Monthly Archives: May 2003

Wrap Up on “Tax Cuts, Feh”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t This Nice.

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

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

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

Vacation Pictures

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

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

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

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

Tax Cuts, Feh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Cat Update Update

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

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

Ghlaghghee.

That’s the “gh” from “enough,” the “a” from “assumption” and the “ee” from “flee.” The “l” remains an “l”.

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

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

Writing Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ScalziProduct ™

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

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

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

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

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

New Cat Update

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

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

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

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

Here’s Rod Stewart!

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

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

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

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

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

Me Rite Guud!

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

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

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

Two things here:

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

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

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

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

So That’s How You Do It.

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Cat

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

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

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

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

Anyway: Got cat names? We’re open.

Interesting Factoid

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

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

Another Note From Athena

Dear Whatever Readers:

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

See you later!

Yours,

Athena

Café Press

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

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

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

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

Vanity, Vanity

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

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

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

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

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

Spooky Eye and Etc.

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

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

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

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

Mmmm… crayons.

Smoke This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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