In the e-mail on Friday, an e-mail from a stranger (but not spam) with a link to a video of an AC-130 gunship taking out a suspected Al Qaeda/Taliban holdout in Afghanistan. Writes the correspondent:

“This video shows one – *ONE* – AC-130 gunship destroying an entire Taliban installation suspected of harboring members of al-Qaeda. I was for the war in Afghanistan, and was initially for the war with Iraq. This video changed my mind, because it demonstrates both the unbelievable power of our armed forces and the ruthlessness of same. In several instances running men blown to [sic] their feet by explosions are visually inspected to see if they are dead. If they move, they’re hit with another round from either the 40mm Gatling Cannon or the 55mm Howitzer that each AC-130 carries on board.

I’m not trying to proselytize you, just give you food for thought. Because any war with Iraq will be a massacre, and here’s the proof.”

I watched the video, which as advertised shows a collection of buildings, vehicles and people being turned into small chunks by the aforementioned AC-130 gunship (the video also features audio of the crew going about its task), but I didn’t have the same reaction as my correspondent. He was horrified at the amount of devastation a single plane could visit on multiple targets (and, I assume, specifically, multiple people). I, on the other hand, looked at the ratio of enemy killed and material damage caused the enemy versus the ratio of death/damage to our troops and equipment in this exchange. The Taliban and Al Qaeda experienced it all; ours troops experienced none. This is a very good ratio.

Let’s leave aside the philosophical question of whether war (any war, or, if you choose, the war we will most likely be conducting within a few weeks) is a moral and correct thing to do, and instead take as a given that two antagonists will soon pit themselves against each other in a contest to beat the hell out of each other, and that one of those antagonists happens to be the US, and therefore our military — with its constituent of American sons, daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, mothers and friends — is presented to take the field. It is my opinion that this military should be presented with every technological and material advantage possible to achieve its objectives as quickly as possible and with as little loss of life as possible.

An AC-130 gunship, as an example, is an excellent way to achieve these objectives: It has a relatively small crew (13) and can project a substantial amount of force (read: it can blow up a lot of things) that would otherwise have to be provided by a much larger number of infantry and equipment. I don’t think anyone is under the impression that a US infantry assault of an Al Qaeda/Taliban installation would have come away with no casualties of any sort; our military was almost certainly better armed and better equipped than the enemy was in this case, but it doesn’t take much brains to pull a trigger, and the number of troops required to do the same job as an AC-130 would have presented a lot of opportunities for targets.

An AC-130 doesn’t fly without risk — from what I know of it, it’s a slow-moving bird, and it’s not likely to be used if the enemy has substantial and successful air defenses — but it seems better able to do a number of tasks that would otherwise fall those with a better chance of getting a bullet in the gut.

Those of us who get our sense of military honor from the Klingons or the 12th Century may grumble at the lack of face-to-face time our men and women have with the people they will have to kill, but I think that’s missing the point of a war. We don’t wage wars (or, at least, shouldn’t) because we want the members of our military to generate honor by killing another soldier mano a mano. We go to war because we have objectives to achieve and (hopefully) we’ve exhausted other methods of achieving them. That being the case, let’s achieve the objectives as quickly as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is utterly overmatch the enemy’s military capability. If you can make it so that your enemy is always bringing a knife to a gunfight, the sooner the gunfights can be over.

I think one of the major objections to the warfare at arm’s length that the US has the option of performing is that it’s dehumanizing — that if you never see the people you’re dropping bombs on, you don’t think of them as human. And I’ll concede that it’s probably easier to kill someone from a few thousand feet up than from a few yards away. But I would also suggest that one of the great dehumanizing agents in history is protracted war — not just for soldiers, who are in the circumstance of having to kill other humans as their job for long stretches of their life, although that’s not an inconsiderable factor — but also to the societies that are in those wars. People in warrior societies don’t spend much time seeing members of other societies as people, particularly those with whom they are at war.

The United States, whatever else is wrong with it, is based on the premise of human equality — the shorter the war, the less time we have to pretzel ourselves against our humanizing inclinations. I’d rather those in our military have an easier time of killing the enemy quickly than our entire society having a harder time seeing an enemy as fundamentally human.

(While we’re on that, I’d make a note that the AC-130 gunship crew in the video was under strict orders not to destroy one specific building — the one identified as a mosque. And so while it destroyed everything (and everyone) else, that building remained standing after the assault.

Now, one can reasonably ask about the utility of leaving a mosque standing when one is blowing up those who would attend it, but I suspect the utility is twofold — one, to remind those on the ground that we’re not blowing them up because they’re Muslim, but that we’re blowing them up because they’re terrorists, and two, as a piece of psychological theater, it’s effective to leave one building standing amid the rubble to point out the fact that, yes, we can hit whatever we want — and not hit whatever we want, too.

Both of these provide interesting proof of American humanism, in that a) you don’t leave sub-humans recourse to their Gods, and b) you don’t waste time and effort psyching out people you’re planning to eradicate completely.)

I’d still be very pleased not to have a war in Iraq, but I don’t think that such a desire is realistic at this point. That being the case, I want the war to be quick and I want it to be as lopsided as humanly possible. I don’t want Iraqi soldiers dead (I’ll be very happy to see them surrender in droves, a la Gulf War I), but if the Iraqi soldiers decide they’re going to fight, I want them taken out of commission as quickly as possible, so that as few as our people as possible find themselves on the wrong side of a bullet. If a display of overwhelming firepower convinces Iraqis to cave, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too, because very quickly what threat they represent will be dealt with. The sooner it’s over, the better off we’ll all be.

That’s why the AC-130 doesn’t fill me with horror. If anything, it gives a sense of relief, in that it’s an indication that we have a reasonable chance of getting this war done quick, and getting our people out of harm — which also means the Iraqi conscripts and civilians will be out of harm’s way as well.

I don’t think it’ll be a massacre. A society that leaves mosques standing isn’t interested in indiscriminate killing. I just think it’ll be fast. As far as wars go, that’s not a bad way to go.

Stupid, Stupid Microsoft

There’s likely to be a brief pause in updating this site — hopefully not more than a week or so — because I need to change the software that I use to update. And therein hangs a tale.

Basically, well over a year ago I purchased Microsoft Front Page 2000 in order to keep this site reasonably well organized — prior to that time I had been using a very basic html editor and wanted something that would actually be useful and make updating more simple. Everything was fine until my most recent computer implosion about two weeks ago. I bought a new computer and so had to load all my previous purchased software onto it, including Front Page.

Microsoft requires you to register Front Page — if you do not you can only use it about 40 times before it shuts down. That’s fine; I did buy the product and I don’t really have a problem affirming the copy I have is legally mine. However, this time the registration process wasn’t working. The program wouldn’t register through the online or through the e-mail version, so I ended up having to register through the phone. And this is when the Microsoft support person told me that Microsoft was no longer accepting registrations for Front Page 2000, and that I would have to buy a new copy of the program (street price: $149.00).

Well, of course, I thought this was ridiculous. I had bought the program, and had been using it for over a year, and had not my computer fried in its own juices, I would still be able to use it. I explained this to the customer service person, and while she sympathized, there was little she could do. Which is not unreasonable — customer service people are not typically empowered to act autonomously, so there’s no reason for either they or the calling customer to pretend they can. I asked to speak to her supervisor.

Her supervisor was marginally more helpful (and here I note for the record that all representatives of Microsoft to whom I spoke were polite and courteous at all times, even as they were being mostly unhelpful) and asked me a couple of questions about the Front Page version I was using, and had an explanation as to why MS was denying my registration. It appears that I had been sold a version of Front Page that was meant for distribution to multi-license users: Big corporations and such. Since I was a personal user, this made red flags go up.

Again, fair enough. But I also told the Microsoft supervisor that I was unaware as to why this should be my problem. I’m not the one that let the wrong version of the program ship to the consumer market, I just happened to be the consumer that got the wrong version. Whether I had gotten the right version or not, I should still be allowed to use the software I had paid for.

The supervisor’s solution, as it was, involved me jumping through some hoops. First, I would need to go to or phone the store at which I bought Front Page and try to convince the clerks there to replace the product. When that failed (as of course it would, since it was purchased over a year ago and I don’t have a receipt), I could call their replacement department and get a new disc. This is obviously not an optimum solution for me, but again, fine. Let me try and see what I come up with.

The retailer, of course, passed on replacing the product, noting that above and beyond the objections that I had already suspected they would have, that Microsoft had a policy not not accepting any software that had been opened — so the retailer (Staples, in case you were wondering) would have to eat the entire cost of the replacement. So as a consequence, Staples has a very strict policy regarding Microsoft returns. The manager (again, very helpful — the service industry’s manners were in fine display during this whole thing) was more than happy to give me his name and a contact number so I could point Microsoft in his direction; I had a feeling he liked the idea of being able to give a Minions of Bill a piece of his mind.

Back to Microsoft, and a phone call to the replacement department, whose representative told me that she would be more than happy to replace the software. But — it would probably take three to four weeks to ship the replacement copy (although she did offer to have it sent overnight as soon as the order was processed, which I thought was considerate, if missing the point), and there would be a replacement copy charge of $23.95 (or some such) plus shipping. All to replace software I legally had purchased and which was running just fine (albeit only for a few more times), and which lacked only an easily replaceable confirmation code.

And so at that point I told her to forget it and that I would be going out to buy a competitor’s product. Because we had passed into the realm of the ridiculous. I saw no reason why I should be penalized because Microsoft screwed up — and I saw no reason to pay Microsoft an additional $30 when it could simply cough up a confirmation code.

So out goes Microsoft Front Page — what you’re reading here is the product of my last ever use of the product. Because, and I want to be clear here, I would rather go out and pay for a competitor’s product — even if it means paying a couple hundred dollars — than pay Microsoft $30 it doesn’t deserve to have because it is unwilling or unable to allow me to use the product I paid it for.

But wait, there’s more. I plan to make this a more expansive boycott than that. I don’t want to suggest that I won’t ever use a Microsoft product again, because that’s just silly, and in some cases impractical. I’m not switching my OS because I have too much invested in Windows at the moment (all my software is here, and I just bought this computer, so I’m not going to rush out to get a Mac). But short of that, I’ll switch everything else. I’ll start by going in and changing all my file associations to non-MS products (i.e., I’ll use Real Player or Winamp rather than Media Windows Player, and Abiword or some other word processing product other than Word).

Given the choice of using a Microsoft product and a competing product, I’ll pick the competing product. I already do this with some products — I use Mozilla over IE because Mozilla is flatly better, and I use Eudora over Outlook because just about the only thing Outlook is good for is letting viruses and worms rampage all over your hard drives — but now it’ll be my default inclination. Microsoft will no longer get any money of mine so long as there is another competing product of roughly equal (or even slightly lesser) utility (I’ll keep reading Slate, though. It’s better than Salon. And it doesn’t cost me anything).

Obviously, I’m aware that Microsoft will not be quivering in its boots about this. But it’s not about Microsoft, it’s about me. Microsoft might not miss my contribution to its bottom line, but I get the satisfaction of knowing that Microsoft’s number of chances to screw me in a pointlessly greedy fashion are now greatly reduced. That’s better than any microscopic dent I can kick into Bill Gates’ compound interest.

Likewise, I’m not calling on anyone else to follow my example as it relates to Microsoft — you may never have the same circumstances I had. But on the other hand, if you’re exasperated by the hoops Microsoft (or anyone else) makes you jump through, for whatever reason, just stop jumping through the hoops. It’s easier than you think.

Anyway, down for probably a week or so. See you on the other side.

New Retirement Accounts

I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m generally of the opinion that the words “Republicans” and “taxes” are just grown-up words for “children” and “matches,” so you can imagine my utter shock and horror at learning of a tax proposal from Dubya and his cronies that (in theory, at the very least) I can get behind. Last week, the administration floated some changes in long term savings accounts, allowing Americans to save after-tax income in accounts that would subsequently be tax-free. You haven’t heard about it because among other things a shuttle blew up. But they’re out there.

These come basically in two flavors. The first would be Retirement Savings Accounts, which would allow people to save $7,500 of their income a year (a figure which would apparently be adjusted for inflation as time goes on) into a retirement account. The money put in would be taxed (i.e., it counts as part of your income for the year), but it’s not taxed when you take it out (which you’d start to be able to at age 58, as opposed to 59 1/2 for IRAs today). Basically, it’s a Roth IRA with a higher contribution ceiling.

Without knowing too much more about the details, I have to say I’m all for this. Roth IRAs rock in a general sense, because they allow you to take a small amount of tax pain now so you don’t have to take a huge amount of tax pain later — which is to say it’s easier to pay taxes on the (currently) $3,500 or whatever you’re putting into your Roth IRA now, then pay taxes on what you take out of it when you retire and your retirement savings count for a large portion of your total income (i.e., when you’re going to need every penny you can get for your heart pills and heat).

And speaking as someone who is self-employed and lacks all the 401(k) bennies worker drones get, my biggest complain about how IRAs are structured is that you can’t put enough of your money into them. I’m showing my class structure here, but a $3,500 yearly limit on IRA contributions is criminally stupid and low. $7,500 a year would put everyone who contributes to a retirement account into a much better position, just from compound interest alone. Also, the proposal would mean that anyone could sign up for a retirement account — currently certain people above certain income levels can’t establish either traditional or Roth IRAs (which, um, came as a mildly panicking surprise to some certain individuals). So by all means, sign me up.

The second flavor is more philosophically interesting but probably politically a trouble maker — the Lifetime Savings Accounts, which allow people to save $7,500 a year, tax-free, for anything they want whenever they want to get it. Ostensibly, these accounts could be used for medical and educational expenses (and indeed, under Bush’s proposal, it would replace current federal medical and educational savings accounts, which could be rolled over into them), but if you just wanted to spend it on video games and gum, you could do that too. The report I linked to higher up in this suggests that the LSAs would work like a traditional IRA (tax-free to contribute but distributions are taxed) while a Wall Street Journal article suggests it’s going to be like a Roth — given who Republicans are and how they’d generally prefer to structure their taxes, I’ll side with the WSJ on this one and assume it’s a Roth-like structure.

This one’s problematic because there are no restrictions on it — unlike the RSA, the money to fund this savings account can come from anywhere (i.e., it doesn’t have to be income from work), and there are no limits on distributions. So in that regard it undercuts the RSA to the extent that most people, given the choice between putting their money into an account where they can’t easily access their cash for decades, and one they can access right this second, are going to pick the latter account — and because they can access the latter account whenever they want, as a practical matter its overall utility as a savings account is likely to be rather low.

Let’s be honest and admit that one of the unheralded benefits of the IRA set-up (and that of the various other federal savings plans) is their stern single-mindedness of utility. No, you can’t have this now, the IRA says, sternly wagging its finger as you try to grab some of your money for that Cancun vacation. You’re going to need it when you’re decrepit and the children stop calling. You’ll thank me later. And we tromp off muttering, knowing that the IRA is right, even though Cancun is calling. Without that waggling finger, the Mexican economy is likely to benefit from a bunch of nice tax-free vacations. And while that’s good for Mexico, it’s not so good for those vacationers’ eventual retirements.

This is the cue for Republicans to chime in and note that people would still have the choice between the RSA and LSA, and anyway, it’s obnoxious of me to assume that people aren’t fundamentally intelligent enough to make the right choices about their own money. But I don’t know that it’s so much a question of intelligence as a question of perspective. The number of 22-year-olds with IRAs could fit on a head of a pin, even though basic compound interest means that even a little saved at 22 is going to translate to big payouts 50 years down the line. But people don’t think about things that are going to happen at a point in time twice as far away as they actually lived.

Given the general savings level in the US (in which half of us save less than $1,000 a year, according to the Consumer Federation of America), and that more than half of us are way behind in our retirement savings as it is (same source), it’s fair to say that people don’t prioritize savings, and that they prioritize more immediate and possibly less-than-critical expenses over retirement.

In short, I have little doubt that people would fund (and withdraw from) their LSAs far more than they will fund their RSAs, and will subsequently save rather less than they could for retirement. So while on a philosophical level I don’t have any problems with the LSA (who wouldn’t want to save money tax-free?), on a practical level I see political trouble ahead for it. Like it or not, people do need something with a penalty involved to get them to save for the long run, and the LSA ain’t it.

So naturally, you can assume that I assume that the LSA is really what Bush and his pals want, and the RSA is a sop thrown in as a distraction. The LSA is, fundamentally, a no-restrictions capital gains tax cut, and while everyone can take advantage of it, again as a practical matter it will be most useful for the high-income sorts who have the ability to park $7,500 a year and not have to think about it again for a couple of decades. The average schmoe making $40,000 a year is neither liable to fully fund an LSA nor liable to resist dipping into it on a regular basis, so while it still has utility for him, its full, most useful benefit as a compound interest engine devolves to the upper classes (who can of course also fully fund an RSA as well). It’s more proof that all the way around it’s simply better to be well off than not — and that’s easier to be rich and stay rich, than to be poor and get rich (or even somewhat comfortable).

Whatever the ultimate fate of the LSA, I certainly hope the RSA makes it through. I could use it, and would use it, and most people are in the same boat as I am with this one.

Columbia; A Trip to Tor

Others have commented extensively on the Columbia explosion, and I don’t have much to add, except to say: I’ll go on the next shuttle. And so will most of the people I know (which would make the shuttle ride crowded, to say the least). And it’s because we all believe that people need to be in space. I don’t think it’s at all out of line to suggest that none of the seven shuttle astronauts who died would have wanted their deaths to signal the end of manned flight into space, and unfortunately there are any number of people who would attempt it to do just that. That would be a terrible mistake.

I’m not one of those people who believes that mankind’s destiny remains unfulfilled unless we colonize Mars, or that colonization of space is our insurance plan against a whacking from an asteroid. But do I want to see a human on the surface of the Red Planet before I pass from our own particular planet? I do. President Kennedy had it exactly right when he said of the challenge of putting a man on the moon that we do these things because they are difficult, and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, every human with the ability to understand (which unfortunately did not include my two-month-old self) was intimately aware of the miracles ordinary men can accomplish through will and through determination.

Every trip into space is an echo of this will. Aside from the practical values of space exploration, it serves to remind us that are capable of literally reaching toward the stars. We should be in space not because our survival as a race depends on it, but because our aspirations as a global nation demand it of us.

Ad Astra Per Aspera — “To the stars, with difficulties.” Columbia, to our great sadness, typifies this. But we do this because it is difficult. And we will go to the stars. Put me in the next shuttle. If I could go, I would. I wouldn’t miss it for this world, or for the one we’ll set foot on next.


Aside from the sad task of having to inform a very dear friend about the Columbia explosion, my recent trip to New York was a very positive one. I had scheduled it a while back as a pleasure trip to see friends, but along the way I ended up piling in some work as well, and I’m glad I did, since one of the highlights of the trip was traveling to the offices of Tor Books (soon to be my novel’s publisher) and meeting both Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden.

Two words came to mind when I stepped into the Tor offices themselves: “Firetrap” and “Cool.” “Firetrap” because the entire office is covered with books and paper from floor to ceiling; a mere static electricity discharge could turn the 14th floor of the Flatiron Building into a fireball that would rain down shards of glass and toasted manuscript pages on Broadway and 5th Avenue. I spent no little time looking to make sure I knew where the fire extinguishers were.

“Cool” because I’ve simply never seen so much science fiction in one place at one time. It’s like I had died and gone to geek heaven, although I do have to say that I hope the real heaven, geek or otherwise, does not have acoustic tile ceilings. And of course while I’m standing there looking at the near-infinite shelves of SF and Fantasy, I get to have the giggly thrill of realizing that fairly shortly my own book is going to be up there, nestled against the Orson Scott Cards and Steven Brusts and Robert Jordans and so on. No, I’m not worthy. But then again, ask me if I care.

Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden were also hella swell, and not just because they loaded me down with enough books to strain the stitching on my backpack (including Theresa’s own very interesting collection of essays, Making Book, which she autographed for me, so there). It’s also because they’re what every SF writer and/or fan hopes they grow up to be: Smart, capable, interesting, inquisitive, well-read (obviously), pragmatic yet with a dreamer’s sense of the possible and — this deserves special note — real fun conversationalists.

In short, neat folks, and we had a very good lunch, in which we talked about life, the universe and marketing (it was a business lunch, after all). I had been happy my novel had landed at Tor before, of course (what author of science fiction wouldn’t be), but meeting the Nielsen Haydens gave me that extra added bit of confidence that the novel is in good hands. If you ever have an opportunity to sell a book to them, it’s an experience I recommend for the lunchtime chat alone.

After the trip to Tor, I made a quick stop at my other publisher (bwa ha ha! Two publishers! Bwa ha ha! Sorry, I just get this way sometimes) to find out what’s up with the astronomy book. Turns out the publishing date’s changed: It’s now due for May here in the US (it’ll be out in April in the UK). This is fine with me, as it gives everyone more time to save their pennies. And May is my birthday month, so that’s good too. I did see some of the advance advertising for the book, which are pretty cool — images from the book are on the cover of Rough Guide’s quarterly book catalog, and they’ve also put out an advance flyer to hand out to distributors and booksellers. I also got a copy of Rough Guides’ newsletter, which features an article I put together on Mars. So all told, they’re priming the pump pretty well.

In all, a good day — one of those days when, as a writer, you get to say to yourself, damn, I’m a writer, and you get a moment to reflect that writing sometimes is more than just something you do, it’s something that helps you define who you are. Then you go home and wade back into the actual writing and it’s suddenly a lot less romantic, because you’ve got deadlines and nit-picky editorial changes to make and whatnot and so on.

But that’s okay — it’s a good trade. You do the work and every now and then you get a reward: A visit to an office with wall-to-wall books, lunch with your editors, a brainstorming session to get your book sold in stores, and the nice buzz that comes from knowing you’re for real and for true an actual, not-faking-it author. It’s a fine thing.


Also, just in case you sent me e-mail while I was in New York: 1,183 pieces of spam waiting for me when I got back. It’ll take a little time to wade through that and find the real mail. Please be patient.

Palm Pilot; Criticism

One rather unexpected side benefit from my whole recent computer meltdown fracas is that I’ve found myself in possession of a Palm Pilot — an m125 Palm Pilot, which if I follow the Palm Pilot nomenclature correctly is sort of their “Accord” model: Not exactly a Kia, but not as full-featured as a Beemer. I got it for free, so what do I care — for free, the Accord model suits me just fine.

I got it because my mother-in-law won it in a sweepstakes sponsored by Philip Morris (now called Altria, presumably on the theory that it’s okay to blacken the lungs of your customers if your company’s name sounds like that of an affordable import sedan) and sent it along to me to see if I could make heads or tails out of it. Then Krissy let slip that I had gotten a new computer, and mom-in-law started angling for the old one (as soon as it’s been fixed, of course). That had in fact been my plan, and mom-in-law was so excited to hear that that she gave me the Palm Pilot in exchange. And there it is: The one verifiable story in the history of the world of smoking having a positive benefit for a non-smoker.

I have to say that I don’t see too much point in Palm Pilots or most other PDAs, which by and large are a $400 solution to an 89-cent problem, which is — “give me something to write this note on.” Functionally speaking there’s very little a Palm Pilot is good for that pocket-sized spiral notebook can’t do. PDAs are beginning to correct this by getting more and more tricked out — the latest Sony PDA basically has the same processing power as the desktop computer I owned in 1998 — but again the functionality for this $600 beauty (it takes notes! It plays music! It takes pictures!) can be replicated with a spiral notepad, a portable CD player and cheap camera for a total outlay of $50, tops. No, you won’t look as cool, but you’d have an extra $550, which you could use to buy some Manolo Blahnik pumps. And then you would look as cool. Odd how looking cool ultimately requires a stupid expenditure of money.

Which is not to say I won’t use the Palm Pilot. I’m going to New York in a couple of days to meet with clients and publishers; I might as well use the Palm Pilot to stash my notes and directions and phone numbers. Normally I’d use a little notebook, but seeing as one of those would set me back 89 cents (not counting the pen) and the Palm Pilot was free, the Palm Pilot is surprisingly the economical answer in this case.

I have found one entirely useful activity for the Palm Pilot, which is as a storage device for e-texts. In addition to my own book (which I figure it would be useful to have a copy of on hand, seeing as I’m meeting with my publisher), I’ve also downloaded The Innocents Abroad and Mont Saint Michele and Chartres from Project Gutenberg, which is devoted to publishing public domain works online — not that they’ll be getting any new public domain material anytime soon, thank you very much Bono Act (note to self: Make sure that after I die, all works enter the public domain sometime before my grandchildren are in danger of physical decrepitude).

There’s some nicely delicious irony in the fact that the most useful activity I can think of for this bit of 21st Century technology is for it to hold 19th Century works of literature. But then again, why not? There really are worse things than for a pixellated Henry Adams to get a new life on a Palm Pilot. Free literature on a free PDA! It doesn’t get any better than that.


On the subject of writing (and, very loosely, literature) a reader sent me an e-mail yesterday letting me know that while he enjoyed Old Man’s War, he had a couple of suggestions about the story that he thought would make it even better, which he then proceeded to provide to me. It was basically all I could do to keep from chewing off the inside of my cheek.

It’s not this guy’s fault, mind you. I understand that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, and I appreciate that he liked the story enough to offer suggestions on how it could be improved. The intentions are good and I wouldn’t want this guy to think I thought he was out of line for making suggestions, or that he should be stomped to death by 40-foot fighting robots for having the temerity to question my prose.

But having said that, “constructive criticism” drives me up a freakin’ wall. To be entirely honest, I like criticism of my work to be generally unconstructive. I don’t mind if, say, you you tell me my dialogue stinks and is unrealistic, but I do mind if you tell me my dialogue stinks and the way to fix it is to do A or B or C. When I had Old Man’s War out to beta testers, I asked them to catch grammar, spelling and continuity errors, and to tell me what they liked and didn’t liked about the story. But I also specifically told them not to offer suggestions on how to fix things. Why? Because I didn’t want to hear them. It’s enough for me to know if you think something’s not working in the writing. It’s my job as a writer to figure out how to fix these problems — or not, since something you might see as a bug in the writing is something that I might see as a feature.

Of course, this little quirk of my writing character comes across as arrogance, and I cop to that. I’ve always been arrogant when it comes to writing; I remember back as a first year student in college getting into trouble with my Art History TA when I refused to participate in classroom peer review of other students’ papers. I refused on the grounds that inasmuch as the other students weren’t actually qualified either as English or Art instructors, any comments they might have would be of questionable utility to me and therefore a waste of my time, and because if I was going to have review other people’s work and basically do the TA’s job, I wanted to get paid. This position assured me of getting reamed by the TA when it came time to get papers graded (I think I ended up getting a C- in the class), but I didn’t care about that. And, irony of ironies, as soon as I’m done with this Whatever, I’ll be starting an article on the Dada movement and getting paid nicely for it. So we can see how the battle of the C-minus-giving-TA vs. my youthful arrogance eventually panned out.

But aside from the question of my arrogance (or at least only tangentially related to it) comes the question of the critic’s competence. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and speaking as a professional critic, I’m all for people expressing their point of view. You don’t need to be a professional musician to know you like a particular piece of music, or a professional writer to know what you like and don’t like about an article or story. Lots of creative people seem to think that that only their peers are qualified to criticize, but that’s just a stupid defensive measure creative types pull out of their ass when they don’t want to admit that being criticized simultaneously stings and deflates the ego.

While everyone’s competent to express an opinion about whether something works, it doesn’t stand to reason that everyone is in a position to suggest how the piece might be improved. Independent of the specific critic, there’s no reason to believe that the piece would be improved if, say, different plot branches were utilized, or if certain motivations were explored, or whatever. The end result of these changes could be worse piece, or better one, or simply one that is equally bad in a completely different way. Changing something is not implicitly equivalent to improving something. Back around the Murmur era of things for REM, people complained that they couldn’t understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics. But if they could would the music have been better? Not necessarily; Stipe’s maddening mumble was part of early REM’s allure. Murmur might have been better if you could hear what Stipe was saying; but then again, it might have been worse.

Then there’s the matter of personal competence as it relates to making suggestions about writing. No offense, people, but most of you aren’t professional writers or editors, and that does make a difference. When Patrick Nielsen Hayden comes to me with specific suggestions about what needs to be done to punch up Old Man’s War (as he’s already told me he will), you’re damn right I’ll listen; he’s Senior Editor of Tor and in that capacity knows how to shape text so that it’s both successful creatively and has a shot in the marketplace, and those are two things I want the book to be. Were another working novelist to offer unsolicited advice on a plot point, I would likewise listen attentively. These people have the real world experience that convinces me they know what they’re talking about.

Short of those categories, however, I’m liable to ask myself how much you know about the dynamics of writing professionally, and if the answer I get is “not much,” I will then ask myself why I should be listening to your specific writing suggestions. Doctors don’t listen to suggestions from their baker on how to perform surgery (or if they do to be polite, they don’t usually take them very seriously). They listen to doctors. Likewise, it it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, I go to writers and editors first. Yes, I realize this goes back to the whole “arrogance” thing. But, you know, look — I’ve been writing professionally for well over a decade now. This is what I do. Financially speaking, this is all I do. This is my day job. When it comes to writing, I’m pretty confident I know what I’m doing (most of the time).

I do try not to be stupid in my arrogance. When I was writing my astronomy book, I had a couple of friends with PhDs in astronomy look over some early chapters, on the principle that they, being doctors of astronomy, were eminently qualified to tell me if and when I had my head up my rectum (it wasn’t, mostly). And I’m not saying that non-writers can’t have excellent suggestions about the craft of writing; they can and do, both in a general sense and specifically relating to my work. I’m not even saying that I don’t sometimes ask for advice from non-writers, or writers who are not yet professional writers; I’ve done both, and my writing is better for it.

What I am saying is that if you’re not a writer or editor, and you offer me specific writing advice without prompting, you should know I’m going to consider the source in evaluating how useful the advice is to me. Please don’t be too offended if my estimation of its utility ultimately differs from yours. I do appreciate the thought, honestly. But this isn’t one of those situations where it’s only the thought that counts.

Bad Mechanical Karma

First, an exchange between me and Athena. It helps to know that she just learned how to count to three in Spanish. Got that? Okay, then:

Me: Hey, Athena. Say ‘three’ in Spanish.

Athena: Three in Spanish.

Just in case any of you were wondering if she was really my kid.


I suspect that in a former life I must have been both against technology and a bad person — say, a drunken abusive Amish — because that’s the only reason I can explain why I have such bad luck with technology. This last week had me throwing money away in big fat handfuls as a consequence of my technological bad karma. Yes, I’m bitter. Stupid karmic wheel.

Let’s start with the utterly unsurprising demise of my computer. As many of you may remember, late last year I decided to upgrade my then-current computer rather than replace it entirely, on the idea that a new processor and video card would do me just fine — and that turned into a week-long process roughly as pleasurable as having nails slammed into one’s eyes with a ball-peen hammer. Well, it turns out all that pain and expense was for naught, because in the wee hours of Saturday morning the motherboard (i.e., the primary piece of equipment I decided not to upgrade) decided to fry itself in its own juices.

So just get a new motherboard, right? Well, Mr or Ms oh-so-logical, there are a couple of problems here. First, I live miles from anywhere, so I can’t just toddle down to the motherboard store and get me one of those bad girls. Second, even if I did, the odds of me successfully installing one on my own are roughly equivalent to the odds of me winning the Kentucky Derby riding an alpaca. Third, Because I live in the middle of nowhere, I’m at the mercy of a) computer repairmen who think they should be able to take Saturdays off, and b) computer repairmen who do work on Saturdays but then decide to blow off their appointment with you, leaving you to wonder at 10pm in the evening whether or not they’ve been consumed by coyotes, and at 11pm indeed hoping that was the case. And of course no one works on Sunday, because of the only confluence of God and Football (never, EVER have a computer implode on Super Bowl weekend. That is all).

Finally, I have a clock ticking: I had already over-extended a deadline for an article I was writing on, and I absolutely positively no excuses have to get it in first thing Monday morning, and the revision and all the notes I have for are on my computer’s hard drive (this is where people smugly say — well, you should have backed up. But it wasn’t the hard drive that crashed. It was the computer. Even if it were backed up, I still couldn’t access the information. So bite me). I did take the hard drive in question and attempt to install it on my daughter’s computer, but in one of those quirks that undoubtedly has Bill Gates laughing manically as he snorkels through his riches, the way Windows XP formats hard drives is different than the way Windows 98 formats drives. Don’t worry, I’ve already reserved a nice spot in the sixth circle of Hell for Gates and his idiot information architecture group. No, no, don’t thank me. They earned it.

Long story short (or shorter, at least): I have a new computer, which, in the only bit of good news in this whole story, is both pretty sweet and relatively inexpensive. It’s a vpr Matrix FT5110-PE, “vpr Matrix” apparently being the house brand for Best Buy (which I drove an hour and change to get to — in blowing snow! Uphill! Both ways!). Despite being a store brand, the Matrix line is fairly well-regarded and also sports a design from the Porsche design studio. I don’t actually care about that last bit, personally, but on the other hand, it’s nice to see Best Buy make the effort. I’m rather more taken with the specs: the short form is a 2.8 Pentium 4, 512MB RAM, 100GB hard drive (to which I added the aforementioned hard drive, which is 80GB), DVD-ROM and DVD-R/RW drives, 64MB GeForce4 MX420 (which I’ll actually be swapping out, since the graphics card in my other computer is better), and so on and so forth. In all, a nice upgrade from where I was. I would have preferred not to have to have it, mind you, but now that I do have it, it’s not so bad. And I also got a slightly better deal because I took the store’s floor model. It has a small scratch on it, and that’s 10% off. I can live with that.

One amusing point of the buying process is that, this being Best Buy, the sales dude tried to sell me the extended warranty, pointing out that most manufacturers won’t warranty floor models. I pointed out to him that Best Buy’s policy was to honor the manufacturer’s warranty on any floor model they have. And anyway, Best Buy is the manufacturer. Honestly, now. Buying extended warranties on computers is folly in any event, since there’s little point in having a three-year service deal on an object that’s going to outdated and upgraded in a year. Although I suppose given my luck with computers it couldn’t have hurt.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I got that article done. It’ll pay for the computer, thank God.

Okay, I’m going to try swapping the video card now. Pray for me.

Salon’s New Deal; Editing

After a trial period earlier last year, Salon has decided to go ahead with a new way to stay alive, which is to allow non-subscribers to view its content — if they agree to view an ad first. Essentially, Salon is doing this because its subscription model is a big fat failure.

David Talbot, Salon’s amusingly dissembling editor, spins the rationale for this switch in a really interesting way, first by declaring the subscription fiasco as a moral victory (“Nearly 60,000 of you have signed up to become Salon Premium subscribers — far more than the doomsayers predicted would ever pay for our editorial services”) and then noting in the very next sentence that it’s also a business failure (“But to break even, Salon needs to sign up more of you”). It’s the one article on Salon today that you don’t need to sit through an ad to read, incidentally.

Talbot then rather incompletely lays Salon’s fiscal misfortunes at the door of the collapsing Internet ad market. “Even in the glory days of online publishing,” he intones, “advertising alone couldn’t pay the rent.” Maybe, but Salon also didn’t exactly look for rent in a cheap part of town, if you get my drift. There’s no point in discounting the online ad market collapse, but Talbot also conveniently ignores his own company’s famously prodigious burn rate and propensity for finding really interesting and creative ways to throw money out of high windows, such as spending $5 million to buy, a Web site offering spoken word recordings, in May of 2000 (really, how much does it cost to record an author reading?).

If Talbot and his pals had not spent the “glory days of online publishing” lighting piles of Benjamins in bonfire-like stacks to keep warm in those chilly San Francisco summers, it’s possible they’d have more fiscal maneuvering room today. So, yes, the online ad market sucks. But, that’s not the only reason Salon’s in financial trouble. The ad market is a downward slope, but Salon spent millions on a shiny greased toboggan to get down that slope as quickly as possible.

Talbot also paints the picture of a World Wide Web bereft of reading material: “In the past couple of years, the Web has become a graveyard for dozens of creative, independent sites,” he declares. On the other hand, in the past couple of years, it’s also seen a massive explosion in creative, independent Web sites in the form of blogs, some of which provide as good or better reading than the sites that have vaporized, and some of which are arguably now as influential as Salon itself when it comes to certain issues.

Talbot credits Salon for beating the drum on the recent Trent Lott controversy, but most of the early heavy lifting on that came from Josh Marshall and his site, with an assist from Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, who linked to Josh from their own sites and added their own pungent commentary to make the point that disgust with Trent Lott’s comments weren’t only a lefty thing.

Salon does do good work and has good writers — even at its most smugly annoying, the site usually manages at least one good story a day. And it pays writers, a little fact which should never be overlooked. Nor are most blogs prime reading material — just enough of them are to make the daily trip around the Internet roughly the same timesuck it’s been since the 20th Century. But the point is, Salon’s not a lone voice crying out in the online wilderness. It’s merely the one in the most financial trouble.

(The irony here is of course that Salon has tried to capitalize on the blog revolution, literally, by offering up space for blogs on its servers for $40 a year. In Internet cultural terms, this is somewhat akin to one’s mom coming to pick you up from school wearing hip huggers and a midriff-baring cutoff that shows off her belly button tattoo. I don’t think this revenue scheme has been successful, either in attracting bloggers — who can get their own vanity domain and blogging software for the same price or less — or in marketing the bloggers that are there. The most successful blogger on Salon Blogs is Salon’s own Scott Rosenberg, who since 7/11/2002 has registered 337,505 hits (as of this writing), which averages out roughly 1,875 hits a day (“hits” being a meaningless stat, incidentally, since it could refer to page views or unique visits or discrete requests for files, of which several can be used to make up a single page). I get roughly the same sort of traffic — in unique visitors — on a daily basis, and I don’t update every day or have the advantage of one of the leading online magazines flogging my site. Glenn Reynold’s Instapundit, as a comparison, is averaging about 60,000 unique visits a day. It’s like every single Salon subscriber visiting Instapundit on a daily basis.)

All of this may lead you to think that I think the “view an ad, get content” content scheme is a bad one. Actually, I don’t — if Salon can make it work, more power to ’em. As a working freelance writer, I’m in no rush to see a paying market (even one I’ve never been in) vaporize. And while I think a significant portion of people won’t click through an ad every single day (not because they’re anti-advertising — the whole “information wants to be free” mantra is so 1999 — but because they don’t want to waste mouse clicks), I think significantly more will put up with an ad than will shell out $30 for a Salon subscription. Which is the whole point.

I do suspect that Talbot, et al hopes that getting people to view the premium content this way will help convert some of those non-subscribers to subscribers, either because they find they like the premium stuff, or because they get tired of wading through the ads. I’ll be interested to see if this happens. My gut says it won’t — it’s not as if Salon hasn’t been around for a while, and those readers who wanted to avoid advertising have already been signed up (this is why I’ll still pay the subscription fee once mine runs out later this year).

Interestingly, Salon is also offering an intermediate, $18.95 level of access, which allows access to all its content without forcing you to sit through an ad, but still has advertising on the text pages — basically, Salon as it was circa the turn of the millennium. That’s a fascinating idea. I don’t know how successful it will be, since someone who’s willing to pay $20 a year for Salon would probably be willing to pay $30. But it has almost a nostalgic tinge to it, a return to a more innocent time when when online magazines thought they would take over the world, and spent millions on companies whose product could have been easily replicated just about for free. Ah, to be young again.


Time is getting close for The Rough Guide to the Universe — final edits are due next Monday, so I’m poring through galleys looking for grammar and formatting errors, of which (of course) there are plenty, primary among them omissions of metric system measurements for temperatures, distances, weights and so forth. The book is to be published more or less simultaneously in North America and the UK, and rather than publish two separate versions, one with metric and one with imperial measurements, we’re putting them both in. So for example, I’d say the Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of 93 million miles/150 million km. Unfortunately, we arrived at this decision halfway through writing the book, so many of the early chapters are missing metric, which I’m now rather laboriously putting back in.

This is, incidentally, yet another reason why it rocks to live in the Internet era, since instead of having to calculate the values with a calculator or in my own head, either of which would be monstrously error-prone, and would drive me to ram a rusty spike through my temple to stop the pain of math, I merely go to and let it handle all the heavy lifting for me. I don’t know why Robert Fogt, the guy who put up, thought it would be a grand idea to do so, but man, I’m glad he did. Bob, if you’re reading this, you get a free copy of the book because you saved my brain from spasming uncontrollably. I thank you. My brain thanks you.

While I’m editing, I’m also getting a kick out of how I’ve been edited in the book by my Rough Guide editor. As some of you may know, Rough Guides is a publisher based out of London, so its editors also (and understandably) tend to be Britishers of some description or another. This means that they tend to “Britishize” the material I send them (or “Britisise,” as they might spell it). The most obvious example of this is the extra “u” in words like “color,” but there are are also distinct British colloquialisms that were inserted to replace distinctly American ones, and incidental comments have suddenly become Anglocentric — a reference to the Boston Marathon is now a reference to the London Marathon.

The end result is a book voice that sounds like me, had I been born and raised roughly 6,000 miles north east of where I actually was. The same thing happened with Money Online, the first book that I did for Rough Guides, so now I wonder if the people who I meet who have read the books first ever find it odd that I don’t have an English accent. I suppose I could fake one. It would never fly in the UK, where apparently accents change depending what side of a street you were raised on, but here in the US if you vaguely imitate Hugh Grant, you’re fine. I already find it easier to sing on-key when I fake an accent (this from spending a significant portion of my teenage years singing along to Depeche Mode and other euro-dork bands), so going wholesale over to the speaking voice would just be a final evolution. And Americans automatically seem to assume that people with English accents are smarter anyway. That would be a real advantage on any publicity tour, because I am trying to sell an astronomy book, after all. It’s something to think about.

On the other hand, the smartest Englishman I know about doesn’t sound British, he sounds like a Speak and Spell. I don’t think I’ll be imitating his voice. Then everyone would know I’m faking it.

Busy Redux; Academic Emergency

I know, I haven’t exactly been a world-class updater these last couple of weeks. My excuse is the same as it was last week around this time: I’ve been hella busy, and it’s been the good “damn if my writing career isn’t just totally coming around” sort of busy as opposed to the bad “holy crap, no matter how much plasma I sell I still won’t make the mortgage” sort of busy. Since a couple of months ago it appeared as though I might have more of the latter than the former, I feel somewhat justified in attending to that stuff first, and the Whatever secondarily if at all. I’ve always said that one of the main aims of the Whatever is to keep my writing skill sharp for when actual pay copy rolls around, and well, guess what. It’s here. And may I just say: Wheee!

The fact of the matter is that it looks like 2003 is going to busy enough (and what’s more, busy enough because I’m writing books, dance, dance, jig, jig) that I really have to reconsider what I’m doing here. This is not to say that I want to stop writing on the site, since it’s become abundantly clear that is good for me and my writing career, and I’m loathe to desert it. As Molly Ivins is fond of saying, you dance with them what brung you, and recently, what brung me is this site. Also, basically, since I work from home and am hundreds of miles from my most of my friends, this is also, um, much of my social life. I know. I know. Don’t remind me. All I’m missing is the slide rule.

The problem is that writing long-form bits here really is time consuming, so I’ve been considering (as I often have in the — good lord — four plus years I’ve been doing this) writing something more explicitly blog-like. I’ve somewhat stuffily maintained for a very long time that the Whatever isn’t a blog (it was around long before the word gained common currency, for one thing), but these days enough bloggers write long-form think pieces (refer to Den Beste and others) that the distinction between what I do and what some of them do is non-existent, and anyway, writing shorter, punchier and link-ier has some appeal. It’s easier to write a lot of short things than it is to write one long thing and so by necessity I may end up writing shorter (and paradoxically, more).

Of course, knowing me, I won’t do it — Long-time readers will familiar with this pattern of mine where I declare that I’ll be writing less and/or writing shorter and then go off on a multi-week long-form writing spree. Also, of course, the whole point of calling this the “Whatever” is to remind myself it’s not supposed to have any set format, and that I can put up whatever I want, whenever I want. So who knows. I’m just sharing where my mind’s at at the moment. Because, you know, I can.

In any event, if my appearance here is sporadic over the next few months, you’ll know why. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Okay, now I’m done.


The Bradford school district, which is the district in which Athena will attend school, is currently in an academic emergency. Ohio tests each district’s students on 22 separate levels of proficiency (which actually breaks down to tests in 5 or 6 different areas in grades 4, 6, 9, and 10). Bradford’s aggregate student scores marked the district for failure in all but six of these categories; only two other local districts are comparatively more awful, one of them being the school district of Dayton, where the district only got passing scores in 2 out of 22 of the tests. Which is pretty awful. But one doesn’t want one’s child attending a school district whose major claim to fame is that it’s not quite as bad as the district in the nearest big city with a rotting industrial core.

Now, there are some factors here which are not immediately obvious. The first is that these test scores reflect the scores from last year, before the kids in town got schlepped over to the brand spanking new super-high tech school for which the residents in town (your truly included) pay some of the highest local taxes in the state. Having a new school won’t make for an inherently better educational experience any more than buying a new car will suddenly make you a better driver. But one can hope that staff and students will take advantage of the new capabilities of the building.

Another thing is that the school district is so small (about six hundred students total) that the poor performance of even a single student makes a significant statistical difference on one of these tests. One really dumb kid in your 4th graders class can pull down the performance of the whole district by a few percent, and of course, generally speaking and alas, dumb kids usually travel in packs. This is why Dayton’s situation is really quite a bit worse than Bradford’s; six kids that were kicked in the head by their farm horse can somewhat artificially deflate Bradford’s district performance, but to do as poorly as Dayton, you have to be endemically failing to sufficiently educate literally thousands of children. So maybe things are not really all that bad.

But now let’s also factor in some other intangibles. A third significant data point here is that Bradford is defined as a “Group 6” school district in Ohio, which means it’s a “Rural Poor District.” Any fan of current American pedagogy will tell you that you being both “rural” and “poor” are two strikes against you right off; from an educational point of view, the only thing that’s worse than being rural and poor is being inner-city and poor (refer once again to Dayton).

I can attest to both the rural nature of Bradford (longtime readers will recall that my eastern and southern neighbors are, in fact, cornfields) and a quick spin through the town gives ample opportunity to reflect on the “poor” portion of that equation as well (the median family income was $43,500 at the time of the 2000 census, compared to the national average of $50K). “Poor” means many things, but specifically for public education it means a small tax base which (despite the aforementioned high local taxes) means the district needs outside help from the state.

It’s also the sort of place where one does not see a lot of adults walking around with college educations. In a town of 1,859 souls at the 2000 census, precisely 41 of them had a BA or higher. It’s not that people here are stupid, mind you — I’ve met enough of the locals to know better than that (also, Krissy is currently lacking her BA, and she’s one of the smartest humans I’ve ever met. Call her stupid and she’ll both outthink you and kick your ass). But it’s a blue-collar town smack dab in an agricultural economy. It’s a “college optional” sort of place, and the kids who do head off for college from here are doubtful to return. The educational dynamics here are going to be different from those of a community in which a larger percentage of the adult population is college-educated and is reaping the economic benefits of that education.

Whatever the causes and rationalizations, and even factoring in the fact that I’m not one of those people that a school’s purpose is to educate children to take multiple choice state assessment tests, an Academic Emergency is still a no damn good situation for Bradford to be in. Even if one bad test performance can create a real percentage dip for the schools, the fact is one single child won’t actually put the schools in trouble — a lot of the kids have to be not making the grade. That’s a problem.

And it’s my problem, since Athena’s four, and she’ll be heading into Bradford school’s real soon now. On one level, I’m not too terribly worried, since no matter what, Athena has parents who value education and we’ll be compensating for any lack in the schools. But on the other hand, and more fundamentally, I shouldn’t have to be compensating for gaps in her education. Parents need to be active and engaged with their child’s education. But unless Athena’s teachers want to come over and do some of my work for free, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to cover the basics for my kid.

I don’t think the solution is to bail out of the Bradford schools. I don’t want to send her to private school (all of which around here are religious — thank you, no) or attempt to homeschool, which would be successful to the extent that I think we could give her a reasonable academic education, but then there’d be the whole issue of not becoming socially adapted; I’m sorry, but every time I see one of those homeschoolers win a national spelling bee or some such thing, they all look like they’ve been kept in a jar since they were infants — they look queer, in the old, non-sexualized sense of the term. No, we’re going to stay in town. I paid for that school (several thousand dollars, if it, anyway); my daughter is going to use it.

Anyway, if one student can drag down an entire school district’s scores, then it’s reasonable to assume that one set of parents can help to yank them back up. I don’t know if Bradford’s educational staff will ultimately appreciate or hate us, but in the end I’m not particularly interested in their feelings. My daughter will show up to be educated, and by God, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s not an academic emergency. It’s an academic imperative.

Steve Case is Smart

Steve Case is stepping down as Chairman of AOL Time Warner sometime in May, and that pretty much clears the deck at AOLTW of any major executives in the company that came from the AOL side of things. AOL may have swallowed Time Warner, but Time Warner then digested AOL from the inside, eventually bursting forth from the apparently surprised online giant’s chest like the creature from Alien (an analogy that would be even more trenchant if Alien were a TW property instead of being owned by 20th Century Fox).

These days it’s fashionable to bag on AOL and the AOL execs, because the online component of AOL had been nothing but a headache for the merged company and will likely continue to be so for some time to come. I wouldn’t argue the latter part of that, but I think that the business smarts of the AOL execs have been vastly underrated. This is particularly the case with Steve Case, who I submit did exactly what he’s always done, and did it superbly — looked out for the future of America Online.

Not AOL Time Warner, which is a clumsy beast at best. Fundamentally, I don’t know that Steve Case actually cares about AOL Time Warner (note that this and everything which follows is pure speculation; while I was employed by AOL for a couple of years and contracted with them after that, Case and I never bonded, or even spoke to each other in the halls). But he does care about AOL; in the early 90s Case grew the company from a third-place also-ran behind (then) giants Prodigy and Compuserve and helped it survive a direct challenge from Microsoft to become the largest online service in the world.

He did this, in part, by keeping focused the consumer. Case was a guy who spent a few years traveling the country thinking up new pizza toppings for Pizza Hut, after all. He knew from the common man. But more importantly, he did it by being scarily prescient, and when he wasn’t scarily prescient, by knowing a good thing when he saw it and snapping up the technology and the people. The man didn’t have a perfect record, but more often than not he zigged and kept on skiing while everyone else zagged and ran smack into trees.

This is why I believe that at some point Steve Case looked at the insane amounts of capital that were funneling into Internet companies and making his lower-level managers millionaires at the age of 26 and thought to himself, there’s no way this is going to last. There was a reckoning coming, and it would (and did) wipe out the value of companies just like his. So Case went looking for an old-line company that could shelter his baby from the coming storm. He found Time Warner. When they merged, he raved about synergy and combining media forces and whatnot. But really, what else would Case say? It’s not like he could come right out and say “I bought Time Warner so that when the bubble implodes, AOL can sustain itself on Time Warner’s vital juices.” That would defeat the whole purpose. And anyway, that whole synergy thing could have happened, right? Okay, then.

Baldly put, the AOL – Time Warner merger was no sweetheart no matter which side of the deal you came from originally — relative to either individual company’s stock price prior to the merger, the stock is way down. However, allow me to suggest that while a merged AOL Time Warner stock price is currently in the basement instead of the penthouse, the value of a stand-alone AOL stock would probably have zipped right past the basement on its way to the lower reaches of the economic septic tank. Time Warner gave America Online stability while it rode out the bubble pop. Without Time Warner, AOL might have survived the last few years, but it would have been an extremely uncomfortable time, with delistings, massive layoffs and Microsoft licking its chops at the idea of merging with AOL for pennies on the dollar, instead of the only moderately uncomfortable time it turned out to be.

This won’t be of any comfort for the people who came into the deal owning Time Warner stock, and who saw the value of their stock decline primarily (but to be fair, not wholly) because of the trials of AOL and the Internet business model as a whole. But if you came in from the AOL side, the next time you see Steve Case, you should give him a big hug. Your stock is worth a fraction of what it used to be, but because of his savvy, it’s almost certainly a much more generous fraction than it would be otherwise.

Case can step aside as AOLTW chairman because AOL is saved — either it will continue to be integrated into AOL Time Warner, in which case it’s got a corporate structure to keep it alive, or it’ll be spun off intact, in which case it’s on its own in a far better state than it would have been had it tried to weather the Net collapse by itself. Also, of course, if AOL is spun off again, Case would logically be the guy to run it — putting him back where he was when this whole adventure began. Which is to say, in charge, and looking ahead at things other people aren’t seeing.

OMW Followup

It’s been an interesting couple of days here at the Scalzi household, in the wake of the announcement about my book contract with Tor. I’m getting a lot of questions about the deal and what I’m doing from here, so I thought I’d answer a few of the questions that have been posed to me the most frequently yesterday.

1. Are you now rich? You’ve got a two-book deal, after all.

Heh. No. Keep in mind that this contract is for my very first novel, and the follow-up thereafter. We’re starting from the ground floor here, and this is a science fiction novel, so it’s in a genre market. The money I’m getting in advance of publication is good but modest, both in real terms and relative to the advances I get for my non-fiction books. Mr. Nielsen Hayden was forthright with me when he offered the deal, noting that the sum of the advance was not “life-changing.” From a purely economic point of view, this is correct.

However, this is just fine with me, for a number of reasons. First, the money you get as an “advance” is just that: An advance on your royalties, based on sales. You don’t start earning new royalties until you earn out your advance. To give you an example, when I signed the contract for The Rough Guide to Money Online, I was given a fairly hefty advance for the book’s category. On the flip side of that, however, I wouldn’t make any more money on the book until (and if!) the book earned out that entire advance. That was tens of thousands of copies in my particular case.

If your book sells to the point where it starts paying out again, swell — everyone likes making more money. If it doesn’t, then things become interesting because technically you haven’t earned out your advance. As a practical matter, this means little to the author in the short run, since the published never asks for the unearned portion of the book back; it’s part of the risk the publisher takes on in trying to make money off your book. On the other hand, if you develop a reputation for never earning out your advances, that’s no good for your long-term career health.

I’m not especially interested in that scenario; I prefer to look over the long-term picture. A modest advance to me today makes it easier for the book to be profitable, thereby allowing me to publish more books, grow an audience and then (hopefully) become rich on the backend, on royalties based on actual units sold. This is to say I have enough confidence in my writing that I think in time I’ll do well based on my work’s actual performance, not just by what I can wrangle out of a publisher beforehand. If I’m wrong, well, I do have a nice business writing corporate brochures and CD reviews. I’ll survive.

The second reason that I’m fine with it is that I have confidence in the people I’m working with. When it comes to science fiction, Tor is as good as it gets — these people know science fiction and book publishing inside and out, and the quality of their writers lends credence to this fact. Given the choice between my current advance and a contract at Tor, and a slightly larger advance and a contract somewhere else, I’d go with Tor, because I believe the people there can market my work really well, to the benefit of us both (now, if someone came in and offered me, like, a half million dollars, I’d probably take the money and run, baby, run. But let’s stay on the grounded side of realism, here).

So in short: I’m not rich because of my book deal. But I am very happy with what I’m getting out of it, both in terms of money and in terms of the people with whom I have the good fortune to work.

2. Why did you take Old Man’s War off the site? Putting the novel on the site is what brought you fame and glory!

Well, yes. But I did just sell the book to someone, and I’d rather err on the side of caution for right now. If Tor and I decide that it’s in our mutual benefit to put the book back up on the site (and we might; I can think of a couple of scenarios where doing so could create a net positive benefit) then it’ll go back up. In the meantime, however, it’s not as if there’s not scads to read around here, including a whole other science fiction novel, freely downloadable as “shareware.” If you haven’t read it yet, now is a fine time.

3. Will you become a full-time author now?

No. To be clear, being an author (which is to say, being a writer who writes books specifically) is going to take up a rather large proportion of my time in 2003, since I have to:
a) Make revisions to OMW as requested by my Tor overlords;
b) Write novel #2 as specified in my two book deal;
c) Proof the galleys of Rough Guide to the Universe (I’m doing that now);
d) Contribute to the upcoming Uncle John’s book;
e) Send my non-fiction agent a book proposal, and if that is then accepted and bought somewhere, write that book too;
f) Book tours and promotion for whichever books need touring and promotion.

(This is where the ability to write quickly and sleep little comes in handy.)

But for all that, my bread and butter will continue to be my corporate writing and freelance work for magazines and newspapers. Why? Because I have a mortgage, silly! And also because I actually like writing all that stuff — yes, even the corporate material, which I like because it’s an interesting intellectual exercise, it keeps my brain fresh for more creative stuff, and because it pays stupid well. Once I get to the point where I’m getting six-figure advances, then we’ll talk about being a full-time author.

I’ll admit in the best of all possible worlds, I’d like to be a full-time author, alternating fiction and non-fiction books for the next, oh, I don’t know, forty or fifty years. But until then, I’ll keep the other writing in the mix. This includes the writing for which I don’t actually get paid, meaning this Web site, which continues to be unfathomably useful in terms of my career.

4. What’s the second book going to be about?

I can’t tell you because I’m still working out the plot. I will say that it is science fiction, and involves a “diplomatic troubleshooter” who is called in to resolve tricky situations, usually through the use of action sequences and snappy dialogue. Also, it won’t take place in the OMW universe. I may revisit the OMW universe at some point in the future (why not, it’s an interesting place), but at this point I don’t really want to put all my creative eggs into one infinitely-sequelized basket. My current plan is to start sketching out the plot starting yesterday and start writing as soon as practically possible, on the reasoning that I want to give myself as much time as possible to procrastinate.

5. Since you’ve sold OMW, do you think you’ll ever sell Agent to the Stars?

I don’t know. Hell, I wasn’t expecting to sell OMW, so it’d be presumptuous to think someone’s going to swoop down and take Agent too, especially since it’s been out there on the site for going on four years now. It also has the same problem it had when I wrote it, which is that it’s hard to classify in the various SF sub-genres, which makes it hard to sell, both as an author to a publishing company, and then for the publishing company to the rest of the world. OMW at least has the benefit of nominally being military science fiction.

(This is, incidentally, mildly ironic since when I wrote Agent, I wrote a supporting essay in which I mentioned somewhat snarkily that the way to get your SF book published was to write military science fiction, and I guess I just proved my own assertion there. My defense here would be that I wrote some military fiction that I personally would want to read, heavy on the personal relationships and a bit lighter on the techno-geek stuff.)

I don’t think I’ll make much of an effort to sell Agent, in any event. I think it serves a rather useful function right now, as a risk-free introduction to my fiction writing style. People can come here, read the novel and then if they like it, can go hunting for my traditionally published books. If someone were to offer to publish it, I probably wouldn’t say no, but I’d also want to keep it up here. I would imagine that might put a damper on any potential sales. But you never know.

I am still open to different publishing avenues in a general sense. For example, I’ve been giving serious thought to collecting up selected Whatever columns over the last four years and presenting them as a book. My non-fiction agent tells me such collections are deadly in book stores; if you’re not Dave Barry, you’re not selling a book of columns, and I’m definitely not Dave Barry. So what I’ll probably do is set them up as a “Publish on Demand” thing and sell it through Amazon or some such. Because why not? Clearly I’m the last person who should suggest personal publishing doesn’t lead to anything good.

6. Think you’ll ever write a novel in a genre besides science fiction?

Dunno. I have a couple of ideas outside SF, but to be honest, I read science fiction more than I read any other genre because science fiction interests me more than other genres, and I don’t see a whole lot of a point in writing a book in a genre I don’t actually like. I realize this may lose me a few readers who choose not to lower themselves into the genre gutter with the rest of us geeks, but, you know, screw ’em. I’ll do what makes me happy, and what makes me happy (right now, at least) is science fiction.

Change in Plans

So, there’s been a slight change of plans. As you may remember (surely 2002 isn’t too hazy yet), I serialized my most recent science fiction novel, Old Man’s War, here in December, and this month I was going to put it up as shareware, a la Agent to the Stars. Well, I won’t be doing that. The reason for this is that, well, I kind of sold it. Instead of being available as shareware, Old Man’s War will be available either later this year or early next year in a hardcover edition from Tor Books, publishers of (among others) Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Steven Brust and Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, really, Teddy Roosevelt. It’s a reissue, I think, not one of those L. Ron Hubbard-eqsue “dictating from beyond the grave” situations.

Am I happy? What a silly question. I’m just glad this is a text medium, so you can’t see the footprints on my desk from where I was dancing on it (yes, I could make a little videocam movie. But, no). And it’s actually a two book deal, so I get to write at least one more novel and have someone pay me for it. As they say, it beats a sharp poke in the eye. Or in the groin. Or just about anywhere else, for that matter. Sharp poking: Bad. Two book deal: Good.

I’m also pleased to say that the book deal comes as a direct result of having the book up here on the Web site; the editor who made the offer (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who in addition to being the Senior Editor of Tor is the author of the Electrolite blog) did so after reading chapters on the site and then downloading the complete book (and by doing so, Mr. Nielsen Hayden’s ranking on my list of People Who Can Ask For a Kidney and Not Be Dismissed Out of Hand has shot up rather dramatically over the last few days. And I can assure you, it’s a very short list).

I’m not 100% positive on this, so please don’t hit me if I’m wrong. But I’m pretty sure it’s the first time that an SF novel that’s been published on a personal Web site has been picked up by a major publisher for traditional publication. It’s not the first book that’s been derived from a personal Web site, of course — James Lileks, for one, turned part of his site into a successful non-fiction book (and has another one coming), and Pamela Ribon’s upcoming novel is in part mined from her Web site entries. But it might be the first time for a novel that was presented in more or less completed form to make the jump. If this is the case, then as you may imagine I’m rather pleased about it. One always likes to be the first at something, or at least near the top of that list. If it’s not, of course, I’m still pleased for me.

(Addendum: MJ Rose reminds me that she did it first, with her erotic-tinged novel “Lip Service.” In 1998, even. But it wasn’t science fiction, so I can still cling to being the first in that genre until someone inevitably comes to knock me off that perch. Come and get me!)

It’s also a confirmation of something I wrote just prior to serializing the novel on the site. I wrote:

There’s also another reason I’m putting it online, which is simply that I’d like to advance the possibility that something like this — self-published and online — doesn’t necessarily have to be automatically shoved into the “loser” box. Over the last year, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to and reviewing independent music through my IndieCrit site, and speaking out of a decade and a half of critical experience, much of this independently-released (and indeed largely “self-published”) music is as good or better than the music that is being shot out of the major music labels. Why shouldn’t independently-released novels have the same chance of reasonable quality? Someone’s got to start making the case for it, and why not me.

And indeed, the fact this sale was possible at all is yet another example of the maturation of the online medium. Many folks still see the online medium as the medium for people who can’t or won’t get published any other way, but that hasn’t been the case for a while now. Over the last year in particular several of the more prominent bloggers have seen their online bylines become useful in transferring their writing into the mainstream media; by the same token a number of old-line writers and journalists used the “blog” format to ratchet up their reputations (my high school classmate Josh Marshall being a fine example of that).

For talented and committed writers, writing on one’s own site is a true alternative medium which can be used for one’s overall gain, and not simply as a catchall for otherwise unusable or unpublishable material. People who write well, and write online, no longer need to feel at an inherent disadvantage to those who write well, and write in a traditional medium (bad writers, alas for them, are still stuck).

Now, before someone gets it into their head that my publishing my novel online was some sort of controlled, Machiavellian plan to forgo the SF publishing slush pile, and that Mr. Nielsen Hayden fell right into my trap, bwa hah hah hah, I’d like to be clear: I’m not nearly that organized, and I don’t know that this sort of thing is easily reproducible. Old Man’s War is a good book, but there are lots of good books out there waiting to be looked at, and typically speaking, your book has a much better chance of getting bought if you actually set it in front of an editor rather than waiting for an editor to come on by.

So in short: Boy, did I ever get lucky. I really cannot emphasize that enough, and to drive this point home, I’ll note that Agent has been online for going on four years and hasn’t had so much as a nibble, traditional publishing-wise. I don’t want to suggest we all ditch the traditional methods of getting work published. They’re traditional because they tend to work (also, if people start hounding Mr. Nielsen Hayden or any other SF editor to swing by their Web site and look at their novel, I don’t want it said it’s because I said that’s what they should do. Please, be nice to the editors. Give them love. And jewelry).

What I am saying is clearly we’ve gotten to the point where it’s no longer the smart thing to automatically dismiss writing online — even an online novel — as “not good enough.” Sometimes, it is good enough. It’s just that simple. I’m happy to be one of the guys who gets to be the case in point for that.

The Child on the Train

About a week after Krissy completed the first trimester of her pregnancy, she went in to the doctor to have a routine checkup for herself and her baby. While she was being examined, the doctor had difficulty finding the baby’s heartbeat. This in itself was not unusual — at just over three months, a fetus is still a small thing. The sound of its nascent heartbeat is easy to lose in the other sounds of the body. But by the next day, Krissy had begun to spot and bleed, and shortly thereafter she miscarried. As with nearly a quarter of all pregnancies, the processes that form and shape a life had stopped at a certain point well short of completion, and for whatever reason this child would not be born. It was a death in the family.

By and large, we kept the matter to ourselves, telling the people who needed to know — family and close friends — but otherwise saying nothing. I had written about Krissy’s pregnancy on my Web site, as I had written about Krissy’s first pregnancy — and why not, since a pregnancy (at least in the context of a happily married and financially secure couple) is a happy thing. For a writer, there’s a lot of material to discuss, so long as it’s done in a tasteful manner that doesn’t have one’s pregnant wife planning to beat one in the head with a pan. But a miscarriage is obviously something different. There’s no way to write on one’s Web site, in a breezy and conversational style, that a pregnancy has ceased.

Even if there were, the event was too close and too personal to share in that way. Celebration should be public, by definition, but grief is a fragile thing. Grief is a small, difficult and necessary visitor that dwells in your home for some little time, and then has to be gently encouraged to depart. Crowds make it nervous and inclined to stay put. We didn’t want that. We figured anyone who learned of it later would understand. We held our grief close and then after enough time, bid it farewell and set it on its way.

And it is gone; its time in our house was brief. Our friends, our family, and most of all our daughter helped see to that. One cannot stand in the face of such fortunate circumstances as we have and wish to cling to grief. There is too much that is good in our lives together to stay sad for long. So we didn’t.

Were you to express your condolences to us today, we would of course thank you for them — we know they’re sincere and we know they’re meant from the heart. But we would hope you would also understand when we said “thank you” and then chatted with you about something else entirely, it’s not because we are pained about revisiting the grief. It’s that the grief is like a shirt that is six sizes too small. It fit once, but it doesn’t fit now, and trying to get it back over our heads would be an exercise in futility.

I mention the miscarriage now primarily because this is around the time that Krissy would have been due, and various correspondents have been asking about it. When I write back that Krissy has miscarried, they’re all deeply apologetic for bringing up what they (not unreasonably) assume is a painful topic. And of course, it’s not their fault at all, since I mentioned the pregnancy but not the miscarriage. I really don’t want anyone else to feel horrifyingly embarrassed because of my decision not to discuss certain information.

I also want to avoid scenes like that one I had in October, in which I was standing around with a circle of casual acquaintances. One of them was discoursing about the danger of asking other casual acquaintances about their personal lives, since there’s always something horrible that’s happened — and no sooner did this acquaintance finish saying this than she asked me how Krissy’s pregnancy was coming along. Rarely has someone posited a statement and proved it with such brutal efficiency. I felt bad that my omission put her in such a situation. So now it’s out there.

I should mention that the fact that we’ve left behind the grief of the miscarry does not mean the event is forgotten; or perhaps it’s better to say that the child we lost is not now nor ever will be forgotten by us. It is, as I’ve said, a death in the family, and while the small absence it created is small indeed, it is yet still an absence. It doesn’t go away, and even though we see it without grief, we recognize it exists. It would be wrong to pretend it does not.

If I could describe to you what a miscarry feels like from an emotional point of view, I would ask you to imagine a dream in which you are standing on a train station platform. While you are waiting, you look through the dirty windows of the train car in front of you and see a small child looking back at you. The child’s face is indistinct because of condition of the windows, but what you can see looks achingly familiar. For a moment, the child is separated from you by only that single, dirty pane of glass. Then the train starts to move, and the child starts to move with it.

And you realize that the reason you’re on the platform at all is because you’re waiting for your own child to arrive, a child you have yet to meet. And you realize that you could have claimed that child as your own. And you know that whatever child eventually comes to you, you will love that child like the sun loves the sky, like the water loves the river, and the branch loves the tree. The child will be the greater whole in which you dwell.

But it will never be that child, the one you could only glimpse, the one who went away from you. All you can do is remember, and hope with everything in your heart that the child who went away from you finds another who will love it as the sun loves the sky, the water loves the river, and the branch loves the tree. You pray and you hope and you never forget. That’s what you do. That’s what I do.

Four Years Old

Athena woke up today to her mother and father thrusting a birthday cake at her and singing “Happy Birthday.” This confused her since she didn’t know that it was her birthday — we don’t tell her until it happens, partly because it’s fun to be surprised, and partly because this way it’s easier to manage expectations. She already knows Christmas is coming up; contemplating Christmas and her birthday together would be enough to cause her little head to pop. In a few years, of course, she’ll probably learn to dislike it because of the whole “one gift for Christmas and birthday” thing people will pull, but hopefully between now and then we’ll have a chance to impress upon her the idea that it’s not the gifts that count. In the meantime, however, we got her this really cool talking globe.

It will not come as news that I adore my child. Indeed, this is the position that one is assumed to have, and I’m quite happy to conform to expectations. Athena is exactly the child I would have wished I would have had: Smart, strong, stubborn beyond belief, and curious in all the sense that the word can be applied to a child. She’s also heartbreakingly beautiful, loving and happy (except when she not. And then she’s very not. But usually this passes quickly). She’s not a perfect child, just perfect for me. The idea that I get to help this quirky little human get a running start at the world fills me with a sense enduring and constant joy.

The bitterest of childless folks that marinate in various “childfree” groups online seem to think that feeling of joy is akin to getting a lobotomy, and as much as I’m inclined to dismiss that as the feculent bleating of the terminally selfish, I will grant that they’re on to something, even if once they’re on it they wallow in it. What they’re onto is the fact that parents fetishize their children, which annoys everyone else (even the folks who don’t endemically hate children for dark, squirrelly reasons of their own) and is really no good for the kids either.

But I think all this fetishism is something different from the joy I’m talking about. And honestly, I don’t know what’s at its root, since I don’t much understand it myself. I’m not likely to become one of those parents who schedules their kid’s life from 5:30 in the morning until 8:00 at night and who then whines, in a petulantly prideful way, about how much time and energy they have to devote to their children’s well-being. I’m certainly not going to be one of those parents who tries to block out anything in a culture that’s not child-safe, if for no other reason than that most of the things that these type of parents see as a threat are things I see as an opportunity to teach my daughter how to mock. It’s already working; when the commercials come on the TV, she typically turns to me and says “Would you mute these, please, daddy? These commercials are evil.” She’s well on her way.

A good friend of mine who is also a parent recently commented that as much as she loves and adores her child, there’s a part of her that misses the freedom she had before, including the ability to actually have a thought process that goes for more than 20 seconds before it’s interrupted by a little human asking for a juice box. And it’s true enough that parenting fundamentally means giving up part of yourself into the service of someone else, who is at first too young, and in the teenage years typically too self-oriented, to conceive of the idea that you also belong a world with which they do not intersect. Everyone remembers the disorientation we felt when we first realized our parents had more going on their lives that we had ever suspected. Now we’re on the other side of the equation.

I’m pretty confident my friend will figure out the right balance in time; she’s smart and if nothing else, in time the kids go to school, and you have several hours in a day in which you can link thoughts together without interruption. For me, it’s always been that what I’ve gained from being a parent has outweighed what I’ve had to put aside. This is partly due to my own personal inclinations — I’m not now nor have ever been one of the 24-hour party people, for whom the introduction of a small person would mean schedule crimpage, and the things I do enjoy are easy enough to juggle along with family. But I also simply suspect I’m one of those people who is reasonably well-designed for parenthood. At the very least, I can be pedantic, which suits having a kid. In the short term, at least, my kid enjoys hearing me rattle on about stuff.

I’m looking forward to the next few years. I was pleasantly surprised by Athena’s early childhood — I thought my assumed particular skills as a parent would be wasted on the infant and toddler years. I learned that they weren’t, and that the skills I thought I had were different from the skills I actually do have. And I do know that I already miss Athena as a baby.

But now Athena’s asking questions about the world — really good questions — and she’s at the point where she’s able to understand answers. And she asks a lot of questions. And boy, am I ready. Finally, all those years of learning pointless information are going to pay off, since it’s no longer pointless. It serves to expand my daughter’s knowledge of the world, and she’s loving the fact that her world is expanding. It’s fun.

I can’t wait to see what the next year brings for Athena and to us as her parents. We are blessed and lucky. And hopefully we can make our daughter feel the same way. We’ll try. It’s what you want as a parent: The hope, the effort and the enduring joy.

Happy birthday, Athena. I love you.

Al, Trent, Andrew

Some folks have written in asking what I think of various events that have transpired in the last week, so I thought I’d briefly comment on three of them.

First: Al Gore. I’m not entirely surprised that Gore has decided not to seek re-election (heh heh) in 2004, since if he did run he’d lose. He’d not only lose because Bush is legitimately popular in his own right now — although he is, and Gore would lose on that datum alone — but because Democrats now approach Gore like a stinky old-fashioned herbal medicine that you take because it’s supposed to be good for you, even though you suspect it doesn’t do anything useful at all.

Make no mistake, Gore would win the 2004 Democratic nomination, on the backs of hardcore Democrats who would pull the lever for him for the same reason legions of Star Wars geeks trudge joylessly to George Lucas’ latest betrayal of their trust: Because that’s what expected of them, and because if they didn’t, they’d be admitting that former investment of time and energy was a complete waste. Meanwhile, the rest of pool of the potential Democratic voters, who are not glumly enthralled by Democratic Jedi mind tricks, will get a look at Gore’s reheated visage and say: Screw this, let’s go catch The Matrix. Gore’s a loser, baby.

Anyway, Gore’s better off where he is. Right now there’s still a sizable chunk of people who feel vaguely that the man got screwed out of a job; better to ride that wave of disassociated pity to a posh sinecure on the lecture circuit and a kingmaker perch in Democratic politics, than lose unambiguously and stink up the room like the second coming of Mike Dukakis. And God forbid that he should run again and it comes down to Florida once more.

Second: Trent Lott. The Washington Post yesterday offered the tantalizing suggestion that Lott might resign from the Senate if he were pushed out of the Majority Leader post, a sort of “mutually assured destruction” thing since the Mississippi governor is a Democrat and would almost certainly appoint a someone of his own party to the Senate. Then all it takes is one reasonably liberal Northern Republican Senator to defect and it’s another two years of the Democrats sticking a knife into the Republican agenda and yanking vigorously back and forth. Lott’s people deny he would do any such thing, of course, but God. Who wants to cross that line to find out for sure?

I feel vaguely sorry for Lott, the same way I feel sorry for someone who followed the “greed is good” mantra all the way to an 18-month insider trading stint at a minimum security prison: It’s not that the person isn’t getting what they deserve, but you pity them that in their heart they don’t understand what it is they done that’s so damn wrong. Lott has apologized his brains out, and he’s under the impression that sooner or later all that apologizing is going to take — Americans are famously forgiving, after all.

But the thing about that is people prefer to have the impression that when one’s apologizing, that one is actually sorry about the thing they’ve said or done. Lott distinctly gives the impression that he’s apologizing because he knows that’s what’s required of him so he can get back to more important things, like ramming conservative judges through confirmation hearings. And of course it doesn’t help that every time he apologizes, another news story surfaces of him opposing segregation in college, or palling around with white supremacists, or suggesting the coalitions of people who’d like to box black folks up like veal “have the right ideas” about state’s rights and what not, wink, wink, nod nod. That kind of cuts the legs out of his whole “Racism is a bad thing” line.

Do I think Lott is a racist? Well, at the very least, I do suspect that Lott thinks of black people the way that conservative Republicans my age and slightly older think of gays and lesbians — that whole “why, this person seems agreeable enough, and look, I’m not even thinking about the fact he’s gay at all” sort of thing. The folks in this situation deal with gays by concentrating on the trivial matters at hand in front of them and desperately not thinking of that gay person in any other context — say, at home with their partners, slicing tomatoes for a salad or watching HBO or talking on the phone or having red-hot oral sex on the stairwell. Replace “gay” with black” and you get an idea of where Lott is coming from. It’s sort of like being told not to think about a white elephant, and so of course that’s exactly what you do. “White Elephant,” of course, being oddly appropriate here.

Do I think Lott should step down? Well, of course I do, but I’d want him to step down no matter what; as a general rule I’m against antediluvian helmet-heads laying out a legislative agenda that is inimical to any number of my deeply-held beliefs. This is just icing on the cake. But on the other hand, if he steps down (and doesn’t resign the Senate in a huff), he’ll just be replaced with another GOPer who does not have as many political liabilities. So as with many people who are not GOPers, I’m perfectly happy for him to stay where he is. He’s going to be a fine poster boy to motivate people in 2004, both within the GOP to root out people like him, and outside the GOP to punt the GOP back into minority status.

The good news is that one way or another Lott’s gaffe is costing him and the GOP. The question is the ultimate cost and when it’s paid up. I’m just as happy to have it later as sooner.

Third: Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan held a pledge week for his blog last week, saying in essence that if a certain small percentage (1% or so) of his readership didn’t kick in $20 a year, he’d roll up his blog and go back to writing articles for people who actually paid him money. Apparently the threat worked, since Sullivan is going to announce later this week that he’s cleared enough in contributions to keep his blog going.

A number of anti-Sullivan types have gotten themselves into a tizzy about this, but I’m really hard-pressed to see why. Like Sullivan, I’m a professional writer; I get paid to write. Therefore I can’t see what possible reason one should have against a writer getting paid. Sullivan’s had the benefit of seeing how other various revenue models have worked online, and he’s trying one that allows maximum choice for the readers and doesn’t require every single reader to consider paying.

So if people want to voluntarily pay Sullivan money, why should anyone else care? His not-so-subtle threat that he’d pull the plug might have seemed unseemly to some, but if the man doesn’t get paid for his writing, he doesn’t eat. If he can get some portion his audience to support the blog he enjoys writing and they enjoy reading, more power to him.

Having said that, I don’t think the average Joe Blogger should start thinking that Andrew Sullivan’s success extracting cash from readers is going to translate to a blogoverse-wide rain of money. Very few bloggers have Sullivan’s audience, and even he is smart enough to realize that he’s lucky if he gets 1% of his audience to chip in. 1% of most bloggers’ audience comes to a few dozen people, and most people aren’t going to be able to suggest a recommended contribution of $20 like Sullivan has. There’s also the matter of content — i.e., whether people have content that’s worth supporting with cash. No offense, but most don’t.

Outside of Sullivan, I suspect no more than two or three bloggers could actually extract a serious amount of cash from their readers through a “pledge week,” and those bloggers are the usual suspects of Glenn Reynolds, James Lileks, and possibly Josh Marshall (all three of which have contribution buttons but have not tried pledge weeks). Everyone else would get diddly, and yes, I include myself in that assessment. Right now, as it happens, I’m getting a nice flow of cash in from people buying the downloadable version of my current novel, but given the asking price ($1.50) and the numbers of my daily audience, well, let’s just say I’m not giving up my day job. Which is fine, since I like my day job.

(Speaking of which, the final bit of the Rough Guide to the Universe text is in to the publishers — I’m done, I’m done, hallelujah, I’m done. Now all I have to do is wait for the publication and the book tour. In the meantime, I have another “Uncle John” book to contribute to, and at least one other book project brewing for the year. It’s not a bad life.)


One of the nice things about writing something mildly controversial, such as the Big Bang and Creationism or Confederate idiocy, is that it brings in a number of new readers, many of whom are not familiar with my rhetorical style and are therefore shocked about how mean and unfair I am to whatever position it is that they have that I don’t. So let’s talk about being “fair” for a moment.

Basically, for the purposes of the Whatever, I’m wholly uninterested in it. Complainants about my unfairness have suggested that as a journalist (or having been one in the past), I should know something about being fair and objective. Well, I admit to having been a journalist now and again, although when I worked at the newspaper I was primarily a film critic and a columnist, jobs which were all about being subjective. So I wouldn’t go entirely out of my way to trumpet my own rich personal history of journalistic endeavors. I can do traditional journalism, and when I do it, I do a very good job of it. But it’s never been my main thing; opinion is what what I got paid for in my time as a journalist.

This space is not about journalism; never has been, never will be. It’s about whatever’s on my brain at the moment (hence the name), and it makes no pretense of being anything else. This gets written in the interstitial time between paid writing assignments; it’s meant to be a venting mechanism and a practical way to keep writing in a certain style — the writer’s equivalent of doing scales — so that when I do this sort of thing on a paid basis (it does happen), I’m ready to go.

But ultimately it’s all about me: I pick the topics, I comment on the topics, and the basis for the comments is whatever I’m thinking about the subject. I. Me. Mine. It’s all me, baby. What’s going on in my head is inherently unfair because it comes from my own, singular point of view; I don’t try to consider every point of view on a subject when I write about something here: I don’t have the time, for one thing, and for another thing I don’t have an inclination.

If you have your own opinion, don’t expect me to air it for you, unless you understand that typically when I present other people’s points of view here it’s to point out why they are so very wrong wrong wrong. Expecting me or anyone to validate your point of view out of the goodness of our hearts seems a dangerously passive thing to do. You have a functioning brain and an Internet connection; get your own damn Web page. Don’t worry, I won’t expect you to be “fair,” either.

But I doubt that many of the people who want me to be “fair” are actually asking for actual fairness, anyway. What they want is some sort of murmured polite dissent to whatever beef-witted thing they want to promulgate, something that implicitly suggests that their ideas have legitimacy and should be discussed reasonably among reasonable people.

To which my response is: Well, no. Your opinion that whatever it is you want to foist on the world is reasonable does not mean that I have to agree, or treat it with the “fairness” you think it deserves. Rest assured that I am “fair” to the extent that I give every idea I encounter the respect I think it rates.

To take the two most recent examples of this, by and large Creationism (from a scientific point of view) is complete crap; therefore I am rightfully critical of attempts to teach it (or its weak sister “intelligent design”) in science classes. Likewise, denying that the Confederate flags represent evil is pure twaddle and I’m not required to treat the idea that they don’t with anything approaching seriousness. You may not like this position, but ask me if I care. If you want me to treat your ideas with more respect, get some better ideas.

(Somewhat related to this, I’ve noticed that most of the people bitching about “fairness” to me tend to be conservative in one way or another. This makes sense as the topics I’ve been writing about recently fall into the conservative camp. However, inasmuch as conservatives have written the manual on how to demonize those who hold unconforming views — please refer to Newt Gingrich on this — this position strikes me as awfully rich. Not every single conservative person can be held responsible for the rhetorical attack-dog manner of many public conservatives, of course. But on the other hand, I’m not particularly moved by complaints of my mild version here. It’s like someone from a family of public gluttons castigating someone else for going back to the buffet for a second helping.)

I’m likewise not responsible for your reading comprehension of what I’ve written. I do of course try to be coherent — it’s a good thing for a writer to attempt — but what I write and what you think I wrote can be two entirely separate things. More than one person saw what I wrote about Creationists the other day as a general broadside on Christians and Christianity. However, had I wanted to do broadside swack at Christians in general, I would have written “Christians” rather than “Creationists” — the two words not being synonymous, after all.

Another good example of this is when I mention a particular stance is likely caused by ignorance. Well, no one likes to be called “ignorant,” since the common opinion is that people who are ignorant are also typically dumber than rocks. However, ignorance does not imply stupidity; it merely implies lack of knowledge. Ignorance is correctable; stupidity, unfortunately, is typically irreversible. The good news is that rather more people are ignorant than stupid, which means there’s hope. So if you’re ignorant, congratulations! You can work on that.

I’m happy to clear up any misunderstandings or offer any clarifications if you have questions; send along an e-mail, I’ll respond if I can. But generally, in terms of my writing here, I tend to be a strict constitutionalist — what I mean to say is usually in the text itself.

I recognize that a lot of people will consider my utter lack of concern regarding “fairness” here as proof that I’m unreasonable or disinterested in hearing other points of view, but again, that’s another assumption over which I have no control. Likewise people may assume that I’m exactly like I write here, which is also not entirely accurate; what’s here is just one aspect of my total personality, not the complete picture. It does no good to assume that people are only what they write, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it if you think that about me. I can accept a certain amount of unfairness. Life, after all, is famous for not being fair.

Big Bang Belief

Astronomy magazine, to which I subscribe, asks on this month’s cover: Do you believe in the BIG BANG? 5 reasons you should. I was initially a little confused by the cover, in that with the exception of a couple of unregenerate Hoyle-loving solid-statists out there, probably the entire of the magazine’s 185,000-member subscriber base has probably already signed off on the whole Big Bang thing; it’d be like Parenting magazine having a cover story that asked if its readers believed in pregnancy.

But of course, the article is not for Astronomy’s regular readers, per se. It has a two-fold aim. The first is to lure whatever Creationists might be lurking near the magazine rack into opening up the magazine and getting a point of view on the genesis of the universe without the Genesis interpretation. I think this is sort of sweet, since I don’t really think most Creationists really want to challenge their beliefs; after all, Jesus didn’t tell them to question, merely to believe. But you can’t blame the Astronomy editors for making the effort.

The second aim is to give non-Creationist parents some reasonable ammunition at the next school board meeting, when some Bible-brandishing yahoo demands the science curriculum be changed to give equal footing to whatever damn fool brew of mysticism and junk science they’ve cobbled together this year to make an end-run around the separation of church and state, and someone rational needs to step in and point out what evidence exists to suggest the Big Bang actually happened.

In that case, the object is not to convince a Creationist of the veracity of the Big Bang; any Creationist who shows up at a school board meeting is already a lost cause in terms of rationality. The idea is to appeal to the school board members that the Big Bang is not interchangeable with the idea that God whipped up the universe in seven days or that the universe was vomited up by a celestial cane toad that ate a bad fly or whatever other pleasant, simple teleological shortcut one might choose to believe.

In this case, I again I appreciate Astronomy’s intent; it’s nice to know they believe a school board might be amenable to reason. Personally, however, I would skip the middleman preliminaries, which is what such an appeal to reason would be. I’d go straight to the endgame, which would be to inform the school board that if it went ahead and confused science and theology, I’d be more than pleased to drag in the ACLU and make it take all the tax money it was planning to use on football uniforms and use it to pay lawyers instead. I’m not at all confident of a school board’s ability to follow science, but I’m pretty sure most of its members can count money. And here in Ohio, at least, they sure do love their football.

Astronomy notes that based on an NSF survey, less than a third of Americans believe in the Big Bang. Part of the problem comes from most people simply not paying attention in science class — evidenced by the fact that only 70% of Americans believe in the Copernican theory, which posits that the Earth is in orbit around the Sun, and you’d have to be fairly ignorant and/or inattentive not to believe that. Another part of the problem comes from the idea that the Big Bang might somehow conflict with religious beliefs — that the end result of accepting the Big Bang as a theory is an eternity of Satan cramming M-80s behind your eyeballs and cackling, “You want a Big Bang? I’ll give you a Big Bang,” before lighting the fuse with his own pinky finger. But a large part of it also has to do with language itself, and how it’s used to confuse.

For example, the word “theory.” Commonly speaking, “theory” equates to “whatever ridiculous idea that has popped into my head at this very moment” — so people have theories about UFOs, alligators in the sewers, the Kennedy Assassination, the healing power of magnets and so on. The somewhat debased nature of the word “theory” is what allows Creationists and others to say “it’s just a theory,” about evolution or the Big Bang or whatever bit of science is inconvenient to them at the moment, implicitly suggesting that as such, it should be paid little regard.

However (and Astronomy magazine has a nice sidebar on this), the word “theory” means something different to scientists than it does to the average Joe. In the world of science, the initial crazy idea that you or I would call a theory is a “hypothesis”; it’s not until you can provide strong, verifiable evidence that the universe actually conforms to your hypothesis that you’re allowed to say it’s an actual theory. So to recap: Crazy idea = hypothesis; crazy idea + independently verifiable facts to back it up = theory.

The Big Bang is a theory not because it’s just this zany idea a bunch of astronomers thought up one night while they were smoking dope in the observation dome; it’s a theory because of a preponderance of evidence out there in the universe suggests this is how the universe was created — to the near exclusion of other hypotheses. It’s a theory to the same extent that gravity is a theory, and be warned that if you don’t believe in gravity, you’ll probably fall right on your ass.

“Believe,” incidentally, is another problem word, since its common usage is synonymous with “I have faith,” and faith, by its nature, is not particularly evidentiary. Someone who says “I believe in Jesus,” is declaring faith in Christ, whose nature is ineffable. One wouldn’t say that one has faith in the Big Bang — and rightly so.

Fundamentally, one doesn’t “believe” or have faith in much of anything as it regards science, since as a process science isn’t about believing at all. It’s about testing and verifying, discarding what doesn’t work, and refining what does work to make it better describe the nature of reality. For a scientist, a belief functions at the level of a hypothesis, which is to say, it’s an idea that requires testing to determine whether it accurately models reality.

Even at their current stage of understanding about it, it’s probably not accurate to say that scientists “believe” in the Big Bang theory, to the extent that there are still holes in the theoretical model that need to be plugged and scientists working to plug them (Astronomy magazine points out these holes, as it should, since doing so doesn’t expose the weakness of the Big Bang theory, but the strength of the scientific process). If it turns out that the Big Bang theory is ultimately incompatible with the data, it’ll have to be thrown out and something more accurate created to replace it.

Asking whether one “believes” in the Big Bang doesn’t really answer any questions — it merely suggests that the Big Bang is itself part of a faith-based system, equivalent to a belief in Christ or Allah or Buddha or whomever. This is another piece of semantic ammunition that Creationists and others like to use: That science is just another system of “belief,” just another species of religion. Not only is science not just another species of faith, it’s not even in the same phylum. Faith is a conclusion. Science is a process. This is why, incidentally, the two are not ultimately inherently incompatible, just as driving somewhere is not inherently incompatible with having a fixed home address.

If I were putting together a poll on the Big Bang, I wouldn’t ask people if they believed in it. I would ask them, based on the evidence, what model of universal creation best described its current state. I’d make sure I left space for the “I have no idea” option. I believe — and this is just hypothesis, not a theory — that the data from that question would be informative.

Flags and the Confederacy (Again)

I’m still getting a lot of mail from Confederate partisans over my recent posts on how the Confederacy was evil, and so are its flags. Most of these apologists are spieling out lines suggesting that, yes, yes, fine, the Confederacy did institutionalize slavery. But today its flags mean entirely different things, like pride and heritage and (inevitably) states rights over federal rights. Why can’t we (meaning, presumably, the folk not in the states of the former Confederacy and the descendants of the people the Confederacy explicitly enslaved) just get over it? My God, haven’t the decent white folk of the South suffered enough? They lost their country, after all.

Well, let me make a counter-suggestion, which is that I’ll start trying to forget that the Confederate flag is fundamentally evil, if the Confederacy-pushers will acknowledge that the Confederacy was in fact, a big fat loser, and therefore any of its symbols are less than fertile ground for positive associations.

Loooooooooooser. And it isn’t just a loser in war. Although it is that, let’s not forget — and it lost that war big. Sure, they kept it close in the first half, but after that it was a blowout. The North had a deeper bench. Even a post-game late hit on the North’s general manager (while he was in his luxury suite, for God’s sake!) couldn’t change that fact. But even tossing aside the war, the Confederacy is a loser in so many other ways it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s begin anyway, shall we?

States’ rights: Loser. The Confederacy so bungled the states’ rights issue that it ended up establishing the primacy of the federal government over states, and additionally ensured that no other state could ever secede from the Union again. Oh, and then the former Confederate states were subjected to a rather unfortunate period of time (it’s called the Reconstruction) where they had about as many state’s rights as the District of Columbia. So, in all, not a particularly shining example for states’ rights.

This where Confederate partisans grumble that yeah, but technically the Confederacy was right on the constitutionality of secession. Well, kids, two things: One, nuh uh. Clearly that was a matter open to interpretation, which is why you had to fight a war about it (which — did I mention? — you lost). Two, even if the Confederacy were technically right on secession, this is a really stupid argument anyway. What, like the United States is just going to go, “Gee, okay, what we’d really like is to have a hostile neighbor to the south of us, competing with us for land on this here North American continent?” I mean, Christ, people. Get a grip.

Clearly we think the Colonists were in the right when they drafted up the Declaration of Independence and suggested that we and Britain had to go our own ways. But they still had to fight a war regarding the matter — and win it. I don’t recall the Colonists being shocked, shocked when Britain didn’t exactly roll over and cheerfully lose a few thousand miles of North American coastline. They knew what they were getting into. So it’s a little silly to suggest that the Confederates, either then or now, should feel otherwise. It’s just whining.

When it comes to things like land and constitutions, being right is half the battle; the other half of the battle is the actual battle you have to fight to enforce your claim. The Confederacy lost that part, which is just as well, because they were way off base with that whole secession thing to begin with. Bad premises, bad results.

Heritage: Loser. Let’s be honest here. There is almost no truly Confederate heritage, if only because the Confederacy in itself didn’t last long enough to generate any while it was an ongoing concern, and while it was around, it was too busy trying to survive to do much of anything else. There is of course a rich heritage of Confederania now, but it exists entirely as the fly-blown leavings from the Confederate corpse, rather than the fruits of a living tree, and that’s not entirely the same thing.

Confederate partisans try to backdate Confederate heritage to before the Confederate era, but I don’t think that is something we should cede to them. There is indeed an antebellum Southern culture, but the participants of that culture did not equate their culture with the political entity known as the Confederacy, since that entity didn’t exist. If they didn’t I don’t see why the rest of us should make that equation, either.

Part of the whitewash campaign of the Confederate partisans is to try to sell the idea that Confederate symbols somehow encompass the entire history of the South, and they don’t, neither prior to the Confederacy nor after. Let’s remember that Confederate and Southern are not synonyms. Southern heritage is a fine thing; Confederate heritage is not. Using the symbols of the latter to represent the former is presumptuous.

Pride: Loser. Proud of what? Of the fact the Confederacy precipitated a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of men on both sides of the battle? Which — let’s never forget — it lost? Of constitutionally enslaving black people? Of being the cause of the devastation and occupation of the Southern states by Union troops and carpetbaggers?

Oh, yes, Confederate friends, that last one was your fault. We know all about that whole “War of Northern Aggression” line you’ve got going down there, as if you were just sitting there minding your own business when all of a sudden Sherman popped up and started, like, burning things. However, allow me to suggest that from the point of view of the United States, trying to make off with half the country, as you did, seemed like a fairly aggressive maneuver at the time. I’ll be happy to know if you disagree, since then you won’t mind if I come over and take over half of your house, preferably the half with the hot tub.

Individual Southerners feel pride in ancestors who went out and fought (and sometimes died) for the Confederate side of the war, which as I’ve mentioned before is just fine. But I don’t see how one can ignore the fact that all those Johnny Rebs would have been safe as houses had the Confederacy never existed. Prior to December of 1860, it’s not as if the armies of the north were perennially massed at the Mason-Dixon line, champing at the bit to torch the south, and the poor southerners had no choice but to hoist grandpappy’s musket and slug it out at Antietam.

Many of the Confederate apologists with whom I’ve corresponded maintain that their ancestors fought and died to protect their homes, not for the ideals of the Confederacy, and I suspect that in many cases that’s probably true. It still stands whatever their personal reasons for fighting, they fought because of the fact of the Confederacy, which was an evil institution, for reasons I’ve outlined before. Essentially, these people fought and died because an unnecessary and wholly evil entity invited trouble to their doorstep. Someone needs to explain to me why one should feel pride in that.

(Anyway, I do think there needs to be a line drawn in terms of responsibility. Not every Confederate soldier was fighting simply to protect the homestead; at least a few here and there had to believe in the principles of the Confederacy or at the very least the right of the Confederate states to go their own way. These people were wrong, however bravely they may have fought. It’s well and good that they were defeated, since the “independence” they would have bought was rotten to begin with.)

The only real pride one should have as a Confederate partisan is Loser Pride, in which one invests one’s energy in a perennially losing entity primarily as an exercise in existential humility; i.e., Cubs fans. But even Cubs fans have the possibility for glory in that the Cubs are an ongoing concern. The Confederacy, on the other hand, is deader than a gay bar in Branson and will stay that way. It will never be anything but a loser.

Useful Flags: Loser! Look, the Confederacy was so screwed up that it couldn’t even get its flags right. The first official Confederate flag was the Stars and Bars, which was rather too similar to the flag of the United States; it made things even more confusing on the battlefield than they already were. So, the Confederacy decided on another flag, which was largely white. The problem with this flag was that it pretty much looked like a flag of surrender — it was that whole “field of white” thing it had going. Obviously this was problematic if in fact you weren’t trying to surrender, or alternately, if you were, since the Union folks wouldn’t be able to tell right off whether you were giving up or fixin’ to stab them with your bayonets, so they’d be better off shooting you just to be sure.

So out comes a third flag, which, unfortunately for the Confederacy, came out just about the time the Confederacy was imploding from total loserness and teetering on the cusp of non-existence. Shortly thereafter, another flag flew at the Confederate capital, Richmond, and other points south: The flag of the United States of America. And personally I’m hard-pressed not to see that as a vast improvement.

Given the voluminous evidence of the total loser-osity of the Confederacy, you’ll understand why every time I get a letter from someone proclaiming the Confederate flags to be a positive symbol, I just get flummoxed. Frankly, it’s difficult to think of any flags anywhere at any point in time that are as steeped in complete failure on as many social, cultural and political levels as these are. It’s just so damn sad that people are still out there trying to delude themselves otherwise.

The only explanation I can come up with that makes any sense is that certain people from the south simply cannot think rationally about the Confederate flags, much in the same way that certain otherwise totally rational Christians freak out about the fact they’re descended from stooped, hooting proto-primates just like the rest of us. It’s a blank spot in their brain in which they choose not to allow thought of any sort.

Fine. As I’ve said before, if you want to believe that the Confederate flags represent anything but an evil and ultimately pathetically inept institution, and all the consequent stupidity that followed through its use by segregationists, morons and demagogic flag wavers who’d rather rile up the easily excitable than actually make the South a better place for all its citizens, then by all means go right ahead. We’ll agree to disagree.

But please don’t write to me saying that the meaning of the Confederate flag has changed or should change. Short of wiping out the history of the Confederacy itself and pretending it never existed, this isn’t going to happen. The Confederate flag a symbol of evil, and like most symbols of evil it’s much better used as a reminder of the damage evil can do, than it is as a misplaced symbol of pride.

The Confederate flags are the symbols of losers, and those who glorify losers. I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

Vote, Independent

If you are over the age of 18, a US citizen, and you’re not voting on Tuesday, you are a stinky stinky moron, and my response, should I ever hear you bitch about the government of the United States, will be to laugh like a drunken horse right in your face. If nothing else, taking a few minutes out of your day to vote will entitle you to two to six years of unmitigated kvetching about your system of government. Talk about a return on your investment.

If you are under the age of 18, not a US citizen, and are voting on Tuesday — well, that’s just no good for anyone. Go shoot some pool or something.


I vote. Almost as important, I am politically independent. I’ve always been registered as an independent. Part of this is due to my contrarian nature regarding joining any organization; once you join something, the people in it start wanting you to do things with them. The next thing you know, your weekends and Wednesday evenings are given over to bake sales and irritating rallies and stuffing envelopes until your fingers are sausage-shaped agglomerations of paper cuts. When I die, I can guarantee you that my list of regrets won’t include not spending more time doing any of those things. Probably the only organization I see myself joining at some point is the PTA, although that will be exclusively a preventative measure, to head off any attempts to ban Huck Finn or the Harry Potter books before someone has to haul in the local branch of the ACLU, and my tax dollars go to pay lawyers rather than to educate my child.

But part of it is due to the fact I dislike political parties. This is usually for one or more of the following three reasons: Their overall platforms, their tenuous relationship to the actual principles of democracy, and their general emphasis on getting an agglomeration of their kind elected rather than finding the best representatives of the people that those representatives are supposed to elect. Some parties set me on edge more than others — I’ve never made any secret that I distrust the GOP to such an extent that I tend to think that people who register Republican have some sort of unfortunate brain damage that keeps them from thinking clearly — but to be clear, I don’t like any of them. Ultimately political parties are about someone else telling me how I should exercise my franchise, based on the idea that they’ve got so many other people planning to vote the same way. Or to put it another way: “50 million Dubya fans can’t be wrong!” Well, yes, they can.

The one fly in the ointment here is that generally speaking enough people do register for and support political parties (specifically the Republicans and the Democrats) that here in the US those are the flavors you get when it comes to election day; indeed, over the history of my voting, I don’t think I’ve ever voted for someone who wasn’t of one or the other party (despite my general paranoid suspicion of the GOP, I have voted for Republicans in the past and would do it again in the future if — as in the past — there were compelling reasons to do so. See, that’s what being independent is all about). Certainly tomorrow I’ll be voting for candidates from those parties. But as is often the case, it’s not so much that I’m voting for a particular candidate as voting against another, and putting my defensive vote into a bin where it can do the most good. This set-up is hardly my fault. The problem isn’t that I’m not part of a political party, it’s that so many other people are.

Look at this way: If you registered as an independent, more candidates would have to think independently and focus on what actually works for their constituency — an actual representative democracy rather than one where the parties offered their candidates just enough leeway from the party platform not to alienate the voters in their district. Political races would get proportionately less “soft money” from the outside world, meaning the would-be politicians would have to actively engage in grass-roots campaigning, which again means the candidates would have to be more responsive to the needs of the constituency.

There’d be less political triangulation in the primary season, in which moderate editions of political party candidates get the bounce to appease the hard-line nutbags that constitute the political baggage of both parties — or are bounced through the maneuverings of the other party, which is hoping to for an opposing candidate that alienates the maximum number of moderate voters. Party politics would also enter far less into the sausage-grinding process of law-making, since the concern the lawmakers would have is whether they’re pleasing the people back home, not the party. We’d see ever-shifting alliances of politicians, based on specific issues, rather than an inflexible platform that grown men and women have to be politically “whipped” into adhering.

Where’s the downside here? Is there a real downside to the end, not only of the two major political parties, but to all political parties altogether? Certainly not for the individual. You can still have your own political beliefs, you know. You can still be a “pro-choice” card-carrying member of the ACLU without being a Democrat; you can still be a “pro-family values” gun-toting member of the NRA without being a Republican; you can still be “pro-polyamory” Ayn Rand-worshiping dateless freak without being a Libertarian. And you wouldn’t have to put those little cardboard signs on your lawn every two years.

Just think about it the next time you go to register. If you really want better political discourse in this country, do it by making the politicians listen to you and your neighbors, not your party affiliation. Vote independent. Hell, the reduction in political junk mail as you’re taken off the party mailing list will be worth it alone.

The Confederacy is Evil

Based on a (very good and civil, mind you) e-mail conversation I had over the weekend, I think now is a fine time to expand some points I made here over a year ago, when I wrote my “Southern Heritage is a Crock” column. So here we go:

The Confederate States of America was a fundamentally evil institution. Period, end of sentence. That’s “evil,” spelled “E-V-I-L.” “Evil,” as in “morally reprehensible,” “sinful,” “wicked,” “pernicious,” “offensive” and “noxious.” “Evil,” as in “the world is a demonstrably better place without this thing in it.” Evil. That’s right, evil. Once again, for those of you who haven’t figured it out yet: Evil. And for those of you yet hard of hearing, the ASL version:

Really, I don’t know how much clearer I can make it.

The CSA was a fundamentally evil institution because it codified slavery into its system of government; N.B: Article IV Section 2 of the Constitution of the Confederacy. And lest you think this was just some sort of mamby-pamby sop thrown in the CSA constitution to please the slave-holders, let’s go to the historical record, to a speech by CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens in March of 1861, in which he discussed the CSA Constitution at great length. The entire text is here, but allow me to excerpt considerably (and to place emphasis on the relevant passages) from Stephens’ comments about slavery and its role in the CSA, both in its constitution and in its very formation:

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [US President Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.

“The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity.

“One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

“I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

Lots of Confederate sympathizers like to say that what the Confederacy was really about was state’s rights, and all that. But I don’t know. Let’s put on one side a bunch of Confederate sympathizers who understandably want to downplay their fetish’s unfortunate association with that whole “people owning people” thing. And on the other side, let’s put the CSA’s second-highest executive, speaking about a Constitution he helped create, specifically discussing the role of slavery in his country’s formation. When it comes to what the Confederacy was really about, who are you going to believe?

Yes, the United States had slavery (and continued to have it, even during the Civil War; that Emancipation Proclamation thing of Lincoln was only effective in rebellious states), and isn’t blameless of other nasty habits, including brushing the natives off land it wanted to own. However, the United States did not codify evil into its Constitution by enshrining the practice of slavery; as Stephens proudly notes, it took the CSA, among all other countries in the world, to do that. The United States has done evil, but is not fundamentally evil in its formulation, as is the CSA.

It comes to this: When someone tells you the Confederacy was about something other than people owning people, they’re either being intentionally disingenuous or (more charitably) are ignorant about the deep and abiding role slavery had in the formation of the CSA. It was about other things, too. But, and in an entirely appropriate, non Godwin-izing use of this particular political entity, the Third Reich was about more than just exterminating the Jews. It just happens that that’s the one cornerstone policy of the Reich that, you know, sort of stands out.

Given that the CSA is a fundamentally evil institution, it’s clear that any of its trappings are symbols of evil, including those flags Confederate sympathizers love so well. This is a pretty cut and dried thing: If the answer to the question “Was this symbol/flag/insignia/whatever used as an identifying object by the Confederate States of America?” is “Yes,” then it is, point of fact, a racist and evil symbol. If you’re wearing such a symbol or otherwise endorsing it in some public way, it’s not unreasonable for people who see you wearing such symbols (particularly the descendants of former slaves) to wonder if you’re either racist and somewhat evil yourself or, alternately, just plain dim.

If you have an ancestor who fought for the CSA, then, yes, he fought for an evil institution — but no, I don’t think it makes that individual evil in himself. I think it’s perfectly reasonable and right for the descendants of Confederate soldiers to note the bravery and valor with which they fought, and to commemorate their individual efforts on the field. I think it would be nice if they additionally noted that it was sad that the government for which they fought was ultimately undeserving of their blood and defense, and that it was rightfully expunged from the world, but that’s another matter entirely.

(My correspondent this weekend asked me an interesting question as to whether a memorial for American soldiers who died in combat should include names of Confederate soldiers — the genesis of this question being some fracas he’d heard about at a northern university that was putting together such a memorial. My response is that it shouldn’t, for the reason that either the CSA was its own country, in which case its soldiers weren’t “American” soldiers (“American” understood to refer to citizens of the US), or it wasn’t its own country and the Confederate soldiers were in open and treasonous rebellion, and as a general rule one does not commemorate traitors, particularly ones whose rebellious actions ultimately caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. I don’t have a problem with such memorials in formerly Confederate territory, but the rest of the United States is not obligated to follow suit.)

Now, look: I understand that for a lot of Confederacy fans, it really isn’t about race or anything else other than pride for the South. My response to that is: Groovy. Go for it. Love the South. What y’all need to do, however, is get some new symbols, some that don’t hearken back to the Dixie Days, when you went to war for the right to keep owning people. The Confederacy was evil, and now it’s dead, and its being dead is front and center the best thing that there ever was about it. There is the South, and there is the Confederacy, and a good thing for you and for the rest of us would be the realization that these two things don’t have to be synonymous.

We Need New Constellations

I’ve been spending the last few days working with the constellations, drafting images for the cartographers over at Rough Guides to turn into actual star charts (hint: It’s easier to do when you’re making screenshots off of astronomy software, as I’ve been doing. Yes, you have to get permission from the software makers before you do this sort of thing. Yes, I did). There are 88 officially recognized constellations, but I ended up with 69 charts, on account that I paired up several of the smaller and/or less impressive constellations. Sad to say, many constellations just don’t rate their own star chart.

It’s not like they care, mind you. They’re just abstract representations of earthly objects projected into the sky by humans, using stars that have only a passing relationship to each other. Stars that look close in our night sky can be hundreds of light years apart; it’s that whole “space is three dimensional” thing (and actually, space is four dimensional — some stars we see in the sky may already be long-dead and gone, it’s just taking a while for the news to reach us, thank you very much Dr. Einstein).

I don’t think most people realize how many strange and pointless constellations are sitting up there in the sky. In a way, this is only natural (said, of course, ironically): Most of us live in urban areas, where light pollution and other sorts of pollution conspire to blank out fainter stars from our view. I remember living in Chicago and looking up and being able to see nothing but the 10 or 20 brightest stars — really not enough to go naming constellations by. Since many of the more obscure constellations are composed mainly of faint stars, why should people know them? When it comes to constellations, you can’t know what you can’t see.

The other reason is that constellations just don’t mean what they used to people. When you’ve got PlayStation 2, what do you need with the constellation Vulpecula (this is not a knock on PlayStation 2, said the Chief Entertainment Media Critic for Official US PlayStation Magazine, quickly, before he can get fired for disloyalty). If you can make out and recognize the Big Dipper (which, strictly speaking, is an asterism, not a constellation), or maybe Taurus or Orion, you’re doing just fine.

Still, it’s interesting to know what weird and freaky objects are up there in the sky. For example, did you know that there’s a giraffe walking around near the celestial north pole? It’s the constellation Camelopardalis (pictured above), which, being circumpolar as it is, is always hovering in the night sky here in the northern hemisphere. Its near neighbors include two bears, a bobcat, a dragon, and a guy carrying around a couple of goats. I think it’s a little out of place.

The fact of the matter is that Camelopardalis is a fairly recent constellation, created just a few hundred years ago by an astronomer who noticed that there was this wide swath of space with no constellation in it; he just spotted a few dim stars (none higher than 4th magnitude, which means you won’t be able to see them n the suburbs), strung ’em together, and there you have it — instant constellation.

Other lesser-known constellations in the northern sky: Delphinus and Equuleus (the dolphin and horse, respectively), Sagitta (the arrow) and Vulpecula (the fox), Corvus and Crater (a crow and a cup, and they actually share a mythological story together), Canes Venatici (hunting dogs) and Coma Berenices (Berenice’s hair, and isn’t that a weird one: A wig in space). The thing about these constellations is that if you can identify one of them, you’re probably the sort of person who can identify them all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. I am writing an astronomy book, you know. I want you to be know these things.

The earth’s southern hemisphere has a lot of unfamiliar constellations for most of us, but that’s to be expected, since most people on the planet live in the northern hemisphere, rather above the equator, thus there are constellations down under that we never see: Chameleon, Pavo, Apus, Hydrus, Tucana, Octans — all circumpolar to the South Pole.

Be that as it may, the southern hemisphere has a lot of constellations seem a little odd in their own right; many of them were described and created during the Age of Exploration (when the Europeans hopped in their ships to travel the world and surprise the natives of other lands with Jesus and smallpox), and so describe scientific objects: Microscopes, telescopes, compasses, air pumps, carpenter’s levels, chisels, pendulum clocks and octants. A fan of rationality though I may be, I’m not at all impressed with any of these: I want the night sky to be filled with wild animals and mythological heroes, not to resemble Galileo’s laboratory.

Given the fact that so many constellations are dim and/or obscure and/or just plain lame, I have an idea. I say we yank most of the constellations. I figure we have to keep the signs of the zodiac, otherwise we’ll have to fund an Omnibus Astrologers’ Assistance Bill in congress, and then keep on some of the most obvious constellations in both hemispheres: Orion, Centaurus, Ursae Major and Minor, Crux, and so on. Say, the top 25 or 30 constellations get to stay. The rest: Gone. Then we start voting on new constellations — and by “we” I mean pretty much the whole planet. You may not know this, but the night sky is officially pretty damn Eurocentric, up to and including the parts that can’t actually be seen from Europe (although there is a Native American in the southern sky — Indus — and I bet he’s surprised to be so far from home). It can’t hurt to let the voting power of China or India put in a constellation or two (or three, whatever).

The only rules I’d put in would be that the new constellations couldn’t be of real people — thus avoiding the constellations Mao, Elvis and Dale Earnhardt — and that we’d pretty much want to avoid any technological advance of, oh, the last 100 years. That way we’re not stuck with the constellations TiVo, Nintendo or Cell Phone. Other than that, let ’em rip. We’ll let the astronomers keep the old constellations, of course, because there’s no point in having to rename the entire sky for scientific purposes. It’s like how they use Metric and stuff. You know, just because they do doesn’t mean we have to. And it’ll get people looking up at the sky again. That’s not bad.

Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. You won’t miss dumb ol’ Camelopardalis anyway.

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