Category Archives: Observations

Oh, Fudge!

Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).

If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.

One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.

This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.

Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”

Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.

My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).

While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.

Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).

Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.

For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.

And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.

The Kindle Blues

I thought that people who did a lot of reading were supposed to be smart.

See, at the end of 2008 I ordered an Amazon Kindle, and it arrived at the end of February in 2009. I love it. It’s a brilliant device that does one thing – let you read – really, really, really well. But for such a brilliant device, it’s inspired an awful lot of unbrilliant thinking on all sides of its release.

While I was waiting for my Kindle to arrive, I subscribed to Amazon’s discussion board for the Kindle in the hopes of having a leg up before when it actually came. Well, I got that. But I got something else.

It seemed to me that a lot of other Kindle owners have the biggest entitlement mentality I’ve ever seen. I know not all of them are like that, but the ones with their hands out are the biggest complainers.

While I was waiting to get my Kindle, Amazon made the decision to quit making the original model, and introduced the Kindle 2. Everyone in line for the old model would now get the new model instead. That was pretty cool of them, right?

Except among some of the owners of what is now called the Kindle 1 – especially the more recent owners. There was outrage in some corners. Some who had bought the K1 and enjoyed it up until Amazon’s February announcement decided this switcheroo was unfair. Amazon had knowingly sold them an old product when they knew a newer version was coming out.

Using this same logic, they were probably shocked when the car in their driveway was suddenly made obsolete by the newest model. The same with their TV sets, their blenders, their sofas, and especially their computers – but do you suppose they demanded a free replacement of any of those? Amazon’s woes continued in this vein as they introduced a bigger model (the DX) and an international model of the K2 (the K2i).

The wave of unbrilliance continued as Amazon tried to hold the prices of bestsellers to $9.99. Rabid customers tried to organize boycotts when prices on some books went higher than that. This has been compounded by the fact that Steve Jobs capitulated to publisher demands in order to try and make the eReader software on the iPad more competitive against the Kindle.1

What Jobs’ turn as Neville Chamberlain did was empower publishers to put the screws to Amazon’s pricing policies for the Kindle. If Apple gave them terms, then Amazon should cough up the same agreements in spite of previous precedence. The result is “The Agency Model” – a fancy term for publishers setting their own prices for eBooks.2 And by the publishers’ way of thinking, that price should be about the same as a trade paperback.3

Of course, there’s a lot of whining going on about this, too. The entitlement readers probably attended the school that in the 2000’s claimed that “music should be free.”

Now there is a little bit of logic behind their desire for low eBook prices. After all, since there’s no paper, ink, labor, shipping, storage, etc., needed for an eBook, they should be practically free, right?

Wrong.

I agree that eBooks should have a lower cost than DTB’s (Dead Tree Books), but as something of an industry insider, I also understand that there are some book-related costs that publishers still can’t shake, namely, the cost of their infrastructure – buildings, desks, and all those editors, proofreaders, sales persons… and then they have to pay the authors something, right?

Plus, the publishing industry has another dirty little secret they’re not sure they want you to know. That is, in an eight-figure deal (that’s millions with an extra digit in front of it – tens, twenties, thirties, etc.) with a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling, they do not get their money back in associated book sales. What they have basically done is paid an exorbitant amount of money to have a prestige author in their house’s lineup. And no, they don’t make money from movie sales, etc., because the agents for these writers have already negotiated to keep those. Where they make their money is from mid-list authors, the ones who meet their sell-through and go on to make profits for themselves and their publishers. These are the names you’ve probably seen on the Bestseller Lists and wondered who in the world they were. Now you know. They’re the publishers’ bread and gravy.

The other dirty little secret of the publishing world is that right now, they’re in the same mess that the music industry was in a decade ago when mp3’s were coming into their own. And judging from their behavior, they have learned nothing from the mistakes the music industry made back then.

As example, early on in the Kindle’s history, many publishers put the smackdown on the Text-To-Voice feature, which reads any text document on the Kindle in a well-rendered synthetic voice. They claimed it was a threat to their revenue from audio books.

Well, let me tell you about Text-to-Speech. As I have already chronicled in these pages, when I was doing the most recent edit to …and that’s the end of the news, I loaded into my Kindle so I could read it without being tempted to edit it. While commuting, I tried using the T2S on the document and… what a rush it was hearing it read my own novel to me. I was so thrilled, you’d have thought I was listening to an audio recording of it by James Earl Jones.

But while the synthetic voice (you have a choice of male or female) is nice, it still has oddities of pacing and pronunciation (it never did pronounce my female protagonist’s name correctly). And if I was going to listen to, say, Moby Dick and had the choice, I’d take a James Earl Jones recording of it over either Kindle voice every time. It’s a no-brainer that the publishers have made, in their avarice, a brainer.

The transition to eBooks is going to be a rough one.4 Amazon has stumbled in the process too, like with their release of 1984 and Animal Farm in unauthorized editions, and the, um, Orwellian way that they took them back. But they apologized and made good on it, something a lot of publishers have yet to catch on to.

All we can do is sit tight and see how it all spins out. Meantime, anybody got a suggestion for a good book to read?

  1. Although I can’t understand why he did this. He was the one who, when he found out about the Amazon Kindle, said he wasn’t worried because “People don’t read anymore.”
  2. But Amazon is rubbing publishers’ noses in their own dirt – check out the Kindle pricing of an eBook, and some will say “Price Set By Publisher”. But I suspect this is not so much to fight back as silence the entitlement-minded whiners who say the price is too high.
  3. Or, they have the right to delay release of the eBook, anywhere from three months after the hardcover to coinciding with the release of the paperback.
  4. No, I’m not one of those doom and gloomers who thinks that eReaders spell the end of the book – just like CD’s and mp3’s put an end to vinyl, right?

If I Ran The Zoo

On the radio station I wake up to, the morning show team was talking about the practicality of holding the election on a weekday, when people had to work. They pondered the idea of holding the election on a weekend or making voting day a holiday (The Junior Senator from Illinois advocated taking election day off – but wouldn’t that actually bring out more Republicans?).

This made me think of all the things I’d do differently if I were to retool our way of electing officials. Here’s what I’ve come up with over the last few years…

States Must Continually Verify Voter Registrations
It’s ridiculous for Voter Registration Organizations (ACORN) to overwhelm states with new additions to the voter rolls (Ohio) so close to an election. The strategy is surely to let some questionable ballots slip through. We have the technology to make keeping voter rolls clean an ongoing process. Voter registration should also be an ongoing process. It’s foolish to wait until things are in full swing to try and clean house. It should be kept clean from the start.

A Short Season
Campaign 08 has managed to drag on for two years. Yeah, that’s right. It was 2006 when the Junior Senator and Miss Hillary started sparring with a handful of other Democrats for the nomination. This has caused a lot of burnout on both sides of the aisle, and it also keeps Senators, Congressmen, and Governors away from their duties.

So how about: no talk of running for office until October of the year before the election. Any potential candidates then have 90 days to debate and raise money. There’s a two-week primary period during which the respective candidates are chosen. Then another ninety days, and then the election. An election cycle with the end clearly in sight – talk about a way to keep voters motivated!

Polls Forbidden
Polling would be forbidden from the beginning of the Election Cycle until the new President took office. Why? Because they’re an inexact science no matter how careful the pollsters allegedly are with their sampling, making them utterly useless other than as propaganda for one side or the other. They also can instill overconfidence in one side and burn out voters, especially when the election cycle runs as long as this one has.

I’ve been watching election polls since Ford v. Carter, and even worked as an exit poller for ABC News one year. I can tell you how the polls will run every election year:

2 Years Before The Election:
Any Democratic candidate would beat any Republican candidate.

1 Year Before The Election:
Democratic frontrunners would beat any Republican candidate.

Six Months Before the Election:
The Democratic frontrunner would beat the Republican frontrunner.

After the Democratic Convention:
The Democratic candidate would beat the Republican frontrunner.

After the Republican Convention:
The Republican candidate would beat the Democratic candidate. But that’s what is called a “convention spike”.

Two weeks after Republican convention to Two weeks before the Election:
The Democratic candidate has experienced some slippage, but maintains a commanding lead.

One Week Before the Election:
The race has become close, very close, but the Democratic candidate maintains the lead.

Election Eve:
It’s a statistical dead heat! Who can call it?

After the election:
It’s a shocker! The Republican won! Who could have known?

By eliminating polling, you would also force media outlets to report on the candidates themselves rather than falling back on a stale old platitude (“A commanding lead in the polls”) to carry their reportage.

No More “Get The Vote Out”
Voting is a right, but it’s also a civic duty. It’s kind of like serving in the military in that respect. If someone doesn’t want to vote, let them not vote. They will surely get the government they deserve. And let’s face it, there are some people who shouldn’t be voting – and there’s something fundamentally dishonest about putting a pen in their hand and marking an X if they don’t understand what they’re doing. Likewise loading people on a bus and pointing them toward the polls.

This is not to say if someone cannot get to the polls they don’t deserve a ride. Let’s get people who want to vote out there. I just think it’s wrong to truck warm bodies to polling places and encouraging their votes with a hot coffee and a Baby Ruth bar. Doesn’t that smack of the Draft to you?

The Purple Finger This is my favorite thing to come out of the Iraq war – the pictures of people leaving the polls, proudly waving their ink-stained fingers. That, friends, is what we fought for. And we should do that here.

That’s right. Forget the red, white and blue stickers for your lapel. Dip your finger in a well and get a true symbol of your patriotism. Besides discouraging voter fraud at the point of contact, it gives you a chance to harass those who didn’t vote for the week it takes the ink to wear off of your finger.

New Voting Day: April 16th
This should be a no-brainer. Not a solid date, of course, since they move the date your income taxes are due if April 15th falls on a weekend. But the day after they are due should be the day we go to the polls. I told this idea to my wife and she said, “If we did that, nobody would ever be re-elected.” What a shame, right?

Wait Until the Fat Lady Sings
Without exit polls and projections, people on the left coast would be spared from vote-discouraging projections (this was supposed to be “fixed”, but projections have been creeping back in of late). Also, states would be free to count the votes without worrying about some reporter’s deadline. It could probably all be done in one night, but if it takes two weeks to get it counted right, hey…

Instant Transition
So you’ve won the election! Congratulations! Now you have to wait three months while you grab headlines with word of your “transition team” and speculation on your cabinet appointments. I like how the British do it. If you’re on the losing end of the election, your lease at Number 10 Downing Street pretty much ends the next day. Make the switch within a week to give the President a chance to sign his controversial pardons. This would also put an end to three months of miscellaneous lame duckery.

One 6-Year Term
The President shall serve only one six-year term. That way he or she can do the job without losing focus during the re-election process. Besides, shaving two years of lame duckery off the end of most Presidential second terms instantly improves their record. For example, Iran Contra happened in the last two years of Ronald Reagan, and Monica Lewinsky happened in the final two years of Bill Clinton. How would their respective records look without those stains? Even Nixon would have fared better – no re-election worries, no Committee to Re-Elect the President – which, besides being responsible for Watergate, was unfortunately acronymed as CREEP. Now you can look back on that whole China visit thing without wincing!

Also, there shall be no talk of changing the rules for a second term, just like it annoys me when people talk about third terms for popular Presidents. I was against it when they talked about doing it for Reagan, and I was really against it when the talk was the same for Clinton. And mark my words. If the Junior Senator wins and doesn’t get routed out of office in 2012, there will be talk in 2016 of pulling the plug on that messy constitutional restriction.

So that’s my take on election reform. Eight short months from the time the candidates announce to the time a new President takes office. That’s how it should be in a perfect world – well, my perfect world, anyway. There’s still lots of other things I need to work on, like that whole messy fundraising thing, the stuff that McCain-Feingold either compounded or didn’t seem to do anything about. But that’s something for another day. Or another election cycle.

Overheard

My daughter occasionally posts what she calls “Conversation Collages” on her blog or Facebook page. I’ve long thought that was neat, and thought that was something I’d like to do, but I don’t have her ear for statements which sound interesting when taken out of context.

I’m old school. I tend to pick up comments that sound interesting when taken in context of the moment. Although some of the things that catch my ear work pretty well out of context.

I’m not trying to copy my daughter here… but I did, while cleaning off my desk, find a list of things I’d made of things I’ve overheard since the beginning of the year. I thought I’d share them now.

Walking through the aquarium, Mall of America, St. Paul, MN.:
“Ewwww. It smells like fish in here.”

In the men’s room of same:
“Time to wash your hands, sport.”
“But I didn’t touch my wiener.”

Walking out of a museum showing dramatic plaster casts of victims of the Pompeii eruption – several humans and a dog:
“That poor dog.”

A young boy playing church before church started:
“Turn to Psalm 52. It’s a song.” (sings) “Happy birthday to you, you belong in the zoo…”

A colleague at work, acknowledging my recent craving for fish:
“Maybe we should get some fish on Monday instead of Friday. That would make us Reverse Catholics.”

On the phone to a government agency, navigating an automated menu:
“For state information, press one. For federal information, press two.”
(I press two)
“You pressed two. If this is correct, press one.”

Election 2008: By the Numbers

Prompted by my son, I have put up a John McCain yard sign on my Facebook page. I think I would have preferred one that said We’re Screwed ’08, because neither presumptive candidate really has me fired up. For the record, I haven’t been really excited about a Presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan, but we can’t always get what we want, right?

However, I’ve thought it through and have decided that if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. Now maybe we don’t need John McCain or Barack Obama right now, but I think McCain has more of what we need than the question mark from Illinois.

How did I determine this? By the numbers, of course.

  • 0 – The number of days it took me to figure out that Obama was destined to run for President. Watching the election returns in 2004, I listened to how the media was gushing over a man who had done nothing but turn up and win an election against a Republican carpetbagger – and I turned to my wife and said, “Listen to this. The media is going to have him running for President before long.”
  • 1.6% – The percentage of bills in Senate on which The Junior Senator from Illinois was sponsor that actually passed. Two out of 123, to be exact. One was a relief bill for the Congo Republic, the other designated a “National Summer Learning Day.” Heavy.
  • 2 – The number of years that The Junior Senator from Illinois was The Junior Senator from Illinois before he announced that he was running for President. Must have been his tremendous legislative record that inspired him. Or the Media. But they wouldn’t do that, right?
  • 4 – The number of years I was off in guessing when The Junior Senator from Illinois would run. My wife asked, “You think he’ll run in ’08?” I said, “No, ’08 will be Hillary’s year. Besides, he won’t have enough experience to run after just four years. I look to see him in 2012.” Stupid me.
  • 129 – The number of times in the Illinois Senate that the current Junior Senator from Illinois voted “present” as opposed to “yes” or “no” – seen now as a face saving measure so he could say he did not vote “for” or “against” lightning rod issues like abortion, penalties for concealed weapons, and building strip bars near schools. The Junior Senator’s people are saying that many of these “present” votes were precipitated by badly written laws, or legislation with poison pills in them, preventing him from wanting to vote “for” them – but that being the case, wouldn’t a “no” have sufficed?
  • 146 – The number of days that The Junior Senator from Illinois was The Junior Senator from Illinois before he set up a Presidential Exploratory Committee. Not even six months of Senate experience. Robert Heinlein said that the best choice for President is a someone who doesn’t want the job. Like Bill Clinton before him, The Junior Senator wants the job far too badly to deserve election. It’s a privilege, not a destiny. And a role of service, not an anointing.
  • 80, 75, 72, 72, 70 – The ages of the five oldest Supreme Court justices and the factor that really brought me around to McCain. It’s not just that I shudder at the possibility of Supreme Court Justice Clinton (either one) as a political payback for this year’s nomination blowout. It’s the tendency of Democratic appointees to write laws from the bench as opposed to interpreting the constitution (which is why I favor periodic elections to retain SCOTUS appointees, much like we do with local judges). McCain may have some cranky ideas on who should inherit the next open black robe, but I’d rater take my chances with his choices than more bench legislators.

That’s my analysis. So this year I’m getting out the nose plugs and voting for McCain.

What would excite me about voting for him? Condi Rice as his running mate. Her presence on the ticket would defang both the “woman” thing (if Hillary continues to be a player), and the “black” thing. And there’s one really, really important thing about Rice that I like.

She doesn’t want the job.

Update 7/17/08: Added 1.6 and 2 to the list.

Nukes In The News

— Item #1 —

I don’t know why, but a question I’ve been asked a lot lately is, “Joe! If you were the President, what would you do about Iran’s threat to build a nuclear arsenal?”

Like I could do anything about it. I don’t know. There must have been something out there in the zeitgeist, or else this mustache and goatee of mine make me look like I would be an expert in that particular field.

So I don’t know why I’ve been asked this question so much lately. But I know what my answer has consistently been, ever since Ahmadinejad started rattling the plutonium saber: “Nothing. Israel will take care of it.”

And sure enough… the balloon hasn’t gone up yet, but it’s certainly being inflated.

Hmmm. Maybe I should join Predictify after all.

— Item #2 —

When I wrote about Carbon Recapture and Sequestration, one of the things I hinted at was the fact that the environmental movement found global warming such a scary thing that nuclear power was actually starting to look pretty tame by comparison.

Enviros may not be ready to drink from the uranium cup yet, but the Scare crowd is due to take a long, hard look at the world they’re going to create if they get their way.

I’m not talking about the goofy, dystopic world I described in the aforementioned post. I’m talking about a world where the real solutions to the global warming question are not necessarily the ones that environmentalists want. Specifically:

  • Nuclear reactors are the most green producers of electricity, putting out a fraction of what the next-cleanest source does.
  • It takes more carbon to produce a hybrid car than it does a regular car. And if you buy an old gas guzzler, it has already paid for its own carbon footprint.
  • It’s greener to run your air conditioning than it is to heat your home. Florida, here I come!
  • Old growth forest? Not green! A tree is a massive carbon sucker-upper for about 55 years. Then it sits around waiting to rot or get burned up, at which time all of that carbon goes… where? (Maybe we should bury dead trees, too.)
  • It takes far more carbon to raise up organic beef and dairy products than their mass-produced brothers and sisters. PETA take note – you now have Sophie’s Choice when it comes to saving the planet.
  • City living? Green. Think about it. All those people stacked on one another in apartments, walking and bicycling and taking mass trans to work.
  • Carbon Credit Trading = Spit in the Ocean. There’s no guarantee the traders will live up to their end of the bargain and grow those trees for 55 years, and if they did… they’d only buy us another 6-1/2 days.

Now here’s the kicker. It’s not just me, the “Global Warming Is Made of People” skeptic. All of these inconvenient truths – and a few more guaranteed to make greeners squirm – were put forth in the latest issue of Wired Magazine. Read, and prepare to change your thinking.

Meantime, I know what my answer to the Global Warming question is, too. “Wait a while and we’ll all be worrying about glaciers again.”

But nobody asks me about that.

D-Day, the Sixth of June

By the end of one half hour, approximately two thirds of the company is forever gone. There is no precise casualty figure for that moment. There is for the Normandy landing as a whole no accurate figure for the first hour or first day. The circumstances precluded it. Whether more Able Company riflemen died from water than from fire is known only to heaven. All earthly evidence so indicates, but cannot prove it.

When we see them now, we see them sitting in a jeep, riding in a parade on Memorial Day. They are old men with white hair. When I see them, I get tears in my eyes and shout out “Thank you!” and hope that they hear my message through their failing ears.

Sixty years ago they fought a good fight, against tyranny and oppression. Unlike now, the nation was behind them and their president, committed to getting the job done. And when the job was done, they returned home, expecting no entitlement, simply wanting to put war behind them and get on with their lives.

I grieves me that we are losing these men. As we lose them, we lose a bit of history. We lose a bit of ourselves.

Today marks the anniversary of D-Day, the amphibious assault on Normandy each, the biggest invasion in history. If this day seems a cypher to you, I suggest you click over to this article, which describes the terrible price this generation paid in the space of one day.

I hope it inspires you to sit down with a veteran you know and talk to them about their experience. While you’re at it, thank them for their service – especially if, like me, you haven’t served yourself.

And while you’re at it, set aside some time to thank our current generations of troops and their families for what they are doing. The battle they are fighting is no less important. I think we’ve lost sight of that right now, our view blinkered by Presidential Approval Ratings and Opinion Polls. That grieves me, too.

So take some time. Read. Think. Remember. Honor.