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Friday, April 25, 2008

Feels like it's 1978 all over again

A quick roundup of some of this morning's more interesting headlines:

Greenpeace founder now backs nuclear power
Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore says there is no proof global warming is caused by humans, but it is likely enough that the world should turn to nuclear power - a concept tied closely to the underground nuclear testing his former environmental group formed to oppose.

The chemistry of the atmosphere is changing, and there is a high-enough risk that "true believers" like Al Gore are right that world economies need to wean themselves off fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gases, he said.

"It's like buying fire insurance," Moore said. "We all own fire insurance even though there is a low risk we are going to get into an accident."

The only viable solution is to build hundreds of nuclear power plants over the next century, Moore told the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. There isn't enough potential for wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal or other renewable energy sources, he said... the rest of the story...

Food Crisis Starts Eclipsing Climate Change Worries
The campaign against climate change could be set back by the global food crisis, as foreign populations turn against measures to use foodstuffs as substitutes for fossil fuels.

With prices for rice, wheat, and corn soaring, food-related unrest has broken out in places such as Haiti, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. Several countries have blocked the export of grain. There is even talk that governments could fall if they cannot bring food costs down.

One factor being blamed for the price hikes is the use of government subsidies to promote the use of corn for ethanol production. An estimated 30% of America’s corn crop now goes to fuel, not food... the rest of the story...

Wisconsin dairy farmers find more free time when they free the cows
MILWAUKEE — Bob and Karen Breneman found it difficult to accomplish all that had to be done around their southern Wisconsin dairy farm, but they didn't want to hire more help.

So they joined the growing number of farmers in America's Dairyland who broke with tradition by turning to grazing — saving them money and freeing up time. [...]

Most milking operations in the state during the latter half of the 20th century used the so-called confinement approach: Animals that were milked twice a day mostly were kept inside, feed was brought to them, and manure was carted away.

"Farmers had been taught that was the way to go for a long time," Breneman said.

But after careful consideration, the couple switched to an updated version of the grazing approach that had previously predominated, and they haven't looked back.

That's allowed them to reduce the labor involved in growing crops to feed their animals, and they can let the manure remain in the field... [Well, duh. ~brb] the rest of the story...

Load Up The Pantry
I don't want to alarm anybody, but maybe it's time for Americans to start stockpiling food.

No, this is not a drill.

You've seen the TV footage of food riots in parts of the developing world. Yes, they're a long way away from the U.S. But most foodstuffs operate in a global market. When the cost of wheat soars in Asia, it will do the same here.

Reality: Food prices are already rising here much faster than the returns you are likely to get from keeping your money in a bank or money-market fund. And there are very good reasons to believe prices on the shelves are about to start rising a lot faster... the rest of the story...

Let's see: gasoline prices are soaring, the debate over building new nuclear power plants is back in headlines, there's looming starvation in the Third World, yuppies are going back to the land and rediscovering that cow poop is good for grass, and the Wall Street Journal is advising people to hoard food. Yup, it definitely feels like it's 1978 all over again. All we need now is for Jimmy Carter to come back from the dead and start traveling around the Middle East, making a godawful mess of our diplomatic situ—

Eh, what's that you say? Jimmy Carter isn't dead? And he is loose in the Middle East again?

Oh, dear...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Earth Day Plus 1

The late Senator Eugene McCarthy liked to say that everything he knew about politics he'd learned on the farm, from taking care of the cows and pigs. You see, cows are by nature large, solitary, and stolid creatures, who don't like to move if they don't have to. Ergo the secret of getting cows to move is not to try to get the whole herd going at once, but rather to identify the dominant steer and get him moving. Once the dominant steer moves, especially if he seems to know where he's going, the rest of the herd quickly follows.

Pigs, on the other hand, are selfish and greedy creatures who could care less what the other pigs are doing, as long as they can root around in the muck and find what they want. Ergo the secret of getting pigs to move is to startle, panic, and stampede them, and get them up and running in the direction you want them to go before they have time to think about it. While stampeding pigs works well, though, you should never deliberately try to stampede the cows, as that can quickly turn unpredictable and very dangerous.

Therefore, according to Senator McCarthy, the entire secret to success in politics is to always remember that Senators are cows, and Congressmen are pigs.

As we discuss global warming, it's important to remember that the science is by no means as cut and dried and the scientific consensus nowhere near as unanimous as Mr. Gore makes it sound in his little agitprop filmstrip. I have spoken with scientists who feel that the case for human-caused global warming is completely proven. I have spoken with other scientists who feel the whole idea is a load of dingo's bollocks. And I have spoken with yet other scientists who agree with the first group that a climate shift may be in progress, but believe the cause is very much open to debate and we should tread very carefully before attributing this change solely to the actions of humans.

Which, after all, is what the whole debate is really about: that it is human activity that is causing global climate change, and therefore it is human activity that needs to be legislated, regulated, and otherwise removed from the sphere of free will and handed over to the control those same brilliant social engineering philosopher-kings who have given us so many of the other hideous atrocities of recent history.

History is key. I have read history, and spoken with historians, who point out that climate change is continuously intertwined with the history of our species. Ancient cities were forever being built and abandoned because of changes in weather patterns: consider Petra, or Mesa Verde. Two thousand years ago the Romans kept meticulous records of the quality and quantity of the wine grape harvests in England, although until recent decades it's been far too cold for viticulture in that land. One thousand years ago the Vikings named a certain glacier-covered island "Greenland," because it was green when they discovered it. In 1975, in his history, The Celts, Gerhard Herm wrote:
In the second half of the fifteenth century BC the whole world experienced a series of disasters such as has never since been recorded. It began with a fall in the water-table to seven metres, with the result that springs dried up, rivers became trickles, bogs stopped growing. This drought was preceded by a climatic optimum that went on for thousands of years with long summers and mild winters. This had also produced long periods of drought, as for instance just before the Kurgan people's withdrawal from the Caspian area. But in general it must have been warmer in Europe after about 5000 BC than at any time before or since in the past twelve thousand years. Vines grew in southern Norway, the whole of Scandanavia lived in the shadow of mixed and deciduous forest, there were glaciers only in the extreme north. These times are probably recalled in the Greek saga of Phaeton[...]

In his Metamorphoses, a history of the world from its beginnings until his own day, the Roman poet Ovid describes the same event in a less allegorical fashion. He maintains that not only the Rhine, Danube, and Rhone were dried up, but also the Nile, Euphrates, Don, and Ganges: in other words, it was a worldwide disaster. His remarks seem to be borne out by the fact that Libya, until then covered by savannah, became a desert. Herotodus relates that at that time there was a famine in Anatolia that forced the Lydian king Attys to send half of his people to the land of the 'Umbricians' (Umbrians), i.e., to Italy.

I've spoken with historians. I've spoken with scientists. I've spoken with journalists, who always know far less than they imagine they do, and politicians, who make the journalists look brilliant by comparison. Most disturbingly I've spoken with scientist-administrators, who are largely either ex-scientists who've been Peter Principled out of actual science or people with advanced degrees in public administration and no actual science education at all. The one consistent thing I've found among nearly all the most vocal proponents of human-caused global warming theory is that they don't actually believe in everything they're saying: they're perfectly willing to exaggerate the case and indulge in hyperbole if it helps them to stampede the pigs.

Because, after all, in a world where only Big Government can afford to fund Big Science, it's the pigs who control the collective purse. be continued...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day 2008

Sorry for not having the new Friday Challenge posted yet. Saturday turned out to be another working day. Sunday I decided to relax by doing a little yard work first, and as we all know "a little relaxing yard work" is synonymous with "a stupid accidental injury." I didn't wind up in the emergency room this time, but was somewhat distracted for the rest of the day and so wrote nothing. Monday was a severe deadline crunch day, from 6 a.m. right up until the minute the manager running the project decided the software bug I'd discovered on Friday really did warrant pushing back the release by a week, to allow for somewhat more thorough testing before we unleashed the product on unsuspecting customers...

Ergo, here we are: Tuesday already, and I'm still not quite ready to post a new Friday Challenge. Instead, I can't help but note that today is Earth Day, and all over the western world, sanity is being put on temporary hold as people give themselves over to paroxysms of nearly Dionysian Gaia-worship. In fact, my entire company is being shut down for two hours today, as all employees are being herded into the reeducation camp lunchroom to watch and discuss An Inconvenient Truth.

Oops, sorry, love to, but I've got an, uh, offsite meeting at that time. Can't miss it. Terrible shame.

And so, in honor of Earth Day, I'm going to practice some recycling here, and recycle a column I wrote three years ago for another web site. Enjoy!


The Doomsday Cult of Global Warming

By Bruce Bethke
First published 16 February 2005

The Kyoto Treaty goes into effect today, and wherever you are, whatever you're doing, and whatever else you may think of him, you should take a moment right now to thank George W. Bush for pulling the United States out of this misbegotten mess. At best, the Kyoto Treaty is only bad law based on questionable science, and if we're very lucky, it will only result in the accelerated offshoring of jobs and transfer of wealth from developed nations to the Third World.

At worst, it's the unholy writ of a new global Doomsday Cult, and if we're very unlucky the cultists will succeed in their apparent goals of reducing the world to pre-industrial technologies and pre-19th century human population levels.

As for why the Kyoto Treaty is bad law, that's simple. This whole mechanism of buying and selling emissions credits is based on 1990 pollution levels, and as you may have noticed, the world has undergone some profound changes since then. For example, the Soviet Union no longer exists, but its Kyoto credits do, and the former Soviet republics now stand to make a tidy bundle selling off the pollution rights for their rusting and vacant Soviet-era factories. (As will the brokers at the World Bank, who are the agents authorized to handle all such transactions). Likewise, under this treaty Japan is committed to a 6-percent reduction from their 1990 emission levels, and they've probably already achieved this goal by the simple means of unplanned economic recession. Factor in the way that Japanese companies have spent the last 15 years aggressively offshoring manufacturing jobs to Malaysia and China, and Japan is probably a net creditor under Kyoto now.

Of course, the absolutely worst aspect of Kyoto is that the two most rapidly growing industrial economies in the world today — India and China — are completely exempt from all terms of the treaty. But more about this in a moment.

As for why the Kyoto Treaty is based on questionable (to put it charitably) science, well, much finer minds than mine have spent a great deal of time writing much better critiques of the theory of global warming, only to be ignored or dismissed. So instead, I will quote a typical proponent of the theory:
"Global temperatures are indisputably rising — and, while there are persistent skeptics, the vast majority of scientists say human activity is to blame."

- Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post
Any time a reporter uses expressions like "indisputably" and "vast majority" you should be nervous, of course, but after you're done being nervous, you should ask to see the Greenpeace or Environmental Defense Fund press release they cribbed the assertion from. As for me, one of the virtues of age is that I can readily remember other times, not that long ago, when "the vast majority of scientists" assured us with equal conviction that we were "indisputably" on the brink of a new ice age, or that we would "indisputably" run out of oil by the year 1985, or that the Great Plains were about to become a vast desert with consequent global famines, or that by the year 2000 we would have a world population of over 20 billion souls all fighting tooth and claw for what little food and water remained, or my personal favorite, that we were "indisputably" about to run out of mineable copper, which would result in the complete collapse of all industrial economies based on electricity and electronics.

Indisputably? Hardly.

Finally, as for India and China: while I'm no fan of SUVs, I really hate the canard that American motorists are causing worldwide environment devastation, especially when the truth is so well-documented. To quote that well-known right-wing anti-environmentalist source, the New York Times:
"In China's rich northern coal belt, hundreds of underground fires are burning upwards of 200 million tons of coal each year, about 20 per cent of the nation's annual production. The fires produce nearly as much carbon dioxide, the main gas linked to global warming, as is emitted each year by all the cars and small trucks in the United States."

- Andrew Revkin, "Underground Fires Menace Land and Climate," The New York Times, 1/15/2002
That's right. Before you buy that Toyota Prius, understand that uncontrolled coal mine fires in China alone are producing almost as much greenhouse gas as all American motor vehicles combined, that India has a similar and equally enormous problem with their open-pit coalmines, and after you understand all that, remember this:

China and India are exempt from Kyoto.

If you want to read more, here are some links. Share them with your friends:

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 4/18/08

And the winner of the previous Friday Challenge is (drum roll, please):


Al gets points for evoking both one of Lucas's more ham-handed moves (naming the villain "Gnewt Bungray") and that annoying little robot from the Buck Rogers TV series ("beedee beedee"); Sean gets special credit for having her be bitten by a radioactive redneck baby and as a result developing built-in cellulite-powered rockets (that was sick, dude); and Mrs. Mike clearly has some serious kinks. (Bilton? You'd better keep an eye on her, Mike.) Henry, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to steal, "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It shouldn't be wearing tights!" That's too good not to use again. And special kudos to Ben-El, whose late entry managed to quantum-leap the character and both do horrible things to Henry V and dredge up an even more obscure WWII factoid than even I know.

Vidad, your entry was, as usual, wonderful, and I'm still snickering over the image of John McCain biting the heads off of rabbits. I think I'll be seeing that one every time I see his face, for I don't know how many years to come. But in the end, I had to pick snowdog's entry, because it was the best story of the whole bunch. So snowdog, come on down.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge —

Honestly, it's the dragging tail-end of a heck of a week, and while I've got a fiendishly clever challenge for you this time, I'm just too tired to get it all worked out and posted tonight. So it'll get posted Saturday.


Thursday, April 17, 2008


It doesn't happen often, but there are some days I'm just so proud to be from Wisconsin. From this morning's St. Paul Pioneer Press:
Principal tells PETA: Kids hunt, get over it
Rural Wisconsin school won't remove photos of students, dead game
By Chris Niskanen

Do hunting and middle-school education mix?

They do in tiny Poplar, Wis., where a middle-school bulletin board featuring pictures of students with their dead game has been caught in the crossfire of the national anti-hunting movement.

Ken Bartelt, principal of Northwestern Middle School, refuses to take down the pictures of student hunters holding their ruffed grouse, deer and bear after complaints from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Half of our school board are hunters,'' he said of the rural northern Wisconsin district, where hunting is a long-held tradition. "How could I explain that to them?"

read the rest of the article...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Trademarks, Copyrights, Fair Use, and Prior Restraint

I was flinging around some terminology in the last post and it occurs to me that some of you might benefit from a little explanation. The rest of you, feel free to chime in and correct me where needed, as I'm neither a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. In fact, the sole extent of my legal training amounts to two semesters of Constitutional Law back in J-school, and a certain amount of sitting around drinking beer with lawyers since then.

A trademark is a word, phrase, or image uniquely associated with and identifying the ownership of a product or service. You can trademark just about anything — for a laugh sometime, go look at the list of McDonald's trademarks — but only in a specific context. For example, if I were producing a sci-fi television series, I could call the hero's mighty vessel the Starship Groenteburger™ and there's not a darned thing McDonald's could do about it.

The difference between a Trademark™ and a Registered Trademark® is that a business can declare something a trademark simply by asserting that it is one, while a registered trademark is one that has been registered with the Commerce Department.

As a writer, you're required to acknowledge other people's trademarks, but not to bow and scrape before them. Generally it's good form to capitalize them (e.g., Delta Airlines), except if unusual capitalization is part of the trademark (e.g., eBay), but you're not required to use the trademark symbol unless your editor is exceptionally anal. The most important thing is to remember about trademarks is to never make them into verbs. E.g., don't write about somebody "kleenexing the glass before xeroxing the document," they use Kleenex brand tissues to wipe the glass in the Xerox copier. Or better yet, unless you're writing chick-lit (e.g., The Devil Wears Prada), have your character use a tissue to wipe the copier, and who cares what brands are involved?

In fictional dialog, of course, all bets are off and your characters can say anything they want.

A copyright is a legal protection for the creator or owner of a work. The important thing to remember here is that the copyright protects the work itself, not the idea behind the work. You cannot copyright individual words, phrases, or titles, although you can copyright images. If I wanted to write a book entitled The DaVinci Code I'm perfectly free to do so, just as I'm perfectly free to write a book about some future spacecraft named after an aircraft carrier that goes off on a five-year mission to explore the nearby galaxy, and yet strangely enough seems to do very little actual exploring. Provided I don't actually name the ship Enterprise, put it under the control of the United Federation of Planets, and name the captain Christopher Pike, I'm on solid ground.

The Fair Use doctrine has its roots in common law, and basically grants some limited exceptions to trademark and copyright law. You can use trademarks when writing about a business or work; for example, I can use both "Star Trek" and "Paramount" when writing a review of Star Trek 37: The Search for A New Audience and describing it as "by far the worst excrescence ever to emerge from the bad end of Paramount's cinematic sausage factory."

The Fair Use doctrine also permits you to use limited excerpts from another's copyrighted work for purposes of criticism, commentary, or education, even if you do stand to make some money from writing that commentary. For example, if I was writing about Margaret Atwood's economical use of language to convey oppressive physical details in Oryx and Crake, I could quote:
"It's only the heat," he tells himself. "I'll be fine once it rains." He's sweating so hard he can almost hear it; trickles of sweat crawl down him, except that sometimes the trickles are insects. He appears to be attractive to beetles. Beetles, flies, bees, as if he's dead meat, or one of the nastier flowers.

The best thing about the noon hours is that at least he doesn't get hungry: even the though of food makes him queasy, like chocolate cake in a steam bath. He wishes he could cool himself by hanging out his tongue.
It doesn't become plagiarism until I try to pass it off as my own work, and it doesn't violate the Fair Use doctrine until I do something like, say, photocopy an entire chapter or an entire short story to use as a handout in a class, or post an entire article from a news source on my blog.

Which is why you'll notice that I never quote more than two or three paragraphs at the most, and always identify the source and when possible link back to it.

Finally, as you might expect, most of the discussion in J-school revolved around how not to get sued, and focused primarily on slander and libel. I won't go into that in detail beyond saying the standards for public figures are vastly different from those for proles, which is why writers can get away with saying things about, say, Hillary Clinton, that they could never dare to publish about Wanda from down the street. The most interesting aspect of this viz Monday's post, though, was that it was beaten into our heads over and over again that the 1st Amendment absolutely forbids prior restraint: that is, the idea that you can be sued for something libelous or plagiaristic before you publish it. The principle of law was supposed to be that, until the moment it was published, no actual damage had occurred, and without actual damage, there was no actionable case.

Again, as I said yesterday, that part of the Consitution apparently has been declared a no-op in recent years, and I must have missed the memo. Certain the McCain-Feingold Campaign Financing Act includes some provisions that smack of prior restraint, as does the Patriot Act.

Your thoughts?

Monday, April 14, 2008

'ere's something interesting, then

Here's one to watch. J. K. Rowling, with tears in 'er eyes (and legal button-men on loan from Warner Bros. films), is suing American librarian Steve Vander Ark and his small-press publisher, RDR Books, for planning to publish the Harry Potter Lexicon, an unauthorized reference book based on the fan-created website of the same name. Interestingly enough, Rowling herself gave this same website a Fan Site Award in 2004 and of it wrote on her own website:
"This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an Internet cafe while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing)."
In the BBC version of the story, Rowling describes how the legal concerns caused by this "act of betrayal" had "decimated [her] creative work" and deprived her of the "will or the heart" to continue on her own Harry Potter encyclopedia. The New York Times take on the story, on the other hand, digs into it a little deeper, and reveals details suggesting that Rowling & Co. might be trying to establish not merely a lock on Harry himself and the various books Ms Rowling has written (which is the traditional definition of copyright), but total control over any conceivable books that might be written about a young English boy who's been packed off to a magical boarding school to learn the trade of wizardry, only to learn that sinister doings are afoot and he must learn to trust and believe in himself and his newfound power in order to save the entire school. Which no doubt has Jane Yolen's Henry of Wizard's Hall quaking in his slippers.

illo: cover art, -Wizard's Hall-, by Jane Yolen

Oh, wait. Except that Yolen's novel was published in 1991, a full six years before Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone first saw print.

In any case, this is a legal matter I will be watching with great interest, because if Rowling (and Warner Bros., don't forget Warner Bros.) wins, well, let's just say that anybody who's profited from using the word "cyberpunk" since 1980 better watch out.

Yee-hah! I'm gonna win the Lawsuit Lottery! I'll never have to work again!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Friday Challenge Arrived on Sunday This Week

Oof. It's been a heck of a week here in the Casa del Calamaro. The three projects I had coming up on deadlines suddenly and magically became four, and one of those deadlines moved up by a week to boot. It looks like tomorrow will see what's become the traditional Filing of Form 4868 — dang it, I was really hoping to file my tax returns on time for a change — and in some form of karmic vengeance for my decision to suspend the no politics rule, I suddenly find myself up to my handsome hazel eyes in local politics. All politics is loco — er, local — and believe me, it doesn't get any more local or loco than this issue.

Meanwhile, over on the Rampant Loon front, one of our authors has gone incommunicado (again), another is having severe performance anxiety issues, and a project too controversial for any sane publisher to tackle but too good to pass up has suddenly turned up in a basket on our doorstep, with a note pinned to its blanket asking us to give it a good home. I'll have more to say about this little darling just as soon as we get some contract and scheduling issues finalized — which I'm hoping will be later this week — but what all this really amounts to is a long-winded explanation of why I not only have not picked a winner for last week's Friday Challenge; I haven't even had time to read any of the entries as yet.

Ergo, here are links to the entries received or posted thus far for last week's Friday Challenge, which as you may remember was to write a tall-tale about the adventures of Hillary, Immortal Mighty Warrior Woman Battling Through Time. The contestants are:

Vidad MaGoodn
Sean (Sorry, Sean, I promise I'll get you added to the list of inmates Real Soon Now.)
Mrs. Mike

The deadline for comments and voting has been extended by some as-yet-undetermined number of days, and rather than start a new comments thread I'll just link to the existing Comments thread, upon which a lively discussion is already in progress.

And now, with all of that said: I'm going to try to get going on this "sleep" thing while it's still Sunday. I've heard a lot of good things about "sleep." I'll have to give it a try sometime.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Blogging Will Devour Your Life, If You Let It

And here it is, Wednesday already, and I still haven't found time to explain why Mike won the last Friday Challenge, much less to dive into any of the topics I'd planned for this week. Specifically, having temporarily suspended the no politics rule, I really wanted to begin a thorough discussion of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and the threatened resurrection of the Orwellianly misnamed "Fairness Doctrine."

But here it is, Wednesday already. The ideas keep coming in fast and furious, but the time available to develop them seems shorter every day. Meanwhile, out in the Real World, I have three projects coming up to deadlines in the next three weeks, and every remaining spare minute is given over to preparations for a joyous "Render Unto Caesar" day celebration next Tuesday.

So blogging takes the back burner. Yet blogging can't take the back burner, can it? I mean, ya gotta keep those clicks coming! My readership drops off exponentially every day I don't post a new and substantial article, but only rebuilds linearly when I resume posting meaty, beefy, daily chunks. No wonder bloggers are committing karoshi at the keyboard, as described in this recent NY Times article, In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop.

I suppose it hadn't really occurred to me that we were moving towards a new era of the Digital Sweatshop. I mean, from time to time I get offers to write blogbits for someone else's site, and the discussions never make it past the point at which we talk about money, which is when I find I must laugh politely and say, "No, thanks," before I become rude. If I'm being asked to write what they want for chump change, I may as well go the rest of the distance and write what I want for free.

As a trained professional journalist, though, I can't see the "will work for links / will pay for clicks" model as being anything resembling good, though. This can only exacerbate the tendancy to rush into publication with half-baked innuedoes, half-formed rumors, and half-honest stories planted by someone with an axe to grind. After all, what matters is being first! Getting the scoop! If it bleeds, it leads! And all those other 1940s film noir clichés about headline-grabbing editors and bottom-feeding reporters that we've all come to know so well from 40 years of reading Spider-Man.

Rosenberg sent me a link to an interesting site last week. It purports to be a consumer reporting and advocacy site, but as I dug into it further, I discovered that for a modest annual fee, your business could become a "corporate sponsor" of the organization, and then in return they would fact-check their stories and give your company a chance to respond before they posted the story. Otherwise, under the guise of their 1st Amendment rights, they claimed an absolute right to publish any rumor about any company, with absolutely no sourcing or substantiation. (Never mind being sued libel; how they avoid being prosecuted for extortion is beyond me.)

But since the Internet operates at the speed of rumor in a vacuum, what's the answer? A resurrection of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, as Candidate Clinton has called for? Some sort of Internet censorship and blogging accreditation board, as First Lady Clinton was calling for right about the time Matt Drudge was waving the blue dress? Enforcement of certain court decisions regarding McCain-Feingold as it applies to bloggers and web sites, which remain on the books but are thus far unenforced? Or some sort of Truth Corps, as Candidate Obama no doubt has in mind, as he seems to have a Corps for everything else.

What do you think?

Monday, April 07, 2008

And the winner is...

Mike, for reasons to be expounded upon later, as I'm out of time now and have to run out the door in a few minutes. Mike, come on down to claim your prize.

Now remember, the topic for this week's Friday Challenge is your best tall-tale about Hillary Clinton, Immortal Mighty Woman Warrior Battling Through Time, and the deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, April 10.


Saturday, April 05, 2008

Of One's Own Feet, And The Shooting Thereof

As of this moment, I declare a temporary suspension of my "no politics" rule. I don't know how long this suspension will last, but it's something that simply must be done.

As to why I am now suspending my own most important rule, I feel I must first explain a little something about the genesis of this blog, and to do so I must consult an utterly unimpeachable source: me. Turn with me now to the book of Headcrash, Chapter 13, Verse 55:
DON_MAC stopped abruptly, before a virtual door, and I almost collided with him. "Ah," he said, "the Ranting Room. Do you ever visit the Ranting Room, Max?"

I screwed up my face into a distasteful expression, licked my lips, and tried to find some way to be polite about it. "Well, I, er, uh—"

"It's Fruitcake Central," DON_MAC announced. "Home to the most idiotic, hare-brained, addle-headed thinking on the planet. For example, tonight," he touched the menu card next to the door, and it glowed to life, "the Church of Vegentology will be conducting a memorial service for the Australian wheat harvest, followed at 0100 UTC by the PPLF." He paused, looked at the menu card slightly cock-eyed, and thumbed the card until supporting data was displayed. "The Portly Persons' Liberation Front will issue a call for aspiring terrorists to help them with their campaign of radical door enlargement. Then after that we have a meeting of the FWRA—the Future Welfare Recipients of America—who are splitting their time with Men Victimized by Vasectomy, and following that the president of Scatophiliacs Anonymous will give a talk on, 'Getting Your Shit Together.'"

DON_MAC considered that last one a moment, grimmaced, and released the menu card. It faded back to darkness, and he turned to me. "Do you know why the Marketplace sysops continue to maintain the Ranting Room, Max?"

I shrugged. "Cheap laughs?"

DON_MAC slowly shook his metallic head. "It's a safety valve, Max. Any open society must offer its members a safety valve—a way to vent any idea, no matter how looney—without fear of retribution. Take away that safety valve, and the only viable alternative is a police state, where all ideas are rigidly controlled."
And with that essential but rarely stated information out there, we can at last get to the crux of the biscuit.

I have just left—make that, escaped from—the 4th Congressional District Republican Party Convention. I was not actually a delegate; Karen is an elected delegate, and I a mere alternate, to be seated and given voting rights only if the specified number of elected delegates failed to show. We got there shortly before nine this morning; got signed-in, paid our fees—Republicans always want cash from you, and at this level I felt I should at least have gotten a tote bag and a souvenir mug, and not merely a styro cup of blah coffee, a crummy Danish, and plenty of tinder for the fire tonight—

But eventually we got into the hall and rendezvoused with the rest of our delegation, and the convention was called to order. We sat through a performance of the Pledge of Allegiance—the extended version, with the drum solo—a decently rousing reiteration of Senator Norm Coleman's stump speech, which is definitely getting better each time I hear it. (Three times, so far.) Then another speech by a lesser dignitary, and another speech by an even lesser dignitary, and another speech... And finally, at about quarter past ten, we finally got around to the official seating of the delegates and appointments of designated alternates.

And that's when the cat-fight erupted. In one of our neighboring delegations, there was a challenge to the credentials of one of the elected delegates. It turned out the chairman of that delegation had discovered that the woman in question was—gasp!—a Ron Paul supporter! More damning, he had proof—proof, I say!—in the form of printouts from the Internet, that that woman had participated in a Libertarian meetup group and had frequently posted on libertarian-oriented web sites! And by God, he had not devoted forty years to the Republican Party to let it be infiltrated like this, by a bunch of kids who had not paid their dues! (Hold on, I thought those were dues we were paying right before we got that lousy coffee and Danish.)

Thereafter followed about forty-five minutes of heated discussion, during which the chairman of our neighboring delegation presented a succession of overdressed party hacks to testify against that woman, interspersed with others testifying that this whole thing was a stupid waste of time. Right about the time I was beginning to wonder how Mister By God there would react if he knew that I'd once attended a meeting of the Communist Party (I was young, in college, and the meeting was being held by a professor who I really wanted to give me an A on the term paper I'd just turned in), the convention chair finally allowed the call for a vote. Then, after the convention decided by an overwhelming majority that that woman did not weigh the same as a duck, we finally got back to the business of seating alternate delegates.

And blessedly, by this time one of the missing members of our delegation had finally turned up, and I was able to yield my seat to an Earnest Young Libertarian who still wanted to stay to catch the rest of the circus.

Giving in to retrospection for a moment: unremembered years ago, I attended my first Republican Party conclave, at which we were to endorse a candidate for our Minnesota House District, which is the level of professional politics ranking right above that of dog-catcher. We had a long-established incumbent in the office, who was such a nullity I can't even remember his name now. He was what we call a Moderate Republican—in other words, a dependably Democratic vote. He got up before the crowd in that hall and gave a singularly soporific speech about how important it was for Republicans, as the minority party, to go along to get along, and about how valuable all his years of seniority were, because of all the committees it enabled him to sit on, and in some cases even co-chair.

And then, just as we were all about to surrender to ennui and re-endorse this guy for the umpteenth time, a pretty young woman in blue jeans, Reeboks, and a baggy sweatshirt got up and said she couldn't believe conversatives had to settle for this kind of lackluster representation. Then, speaking purely extemp and from the heart, she made an argument for an assertive sort of conservatism that doesn't back off on its principles, doesn't just "go along to get along," and doesn't try to pretend it's merely a slightly more fiscally responsible Democrat. The moment she finished speaking she was nominated from the floor, and for the first time in years we had an actual contest for the endorsement in our district. When the voting was over, our so-called representative took his ball and went home, with enough bitter parting shots at us delegates to ensure that his bridges were not merely burned but irrevocably blown, and knowing what the vote tallies were, and knowing that my ballot was the last one counted, I know beyond any doubt that it was my vote that gave Michele Bachmann the endorsement and put her on the road to Congress.

It's amazing what young and idealistic people can do, when the old geezers don't go out of their way to make them feel unwanted and irrelevant.

Your thoughts and comments?


Friday, April 04, 2008

The Friday Challenge: 4/4/08

Update: The links should work now.

First up, here are the entries received or posted for last week's Friday Challenge, which as you'll remember was to sketch out a CSI plot revolving around the capabilities, real or imagined, of the PistolCam. We've got fewer entries than usual this week, but they all seem really well-developed. In the order they were received, the contestants are:


We're trying something new this week, in that I'm posting links to the entries now, and you have until Sunday afternoon to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, with the winner to be announced Sunday evening.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: I know this is treading perilously close to my "no politics" rule, but I just couldn't resist. As only a hermit in a cave could have missed, Hillary Clinton has been the butt of much cruel humor lately, for having claimed that while as First Lady and on a junket to Kosovo, she had to run from the plane, "dodging sniper fire."

Okay. So it's an exaggeration. Everybody I know who's ever been in an even mildly slightly remotely dangerous situation always amps up the danger level when they retell the story, except for those guys I've interviewed who've actually seen the elephant, and they either downplay it or refuse to talk about it at all. So she told a stretcher. Big deal. The tall tale is an American tradition.

But that got me thinking: tall tale? A fiction-writing contest? The "Mighty Warrior Woman" trope, which is a staple of fantasy, vs. the "Immortal Warrior Battling Through Time" trope, which has been a staple of SF since at least Edgar Rice Burroughs? And then the title hit me...

Hillary Clinton
Immortal Mighty Warrior Woman
Battling Through Time

And that is what we're looking for this week: your best tall-tale about the adventures of the immortal warrior/goddess Hillary, as she fights her never-ending battle against... whatever the heck it is she's battling against. Tell us about the time she led the charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill! Tell us about how held the pass at Thermopylae after Leonidas fell! Tell us about how she single-handedly personned a Browning M2 to cover the retreat of the Marines from Chosin Reservoir, and then when President Truman tried to give her the Medal of Honor she turned it down, saying, "Aw, shucks, I was only doing my duty, sir."

Oh, all right. If you really object to the subject of this challenge, you can switch the protagonist's gender and substitute George W. Bush instead.

As always, we're playing by the ever-evolving rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for what's behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight central time, Thursday, April 10, with all submissions to be posted for review on Friday, 4/11, and the winner to be announced on the evening of Sunday, 4/13.

Any more questions? Then... begin!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Lessons Learned

Today's topic for bloggerel is, "Lessons Learned." I want to talk about some of the decisions we've made in starting Rampant Loon, why we decided to form a corporation (yes, we own an actual corporation now, so this permits us to sit in our corporation building and act all corporationy, when the mood strikes us), the lessons we've learned from the K&B Booksellers business in general and the Wrath of Angels experience in particular, and why we've chosen to operate as an actual old-school print publisher, and not as a "print-on-demand" or "ebook" publisher.

But rather than gas on about that, I'd also like to try something different today. So I'm throwing it open for questions now, and tonight will update this post with as many answers as I can provide.

What sort of questions would you like to see answered? I mean, besides the obvious one, which is, "Are you daft?"

Update @ 9 P.M.: Thanks for posting a pile of good questions. As promised, here's the Q & A. If you don't mind, rather than tackling your questions individually, I'll aggregate by like topics and answer collectively — except for this one:

Q. What is the average air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

A. About 1100 fps slower than a 12-gauge 3-dram load of #6 shot. Unfortunately, Mike, you completely failed to ask the obvious follow-up question:

Q. What does deep-fried unladen swallow taste like?

A. Chicken. Very tiny chicken.

With that out of the way: first up, we have a very fundamental question.

Q. Why?

A. Because we were looking for a family-owned business to build, and after examining a considerable number of possibilities, this one seemed to play to our strengths (and limits!) best. It's a field we know, a market we think we understand, and we believe there's a need that's being inadequately served at present.

We may be wrong. We expect to find out in the next two years. If it turns out that we are wrong, this is also a business whose failure we can survive.

Q. Can you tell us about the actual process of putting it together i.e. business plans, backing, that type of stuff?

A. Rather than going into detail here, I'll refer you to the book we started with: Business Plans for Dummies. We can discuss this topic more at another time, if you like.

Next, some questions about the mechanics behind The Wrath of Angels.

Q. Did your company print WoA? Do you have an actual print shop, or do you just broker deals with various printers?

A. WoA was published by Castalia House. Strictly speaking it's a self-publishing project, as Castalia is Vox's company and he's their sole author (so far), but I was more deeply involved in it than we generally let on. Vox wrote the book and bought the cover art; I did the internal design and layout and gave it a cursory proofread, but didn't have time for a proper edit. Vox paid for the printing and binding out of his own pocket, while I brokered the deal with the printer and K&B Booksellers handled everything after the books were shipped from the bindery. As K&B, we created the Amazon listing, and we've been handling world-wide order fulfillment ever since. That's not hyperbole; orders for this book truly have come in from all over the world.

I see no sane reason for a publisher to own an actual print shop anymore. Today's technology makes it not just possible but easy to farm the work out to whoever has the capacity and the ability to do it, and so far I've found no difference in quality between a shop a thousand miles away and one in Bloomington. Maybe the one in Tennessee is a little better, even; they seem happier to have the work. Those guys in Bloomington could be real pr**ks, sometimes.

One sticking point: I will only deal with American print vendors. I know that's insufficiently enlightened of me, but it's a decision I'm going to stick to. Just because.

The great part about doing WoA was that we got to have all of our learning experiences on Vox's dime. The not-so-great part is that we didn't have operational control over the project, and as a result were saddled with some decisions that seemed reasonable in the short term but proved costly in the long run. One thing we definitely learned is that every dollar spent on editing and proofreading before you go to press saves at least ten and probably twenty on the back end.

Q. I think there is an untapped market for pseudo-leather covered magazines, and TPBs. Especially if they contain a certificate of authenticity, signed by the writer/cartoonist, in a pocket on the inside of the cover. There, I just made you your first million, if you do it right.

A. Beat you to it. Keep reading.

Q. Just for the record, I only buy hardbound now. Can you do hardcovers?

A. Yes, our vendors claim to have that capacity, but I'm unimpressed by the quality of the samples I've seen thus far. Most seem to be just glue-bound trade paperbacks with thicker cardboard. I'm still searching for a vendor who can do a proper stitched binding and a quality cloth cover in the quantities we need at a price we can tolerate. I may be chasing a snipe.

Q. Is there a market for books anymore? I'm curious as to why you would exclude ebooks. It seems rather like a record company refusing to release their music in any format other than vinyl. That would be... well, looney.

A. Ah, this is a matter of nuance. I didn't say we wouldn't do ebooks; I said we weren't going to be an ebook publisher. That's one of the places where we've learned from observing other people's failures. We've watched quite a few people jump into the business feet first, while loudly proclaiming, "Print is Dead! Long Live the E-Book! We won't harm trees; we're only going to sell e-books!" And most of them have hit the water, made a big splash, and gone straight to the bottom with barely a bubble.

As the previous questions about hardcovers indicate, people like books. They like the tangible object. We will do ebooks; we're just not counting on making any money from them. I'll admit to being resistant at first, but I've seen it demonstrated enough times to see the light and accept the truth. If you give away the ebook free, a small but significant percentage of the downloaders will like it enough to pay good money for the hard copy. (And the ones who don't? Well, they were never your customers anyway — but maybe they'll remember your name and consider buying your next book.)

The mass market of the future is ebooks, and there's no money in it, because you'll never be able to compete with or control all the Pirate Bays of the world. The money, such as it is, is in catering to that limited subset of people who are willing to pay a premium to own the actual artifact. So stop thinking of books as books, Vidad. Think of them as signed, serialized, somewhat thicker than average lithographs.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why we decided not to go the print-on-demand (POD) route. Aside from the quality control problems and generally "cheap" feeling we've found in most of the POD books we've seen, if you only print a book when a customer orders it, it's almost impossible to get the author to sign it. And people will pay extra for the author's signature: If we'd been able to arrange for Vox to sign every copy of WoA, we could have easily doubled our sales.

Of course, the other reason why we decided not to go the POD route was because we didn't feel like getting anally raped by Amazon.

Oops, out of time. More tomorrow,

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

We have all been here before

Before I get started on the real topic for this post, I just want to share a personal moment with you. Today is one of those sorts of beautiful days we get up here in Minnesota, when you wake up in the morning and Mother Nature gently whispers, "You know how it was so warm and sunny this past weekend that you cleaned off the deck, got out the patio furniture and grill, and bought a new bag of charcoal? Well—


photo: my deck, this morning

And yet the Twins (whose season opener was yesterday) are tired of playing in the Metrodome and want We The People to spend a half-billion taxpayer dollars building them a shiny new outdoor baseball palace...

Continuing with Sunday's discussion on making a name, Josh says:
"It's all about eyeballs, and how many of them you can get to pay attention to you."
Then Sean adds:
"I think you need to do something that will upset the average housewife.

"You need to be the flaming bag of dog poo on the footstep of middle america."
Really? Is that all there is to it?

I have the strangest sense of deja vu all over again, as if we have covered this ground before. Look, we all know how to get attention. Three words: sex, violence, and shit. If you can be the sort of peroxide-blonde Pop Tart who occasionally forgets to wear underwear in public — wham!, you're the center of attention. Likewise, a gruesome car wreck with fatalities never fails to get plenty of attention; just turn on the local TV news tonight. And never underestimate the appeal of puerile scatalogical humor. O.J. Simpson's greatest mistake was that he didn't write a book entitled, How I Did It And Got Away With It Scot-Free, Chumps, illlustrated with bedroom Polaroids of himself getting busy with a vast array of really hot bimbos and breaking up the tension with a few really good fart jokes.

If all you want to do is get attention, that's easy: just remember "SBS." Sex, blood, and shit.

Or wait. Do you — perhaps, possibly, just maybe — have a moral obligation to your readers to get past the infantile urge to take off your diaper, smear the contents thereof on the nursery walls, and then sit in the corner playing with your own genitalia?

Maybe one of the reasons why the book industry is coughing blood and grasping for straws now is that Middle America has seen the flaming dog poo gag before, and they got tired of it decades ago. When all you have to sell is shock, eventually you reach the point where you simply can't shock your audience any further. Even the Theatre de la Grand Guignol eventually closed down from sheer lack of an audience.

Is it really all — and only — about eyeballs, and getting people to pay attention to you?