Meet the Inmates

Chris Naron
Vidad MaGoodn
Vidad's Flaming Drones of Death
Rigel Kent
Henry the V
Al, The New Guy
Michael Maier
Flicka Spumoni
Passin Through
Sean, the Were-seal
Water Buffalo
Frau im Mond
Ian McLeod
Captain Slack
J. Max Wilson
Carl V.
Damaged Justice

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Ongoing Book Discussion Discussion

Last week zanzibar asked a very good question:
Why not something by a new or relatively unknown/obscure author? That way we expose it to new readers, we won't come to it with a "canon bias" and we "help a brother out" all at the same time.

Of course, I haven't read any good stuff by a new author recently so maybe I've answered my own question.
Well, how about it? Have you read anything good by a new and relatively unknown writer lately?

I wish I could say that I have, but aside from the Friday Challenge entries, I'd be lying. I picked up a copy of Analog on a business trip recently, and all I saw was more stories by writers I knew 20 years ago, still flogging the dessicated hides and bones of horses they'd murdered back in the 1980s. I found myself reading the opening paragraphs of stories, right up to that point about 250 words in where the little voice inside my head piped up and said, "All right, we know how Naeme D'Leted is going to end this one, because that's the way he always does it," and so I'd flip to the ending — and sure enough, that would be exactly how my old colleague Naeme had done it. Again.

There's a bookstore over in Minneapolis: Uncle Hugo's Science Fiction Bookstore. The owner, Don Blyly, is both an old friend and a true blue SF fan, and he puts out a bimonthly newsletter listing all the newly received and forthcoming SF, Fantasy, and even slightly tangentially related books being put out by all the major publishers, along with at least a two-sentence summary of each book.

To be honest, I've been thinking about asking Don to stop sending me the newsletter. It's too depressing. Every two months, the same damned thing: movie spinoffs, TV series spinoffs, game spinoffs, TV series spinoff spinoffs... (No, that's not a typo. Successful TV series spinoff book series can in turn develop their own spinoffs, e.g., the I.K.S. Gorkon books, for those Trek fans who just can't get enough Klingons.) The sequel to this, the prequel to that, book #15 in this series, book #8 in that series, the latest in another series they're not even bothering to number — ooh, here's something exciting, bestselling author Sara Catherine Elizabeth Nancy has at last wrapped up her epic fantasy nontology, Black Sword of The Enchanted Castle, and launched an entirely new dodecapentology, Enchanted Sword of The Black Castle...

Vampire chick-lit, chick-lit vampire, vampire detective chick-lit paramedic, obese — I'm sorry, "plus-sized" — Southern vampire chick-lit detective who solves mysteries with the aid of her psychic cat... And just how many times do they need to reissue A.E. Van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle, anyway?


Ergo, I hereby declare today Open Mic day. Do you have a new book by a new or at least relatively unknown living author that you've read lately and would like to recommend? Then by all means, this is your opportunity to plug it, so plug away.

The lines are open...

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 6/27/08

It took the usual last minute rush, but we ended up with five six* entries for the 6/20/08 Friday Challenge. In the order received, they are from:

Rigel Kent

Read 'em, enjoy, feel free to comment on and vote for your favorites, and we'll announce a winner on Sunday night. And because it has been asked: yes, your votes do factor into determining the winner — but in the end, final authority and judgment is vested in the hands of She Who Sponsors The Contest.

* Snowdog's extremely late entry has been admitted under the Spanish Inquisition rule. See, "No One Ever Expects the Spanish Inquisition," by Python, M., for further explication.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: given that next Friday is Independence Day, a great American holiday dedicated to celebrating our independence from Great Britain by observing the traditions of eating greasy burnt picnic food, insulting the French and forgetting how much they helped us, and setting off cheaply made Chinese low explosives while consuming large quantities of chilled alcoholic beverages, we're looking for your best Fourth of July and/or fireworks-related story.

Tell us about the time your best friend Vern accidentally burned off his eyebrows. Tell us why the neighbor's cat went to its grave never trusting your big brother again, or about the time Uncle Bucky accidentally demolished the outhouse with a Roman candle. Tell us about the time you decided to thrill the kids by starting the charcoal grill with a little black-powder squib, but slightly overestimated the charge required, resulting in a profound FOOOOMP!, an honest-to-God mushroom cloud, and the near-instant distribution of flaming charcoal briquettes over an area roughly thirty feet in diameter, thus drawing far more attention from strangers than you really wanted.

Oh, wait, scratch that last one. That's my story.

Anyway, that's the challenge. As always, we're playing by the as-yet-unwritten rules of the Friday Challenge — it's not that they're a mystery; I've just been too lazy to write them down — and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for entries, is midnight Central time, Thursday, July 3, with entries to be posted for review and comments on Friday, July 4, and a winner to be announced on Sunday, July 6.

So, ready? Then light the fuse and run for cover!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Re-examining Heroism (continued)

cover illo: Moment of Truth in Iraq, by Michael Yon

Book Description:
Never underestimate the American soldier. That's the moral of former Green Beret Michael Yon's brilliant battle-by-battle, block-by-block tale of how America's new `greatest generation' of soldiers is turning defeat and disaster into victory and hope in Iraq.

The American soldier is the reason General David Petraeus's brilliant strategy of moving our soldiers off isolated bases and out among the Iraqi people is working. Working to find and kill terrorists, reclaim neighborhoods, and help lead Iraq to democracy.

Yon is no cheerleader. According to the New York Times, he has logged more time in combat situations in Iraq than any other reporter. When failed American leadership was driving Iraq into chaos and civil war, nobody told the story earlier or better than Michael Yon. The top brass was so mad that twice the U.S. military denied him access to Iraq.

So Yon has supreme credibility when he says that we are finally winning, not primarily with our overwhelming technology, not with shock and awe destruction, but with the even more powerful force of American values--with the courage and leadership, strength and compassion of our soldiers.

Iraqis respect strength, says Yon. They know American soldiers are "great-hearted warriors" who vanquish the Al Qaeda terror gangs that "raped too many women and boys, cut off too many heads, brought drugs into too many neighborhoods."

But Iraqis also discovered that these great warriors are even happier helping rebuild a clinic or a school or a neighborhood. They learned the American soldier is not only the most dangerous man in the world, but the best man too. That's what turned defeat into victory.

Here is the true, untold story of the American soldier and the courage and values that are bringing victory for America--and Iraq.
Link to Amazon reviews

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Whatever happened to heroes?

KTown writes:
I'm sorry, maybe I was raised in naivete but I miss the days when the good guys were good (not winning by playing nastier than the baddies). When Superman is held in contempt by society because he is a "boy scout," what does that say? And why all the promiscuity and oversexed storylines? It is assumed Batman is sleeping around. Black Cat is getting raped, and the X-Men are having crazy super human sex with each other.

I think it appeals to some aspect of our nature that enjoys seeing the tainting of something that is supposed to be good and pure. Like hearing a little kid curse. Of course there is something of the otherworldly spectacle of it but it just feels wrong.

Heroes are supposed to be pillars and models for what is good. But with our recently acquired cultural ideal that sex in any form and in any situation is good and natural combined with our taste for the pornographic, we all say, "Hey, why can't Batman get a piece of a__!"
I've been ruminating about this, but every response I try to write keeps getting longer and more convoluted. Ergo, since I'm already out of time this morning, I'm going to give up trying to cram it into one post and just declare it an open topic. For the next week or so — leading up to Independence Day, fittingly enough — we're going to talking about heroes, heroism, and whatever the heck it was that happened to the heroic in fiction.

But first, meet Lance Sijan. He was my neighbor.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A New Philosophy Regarding Book Reviews

From time to time I remember that this blog is supposed to be about the trade of writing and the business of publishing, and it's usually when I stumble across something truly astonishing, like this. Encounter Books is a publisher with an ax to grind and a point of view to sell — well, so are they all, but unlike most, Encounter Books is honest and open about the fact that they lean decidedly right. They publish Victor Davis Hanson. They publish Thomas Sowell (and if you have the time, Sowell's article on how to write is a treat). They published Climate Confusion, which I believe I'm still pimping in the right column. The most utterly astonishing thing they've published lately, though, is this: Encounter Bids The New York York Times Farewell.
Beginning today, June 23, 2008, Encounter Books will no longer send its books to The New York Times for review. Of course, the editors at the Times are welcome to trot down to their local book emporium or visit to purchase our books, but we won’t be sending gratis advance copies to them any longer.

“But wait,” you might be thinking, “I don’t recall the Times reviewing titles from Encounter Books.” Precisely! By and large, they don’t, at least in recent years. That’s part of the calculation: why bother to send them books that they studiously ignore?

In the last month, Encounter has had two titles on the extended New York Times best-seller list: Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor, by Roy Spencer, and Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, by Andrew C. McCarthy. But that list is the only place you will find these books mentioned in the pages of The New York Times.[...]

Once upon a time, and not that long ago, it meant something if your book was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. A Times review imparted a vital existential certification as well as a commercial boost. Is that still the case? Less and less, I believe. [...]

Sure, a positive review in the Times still helps sell books. But it’s quite clear that books from Encounter won’t be getting those reviews, so it is pointless for us to send copies of our books to the Times — worse than pointless, because by so doing we help to perpetuate the charade that the Book Review is anything like even-handed in its treatment of conservative books. There is also this fact: the real impetus in selling books has decisively shifted away from legacy outlets like The New York Times towards the pluralistic universe of talk radio and the “blogosphere.” That is why Encounter can see its books on the Times’s bestseller list without ever making it into the paper’s review columns...
If you're interested in the sort of behind-the-scenes cat-fighting that goes on in the Marketplace of Ideas, the full article is worth reading, and you'll find it posted here.

P.S. If you don't trust my endorsement of Thomas Sowell, then how about one from David Mamet?

The Difference Between Humor and Odor

In honor of the passing of George Carlin yesterday, I felt it necessary to bring this old post back up to the top. Carlin was a profound influence on me; when I was 17, I thought he was just @#*($&^ing hot !#(*$&$!, and I once not only had the privilege of seeing him perform live, I also got to watch as he was subsequently arrested for that same performance. Later, I imagine he must have looked on with near-paternal pride as an entire generation of young comedians followed in his footsteps, and audiences were doubled over in laughter at such brilliant witticisms as @#$(*&^#$, @#$*&^?!, @#$*&^#**, and of course, the unforgettable, #@*&^$@!!^*&@~!!!

Therefore, in solemn recognition of the passing of one of the great comedians of our time, I am rerunning this review, and suggest that as you go through your day today, you take a moment now and then to reflect on the difference Carlin made in your life, and then pull out your Sharpie and scribble @#*&^#$@#!! on a bathroom wall.

Originally posted July 20, 2006.

It was one of those books you pick up and start reading because someone else left it at the cabin and you lack the energy to go find the book you intended to read. In this particular case, the book was Napalm & Silly Putty, by George Carlin.

Now, how can I say this? "This book is bad." No, that's inadequate. "This book is stunningly awful." No, still not there. How about, "Carlin's collection of allegedly humorous quips and stories is a week-old turd sautéed in dog vomit over a flaming fart."

Yes, I think that begins to get close to it. But in all fairness I should also add, "And a NY Times #1 Bestseller."

Me, I've had to spend the past week re-reading Robert Benchley just to get the persistent reek of Carlin out of my mind. But I'm left to wonder: this book is a Hyperion (which is to say, Disney) product, and the Library of Congress files it under "American wit and humor." From Mark Twain ("Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."), to Will Rogers ("Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock."), to George Carlin ("@#*&^$ @#6% @#(*ing @#^ @(*&??? *&^# *@^#$ @&*^ed &*^*$%!!!)

Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

And the winner is...

Interesting Friday Challenge this week — I mean to us, as we judged it. We had four very different entries this time around. They were from:

Vidad: Yours was transcendently weird, but that wasn't enough to win, this time.

Sean: I liked yours a lot. It had a great Golden Age feel to it, very much like the old Batman comics from the 1940s or early 1950s. A deranged barber who takes up a life of crime as "The Follicle" would have fit right in with all the deranged watchmakers, deranged tailors, and deranged subway conductors Batman routinely fought in those days. Good concept.

Henry: Brilliant. Simply brilliant, hilarious, and probably good enough to get you banned from DC for life. It was really hard to not pick this one, but then you do have a certain unfair advantage in that you're a pro and you've done comic books scripts before.

Rigel Kent: So in the end we picked Rigel's entry, because it was dark, creepy, clever, and took the idea in a direction that we never anticipated. Karen particularly liked the idea that no matter how smart, tough, and nasty Lex thought he was, Bruce Wayne was always one step ahead of him, and when required, even tougher and nastier. Ergo, Rigel, you're this week's winner, so come on down and claim your prize.

Now, don't forget, the deadline for the next Friday Challenge is this Thursday, and we're looking for stories about carnivals.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Ongoing Book Discussion Discussion

Original Post - 6/19/08: Sean has nominated Robert Heinlein's classic novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, to be the topic for this Saturday's book discussion. Does anyone want to second this nomination or recommend an alternative?

Update - 6/21/08: One does not diss Robert Anson Heinlein lightly. I tried that, very early in my career, and George Scithers pointed out in no uncertain terms that if I intended to have a career, I'd better cut that out right now. I listened to Scithers; I learned. I'd meant no great disrespect to Heinlein, as I'd grown up on and loved his early novels — Rocket Ship Galileo, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky, The Puppet Masters, Double-Star, Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, Methuselah's Children, Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Glory Road; the list goes on and on, and exceeds the time I have to write about them this morning — but what I'd been reacting to at that time was the then-newly released The Number of The Beast, which I considered the worst load of crap I'd ever seen sandwiched between hardcovers, until Friday came out two years later.

I was young, then, and full of that harsh judgmentalism that is readily the province of the young. I considered Beast to be evidence that Heinlein had lost it and really didn't appreciate how old Heinlein was, or how precarious his health had become, nor how close he then was to really losing it all forever. I find it easier to be sympathetic now.

In debating the merits of Stranger in a Strange Land, then, one must remember that Heinlein had a very long and widely varied career as a writer, that only started after he was invalided out of the Navy with tuberculosis. (Hey, there's an alternate history idea for you. Imagine what life today would be like if Lt. Heinlein had not been given a medical discharge, but rather had been able to continue in his original ambition to be a career Navy officer, and consequently had still been aboard the USS Lexington when it was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Would there even have been an Apollo program without Destination Moon?)

By the time he wrote Stranger, he was in his mid-50s; had been married three times and divorced twice; had been rich and broke several times over; had been a socialist who had become a defender of Joe McCarthy and supporter of Barry Goldwater; and had been publishing professionally for more than twenty years and was really tired of writing what he considered to be children's books. So in one sense, Stranger is a cathartic discharge of all the life's experience he didn't dare to put in his previous decade or two's worth of books, and it was a combination of dumb luck and savvy market-timing that made this book the unofficial cult-classic for all those 1960s neo-pagan wannabe sexual revolutionaries who were looking for a new paradigm.

On another level, I'm inclined read this book as a satire on religion, particularly Scientology. You cannot separate Campbellian SF from Scientology (much as Campbell's defenders might wish you could), and Heinlein would have been writing this book at right about the same time as he'd become convinced that John W. Campbell, the magazine editor who'd launched his career, had finally gone 'round the bend on this whole Dianetics and "psi" business. In that regard Stranger really caters to the sci-fi fanboy's conceit that there are awesome untapped powers in the human mind, and that if only one can learn to liberate and control those powers, one can twist the fabric of reality like a Bavarian pretzel and do terrible violence to the laws of thermodynamics through the power of pure wishing. In fantasy stories, the hero does this by finding an ancient scroll containing a magic spell. In science fiction, the hero does this by learning to speak Martian. See the difference?

Ooops, out of time, must dash. Will try to write more later.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 6/20/08

As you may from our last episode, the challenge was to sort out the whole Bruce Wayne viz Lex Luthor thing: how is it possible that two wealthy industrialists with so many interests in common never seem to meet? We have entries from:

Rigel Kent

To be honest, I haven't read any of 'em yet, as I had a project I needed to get buttoned up before taking a day of so-called vacation to work in a booth at Oakdale Summerfest. So as usual, here are links to the entries, and I encourage you to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. We'll announce a winner on Sunday: same Duck time, same Duck channel.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge — actually, I had an idea for something fairly literary, but I've completely forgotten it in the last 36 hours. Instead, I'm thinking about small-town carnivals; the smell of deep-fried cheese curds (and deep-friend Oreos, and deep-fried pickles on a stick, and good Lord, just about anything else that can be battered, impaled on a stick, dunked in boiling oil for a minute and then sold to customers, for rapid consumption and later regurgitation; for further explication of this concept, consider this old photo essay from a few years back) —
{Update 6/21/08: It gets worse. This morning's St. Paul Pioneer Press features a preview of some of the new gastronomic delights awaiting fairgoers this year. I'm not sure which is more appalling appealing — the "Pig Licker," which is a big hunk of bacon, deep-fried on a stick, and then dipped in chocolate and rolled in coarse salt, or the "Big Fat Bacon," which is one-third of a pound of bacon, deep-fried and on a stick (of course), and then covered with carmelized maple syrup.

And Midwesterners wonder how terms like Wiscorgeous make it into the lexicon...}
And cotton candy, and steaming hot dogs, and fantastically overpriced lemonade, and little kids all goobered up with melted ice cream, and the sight of pretty young teenage girls dressing to entice the boys and shock their parents, and the garish lights and blaring sounds of carnival rides, and most of all about the smell, sight, and sounds of carnies, who all seem to come from South Dogpatch, Louisiana, and have long greasy hair and four teeth. And frankly, they creep the Hell out of me.

So that's what we're looking for this week: a story about hot fun in the summertime, and a carnivals. It can be sweet and romantic; it can be funny; or it can be scary. Remember, Ray Bradbury got a heckuva lot of mileage out of the inherent creepiness of carnivals.

And with that said: begin. But remember, the carnival is only in town until midnight Central time, Thursday, June 26, and then overnight it disappears again, leaving nothing but flattened grass and litter behind...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

From the archives

Photo believed taken in 1971. Assisted by his sinister henchperson, the soon-to-be-legendary Commandant Quackers, a young Bruce Bethke teaches his highly vaunted Army of Duckness the proper way to goose-step.

"You can't spell 'millions' without 'minions'," Bethke is reported to have said. "Oh, wait, I guess you can't spell either from the other, can you? Maybe I'd better rethink this whole waterfowl-based world-domination plan."

After years of secret preparation, Bethke was at last ready, and on October 15, 1972, he launched his surprise attack across the Wauwatosa border. In a brilliant tactical move, he flanked the much feared 'tosan defenses by sending his highly air-mobile and amphibious forces through the Horicon Marsh, which was widely considered to be impassable.

Sadly, in a tragic strategic cock-up of epic proportions, he neglected to note that the date he picked to launch his offensive was also the opening date of Wisconsin duck season. The slaughter that day was horrible to behold, and while individual members of the Army of Duckness were later reported to have fought bravely and at times with savage cunning, mostly they were reported to be delicious, especially with a bread-crumb stuffing and a little plum sauce.

Everyone's a winner!

Sorry, I'm warming up my carny pitch for my stint in the booth at Oakdale Summerfest this weekend. In reality, the judging went something like this.

Bane: Good writing as always and an insane tale, well-told. I think I was at that party, or one just like it, but don't remember much past the point when Jerry demonstrated he could chug an entire quart of Mad Dog 20/20 and then unintentionally demonstrated to all the girls what a grape-colored vomit cannon looked like. Congrats on surviving your teenage years, and here's to those we knew who didn't.

Rigel Kent: There's a good story in there, but it needs more development. Also for some reason I kept reading "Rivendell" as "Riverdale" and waiting for Archie and Jughead to show up. You've got a good idea that really gets the 15-year-old psyche — high-school as a combination prison/nuthouse/indoctrination camp — but as I said, it needs to be longer and more fully developed.

Sean: Good stories, both of 'em, and now I feel I understand you a bit better. Sales, huh? That's where I started. There is still hope for you.

KTown: "Kylie Mathis had large breasts..."

Huh? Oh, sorry, I'm a guy, so my brain shut off for a moment there. Uh, cute story; sweet, poignant, loaded with that awful teenage awkwardness and wistful "what might have been" and "if only I knew then what I know now" that every one of us (except Bane, apparently) suffered through.

It helps if, when you wonder what Kylie is doing now, you envision her living in a trailer park with three kids, all by different fathers, and sitting on the couch watching "Judge Judy" while she eats an entire fudge cake and washes it down with a 40-oz malt liquor.

Snowdog: That is a nightmare, dude... and the sort of thing Philip K. Dick could get an entire novel out of. I'd like to see you develop it further.

Vidad: So of course Vidad did develop it further, and produced another bit of inspired madness that cracked me up. Oh, and thanks for the tip on the minions; I'll get to work on that. Good henchmen are so hard to find these days. I'm more concerned by the ducks, though. They've never let me down before. You must be made of stern stuff — for a hoo-man. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha....

Passing Through: I don't know why this one appeals to me so, but it's probably because it seems so alien and idyllic compared to my childhood. I know; as every farmer's kid I've ever known has said, "Idyllic? Are you nuts?" Hey, I'll trade you a summer of working in the garden and chasing sheep around for a summer of race riots, looting, burning, and wondering if your dad's going to come home alive.

Henry: Karen lobbied long and hard for yours to win, because it's such a great love story. It made me laugh, too, and I definitely could relate — except that the first time I met Karen's father, he was sitting at the kitchen table, in uniform, cleaning his service revolver. ("And you'll have my daughter home by when?") Wonderful story you've got there, and congratulations on the happy ending.

Mick: But in the end, I had to go with "Orange Crush." I can't tell if this one is truth or fiction, but whatever it is, it's a great story, wonderfully told. Reading it really put me in that time and place, and inside the narrator's head. Great job. Ergo Mick, you're last week's winner, so come on down and claim your prize.

Now, as for this week: well, here's an early reminder that the deadline is midnight central time, tomorrow night. But tonight, of course, is the night of the full moon, so anything might happen...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dad's Novel

It being Father's Day, I was going to write a longish piece this morning about my dad and the failed novel he spent years writing, and the impact it had on our relationship. But the more I think about the subject, the more I realize that the one thing I really wish he'd given me was time.

It's too late to call my dad today; that would require a Ouija board. But it's not too late for me to stop working and give my kids a day of undivided attention. Ergo, Mr. Laptop is shutting down now, and I'll be offline all day. Catch you tomorrow.

P.S. For those of you who need the support, remember there's Were-Creatures Anonymous meeting at 7 p.m. tonight, in the community room in the basement of the Rampant Loon office building. All Friends of Lon are welcome.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Ongoing Book Discussion Discussion

Update 6/14/08: I'm going through some pangs over the idea of discussing this book. Personally, I like Joe Haldeman. I always got along better with his late brother, Jack, and Joe and I are nothing like friends — if he remembers me at all, it's probably for one time when I got in his face and was particularly assinine while drunk, for which incident I've never had the opportunity to apologize — but I stand in awe of his body of work and have the greatest respect for Mr. Haldeman's accomplishments as an author, while also having the greatest appreciation for all his efforts to try to make SFWA something other than some sort of silly hyperfanboy marching and chowder society.


I've read The Forever War at least three times now: once in the form of a string of short stories in Analog, once in the original St. Martin's hardcover, and most recently in the 1997 Avon "definitive" with "everything restored" hardcover edition. Somehow, this latest reading leaves me with the feeling that this was a much better book thirty years ago.

Am I simply getting crankier and more critical with age, or is The Forever War one of those 1970s things that just plain hasn't aged well? There are entire classes of similar cultural icons — Tiny Tim, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, In-a-gadda-da-vida, the movie, The Magic Christian — that I now find I can only explain to my children by saying, "It was the Sixties (or Seventies). Drugs were involved."

Does The Forever War fall into that category, and should I give up on my efforts to convince The Kid that it's worth reading now?

Your thoughts, s'il vous plait.

Original post 6/7/08
As I've said many times before, I read omnivorously and constantly. At the moment, along with everything else, I'm re-reading Joe Haldeman's multiple award-winning science fiction novel, The Forever War.

Is anyone else interested in discussing this one: what works, what doesn't, what you liked about it, what you hated about it? If so, let's meet back here next Saturday, 6/14/08.

Also, do you have any recommendations for any other books that might be worth doing as a Mongolian cluster group read 'n' discuss?

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 6/13/08

Update: Oops, sorry, missed the link to Sean's entry. It's included now.


It's been a long week here in Casa del Calamaro. Last weekend we had the multistate road trip that culminated in the Ordeal by Airline — and I guess we're lucky that we did it do it last weekend, and not this weekend as a certain party tried to reschedule it to at the last minute, because this weekend I-94 is closed between Mauston and Madison due to the flooding of the Baraboo River.

Anyway, that was last weekend, then this week turned out to be more work-intensive than expected, and on top of that today is The Kid's birthday. How auspicious is that? The Kid turns 13 on Friday the 13th.

Pushing my luck, then, I've finally gotten around to the Friday Challenge, and I find we've got quite a few entries this week. Here they are, in roughly the order received. If I've missed anybody or if there are any broken links, please let me know.

Passin Through
Rigel Kent

As always, you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite, with the winner to be announced on Sunday.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: my original idea was in far too poor taste, so here's the backup idea, which came to me as I was reading through the accumulated comments from last week. Specifically, someone (sorry, I forget who) pointed out something that had never occurred to me before, but now seems glaring in its obviousness. Aside from Frank Miller's Dark Knight 2, which doesn't count, you never see Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor together.

So that's what we have this week; a totally fanboy challenge. Two insanely rich men; two captains of capitalism who travel in the same circles and yet somehow never meet; two obviously brilliant but deeply disturbed guys with matching obsessions with crime and gadgets: what's the real story? Are Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor actually one and the same, and if so, is it Bruce Wayne who is actually Lex Luthor with a good toupee, or is it Wayne who takes off his toup to become Luthor? Or, if they actually are different people, is Superman merely an unwitting pawn in the battle for market share between LuthorCorp and Wayne Industries — a tool of Bruce Wayne, as it were, who's using the Big Blue Dunce to cripple his toughest competitor?

Or is it simply pure happenstance that Wayne and Luthor have never met, and once they finally do, might they recognize each other as kindred spirits, become golf buddies, and eventually agree that whatever their other differences, they're in full concord on one point: the Kryptonian is a major pain in the ass?

So that's the challenge this week. Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor: sort it out.

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever's behind Door #2. You can post your entry in the Comments on this post, post it on your own blog or website and post a link here, or email me your entry and I'll pdf and post it. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, 6/19/08.

P.S. And given the rarefied social stratum in which they move, what happens when Wayne's and Luthor's various ex's meet and start comparing notes?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 6/6/08

Update 6/12/08: Just a reminder that the deadline for the 6/6/08 Friday Challenge, School's Out!, is midnight Central time tonight. Details are below.

We've got a pretty thin field this week with just three entries. Maybe this challenge was too vague or weird. At any rate, the contestants are, in the order their entries were received:


As always, you're invited to discuss, comment upon, and vote your for favorites, and the winner of the 5/30 Friday Challenge, and the highly coveted whatever-it-is that's behind Door #2 will be announced next Sunday.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge, I can sum it all up in two words:


That's what we're looking for this week; your favorite interesting, frightening, funny, sentimental, or whatever story about the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. It can be true; it can be pure fiction; it can be somewhere in-between.

For example, at this time of year I can never help but get a little misty-eyed as I remember that fine Spring day many years ago, when, on the last day of the semester, at the end of our last year together in Junior High, after we'd cleaned out our lockers one last (and for many, first!) time, we students who had been together all year in Mrs. Hjalmer's 9th-grade English class gathered for one last time in Humboldt Park, to heap our copies of Ethan Frome into a pile and burn them, because we hated that novel that much.

What's your favorite school's-out story that always brings a little tear to your eye, smile to your face, or bile rising in the back of your throat?

As always, we're playing by the completely improvised rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever's behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, 6/13/08, and even if you don't enter, you're encouraged to comment on the other entries and vote for your favorites.

Ready? Then... begin!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Writing Career

Janine writes:
Everyone has a dream job. Mine is reading and researching whatever I want, writing about it [...] If I could maintain shelter, get enough food to sustain me, and perhaps some extra for clothing, I'd be a happy girl. As it is, I've written in the evenings and on weekends, while working full time and for a while, simultaneously earning an MA.

I have a decent list of credits: lots of websites, lots of small publications. About 2 dozen magazines [...] I've written a few press releases for a charity and a lobbying org I like. [...] I also feel called to research in military psychology (what I got my MA in), and I'm about to get a job offer (I hope) as a writer for a foundation whose cause and methods I passionately support.

So what's a girl to do? Is freelancing for a living really possible? How do I know it's what I want to commit myself to ? Or do I go half-way, with a part-time job and writing for the rest, instead of taking the full jump? Or devoting so much time to a "hobby" that the husband complains I never pay him any attention? [...]
Certainly it's possible. All manner of amazing things are possible. Is it probable? That depends on some as-yet-unspecified terms and conditions.

Where do you live? How do you define a living? Do you have dependents? How good is your health? Is this husband you mention purely hypothetical or a real person in a current relationship that you wish to maintain?

Somewhere around here I've got a book entitled, How to Make $20,000 A Year Writing No Matter Where You Live. It's an older book, but if it's been updated recently, I expect the number in the title has been raised to $32K, tops. However, the basic message of the book will not have changed.

Writing for a living is work. Writing as your sole means of support is hard work. Being a full-time freelance writer is actually two job titles: Senior Engineer in Charge of Creative R&D and VP of Sales & Marketing. To make a living as a freelance writer you must hustle, hustle, hustle and sell, sell, sell all the time — and then, you must find some way to carve out the time to actually write that which you sell.

You must develop a client list, of people who will consistently buy your work. You must focus on a fairly narrow set of specialties, either in terms of subject matter or style. You must establish yourself as the "go-to" writer for any work having to do with your specialty, you must write only work that is either pre-sold or as close to pre-sold as is possible, and you must mercilessly resell, rehash, and recycle every single bit of research and writing you do so as to wring as much income as possible out of it.

And then, somehow, you must find a way to carve the time required to actually write out of the rest of your life, and your family, friends, and dependents will suffer accordingly. This is why so many writers are night-owls, or in my case, early birds. This is why so many writers are divorced. This is why writers who have pets generally have cats, because cats can be left to fend for themselves, while dogs require frequent attention and maintenance. If you have children, remember, human children are far more like puppies than kittens.

This is what is required to make a living as a full-time freelance writer. Following your nose and curiosity wherever they lead and writing about whatever fascinates you this month only works if you are a tenured professor, married to a doctor or lawyer, very good at playing the arts grant game, living on a trust fund in one of your millionaire father's spare vacation homes, or have a very low threshold as to what constitutes "a living." If you live in Outer Boondockia, it may be possible to live decently on a low cash flow. Contrariwise, I have met writers who claim it is possible to be a freelance writer and live comfortably in New York City on a cash income of $20,000 a year. Myself, I have a deep-seated aversion to stepping on cockroaches in the kitchen and stepping over crack-heads in the hallway.

Does what I've written so far give you pause? Good, because I haven't even begun to address the question of medical insurance coverage, which is something most freelance writers don't even begin to have. But I've written enough on this topic for one morning, and must now get back to paying work. (For reference, the First Rule of Being a Professional Writer is: "Paying work on deadline always takes priority.")

But before I log off, I want to leave you with one encouraging thought. Or rather, with an encouraging link: In Praise of Brilliant Amateurs.

Kindest regards,

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Friday Challenge Update

Urgh. Just back from a long road trip. The primary objective of the trip was achieved yesterday afternoon and a wonderful time was had by all, but then a remarkably nasty storm system moved into the area yesterday evening, followed by a second one today, resulting in a chaos of flooded and washed out roads and canceled and diverted flights. So trying to get #1 Daughter to the airport and onto some combination of flight connections that would get her back to her home, before getting ourselves onto the road for our own day-long drive to our home, turned out to be a memorable and exhausting adventure.

And with that as some explanation for why this is getting posted so late, the winner of the 5/30/08 Friday Challenge is WaterBoy. Ben-El, your entry was funny and creative but too much of an insider joke, and Henry, I'm pleased by the way you developed a complete and very good little story out of a pretty thin idea, but in the end, it was WaterBoy's entry that made us chuckle* the most.

So WaterBoy, come on down! And everyone, don't forget the 06/06/08 Friday Challenge, which ends this Thursday!

* Or perhaps it was a rictus of horror, at the thought of Adam Sandler starring in a remake of Oh God!

Speaking of horror, I have a question. By some weird coincidence we wound up spending a few days at the same hotel as a bunch of horror movie actors who were in-town for some convention where they were promoting their merch and various video wares. I wouldn't have noticed this except that one of them was the unforgettable Michael Berryman, and apparently our stomachs were on the same schedule as we kept running into him in the hotel restaurant.

What's the proper etiquette in this situation? I tend to operate by Los Angeles Rules, under which one is expected to politely ignore the recognizable movie actor/actress at the next table unless said actor/actress is clearly begging for attention, but outside of L.A., do actors/actresses appreciate being recognized? What's been your experience?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

It went like this:
Surreptitiously exploring Luthor Manor, Jimmy Olson and Chloe stumble across something even Lionel and Lex don't know: that the bust of Shakespeare in the library has a hinged head that when flipped open reveals a switch, which when thrown opens up a secret panel in the wall, revealing two tarnished old firehouse-type brass poles.

Being recklessly curious as always, Jimmy and Chloe slide down the poles to discover—

a.) The 1960s-era Batcave, with all the gear therein covered with dust and cobwebs but otherwise still fully operational, and

b.) While Aaron Ashmore looks pretty doofy in Adam West's old Batman suit, Allison Mack looks really hot in Burt Ward's old Robin suit.

Whereupon they hop into George Barris's original 1966 Batmobile and take off for the joyride to end all joyrides...
This is all your fault, Ben-El.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Re: Cars

No, not the Gary Numan song. I started out today to write a think-piece about cars, and specifically about a certain fondly-remembered two-tone pink 1956 DeSoto Fireflite.

My writing process sometimes cross-pollinates in strange ways, though. I was out at the range Sunday afternoon, trying out a new load, when a trick of the late afternoon sunlight made it apparent how much smoke each shot generated. Some of it was powder smoke; most of it was lubricant smoke; but given that I was shooting plain-base cast-lead bullets, a tiny but disturbing amount of it was unquestionably vaporized lead.

Nasty stuff, lead. Highly toxic. Very persistent. Gifted with a disturbing affinity for the myelin sheaths of vertebrate neurons. We call it "lead poisoning," but the symptoms of lead-related neurotoxicity are uglier than mere poisoning. Even at very low levels, lead in the bloodstream has a proven causal link to low intelligence, anti-social behavior, and a tendancy to commit violence. At higher levels it causes impaired vision, coordination and balance problems, speech impairment and memory loss, and ultimately, paranoia, violent insanity, and death.

Short of intravenous injection, the fastest and most effective way to get a substance into your bloodstream is by vaporizing and inhaling it. Which, if you're wondering where I'm going with this, is why I started out thinking about a 1956 DeSoto Fireflite, and ended up thinking about the fuel that 341-cubic-inch hemi V-8 ran on: leaded gasoline.

This is a story that needs to be told, and told again, because anyone born after 1970 doesn't know it and anyone older has probably forgotten it. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, it's a lot easier to tell the story these days. When I first wrote an article about this subject, 15-plus years ago, authoritative sources were hard to find.

Today, all I need to do is go to Google, type in tetraethyl, and voila! Sources out the wazoo! So many sources, in fact, that I don't really need to tell this story after all; I just need to point you to other sites that have already told the tale.

In highly condensed form, then, it goes like this. The concept of "peak oil" is nothing new. In the 1920s, the finest minds in the scientific community were absolutely certain we were very shortly going to run out of recoverable crude oil, by 1950 at the latest. Accordingly a great deal effort was put into the search for alternative automotive fuels, most notably those based on alcohol. Henry Ford in particular put a lot of time and money into agricultural projects intended to produce biologically-derived alternative fuels. (He also invested in a project to turn his factory's considerable amounts of wood waste into a safe and easily handled heating and cooking fuel, which is something to consider the next time you light up those Kingsford briquets.)

At the same time, General Motors was having an engineering problem; their car and truck engines just plain didn't run well on ordinary gasoline. They were prone to preignition — "knock," in layman's terms — and while the problem could be (and eventually was) solved by improved engineering or better-quality fuels, in the 1920s they opted for a cheaper solution: specifically, they sought some magic ingredient that could be added to ordinary gasoline to boost its octane rating. This, it was hoped, would both mitigate GM's engine design flaws and stretch the (believed to be) dwindling supplies of gasoline, as it would allow lower grades of fuel to be used in cars and trucks.

The answer to GM's problem wasn't actually a mystery. It was already well-known that you could increase the octane rating of gasoline either by improving the refining process, as Sunoco was already doing, or by using non-toxic additives such as alcohol or iron carbonyl. However, in the final analysis GM, working with Standard Oil, settled on adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to gasoline, for two very important reasons:

1. It was slightly cheaper than alcohol, and

2. Unlike iron carbonyl, GM owned the patent on TEL.

The redefinition of regular gasoline as being low-grade gasoline plus "Ethyl," (a much less frightening term than tetraethyl lead and trademarkable, to boot), was not without its problems. The health hazards of lead exposure had been known for millennia, and once leaded gasoline went into volume production, Standard Oil refinery workers began going insane and dying in disturbing numbers. In 1925 the Surgeon General banned the manufacture and sale of leaded gasoline in the U.S. while a blue-ribbon panel of experts was convened to investigate the issue, but in 1926 this panel — which consisted of a bevy of industry experts and just one M.D. — returned a report declaring there was no reason to continue the ban, and sales of leaded gasoline resumed. Whereupon the Ethyl Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of GM that owned the patent, and the DuPont Corporation, which actually manufactured TEL, and Standard Oil, which blended, distributed, and sold the resulting leaded gasoline, all became very, very, very rich.

But sad to say, the story does not end on this happy note. As any shooter knows, vaporized lead and lead oxides have a tendency to condense very quickly, which is what makes gun barrels such a chore to clean after you've been shooting cast bullets, and the same thing happens inside an automotive engine, with potentially catastrophic results. This is why, to keep the cylinders and valves from soldering themselves shut, they eventually wound up adding ethylene dibromide and ethylene dichloride to the mix, so that combustion produced the highly volatile compounds lead bromide and lead chloride, which could be depended upon to leave the engine in the exhaust gas stream and go off to join that great smoggy mass in the sky. And at last there was much rejoicing in Detroit, and happy motoring in the streets.

And all over America, the bloodstream lead levels of city dwellers began to rise...

Devout Libertarians like to say that left to its own devices, the invisible hand of the free market will take care of everything, including environmental problems. I use this story to illustrate the point that sometimes the invisible hand is holding an invisible gun, and it's pointed right at your head. What finally ended the use of TEL in common gasoline was not the force of the free market — Ford had championed the use of non-toxic lead alternatives for years, and failed — but the much-maligned Environmental Protection Agency, which in the 1970s, after years of litigation that was fought every step of the way by the Ethyl Corporation, finally got leaded gasoline mostly banned in the United States.

Notice I said "mostly." Leaded gasoline is still available for use in piston-engined aircraft and as high-octane automotive racing fuel. It's also still manufactured and sold in many lovely countries, such as Yemen, North Korea, parts of Northwest Africa, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

So, let's review. Inhaling vaporized lead has been proven to cause stupidity, insanity, and violence. And it's widely used where?

Offhand, I'd say this explains a lot.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 5/30/08

Yeah, I know, it's actually Monday, June 2, but I had to call it this to keep the naming consistent so I could find it later. And before we get around to announcing the winner of the 5/23 Friday Challenge, I want to take this opportunity to remind you one more time that I am the guy who hated Prince's demo tape, got kicked out of a record company A&R office for laughing at Eddie Money, and upon first hearing Talking Heads '77 said, "Will you please turn that damned noise off?"

So now that we've all got a firm lock on my level of musical aptitude, the contestants are:

Astrosmith, Suddenly Icee: Cute, clever, and your lyrics really fit the original melody well, but with so many other people submitting new work this time, I just can't give it to a recycled entry. Thanks for sharing it, though.

Henry, This Year's Election: you're right; you get off to a good start and you've got some good topical ideas, but it peters out after two verses. Better luck next time.

Snowdog, Down Under: this one I could hear as I read it, and I'd really like to see this one produced. Very good, very topical, with a political edge I really like. I could definitely see this one being used as break music on one of the angrier talk radio shows.

WaterBoy, "Reasons for the Gun" Part 1 & Part 2: now this one, on the other hand, put a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat, because it touched on a subject so near and dear to my heart, and I think if it was decently recorded we could get it on Cam Edwards' show. Seriously. Well, semi-seriously, anyway. Maybe.

Which leaves us with KTown and Vidad. Tough choice. KTown's YouTube of Naked Dance (lyrics here) cracked us up, and upon sober reflection made us greatly relieved that it was an audio-only track, but then we played Vidad's YouTube of Moronic (lyrics here), and we were laughing and gasping for air for four minutes straight. It's hard to believe the man who could sing that song could also father children, but Rachel assures us it's true, so in the end we could only admire the talent required to not only write an entertaining parody but then to dub it over the original music video and get the lip movements to sync up!

Ergo, Vidad, you win. Come on down and claim your prize!

Now, don't forget that this week's Friday Challenge (which is nominally the 5/30 challenge, but was actually announced on 5/23) is to write a short piece about that hot new televised talent competition everyone is talking about, American Idolator! You know, the show where representatives of 16 cults and sects face off before a live audience to compete for the honor of being named this year's One True Faith?!

Beyond that, the topic is wide open. Tell us the story you want to tell. Dish the dirt on the off-camera squabbling between the celebrity judges. Give us a peek at the auditions of some of the faiths that didn't make it. Explain why the show, although it was scheduled for a 16-week run, came to an abrupt and tragic end in episode 12 when the ironically named Final Four were announced.

As always, we're playing for whatever is behind Door #2, and the deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, 06/05/08.