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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, May 31, 2013

SONGS I LIKE: At 30,000 FEET (Queensrÿche)

I see it all so clear…
At 30,000 feet above the enemy.
No one can see me.
Press execute.

One of the things I learned early in life is that doing the right thing almost always carries with it a price.  Sometimes that price you pay can be terrible; you can pay a very dear cost for doing what you should rather than what you want or what temptation would have you do.
This is the truth of war that too many people cannot seem to understand.  Almost everyone sane understands that, as General Sherman pointed out, war is "sheer hell," that it is a horrible, painful thing.  Soldiers know this more than anyone, and almost every soldier will say they fight not to win the war but to earn peace and get back home safe.
The album American Soldier is a magnificent album by Queensrÿche, an examination of what it means to be a soldier at war without a distinct, specific point of view.  You hear interviews from the men, telling what they believe and why they fight, how they see things, but the songs are just about what happens, not promoting anything.
The song "At 30,000 Feet" is from the perspective of a bomber pilot, flying so fast and so far above the heads of the enemy, cloaked by stealth that he's immune to them, invisible.  Its about what its like to deliver death and fire on targets below, targets who cannot escape him and cannot fight back.
The song tells of the almost clinical detachment from his targets, wrapped in incredible technology, all alone hearing only the sound of his breathing and delivering death below that he'll never hear or see.  He tells of the complaint of the enemy "show your face!" and answers "what about the faces of the women you dominate and enslave?"
Warriors go away from war feeling not like heroes and saviors but as men who saw, delivered, and experienced hell.  They usually don't like to talk about it, don't like to remember it.  They feel that burden on their souls as long as they live, all the lives they took, all the things they did. I try to express that in my books, no Conan mowing down enemies with a shrug, but men who feel what they've done, even though it was what they had to do and was right. Because it this life, when you do what is right, there is always a cost.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

THE EARNINGS GAP

She works hard for the money
So hard for it, honey
She works hard for the money
So you better treat her right
-Donna Summer

A recent Pew Research Center study found that 40% of American households with children have a woman as the primary earner for the family.  In 1960, that number was 11%.  While there are a lot of various hand wringing comments that could be made about this shift, I thought about why this might have happened.
The main reason I'd guess is the increase of single-parent households, where if there are children will tend to be a mother with no father rather than the other way around.  Typically women will get custody of children, and since single-parent households have increased over the years, that means women earning and not men.
In fact, in 2012, the US Census bureau reported that 30% of households with children in the USA are single parent households, with only a mother.  Luke Rosiak writes in the Washington Times:
In every state, the portion of families where children have two parents, rather than one, has dropped significantly over the past decade. Even as the country added 160,000 families with children, the number of two-parent households decreased by 1.2 million. Fifteen million U.S. children, or 1 in 3, live without a father, and nearly 5 million live without a mother. In 1960, just 11 percent of American children lived in homes without fathers.
I'm not sure why 1960 is always the breakpoint for this sort of study (probably some boomer-centric influence), but there you have it.  The truth is, America is losing its dads, and that's not helping kids any.  That Washington Times article goes on to point out another significant bit of data: Married couples with children have an average income of $80,000, compared with $24,000 for single mothers.  You can speculate why that might be happening, what's cause and effect here, but the truth is, poor people are doing much worse in both earning and family structure.
And obviously the economy has a lot to do with this problem.  Its long been known that the recent recession has hit men much harder than women, men having much higher unemployment than women, men's earnings dropping while women's rose, and so on.  That means men can't find jobs while women can, and that's going to affect earnings.  That has to play a part, but there are other reasons.
Something I'd like to suggest here is that this is primarily a failure of men not some shift in culture toward women.   While its true, I believe, that western culture is becoming more feminized and emasculated, and that women dominate American culture in particular, that's not due to some cruel imposition by feminists.
Its because men have dropped the ball.  Men are refusing to take responsibility, grow up, stay with their families, and be men.  Women are giving men an opportunity to get what they want without paying any price or showing responsibility, but men are the ones who are taking that opportunity.  A thief is to blame for their theft, not the one who left their treasures exposed to steal.  Men don't have to take advantage of women and abandon our responsibilities, we choose to do so as a gender.
Yes, there are serious problems with women, as we all know.  Yes, in a certain sense there haven't been many real ladies around in America for decades, but I'm a man and I know men, not women so much, and I don't feel qualified to really write about women.
And men are supposed to be leaders and the ones that stand up and take responsibility.  If there's a problem or failure in society, ultimately the blame rests on our shoulders; not the media, not a political party, not feminism or any other group but ourselves.
All these women earning more money in homes means men aren't stepping up.  All those single-parent homes are because men aren't taking responsibility.  All those women carrying the burden of the earning in a household means at least one man who isn't doing his job.
This isn't always due to sloth or irresponsibility, of course.  With this economy, men have a very hard time finding work.  But a lot of it is, and that has to change for the culture to change.  But when men are raised from early childhood to think of their gender as inferior brutes, seeing girls treated preferentially by law and policy, men portrayed as dunces and infants by popular culture, and told constantly that their primary goal in life should be to have fun, get laid, and party while never growing out of adolescence, that's going to take its toll.
The bottom line is this: if you're raising a boy, you have a hard battle ahead of you turning that boy into a man, and the battle starts with you.  Every breath you take, every gesture, every word is being studied and memorized by your son as to how a man acts and is supposed to think.  Your reactions, your hobbies, your treatment of women, your jokes, comments, and interests are all imprinting the meaning of masculinity on your son.  Make them all count.
Don't buy into the culture's perpetual frat boy image of mankind.  Don't give into the emasculization of culture.  Don't bow and scrape to the feminist ideal of men.  Be strong, loving, respectful, and good.  Be a true man, not a dude.  Be a real man, not a tough guy.  And maybe, just maybe if enough of us do it, well there could be hope for the future.
But for the love of all that's holy, do not send your kids to education mills all but designed to ruin men and the hope of masculinity.

Monday, May 27, 2013

DOMAIN PROBLEMS

Still fighting Google "aps" to get my wordaroundthenet domain name renewed.  Its a big catch-22 and I can't even get through their automated phone service because they want a PIN I never received.  If WATN goes black tomorrow, its because of that, but I'll keep working on it.
Meanwhile: barbecued dogs and burgers, potato chips, and baseball.
Happy Memorial Day and keep these words in mind:
"The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him."
-GK Chesterton

Friday, May 24, 2013

PUBLISHED IN AMERICA

"Where we sell you your own book!"


In 2008, I finished my first book Snowberry's Veil. I considered finding an agent and publisher but decided instead to use a reputable online publisher to print the book instead.  The idea was that it would give my book some exposure, give me a printed hard copy to establish myself more as a writer, and have something tangible to show to agents when I shopped another book.
I looked around a while, with a few criteria.  First, the publisher should be established, not brand new.  Second it should cost me nothing to get the book published, not once penny for a single aspect of the process.  Not editing, not submission, not art, nothing.  And third, it should produce an actual real copy of a full book with an ISBN and so on; a professional job.
I selected PublishAmerica because it fit all these criteria and it seemed to be a pretty good site.  I searched for complaints and problems and found few - all of them related to delays or misunderstandings involving royalties.  Since I didn't expect to sell enough to see much if anything in royalties, I was willing to take a shot.
THE GOOD
PublishAmerica works fast and is easy to publish with.  They create a cover for you, for free, they do all the typesetting and binding, they buy the ISBN and register it, and they even do a little bit of publicity at first, sending information out to newspapers and such.  Copies of Snowberry's Veil showed up on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and so on, all around the world.  People could buy a copy online or from PA's website.
I felt good about having my own book, and it certainly impressed my family.  I wasn't just fooling around with writing, I had a real book with a bar code on the back, professionally bound and produced.  I was proud of my first book, and lots of friends bought one through me at the reduced price authors can get (no royalties for me at that price).
THE UGLY
However, I noticed a few concerns right away.  First, they were trying to sell Snowberry's Veil at over $20 bucks a copy.  I understand they had some expenses to cover, but nobody is going to buy a paperback book (especially of just a few hundred pages), for that kind of money, just nobody.  No copies sold over the internet, only a few did from me directly.  Not a single one.  And why would they?  I don't think it is worth that kind of money, and I wrote the thing.
Another concern was that the cover wasn't right.  As excited as I was to get the book out and happy to get the art done, I didn't quibble when they sent me the proof, but its just poorly done.  They took a picture of a forest, tinted it blue, then hand drew some lancers in shadow into the page.  It works okay, but its nonsense for the story.  I've long thought that most cover art doesn't match books and it always made me wonder why writers put up with it, and now I know: they just wanted to get published.
What I requested was an image of what I consider the most dramatic and cinematic scene in the book, where knights charge across the tops of clouds.  I requested that and got misty lancers in a forest.  A group of knights roaring across a cloud toward the reader would look pretty impressive, and if I could afford to get, say, Larry Elmore to paint that for me, I would.
As it is I have another image in mind for the book that is more modest and subtle, something I can put together using available free art.
And the manuscript wasn't quite right.  There are errors in the book that were not in my manuscript.  I edited the thing 5 times myself and my mom went over it once, and while we missed some stuff, we didn't miss that much.  Its just mangled and I don't know why.  Maybe they hand retyped it, maybe they changed some stuff to fit pages better, and maybe it just came down to the changing of formats.  I've noticed that moving Word documents from one version of the program to another, or from Word to Publisher, causes some text to change and I don't know why.
In any case, what wasn't expertly edited to begin with became mangled even worse and I'm frankly embarrassed I let anyone read it but me at this point.  I wish I could buy all the copies back and burn them, at this point.  People seem to like the book quite a bit despite the errors but it makes me feel amateurish and incompetent as a writer; I'm ashamed it is out there.
Now, PA doesn't edit your book for errors, at all, and they don't promise too, I knew that going in.  Editing is kind of expensive and I couldn't pay for it then (or now, for that matter).  But I didn't think it would get worse for publishing.
And the interior annoyed me, as well.  The layout and printing were fine, its just like any other book.  The problem is I did a bit of art for the book and a map of the setting in classic fantasy style. The art should have been strategically distributed through the book (as it was in the manuscript I sent them), and the map at the beginning.  Instead, to make printing easier, they just stuck it all in the middle and refused to change when I requested it.  It was a lousy way to do it, and the art didn't reproduce well anyway.
THE BAD
Then there was the sales.  I didn't mind so much not selling a lot of copies, I hardly expected to.  And I knew PA didn't put a lot of effort into publicity or sales.  My problem is once the book was out there, they put zero effort into sales... to anyone but me.  They sent me 2-3 emails a day for years trying to get me to buy my own book.  You can edit your book and correct errors, just buy 5 copies!  You can get this put into hardback, just buy 10 copies!  You can have your book put into this book show, just buy 10 copies!  On and on it went.
And I mean this literally, I am not exaggerating, every single email from PublishAmerica was an attempt to get me to buy my own book.  And nothing, nothing they did was to get my book bought by anyone else.  Not a single effort went out from the company to help someone else buy my book once it had been set up online.  They didn't seem to want to sell my book to anyone else.
PublishAmerica's entire business model is to get writers to buy their own books.  Period.  They don't have any other plan. And that's just a ridiculous way to run a publishing business.  I got very tired of the constant attempts in all sorts of clever ways to get me to buy my own book.  Finally about a year ago, they apparently gave up on me.  I never responded, didn't buy any more books after a few years, and none of mine were selling (thankfully, as I noted above).
What's worse is that their emails lied.  They would claim the book wasn't going to be available in hardback unless I ordered it by buying books.  Later, they offered it in hardbound online and gave me a cut rate if I bought my own books (10 at a time).  They claimed that the paperback was going out of print, then later offered me the paperbacks at a reduced rate, bulk naturally.  The paperback version never was taken off the PA website or any online bookstore.  On and on it went, with outright lies told over emails to me.  It was ridiculous, I knew I couldn't trust a thing I read from them.
Finally, they offered me the rights for my book back for 200 bucks, to "pay for expenses."  I didn't have the money and didn't care to spend that much for it.  But they did recognize it wasn't selling and I was getting so little in royalties it didn't match the minimum before I get paid (had to earn $100, by the contract, before they'd send me a check.  If it never earned that, I never got paid - and so I never got any royalties).
I waited, and a year later, they offered it to me for $99, their expenses apparently having reduced over time.  At the time I didn't have the cash, but then this year they offered it again when I did have some money.  $99 to end a contract and get the rights back seemed like a fair deal to me, so I took advantage of the deal.  And here's where the final absurdity takes place.
I let PA know I would take advantage of their offer and they referred me to a page.  The page?  Their usual order form.  I ordered the rescinding of our contract, for $99... but since it was their standard book ordering page, I had to choose shipping.  Nothing gets shipped, its just an agreement.  So I had to choose $1.99 in shipping to pay for the nonexistent product, bringing the price up to $109.  Still fairly cheap as contract negation goes but what a cheap, chiseling bunch of gougers.  I mean really, they're digging around in the gutter for a few more pennies.  That's just pathetic.
So in short, I would strongly advise everyone to avoid PublishAmerica, to never use them to publish a book, and to never consider them for a contract.  Not ever.  They have some positives, but overall, its a waste of your time and a 7 year lockdown on your book.  Just don't do it.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

THOUGHTS RANDOMLY

"No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good."
-C.S. Lewis

A few random things I've been thinking and writing about lately:
Quentin Tarantino needs to drop all his projects and go back to his roots.  He needs to make a 70's era period cop drama.  One that the Beastie Boys video for Sabotage evokes, a gritty one with all the sensibilities and camera shots used in the time period.
Speaking of movies, I watched a couple of James Bond movies.  License to Kill was one, and its a better movie than I remembered.  I still think it owes too much to Miami Vice in theme and feel, but its quite good except for the semi on one side to avoid a missile (why on earth would that work?).  I continue to think Dalton was the best Bond ever.
And Eric, I owe you an apology: Octopussy is better than I remembered.  A lot better.  Yes it has cheesy jokes in it, but it actually is quite good, I'd call it one of the top 3 Roger Moore bond films.
If I had a billion dollars, I'd get a retro-Sci Fi MMOG made, based on the worlds of Buck Rogers and so on.  Rocket packs, alien princesses, ray guns, brilliant mad scientists, etc. It would be wonderful fun and I think very popular.  In fact, I'm pondering writing up one of my fantasy ideas set in that sort of world instead.
Almost 15 years ago in 1990, archaeologists discovered an ossuary containing the bones of Caiphas, the high priest.  This is the same Caiphas who tried Jesus Christ before the Sanhedrin.  It was not revealed to the public until 1992 when they had confirmed the authenticity of the bones, and I hadn't even heard of it before today.
Even the BBC has admitted that global warming has "paused" for over a decade.  Since 1998 there hasn't been any global warming.  How long does it "pause" before they just admit its not happening?
In other global weather disaster news, ice sheets are more stable than previously believed.
Agent Coulson's first name is "Phillip," not "agent."
I love how girls look when they jog with a ponytail.  It swishes from side to side and looks so neat, I wonder if it feels neat?
According to a study, the more economic freedom a nation has, the more racial tolerance it displays.  One of the few exceptions: France.
Racial Tolerance seems like a pretty uncomfortable term to me though.  You tolerate ideas you dislike; racial tolerance doesn't strike me as a positive, really.
Australia has a show called Dirty Laundry that is a sort of Daily Show take on the news.  They have an adult rating of MA for mature audiences. They've been put on notice that they are going to have a change in their rating because they are... too clean.  That's right, they have to be more filthy or they will get a more general audience child-friendly rating.
Kitty wants to be petted, really bad.  How could anyone resist?
Finally, an idea came up on the podcast "Comic Dorks" which I really think is brilliant.  Why hasn't Hollywood done this by now?  They should make available a service or black box you can attach to your home entertainment system which allows you to get any of their films for a fee.  The cost could be pretty steep, because you have to figure lots of people will be watching the movie at once.  And they could put new releases out the same day they hit theaters for a hefty fee ($50 or more).  Get a box, invite your friends over, pay 5 bucks each to the kitty, and watch Star Wars episode VII in your living room the day it comes out.  Yes this would enrage and horrify theaters, who make their money on the later weeks of new releases, but it would be good money for the studios.  Streaming would cost a lot less than packaging and shipping out films (although digital films are a lot cheaper to ship), and it would make studios a lot of money.
The only thing I can figure that's holding them back - other than sheer obstinance and being stuck in the 20th century - is fear of easy pirating.
*UPDATE: In a discussion on this a friend pointed out something: theaters tend to be owned by gigantic companies that have thousands of screens, and it would enrage Regal or AMC to have their exclusive ability to screen new films sapped away further by home theaters.  I suspect that in the end the studios would win (if they all did it, what could Regal do?  Not show movies?), and they could make up any losses in the revenue from streaming, but that's just a guess.

Friday, May 17, 2013

OLD TIME RADIO: GUNSMOKE

"Around Dodge City and the territory out west there's just one way to handle all the killers and the spoilers, and that's with a US Marshal and the smell of ... Gunsmoke!"

Doc, Marshall Dillon, Miss Kitty, and Chester
In the 1940s, CBS chairman William S. Paley was a big fan of the Philip Marlowe radio show, and directed his programming chief, Hubell Robinson to develop a western version of the detective show. Philip Marlowe was a hard boiled detective show, and what Paley wanted was a hardboiled western with a lawman as the star.
The result was Gunsmoke, with Matt Dillon as the main character, a US Marshall with his main office in Dodge City.  It was a huge hit, almost immediately popular with fans for a variety of reasons.  One of the main ones is that it was a western targeted at grown ups rather than the typical radio western fare which was for kids (The Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid) and it was the first western for adults.  Another reason it was popular was the quality of writing, which sets is apart from almost every show in every era, on any format.
Gunsmoke holds up extremely well to this day by being gritty, historically accurate, well-acted, well-written, and intelligent.  The setting, actions, language, characters and so on are all mature and clever.  Another bonus was that the main characters stayed with the same actors for the entire run.  
Matt Dillon was played by William Conrad, who was brilliant in the part.  In fact, had he been a more slender man he would have been in the TV show, but he always was a heavy man and was passed over for the more classically western type with James Arness (brother of Mission Impossible's Peter Graves).  John Wayne was actually offered the Dillon part for the show, but he declined, focusing on film.  Conrad's voice was powerful and commanding, and he had a lot of range and created a very likable, honorable, and trustworthy character.
Gunsmoke won piles of awards and accolades, especially for its historical accuracy.  The treatment of groups such as American Indians and Mexicans was balanced and thoughtful - some were good, some weren't and all were just people.  Co-Creator and producer John Meston was a sort of deconstructionist, but he was not interested in tearing down the legend so much as historical accuracy.
So the stories often turned stereotypes and typical western patterns on their head, and the result was a more accurate type of show that actually has a more plausible, more reasonable feel these days.  Something that surprised me was how incredibly fast and deadly Dillon was.  I always got the impression that he was not so much a gunman as a good lawman, but he was both.  Matt Dillon was given respect like Bill Hickock and John Wesley Hardin in the show, but he was never cocky or certain, always careful to avoid a gunfight if he could.  And he was strictly law and order, even to his own detriment.
Gunsmoke's cast was excellent as well, and many of them show up on other radio shows because of their skill and voices such as Parley Baer (doc) who got more work than Michael Caine in his heyday.  I've listened to more than fifty of the radio episodes online and even the weakest shows are very well done.
The radio show Gunsmoke ran for nine years from 1952 to 1961, with over 400 episodes.  In 1955 the TV show started up, and it ran for 20 years until it was canceled in 1975.
This show is seriously a gem, something everyone would love to listen to.  If I could, I'd get an animator and put them on Youtube now because I think people would really get a kick out of them (including the old cigarette and public service ads).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

RENEWING DOMAINS

"I think Google should be like a Swiss Army knife: clean, simple, the tool you want to take everywhere."
-Marissa Mayer

So its that time of year again, time to renew my Google domain for this blog.  Its pretty cheap and I actually have some cash I can pay for it with.  It used to be around Christmas but that was too much conflict for my limited budget, so I moved it up a bit. 
Previously its been easy, Google sent an email saying "you're running out, click here to renew."  Not this year.  Google has been juggling around all their various business and web options like adplus and so on, trying to get them all under one umbrella.  Now its called "Google apps" as if everything you do online is on an Ipod.
Hey Google, if its on a computer then its called a program.  Despite what you may think, most people use their computer to browse the internet  Yes, we've been told for decades that the desktop is dying out, but it isn't, there still are hundreds of millions of the things out there - billions maybe - and people still use them for all sorts of things.
At any rate, I got an email telling me that my domain is about to expire, in a few days in fact.  So I tried to renew it.  But there's no link to do so in the email.  It just tells me to log into Google Apps to renew.  Stop reading and type "google apps" into GOOGLE and see what you get.  Which of those do you suppose I want for my little blog domain?  Do any of them stand out?
Why in the name of God on high wouldn't the email just have a link that I click to go where I want?  Surely people at GOOGLE are familiar with the concept of links you click on to go where you want, given that their entire business is built around this fundamental device of the internet, right?
To complicate matters, I tried to use the browser Chrome to do it.  You know, Google's personal browser called GOOGLE CHROME.  It crashes half the time, sometimes so bad it reboots my computer.  Firefox sometimes crashes, but its never seized up my work system thirty to ninety seconds, then sometimes rebooted.  I tried to get a new version, but I already have the newest version.
So I poked around the Google Apps trying to find anywhere to renew my domain, and it asked me to sign in.  You sign in using your website and a drop down menu has the helpful-sounding option "domain management."  Perfect!  So I hit the "sign in" button and it asks me not to log into my google account, but some entirely new account I've never even seen before, based on my domain name.  It wants this:

Never in my years of using blogger and Google have I ever created any account of any kind which is like this.  I have never been given, nor seen a username attached to my WordAroundtheNet domain name.  When I use their "I can't remember my user name" option, it sends me to log into ordinary google account like I do to get into my blog innards.  Then when I try to get on to Google Apps... it asks the same thing, which I do not have.
I tried my name, I tried my login, I tried my usual password, nothing works, this site is looking for an account which does not exist.
So I search for help on this and get... ads for godaddy and other domain sites, and I had to screen out several words to finally get to GOOGLE on their own damn search engine.  And none of the help was of the slightest assistance in any remotest sense.
I still don't know how to get to renew my blog.  Its not on the blog controls.  Its not in my google account.  I can't find it anywhere, except in that one area, which asks for a login I DO NOT HAVE.  Now I'll eventually get it done, I'll some day figure out how to get where I need to go.
But upon what possible planet did they think this was a good way to manage their accounts?  Who at Google was the inbred retard that designed this?  Were they just really stoned when they set it all up?  Was it done by a committee of people each of whom speaks a different language exclusively?  Was it given to a room full of monkeys with typewriters to code?  I really want to know, these aren't rhetorical questions.  I want an answer to how on earth something so simple and necessary to make the company money was made so idiotically complicated and unusable.  I really do.

Monday, May 13, 2013

AN AMERICAN WATCHING PARIS

"Back home everyone said I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here but it sounds better in French."
-Jerry Mulligan

I try to watch classic and beloved movies, to catch up to ones people have long enjoyed which I've missed, such as Jaws (it was okay, although Roy Scheider is an overlooked genius of an actor).  Generally speaking, big movies and films which have endured for decades are excellent and worth seeing, even if they're a genre you don't care for.
So while I was at the Oregon coast last week, I watched An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.  It was a pretty fun movie with some absolutely spectacular dancing and set design, good songs, and one astounding concert performance.  I do like George Gershwin's music, and Gene Kelly is absolutely at his finest dancing form so it was spectacular.
This film is essentially just a showcase for Gershwin's songs and Kelly's dancing (as well as Caron).  The French singer played by Georges Guétary had an amazing voice as well.  It was the big musical spectacle reduced almost totally to its core elements of music and dance, with very little plot or dialog.  In a way, this is the ultimate musical, with no pretense of being anything else and designed to be nothing but songs and dancing with a weak story to prop it up.
That doesn't make the movie any less entertaining, if anything it may be more so as a result.  And it is a classic because of that - and because of the amazing end dream piece which was a sort of ballet in a strange surreal setting of Parisian images.  This section was offered instead of any explanation to why Leslie Caron's character Lise Bouvier leaves her fiancee for Gene Kelly's Jerry Mulligan.
Really, you don't need to know why because you can imagine the conversation in the car based on dozens of previous movies and the story.  And here's where I had a problem.
The movie is this great sweeping romance with wonderful music and beautiful people, and Gene Kelly is at his absolute most charming.  You just get pulled into the story and ride along, and its not unusual to see ladies crying at the end because its just so romantic.
And were this not such a show piece rather than a serious attempt at telling a story, I'd hate it.  Not because of the romance, but because of the way the story plays.  Strip out all the setting and the songs and the dancing and so on and here's the basic story:
Girl is engaged to a guy, but when a handsome charming man shows up, she goes out with him repeatedly behind her fiancee's back, doesn't tell either one what she's doing, and the fiancee only finds out by accidentally overhearing the girl finally tell her why she's leaving to marry another man.
Compounding this as a problem, the movie has a nasty flaw that almost all romantic movies and stories do: the girl has little personality or reason to be loved other than being really pretty.
And its odd, Leslie Caron isn't a real beauty, she's not a stunner like Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly.  She's cute enough (although she looks half Gene Kelly's Age), but her behavior and the way she reacts, physically, to events and statements is very charming and attractive - she is prettier than she looks, in short.
But even Jerry Mulligan admits "What gets me is, I don't know anything about her. We manage to be together for a few moments and then off she goes. Sometimes we have a wonderful time together and other times it's no fun at all."  And love is like that sometimes; you can't really put a finger on why you love them - at least not without more time and thought.
The problem is, it always strikes me as implausible that the guy is head over heels in love so much he'll sacrifice everything to be with her when all she is is pretty.  That's not enough, and it has to be frustrating for actresses - and it is, from what I've read and heard - that they aren't given any more part than "be pretty."  When you're as painfully gorgeous as Ingrid Bergman that can work, but the truth is, guys like more than a cute face and a hot bod; at least to keep and love.
Leslie Caron's character Lise is little more than a young, cute dance partner who is very pliable.  The writers tried really hard to define her character more in a dance sequence near the beginning of the film, which was charming and well done by Caron who obviously has ballet training at that point, but all she ends up being is a incomprehensible series of contradictions which tells us nothing.
And what makes matters worse is that she's essentially untrue and a liar.  She maintains a double lie, lying to both men without any attempt to set things straight.  Its almost as if the stereotypical Parisian attitude about love is being displayed in the movie.  That love excuses everything, and even if its fake, love is worth doing anything to have.  Georges Guétary's advice to Kelly about telling the girl he loves her follows these lines, telling him to say it even if he doesn't mean it because women fall all over you if you do.
And since hundreds of French books and movies have been made repeating this basic philosophy I have to wonder if it isn't accurate about at least Paris, if not France in general.  But think a bit about the girl: she's engaged to marry one man and runs around with another, and that's supposed to be wonderfully romantic.  Its not like they were just dating a bit, she made an absolute commitment, a promise to be with him alone and is about to be married.
Now, the writers try to excuse this by saying she's young and confused and she was just following through on a promise because Henri saved her life, and so on, but at any point she could have indicated to him that she was having second thoughts and maybe they should back off a bit.  She doesn't, it never even comes up.  Neither man has the slightest clue what is going on, so much so that it leads to a hilarious scene where mutual friend Leslie Caron (Adam Cook in the movie) desperately tries to prevent either from finding out what is going on.
Again, I don't want to be too critical of the film because it is not meant to be taken seriously or examined for deep philosophical implications.  Its a silly fluff piece; a song and dance bit extended into a 114 minute film.  But I couldn't help but get the impression that the reason Henri lets Lise go at the end is because he knew he couldn't trust her.  And if there's one thing you can rely on, its that if she'll leave him to be with you, she'll leave you to be with the next guy.  That's not 100%, and certainly these are special circumstances, but it is something that a guy like Henri would know.
So to me, it didn't have that big swelling romantic heart burster at the end like it was supposed to.  All I could do was see Mulligan being set up for a big fall when the next charming guy came along.  It just didn't have that pop at the end it was supposed to.
Incidentally, Oscar Levant is terrific in the film, and his concert piano scene is astonishing, the man is a genius on those keys.
One final interesting connection: Nina Foch, the rich American lady who collects artists, also played Dr Mallard's mom in NCIS.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: FAT AMERICA

"It's simple, if it jiggles, it's fat."
-Arnold Schwarzenegger

Boy Americans are fat, what a bunch of tubby losers those Americans are.  Why, they're all so fat its an epidemic, their president's wife says its a crisis and is fighting for kids to eat better!  Disgusting they are, Wal*Marts full of disgusting fat bodies all across the land.  Every comedian, every online kid, every European all has the same batch of jokes and lines.  'Murica!  Land of the fat lazy slob!
Especially in the rural areas, they're all fat hicks there, not a lean sexy body in the entire country.  Why, a study recently showed that people are fatter in the country than in the city.  You hear this over and over, its a "meme" online of fat 'muricans.  Except... that's not exactly true.
There are a lot of problems with the idea of Americans being unusually fat.  For example, take a look at this listing of nations by percentage of the population considered "obese," by the official standards of the Body Mass Index (BMI):
  1. Nauru 94.52
  2. Federated States of Micronesia 91.13
  3. Cook Islands 90.94
  4. Tonga 90.85
  5. Niue 81.76
  6. Samoa 80.47
  7. Palau 78.48
  8. Kuwait 74.29
  9. United States 74.11
  10. Kiribati 73.61
  11. Dominica 71.01
  12. Barbados 69.71
  13. Argentina 69.41
  14. Egypt 69.41
  15. Malta 68.71
  16. Greece 68.51
  17. New Zealand 68.41
  18. United Arab Emirates 68.31
  19. Mexico 68.12
  20. Trinidad and Tobago 67.9
Now, when you think of fat nations, does Kuwait pop into your mind?  Because according to the BMI, they're fatter than Americans.  And the Dominican Republic is just a little less fat, an island with an image of lean, beach-tight bodies - or underfed people.
And that study of fat hicks in the country?  The percentage differences are tiny: 33% of those in the city, vs 39% in the country.  In other words if you compared 100 city folks with 100 urban folks, six more of the rural guys would be considered obese by the typical standards.  Not exactly a huge margin, even assuming having more weight is some kind of sin.
Still, the official data states that 30% of America is officialy obese.  And that definition is part of the problem. When most people think of the word "obese," they don't picture a few pounds over, they think "bury in a refrigerator crate." So when you use that word and say 30% of Americans are obese, people think this:


Rather than this:


Both are considered "obese" because both have more than a 30 BMI. One is clearly unhealthy and has a problem, the other is curvy and looks darn good. Yet that word "obese" conjures up disgusting images of rolls of fat rather than curves.
According to the Associated Press 5% of Americans are "morbidly obese."  The thing is, "morbidly obese" is defined as more than 100 pounds over weight given the BMI chart. A third of Americans are considered obese, which is defined as any amount over the Body Mass Index BMI's ideal weight level. So that sounds awful, right? Horrendous, immensely fat.
The problem with the BMI is that it doesn't really take into account different kinds of builds, and it has an idealized target weight which isn't reasonable for most human beings. For example I am just under 6'3 and weigh around 200 pounds, give or take 5 depending on how long its been since I ate and whether its Thanksgiving. That gives me a BMI of 25. 30 is considered "obese." In other words, I'm 5 units from being not just out of shape but obese. That's absurd, I am not exactly cut and toned, but I'm not fat by any definition. That's because I have fairly broad shoulders and am built to carry this much weight properly.
See, BMI is just a flat measurement: this height vs this weight.  They don't care about your lifestyle, what the weight happens to consist of, and so on.  It is well known that muscle actually weighs more than fat, so a really ripped athlete would be obese because they have a great deal of muscle weight.  In other words, this guy is obese:
Which is flat ridiculous.  The standards are silly to begin with, but they are virtually useless for truly examining who is overweight and who is not.  And when you base your consideration of nations on a flawed index, you can't even begin to make a case.
The thing is, its silly to think Americans are especially overweight anyway.  I mean its not like there aren't heavy people from the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Japan, and other nations - quite a few, in fact.
The truth is, if you look at the World Health Organization's data estimates that 30% of the entire planet is "overweight" by the Body Mass Index standards.
In other words, the standards are flawed, America isn't even particularly overweight even if they were accurate.  Are there people who need to lose weight?  Certainly.  And they live everywhere around the world.
This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

THE BLOODY PART OF WRITING

“Writing is easy, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
-Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

That quote by Red Smith has been attributed to a lot of people such as Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, but the earliest reference I can find is from Smith.  He probably got it from someone else.  Its a great quote, it sounds terribly witty and dry.  And its patent nonsense.
The hard part of writing isn't writing at all, for most authors - for me so far, certainly - that's the easy part, relatively speaking.  Sitting down and typing or writing down the story either flows comfortably and easily or you have a tough time and have to work at it, or take time off and think.  Its not that writing is always easy, I've had times when I wrote my self into a corner and have to try to figure out where to go next (such as Erkenbrand on the ridge, captured and watching a sacrifice).
The easy part refers to everything else you have to do as a writer.  When I say the writing is relatively easy, I mean that it just gets harder from there.  Editing and rewrites are mildly annoying, but its from that point on that its downhill.  I'm an author, its what I do, and I am not shabby at it, most of the time.  Its not good enough to just be an author.  Once those words are on the paper, you then have to get them out to other people, or you're just wasting time.  If nobody reads what you've written, what was the point of the exercise?
You have to publicize and sell your book, you have to find someone to get it out to the public and get it printed.  I'm lousy  at this, not only do I hate to sell myself out of discomfort with the idea of it, it just seems improper to run about yelling about how great you are.  It smacks of arrogance and egotism.  Yet that's part of your job as a writer.
The typical system is to find an agent, which involves writing up a clever introduction and summary of your book - selling yourself to agents who are bombarded with submissions every day - so you can get one interested in your work.  I sent out scores of these to agents over two years, and got a few responses back.  One actually said she liked my writing and wanted to see more, but didn't like that particular book (she disliked first person perspective, something I wrote about before).  The best and most successful authors started out with hundreds of rejections from agents.
Once you get past that hurdle, your agent gets a publisher, then you work with the publisher to get it in print, and you typically have to work to sell the book as well with interview, appearances, signings, and so on.  Sell, sell, sell.  And each time you write a new book, the same selling takes place.
Now days, as I've written about several times before, its foolish to go the old route.  Chances are you won't get published anyway, as both publishers and agents are super skittish about anything they can't be absolutely certain they will get a sale.  Books just aren't selling well now, so they are trying to cut their losses, you can't blame them.
So these days the best way to go about it is to put your stuff online and hope for sales.  That's the easiest system: no gatekeepers, no agents, no publishers.  Yet you still have to do the hard part, because who's going to even know your book exists?  Its true that the internet is an essentially infinite shelf; its always there and never goes away.  In a store they only have so much space and they move slow sellers off the shelf while online they just sit until the sun wipes out electronics or some massive disaster takes place.
But since the shelf is infinite, and people probably don't know your name, you have to make them aware of your book somehow.  You're one drop of water in an ocean of materials out there - its the same problem with any internet endeavor.  You can have the best website in the universe but until it gets found, it will just sit there unnoticed.  Its largely a mystery how some stuff takes off and others do not.  Youtube was just another site people had videos on but for some reason it went nuts.  Cheezburger was just some guy's funny pictures of cats until people saw it and it went crazy.  Why some things work and others don't nobody really understands, although there are plenty of theories.
So you can't just upload your book and kick back as the cash rolls in.  You probably won't sell a single copy, no matter how good it is.  You have to make that book known.  And that means the hard part: sell, sell, sell.
Now, as I noted a little while ago, the old publicity systems don't really work.  Doing interviews for non fiction is fine, because people might be interested in the subject based on the expertise of the author but fiction is different.  Unless you're an established, beloved author, nobody cares who you are.  They want the content; they care about the story, not the writer.
So hiring a publicist to sell your fiction is a waste of money.  A crowdsource fundraiser might get some interest in the people donating money but all you do is get the money together to pay a publicist and again, that won't help much for fiction.
So you hope for reviews.  And while bombarding the top reviewers on Amazon was a great trick a few months ago when people didn't know much about it, these days they get dozens of books a day and haven't time or interest to review them all.  I would still do it - its free, after all - but its not as effective as it used to be.
Newspapers don't do reviews much these days, either.  Books don't sell much, they mostly use wire services and have fewer reporters on staff these days, and its just not a big draw.  After all, they're in the business of selling newspapers, not doing anyone any favors.  And there's another problem even if they do any reviews.
You see, the newspaper guys don't know you from a hole in the ground.  And when you get email from a total stranger, what do you tend to do?  Newspapers get hundreds of unsolicited emails from people they don't know every day and almost every single one of them is junk. In fact, some probably have their spam filters set so broadly that unless its an email they recognize, it doesn't even get to them, but is instead sent to a trashcan as soon as it reaches their email program.
You need a foot in the door, and that's what publishers do for you.  They have contacts, established names, businesses that are recognized and trusted, and email addresses directly to the right people to get the right thing done.  A publicist can do this for you as well, but they charge an awful lot for having the right emails.
And even if they do know you, every Tom, Dick, and Mary is out there writing books and putting them up on Amazon Kindle these days, and they all want reviews.  So even if they do allow any emails through, the newspaper probably won't even look at your book unless they know you or you're already established as a writer - and don't need the review in the first place.
So you can't even get your book reviewed most of the time.  You can probably get a review journal to do the job, but nobody reads those except the writers and a very small group of hardcore review fanatics.  
There's another problem: I managed to get my book mentioned in the local newspaper, but they got it wrong.  The picture they put with the mention was the wrong book, and it wasn't a review at all, it was just a little one paragraph bit: local author gets published.  Every single person I've ever read, talked to, or heard of who has had any part of a news story in a paper or news show says the exact same thing, without exception: they never get it exactly right.  Never.  So even if you get a review chances are they'll mess it up somehow.
In other words: you're pretty well out of luck.  Now there are other tricks you can use, and its not impossible to get word out.  Emails, worth of mouth, mention on sites like Instapundit (although I only saw 3 sales from mine), related sites (fantasy sites if you write a fantasy novel, etc) and so on can all get you sales.  Most people online have a network of people they know who can spread the word, and you can mention your book on various websites.
What I'd do if I had plenty of money and energy (mostly the latter) is start up a business.  I would create a business whose only job is to work with authors of self-published ebooks to get them the kind of publicity that fiction requires.  Not interviews and pictures of them, but reviews, "trailers" and so on, the kind of thing that attracts readers.
Such a business could work only with well-done, professional, and properly edited books, even helping with advice on covers and titles, and hooking them up with ISBN data and contacts for printing.  This business, with the right care in picking titles and authors, could build a reputation of quality, and that gets your foot in the door.
Honestly, if I owned a big publishing house, this is what I'd do with the business.  I would de-emphasize the focus on printing books, move more toward print-on-demand, and emphasize contacts, reviews, and so on.  Offering professional editing, cover design, reviews, and publicity keyed to the type of book would bring in cash that dwindling book sales is losing them.
Instead of printing large numbers of books hoping they sell in book stores, a smart publisher could focus on printing quality copies on demand and finding the best of the online ebook writers to work with.  And the publishers should reach out to writers as well as waiting to be contacted; they should strive to find and serve the talent rather than sit about arrogantly keeping the gates with a cocked eyebrow and disapproving gaze.
The days publishers can take the bulk of the profits for printing books the talent have provided for them are coming to an end, and they have to adapt.  This seems like a good direction to go - it still gives people books that want them (and I do love a real book), and it keeps them in business working to give the talent they find publication they desire.
But instead of working on long-term exclusive contractual deals that lock in authors for years and years without recourse, they should work as contracted specialists who serve the author like any other business.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

OLD TIME RADIO: PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE

"He sapped me and I slid down the wall like an old sock on a skinny leg."

I've always liked old time radio and movies but for most of my life its been very difficult to find and enjoy the radio shows; difficult and usually expensive.  One of the great benefits of the Internet is that old stuff is much easier to find now, including these old radio shows.  Several websites have collected them with sound files, and I listen to a few every day, as I wrote about a while back.
Because its been decades, sometimes more than fifty years, since these shows were popular, not many people know much about them any more, and I'd love for more people to enjoy the programs, so I'd like to introduce my readers to a few of them.
One of the more consistently entertaining and well-written of the shows is Pat Novak for Hire.  This show is unique in all the hordes of radio shows I can find for several reasons.  It defies easy category, although it is essentially a mystery show.  Pat Novak is played mostly by Dragnet's Jack Webb, before he was famous.  His friend and room mate Richard L. Breen wrote the show, and his writing crackles with amazing lines.
Breen wrote a lot of great stuff, such as A Foreign Affair, Appointment With Danger (a noire I highly recommend), the 1953 version of Titanic, and of course quite a few episodes of Dragnet.  He had an amazing gift of turning dialog into witty, fascinating twists that made even ordinary conversation fascinating and amusing.  Here are a few samples from Appointment With Danger:
Earl Boettiger: What's the matter with you? You got a face a foot long.
Joe Regas: You look as if you just lost your best friend.
Al Goddard: I'm my best friend.
Joe Regas: That's what I said.

Al Goddard: You don't think very much of me, do you?
Sister Augustine: I think of everything, Mr. Goddard, but I feel sorry for you. I don't think you have a heart.
Al Goddard: Call it muscle. That's the way it is for a cop.
Sister Augustine: I don't believe you.
Al Goddard: When a cop dies, they don't listen to his heart fade. It's a charley horse in the chest.

Joe Regas: You're gonna take this Maxie's word? If somebody gave him a Bible to swear on, he'd steal it. 
Pat Novak for Hire is the story of a man living on San Francisco's dock area with a boat for hire.  Most of the time he spends doing odd jobs, but he keeps getting into trouble.  Partly he's unlucky, and partly he's a good guy who tries to help people in need, despite his gruff exterior.  Novak isn't a cop or a private detective, he's just an ex military guy who is tough and smart enough to get through trouble.
There's a detective that keeps getting in his face named Hellman (played by Raymond Burr of Perry Mason and Ironside fame).  Novak treats Hellman like junk and Hellman keeps trying to pin murders on Novak, but deep down you can tell the men have a lot of respect for each other.  Novak in his monologues refers to Hellman as the smartest cop on the force, and Hellman seems to pin murders on Novak because he knows he'll solve them to save himself.  Their interchanges are hilarious, with each ripping on the other and never giving in.
The only real flaw in the show is the recurring character of Jocko Madigan, an ex-doctor who is a boozehound and acts as Novak's helper on each case.  Madigan is given several minutes each show for a bizarre, rambling monologue, and is often shoehorned in for no other reason than "we have to have Jocko on the show."  Occasionally he's humorous but most of the time he adds nothing to the show except to call or contact Novak at a dead end in the mystery to add a useful bit of information.
Overall the show is consistently rewarding and amusing, but unfortunately it had a short run.  For a while Ben Morris took over the title role (and did well with it, but Webb does a better job of hard boiled and bitter).  Airing between 1946 and 1947 with 23 episodes, the show was popular, but the creative force of Webb and Breen moved on to other things.  The last 4 episodes of the show took place because Breen and Webb were hired by another network to do a show, which was an almost exact copy (with a change of names) called Johnny Modero, Pier 23 which was not as satisfying or entertaining.  Its also very difficult to find any episodes of Modero to listen to.
You can find Pat Novak a lot of different places online, but I tend to listen to the ones at Dumb.com; here is a sample episode to try out, I think you'll like it.
If nothing else, its nice to hear Webb play a different character than Detective Friday - and he is very different - and the show is consistently amusing.
Incidentally, Moonstone Books put out a Pat Novak graphic novel a few years back, with Pat coming out of retirement to solve a mystery. I haven't read it but I understand it has gotten quite positive reactions.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Florida 2000

"...and third I want a recount. No matter how it turns out, I want my old job back!"
 -Ron Miller (Robocop)

The 2000 United States presidential election was the most controversial and bizarre in American history. Books have been written about it by radical partisans trying to push their version of events, and when it was all over, most Americans just wanted to forget the whole thing and go on with their lives - particularly Floridians who were shown in an especially embarrassing light.

Around the world, people I have spoken to are a bit unclear on what exactly happened, most having heard only bits and pieces from local news or read books such as Fahrenheit 9/11 for their information. In America, there are some who cling to the certainty that President Bush stole the election using the courts.

We're told that President Bush used the Supreme Court to cheat Al Gore out of victory.  We're told that recounts were stopped because they were going to shoe Gore winning.  We're told that Al Gore just wanted to get the proper vote and the Republicans led by George Bush the younger cheated voters out of their democratic rights.   Is any of that true?

This is one of the biggest myths of our time, repeated blithely and mindlessly by people who don't have the first clue about what took place or why.  None of what they say has the slightest merit - in fact, most of it is the opposite of what happened.  Here's what took place...

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