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.


Oh, look: Someone crediting me for inspiring him to start a blog: POV:KevinQ2000 Blog. Go visit him and make him feel valued, why don’t you.

Does this mean that if you appeal to my vanity and say I’ve inspired you to write, that I’ll link to you? Maybe so. I’m not immune to flattery.

That’s a hint.

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.

Isn’t This Nice.

I linked to my friend Charles Keagle’s site last week, and he was so happy he made me the subject of one of his Fluffball pictures of the day:

Although now I want to know who the hell the Grubermans are. Well, at least I get top billing. It’s in my contract!

I know I said I wouldn’t be updating again today. But come on. I’ve been immortalized in cottony cuteness. How can you pass that up.

Vacation Pictures

It’s going to be a “not much updating day” here at the Whatever. Yesterday’s tax rant got linked to by a number of people including Glenn Reynolds, Oliver Willis and Andrew Sullivan (many thanks to them and others who have linked), so I’m sure I’ll be busy playing in the comments thread having fun with the people who think I’m a commie bent on redistributing their wealth at the point of a bayonet. Also, aside from aforementioned play, I really do need to get my ass in gear on a couple of work things. And then there’s quality time with the new kitten, Ghlaghghee, who even as we speak is walking on they keyboard and batting my fingers with his fluffy little paws. So it’s a busy day.

But I thought you might enjoy a couple of pictures from our vacation last week, in which we went to Nag’s Head, North Carolina, with friends of ours. The picture at the top is of Athena frisking along in the waves, ensconced gamely in the flotation device a certain paranoid parent made her wear anytime there was a possibility of her getting near the water. To be clear, the paranoid parent was me, and with good reason, since the waves were fairly hefty this time out. I could tell you the story of how I went out in the waves to body surf and damn near drowned in the process, but that would impugn my manhood. So I won’t. But as it happened Athena was of course just fine in the water, and didn’t go in more than waist-deep, and never without me or Krissy playing along with her. She’s interested in going out further, but suggested herself that perhaps she should learn to swim first. She’s a sensible girl.

Here’s Athena at the local aquarium, along with a shark. Athena had been jonesing for the sharks the entire time we were there; she though the turtles and alligators and sun fish and all the rest were all very nice, but she came to see the cartiliginous eating machines of the deep, and by God, that’s what she was going to do. Well, she did. She thankfully did not make the association that the sharks in the tank might have close relations somewhere offshore in the waves, which is a good thing, since realistically speaking the risk of shark attack is damn low, and also, there’s no fun in playing the ocean when you suspect a significant portion of the residents are lined up and ready to put you on the smörgåsbord.

Okay, that’s all you get for today. I know, I know. Try to make it through the pain.

Tax Cuts, Feh.

“The Bush administration has shelved a report commissioned by the Treasury that shows the US currently faces a future of chronic federal budget deficits totalling at least $44,200bn in current US dollars.

The study, the most comprehensive assessment of how the US government is at risk of being overwhelmed by the “baby boom” generation’s future healthcare and retirement costs, was commissioned by then-Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill.

But the Bush administration chose to keep the findings out of the annual budget report for fiscal year 2004, published in February, as the White House campaigned for a tax-cut package that critics claim will expand future deficits.”“US ‘faces future of chronic deficits’,” The Financial Times, 5/29/03

Look, I’m one of those people who is personally going to get more out of this tax cut than many of the rest of you (yeah, I know. Can’t figure it out, either). But at the same time, I’ve got a public library that I have to contribute books to so it has an astronomy book from the last decade, a public school that’s in an academic emergency, a state that is tearing through social services and rocket-launching the cost of its public universities because it’s running a huge deficit it’s not allowed to run, a social security system that’s going to be insolvent by the time I reach retirement age, and deficits that mean it’s highly likely my kid and her kids are going to be saddled with unfathomable debt.

I don’t want any more tax cuts. I personally don’t need any more tax cuts. If this was 1980 and the highest federal marginal tax rate took more of my take-home pay than I took home, then yes, I could see why I might want a tax cut. But it’s 2003, the highest federal marginal rate last year is 38% , and my effective federal tax rate (meaning the amount I actually pay) is less than 20%, which means the large majority of Americans pay even less than I do. Throw in my tax indebtedness to Ohio and my local government, and I’m still cruising along at about 25% of my total income.

I can afford this. And, in order to forstall crushing debt collapsing on subsequent generations, I’m perfectly happy to kick in a little more if necessary. Not a whole lot more, mind you. I want to play with my own money and I don’t want to get back to a situation where we have 70% marginal tax rates. But at the very least, I don’t see the point right now in paying less.

(Bear in mind also that being self-employed I pay quarterly and I pay my full Social Security deduction on top of the taxes above. So I pay more taxes more often than most of you. And yet I’m still saying this.)

Yes, yes, I know — more money back to the people so they can boost the economy, blah blah blah. But let’s not lie and say this most recent tax cut is about the people, okay? I mean, yes — if we really want to help the working guy, let’s slash his taxes by more than a measly one or two percentage points and a few hundred dollars and avoid giving the rich double that in percentages and of course multiples of that in dollars. Throwing the working guy pennies while the wealthy are rolling out wheelbarrows of cash isn’t my idea of a smart thing to do. Hell, even Warren Buffett thought the details of the most recent tax cut proposals were appaling. In the story referenced there, Senator Charles Grassley says that Buffett doesn’t have any appreciation for the trials of the middle class, which is (excuse the pun) rich, since Buffett was suggesting giving the middle class much more of a tax break than the budget Grassley was pushing. And anyway, when it comes to money, who should you believe: They guy who invested his way to being worth $36 billion, or the guy with the government paycheck?

There are many things I don’t like about the Republican Party, but one of the things that galls me the most is how it’s demonized taxation, and how it’s consistently run deficits since Reagan and yet manages somehow to position itself as the party of fiscal responsibility. Yes, there is a point of too much taxation, and at times in our past we’ve been there, and it was not at all a bad thing for the GOP to point that out. Good on it. Now isn’t one of those times, and even if it were, the rich would not be the people I’d focus the cuts upon. The answer to everything is not “tax cuts.”

As for raising deficits, it’s just another strategy to keep Republican financial ethos in control even when they inevitably get booted from office, since the Democrats, dim bulbs that they are, will spend most of their time in power trying to correct the damage the Republicans wrought. Republicans in my estimation spend a lot of their time exploiting the persistent Democratic position of befuddled niceness, and this is just another example. The Democrats need to have their huevoes drop into their sacs and take it to the Republicans (who, like all bullies, whine like mewling kittens when the tactics they use are used against them), but that’s another rant entirely.

To be entirely honest about it, I lump people who believe that Republicans are fiscally responsible in with the people who believe in astrology and that the Earth was created in six days, in that whatever other positive qualities they might have, they have a fundamental defect in their ability to process reality. Mind you, this does not mean I expect Democrats to be correspondingly fiscally sound. That’s a false opposition. But honestly, people. We have a three administration track record of Republicans gulping down debt like they’re dipsomaniac sorority girls at Free Margarita Night, and then calling for yet another round of tax cuts. How much more evidence do you need?

Here’s my position: Call me crazy, but I expect a certain level of government service. It’s not dizzingly high, but it’s there. I’m comfortable with funding a certain number of things I don’t necessarily agree with with my tax dollars in order to get certain services others might not agree with. I’m comfortable spending money on services I don’t need to use personally — welfare, unemployment, the military — because I think they provide for a better quality of life for my fellow citizens at large. And for all of that, I’m willing to pay a fair amount, and the emphasis here is on “fair.” I don’t want to pay more than is necessary, and I want to make sure what’s being spent is accounted for — I remember reading recently that Pentagon accountants don’t know where a trillion dollars they were given went, and that’s just no good — but for the quality of life and government services I expect, yes, I’ll pay my taxes. Happily.

The thing that Republicans have managed to do over the last couple of decades is establish, nearly solely, that taxes are a burden to us all. Well, maybe so. But they’re also an obligation, and a responsibility, and not nearly enough attention is focused on that fact. I do a reasonable amount of charity giving, because I can and because I think I ought to, but there is a whole lot I can’t do personally that the government, with its aggregate power, can. It’s a useful tool.

I like the idea that some of the money I send to my government goes to keep a library open in the little town I live in. I like the idea that somewhere in my little town, a kid who’d otherwise go hungry is eating dinner bought with food stamps that I paid for. I like the idea that a sailor on an aircraft carrier goes on shore leave with money I put in his pocket. I like the idea that people are researching diseases and robots are exploring space with money I chipped in to pay for them. As I mentioned, there are lots of things our government is doing with my money I wish it wouldn’t do, but that’s the trade-off and overall I think the balance is worth it.

All of that stuff takes money. That money comes from me. I accept the responsibility of paying that money. More of that money comes from me than from the average taxpayer. And I say, I don’t need any more tax cuts. I need a government that can pay for what I want it to do without chronically shifting the financial burden of its existence on to my kid. I’m willing to pay for that kind of government. I’m also willing to vote for it. And quite obviously, I think you should be, too.

Update: “WASHINGTON, May 28 — A last-minute revision by House and Senate leaders in the tax bill that President Bush signed today will prevent millions of minimum-wage families from receiving the increased child credit that is in the measure, say Congressional officials and outside groups… Because of the formula for calculating the credit, most families with incomes from $10,500 to $26,625 will not benefit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal group, says those families include 11.9 million children, or one of every six children under 17.” — “Tax Law Omits Child Credit in Low-Income Brackets”, The New York Times, 5/29/03

But the dividend and capital gains taxes got decreased! Isn’t that nice. I bet all the families with incomes from $10,500 to $26,625 just can’t wait for the boost in their dividend and capital gains checks.

Second Update: I’m done a follow-up on this Whatever here, discussing in greater detail issues about Social Security/Medicare, deficits, and reader comments. Oh, go on. You’ve read this far already.

New Cat Update Update

No pictures of the new cat this time. I’ve already gone wa-a-a-a-y over the limit for cute cat pictures this month. Besides, the only picture I have ready to go is a picture of the kitten using his cat box for the first time, and while it is sort of amusing (he’s got a look of intense concentration on his face, ears all flattened and everything!), I’d rather not be known as the guy who was compelled to show pictures of his cat taking a crap to the world. I am content to be merely the man who wrote about it instead.

Rather, this is an update on the search for a name for the new kitten: We’ve come back around to “Fluffy,” which I’m not especially fond of, since it’s not exactly what you would call original. However, I noted to my wife that I am willing to entertain the notion of calling the kitten “Fluffy” if we agree to an unconventional spelling of the name, not unlike how the parents of little girls who are named “Kristine” replace all the “i”s with “y”s and then add a few more embellishments, so you end up with “Khrystynne” or some such. With that understood, please note now my preferred spelling of “Fluffy”:


That’s the “gh” from “enough,” the “a” from “assumption” and the “ee” from “flee.” The “l” remains an “l”.

My wife, whose name is not spelled “Khrystynne,” is less than impressed, and points out that anyone who sees the cat’s name in print will assume that the cat’s name is pronounced “glag-gee,” and more relevantly, that every time I mention the cat’s names to others, I will pridefully also note the correct spelling, which will get old fast (for her, at the very least). While I appreciate her concern on both counts, I think it’s a small price to pay for a cat named Ghlaghghee.

I’ve got a whole car ride to day care to sell Athena on the plan. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Writing Everything

Over in the comments thread of the Me Rite Guud! entry, there’s been discussion about the various types of writing, and the relative importance of learning some of the formal basics of writing (through, say, having to crank out term papers in high school) for all forms of writing. Since I don’t expect y’all to trudge through every single comment thread — I mean, when I go to other people’s sites, I don’t — I thought I’d bring to the surface level some of the thoughts I’ve had on the matter.

1. Writing term papers is actually important. Joke though I might about today kids’ lack of formal writing skills meaning that I will be gainfully employed all my life, the fact is that the exercise of writing term papers, when combined with a teacher who knows what he or she is doing, is very helpful in teaching kids the basics of formal written communication, including structuring an argument, learning how to research, and crafting ideas in efficient and useful ways. Not to mention, of course, basic grammar.

These skills are useful not only to people who want to be writers, or for students who just have to write more term papers, but for everyone who ever needs to communicate with someone else in a formal written way — people who have to write project plans, or Power Point presentations, letters to employees (or to employers), and so on. Learning these skills in high school is optimal because they’re required for college, but also because that provides more time to internalize these writing skills so that you can pull them out whenever necessary. Clearly one can just trot down to the Barnes & Noble and get a book on how to write a business proposal. But my point is that if you’ve learned the fundamentals, and have incorporated them into your skills through use in high school and college, you won’t need the book — and you’ll have an advantage over those who do.

Now, once you get out into the real world, there isn’t much need to write term papers anymore, so one could argue that writing the term papers in themselves is not especially critical. But I disagree. Like many things in school (and like school itself) term papers are a construct designed to help students learn: First, to learn more about whatever subject they’re writing the paper on, and second to get used to the formal basics and structure of writing clearly and effectively. These are tools that can be used well beyond the realm of writing term papers, just as other aspects of education are used beyond the realm of the classroom.

2. Congruent to this, other types of writing are not useful replacements for writing term papers. Hundreds of thousands of high school kids across the country are writing blogs and journals and millions more are sending IM messages by the truckload, and I think that’s grand. You’ll never hear me complaining about kids using writing to communicate.

But as I’ve mentioned before, writing blogs and journals is basically good for one thing: Writing blogs and journals. It lacks any critical feedback (from teachers, editors, or others with a formal interest in writing), and is often freeform and chaotic. Anyone who reads blogs and journals will note that entire strata of the online writing universe are well nigh incomprehensible because the writers, regardless of how much they want to communicate, don’t have the organizational skill to get across more than a general idea of how they feel about things. A couple of term papers a month would tone that right up.

People tell me they like reading what I write here (thanks!), and much of the reason they do enjoy it is due to the fact that even when I’m writing about something completely stupid, I can typically write about it in a clear and intelligent manner. That comes from the ability to structure my writing on the fly, and ultimately that comes from gaining structural tools during the course of my education. Take a look at the blogs and journals you like to read for the writing, and I think you’ll find that whether these people are “real” writers or not, they have ample experience with the structure of writing — often through their jobs, which require written communication in some way.

3. Various writing fields are not isolated. And this should be read in two ways. First, the basic tools of writing — the ones that allow you to structure your writing and communicate clearly — are universally applicable: They’re equally useful in writing a novel, writing instructions to operate a stereo, or writing a brief on why your company should do whatever it is you should choose to propose. And to go back again, a great number of these skills can be learned in the process of cranking out term papers.

Second, skills learned in specific disciplines of writing are of use in other disciplines of writing. One of the correspondents in the earlier comment thread opined (and I’m paraphrasing) that he suspected that the corporate world would have little use for writers with the skill of writing dialogue, which is essential for writing novels. Well, as it happens, I write both corporate brochures and novels, so I can tell you that this suspicion is erroneous. My corporate clients often ask me to write material in a particular tone — informal, say, or business-like without being too stuffy, or straight-up get-to-the-point declamations — depending on who they are or the nature of the business. Finding the right tone in corporate writing is very much like creating the right tone for a character’s dialogue, and the fact I can do the latter makes doing the former that much easier. Indeed, clients tell me that one of the things they prize about my work (and why I continue to get work) is the fact that what I write often feels like someone is sitting across from the reader, speaking the words to them: Like dialogue.

It works the other way as well. Corporate writing is usually to the point and direct; you can’t presume that the reader of a brochure or corporate document is going to follow you down entire paragraphs of prose, no matter how brilliant it is. You economize and get to the point. I find this useful when I’m writing novels; thanks to writing corporatespeak I have an indicator of when I’m drifting from the narrative flow of the story and need to get re-engaged. I think my readers appreciate this; I know my editors do.

The point here: Good writers don’t arbitrarily segregate their writing skills — they’re opportunistic and use whatever writing skills they learn in whatever field to make their writing stronger in other fields. And underneath all of that is a grounding in the fundamentals of writing clearly and with structure, fundamentals which are optimally learned in school.

If we’re not providing our kids these fundamentals in school, we’re failing them. The easy road is to mock the dumbass kids for not being able to write, which I’ve already done. But if in fact I keep my competitive edge in writing over the next few generations of kids, I’m not really going to blame them. It’s not the kids who are designing a pedagogical system that allows them to cruise through high school and not have to write more than a couple of three-page papers.

ScalziProduct ™

Since I didn’t have any actual work today (shhh… don’t tell my book editors I said that), I thought I’d amuse myself and create a Cafe Press T-Shirt to sell to credulous saps with more money than brains. So here it is: the I Hate Your Politics Shirt, which features an abridged version of my (ahem) classic Whatever, “I Hate Your Politics,” in which I take long, loving whacks at liberals, conservatives and libertarians. That’s right, now you have the opportunity to be an equal opportunity offender. And we all know how important that is. The shirt is monstrously text heavy, so I don’t know that I would wear it unless you were ready to have people staring at your chest for extended periods of time. But the “I HATE YOUR POLITICS” headline can be read from afar. And that’s the main thing, isn’t it.

For those of you who prefer not to let people ogle you in the guise of reading your shirt, I offer the I Hate Your Politics Mega Mug, with the same incendiary text cradling 15 soul-satisfying ounces of your favorite beverage. This way, people will ogle your hand, not your chest, and if they get too fresh, you can always bonk them with the reasonably sturdy and undoubtedly painful ceramic surface of the mug.

Both the shirt and the mug feature the new motto: Encouraging Independent Thought Since 1998. Because, well, it has. Don’t blame me if that’s not what you’re getting out of it.

The drawback to both these fine products is the base price, which like most Cafe Press products is rather too expensive for the object being hawked, and then of course, I’ve added my own cut (an extra buck in both cases), for a total price of $15 for the shirt and $13 for the mug. So I’ll understand if you don’t rush out in your teeming millions to buy several for your friends and family. Although if you do, I’ll be your friend forever. That’s right, you’ll never be rid of me. There’s an incentive, now, isn’t there.



(spaces added here to make sure there’s enough room for the picture. Because I use small fonts and it’s all screwy on my screen, that’s why.)

Update: I’ve been asked to make a shirt that has the “I Hate Your Politics” screed on the back. Your wish is my command.

New Cat Update

I know you’re just itchin’ to get an update on the new cat, so here it is: The new cat has shown himself to be of reasonable good nature, which is a very good thing. He came out of his little box early and met the rest of the pets, and those encounters have generally gone very well; the kitten is understandably anxious about Kodi, who outmasses him by roughly 170 to one, but in those same sort of circumstances, wouldn’t you be as well? Kodi, for her part, is endlessly fascinated by the new cat and just wants to play with it in ways not actually involving her mouth or teeth. Lopsided Cat is getting along well with kitty, which is not terribly surprising as they are most likely related. Rex is more interested in kitty’s food than in Kitty himself, which is just like Rex. Kitty also handles being handled well, which is essential considering Athena, who has already declared the cat hers and intends to spend most of the next few weeks with her sticky little hands on the new cat.

My biggest worry about the new cat is that we’d have a couple of days before he figured out the cat box, but he figured it out last night and used it a few times since then. This is a considerable relief because for the moment all his stuff is in my office (he’s too small yet to get down two flights of stairs to the basement, which is where the real catbox is, or even down one flight of stairs to the outside world), and I was concerned he’d find a nice quiet corner in the office as his tinkle station and then my office would forever have that not-so-fresh “feral cat urine” smell. This has been avoided, to my relief.

The only minor complaint at the moment is that kitty decided that 4am was prime play time, which, needless to say, it is not. I myself had no problem with this, but some time during the night Athena had crawled into bed with us as well, and it was only through fast if groggy action that kitty was kept from attacking our daughter’s big bad head (at right you see kitty using a similar maneuver on the dreaded Shoe of Doom). Kitty was banished to my office for the night. He seems to have handled the exile just fine.

As anticipated, Athena has been given naming rights for the cat, and as also expected the first suggestion right out the gate was “fluffy.” We explained that while that was indeed an adjective one could use to describe the kitty, she might want to pursue other, less obvious options for a name, so give it a couple of days before finalizing the decision. Other names under consideration include Purple, Bubble Gum and Flower. At the moment, Flower is in the lead. Nietzsche, alas, was shot down early, as were the suggestions of Hegel, Joe Jackson and Mjollnir, Hammer of Thor. But we still have a couple of days yet.

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