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I am linking to it casually (and making only superficial comments), but this  professional code of ethics I have developed about working for the energy industry is one of my most important (and most expensive personally). 

I live in Houston, which is basically the center of many energy companies, most of which deal with fossil fuels. I would estimate that 80% of the technical job opportunities in my field (Technical Writing and Instructional Design) are in the oil and gas field. I have turned them down without exception – no matter how lucrative or promising. I generally have to explain myself to HR people and recruiters; usually people’s response to my declaration that I could not work for any oil and gas companies is absolute amazement – and almost hilarity.  “Is this guy crazy?” they must think.

I would love to remain in Houston, but it’s becoming harder to make a living here and stay true to these core ethical principles I have articulated on that page.  The irony is that I genuinely enjoy the field of technical writing – plus I think I am really good at it,  but if most   of the jobs in your city are in an industry you find abhorrent,  then what does it matter that a particular type of work is interesting or well-paying? 

I have been working on a much longer blog post about the ethical question, “Is it ethical to work for an oil and gas company?”  Stay tuned!


Linkdump from Facebook 2

Here’s some dumping from Facebook onto my blog.  (Warning: very long!)  (This is the 2nd installment. See the first linkdump)

[click to continue…]


Brief Book Reviews 3

Here’s my next batch of capsule book reviews.  Now that I’ve figured an easier way to lay things out, I hope to post book reviews more frequently. Next batch will have more indie ebooks, I promise! Here’s an index to my other book reviews.

DeadZone Stephen King

The Dead Zone by Stephen King. After viewing the sci fi TV series based on the novel, I decided to read the original source material. Many original elements from the TV show are here (albeit in smaller form). The book did a good job of bringing the plot to a personal level; the book called more attention to the struggle between John Smith and his parents. Because the book used fewer supernatural effects, it was actually more plausible and inward-looking. At the same time, the heavy emphasis on plot and dialogue made this story ready for TV. Aside from the protagonists, none of the characters seemed compelling or seemed to have complex struggles. This book was a train wreck, and even though I'm not a fan of Stephen King's works in general, I feel sure he must have done better than this later on. (I thought Misery was brilliant though overdone and needlessly sadistic). The premise here was great -- and so was the research about brain function, but I don't think the plot or the characters rose above cliche. As a book, it didn't work; however, some of the pop culture details from the 1970s were fun enough to make the book occasionally tolerable.

The Failure by James Greer. Great comic novel about an ill-fated attempt to rob a Korean check-cashing store and one brother's attempt to make a bundle off some Internet scam. The plot is outrageous, and full of strange characters and comic diversions and narrator long-windedness. The "Korean check-cashing fiasco" is announced to be a failure from the start, but it was delightful to hear it in excruciating detail. The book consists of many short chapters with funky titles ("Marcus, Guy's Brother, Contemplates what might have been, standing at the window of his office in Cambridge, the same day as the Korean Check-Cashing Fiasco") and lots of hilarious asides (See the one in Chapter 47 about the "plight of the underappreciated writer."). The book is about the vagaries of wealth and success and how the Internet-driven economy only makes everything more unpredictable. It's just as hard to know whether the check-cashing scheme has any chance of success as the latest Internnet technology which no one quite understands. As zany as it seems to pair a California novel with Irish narrator Tadhg Hynes, the audio book published by Iambik Press works because Hynes easily can adopt a tone of derision, pettiness and cynicism. Hands down, the audiobook was one of the funniest things I'd heard -- it ranks up with Rob McQuay's narration of Bill Bryson's "Walk in the Woods." Highly Recommended. (Also: Here's a revealing interview between Miette Elm and the author.)

Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living by the Union of Concerned Scientists . This nonfiction reference guide provides good consumer information about how to reduce your carbon footprint. Out of the 300 page book, 30 pages are end notes, 20 pages are resources and author bios (!?), 50 pages are an introduction to climate change (unneeded by now, I think). That leaves about 120-150 pages of good stuff about home heating, food production transportation, electronics, and bringing green living to the workplace. I thought the food section had good and new information, and the home heating/utility contained useful information for home-owners. I would have liked to see more discussion about the value of organic products and more formulas for calculating footprint; for example, how do you estimate the carbon footprint of an ipad produced overseas? How do you estimate the carbon footprint of bus travel? How do you convert between different measuring units and scales? How does recycling lower your carbon footprint (if at all)? The book is the best on the market, but there really needs to be a better and more comprehensive guide on the subject. Related: I highly recommend No Impact Man (the book) by Colin Beavan and Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard.

Yu Hua brothers

Brothers by Yu Hua. This remarkable picaresque and satirical novel about the rags-to-riches tale of two Chinese brothers against the backdrop of modernization has a lot going for it. An engaging style, two well-drawn out characteristics, and a lot of political and social subtexts. It brims with scatological humor and lots of episodes and hilarious dialogue. I listened to the audiobook and confess that parts were electrifying -- either sad or humorous or both. Yu Hua's satire is so caustic that one is almost shocked to find something so daring from China. (Its far-flung reach is reminiscient of Journey to the West). One critic described it as Rabelais Meets Horatio Alger, and I think that's fair. The central character is Baldy Li, an aggressive, blunt boy whose effrontery translates into being a good businessman. His older brother Song Fanping is more modest and enlightened; at the same time he is crippled and even emasculated by his willingness to follow the traditional paths to success. The novel is more about Baldy Li's outrageous behavior and how it helps him to succeed. I liked Book 1 (which describes how the two brothers were orphaned as a result of the Cultural Revolution and how they both fall in love with the same girl). As the book goes on and focuses more on Baldy Li's business success, the plot becomes more ridiculous -- whores and incurable diseases and opulent living. I read the book as Chinese society's naive introduction to business success. The rags-to-riches fairy tale; is often unrealistic and maudlin. Many characters aren't quite sure how you make money in a privatized system, and only Baldy Li's shameless pursuit of wealth seems to be working. My favorite moment comes when Baldy Li seeks investors for his new business. Several people buy shares on the basis of Baldy Li's bluster. But when it appears that Baldy Li may not be bringing a return on their investments, suddenly these ordinary Chinese realize that capitalism itself might be a scam. This novel was ostensibly written for laughs -- and it's probably unrealistic to hold it up to a standard of realism; at the same time, I suspect that the larger-than-life character of Baldy Li doesn't seem plausible to most readers; more people probably identify with this older brother who would be in the grips of poverty were he not connected to Baldy Li. The book ultimately takes things to ridiculous heights -- to the point where I no longer cared about the outcome. I don't particularly like this novel as a whole, but it did reveal the variety of attitudes (both naive and sophisticated) that oridinary Chinese had towards privatization and dreams of prosperity. Baldy Li is really a horrible person, but the book never really hints that Baldy Li's life may not be the paradise it seems. And Baldy Li's foil (his older brother) is too impotent and bland to stand out as a credible alternative. Everyone loves a funny and boorish literary character, but I have to wonder if the author loves Baldy Li too much. The audio narrator, Louis Changchien, does an outstanding job at bringing the book to life. It's just too bad that the novel becomes a ridiculous concoction.


Puddnhead Wilson by Mark Twain. This funny postbellum novel about a nitwit and a wealthy white man who learns unexpectedly that he was actually born black. I liked the early chapters , but as the plot became complex and the Negro dialect became thicker, it became harder to follow. The story proceeds haphazardly; it almost seemed thrown together. Twain's style and humor is unmistakable, but I would have preferred a more focused novel.

1000 Recordings You Must Hear before you Die by Tom Moon. At first glance, this nonfiction book seems to be a typical reference guide of best albums. But the book contains lots of unusual recommendations, lots of connections between musicians in different genres. Reading this book is pure delight. Succinct, full of collector's notes and recommended recordings and great layout for easy browsing. Every time I flip open the book, I learn some new thing both about the artist and the context in which the album was released. Even the indices are useful (they even have a "mood index" where you can find music in categories like "Music to inspire Reflection" and "Cardio Workout" and "Headphone Journey.") Unlike Dimery's book (which actually aims to be a boring reference guide), Moon's book feels more personal and less inclined to list historically important albums. Unfortunately some albums listed here are not easy to find, and Moon -- anticipating this -- does a good job of describing what you're missing. You can download a PDF listing all the recordings, and the website/blog for the book has lots of related commentary. Such a reference guide will by definition go out of date quickly, but it still will be a delight to peruse long after. Highly Recommended (though avoid the ebook edition -- which isn't as browsable or as well laid out).

1001 Albums You must hear before you die by Robert Dimery can easily be confused with Moon's classic, but they are like night and day. Dimery's book tries to be a chronological reference book, and even though the choice of albums are predictable and not particularly interesting, it is still useful to have this reference guide as a counterweight to Moon. This is the kind of book you'd want to give to your son or daughter to give them a conventional introduction to pop music from previous decades, but it won't open your eyes to much. This sounds like I'm knocking this book, and in a way I am. But as long as you don't expect cutting edge recommendations here and simply a timeline of famous albums, you'll be fine. Still, read Moon's book before this one.

Rock Snob's Dictionary by David Kamp and Steven Daly . This slim mock-reference book sounds fairly easy to write, but I wanted to mention how well the authors manage through the format of a glossary to discuss many overlooked musical styles and persons. It explains a lot of cultural terms which even well-informed listeners might miss. Also, some of the glossary items are satirical. Example: "Plangent" is a "standby rock-crit adjective used to lend a magical aura to any nonaggressive guitar-based music (even though the word's primary meaning is"loud and resounding. Perhaps this guide might merely amuse those knowledgeable about music, but I found it very informative as well. Highly recommended.

Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s . (also Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s and Rock Albums Of The 70s: A Critical Guide) By Robert Christgau. Christgau has been reviewing albums for a long time and has perfected a manner of writing of writing capsule reviews of most of the major musicians. Many of Christgau's reviews seem peremptory or missing the point of the music; on the other hand, Christgau does seem to get British punk and rap/hip-hop and is generally good at identifying duds. Despite the fact that I disagree with a lot of Christgau's reviews (he overlooks or belittles some gems), often his snap judgments can give you a sense of where to place individual albums. I'm happy to report 2 things. First, Christgau wrote a great introduction to his 90s edition which is worth reading for its own sake. Second, reviews from all of Christgau's books (and even ones published later) are easily accessed from Christgau's website. His essays are a lot more sympathetic and consumer-oriented. Finally, although Christgau covered the 90s pretty well (despite being generally unsympathetic to alternative music), I've noticed how many titles never get reviewed by Christgau. We have to be grateful that Christgau tried to review as much as he can, but the 2000s, the music world had become too large and complex even for Christau.

Hitler's Last Secretary: A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler . By Traudl Junge. This autobiographical account of Hitler's final days became the basis for the magnificant German film "Der Untergang" (aka "Downfall." ) This book gives even greater detail, starting with the lavish parties Eva Braun used to throw in various summer houses. Junge writes long after the fact, so she occasionally throws in postscripts about what happened to some of the major and minor actors. Generally though, she writes through the naive eyes and ears of her younger naive self, describing everyone's foibles and predelictions in this typical awestruck way. This of course is a stylistic conceit, because Junge has spent the rest of her life trying to atone for her blindness, but it was important to convey without a guilty tone both logistics and the smaller events that intruded on German politics and war-planning. Probably most fascinating about the book is the afterward by Melissa Muller which describes her life post-Hitler. (For about 10 years she labored under the cloud of her past, and later, she became well known as a liberal-minded editor and publisher). She describes horrifying events (such as the various suicide pacts and the disappearance/death of her friends) with matter-of-factness. She even does not go into detail about her marriage (encouraged by Hitler) to a soldier who falls in battle. One book review mentions that Junge almost never witnessed Hitler's emotional outbursts, and in fact towards his staff he was considerate and paternalistic. I saw the movie first, read the book, and then insisted on watching the movie again. I recognize that a secretary's account of Hitler and the Nazi Party is likely to be blind to many ugly realities, but if anything it dramatized how for incurious people inside the reassuring bubble of Naziism, work and family life seemed perfectly normal ... except perhaps for secondhand reports of casualties. Ultimately, the plight of Traudl Junge is more important than that of Hitler; it's eye opening to read about how ordinary and basically good people become caught up in a totally evil system. Highly recommended. (PS, I read this book in 2 days!) Note: This is available as an ebook for $1.99. Great buy!


I am embarrassed to admit this, but one of the reasons I haven’t posted book reviews in a while is in wordpress it is difficult to make tables well.

A good 2 column table is the perfect format for displaying capsule book reviews. The left cell contains the cover art; the right cell contains the actual review. In my previous capsule book reviews, I did put everything in a table; it looks ok (but rather crappy). At the same time, it was tedious and confusing to make just a two column table. The rich text editor strips paragraph tags and puts br tags in strange places.  In the source html you can format things perfectly, but if you want to edit it in the rich text editor, you can only edit the table stripped of paragraph tags. You’re constantly trying to guess what the rich text editor will do to your original source.

The other problem is proper styling. It’s not easy to make css for just that table, especially if your class declarations are rather complicated. Also, it is hard to add images in the rich text editor for a table you are editing on the desktop. It also provides a decent preview mode

I’ve just spent the last hour testing Tablepress, a wordpress plugin which is designed to solve precisely these problems and more. It provides a better table wizard (and some cool javascript tricks for sorting rows and colunns). It also gives you option for importing tables (HTML or CSV)  and for inserting images or accessing the rich text editor from the table editor.  I think its primary use is to display tabular data, but it also is a time-saver for making simple tables whose function is simply to display text more efficiently.

My method now is to create the table offline, import the file into the Tablepress plugin, and then within Tablepress table to manually insert the images. All this looks relatively easy to maintain, with the only down side being that the tables aren’t actually included in posts, but inserted as shortcodes into posts.  I suspect that will cause migration issues if you are migrating into another CMS, but then again, I’m almost feeling that wordpress will be here forever.

Two weeks ago I was horrified to discover that creating the simple three row table in the middle of this blog post took hours to get right. Partly it had to do with the fact that the theme I was using had messed up CSS, but it was also cumbersome to test properly. I still need to update the shopping cart page, and preliminary efforts ended up breaking the original table.

You wouldn’t think that HTML tables are very important any more, especially not ones you have to make manually. But having the ability to make boxes and two columns really makes layout easier, and wordpress just makes simple tables impossible to do right. One underlying problem is that WordPress expects bloggers to use the rich text editor inside the browser instead of a special desktop client.  Tiny MCE is good and powerful, but there are many times when I want to use neither the visual editor or even the text editor within the browser. Tablepress lets me import code directly, and that is good.

Anyway, expect much more book reviews (and something very soon!)

Update: I did produce the book review page, and it was very easy to do, but I noticed some oddities. First, Tablepress translated line breaks literally instead of ignoring them within a P tag.  So you need to make sure you eliminate all carriage returns. (My Oxygen XML Editor does a “pretty formatting” for XML which apparently enters carriage returns). Second, importing tables into Tablepress ignores the custom classes. Third, Tablepress has a button to open the Advanced Editor, and I ended up doing this a lot. Fourth, I didn’t bother to make code for images in my table before importing. I just added the graphics to Tablepress (which was pretty easy).


Getting back to Ubuntu (Again!)

I thought I’d do a quick post detailing my return to Ubuntu.

I installed 12.04 LTS Precise Penguin last June  and experienced a variety of small issues. Mainly I experienced crashes related to memory dumps — often with mounting file systems or loading music libraries. I thought it might be related to my ATI video card or just with the fact that Ubuntu was still receiving bug reports. My main goal in using Linux was to have a test server environment for  a new CMS for my Personville Press site.

I managed to fix most of my user issues (mainly with dropbox) , while I had to live with several others: Oxygen XML Editor was incredibly slow, and I still had not found a decent desktop blogging editor.

Let me define what the problem is: Bloggers need a desktop client for linux which has a preview mode, an  offline mode which you can save  (if necessary) and the ability to withstand a browser crash.  Optionally the  Windows Live does this well (although over time I have noticed some deficincies  — crappy code). The greatest thing about Windows Live is that it was very reliable and did all of these things. (Update: I just checked Live Office 365 which I paid for…Its blog client incorporates most of Live Writer’s elements, while leaving out some important things — like the ability to position an image in terms of pixels instead of inches).

Because Windows Live produced good clean code (basically), had a preview mode and a save/restore mode, it was basically better than MS Office itself….. I tried several linux blogging clients. The best so far I’d seen is blogilo, which has a lot of Live’s features, but just isn’t as reliable (it also hasn’t been updated in a while). More importantly, I lost some work…and I don’t think I ever lost work in Live Writer.

At someone’s recommendation, I am trying Scribe Fire (a browser plugin). This doesn’t really solve the offline mode problem, but it is better than nothing. On the other hand, the WordPress rich text editor is so good and reliable that you might as well do that from another browser. WordPress does autosaving, so if the browser crashes, you are protected generally (thanks, Matt).

Last summer, just as I was getting comfortable and productive in Linux, I had two major projects in MS Office, so I had to live in Windows Vista for a long while. Then I started learning about some Windows music tools and  and then was already comfortable using Oxygen in Windows (it had all my settings configured).  Then, I started doing a lot of music-related research for my upcoming ebook on music collecting  that involved Windows tools. Despite my resolution to have a working Linux desktop, I spent almost all of it in Windows.

Finally, I’m ready to return to Ubuntu, first having to do some updates. Here are some things I discovered:

  1. Ubuntu and specifically Unity  is much more stable than before. Horray! Also, more apps are built into the Unity framework. I know Linux people have been ragging on Unity, but I loved it from day 1.
  2. The Firefox flash plugin still causes problems — especially for Youtube. This firefox plugin lets you set the Youtube default to play the HTML 5 video player.
  3. The Clementine music player (which was the fork from Amarok 1.4 before they ran it into the ground) is awesome and stable. It even makes me less inclined to try Foobar2000 on Wine.
  4. There is an linux client for Evernote called Everpad.
  5. Music streaming program Rdio now has official linux support for their client.
  6. It wasn’t too hard to find, but gpodder podcast client for linux seems to work well.

Another thing. I noticed that Ubuntu works significantly better on my dual boot machine than Windows Vista (which has lots of Firefox-related memory problems and Flash memory problems). Vista is just slow and especially slow to boot.  (Ubuntu by contrast boots in record time). Windows Explorer is ridiculously slow.  Despite the fact that my HW is  6+ years old, its specs are still good:  4 gigs of RAM and lots of HD space. So a new 64 bit OS will have to work much better and faster than an OS several years old which has been patched to death.

So I’m generally happy with my Ubuntu machine and don’t expect to have to revert to Windows (especially because my Win 7 laptop is several feet away). On that laptop I have several indispensable  programs which simply must run on Window: dbpoweramp, Camtasia, Sony Vegas, MS Live Office 365.

Postscript: One very annoying thing is that Firefox is continuously showing a Flash plugin error whenever a website (like my blog) requires flash. Need to figure out how to turn that message  off because (on my system at least) the player and Youtube does work, so the error message is in fact mistaken.  (Solution found: go to about:config, set value for plugins.hide_infobar_for_missing_plugin to True).

Update #2. I’m about ready to give up again on the Unity Window Manager. Really, I had high hopes. I like the interface a lot; I can get things done  quickly, and everything is intuitive. The problem is that it always crashes catastrophically. Whenever I have an application crash (Firefox, etc), the windows manager crashes and then Ubuntu needs to be rebooted. I’ve been rebooting an average of 5 times a day at least.

Here’s a thread I started last summer about alternative window managers. Unfortunately, from a usability point of view, none of the other window managers came close. Now that I’ve decided to ditch Unity 2D, I’m going to have to try again. Here’s a more recent discussion about Ubuntu stability issues. What would be interesting (and sad) is if these random crashes still occur in other windows managers. Then, I  would be in bad shape.

(PS, I am typing this in Windows).

Update #3. My computer crashed and I re-installed Ubuntu on a slightly newer PC.  I learned a few important things. First, with a decent video card, I could use the 3-D Unity. In terms of performance, my PC handles Unity much better, but more importantly the application darkens whenever the app uses too much CPU or memory. When I used Ubuntu before, I think I had tried the 2-D Unity, which apparently didn’t have this feedback feature. I don’t think I’ve had to reboot once. Ironically on my new machine I have only 3 gig of RAM (I had 4 gig before), but because of the better video card and the darkening window, I have avoided any catastrophic crashes. Sometimes a specific app will hang (I’m looking at you, Firefox!), but most of the time it’s just a matter of waiting for the memory usage to decline to more manageable levels.



My ebook publishing company recently released a delightful audio play by Jack Matthews.  I even was the narrator who read the introduction (P.S. I was the worst part of the play).

You can download the mp3s of the play for your listening pleasure. It’s 67 minutes total. Until April  7, I am keeping the price of the audio play down to $1.99, but after that, you should be able to buy it for $3.99 from cdbaby and itunes.  (For some reason Amazon prices it at $8.99 and I’m trying to rectify that).


Many, many people have told me that

  1. the economics of audio plays just don’t add up. It requires a lot of initial investment and production costs (You have to pay for multiple actors – not just one) , and is a tough sell just to break even.  It’s the reason why audio plays are so rare. Audible  has even  fairly small offerings in that category  (here are new releases) ; most are  audio versions of plays which were actually produced elsewhere or “original cast” recordings.
  2. you can’t make any money unless you sell through Audible.  Audible pretty much dominates the market and has a user-friendly app for the Kindle and other devices.

I find audio plays to be terrific, and BBC Radio featured lots of plays which I listened to when overseas.  They are fairly easy to produce, and don’t require elaborate sets or lots of rehearsal. Staged readings are a lot easier for the actors, plus they are fine for most audiences. I always remind people that “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” began as radio series and later went to TV.

Paying the actors upfront is the biggest expense of production and adds to the risk. (I also offered mandatory residuals to the actors and author after 4 years even if I don’t recover expenses – something I considered very generous….)

One core value I have is an antipathy to Digital Rights Management (or DRM).  Audible is nothing but DRM. They make up for somewhat by deploying apps on all the major devices. But basically the digital files are never yours. (Some may actually prefer it that way – it can be a pain to maintain all those files).

The bigger problem is the pitiful royalties Audible give to audiobooks which are not exclusive to Audible. Look at this Audible graph about breakdown of royalties for content creators:


For audiobooks being sold on Audible  in low volume (i.e., 95-99% of all audiobooks), royalties are 25%  if nonexclusive and 50% if exclusive. The percentages slowly increase with more volume, but basically Audible is screwing the content creator.  One can argue about how much value Audible.com is adding. Granted, 10 years ago we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation, but 50% is what I would consider to be the low end for the distributor’s split. And that’s what you get only if you grant Audible exclusive distribution rights.

To contrast, I can sell mp3s on cdbaby for $3.99 and make 91% if the consumer buys it directly from them. (CDbaby also distributes it to itunes and Amazon as well, but they charge 9% of whatever Amazon or itunes pay).  For this month’s  promotional price, I am using a DIY paypal shopping cart which – can also provide a 90% cut. I pay a one time fee to e-junkie for the shopping cart (usually $5-15$ a month).

That’s how the indie publisher can beat the big guys at their game. That assumes of course that you have a steady sales volume and that fans know where to find out about you.  These are big assumptions. One key advantage Amazon has is prominence in search results (which is even more prominent than the author’s own site). If people just go to Amazon, they will never find out purchasing choices which are cheaper and better for the content creator. Another advantage that Amazon and itunes have cloud solutions.  That saves the consumer the trouble of worrying about where the file is. (MY response  is to keep all ebook purchases in Dropbox – it’s that simple!)

If I had only one suggestion to give consumers, it’s to check the author’s or musician’s website for the best deals before buying from the majors. Sometimes the website can also point you to vendors which give the content creator the highest royalty percentage or even the lowest price. 

Another thing that worries me is learning that Amazon’s distribution system is trying to feature exclusive content. I was shocked to learn that some of its overseas ebook distribution deals only gave 70% if you agreed to give Amazon exclusive rights to sell the content (via Amazon Prime).

Amazon is a good company, and they offer a lot of good metrics and friendly tools and a user-friendly website, but if I faced the choice between being railroaded into exclusive contracts on DRM cloud  with Amazon and leaving Amazon altogether, I would probably have to consider other  options. 

On a related note, I have been buying from emusic – an outstanding music service. Most of its mp3  prices are 10-20% cheaper than Amazon’s prices, and if you get a subscription, you get even more discounts.  The only hitch is that emusic doesn’t offer a cloud solution, so if you lose the mp3 files after downloading them, you’re basically screwed.


Linkdump from Facebook 1

(I’m going to try – and let me emphasize the word “try” to repost some of my facebook posts. Here are my FB posts from the last 2 weeks.)


EPI Report on health care coverage:

For working adults in Texas, only 62% had Employer-Sponsored health Insurance (ESI). For all people under 65 (working & nonworking), 52% were covered by an ESI plan. Nationally, 68% of working Americans had ESI, and 58.5% of all Americans under 65 had ESI.

Here are the same stats for 2000: 68.5% of working Texans had ESI, 60.6% of all Texans under 65 were covered by ESI. Nationally for 2000, 75.4 of working Americans had ESI; 68.5% of all Americans under 65 were covered by ESI. For those without insurance (nationally), 17% had full time work and 27% had part time work.  (I wrote about this issue 2 years ago here).  See also my guide to purchasing individual health insurance.

KARL KRAUS: “How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.”

Tiny Revolution compares Colin Powell’s UN speech about WMD and what his intelligence operatives were telling him prior to the speech. After reading this, it’s hard to maintain that Powell was simply receiving bad intelligence; he HAD received decent intelligence, but chose to hide or ignore it.

Climate Change/Science/Technology

Arguments about the Keystone/XL Pipeline are moot because Canadian Tar Sands producers are simply rerouting through the Seaway Pipeline. A few months ago Enbridge reversed the flow of oil from Galveston to Cushing, OK so that the Cushing oil could transfer Canadian tar sands oil from one pipeline back to Galveston.  (CP Comment) XL Keystone is bad enough, but Enbridge recently doubled the flow of Seaway, and is expected to double it again in a year. I find this both shocking and depressing. On the bright side, this will mean higher prices for gas because the oil companies can sell more sell internationally. Wait, is that a bright side?


The physics of climate change is implacable, absolutely implacable. We do not do ‘implacable’ very well, especially when it comes to a progressive political/legislative process unless we are perceived to be on a wartime footing. THIS is the real problem- though Obama may turn out to be more progressive on the climate then he has so far demonstrated, I would be EXTREMELY surprised if he proposes action that is commensurate with the urgency of the physics. I hear all who have comments that we must bring public pressure to bear to make this happen (and I agree)…but to be congruent with the physics, we are talking about 1) A full out, no holds barred deployment of non-carbon infrastructure AND a full out scale down of carbon output and 2)A likewise process in China and India and, etc. We are learning beings, but if we come close to accomplishing this I will be astonished (and astonishingly glad!). As I move forward with activism, I also move forward the grieving process that I have personally begun

(My response to Mr. David Golstein): The question boils down to how much of a difference that individual efforts to decarbonize one’s life can make and how quickly that can proceed. I was able to reduce my carbon footprint fairly quickly, and I think lots of like-minded individuals are trying to do the same for purely altruistic reasons. There is the tendency to think that government intervention is the ONLY way to fight this problem. I think that government intervention can do a lot of good, but so can the choices we make as consumers and employees. It’s clear that federal and international intervention is lagging far behind grassroots initiatives. Is that really surprising?  I see the problem as more attitudinal than legislative.

“Every day we use fossil fuels for energy, we steal $9 billion from future people who will need those fossil fuels for non-substitutable industrial uses.”  (source)

Climate Crock video clips of climate change coverage from the 1970s.  See also this Walter Cronkite/Paul Tsongas clip.

3 minute Greenpeace video explaining about how US coal mining companies are using tax dollars and cheap public land to export coal.

Here’s another reason why you should switch to renewable power for your electric provider: you kill fewer people!  The data looks stale (from 2008?) but it should illustrate general trends. i.e., Using coal/natural gas in the USA will kill 8-30 x more people than using solar/wind…..

In this cool video, a 13 year old launches a high altitude weather balloon and videotapes its trip. From the highaltitudescience.com website, I see that $500 is enough for a small group of students to buy a kit to build a balloon which is capable of going up 100,000 feet.

Comment seen on a blog post: “How many SEO experts does it take to change a lightbulb lightbulbs buy light bulbs neon lights sex porn.”

Vi Hart has produced some incredible and fun videos on math. Number games, Triangle PartyFibonacci Numbers and Fruit, etc. The Gauss Christmas special is clever on so many levels. It’s also beautiful in many dimensions.  Here’s a video about how she produces videos.

Pop Culture

The funniest article I have ever read in a long time. Man receives angry threats from people who wrongly use GPS to trace their stolen cell phone to him.

April Hamilton on Joss Whedon and JJ Adams:

Whedon doesn’t throw in a plot twist merely to shock or surprise the audience. He always knows exactly how he intends each subplot to develop and, most importantly, end. Where Abrams offers a bait-and-switch, Whedon offers a bait-and-fish. Abrams is the guy who trades the cow for magic beans; Whedon brings a steak dinner.

My response: The key to understanding JJ Abrams in Lost is that it’s like a video game with competing teams. You kill some, you turn some, you chase some. (Time travel and escaping the island were other aspects of the game). I think Joss Whedon in Buffy at least doesn’t think in terms of games or winning but in producing a climax and understanding the nature of evil/passion/etc. Both shows manipulated the audience mercilessly and engaged in lots of broadcast cruelty, but at least with Buffy there’s a lot of social satire thrown in. I enjoy Whedon’s TV shows, but I often feel cheated of genuine drama — only the vampirey, dollhouse kind. I actually thought the Lost ending worked, but the last 2 seasons were stretched out ridiculously with flashbacks, flash sideways and flashforwards that the actual final shows seemed anticlimactic.

April Hamilton is an accomplished author who writes frequently about publishing. On her website Digital Media Mom, she publishes regular columns about pop culture, technology and whatever strikes her fancy.

Alistair Cooke is a British radio commentator whose “letters from America”  was the longest running radio broadcast. BBC has put online a large number of previously unavailable radio shows.  Here’s an amazing broadcast about how 2 Hungarian refugees in 1939 had to deliver an extremely important message to the president.  (Here’s a copy of this message which FDR received – and acted upon – and here’s another letter also written by Szilard with loftier aims) . Here’s his review of watching American TV (after having watched it for only a short time – less than a year?) In addition to making the audio available, the transcripts are starting to be available.

Literary/Capsule Reviews

Jef Rouner on the Top 10 Funniest Novels ever Written. Strangely, I don’t find many novels to be hilarious (except for Voltaire’s Candide and maybe Nabokov’s Lolita). But for nonfiction, Bill Bryson’s travel books (esp. “A Walk in the Woods”) are delightful. Also, big fan of Andrei Codrescu’s short essays and his Cuba book ( Ay, Cuba! A Socio-Erotic Journey.). I do want to agree with the listing of  Mil Millington’s  famous website is hilarious on many levels.  A  commenter mentions Rabelais’ Pantegruel and Gargantua, and yes, I suppose that ought to be on the list (along with Good Soldier Schweik, Don Quixote, and Kafka’s The Trial). Goes without saying.


Wicked Witch of the West appears on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to explain why pretending to be a witch is fun.

2 videos  (here and here) to show the history of fashion (and dancing!)

Sonics: Psyche a Go Go. (Dance Dance Revolution for hippies!)

2 years ago Rocky Erickson produced an outstanding dark country album called True Love Cast Out all Evil. Here’s one song. Erickson was a founding member of the 13th floor elevators, a psychedelic 60s music group (here is their most famous song)

Fleetwood Mac does a wicked live performance of Rhiannon. They have almost all their live albums on Youtube (including the early Kiln House).

Patti Smith does a stirring, slow and expressive rendition of Smells like Teen Spirit. This comes from Patti Smith’s excellent 2007 album “Twelve” which basically gives a similar treatment to iconic songs from previous decades….. See also: Popdose Top 100 Cover Songs.

Patty Andrews, the last surviving Andrew Sisters died a week or two ago. The great thing about the Andrew Sisters (my fave group) is that you are constantly discovering new songs. Examples: Gimme some skin my friend and One Meatball. Besides Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (which I already blogged about), my fave song is Hold Tight.

I just bought a used Sony CD walkman off ebay. I just realized why I absolutely needed one: to preview CDs inside shops which sell used CDs. (Most do not have have equipment to help you listen to CDs inside the store anymore…..)

There is a shop down the street (Movie Exchange on Voss and Westheimer) which has a wall of a few thousand CDs — all at clearance prices for 99 cents each. Happily, I can report that about 95% of the CDs are by musicians I had never heard of. For a while I would just pick up random 2 or 3 CDs every time I stop, and keep my fingers crossed that the CD was any good. Today, for example, I lucked out with a classic CD by Brazilian Jorge Ben and with Howling Maggie and the Candyskins. Observation: it really is amazing how many alternative bands Geffen signed up in the 90s….

On the clearance CD racks, you will find TONS of 90s bands, some bands after 2000, and maybe a handful from the 1980s. Basically, used DVD/CD shops are wise to the fact that REALLY old stuff or recent releases have good resale value, while the 90s is that sweet spot where there was 1)overproduction and 2)tremendous variety of recordings and 3)lots of smaller and private labels and local bands putting out delicious stuff (but also lots of crap). Obscure stuff from 60s, 70s and 80s are now fairly rare and pricey (and pricey as mp3s) while the Top 40 (and their Greatest Hits) stay cheap. But for CDs produced in the 90s, you can find practically everything for practically peanuts (peanuts being defined as 30-40% of the cost of buying the mp3 from emusic or Amazon or itunes).

Amazed & Delighted to hear that Amazon has a mp3 cloud player app for IOS and Android. I’m now in the process of uploading my mp3s & m4a files into Amazon… For $25 a year, you can upload up to 200,000 songs, and stream on 10 devices (concurrently? I’ll check). You can also download songs you previously uploaded in batches (up to 100 at once?) to your PC or device. I recommend uploading only m4a and mp3 files because Cloud Player won’t accept uploads of oggs/flacs/etc EXCEPT if it matches the upload to something in their mp3 store.

Ever wished there was a way to be notified when a musician is performing in your town? Try Songkick.

Future of Music: Only 6% make money from music recordings — though it varies widely. Here’s another overview of the same research.

STUDY: Users of p2p (file sharing software) purchase 30% more music than people who do not. A person who uses p2p has a music library of 2000 songs (38% of which were legitimately purchased). A person who collects music but does not use p2p has a music library of about 1500 songs (45% of which were legitimately purchased).

There are methodological problems with any study of this sort, so the results could legitimately be questioned. Also, the specific survey question, ““What percentage of your [music files, movie/TV files] are downloaded for free from a website or file-sharing service?” allows for the possibility that someone may have downloaded something for free legally. (For me, creative commons music files are easily about 50% of my music collection. I would have to answer 50% to that question even though it would NOT be true that 50+% of my music files are pirated.


Dear HISD Superintendent Grier

Hi, there. I read from the HISD superintendent’s speech that there are plans to start a
small magnet high school for energy and technology.

This is interesting news because that’s where most of the jobs and exciting new research will be over the next few decades. I realize that this magnet school may still be in the planning stages, but I was wondering. Would this be a good place to send a child who wanted to learn about renewable energy?

As you know, Houston is in a unique position because many fossil fuel companies are located here; these companies are very wealthy and have large philanthropic budgets. I would be concerned that if HISD opened this school, the fossil fuel companies would have inappropriate influence over faculty and choice of teaching material.

I am an environmental writer who writes often about climate change; for example, did you know that
electric plants in Texas (population 25 million) emit as much CO2  as electric plants in the COMBINED states of   New York, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon (population: 86 million)

I hope that the charter of any such magnet school will contain the aim of avoiding fossil fuels and promoting renewable solutions.  I would also hope that any school will have sufficient oversight and controls  to prevent fossil fuel companies from exerting too much influence over the curriculum. There are already several well-known examples of fossil fuel companies "infiltrating" school curricula with educational material sympathetic to oil and gas.

I have 2 nephews and 2 nieces in HISD elementary and middle schools now. If this magnet school provided good preparation for a career in renewable energy, I would certainly encourage them to attend it.

One economic analysis of renewable energy  jobs found that "clean-energy investments generate roughly three times more jobs than an equivalent amount of money spent on carbon-based fuels."  Therefore, investing in education for renewable energy jobs would provide more bang for the buck than investing in education  for fossil fuel jobs.

On the other hand, if such a school were merely "neutral" about fossil fuels (translation: propagating the viewpoint that fossil fuels are still a valid solution in today’s world), then such a magnet school would be flawed at its core.

Ultimately, the current generation of students will experience more of the pernicious effects from climate change than people of our generation. It would be a shame if we equipped them with flawed tools of learning which only ensured that these kinds of problems get worse.


Best Happy Birthday Songs: I am Super Psyched!

You may not be aware that Free Music Archive is running a contest to identify some excellent birthday songs. There’s a real need for restaurants,  moviemakers and radio people to identify a song which can be sung royalty-free at any time.

Out of the 137 songs, here are my 10 favorites. They are all great.

Some comments about the genre itself:

A birthday song should be memorable, easy-to-sing, short, inoffensive and slightly offbeat.  It’s a challenging song format. On the one hand, you want to make it as simple and short as possible; on the other hand, you want to make it memorable too. Just the lyrics are a challenge. The songs  needs to have direct rhymes; that means you have a lot of monosyllabic words ending with “ay” (yuck!). Ironically,  the bolder the musical ideas in a birthday song, the less functional the song actually becomes.

Out of all the songs,  the Danimals’ Super Psyched for your Birthday and Older than Dirt are the most memorable.  Every time I come to the moment where the Danimals scream, I laugh.

Older than Dirt and Chris Trapper’s “Birthday Song” have the best lyrics, although to be fair, many of the songs don’t even try to be clever or poetic. As a  compromise, the Rodger Rainono “Happy Happy Happy  Birthday” just uses a  refrain where you can add extra lyrics ad infinitum (and some of the lyrics in the recording they use in this recording are pretty damn clever). Who would have ever thought that a birthday song would inspire such humorous and poetic meditations on aging!!

For brevity, awards go to Monk Turner’s “It’s Your Birthday”, Jazzy J’s “One Year Older” and Caston  Deluca’s “Happy Birthday.”   Deluca’s song is minimalist and charming. Ironically, she is an avante-garde music composer of hazy music landscapes. ( I have already written a profile and interview about songwriter  Monk Turner).

For singability (i.e., singable by people with limited voices), Rodger Rainono’s “Happy happy happy birthday” and “Older than Dirt” are great.

For musical ideas, I thought Hendrik Left Engelmann-Löffler’s song had nice interweaving melodies, and Chris Trapper’s song had lots of nice touches (a tuba!). Both songs are too out there to win though.

The songs I want to win: Superpsyched for your birthday, Older than Dirt, and Chris Trapper’s Birthday.

Here are the songs that I predict will win: “Happy  Happy happy birthday!” Superpsyched for your birthday and one of the longer songs (either  “Older than Dirt”  or Chris Trapper’s Birthday).

The grand prize should go either to Superpsyched or “Happy happy happy birthday” because either song does exactly what a birthday song should do.  Interestingly, both songs have multiple verses (which is NOT something you would expect for a birthday song), but the chorus for both songs are easy to remember.

Finally, I should mention something interesting about the Danimals. Apparently they write and sing a LOT of different birthday songs. I think they write custom songs for people on special occasions. They have 2 versions of the same song: a clean version (“Super-psyched”) and a not-so-clean version (“F*****ing psyched”).

Believe it or not, I have boycotted the “Happy Birthday” song for several years now, so I am eager to get some new stuff to sing….. I am super-psyched!


Chance Encounter with a Genius (or Two)

Surprised and saddened to learn about the suicide death of Aaron Swartz, hacker par excellence.

It just so happens that I met Aaron once. The meeting was short and trivial, certainly no big deal. I was at Bruce Sterling’s End of South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive party, talking to random people. I think it was 2005 (or maybe 2004). I had  been using a cocktail party question that year, “What’s your passion?” (or maybe it was “what’s your thing?”, I can’t remember).

At parties like this I pretty much end up talking to everybody for at least 3 minutes; I even ended up talking to Cory Doctorow – who, hilariously enough, had laryngitis! I was vaguely aware of the people who attend SXSW (who’s a blogger, who’s a coder, who’s a designer, who’s a business person, etc). I certainly knew who Mr. Swartz was; he was the guy who invented RSS feeds, python guy,  attending Stanford and helping Larry Lessig with various creative commons/political projects.

He also seemed horribly out of place there. Now SXSW can generally be intimidating, and half the people there are socially dysfunctional, so there is no shame in being a wallflower.  When you’re 18 or 19 (as Mr. Swartz was), you tend to be uncomfortable and resort to your geek  persona  (whether it be coder, music collector, political junkie, literary snob, etc).  Aaron wasn’t really socializing – perhaps he had merely run out of steam or was tired. Who knows? So I swept in, introduced myself and asked him my cocktail party question.

In response to this kind of question, most people would hem and haw and then say something off the wall. I didn’t care what kind of reply you gave; I just needed something to start the conversation. But with Aaron, after I asked the question, he just fell into silence. Clearly he was flummoxed; it was a combination of believing that the question was childish and thinking that it was hard to boil his passions down to a single statement. I started talking a bit, and then after a minute or so, he gave a reply that was abstract, but inelegant. Something like, “My passion is emergent technology and how to harness it for businesses and organizations.”

That sounded good enough to me (“emergent technology” was the buzz phrase of the conference, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t particularly original, although coding geniuses were never really known for being profound or eloquent). After that, the conversation just dwindled away; I tried to ask him some more questions, but he didn’t want to continue; maybe he didn’t like small talk, or perhaps wanted to talk to the girl next to him. No biggie, some people are like that. Besides, he was the youngest person in the room (and he looked REALLY young), so he gets a pass.

Aaron was adopted by the copyright reform group, and he soon found himself working with various projects highly visible in the geek world. He was also a moderately interesting blogger who was on the cutting edge of web technologies. And then what happened?

He dropped out of school to work for various Internet companies. He went into political activism (which I’ll be blunt – doesn’t come naturally for most geeks).  There comes that point where every wunderkind has to manage and survive and accept that his  personal world has limits. That’s called “learning about the real world.”  Before it happens and you have settled into some comfortable bit of manageable mediocrity, it’s easy to get into trouble.  It’s easy to do fun and stupid things (Yes, I had that phase  once upon a time too).

Some might call it a “fall from grace.” I would not be so melodramatic, but simply describe it as adapting to one’s circumstances.  But maintaining a full time job just doesn’t sound as cool as the things one did at the university. The youthful world of hacking and breaking a few rules no longer attracted attention. Even your peers (if they even knew who you were) regarded you as “old hat”.  Suddenly getting a salary and maintaining a full time job seemed uninteresting and pointless and also very hard.

Also, there were the legal problems. Aaron tried some wacky trick of downloading zillions of academic articles from a site behind a paywall. It’s the kind of thing you  know you shouldn’t do, but the challenge of doing so plus the certainty that professors don’t REALLY want their articles behind a paywall only encourages you to do it.  One thing ingrained in programmers is looking for ways to circumvent the system,  and that’s what he did. And succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

As it happens, the journal database and DA wanted to throw the book at him. Aaron was in a heap of trouble.  Surely, it’s likely that this thing would have been plea bargained to community service at some point, but the process can be grueling and demeaning. In a way, his infraction would command respect and awe; at the same time some of his friends might say he had gone over the deep end, and people who did not know him would automatically assume the worst. Things like filling out job applications and applying for credit cards and renting an apartment would require a complete disclosure. Suddenly you have a past that you ought to be embarrassed about.

I honestly have no idea what drive him to the edge. It’s likely that the charges aggravated his state of mind – though if he had reasonably good coping skills, he would have been able to deal with it.  Idealists tend to lose in a big and grandiose way.

The tragedy of his life is that he lacked perspective.  He was a brilliant programmer who had received lots of breaks early in life. He could learn new technologies effortlessly and was eminently employable.  He had lots of friends in big places and an overall good reputation. I tend to doubt that the charges drove him to suicide (although it must have convinced him of the utter absurdity of this world).  Perhaps his lack of perspective came in part from being a victim of his early successes and being trapped by his own high expectations.

This case reminds me somewhat of the death of  author Daniel Foster Wallace.  A philosophical postmodernist author with a generally good reputation and slightly older than myself. I was not in love with this author (I found his prose style ponderous), but I had read selected things he wrote and found them great.  This guy was manic-depressive, but at the same time had managed to win lots of awards. He had also gotten published, made some good money and found some tenure track jobs (which are practically impossible to find in the humanities, much less creative writing).  A few years before his death, Wallace  gave a pretty wild commencement address, and let me quote a significant part:

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

I’ll give Mr. Wallace the benefit of the doubt and say that he was exaggerating the horrors of mundane life to make a point  to his audience (as inappropriate as it was for a commencement address).  But  I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between his academic success and his sense of  suburban anomie.

Mr. Wallace, did you realize that many people are homeless? Many are out-of-work. Many have to struggle just to make ends meet. Many don’t have health insurance or even the ability to seek treatment for psychological disorders. Even among writers, many would kill for the opportunities Mr. Wallace received.     Many lone geniuses struggle with making ends meet and  winning a modicum of respect  in an indifferent or absurd world.

Both Mr. Swartz and Mr. Wallace  were sick and probably lonely people.  But both still had the intellectual potential and social resources to make a rich and fulfilling life. They had talent and good physical health, and yet they threw it all away for a runaway feeling.  What a loss! And what a waste!

Perhaps genius does not recognize or accept the urgent necessity of coping with disappointment. Ordinary people have to deal with disappointment all the time.  It  does not have to strike a mortal blow unless you are willing to realign your view of what you need to do to remain a part of it.

Postscript. I remain amazed at how much media coverage this person’s suicide has received (CNN, PBS, NYTimes, Slashdot, etc). Granted,  there was politics involved, and the crowd Aaron hung around with were tech-savvy and media-savvy.  I find it interesting how many people  have focused on the criminal charges and not on the aspect of personal tragedy. The question should not be: “Why did the DA’s decision to press charges cause this person’s suicide?” but  “Why did this well-liked and multi-talented individual decide — after getting a bum rap —  that there was nothing else to live for?” This is one live lost, but he is hardly the only person lost in this manner and hardly the most significant.  I have always felt that you don’t need to be a genius to have your voluntary exit from life be mourned by all.

Postscript 2 (the interesting one).  About two years ago I wrote a much longer version of this blogpost (like, 3 or 4 times as long) which I will publish eventually in full form. I just wanted to point out that when I wrote this in early 2013, I was really hurting financially and in a pit of poverty that would bring anyone into despair.  Things only become worse as the year went on. 2013 was absolutely hellish. That partly explains my anger — yes anger — I felt about these  two brilliant people who had so many gifts and privileges giving up so easily.  Aren’t humans made  of sterner stuff (even when we are grinding our teeth in despair)?


Free short story collection by Jack Matthews

Regular visitors may already know that my small ebook publishing company (Personville Press) has been publishing several ebooks by the Ohio author Jack Matthews. I have actually been working hard on doing that (which explains why I post so rarely here).  I am actually working on several titles with Mr. Matthews now (the most recent of which is a great philosophical play called Interview with the Sphinx).

cropped-best-three-final-miniature Personville Press has published a great mini-ebook consisting of three short stories which Mr. Matthews published in the 1980s. And it’s free — free, free, free! (Mr. Matthews and I picked some choice cream-of-the-crop stories which show his range of storytelling).

I have thought long and hard about whether to offer freebies and whether it’s a viable marketing strategy.  My take is that it doesn’t really hurt and might possibly help, though you’d be surprised at how hard it is to persuade people to download a free title… You practically have to beg them to do it.

One issue is that many readers (even techno-savvy ones)  are unfamiliar with or inconvenienced by having to transfer ebook files to their device. If you are unused to doing it, I can understand why it could be a problem. But  really it’s easy. The Calibre ebook management software lets you do it via USB connection — but that’s only for DRM-free titles.

Another option for the Kindle is to email the ebook directly to your device (which I explain midway down on this page).  This is a nifty solution, but bizarrely, although Amazon can convert lots of file types, it apparently cannot convert epub files to KF8 files when sending via email. (Epub is the standard which all publishers use and which even Amazon’s own conversion tools know how to convert).If you have to do the transfer yourself, you need to be diligent about keeping backups. I’ve had ebook devices fail on me, and even if the titles I lost were only public domain titles and creative commons titles, it’s still lost if I didn’t make a list of which files  I lost. (If I had a list, I could simply download them again). For now though, I keep an "ebooks" folder in my Dropbox which is specifically for bought and free ebooks. I put ebooks I obtain there  first and then upload them manually to my device when I get the chance.

Making It Free: The Challenges

The other issue why it’s so hard to persuade readers to download free titles is that Amazon and Barnes and Noble make it so difficult to distribute free titles. You may see lots of free Kindle titles on Amazon.com, but that is totally an illusion. A large number of these  free ebooks are:

  1. public domain titles (they were already free)
  2. free ebooks from big publishers which are mainly genre books (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, erotica).  Mostly garbage.
  3. titles which were free only to subscribers of Amazon Prime program. (Amazon Prime requires that Amazon be the exclusive seller of this title– which is a really bad thing).

Amazon has been pushing the Amazon Prime in a major way. One inducement to indie authors is that they would allow any title submitted to Amazon Prime to be free for 5 days of every 30 days.  This is not being generous.

One workaround for authors is to publish the title for free on Smashwords, publish the same title for a price on Amazon and use Amazon’s price-matching guarantee to persuade Amazon to drop the price to permanently free. Although the process isn’t particularly smooth, if the ebook is formatted up to a certain standard, it can be distributed for free on Sony/Barnes and Noble/Kobo and Apple.  But this is enough to convince Amazon to match the low-price guarantee. So it basically took a month of waiting for Amazon to carry this title for free. So enjoy it, folks!

Why is  Amazon so stingy about allowing free ebooks? Mainly, it’s  greed;  the power to make something a freebie is  a carrot which Amazon can dangle before publishers. Besides, Amazon isn’t in the business of distributing free things; they want their digital distributions to actually earn some money. It also has to do with the fact that a lot of free titles on Smashwords and elsewhere are crap. Not merely in terms of quality (that can be  simply a matter of taste), but many so-called "ebooks" are not actually full-fledged ebooks. Instead they are simply 5-10 page stories….or less! People already have a built in sense that a book ought to be at least 150-250 pages. Perhaps that opinion needs revisiting, but when an online bookseller is selling lots of ebooks under 20 pages long, it becomes impossible to search or browse for any title you want.

Frankly, I use inkmesh and ereaderIQ for Kindle  to locate and download free titles onto my Nook and Kindle. I do this often — even if I know most of the ebooks are going to be crap — or outside the genre of things I normally like to read. But what bothers me  most is that many titles are short and don’t even have a description or reader comments. I learned the hard way why this happens; some booksellers don’t import the ebook description properly. Even if the free titles were easily available and searchable, the sheer number of amateurish titles would drown out all the ebooks that are finely written and produced.

Many new writers are discovering that publishing frequently is a strategy to get readers hooked.  The trend is for titles to become shorter (50-75 pages)  and for author to publish more frequently.  From a business point of view, this makes sense. If you an author, you can’t afford to spend 5, 10 or 20 years writing a book of unknown financial potential.   It makes sense to publish more frequently, so you get more immediate feedback (not to mention payback).

The problem becomes: how do you promote an ebook of only 50-60 pages?

Part of the problem is that ebooks are incorporeal and there’s no set expectation about how big they ought to be — it’s hard to read 300 pages of a seemingly unending book without being trapped.  Shorter titles don’t imprison you for as long; they provide more immediate gratification, and they require less commitment.

If Jack Matthews were a well-known author,  I might have been able to get away with charging 1 or 2 dollars for this mini-ebook (which consists of only 3 stories — excellent though they may be). But generally, I wouldn’t pay 99 cents for 3 stories, even if they  were written  by Kafka himself. At some point, a person says, just give me a compilation of all his stuff, so it’s no longer necessary to keep almost a dozen mini-ebooks.

Why read several works by the same author?

For a moment, leave  aside the intended purpose of this ebook — to introduce Mr. Matthews to a wider audience and make it easier for new readers to get a taste before they delve deeper.  Why would anyone want to read multiple works by the same author?  Literature students are taught about the “death of the author” and the importance of disregarding intentionality and biography when considering a literary work. (This conveniently overlooks the fact that authors are alive, they regularly visit the supermarket and drive their kids to drive to soccer practice). Serious readers have come to believe that it shouldn’t matter if you were a bestselling author or  an unknown one; the most important thing should always be whether the story was well told.

Why then do we continue to insist on reading several things by the same author?

Familiarity. One reason we do this is that it takes a while to adjust to the author’s voice: the cadences, the word choice, the emotional outbursts. I had been flipping past Mavis Gallant stories for years in the New Yorker without ever reading one of them. Then one day just to pass the time I devoted an hour to reading one of them, which happened to be great. Suddenly I understand what she was all about. IBID with Arnold Bennett, Gunter Grass and Henry James (to name a few other writers who initially didn’t strike me as accessible). I sudden had cracked the code of how to enjoy a Mavis Gallant story – at least on a superficial level. Motivating people to read your stuff is insanely difficult; authors have to resort to all kinds of gimmicks to get the reader started.  If you have practice reading a certain kind of story, it becomes easier to read similar stories later on.

Trust in the writer’s competence. Writing a decent novel is hard. Even writerly types don’t appreciate the true difficulty of the undertaking  until they have to wade through a novel whose narrative is neither seamless nor easy to digest.  All literature is fakery, and it is happy luck when a literary work can distract your from this fact.  At one level, it boils down to competence. Can a literary creation paint a world persuasive enough you to suck you inside before you start noticing the narrative crossbeams?

When readers have already seen  examples of an author’s competence, they are more inclined  to look past narrative jumps or plausibility issues or a clunky style for the next work.  Nobody  expect perfection from our writers – only plot twists and a certain amount of polish.

The Golden Touch. Readers naturally assume  that certain authors have a “golden touch” and retain the ability to conjure the same sort of magic they did on a previous literary creation.

There’s  truth in this, of course. But from the writer’s perspective, striking gold once provides no guarantee of doing it again.  The overall style in the second work may be practically identical to the previous one, but the writer may simply have chosen a character or incident which didn’t resonate as well.  Maybe the author  took the wrong approach.  Maybe the reader isn’t ready to appreciate the second kind of story.  For every great writer, I would classify a certain percentage of their literary output as “interesting failures.” Certainly not awful – a writer’s style often improves with age, so the prose is usually cleaner and tighter. Such failures are not necessarily bad things or signs of decline; indeed, they are proof that the author is willing to venture outside of his comfort zone – and that is probably for the best.

Even for interesting failures, the failure itself or why it failed can still be interesting.   Suppose it became known that Kafka wrote a bad sci fi novel about traveling to Jupiter. You’d better believe that critics would be all over this book – recognizing similarities to other Kafka stories and finding cultural references.  If anything, it would provide more insight into Kafka as a person: his interests, prejudices and possibly even his personal relationships.  A bad sci fi novel by Kafka would be worth reading just for curiosity’s sake alone, and my guess is that you’d still see hints of his perplexing and aphoristic style.  A writer may try to hide or disguise his writing style, but it’s hard to disguise it totally.

Affinity with the author’s  voice.  Never mind that  authorial voice is constructed or can change from book to book. When we read works by a known quality, we trust that the author’s sensibility and style will  be pleasing for its own sake.  We enjoy inhabiting certain  artistic sensibilities. It can make us feel grand  or profound or passionate or deeply spiritual. We may recognize a kinship between this author’s point of view and our own way of viewing the world – even though this one is wiser, more concise and more beautiful.

Everybody else is doing it.  I was once talking about Alfred Hitchcock with my movie critic friend, Michael Barrett. Mike said that for  film critics, Hitchcock films could be grouped into two tiers: the “greater greats” and the “lesser greats.”  He was being facetious, but the Hitchcock oeuvre is vast enough to offer  something for everybody.  When an artist or entertainer tickles the public’s fancy (usually through some award or controversy or stunt or novelty), a whole cottage industry can spring up to support that person.  A cult of personality forms to  endorse and promote  this artist. . The differences between a highly-regarded writer and unknown writer aren’t really that great; but fame continues to amplify itself while obscurity proceeds at its usual miniscule pace.

Limits to our Enthusiasm

Maybe readers are driven to seek multiple works by an artist. We may bemoan the arbitrary nature of fame, but there is another problem: just how many artists can a single person stay enthusiastic about?

I consider myself relatively well-read, but in truth, I only keep track of about 25 living authors (not including authors I already know personally). Let me throw out a list of my literary pantheon at the moment: J.C. Oates, William Kennedy, Barry Yourgrau, John Sayles, Jane Smiley, Mark Salzman, Milan Kundera, Stuart Dybek, David Grossman, Robert McLaim Wilson, Number 6 (a pseudonym), Andrei Codrescu, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Johnson, Steve Millhauser, Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m sure there are others which don’t come to mind (this list might help). I’m also leaving out lots of works by dead authors. For these people I make it a point to buy their latest works and follow their career and lives.

I probably recognize the names of 2000 additional authors and associate them with generally high  quality. Someday I hope to read them, but I won’t go out of my way to do so. It is humanly impossible.

Contrast this to music, where you can hear a complete album in 30-60 minutes. Maybe you don’t like everything you hear or can’t keep the bands or singers straight in your head. But it is still relatively easy and quick to expand your horizons.

I would love to say that I could follow 50 authors or 100 authors instead of 25. Certainly it’s not for lack of love or lack of trying.  We have to balance our love for the unknown with the need to maximize the use of our reading time. If given a choice to read another book by Kundera or read something by an unknown, what do you do? I’d like to say that I give every new author a fair shake, but I generally don’t. Reading a known quality like Kundera is just easier – even if  his subsequent novels never reach the magic of his previous novels. You want to read as efficiently as possible. Reading competes with other forms of entertainment – not to mention other crazy addictions like socializing, housework and even catching up on sleep. For me as a writer, reading competes with writing and blogging. (“Stop blogging and get back to Cancer Ward!”)   When I write, I feel guilty that I should be reading. When I read, I feel guilty that I should be writing.

Actually, I don’t feel that guilty about anything (it’s a personality flaw). Often I act spontaneously on the basis of what feels right. This morning, I ended up watching again a 1937 Shirley Temple movie. Probably not rational, and certainly not great art, but I often indulge in such nostalgia kicks. Most recently I have been trying to read Stephen King’s "Dead Zone” which is a horrifyingly written book. (I enjoyed the TV series and remain curious about the original source material).  I’m also reading Galina Mindlin’s Your Playlist Can Change Your Life” about psychology, music and moods. At least I can justify this diversion  because of the  book about music collecting which  I’m writing. As a 47 year old adult with all sorts of professional demands, I feel the constant pressure to read for a specific purpose. And I constantly rebel.

Bloggers (and more generally readers) are not simply promotional vehicles for authors.  They cannot be expected to blog about everything or even to like everything they read. There is no imperative to spread the word about a particular book, even if the book happens to be good. In fact, many great works of art come and go and the literary world hardly notices.  It’s hard enough just to notify potential readers that a book MIGHT be good.

For authors and publishers, this is both sad and frustrating. Surely, there has to be SOME payoff down the road. Surely, someone will notice and comment.  I think even relatively successful authors recognize that being ignored is the natural state of affairs for writers.  We may celebrate this new  ebook and self-publishing revolution, but  it’s hard to deal with the accompanying result that more authors will be overlooked while the less deserving will be praised to high heaven.

Now everybody is an obscure writer

Writers spend  a lot of time trying to promote themselves. Some do it well and not too excessively. At some point though, you have to recognize that rational self-promoting just eats away at valuable writing time.

Young writers were always taught that writing a book should be its own reward – that  recognition and commercial success are unpredictable and unjust. We all know that.  At the same time, we see that some authors are succeeding and winning prizes and cushy academic appointments.  Surely, it shouldn’t be that hard to persuade people to take a look at what you’ve written. Surely you could count on your small coterie of friends and family to read and love and publicize your work!

In my 20s, I noticed that people generally expressed admiration  if you said you were going to be a writer.  Now that I’m 47,  people barely notice.  I now understand that what people admire is not what you write, but your overall dedication to the activity of writing. Writing is a sensibility, a religious discipline, an attitude.

Before, the biggest  roadblock was getting past the gatekeeper (The Editor, the Publishing House).  With blogging and DIY publishing, that roadblock no longer exists. But other roadblocks are just as frustrating. Just dealing with the limited attention span of the American public is frustrating enough.  At the same time, eliminating these roadblocks to publishing  gives the writer more time and freedom to write. Now the writer can concentrate more on the act of writing. In a way, the rise of DIY publishing has a great equalizing effect.  An author of four books may have useful writing experience and a chance to gain a following, but that doesn’t give this author any inherent advantage over a novice in writing a great book.

That sucks for the experienced writer, but it’s  great for the junior one. When you get down to it, all ebook novels are just words on a page.  A reader is always taking chances with new writers, and now an even higher percentage of writers are unknown. During previous decades, readers had signposts to help them choose what to read: reviews, news stories, interviews,  author appearances.  Nowadays, though, these guideposts cover  an even smaller percentage of the ebooks out there.  You are basically flying blind.    That is not necessarily bad; it forces readers to make up their own minds about what they read — irrespective of what Michiko Kakutani thinks.  If every author you stumble across is unknown and under-reviewed and underpublicized, you really have to choice but to treat every title you encounter as the next potential  masterpiece.

That is actually a good thing.



So bored with time travel

The sci fi thriller Looper will be released on DVD on December 31, 2012, but apparently Netflix mailed it to me 2 days early. I wonder: has someone got hold of a time machine?

Generally with a few notable exceptions, I am tired of any time travel movies or TV shows. Although paradoxes can be fun, they often seem annoyingly self-indulgent.

The main problem is that plots are too easy to manufacturer. They go like this:

  1. Character A  travels into the past and performs X.
  2. Oh, no! The space-time continuum has been disrupted!
  3. Character A must try to fix the disruption by performing Y (or Z, etc)
  4. Oh, no!  Performing Y has caused another disruption in the space-time continuum.
  5. Repeat step 3 as needed.

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but the movie genre by itself has no inherent chronology.  It’s just footage spliced and organized in an arbitrary fashion. I think actors have this sense as well. They say their lines out of order, and don’t think too hard about it. They just live for the moment.

To experience what it must be like to be a time traveler, all you need to do is to act inside a movie.

Postscript: Here’s another musical take on the issue.

Postscript 2: Now that I’ve seen the movie, I wish I could go back in time to warn myself never to see the movie. Seriously, it wasn’t a bad movie; it actually was pretty interesting, but I’ve seen so many elements of this movie already. I regard the movie as mainly  a love story between a man and his gun(s) where nothing can be allowed to come in its way — except an annoying child with powers greater than yours.  Here’s a challenge: make a time travel movie without a GUN anywhere. Or better yet: make a movie where a person travels in time for no apparent reason other than to have fun and meet  chicks (or watch a concert or two).

Postscript 3: It is decided: I will travel back in time and prevent myself from even writing this post.

Postscript 4. It is done. Any postscripts after this one will disappear after the time line has been fully restored.

Postscript 5: For reasons I cannot explain here, I need to undo my previous action.

Postscript 6: Any postscripts after this one are fake and can safely be ignored.


Now we are metric!

It is a minor point, really, but by executive fiat, I have decided that from now on, this blog will follow the metric system. 

When I was in grade school, I was told that the metric system would soon replace this antiquated British system that was so hard to remember.  That did not happen. We still have pounds and gallons and yards. (I once helped my nephew do a science experiment about football kicking. I insisted – much to his chagrin – that all science obeyed the metric system).

Now this blog does too.

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Here’s a fast list of the most remarkable movies I have seen this year. There is no particular order here, though I put my two or three faves at the top of the list.  These movies come from several decades and I saw almost every film on Netflix Streaming.

Scene from Travelers and Magicians

  1. Travelers and Magicians  is a movie coming from Bhutan with beautiful landscapes, mythical plots and memorable characters. A young official yearns to leave his homeland  for the U.S.  and must confront what keeps him home. The director Khyentse Norbu is a Buddhist  lama who once worked with Bertolucci and now uses the landscape of his homeland to illustrate the inner conflicts between spirituality and the  modern industrialized life. Compare to Kobayashi’s classic film, Kwaidan.(Here’s an interview with the writer/director)
  2. Monsters is a haunting and beautiful sci fi movie about space aliens who have landed in Mexico and the American government’s attempt to fight these aliens and  prevent them from encroaching the U.S. Border. Both a thrilling monster movie and political allegory, the plot  followed an unexpected path and maintained the ambiguous aura until the very end.  I enjoyed this tremendously the first time,  but watched it months later just to make sure the movie was as good as it seemed the first time. It was. (Now Streaming)
  3. Encore (Movies inspired by Somerset Maugham). Also Quartet. Two films adapting Somerset Maugham short stories. These are lovely and delightful movies about short stories of Maugham. The film version of Gigolo and Gigolette (a husband and wife acrobatic team) is just amazing all the way to the end. (Now Streaming)
  4. Downfall & Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.  (2 separate movies) I never thought a film about the clueless administrative staff of Hitler  could be  so compelling. Ironically, by depicting Hitler as a lovable but temper-prone boss, the film conveys how easy and powerful groupthink can be.  At the start, the real person upon whom the movie is based admits that at 22 she was naïve, but that other people her age (like political martyr Sophie Scholl) had already figured things out; why hadn’t she? Indeed, that’s a good reason to watch both movies back to back. Sophie Scholl is a true biopic about a young college student jailed and put to death for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. In a way both movies are about youthful dedication – the good kind and the bad kind. (Honorable mention: Valkyrie, an unusually well-made film starring Tom Cruise about a futile assassination attempt).
  5. Blue State is a charming indie road trip romantic comedy about a leftie blogger who foolhardily promises  to move to Canada if Bush beats Kerry in 2004. When he discovers that others expect him to act on his promise, he takes a trip there  with a female acquaintance and has misadventures along the way. Lots of funny lines — it’s not that political a movie — but it kept me guessing and it raised some unusual questions about loyalty to your values and to your country. I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Now Streaming)
  6. Love Film. Szabo’s early film about love, communism and desire. I loved the film’s unpredictability and the way it jumped backwards and forwards in time (which was justified by the subject matter). The film had tragic and warm moments, and the arty style helped too.
  7. Muriel’s Wedding is a 90s Australian comedy about a misfit young woman who will stop at nothing to give up her dreams.  When considering  plausibility, morality and social messages, this  film is simply bananas. But thank goodness the character and the story is unafraid to try all kinds of crazy things to get what you want. (Now Streaming)
  8. Bolivia. This gritty film by Adrián Caetano depicts the precarious existence of illegal immigrants: the  poverty, vilification and scapegoating. Not an easy watch, but the movie stands up for the hordes whose tragedies remain hidden out of sight. (Now Streaming)
  9. The Dead Zone (TV Series)  I was vaguely aware of the original Stephen King novel  and knew what I was getting into: supernatural whiffs, crime-fighting and political intrigue. TV shows about superpowers often fall flat because they manipulate the viewer too much. But Dead Zone made the story not about the superpower of omniscience but individual stories of people who need help. First two seasons were dynamite. By Season 3 or 4 I saw repetition and credibility-stretching plots, but in the last season it recaptured some of its original magic.  This show was basically a detective show, and the revelation of the clairvoyance seemed to obey no rules other than to produce good TV.  (This show might have been perfect if it only lasted for 2 seasons, but what I saw was still provocative and visually-interesting).  Other TV series I watched and enjoyed over the year included: Wings (droll retread of Cheers by some of the same producers and writers),  Farscape (mind-bending Australian sci fi TV series which had original plots, unusual characters and a tad too much violence) and IT Crowd (nutty sitcom about a dysfunctional IT department).
  10. Last Train Home is a poignant documentary about Chinese families who travel home for the holidays. The problem is that many work at factories hundreds of kilometers away, and the mad rush to use the train system results in delay, aggravation and dismay. The movie focuses on one family in particular being torn apart by working away from home. (Now streaming)
  11. My Year without Sex is a nutty feel-good family comedy about a woman who has a sudden & urgent medical condition and has to chill out while she recovers. It’s not a particularly deep movie – it merely depicts the mundane craziness of living – and how hard it can be to take a break from it. What I love about this film (and Muriel’s wedding) is that the narrative rhythm is so different from U.S. films. Lackadaisical, jarring, quickly changing from comic to dramatic and back again.  (Now streaming)
  12. Wish Upon a Star . 90s Disney teen comedy about two sisters who change bodies. (Great for age group 10 and up). It’s a cross between Clueless and the Parent Trap. Formulaic & feel good comedy which is a lot smarter than it appears to be at first glance. I enjoyed it a lot.
  13. Ritchie Boys. Great  mainstream documentary about German Jews who emigrated to America and then enlisted to perform top secret intelligence work for the Allies. Each person interviewed describes the work they did, plus that bittersweet feeling of returning to the homeland they formerly loved.  (Now streaming)
  14. Lady Killers. Silly British comedy about an ill-advised bank heist planned by bumbling robbers such as Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The thing is, the woman running the boarding house for one of the robbers is duped into thinking they are classical musicians. I was laughing the whole time.
  15. Winter’s Bone is populated with Ozark misfits and tough people who protect their own and punish outsiders. The main character – a struggling girl taking care of her siblings because of her mother’s mental illness – is on a mission to find out what happened to her father who had disappeared. The people (and the story itself) live on the edge of society where different rules apply (if there are any!).
  16. Hey Ram.  Great self-consciously arty  film about political engagement. Overdone, but the material and themes were utterly original. You really have to admire the cojones of an Indian who plots another assassination plot of Gandhi.
  17. Something like Happiness.  An extraordinary slice of life movie from Czech Republic about two friends who become involved in taking care of the woman’s mentally ill sister.  Some might call this movie (and this setting) to be dreary,  but I found the characters to be authentic and complex and interesting. This part of Europe has a certain ugliness (there were multiple shots of the power plant in the background, and I can’t tell how much many times I’ve seen the grimy inside walls of that apartment’s elevator). The main character has to decide how much she wants to get involved with her sister, knowing full well it might cause heartbreak at the end.
  18. Manito. Story of  2 Puerto Rican  brothers in New York City, one of which is an ex-con trying to earn a living, the other is a “good kid” about to graduate from high school.  But it really is about the milieu, the extended family, the neighbors, the coworkers, the students. The movie cuts quickly between scenes, conveying a sense of disorder and the complexities of relationships in this  small ethnic neighborhood.  The movie hurries through their lives so randomly that I began to wonder whether the movie was going to be simply another  slice-of-life movie or whether it actually was hurling to something. But by the end I realize the movie has raised some unsettling questions about victimizing and forgiveness.


Also: my favorite movie which I haven’t seen is “56 Up” the latest installment in Michael Apted’s epic documentary charting the lives of a dozen-plus British youngsters every 7 years.  56 Up came out last spring in UK, but the movie distribution system, in their infinite wisdom, has decided not to release it in the US.  The good news is that there are now plans for limited distribution at select movie theatres (including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts on March 15, 2013)


(This was written a few days after the mass killing by a lone gunman at a Connecticut elementary school which claimed 27 lives).

For the past few years, my mom and I have been busy guessing who will be picked as person of the year by Time magazine. So far I had selected John Roberts (for trying to manage a polarized judicial system and political system) and Steven Colbert. Colbert is my personal favorite; he is an American original; his satirical edge is always on-target and takes Poe’s law to its extreme. Conservatives would  probably enjoy him too (even if  they recognize that he is poking fun of him). I think  the presence of Colbert and Stewart (and probably others)  contributes to political culture without poisoning the discourse.  We should all be thankful for rhetoricians like Colbert. I never cease to be amazed at how effectively Colbert conveys his ironic message underneath the apparently conservative rhetoric. 

Over the weekend, though, I’ve decided that this has to be  the year of the Lone Gunman. Yes, GunMAN (these types tend to be males – although not exclusively). The Lone Gunman has the potential to move society at will; he has some  personality malady and lives in a society that not only permits the ownership of gun for personal protection – it encourages it.

It’s a personality type; I lose track of which individual is which – how many calibers are their weapons and how many rounds are fired – even how many have died.  As gracious as  presidents are when giving these eulogies, I almost wish they  weren’t there to do that. The president’s primary role should be decider-in-chief, not comforter-in-chief. The schedule of the decider-in-chief ought not to be set by the Lone Gunman.  Yes, I realize that comforting the afflicted is politically expedient and it’s a natural role for a president to fall into.  It is society’s way of recognizing the enormity of a tragedy. It also happens to be counterproductive for society as a whole. 

Politicians can and should enact laws to solve problems. They should be held accountable if they don’t or if they fail to support the correct policy.  When politicians offer comforting words during these times of mourning,  it obscures the fact that the politician is not in fact aggressively fighting for laws to combat the problem.

Update: Tom Tomorrow dramatizes the pattern of these kinds of events.

Update #2. Looking at the previous winners, I realize that very few women have won the award, no entertainers have won the award, many international politicians have won the award and that “gimmicky” awards to groups or things tend to occur roughly once very 5 years (and since last year the winner was The Protester, it seems unlikely to happen 2 years in a row). I still vote for Stephen Colbert – who would be a nice change of pace.


Progressives in Texas may already know about how Houston climate change activists are protesting the XL Keystone Pipeline with a hunger strike. But do most Houstonians know?

A hunger strike is a blatant attempt to manipulate public opinion by staging a public act of self-denial. The thinking goes, if the activist demonstrates that his willpower is stronger than his  oppressors, that has enormous persuasive value.  These things can be very annoying for public officials who for one reason or another find themselves on the opposite side of the policy question.

The Houston hunger strikers are protesting their wrongful arrest at a Valero refinery. As of this date, they have been striking for 18 days.

That is not a trivial amount of time, and the issues behind this strike are not trivial either. Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey broke the law by locking themselves to Valero tanker trucks in November. Valero is likely to benefit from the XL pipeline, and local environmentalists accuse Valero and other companies of poisoning the area around the refinery. The protest website states,

Valero Energy Corp’s refinery emits life threatening poisons and pollutants that directly impact Manchester residents. Valero fills the air, water, and land in and around the community with toxic chemicals linked to terrible rates of cancers, asthma, and lung and skin ailments, with the full knowledge that the impacts of its pollutants will disproportionately affect the people of Manchester. With a nearly 90% Latino population, this is an obvious example of environmental racism.

Manchester is completely surrounded by industry. To the north and east is the Valero refinery with the Lyondell-Bassal refinery to the southeast, Texas Petro-Chemicals plant to the south, a Rhodia chemical plant and a trash shredding facility to the west, a wastewater treatment facility to the east, a Goodyear Tire plant to the southeast, along with the Interstate 610 overpass bisecting the community and an industrial rail yard forming the community’s southern perimeter.

Valero refinery entrance in Houston

I once  visited this area for a tour organized by the Sierra Club.  It’s about 30 minutes away from where I live. It is a heinous place to be; no person would want to live anywhere close to this hell hole. Yet the place is inhabited by a lot of lower-income people and families. There is a school a few miles away that because of its proximity was once labeled the most dangerous school in America.

Even if fewer people lived there, the place would be a nasty eye sore and a potential hazard for Houstonians. Even if we didn’t have to worry about climate change, the place would still be a bad source of carcinogens and a possible source of dangerous accidents.

The two people who were arrested were seasoned activists. Bob Lindsey had a father and cousin whose deaths can be traced to toxic chemicals released into the Gulf; his sister developed cancer which can also be tied to the petrochemical industry. Diane Wilson, a 4th generation shrimper in the Gulf Coast, has continuously petitioned the Courts and lawmakers to prevent chemical companies from polluting the  bays where her family and friends went fishing. Diane has used hunger strikes before, and both are serious committed people.

I suppose I could talk about the reasons why the Keystone pipeline are to be opposed, but they have been adequately covered in many places.  Honest people could disagree both about their tactics and the policy they are protesting. Why then has the Houston Chronicle provided so little coverage of the hunger strikes? Googling a bit, I see that almost 3 weeks ago the  FuelFix energy reporter wrote a “he said, she said” article about their arrest. Not a bad article considering, but the Chronicle has never followed up on it. And certainly the subject bears revisiting — 18 days is a long time to wait before writing the follow up on a hunger strike article. Do these nonviolent activists have to go on a killing spree to awaken any media interest?

Shouldn’t a city newspaper report on such events? Or should it instead provide reports about the zoo’s cheetahs, a winning football team, or Christmas decorating tips? I can’t explain the Chronicle’s avoidance of this current event. Is it just lack of resources? Or does the Chronicle have a policy against covering hunger strikes? Googling a bit, I see that a week ago the  Chronicle published a news service report about Iranian hunger strikers and has even figured out a way to “monetize” site visitors  looking for news about hunger strikes.   hunger-strike-search-results

I have a unique perspective on the issue because in fact some of my college  students in Albania participated in hunger strikes against their government.  A few days before it happened,  the US embassy had already brought me to the capitol city of Tirana, but when I heard about what the students had done,  I predicted (correctly as it turned out), that it would  cause all the schools in the country to shut down. True, Albania is a much smaller media market country, and in this case there were 60 students protesting, but the issues are no less important in Houston. The fate of the planet is at stake.

In Albania, the hunger strikers precipitated a series of unfortunate events. The Berisha government declared the hunger strikes illegal because the students hadn’t received the proper license (apparently it is illegal to have any strike without obtaining the proper license). That caused the police to sneak into the university building to arrest the students, causing a fierce gun battle which cost lives.  It was a tragedy for all, and that action triggered lots of violence and civic unrest (which eventually caused Peace Corps to send us home).

When these events happened in Albania, emotions were strong on all sides. But it would have been unthinkable NOT to cover the hunger strikes. Even the state-run Albanian  TV covered the hunger strikes.  To contrast, there is practically no coverage in any mainstream outlets of the Pipeline hunger strikers  (except Channel 39) and skimpy coverage even by progressive media.

I’d almost prefer to think that there was some conspiracy not to cover this event in the mainstream media. Instead,  it’s more likely that mainstream media is too busy with other things (some important, some not-so-important). I really don’t have a problem with general news site providing news about entertainment, sports and technology. These things are certainly important in their own way.  But if the bigger news sites focus too much on these things, the burden of reporting these things  falls on unpaid bloggers and Facebook groups.

Bloggers can certainly do a good job of reporting (see here ) , and Facebook groups like this and this can provide you with interesting news (and that not just  about  consciousness-raising/media manipulation events  like hunger strikes).  Both bloggers and Facebook groups provide incomplete versions of what’s happening. But does that mean mainstream news is better? In many ways, these mainstream news sources are much much worse because they provide the illusion that they are covering all the news that ought to be covered.

The sad fact is: if I want to find out what’s going on in Houston, reading my city paper is probably the least helpful thing to do. That’s very sad.

P. S. Both individuals are my heroes.

Update #1. The hunger strike has now lasted 29 days. The Houston Chronicle still not deigned to provide any coverage of it.  As I write this, the top story on the web edition of chron.com is (I kid you not!) Best Lines of Ron Paul’s Career.