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CATS ON FILM by Anne Billson (BOOK REVIEW)

CATS ON FILM by Anne Billson (2017),  300  pages with illustrations. Author’s Website and Book Blog 

Ebook: Amazon/Smashwords  . Price: $6.99

Print Editions: Used copies are available, but with ebooks so cheap, why bother?

Summary: Critical  look at movies with cats in them. The book is a real hoot to read — great insights and erudite movie  snark.

Recommended if you like:  Quirky film references, anything catty, Disney movies, horror movies.

CATS ON FILM gives a delightful and irreverent tour through world cinema from the standpoint of the cats who appear in it. This book grew out of a blog with the same name and  does not take itself too seriously. The book introduces various cat archetypes: CATAGONIST, HEROPUSS, CAPANION, CATZILLA, PUSILLA, CATRIFICE, CATGUFFIN and many more. To be honest, I am not particularly a cat lover (they’re ok, but…), and I had  hardly given a second thought about cats in film until picking up this book.  Probably the only movie I could think of with a cat theme would be CAT PEOPLE, and this book doesn’t talk about it at all except parenthetically.  What a shock it was to see discussions of so many movies with significant cat cameos.  THIRD MAN, NYMPHOMANIAC (!), Kieslowski’s BLUE, the GODFATHER, the original POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, the original FLY, LA DOLCE VITA, STRAW DOGS,  CLOCKWORK ORANGE (!) 1900, PROOF,  TRUE GRIT, DAY FOR NIGHT, AWFUL TRUTH, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (!), THE LEOPARD, and many, many more. My first reaction was, wow, there are cats in all these movies? Aside from HARRY AND TONTO, I had hardly noticed them!

This is a logical and well-organized work — you can find a list of film discussed at the logical Table of Contents at the beginning (though it would have been better to have hyperlinks).   It can be fun to stumble upon the unexpected, and the book itself has  glorious color photographs and helpful labels like “Major Cat Movie.” Clearly Ms. Billson writes with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema (she has also published several movie guides and writes about movies regularly for the “Guardian”). I found new insights about movies I thought I already knew (or at least, I thought I did!) I  now know about a lot of obscure films simply because of the odd fact that it has a cat in it.

Because Billson already is an accomplished novelist (specifically in horror, mystery, vampires and other things), the book has unexpected bonuses. For the movie ALIEN she does a brilliant interior monologue of the same story from the cat’s point of view. (You remembered that there was a cat in that movie, right? I didn’t!) For the movie INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the book has a nice extended piece (The Moggyssey) teasing out the Homeric aspects to the plot. (By the way, I totally did not remember the movie having a cat in it!) For STUART LITTLE, she makes a tongue-in-cheek proposal to change the title of the movie to “Snowbell” (because the cat  character is more interesting and complex). Billson writes:

Since Hollywood is largely run by dog people, cats are often relegated to secondary characters with bad attitudes, typified by animated propaganda such as LADY AND THE TRAMP, CINDERELLA, TOM AND JERRY or MERRY MELODIES shorts featuring Tweetie Pie and Sylvester, which try to brainwash children into thinking cats are evil or stupid, while dogs, rodents and birds are virtuous and should be given carte blanche to torment the felines.

These creative takes are fun, clever and interesting.

The book spends a lot of time on cats in genres like horror, James Bond and kid’s movies (which is to be expected). I particularly appreciated Billson’s speculation about the cats themselves as opposed to the role they are expected to play in the movie. She guesses when more than one cat is used for the same cat character in a movie (like THIRD MAN) and provides horrifying backstory about how cats were actually mistreated during the shooting of the film (as in ADVENTURES OF MILO AND OTIS).

This clever book is based on a conceit that cats are more than story props. It’s an intriguing (though now obvious) idea. Fake soliloquys notwithstanding, I don’t get the impression that the book is trying to anthropomorphize the cat characters; it is just suggesting an alternate and yes, a more compassionate way to read movies. The book is a celebration of cats for what they naturally are in mainstream movies; At the same time, there’s more than enough  obscure Japanese, European, animation and old genre movies described here to make the ardent film buff happy.

RELATED: I also recommend the illustrated book of fairy tales, A Cat may look at a King

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June 25 Update. I emailed this message a month ago to one of the library branch managers. Because of the issue’s importance, I have decided to forward the message to Clara Russell, the Fort Bend library director.  Below is the note I included with my original letter and then the original letter itself. 

Letter to Ms. Russell

Dear Ms. Russell:

On May 6 I wrote a complaint letter to the branch manager of the library I regularly visit (Cinco Ranch) without receiving a reply. The complaint was about buying “clean versions” of music CDs.

Just recently I checked out a Grammy-nominated best-selling music CD, “Rainbow” by Kesha. Kesha is not only a critically acclaimed pop singer, she was also embroiled in a recent dispute with her music producer over sexual harassment. Regardless of what you think about this dispute, it is indisputable that  Kesha is in touch with the cultural zeitgeist, the “Me too” movement and youth culture. She uses a moderate amount of profanity in her songs, but in one or two songs of the “Rainbow” album,  she uses profanity pointedly as a form of cultural reappropriation. Indeed, the nation’s leading music magazine “Rolling Stone” published a long essay about her song “Woman” where Kesha explains that in the context of this “female empowerment song,” she had earned the right to use swear words:

That day in particular I felt like I had earned the right call myself a motherfucking woman. I have always been a feminist, but for much of my life I felt like a little girl trying to figure things out. In the past few years, I have felt like a woman more than ever. I just feel the strength and awesomeness and power of being female. We hold the key to humanity. We decide if we populate the Earth, and if so, with whom. We could just decide not to have any more kids and the human race would be over. That is power. I just really fucking love being a woman and I wanted an anthem for anyone else who wants to yell about being self-sufficient and strong. (Yes, men, this song can be for you too.).

Here’s what the Fort Bend library version of this song sounds like:. In effect, the Fort Bend version of the song ruins the effect of the lyrics  and undermines the very empowerment message embedded inside the song.

Here’s how the artist intended the song to sound:

This is not a selected instance of censorship. To me, this seems to be an institutional effort to systematically remove musical examples of vulgar language in its collection — while making no such effort in prose or cinema.

If this were the 1980s, perhaps you can justify the removal by pointing to examples of misogyny or hate speech in the rap music genre. But now Fort Bend is censoring songs across the spectrum, including a well-known album described by critics as embodying female empowerment.

If your acquisitions department didn’t have enough funds to buy the album or if it thought that buying other items were more culturally important, I could at least respect your decision. But here your library has decided as an institution and as a matter of policy to refrain from buying an entire category of  material simply because of word choice.   That is unfortunate and harmful in the long run.

Original Letter (sent 1 month ago)

Dear Fort Bend Library Manager:

I am writing about the music CD collection both at your branch and the Fort Bend library system.

Thank you for maintaining a  growing collection of music in CD media form. I realize that library systems experience pressure to stream/digitalize their collection, but CD media are more permanent and can be repurposed for a variety of platforms. They also are not encrypted in any way and do not depend on Internet access.

This may sound counterintuitive, but having access to streaming music and music CDs through the library makes it MORE likely for patrons like me to spend money on music. No matter how much a library tries, the amount of albums it has in its collection will remain only a small fraction of what recordings have been made and sold.  The chance to hear library copies of one or two albums by an artist increases the likelihood that I will support the artist (through concert tickets and purchasing downloadable music).

But I am concerned that the Fort Bend Library system has a clear preference for purchasing  “clean” or “edited” music CDs over the normal commercial versions.

I don’t normally listen to rap music with explicit lyrics; on the other hand, I would expect that a library collection not to exclude the explicit version of these albums.

I recently checked out two albums from Cinco Ranch: “Damn” by Kendrick Lamar and “Beautiful Trauma” by Pink. Both are extremely popular albums and have mainstream appeal. Neither is particularly known for using vulgar or derogatory lyrics. I have taken the time personally to check the uncensored lyrics for both albums. The profanity on both albums is very mild.

Unfortunately, Fort Bend bought the “edited” music CD of both the Kendrick Lamar and the Pink album. This library system chose NOT to buy the original unedited version of either album.

Kendrick Lamar’s album won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music. This actually was historic because it is the first time ever that a popular music album has won this prestigious award.

As I explore Fort Bend’s collection of music CDs, I keep noticing that a huge number of rap albums CDs are available from Fort Bend only in “edited” versions. Indeed, just to satisfy my curiosity (and to waste maybe 15 minutes), I went to Cinco Ranch branch’s music section, pulled all the rap music CDs and checked the online catalog. My spot check of rap music CDs at Cinco Ranch branch library  is that about 80 percent of the albums at the branch are marked “clean”, and probably ZERO of the albums with clean versions have explicit versions circulating in the library system. Further study would be required, but I am guessing that this trend is true not just as this branch but the entire music collection in the system.

Hoopla carries original versions for SOME of these albums, but not all and certainly not the older albums.

I am not a huge fan of rap music or or profanity in general. I can understand how in some contexts (at school or on the radio), it may be necessary to restrict the playing of songs with explicit lyrics. On the other hand, I value being able to hear the work as the artist originally intended. The Pulitzer judges apparently decided that the profanity on the Kendrick Lamar didn’t detract from its cultural importance; why should Fort Bend library decide otherwise?

We are not in middle school. I  am 52 years old!  Presumably, someone who checks out a music CD is playing it for private use, and social mores have changed to a point where teenagers today listen and watch material with a lot more explicit language than during the years of my youth.

During my last visit to Cinco Ranch branch’s DVD section, I noticed    Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and  Seven. All three are lauded R-rated  movies with explicit and highly provocative content. It would not occur to most people or libraries to ask that the Hollywood Studios which made these movies to  sell a “sanitized” version of these movies.  Why then should public libraries have different rules about music albums?

Having only edited versions of albums sends an unfortunate message to patrons that individuals are not entitled to experience art works the way the artist intended. Also, by making only edited versions available, you are trying the hide the coarseness that the musician wished to convey.

I don’t particularly object to libraries deciding not to purchase works with too much vulgarity; but if you think that an item is worth purchasing, you should buy the version that is closest to what the creator wanted.

As much as I enjoy checking out music CDs and appreciate what resources you offer to the patrons in your county, I recognize that fairly soon it will make more sense for the library to focus on investing in its streaming collection.

Regardless of how this library develops their music collection, I would like to see the library system commit itself to no longer buying “clean versions” of music. Doing so strikes me as culturally retrograde.

Sincerely,

Robert Nagle

PS, One other thing is that although the metadata in the catalog discloses that a CD is edited, the physical CDs show no such indication, making it practically impossible for patrons to know whether the music CD is the original version or a sanitized version.

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(These sales are valid until midnight on Saturday March 10.  I’ll be adding more titles until that time.   If you have any free/almost free titles to recommend from SW, please list it in the comments. Thanks!]

Smashwords may not yet be a household name yet to readers, but it serves as a great alternative to Amazon for ebooks.  For publishers and authors, Smashwords provides a gateway for authors to get their ebooks in  stores like Kobo, Apple, Overdrive (but alas, not Google Books). The main  drawback  of getting ebooks through Smashwords (which I actually consider to be an advantage) is that you have to manually put the DRM-free ebook/epub files on your ereader/tablet/phone of choice.  (My personal preference is to download EPUB files and then upload them to GOOGLE PLAY BOOKS  which is found on all android devices.  Alternatively, if you use iphone/ios, just download them (or email to youself) and then open in the iBooks app. Many titles here also provide .mobi files for sending to your Kindle (and often PDF).

Another advantage of finding ebooks at Smashwords is that it’s much easier to offer discounts or sales or free ebooks than on Amazon.  This is especially true during Ebookweek on March 4-10 where a lot of ebooks  have  (temporary) reductions in price. Amazon will always have a significantly larger ebook catalog (duh!), but for this next week,  prices on ebooks by Smashwords authors are  likely to be significantly lower on Smashwords than on Amazon.com! 

It can be a challenge to find  gems on Smashwords. You have book descriptions, but rarely reviews (although you can just go to the Amazon.com page or Goodreads to see what readers are saying about it).  A lot of Smashwords titles are shorter (like less than 20 pages — yikes!), the percentage of Adult-content titles is higher (ugh!), and the inventory of nonfiction titles can be pretty lame in comparison to what you see on Amazon. On the other hand, high quality fiction, memoirs, poetry, self-help and random academic titles are plentiful on Smashwords — certainly comparable to what you’d find on Amazon.com  To summarize:

You can always find  great, cheap shit on Smashwords!

The challenge is  that so few names are ones you’d recognize, and  most people don’t have time to go through individual titles. Fortunately, I have done the necessary legwork.   Below is  a list of several underappreciated and overlooked titles on Smashwords I found during the week which are free or very cheap.  Caveats: 1)I strongly prefer literary fiction to genre, I don’t like series, and I am  biased against certain genres. 2)I have only browsed book descriptions, author background and maybe read a sample chapter for these titles (i.e., I haven’t finished the books). But all sound very promising.  3)I’m overlooking titles with less than 20,000 words, and  4)I generally don’t care about how popular a title has been. The less popular, the more likely I am to mention it!

Note: Prices listed will take into account the coupon/discount for this week only. After this week, these prices might no longer be valid (but I suspect most will be decent deals anyway).

Literature & Literary Collections

  1.  (Free!) Abruptions: 3 Minute Stories to Awaken the Mind by Jack Matthews.  My Personville Press  publishes several titles by this great Ohio writer of philosophical stories  (see my book description and biographical sketch ).  Also check out the (Free) story sampler, Three Times Time . Also, I discounted another story collection Soldier Boys to $1 for this week only (which I think is one of his best works).
  2. (All Free!) Fiction and Poetry by  Paul Hina.  Hina is an incredible and prolific author who sells on both Amazon and Smashwords — except that all his titles on Amazon cost money, while on SW, they  are free! I read and loved the Other Shore: Two Stories of Love and Death which I would call highbrow romance in the vein of D.H. Lawrence or Somerset Maugham. It’s about a troubled son of a famous poet who returns to his hometown (and dying father) to deal with the family issues which he’d been avoiding.  In my review, I wrote: “the book captures romance and domestic drama with psychological nuance. Hina writes incredibly well and with tenderness about unique relationship situations and flawed but complex characters.”  Hina has several poetry collections — which I thumbed through. All interesting and expressive.  Grab these titles while you can (before Hina wises up and starts pricing them on SW for nonfree!).
  3. (Free!) Eye of a Needle: And Other Stories. Cornelia Fick (her website) . Here’s a collection of flash fiction/prose pieces about relationships and marriage by South African author (and nurse) Cornelia Fick which was her master’s thesis when she was studying creative writing at Rhodes U. She dabbles in poetry and experimental forms (the book description mentions Lydia Davis, Maxine Chernoff and Flannery O’Connor — and certainly the stories are ironic and observational). Watch out for (and enjoy) the nutty-sounding South African dialect!
  4. (Free!) Fine Print and Other Yarns by Dinesh Verma.  9 separate stories about 9 different Indians visiting Paris during the 1980s and 1990s. Verma works for the Indian government studied overseas in several countries (including Paris) and recently published a translation of stories by  the 19th century  Hindi author Premchand. The first story is a masterful tale about a disappointment experienced by an Indian art lover when given two days to visit Paris. This is an ebook version of a book which was positively reviewed in several Indian literary publications several years ago.
  5. (Always Free!). Speaking of Work: A Story of Love, Suspense and Paperclips. Literary Anthology, with contributions from Jonathan Ames, Lee Child,Jonathan Safran Foer,Aimee Mann, Gary Shteyngart, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.  (PS, it’s also a free download on the Xerox project site). The book seems to be a collaboration between the 92nd St Y and the  Xerox company, and based on my superficial impressions, the stories are based in New York  offices.
  6.  (Free!) Various Novels by Anne Billson  I raved about Billson’s  film books below, and special mention needs to be made of her novels (all of which are also free this week).  They  run the gamut from horror to satire to supernatural. From her own descriptions: SUCKERS (an upwardly mobile vampire novel), STIFF LIPS (a Notting Hill ghost story), THE EX (a supernatural detective story) and THE COMING THING (Rosemary’s Baby meets Bridget Jones) . As I mentioned above, I don’t read much horror, but I will note that Suckers, (her first novel)  was very well-received by readers and critics (one reviewer called it Bret Easton Ellis meets Anne Rice). Also, Stiff Lips has lots of great blurbs: “‘Sexy, sardonic and distinctly spooky… a tale to make you shiver – if you don’t die laughing first’ (Cosmopolitan).
  7. (Free/Set Your Own Price) Call me a Taxi  by Terry Ravenscroft.  Ravenscroft is a very accomplished writer for British TV comedies; he’s also been publishing a lot of novels in a similar vein.  This novel (which I’ve read two chapters of) is about an out-of-work man with the uncanny resemblance to  Oliver Hardy who runs into a strange neighborhood character who resembles Stan Laurel. It’s a promising start to what will surely be a series of comic misadventures mixed with occasional Mitty-esque returns to  glum reality.  Also,  the Razzamatazz Not Entirely PC Encylopedia is like a Devil’s Dictionary for modern times.   These two Ravenscroft works are likely to remain Set Your Own Price after this week, but about a third of his remaining ebooks are free for Ebook week: Stairlift to Heaven, Good Old George! and Dear Coca Cola  (humorous letters to corporations actually sent to companies).
  8. (99 cents) White Mythology: Two Novellas by W.D. Clarke. Clarke is an Ontario-based Pynchon-loving scholar who writes lots of smartypants fiction in the fine tradition of Joyce/Pynchon/Barth/Daniel Foster Wallace. Here are two novellas which showcase Clarke’s dazzling but always  readable style. The first  (longer) novella  describes in stream-of-consciousness manner  the crazy life and thoughts of a certain psychiatrist, Dr. Ed, as he goes through his day . The second novella captures a series of interrelated whimsical conversations and intrigue between various  American expats in Japan.  The first novella is more focused and introspective; the second is more rambling and silly (Those are my initial impressions at least).  Apparently, these two are part of a “Skinner Boxed” thematically-linked series of  novellas. (Apparently, many people  on Goodreads  have reviewed it, using phrases like  “clever,” “wild ride,” the “perfect book for these chaotic, stressful times”). (If you are wondering more about the author, check out this curmudgeonly blog post).
  9. (Free!) Tales by KindleLight by Kate Rigby.  Rigby is a highly accomplished British author who has about 10 titles. They are budget-priced, but generally high quality, quirky, unpredictable, experimental, always trying new subjects, full of British slang and attitude.   This story collection has some sexy and bittersweet stories — and one (“Sharing Sarah” about a strange love triangle where two best friends try to date the same girl simultaneously) made me laugh aloud. Two other longer works are free: Are you Dead? (described as “An edgy, contemporary tale about death and suicide and its effects on two families….Written in bite-sized sections in a colloquial style with elements of black humour and surrealism”) and Little Guide to Unhip (a fun but insubstantial series of rants about unhip things like “Umbrellas,” “early birds,”  Christmas, Badminton, Vicar of Dibley, etc.). Two other nonfree works deserve mention:  Fall of the Flamingo Circus — her first novel about a rebellious punk teenage girl during the 1970s which  lots of positive reviews when it came out in  on Amazon. Also Did You Whisper Back? an award winning  1991 novella about a psychological breakdown of  a girl seeking her twin sister.
  10. (new-Free!) New Old World by C.D. Stowell. Magnum opus 200,000 word semi-autographical novel about a 39 year Oregon photographer reflecting on her life as she travels to various places (and continents). Stowell herself is an award winning photographer who published a creative nonfiction book about an Indian reservation in the 1980s.  In her interview,  she mentions that it took 25 years to complete this novel and that she’s an admirer of Louise Erdrich,  David Mitchell and James Welch. The book itself includes some of her photos. One reviewer said  it had ” top-notch word-smithing, perfectly complimented by the author’s artful photography” and another called it “a brilliant, absorbing, and moving work of fiction.”

  Essays

  1. (Free!) Cats on Film by Anne Billson (and lots more by her).  Billson is  a prolific film critic, cat-lover  and novelist  who runs several special interest blogs and sometimes writes reviews for the Guardian. (Her blog is here). This book contains dozens of essays (and movie stills)  about  cats who have appeared in movies, and although the topic and style is humorous, it’s seriously  tries to understand what role they play in each movie, as well as comment on what they add (or don’t add) to the movie itself.  Each chapter looks at a different kind of cat movie role — the Catagonist, the Heropuss, Catrifice, Catguffin, Catscallion, Cataphor …. Oh, I’m dying here! This is one of those books you’d never thought you’d want to read, and yet I can imagine, spending a lot of time  on reading it(yes,  now, I’ll be watching some of the mentioned movies just to see the cats). This is a MUST BUY!
  2. (Free!) Multiple Titles of Movie Criticism by Anne Billson (see above). Unbelievably, all the Billson titles on SW are free this week. Check out especially the Billson Film Database (500,000 words, that’s about 5x the size of most movie reference guides). Also check out Spoilers Part 1 (1989-1995) and Spoilers Part 2 (1995-2001). (Several other collections are available for free this week).  These are solid, interesting books; watch out Kael and Ebert!
  3. (Always Free!) Dead Media Notebook by Bruce Sterling and Others. This is an encyclopedia about failed/obsolete technologies. Sci fi author and futurist Bruce Sterling  once made an offhanded remark that somebody should write about failed technologies, and this ebook is the result. A random hodgepodge of historical and technological curiosities.(Free!)

Social Science and History

  1. ($2) Sacred History of Being by Thomas Yaeger. This book  of ancient scholarship by a scholar of ancient languages  intrigued me so much that I ended up buying the ebook at 75% off. The book argues that philosophy and the conception of the divine, the nature of reality and being came about well before the Greek philosophers; Yaeger examines historical evidence from cultures predating the Greeks to establish this thesis. Another fascinating and slightly more accessible book, Understanding Ancient Thought  ($1 for this week only) tries to get inside the mind of ancient humans from different cultures in Greece, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Mexico and Asia. You can view the Table of Contents for this book on Yaeger’s blog.
  2. (Free!) Be a Hater: A Polemic on the Hater Mindset by Wes Parham. This erudite but unclassifiable book is a spirited and lively defense of contrarianism in contemporary society.  The book engages the reader with pop culture references (i.e., Taylor Swift’s “Haters gonna hate”), first person narratives, humor and lots of discussions of recent books on psychology and cognition. Interestingly, the book talks very little about politics; Parham has an MBA and PhD in organizational leadership and works in education.

Science and Medicine

  1. (Free!) Snake Oil is Alive and Well by Morton E. Tavel MD.  Tavel is a doctor, professor, medical researcher and grandfather with a distinguished  history in the medical field. This book is an introduction to how to evaluate medical claims and  recognize medical quackery before it  bites you in the butt. The companion book, Health Tips, Myths and Tricks,  contains 2-3 page chapters about ways to stay healthy and fit (similar to Dr. Weil’s books) and full of practical advice. The topics are probably familiar: Eating breakfast, health benefits of green tea, whether you should eat less red meat, that sort of thing. Overall, good and informative, with the caveats that the book research might be out of date (it was published in 2015), the topics are not covered in great depth, and unfortunately, there are some major formatting errors in the book (like, there are a few chapter titles minus chapters — alas, they appear OK  later in the book!). But the content is all there and readable.

Memoir/Biography

  1. (Free!)25 Years in the Rearview Mirror: 52 Authors Look Back. Edited by Stacy Juba.  (Free also on Amazon). Juba explains that she used to write articles  for her publications  with a “25 (or 50) years ago today” theme. Then she thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to ask my writing friends what they were doing exactly 25 years ago? This readable anthology is the result. Juba was going to write a mystery  about a person who writes  these “25 years ago today” articles and stumbles upon an unsolved murder mystery. (Ah, published only on Amazon but very well reviewed). Juba has published several chicklist/YA fiction that are somewhat light-hearted and well-reviewed on Amazon
  2. (Free!)Footnote to a Dream by Benny Michel. This is an autobiography of a well-known South African musician, his rise during the “Big Band” era, his affliction with polio and living as a Jew in the early days of Johannesburg’s history. I picked this title less for its literary qualities than the fact that I just found the subject matter interesting in and of itself. (BTW, I had problems opening the EPUB file, but managed to send the .mobi file to my kindle app without problem).
  3. (Free!)An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane. Jane is the author of 30 books (mostly children’s books). Here is a memoir for adults about going from the idyllic childhood of the 50s to the turbulent sixties and beyond. I had time only to flip through the chapters, but she spends a lot of time on childhood (and her encounters with various children’s literary works) and college. Highly readable, literate and thoughtful, full of photographs and cultural details, this is a book I probably would never go out of my way to buy, but I think that it will be easy to fall into this memoir (like a character from a children’s book might fall into some inner fantasy land).  BTW, I noticed a nice blogpost by the author about outstanding books for memoir writers.

I probably wouldn’t be able to recommend any titles in the genres below, but if you have something to recommend (or other genres), feel free to indicate.

Sci Fi/Fantasy

  1. (2.99 — not free! )  Onset, Reset, Mindset by E.L. Russell. First, this ebook (actually a trilogy in one volume) is a medical/scientific thriller about a young female athlete (and medical student) who suffers a severe injury, and through genetic reprogramming becomes more than human with special powers. I mention it here because I ran  into Mr. Russell at a local writers’ event. Russell has a PHD in Math, has worked in technology research all his life and now cowrites these technical thrillers with his wife. I found the man and the background behind his sci fi novels to be fascinating and thought-provoking.  I don’t read much sci fi, and I haven’t read this one yet — though I definitely plan to.  The author has lots of ebooks on Smashwords — and some of his shorter works are free, and if I recall, the ebooks contain instructions about how to get other free ebooks by him.

Finally,  remember that these are titles which caught my eye.  Surely I’ve overlooking a lot.  If you have one or titles to recommend from Smashwords, list it below (links are ok, but try not to mention more than 2 titles, especially if you are mentioning your own titles. I’ll approve your comments fairly quickly).

Special Note for SW Authors Listed Here:  If you’d like to provide a custom SW coupon code for a discounted price valid after this week, send me an email ( idiotprogrammer AT fastmailbox.net ). I’d be more than happy to help you sell your stuff!

Finally, as I mentioned above, I run Personville Press. SW currently has three Jack Matthews titles, but I should have 3 more Matthews titles  by Matthews in a month or so. A fourth volume (a short story collection) will be released at the end of 2018. I keep a page of Smashwords coupon codes for Jack Matthews  which I regularly update, so check there for the latest deals.  Incidentally, I’ll be publishing my first fiction title (a short story collection) this summer. It will be listed on the Personville Press page at Smashwords — when it’s ready.

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Ok, here’s my list of things I’ve been enthusiastic about in the year 2017.  Anything which I highlighted in red and bold are not just great stuff, but things which bowled me over and probably will bowl you over too.

AUDIO PLAY (45 minutes): PROGRESS OF THE SOUL OF LIZZIE CALVIN . This free/streamable drama by poet Michael Symmons Roberts imagines a dialogue between a human soul and all the other creatures of the world. Entertaining, poetic, melancholy, profound, starring Glenda Jackson as the main soul. BBC’s Drama of the Week are almost always a treat, and they force you to experience stories in unexpected ways. This fully realized work sends you into a new and amazing world….

MOVIES AND TV SHOWS

It probably shouldn’t count, but over the last decade I’ve been a fan of this PBS travel show called “GLOBE TREKKER“, a one hour show where a young enthusiastic adult travels to some farflung country or city. I’ve been trying to watch all the episodes, and realized earlier this year that the reason I couldn’t find it in my local library was that the show is listed under “Pilot Productions” or “Pilot Film and Television Productions.” Suddenly I realize to my delight that my library in fact has over 100 episodes.

It’s hard to describe what’s so special about this series. Maybe it’s the fact that the hosts are so charming and adventurous or the fact that they go out of their way to seek out the nontouristy things. For example, I was eagerly looking forward to their Ukraine episode (a country I thought I knew pretty well). Instead of hitting the usual destinations, they visited an S&M themed cafe in Lviv, a former USSR missile base and finally Chernobyl. Talk about tourist attractions! In the last 2 weeks I watched a 3 part 3 hour excursion through Indonesia, a wild trip through Uganda and the Congo, and an amazing train ride through Vietnam. While watching these episodes, I realize that they were filmed in the early 2000s, and that these places have probably changed a lot since then.

On Netflix I watched a great ABC miniseries called “THE ASSETS” about the CIA analysts who figure out that Aldrich Ames is the mole revealing the identity of defectors. I usually don’t like docudramas, but the acting and dialogue and suspense was all great. (Plus, there’s an interesting twist near the end I never could have predicted). The great thing about these docu-dramas is that they usually arose from an interesting book (It had to be, or else a studio wouldn’t have made it!). The added bonus is that watching the movie or TV show doesn’t spoil any enjoyment of the original book.

The same happened for the BIG SHORT, a caustic movie about the subprime crisis. I saw the movie a year ago but was driven to watch it again and savor the details. (Although the movie presents these details very effectively, the details are very complex, and even more complex when you go back and read Michael Lewis’ book). (Update: The more I ponder this movie, the more interesting it seems; it aims not only to educate, but to warn. It also tries to dramatize the abstract. Yes, the moralizing seems a bit too much, but this movie will soon join the list of most subversive movies about America. By the way, if you watch clips from this movie on youtube, the comment section is filled with MBA and economics type trying to understand every detail and artistic choice of the movie).

Perhaps I should also mention PHILOMENA, a road trip movie about a reporter and a mother who travel to USA to locate her long lost son. Terrific movie inspired by a nonfiction book. Similarly terrific was the FOUNDER (about the life of Ray Croc who founded MacDonalds). I enjoyed that movie if for no reason that I found the subject of how McDonalds got started to be fascinating, and the movie does not sugar coat anything. I guess I should also mention two longtime fave movies inspired by books, APOLLO 13 and DOWNFALL. (I was much less impressed by the maudlin you go girl, Hidden Figures).

I was intrigued and mystified and spellbound by Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE. The movie is a shock to the system; I feel misled and misdirected, but ultimately I buy into the movie’s obsessions with illusion at any cost. Yes, I think, magicians could actually be that way.

AVE, 2011 Bulgarian drama film directed by Konstantin Bojanov. Bulgarian teenagers hitchhiking to get to a funeral. God, this tragi-comedy was an absolute masterpiece!

I’ve been a fan of the TV comedy series SCHITT’S CREEK (also Netflix), this hilarious tale about a wealthy and superficial family who lose all their money and have to move to a rural town they allegedly own. There’s a lot of comic potential here, plus an interesting statement about the American dream, urban sophistication vs. rural naivety. A father and son not only play the main parts, they are the executive producers (plus the real life daughter/sister has a minor role). This series is warm and gently satirical in a Garrison Keillor way. The show SEEMS to be condescending towards the people who live in Schitt’s Creek, but in fact it is respectful and engages in good-natured ribbing on all sides.

I finally got around to watching FRANCES HA, which is turning out to be one of my favorite quirky movies. It’s the kind of movie I can turn on at any random place and just enjoy the great dialogue. For example, the set piece about visiting Paris has to be one of my alltime faves — makes me feel that I’ve already been there…. Whenever I feel a desire to actually go, all I need to do is to rewatch that part of the movie.

I have started watching operas on DVD, which I’ve decided is really the only way to experience opera. I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the librettos so much for two operas, Eugen Onegin and Puccini’s Turandot (this version directed by Zeffirelli at the MET). I hope someday to be able to afford to go to live opera in Houston — we have a pretty active opera house.

(Speaking of which, I’ve become a huge fan of the Great Lecture series on music by Robert Greenberg. Greenberg is a great teacher about classical music and music history and opera, and I hope to go through all his musical series very soon).

Merlin (on Netflix) is a great British series about the adventures of King Arthur and Merlin. It has a unique take: Merlin is a teenage boy who must hide his magic powers from King Arthur while being his bumbling personal servant. Lavish sets, great acting and dialogue (although unfortunately the possible plots are limited by the number of characters in the show). There’s a dragon (played by John Hurt) who utters all these cryptic messages… I loved this series to death, and the series ended on a high note — I am happy to say.

BOOKS:

It is hard to explain. I open so many books, but finish so few. This is the first year that I actually read a good bit — mainly nonfiction, not fiction. I don’t have time to read for pleasure. I’ve mainly reading for a specific purpose or because it’s about an oddball topic. In 2018 the ratio of fiction-to-nonfiction will be considerably higher.

MADE TO STICK, by Chip Heath. Definitely the most useful nonfiction book of the year! It’s about how to optimize your business messaging.

DEEP WORK by Cal Newport. This learning expert talks about how to work without distraction. Newport has great insights into learning. It’s too bad that he thinks that every problem is like a computer programming problem.

DAILY RITUALS: HOW ARTISTS WORK by Mason Curry consists of 1-2 page vignetttes about how artists, writers and scientists work. Fascinating to read.

TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith. This is a lovely realistic novel about growing up in poverty in the early 20th century. Apparently this book is widely beloved (and was made into a movie) but is now forgotten.

NIGHT AT THE OPERA: IRREVERENT GUIDE TO THE PLOTS, SINGERS, COMPOSERS, RECORDINGS by Denis Forman. This is a cheap kindle opera reference book. It also is great fun to read. (Update: Apparently the kindle price went way up. It’s not that great, but if good if you can buy it for a bargain price).

INSIDE OF A DOG by Alexandra Horowitz. A deep discussion about dog consciousness from the standpoint of a biologist. Great, fascinating book! (This book is about a dog’s nature, but there’s another book WHAT PHILOSOPHY CAN TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR DOG by Steven Hales is more about philosophy).

REALITY IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS by Carlo Rovelli. Famous introductory lessons into physics by an Italian physicist.

TRYING NOT TO TRY: ANCIENT CHINA, MODERN SCIENCE, AND THE POWER OF SPONTANEITY by Edward Slingerland . This is a deep and thoughtful book that encompasses ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology. I checked out and renewed this book about a dozen times, and to my luck, the ebook was offered through bookbub for $1.99

Biographies: I’ve been reading through several biographies (on Erasmus, Bach, Melville). Haven’t finished one of them!

ORIENTATION AND OTHER STORIES, Daniel Orozco. I only read half of the stories in this collection (they are all great). I just wanted to mention that my library has a special section specifically for short stories. I love grabbing a random book and reading one or two stories from them…

MY publishing Projects:

As you know I’ve been publishing ebooks by author Jack Matthews. I was going to publish my “Minor Sketches and Reveries” story collection this year, but several things happened. First, I ended up switching the stories around a bit and writing some new stories. Then I realized that one of the stories was too long to fit in the collection. Getting this collection finally ready should turn out to be a kind of anti-climax, but expect it next summer.

I went to my local writers’ group, and realized to my amazement that none of my stories have heroes or villians. So I am resolved that from this point forward, I will include more heroes and villians in anything I write.

Here’s a comic sketch I performed at a storytelling event about a talking stop sign. When I performed the story, I quoted the lines of a Fleetwood Mac song as though I were reciting Shakespeare.

MUSIC.

(Note: In most cases I have been able to give links to bandcamp page which lets you hear the album in full).

MIRAGE DREAMS BY Breanna Barbara. Stirring and emotionally fraught gothic blues by a Minnesota-born female crooner. Haunting melodies and guitars, but Barbara’s vocals really sear the soul.

INSCRIPTIONS BY Wil Bolton. Lovely ambient soundscapes that incorporate natural sounds (flickering, bird songs, etc) with slow moody electronica and soft instruments (harp, piano, etc). This is gorgeous stuff, and Bolton has created 4 separate pieces which feel different and don’t tax the listeners too much. Probably now my favorite ambient piece.

Amara Toure (1973-1980). Milestone album by Senegal singer with Gabon-based L’Orchestra Massako. Combines two different recordings, both of which incorporate the Cuban/Latino style with Afrobeat. Stunning and beautiful

Mande Variations by Toumani Diabate (from Mali). Lovely performance using the kora — a harp-like string instrument. Pared-down composition, resembling the solo Spanish guitar, but more ambient, less driven by melody. These are very relaxing soothing performances and yet lively enough to keep you listening.

Most recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Indonesian pop music. Koes Plus is the Indonesian “Beatles.” (Here’s a free Koes Plus album you can download).

I’m a fan of the 70s prog rock band from Indonesia called “God Bless”  and Grace Simon.

Finally, one high point of my year was watching the Eurovision song contest live on Youtube (commercial free!) in May 2017. It was an unbelievably fun way to spend 3-4 hours — the songs and dance numbers were outstanding. I plan to make this a yearly ritual….

(I made a youtube playlist of some fave Eurovision/SXSW tracks: Most are really new tracks from the last 3 years or so.  )

See also: My rundown of favorite emusic discoveries (which I always update),  my online database of music reviews on Google Docs and my annual list of things I read/watch (here’s the 2017 list)

Finally, I’m not creating a hyperlink (I don’t want google to find it), but I collated the various yearly lists of critic Michael Barrett and put them all at this link: https://www.personvillepress.com/private8/mike-list.txt Well worth looking through.

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Stop — Don’t Stop!

(I performed this story at the Houston Liars’ Contest about 6 months ago).

Last Friday I was taking a walk through my neighborhood when I happened to lean against a stop sign.

To my surprise, the sign started tilting, and before I could do anything, it fell into the street.

“You idiot!” a voice cried. “Look what you’ve done.”

I looked around but saw nobody except the cars passing. To be honest, I didn’t know what to do. Should I report it?

“Get me up!” the same voice cried.

“What?”

“Why did you push me on the ground?”

As strange as that seemed, the voice seemed to come from the stop sign —  or a tiny speaker attached to it.

“Get me up! If I get run over by one of these cars, you’re going to get in big trouble!”

The Stop sign was tall and heavy. I lifted the sign  and the pole  onto the grass, but it was too big and heavy to  return to the upright position. The stop sign itself was barely hanging from the bracket.

“Well, aren’t you going to apologize?”

“Sorry,” I said.

“I can’t believe you broke my bracket. You owe me!”

“What do you want from me then?” I asked.

“Well … I hear the new Star Wars movie is out.”

“What?”

“Rogue One. All the kids are talking about it.”

I didn’t know what to say. “So you want to watch the Star Wars movie?”

“That’s right.”

“Can’t you just wait until it comes out on DVD?”

“No, it’s always better at the theater.”

Just then a bird came over and landed on the sign sign.

“Stop that!” the sign yelled. “Get him off me please!”

I swung my hand in the general direction, and the bird flew away.

“Stupid birds!” the sign yelled. “They never obey street signs. All they do is flutter around, sing those annoying songs and land on your head when you’re trying to take a nap.”

“Don’t worry; the movie theater is indoors — no birds.”

I felt  self-conscious about carrying the stop sign into my car.  But once we were driving, that stop sign became a chatterbox.

“Can you turn the radio louder? I love that Lady Gaga! Why don’t you ever clean your windows? Look — Detour ahead!”

My stop sign buddy had an annoying habit of reciting the words on every single sign he noticed. “Speed Limit 35 mph. Hey, there’s no parking there between 4 and 6. Stop! What time does the movie start? Yield. Stupid human drivers.”

We were at the movie theatre. I carried the stop sign to the ticket booth. “One please,” I said.

The teenage worker looked confused. “Sir, are you bringing that inside?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Hey, you forgot to buy me a ticket,” the stop sign said.

“You don’t need one.”

“But that’s not fair! I deserve my own seat.”

“Fine, you want a ticket? I’ll get one. But no more complaining. Two tickets please.”

We entered the movie theater, ignoring the stares from people around me. As I passed the concession stand, I said, “I suppose you expect me to buy you popcorn too.”

“Of course not,” the stop sign said. “Who ever heard of a stop sign eating pop corn?”

The theater was fairly crowded, but there were still good seats.  The stop sign, I am sorry to report, kept bugging me with questions.

“Which one is Darth Vader? Who is that guy? Is this supposed to be the best episode? Why are there no stop signs on that planet?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they don’t like stop signs.”

“Barbarism! No wonder the Imperial Force is beating them.”

At the end the audience applauded, and the stop sign rattled a bit too.

As I brought him to the car, the stop sign said, “What’s next?”

“What do you mean, ‘What’s next?’ I fulfilled my end of the bargain, so I’m bringing you back to the intersection.”

“But it’s early.”

“Too bad!”

“I didn’t want to bring this up, but as a talking sign sign, I do have some special abilities. If you agree to be my chaperone for the rest of the day, I have the power to grant you 3 wishes.”

I thought about it a moment and said, “Ok, what would you like to do?”

“I’d like to see a game.”

“What kind of game? Like a game at a stadium?”

“Let’s just go to a park or something where we can watch people play basketball or volleyball.”

“Fine,” I said.

We went driving to a nearby park, and the stop sign says, “I’ve heard a lot about this thing called Bowling. Also, the people are always talking about Frappucinos. Can you find one for me?”

“I suppose.”

“Branson — is that close to here?”

“Not at all.”

“Hey, yield!” the stop sign shouted.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “By the way, my name is not “Hey.” It’s Robert.”

“Robert?” the stop sign repeated. “I guess you want to know my name too.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Stoppy McStoperson.”

“Really?”

“No, just kidding. My name is “Fleetwood Mac.” Like the 70s rock band. Really, that’s my name. What can I say? I’m a product of the 70s. My parents call me Fleet. Oh, stop there! Stop! Stop!”

“What is it?”

“That stop sign we just passed — she’s a knockout! Did you see her angles? They’re a perfect 45 degrees.”

“They all look the same to me,” I said.

“You have to turn around and introduce us.”

“Ok,” I said, parking the car. I carried Fleet to the stop sign at the corner. Immediately Fleet starts conversing with her.

“Comment se va?”

“Bien merci.

“Are you speaking French?” I asked.

“Of course!”

Then he whispers, “Hey, Robert, I think we’re really hitting it off. Maybe you could bring her along to the park?”

“Even if I wanted to,” I said, “I don’t have tools to remove the sign.”

“At least can you tilt me over so that our corners can touch?”

“Ok.”

I move the sign over until one of his corners touches with one of hers. I hear giggling and random bursts of “Je ‘t’aime.” “Tu es belle.”“Tu me manques.”

“Time to go,” I said.

We find a park two blocks away. The basketball courts are empty, but I see a small baseball game played by boys who  looked like they were in  7th or 8th grade.

“That looks like a good game,” Fleet says.

“Sure,” I say, carrying the sign over to the field.

At first the boys pay no attention, but it doesn’t take long for one of them to notice me there.

“What are you doing with the stop sign?” the boy asked.

“Long story,” I said.

The stop sign peppered me with questions. “Why are you out after 3 strikes? What happens if the catcher doesn’t catch the ball? Why do they call that guy the short stop? He doesn’t look like a real stop sign to me — and he’s very tall.”

Finally, the stop sign said, “Maybe you can ask them if I can play too.”

“You gotta be kidding me.”

“They have the home plate — they let him play. Why can’t I take his place?”

“Home plates have to be a certain size,” I explain. “Plus, you’re red!”

“Oh, sure, bring that up again! People are always discriminating because of your color. Can’t you just ask them? And remember, if you can’t persuade them, don’t expect to get your 3 wishes.”

Now, I’ll be honest with you. I wasn’t entirely confident that this stop sign had the power to grant wishes. I gave it a 50% chance. But I had already figured out my three wishes. One involved a new home. The other involved solving climate change. The third involved a weekend getaway in the Canary Islands with movie star Uma Thuman.

I called out to the teenagers.

“I got a strange proposition, ” I said. “If you’d play baseball and use this stop sign for home plate, I’d give you –” I opened my wallet, “One hundred — and sixty — dollars.”

All of them look quizzically at me. Finally the pitcher says, “Is this some kind of YouTube prank?”

“No, it’s legit… The money is yours — it’s easy money.”

The pitcher calls a huddle. Finally, the pitcher turns to me and asks, “Can you pay us in advance?”

“Sure.”

“Play ball then.”

I put Fleet down where home plate is supposed to be and watch them play. Before the pitcher starts his windup, I hear, “Hey, Batter, hey batter batter, Swing.”

Either I’m the only one who hears Fleet’s chattering  or the rest of the players were ignoring him on purpose.

One team got a batter on third. The score was tied, so everybody was on their guard.

“Stay alive outfielders!” Fleet  yelled. “Easy Out,  easy out.”

The next batter hit a fly ball into center field. The outfielder caught it, but noticed that the runner was rounding third and charging to home. The catcher stood guarding home plate with the ferocity of a bulldog. The outfielder hurled the ball, but it was too high! The catcher could not reach it, and the runner rushed to touch home plate.

But then the stop sign stood upright and started running – at first randomly and then in the general direction of first base. For a while, the runner was confused, but as the catcher tried to tag him out, the runner realized that he still needed to touch home plate for the score to count.

So he ran after Fleet, and so did the catcher and pretty much the whole team. Then I realized something. If this stop sign got away, I wouldn’t get my wishes. I wouldn’t get my dream vacation with Uma Thurman.

“Stop!” I called out. “What are you doing?”

But Fleet paid no attention.

“Fleet! Stop! Come back!”

Fleet paused for a moment, then announced melodramatically, “All of you guys look at me and say, he’s just a stop sign, but I’m different from all of you!

“I Don’t Stop Thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
It’s be better than before.
Yesterday’s gone, yesterdays gone.”

After that dramatic speech, he dashed away, probably in search of a Frappuccino. And I never got those 3 wishes!

CC licensesd Thecrazyfilmgirl

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Who will NOT be president in 2021

Exactly 4 years ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about who would be president in 2017 by figuring out who could not possibly win. (I basically predicted it would be Jeb Bush vs.  Andrew Cuomo).

I had fun writing this article and I tried to take the exercise seriously even though it was just an exercise. I was also catastrophically wrong.  I couldn’t anticipate that Trump would run for president or even have a shot. He was just too amoral and full of shit — even for Republicans.  At the same time, I immediately ruled out Bernie Sanders as too old and fringe. Since that time, I have seen that Americans are a lot more accepting of older candidates than they used to be, and that the Overton window of  Sander’s unabashed  progressivism has been effectively shattered.   I also began to look at the race as a kind of perverse reality show where the object is not necessarily to win  but to be the last person standing. I now recognize that coastal liberalism may resonate differently in the heartland.

For  the 2020 election these will be the important questions: 1)Do we want systemic or incremental change in health care?  2)family values, honesty and being a good role model. Which candidate has led an exemplary life? (Disgust with Trump will cause Americans to focus on this a lot more than usual). 3)Who will restore our standing  in the world? (Trump has been ruining our global  standing;  even Republicans are saying that) and 4) What kind of industrial policy will win support of the business community AND help the underclass to improve their lot?

Here are some secondary questions:  how willing will the donor class be willing to donate to this person’s campaign? Donors not only want beneficial policies, they also want steady and reliable administration. But the  2016  election repudiated this idea. Cruz and Bush received lots of donor support, but this didn’t translate to public support. Hilary received lots of donations, but Sanders received more grassroots support and wasn’t that penalized by lacking Clinton’s fundraising apparatus. Perhaps the more critical question is : how easily can the candidate rally supporters? Trump, Obama and Sanders did a great job on this. Hilary Clinton did a rather mediocre job.

Among the Dems, it seems the choice is mainly between a female Senator and a male who is a business tycoon or former governor.  In the past, we have typically said that governors and business people make better executives, but I don’t know if that applies anymore. Maybe when two candidates go head to head the dynamics will seem different, but my default assumption is that women are the angry class for the election and come out overwhelmingly for the  female candidate.  Females come into this election believing that they were robbed in 2016.

By 2019 I predict that any enthusiasm for Trump will have disintegrated, and Americans on both sides are hungering for someone for dignified and honest. (Mitt Romney — if he were 10 years younger — would have fit the bill perfectly).

In 2016, I was more interested in figuring out who would win the Republican primary (Hilary Clinton seemed like a shoe in). For 2020, though it’s a wide open race for Democrats; Republicans has a smaller base of potential candidates, and they need to have demonstrated independence and judgment of Trump, but also not to alienate Trump/Breitbart voters too much.

Republicans

  1. Rick Perry. Perry is adept at understanding the political equation of various situations. He could probably manage to convince voters that he’s independent from Trump and assuage Trump voters that he’s secretly one of them. Terrible policies and ideas, but great fund-raiser, great populist and a good party man. His Oops moment and media personality in Dancing with the Stars can only help him.
  2. Jeff Flake. Definitely the man to watch, especially if/when the American public and Republican voters sour on the Trump brand. He’s actually a conventional politician with many interesting ideas and a capable spokesman for them. Expect him to run against Trump if Trump runs for re-election.
  3. Ted Cruz. It’s still scary to think that Cruz would have been the Republican nominee if Trump hadn’t won. He probably has a more mature understanding of politics now and probably is mending fences with other GOP politicians, but I don’t think this race is Cruz’s turn to run for president.
  4. John Kasich. Because his state is of strategic importance and because Kasich has governing experience and lots of federal experience, he would also be a formidable opponent — especially since he’s claimed to be more anti-Trump as time goes by. He also has worked with Hickenlooper to support a plan to fix Obamacare.  Republicans might look to Kasich as someone who can forge  private health care reform with Dems. But Ohio is a small place, and the US is a gigantic country.
  5. Marco Rubio. See my comments about Ted Cruz above.  Unlike Ted Cruz (who is formidable rhetorically), Rubio seems to be a lightweight politician. In a decade people may perceive him differently, but not now.
  6. Rob Portman has been an incredibly successful politician who has stayed out of the media glare.  On paper, he looks impressive. But it’s hard to imagine Portman emerging if Kasich is a strong contender. Also the impressive things about Portman tend not to win Republican primaries.
  7. Mike Pence.  Under Trump’s best case scenario, Pence will carry on the Trump  legacy. But Pence alienates a lot of people, and he’s incredibly lightweight on substance.
  8. Nikki Haley — Frankly her only qualification is that she is a woman who is a capable politician. Other than that, there is no particular reason for her to run (much less be elected).

Democrats

  1. Amy Klobuchar. On paper she looks like the Dem candidate most capable of winning in the Midwest. She has a great background in policymaking and is personable and friendly, but not a particularly good speechmaker. She has more national experience than Kamala Harris, making her the most likely female candidate. The most important thing is that she’s very centrist/bipartisan and understands the legislative process very well.  One notable problem is that Klobuchar does not support single payer. That is a deal breaker for many Democrats.   Politics aside, it would be fun to see a person with that strange a name to become president.
  2. Al Franken. Franken could be persuaded to run for president — especially if Trump runs for re-election, but I get the sense that Franken is not that ambitious — nor does he have a grand vision. UPDATE: I do not think the accusations of sexual harassment will make a difference one way or another.
  3. Julian Castro. He has enormous potential as a politician, but he needs to run for governor — plus he needs to be reasonably confident that he can win his own home state!
  4. Elizabeth Warren. I think she’s a great rallier of the troops, rhetorically very powerful and has a great vision. But she’s very divisive and aside from banking and health care, she doesn’t have a lot of foreign policy experience.
  5. Kamala Harris. Sharp lawyer with good political instincts and good rhetoric. She’s new to the national scene, and I don’t see Americans as favoring Harris over Klobuchar (except if you want single payer).
  6. Sherrod Brown. He’s a reliable progressive, but if he did not live in Ohio, I doubt that Americans would rally behind him.
  7. Tom Steyer. He’s definitely running if Trump stays in for 2020. I probably support his climate advocacy, but I don’t want billionaires wanting for president — Dem or Republican.
  8. Deval Patrick. He’s very impressive. African-American, successful Massachusetts governor and businessman. (Even with Bain Capital!) He’s a great speaker, but he’s been involved in a lot of urban issues — which doesn’t really help with winning the heartland.
  9. Mark Cuban. He will jump in the race only if Trump runs for re-election. But I think Steyer is more of a politician/progressive. Cuban is too much of a celebrity, and I think by 2020 Americans will be yearning for non-celebrities.
  10. John Hickenlooper. He and Kasich had talked about a Unity ticket for president in 2020. He’s also very impressive, and he’ll be 68 in 2020. Not particularly progressive, but is ahead of the curve on social issues (like gun control, cannabis, etc). Not a particularly great speech giver.
  11. Michael Bloomberg — Sorry, he’s too old, although in retrospect he should have run in 2016.
  12. Gavin Newsom. handsome and dynamic businessman who is now in the upper echelon of California politics. Cares a lot about gay marriage, homelessness and education. But he’s too young and probably fits the caricature of the out-of-touch California liberal.
  13. Kirsten Gillibrand. Probably the most energetic of female politicians, and a good communicator besides (though lacking the gravitas of a Warren/Clinton or even Kamala Harris).  I think she benefits from Hilary-sympathy; I just wonder how well she plays with Middle America.
  14. Andrew Cuomo.  I thought he was a strong candidate for 2016, but he didn’t run and doesn’t seem especially popular in NY. Being associated with NY is not going to help in 2020.
  15. Cory Booker. Good affable politician and he pops up all the time on talk shows and news shows. He serves on the Foreign Relations committee, so he stays well-informed about global issues. I don’t see anything special about him , but he is a skillful media personality — that can only help him.

Single Payer: As of today, Harris, Warren, Brown, Franken, Booker , Gillibrand support single payer. I assume that Gavin Newsom and Steyer also support it. Hickenlooper supports a bipartisan improvement on Obamacare with Kasich. Klobuchar does not support single payer, but might support it later.

TO SUMMARIZE:

REPUBLICANS. If we assume that Trump does not run for re-election, that leaves us with three Republican candidates: Rick Perry, Jeff Flake and John Kasich.  Flake has the best vision of the three, is most likely to appeal to undecideds and quickly established his independence from Trump. Then again, ever since Goldwater’s stinging defeat, Republicans have generally not chosen an intellectual/policymaker type (with Jack Kemp being the notable exception). Assuming that Trump is not in prison, Rick Perry has the ability to straddle the MAGA types and mainstream conservatives, plus it’s his turn.  Kasich is probably smarter and better at economics and industrial policy, but he  never really had national prominence. He also has endorsed the bipartisan Obamacare fix plan with Hickenlooper while maintaining his conservative credentials.  But Perry has more ability to rally the troops. My prediction: John Kasich 

Among Democrats, I really don’t know. They have a lot of media savvy politicians (Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, Kristen Gillibrand) and two impressive governors (Patrick, Cuomo, Hickenlooper), several impressive women (Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Warren) and several midwest politicians (Klobuchar, Hickenlooper). Among these, I think Patrick, Gillibrand and Klobuchar stand out.

Out of all the politicians,  the only ones who are climate hawks are Tom Steyer, Cuomo, Gillibrand.

For health care, Klobuchar and Hickenlooper do NOT support single payer. That is not in the Democratic mainstream right now. At the same time in 2016 Colorado voted against single payer; it’s hard to predict how angry people will be in 2019 and 2020 about health care.

2020 will be the year of the female Democratic candidate. Which women can win a 2020 election? Also: which women can push most successfully for single payer? Gillibrand is very partisan and a good speechmaker and has access to a lot of campaign donations. Harris and Gillibrand strongly support single payer.  Klobuchar is more middle-of-the-road and bipartisan, less of a firebrand.

The question becomes: which Democrat is capable of  bringing us to a viable health care  solution? Really, the only people who could do this are the ones who are NOT endorsing Single Payer.  Maybe Bernard Sanders could do this. Maybe Hickenlooper  or Deval Patrick could. By 2019, the country could be in a completely different mood, paving the wave for  a hyperpartisan candidate like Gillibrand or Harris.

For the Democratic candidate, I predict Amy Klobuchar . (If  the health care system implodes by 2019 and the race becomes very hot, maybe Gillibrand will seem more appealing). I don’t like Klobuchar’s  incremental approach to health care, but she knows the heartland, sees things from the point of view of small businesses,  and she has deep relationships with other lawmakers. She is not a lightning rod to controversy and she is open to compromise.

In 2nd place, I’m predicting Deval Patrick.  Progressive politician and great speaker with business experience. He’s done a lot of work with cities. I’m less confident about his ability to reach the heartland.

Jan 8 Update:  Since writing this, the sexual harassment bugaboo, a lot of things have happened. Franken is out, Gillebrand has gotten ahead of the curve on this, and Oprah gave a rousing speech at the Golden Globes. I don’t think Oprah will run in 2020 unless Trump stays in (and even at that, it’s a slim possibility). Mark Zuckerberg is being talked about, as is Nikki Haley. But Zuckerberg probably would have more financial entanglements than Trump ever would, and probably already enjoys his political influence now, and Haley is glued to the mouth to Trump. I stick with my prediction that 2020 will put a woman into the White House, and that it will be a politician to do it.

March 7 Update.  I actually am amazed that everyone is assuming that Trump would run for re-election. Frankly, that would be outstanding news for Dems, but I still think it doubtful.  I think the Mexicare Extra for All is capable of ensnaring fence sitters like Klobuchar.

 

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When I was  a teenager,  I watched way too  many  mainstream  movies specifically targeted to my age group. I generally hated these things.    Thanks to a decent art-house  theatre in my city, an intellectually adventurous  high school girlfriend, a new Blockbuster video rental store   and a brilliant film lover at my college, I had no problems finding Kurosawa’s “Ran,” Ingmar Bergman, French stuff (Breathless, Last Year at Marienbad, Les Comperes, etc) and satires like Dr. Strangelove.  All great works  — and the sort of thing that English majors go crazy about. For this list, I am listing movies which I wish I’d seen in college, but didn’t learn about until later.   Most movies here  aren’t that radical or artsy-fartsy, and yet most of them are beautiful and insightful and essentially about adults doing adult things.   I have tried to stay away from R-rated movies and various escapist fare (and even well made-made escapism) in favor of underappreciated movies which non English majors could enjoy and benefit from watching. Feel free to add any recommendations of your own in the comment section.   

  1. Casablanca. Epic romantic movie that takes place in Morocco – a so-called neutral zone during World War Two. Everyone’s favorite movie.
  2. Bicycle Thief. Italian Post-war humanistic drama about a father who needs to recover his stolen bike in order to accept a job (and feed his family).
  3. Tokyo Story. Powerful and serene family drama about an elderly couple who visits their adult children who are too busy with their own lives. The director (Ozu) is very famous for his low tracking shots, and this movie was ranked as the #1 film of all time by world directors in a 2012 poll. Many things are amazing about this film; I always found amazing how it portrays the dramas of ordinary living as intrinsically interesting.
  4. Best Years of Our Lives. This beautiful film captures the lives of WW2 soldiers returning to USA as heroes who find that adjusting to life as a civilian is challenging and difficult. This film is about ordinary heroism in adapting to changed circumstances in life.
  5. AI (2001) . Steven Spielberg is known for making children’s films full of wonder and adventure. This fairy tale for grownup tells the story of a robot kid who runs away from home and learns about the real world. Ignored upon release, this film’s reputation has only increased over time. It is very thought-provoking.
  6. Sixth Sense. Philosophical mystery film about a young kid who “sees dead people” and a psychologist who tries to help him.
  7. Amadeus. This film which embellishes upon the life of Mozart captures the joy and heartbreak of the Viennese musical scene in the late 18th century. This movie is a feast for the eyes and ears.
  8. Pather Panchali. This simple first film by Indian director Satyajit Ray tells the story of two poor kids who try to escape poverty. This famous low-budget movie won many awards and became the first of 3 films called the Apu Trilogy.
  9. Rear Window. Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological masterpiece about an injured photographer who notices suspicious activity outside his apartment window. People watch it for the suspenseful story, but the sound design and sets are also beautiful.
  10. Downfall. (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel). Powerful movie that tries to film the unthinkable: the last days of Hitler in his bunker as witnessed by a young female secretary. Amazing acting performances which reveal the delusions and closed-mindedness of the German leaders throughout the war. My pick for the best film of the last decade.
  11. Wages of Fear. Utterly harrowing movie about young men who are paid enormous money to transport explosives (and risk their lives) over the South American terrain.
  12. Encore (1953). British directors made short movies about the witty and sad short stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Three volumes of movies were made (and well-received), with this one being probably the best. Great characters and stories!
  13. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Tragic film about German high schoolers who were recruited to fight in World War 1 with tragic consequences. This movie has been remade many times, but the original version is still the best.
  14. Travelers and Magicians. Wonderful (and little-known) movie in the country Bhutan about a man who wins a visa to move to USA and befriends a Buddhist monk while waiting for the bus out of his village. This Buddhist monk tells him all kinds of amazing stories, causing the man to reconsider his dreams.
  15. Teen Movies
    • Ave. I recently saw this incredible Bulgarian movie directed by Konstantin Bojanov. It’s about two Bulgarian teenagers who hitchhike across Bulgaria together, have all sorts of crazy adventures and learn about why people lie (to others and themselves)
    • Breaking Away. Great 70s comedy about a biking fanatic (and recent high school grad) who decides to enter a biking competition where most of the contestants are college kids. They grow up fast!
    • American Graffiti. Star Wars director George Lucas made this great movie about what people do during the summer between high school and college. This movie made movie stars out of dozens of actors (and inspired a #1 TV show called “Happy Days”). I like this movie much more than the Star Wars movies.
    • Stranger Than Paradise. (Jiri Jarmusch) A teenage girl from Hungary arrives unannounced at the apartment of her American cousin (who she’s never met) and has to spend 10 days with him. She discovers how hard it is to persuade him to do anything fun. Hilarious! Also, hilariously relevant (most of adult years is figuring out how to deal with the daily boredom and how to get other people off their butts to enjoy themselves).
  1. Other classics. Here are some very famous movies which are probably on everybody’s list. Interestingly, I saw most of these after graduating from college.
  • Wizard of Oz. The first time you watch this movie as an adult is eye-opening. You realize how much was percolating underneath this movie all along, how much its themes resonate in adulthood: finding the man behind the curtain, the emptiness of some objects vested with significance, the importance of  the will in working towards goals. 
  • Night of the Living Dead. This tightly constructed horror film is both cheaply made and extremely sophisticated. Watching it as an adult, you appreciate the social dimensions and historical context. The movie doesn’t acknowledge  the fact that the hero is African-American, yet it takes place during a time of great social upheaval when this detail would have historical significance. This was probably the first time I realized that that horror movies can be a great mirror for a nation’s fears and insecurities.
  • The Graduate (with Dustin Hoffman). Besides being a silly sex romp, the running joke is that the “responsible adults” of the film are mean, selfish and short-sighted while the kids are the ones to see the hypocrisy. The remarkable thing about this movie is how everyone is trying (in their own self-serving way) to steer the two college kids on paths which are unsatisfying, messy and just plain wrong.  By the end, the film puts the burden of figuring out how to proceed squarely on the shoulders of the young adults. 

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To clarify: these aren’t necessarily my favorite movies of all time (although several titles are on both lists), but movies which I think would be best watched when in college. Perhaps later I will prepare a “Favorite Movies” listicle, but that is a far more ambitious task.

What movies do you wish that people could discover when they are 19 or 20?

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I am writing an article (and eventually a book) on music listening habits.

For this article I prepared this survey (which should take about 8-15 minutes to complete).

As an aside, I am curious exactly how hard it will be to recruit people to fill out this survey. I plastered the URL on my other social media, but does anybody actually see these things? We will see.

Related: I did this survey on Google Forms (which is pretty slick and easy to use). Google forms works well on mobile devices and lets you break down surveys into multiple pages fairly easily.  The hardest part is being able to import (and clean) the data into a statistical analysis app. I left a few optional questions in — and expect some people will start — but not finish the surveys.

I explored various alternatives for importing data. Finally I decided that even if I received 500 responses or more (unlikely), it still would be easy to manually import everything if I needed to.

I think music habits are changing profoundly and well worth studying. Some other remarks about preparing a survey:

I thought about reducing the number of questions by about a third. Ultimately, I decided to leave most of the questions in because I wanted to capture many facets of listening.

I am a novice to survey preparations, but I am an expert at wording questions and have some background in user testing.  A lot involves hidden bias but also redundancy. Also, some questions seem to force you into an answer (which is bad). 5 minutes before I published the survey, I took it myself — and noticed certain choices which seem unlikely to be chosen by anyone.

I read several articles suggesting that the best way to create a survey is to ask a series of questions starting with the words “Is there a relationship between A and B?”  I tried to do that. At the same time I left a few curiosity questions in because I wanted to expect the unxpected.

About this particular survey, I expect that age more than anything affects how we listen to and discover new music.

One other thing about this particular survey is that I wanted to include several open-ended questions. As tapped in as I am to the music scene, at best I really only know 3-5% of what’s out there, and frankly it helps to hear what resources which other people are using.

I am only guessing, but I imagine that a lot of surveys must uncover a strange correlation –and it exposes a matter which the survey writer never expected. In the best of all worlds, the survey writer would have the opportunity to do follow ups so the survey writer can ask two or three additional questions (which perhaps can be correlated with the respondent’s original answers).

 

 

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“Must Have 5+ Years Experience” Fallacy

I originally wrote this article in Spring 2002 — during a long and painful bout of unemployment). I have more up-to-date thoughts on the topic which I will  post eventually.

Why does every job ad require 5 years of experience? What does this mean anyway?

5 years experience with the same job title? That is a sign the employer is not looking for competence, but stability and aversion to risk.

5 years in the same field? So does time in school count? How about times when you were unemployed and working on portfolios/personal projects?

5 years experiencing using the tool, (programming language, platform)? First, no sane individual uses a single tool for every task on the job, and an individual who does so tends to view business problems in a reductionist way. A person with 5 years experience using Robohelp tends to view every problem as a Robohelp problem. Second, anyone who uses a product for that long a time could be using an out-of-date version. Or they can be in the habit of using high-priced commercial tools instead of free open source tools.

Having the technical competence of a typical person with 5 years experience? If that’s the case, then what about the person with 6 months experience who can do pretty cool things? What about someone with 5 years experience using a different tool but minimally competent on this one? At some point you are concerned more with an individual’s potential to do good work than what he has done (and that is good, isn’t it?)

I’ve always felt that the hardest job skills could be learned by the right person in 2 years or less. So, by demanding 5 years experience, you run the risk of hiring someone purely on the basis of the historical accident of whether they’ve worked at a company using a commercial tool. Employers would like to think that skills can be assessed simply by number of years at the post. They’d like to think that most people can obtain the jobs they are suited for, and that job titles are relatively uniform across the industry. But job titles (especially in technical fields) can be misleading. Requiring “5 years experience” may simply result in weeding out the younger candidates most in touch with new ways of doing things. In the writing profession, proficiency and even ability increases with age. As a 36 year old, I’ve been writing seriously since my senior year at college (when I was 22). That’s 14 years of experience. But on a writing project, a talented writer with three years of experience could have probably done just as good a job.

What alternative do I suggest? Employers should focus on skills necessary for the job, not simply seniority. By “skills,” I mean general skills, not simply familiarity with proprietary applications. If you limit your pool of applicants only to those whose previous employer used a particular application, you are reducing your pool of applicants (and probably having to pay high prices for it too). Oracle is completely different from SQL Server, but a person who worked as a database administrator on one of them could probably pick up the other in no time at all. The same is true for programming. I won’t deny that programming is hard, and that the good programmer is ten times more productive than the mediocre programmer. But a good programmer is not necessary the one who can program in the most languages. Once you learn basic concepts very well, the choice of tool, platform or programming language is almost irrelevant. Therefore, employers should write job descriptions that allow for a diversity of backgrounds rather than insisting on a specific job title or familiarity with a specific tool. Every job description ad should include three parts: Requirements, Highly Recommended and Nice to Have. In some areas (like management), seniority does indicate a level of experience working with different types of human interactions. But in technological fields, seniority is mostly irrelevant. After all, napster was started by someone under the age of 20 and the world’s first graphical browser was written by someone still in college.

Another way to tackle the skills problem is to look at an ability to complete projects or master new challenges. Accomplishments and innovation should be more important than number of years with a job title. True, a person with 5 years experience at a job may face many challenges that make him/her a better worker. But a person without the job title may have faced similiar challenges in different professional contexts. By allowing the second kind of applicant into the job pool, you are making it easier to find the best candidate at the lowest possible price.

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Are Meetings Productive?

This is one of the first articles I created for the Internet on my idiotprogrammer.com domain. I wrote it July 2001. I’m reproducing it here.

While working at Dell, I spent an an extraordinary amount of time at meetings. A good number seemed to be a waste of time or could have easily taken place without me. For those meetings of value, I estimated that only 20-30% of the time was actually helpful to my productivity.

Actually, that is not bad. Lack of communication between team members and departments often caused resources and time to be wasted on work no longer necessary or relevant. Attendence was often pro forma, but often it was enough to go to these meetings to make sure nothing dramatic had changed. A manager feels obligated to invite you to keep you “inside the loop,” and you feel obligated to stay in that loop whether you like it or not. An overly nice manager can invite you to too many meetings, while another manager can be downright stingy about invitations. I can truthfully say that some of my most important meetings were ones I never was invited to and only heard about later.

As a technical writer, I was often glad to go to meetings. It was a chance to come face to face with developers and learn about a project’s current status. It was also a way to hear about new acronyms and new projects (I averaged two new acronyms per meeting). Although most meetings were a waste of time, quite a few were not, and it was hard to predict beforehand which of these would be worthwhile.

I’ve noticed that about 3/5 of meeting attendees are bored or just glad to be away from their desk. Their role is basically to twiddle their thumbs and look alert. Usually one person is in the hot seat; it is usually a manager or person giving a presentation.

Bringing donuts or cookies is a great way to liven up a meeting. I knew many a manager who as an incentive to increase attendence would announce beforehand that the meeting would have refreshments. That usually brought people, but it also caused people who had no reason to be there to show up just for the food. These kind of meetings usually were productive (and fun), but usually the person who brought the refreshments had the unpleasant duty of cleaning up afterwards.

Dell used the scheduling features of Outlook for making meetings. Say what you will about Microsoft, but using Outlook to schedule meetings was a terrific time-saver. It is probably the best thing about Microsoft Office. I never was a stickler about keeping a personal calendar until Outlook. I got to the point where I thought nothing of sending an email invite to the person sitting 5 feet away from me. Removing recurring appointments was often a great bother, so in my laziness I often had “phantom appointments” on my calendar for projects cancelled long ago. Probably the coolest thing about Outlook calendar was being to access it from home or to download it into your PDA. That allowed you to decide the night before whether to stop for hotcakes at MacDonalds on the way to work.

I always enjoyed meetings that talked about other meetings I hadn’t attended. Sometimes, two or three members had been at the meeting and offered postmordem analyses (causing me to wonder about whether they did the same thing about this meeting at other meetings). Sometimes I would go to one meeting and end up hearing the dope on three or four others.

The best meetings tend to have only 5 or 6 people and last for about one hour. A good manager usually knows when to cut short a debate. I’d heard my share of ideological debates, and most of them were pretty pointless after 3 or 4 minutes, especially when it involved some arcane programming call or network protocol. The two people who actually understood the issue would shout at each other, while the rest would doodle on their notepads or mentally deliberate over options for lunch. Interestingly, meetings were not really good places for making decisions. Distractions and other side issue tended to pollute the air. But meetings were excellent places to extract commitments from team members and provide opportunities for coworkers to lodge objections to a plan moving forward.

Meetings also were great for brainstorming. Those kinds of meetings were usually the most animated and productive. The catch is that afterwards one or two people need to condense the suggestions into something workable and make a decision unilaterally. Group decisions tend to be conservative, timid and ineffective.

I’ve always been intrigued by people who teleconference into the meeting when they only work in the next building (Are they allergic to sunlight?). On the other hand, it allows you to surf the net and answer email (ahem, I mean “work”) while being able to perk your ears when something important is discussed. Etiquette Tip: Don’t take another call while teleconferencing. What happens is that you put the meeting on hold, causing the people physically at the meeting to hear the corporate Muzak blaring loudly on the meeting room’s speakerphone. In the recent year or so, I’ve noticed that more people are bringing laptops with wireless connections into meetings. Oh, the possibilities for distraction are endless!

Here are some tips for having effective meetings.

  1. Make sure team members understand the order in which items will be discussed. That allows people to duck into or duck out of meetings at their leisure. Trust me. It’s for the best of everyone.
  2. If someone invites you to a meeting you don’t normally attend, try to identify beforehand whether you are expected to go FYI or to play an active role in giving information. Several times I’ve gone to meetings where –surprise! surprise! — I was expected to provide information. Once I scheduled an informational meeting with a developer only to realize that the developer knew even less about the project than I did.
  3. If a key person is not at the meeting, it is better to cancel the meeting than to make the feeble attempt to have the meeting anyway. When the big cheese isn’t there, coworkers are constantly referring to his or her work and using his absence as an excuse not to make a decision about anything.
  4. If you are at a meeting with 5 people or less and you are completely lost, ask a lot of questions. If you are at a meeting with 10 people or more and are completely lost, say nothing throughout the meeting and try to take good notes. Then later on, take a colleague aside and ask him/her to explain what the hell everyone was talking about.
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Ok, what happened to my old stuff?

In 2000 or so I bought the idiotprogrammer.com domain. I had intended it to be my professional portfolio site, with some bloggy articles on it. This would contrast that with my personal domain imaginaryplanet.net which would contain my (nonpseudonymous) personal/creative stuff.    About 5 or 10 years ago, I decided not to renew the domain because I was posting most of my stuff on imaginaryplanet.

This tends to happen. It’s easy to buy a web domain, and with current web hosting, it’s not that hard to maintain or pay for it. (It’s like $10 a year?). It’s kind of a rip-off, but so what.  By the way, there’s something coming down the pike that should worry indie websites like this in. As of October, Chrome is going to give a security warning for visitors who go to non-https sites. I’ve always known about https, but setting it up was a pain, and it usually involved paying a third party to validate your certificate.

I understand the reasons for this security upgrade on the browser, but there a lot of non-https WordPress sites out there, most run by individuals  who don’t have the time or resources or expertise to convert to https. I’ll be implementing it probably on my commercial site (still a work in progress, no link yet) and probably on this blog, but this will definitely make me reconsider the old “let’s buy a domain and stick a blog on it” strategy. This may mean migrating projects over to wordpress.com or other larger hosts or simply dispensing with the idea that one needs to buy a domain at all.

WordPress doesn’t have ironclad security, but it has served me pretty well over the years. Also, I check in often enough to this site that I can apply the automatic updates pretty seamlessly. (To be fair, my excellent hosting service GREENGEEKS does send me emails about necessary updates). At the same time I am less enamored of php scripted sites as viable long term. If you abandon any php application for more than a year or two, chances are that the site can be easily hacked. I assume that the php community has probably taken countermeasures to prevent this — and probably the wordpress community has as well, but it doesn’t give me confidence.

I like the idea of completely separating the front end from the content management system. The content management system can be under whatever scripting language you want, but it deploys non-hackable code on the domain itself. I know Plone was that kind of system, and probably by now there are several others. But frankly, I haven’t kept up with content management developments as much as I would have liked, and frankly, the non-Wordpress choices seem to involve either 1)signing up a web application (like Medium, WordPress.com) and producing all your content inside it or 2)running a beastly php system like Drupal which requires a fair amount of advanced knowledge. WordPress has still been the happy path for most people, and once you marry a system, it can be hard to initiate divorce proceedings.

Anyway, these are random thoughts to preface some old content from my idiotprogrammer.com which I forgot to transfer to imaginaryplanet. Every once in a while I remember some great thing I wrote a long time ago, and then crap, I realized that it’s not there anymore! I can’t tell you how many times the wayback machine has saved my derriere, but alas, now it appears that the new owners of idiotprogrammer.com has blocked indexers, so the wayback machine is no longer archiving it.  Bummer! Then apparently after one of my domains was hacked, I still was able to find one wayback snapshot which was not hacked.

Permit me to rant about people who buy existing domains when they expire.  I don’t want to claim that my sites are particularly marvelous, but I find amazing how often a new owner will just squat on a domain and do absolutely nothing with it! Why on earth would you buy up someone’s personal domain, pay $10 per year to maintain it, and then do absolutely nothing to it.  It’s better to have old content lying somewhere on a domain than absolutely nothing. Perhaps the underlying problem are those pesky domain renewal fees which over the long term makes all domains unusable and uninteresting. There will come a time when facebook.com, ibm.com and microsoft.com won’t have any content on them; it’s coming sooner than you think.

I’m going to make a bet — somebody prove me wrong! I predict that in 50 years, facebook.com, ibm.com and microsoft.com will essentially be abandoned domains. Perhaps for cultural reasons facebook.com will provide legacy access to people’s old profiles. On the other hand, archive.org , teleread.org, nytimes.com, and hopefully imaginaryplanet.net will still be around — and have accessible snapshots on archive.org — that is, unless the new owners have blocked it.

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Life Lessons In Leadership (Book Review)

Title:   Life Lessons in Leadership: The Way of the Wallaby: For Leaders Ages 8 to 88

Author:  Ann McMullan, Michael Barrett, Lisa Breshears (Design)

Publisher:  Createspace

Genre: Nonfiction, Hybrid Genre. 

ISBN:  978-0325053011

Publishing Date: November 2016

Where to Buy:  Author’s Web Site. Amazon.com, BN

Price: $14.95 for print book (no ebook is available)

Summary: light-hearted way to introduce management concepts

This clever and beautifully illustrated book tries to do the impossible: discuss the challenges of managing people in such elementary terms that even a kid could understand it. It’s a captivating collaboration by an educational consultant, a children’s author and a talented artist. The book is brief — it’s less than 20 pages — but it presents important insights about leadership that even the most book-averse could absorb without too much pain. I see the book as accomplishing three things. First, it facilitates discussion by providing silly (and imaginary) examples of well-run and dysfunctional organizations. Second it contains whimsical verse of clueless animal bosses (complete with cute drawings) which directly relate to the concepts described on the page preceding it. Third, it emphasizes the importance of soft management skills (like listening, giving credit and responding to conflict from a loving perspective). The whole book has a “maternal vibe” to it, and that is somewhat unusual for a book on management; this certainly is appropriate in some contexts (such as education and nonprofits), but in other business contexts, it may seem too touchy-feely and not goal-oriented enough. Still, the books makes a few points quickly and makes them well (and entertainingly). The book is a great ice-breaker for managers who are seeking a light-hearted way to introduce management concepts to staff.

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Let’s Not Demonize Hilary

I am proud to say that I voted for Hillary Clinton — a principled woman who had to put up with a lot for over 25 years of her public life. I know people are going to nitpick about what a flawed candidate she was — that’s only natural. But she is what she is. And she had lots of positive qualities that would have made her a thoughtful and effective world leader — it is no wonder that Obama implied that she was better qualified to be president than he was. Today’s executive branch needs someone who knows the details of each policy — who is willing to compromise and be cautious in her judgments. Hilary Clinton didn’t regard the US presidency as just a game on a reality show which needed to be won at any cost; she understood that behind policy decisions there were human lives at stake. To pick one example which sticks in my gullet. Trump has been promising the people in Appalachian coal mine country that under a Trump administration, coal mining will come back. But that’s just a campaign line. Coal mining isn’t a competitive industry any more — and will probably never be even if Trump eliminates all the EPA regulations. In contrast, Hilary Clinton committed to $30 billion in economic assistance to that region to make the transition away from coal. Clinton was attacked for doing this, but this was an attempt to solve a social problem; over the next few years, this money would have come in handy for them…

For those who say Trump’s victory is just an example of the pendulum swinging to the other side, please remember, almost every single newspaper in the country (even conservative ones) refused to endorse Trump, every single past president (and every single past GOP presidential nominees) refused to endorse Trump. Even the Catholic pope hinted that he objected to Trump’s policies. Here was a case where most national polls were off by a wide margin, most prediction markets were off too. Clinton’s campaign was much better funded, much better disciplined and had a better “ground game,” (even though ultimately it did not deliver the goods). Despite these things, Trump prevailed. Except at the presidential level, this was NOT an example of anti-incumbency; this was NOT an example of people wanting a stronger defense (Clinton’s foreign policy credentials were strong). There was some vague sense of economic malaise (although America’s economic health has not been particularly bad recently). Trump’s policy proposals were vague, sometimes ill-informed and sometimes just sloganeering. Most of the time it just involved imposing tariffs and forcing allies to pay for things. He contradicted himself multiple times on the campaign trail and lashed out regularly at political opponents. Do I even have to mention the bankruptcies? the sexual accusations? His demonization of the press and his tendency to sue everybody? Trump University? I know, I am telling you nothing new. But we need to understand that this is NOT an example of normal democracy; it is a sign that political norms are changing; it is an age where “mean tweets” is the new normal.

All along, Trump seemed like a twisted caricature of every rotten reflex of the radical right. That he has prevailed, that he has won this election, is a crushing blow to the spirit; it is an event that will likely cast the country into a period of economic, political, and social uncertainty that we cannot yet imagine. That the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms, is a fact that will lead, inevitably, to all manner of national decline and suffering.
 
In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event. They will try to soothe their readers and viewers with thoughts about the “innate wisdom” and “essential decency” of the American people. They will downplay the virulence of the nationalism displayed, the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil. George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory. “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” 
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(A few months ago I wrote this response to the Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer and forgot to post it).
Some random thoughts:

Family members were the stars of this series. We saw so much of them! They were strange to look at, and not particularly interesting. Like mole people. Nice but dull.

The series could have been half the size. Lots of shots of empty rooms, witnesses grabbing plants from the ground, tracking shots of the sunset, the highway, that damn junkyard!

I’m not giving anything away by saying that there were two separate but related cases. I pretty much agreed with the court decisions on both of them although one of them has an issue which seemed significant enough to seem to merit reconsideration (Update: Apparently a higher court agreed last week!)

I think the main message of the movie is to show how much of a spectacle a big money trial is and how easy it is for the defendant to believe in the rightness of his opinion (and convince onlookers and family members to invest money in legal fees).

Mistakes were mistake. Aside from one whopper of a mistake, none of them seemed to be committed out of malice. It’s just that people screw up, and courts have to deal with imperfect evidence.

I totally believe the directors in the PBS interview that they had no horse in this game, that they were just here to record the workings of the justice system. There is inherent value in that. But there is also inherent value in doing a documentary about Nazis and getting them to record their inner thoughts and dreams. I’m not being coy here. A film that purports to objectively get into the minds of Nazis or SS would be enormously interesting. But at some point you have to say: Is the underreported story really to hear the overpaid defense lawyers gloat at holes they have “found” in the evidence? Also to ask: what efforts did the filmmakers make to get thoughts from the family of the victims or other bystanders? Why were they unwilling or unable to get this perspective?

The primary thing this film demonstrated is that when money is no object, lawyers can dig up all sorts of defenses. And pontificate about these things ad nauseum…

There is a shocking piece of evidence in the middle of the series, and I’m glad the directors (and lawyers) circled back to it near the end.

About the only thing I rooted for were the public defenders in the latter part of the trials. Lacking the resources to counter the state’s case, they nonetheless seemed cogent and well done3.

It’s funny how my opinions changed over the course of the series. Near the start, I felt I needed to have an open mind. Also, I needed to keep in mind that certain pieces of evidence smelled funny.

I’m going to reveal my cards here and say that when you are the last person to see a victim and the victim’s car is on your property and the charred remains are found near your trailer, and you were seen burning a fire on the night in question and no one else on the property has anything remotely suggestive of criminal tendencies, that creates an overwhelming burden of you to show how and why someone other could have been the perpetrator. Leaving aside ALL of the forensic evidence and ALL OF THE COERCED TESTIMONY of his cousin, you still have to present an alternate theory which is convincing enough to override the presumption here. The defense attorneys suggested malice by the sheriff and DA; fair enough, but malice doesn’t imply ability or even the desire to take action. I may want to murder somebody badly; I might even have the opportunity; but that does not mean I act on my impulses.

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I told this story at the Houston Storytellers’ Guild 2015  “Liars’ Contest.” It was partly inspired by my  recent adventures teaching at a middle school. It belongs to my Booby Naked story collection .

Earlier this year I started teaching at Romero Middle School. I taught creative writing. It was my first year teaching, so there were always surprises.

For example, middle school students ask strange questions. Like, Mr. Nagle, are you married? Mr. Nagle, do you have a girlfriend? Mr. Nagle, are you gay? Mr. Nagle, do you have a car? Mr. Nagle, do you like football? Mr. Nagle, do you drink a lot of beer? Mr. Nagle, what do you think of Kanye West? Mr. Nagle, do you have $5 I can borrow? Mr. Nagle, what’s the wifi password? Mr. Nagle, did you get fired from your last job?

One day I gave students a writing assignment. While they were writing, one girl’s hand shot up. I expected that she wanted me to explain something or would ask me for a pencil. Instead she asked, “Mr. Nagle, have you ever been to SeaWorld? It’s REALLY fun.”

(In case you’re wondering, the answer to those questions is No, no, no, no, no, no, don’t care, no, there isn’t one, of course not and not yet). [click to continue…]

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Not-dead update (Yet Again!)

As you know my blog has been hibernating for a long while.

I have had a LOT of things going in my life right now which prevent blogging. Also, I regularly post on Facebook and Google Plus (a tough habit I have been trying to break for several years).  I usually post identical things on both sites — although sometimes I make more comments on Facebook.

I also post on the Jack Matthews publishing  site.

That said, I expect to increase my blogging (and generally my writing) for the next few months and years. I have been trying to launch some publishing project, and once I do that, I’ll be devoting a lot of time to it.

Strangely I have been reading a lot, and eventually I will have posts about that. Also, I will probably be contributing to the Teleread.org reboot.

I’m in job search mode, so I typically don’t post anything ridiculously scandalous or controversial during that time. (Actually I don’t do much of that anyway. 50 year olds are such stolid creatures!)

On the other hand, I have always viewed a blog as not an end in itself. It’s more like a notebook of notes and rough drafts which I occasionally turn into something more polished.

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