Jesus Christ, This Music Rocks!

The New York Times has a really interesting article on the newest generation of Christian bands, who are all basically breaking the long-established rules of Christian music — i.e., that the music has to be a pathetic imitation of safe, already existing musical forms, the lyrics all have to mention God and Christ every other line, that it can’t freak out parents who see The Powerpuff Girls as examples of secular evil, and that any attempt to reach a larger audience beyond the already-saved will result in an immediate shunning. In short: boring, unoriginal and paranoid. The new kids are saying to hell with that (well, you know) and are making music they like, tackle themes that give the safely saved the jitters, and make no bones about reaching a larger audience.

Good for them. Beyond the fact that no creative person should have to make art that sucks simply because they believe in a higher power, in showing the willingness to present their relationship with God on their own terms, these bands exemplify one of the best traits of Christianity, which is its total plasticity and it’s ability to adapt to changing situations. Part of this is the simplicity of its core message, which is to accept Christ and to love one another. Once you’ve got that down, the rest is mostly window dressing (don’t tell the Pope. Or Jerry Falwell). This makes Christianity portable, malleable and adaptable, which is why there are over nearly 21,000 denominations of Christianity, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia.

Implicitly this suggests that Christianity (and Christians) also have problems with authority: If a Christian feels you’re getting in the way of his or her relationship with Christ with your rules, you’ll be told to go hang. This is particularly the case here in the United States, what with that whole freedom of religion thing we’ve got going in our Constitution, but it’s been going pretty much as long as Christianity could officially have been said to become a religion. Anytime Christianity gets too far boxed in, someone takes it out of the box and starts over. In other words, Christianity evolves, although I know some Christians (but tellingly, not nearly all), who would wince at that description.

So what you’re seeing these new Christian bands do is part of the great Christian tradition of adaptability — and a new generation of Christians saying “I’ll experience Christ my way, not yours, thank you very much.” Many evangelical Christians may fret that these bands are losing their way by breaking off from the current Christian mainstream thinking, but that’s an interesting perspective coming from any evangelical Christian, whose current state of Christian understanding is itself informed by numerous doctrinal and social schisms. I expect these kids will be fine. I also expect the kids they reach with their music will also have a new appreciation for the message of Christ, namely that it doesn’t have to be painfully dweeby. Christ can rock.

Shiny Happy Scalzi

What’s a good day in the life of John Scalzi? Well, I’ll tell you.

1. The sun is shining.

2. The birds are singing.

3. The clouds in the sky are of the nice, fluffy “we’re just like your four year old would draw” variety, not the dark, brooding “we’re going drop hailstones the size of Volkswagen Beetles on your roof” variety you’ve been seeing so much recently.

4. You’re listening to Sam Bisbee’s “Miracle Car.”

5. You just got a bigass check for work you’d completely forgotten you had done for an amount which quite capably pays off the quarterly estimated tax payment you have to mail off at the end of the week.

6. And you didn’t need that bigass check to pay your taxes.

7. And now you have to decide: Start another chapter of your novel? Or work some more on that book about ridiculous people doing ridiculous things?

8. And in a few hours, your wife and kid will be home, and you’ll go outside and play on the swing set, and be that happy all-American family you’ve heard so much about in all those political ads.

Thankful? Oh, yeah. Happy? You bet. I imagine that life could actually get better. But right off the top of my head, I’m hard pressed to figure out how. It’s a good day.

Like War of the Worlds in Reverse

Your bit of zany science for the day: Scientists suggest SARS came from outer space! Interestingly, this news brief is not from Weekly World News but from National Geographic. The idea here, as I have gleaned from my quick read, is that a group of scientists believe the SARS virus is morphologically different enough that rather than being a mutation of an existing virus, it comes from “outside” — which is to say, from space, possibly carried by a comet. These scientists also believe space viruses may have appeared before — they might have been the cause of the Influenza epidemic of the early 20th century, for example. It also raises the spectre of the idea that life (or at the very least, the building blocks thereof) ultimately did not originate on Earth, but landed here in very simple form through impacts and evolved from there.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, although I think it’s probably too elaborate an explanation for a virus that probably jumped from another animal species to ours. The fact that SARS is substantially different from other coronaviruses we know about doesn’t require that we postulate an arrival from space so much as it requires us to recognize that until a virus exhibits a detrimental effect on humans or one of our livestock animals, we probably simply don’t know it exists. This is one of those Occam’s Razor moments in which simplest explanation is probably more correct, and that pretty much dispenses with space viruses.

There is some mild irony here in that Toronto, which had recently been under a WHO travel advisory thanks to the presence of SARS, is home this year to the World Science Fiction Convention. Normally, the attendees of that convention would be exactly the folks you’d think would be thrilled to hear about space viruses. But in this case, they might be willing to make an exception.

Making Partner

Hey, how about that: My cover story for JD Jungle magazine is now online. It’s called “Are You Partner Material?” and it’s a quiz that presents a number of lawyer-related situations where you can compare your response with the responses of partners at some of the nation’s biggest and most respected law firms. Have fun finding out if you’ve got what it takes to make hundreds of thousands each year! Personally, I think I’d probably fail. Fortunately, I’m not a lawyer. So it works out well.

Lies Lies Lies

Leaving aside the central issue of whether the Bush administration lied (or at least overstated) about the Iraqi weapons of mass destructions, there’s the tangent but still compelling issue as to why people are so willing to believe the Bush administration lied (or at least overstated) about the Iraqi weapons of mass detruction. From my point of view, there are two not mutually exclusive explanations.

1) The people bitching about Bush hate him with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns, and will use any excuse to bring him down. This is naturally the position of the conservatives and most people who supported the war. It also has the virtue of being true: People who hate Dubya really hate Dubya. It would be interesting to find some way to gauge whether people who truly hate Dubya hate him more intensely than the people who truly hated Clinton hated him; possibly the best way to discover this would be to lock them all in a very large box, toss in some bludgeoning implements, and see who eventually crawls out of the box’s bloody interior. Naturally, I’m for doing this right this very second.

2) The Bush administration appears to many people to be patronizing, guarded and stingy with the truth, an appearance based on fact that the adminstration is patronizing, guarded and stingy with the truth; it’s not even so much that the Bush folks lie as it is about the overall impression that they don’t feel obligated to share what they know with the likes of us. Let’s face it, any presidential administration that wants to classify information already in the public domain is not an administration that engenders many feelings of trust and goodwill.

The first of these is of course nothing the Bush people can do much about — Bush haters would hate Bush even if he were to up the top marginal rate to 80%, line the pockets of the poor with gold, and ban oil drilling within 1000 nautical miles of the United States shoreline. But the second of these is definitely of their own doing. If you want people to trust you, don’t give them the distinct impression that their role is to shut up and unquestioningly do as they’re told, because you know what’s best for them, and that should be enough.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m entirely at peace with our having gone to war with Iraq. It was the right thing to do, and I’m glad we did it, and I’m glad that Bush decided it needed doing. But I’m also perfectly peachy keen with the Bushies being accused of dishonesty and duplicity regarding what was the primary reason for going to war, and taking their lumps therein. I don’t expect it’ll make the Bush administration any more open — rather the opposite — but I think it’ll remind people that we should be able to hold our government accountable not only for its actions, but for the stated reasons for those actions as well. Despite the whining of Conservatives crying foul, this expectation of accountability is not a bad thing.

Where’s the Pith?

Punning Pundit was good enough to purchase The Rough Guide to the Universe for his girlfriend (her reaction — “You are the best boyfriend, ever” — should be enough to get the rest of you lugs to the bookstore), and put up a review on his site, here (you might have to scroll down an entry or two to find it). He liked it, but he was mildly surprised at the style:

“I had expected funny, pithy, and clever. While all those elements are present, they are muted, toned down. This is a book about the stars, constellations, and that sort of thing. This is not a book for fun, but rather a guide to fun things you can do. It’s a well written travel book, but ultimately it is just as functional as any other piece of luggage.”

This is pretty accurate, especially if your primary entry to my writing is this Web site, in which I have no editors and no goal other to amuse myself and others. Universe’s primary goal is utilitarian, in that by design people should be able to open it up and get a clear dose of information. Style is definitely an issue — I would happily argue it’s got more style than any other basic book on astronomy — but if it were the main thrust of the book, the book would be in trouble. No offense to myself, but (hopefully) the vast majority of the people buying the book have not the slightest clue as to who I am. They’re picking up the book to learn about the universe, not to read me riff about black holes. So while I, the authorial voice, am still definitely there, I dial back the Scalzi-osity to focus on the rest of creation.

So yes, to be clear: If you’re getting the book in order to drink from the Scalzi firehose of prose, as it were, you’re better off holding off for The Book of the Dumb this November or Old Man’s War early next year, both of which are rather a bit more of me. Alternately, you might pick up Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe, which has much the same science but with amped up humor and snarkiness (although ironically, none of the articles I wrote in there are specifically attributed to me — if you get it, write me and I’ll tell you which of the articles are mine).

I’m immensely proud of Rough Guide to the Universe, and it came out almost exactly as I would have intended, but it’s not about me. And I’m definitely all right with that. If I was supposed to be presenting you entire glorious reach of the universe, but ended up jumping up and down, waving my hands and asking you to pay attention to my prose style, well. That’s a level of hubris that even I am hesitant to approach.

Impeachable You

The other day someone suggested that I had written that President Bush should be impeached for lying to the American public about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. I had not, nor do I at this time suggest we’ve gotten anywhere near the point of impeaching Bush on anything. I did say that if we impeached Clinton for lying about sex, it was not entirely inappropriate to grill Bush about the possibility he lied about WMDs. After all, everyone lies about sex. Lying about weapons of mass destruction occurs only within a rather more specialized population. But to be clear: No, no impeachment necessary. Just a straight answer from the Bush White House. Which is, alas, apparently asking a lot.

Which is not to say others aren’t seriously discussing whether impeachment is in the future: Here’s an article on it from John Dean, who knows a little about what happens when a President lies to the American public. It’s interesting reading: Dean comes to the conclusion that if the President did lie (and notes that this is a rather huge “if,” a position I agree with), “he is cooked.” And this would probably be true enough, regardless of whether he were impeached or not.

Although I’m not for impeachment, I will be clear on this much: Lying to the American public about the reason for starting a war is rather more of a legitimate excuse for impeachment than lying to the American public about getting a hummer. Anyone who suggests otherwise has his partisan head so far up his partisan ass that his utterances can be ignored as abject stupidity.

Personal Product Review

My personal order from my Café Press store came in today, and I’m pretty pleased. First off, despite multiple spell-checkings, I was paranoid I had misspelled something somewhere, but I did not, so that was good. I got my myself my “I Hate Your Politics” White T-Shirt, my Athena Starchild Mouse Pad and the “I Hate Your Politics” Mug, and all came in nicely printed and legible — the last of these being of mild concern because, after all, there’s a lot of text on these things. Of all the pieces, I think the mug comes out looking the best, probably because it’s got a bit of color to it. I actually got two mugs because Krissy wants to take one to work — here’s hoping she doesn’t actually get fired for it.

Anyway, at this point if you feel you must buy a single John Scalzi product, I’d go for the mug. This is not to dissuade you from buying anything else, mind you, if you have your heart set on a t-shirt or the mousepad. But if you just can’t decide, go for the mug. If you feel like you can get through life without having something with my name on it, I’ll live. Somehow.

I’m giving some thought to adding more product, since it costs me nothing to do so and I’m vain. I’ll mull it over and let you all know what I decide to do. In the meantime, enjoy this picture of Ghlaghghee perusing my new mug and apparently objecting to something in, around, or about it. Can’t please everyone.

How Does Our Garden Grow

Being that we live the country life and all, it’s only natural that we should have a garden, and by “we,” I mean my wife and my father-in-law, since any attempt my me to grow something from the earth is doomed to hideous, depressing failure. My wife and FIL do not have these problems; they plant something in the ground and it grows, joyfully, sprouting and blooming and growing until the two of them come along to yank the literal produce right from them. Talk about alienation from one’s work. If plants had political affiliations, they’d all be Marxists.

The garden is pretty large — larger, in fact, than our entire front yard back when we lived in Virginia, and large enough that there’s no way each year that we can possibly eat all the produce that grows in it — we end up canning enough tomatoes to power Chef Boy-ar-dee for a year and foisting Ball jars of preserves on friends, family and random passersby. Come along to the house in September or October and when you get back home all your neighbors will think you stopped off at a farmer’s market. That’s a hint.

In this year’s garden we have potatoes, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, radishes, and several other plants that I am assured are edible at some point. In terms of long term investments, we have asparagus, growing in that box in the front of the picture, and blackberrys, whose trailing vines are supported by wires hung from those crosses (so, no, we’re not crucifying our produce). Neither the asparagus nor the blackberry plants will produce anything appreciable in the first year, so by planting these things, we’ve signaled our intention to stick around, I suppose (our 30-year-mortgage also suggests such, just not as verdantly).

Our house is situated on former farmland, and we’re surrounded by farms as well, so not entirely surprisingly, the garden grows like gangbusters. Even someone with a black thumb like myself can understand why New England farmers crawled over each other to abandon their rockstrewn plots of land and head west to the Ohio territory as soon as it opened up: There’s rich soil, hardly any rocks, and humid but largely temperate weather. If you can’t grow something in Ohio, it’s likely you can’t grow it at all (except maybe bananas and palm trees), or, like me, everything green thing you touch dies screaming.

I don’t mind. I’m not the gardening type anyway. I’ll just enjoy some of the couple thousand tomatoes we’ll undoubtedly have by the end of the summer. My contribution to the gardening process is consumption. And that, I do well.

A Couple of Thoughts. You Know, On Stuff

Here are a couple of reactions to stuff I’ve been reading on sites and blogs.

* I’m awfully sick of the New York Times bashing that blogs seem to be on these days, and the reasons for this are very well encapsulated by Virginia Postrel in comments she made on her own site. While entirely true that the Jayson Blair reality check will be a good one for the Times, the fact of the matter is that most of the people whacking on the Times are just bloviating about things they know little about. Virginia is especially correct about the stupidity of bloggers painting reporters with the same brush they’re using for the editors; the former have very little to do with the political machinations of the latter.

I worked on a paper for a number of years and almost without exception reporters did their best to get as much of the whole story as possible under deadlines, no matter what damn fool thing was going on in the executive editor suite. I was not a reporter myself — I was a critic and a columnist, which is emphatically not the same thing — but I had a ground-eye view of the work and journalistic ethics of my co-workers. They were all proud of what they did, and they all worked to do a good job (Virginia also has positive things to say about editors, too — and once again she’s right. In my experience, most dumbassery from editors has less to do about political slantings than other, more mundane administrative issues).

As Virginia noted, although she didn’t put it in the term I am going to, most of the people whacking at the Times and journalists in general have a parasitic relationship to the newspapers and news sources, which they’ve somehow managed to confuse with a position of superiority. Listen, folks: if it weren’t for the Times and their compatriots, you’d all be blogging about your cats, 24-7. Blogs can have an interesting and vital role spot-checking the facts and the received wisdom from these news sources — be beneficial parasites, in other words. Newspapers aren’t called “the rough draft of history” for no reason, and rough drafts are often refined. But starting from the position that reporters don’t care about their work or aim to slant is both stupid and wrong. The reason for the controversy surrounding Jayson Blair is that Blair is, emphatically, a wild aberration from the norm, not just for the Times, but for any newspaper you’d care to mention.

Treat reporters with respect. They’re working hard, and they’re working hard to get it right.

(Update: NYT editors Boyd and Raines resign. I’ll be a busy day in blogdom, to be sure.)

* Likewise, I’ve been following the WMD fracas with some interest. This one’s pretty simple, people: Bush and his folks said pretty clearly that the big reason to go into Iraq were the WMDs — not only the ones that Saddam could create, but the ones he already had. The inability to find much of anything in that direction of things (so far) means that either our intelligence was grossly poor — which is bad — or that Bush, et al went a-warring’ on false pretenses, which is rather worse. Or it could be some tantalizing mixture of the two, and you can imagine how bad that would be.

Folks are countering that regardless of the reason we went in, the obvious and evident atrocities of the Saddam regime justify our presence. But I think this is crap reasoning. Prior to strapping our guns on, we all knew Saddam was killing his own people left and right. This was no big secret. Yet for some reason that was not a justifiable reason to invade. We needed another excuse to get in, and the WMD weapon was what we used. Now that we’re in, we can’t just backtrack. If the obvious humanitarian rationale wasn’t enough to start a war then, why should it be able to be used as a back door excuse now?

Mind you, my conscience is clear on this one. Longtime readers will remember that while I supported the invasion, I pretty much always thought the WMD rationale was cover, and my personal interest was in dislodging Saddam, which in itself was a perfectly laudable goal. As I wrote last October:

“Let’s get down to brass tacks. On balance, the end results of fighting this war will be (cross fingers) the removal of Saddam and the dismantling of his political state and (incidentally) a clearing out of whatever weapons capability that may exist. For those reasons, I’m not opposed to fighting a war with Iraq now. Be that as it may, even those people who fully support a war against Iraq are rather painfully aware that the stated reasons that the Dubya administration wants to gear up for war are window dressing for a revenge fantasy. It is possible to fight a just war for less than entirely just reasons. We’re about to do it.”

The point here for the Bush administration is that regardless of the substantial benefit of removing Saddam from power, especially for the Iraqi people, the fact is that the primary reason it gave for invading appears to be largely bogus, and it needs to reconcile its rationale with the facts as they exist on the ground.

Let’s all go ahead and grant that the removal of Saddam was a good thing, and Bush deserves credit for that. But let’s also grant that lying to the American public to get a war, if that’s what he did, is an extraordinarily bad thing, and Bush should get the blame for that. This isn’t a case of ticketing someone for jaywalking because he rushed across the street to pull children out a burning building. Lying to the public to get them to back a war is pretty serious stuff. If we were willing to impeach a President for lying about getting some off an intern, lying to start a war is worth at least a glance or two.

Something to Chew On

“THE first birds with teeth since the age of the dinosaurs have been created by an Anglo-French team of scientists, raising the prospect of new dental treatments for people — and even a cure for baldness.

A batch of chicken embryos raised at a French laboratory have been coaxed into growing rudimentary teeth, after researchers managed to re-awaken a gene that has lain dormant in birds for at least 70 million years.”“Birds with teeth turn the clock back 70m years,” The Times of London, 6/4/2003

These are the sort of discoveries which vex creationists; there’s nothing like dormant DNA, which is “junk code” in the current iteration of animal but useful for an antecedent animal, to mess up the idea of outright creationism. A perfect God presumably wouldn’t bother with dormant DNA, since such code would be inefficient, and a God who is inefficient is not perfect. A good response here would be that God’s will is ineffable, therefore that dormant code may be there to serve God’s purpose. But if you admit that, then you’d have to likewise admit that evolution might also serve God’s ineffable plan, since by it’s very nature, that which is ineffable is unknowable. With or without God, you get a better case for evolution.

Don’t worry, however. Creationists are well versed in raising objections. They’ll think of something novel to get out of this one too. Creationists are, by their very name, creative.

Here We Go Again

“WASHINGTON (AP) – In what Democrats called an annual GOP rite of spring, the Republican-controlled House on Tuesday passed an amendment to the Constitution to criminalize flag burning for the fifth time in eight years.

The one-line change to the Constitution – “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States” – was approved by a 300-125 vote as a pair of holidays approach – Flag Day on June 14 and Independence Day in July.” — “House Approves Ban on Burning U.S. Flag,” Associated Press, 6/4/2003

If this shows anything it’s the fact that a large swath of our legislators are perfectly happy to chuck out the first amendment if they think they can get a vote out of it. And each time they do, it’s worth re-reading a newspaper column I wrote on the matter EIGHT YEARS AGO which rather unfortunately is still as relevant today as it was then. Rather than make you hunt through the archives to find it, I’ll reprint it here. Enjoy.

“I Can’t Believe It’s Not The American Flag!”: How to Defeat the Flag-Desecration Amendment.

The hideous, bloated mass of cane toads that we endearingly call the 104th House of Representatives has gone and done it again: they’ve voted to amend the Constitution of the United States in places it needs no amending. This time it’s a “flag-burning” amendment, a proposal that reads in its entirety “The Congress and the States shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

In one swipe, this proposed amendment guts the entire purpose of the First Amendment (to provide for free expression of ideas, no matter how unpopular), and alters the symbolic content of the American flag from a proud ensign of freedom and liberty to a suspect banner whose supposed protection flies against everything it had previously represented. In short, the flag will change from something well worth cherishing to something well worth burning. This is in character for the House, which is apparently incapable of reading the Constitution of the United States without moving its collective lips.

My first impulse, of course, was to go out and do a little flag toasting myself. But I figure every other excitable boy and girl in this great land of ours is thinking the same thing. Besides, if the Senate loses its bladder control, and the States do likewise, it’s entirely possible I’d go to the slammer. And while being a political prisoner in the previously politically free United States has an appeal, jail itself is a bummer. I’d be inside, where large, tattooed fellows with bad teeth would be calling me “girlfriend”, while the idiots who passed the amendment would be roaming around freely, thinking up of new ways to chop the Constitution into a fine pate. Which is the exact opposite of the way it should be.

No, the best way to fight this amendment is to undermine it from the word Go, to prove (without having to be incarcerated) how stupid and pointless this thing would be. So right here and now I promise: the day the 38th state legislature passes this amendment into law, I go into business for myself. Making what? Flags, of course.

What kind of flags? Well, I’ll tell you. The flag I have in mind has 13 stripes, alternating red and white. In the top left hand corner, I figure I’d put a blue rectangle, and fill it with white, five-pointed stars, in alternating rows of five and six, numbering, oh, about 50 or so. But where that last star would go, maybe I’d put a circle instead, or a square, or a pentagon, seeing that’s it’s five sided and all. It’d be 99% the Flag of United States of America, and 1% filler.

It would look like that American flag, it would feel like an American flag, and if I ran it up a flagpole, someone would probably salute it like an American flag. And why not? It’s close enough in form and content to evoke all the responses that the American flag would. I’d bet you that even from a close distance, most folks would swear that’s what it is. But it’s not. What to call it? Something catchy, like “Not The Flag of the United States,” “United States Flag Substitute,” or, my personal favorite, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the American Flag!”

What could I do with my new flag? Why, just about anything I wanted:

Bob: Say, John, what are you doing over there?

Me: Well, Bob, I’m thinking of roasting this here entire pig on the hibachi! But first I must stoke the cooking fire!

Bob: Say, John, isn’t that the Constitutionally-protected American flag that you are laying over those red hot charcoal briquettes?

Me: It sure looks that way, doesn’t it? But see that tiny white dot over there?

Bob (squinting): Why yes I do! It’s so small!

Me: Thanks to that trivial detail, this is Not The Flag of the United States! And I can burn it at will!

Bob: Hey, that’s great! Could I use your United States Flag Substitute? I’ve got a heap of leaves in the back yard I need to take care of!

Me: Sure, Bob! It makes great kindling!

I could wear it, wax my car, swaddle small, incontinent children, potty-train my turtle, towel off after mud wrestling, turn it into a hammock, use it as bandages in a emergency situation or just shred it into fibers with a weed-whacker. Whatever I wanted. God forbid I would want to burn something in political protest, I could set it aflame outside the steps of the United States House of Representatives.

I’d be in the clear, burning my exactly-like-an-American-flag-except-for-one-small-detail flag, while all the anti-flag burning types would seethe, because they know and feel in their guts that I’m burning the American flag and getting off on a mere technicality. All their work would be for nothing, which is precisely and exactly my point.

If you want people to revere and honor the flag, you should let it stand for principles that are worth honoring and revering. Compulsory reverence is no reverence at all. Just remember, I’m standing by with my new flags. I bet you I’d sell a lot of them.

Go Go First Amendment!

Turns out that video games are protected by the First Amendment, at least according to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which today overturned a St. Louis ruling that video games do not constitue prtected speech. The entire 8th Circuit Court Opinion is here, but here are some choice quotes:

“If the first amendment is versatile enough to ‘shield [the] painting of Jackson Pollock, music of Arnold Schoenberg, or Jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll,’ we see no reason why the pictures, graphic design, concept art, sounds, music, stories, and narrative present in video games are not entitled to a similar protection. The mere fact that they appear in a novel medium is of no legal consequence.”


“We reject the County’s suggestion that we should find that the ‘graphically violent’ video games in this case are obscene as to minors and therefore entitled to less protection. It is true that obscenity is one of the few categories of speech historically unprotected by the first amendment. But we have previously observed that ‘[m]aterial that contains violence but not depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct cannot be obscene.’ Video Software, 968 F.2d at 688. Simply put, depictions of violence cannot fall within the legal definition of obscenity for either minors or adults.”

And, critically:

“While it is beyond doubt that ‘parents’ claim to authority in their own household to direct the rearing of their children is basic in the structure of our society,’ Ginsberg v. New York, (1968), the question here is whether the County constitutionally may limit first amendment rights as a means of aiding parental authority. We hold that, under the circumstances presented in this case, it cannot.”

Rock on, First Amendment! And welcome to the 21st Century.

Curse You, Habitat For Humanity!

I cannot tell you how much personal inner strength it took me to reject Habitat For Humanity’s new Poverty Theme Park for inclusion into The Book of the Dumb. Because, truth to tell, it’s a friggin’ horrible idea: “See life-size Habitat houses from countries around the world. Learn about the devastating effects of poverty. Try your hand at making compressed-earth blocks or roof tile.” All for five bucks (four for seniors and three for the kids).

Sure, it’s a cheap day out, but if you get the kids all riled up by telling them they’re headed to a theme park and then force them to make bricks all day long, well, that’s years of therapy right there. This a place for People Who Mean Well, and unfortunately most People Who Mean Well have had their sense of fun leached out through years of empathy, folk tunes and hammering crossbeams. Most likely the kids will ask if they can just stay home, so you can get them the souvenir that says “My Parents Went to the Global Village and Discovery Center And All I Got Was This Organically Printed T-Shirt Made From Hemp.”

No Joke: There’s a “Living in Poverty Area.” “Experience firsthand the conditions poor people in the world today,” the site proclaims, thankfully leaving off the expected exclamation point. Well, hell; if I want to experience that, I’ll just hang out in front of the Wal-Mart.

But I just can’t bring myself to include this in the Book of the Dumb. Because it’s Habitat For Humanity, for God’s sake, and making fun of Habitat For Humanity is like kicking your sweet ol’ grandmama. They build houses! For poor people! For fun! Well, or whatever it is that passes for fun for these folks. I’m sure that someone somewhere has something bad to say about Habitat For Humanity, probably someone who’d call some grindingly poor Habitat For Humanity house recipient a “lucky ducky” for getting a new home cheap, or someone who’s convinced Jimmy Carter is the true source of all evil in the world today. But I’m just not one of those people. I just can’t do it.

Curse you, Habitat For Humanity! Curse your fundamental goodness! You’re spoiling my fun! Arrgh! I mean, really. For all the fun I’m having, I might as well just make a brick.

Where the Hell is June? And OPM. And IndieCrit. And the Cat.

I try not to comment overly on weather, but come on. It’s June, and here in my little corner of Ohio, the temperature outside is 65 degrees. It was only marginally warmer yesterday, and will be only marginally warmer tomorrow. It’s also raining. I’m sorry, but my contract clearly specifies that so long as I am in the northern hemisphere, my Junes are to be warm to hottish warm (say, 75 to 90 degrees) and generally sunny. The only option not specified is humidity, which why June in these here parts is generally sweatier than I like. Even so.

If I don’t start getting some service around here, I just may take my business elsewhere. Let that be a lesson for you all.

On a completely an utterly unrelated note, I got a spot of good news yesterday from one of my employers. Those of you who read Official Playstation Magazine know that I write a column for them every other month on social and legal issues involving video games, called “Watchdog.” Well, now it’s going monthly. So for Scalzi fans, OPM becomes even more of a wacky hot value: CD reviews, DVD reviews and me acting all serious and grownup-y in my column (that’s right. I’m a magazine columnist. Stand back, y’all). Add that to the fact that it’s a damn fine magazine on its own and you’ve got yourself roughly 124 to 158 pages of fun every month. Honestly, I don’t know why you don’t just drop what you’re doing right now and race out to buy a copy. Don’t be afraid to elbow aside that twelve-year-old loitering in front of the magazine rack. You’re a paying customer!

Another quick note: I’m taking a break from IndieCrit for June, for the usual work-related excuses I provide whenever I take a break. I don’t know how many of you trundle over there for music reviews (actually, I do, because I look at the referrer logs, but never mind that now), but I guess you’ll just have to play your old records until I come back. Or let someone else tell you which music is good. But know you’d never do that. Would you? You would? And here I thought what we had was special.

Yet another quick note: Ghlaghghee likes to sleep directly in front of my keyboard. I thought this would be annoying but in fact resting my wrists on his furry little kitten body is helping me avoid RSI. He’s like one of those gel rests, in fluffy mammalian form. Try it yourself. You’ll have to get your own cat, however.

Exploiting My Hunger For Flattery

I noted a couple of entries down that I might link to people if they flattered me enough, so Amanda of Metamanda made that attempt. However, even this craven flattery would not have been enough if she had not noted that her Marathon Blog was a thinly disguised attempt to get people to donate toward her marathon run for the benefit of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She’s promised to find people to cough up $3700 by 9/5, and she’s got $350 so far. Well, I think that’s a good enough reason to link. Well, that and the craven flattery. Plus, she said “If you link to me, I will be eternally grateful, where eternally is aleph-null years.” Mmmmm… aleph-nullicious! So go on over and give her attention. And cash.

And Amanda, yes, I’ll chip in. Let me raid Athena’s college fund and get back to you. But I warn you — you don’t run the whole 26.2 miles, and I’m gonna complain loudly about not getting my money’s worth. And we all know how whiny I can get.

Note to other people wanting links: The “craven flattery + worthy cause” avenue has now been filled! Please try other avenues. The “craven flattery + revealing photographs” avenue, however is wide open, as is the “craven flattery + cashier’s checks” avenue. Your call.

Gettin’ Bloggy Wit It

Just a quick note: Probably for most of this week, I’m going to be even more blog-esque than I have been recently, mostly on account of I have some longer stuff to write elsewhere, so my contributions here will most likely limited to five-minute swoop ins. But I figure I did enough brain-busting think pieces last week. This week I’m all about the quick, snarky comment. Variety. That’s what it’s all about.

In the absence of anything other interesting to say just this second, here’s a picture of Ghlaghghee, doing that cute kitty thing of trying to grab the cursor off my screen as it’s moving. Isn’t he so adorable you could just spontaneously combust. And he’s pretty darn cute most other times, although at the moment he’s climbing up my leg like it’s a tree trunk, and while that’s cute too, it’s also surprisingly painful. I like Ghlaghghee quite a bit, but I am hoping he’ll be growing out of the “attack anything that moves, especially at 3am” phase of his kittenhood real quick now.

Off to do other writing. Be back soon for other five-minute entries.

An Opposing View of My Writing

Jim Valvis, longtime online journaler, calls me a bad writer here. It follows an exchange of comments in my Me Rite Guud comment thread.

Here’s my favorite graph in Jim’s essay:

“My debating friend may think he’s a writing polymath, but he’s not. He’s simply writing his corporate brochures over and over again, disguised as novels here and poems there and whatever else elsewhere. Anyone interested in writing, especially if he wishes to write in more than one genre, should caution himself against this guy’s example. Each kind of writing is its own skill to master—and you will have to struggle to learn each as if they are different things, because they are. But take heart. Even if you master one, just one, you’ll be a far better writer than my know-it-all-poorly and do-it-all-badly friend will ever be.”

The crux of the issue is that Jim believes that fields of writing are rather separate and that the skills one learns and uses in one field are not necessarily applicable in any other writing field; whereas I believe that skills you learn in one writing field are often applicable in other fields. Aside from Jim’s personal opinion of my writing (which, incidentally, is entirely unsurprising; my only defense to his position I do it all badly is that my various publishers and clients appear largely to disagree), his position is an interesting point of view. It’s an interesting point of view which I happen to think is stupid, inefficient and wrong, mind you, but interesting nevertheless.

Objectively speaking, it’s difficult to say which of our opinions has more “truth” to it; the process of writing is different for each person and I tend to think that the right process is the process that works for you. The argument I can make for my point of view being useful is that I have books and novels sold and/or in the bookstore, and I make a very good living doing all sorts of different writing for all sorts of different people. So I know purely on a practical level that my opinion is based on a practice that works. This is why I suggest it to others. You’ll have to ask Jim what practical application his writing philosophy has had for him.

Wrap Up on “Tax Cuts, Feh”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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