Monthly Archives: June 2003

Technical Post

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

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

Pretty Picture Overload

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

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

A Free Tip

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

Represented

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

Making Bets

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

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

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

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

Anyway: Ten years. Starting… now.

Sodomy For Everyone!

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

Support Lileks

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

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

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

Anyway, that’s my pitch for James.

What I’m Writing When You’re Not Looking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Too Bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Off

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

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

Reader Request Wrapup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clowns: Scary or funny?

Scary. I mean, yeeesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the Dumb Headlines

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

Anyway, headlines:

* And Iowa’s Streets Will Flow Cornhusker Red!

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

* You Know, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Had a Fabulous Singing Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Hakencreuzing For a Bruising

Yeah, I’m having fun.

Reader Request #8: Writing

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

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

where do you get your ideas?

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

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

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

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

The answers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoo Hoo!

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

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

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

Reader Request #7: Ohio


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader Request #6: Immigration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, no. Just kidding. You can stay.

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

Reader Request #5: Jealousy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader Request #4: Testing Preschoolers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader Request #3: TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader Request #2: Life Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s where we are at the moment.

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