so you don’t have to take a huge amount of tax pain later — which is to say it’s easier to pay taxes on the (currently) $3,500 or whatever you’re putting into your Roth IRA now, then pay taxes on what you take out of it when you retire and your retirement savings count for a large portion of your total income (i.e., when you’re going to need every penny you can get for your heart pills and heat).

And speaking as someone who is self-employed and lacks all the 401(k) bennies worker drones get, my biggest complain about how IRAs are structured is that you can’t put enough of your money into them. I’m showing my class structure here, but a $3,500 yearly limit on IRA contributions is criminally stupid and low. $7,500 a year would put everyone who contributes to a retirement account into a much better position, just from compound interest alone. Also, the proposal would mean that anyone could sign up for a retirement account — currently certain people above certain income levels can’t establish either traditional or Roth IRAs (which, um, came as a mildly panicking surprise to some certain individuals). So by all means, sign me up.

The second flavor is more philosophically interesting but probably politically a trouble maker — the Lifetime Savings Accounts, which allow people to save $7,500 a year, tax-free, for anything they want whenever they want to get it. Ostensibly, these accounts could be used for medical and educational expenses (and indeed, under Bush’s proposal, it would replace current federal medical and educational savings accounts, which could be rolled over into them), but if you just wanted to spend it on video games and gum, you could do that too. The report I linked to higher up in this suggests that the LSAs would work like a traditional IRA (tax-free to contribute but distributions are taxed) while a Wall Street Journal article suggests it’s going to be like a Roth — given who Republicans are and how they’d generally prefer to structure their taxes, I’ll side with the WSJ on this one and assume it’s a Roth-like structure.

This one’s problematic because there are no restrictions on it — unlike the RSA, the money to fund this savings account can come from anywhere (i.e., it doesn’t have to be income from work), and there are no limits on distributions. So in that regard it undercuts the RSA to the extent that most people, given the choice between putting their money into an account where they can’t easily access their cash for decades, and one they can access right this second, are going to pick the latter account — and because they can access the latter account whenever they want, as a practical matter its overall utility as a savings account is likely to be rather low.

Let’s be honest and admit that one of the unheralded benefits of the IRA set-up (and that of the various other federal savings plans) is their stern single-mindedness of utility. No, you can’t have this now, the IRA says, sternly wagging its finger as you try to grab some of your money for that Cancun vacation. You’re going to need it when you’re decrepit and the children stop calling. You’ll thank me later. And we tromp off muttering, knowing that the IRA is right, even though Cancun is calling. Without that waggling finger, the Mexican economy is likely to benefit from a bunch of nice tax-free vacations. And while that’s good for Mexico, it’s not so good for those vacationers’ eventual retirements.

This is the cue for Republicans to chime in and note that people would still have the choice between the RSA and LSA, and anyway, it’s obnoxious of me to assume that people aren’t fundamentally intelligent enough to make the right choices about their own money. But I don’t know that it’s so much a question of intelligence as a question of perspective. The number of 22-year-olds with IRAs could fit on a head of a pin, even though basic compound interest means that even a little saved at 22 is going to translate to big payouts 50 years down the line. But people don’t think about things that are going to happen at a point in time twice as far away as they actually lived.

Given the general savings level in the US (in which half of us save less than $1,000 a year, according to the Consumer Federation of America), and that more than half of us are way behind in our retirement savings as it is (same source), it’s fair to say that people don’t prioritize savings, and that they prioritize more immediate and possibly less-than-critical expenses over retirement.

In short, I have little doubt that people would fund (and withdraw from) their LSAs far more than they will fund their RSAs, and will subsequently save rather less than they could for retirement. So while on a philosophical level I don’t have any problems with the LSA (who wouldn’t want to save money tax-free?), on a practical level I see political trouble ahead for it. Like it or not, people do need something with a penalty involved to get them to save for the long run, and the LSA ain’t it.

So naturally, you can assume that I assume that the LSA is really what Bush and his pals want, and the RSA is a sop thrown in as a distraction. The LSA is, fundamentally, a no-restrictions capital gains tax cut, and while everyone can take advantage of it, again as a practical matter it will be most useful for the high-income sorts who have the ability to park $7,500 a year and not have to think about it again for a couple of decades. The average schmoe making $40,000 a year is neither liable to fully fund an LSA nor liable to resist dipping into it on a regular basis, so while it still has utility for him, its full, most useful benefit as a compound interest engine devolves to the upper classes (who can of course also fully fund an RSA as well). It’s more proof that all the way around it’s simply better to be well off than not — and that’s easier to be rich and stay rich, than to be poor and get rich (or even somewhat comfortable).

Whatever the ultimate fate of the LSA, I certainly hope the RSA makes it through. I could use it, and would use it, and most people are in the same boat as I am with this one.

Columbia; A Trip to Tor

Others have commented extensively on the Columbia explosion, and I don’t have much to add, except to say: I’ll go on the next shuttle. And so will most of the people I know (which would make the shuttle ride crowded, to say the least). And it’s because we all believe that people need to be in space. I don’t think it’s at all out of line to suggest that none of the seven shuttle astronauts who died would have wanted their deaths to signal the end of manned flight into space, and unfortunately there are any number of people who would attempt it to do just that. That would be a terrible mistake.

I’m not one of those people who believes that mankind’s destiny remains unfulfilled unless we colonize Mars, or that colonization of space is our insurance plan against a whacking from an asteroid. But do I want to see a human on the surface of the Red Planet before I pass from our own particular planet? I do. President Kennedy had it exactly right when he said of the challenge of putting a man on the moon that we do these things because they are difficult, and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, every human with the ability to understand (which unfortunately did not include my two-month-old self) was intimately aware of the miracles ordinary men can accomplish through will and through determination.

Every trip into space is an echo of this will. Aside from the practical values of space exploration, it serves to remind us that are capable of literally reaching toward the stars. We should be in space not because our survival as a race depends on it, but because our aspirations as a global nation demand it of us.

Ad Astra Per Aspera – “To the stars, with difficulties.” Columbia, to our great sadness, typifies this. But we do this because it is difficult. And we will go to the stars. Put me in the next shuttle. If I could go, I would. I wouldn’t miss it for this world, or for the one we’ll set foot on next.

***

Aside from the sad task of having to inform a very dear friend about the Columbia explosion, my recent trip to New York was a very positive one. I had scheduled it a while back as a pleasure trip to see friends, but along the way I ended up piling in some work as well, and I’m glad I did, since one of the highlights of the trip was traveling to the offices of Tor Books (soon to be my novel’s publisher) and meeting both Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden.

Two words came to mind when I stepped into the Tor offices themselves: “Firetrap” and “Cool.” “Firetrap” because the entire office is covered with books and paper from floor to ceiling; a mere static electricity discharge could turn the 14th floor of the Flatiron Building into a fireball that would rain down shards of glass and toasted manuscript pages on Broadway and 5th Avenue. I spent no little time looking to make sure I knew where the fire extinguishers were.

“Cool” because I’ve simply never seen so much science fiction in one place at one time. It’s like I had died and gone to geek heaven, although I do have to say that I hope the real heaven, geek or otherwise, does not have acoustic tile ceilings. And of course while I’m standing there looking at the near-infinite shelves of SF and Fantasy, I get to have the giggly thrill of realizing that fairly shortly my own book is going to be up there, nestled against the Orson Scott Cards and Steven Brusts and Robert Jordans and so on. No, I’m not worthy. But then again, ask me if I care.

Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden were also hella swell, and not just because they loaded me down with enough books to strain the stitching on my backpack (including Theresa’s own very interesting collection of essays, Making Book, which she autographed for me, so there). It’s also because they’re what every SF writer and/or fan hopes they grow up to be: Smart, capable, interesting, inquisitive, well-read (obviously), pragmatic yet with a dreamer’s sense of the possible and — this deserves special note — real fun conversationalists.

In short, neat folks, and we had a very good lunch, in which we talked about life, the universe and marketing (it was a business lunch, after all). I had been happy my novel had landed at Tor before, of course (what author of science fiction wouldn’t be), but meeting the Nielsen Haydens gave me that extra added bit of confidence that the novel is in good hands. If you ever have an opportunity to sell a book to them, it’s an experience I recommend for the lunchtime chat alone.

After the trip to Tor, I made a quick stop at my other publisher (bwa ha ha! Two publishers! Bwa ha ha! Sorry, I just get this way sometimes) to find out what’s up with the astronomy book. Turns out the publishing date’s changed: It’s now due for May here in the US (it’ll be out in April in the UK). This is fine with me, as it gives everyone more time to save their pennies. And May is my birthday month, so that’s good too. I did see some of the advance advertising for the book, which are pretty cool — images from the book are on the cover of Rough Guide’s quarterly book catalog, and they’ve also put out an advance flyer to hand out to distributors and booksellers. I also got a copy of Rough Guides’ newsletter, which features an article I put together on Mars. So all told, they’re priming the pump pretty well.

In all, a good day — one of those days when, as a writer, you get to say to yourself, damn, I’m a writer, and you get a moment to reflect that writing sometimes is more than just something you do, it’s something that helps you define who you are. Then you go home and wade back into the actual writing and it’s suddenly a lot less romantic, because you’ve got deadlines and nit-picky editorial changes to make and whatnot and so on.

But that’s okay — it’s a good trade. You do the work and every now and then you get a reward: A visit to an office with wall-to-wall books, lunch with your editors, a brainstorming session to get your book sold in stores, and the nice buzz that comes from knowing you’re for real and for true an actual, not-faking-it author. It’s a fine thing.

***

Also, just in case you sent me e-mail while I was in New York: 1,183 pieces of spam waiting for me when I got back. It’ll take a little time to wade through that and find the real mail. Please be patient.