bookbanner
CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Monday, March 31, 2014

OPENING DAY PARTY!

"All year long they looked to Kirk Gibson to light the fire and all year long he answered the demands. High fly ball into right field. She is gone!
In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."
-Vin Scully, calling game 1, 1988 World Series

Its the annual Opening Day party at Taylor Chateau today, with barbecue, snacks, and MLB until we barf baseballs.  Everyone is welcome, but I won't be around as much as usual because I also have a nasty cold.
Ozzie Smith, brilliant shortstop for the St Louis Cardinals, pushed for baseball's opening day to be a national holiday.  I think that's a great idea, but I'd suggest at least one existing national holiday be done away with - perhaps fold some of those birthdays into a "Great Americans Day."  Otherwise, its just another paid day off for government employees.
The hilarious thing is that the petition got more than 100,000 signatures and the White House Press Secretary responded.
While we are sympathetic to your pitch to make Opening Day a national holiday, it's a little outside our strike zone: creating permanent federal holidays is traditionally the purview of Congress.  So, it's up to the men and women on Capitol Hill to decide whether to swing at this pitch.
Now, this is technically accurate, and a good response in one sense, but given how freely and easily the president is violating the separation of powers and using "executive orders" to create and modify law, this response is ridiculous for this administration.
Further, while the president cannot create national holidays under the US Constitution, he can work for it to take place, like President Obama has other laws he actually wanted to be passed.
Honestly I get the feeling that the president doesn't really like baseball, which is perfectly fine, but the press secretary acts like he's a huge fan of the White Sox.  Just politics as usual.
In any case: go watch a game, the show starts today!

Friday, March 28, 2014

NO, UH

"I get that a director has to fill a two hour movie based off of a couple of chapters in the Bible, but holy cow!"

Something that has long puzzled me is that Hollywood cannot seem to make a good Bible movie.  The Bible is packed with amazing stories, bizarre imagery, dramatic events, shocking deeds, violence, sex, betrayal, politics, and more.  But every time someone from movie land tries to make a movie these days from the best selling book of all time (by a gigantic margin), they just can't seem to get it right.
The movies they give us from the Bible are either dull and pointless or ridiculous.  They'll make a movie about science fiction and fantasy themes, they'll make comic book movies presuming this stuff is plausible and reasonable.  But when it comes to the Bible, suddenly they start to hedge and get uncomfortable.
Now, I've not seen, and very likely will never see Noah.  I have zero interest in watching it in the theater, and haven't the extra cash to pay to see it in any case.  However, it is a good example of what I'm talking about.  Here are some bits from reviews:
In any event, a good rock monster helps Noah and his family find Methuselah. There is no explanation for why Noah has left the green area of his grandfather for a harsh, volcanic desert. But there you have it. Anthony Hopkins … errrr … Methuselah lives in a cave up a mountain. He invites Noah to tea, giving Noah hallucinogenic tea. Noah learns he must build an ark in the barren wasteland that has no trees anywhere at all.

The next day, the bad rock monsters show up to take the good rock monster away. But the magical seed sprouts a fountain in the middle of the ground. As the water flows from it, trees shoot up. Everywhere the water touches new green life sprouts. Noah realizes God has given him the trees to build the ark.

So the rock monsters build the ark.

-Erick Erickson at Red State

Noah recasts the first doomsday story as the first climate-change tale — a disaster-movie scenario that could soon recur. For the Old Testament God, simply insert nature’s God (the Founding Fathers’ name for the Creator) and see the flood as a predictor for nature’s rebuking modern industry for polluting and overheating the atmosphere. Scientists predict that within decades most of the world’s coastal cities will be underwater if emissions are not drastically curtailed. Aronofsky’s text, disguised as a fable, is a warning of this inconvenient truth. He might be paraphrasing the old spiritual: “No more fire, the flood this time.”

In Aronofsky’s Bible-era setting for this toxic environment, Noah is a survivalist taking revenge on urban iniquity. Seeing the industrialized cities around him as wicked for their destruction of the environment as much as their sensual excesses, Noah assumes power of life and death over all living things. This fable of early man is The Croods with a Mensa IQ — and when the rabble storms the ark, it’s a home-invasion thriller of a family taking refuge in their divine-fallout shelter. As the unsaved hordes climb the hulls of the boat like zombies scaling the Jerusalem walls in World War Z, our hero fights to keep them out.
-Richard Corliss, Time Magazine

Be warned: Anyone familiar with the 500-year-old man and his ark may need to check some of their most cherished visualizations of him at the theater door. No cozy two-by-two images of beatific giraffes grace this “Noah.”

Taking ill-advised pages from both 1950s animator Ray Harry­hausen and the current big-studio predilection for comic-book movies and young-adult teen romances, Aronofsky creates characters and story lines that feel wildly out of place — not because they don’t appear in Scripture but because they’re so at odds with the often brilliant aesthetic language that animates the rest of the film.
-Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

If his son's wife has a baby girl, Noah announces a plan to take that life to prevent the human race from going forward. Later, with Noah's knife raised over twin daughters you sense a composite, Noah mixed with a bit of Abraham and going crazy.

The main nemeses (Tubal-Cain) hacks his way into the ark, eats some lizards as a stow-away, and tries to kill Noah.

There are "magical" objects that do the supernatural: a seed, a potus, a drink, and a birthright snakeskin. Are these occult or just extra-biblical miracles of biblical proportion?
-Dr. Jerry Johnson, Christianity Today

"Noah" is writer-director Darren Aronofksy's interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood. He's made a few changes.

Okay, more than a few. Way more. This is the Book of Genesis after a page one rewrite.

Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden after Eve fell prey to the serpent's charms and ate the forbidden fruit. The descendants of Cain and Abel waged war against each other. The descendants of Cain allied themselves with the The Watchers, a race of fallen angels or seraphim who were encrusted by hardened magma created when they fell from Heaven to earth like shooting stars and smashed craters in the ground; these creatures now lumber across the landscape like Transformers, or like the Ents as visualized in Peter Jackson's "Rings" movies, grumbling and roaring and making pronouncements in the heavily-filtered voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella.
-Matt Zoeller Seitz, Roger Ebert.com
The strange thing is that after listing all the wierd, silly, excessive, and failed things in this movie, most of these reviews are generally positive - 3 out of 5 stars.  I can only think that they were so wowed by the visual effects that they came away with a smile even while they knew it was weird and probably a poor movie overall.
Now as I've said, I haven't watched this film, so I can't confirm or deny these reviewers and their perspective.  But what I can do is react to the changes in the story they list.  AMong these changes:
  • Creation is showed as theistic evolution
  • The skin of the serpent is a family heirloom of magical power
  • Tubal-Cain somehow is around almost 1000 years after being born, despite having no mention of this long lifespan.
  • The Nephelim are called "fallen angels" and portrayed as huge rock-men with multiple arms.
  • God never speaks to Noah, he gets hallucinations from drugs and dreams everything up.
  • Methuselah is a wizard with a flaming sword.
  • Noah plants a magic seed to grow a forest in the wilderness far from everyone else to build the ark with.
  • The rock monsters help him build the ark.
  • There's a subplot involving a girl named Illa who is barren, Shem, and Ham.
  • Despite being in a wilderness, somehow Tubal Cain and his people hear about the Ark being built and storm it.
  • Tubal Cain hides away on the ark for an epic final battle with Noah.
  • Two of the brothers have no wives when they board the ark.
  • They put all the animals to sleep with magic incense while on the ark.  
  • Two unicorns are on the ark, but they are killed by Ham and Tubal-Cain.
  • Noah tries to murder Illa's children.
  • Ham tries to build a raft and flee the ark, but Noah destroys it with... magic rocks.
Now, as I've said before, I understand the need to change some things when you make a film from a book.  And as Erick Erickson notes, this is a two-chapter bit in the Bible that Hollywood wanted to make a two hour movie out of, so they had to invent some new stuff.
But the stuff you invent should fit the story, work within the established framework of the book, and be true to the original source material.  Noah basically invented an entirely new story based on some words and a vaguely remembered plot of the story.
Now, if you want to do that, okay, but don't pretend its a Bible movie, and don't go out trying to get pastors to endorse your film.  And when will Hollywood get their act together and actually make a Bible movie that's actually from the Bible?
I get that Hollywood writers and directors think they know better than and are better story tellers than the writers of massive bestsellers.  I understand that having a book be a beloved classic with legendary stories is always going to be viewed as damaged and in need of fixing "for modern audiences" who love the books.
But why is it they can film books like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings pretty close to the original story and the Bible they always have to go nuts with?  When will someone finally figure out that they can make a great movie from the Bible without adding in all the extra junk?
*UPDATE: Dr Brian Mattson points out that most of the weird new stuff added to the Noah story come from obscure Kaballah stories.  Given Hollywood's odd flirtation with Kabbalah and the need to have more content to flesh out a full movie, that explains a lot.  But not everything.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

COMMENT TYPE #42: The Wheelhouse

"I've been waiting my whole life for this post!"

Commenters tend to fall into three categories: regulars, lurkers, and sporadic.  The regulars are the ones who will post on nearly any topic or post by the blogger or site, they've always got something to say and for them, its sort of community that makes them like a site than anything else.
Chris Anderson wrote a book called The Long Tail which notes that any successful business has a big, loud, and regular group of consumers but a lot of people who are quiet and consistent in their interest.  The graph looks like a sweeping curve with the bulk of it off to the right, like a tail, thus the name.  And commenters are like that too: a bunch of comments by a few people, then not so many comments each by a lot of others.
Lurkers tend to comment very rarely, and are there only to read.  Sporadic commenters will post on occasion when they are particularly moved to make a statement, but usually are quiet.  Unless its a topic they are especially knowledgeable and experienced in.
Then you hit someone's "wheelhouse" where they are very familiar with the topic and have plenty to say.  Sometimes this can end up almost a question-and-answer session where the commenter/expert will post many times answering direct questions by other commenters on the topic.
I had this recently happen on an Ace of Spades HQ post on the upcoming X-Men movie Days of Future Past, which is very vaguely based on the comic story in issues 140-141 from 1980.  Its a time period and series of stories that I'm quite familiar with and could help people know more about.  In fact the X-Men in general, up to the early 90s when I just didn't care for the way the stories were going any more, are an area of some knowledge for me.  And that includes the movies, such as who the girls are who played Kitty Pryde (Sumela Kay, Katie Stuart, and Ellen Page - for some reason, they recast her in every film).  Of the three, Sumela Kay had the best look for Kitty, in my opinion.
So when this topic came up, I was ready and had plenty to say about the characters, storyline, and films, and not very much of it positive about the last two (X3 and First Class).  I hope the next one is better, but I'm not confident.
A Wheelhouse Comment is one where someone is an expert and its like a hanging curve right down the middle of the plate, exactly where a batter likes to see the ball.  The commenter can crush the topic out into the parking lot, as it were, with plenty of knowledge and inside information on the topic.
Often this can be quite interesting and informative.  Some topics will have several Wheelhouse Commenters, such as a post about guns or the military.  They can be very useful, interesting reading on the topic, providing a treasure trove of research and data on something that most people either have no time or familiarity with.
On the other hand it can become tedious.  While I find the X-Men fascinating, others might think they are idiotic and childish, so extended comments on the topic could become very annoying.  As a blogger at times I am concerned that I'm posting on something nobody but me cares about, but then I figure, "well its a big internet, they can always move on."
But on a blog, as a commenter, you're a guest and hence are in a sense imposing on the site so going on and on about a topic you love might actually drive readers away, which is not what, presumably, you would want if you're interested enough in the site to comment on it.  So some discretion is best.
*This is part of the Profiles in Commenting Series

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

RETRO WATN: The Oenophile's Quandary

This was from a few years back and I thought it was an interesting concept worth another look for people to consider.
"Certainly you can select the very best spouse with probability at least 1/100, simply by marrying the first person [out of 100 choices]. But can you do better?"


One of the fun things about being a scientist or philosopher is that you get to name things. If your name catches on, then you have a little bit of fame that lives on after you die. Unfortunately, since few people learn who came up with a name even if they learn it, the fame is a bit limited. For example, the "hedonist quandary" is a name given to the phenomena in which seeking after pleasure always ends up being self defeating because the pleasure is never as good as you hoped and once you've experienced it is never quite as satisfying again, driving you to ever greater excesses. Who came up with that title? Who knows.

I can tell you who came up with the Oenophile's Quandary. It's Dave Malki, creator and writer for the unique and fun comic Wondermark. Here's the original comic:

Oenophile Wondermark
The Oenophile's Quandary basically comes down to this: how long do you hold a commodity which increases in value before you take advantage of it? If you wait too long it may spoil or reduce in value, or you might not get a chance to enjoy it. If you don't wait long enough, you'll never see it accrue much value or quality and waste future benefit. Anyone who trades in stocks has experienced this quandary.

Now, the Wondermark creator was having a bit of fun but this is a real concern for some people. Waiting for the right moment is mostly guesswork and while experience can help learn, there's often no way to be certain when the perfect moment is. Economist Tim Harford tries to answer this question on his site, referring to the "spongeworthy" episode of Seinfeld:
This is an option-value problem: every sponge or bottle consumed is one that cannot be used later. It has been solved by Avinash Dixit, a renowned game theorist and former president of the American Economic Association. (For some reason, Professor Dixit waited to finish his term of office before publishing his research on spongeworthiness.) Unless you are absurdly patient, you should open them more quickly than you might think.

Assuming you are patient enough to wait for a gain of 5 per cent a year – but not more – and if you have one possibly special occasion per month, Dixit calculates that you should open a bottle if you expect an occasion in the top 21 per cent of all possible occasions. As the number of bottles remaining shrinks, raise your standards. The last bottle should be consumed on an occasion in the top 9 per cent.
Dave Malki goes on at the Wondermark site considering this question, including his quote from Scientific American on the economic concept of "optimal stopping" by Theodore Hill:
In the 1970s, the theory of optimal stopping emerged as a major tool in finance when Fischer Black and Myron Scholes discovered a pioneering formula for valuing stock options. That transformed the world’s financial markets and won Scholes and colleague Robert Merton the 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics. (Black had died by then.)

The Black-Scholes formula is still the key to modern option pricing, and the optimal-stopping tools underlying it remain a vigorous area of research in academia and industry. But even elementary tools in the theory of optimal stopping offer powerful, practical and sometimes surprising solutions.
He calculates you have basically a 33% chance of making the right choice of when to stop if everything is random, at least with a limited number set. That doesn't tell you when to stop dating, but it can give you confidence that at least you have a fairly good chance of success when you drink that aging wine.

And, as Malki points out in a link wine doesn't necessarily get better with age, at least not past a month. And all wines turn very nasty if you age them too long. I don't have an answer to the Oenophile's Quandary other than to say it is better to be content with what you have than to always strive for perfection, because you cannot be perfect in this world.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A VIKING WE WILL GO

"...you do know I kill dragons and eat their souls, right, merchant?"

My brother Joel bought a box set with all of the Elder Scrolls games from Arena to Skyrim in it, with all expansions and downloadable content included. I hadn't played Skyrim yet because I couldn't afford it, and I really like the whole Elder Scrolls series.
For those who haven't played the games, they are a fantasy game for computer (and console, now) that mimics many aspects of role playing games.  Each one is a self contained game, but are all set in the same world following through historically over centuries of time.  Like the Might and Magic games, they are not a series, but instead separate games in the same world.
They're wonderful.  The first game Arena was the first to introduce the concept of building your own spells from basic elements instead of picking from a pre-made list.  Each game has exponentially increased the depth, immersion, size, and complexity of the game world while keeping the game play fun and easy.
Skyrim is quite simply, and without question, the best computer game I have ever played.  It is a masterpiece of depth and play, an absolute phenomenon.  All of the ES games have been great but this one tops them all.  It is HUGE in terms of depth and content, with thousands of storylines, unique NPCs, quest lines, and concepts.
Here's an example.  In part of a quest line to become "thane" (sort of a knight-like honorary title for a region in the game), I went to a set of old ruins where crazed tribals lived.  There I found a part of the ruins that overhangs a pool.  Jumping off for fun, I emerged to find a ghost of a bard who had done the same thing, but didn't make the jump.  He told me his story, sang a bit of a song, and I gained a few points of speechcraft so I can interact with other NPCs better.
The game is packed with that kind of thing, so much you get a definite feel for the world being a very old, ancient place with millennia of history.  The jaw droppingly beautiful graphics help this a lot.  I've rarely played a game that makes me just stop and look around regularly at the scenery, to take it all in.  That happens often in Skyrim, it is just absolutely amazing looking.  I see places I not only wish I could visit, but are done so well I almost feel like I am visiting.
Its just a masterpiece.
And part of the wonder comes from "mods" which allow you to adjust the game slightly or add content to it.  Like "addons" for games like World of Warcraft, you can download these and enhance your game play.  Some can be so transforming it almost makes a different game, some are goofy, and some are just repulsive and disgusting.
But there are some wonderful pieces done by people out there, and given the popularity of Skyrim, I thought I'd give you the list of mods I use and recommend.  Note, there are no links here.  I have given the proper name to these mods, but you have to sign on to either Nexus or Steam community to get them.  Its a free registration, but you gotta sign up.
Since you have to play Skyrim through Steam (grumble) you automatically sign on there.  I can explain how if people need the info.
MUST HAVE: You should have these if you're going to play Skyrim at all.
  • All DLC (downloadable content) - Dragonborn, Dawnguard, and Hearthfire  They add tons to the game and are fun to play.
  • SkyUI - enhances your user interface without rebuilding and distorting it.  Also critical for many of the addons mentioned below to function
  • Spike - a mod handler that makes sure nothing gets out of order or conflicts.  Critical for use of many of the addons mentioned below.
  • Whistle - lets you call up your horse, wherever you are (unless underground, for example).  Some horses are skittish and run away and you have to hunt them down.  Some areas you can ride but can't get your horse into (like cities) and this will get the horse to you no matter where it is.
  • Falskaar - A huge addon the size of an official DLC expansion, written by some kid.  Its a little rough on the writing at times, but fully voiced and huge, with lots of fascinating stuff and an interesting storyline.
  • Wyrmstooth - another player made DLC expansion, again fully voiced and very well done.  These guys have created the equal of Bethesda, the ones who invented Elder Scrolls.
  • Helgen Reborn - again, player made DLC expansion. Fully voiced, with lots of quests.  Smaller than the other two but the best of the three here.  Rebuilds the starting town and adds lots of content.
FUN AND WORTHY: not critical but enhance the game greatly and lots of fun to have
  • Toggle Night-Eye - if you play a Khajiit this lets you turn your "see in the dark" power on and off at will rather than using it for short pulses as the game design works.  Very handy.
  • Wearable Lanterns - Clips a lantern on your belt to give you some light.  You can even get a bug lantern that lets you catch a glowing insect and use it instead of a flame.
  • Paarthunax Fix - Makes it so your blades buddies toe the line and don't throw a tantrum if you refuse to kill Paarthunax (bit of a spoiler but by now...)
  • Left Hand Rings - Adds another ring class in the game, so you can wear 2 magic rings instead of one.
  • Lightweight Potions - Cuts the weight of potions down significantly.  Realistic or not, this is very important and useful.
  • Ragged Flagon Secret Entrance - Adds a quick entry to the Ragged Flagon so you can jump directly in rather than zoning several times.
  • Spend Dragon Souls for Perks - Those dragon souls piling up?  Spend them on perks.  It takes quite a few to buy a perk, but well worth it.
  • Faster Vanilla Horses - Makes the horses run slightly quicker.  The Skyrim horses are supposed to be tough but slower, but they are too slow and not nearly tough enough.
  • Passive Racial Abilities - Turns all racial abilities into always-on passive like they always should have been since the first ES game.
  • Improved Skill Books - Books that boost skills are very clearly marked and easy to spot.  If you've read one, it just looks ordinary.
  • Unread Books Glow -  Books you have not read are easy to distinguish, in case you want to read em all.
  • Horse Armors - A bit overpowered, but still reasonable. Makes horses have visible barding, but also makes them unkillable.  Horses in Skyrim are ridiculously aggressive and easily killed, costing you 1000 gold each time.  Just obnoxious to the point you stop even using them, without this mod.
  • Dungeon Quest Awareness - Just gives you a tip what quest or area a given "dungeon" is linked to, such as "markarth quest."
  • Smelting XP - Gives a small amount of xps for smelting metals.
  • Tanning XP - Gives a small amount of xps for tanning leather.
  • Lockpick Measurement Vision - Puts a visible 'heads up display' around locks while picking to make it easier to spot where you've tried.
  • Detailed Mine Markers - gives info on what ore a mine primarily provides
  • Stones of Berenziah Quest Markers - Gives you markers were each of the 25 (!) stones are found, once you've gotten the quest to gather them.
  • Lighter Leather - Makes leather armor no heavier than the materials used to craft them.
  • Complete Skyforge - Adds the rest of the stuff to skyforge such as a smelter so its a one-stop smithing area.  Also puts a player-only chest in the area for storing materials.
  • Follower Trap Safety - Your companions, pets, etc do not set off traps in dungons.  A bit unrealistic but since you can't command or force them to avoid the traps...
  • Dragon Priest Quest Markers - like the Stones mod above, creates a "get all the masks" quest and puts markers on the map when you get one.
  • Upgrade Leveled Items - Lets you upgrade many of the game's special treasures offered to you, like you can other more ordinary treasures.
  • Tiered Leather Armor - Adds higher level leather armor in the game so you can face high level content wearing leather.
  • True Bound Armors - Adds bound armor into the game you can summon, which upgrades with your mana and conjuration ability.  Bound armor was in ALL the previous games, but dropped for Skyrim, for some reason.  Wish there was a summonable bound shield mod, but not one out there I've seen.
  • Bound Tools - Allows you to summon an axe to chop wood or a pick to mine ore.
  • Quiet Bound Weapons - However, bound stuff is noisy, and this cuts down the volume.
  • Bound Weapon Tweaks - Small changes to the bound weapon system to make them function better.
  • Bound Weapon Scaling - allows you to use bound weapons the full game rather than seeing them fall heavily out of power after a certain point.
  • No Guard Warnings for Stealthy Shouts - some "shouts" in the game annoy the guards, sometimes to the point of arresting you, and ought not, since they are supposed to be unknown by others.  This fixes that effect.
  • Order My Items - Allows you to order goods from vendors based on their type, for a markup and a delay.
FUN STUFF: Mods that aren't even important but I find enjoyable and recommend.
  • More Dragon Loot - Dragons are supposed to have amazing treasure, and these have almost nothing.  Increases the loot but not to an absurd game-breaking level.
  • Psijic Teleport Spells - Adds a few spells to the game to teleport around with.  Can be a bit easy to skip content with, but fun to use.
  • The Eyes of Beauty - Just makes women's eyes prettier.
  • Better Females by Bella (less makeup) - Again, prettier women in the game.  There are mods to make the guys hunkier too but I didn't care about that.
  • Apachii Hair - Adds many more hairstyles into the game.  All three of these are extraneous, and I get they wanted the women to seem like scruffy peasants living in a Norse world, but I like pretty.
  • 3dNPC - Adds hundreds of fully voiced color-only NPCs into the game.  A lot of them are pretty funny and all are interesting, like the little thief girl in Riften and the morose cleaning woman in the castle.
  • Alternate Start - Tired of the 10 minute cart ride with the credits?  After making a couple characters it gets real old, and this lets you try one of about a dozen alternative starts.  Some can be pretty awful (one starts you in the bowels of a high level dungeon at level 1!!) but they are interesting and different, at least.
  • HD Plants and Herbs - Just makes the plants look better.
  • Pure Waters - Increases water beauty and layers of transparency.
  • Adopt Beast Kids - With hearthfire you can adopt kids and get married, and I wanted to adopt a khajiit, so I got this one.
  • Better Embers - Upgrades the appearance of fires and embers.
  • Hermit's Tree House - Adds a free little tree house type dwelling near Riverwood.
  • Moss Rocks - Adds moss to rocks, looks nice by rivers.
  • Craftable Clothes and Robes - Lets you use your leather to make robes and clothes.
  • Aldmeri Domain - Adds in a very tough and interesting compound full of uppity elves.
  • Bestial Companions and Followers - Want a talking bear follower?  This adds several, and slaps voices on them from others (like the wolf is a male argonian voice, for example).
  • When Vampires Attack - Makes the villagers sensibly flee for cover when vampires attack a town instead of joining in and getting butchered.
  • Run For Your Lives - the same as above, but for dragon attacks.  What are you gonna do with that rolling pin, anyway?
  • Qaxe Winterhold Rebuild - Lets you get Winterhold fixed up.  Its not what it once was, but its been like 70 years since the place collapsed and there's still burnt timbers of unbuilt homes?  Ridiculous.
  • Civil War Cleanup - Just a little one shot.  It fixes up the areas damaged by the Civil War once its over, so they don't sit in perpetual unrepaired damage.
Ive found these make the game interesting and deeper, and those three must have DLC equivalent mods add a huge amount of content to the game.  If you haven't played Skyrim, give it a shot, its pretty cheap now and its amazing.

Friday, March 21, 2014

INJUSTICE AMONG US

"I've yet to meet an informant that didn't have lousy credibility."

There's a story brewing in Pennsylvania that isn't getting much attention.  Locally a few news outlets are mentioning it, but its pretty well ignored nationwide.  Here's what happened, according to Angela Couloumbis and Craig R. McCoy at the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office ran an undercover sting operation over three years that captured leading Philadelphia Democrats, including four members of the city's state House delegation, on tape accepting money, The Inquirer has learned.

Yet no one was charged with a crime.

Prosecutors began the sting in 2010 when Republican Tom Corbett was attorney general. After Democrat Kathleen G. Kane took office in 2013, she shut it down.
In fact, Attorney General Kane has killed eight different cases - all against Democrats - privately under sealed orders.  What kind of case did they have?
Before Kane ended the investigation, sources familiar with the inquiry said, prosecutors amassed 400 hours of audio and videotape that documented at least four city Democrats taking payments in cash or money orders, and in one case a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet.

Typically, the payments made at any one time were relatively modest - ranging from $500 to $2,000 - but most of those involved accepted multiple payments, people familiar with the investigation said. In some cases, the payments were offered in exchange for votes or contracts, they said.

Sources with knowledge of the sting said the investigation made financial pitches to both Republicans and Democrats, but only Democrats accepted the payments.

The investigation's undercover operative was a little-known lobbyist, Tyron B. Ali, 40, who agreed to wear a wire and tape the officials to win favorable treatment after his arrest in a $430,000 fraud case, the newspaper has learned.
Tyrone says that he approached both parties, with members of all ethnic backgrounds, and only the Democrats were interested.  In fact, he says that after a few days he didn't even have to reach out to politicians, that they started calling him.  The Attorney General admits that the case was valid, and that these politicians committed crimes of corruption and bribery.  But she claims the stings were poorly handled, and that Ali's credibility was too damaged for the case to go to court.
See, Mr Ali had been nailed for corruption himself, and he was facing charges in a $430,000 state fraud and theft case.  To deal with this, he agreed to wear a wire and see if he couldn't get politicians he'd been working with to incriminate themselves on tape.  Its a classic case of the legal system using a little fish to catch big fish, and its used all the time, even with known criminals.  Its how many big time criminals, mobsters, and crooked politicians have been nailed in the past.
This time, the Attorney General, upon taking office, decided it was sufficient cause to throw out the case against members of her political party.  Then, when questioned on it, claimed the charges were "racist" "poorly conceived," and "targeted African Americans."  She consulted a fellow District Attorney, who declared the case "almost unprosecutable," but then later admitted that he had not read the full case file, listen to the tapes, read the transcripts, or talk to Ali.
It was only later that she started to claim the investigation was tainted by this man's criminal past.  She now says that over 2000 charges against Ali were dropped in exchange for the wire, which is pretty excessive, but that doesn't somehow make the cases against these politicians something that ought to be dropped or make the case weak.  And, as former federal and Philadelphia City Prosecutor L. George Parry, said, "I've yet to meet an informant that didn't have lousy credibility. That's one of the defining attributes of being an informant.  That's why you wire them, to see if what they say is true."
As the Inquirer later noted in an editorial, this looks a lot more like Attorney General Kane dropped the case because it hurts the Democrat political machine in Philadelphia than anything else.  And given that now Kane is threatening the newspaper with lawsuits for reporting on this case, its hard to avoid that sense.
Outrageous, you say, incredible?  Actually these days it seems all too common.  Its been happening a while now, but the first big example I recall recently was the Duke Lacrosse team case.  The Attorney General in North Carolina pushed the case against the Lacrosse team without any reasonable evidence, in the face of all sorts of contradictory evidence, and even when the case was falling apart was vicious in persecuting the team.  Why?  Because they're rich white boys and she was a poor black girl.  Because it was an elitist group of frat boys he wanted to punish, because he thought it would help him get reelected (it was an election year) to pick on the white guys, and most of all because the left jumped on this case as an example of white male privilege and rape and abuse of a black woman.
More and more it seems that prosecutors are abusing and misusing their office and position, not out of some "old boys network" or money changing hands, but out of political perspective.  In the past, there were two major influences restraining this from happening.  
The first was the news media, who loved little guy stories and abuse of power stories, no matter who it hurt, and would aggressively pursue them.  Even if the paper was reluctant to hurt one political group or another, there was usually at least one other newspaper in town with a different perspective which would.
The second was a sense of honor and integrity, virtue, which held people to a sense of responsibility and wrong even when not under direct supervision which would help restrain them from taking action.  This was tenuous in many cases, and sometimes nonexistent, but it was at least more of a societal norm in the past than today.
Now, there's basically nothing holding prosecutors back from abusing their power and thus citizens.  They can do so in a lot of ways, as Professor Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) writes in a recent USA Today piece:
Here's how things all-too-often work today: Law enforcement decides that a person is suspicious (or, possibly, just a political enemy). Upon investigation into every aspect of his/her life, they find possible violations of the law, often involving obscure, technical statutes that no one really knows. They then file a "kitchen-sink" indictment involving dozens, or even hundreds of charges, which the grand jury rubber stamps. The accused then must choose between a plea bargain, or the risk of a trial in which a jury might convict on one or two felony counts simply on a "where there's smoke there must be fire" theory even if the evidence seems less than compelling.
Prosecutorial discretion is what its called when a DA decides whether or not to go after a case or how to do it.  And they can decide to avoid cases where its politically damaging with no consequences now, provided they're on the left side of the political fence.  And the way the system works,
there's basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to "get" people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.
Even the federal government doesn't know how many federal laws there are, and you can't get through a day without violating at least one of them because the level of law and regulation has gotten so dense, you can't avoid it.  Which means if a prosecutor really wants to nail you, they can.  Its not a case of trying to avoid jail by living right, its a case of not being able to live right.
In theory, judges are supposed to be some kind of authority to control this abuse of power and restrain courts from being used for political leverage and intimidation.  But judges display an astounding reluctance to reject anything brought to them, no matter how idiotic or outrageous.  Partly this is due to the fact that most were lawyers at some point and are sympathetic to the system.  Part of this is because judges hate to be overruled or overturned more than anything (its a blow to their ego and hurts their potential advancement to higher courts).  And part of it is due to the fact that, well, more than a few judges seem to agree to the use of power to silence or punish political enemies.
The result is that a system designed to protect people from those in power is working almost the opposite, to protect those in power from their citizens and consequences of their actions.
*Hat tip to Ace of Spades HQ and Ungrateful Loaf of Bread for the Philly story.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A SERIES OF RESEARCH WORKS

"“You have heard that it was said to them of old, don’t sin, and don’t sard another man’s wife.”"

If I had a publishing house and connections to universities, I'd start up a research project.  There are so many independent authors out there writing stories set in various time periods and they all need good hard information about those time periods.
So a series of books focusing on what writers need to know about various epochs and locations would be extremely helpful.  For example, a book on early 1980s west coast America, or Victorian England (early and late), WW2 Europe, Medieval Spain after El Cid, and so on.
These books would need to give slang, idioms, speech patterns, clothing, hair styles, and such among the different social strata.  They'd need to describe transportation, worldviews of the general public, cultural icons, entertainment, housing, food types, common jobs, sanitation, ceremonies and holidays, religious customs and controversies, political events, and more.
You'd have to show maps, illustrations, and samples from that time period, so people could get a feel for what it looked like and how it was laid out.  Yes, Paris was big, but it looked like this then.  No, people didn't wear armor all the time, here's how they dressed casually.
These books could also note things that might commonly be believed for that time period, such as terms, clothing, behavior, and such.  Things to avoid because they aren't proper yet (no, they didn't have that gun or that armor yet, no, they didn't use that term, no there were no cell phones at that time, etc).
Each volume could cover a lot of ground, set up like a travel guide, so that someone writing a book on the topic could just pick up the volume they need, pore through it for the specific information, and as a result have more accurate writing.
This stuff is all available out there on the internet, eventually, scattered all about, but its tough to find and having it all in one convenient location would be extremely welcome.  The e-book version could even have things like snippets of music and links to useful sites.
You'd have to start with the most popular time periods (steampunk England, for example), and spread out from there.  Some areas wouldn't need as much granular breakdown, as they are pretty constant for long periods of time.  Others change so much and so rapidly they would require many volumes.  You can't really do an "80s America" book because the first part and end were so different, and what was popular in California wasn't necessarily in New York.
But a series of books like this would be incredibly useful for the writer and it could go a long ways toward preventing some of the more woeful, unfortunate anachronisms and cultural flaws in many books out there.  Yeah, the film A Knight's Tale made money but it was a hideous rape of history and culture.
The main problem with this project would be preventing people from injecting their political hopes or ideas into the historical data (always a danger with history, especially these days), and related would be the concern over certain controversial topics, such as the inquisition or the holocaust.  Breaking things down to the most clearly known, absolute basic facts and leaving out analysis would be ideal.
This is just one of those brainstorms that I'd try to fund if I had, say, Bill Gates level cash.  But then, Bill Gates didn't get as rich as he is by funding all sorts of crackpot ideas, either.
*Commenter Tina points out that a series of books something like this does exist, in the "Writer's Guide To Everyday Life" series. They aren't as closely focused as I had in mind (for example the 1800s book covers an entire century for the entire planet) but its pretty close.

Monday, March 17, 2014

SONGS I LIKE: Middle of the Road (The Pretenders)

I can't get from the cab to the curb,
Without some little jerk on my back

The Pretenders started out as an angry punk band with a girl singer, and over the years grew and changed.  Their music was always entertaining and unlike most punk bands well-crafted and talented.  By the time the Learning to Crawl album came out in 1984, the anger had mellowed and the group was writing more thoughtful songs.
One such song of that album is "Middle of the Road," which has one of the best riffs in popular music.  The Pretenders have had many such riffs, such as in the song "My City Was Gone," which Rush Limbaugh bought the rights to use for his radio show.*  Given the difference in politics between writer/singer Chrissie Hynde and Rush Limbaugh, they might regret the deal, but its made them money.
"Middle of the Road" is a song about approaching middle age and how life has changed for the band and Ms Hynde in particular.  She's not the crazy rocker she used to be, and she's beginning to develop a live-and-let-live attitude.
This attitude is something I think appeals to most people.  Few folks are really fire-eyed fanatics or strongly political in any sense.  I think most just want to live their life and be left alone, to go about their business of raising children, doing their job, and having a little recreation when they can.
Its not about being a moderate, its about not needing to interfere with everyone else.  This position is not political in any real sense, rather it is a real tolerance and self-reliance.  I can handle it, just do your thing and I'll do mine.
There are several lines in the song like "I got a smile for everyone I meet" as long as you don't try bombing me, and the quoted one above about some little jerk on my back.  Hynde can't help slipping in a line about income inequality from the back of her limo while sipping champagne, but the main thrust of the song is just about people who want to be let live.
And I think just about everyone is at that point with government, religion, entertainment, and so on.  That's part of why America was founded and structured the way it was: just get off my back and let me do my thing.  You'll be surprised how well it turns out.
But for some people, that's just not acceptable, they have to interfere, have to get into everyone else's business because they know best what is good for everyone else (usually, Animal Farm-style, not themselves).  Don't harass me, can't you tell, I'm going home, I'm tired as hell.
Its too bad that so many have lost that understanding and perspective.  It seems far too many want to be harassed, want to be interfered with, want to be controlled and managed.  Its easier that way, safer.  You don't have to worry about tomorrow, about what to do, where to go, and how to act.  Someone can tell you everything so you don't have to think or do anything yourself.
The middle of the road
Is trying to find me.
I'm standing in the middle of life with my pains behind me.

But, I got a smile
For everyone I meet.
Long as you don't try dragging my bay,
Or dropping a bomb on the street.

Come on baby,
Get in the road.
Come on now,
In the middle of the road, yeah.

In the middle of the road,
You see the darnest things.
Like fat cats driving around in jeeps through the city,
Wearing big diamond rings and silk suits.
Past corrugated tin shacks holed up with kids and
Man I don't mean a Hampstead nursery.
But when you own a big chunk of the bloody third world,
The babies just come with the scenery.

Come on baby,
Get in the road.
Come on now,
In the middle of the road, yeah.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.

In the middle of the road,
Is my private cul-de-sac.

I can't get from the cab to the curb,
Without some little jerk on my back,
Don't harass me
Can't you tell
I'm going home,
I'm tired as hell,
I'm not the kind I used to be,
I've got a kid, I'm thirty-three baby.

Get in the road.
Come on now,
In the middle of the road.

*This is part of the Songs I Like series.
*Corrected from earlier mistaken mention of this song being Limbaugh's theme music, thanks to Frank Trainor for correction.

Friday, March 14, 2014

COMFORT FOOD PERVERSIONS

"It’s hard enough to sell burgers, fries and drinks right. And when you start adding things, it gets worse"
-Rich Snyder

As I get older I find that fast food agrees with me less and less.  Some places like Taco Bell I can't eat anything on the menu without suffering later.  Others I can eat pretty much anything but get headaches and a grumbly tummy.
As a concept, I like fast food places.  Simple cheap food delivered quickly.  They're carefully controlled so you get the same product each time and its done with a ruthless efficiency.  I can fill up on less than 5 bucks at McDonald's whereas I can barely get a drink for that much in many restaurants.  That has an appeal in our economy.
But there's a problem with fast food joints.  They're all run by some big corporate board of stock holders and they have the same problem all these kind of businesses share.  They have to make more money and have a bigger market share every year or their leadership is declared an utter failure.  Making as much money as last year is failure, not doing well.  Having as big a market share year after year isn't admirable consistency, its disaster in the eyes of these boards.
So you get people pushing new products constantly.  Taco Bell is the worst of these, with a new bizarre invention every month it seems like.  The Sporrito! Its a taco, on its side, wrapped in tater tots! The Costada! Its a burrito, but with a Dorito flavored wrap and dipped in melted cheese-like substance! Just... stop.
I've never yet seen a Taco Bell without a line of cars in the drive through lane picking up food, its a constant procession of people buying gut bombs for cheap.  At what point does someone look at this business model and think "You know what's missing?  More stuff on our menu!"
Sure, every once in fifty years, someone comes up with the Chicken McNugget, a menu item that revolutionizes the industry and becomes a standard.  But for every one McNugget, you get 150 failures.  McDonald's has experimented with spaghetti and pizza for crying out loud.  Jack In The Box has a menu bigger than a billboard, and almost everything on it is terrible.  How can you make a taco taste so bad?
In And Out Burger has a different philosophy: no franchises, only open stores as long as they can be properly supplied and stay profitable, and keep the menu simple.  Nobody goes to a fast food burger joint hoping next time they'll have enchiladas and gyros.  Nobody goes to one of these places thinking "gee I should get something healthy."  Stick to what you do well and focus on that.
What's even worse than a Jack In The Box Taco, though are pretentious gourmet versions of comfort food.  Consider this monstrosity: The Stack
  • Grilled Onion Roll
  • Shredded Mustard Greens
  • Ground Short Rib Patty
  • Dill Pickle Slices
  • Bone Marrow Poutine Sauce
  • Black Garlic Fries
That's supposed to be a burger.  The site PornBurger has more of these abominations.  Get out of the kitchen, Francois, you're ruining the food.   I don't need your scamorza-and-penne version of macaroni and cheese. Some food is good because it is simple, basic, and not gussied up with all the latest trendy new haute cuisine versions.
I don't mind people being creative, I welcome new foods and flavors, and I'd like to try some of the amazing concoctions that chefs come up with.  But leave this stuff alone.  You haven't made a better burger you made a 60-dollar sandwich and claimed it was a burger.
Putting liver pâté and beeswax on a pizza doesn't show your creativity and skill in the kitchen, it shows you have way too much time on your hands and should be beaten with rolled up newspapers.  Stick to what you know, go reduce another sauce and create flavored foam on top of a crouton.  Do us all a favor and leave the basic stuff alone.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

THE ARGUMENT FOR SELF PUBLISHING

"You do not pay a royalty to anyone who is doing day-labor. All book production should be done for a flat fee." 
-Michael Stackpole

I have written on this topic several times in the past, but I wanted to get this all in one location, for one easy link to refer people to.
So you finished a book, and you're proud of your new masterpiece.  Good for you, and I hope you outsell Steven King and E. L. James combined. But now you have it all done, what do you do with it? It seems like every new author faces two main choices today for their work: do I look for a publisher to print and distribute my book, or do I do it myself?  The alleged third choice - go through a vanity press that charges you to publish - isn't a choice at all.  No, not ever.
Every time someone brings up this question, I always answer the same way: I always encourage everyone to self publish.  Its not that I think getting a publisher is some sort of moral wrong, or that you are a fool for going that route, it still is a valid choice, for now.  Its that I believe the advantages of self publishing greatly outweigh its disadvantages, and the advantages of going the traditional publishing route are greatly outweighed by its disadvantages.
So why self publish?  Why, I'm glad you asked.
First off, you have to understand the economics involved, and what you're facing when you get a book published.  In essence, if you go through a publisher, you're hiring someone to take the effort and do the market work so you can be the talent.
Doing so means you're going to have to pay these people.  And while you might think this means giving a percentage of your profits, what it actually ends up with is you getting a percentage of the profits instead.  Here's how it works.  Publishers do a little bit of editing, come up with a cover, bind and print your book, distribute it, and do a small amount of publicity.  For that, they want a pretty big slice of the pie. You get 25% of the net (so about 17% in real life), the book sellers (stores, etc) get about 30%, and the publisher gets 55%.  Forever.  Your agent gets 15%-25% of what's left.
In other words, when all's said and done, you get about a dollar for each book that's sold.  That's the basic amount you should expect, $1 per book, according to every single writer and publisher I've ever spoken to and read.  That seems a bit... backward to me. Its like having someone build your house, then paying them rent until the house falls down.
Then there's also this little tidbit from J Konrath, who is doing very well in self-publishing:
Advance = $100,000. But the agent takes $15k, and the advance is broken up into payments of $57,000 each over three years
Five years of sales = $0 (a $100,000 advance, in today's market, with bookstores closing all around and ebook royalties at 17.5%, will never earn out)
Most people don't understand what an advance means.  Advance means "we're paying in advance for what we believe your royalties will work out to."  Until your payment for book sales exceeds your advance, you get paid nothing past that advance.
So, with that basic economic introduction in mind, here's my list of reasons to self publish, in summary:
  1. As noted above: you're getting paid what you're worth.  Without the author, publishers have no product and its absurd they keep the bulk of the money.  That is simply unacceptable, and no author should put up with it.  If they charged a one-time flat fee and a small amount for printing costs, that would be one thing, but they keep most of the money, always. When you self publish, you get more per book, as you should.
  2. You control your book.  No editor is going to tell you that the ending is too sad, or the story should have more vampires.  Nobody is going to tell you first person is a bad perspective and to change it, its all yours, and yours to control.  Nobody is going to force a cover of a buxom blonde on your book when its about a Sikh with leprosy.
  3. This also means you own all the rights for all forms of your book in any outlet.  If the SyFy Network knocks on your door and offers you $500,000 for your book rights in a crappy movie, you get all of that money minus the taxes, not a small share of it.  If you'd rather wait for Peter Jackson to knock on your door, nobody will take the SyFy deal behind your back.  Nobody can take it away, hold it and prevent you from changing or publishing it somewhere else, or stop you from how you use your book.
  4. It can take several years of pitching your book to agents and editors trying to get noticed.  It takes a year or more for your book to get to the shelves with a standard publisher.  You can get your own book on the shelf in about an hour, although I highly recommend taking a few months for editing and rewrites, then a bit longer on the cover and layouts.  Still, its a lot faster to get your product to market on your own than through a publisher.  And every day you're on the market is one more day for sales that you would otherwise have missed.
  5. When your book finally hits the shelves through a publisher, it has to compete with every other book on the shelf to get noticed, so that's no different than having to compete to be seen on an e-book website.  The big difference is that a book seller can only keep your book on the shelf for a certain amount of time before they have to make room for Snooki's book and the latest of 85 books by William Johnstone.  Amazon's book shelf will last as long as Amazon is a company and the internet survives.  And you can put as many of your books as you write out there, increasing your "shelf space" without being pushed out for another Steven King book.  
  6. You have a chance to find your audience.  If your book doesn't sell enough, traditional publishers "backlist" your book and its simply not available to sale anywhere, for any price.  E-books and print on demand means you can leave them out there as long as it takes to catch on without worrying about anyone pulling the plug - unless you choose to.
  7. You can revise your book at any time.  You can pull your book, fix that typo, slip in a line that you should have had in there, tweak the cover, whatever you want... and when you want.  It can take years to get something like this done at a publisher, and they are extremely reluctant to do so because its expensive and hurts their ego.
  8. You're global.  Your book will reach every country on the planet where there's the internet.  They have internet connections in Antarctica.  Getting this kind of distribution from a publisher is simply unheard of.  You are glad when a publisher releases your book in another country, but your e-book or print-on-demand book is available everywhere.  People on the International Space Station can download your e-book.
  9. Analytics are a big factor as well.  You get sales reports every quarter or so with a traditional publisher.  With self publishing you can get a report as often as you care to look the stats up (far too often, if you're like me.  I'm not obsessed, honest).  That feedback can be very helpful.
  10. By the same token, when you get paid, you get paid monthly, not quarterly or yearly.  When Bob's Big Blue Book of Bones sells over $100 in books, Amazon cuts you a check or deposits the money in your bank the next month.  When it sells 100 copies at your publisher, they send you a check in 3 months... or not at all, because 100 books isn't enough sales to break the threshold of when they pay you royalties.
  11. No deadlines.  Nobody is breathing over your shoulder telling you to get your work done, so you can work at your own pace.  Instead of stress, you can enjoy your work and shape it as carefully and with the pacing you need to do your best job.
  12. Traditional publishers are hurting and the industry is in dire shape.  They are very cautious about what they print and are extremely unwilling to take risks.  In fact, unless your book is part of a popular trend, chances are you won't even get a page in the door to be looked at.  Self publishing lets you put books out that aren't in a popular category or are in a style or setting publishers won't consider.
  13. If you are faced with some kind of publication deal, a traditional publisher will be reluctant for certain deals because they need a minimum volume before its worth their cost and effort.  For you, any deal is welcome and easy to do.
  14. Publishers are dying.  I don't like this to be true, I hate the idea, and I wish it wasn't a fact, but traditional publishing is in horribly bad shape.  Your book, accepted today, might never be published anyway because the business goes under.
However, this is not so cut and dry as it might seem there are some drawbacks you should consider to self publishing that every writer should continue as well:
  1. Many publishing contracts will expect you to do publicity, and do not pay you for this professional task.  You will often be expected to do appearances, book signings, interviews, etc as part of your contract.  That means you're working to get your book publicized.  However, when you self publish the only one doing publicity is you;  nobody is going to get your book out there but you.  You have to do it all, without any professional connections or training, for no pay whatsoever.
  2. Its going to cost you.  Getting someone to edit your book can cost several thousand dollars.  Getting a cover done can cost you several hundred.  Paying someone to do professional layouts for your text will cost you $20-$50 an hour.  If you don't have a good cover, you miss some sales, and if your layouts suck, you miss word of mouth (or get bad word of mouth) which means you miss future sales.
  3. No deadlines means you have to rely on your own discipline.  Many writers need a whip-cracking tyrant to force them to do the job, to bear down and get the business of writing done each day, and self publishing means its entirely left up to you to do what you should.  Some simply cannot work properly under those conditions.
  4. Without that editor leaning on you and all that professional experience, you're not going to have an easy a time putting out a really professional book.  Yes, I've read some real awful trash from big publishing houses with poor sentence construction, typos and grammatical errors.  Traditional publishing is not immune to bad books poorly written.  But self publishing can result in some terrible stuff junking up the entire bookshelf.
  5. Traditional publishers have contacts and inroads with publicity that you cannot.  They know who to contact at the newspaper, what name to drop, how to slip your book to someone who'll tell others, and so on.  You don't have those contacts or that ability to reach out and get noticed.  Chances are you will not get noticed unless you work very hard to be seen.
  6. Its hard work.  You have to do everything, and that means you have to be active, jamming away to get your book to sell, or it won't.  You can't just write and fire it off then relax in the Hamptons with Buffy and Chance, you have to keep plugging.
  7. The reason J Konrath sells 1000 books a day, other than being a good writer in a popular genre, is that he's an established writer.  Yes, there are some amazingly successful self-published authors out there, but most of them already had established careers in traditional publishing.  If Steven King decided he was done with traditional publishing and did it all himself, he'd still sell a kabillion books, because he's Steven King.  You aren't.
  8. You gotta go through the soul-destroying megacompanies to have a platform.  I don't care for Google, but I use their blog system because, well, its where you get to blog for free and its easy.  I started before Google bought Blogspot, but still.  If you want to sell e-books, you gotta go through the big businesses and there's a piece of me that hates that and wants nothing to do with them.
  9. Self Publishing is immediate satisfaction, and if you have too much success, too easily, too early as a writer, you end up a lousy writer.  Writers need that rejection, that failure, and that struggle to get out there as part of the process of learning to write better, to question themselves, and to hone their craft.  The worst thing that can happen to an author, I think is being an overnight phenomenon with their first book.
  10. Right now, there's an elitist reputation that goes with self-publishing.  It feels cheap and unprofessional.  The big time glitterati view it as amateurish and pathetic, and always mention that one awful piece of junk they saw and how poorly written and unedited it was.  You aren't going to be the talk of NPR or at a fashionable dinner party.  If that's your target audience it or matters to you... you're better off looking for an editor.
So there are some concerns to keep in mind.  But despite all this, I strongly encourage people to self publish, because I think on the whole, the balance of reasons is heavily on the side of self-pub vs traditional.
One last thought, again from Konrath about pricing.  Right now, the average price for a Kindle book is about $6.50 and for the Nook it is around $8.94. Publishers price their ebooks ridiculously out of the range of most people's impulse buys or curiosity.  You want a new e-book from Bantam House?  Its going to cost you 6-15 dollars.  For an e-book.  
Now you'll get buyers at that price, both from people who don't know any better and people who have too much money and too little sense.  But its outrageous and nobody should pay that much for an e-book.  Konrath writes:
But I've NEVER had a $5.99 ebook sell 1000 copies a month, and that's what a traditional publisher will price their ebooks at. Each $5.99 ebook that sells will earn the author $1.05, and they'll sell considerably fewer (as many as ten times fewer, according to my numbers) than the $2.99 ebook earning them $2.04.
If you price your book at $2.99 you get over $2.00 a copy you sell.  Don't feel like you're ripping yourself off or coming across as too cheap, you're selling basically vapor to people; computer data is weightless, easily lost, and does not feel valuable.  And at a buck a book for traditional publishing earnings, you're getting about double that with your $2.99 book.
And when it comes to prices and money, you'll notice I didn't mention anything about best sellers or striking it rich!  That's because you almost certainly won't.  Almost nobody does.  The reason we hear about best seller self pub stories is because they are so rare, they are news.  Everyone, everywhere, in the publishing and writing business says you're going to make minimum wage, if you do well.  Don't look at this as a money maker.  Look at it as a labor of love that lets you get your story told.
Just finishing a book is a wonderful accomplishment.  Being a published author is something to brag about (and trust me, people will view you with a new level of respect).  Making money is something extra to hope for and dream of, but not count on or work toward.  Be the best writer you can, enjoy the sheer pleasure of writing, and maybe you'll do well as a result.  Don't make that your goal.  Make being a good writer the goal.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Radon Gas

"You can't see radon. And you can't smell it or taste it. But it may be a problem in your home."
-The Environmental Protection Agency

There was a time in the 1990s when Radon Gas was the big scare.  It was seeping up from your basement and would give you cancer.  It was invisible, it had no scent, and it would kill your family!  People were warned they needed to get their homes tested for this gas, using either special expensive kits for sale by specific people, or by having a specialist to come in and test your home.
Special techniques could reduce the radon gas your home was subjected to, which were quite expensive.  To this day, homeowners often demand radon gas testing before they purchase a home, according to reports.
The EPA published a report, showing that homes with radon gas in them had a higher incident of lung cancer, claiming 21,000 people a year die from radon gas exposure.  The EPA website claims exceeds the number of annual deaths from drunk drivers and home fires, combined!
How bad is radon gas, is it a real threat?  Is your home slowly leaking death from the basement?
Well, let's take a look.  Radon gas is caused by the decay of uranium and thorium, which is present in the soil of a lot of places in very minute amounts.  This gas will tend to collect in water, and is released by exposure to air, particularly if the water is agitated.
Not all uranium is horrendously radioactive, nor is it super rare; there's only certain kinds of very radioactive uranium that is useful for nuclear power and weapons, and that kind is not often found in very high concentrations.  But the other sorts of uranium are less uncommon and in trace amounts.  As uranium breaks down, it releases radon gas, which filters through soil and eventually into the air.
Now, here we have a scary concept: uranium breaking down into gas and radiation is flooding my home?  Run for the hills!  This is enough to freak out most home owners, especially parents of babies.  This fear comes from a lack of scientific understanding combined with popular entertainment.  Once in a while radiation does something cool (Spider-Man) but most of the time it is shown as being the ultimate killer.  Need to fight off the aliens?  Nuke them.  Need to stop a meteor?  Nuke it.  Radiation and nukes are the pinnacle of death, there is nothing worse, or so popular media would tell us.
However, we're constantly bathed in radiation.  Your light bulb is radiating on you, mostly in the visible spectrum.  Radiation is simply energy that extends from a source.  Radiant heat, for example, is a form of radiation (mostly infrared), it is heat that radiates from a location.  Only some very few forms of radiation are actually lethal, although all forms can be dangerous in excessive amounts.  We cook food by radiating heat on it, but that doesn't make heat bad or terrifying.
We are constantly surrounded by radiation, which scientists call "background radiation."  It comes from everything.  You are radiating energy right now - not just infrared - and a Geiger counter could pick it up.  That's why when someone runs a Geiger counter in a movie or on TV it clicks and pops constantly; radiation is out there, all over, just not in highly concentrated amounts.
So the mere presence of radioactive materials doesn't mean we're all doomed.  So is radon gas a particularly bad form of radiation?  The EPA site presumes it is:
Radon is estimated to cause many thousands of deaths each year. That's because when you breathe air containing radon, you can get lung cancer. In fact, the Surgeon General has warned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States today. Only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths.
They ran some Ad Council ads for a while showing children playing in a middle class home flashing into skeletons. Its equal to having hundreds of chest x-rays a year!
According to the EPA, around the world the average concentration of radon in surface water is about 10 pCi per liter (pCi/l).
What is a pCi?  I had to look this one up.  This abbreviation pCi stands for picocurie, a very tiny measurement of radioactive intensity.  The word pico- is a prefix that means "one trillionth" so a picocurie is 1/1,000,000,000,000 of a curie.  How much is a curie and what does it mean?  More on that in a moment.
In the U.S., the average private well-water contains about 750 pCi/l. Levels exceeding 20,000 pCi/l are not uncommon.  The EPA recommends testing and venting of gas from your home if you find more than 4 pCi, warning that more will endanger your family.
Here's the problem with the EPA's claims; they are based on a study done in the 1950s in Colorado Uranium Mines. Stephen Moore writes at the Cato Institute:
Developed after World War II, when the concern with nuclear weapons propelled a search for uranium, the mines were “dog holes”—dusty, poorly ventilated, thick with smoke. The miners themselves smoked, unknowingly increasing the cancer risk. Data were unreliable: levels of exposure, in particular, were uncertain, given the dearth of measurements in the 1940s and 1950s and the questionable value of those that were made, often by the miners themselves.
These miners, most of whom were smokers, were also sucking in rock dust, nitrogen oxides, and various other chemicals used in the mining process, not the least of which was exhaust from machines.  This test showed high levels of lung cancer in the miners, which is about as surprising as Liberace's homosexuality.
Yet this is the only study that is relied on for the dangers of radon gas.  That's it, a 60 year old study of miners.  That's how the EPA came up with their numbers; not by doing autopsies or testing people in homes but by extrapolating from the mine data.  Science and Technology professor Leonard Cole writes in the New York Times:
Indeed, efforts by the New Jersey Department of Health to find a correlation between residential radon and lung cancer have been unavailing. In June, it issued the results of a study involving 750 people who lived in high-radon residences during the past 60 years. White males had slightly higher rates of lung cancer deaths compared to the general population, but in homes with the highest radon concentrations the incidence of lung cancer deaths was lower. Both tendencies were modest, and the department said it could draw no statistically valid conclusions.
If you look more closely you find even more problems with radon doom claims.  Cole goes on:
Ralph Lapp, a radiation physicist, notes that natural radon levels based on uranium findings are seven times greater in New Jersey than in Texas (5.4 picocuries compared to 0.8). Yet lung cancer deaths as a ratio of total cancer deaths in the two states are almost the same (26 percent in New Jersey, 29 percent in Texas).
Dr William K. Grosh in Pennsylvania took a closer look, wondering about the lung cancer claims.  He questioned colleagues, and none of them reported any high levels of lung cancer.  But Lancaster County where he lives is an area of particular concern in the EPA over radon gas in homes.
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, 65 percent of homes tested in Lancaster County have been found with radon levels high enough that homeowners should take action to reduce them.

The average radon level in Lancaster County is more than three times higher than the level state and federal officials consider safe.

Yet, a state compilation of lung cancer deaths in Lancaster County spanning 2001-2005 - released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health - shows a lower rate of lung-cancer deaths here than nationwide.
You can't take just one study and conclude from it, because there are so many variables.  But there's so many of these instances, its not unreasonable to wonder how valid the fears really are.  The truth is, no study supporting the claims of dangers from radon gas in homes have ever been done.  There have been several studies, but none support the EPA's claims.
And there's good reason for that.  Your body right now has radioactive materials in it.  For example, it has trace amounts of the radioactive isotope potassium-40 which tests at more than 4 pCi.  You're not dying from the potassium-40 in your body, in fact you might die without that in you.
Radon gas is heavier than air, much heavier.  It can't even be vented out by fans, because it won't be sucked out with the air.  Even if it somehow seeps out of your pipes,  it will fall to the floor and pool there; and by pool I mean "lie in unbelievably tiny amounts you can measure only with immensely sensitive specialized equipment."
And since radon gas has a very, very short half life, and it turns into itsy particles of lead within a few weeks, but so little that its not dangerous to your family or pets.  Given that the testing kits cost 10-30 dollars and the venting costs 1,000-2,000 dollars this seems like an increasingly poor investment.
But get this: none of the home kits or professional testing actually measures radon levels
Each of the devices used by home inspectors and “radon consultants” measures some particular aspect associated with radon and then, using various assumptions and mathematical machinations, a “radon equivalent” number is generated. The protocols were not designed to be used to estimate annual human exposures to radon, and cannot, with validity or confidence produce radon exposure estimates.

The number reported during a short term test has a very low probability of actually representing the annual radon concentration in the home, and has virtually no utility in estimating the actual human exposure to radon or its SLRDs. Long term testing has a lower sampling error, but depending on the method, similarly cannot be used to estimate human exposures.
In other words, its expensive, doesn't help, and the testing doesn't even tell you anything, and there's no evidence that radon gas is harmful to human beings except in levels your house will never, ever produce.  To put it another way, if you had enough radon gas being produced in your home to be dangerous, you'd be sitting on a uranium mine and have greater concerns with radiation than radon gas.
Remember when I wrote "more on this in a moment" above?  Well here are some things to compare 4 pCi of radon intensity to.  Home Consumer products have 200 times the pCi emitting from them when functioning.  Your blender is killing your children!!!  When you go to the hospital and get a thyroid test, you're exposed to 200,000 times as much radiation.  Suddenly that 750 pCi in well water seems kind of meaningless, doesn't it?
So why does the EPA stick to this line, why haven't they backed off the radon stuff?  They pulled that ghastly PSA after complaints but the website is still pushing the same line.  Well, Harvard Professor of Medicine Graham Colditz has a theory.
A great deal more than radon is at stake here. If the linear no-threshold theory fails for radon, it must surely fail for all other types of radiation, and very probably also for chemical carcinogens.
The EPA claims that radon gas fears are one of the "best documented” carcinogens, that brings into question a huge host of other alleged concerns that the EPA warns us about, regulates us over, and requires us to deal with.  And well, that's a pandora's box they don't care to open, so the fears remain.  Or, as Governor LePetomaine put it, "We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs!"
And there's good money in selling Radon Detection Kits and in businesses that check for radon gas., which is what made me skeptical in the 90s when I first heard about this stuff.  No, no you have this colorless, indetectable gas you can't smell or taste, its all over your house and is killing your family.  But for a low, one-time fee I can come to your home with my light meter Radon Gas Detector and save you all!
Yeah.  And you have a bridge to sell, too?
*Hat tip to Doug Ross for some data and the idea for this post.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

Monday, March 10, 2014

WHAT HAVE YOU GIVEN UP?

"The revolution will be incremental."
-no one

Its always the little stuff.  In previous revolutions and major coups or government changes, the changes were huge and sudden.  It would take a few years at most of violent, obvious action for a country to change from, say, a monarchy to a communist dicatorship like Russia became.  The revolution was easy to spot.
In the United States, the change took decades and was in small, minor steps each of which did not seem sufficiently destructive to fight over.  They were never the hill to die on, none rose to sufficient significance.  And always, all were presented as populist, the voice of the people, and so very proper and well-meaning.
It was always little stuff, presented as being so very reasonable and for our good.  A license to do this, a limitation on doing that.  The cracker of liberty was nibbled at the edges so slowly and subtly that few noticed until it was mostly gone.
And its not like you don't still have a fundamentally greater level of liberty in the United States than most nations on earth.  Its that within that great framework of liberty there are ten thousand little threads pulling you one way or another, limiting how far you can move about.  Imagine the country as being wide open in 1500, and then each year, a fence on the borders slowly began to close in from around 1850 until now when you still technically can run about as you please... but its the size of a swimming pool now.  You're free... within that area.
And these changes took place oddly.  They always were in the shape of taking what was once something you were free to choose and attempt and making it mandated.  From regulations to little silly laws, each new law built one more brick on that barrier around us.
What kind of showerhead do you want?  Well you can't choose that one.  What sort of washing machine would you like to buy?  Well you have to get this kind.  Where can you smoke?  Almost nowhere... and now, maybe not even e-cigarettes.  What kind of toilet do you want?  Well you get to have a low-capacity one.  What sort of light bulbs do you prefer?  Doesn't matter you can't use those.
In the US Federal Government in the last three years alone, this is the volume of new regulations the US Congress passed:
That's just three years' worth.  Imagine trying to open a business.  In fact, you don't have to imagine, John Stossel did just that, in 2011.  He decided to open up a Lemonade Stand:
It made me want to try to jump through the legal hoops required to open a simple lemonade stand in New York City. Here's some of what one has to do:
1) Register as sole proprietor with the County Clerk's Office (must be done in person)
2) Apply to the IRS for an Employer Identification Number
3) Complete 15-hr Food Protection Course!
4) After the course, register for an exam that takes 1 hr. You must score 70 percent to pass. (Sample question: "What toxins are associated with the puffer fish?") If you pass, allow 3-5 weeks for delivery of Food Protection Certificate.
5) Register for sales tax Certificate of Authority
6) Apply for a Temporary Food Service Establishment Permit. Must bring copies of the previous documents and completed forms to the Consumer Affairs Licensing Center.
Then, at least 21 days before opening your establishment, you must:
-Arrange for an inspection with the Health Department's Bureau of Food Safety and Community Sanitation. It takes about 3 weeks to get your appointment. If you pass, you can set up a business once you:
- Buy a portable fire extinguisher from a company certified by the FDNY and set up a contract for waste disposal.
- We couldn't finish the process. Had we been able to schedule our health inspection and open my stand legally, it would have taken us 65 days.
I sold lemonade anyway. I looked dumb hawking it with my giant fire extinguisher on the table.
He doesn't mention how much all of this cost, but all those tests, certifications, and purchases are expensive.  All of this is meant to be for our good, to protect us.  All of it makes prices go up, ambition go down, and in the end business less successful.  At the time he wrote this article, Stossel noted that the federal government produces 80,000 pages of new regulations a year.  And that went up enormously  when the writing of regulations for Obamacare began.
Each time this happens, each new page of regulation or new law that is written, means we go from the choices of liberty to the mandates of tyranny.  Its not a sliding scale: if you have a choice taken away, you have lost liberty, even if only in a small way.
And none of these are worth fighting over.  Who would want to go to war over a law requiring low-flow showerheads?  Who would take the time and money that is required to stop this kind of thing from passing, knowing it probably will anyway?  Perhaps John Adams, but who today?
Each time this happens, each of us loses a little bit of our liberty.
I recall as a child wishing I didn't have my life so controlled and could do what I wished.  That I had more choices, that I could command my own destiny.  You can't eat that, we won't go there, you have to be here by this time, you must go to that class.  I looked forward to adulthood where I as able to make my own choices and was free to do as I wished.
And yet here in adulthood, our choices are being stripped away by prim, frowning do-gooders who insist they know better than us how we ought to live.  We're reduced to childhood again, to protect us.  That's not safe, you might hurt yourself, its for your good, shut up and take it, we know best.
In a very real sense, this series of buffers and pillows piled on everything to protect us from ourselves is reducing the entire population to children again.  You can't be trusted with those choices, and we'll take care of you all.
Yet on the internet, its still largely true that you can pretty much do what you want.  In some ways this is awful and in some its incredible.  Without the internet I couldn't have two novels and several gaming books published and selling.  Without the internet, I couldn't write to hundreds of people around the entire planet every day.
And I suspect that in some way, the immense open freedom of the internet is blinding people to, or at least reducing the concern over, all we've lost even in just the last few years.  The fact that while the world is turning to crap and I can't do what I want out there is offset in some way by what I can do online.
And I wonder if the humorless pursed-lip crowd of regulators and know-betters on the left are aware of that effect.  Because they've certainly got their sights set on the internet.  That place is too free, too tax-less, and someone might get hurt, without our commissars in charge to control it all.
Its possible - but I fear improbable - that messing with the internet might be the last straw that drives people over the edge, in fury.  That taking away this last slice of liberty and openness would be a regulation too far and the legendary, mythical pushback begins.
Its amazing to me how this has happened, just in my lifetime.  I was born in 1965, when you could smoke in your office and the regulations were pretty minimal, and watched it all happen right before my eyes. It is truly astounding how much things have changed just in the last ten years, let alone since Carter was president.
That might seem like an awfully long time ago to you younger readers, but it really is not.  And growing up in this ever-warming water few even are aware of it beyond a mild annoyance when the next law passes and it hits them somewhere they like.  No more incandescent bulbs?  But they're all I can afford!  Oh well, the water is relaxing.
What we've given up, and the price we're paying, combined with who this most hurts in every instance (the very people the regulators and lawpassers claim to be championing with higher prices and less opportunity), is astounding to consider.  And its partly why I pulled back so far from politics in late 2012.
Because there's only so much white hot fury and stomach-lining-demolishing stress that anyone can take.  That's all politics really gives anyone.  And I'm no Andrew Breitbart, I don't welcome the battle.  I don't like the fight, it makes me feel awful and I always doubt myself in the process.  Where have I gone wrong, what am I blind to, when have I gone too far myself?
Yet look around you and ponder a moment.  What have you given up, what choices have been taken away, for your good, by people who have absolutely no contact with your life, and replaced with mandates and requirements?  Are any of us better for it?  Do you like being treated like a child by faceless bureaucrats?
Because its hard to avoid the impression that we do in some masochistic way.  Thank you sir, may I have another?