How to Challenge Science

The Creationists arrived like clockwork in the comments thread in yesterday’s entry, dragging their usual tired armaments of Richard Behe and “Evolution is just a theory” with them because they’re apparently under the impression that I’m as ignorant and credulous as they are. I’m not, and I’ve got the entire corpus of evolutionary biology to back me up, yo. So please, if Behe and a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word “theory” means in the context of science is all you got, please don’t come knocking. I’ve got better things to do.

Such as: Noting an example of how science actually works to challenge existing theory — not by hauling out bad science performed by people of dubious qualifications in the service of an already-determined result, but by people of experience offering new hypotheses to better fit data about the universe as it exists. As it happens, the popular science magazine Discover has as this month’s cover story a fine example of this: A new spin on the creation of the universe.

Let’s recap: Currently, the best theory we have on how the universe begun is the Big Bang theory, which says (very basically) that some 13.7 billion years ago the universe sprang into being as a super-dense, super-massive pinprick of matter and energy, which rapidly expanded and cooled over time, forming stars, galaxies and superclusters as it did so. The reason the Big Bang theory is the current leading theory is that it is the theory that best describes the universe as it exists — it explains the universal background radiation, for example, as well as the percentage of helium present in the universe.

But there are things in the universe which are not easily explained — for example, the universe seems to be flying apart at an increasing speed over time, necessitating the need for cosmologists to postulate the existence of mysterious “dark energy” — and there are some kludgy patches that cosmologists have applied to the Big Bang theory to make it work in light of emerging data about the universe. One big kludge is the “inflationary model,” which has the universe undergoing an astounding faster-than-light increase in size for a very short (far less than a second) but immensely significant amount of time. The problem with these sort of kludges is that they make the big bang theory significantly more complicated — and whenever possible, scientists want to find the simplest explanation possible for what they observe.

With that in mind (and here I note I’m skipping over a tremendous amount of information relating to superstring theory and quantum physics), cosmologists Neil Turok, Paul Steinhardt, Burt Ovrut and Justin Khory have suggested a new model of universal creation called the “ekpyrotic universe.” In this theory, there is no initial “Big Bang.” Instead, our universe exists as a three-dimensional “membrane” floating in a multidimensional space with other similar “branes.” At some point, our universe’s “brane” collided with another “brane” — a cosmic crash-up from which was released immense amounts of energy that eventually became the observable universe. The beauty of this theory is that it obviates the need for “dark energy” — the increasing expansion of the universe is apparently an artifact of the initial collision, and by eliminating the need for a Big Bang, also gets rid of inelegant things like inflationary periods (which, interestingly, was theorized in part by Steinhardt).

(And for those of us who are sort of depressed about the idea of an eventual heat death of the universe, the ekpyrotic universe offers the potential for the universe to begin anew every trillion years or so, as the “branes” that created the universe — and which drifted apart thanks to the energy released in the collision — drift together again for another universe-creating crash-up.)

How have cosmologists reacted to this new hypothesis? Well, they are skeptical, of course, as well they should be. Indeed, even its presenters acknowledge that it needs to jump over a number of hurdles before it can claim acceptance — the review of the cosmologists’ professional peers, for example, and the collection of data which can either support or refute the hypothesis. “If were right,” says Steinhardt in the Discover article, “it will be terrifically exciting. If we turn out to be wrong, that’ll be disappointing, of course, but it’s still important to challenge inflation with alternate theories so we can see how robust it really is.”

It’s also worth noting that before Steinhardt, et al. presented the idea of the “ekpyrotic universe,” they spent a year and a half secretly trying to break it — that is, to look for ways that they could prove it false. “We fully expected the whole idea to fall apart,” Turok told Discover.

So, why is this good science?

1. It attempts to explain the observed data collected about the universe.
2. It does not start from a conclusion about the nature of the universe and work its way backward.
3. Those who have presented the hypothesis work in the field and know its intricacies — indeed, one of of the presenters helped create the current “best-fit” model of the universe.
4. The presenters questioned their own hypothesis extensively and critically over a significant amount of time before presenting it to their peers — i.e., performed due diligence.
5. They have presented it for peer review and accept the idea that it may be incorrect and recognize the need for data to support their hypothesis.

Should we teach the ekpyrotic universe in our schools alongside the Big Bang, as an alternate theory of the creation of the universe? No — because there’s not enough data to support its hypothesis one way or the other. And certainly if its fundamental theses are disproved by data, it should be tossed aside as a viable theory — much like the “Steady State” theory was displaced by the Big Bang theory. We might briefly note it as an example of an alternate theory (and I should note that in my own astronomy book, I do just that — giving it a paragraph in a sidebar about alternate theories), but until it proves itself viable, it doesn’t merit displacing the current model or being taught as a “separate-but-equal” alternative.

This is how science is challenged: Thoughtfully, carefully and in service to the universe as it is, not how we wish it to be. Would that all those who wish to their “theories” considered in our places of learning were so devoted to the processes of science, and willing to have it challenged before proclaiming it as a viable “alternative.”


Evolution! Evolution! Evo–(Sound of Being Tackled)

You know this proposal to delete the word “Evolution” from Georgia’s schools is neuron-jammingly idiotic when even creationists think it’s stupid:

“If you’re teaching the concept without the word, what’s the point?” said Rep. Bobby Franklin, a Republican. “It’s stupid. It’s like teaching gravity without using the word gravity.”

“Gravity,” which Georgia students will soon know as “Falling toward the center of mass.”

Over at the Georgia Department of Education Web site, the department lays out its reasons for wanting to ban the word:

Why, then, is the word itself not used in the draft of the curriculum, when the concepts are there? The unfortunate truth is that “evolution” has become a controversial buzzword that could prevent some from reading the proposed biology curriculum comprehensive document with multiple scientific models woven throughout. We don’t want the public or our students to get stuck on a word when the curriculum actually includes the most widely accepted theories for biology.

If we take Georgia’s Department of Education at its word, this is what it’s saying: If we don’t call it evolution, we can sneak it past the Creationists.

Well, you know. I tend to think Creationists are willfully ignorant (which is fine, except they want my child to be ignorant too, which is not), but “willfully ignorant” is absolutely not the same thing as “stupid.” If Creationists were stupid, we wouldn’t have such a damned difficult time keeping their Bible-jammy hands off the science curriculum. These are smart, motivated people, and suggesting they’re going to be led off the evolutionary scent by changing what you call evolution when you teach it is both arrogant and insulting. By this same concept, if we just called abortion “removal of extraneous non-native uterine tissue,” the anti-abortion people would wander off, satisfied that their work here is done. Rest assured, they would not.

So it’s insulting to the Creationists. That is, if we take the Georgia Department of Education at its word. But why would we do that? Aside from there being ample reason never to automatically trust politicians, if we know anything about the Creationists, we know that they’re smart and patient and know how to use the political system to try to get their way. To use football metaphors here, creationists play a ground game; sure, they’ll throw a “Hail Mary” long bomb every once in a while just to throw off the liberals, but 98% of their game is marching up the field a few yards at a time. They’re willing to take a few hits and yard losses if it gets them into a better overall position, which is why, for example, they’re pushing “intelligent design” these days instead of trying to get evolution tossed out of schools outright.

And so, while in the short term “biological change over time” is insulting to Creationists, in the long term, it’s insulting everyone else, since “Biological Change Over Time” is not an equivalent phrase for “evolution.” “Evolution” is tied to a well-understood general process of biology, in which the genetics of living things change through mutation, which is random when it occurs naturally. It is biological change over time, but not all biological changes over time are necessarily evolution. For example, “intelligent design” is also “biological change over time,” but it is most emphatically not evolution.

Given the continual pressure to jam in less scientifically-rigorous explanations of biological change because certain religious people just can’t hang with Darwin — by way of an example, there is currently a bill in the Missouri state lege to teach “intelligent design” alongside evolution — people who don’t want their children to get substandard public educations at the whim of evangelicals are quite right to be suspicious of the change as well.

In everyone else’s paranoid fantasies, for now, the state of Georgia will teach evolution. But there’s absolutely no assurance that somewhere down the line, and sooner than later, some fatbacked conservative God monkey will hoot up and down in the Georgia lege and try to stuff whatever version of intelligent design is creeping around that the time into the school system on the rationale that the phrase being used in the schools is “biological change over time,” not “evolution.”

So the question is: Which do you want to believe? That the Georgia Department of Education is insulting a fair percentage of Georgia’s taxpayers by asserting that they’re stupid? Or that it is eventually planning to undermine the education of the children of all of Georgia tax payers by allowing a small change in verbiage that equates to a large change in meaning? If you believe the former, you’d keep the word “evolution” because you know most people aren’t stupid. If you believe the latter, you’d keep the word “evolution” to assure that the children of Georgia don’t end up ignorant. Either way, evolution should be here to stay.

There is a third possible explanation: That those running the Georgia Department of Education simply aren’t very smart. Wouldn’t that be terrifying irony.

Update: Looks more and more like explanation number two:

In the past, [Georgia Superintendent of Schools Kathy] Cox, has not masked her feelings on the matter of creationism versus evolution. During her run for office, Ms. Cox congratulated parents who wanted Christian notions of Earth and human creation to be taught in schools.

“I’d leave the state out of it and would make sure teachers were well prepared to deal with competing theories,” she said at a public debate.

Gee, I wonder what will be the “competing theory” there. I just think it’s a shame for Georgia that the woman who runs its schools is apparently keen on making the state’s children ignorant as chickens.

To reinforce that idea: A Georgia high school teacher’s take on the new proposed educational standards, which among other things will kind of gloss over American history prior to 1876, which rather handily takes care of that whole inconvenient Civil War thing. It’s good to know that in about 13 years, Athena won’t have to worry about some kid from Georgia taking her spot at the college of her choice.

Oh, and look at this: Georgia’s not particularly interested in teachers who could be truly exceptional:

Recently, I interviewed with a school in one of the metro Atlanta counties, only to receive an e-mail from the principal stating, “Though your qualifications are quite impressive, I regret to inform you that we have selected another candidate. It was felt that your demeanor and therefore presence in the classroom would serve as an unrealistic expectation as to what high school students could strive to achieve or become. However, it is highly recommended that you seek employment at the collegiate level; there your intellectual comportment would be greatly appreciated. Good luck.”

Not a good time to be getting educated down South, clearly.

Update: Hey, creationists! Wanna know how to really challenge science? I’ve got some tips for you right here.


Mama Blogs

Here’s how I know blogs have reached that critical level of mass acceptance: My mother has just inaugurated her blog, Musings From Mexico. The title comes from the fact that my mother lives in Mexico, where she runs a mission dedicated to providing a safe home to at-risk Mexican children. She’s like Mother Teresa of Baja California. I’m hoping she’ll put in a good word for me with, you know, the big guy. I think it helps that I actually helped her set up her blog. Look at me, acting all technical-ish and stuff.

I do encourage you all to drop by my mom’s new blog digs and welcome her to the blogosphere, but I note to you that if you’re expecting a female version of me, you’re likely to be surprised as in many ways we’re different, not in the least because I am quite agnostic and she is quite Saved (and no, before you ask, the latter has very little to do with the former, as mom got saved after I was already in college). She is in all sorts of ways very much her own person — that much we do have in common, anyway.

So there you have it. Go say hi to my mom, why don’t you.

(P.S. — if you do go say hi, don’t call her “mama Scalzi.” She’s married now to a very nice man named Robert Perez. Say, “Hi, Mrs. Perez!” or, if you’re feeling saucy and latin, “Hola, Señora Perez!” She speaks Spanish, you know. Go ahead, try it out on her!)


IndieCrit is Back

A note to all you music-loving mad cats: After about five months off, I’ve reactivated IndieCrit and made a few changes to it. Basically, I’d abandoned it because I didn’t have time to write reviews for it, so now the reviews have gone pretty much to the wayside in favor of direct links to downloadable and/or streaming music put up on the Web by indie musicians. I figure I can add one a day without too much of an impact on my work life, although today there are five links, because, really, you have to start off with extra stuff. I’ve also turned on the comments over there so you can talk about the music I’m highlighting.

So what are you waiting for? Go over there and sample new indie music, damn you! And tell all your friends about it, if you please.


Oscar Predictions 2004

As I do every year, I’m offering my predictions on how the Oscars will play out by looking at the nominations today and picking my favorites now, and then checking in the day before the actual show and making any modifications, if necessary. Historically speaking — and we’re talking all the way back to 1991, here — I correctly pick five of the six top categories (being Best Picture, Best Director, and the acting categories). I usually screw up one of the supporting actor categories. Last year I went four for six, missing Best Director and Best Actor. But no one got those right last year, so I don’t feel so bad.

Here we go:

Best Picture — Nominees: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; Lost in Translation; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Mystic River; Seabiscuit

The big news here is who isn’t here: Cold Mountain, which many Oscar observers had flogged as a big contender. So I guess the Golden Globes near-shutout wasn’t just a fluke. First out is Seabiscuit — nice that it’s nominated but it’s the ritual Best Picture Nominee Whose Director Wasn’t Nominated, and you pretty much can’t win Best Picture if your director isn’t even nominated. Next out: Master and Commander — might have been a strong contender some other year and if it had done better at the box office to this point (It’s done $85 million in domestic business, which isn’t bad as long as you don’t consider it cost $150 million to make). Fact is there’s a pretty good correlation between box office and Best Picture, and Master is not masterful in this case. The good news here for the movie is that this nomination will pad its coffers some.

Lost in Translation is out next — great character study and a beautiful little film, but it’s just not a year for beautiful little films. Also, it’s nominally a comedy, which makes its job tougher. Mystic River has a great pedigree, but I believe it’s more of a critical fave than a true fave — the sort of film people respect rather than actually like. This leaves Return of the King, which has everything going for it: Massive critical and commercial success, a solid run at the earlier and more minor awards, and the overall perception that after three generally wonderful films, the Lord of the Rings series is owed some official recognition. People make noise that fantasy films have never won a Best Picture, but look, people. This ain’t Willow. It’s going to win.

Winner: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Best Director — Nominees: Fernando Mirelles, City of God; Peter Jackson, The Return of the King; Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation; Peter Weir, Master and Commander; Clint Eastwood, Mystic River

Bye-bye Mirelles; nice you got nominated in what seems to be becoming the annual foreign director gimmee slot, but your picture wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Enjoy the parties. Sofia Coppola is next out the door, but don’t feel sorry for her, as she’s very likely to get a screenwriting Oscar; call it the Orson Welles Memorial Screenwriting Oscar for Directors the Academy Feels It Owes Something To (other winners of the Welles: Jane Campion, Quentin Tarantino). Poor Peter Weir is always the bridesmaid, never the bride, and has the bad luck to direct a technically impressive shoot in a year when someone else did one even more technically impressive. Eastwood has a good chance — why wouldn’t he? — but he’s already got one directing Oscar, so it doesn’t feel as if he’s owed.

Jackson, on the other hand, is owed, big time. The Lord of the Rings is arguably the single most complex directing assignment any director has ever undertaken: filming three films at one time and managing up to 20,000 people on the cast and crew while still getting some really good performances out his actors (none of whom are nominated this year, which is a bit of a shame). The fact that each film is excellent counts in his favor as well; no matter how you slice it, it’s the best film trilogy ever, and that’s worth a statuette.

Winner: Peter Jackson

Best Actor — Nominees: Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl; Ben Kingsley: House of Sand and Fog; Jude Law, Cold Mountain; Bill Murray, Lost in Translation; Sean Penn, Mystic River

Bye-bye, Jude and Ben. Cold Mountain’s awards floppiness is going to rub off here, and anyway, there are other more compelling performances to look at. Kingsley’s great, but he should have gotten the award a couple of years ago for Sexy Beast, and House, while doing okay for an art film, hasn’t gotten much traction outside a couple of the performances. Awesome that Johnny Depp got a nomination for Pirates; he totally deserves it. But let me suggest that actually giving it to him might be an “arrrgh” too far for the Academy.

Leaving: Sean Penn and Bill Murray. The smart money’s on Penn, who is indeed great in Mystic River. But I think there’s an excellent chance that Murray might sneak by with this one. Reasons: Translation is still relatively early in its release cycle, it’s otherwise doing very well in awards, it’s something of an acting rehabilitation for Murray (who is after all best known for fluff like Stripes, Ghostbusters and Caddyshack), and besides, Murray showed up to pick up his Golden Globe and Penn didn’t. Penn is undoubtedly the better actor of the two, but as of this moment I think Murray has a (very slim) lead. This is definitely one where I’ll want to check in again before the actual ceremony.

Winner: Bill Murray

Best Actress — Nominees: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider; Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give; Samantha Morton, In America; Charlize Theron, Monster; Naomi Watts, 21 Grams.

Good on the Academy for nominating Castle-Hughes in the criminally little-seen Whale Rider, and for having the guts to nominate a young teenager in a leading acting category. She won’t win, but it hardly matters. Samantha Morton gets to keep working, which is nice for her (and nice for us, she’s a fine actress). Naomi Watts is where Nicole Kidman was a few years ago — primed for Oscar glory but not there yet.

So we have Keaton and Theron left. Keaton has a pretty good chance here — she’s won for a comedy performance before (Annie Hall), which makes another win for a role in the genre not impossible. Also, of course, she’s a well-regarded vet of the industry and she’s given a performance in which she’s entirely comfortable being her age (as evidenced by her nude scene), which must be heartening for the generally older Academy population. But Theron does everything you’re supposed to do to win an Best Actress Oscar, which includes obscuring the fact you’re a totally hot young lady, wallowing in a role that is a massive change of pace, and (let’s not forget) actually doing more than a decent acting job while doing it. The fact that the chick who was eye candy in The Italian Job convincingly transformed herself into Aileen Wournos, serial killer, is worth noting. I think she’ll get it, though at this point I wouldn’t count out Keaton.

Winner: Charlize Theron

Best Supporting Actor — Nominees: Alec Baldwin, The Cooler; Benico Del Toro, 21 Grams; Djimon Hounsou, In America; Tim Robbins, Mystic River; Ken Watanabe, The Last Samauri

Interesting selections here. First out: Hounsou. Glad he’s getting recognition, though — he’s been really good in everything from Amistad on. Ken Watanabe is out at the same time; neither he nor Hounsou has any constituency in the Academy. Benicio Del Toro has a good chance, but he did already win a Supporting Actor Oscar (for Traffic), so it’s not as if he needs another one.

I think it’s a toss-up between Baldwin and Robbins, both of whom offer good reasons to pick them: For Baldwin, it’s a recognition that while he’s flamed out as a leading man, he does have the acting chops and he’s an excellent presence (my all-time favorite thing he’s done is his brief but rockin’ turn in Glengarry Glen Ross). Robbins is a jack-of-all-trades (he’s been nominated before in the directing category) and of course, he was also very good in a difficult role. I’m leaning very slightly towards Robbins at the moment, but it’s a lean so slight that you’ll barely see it. I’ll revisit this one again. Also — if Robbins gets the Oscar in this category, I think you can kiss Penn’s Best Actor Oscar goodbye; I suspect voters may think they’ve already awarded Mystic River enough hardware.

Winner: Tim Robbins

Best Supporting Actress — Nominees: Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog; Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April; Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River; Holly Hunter, Thirteen; Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain

More interesting picks in a notoriously difficult category. Harden out first; she’s already won a supporting Oscar recently (for Pollack), so there’s no need for two. Hunter out next, since not all that many people have seen Thirteen, and the focus is so much on the kids in the film that Hunter gets washed out. Aghdashloo is a good dark horse for this category, but I don’t think this is a year for dark horses.

In a normal year I think Clarkson would have a good chance: She’s good in April and she also turned in another fine performance in The Station Agent, which is another film most people haven’t seen, but heard good things about. And she’s been a patient trooper of an actor for years (I first saw her in The Untouchables, as Kevin Costner’s wife). But, see, the thing is, there’s Renee Zellweger. She’s been nominated for Oscars twice, both in the leading category, and I believe that being nominated twice in the leading category can be redeemed for an actual win in the supporting category. And I think it will.

Winner: Renee Zellweger

Other thoughts:

* It will be interesting to see if the Best Animated Feature Oscar goes to Finding Nemo or The Triplets of Belleville. I’m guessing Nemo but given Spirited Away’s win last year Belleville is not outside the realm of thought — and it would mean that a category everyone expected to be a rubber stamp for Disney would actually be one of the most adventurous categories in the pile (Disney, by the way, has never won one of these for an in-house film — its Brother Bear is nominated this year but has no chance).

* Screenwriting: I expect the Original Screenplay award to go to Sofia Coppola (she’s helped by the fact the category is relatively weak), but I have no idea where the Adapted Screenplay will go. I’d like Return of the King to pick it up, as recognition for the screenwriting team for all three films, but it’s not actually the best screenplay of the three films (Fellowship is), and the other nominees (City of God, American Splendor, Mystic River and Seabiscuit) are all very good. Put a gun to my head and I’ll tell you I think American Splendor might get it. But I’m so not confident on this category.

* Documentary: There’s an actual battle here, between Capturing the Friedmans and Fog of War. Both are appropriately downers (the former about child molesters, the latter about Robert McNamara). My guess is that Fog will pull it out; it’s that whole Vietnam thing.

* In the Best Song category, everyone should vote for “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from A Mighty Wind. As there’s no Disney film song here, I have no idea who will win, which is why I make a suggestion here, not a prediction. As for Best Score, it think it’s Danny Elfman’s year (He’s nominated for Big Fish) — Howard Shore already won for Fellowship, and Return of the King’s score is basically the same.

Those are my thoughts. Comments?


The Backside

Been busy with pay copy, which is why rantage has been sparse here the last few days (remember there’s always By The Way, the daily methadone treatment for your Whatever withdrawal symptoms). Being busy with pay copy is a good thing — after several pokey months, business writing-wise, things seem to be back in the swing. This makes my mortgage happy. But it can make for spotty Whateverage. Them’s the risks you take when you drop by this place.

In addition to the pay copy, I’ve also been busy plugging away at the next novel, which is now sadly overdue to the editors, who (I am grateful to note) have been sanguine at its lateness, possibly because it won’t see the light of day in book form until late 2005 at the earliest. There is not, shall we say, a massive sense of urgency. I’ve been grateful for this because as I’ve mentioned earlier, this particular book has found its own pace, which is slower than the two other novels. I’ve tried to rush it a couple of times; it resisted. Now I’m letting it go at its own pace and I’m happy to say that (so far at least) I’m very happy with the results.

I passed a pretty significant milestone in the book a couple of weeks ago, which I’ll share with you now: I reached the point where all the plot threads in the book have gone as far afield as they’re going to go, and now everything that’s come before in the book is starting the process of tying together. This is an immense relief to me as a writer. I don’t know how other writers do their novels, but the way I typically write mine is that I have an opening scene in my head, a closing scene (usually) and a couple of significant moments from the middle of the story. Everything else is up for grabs. I like writing this way because it allows me to be as surprised as anyone else by what I write, but it’s definitely a “working without a net” sort of proposition.

When you write this way, sooner or later the book lets you know when it’s time to take all the far-flung story pieces you tossed out there as you’ve been writing and start making them speak to each other, thereby driving the plot to its conclusion. This is not always the exact “center” of a novel in terms of its length, but it is the center of the novel in terms of the story. And it signals a couple of things for me. Before that point I sometimes have no idea what’s going to happen in the next couple of chapters; after that point I usually have the plot nailed down as I plait the storylines together. Before that point writing is sometimes a panicky exercise; after that point, it runs pretty smoothly.

So why not just plot out the entire book right from the start? Well, in my case it’s because I think not plotting out allows serendipity to happen — there are at least a couple of major events that will take place in the second half of the book that had their genesis in some of the “color” detail I placed in the first half. These are major events that I doubt seriously I would have thought up in an outline process, and as it happens, I think they’ll make the finished book a lot more interesting and surprising — not to mention less “programmed” in terms of plot and story. I like catching the curveballs I throw at myself, basically.

Having reached this point in the story also gives me a fair amount of confidence in terms of actually knowing I can finish the book. Now, it’s not that I didn’t believe I couldn’t do it before this point; I’ve written a couple of these things now. I know I can do it. But I think it’s like navigating a plane through heavy cloud cover: If you’re a good pilot, you know you can reach your destination using the instruments alone. But you feel better when the clouds break and you can actually see where you’re going. I can see where I’m going now and how I’m going to get there. The novel is pretty much done save for the typing. And that’s a good feeling.

If I continue to be spotty with Whatevers over the next few weeks, you can blame some of it on the pay copy. But some of it will be due to me coming down the backside of the novel. I hope you don’t mind if I spend some quality time there. I’m enjoying it, which I think will mean that you’ll enjoy the result.



Go ahead, do a Google search on “Scalzi.” Then look at the Google text ad over there on the right. Is that cool or what? No, I didn’t pay for it. But I’m glad Amazon did!


Note to Republicans: Dump This Loser

Regarding the State of the Union Address: We all know why Democrats won’t vote for Bush. But let me ask the Republicans: Why on earth would you vote for a guy who wants to expand the size of the federal government, increase deficit government spending, curtail personal liberties, bring the government into your homes and churches and then stick your children with the bill? With the exception of Bush’s mania for lower taxes, is there anything about the man that is in the least bit Republican? Or to put it in another way: If anyone but Bush were planning to expand the size of the federal government, increase deficit government spending, curtail personal liberties, bring the government into your homes and churches and then stick your children with the bill, would you vote for him?

As far as I can see, there are exactly two groups of people to whom Dubya’s government should have appeal:

1. Childless hedonists, who need not worry about the consequences.
2. Those expecting the Rapture Right Soon Now, for much the same reason.

Everyone else should be a little twitchy about what this man has in store. Unlike some, I don’t think this is the far right’s attempt for eternal rule, because the agenda is simply too clueless for that. People who are planning for eternal rule would, I think, at least try to make a token attempt to leave something worth ruling. This government is merely the functional equivalent of a pampered five-year-old let loose in a candy shop, trying to gorge itself with as many sweets as possible before it coats the merchandise in a spray of sick, collapses into a hyperglycemic slump and has to be dragged off the premises by a responsible adult.

I don’t think anyone should vote for this guy, especially Republicans, for whom George Bush stands as a testament to how your values have been betrayed in exchange for mere power. Look, Republicans, I’m not even asking you to vote for a Democrat — that’s really pushing it. Just don’t vote for Bush. Either find yourself a nice third party candidate you can see your way to surprising with 270 electoral votes, or just whistle past the voting booth come November. Or for God’s sake get someone out there who isn’t so clearly bent on salting the earth for the next several administrations, whomever they may be, and any American who plans on existing in this country beyond 2008. This guy is simply toxic.


Quick Two Cents

Some quick thoughts on the Iowa caucuses:

1. I think this is interesting, as regards Dean’s basically pathetic showing in Iowa — the suggestion that Dean was sunk because his supporters largely had no freakin’ clue what they were doing in the caucus setting, whereas the Kerry and Edwards supporters apparently did (there are no excuses for Gephardt). This is further amplified in Chris Sullentrop’s Slate piece today, which notes a big segment of Dean’s support comes from 18-to-25 year olds, otherwise known as the demographic most likely to have something else to do on a bitterly cold Iowa night than hang around in a caucus meeting.

If both these have some relation to reality, I do expect that means Dean will do significantly better in the New Hampshire primary, in which voting will be the relatively quick process of actually voting. He’s doubtlessly taken a hit because of the caucuses, but the physical mechanics of the voting process would seem to be on his side. So I wouldn’t count him out yet.

Regardless, I think it’s a nice cold slap in Dean’s face; he could use a little humility, and now I imagine he’s going to get some, which will cause him to face some interesting realities (I think the Iowa bumperstickers that say “Dated Dean, Married Kerry” offer more than mere pity commentary). And from a purely political point of view, I think it’s probably better that there’s no steamrolling front runner; it makes the Bush people’s job that much harder. And of course, this is why we actually bother to have votes in the first place — the tantalizing difference between what we expect, and what is.

2. Edwards’ second place finish is surprising to me, but not massively so, and doesn’t really dissuade me from my earlier idea that what the man is really doing is running for vice-president. The question now is who will get to be his president. People are of course now thinking about the political triangulation of a Kerry-Edwards ticket, which looks pretty nice if you think about it: Northern veteran (of both war and Washington) plus Southern self-made man of the people. Undoubtedly there are downsides to such a pairing as well, but the time for thinking about that is later.

3. Gephardt’s implosion, on the other hand, doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’ve long wondered why anybody thought the man had a chance at it — he’s just so not appealing on so many levels. God forbid he should have ever actually made it to the nomination — Bush would have used his pale eyebrows as a mop.

4. Kerry? Well, whatever. He doesn’t excite me, but if he does go all the way I don’t imagine I wouldn’t vote for him. That’s pretty much where I am with him at the moment.

5. My unofficial predictions for New Hampshire, in order: Dean, Kerry, Clark, Edwards. I’ll note that I see Clark possibly swapping with Kerry or with Edwards, but I don’t see Kerry swapping with Edwards. I think if Kerry wins New Hampshire, Dean’s dead but just doesn’t know it; if Clark wins New Hampshire, I don’t expect we’ll know who the Democratic candidate will be until March. I think if Edwards wins New Hampshire, I may drop from a stroke.

The floor is now open.


An Interview With Athena

Athena: What questions are you going to ask me now?

Me: What questions should I ask you?

A: No, you have to ask me! Think of something you want me to tell you!

Me: Okay. How do you feel?

A: Good! No, wait, you can ask me things like “What are books made out of?”

Me: So, what are books made out of?

A: Books are made out of stiff. Do you know what stiff is? Stiff is when you can’t bend stuff. Hello everybody!

Me: I always thought books were made out of paper.

A: No, I’m talking about the outside is stiff so you can’t bend it. You can bend the pages but not the outside of the book. See? Only if it was a soft book like made out of paper. And I love my stuffed animals because they’re so cute.

Me: What’s your favorite stuffed animal?

A: It’s Albert Einstein. (singing) Albert Einstein, Albert Einstein, I like Albert Einstein. And I like Twister, and my little Bob the Builder ball. And I love my little Hello Kitty purse. Did you write that down?

Me: Uh-huh.

A: And I like Halloween because it’s very special that you can eat candy and you get to dress up in costumes.

Me: Some people don’t like Halloween. What do you think about that?

A: People love Halloween every single time! Because they get candy!

Me: Some people don’t like candy. What would you say to them?

A: I would say, but candy is really good and sweet and sugary! Everybody loves candy! And chocolate ears are yummy! They’re not like real bloody ears. They’re made out of chocolate.

Me: When have you eaten chocolate ears?

A: I got them from a house. And it was a pink house. It was a pink house, and it was scary with thunder and lightning, and it had funky music and it gave me a chocolate ear because I rang the doorbell, and if you say “I wish I had a chocolate ear,” it will give you one.

Me: How do like being five?

A: It’s great being five. Soon you get to go to kindergarten or high school. Which one do you get to go to?

Me: Usually, you go to kindergarten first.

A: And then which schoool do you go to after high school? Grown-up school?

Me: After high school, some people go to college. It’s like kindergarten, just with more beer. So tell me something that you know that you don’t think I know.

A: Let me think. You don’t know that stars are made out of diamonds, and I do. They’re like diamonds, and you can never touch them because you’re down here on earth and they’re way up in space. And did you know that they were like diamonds, daddy? And it’s good to go ice skating, and if you go without your mom and dad, you might fall, but if you go with your mom and dad, then you’re safe. That’s all I want to say. Okay?

Me: So you’re done talking.

A: Yes. Ooh, one more thing. I like fishes. And I like all the fishes except for the ones that are bad.

Me: Which ones are bad?

A: The sharks, the squids, the octopuses and the crabs. And jellyfishes.

Me: Why are they bad?

A: Because they bite, they sting, and they squeeze.

Me: You definitely don’t want to be squeezed.

A: Or bit! Or stung. right? And do you know what else?

Me: I can’t imagine.

A: It’s because fishes that are good you can look at them by pulling them up with a fish pole, and they’re beautiful and good, and you can keep them as a fish pet! And that is all. And daddy? That’s all I want to say, but that’s okay because we can write more things later. Okay?


If I Were a Hammer

Biggest clue that mommy is away for the weekend:

Pray for us all, why don’t you.


Puzzling Attacks By Ignorant People

The fabulous Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune passed along to me this alt-weekly broadside on James Lileks, as Eric knows I’m a pal of James from a while back. So I read it and I have to say it’s got me terribly confused.

It’s clear that the writer, Dennis Perrin, doesn’t share James’ politics, which I understand, since I don’t share many of his politics, either. But the article seems to be about the fact James has gone and expressed his personal opinion on his personal Web site on his personal time, on subjects which appeal to him personally (in particular, about the war). Perrin seems additionally shocked that James’ observations are off-the-cuff sorts of things, without footnote or journalistic kow-tows to impartiality — indeed, it’s almost as if they were written, you know, late at night or something. In short, Perrin’s huge news flash seems to be that James Lileks is writing like a blogger. On his blog, no less!

And I’m thinking, what does this Perrin fellow want? A cookie? I don’t think that at this late point that anyone’s shocked, shocked to discover personal online sites, whether one calls them journals, blogs or whatever, are vast repositories of half-masticated thoughts spewed out on the screen during the stolen moments between putting one’s kids to bed and going to bed one’s self. Perrin appears to see something ominous in this, but the questions is: Why? What possible harm comes from James, or anyone, ranting and raving on their own personal site? I mean, it’s better than him (or anyone) going out to a bar to rant and rave at his fellow bar patrons, which would have been his realistic avenue of rantiness ten years ago. This way no one has to hear him who doesn’t want to, and James doesn’t drive home a little tipsy. And at the very least James has the presence of mind to warn people when he’s going to go off on a screed, which I think is right polite.

What it comes down to is that Perrin appears not to like James’ politics, so he’s using blogging as a framing device to say Look! He’s ranting ill-considered conservative crap from the safety of his own blinkered worldview! On the Web! Well, Mr. Perrin, I don’t know how to break this you, but conservatives aren’t the only ones spewing ill-considered crap from the safety of their own blinkered worldview, on the Web. People from all political tribes, personal proclivities, ethnic background and religious views are spewing their ill-considered crap. It’s everywhere! That’s what you get with an unmediated connection between someone’s brain and their personal Web site. To this end, James is not special, other than that he writes far better than most.

Perrin seems to want to shout that Emperor James has no clothes. Problem is, he’s shouting this momentous discovery in the middle of a nudist colony. We’re quite aware James has no clothes and is spouting off from the top of his head, thanks. As are we all. If you don’t like it, you are of course perfectly free to go away and leave us nudists alone.

If Perrin wants to attack James’ politics, then by all means he should do so. But doing so by vaguely implying there’s something sinister about the fact James does it on his Web site — thus showing what he’s really thinking! — is pretty stupid. Perrin has made the attempt to make James look bad, but he ends up making himself look ignorant. So you tell me who comes out ahead from this article.

Addendum: Just for fun, I mailed a link to Perrin’s article to Glenn over at InstaPundit, on the rationale that if Perrin wants to get frisky with the blogosphere, it’s only fair that the blogosphere is allowed to get frisky right back. Hopefully, the end result will be a learning experience for all. And isn’t that what writing online is about? Sharing?

Update: ThoughtViper thinks it is I who is missing the point, and suggests that my comment “What possible harm comes from James, or anyone, ranting and raving on their own personal site?” is “the fucking most moronic thing I’ve ever heard from someone who’s already proven that he has an actual, functioning brain.” Heh. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I’ve said much worse. (Go to the 1/14 entry if that link has since been updated.)


Technical Note

Through the help of a good friend who is rather better at that there InterWeb thingy than I am, I have made one minor upgrade to this page: If you look over at the links, you’ll note that recent entries in By The Way are now listed and clickable (you can also still get to the main page of the site). As most of you know, I update BTW at a rather more frequent pace than the Whatever (on account of I get paid to), so there’s almost always something new there. I hope the tantalizing headlines will encourage some of the more reticent Whatever readers to take a gander.

Righteous props for my pal, who I do not name so that he is not inundated with people begging to use his mad MT skillz. I mean, really: Step off, people. He’s mine.


Why I Breed

Yet another irritating “childfree” whine generator erupted biliously toward me in e-mail recently.* This is not an infrequent occurrence, as my trolling of said population in the Whatever is apparently of some passing infamy in their small and angry circles. I don’t mind at all, of course, since there’s very little I enjoy more than afflicting the aggressively affrontable, which is what the “childfree” so frequently are. Short of slathering the childfearing in the collected mucus of an entire preschool, it’s the most fun to be had out of these little, little people with their little, little hates. They’re well up there on my List of People to Taunt, right along with creationists and Confederate sympathizers. If I could meet up one day with a Confederate childfree creationist, well, I don’t know what I would do with myself. I expect I’d probably explode with glee.

The letter itself was not particularly noteworthy, just the usual childfree claptrap about how breeders are irresponsible, awful people to bring children into this terrible, feculent world and why couldn’t we just have adopted if we wanted kids and there are too many people and we’re all just gonna die in our own piles of misery and poo. Letters like this don’t do much for me except make me glad that the senders have indeed chosen not to breed, because they’d righteously screw up their kids. But at the very end, the sproghater asked an interesting question, which was:

Anyway, I have one question: In the light of 40,000 children dying everyday and many more on the adoption lists, why did you feel the need to clone yourself (aka breed)?

My rather flip response in e-mail was “Because I rock, you silly person. There should be a million of me.” The response was of course designed to enrage the recipient due to its potent combination of dismissive smugness, consciousless ego and reproductive fervor. But in all fairness it’s not a bad question and is worth a more responsive answer. Clearly, there are children to adopt; also clearly, lots of children die for various horrible reasons every day, all over the globe. With such a clear surplus of young humanity in the world, why add to their number?

Well, obviously, because I wanted to, and because I could. I wanted to for a number of reasons, some undoubtedly rooted in fundamental biology (living things naturally wish to make more of their number), but more — and more influentially — because of the conscious desire to be a father, which is something I’ve always had so long as I could remember thinking about the subject of breeding at all. This isn’t to say I was in a rush to become a father — I didn’t become one until I was 29, after all — merely that it was on the agenda of things to do with my life. On this matter, I was additionally helped in that a) I met a woman willing to conjoin her genetic material with mine and b) that said genetic material was up the task; i.e., my boys could swim.

But you say: I could have as easily been a father and experienced all the joys of parenting by adopting. That’s true enough. And to be perfectly honest about it, I’m very big on the concept of adoption. My family, through my mother, has experienced adoption from both sides of the adoption coin: When she was 16, she put a child up for adoption (my brother Robert, whom I met when I was in middle school), and then when she was 54, she adopted a child of her own. I’m not personally opposed to the idea of adopting a child with Krissy, either. We’ve discussed it from time to time when we talk about whether we want to have additional kids. And who knows, one day we may adopt. Regardless of whether we do or not, I think adoptive parents make an unmistakably strong statement of parental love by affirmatively choosing their child to love and care for and as such have, and always have had, my admiration. So yes: Adopt, if you like. It’s a good thing.

For all that, I think I can make a compelling case for making a child the old-fashioned way. First off, there are the economics. To be coldly fiscal about it, adopting a child costs a lot of money, whereas, assuming normal fertility, making one of one’s own does not (and it’s fun besides, which is an adjective I have yet to hear anyone apply to the adoption process). As a matter of policy, I would and do support ways to bring down the cost of adopting a child (bring on the tax credits!) to make adoption affordable for every family who wishes to adopt. But at the moment, we’re not there.

Second, I believe that both my wife and I offer a compelling set of genes to the proverbial pool: Both of us are fit and intelligent, and have no family history of inherited diseases or other afflictions, either physical or mental. It seemed likely that our offspring would also be fit, intelligent and healthy, and indeed, so she is. I would argue that the gene pool and the overall hybrid vigor of our entire species is incrementally enhanced by our contribution to it, and thereby the positives provided by such a genetic union rather greatly outweigh the negatives associated with bringing yet another human onto this groaning sphere.

To restate the above on a more personal level, I was also intensely curious to see what a child of mine would be like — and more specifically, a child of mine and Krissy’s. Yon agitated childdespiser rather derisively asked why I would want to clone myself, and in fact I wouldn’t. There’s already been one of me, and I think we can all agree that one is sufficient. But in the entire history of the universe, there has never been someone like Athena, who is, for the moment at least, the summation of a couple billion years of evolution as expressed through the genetic lines which run through myself and my wife.

The combination of those lines results in an individual who is synergistic — more than the sum of her parts, and uniquely her own person thereby. To be sure, I see myself in her, as well as her mother. But mostly I see Athena. For herself alone, and not for the mere continuation of my own genetics, is her existence amply justifiable, and thus my desire to have her come into being. You are free to disagree, of course. But honestly, now. Ask me if I care.

As regards bringing children into the awful, terrible world: whatever. The toddlerkickers may believe it’s a terrible time to bring a human into the world, but when has it not been? Pick a year, any year, that humans have deigned to grace with a sense of history, and you’ll undoubtedly discover that it’s an atrocious and utterly irresponsible moment to birth another generation of homo sapiens. Tell me that there are too many humans on this planet, and I’d agree — but then I’d ask you why it must then necessarily follow that I must volunteer my own genes for extinction. As far as I’m concerned, the issue is not only that there are too many people, but simultaneously too few like me. Breed a few more of my line, and then we might have enough people to vote in a President who doesn’t think that providing birth control to third-world women who desperately need it is a moral evil — thereby reducing the human surplus far more effectively than by my falling on my genetic sword.

Agreed, too many children die daily. But this is not in itself an argument against my producing a child of my own. My child is almost certain not to die of starvation, or curable disease, or war, or neglect or ignorance or any of the reasons that the vast majority of those children die every day. This child is as safe from harm as any child not trapped in a plastic bubble can be. I can’t save 40,000 children a day, but I can be a good parent for one every day, and I try to do that. Agreed, breeding is a selfish act, probably the fundamental selfish act — one is, after all, passing on one’s genes. But I’ve read enough “childfree” griping about having to pay for schools with their taxes not to be terribly worried about these particular pots calling the kettle black.

So in summation: I breed because I can, because I want to, because I believe my doing so is a net benefit to humanity and planet (or at the very least presents no net damage) and because I expected to be (and am) fully pleased with the results. I realize these reasons are almost certainly insufficient to satisfy the babyslappers, but as there’s not likely to be any reason that would satisfy them, I’m hard-pressed to be deeply concerned about that fact. Indeed, I wish I could say that I breed specifically to piss them off. Alas, I do not. It’s merely a fringe benefit.


* Standard disclaimers: Not everyone who chooses not to have children is an obnoxious hater of the pre-adult; you are sensible people and know who you are. This taunting does not apply to you. The relevant pathology of the unpleasantly childfree is not that they are childfree, but that they are unpleasant. They would very likely be unpleasant no matter what subject they chose to get worked up about.

Additionally: Not everyone who is a parent deserves to be; some — hell, many — need to be mulched in a wood chipper. And there are plenty of children who ought to follow their so-called parents right into said chipper. Just in case you thought I thought these particular populations were not capable of rank dumbassery.

Update: The sender of the original e-mail says (in a new e-mail): “Someone as arrogant as you does not deserve a beautiful child like Athena.” Well, this is probably true. But as Clint Eastwood once said, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.


The Law of Internet Invocation

I made a comment on a discussion thread over at Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light blog which I feel like noting here as well, so here we go. First, a little background: writer Poppy Z. Brite was wandering the ‘Net, as many of us are prone to do, when she came across a LiveJournal community that was, in part, named for her (her initials, in any event). Ms. Brite left a comment there which the moderator and denizens apparently found rude and at the end of it, Ms. Brite found herself banned from the discussion group. Teresa blogged the event, which led to a robust discussion thread (as frequently happens at Teresa’s site) on the matter.

I have no opinion of the whole “Banning Brite” incident, because, really, why should I? But I’m utterly unsurprised that Ms. Brite found the discussion group. As I wrote in the comment thread:

…as a general rule, if you *don’t* want someone to show up on your site, or in your discussion (or whatever), don’t name the discussion (or whatever) after them (and especially, I would think, don’t name them after authors, who are by nature curious about being fictional creatures in someone else’s universe). Thanks to the twin powers of search engines and personal vanity, putting someone’s name on something on the Internet is tantamount to inviting their presence, not unlike (depending on your perspective) invoking angels or demons. And we all know how much trouble that class of creature can be.

Henceforth, the above observation is to be known as the Law of Internet Invocation: “If you name them, they will come.”

This is assuming no one else has yet made this observation (which I’m sure someone has).

In fact someone has checked Google to see if anyone else has made the observation and then codified it into a law: As far as they can see, no one has. So until further notice, I’m canonical! Thank you and good night.

The Law of Internet Invocation is, I should note, the logical corollary of another “Internet Law” I’ve suggested in the past, The Law of Online Communication, which states: Anything bad you ever write about someone online will get back to them sooner or later. And the reason for both is simple: The Internet archives itself, and people want to know what other people think of them. There may be a human being who, when confronted with an Internet-wide search engine, didn’t type in his or her own name within the first hour to see what popped up. But if they exist, I haven’t met them. Furthermore, I don’t know if I’m psychologically ready to meet someone with such lack of ego.

The odd thing — to me, at least, is how little-known these laws seem to be. Even now, a decade into the Internet era, people are famously being surprised and shocked that other people are actually using the Internet — and using it to see what people are saying about them — and some of them don’t quite comprehend just how easy it is to follow your name back to a place from which it is invoked.

I personally had an experience with the latter when my name was invoked on an newsgroup called In addition to discussions about chronic pain, some members of the newsgroup spend a lot of time sniping at other members of the newsgroup (making it, in this respect, like every other newsgroup known to man). At some point in December, one of the denizens of the group got it into his head that one of his mortal enemies, a poster going by the name of “Juba,” was actually me (this was based on the fact that Juba claimed to have written an article for an Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader book, a book series to which I am a frequent contributor). I discovered the comment while checking my name on Google Groups, dropped over to the newsgroup and posted a message that said, nope, he’s not me.

Which resulted, probably predictably, in a spasm of utter non-belief, and questions like: Well, if you’re not him, then how did you know we were talking about you? You only showed up after we said you were him, therefore you must be him. And so on. I noted how I found the site and why I posted the refutation (I don’t mind being known as a jerk, but I prefer being known as a jerk for things I actually do), but you know how it is. There’s no telling some people. So now I’m forever someone I’m not on that newsgroup. But for the record: I don’t taunt people in chronic pain. That just seems mean.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit the Law of Internet Invocation applies more to me than to most people, for the simple reason that I have a monstrous ego and I like seeing what people have to say about me and what I do, both positive and negative. But I strongly suspect it works for most people who spend any amount of time on the Web, and particularly people who write online in journals and blogs (what is Trackback but a software expression of the LoII?). And if those people are also book authors — who are as a class susceptible to obsessive behavior regarding comments and criticism — well, you might as well lay out a table of snacks. They’ll be around.

The real test of ego, of course, is if those you invoke feel compelled to comment on what you’ve written. To be clear: Mostly, I would. Try it and see.



If you really want me to think you’ve got the brain wattage of a garden snake, all you have to do is suggest that there’s something wrong with the concept of copyright. This is not the same thing as saying that there’s something wrong with the current execution of the copyright law in the United States. It is, indeed, totally out of control at the moment and needs to be hauled back in no matter how badly Disney wants the public to keep its grimy paws off Steamboat Willie. That is an entirely separate discussion.

No, what I’m talking about is the basic concept that if I write (or otherwise intellectually create) something, I own it, unless I choose to sell it. For some reason, there are a number of people who seem to think this is a purely evil thing. These people may not actually be idiots, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that fact from this opinion.

I blame the RIAA, personally. Its general holy war against people listening to music except exactly in the way it wants them to has made people defensive and edgy and apparently given rise to the fallacious belief that copyrights are owned only by short, hairy, coke-snorting music label chiefs who are married to porn stars and/or Mariah Carey. And it’s hard to feel any sympathy for them. But in fact the vast majority of copyrights are owned by simple folk, like, say, me. And while I am indeed short, I am not notably hairy, coked-up or married to a porn star. Please don’t steal from me.

There are other misconceptions regarding the basic idea of copyright, largely from people who don’t actually have to rely on the protections copyright provide them in order to pay their mortgages. While one can chalk up many of these misconceptions to simple ignorance about copyright law (which is fair enough), some people are aggressively obnoxious about the idea that copyrights are evil and wrong.

This particular spasm of copyright irritation comes from a Metafilter discussion of a radio talk show host ripping off the work of a writer on the Web, in which one commenter offered up this particularly beef-witted exhalation:

“What the hell is the problem with somebody appropriating a few words you dreamed up one day? …Given current broken copyright laws, you’re within your rights to be selfish about it, but sharing is a good thing. We need more, not less.”

Which is indeed a fine position to have on copyrights when you don’t have to make your living with them. This fellow’s position as far as I could tell was based both on extreme ignorance about how writers can eke the very last penny out of everything they write — he seemed to be under the impression that once something was written and paid for once, its economic value was spent (which would come as a complete surprise to all those writers cashing in reprint checks) — and a rather strange assumption that writers should be thrilled just to have their ideas carried forward by others, even if (as in this case) those ideas were posted by someone else without attribution, without payment, and tampered with in a way that compromised the original message of the text.

Obviously, he’s wrong. Professional writers do indeed like people passing along our ideas — under our terms. If we put those ideas out there freely, for anyone to read without cost (as I do here), that’s our decision. If we put those ideas out there for you read only if you or someone else pays for them first (as I do when I put out books or magazine articles), that’s our decision, too. Copyright allows the author (or any other creator) pretty much total freedom in presenting the terms of displaying and sharing his or her work.

This is why, anecdotally, I find things like “copyleft” and “creative common licenses” puzzling and superfluous, since they don’t provide anything you can’t already do under copyright (and indeed, they work, if they work at all, because underlying copyright protections are there). To go further, I find “copyleft” and “creative common licenses” confuse the issue, since they implicitly cater to the idea that “copyright” is bad, which leads to the asshattery exhibited by the commenter above. I don’t do copyleft; I don’t do creative commons. I do copyright. It’s all a boy needs.

I realize that in discussing copyright I come off like one of the more annoying characters in an Ayn Rand novel, but damn it (and trust me, you’re not going to hear me say this often) this is one point where Rand is right: It’s my work, and my words. You can’t get them unless I decide I want to provide them to you (you may decide you don’t want them, but that’s another matter entirely). The fact that I own what I say gives me the room to say what I want, when I want to say it. If someone takes my words and steals them or twists them, I have a way to protect myself and my work. It’s important to me.

As a practical matter, I tend to be very loose regarding my copyrights — the Web is dotted with pages where people have cut and pasted my work onto their own site, and by and large, I say, have fun, kids. Overall it’s usually a net benefit to me to have my stuff all over the place, and in a decade on the Internet, I’ve only known of one time where someone presented my words as his. He was quickly slammed for it by someone else who knew where the writing had come from — it’s the fabled self-correcting behavior of the Internet. But as an intellectual matter, I’m very fierce about my copyrights. The fact that I’m the latter allows me to feel comfortable with the former.

If you want to fix copyright to make it more fair to the public, I’m with you (my personal feeling is that copyright should be for the natural life of the creator or 25 years (whichever is longer) in the case of live humans, and for about 75 years in the case of corporations). But if you want to “fix” copyright by restricting the ability of the creator to say what can be done with his or her work right from the beginning, I’m afraid I’m going to think there’s something deeply wrong with your brain that you could put forward such a spectacularly stupid opinion.


Death to Desert Island Discs

This is a small thing, but I think it’s worth at least 15 seconds of consideration: Digital music players just totally kill the idea of “Desert Island Discs.”

Really. Think about it: Ask a teenager today which ten albums they’d take with them to a desert island, and they’d say: “Are you high? I’ll just take my 40GB iPod and a solar panel.” Hell, even one of them iPod Minis pictured above holds a thousand songs. No more agonizing between whether to take Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road — they both fit. And honestly, there’s no fun saying “which 1000 songs would you take with you to a desert island.” That’s two Clear Channel radio stations worth of music, after all.

I suppose you could say: “You’re stuck on a desert island with only a flash memory MP3 player and only a 256MB Memory Stick. What songs do you choose?” But it doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it, does it.

This isn’t an actual complaint, by the way. Given the choice between choosing 10 or 20 CDs or an iPod Mini, I know which way I’m going. I’m just noting another common cultural artifact is now winding its way into irrelevance. Fortunately, we still have Desert Island DVDs. At least this year.


Clark For President

Let me come out of the political closet: First, I ain’t voting for Bush come November. This is not shocking news. Second, I want Wesley Clark to be the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States. I want him to be the nominee for two reasons: First, as an overall political package, he appeals to me personally. By and large, I like his positions, and I like his personality and personal history. Second, he is the Democratic candidate who has, by far, the best chance of getting white men to vote for him, and white guys, for better or worse, are going to be the key demographic for this election.

Let’s be real for a moment, shall we. Republicans win presidencies because they’ve got the White Guy vote in their pocket, and have for 30 years — even Clinton didn’t win their vote (though he closed the gap, which with the help of Perot was enough). They’re 40% of the total electorate, which is nothing to sneeze at. The reasons white guys vote Republican will be the subject for an entirely different entry, but ultimately the psychology of the White Man Vote is simple: White guys are status freaks. Directly related to this, they don’t like to show need, or be associated with those who show need, and are terrified of the consequences of being seen with either.

The Republican party, not to put too fine a point on it, is the party concerned with bolstering the position of those already on the top of the heap, and white guys are all about that kind of bolstering, even if on an individual level it works against them. Conversely, the Democratic party is traditionally the party of the Little People Who Need Help, and white guys don’t like entertaining the notion they might need help. If they’re not going to ask for directions, or visit a doctor until they’re bleeding from a major orifice, they’re sure as hell not going vote Democratic.

Unless the Democrats have a candidate who clearly and ably plays to the white man’s pathological need for reassurance that voting Democratic doesn’t make him look like a sissy. Like, say, a Silver Star-winning former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe who kicked ass in Kosovo without a single American killed. Who is also, lest we forget, a son of the South, where the most white (that is, most paranoid and status-conscious) of white men live.

Who else among the Democratic candidates has that going? Toss out Kucinich, Sharpton and Mosely-Braun, who have no real chance and are effectively campaigning for future speaking fees anyway. Toss out Lieberman, who despite his moralistic streak is not going anywhere with anyone. Gephardt likewise is politically stale and uninspiring. Kerry has the military service, but he’s from the north. Edwards is from the south, but he’s got no military experience, and anyway, everybody knows that Edwards is running for VP (including, one suspects, Edwards himself).

That leaves Howard Dean, the current Democratic front-runner, with no military service and no ties to the South. Unlike many who are panicked that a Dean nomination will mean a landslide victory for Bush, I happen to think Dean can win (particularly if he puts someone like Edwards in his VP slot). But it means writing off the South and writing off white guys in general, at least in terms of the campaigning strategy, and of course that makes it harder for the Democrats to win. However, with Clark, the Democrats won’t have to default to writing off either the South or the white guy vote, and that’s a powerful advantage.

There’s also the matter that Clark implicitly makes George Bush look like a wimp and a dolt: While Bush was putatively defending Texas airspace from surprise attack by the Vietnamese, Clark was getting shot up and down his entire right side by them. While Bush was a Yale legacy and a “C” student, Clark was first in his class at West Point and a Rhodes Scholar. In all personal respects, he wipes the floor with Dubya, and unlike other Democratic candidates, he’s willing and able to slam back at people who criticize him for criticizing Bush’s military decisions — his famous browbeating of the Fox news anchor who tried to ambush him is proof of that, not to mention his own not-insignificant experience as a commander of American forces.

The question here is whether Clark can actually get the nomination. I don’t see why not. Dean is indeed far ahead of other candidates at this point, and I suspect has the best chance to win the nomination. However, of all the other candidates out there, there’s Clark, who has a lesser but still-realistic chance of grabbing the brass ring from Dean, and all the rest of candidates, who do not. In realpolitik terms, it’s already a two-man race, so from here on out the challenge for Clark will be to gain headway against Dean’s juggernaut.

Here’s the critical thing, and the major difference between a Clark nomination and a Dean nomination: If Dean fails in the primary stretch and Clark gets the nomination, I’d say the chances are very good that the people Dean brings into the voting booth are going to vote for Clark. But if Clark loses out and Dean gets the nomination, the converse is not true — and that’s because of the two men, Clark is the one who is more able to deliver votes outside the Democratic mainstream: The vote of a substantial number of white men. Without Clark, those votes go to Bush, not Dean.

It’s a bit of political calculus Democrats ought to remember when they step into their primary voting booths. Ultimately, the goal isn’t merely to pick the presidential candidate of one’s choice, it’s also to pick a presidential candidate who can win. Dean can win. But Clark can win easier. After the 2000 election, and with the economy now in an apparent upswing, the Democrats should give themselves all the advantages they can get.


Spam Reduction?

It is, in fact, waaaaay early for this, but here’s a question for you: Have you noticed a reduction of spam mail since the turn of the New Year? I know we’re supposed to be blasé about the “Can Spam” law passed by Congress, but on the other hand the amount of spam I get is down far more than can be attributed merely to it being the holidays — my “spam trap” accounts have their mail load down by almost two thirds. Right now, my provider estimates I’ll receive 4000 e-mails this month to my various accounts; last month, I received over 12,000, about 95% of which was spam.

Again, perhaps some of this is attributable to holidays (even spammers want to watch the bowl games), but on the other hand I got nearly as much spam on Christmas as I did on any other day, so maybe not.

So: Are you getting less spam so far in 2004? I want to know if I’m alone on this. To be clear, of the 4,000 bits of e-mail I’ll get this month, the vast majority of it will be spam. But a two-thirds reduction in crap would still be welcome. I hope the estimates hold.

Off to the dentist for a cleaning, and then to have lunch with my wife. Talk amongst yourselves until I get back.


The Rains! They Come!

It’s been unseasonably warm here in Ohio for the last few days — although since it’s supposed to get down to 6 degrees on Tuesday, that won’t last — and as a result the precipitation that would normally pile up knee high around our lawn is instead merely flooding the road in front of our house (not to mention our neighbor’s fields directly south of us). I’m good with this — rain is not as pretty as snow, but then again with rain I don’t have to worry about my vehicles slipping and sliding dangerously across the 500 sloping feet of my driveway.

And trust me, this storm would have meant an insane amount of snow — we know that since it dumped more rain than we’ve seen in a while. Harris Creek, normally a placid little stream, is just a few inches below bridge level on Route 721, the main route into our little town. We’re not in much danger of being flooded out or anything so drastic — we’re on a hill, so if water were to ever reach our doorstep, most of Western Ohio would already be underwater — but it’s more than enough water to be glad that it’s draining away rather than hanging around.

The only fly in the ointment would be if the weather turned freezing cold before all the water drained — then we’d have ice on the roads and ice patches on the lawn. Which might be fun if we had ice skates and/or never needed to leave the house. Alas, we don’t, and we do.

Update: Happiness is many things, but water seeping into the basement through a crack at the base of a wall is not one of them. The silver lining is that the crack is not in the foundation of the house and that the seepage is easily dealt with (temporarily, at least) by a towel. However, sealing up the basement wall is now the number one home improvement project on the agenda. Supersaturated soil doesn’t happen all that often, but I don’t want to have to deal with this each time it does.

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