Picture Day, Part 3: Another Tree!

Since you were all such good sports about not screaming at the condition of my desk, here’s another pretty picture of a tree.

This one’s in the front lawn, and I believe it’s a crab apple tree — it eventually provides small hard fruits which I am told are inedible (I haven’t confirmed this for myself, nor am I likely to since I am an agricultural coward and will only eat plants I recognize and/or can buy in the store, the reasoning for the latter being that if the plant turns out to be poisonous, there’s someone to sue). Anyway, it’s still in the process of blooming and really quite lovely, I think. There are lots of bird that make their home in the tree, too. Which the cats enjoy.

Speaking of which, come back around noon, and I’ll display the kitties.

Picture Day Part 2: Office Horror

Allow me, if you will, to provide you a tour of my desk on this Picture Day.

My filing system, needless to say, is opaque to the novice. Be that as it may, there is method to the madness. Current work is at the top of the pile to the right, closest to the computer and where I sit (you can see the papers for the financial campaign I am working for there right now, underneath which is a book I’m using for research for one my own books, and some CDs for IndieCrit. Less critical work slowly moves to the left towards the end of the desk, where it eventually falls off the desk into a pile. See? Curious yet efficient! Underneath all the papers you’ll see my keyboard; to the far left you’ll see my guitar. I play each equally well, and the less that is said about that the better.

The nerve center of the Scalzi empire. The little piggies, incidentally, are swag created to promote my first book, The Rough Guide to the Money Online. I am told the little piggies were a big hit at book fairs, although the book, shall we say, was not an extreme success — something about a book about the Internet coming out when the Internet was imploding. This will not be the case with The Rough Guide to the Universe, however, since the universe is expanding still. Although I wouldn’t put it past the universe to start contracting, just to piss me off. On the actual computer tower you’ll see a pile of IndieCrit CDs I really need to get to, plus the infamous Chocolate Creme Filled Marshmallow Eggs described in this entry.

Lots of interesting stuff over here. Near the top center you can see the stack of DVDs I’ve been sent in my capacity as a DVD critic; in the center middle, more CDs, these relating to Official PlayStation Magazine. Various bric-a-brac line the top shelf, including pictures of Athena, little glass sculptures made by my niece and, my pride and joy, a snow globe representing a plague of locusts. Yeah, how many of you have got one of those? Huh?

My desk isn’t always like this, incidentally. Usually it’s worse.

Picture Day!

You lucky, lucky people. Today is picture day, for the following reasons.

1. I just got a new 64MB Smart Card for my digital camera, which means I can take hundreds of pictures without worrying if I’m running out of memory.

2. I just got a Smart Card reader, which means I am no longer a slave to the depressingly slow software Olympus software that came with the camera, and which doesn’t work on my XP-OS anyway.

3. It’s a pretty day at the Scalzi Compound (as was yesterday, when some of these pictures were taken).

4. I’m really busy today and can’t write one of my usual gassy bloviations about the state of the world.

5. It’s the end of the month and I haven’t yet blown my allotment of bandwidth. So here we go!

So your first photo of the day:

This is a picture of the dwarf cherry tree in the back yard. A weekend ago, there were blooms all over it and it was very pretty, but now it just looks not unlike the Swamp Thing, which is not so bad either. To the left of the picture, you can see a portion of the garden that Krissy and her dad are working on. Inside those little green things are tomatoes; underneath the white strips are infant corn stalks. In both cases, the selective application of plastic is designed to keep the plants inside and underneath warn and happy. Because, really, who among us is not happy, when wrapped in plastic?

More pictures soon — about every hour or so. Because, you know, it’s picture day!

Strawberry Shortcake and Penny Arcade

People who know I’m a fan of the Penny Arcade site have asked me what I think of the recent controversy there, in which American Greetings, the greeting card company who apparently owns some or all the intellectual rights to the Strawberry Shortcake line of dolls, threatened legal action against Penny Arcade if they didn’t take down an image that used the name Strawberry Shortcake to parodize video game developer American McGee’s tendency to nick young female literary characters to create creepy, bloody video games. McGee’s done it once with Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and will apparently be doing it again with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. In their parody, the Penny Arcade guys had an unfortunate parody choice in that unlike Alice or Dorothy, Strawberry Shortcake is not in the public domain; they probably should have gone with Raggedy Ann and Andy instead.

Bear in mind I’m not a lawyer — I don’t even play one on TV. Be that as it may, the question is whether American Greetings actually has a case here, of if they’re just being corporate assholes lashing out at someone who dares to use their copyrighted property for parody purposes with which they don’t approve. The first blush is of course that Penny Arcade didn’t do anything wrong — Parody is covered by the First Amendment. However, that coverage is not absolute, and it could be that Penny Arcade has gotten snagged in an interesting loophole, which is that if you use a copyrighted entity to parodize something other than that entity specifically, use of that character for parody is not necessarily covered under the first Amendment.

To which you say: Wha? It’s simple: American Greeting’s argument here could be that Penny Arcade’s image is using the Strawberry Shortcake name to parodize American McGee’s tendency to appropriate young female literary characters for his dark and bloody video games, not Strawberry Shortcake herself. Therefore, using Strawberry Shortcake for that purpose is not covered under parody. It’s an interesting assertion.

However, I wonder if this line of reasoning, if indeed it is the one American Greetings is using, is as strong as it might appear initially. This line of reasoning works only to the extent that Strawberry Shortcake herself does not fit the rubric that the Penny Arcade is parodizing, namely that Strawberry Shortcake is not a young female literary character. In fact she is, the main character in dozens of books: Strawberry Shortcake: Meet Strawberry Shortcake, Strawberry Shortcake at the Beach, Strawberry Shortcake: The Berry Big Storm, and Happy Halloween, Strawberry Shortcake are just some of the titles in her oeuvre. And in an interesting literary note, in several of these titles, Strawberry Shortcake is either planning or having a party of some sort or another, which makes her activity in the parody (planning a party with her friends) not an atypical activity for her. Although to be fair she’s not typically whipping her friend Plum Pudding at those parties. But that’s part of what makes it a parody.

If you grant that being the main character of dozens of books does make one a legitimate literary character, I would say that Penny Arcade’s use of Strawberry Shortcake is indeed well within the parameters of parody here, because, remember, the boys are parodizing McGee’s appropriation of young female literary characters for his video games. If American Greetings wants to argue that she’s not a literary character, the evidence is rather against them. Thus are the perils of cross-merchandising.

Note again that I’m not a lawyer, so I may be entirely misreading this. I personally would check this with one of them people with a JD. But I’m personally confident enough about being right here that I’m not especially afraid of posting the offending illustration. In my opinion, the only copyright I need to worry about violating here is Penny Arcade’s, since I’m posting it here without their permission or foreknowledge (I got the image from somewhere other than their site). And I’ll be happy to reimburse them for its use if they ask.

X Prime Followup

Mmmmm. Lots of activity here over the last day or so thanks to the “X Prime” posting, which received more than 100 comments (even once you subtract mine) — almost all of them engaging and interesting. I have good commenters. I’m so proud. It’d be Herculean task to compress all the ideas that are getting bounced about in that thread, so I’m not going to bother with that. But I would like to comment on and expand upon a couple of ideas brought up in the thread.

* At least one person brought up a potential flaw in my “I don’t have a problem with X, I have a problem with X’ ” argument, which is that there are several instances in which it makes perfect sense: For example, “I don’t have a problem with circumcised men, I have a problem with circumcision.”

This is not a bad point, and requires me to make the following modification, which is that X’ has to be an affirmative action willingly entered into by the person performing the action. In our culture, for example, most people who are circumcised don’t agree to it themselves, it’s chosen for them by someone else, so it doesn’t fit. But one does (as another example) choose to register Republican, so that one does.

* A number of people suggested that Santorum’s “I don’t have a problem with homosexuals, I have a problem with homosexual acts” statement is just a clumsy and rather specific variation of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” The implication being that “lts, hts” is a more acceptable argument on several levels. But on purely technical grounds, it doesn’t track. By Christian theology, the act of being a sinner fundamentally requires no conscious affirmative act on our part; that’s handled by Original Sin. Unless you don’t want to love anyone, you have to “love the sinner.”

Naturally, this means that the “love the sinner” argument doesn’t fit into the X/X’ argument, and it leaves you free to love sinners all you want. Now, I understand that that’s not exactly how people mean the argument to go, and thereby I’m avoiding the argument on a technicality. But, you know. I didn’t make up the sin schema in Christian theology. I’m just telling you what it is.

Anyway, the “love the sinner, hate the sin” argument is somewhat less than compelling for those of us who, by dint of having no religion, likewise dispense of the concept of sin. In my world, there’s not a thing that’s sinful, although there are a number of things that are immoral, and even more that are simply stupid. However, homosexual acts are in themselves neither.

* Someone asked me about the “is homosexuality a choice or inborn” question, trying to ascertain my views on the matter. My view is, primarily, who cares? No one ever seems to ask if, say, being Republican is a choice, or if people are born with some tendency that expresses itself in our particular culture by signing up for the GOP and clamoring for tax cuts. Maybe someone should.

To be entirely honest about it, my thoughts about the choice/inborn debate have been pretty much limited to the suspicion that the end result of finding a “homosexual gene” would be that a lot of religious conservatives would suddenly find themselves to be perfectly okay with abortion. Aside from this, it’s a tiresome and pointless red herring, deflecting from the point that regardless of how people get to being gay, they are gay, and there’s not much that’s wrong with that.

*The question comes up as to whether creating a new words (like “homophilia”) and new definitions for old words (like “homosexual”) actually does anything of any semantic use. If instead of saying “I don’t have a problem with homosexuals, I have a problem with homosexual acts” you say “I don’t have a problem with homophiles, I have a problem with homosexuals” how does that change anything?

Well, for one thing, it’s now less ambiguous. Currently “homosexual” has a number of interpretations, and which interpretation you choose makes a difference for how you perceive the sentence (note the length of the comment thread for the previous entry). By parsing out one of the meanings and providing it with a new word, communication now becomes more clear. Obviously, that may not be of benefit to Santorum, or other people who use words ambiguously to give themselves wiggle room. But it is of benefit to those of us trying to figure out what others are really trying to say.

It also has the additional benefit of no longer divorcing “acts” from the people who perform them. One of rather annoying rhetorical things about complaining about “homosexual acts” is that the phrase seems to imply that the action is an object in itself — for example, that out there in the world there’s a disembodied, whirling vortex of male-male fellatio that men somehow (you should pardon this pun) get sucked into. Obviously this is stupid. Homosexual acts are performed by homosexuals. If you have a problem with the act, quite naturally you have a problem with those who perform them.

*People have brought up the “slippery slope” argument Santorum has raised, the gist of which is that if people are able to have gay sex in the privacy of their own home, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to bigamy, polygamy, incest, sheep fondling, and so on. These sort of arguments always amuse me, because they offer insight into a fearful world in which the slavering hordes of immorality are poised at the door, wanting to violate innocent children and household pets. It really seems to be that lots of the people who want to hold the line on sodomy laws genuinely believe the rest of us are simply lascivious pigs who hold off boinking our sisters only because the cops have the right to bust in and pry us off her.

It’s a messy argument anyway. The path from gay sex to bigamy and polygamy is particularly unclear, since the former is homosexual sex activity, and the latter two are heterosexual marriage structures. But the point of the argument is not to make sense, it’s to pile on perceived deviances until the reader or listener’s ganglions are misfiring in sweaty, moistened fear. So if it’s all the same, I’ll pass on getting all worked up about it.

However, I’ll personally be willing to make Rick Santorum a deal — stop getting worked up about homosexuals having sex, and I promise not to sleep with my sister. Heck, I’ll even promise not to sleep with my brother, and I’ll throw in not sleeping with my parents as a freebie. That’s a hell of a deal, Rick. I don’t see how you can pass it up.

X Prime

“Rick Santorum, the Senate’s third-ranked Republican who is under fire from gay-rights groups and Democrats, says he has ‘no problem with homosexuality – I have a problem with homosexual acts.'” — Associated Press

In logical terms, you could write this as “I have no problem with X, I have a problem with X’ ” in which X is any particular human condition, and X’ is the action by which the condition of X is ascertained; indeed, without X’, X exists in an unverifiable state if it exists at all, since it is the performance of X’ that establishes X definitively. Thereby, in purely practical terms, if you have a problem with X’, you must necessarily have a problem with X.

Saying that you have no problems with homosexuals but have a problem with homosexual acts is logically equivalent, for example, to saying that you have no problems with Christians but have a problem with them accepting Christ, or that you have no problems with Republicans but have a problem with them registering as Republicans, or that you have no problem with Marines but have a problem with them enlisting (or receiving commissions in the case of officers). Each X’ is an affirmative act of association and identification, without which the identification of X cannot exist.

The way to check this is to determine whether the condition of X can exist without X’. So, to go back to our examples — can you be a Christian without accepting Christ? Pretty much not. Can you be a Republican without registering as a Republican? Not really. Can you be a Marine without enlisting or being commissioned? Can’t do it. In each case it’s absolutely possible to manifest an outward appearance of each group — lead a Christly life, vote Republican, or swagger around saying “Semper Fi” to people — But until you get baptized, register or enlist/are commissioned, you’re not one of the members of these groups. The act matters; thereby, having a problem with the act means you have a problem with the condition because the only way to the condition is the act.

Well, you say, the difference is that in each of the cases mentioned above your X’ is a one-time act, while homosexuals do their acts over and over and over again. Couldn’t they just do it once and be done with it? Well, from a logical point of view, the occurrences of X’ is neither here nor there; it doesn’t have to be a one-time thing. The act of hunting confirms the condition of being a hunter; the act of writing confirms the condition of being a writer. People who hunt or write don’t do their things just once, either. Also, of course, even those whose X’ has an initial and discrete affirmative action may adjudge that the X’ requires continual affirmation: A Christian may decide that his acceptance of Christ requires weekly visits to Church.

The other objection I see is one that can be raised by both homosexuals and others who prefer to weasel out of the fact they actually have a problem with homosexuals, and that is the idea that one doesn’t have to have homosexual sex in order to be homosexual. But, come on, people. If we’re going to make the distinction (and it is a fairly recent semantic distinction, since the word didn’t enter the language until 1892), it has to mean something, and what it means is right in the word itself.

Allow me to make the following suggestion to clear up the confusion, if in fact no one’s done this before: Let’s make concrete this distinction between desiring members of the same sex and actually having sex with them. Let’s call the desire for members of one’s own sex homophilia, and actually having sex with them homosexuality. Likewise, the desire for members of the opposite sex is heterophilia, while actually having sex with them is heterosexuality.

Let us also note that these are two distinct conditions, since the desire for something is not the same as an action. Everyone is born with a “-philia,” but it’s acting upon it that makes it a “-sexual.” So, one can be a homophile heterosexual (meaning you desire people of your own sex, but you actually have sex with members of the opposite sex), or a homophile homosexual(same sex desires, same sex sex), or even a heterophile homosexual, which probably means you’re in prison or a single sex boarding school. Let’s also give a shoutout for biphilia and bisexuality — you love everyone! — and aphilia and asexuality — you don’t want to be bothered!

This is clarifying in a number of ways, but the most obvious advantage is that it helps pin people down. If “homosexual” simply means having sex with members of your own sex, then people like Santorum can no longer wiggle around saying “I have no problems with homosexuals.” He will in fact have to admit he does have problems with homosexuals; the population he has no problem with is in fact the homophiles — the relatively few ones that are heterosexual or asexual, that is. And that’s not at all the same thing.

Santorum and others like him will no longer be able to deny that X is inseparable from X’ — In short, they’ll have to admit their own bigotry, even to themselves. And what a refreshing change that will be!

What Would Jesus Surf

Before I begin, I should note that as I start this entry, there are exactly 666 comments in the comment threads on the site. That’s some irony.

So, I’m wading through my referrer logs, because I’m exactly the sort of geek who does that sort of thing, and I notice that one of the spiders hopping through the site is from “ChristCrawler.” This is a new one on me, as well as something that is not, by name, an entirely savory image (Jesus walked, but I don’t think Jesus did much crawling) so I follow it back to this page, and read the goal of ChristCrawler, owned and operated by ChristCENTRAL:

“ChristCENTRAL.com focuses on providing the highest-quality search results for our own users and for corporate [users]. It is our goal to provide a unique, powerful way for Christians and non-christians to search the Internet, finding useful information while knowing that we strive to provide and filter all non-christian web sites.”

“Provide and filter all non-christian web sites” seems to me to be a rather contradictory statement; typically in regards to the Internet, when one “filters” that means one is actually excluding a site. So you’re either providing non-Christian links or not. The site’s not very well copy edited, so I’m thinking there may be a word missing here, and the search engine itself isn’t up, so it’s hard to say what they’re doing. But I suspect by its very name, it’s meant to be a search site that presents Christian-related links first or exclusively while excluding or demoting non-Christian-related links.

This brings up a couple of interesting points. The first being that I would be interested in seeing the technology that ranks and evaluates a site’s Christ level. Current online content filters are of course notoriously bad at this sort of contextual evaluation, so unless there’s a human on the backend, checking each site for its presumed Christliness, I don’t know how useful such a search will be. I mean, my site has a number of references to Christ, hardly any of them non-complimentary (he’s a righteous dude, on any number of levels), but it’s pretty emphatically not a Christian site. That’d be a pretty interesting nut for an automated search engine to crack.

The second is, if indeed ChristCrawler excludes “non-Christian” sites, should it really be called a “search engine”? An engine that searches information to determine if it should be excluded should probably be called an “exclude engine” (or, to go back to more common phrasing, a “filter”). No doubt there are millions of Christ-oriented pages out there, but there are billions that aren’t, so the majority of search cycles will be spent throwing stuff out.

There are of course a number of Christian search engines out there (here’s one, here’s another), but they’re pretty poor analogues to the Web in general. One boasts a catalog of over 30,000 links, which is nice but a drop in the bucket compared to the general Web.

Which may be how the people who use these sites like it; they’ve got their own Christ-centered thing and they’re not interested in stuff outside of it. Which is fine, although I have to say that doesn’t seem very Christ-like to me. I would even go so far as to suggest that the recent wave of Christian cocooning in which some evangelicals have engaged in — in which they endeavor to live entire lives shielded and isolated from the rest of the world — is emphatically non-Christian.

Jesus, you’ll recall, was not someone who spent a whole lot of time sheltering himself against the unbelievers and the scumbags. He was not even unworldly, to the extent that he recognized there was a world concerned with the issues of men and he knew what they were; Matthew 22, verses 15-22 is a fine example of that. And of course, Jesus hung out with some real unsavory types — hookers, thieves and so forth. Jesus was engaged in the world of his time, including and especially the parts of it that some Christians today wall themselves off from.

Jesus was not exclusionary. He had confidence that his message could thrive in the marketplace of ideas. When he searched the Internet, I’d guess he’d probably use Google.

The Terror of Bad Chocolate

Some people believe bad chocolate is like bad sex: Even when it’s bad, it’s still good. This formulation is nonsense at its root. Bad sex is definitely not still good. It’s actually tremendously depressing, sort of like getting all worked up go to Disneyland just to find that the only ride open in the whole park is the monorail to and from the parking lot — and that the monorail seats smell kind of funky.

Secondly, bad chocolate is worse than bad sex. We accept that sex may occasionally be bad — it’s the inevitable side effect of being human and letting hormonal surges replace rational thought — but chocolate is supposed be above that. Chocolate is supposed to be an absolute good. Occasional bad sex is regrettable, but bad chocolate is a betrayal.

What’s even worse is when you see a Bad Chocolate Moment coming, and yet there’s not much you can do about it. One of those happened last night, when Krissy tossed me a small plastic tub of something pink and asked me to open it for her. I looked down at the tub, and saw that they were, in fact, Frankford MarshMiddles Chocolate Creme-Filled (artificially flavored) Marshmallow Eggs, inexplicably left unopened during the orgy of Easter candy.

Immediately, several issues presented themselves:

1. For people over the age of 10, marshmallow candies are not meant to be eaten so much as they are to be used for various scientific experiments, generally involving microwave ovens, liquid nitrogen and/or bunsen burners. That’s because people over the age of 10 generally understand that Marshmallow comes from gelatin, which comes from something that was scraped off a rural route with a shovel or that once participated in the Kentucky Derby and finished somewhere between 8th and 12th. Also the freshness of marshmallow candies has a half-life shorter than even the most unstable of transuranic elements. The tub proclaimed it was a “Resealable Stay-Fresh Tub!” which was nothing more than a contemptible lie. A stainless steel holding chamber filled with inert helium can’t keep marshmallows from going stale. All told, there are better ways of getting a sugar high than tolerating stale sugar suspensions whose origins inevitably lead back to something with a mane, big soulful eyes, and a small Guatemalan in checkered pants sitting on its back.

2. “Chocolate Creme” — “creme” in the context of candy almost always means “unnatural chain of sucrose polymers.” It’s edible only to the extent that your white cells won’t actively attack it as it courses through your small intestine.

3. “Artificially Flavored” — Artificially flavored chocolate is to chocolate as grape soda is to grapes, which is to say a concoction whose only relation to its natural analog is that it is within 10 Pantone strips of being the same color.

4. On top of this the marshmallow eggs looked like decapitated Peeps, and that’s just wrong.

The artificial flavor theme was reinforced when I cracked open the tub, exposing myself to the sort of chemical smell one typically associates with killing weeds.

I looked over to my wife. “Sweetheart,” I said.


“This might not be an optimal chocolate experience,” I warned.

She looked at me blankly, as if this might not be an optimal chocolate experience were words from a Tristan Tzarza poem, pulled out of a hat and set down in random order and thereby devoid of all semantic value. Then, “Why did you say that? Did you eat one?”

No,” I admitted, with my voice providing a subtext there signifying that while I might smear one across a new picture to stop the photographic development process, I wouldn’t actually put one in my mouth. “It’s just a feeling I have. I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”

My wife gave me a look as if to say, you dear, silly man, give me the chocolate before I am compelled to gnaw on your aorta. So I did, and went back to the magazine I was reading.

For this reason, I missed the part where Krissy gagged and actually spit the chocolate creme-filled marshmallow egg back into her hand rather than have it inhabit her mouth any longer. However, I didn’t miss the part where she picked up the small tub they came in and stuffed it as far down into the trash as it would go. Then she looked over with a face that suggested that she’d just been fed the rancid gut of a raccoon (which, considering what gets used to make gelatin, there’s a small possibility she had). But more than that, it was a tragic look of betrayal. Chocolate isn’t supposed to do that to your mouth. Thus the quick trash stuff. It was too late for Krissy’s innocence about chocolate to remain unshattered — but not too late to spare our daughter. By plunging the Pink Menace into the garbage, Athena might be spare the same horrible fate. Krissy did it for the children.

As for my Krissy, I just happened to have a bag of Cadbury solid chocolate candy eggs, so quickly enough the crisis had passed. But I guarantee you from now until the end of time, I could say to her, “hey, remember those chocolate creme-filled marshmallow eggs,” and it will generate a hearty shudder. It was Bad Chocolate. And you just don’t forget a thing like that.

New Review at IndieCrit

Yes! New music! It’s here. If you don’t go visit it, nothing bad will happen to you. However, your karmic balance will adjust ever so slightly, and that will mean the difference between coming back as human, or as, say, an aye-aye. Still a primate, yes, but even so. No pressure.

Rehab Has Begun

When the Bob Greene scandal came to light, I noted that he’d probably be back in about six months. And so he is — the Esquire article from last month primed the pump, and then last week Greene popped up on CNN to offer some thoughts about Michael Jordan retiring. I expect he’ll do some more of this sort of thing for a while, then start popping out the occasional column or two about subjects near to his heart (basketball being an obvious one), and then probably somewhere along the way he’ll write something about his wife’s death, as she passed on during Greene’s exile.

I will expect that to be an excellent column, by the way — snarkiness about Greene should not extend to his relationship with his wife, since one does not stay married to the same person for 32 years without love, effort and a clear understanding of who each other are. But I also don’t doubt that such a column (into which a gentle, knowing mea culpa about the philandering thing, in the context of their relationship, will no doubt appear) will also serve as the final probationary act of absolution that will allow Greene to get back to the business of being Bob Greene.

And should he? Well, sure. Why not. If Roman Polanski can win an Oscar after having sex with a 13-year-old girl, it’s difficult to begrudge Greene a career based an ill-advised but consensual sex. The major difference is that now most people know enough to put him in the category of Men Not To Leave Your Daughter Alone With, along with Bill Clinton, R. Kelley and the aforementioned Polanski, which will undoubtedly have some effect (although, clearly, given the financial and cultural status of each of the aforementioned, not always the effect one would presume).

Hopefully the one thing that might come out of it is that Greene no longer phones in his writing. One Near-Career-Death experience should be enough to make him appreciate what he has left. And if not, well, Greene will no longer be scandalous, just utterly irrelevant. Which is something he can’t really blame on a scandal.

Your Thought For Monday Morning

Busy morning, so I’ll save major ruminations for this afternoon. In the meantime, however, a philosophical question:

Pilfering candy from your child’s Easter basket: Pathetic and sad, or a subtly heroic attempt to ensure your adorable offspring is not too sugar-wired for the whole of the next week?


Easter Programming

Weekend. Family. Easter. Etc. See You Monday. Here’s an appropriate re-reun to amuse you until then.

Interview With the Easter Bunny

With the possible exception of Santa Claus himself, there is not a busier mammal on the face of the earth than the Easter Bunny. Once a year, the Easter Bunny hops into the home of hundreds of millions of boys and girls all over the globe, dropping off chocolates, candy and eggs as part of the celebration of Easter. We spent a few minutes with the Easter Bunny as he was preparing for this year’s task, for a tell-all, no-holds-barred interview. If you thought you knew the Easter Bunny, you just may be surprised.

John Scalzi: Thanks for talking to us.

Easter Bunny: No problem. Do you mind if I eat while we talk? (takes out a packet of small green pellets) I’ve been in a rush recently.

JS: Go right ahead. We’ve got a list of questions here, compiled from our members, and I’ll just go down the list if you don’t mind.

EB: Ready when you are.

JS: The first question comes from Ted, in Dayton, Ohio. He writes: “We all know that Santa’s Workshop is located at the North Pole. Does the Easter Bunny have a workshop, and if so, where is it located?”

EB: Well, Ted, the answer is yes, I do have a workshop. It’s located in San Bernardino, California.

JS: San Bernardino?

EB: That’s right.

JS: You have to understand that most people would have figured some place like Easter Island.

EB: Have you been to Easter Island? What a rock! It’s the single most isolated piece of land on the planet. By the time we shipped fresh eggs there, we’d have chickens. Besides, San Bernardino has the sort of motivated labor pool we need.

JS: Elves?

EB: Laid-off aerospace workers.

JS: They would seem to be a little overqualified.

EB: Maybe. But now we have some lovely chocolate stealth bombers.

JS: Our next question comes from Cindy, in Tempe. She writes: “Why is the Easter Bunny a bunny? Why couldn’t it have been the Easter Kitty, or the Easter Puppy?”

EB: That’s a very good question. In fact, in the late 70s, we as an organization decided to play around with the whole “bunny” thing by recruiting prominent local animals to deliver Easter baskets. In 1978, when the experiment was at its height, we had an Easter Bunny, an Easter Coyote, an Easter Manatee and an Easter Komodo Dragon.

JS: What happened?

EB: It just didn’t work out. The komodo dragon ate the eggs, the coyote flaked out, and the manatee, if I may say so, was just about as dumb as a stick. There were some other problems with the program, too. The less we talk about the whole Easter Man-Eating Bengali Swamp Tiger episode, the better. Now we stick with bunnies. We know bunnies. We can work with bunnies. Bunnies don’t eat anyone.

JS: Bob in Honolulu asks: “Is there is just one Easter Bunny? Moreover, has the same Easter Bunny been the Easter Bunny for the last couple of millenia?”

EB: The fact of the matter is that there are quite a few Easter Bunnies, and we’ve never made a secret about that. Unlike the Santa Claus operation, which works under the improbable assumption that one guy delivers all those presents –

JS: Are you saying that Santa is a sham?

EB: I didn’t say that. I never said that. What I am saying is that we don’t work under the same sort of constraints. I mean, think about it. One bunny delivering baskets to several hundred million homes across the planet? The friction from the atmosphere alone would turn the poor guy into a bunny briquette. There’d be hideous charcoal smudges all over the baskets. “Easter Bunny” is a job description, not a proper name. It’s like “Postal Carrier,” except our employees very rarely become disgruntled.

JS: So why are you THE Easter Bunny?

EB: Because I’m boss. You’re not an Easter Bunny until I say you are.

JS: How does one become an Easter Bunny?

EB: Well, it’s not just hopping down the bunny trail, I’ll tell you. First, for reasons already explained, you have to be a bunny. After that, we have a psychological evaluation and a battery of physical tests you have to pass. We can’t afford to have an Easter Bunny cramp up at the beginning of his run.

JS: Any famous rabbits turned down for the job?

EB: I don’t want to name names. But one bunny who’s making a living in the breakfast cereal industry, we had to let go. Any time a child would try to get an Easter basket from him, he’d back away and start snarling. He was a silly rabbit. Easter baskets are for kids.

JS: He seems to have gotten better since then.

EB: Prozac helps.

JS: Albert from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, wants to know what are the occupational hazards of being the Easter Bunny.

EB: There are several. Large dogs are always a problem, of course: one moment you’re delivering a basket of goodies, the next, a rottweiler named Pinochet is on you like a meat- filled sock. Nervous homeowners with guns wing a couple of bunnies a year, as do edgy cops and private security guards. We don’t even bother trying to deliver to the children of militia members anymore; first they’ll plug you for being on their land, then they’ll make you into jerky and a pair of gloves. But you know what our number one problem is?

JS: What?

EB: Sliding glass doors. Sometimes we’ll just forget they’re there. Man, that’s embarrassing.

JS: Here’s an interesting question, from Amy, in New York City. She writes: “How does the Easter Bunny get along with Santa Claus? It seems like Santa gets all the attention.” And I have to say, I did notice some tension earlier, when you brought him up.

EB (Looking uncomfortable): Well, you know, look. I don’t want to say anything bad about the guy. He does what he does, and I do what I do. Professionally, we get along fine.

JS: But privately?

EB: Is that tape recorder turned off?

JS: Uh… sure.

EB: He’s a big ol’ pain in this bunny’s bottom. For one thing, he’s a prima donna: always me, me, me, where’s my highball, where’s my corned beef sandwich, tell this dumb bunny to get his own dressing room. I’d rather be trapped in a sack with Joan Crawford. For another, he’s totally paranoid of other large men. He thinks that Luciano Pavarotti is trying to move into his territory. Last year it was John Goodman. He actually danced when Orson Welles kicked, waving his pistol and bellowing “Rosebud!” from the top of his lungs.

JS: Wow. He seems a little scary.

EB: You think? And yet he gets all the publicity. Why? We do the same job. Mine’s actually tougher, since I’m moving perishable stuff. You can’t have bad eggs or stale chocolate, you know. Folks wouldn’t stand for it. I have to maintain strict quality control. The only food product he has to worry about is fruitcake. You could tile the Space Shuttle with fruitcake.

JS: We’re sure you have your own fans.

EB: It’s like opening for the Beatles, is all. And he is the walrus, if you know what I mean.

JS: One final question, from Pat, in Rockford, Illinois; “Does the Easter Bunny actually lay eggs? How does that happen, since the Easter Bunny is both male and a mammal?”

EB: Well, platypuses are mammals, and they lay eggs. So it’s not impossible.

JS: That still leaves the male part.

EB: We’re quibbling on details, here.

JS: Maybe there should be an Easter Platypus.

EB: Sorry. We tried that in ’78.

Birthday Girl (and Boy)

My superfabulous wife Kristine is having a birthday today — conveniently enough, because she was born on this day a number of years ago. I hope you’ll join me letting her know that the world is notably improved by her presence within it. However, please don’t feel you need to tell her that you’ll love her eternally, without reservation and with a growing sense of wonder and appreciation each and every day you spend with her. Because that’s my job, you see. I hope you’ll understand.

Coincidentally, tomorrow is the birthday of my friend Kevin, one of my best friends since high school, with whom you can currently see me squabbling about drugs in the comment thread for “What I Do When I’m Not Here.” Also feel free to tell Kevin the world is a better place with him in it, and if you want to tell him that you’ll love him eternally, without reservation and with a growing sense of wonder and appreciation and so on, well, that’s all right by me.

Piling On CNN

Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby has a fairly sane take on the CNN controversy that’s gotten bloggers into a high moral dudgeon these days. The gist is that CNN is not the first news organization cuddle up to fascist bastards in exchange for access and it won’t be the last either. I don’t think CNN necessarily made the best moral choices, but I think the people who are saying “well, they should have simply not reported from Iraq,” or whatever have a smugly naive view of both the nature and business of news gathering. The absence of any other news organization coming forward to admit the same actions does not mean that other news organizations did not indulge in them; I think the folks at CNN deserve at least a measure of credit for coming forward as early as realistically possible to admit to what the organization had done.

What I Do When I’m Not Here

Being a freelance writer, I do a number of writing jobs, ranging from columns to corporate work. In the interest of showing you a little bit of what I do when I’m not doing this, let me show you some of the stuff I’ve been doing for Network For Good. Network For Good is a non-profit that uses its Web site to make it easier for people to get involved in various non-profits, both in their communities and in the categories that most interest them. What I do for Network For Good is put together packages based on themes they provide.

So, for example, when they need a package on drug abuse, I’ll go out and find links on the subject, which include information on the topic, opportunities for people to volunteer with organziations that combat drug abuse, and opportunities to donate money to non-profits in that area.

Like a number of my writing gigs, this one is a lot more interesting than you might expect. I really enjoy researching just as a general rule, and it’s interesting to see the width and breadth of non-profit organizations out there. Apparently a lot of Americans spend a lot of their time working in the ways they think will make the world better.

Anyway, here are three packages I help write and/or collect links. Here, one on humanitarian aid for Iraq, one on drug abuse and one on Earth Day. Enjoy and be sure to dig around the site — you’ll probably find information on non-profits you’d want to give cash to.

“Free” Speech — and its Enemies

“In this time when a citizenry applauds the liberation of a country as it lives in fear of its own freedom, when an administration official releases an attack ad questioning the patriotism of a legless Vietnam veteran running for Congress, when people all over the country fear reprisal if they use their right to free speech, it is time to get angry.” — Tim Robbins, addressing the National Press Club, 4/16/2003

“Now, applying an equal amount of absurdity to this ridiculous notion that Robbins attempts to gain credence with, I have a question. How is it that Tim Robbins is still walking free? Wasn’t somebody supposed to pick him up in a black helicopter? Who was it that blew that assignment? Didn’t the order go out for this guy to be behind bars a long time ago? How in the world is he still able to go to the National Press Club and say whatever he wants to say? Somebody has fouled up. Tim Robbins should have been silenced long ago” — Rush Limbaugh, on his Web site.

Both of these guys are right, which is a fact that in itself should be enough to signal the apocalypse. But both are also running on a couple of interesting assumptions.

Tim Robbins is operating on the assumption that free speech means speech without personal consequence — that because one can say what one wants that everyone else’s proper reaction is to say “well, you have your right to say that,” and then go about their lives. But as we know, people aren’t like that. Politics are to grown-ups what boy bands are to 11-year-old girls: Criticize their favorites and you’ve got a blood enemy for life. Speech is a full-contact sport (metaphorically), and if you’re going to use it, you’ve got to be willing to take your lumps for it.

Therefore you have to accept that people are going to hate you and revile you for your positions. You have to accept that with your right to speak your mind, you accept that your opinion can have repercussions, particularly among the dim-witted who cannot hold two thoughts in their brain at the same time. These are the people who think that if you think gay people should be able to marry, that you spend a lot of time in public toilets cruising for action, or that if you’d like to keep a gun in the house that you eyeball the mail carrier through a rife scope every day because, after all, he’s from the government. Repeat after me: Stupid people are everywhere. It’s just the way it is. But let’s not pin it down entirely on stupid people. Stupid people are a continual problem, but it’s the smart people who know better that are the real problem.

Tim Robbins complains that too many people fear the repercussions of voicing their opinion. I sympathize, but I also have to ask what the value of an opinion is if you’re not willing to express it even at the risk of personal cost. This is why, paradoxically, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garafalo are deserving of a certain amount of respect — you may think they are right or wrong (I personally think they were wrong about the value of the war), but you can’t deny they are out there voicing their opinions regardless of the backlash. They’re standing up for their views, and as far as I can see the problem is not that they’re standing up, but that those who want to but don’t, aren’t.

And the First Amendment is always under attack, from all sides, by well-meaning and/or ignorant people who believe free speech is fine and all most of the time, but now is a moment when we should all stand behind the president/ we should all think of the children/ we should all know that whatever that person is speaking about is just not right. The opposition to the first amendment is bi-partisan; the opposition to the first amendment is based in fear, based in ignorance, based in politics, based in distaste. We will never reach a point where people won’t have to accept the consequences for having controversial opinions. If you want to speak, you have to have the guts to stand by it. Robbins is right that it’s time people should get angry. Their passivity is a bad, bad sign.

But now let’s flip things around. Limbaugh’s opinion is that simply the right to free speech is enough, and really, it’s not. Granted that those who want to speak their minds must be willing to accept the personal cost of doing so, but on the other hand it’s not a positive thing when people go out of their way to imply that exercising one’s first amendment rights is something illegal, immoral or dangerous. This is exactly what conservatives are doing right now; switch on MSNBC’s Michael Savage, and he’ll tell you that people who are exercising their first amendment right to protest the war are guilty of sedition and treason. I don’t want to give Michael Savage too much credit for intelligence, but I suspect he knows that protesting is neither of these things; he just prefers to be partisan and dishonest about it. The good news is that more people watch curling than watch MSNBC. The bad news is that Fox News is still out there.

Conservatives, with their apparently-inbred inability to think of anything outside of the immediate political advantage, are cheerfully and cynically painting protest as something that should be made to shut up; they’re helping to create an atmosphere where free speech is regarded as suspect. Why would you think that? What’s wrong with you? That’s treason and you know it. It’s disingenuous to say that it’s only conservatives who do this sort of thing (recall the “politically correct” uproar of a decade ago), but it’s not inaccurate to say that at this moment, conservatives are leading the charge against the first amendment, for the worst of short-term reasons — after all, the war is already over — and with the worst of long-term implications.

It’s a little much to ask Rush to celebrate Tim Robbins’ right to free speech, but it’s not too much to have him acknowledge that some of his conservative brethren right now are actually saying that Tim Robbins and those with his opinions should be picked up by that black helicopter, and that is wrong. Conservatives have benefited from their right to free speech over the last two decades. It’s too bad they don’t think others should have those same rights — and that by their very words they’re working to create a world where dissent equals crime.

We should be willing to accept the consequences of our right to speak. We should also be willing to acknowledge the right to speak is a right to be celebrated. I don’t really see how you can have the one without the other.

Scene From an Uno Game

SCENE OPENS on John and Athena, playing a game of UNO.

John (setting down a red four card): Four. Your turn, honey.

Athena (sets down card): Draw two, daddy.

John: Okay. (draws two)

Athena (sets down another card): Draw two again, daddy.

John: Um, okay. (draws two more)

Athena (sets down yet another card): Now you have to draw two more, daddy.

John: Wow. Three Draw Two cards in a row. That’s pretty evil, Athena.

Athena (reprovingly): That’s not a very nice thing to say, daddy.

John: You’re right, honey. I’m sorry.

Athena (sets down another card): Draw four, daddy.

The Right to Virtually Assemble

As many of you know, in addition to all the other pointless and stupid but mortgage-paying crap I do, I also do something important, which is to write a bi-monthly column about video games and social issues for Official PlayStation Magazine. Shut up. It actually is important stuff, thank you very much. One of the things I’ve been following for the column is a case in St. Louis about the what first amendment protections should be afforded to video games. About a year ago, a judge in St. Louis ruled that video games should not be afforded First Amendment protections, a decision he came to after watching about fifteen minutes of videotape, prepared by the prosecution, of some of the more gory moments of Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat.

It’s worth noting that the judge making the ruling was so unfamiliar with the titles he was adjudicating upon that he didn’t even get their names right (he called Resident Evil “Resident of Evil Creek”), which doesn’t inspire much confidence in his jurisprudence. Needless to say, the decision was appealed, and at the appeal the video game makers submitted complete scripts to a couple of video games to show that there was indeed some artistic effort put into the games that afforded them first amendment protection. They’re waiting for this decision to come back now.

I think video games do have first amendment protection, if for no other reason than because off the top of my head I can think of several that have better stories than a whole raft of movies I could name — it’s nearly axiomatic that video games almost always have better stories than movies based on them (see: Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and — God love it — Super Mario Brothers). In the case of Star Wars, the recent Jedi Knight II video game has a story that kicks ass over the story in Attack of the Clones, which is a real embarrassing development for George Lucas. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is reportedly preparing an Aliens Vs. Predator movie, and given his craptacular past (he directed the Resident Evil movie and the Mortal Kombat movie) there’s almost no hope it’ll be better than the stories in the video game series, which are pretty damn good (especially the second one). If any of these God-awful films meet the standard for protected speech, these video games certainly do as well.

But I think there’s also an interesting wrinkle in the first amendment argument for video games that I’d like to toss out there for comment and criticism (which, of course, I’ll use for background in my next OPM column). So far all the arguments for first amendment protection for video games is founded on freedom of speech from governmental intervention. But what about freedom of peaceable assembly?

Follow: one of the fastest-growing genres of the video game market is that of the Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game (also known by the unwieldy acronym MMORPG, which I would assume is pronounced “more-pig”). These games feature persistent universes in which players all around the US (and the world, but let’s keep focused) send virtual versions of themselves to do whatever they do in that world. The virtual worlds range from fantasy-themed worlds where people go on quests, to more contemporary worlds (like The Sims Online) where online-created characters simply go to exist.

Beyond the MMORPGs, there are also more simply multiplayer-enabled games which while lacking persistent universes, still create “places” where game players congregate online to play their games — lots of first person shooters (most obviously the various Quake and Unreal Tournament iterations) do this. The games themselves are sometimes violent, particularly as it concerns first person shooters, but in the real world sense, they are less violent than, say, your average softball game, at which you have the potential to get beaned or to rip up your leg sliding into a base, or your average Society for Creative Anachronism meeting, at which you might get impaled if you’re not careful.

I think that one could reasonably argue that video games allow like-minded people to assemble peaceably, to pursue their interests and so on and so forth. And thus, attempts by the government to restrict such assemblies is an imposition on first amendment rights.

Some objections I can possibly see to this line of reasoning:

1. Assembling online may or may not be recognized as the same as assembling at the park — I don’t know what the case law on this is;
2. The implements of this assembly are commercial products, most of which have EULAs that might make such claims to constitutional rights moot (but — a little help here — only as it relates to a player’s protections against the manufacturing company, not the government);
3. Likewise, the servers on which the MMOPRG “worlds” exist are also frequently privately owned, which may have ramifications for Constitutional issues (on the other hand, might not multiplayer games on servers at a publicly-funded institution, like a state university, be explicitly protected).

So: Your thoughts. Is there a first amendment right to assemble through video games? And if not, why not?

%d bloggers like this: