Fun Diseases

I’m continuing my cavalcade of science-related pieces in honor of the release of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Through the Universe, to which I contributed a significant number of the articles contained therein. The pieces you’re reading here this week are rather similar in tone and content to the pieces you’ll find in the Uncle John’s books (explicitly in the case of the articles I wrote, and implicitly even in the one I didn’t, since they wouldn’ta bought so many of my pieces if they didn’t fit the general tone of their book), so if you like it, consider getting the book (click on the graphic for an Amazon link). Remember: You don’t have to only read it in the bathroom. Also remember the contest I’m running: The winner will get a whole stack of Scalziana. Yes, that’s a word. At least it is now.

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Have We Got a Disease For You!

Looking for a little something to make you stand out from the infectious crowd? One of these maladies may just do the trick.

We know how it is. You want to be different from the other guy. Everyone else is walking around with a cold or a flu — your standard issue rhinovirus or influenza bug — but you want something different. Something that you’re just not going to catch on any street corner. Well, then, come one down. Right now we’ve got a nice suite of diseases, maladies and genetic conditions that will make you stand out in the crowd, if only because you’ll have to be locked in a sterile room with two or three levels of biological isolation protocols placed between you and the outside world. Won’t that be fun? Oh, don’t worry. Some of these diseases and maladies aren’t even fatal.

Carotenosis: Let’s start off with something relatively benign, shall we? Carotenosis comes from over ingestion of beta carotene, a pigment that you’ll find in vegetables such as carrots — your body turns it into vitamin A, which is, generally speaking, a good thing. Ingest too much beta carotene, however (say you eat nothing but carrots and drink nothing but carrot juice, just because you were curious to see what would happen) and eventually your skin will turn orange That’s carotenosis, a real example of “you are what you eat.” Carotenosis won’t kill you, it’ll just make you look funny, but massive doses of vitamin A can cause: Nausea, vomiting, irritability, hair loss, weight loss, liver enlargement, menstrual problems, bone abnormalities, and stunted growth for the kids. So if you find yourself turning orange, lay off the rabbit food for a couple of days.

Hereditary Methemoglobinemia: You say orange really isn’t your color? How do you feel about blue? This genetic malady causes a malformation in the hemoglobin molecule in your blood, reducing your blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. This turns arterial blood sort of brownish, and in folks of a Caucasian stripe, this will give your skin a distinct — and distinctive! — bluish tinge. True, your blood’s not exactly richly oxygenated, but that’ll just give you a fashionable appearance of ennui. But there is a catch: Hereditary methemoglobinemia is recessive, so by and large it’s prevalent only where (oh, how to put this delicately), a family tree has a few too many recursive branches. This was the case in the most famous case of this ailment, the Fugate family of Kentucky, where a high incidence of cousin-marrying eventually caused a number of Fugates to be blue, and not just in the traditional “I’m feeling mighty low” sense.

Want blue skin but would rather not have father-uncles and sister-cousins? There is also acquired metheoglobinemia, which you can get by exposure to certain toxic chemicals. However, the side effects of this variant are headache, fatigue, tachycardia, weakness and dizziness at low levels of exposure, followed by dyspnea, acidosis, arrhythmias, coma, and convulsions at higher levels, which is then followed by death. Speaking of feeling blue.

Kuru: Enough with this skin color nonsense, you say. Give me a truly distinctive disease! Fine, if you really want to make an impression, try on kuru for size. Even the name tell you it’s something truly nasty, since “kuru” means “trembling with fear” in the language for the Fore, the New Guinea highland tribe in which the disease reached epidemic proportions in the middle of the last century. Kuru’s first symptoms are headaches and joint pains, followed several weeks later by difficulty in walking, and uncontrolled trembling while asleep or while stressed (which would be most of the time, considering). Tremors become progressively worse, confining the patient to bed. This is followed by total loss of the ability to swallow or eat, and after that you’re just a hydrating IV drip away from doom. Oh yes, you’ll definitely be the belle of the ball with this one.

One minor detail, which would be how you catch Kuru in the first place You have to eat brains. Specifically, human brains. Even more specifically, human brains already infected with kuru. This is how the Fore got it — as part of their funeral rituals, they ate the brains of their dead. Not quite up for a Hannibal Lector moment? Well, fine. Let’s move on then, shall we.

Necrotizing Fasciitis: Or as you know it, flesh-eating bacteria! The funny thing is (and that’s funny as in ironic, not funny as in “non-stop chucklefest”), the affliction does live up to its name The bacteria involved in necrotizing fasciitis (which include the usually somewhat less virulent Group A streptococcus that give us run-of-the-mill ailments like strep throat) can actually eat through an inch of flesh in the space of an hour. What will make you truly paranoid is that early symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are remarkably similar to flu symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, weakness, muscle pain, and fever.

It’s the second set of symptoms — very painful infection around a cut or a bruise and/or a rapidly growing infection around said bruise — that will have you rocketing towards the doctors and praying that Western Civilization’s rampant misuse of antibiotics in everything from bathroom soaps to livestock feed hasn’t caused your personal area of infection to be packed with drug-resistant bacteria that will simply laugh cruelly at whatever it is the doctor administers to fight them.

The good news here is that the odds of your flu-like symptoms devolving into necrotizing fasciitis are a couple hundred thousand to one (your odds are somewhat greater if you’ve just had chicken pox, however). If you really want to reduce your fretting, wash any cut or scrape you get with warm soapy water, and keep the wound dry and bandaged, just like you’re supposed to. And rethink your desire to have a truly unique disease. After considering necrotizing fasciitis, a nice run-of -the-mill cold is beginning to look mighty attractive.

Pheromones

All right! One of my books for 2002 is now out: Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe (my other book for 2002, The Rough Guide to the Universe, now looks like it’s going to be released in 2003. Which is good — too much product released at the same time is no good, especially when both books have the word “Universe” in the title). Of course, I advise you all to run out and buy this book as soon as possible — if you can’t wait to get to a bookstore or are otherwise incapacitated (you’re being held down by stoats, say), then head on over to Amazon.com. I’m all about facilitating purchases.

The Uncle John books, if you’re not familiar with the series, are compilations of short articles (sized just right for light bathroom reading, hence the title); this particular one has a science theme — not just astronomy, but also health and earth sciences. I should note for the sake of clarity that I am not the “Uncle John” of the title: Indeed, technically, this is not my book at all. I am but a mere contributor. However, I wrote 40 articles in the book, which by page count is about a quarter of its total, and I think what I’ve written is pretty interesting. And I have very high regard for the Uncle John’s folks, so even if I hadn’t written a fair chunk of this book, I’d want you to go out and buy it anyway.

So what did I write about? Here is a sampling of the titles of articles I wrote for this one:

*Cool Astronomical Terms to Make Friends and Impress People
*Read a Weather Map Like a Pro
*How to Make a Black Hole
*”You Think I’m Mad, Don’t You?” (Mad scientist movies)
*The Body’s Second String (Little-known organs and systems)
*Big Moments in Forensics
*10 SF Books Even Nongeeks Would Love

And there are 33 others spread around the book. No, I’m not going to tell you which ones they are. I want you to guess.

In fact, let’s make this a contest. Go out and buy Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe (or, if you’re cheap and can weather annoyed bookstore staff, thumb through it at the store) and then send me the list of articles you think I wrote. The person who gets the most correct will win a John Scalzi Multimedia Gift Pack, which includes an autographed copy of The Rough Guide to the Universe (which is solely written by yours truly), an autographed copy of The Rough Guide to Money Online (a classic of the online money management genre!) a personally-burned CD compilation of Musicforheadphones plus extra tracks, and an electronic copy of Old Man’s War, the novel I’m currently shopping around. It’s a fabulous gift pack with a street value of, oh, I don’t know, $28 or thereabouts. The winner will get it sent whenever it is I get my author copies of Rough Guide to the Universe.

The rules: First, you have to send your list of guesses to me by December 31, 2002. Second, put “Universe Article Guesses” as your e-mail subject header, so I can filter them to a special mailbox and keep track of them. Third, if you were on the list of readers that I sent the Uncle John articles to while I was writing them, obviously you’re not eligible (and if you are one of these people, don’t tell anyone the titles of the articles; that’s just not fair). In the event of a tie, I’ll pick a winner by flipping a coin or whatever. No purchase necessary, but you’ll look fairly cheap if you don’t.

To give you a taste of the tone of the articles in the book, all this week I’ll be posting articles that I wrote for Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe but which didn’t make the final cut for whatever reason (4 didn’t make it; 40 did. I have no complaints). The first one is below. I’ll post another on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday (after which I’ll be out for a few days while I travel). So enjoy, and good luck with the contest.

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You Smell Great!

Thinking about getting that pheromone-laden cologne? Hold that thought.

There’s a new special ingredient to cologne these days: Pheromones — chemicals your body secretes, or so you’re being told, that can help you attract the sort of hot mate that will get all slobbery with little or no prompting (or even noticeable social skill) on your part. And you think to yourself Finally. That whole flowers-and-chocolate-and-pretending-to-be-
interested-in-the-conversation thing was killing me. And off you go, to buy your pheromone cologne and let the chemicals do the talking for you. Well, before you pull out your credit card, let’s have a quick reality check about pheromones, humans, and you.

First off: Yes, pheromones really do exist, and they are chemicals that living things give off, not unlike a scent, in order to communicate with other members of their species. These pheromone communications are all over the board: Ants and termites, for example, will use pheromones to lay down a trail that other ants and termites can follow. Queen bees use pheromones to signal bee pupae that they’re going to be worker bees and not queens themselves. Wounded minnows will release pheromones to alert the rest of the school of fish to danger, a sort of fish version of the wounded soldier who says arrrrgh, I’ve been shot, go on without me.

However, many species use pheromones specifically to attract sexual partners. Insects are famous for this: Certain species of moths are so sensitive to a female moths’ pheromones that just a couple of molecules of it can get them running (well, flying. You know what we mean). Male wild boars have a pheromone that will actually cause a female of the breed to lock her hind legs into a sexually receptive position: No flowers-and-chocolate routine needed there. Even non-animals get into the act: Fungi, slime molds and algae all use pheromones to makes themselves super-sexy to other fungi, slime molds and algae. It’s not love, the fungi/slime mold/algae says to its excited new friend. It’s just pheromones.

So there you have it: Pheromones = instant sex appeal, right? Sure, if you’re a slime mold. But it’s never been proven that humans use pheromones to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. In fact, until 1998, it wasn’t even clear that humans were receptive to pheromones at all. There were several reasons for this, not the least of which was that the organ used by many animals to receive pheromone signals — a thing called the vomeronasal organ — is all but non-existent in humans. What small vomeronasal organs we have are tiny notches tucked away in our noses, and it’s not at all clear that they’re connected to anything.

What changed that was a study performed at the University of Chicago by researchers Martha K. McClintock and Kathleen Stern. While an undergraduate at the U of C in the early 70s, McClintock noted that the menstrual cycles of the women in her dormitory eventually synced up (it is, by the way, very typical U of C undergraduate behavior to notice this sort of thing), and suspected pheromones might have something to do with it. To check this, she collected sweat samples from nine women (by having them wear gauze in their armpits), and noted where in their menstrual cycle those women were. Then she took those sweat samples and daubed them under the noses of 20 other women. Yes, yes, total icks-ville. Science is not for the squeamish.

What she found was that the women who sniffed the sweat had their menstrual cycles noticeably lengthened or shortened, depending on what sweat they were sniffing. Sweat from women early in their cycle caused the sniffers to shorten their own cycles, while sweat from women later in their cycle had an opposite effect. There you had it: The first strong indication that humans can and do pay attention to pheromones. McClintock’s study left open many questions, such as how exactly the pheromones did their signaling, or even whether pheromones would work on other people who weren’t actively sniffing sweaty gauze. But those are details to be worked out.

There are some indications that humans use pheromones (or something very much like them) in helping to determine mates — in other studies, women appear to be attracted to the smell of men who have immune systems that are different from their own (this study involved women sniffing sweaty shirts). But again, it’s important to note that so far, there’s no conclusive study that specifically identifies a human pheromone that actually makes one sex more attractive to the other sex (or one sex attractive to the same sex, if you want to go that direction).

What does this mean for your pheromone-laced cologne? Basically that it’s a waste of money. The only thing we’re reasonably certain human pheromones do is manipulate the menstrual cycle, and generally speaking, that’s not something you really want to fiddle with, for everyone’s piece of mind. Your best course of action at this point is to stick with your current cologne and try to brush up on your social skills. Hey, people have been finding love the old-fashioned way for millennial, without the use of pheromones (so far as they knew). It could work for you too. Flowers and chocolate can’t hurt either.

Musicunited.org

Here’s an interesting question for you: Considering that the music industry essentially dictates the shape of the youth culture, how can it be so thickheadedly clueless about talking to teens about file sharing? The latest music industry salvo in this direction is a Web site called MusicUnited.org, which is designed to bring home the point that nearly all file sharing is illegal and wrong. Let’s take a moment and discuss all the ways that this site is going to fail miserably.

1. It’s not a cool site. It’s not cool in its intent, of course, since its intent is to keep kids from doing something they want to do, which is to share files with each other. But you can get past that if you can get your message across. The site totally screws this up right from the beginning: One of the headlines on the front page says of file sharing: “It’s illegal and it’s a drag!”

A drag? I mean, good Lord. I’m 33 and I winced when I saw that. It immediately calls to mind your junior high health teacher trying to use hep slang to tell you about why drugs are bad. The worst thing an adult can ever do when speaking to “the kids” is try to use current slang and fail (the second worse thing is to use it and use it correctly, and yet still sound like you have no clue). The site immediately sets itself up to be mocked purely on the basis of how it presents its message, which means the message won’t even get considered.

2. The site threatens. Despite the nice (but too conservatively-designed) graphic design, the textual tone of the site is one of distinct and total menace. Every bit of text reinforces ominously that file sharing is illegal (and wrong), and that there are severe penalties if you’re caught: The site’s favorite bit of trivia in this respect is the maximum penalty for copyright violations, which is five years in the stony lonesome and a $250,000 fine. “Don’t you have a better way to spend five years and $250,000?” asks the site.

Please. The minute the music industry actually ever pressed for the maximum sentence for copyright violations to be imposed on an actual teenager is the minute the shit really hits the fan. No one in their right mind believes that the penalty for a college student downloading the White Stripes album from Kazaa should be half a decade of prison rape and being traded in the exercise yard for a carton of Kools. If the RIAA actually pressed for this for a single casual downloader of music, the backlash of public opinion would destroy the music industry. They know it, and more importantly the kids know it, too. Waving around a big threat stick when you have no ability to use it makes you look sad, desperate and weak, which is certainly no way to get a teenager to listen to you.

3. The site romanticizes file-sharing. The music industry is using the same style of rhetoric against file-sharing as responsible adults used against drug use in the 60s and 70s, during which time, you’ll recall, the kids made drug use pretty much the cornerstone of youth culture. Because anything that really pisses off the grownups is worth doing more than once.

Now, this is not going to be an exact analogy, and thank God for that, since the last thing the world needs is a Cheech & Chong-like pair of wacky file sharers making movies about ripping off the music industry. But it’s good enough, and is certainly more than enough to make the kids feel that by downloading Vanessa Carelton, they’re striking a blow against the Man, or whatever it is the kids are calling “the Man” these days.

The site additionally compromises its position by featuring an area that details the civil and criminal penalties parents can face when teens download files, thereby informing the kids that here is yet another way that they can get back at their parents for having birthed them and forcing them to grow up in suburbia. Good move.

4. The site picks the wrong musicians to plead its case. On the site and in a newspaper ad that runs today, the music industry hauled out the stars to make its point, featuring quotes by Britney Spears, Nelly, Dixie Chicks and (wait for it) Luciano Pavarotti. This is supposed to reflect the depth of diversity of the musicians want you not to share files. The problem is, each of these artists is a multi-platinum artist whose net worth is in the millions. Britney Spears is worth over $100 million personally, as she noted recently in a People interview. The kids are not going to be sympathetic to a bunch of millionaires complaining they money is being taken from them. I know this because I’m not sympathetic to them.

The sort of musicians who should be highlighted in a campaign like this are the ones who actually will get hurt by file sharing: New musicians, musicians with smaller followings, musicians who aren’t already millionaires. The Web site features a couple of these, hidden so far down that their quotes are buried. But you tell me, which of these quotes is more compelling to you?

“Would you go into a CD store and steal a CD? It’s the same thing, people going into the computers and logging on and stealing our music. It’s the exact same thing, so why do it?” — Britney Spears

or

“I live with my drummer and guitarist and we have no money. Our survival is based solely on the purchase of our music. Music is not free. Even the street performer gets a dime in his box.” — James Grundler, Singer/Songwriter, Member of Paloalto.

Personally, I think the “Dude, I’d like to eat” line from a struggling musician carries rather a bit more moral weight than the “Golly, it’s like stealing from a CD store!” line from a 20-year-old woman who has more money than she can reasonably expect to spend in a lifetime. If nothing else, the kids who want to be musicians will feel closer to the situation of the guy in Paloalto than to Britney.

The final problem, however, is one that the music industry made for itself, which is widely-held perception that music is both absurdly expensive and that the vast majority of the money that gets paid for a CD goes to everyone but the people who actually make the music. The reason for the perception is that it’s true. Why should a kid believe that $18 is a fair price for a CD when he or she can burn one at home for about 50 cents? The economics of record contracts are now common knowledge as well, and when a kid realizes that his or her favorite band can sell millions of CDs and still be in the hole to the record company, there hardly seems to be an incentive to support a system that appears to screw the people who make the music.

The site notes that making an album these days can cost $1 million or more, but this doesn’t argue against pirating music, it argues against spending so damn much to make a record. I review indie albums every week on my IndieCrit site, and the sound quality of a sizable percentage of those recordings rivals anything you’ll hear from a major label. I can guarantee you those indie artists aren’t spending a million making their CDs. They’re also not to blame for creating a system of promoting music that requires an outlay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get music added to the playlists of ever-more consolidated radio stations, which play ever-safer music.

I’m not suggesting the kids are striking a blow for artists rights by boycotting the unfair system. That’d be a little much. Most of them just like not having to pay for the music. It’s more that they can spend on video games. But it wouldn’t hurt if the music industry wasn’t perceived as a bloated, vaguely vampiric entity that appears to survive by sucking the life force out of the people who make the music that kids respond to.

If I were the music industry, I’d scrap the MusicUnited.org site and try for something that starts with the assumption that the kids aren’t the enemy and have to be threatened, but are actually reasonably intelligent people who might be persuaded to spend money to support their favorite musicians if it could be intelligently explained to them why this is actually a good thing to do. In the meantime, the site is the music industry equivalent of “Just Say No” — The right message, perhaps, but the utterly wrong way to say it.

Stinky Cheese

Krissy came home the other night with Who Moved My Cheese? It was pressed onto her at work by one of the managers at her new place of employment, who told her that all new hires were actively encouraged to read it (Here’s a clue to the sensible Midwestern frugality of her new place of work: Rather than buying a copy for every new hire, which would cost $20 a pop at list price, they simply lend out the same copy over and over). My understanding is that it’s arguably the number one business motivational book on the market. Well, I’m in business, and I prefer to be motivated, so I read it. And now I can say, if this is what people are using to motivate themselves in corporate America today, no wonder the Dow is where it’s at. It is, without exception, the stupidest book I have ever read.

The motivational lessons in the book come in the form of a parable, suitable for reading to your three-year-old, about four creatures in a lab-rat maze. Two of them are mice, and two of them are little mice-size humans, and they eat the cheese that’s placed in a certain location in the maze. Eventually, the amount of cheese decreases and then disappears. The mice, who noticed the decreasing amounts of cheese, take off through the maze to find more cheese. The little humans, on the other hand, bitch about the loss of cheese and reminisce about the days when cheese was plentiful. Eventually one of the humans gets off his ass and heads out to find more cheese, and in doing so, has a motivational epiphany every few steps, which he feels compelled to scrawl on the walls of the maze.

Eventually he finds more cheese in the maze, as well as the mice, who have grown fat and happy with their new store of food. The little human considers going back for his friend, but then decides that, no, his friend must find his own way through the maze. He leaves his old pal to starve, as that’s almost certainly what his dim, stubborn friend does, and feels all shiny and self-important for finding his new cheese.

The entire parable is framed with a conversation between several friends, one of whom is telling the parable, and the rest of whom spend the parable’s epilogue wondering how they ever got through their professional and personal lives without hearing about the cheese (an interesting rhetorical cheat, incidentally — the author is confirming the usefulness of the book by creating characters that are helped by its philosophy, but which don’t actually exist in the real world. This is a very Ayn Rand thing to do).

The overall idea of the book is that change is inevitable and if you’re smart, when it happens you won’t spend much of your time bitching about how you don’t like change; instead you’ll adapt to the change and get on with your life. The “cheese” represents all the things you’ve come to rely upon. Well, let me save you 20 bucks and boil the lesson of the book down to exactly five words: Shit Happens. Deal With It.

Also, the book throws in a few other lessons, which are hopefully unintended:

1. Life is a maze that has been laid out without your control or consent. The best you can do is run through it and hope you run into the things that make you happy.

2. You have no control over the things that make you happy — their quantity and quality are controlled totally by outside forces, with whom you cannot interact, and which have no interest in your needs.

3. The mice in the parable understood that the “cheese” was decreasing but neither informed the little humans nor seemed interested in helping them once the cheese was gone. Mice represent the “other.” You cannot trust the “other.” Stick to your own kind (alternately, the mice represent management, who know more about the reality of the situation, and the little humans are the rank-and-file, intentionally kept in the dark by management. Either way: Not to be trusted).

4. The one little human found more cheese but decided not to return to help his friend, rationalizing that it was up to his friend to find the way. Moral: Once you’ve got yours, you don’t need to share. It’s not your responsibility to share your knowledge with others, even if the cost of sharing that knowledge is trivial and doing so will immeasurably improve their lives (i.e., in this case, keep the other little human from starving to death).

In other words, the formulation of the book posits a world that is confusing and sterile, in which the things that might make us happy all exist outside of ourselves, and in which the ultimate successful qualities are selfishness and paranoia. I wonder how popular this book was at Enron and Global Crossing.

Look, people. If you ever find your “cheese” decreasing, don’t run around frantically in a maze, looking for something else to replace it. Simply learn to make cheese. Which is to say, be responsible for creating your own happiness internally instead of relying on something outside of you to provide it, and living in fear that it will go away. This way, when the cosmic forces take away your cheese, you can look up and say, screw you and your stinkin’ maze. I’ll move when I damn well feel like it.

Even better, you won’t have to compete with others for your cheese. Heck, eventually you’ll have surplus cheese to give to your friends who might be starving for some. You can teach them to make cheese, too. Give a man a piece of cheese, and he has cheese toast for a day. Teach him how to make cheese, and you’ve got a life-long fondue party pal.

Mmmm. Fondue. Much better than scampering blindly through a maze. Or paying $20 for a book that condescendingly tells you that’s what you should be doing with your life.

Bob Greene Redux

Interesting feedback from the Bob Greene thing the other day. Aside from the journalistic schadenfreude of watching Bob Greene fall — which is considerable, so that’s a warning to all of you who wish you had his career up until last weekend — the largest spate of e-mail I got about it came from 40-plus-year-old men who wanted me to know that they don’t like 18-year-old girls. Not at all. My universal response to these fellows was: Good for you. I’m sure your wives are proud.

As it happens, I’m not so keen on 18-year-olds myself; in the grand scheme of things, procuring one today would be more trouble than it’s worth. This has nothing to do with their physical charms (about which I’ll comment in a minute) and pretty much everything to do with the fact that at the age of 33, the only two things I have in common with the typical 18-year-old girl are that we are both human and speak the same language, plus or minus a couple dozen words of slang. To be terribly male about it, I suppose I could have sex with an 18-year-old if I had to. I just wouldn’t enjoy the post-coital conversation very much. So if it’s all the same I’ll pass. Fortunately for me, there are not great throngs of 18-year-old hotties at my door, licking the window panes to entice me to let them come up for a romp. You can imagine my relief.

Over at Slate, Mickey Kaus begs to differ about my point concerning Greene’s encroaching mortality being a consideration for his boinking a teenage woman; Kaus writes:

“Why do men — like Scalzi here, or Warren Beatty in Shampoo (or whoever wrote Warren Beatty’s lines in Shampoo) — have to explain their desire to have sex with attractive women in terms of a struggle against mortality (“middle-age-death-denying” in Scalzi’s words)? You mean they wouldn’t have sex with young women if they were in good shape and knew they were going to live to be 300? They didn’t want to have sex with young women when they were young themselves? It’s sex! Millions of years of evolution have designed men to want it and enjoy it.. It’s stupid to try to explain this urge in some highfalutin’ literary or spiritual way — and revealing that even relatively no-BS men like Scalzi (or Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, to name another) feel that they have to.”

Let’s separate this out. There’s the first point, on which Kaus is entirely correct, which is that boinking hot young women is really its own excuse. You all know the drill concerning the genetic and cultural reasons for this, so let’s pretend I’ve made all those points so we can move on. There is the point to be made here that (some) men are turned off by the yawning chasm in life experience between themselves and the average 18-year-old, and therefore prefer the company of women nearer their own age. As I mentioned earlier: Good for them.

On the other hand: Provide a man with the brain of a 45-year-old woman (yes, he’ll suddenly become smarter, ha ha ha, thank you very much) and tell him he can put it either into the body of a fit, attractive 45-year-old woman, or into the body of a fit, attractive 18-year-old woman. Let’s all not pretend that the 45-year-old body is going to do anything but sit there with a blinking neon “vacancy” sign flashing over its head. In a perfect world (for men) women would hover around age 23 forever (In a perfect world for women, I expect you’d see a lot more variation in age, from a Heath Ledger 22 to a Pierce Brosnan 49, with the median being a Brad Pitt 38).

Still, conceding this point, which I readily do, doesn’t mean that middle-age dudes still don’t actually see (or at least rationalize) porking the young as a fist in the snout of death. It’s not especially highfalutin’ to point it out, it’s actually pretty sad and common. If you’re thinking about death, or how you’ve squandered your potential in middle management or wherever, you want to do things that make you feel alive. Having sex with young women is the male mid-life crisis version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It doesn’t keep you from dying, but at least you get to go to the Magic Kingdom one more time.

Whether this is the particular case with Bob Greene is another matter entirely. As journalist Nancy Nall notes on her site, Greene has had a reputation as a skirt-chaser for a while now, so if these scandalous rumors are true, he’s merely pursuing a modus operandi honed over decades (eeeeew). In which case Kaus carries the day. This encounter really is less about middle-aged angst than it is just about making a fast and easy booty call on the Youth of America: Dinner and dessert. Let’s hope it was at least an expensive dinner. Taking the girl out to Harold’s Chicken Shack before slipping her the drumstick would just be chintzy and sad.

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Moving away from the realm of horndog newspaper columnists and the teenage girls they cavort with, let me take a minute to bow down to my own superfabulous wife, who as you may know started a new full-time job on Monday. She was at the job roughly six hours before she got a promotion into another department; the department had an opening, saw her resume and made a (barely) internal hire. This is a testament both to Krissy’s fabulousness and her new company’s ability to judge talent. I’m pleased because at this rate of ascent, Krissy will be able to support us all on her income alone by about this time next week. Which means I can retire and spend more time on the important things, which are, of course, video games. Yes, I’m aware that this last statement means that if anyone in this relationship is going to be traded away for a new hot and young plaything, it’s going to me. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Bob Greene Gets Canned

Header in my Spam box today: “Barnyard animal rapers take it to the extreme!!!” Jesus. Aren’t they there already?

***

Speaking of taking it to the extreme, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene resigned his position over the weekend because someone blabbed to the Tribune (in an anonymous e-mail, no less) that Ol’ Bob had a sexual encounter with a teenage girl a decade ago (he would have been in his mid-40s at the time). He had met the girl in connection with his newspaper column. Interestingly enough, it’s that last part that seems to be the smoking gun, not that she was a teenage girl and he was a middle-aged guy with what looks like a bad haircut, although all of that looks bad enough. Apparently she was the age of consent, even if she was a teenager (there’s a couple of years where those two overlap). But having sex with someone you meet in connection with a story is a no-no.

That Bob Greene would have sex with a teenager while he was huffin’ and puffin’ away at middle age is not much of a surprise. First off, he’s a guy, and if the average 40+ guy gets a chance to boink an 18-year-old without penalty (or in this case, a penalty delayed by several years), he’s going to take it. Undoubtedly he’ll have a good rationalization (we always do, and Greene, being a writer, probably has a better one than most), but to cut to the chase, he’ll do it because she’s hot and young, and because during middle age the Veil of Male Self-Deception, even at maximum power, can no longer hide the fact that one day the man will die, and that between now and then, the number of truly hot young women he can have without paying for them is small and getting smaller, fast. So that’s reason number one.

Reason number two that it’s not at all surprising is that Bob Greene is, by self-appointment, Boomer America’s Newspaper Columnist. Well, was. Anyway, as a chronicler of the Boomer Nation observing itself, it was only a matter of time. Boomers have never done anything that wasn’t eventually about them; it’s the funky never-ending narcissism thing they’ve got going. No, that doesn’t make the Boomers evil — every generation has its annoying tics (my generation, for example, has a tendency to whine like kicked puppies being shown the boots that will get them in the ribs), and this is the Boomers’. Also, rather unwisely, the Boomers made a fetish of their youth when they were younger — hey, they were young, what did they know — and they’re not handling the inevitable decrepitude well. Narcissism + Getting Older = Irrational Behavior, often involving younger women in ill-advised trysts. As Boomer America’s Newspaper Columnist, how could Greene not do this? He’s just staying true to his demographic.

Reason number three is that Bob Greene telegraphed the idea he’d do (or did, depending on the timeline) something like this a decade ago in his perfectly awful novel All Summer Long. The story involves three life-long high-school chums, who when confronted with the stirrings of middle-age do what all newly-middle-aged men do in mediocre quasi-autobiographical fiction written by newly-middle-aged Boomer men: Take a long vacation away from their families and responsibilities to “find themselves” on America’s byways. This, of course, often involves extracurricular sex with hot babes. In the case of Bob Greene’s obvious stand-in inside the novel (a nationally well-known TV journalist named “Ben”), this means having sex with a graduate student roughly half his age. In real life, Greene diddled with a high school student closer to a third his age, but, speaking as a writer, one always tries to make oneself look better in fiction.

Now, Greene didn’t have to follow through on the whole sex-with-a-much-younger woman thing just because he wrote about it. Mystery writers write about killing people all the time; most of them don’t actually attempt to follow through. But sex with a younger woman won’t kill you (just your career) and anyway let’s revisit points one and two here. It wasn’t inevitable, but when a guy draws himself a roadmap and hands himself the keys to the car, it’s not entirely surprising he ends up in Whoops-I-slept-with-someone-my-daughter’s-age-ville, looking for a motel that rents by the hour.

Be all that as it may, I do have to wonder what the problem is here. Greene’s sleeping with a teenage woman is gross to think about, but they were both of legal age, and even if she was just barely so, “just barely so,” counts as legal. So far as I know, Greene applied no coercion other than his not-especially-dazzling celebrity, and as everyone knows, if a great many celebrities didn’t do that (especially the not-especially-dazzling ones, and especially ones, like Greene, who have a face for radio) they wouldn’t get any action at all; they’re just as lumpy and furtive as the rest of us.

Journalistically speaking, having sex with someone in one of your stories isn’t very smart and is definitely suspension-worthy (a nice long “leave of absence” would have been good), but it’s not a crime. From what I can tell, Greene even waited until after he had written about the woman to hit her up. The Tribune is labeling it a “breach of trust” between journalist and subject, but if he did in fact wait until after he had written about her (and did not write about her post-boinkage), where is the breach? What I see is simply middle-age-death-denying sex, which God knows is common enough. Unseemly, sad and more than a little creepy, but there are worse things a journalist can do. Hell, it’s not plagiarism.

There’s probably more here than what we know now, that’s my only guess. It’s worth noting that the Trib didn’t fire Greene; he apparently offered to resign and the resignation was accepted. If I were a corporate suit, I’d’ve taken the resignation too, since it was an easy way to distance my company from Greene’s compromising position.

Also, I think Greene should have been cut as a columnist years ago, not because he’s morally tainted, but because he’s a boring columnist. He stopped being interesting and started being filler long before he did his questionable after-school activities. From a purely utilitarian point of view, there’s no downside to Greene hightailing it out of town, excepting that there will be the painfully rationalized mea culpa six months down the road as part of Greene’s inevitable comeback (America loves a reformed sinner).

But based on what we know now, this isn’t the way Greene should go out. If he needed to be yanked, he should have been yanked on the merits of his writing (or lack thereof), not because of sex he had a decade ago with a legal adult who apparently gave her consent after she was no longer his journalistic subject. Greene is getting popped on a dubious technicality, and though I would have never imagined I’d say something like this, I think he probably deserves better. Getting canned for being a boring columnist would probably have been harder on the ego, but at least it would have been a reasonable excuse for getting escorted from the building. I won’t much miss Greene’s columns, but even I wish he could have had a better final act.

Blogging Network

People have asked me when I thought that blogging would finally “pay off” — that is, that it will finally become a viable way for a writer to make money. This question comes coincidentally close to the debut of the Blogging Network, a sort of “United Artists”-model concern in which a number of bloggers have offered up content on a “premium” model. From what I understand, the reader pays $3 a month for access to every blog on the Blogging Network. Half of the money collected goes to support the network itself, and half is distributed to writers, the percentage based on their popularity. Probably the highest-profile blogger to put material up behind the subscription firewall is Bill Quick, who is also a prolific science-fiction writer, and an Internet acquaintance of mine for several years. Former San Jose Mercury News writer and columnist Joanne Jacobs is also on hand and is putting up adaptations of her book in progress. So overall, it’s a good time to be thinking about blogging and money.

Let me start with the Blogging Network economic model first before I get to the general concept of bloggers making money. Simply put, I’d be very surprised if the Blogging Network worked to any financially useful extent for the bloggers involved.

Content subscriptions are a risky model online. Bill Quick holds up Salon’s 40,000 premium subscribers as proof that people will pay for good content online. However, it’s worth remembering that those subscribers comprise between 1% and 2% of Salon’s total readership — meaning that more than 98% of Salon’s readership didn’t want to pony up the cash. Considering a “successful” blog is one with a few thousand readers (not the couple million Salon has), a similar paid conversion rate would come out to 50 subscribers or so.

This seems consistent with the number of subscribers the network appears to have so far. Blogging Network posts its “annual run rate” — a public announcement of how much they grossed so far, which at the moment is $1255.80. This is their first month, so running the math, that’s 420 subscribers (one of them, in the interest of disclosure, being me). There are 16 bloggers currently participating, so presuming I’ve run the numbers correctly, if each of them brought an equal number of their readers to the Blogging Network, each of them has managed to convince 26 or 27 readers to convert to the paid model. It’s still early, so they’ll probably grab a few more. However, the payment for the site is month-to-month, so after the first month, it’ll be a matter of keeping the old subscribers as well as gaining new ones.

This is where things will begin to get tricky. Existing bloggers can only convert readers they already have; once they’re behind the subscription firewall, the only people who will see their new material are those who have already signed up. Potential readers will have no access to material to see if they like it enough to sign up — unlike a paper magazine, you can’t just thumb through a subscription site (at the very least, you can’t thumb through the Blogger Network site, so far as I can see). Readers probably won’t sign up for things they can’t read. One solution to this is for the blogger to continue his or her free site as a loss leader to convince people to sign up for the premium material — again, a trick from the Salon playbook. The problem with this is, look where’s it’s gotten Salon: a 1 to 2 percent conversion rate.

Blogs are by and large a solitary pursuit, so the blogger has increased his or her workload considerably: He or she has to create a free blog which is of sufficiently high frequency and quality to convince readers to convert to the premium material, and then a premium blog of similar frequency and higher content quality to justify a continual $3/month purchase. I would imagine a counter-argument to this might be that the $3/month buys access to several blogs, not just one, so it’s not accurate to put all the weight on a particular premium blog.

But as a practical matter I don’t see how you can avoid it. If you advertise your product as premium (which you do implicitly by charging for what has been essentially a free resource up to that point), all the content has to meet that higher standard. If a reader perceives that one or two of these “premium” blogs are good stuff but the rest are slack, they’re reasonably likely to believe they’re not getting their $3 worth. There’s also the matter that as far as I understand it, the Blogging Network rewards high page views, which — presumably — would be generated by high quality content. Coming or going, the blogger has cut out more work for himself or herself.

There’s also the problem with the format of blogs, in terms of justifying their status as paid content. Most blogs are essentially agglomerations of links with short, functional commentary added; one reads the commentary, but it’s usually dependent on the link for context; if you don’t link, you’re missing half (or more) of the story. In this way, blogs represent a new kind of content: Conduit Content, in which the primary idea of the content is to lead to you somewhere else. This is opposed to Destination Content, the much more traditional brand of content, in which the primary idea of the content is to keep you engaged with the material at hand (This site, incidentally, deals primarily in destination content, which is one of the reasons I’m deeply ambivalent about it being called a blog, or me a blogger).

Conduit content is a truly fascinating concept and probably worth study academically, but it doesn’t make a compelling case for being paid for. It’s fundamentally about the link, not the writing surrounding it, and any idiot can make a link. The very best examples of conduit content, as writing, are not terribly far removed, in terms of utility, from mediocre examples. Many of the best-regarded bloggers (Glenn Reynolds being one, and Bill Quick himself being another) will frequently simply air a link with minimal commentary at best, making that link indistinguishable (as writing) from that of the dittohead blogger who feeds off better-written sites for links in the first place. Indeed, blog indexing sites like Blogdex and Daypop are frequently more compelling as functional blogs than the blogs they track and chart — not at all unlike how the S&P 500 Index outperforms 90% of living, breathing fund managers. In short, if an automated indexing tool can create a blog that is functionally competitive to a human-created blog, why would one want to pay for a human-created blog?

One way to answer this would be to make the premium blogs destination content, which computers can’t yet create (at least, not very well) — Joanne Jacobs could be thought of as an example of this, since she’s offering up adaptations of her book in progress in her Blogging Network blog, and I think it’s a fine idea. But here’s the catch on that: How many bloggers — even the good ones — are actually good writers? And of those, how many are so good that you’d actually want to pay for their work? For the former of these categories, the answer is few, and for the latter the answer is even fewer.

It’s not at all a coincidence that many of the most popular bloggers write professionally; despite the egalitarian nature of the Blogoverse, very good writing needs to be developed over time and usually in the presence of an editor or two (writers hate that fact, but there it is). There are indeed “non-pro” bloggers who can and do write compelling and consistent (important when you’re thinking of charging) destination content. I’m fond of citing Steven Den Beste, who was an engineer by trade, as an example of this (although he shows no interest in blogging for dollars). But they are thin on the ground relative to the number of bloggers who can’t.

This is true even on the Blogging Network, which outside of Bill Quick and Joanne Jacobs appears to be populated by writers whose level of writing quality is no better than the large majority of blogs and online diaries that are available for free. In one sense, this is fine news for Bill and Joanne, since I suspect the lion’s share of net proceeds of the Blogger Network will be going to them. But it’s not so fine in the sense that the average quality of material on the Network doesn’t justify the cost. It certainly doesn’t justify $35.88 a year, which is five dollars more than what Salon charges on an annual basis, and more than what I pay for my combined subscriptions to Esquire, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones (which I got as a premium for my Salon subscription). And I don’t think the potential financial return will at all justify the amount of effort Quick, Jacobs and others will have to put in to make the Blogging Network function at even a modest level.

In a larger sense I’m not optimistic that blogging will ever be a profitable endeavor in itself. I think it’s instructive that the vast majority of professional writers who blog are realistic enough to understand that the value of a blog lies in its promotional value. My high school classmate Josh Marshall is a fine example of this: He’s parlayed Talking Points Memo into a reputable advertising platform for himself — his work there is frequently referenced in the Washington Post and the New York Times — which he can then use to logroll into a higher profile in the world of political writing. James Lileks has wrung two books out of his Web site and his sizable online audience no doubt appeals to his publisher as a potential book audience.

As a professional writer, I’ve certainly used this site to build professional relationships: A fair chunk of my income comes from people who found out about me through material on this site. But it’s not at all worth the effort to make the site a profit center in itself, if for no other reason than the cost of lost opportunities is substantially higher than the potential income the site could produce. Andrew Sullivan is reputed to have made somewhere in the area of $30,000 off his Web site last year, which is boggling for a personal site offering nothing but writing and links to an Amazon store, so good on him. But relative to the amount a writer of his reputation could have made otherwise, 30 grand is less. Sullivan has his reasons, I’m sure, for choosing the less remunerative route, and bless him for it. But most writers prefer to take the path of least financial resistance.

I also don’t think it’s a bad thing if blogging, in itself, never becomes a profitable enterprise. The act of blogging (or of writing online in other forms) offers some tremendous advantages for writers and readers that are fundamentally based in its “we’re doing it because we love to” nature. Amateur — in the classical sense of someone who does something out of love — is not at all a dirty word, and financial success is almost certainly the wrong metric by which to judge the success of blogging as a medium. Blogging may never be profitable, but it is already useful, to some extent it is influential (not as much as bloggers like to think, but more than mainstream media gives it credit for), and in any event it is usually pretty fun. It’s worth doing, even if from a dollars-and-cents point of view, it’s not worth much.

Personal Things

Someone wrote in not long ago to ask me why I haven’t written about Athena recently. The short answer is that what with the books and all, I haven’t actually been writing about much of anything here, much less Athena. But the other reason is that simply that I haven’t much felt like it. As most of you know, while I’m usually pretty personable in this space, I don’t really get all that personal — I try to avoid talking about my neuroses on a constant basis, for example, and as far as any of you know, my wife and I have never had a cross word or misunderstanding. I prefer to keep it that way. I know many of you feel you know me (and in some cases that feeling is actually true), but some things are my own, and not yours, and I have no problem keeping them that way. This isn’t a confession booth or a therapy couch, at least not directly. Not every thing needs to be said in public.

In the case of Athena, as she grows older I grow more cognizant that her life is not merely an extension of my own, or just fodder for the space here or with some other writing assignment. Don’t get me wrong, I will still blather on about her and about being a dad, and so on and whatnot (especially if there’s money involved! Mmmmm…sweet, sweet money). But on the other hand I’m not in a rush to chronicle every last adorable moment or pride-bursting achievement. Others do that, in traditional media and online, and more power to them. I don’t intend to do it as often as they. I heartily intend to bore my audience in other ways.

And yet (and of course), I love talking about her, and writing about her. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, one of the great surprises about fatherhood has been how consistently fascinating having a child has been. Before having Athena, I had expected that a kid of mine wouldn’t really become interesting until it could actually speak; therefore the first two years of your child’s life was something of a waiting game, counting down the time until you could actually engage your spawn in conversation. Like most of my assumptions involving parenthood, this one was spectacularly wrong; Athena was interesting from the get-go, and she gets more interesting as she goes along.

Every parent thinks that, obviously (or should think it, in any event), and the fact that we do makes me wonder where along the way we forget that kids are capable of surprising leaps of, if not intelligence, at least intuition and imagination. It’s probably because most of everything before five is kind of a haze. I once interviewed Orson Scott Card, a novelist who has written several novels with incredibly precocious children, and I asked him if he had ever met a child who was as self-possessed as the kids in his books. His response was that children had the same subtlety of thought as adults, they just lacked context and experience. The children he wrote about were exceptional, but in some sense he was simply translating the inner life of children in a way that adults could understand.

In my opinion Card’s a little overgenerous in the general sense (he never really did write about anyone but truly exceptional children, the sort that write extended political essays or fight multi-tiered battles with aliens, rather than the kind that like Fruit Roll-Ups and Blue’s Clues), but he’s correct in the basic premise that children can be sophisticated thinkers rather more often than adults give them credit for being so. Athena has yet to best either her mother or me in a game of logical reasoning, but that’s mostly because we have the better part of three decades on her. Like a raptor poking at the fences in Jurassic Park, she’s constantly testing for weaknesses and slip-ups, and it’s really actually enjoyable watching her try to get one past us. It’s only a matter of time before she does.

Mind you, when she doesn’t, she’s still not above having a tantrum to try to get her way, so she’s still very much the three-year-old. These tantrums typically don’t work. But hope spring eternal. In the meantime, and as you can see from the picture, she’s strong-willed, smart, and sporting a ‘tude, and no, I have no idea from where she might get that. I don’t expect she’s all that different from other children her age, although I wouldn’t mind terribly if she were. I wouldn’t mind her being an exceptional ‘tude-sporter.

In any event, Athena will continue to make her appearances here, and probably on a not-infrequent basis. But I hope you don’t mind if I keep some (many) things to myself, between me, her mother and her own little person. Eventually, she’ll be old enough to tell you more about herself and her point of view, if she wants to. If she wants to, I think it’ll be worth the wait.

Stupid Conservative Tricks

There’s nothing that makes me want to gag more than conservative white men in power who complain people are bigoted against their kind. That’s what Florida governor Jeb Bush is doing, talking specifically about Jerry Regier, a man Bush picked to run Florida’s Department of Children & Families — you know, the one that keeps losing track of children until they end up dead on the side of the road, at which point it’s a race to see who can find their little bodies first: Concerned truckers steaming north on the 95, or the alligators.

Regier is a fundamentalist Christian. He also signed his name to a 1989 article which condoned corporal punishment to the point of causing actual physical damage to the child. He’s since denied writing the article; he says he was just the co-chairman of the committee that oversaw the article, and had no control over the content, so you can see how useful it was for him to be co-chairman of that particular committee. However, it’s largely immaterial, since he did admittedly write an article a year earlier for a conservative Christian publication in which he affirmed whacking on kids, based on Biblical justification, and plumped for the idea men’s dominance over their wives and the desirability of keeping the womenfolk at home. So, basically, the guy Bush has running his child welfare agency is on the record giving a thumbs up to beating children and keeping women in the thrall of men.

Naturally, there’s been something of an uproar over Regier’s appointment. Yesterday, Bush, who already has enough problems, defended Reiger by crying bigotry, saying that there’s a “soft bigotry that is emerging against people of faith.” Of Regier himself, Bush said, “It really doesn’t matter if Jerry has a deep and abiding faith and it certainly doesn’t disqualify him for public service. I think there’s bigotry here and it troubles me.”

Well. There is indeed bigotry going on here. But it’s not that people are bigoted against fundamentalist Christians; they’re bigoted against people who advocate child beatings and spousal subjugation running a government department that’s supposed to prevent child beatings and spousal subjugation. Reiger’s “deep and abiding faith” is entirely immaterial. If Regier were a fundamentalist Christian who hadn’t put his name on an article that suggested it was okey-dokey to discipline children to the point of causing internal bleeding, people wouldn’t care who or what he worshiped (actually, that’s not at all true — if he worshiped, say, Chango, the Yoriba spirit that’s so popular with the Santeria folks, people would be in an uproar even if he never once signed off on switching a child until it welted. Funny thing, that).

However, he did do that, and now people are justifiably concerned. Again, it’s not about faith; it’s about Regier’s own personal views. Regier muddies the water by claiming his opinions are based on scripture, so it’s mildly ironic that Regier said yesterday that “for somebody to use their religious beliefs as a cover for abusing children is wrong.” I’m glad he said it; if I were a Floridian, however, I’d want him to specifically spell out where he believed the line between righteous discipline and abuse might actually be.

In any event, Bush does faith a disservice by suggesting that people are bigoted against it. The vast majority of Americans have faith; suggest to them they they’re bigoted against it, they’ll probably tell you to go to Hell, a suggestion that would refute your assertion on a number of levels. It’s a cheap and cynical misdirection to mask the real issue, which is that people are worried that based on his own expressed opinions, Regier is spectacularly the wrong person to run the department he’s supposed to run.

Strangely, even as Bush was running down those he thought were bigoted against faith, he did a not-so-subtle discounting of the very sort of faith he was trying to prop up. When a reporter followed up on Regier quoting the scripture that read “Smite him with the rod,” in the context of child discipline (this being the article Regier actually wrote), Bush dismissed the query. “Without getting into biblical references, do you think that saying `an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth’ actually means that someone ought to poke your eye out?” Bush said.

Well, actually, if you’re like many fundamentalist Christians, the answer to that is yes — many fundamentalist Christians take the Word at its word, which is why they spend so much time and energy trying to convince the rest of us that God whipped up the entire Universe in six days, evolution is a crock, and that we’re all the relatives of two humans who lived in a nice garden until it was discovered that they just couldn’t follow directions at all. To suggest to these folks that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it says is probably a little bit offensive, or, at least, it should be.

In any event, it’s well worth it to know if Regier believes that he’s got the God-given right to smite a child with a rod — not because he might believe he’s got the God-given right to do a thing, but because he might believe he actually can beat a child with a large stick. The first of these is his own business, but the second of these is everyone else’s.

Moral Relativism, Scalzi Style

My wife is in summer school (she is 16, you see — no, not really), and among the classes she’s taking this quarter is an introduction to ethics course, one of those courses where the great moral issues of the day are plopped on the table and everybody goes back and forth on the issue but nothing really gets resolved; not unlike the UN, but somewhat less expensive to participate. The textbook for the class is called Taking Sides, and it features about 20 contentious issues, like “Should Abortions Be Legal?” or “Should Great Apes Be Given Human Rights?” with one essay on the topic arguing for the question, and another, naturally, arguing against. Nowhere present is the third essay, in which the first two essayists are labeled pedantic twits, followed by the suggestion that everyone reading the book should simply go out for cheeseburgers and a round of pool. It’s a real shame it’s not there.

Unsurprisingly, most of the topics that are under consideration in Taking Sides are topics that I already have fairly strong opinions about; perhaps also not surprisingly, it seems that most of the time is not at all like the opinion of the book’s appointed pro and con representatives. This is because in most cases of ethical and moral conundrums, the arguments of those totally for or totally against an issue exist in a rhetorical fantasyland that has no real relationship with the world human beings actual live in. Ethics isn’t mathematics; one can’t take as given certain things in order create an elegant and coherent system. Human beings are messy things, after all. Ethics and morality are and always shall be a messy business.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the first question that Taking Sides posits: “Is Morality Relative to Culture?” The cultural conservative position on this, of course, would be no — there are certain aspects of morality that are independent of one’s culture (and, conveniently, those aspects of morality tend to be those moral aspects which a cultural conservative finds convenient). Cultural liberals, of course, tend to take exception to both the theory and practice of an absolute morality, since those “absolutes” tend to get in the way of whatever activity it is that they’re enjoying and that the conservatives are worried that they are enjoying too much. The only problem with this position is that taken to its extreme it means that you have no right to complain when someone speaks glowingly to the morality of, say, female genital mutilation in they Sudan. Sure, it’s immoral here, but in the Sudan, they’ve been doing it forever. It’s perfectly moral there.

Both positions are fundamentally pretty stupid. The conservative position of an absolute morality has always struck me as weak, because the construction of an absolute morality (which almost always conforms to their morality of choice) is a tacit admission that they can’t sell their lifestyle without divine intervention. All assertions for an absolute morality that I know of eventually lead back to a God of some sort, the existence of which is fundamentally unprovable. There may be someone out there is who is arguing that that there’s a Chomsky-like “deep structure” for morality, which would be independent of an end-point celestial lawgiver, but if there is, I haven’t heard of him or her, and I can’t really imagine any cultural conservative wanting to use Chomsky-ian tools to make a point; it’s just not in them to be agnostic about the provenance of their argument.

On the flip side, it’s difficult to intellectually to support a position on morality whose finally reductive argument leaves room for the aforementioned genital mutilation or shoving little girls back into a burning building to die because their heads aren’t properly covered, as so recently happened in Saudi Arabia. Neither argument satisfies because neither argument has anything to do with the real world.

Here’s an argument that I think works: Yes, morals are relative to culture and independent of any larger, overarching system of morality that all of humanity shares. But if one believes that morals are relative to cultures, it does not therefore follow that one must believe that all cultures are created equal, or that the moralities therein are equivalent. This is an argument that allows you to say: “Your morals are rooted in your culture — but your culture truly sucks.”

I don’t have any problems with this formulation at all. On the one hand, America’s culture owes most of its distinct and durable character to a marvelous act of intellectual manufacture on the part of the founding fathers. They created a political culture almost entirely out of whole cloth, and by doing so helped to create the social and moral culture that supported the aims of the political culture. Neither of these existed anywhere on the planet prior to the founding of the United States, and even attempts within the United States to fight them (the Civil War comes to mind) ended up ultimately strengthening them (mind you, there are still some kinks to work out). There are certainly numerous cultural threads to the social life of the US, but the most important one — the one that ensures personal liberty — was a whole new thing.

Moreover, this created culture and morality is a better one (by and large) than others. Part of this can be seen pragmatically: The US is the most powerful country in the history of the world because the culture and morality of personal liberty has allowed for the creation of a rich, healthy, hard working and (reasonably) intelligent populace. But it’s also evident simply in what it allows, which is for just about everything, once you’re an adult. An open and free society can include, as a subset, and damn fool thing you want to believe in — even a morally restrictive lifestyle (I mean, I live near Amish). The only real restriction on this is that you can’t drag other people down with you if they don’t want to go, but if you can live with that, have at it.

Cultural conservatives believe that having morality dependant on culture ultimately leads to anarchy, but I don’t see that as being the case. Most people are smart enough to see that their freedom to do whatever they want stops when whatever they want unwillingly involves someone else (more accurately, people realize that someone else’s freedom to do what they want stops when it involuntarily involves them). People don’t want anarchy; it cramps their ability to do what they choose to do. Thus we have a society that, with a few reactionary spasms now and then, largely lets us live as we want to.

It’s hard to beat that, and I’ll pit it against any other culture, and any other morality, any day of the week.

Mowing Life Lessons

Based on the immense (and frankly, somewhat inexplicable) popularity of the last Whatever, I now present All The Things I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know About Mowing My Lawn, an excerpt of my upcoming (and no doubt soon-to-be-spectacularly-successful) yard care book, Everything I Ever Knew About Mowing I Learned in Just the Last Two Weeks. Any resemblance between what you read here and heartwarming lessons about life and love is purely coincidental. Unless it helps me turn this pathetic idea into another Chicken Soup For the Soul-like juggernaut. In which case, I meant to do that.

1. You Must Mow Counter-Clockwise. The reason for this is that the blades of death attached to the underside of the lawn tractor take the mulched, decapitated grass stalks and fling them out from the right side of the mower. If you mow counter-clockwise, you get an evenly-distributed dusting of mulch that feeds and fertilizes the lawn much in the same way that beef fats and by-products are used in cow feed to plump up your incipient hamburger (or were, until Mad Cow Disease. Stupid Mad Cow Disease). But if you mow clockwise, you blow the mulch into a continually smaller and higher pile of ever more finely chopped grass particles, until what you’re left with is an unstable ziggurat of grass motes which will collapse upon you at the slightest provocation, saturating you in mower leavings and making you look like the Swamp Thing’s wimpy, suburbanized cousin, Lawn Thing (“Lawnie,” as he is known, derisively, to his kin). You will never get the grass stains out.

2. You Must Not Sweat the Baseball Diamond Pattern. Look: If the Yankees are paying you 75 grand a year to mow a diamond pattern into the Field That Ruth Spat Tobacco Juice Upon (as I believe it is formally called), then by all means make a diamond pattern with your lawn mower. If they’re not, you might as well try to get through your mowing as quickly as possible because you’re just going to have to mow again next week (If the Houston Astros are paying you to make a diamond pattern, go the extra mile and make the diamond look like the Enron “E.” I’m sure they’ll get a big kick out of that one). Any temptation to mow any sort of design into your lawn other than the most utilitarian round-and-round spiral is probably a good sign that you need either to get away from your lawn more often, or you need to be whacked in the head with a sturdy board. It’s your choice.

3. Try Not to Think of the Lady Bugs. Over the course of mowing, you will undoubtedly mulch dozens of these friendly, colorful, useful beetles; you’ll see them clutching the ends of grass stalks, their red, speckled carapaces winking like a 3rd graders’ craft beads just before you run them over and either crush them with your tractor wheels and fling them into the abattoir of whirling blades slung to your tractor’s undercarriage to be diced into confetti. Try not to feel guilty about their tiny little deaths, even though you have the sneaking suspicion that killing lady bugs is the only thing that actually enrages Jesus, and that each lady bug you whack gets you a century in purgatory, where demons force Bowflex commercials upon you until your sins are completely scraped away. Try not to think about the lady bugs at all.

4. Your Lawn Will Try to Shame You. Your front tractor wheels bend down grass stalks, which keep them from being fully mowed, so when you look back, you’ll see little wheel-width-wide rows of slightly taller grass, mocking you to the other grass stalks. Remember your place on the evolutionary ladder, go back and teach those leaves of grass a lesson. Mock you, will they. Let’s see them mock finely-edged blades of metal whirling at thousands of revolutions per minute! Yeah, who’s mocking who now? Huh? Huh? Huh?

5. No Matter How Much It Seems to Be So at the Time, Those Birds Really Are Not Trying To Attack You And Peck Out Your Eyeballs. They’re just after the bugs that are busily fleeing your mower. Honestly, that’s all it is. Oh, fine. Wear protective goggles, you baby.

6. When You Are On Your Lawn Tractor, You Must Wave to Anyone Going By On the Road. And if you live in rural America, as I do, you must especially wave at the farmers cruising by on real tractors; you know, the ones that make your lawn tractor look like a frisky Maltese next to a Great Dane. The farmers really get a kick out of you waving to them; they sort of chuckle and think to themselves I bet that idiot thinks he looks real sharp on that toy as they wave back. Given the sorry state of the American family farm (evidenced by the fact that Congress and the President just sent $190 billion of our tax dollars to prop them up), I feel it’s my duty as a patriotic American to give the local farmers at least one thing to feel smug about.

7. You Will Eat a Bug. Probably more than one. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can get past it. Just as long as it’s not a lady bug. Jesus is mad enough at you already.

Cogent Childfree Arguments

Ahh. This time, I come not to troll alt.support.childfree members, but to praise them (one, at least). A certain J. Metz has posted a long, cogent and well-written piece on the complaints of the childfree, and I actively encourage everyone who has been enjoying the carnage of the last few days to head on over and read it (J. Metz prefaces by noting that the post does not speak for all childfree, although I find it hard to see why any of them might complain). Not surprisingly, many of the points of contention that he lists in the post are things I would agree with as well. Here are a few of them:

* Children who grow up thinking that they are entitled to special privileges because they are not educated otherwise — Having gone to an expensive private boarding school, I can wholeheartedly endorse this one. Kids need a sense of where their boundaries are, and what’s expected of them, and parents are the ones that are supposed to provide that.

* Parents who think that they are not responsible for their child’s actions — This is the “Sorry about that broken window but my kid’s just going through a phase” syndrome. Pay for the friggin’ window and drill some sense into the kid.

* Parents who hypocritically expect non-parents to forego legitimate behaviors and entertainment that they themselves engaged in before they were parents, simply for the sake of “for the children.” Examples include, but are not limited to, profanity, violence, and sex-laden movies that any adult should have the right to determine for him/herself whether they should attend — Testify and amen. Yes, some of you will point out that fairly recently I got paid to write reviews of video games for parents. But I’ll remind you that I always said that just because the games weren’t for children, didn’t mean they weren’t for adults (I enjoyed “Max Payne” too much to want it pushed off the shelves).

* Parents who get tax breaks for having children, then want the government to give them money from people who *don’t* have children to receive vouchers for private schools. — Personally, I’d include people who do have children, too, since I find the idea of private school vouchers odious. If I’m going to be taxed for the public schools, and I am (the town in which I live has one of the highest school taxes in Ohio), all that money damn well better be going to the local public schools.

* Parents who refuse to require their children to respect other adults (e.g., how many times have I heard a parent introduce me to their 5-year old child as “J” instead of Mr. Metz or Dr. Metz, as my parents taught me, and as I deserve? Teach your child some respect, dammit!) — Total agreement, and of course, I would expand that to making sure the child is polite in general. Athena knows (most of the time) to say “please” and “thank you” and the looks of amazement we get as parents for this fact is a little embarrassing. All children can be taught politeness (it’s a key factor in having them become polite adults), and all children should.

Of course, I don’t agree with everything he posts, although I find that most of the disagreements are philosophical and more a matter of degree and not kind. For example, I see it in society’s legitimate interest to make sure all children are adequately schooled and healthy; sure, sickly, ignorant children are cute when they’re small, but then they grow up, and you can’t do a damn thing with them.

I would suspect Mr. Metz would agree with me on that, although the question would then be what level of social responsibility is appropriate; one of his peeves is “Being financially and socially taxed for the benefit of parents who see it as an entitlement.” On my end, I do think there’s an entitlement, although I think it’s more accurately for the kids and not the parents. I don’t feel Mr. Metz should be socially taxed, of course. I think we should just use his money. A few decades from now those kids will be (hopefully) cutting him a check for Social Security (which is drawn from a pool of income generated by current workers), so the expenditure has some chance of coming back to him.

This pet peeve also caught my eye: “Parents who tolerate behavior from their children when they wouldn’t tolerate it before they had kids.” I totally get this, since before Athena, I would look at a kid engaging in bad behavior in public and I would turn to Krissy and say, “If our kid ever does that, we mulch it and start over.” And Krissy would nod and we’d move on, smug in our own imagined parental skills.

The big fly in this ointment, however, is that children have their own minds, and ones that unfortunately don’t have the best impulse control. No matter how good your kid is, or how good a parent you are, sooner or later the meltdown is coming, and you have to deal with it. To be clear, most (well, many) parents don’t tolerate the behavior, they endure it, and then if they’re smart, they try to work on the kid so it happens less. We’re pretty good parents and Athena’s a pretty good kid, but sometimes she’s really not, and then, of course, as parents we look like asses. Believe me when I say we try to minimize such events. And of course, we sympathize when we see it happening to other parents.

(Of course, Mr. Metz may not be talking about spot fits and tantrums, but a tolerance for obnoxious behavior over a long term. In that aspect, I’m in his camp. Mulch ’em, kids and parents both.)

From what I can see in a general sense, most of the complaints of the childfree break into two general camps: The first is perceived obnoxious social behavior on the part of children and parents; the second is a perceived social stigma for those without children, rooted in the culture as large, especially expressed in the cultural bias toward families, parents and children.

To be entirely honest, I don’t see the cultural bias toward families, parents and children going away, nor do I think it should — which is, I should note, something that I believed even while I had no child. Disregarding humanity’s overarching biological tendency for procreation, which reaches well into the childfree camp itself (I imagine the childfree like having sex, even if they prefer not to deal with the intended biological end result). I believe policies that encourage strong families and healthy, well-educated children have the end result of providing people with the social and physical skills they need to get through life (this is not to say I walk among the “family values” camp, unless the family values folks want to start admitting, say, that gays and lesbians can make dandy parents).

I understand the irritation that many childfree have in taking up the slack at work for a parent on family leave, but I don’t know that I would agree that the arrangement is inequitable in the larger sense; the problem is that the “larger sense” is by definition impersonal, but the childfree person personally has to shoulder the load. But it’s what you do living in a society: Not every aim of a society is going to be one that benefits you personally, even when it personally impacts you.

I could turn this around and note that 15.7% of my income goes to pay Social Security taxes (I’m self-employed, so I shell out more than most), and some of that goes to childfree retirees. By being childfree, they did not spawn the workers who would help pay for their Social Security as well — and those workers who don’t exist quite obviously won’t have children of their own to pay my Social Security when the time comes. Bearing in mind that Social Security is famously going to go broke right around the time I retire, these childfree retirees certainly did me no favors by not having kids. Nevertheless, I will continue to shell out 15.7%, some of which will continue to go to childfree retirees. It’s my responsibility as an American, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable way to spend my taxes.

Leaving aside the issue of larger societal goals, there’s the other issue of the obnoxious social behavior. I really have no problems with the childfree bitching about this. I will admit to some mellowing as a parent, but let’s not mince words: Some kids are obnoxious, some parents are clueless, and the sooner they’re beaten with a stick, the happier we’ll all be. It should be obvious that I like being a parent, but I also know that that status comes with the responsibility of making sure that my kid is a decent human being and that I don’t view the world exclusively as a family fun park where everyone else exists to man the rides and sweep up after me and mine.

That’s a fair deal. I can handle that. And I try to make both those goals work. I think that’s likely to be acceptable to most of the childfree as well.

Sometimes I’m Not Nice

Note to any alt.support.childfree folks still loitering around. About yesterday’s piece: You Have Been Trolled. Not only have you been trolled, but it was a cross-platform troll; I didn’t even have to go over to your newsgroups and message boards to do it. I just slipped a note to a particularly excitable member of your breed and waited for him to do the rest, which of course he did. Thanks for amusing me for a day. Now, back to your holes, if you please.

Actually, most of the e-mails I’ve gotten about the subject are from fairly moderate childfree types who want to emphasize to me that not all childfree people want to see children and parents boiled in hot fat. And of course, I know this is true; I don’t expect that any of those folks would see what I wrote as applying to them. They have a little more sense than that.

No, yesterday’s bit was pretty much designed to enrage the dim and enrageable, which it did, judging from newsgroup and message board responses. Why did I bother? Oh, I don’t know. I guess I just like to poke at dumb animals from time to time.

***

I’ll be the first to admit that such trollage does not bring out the best side of me, but, look, I’m going to be honest with you: Being nice all the time is a real snooze. Every once in a while it’s fun to go off on a tear. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been especially ventful, and you know what? It’s been both fun and profitable. I’ve already cashed the check for the “I Hate Your Politics” reprint, for example, and I’ve had a ball antagonizing patronizingly annoying people on all sides of the parental issue. These are people who I feel quite frankly need some antagonizing, because, well, they’re bigass jerks (and besides, they started it. All of them). So not only am I doing a public service afflicting the excitable, I’m getting paid while I’m doing it. It’s a good life.

Again, I cheerfully admit that this particular attitude does not make me look any less of an asshole than the people I’ve been trading whacks with. However, it’s not like I actually care. I know my own soul and I’m not worried about its disposition. Taunting child haters or deadbeat-dad lovers or the politically tightly-wound on the Web is a low-impact sport. It’s just hot air and sparks. At the end of the day, I walk away from my computer and don’t think about any of it anymore, and I sincerely hope for their own mental well-being that others I’m having a hissy-fit with do the same thing.

Fundamentally, this is recreation. It’s not the really real world. I’m often serious in this space, but sometimes I’m not. I’m usually nice and reasonable, but occasionally I’ll ditch that face and put on another. Sometimes I go off and do something stupid, just to see what happens. Sometimes I taunt dumb animals just to hear ’em growl. If they’re dumb enough to do it, well, more fun for me. An admirable quality? Probably not. But if it’s the worst I do on a regular basis, the world is pretty safe from me.

Trolling the Childfree

The chum monkeys of alt.support.childfree are hooting over this Whatever, in which I admit that since becoming a parent, I find e-mail hoaxes about exploding babies less amusing than I used to. Since this particular Whatever has been loitering unnoticed in the archives for a couple of years, I was curious as to how it came to their attention at all. Turns out one of the childfree folks entered the words “exploding babies” into a Google search (this is apparently something you do when you spend a lot of time in alt.support.childfree), and that Whatever is the first thing that pops up in the search list. There’s a Google distinction for you: When you think of exploding babies, think of John Scalzi. Thank you very much.

Anyway, this fellow posted a link to alt.support.childfree, and encouraged people to send me mocking e-mail; of course, I went in and seconded that emotion, since we all know how much I enjoy a good pointless screed in my direction (to get them started, I even called them “smug, self-selecting genetic dead-ends” — I know they love that sort of thing coming from us breeders). Alas, no e-mails of any sort have been forthcoming, although I note that the alt.support.childfree rabble have been happily trashing my reply in their newsgroup (most of their comments concern a mistyped URL). I actually think this is a positive thing; Like the good little monkeys they are, they only fling their crap in their own cage. Everyone loves a well-trained primate.

James Lileks recently commented on the “childfree” types over on his site; he was far too nice to them. Leaving aside the issue of childless people in general, most of whom are perfectly nice folks, the sort of evolutionary cul-de-sacs who vent about the evils of breeding on alt.support.childfree are exactly the sort of people that I want to see smeared with the rhinovirus-infested mucus of an out-of-control three-year-old at the mall. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to have the lot of them trapped on a cross-country bus trip surrounded by progeny of Jerry Springer viewers, hyperspastic white trash pupae sustained during their journey with squirtguns, noisy toys and enamel-eroding doses of cola and Butterfinger BBs. I snort in delight at the idea of one of these child-despisers owning a malfunctioning Tivo that only records episodes of Dora the Explorer and The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The reason for this is simple: Anyone who hates children and a culture that accommodates them that much should be served up the absolute worst that culture can dish out. Eat it up, pal. You asked for it.

Ironically, I’m not at all unsympathetic at much of what the alt.support.childfree types bitch about. Lots of tots are out of control and probably should be taken down with a tranquilizer gun from time to time; lots of clueless parents take kids to places they should not be, and should be beaten for it. It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask what sort of flaming moron takes a two-year-old to a 10:15 showing of Panic Room; it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect the parent of a screaming kid at a restaurant to remove the kid until it calms down. These aren’t issues of the child-bearing versus the childfree; it’s a matter of having a clue about what’s minimally appropriate public behavior.

Krissy and I are fortunate that Athena is well-behaved in public more often than not, but we’re also fairly sensitive about how much is too much. We don’t take her places we wouldn’t want to see other people’s kids, and when she does act up (and she does; she’s three), one of us deals with her before she becomes everyone’s problem. It’s what you’re supposed to do, and parents who don’t tend to their children are a legitimate nuisance. If you childless people think you’re hard on stupid parents, you should hear the rest of us parents talk about them.

This, however, does not equate with being at all sympathetic to alt.support.childfree posters, or being sympathetic with the sort of contempt they have for parents and kids in general. Again, let us posit that there is a substantial difference between choosing not to have children, as many people do, and actively hating those who do choose to have children, which is how many alt.support.childfree folks function.

People without children, I have no beef with; three of the best teachers I ever had were childless by choice and each of them was the sort of intensely admirable person whose influence was felt far beyond a mere transfer of genetic information. I don’t think any of them felt they missed anything by not having children of their own, and they were right about that. They were engaged, they were active, and they were loved by friends, students and colleagues. I don’t suspect that most people who choose not to have children resent those who do, and certainly don’t resent the children themselves.

People who are childless and hate those who have children (and the children too), I say unto you: Suck it, pal. You whine like crybaby preschoolers told by the teacher to share your toys. This whole “Oh, poor us, we’re oppressed by the breeders” line is crap; Like you, I was childless once, and for nearly 30 years. I don’t really recall the scrog-poppers going out of their way to oppress me; in fact, I remember more or less getting away with murder. I can’t imagine why you’re not doing the same. Maybe you’re doing it wrong. You must be doing it wrong, since the only other explanation as to why you obsess on how the breeders are screwing you over is that you’re sort of virulently dislikable loser who can’t feel happy unless you think that society is ramming you up the tailpipe. In any event, you’re certainly not superior for not having children. You’re merely increasing the odds that you’ll eventually die alone.

Which is fine. Anyone who can look at an infant and have oh, great, another drain on resources as their consistent foremost thought deserves to die alone. I mean, I don’t find exploding babies very funny any more, but that — well, that’s worth a chuckle or two.

Hints for White People

Abercrombie & Fitch just had to recall a whole bunch of shirts from its new line when it discovered, to its shock and dismay, that there are some Asian people out there who object to a t-shirt which features two slanty-eyed Chinese in coolie hats flanking a motto (“Two Wongs can make it white”) whose humor lies in exploiting the stereotypical Asian inability to pronounce the “r” sound. After all, what could possibly be offensive about that?

Here’s the key quote on this, from A&F spokesman Hampton Carney: “The thought was that everyone would love them, especially the Asian community. We thought they were cheeky, irreverent and funny and everyone would love them.”

Hampton Carney is whiter than Wonder Bread.

If there are any white people out there reading this right now (if you’re not sure, hold a limb up to Silly Putty and see if it matches), let me give you a little piece of advice: Ethnic minorities in the United States are still strangely unconvinced that you don’t yet see them primarily as a cheap and disposable way to make railroads or pick agricultural products out from the ground. This tends to make them a little touchy when you josh around about their ethnic characteristics. Yes, yes, I know, they make jokes about themselves all the time, and you didn’t have them make a railroad or pluck lettuce. You don’t have a racist bone in your pale, easily-burned body. It’s a shame the crimes of a hateful few have been visited upon you. But there it is.

Anytime you think that enough time has passed to allow you to be able to whip up some innocent ethnic-tinged humor, here’s a handy mathematical formula, just to be sure:

1. Take the number of years the ethnic group in question was abused/enslaved/pushed off land/discriminated against/provided smallpox-covered blankets/made to work illegally for pennies a day by white folk here in the US. This is your number X.

2. Take the number of years members of the ethnic group in question have been able to join a private country club in Georgia. This is your number Y.

3. Divide X by Y.

If the resulting number is greater than one, you will probably be equally stunned as Mr. Carney when your gentle ethnic ribbing is taken with something less than a graceful chuckle by those folks who are in that particular ethnic group. It’s probably best that you keep your wryly amusing idea to yourself. If that’s not possible, then what you might do is write down your humorous brainstorm, seal it up, and address it to whatever descendents of yours exist in the future when X/Y for this ethnic group = 1. There’s no doubt that your descendants will find insight from your observation.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Demographic

I am a demographic anomaly. Since I’m essentially a yuppie geek living in farm country, the living embodiment of Green Acres (except that, given my wife’s love of the lawn tractor, I’m the one playing Eva Gabor), this isn’t exactly what one would call a surprise. Still, there’s a difference between thinking you’re a fish out of water and looking at the demographic information that says that you’re not even really a fish.

The demographic information I’m talking about is from Claritas, a company that presents market information to businesses, and which also has a Website that allows you to enter your Zip Code and find out some general information about the neighborhood in which you live. This is done by breaking up the residents into various “clusters,” or demographic stereotypes; the people in each cluster share certain data points in common, such as income, education, recreational activities and so on. There are several dozen of these clusters, and and their predominance will vary from place to place. For example, one cannot reasonably expect to find the “Rustic Homesteaders” segment in the South Side of Chicago, just as one is unlikely to find the “Urban Up and Comers” out near where I am.

The demographic names of the groups in my Zip Code (45308) give some indication that I’m not exactly living in the big city: “Back Country Folks” is one; “Big Sky Families” is another. “River City, USA” is another — this one comes complete with a graphic of a guy in a John Deere cap hoisting a sandbag. And here’s my personal favorite demographic slice: “Shotguns and Pickups.” Let’s zoom in on this one and look a bit at what they have to say about the people in it:

44 Shotguns & Pickups
Rural Blue-Collar Workers & Families
Age group: Mixed
Blue-Collar/Farming
Household income: 38,500
1.93% of U.S. households belong to this Cluster

This Cluster is most likely to…

* Go fresh water fishing
* Own a dog
* Drink RC Cola
* Watch ESPN2
* Read Motor Trend

Well, I do own a dog.

Now, obviously, these post-card demographic pictures aren’t going to be representative of any one person. I’m sure there are some people smack dab in the Shotgun & Pickup demographic who can’t stand RC or have no interest in the CART races on ESPN2. But picking through the demographic information in all of the predominant demographic chunks in the area, there’s almost no information that intersects with my life at all. A compare and contrast:

Top Magazines in Bradford’s Demographics: Country Living, Hunting, Motor Trend, Soap Opera Digest. I don’t subscribe to any of these; what’s more, I can’t imagine subscribing to any of these. My current magazine subscriptions include Science News, Wired, CMJ New Music Monthly, The Week and New Yorker.

Top TV Channels/Shows: QVC, TNN, Court TV, ESPN2, and the soap opera The Guiding Light. I think I’d rather injure myself than watch QVC for any length of time. My recent TV choices include Nickelodeon (for SpongeBob Squarepants), Cartoon Network, CNN Headline News, the Science Channel, and The West Wing.

Top Recreational Activities: Rodeo, target shooting, furniture refinishing, freshwater fishing, gardening. Well, Krissy gardens, so there’s one, but I dislike rodeos (I don’t think it’s nice to piss off animals just for fun) and fishing, and the only shooting I do involves people that come onto my land without an invite (that’s a hint). My top activities are playing music, reading, going to movies, playing video games and writing (hi there!).

I also learn that nearly everyone around me listens to country music radio, an activity that strikes me as even more painful than listening to urban radio, if that’s actually possible. These days when I listen to radio at all, it’s the “80s hits” station, and then I just spend most of my time seething that they never play Oingo Boingo or Romeo Void, ever, yet they play Dexy’s Midnight Runners and .38 Special every other song.

Before I’m accused of calling the folks I live around illiterate white trash what watch their stories on the teeveeuh and hang by the mailbox, waiting for their Farm Aid checks, let me just say that I know my neighbors, and they’re good people; I like them a lot, and I like the little town in which I live quite a bit. Having now lived in big cities, suburbia and rural America, I’m here to tell you that each comes with a full complement of the smart and the dumb, the wise and the moronic, the likeable and the distasteful; the major difference lies in population density. What I am saying is that the folks in my little town share certain superficial demographic characteristics, and I have almost none of those in common.

Demographically, I am nearly pure suburban. In fact, I’m a fine match for the last place we lived, Sterling, Virginia, whose demographic slices have names like “Young Influentials,” “Upward Bound,” “Second City Elite” and so on. One demographic, “Kids & Cul-de-Sacs,” pins us to a fairly scary degree, right down to Krissy’s penchant for the X-Files (though not so much recently, of course) and my tendency to shop online. One of the cities listed as having a lot of this demographic is West Covina, California; as it happens, I spend part of my childhood in that town (although, I must admit, not on a cul-de-sac). You really are where you live, or at least, where you grow up.

Overall, I expect it’s unlikely that I will ever totally conform to the demographics of where I live now; by this time, I’m too old to develop a taste for NASCAR, or church-going, or even gardening (that’s Krissy’s department). And of course, this is just fine. It doesn’t hurt to have a weirdo or two in the town, and I’m happy to pull that duty. I like where I live; I like being a little outside of it, too.

Little Bomber Girl

For my money (and since I am a taxpayer and at least a ten-spot of my taxes goes to the State Department every year, it is my money), this is the picture that should utterly kill what little sympathy for the Palestinian cause remains here in the United States: The picture is of a protest held in Berlin; the cute little girl in the picture has fake explosives strapped to her tummy. Being all of about five, it’s pretty clear she didn’t think up the idea of turning herself into a poster child for nitroglycerin; one suspects credit for that one goes to dear ol’ dad, currently hoisting his little girl on his shoulders.

Well, I say, fine. Let’s go ahead and strap some C-4 to this little girl, blow her up in a field (after all, not every suicide bomber takes someone with him or her — that’s just the risk you take), hand dad a pair of tweezers and make him pick up what little remains. See if he thinks it’s such a bright idea then. In fact, new rule: Let’s make every family of a suicide bomber responsible for the cleanup. I doubt there’s much that will make one reassess the validity of “martyrdom” more than scooping up a handful of intestines that are all that’s left of your child (or the people he or she blew up; it’s hard to tell from only a short length of duodenum) and watching them slide slickly into a Hefty bag.

Arafat’s wife, taking up the slack for her husband, recently mentioned to an Arabic-language magazine how she’d be proud if her son blew herself up to kill some Israelis (conveniently for her, she has only a daughter); get her a pair of tweezers for the next bombing. Get Arafat a pair, too, while we’re at it; sure, he denounced terror bombings in Arabic as the price for getting a chance to reject Colin Powell’s mission in person, but given the timing of his wife’s comments, which hit the newsstands concurrently with Arafat’s denunciation, let’s just say I’m less than convinced about the sincerity. It goes without saying that none of Arafat’s kids will ever blow themselves up; I wonder how many kids of the other Palestinian top brass have walked a checkpoint with fuses stuffed into their shorts. I expect it’s a low number. Blowing up Palestinians is all well and good, as long as it’s a certain class of Palestinian.

I have my own opinions about the ultimate disposition of the Palestinian people, which I won’t bother to share at the moment, but I will say this about this one specific father. I wish that years from now, as he dandles the baby of that little girl on a knee, he comes across this picture (believe me, it’ll still be around) and he looks at the message he sent to the world: That his aspirations for his child were that she strapped death to her young body and walked into a crowd. I hope that what he feels is the sort of shame that’s a stench on the soul — and that he realizes to his guilty relief that his shame feels immeasurably better than the “pride” of having a martyred child.

Being a Good Father

E-mail today from a correspondent who suggests that on the basis of what I wrote yesterday, I consider myself better than the “so-called deadbeat” dads that I imagine others seeing me as because I’m out alone with my kid in the middle of the afternoon — i.e., unemployed and/or seeing their children through court-ordered visitation. So, just make to make sure we’re all absolutely clear on this one, and that there are no mixed signals whatsoever:

Duh. You’re damn right that I think I’m a better dad than that.

I mean, really. This one’s a no-brainer. On one hand, you have a guy who works hard and makes a good living for his family and stayed at home to care for his child while his wife worked outside of the home and/or went to college (that’d be me). On the other hand, you have a dad who can’t or won’t hold a job and desultorily sees his kids when the court makes him (the theoretical deadbeat of the previous column). Okay, now pretend you’re a kid. Pick one. Even implying these scenarios is in some way equivalent seems to require one to drink deeply from a very special brand of stupidity.

I’m certainly not saying being unemployed automatically drops you into the “bad dad” camp. Unemployment is often a temporary situation, hopefully correctable, although if you make a habit out of being unemployed because you just can’t live by the man’s rules, that’s never any good. Likewise, having to live with visitation when one is divorced is no fun, but if you do it and don’t make it seem like a chore, good on you. Making it a grim, joyless experience does definitely make you a bad dad, however. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. You simply suck.

(And of course we all know of dads who don’t bother to hold up their end of visitation, or who don’t think to drop a child support check in the mail like they’re supposed to. These gentlemen need to meet the service end of my shovel.)

Moreover, I am absolutely judgmental when it comes to parenting, and particularly when it comes to being a dad. Being a parent is hard work, and it often means making hard choices. If you can’t or won’t make those choices, you get a markdown in my book. It’s pretty simple. You can be a great parent and raise a rotten kid, and vice-versa; it’s important to remember that kids are people too, and some of them will confound your expectations no matter what you do. Be that as it may, every parent should be expected to lay the table, as it were, for their child, to do what they can to provide their children the tools they need for life. If you can’t or won’t do that, you’ve got a problem as a parent.

I feel pretty good about myself as a father. I’m not perfect, which is a statement that should be understood as a given for any dad. Anyway, perfect dads are creepy. But I lay the table. My work tends to my family’s financial needs. My wife and I are mindful of our relationship, not simply for ourselves, but because we know enough to know that a solid marriage is the cornerstone of a solid family. I cherish my daughter for the remarkable human being she is at the moment, and for everything she can become. I love helping her learn about the world and her place in it; I love being a part of her play. Even when she utterly drives me up the friggin’ wall — which is often, she is three — I simply can’t imagine not having her in my life every day; I can’t imagine not being willing to break my own back to do for her. Here’s the thing, however: I’m not doing anything special. It’s what’s in the job description. It’s what dads are supposed to do.

I am a very good father (so far). I am better than many fathers I have known, although I am pleased to say that I look around me every day and see other fathers who are doing equally well in their responsibilities as a parent. I work hard every day to continue to be a good father. I’ll work hard at it every day until they shove me into the ground.

I don’t deserve a medal for being a good father; it’s what I’m supposed to be. But if you think I don’t recognize that I do a good job at it, and a better job than many others are doing, you’re nuts. If you don’t think I’m proud of that fact, you’re high. If you think I shouldn’t think I’m better than a dad who won’t do as I do for my family and my child, well, here’s my ass. Feel free to bite it.

Afternoon Dads

There is nothing more pathetic than a dad alone with his kid in the early afternoon. I don’t say this as a matter of a personal opinion, mind you. Having been out with my kid during that time, I’m here to tell you that the time is generally pleasantly spent, although it’s generally spent in the playroom of a franchise restaurant. No, it’s a matter of how others seem to look at you while you’re doing it.

The reason for this attitude is fairly obvious. Most fathers (indeed, most men) of employable age are scarce on the ground during the working day. If you ever want to see what the world would look like without men, visit a shopping mall at two in the afternoon. Compounded with this is the fact that women, for better or worse, are still the primary caregivers in almost all families, at least in the rural, agrarian, small-town part of the world in which I live. Add these two points together, and here’s the general opinion of the single dad schlepping his kid about after preschool:

1. He’s unemployed.

2. He’s performing court-ordered visitation.

3. He’s unemployed and performing court-ordered visitation.

Really, these are only three options. Why else would you be with your kid? Alone? During work hours? So you get that glance, the cool appraisal expression that says, well, he at least spends time with his kid. He’s not entirely a deadbeat, and then the quick glance away. It doesn’t help matters that I’m currently sporting roughly four days worth of stubble, which gives me that not-so-fresh, he’s-got-a-lot-of-time-on-his-hands sort of look (hey, my wife is away. Who am I going to kiss?).

I’m not really offended by the summary judgment; short of walking around with a t-shirt that reads “Employed and Married!” there’s no way to conveniently explain my job or marital status, and pre-emptively trying to explain my position to everyone I meet is likely to have a negative effect (“Really, I work from home and my wife is on a trip.” “Uh-huh. You know, Taco Bell is hiring.”). But I do think it’s interesting.

I’ll note that it wasn’t always this way. When Athena was a toddler and I carted her from place to place by myself, I was typically greeted with smiles. A dad with an infant is assumed to be married, for one thing. You may be unemployed, but at least you’re still sticking with the family.

Walking around with a three-year-old is more ambiguous. Lots of dads ditch non-infants, and statistically speaking, I’m judged likely to be one of them. It’s less of an appraisal of me than the male animal in a general sense. I accept it, but it’s not very good news for the rest of you guys that the first thing people think of when they see a dad spending time with his kid in the afternoon is: Bum.

***

To put in one final note in the general area of the “Blog numbers” issue, I want to note this portion of Andrew Sullivan’s response to the piece, which, I should say, had interesting points but was also a marvel of deflection (he rhetorically brushed aside questions of overall blog numbers by hauling in Drudge, who, although handily predating to Blog movement, was grandfathered in to make his point). Here’s the portion of Sullivan’s response I want to note:

“John Scalzi’s piece all but accuses this site and others of fibbing about our numbers. (Scalzi, it should be remembered is Ted Rall’s good friend.)”

This is an interesting rhetorical maneuver. Ted Rall, as you’ll no doubt recall, is the cartoonist whose “Terror Widows” cartoon caused a national uproar, and indeed, I am one of the few people who did not immediately call for Ted to be shot for treason for drawing it (if you missed the fracas, the details are here). For those of conservative bent, Ted is the sort of deranged, fire-breathing liberal who is easy to hate because he’s wrong about everything and almost certainly eats babies with a knife and fork and tasty dipping sauce. So by allying me with Ted, what Sullivan is saying is:

“This jerk is accusing me of lying, but he’s probably off eating babies with Ted Rall, so you don’t really need to believe anything he would ever have to say about anything, ever.”

From a technique point of view I think this is a nice attempt by Sullivan to deflect credibility, but I think it signals that Sullivan recognized he’s arguing from a position of weakness. If he had more confidence in what his numbers actually meant, he wouldn’t have had to try to slam the messenger by bringing up his friends; either that or he can’t help bringing up Ted’s name to frighten the children at every opportunity.

(Also, to be clear, I don’t suspect Sullivan was lying about his numbers, although it seems evident that prior to the columns he wasn’t entirely sure what his numbers represented, or didn’t represent, as the case may be. This is not especially his fault — ultimately, it’s an abstruse concept, and hopefully the end result of the last couple of days is a clearer understanding for everyone what the stats are, and what they actually report.)

What I wrote to Sullivan on the Ted Rall comment was simply this: “You are right, Ted Rall is my good friend.” Because it’s true. I know Ted Rall. I’ve worked with Ted Rall. Ted Rall is a friend of mine. Sullivan certainly is no Ted Rall. I guarantee you Sullivan is pleased that I recognize such a thing is true, although I suspect the reasons for that are not the same reasons I mention the fact.

Blog Numbers Followup

Quick follow-up on yesterday’s piece, and I do mean quick, since it’s 2:30 and I have to be up in a few hours to take Athena to preschool:

* Several people wrote to ask why, when I was discussing my readership here vs. my readership elsewhere, I compared circulation numbers of newspapers and magazines with visitors to Web sites. The (quite accurate) point here is that circulation numbers showed the potential pool of readership for any one article in a paper or magazine, not the actual readership of that article (unless you assume that everyone reads papers and magazines cover-to-cover), whereas Web page visits actually register a visit (and, presumably, a read). Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

This is true enough, and I’ll grant it willingly, especially because I don’t particularly feel it invalidates my point. Even a fraction of the readership of a newspaper or magazine (or Web site like Slate or Salon) is larger than the total readership of most blog sites. To return to the example I gave of my DVD column in the Dayton Daily News, even if only 1 out of 10 readers that day glanced at it, that’s still a readership of 14,000, well outstripping my estimated 3,000 or so visitors over the course of a month (and coming close to my estimated daily readership for andrewsullivan.com and Instapundit). One-tenth of the circulation base of the New York Times is over 100,000, so any articles Sullivan gets in there would easily outdo his daily Web site visits. And of course, one assumes that more than 1/10th of the daily NYT audience would actually be interested in what Sullivan has to say — unlike me, people outside of his circle of friends know who he is.

(Also, any circulation manager will tell you that circulation numbers underreport total readership, since more than one person in a household will read a paper or magazine. When I worked at the Fresno Bee, the paper had a circulation of 150,000, but claimed readership of more than double that.)

Some people additionally looked askance at my estimation of 1,000,000 readers for my non-Web site work, which is fair enough. However, I’ll note the newsletters I write are opt-in, which means people have to sign up to get them, so the number there (500k) is pretty solid. I also feel pretty good about the DVD and CD reviews in Official PlayStation Magazine, since, if I may say so, the layout for these babies is pretty sweet; The DVD reviews go across two entire pages. You really can’t miss ’em (buy a copy and see for yourself. Buy two! They’re small). Even throwing out the DDN numbers, my non-Web site readership outdoes my Web site readership by a multiple of at least a couple hundred. With multiples like that, the point still stands. Others ranging from Sullivan to Lileks to Marshall may have less dramatic multiples (they have much larger Web site readerships), but the multiples are still there.

* Getting back to Andrew Sullivan, his Web master got back to me with some updated numbers for the site. He writes:

“Andrew Sullivan’s website receives an average of 40K visits per weekday right now, or about, 25K daily uniques. This translates to about 200K monthly uniques, and slightly under a million visits.”

So, does this mean that the site receives 25,000 individual visitors daily, and 200,000 individuals over the course of a month? Well, no, not necessarily.

Here’s why: “Uniques” represent distinct IP addresses that visit a site; every computer on the Web has its own IP address. But there are two major types of IP addresses out there: Static IPs and dynamic IPs. Static IPs never change; these are for people who have their own servers. Dynamic IPs do change, every time you sign on. Most people have dynamic IPs because they go through an ISP, and most ISPs assign their users dynamic IP addresses when they go online (what, you think your ISP buys a new computer each time someone subscribes?).

So, for most people, if you visit this site, log off for lunch, then sign on again and come back, my site will log you as having two distinct IP addresses — and therefore as two unique visitors. If you had trouble following that, here’s the short version: Most people look like someone new every time they sign on to the Web. At least to a Web server.

(And actually, AOL uses “floating IP,” which means the IP address you use can change several times during the same Internet session!)

Therefore: Even the unique visits metric can overreport the actual number of visitors (it can also underreport if your company routes its Web traffic through a firewall, but I suspect that over the course of time, there’s more overreporting than underreporting, if for no other reason than AOL has 30 million subscribers and everyone else doesn’t). On a daily basis, this overreporting is relatively small (although probably larger on blogs than on other sites, since people often come back to blogs more than once in a day), but it compounds the longer the metric is used; use it to chart an entire month, and it’s probably not at all accurate.

You see where I’m going here. The 25K daily figure is probably not too far off; I’d trim about 5k from it to be safe, but, okay, 20K is still pretty damn good when you consider the Web. But the 200K number is very suspect. If I had to guess (and I don’t, but I will), I’d guess that the actual number of individual visitors is substantially lower: Say, about 75k on the outside, and of those, probably 50k-60k are regular visitors (which is to say, they stop by more than once).

Please note that I do not necessarily think Sullivan’s Web master was trying to pull a fast one here; he’s not to blame that the fundamental architecture of the Web makes it difficult to accurately gauge visitors over any large length of time (or, in dealing with AOL members, over any length of time at all). It’s simply a reminder that when you’re pulling numbers off the Web, they’re usually not what they seem; they’re usually a lot less.

* Also to be clear, I have no jihad against Andrew Sullivan in particular (or Glenn Reynolds, whose blog was also featured prominently in yesterday’s column). I used them primarily because a) Norah Vincent used their sites for the numbers in her LA Times opinion piece; b) As they are the best-known of the bloggers, they make convenient examples. For the record, I like both sites and both writers just fine (I don’t know either of them personally). Neither of them exactly has my politics, but neither does my mother, and I like her just fine, too. I’m aware that some folks have already started to use yesterday’s column as a cudgel against Sullivan, who has gained ill will in some circles. It’s not about Sullivan or Reynolds personally, it’s about numbers (or lack thereof), which, mostly as a matter of my convenience, happen to be theirs.

* At the request of irritated readers, I am dropping the apostrophe in front of the word “blog,” since the word has apparently entirely graduated into being its own thing and not just a shortened version of “Weblog.” One reader wrote: “A blog is a blog the way a phone is a phone.” He is, of course, referring to a ‘phone there.