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Thursday, July 31, 2014

THE STOCK BUBBLE

"I have a million dollars in the stock market, because if I lose a million dollars, I don't personally care."
-Suze Orman

There was a time in the past when one of the finest indicators of not only the mood of businesses in America but the general economic health was the stock market.  If it boomed then people were confident and the economy was doing well.  If it plunged, the opposite was true.
That hasn't been true for a while.  In fact, the stock market seems just about useless as an indicator except in extreme disaster.  If the market crashes massively as it has every decade or so lately, you know something awful has happened, such as the banking crisis of 2007.  But instead of being an early indicator of trouble or a metric of business mood, the market seems random and unrelated to the economy most of the time.
Recently its been booming, with a new record high set last month in several sectors.  But the economy is doing badly.  Inflation continues to plague sectors people are most affected by (energy and food), unemployment is still high even by the official numbers, the number of people out of the job market is horrific, and the last quarter showed contraction, not growth.
So why is the stock market doing so well?  What on earth is going on here?  Well as I wrote a while back, two factors stand out.  First, Quantitative Easing has been making huge loans available at very low interest rates, which are meant to help the economy.  The problem is that they're primarily being used not for building and expanding business - because businesses are very leery of doing any sort of expansion right now - but to gamble in the stock market.
QE makes more money available for loans at lower interest rates so that people can use it to invest.  It has no effect on you and me unless those people invest in hiring and expansion of business.  But in this economy and with the uncertainty of the future with the ACA ("Obamacare") looming over all business, hiring and expansion is the last thing on most businesses' minds.


But with that cheap money out there to play with, investment is a great scheme.  Basically QE has flooded the nation with super cheap loans that only the very richest can really take advantage of, and they are doing so not in ways that create jobs or boost the economy, but in ways that make them rich.
Big time investors and corporations love this stuff, because its cheap money to play with.  That's where the huge spike came in June that gave us the new record high:
The central bank said Wednesday that interest rates aren't expected to rise until 2015.

Investors love that message. The S&P 500 closed at a record high of 1,957 while the Dow jumped almost 100 points (0.58%). The Nasdaq also bounced to finish at its highest level in 14 years. Stocks were down most of the day prior to the Fed news.
OK so far, so good, but there's more to it.  For example, the oil boom has made a lot of people really rich - and in my opinion has gone a long ways to preventing the bad economy from being a total crash.  There's one sector that's been doing well and propping up the nearly-collapsed tent, and that's fracking and oil business in the US.  Mind you environmentalists have done everything they can think of to destroy that, but its still going on, probably in large part due to the White House realizing that its the only thing between now and a depression that makes the one in the 30s look like a slow day at Taco Bell.
Another factor is the use of microtransactions.  As I noted in the previous article, these are computer-driven super fast purchases and sales done on stocks other people buy and sell.  Basically when you log on and tell a site you want to buy 50 shares of ACME Coyote Supplies, these microtransaction programs see that and react to it with either buying or selling that stock based on your actions and other trends.  Hundreds of them can be going off between you saying "I want this" and confirming it.
Now, this means the price of what you try to buy is different than what you get by the time the payment goes through because its been affected by possibly hundreds of these little transactions.
But there's another factor.  Pam Martens recently wrote in Wall Street On Parade of a lawsuit against the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade and other individuals involved in leadership roles at the CME Group.
The most stunning allegation in the lawsuit is that an estimated 50 percent of all trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is derived from illegal wash trades.

Wash trades were a practice by the Wall Street pool operators that rigged the late 1920s stock market, leading to the great stock market crash from 1929 through 1932 and the Great Depression. Wash trades occur when the same beneficial owner is both the buyer and the seller.  Wash trades are banned under United States law because they can falsely suggest volume and price movement.
I know what you're thinking: there's no way such fine, upstanding paragons such as big business owners and stock market traders would ever engage in such a dishonest thing.  I'm joking, of course you believe this is at least possible, if not plausible.  There are billions to be made, and any time there's that kind of power and wealth available, there are men and women who would line up to be a part of it.
Terrence Duffy, the Executive Chairman and President of the CME Group has already been called before congress to testify about his business and the Chicago stock market so its obvious someone is seeing smoke somewhere.  Whether there's fire or not to me is a question of how widespread, not if.  Someone suspects this is happening in Chicago, and that makes me wonder where else it might be or is happening?
The thing is, all this adds up to something very, very ugly.  The last time these wash trades were going on was... right before the big crash in the 20s.  The stock market is flooding very rich people with huge sums of cash, which they are thoughtfully recycling a portion of back to campaign funds of politicians to keep that gravy train coming and look the other way.
But this is not sustainable.  I keep thinking back to sitting on a friend's porch on the fourth of July 2006 watching fireworks in the city below and talking about how the housing system could not keep going.  How little did we know that it was coming to an end so soon.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SERFING THE CULTURAL WAVE

"Don't look for big things, just do small things with great love."
-Mother Theresa

Yesterday I wrote a big post on an excellent article I hope people are reading by a woman who explained why she was no longer a leftist.  That post got linked by American Digest, which I appreciate, and comments were left at that site as well as at my article.
I didn't do a very good job, I fear, making my final main point because the piece was getting a bit long, I kept being distracted, and I really wanted to mostly focus on Danusha V. Goska's article.  But because of that, some misunderstood what I meant to say.
My primary argument was not that if we're nice enough hordes of people will abandon leftist ideology and we'll all win in a big rainbow-arched parade of joy and utopia.  I think we're headed to a very dark and difficult time in the very near future.  I think the left has won in America and the republic as we knew it is in its last stages.
My point was rather to note that Goska's reaction to the left and right tells us something not just about how we should behave, but how we can behave.  Because the bitterness, anger, hate, and strident outrage she saw in her leftist friends and colleagues drove her away, toward the love and genuine good will of those she knew on the right.
See, the point isn't that this will be some massive flood of converts because of behavior, but that it tells us what we ought to avoid.  When I wrote this:
There's only so much reactive bitterness and hateful destructive fury people can take. Yes, the left's unrestrained, insane fury helped get President Obama and a commanding majority in congress elected, but that kind of thing has no legs, it cannot last. And in the end, while you can get attention and some power by being such a monster, people tire of it and begin looking for someone who smiles once in a while in a non-ironic, non-smug manner.
I did not mean to say that we'll win in the end because the left is being such jerks.  What I meant was that when people see enough of this, they get sick of it and it stops working.  That means the left has to (and will) do something else.
As long as they control the bulk of the media, entertainment, education, and popular culture in the west, they can always depict the right as being far worse and that will be enough to keep and expand their power.  That's the hidden lesson in the upcoming election I fear too many are not thinking about.  Yes, people are very upset with and annoyed at Democrats.  That doesn't translate into voting for Republicans because the left has been so good at making the GOP seem worse than anything they Democrats do, no matter what they do.
In any case, there was a line in Goska's 10 reasons that says what I mean quite well:
I volunteered with the Sisters of Charity. For them, I pumped cold water from a well and washed lice out of homeless people's clothing. The sisters did not want to save the world. Someone already had.
See, the left has no choice but to eventually slide into frustrated, furious anger.  Their worldview backs them into a corner where they get more and more bitter and confused.  They believe that through right effort, program, and proper education, they can create a wonderful utopian dream world where war ends, racism vanishes, crime disappears, and everyone lives in love, doing good for other people spontaneously.  That's the entire concept of Communism: that if we just set things up right, it will be paradise on earth and all will work for the greater good without needing that awful greed.
And when the world continually and stubbornly refuses to go along, when reality keeps conflicting with their dreams, when their policies continually make things worse, they crash into this over and over again with increasing confusion and frustration.  They begin to blame others and everything except their basic idea.  They can't be wrong about this, so it has to be something else.
And that something else is inevitably those who disagree with them.  And who could disagree with this beautiful glorious dream of utopia but evil monsters?  And its not just okay to hate such a person, but morally proper.  You must hate someone who blocks this beautiful dream.
Contrast that with what Goska wrote above.  Someone has already saved the world.  We don't have to, and ultimately, cannot.  Right thinking, education, policies, and efforts are good and laudable.  We should strive to do better and improve the world.  But we aren't going to make paradise on earth by doing so.  Its not going to happen.
People on the right shouldn't be the torch-bearing pitchfork-wielding mob of outraged fury like the left because its ugly and awful and destructive.  The left is correct when they say hate is awful and wrong.  But its always awful and wrong to hate people, even if they disagree with you politically.  The right shouldn't make up ugly names about the president and scream hatred at political opponents because its counterproductive and drives people away. 
The contrast between a group of shrill tooth-gnashing people filled with hate and sadistic rhetoric against their opponents... and people with hope and genuine smiles doing good for those around them is a very, very powerful cultural force.  The hippies knew this, even if they weren't consciously aware of it.
And the right doesn't need to be so filled with rancor and desperate fury like the left is because we have something better to offer and aren't driven by emotion and continual cognative dissonance.  We aren't thwarted by reality's constant refusal to go along with the plan.
We aren't relying on our efforts to save everything and bring about paradise, because we know that's not possible.  Communism requires people to change their very nature, to lose all greed, selfishness, laziness, and sin.  Mankind cannot make that happen no matter what government program or education system we develop.  Capitalism shapes those evils into the most productive manner possible.  Its a sort of economic Aikido: using the strength of the enemy against its self, rather than trying to just delete it.
We don't have to be as angry and frustrated as the left because we aren't up against an impossible goal.  Our beliefs do not require reality to change or a fundamental factor of human nature to be eliminated magically.  We aren't raging against the night, we're lighting a candle to see the way through.
So the point isn't "everything will be great!" but rather "we should avoid the furious hate and bitterness of the left and our ideas don't require it."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

THE ROAD FROM SERFDOM

"In a slum an exploiter is better than a Santa Claus… An exploiter forces you to react, whereas a Santa Claus demobilizes you."
Dominique LaPierre, White Guilt

A while back, in the late 80s, I stopped being a leftist.  I grew up afraid of nuclear war but mostly non-political until I got to junior high school age when I began reading the copies of Newsweek and US News & World Report in social studies classes.  I also began to listen to NPR's nightly All Things Considered radio show while I washed dishes.
The show was engaging and interesting, and I learned a lot, but I also was steadily tilted against Republicans, conservatism, and toward leftist ideology by my teachers and reading as well as NPR.  I already was certain Reagan would destroy us all in a nuclear war but I was beginning to believe that heroic Democrats were waging a fight to save the little guy from draconic cuts by the cruel white house.
Thanks to the careful massaging of the news, heart-tugging man on the street interviews, touching vignettes read by caring voices of the downtrodden, and news reports of the terrible plague of the homeless on the streets,  I began to buy into all this stuff.  It wasn't hard; being young I was more inclined to think with my heart - what I wished to be true - than my head - what I knew.  When people noted that the count of the homeless was much lower than advocates claimed, I cried "lies!" without bothering to think about it.
What changed me was a clash between what I knew to be true and what I wanted to be.  I was never in support of abortion, because killing babies is a horrific, ghastly act no matter what age they happen to be.  This was something I knew to be true, regardless of the emotional arguments I heard.  I began to understand economics better as I entered the job market, and by the end of the first gulf war I'd come to see that America wasn't a force for evil and that the military was not an awful group of possibly psychotic hicks.
Books such as Brennan's War taught me about Vietnam from the inside rather than from people who stayed home and protested.  Rush Limbaugh's radio show taught me much about economics.  Study of the Soviet Union taught me about the consequences and end result of their ideology.  And in time I came to understand that NPR had not been telling me the whole story, and what's worse, they held back key information on purpose.  I always liked the radio shows afterward better anyway - I heard each episode of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in its original US radio broadcast, right after All Things Considered.
This road is not unusual.  Many people who were once left leaning grew out of it over time.  Some find a shocking event pushes them away such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11 - the proverbial "mugging" that turns a leftist into a conservative.  For some, such as Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs, the conversion didn't last.  For others, it is life changing.
There's an article at American Thinker by a former hard leftist about why she left the movement.  Here's how she puts it:
How far left was I? So far left my beloved uncle was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in a Communist country. When I returned to his Slovak village to buy him a mass card, the priest refused to sell me one. So far left that a self-identified terrorist proposed marriage to me. So far left I was a two-time Peace Corps volunteer and I have a degree from UC Berkeley. So far left that my Teamster mother used to tell anyone who would listen that she voted for Gus Hall, Communist Party chairman, for president. I wore a button saying "Eat the Rich." To me it wasn't a metaphor.

I voted Republican in the last presidential election.
For Danusha V. Goska, the change was not due to learning the things she'd been told were lies and distortions, but instead a growing realization of what she was aligned to in her political stance.  She lists 10 reasons why she left the left, ten things she came to realize as she was in the university and teaching.
  • Perpetual Outrage
  • Selective Outrage
  • Symbolism over Substance
  • Spite Toward Blue Collar America
  • Spite Toward Faith
  • Straw Men Attacks
  • Moral Pragmatism
  • It Doesn't Work
  • Other Approaches Do
  • Hate
Read more »

Monday, July 28, 2014

GOOD ENOUGH TO DIE BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO DEFEND A HOME

"They take aim at the law abiding citizen, instead of the criminal"
-Sir Mixalot, "No Holds Barred"

Welcome to Legal Insurrection readers, a blog I enjoy and read daily as well.  I'm Christopher Taylor not Talbot but who am I to complain, contributor Andrew Branca didn't need to mention me at all.  His post on gun control brought to mind a recent bit I saw at American Digest.  Gerard Vanderleun there quotes from a 1994 column on gun control in the Orlando Sentinel by Charley Reese:
The government trusted me with a M-48 tank and assorted small arms when it claimed to have need of my services. It trusts common Americans with all kinds of arms when it wants them to go kill foreigners somewhere — usually for the financial benefit of some corporations.  But when the men and women take off their uniforms and return to their homes and assume responsibility for their own and their families’ safety, suddenly the politicians don’t trust them to own a gun. This is pure elitism. … Gun control is not about guns or crime. It is about an elite that fears and despises the common people.
While a bit cynical about war and the eeevil corporation, he has a point.  Its the same argument that was used to push the voting age down to 18, and it is the same argument used for lowering the drinking age to 18.  If I can be trusted to die for my country, why can't I be trusted to do these things?
Now, obviously a soldier is under close scrutiny and careful discipline.  They are taught how to use a weapon, when to use it, and given orders.  Yet even in this case, now, soldiers can't even carry a weapon while on base.  Disarmed and stripped of the ability to fight back if, say, a lone gunman stalks them as in Fort Hood or the Washington Navy Yard shooter, they are not even trusted as soldiers any more.And there are arguments for why a 18 year old soldier ought to be able to shoot to kill but not drink.  Its one thing to be under careful direct supervision and rigid discipline to act at 18 and another to be free in the civilian world.
But those arguments for lowering the voting and drinking age both have a pretty impressive level of resonance, don't they?  Trusting someone to defend the nation's freedom at the cost of their own bodies and lives surely shows that we can trust someone that age with greater responsibility.
And at the same time, if you can trust a soldier with a tank, a sailor with a battleship, a pilot with an F-15E or a marine with a drone, then you can trust them with a pistol, it seems to me
Yet advocates of gun control such as those the courts have to keep shooting down over and over in Washington DC don't even make that distinction.  At least some probably figure anyone who served in the military is a sub-IQ dropout as John Kerry suggested in the 2004 presidential campaign, or that a soldier back in civilian life is one flashback away from shooting up a shopping mall.  But they don't even think about soldiers being perhaps allowed an exemption from gun control.  They want no one to have weapons to defend themselves with.
And while the proposals are inevitably presented with the best possible wrappings and bows, inside the package is an innate distrust of the American public, a presumption that right policies can make utopia by taking away bad influences from innately good people, and a need to control.

Friday, July 25, 2014

ROLL TO BE POLITICALLY CORRECT

"Finally, an RPG for Rainbow gamers!"

The concept behind a Role Playing Game is that you play a "role" which is different from yourself.  You can play an elf or a wookie or a babylonian or a woman (if you're a guy) and so on.  It is a form of interactive, improvisational theater in which each player takes on a different role and plays them out in a variety of situations.
Although not the first, D&D published in 1977 is the game that set the standard and spread excitement in role playing games, turning it from a very minor hobby to a worldwide industry in just a few years.  From the very start, the principle was that when you played the game, the role you played as always whatever you chose to.
The only restrictions were what the GM preferred to allow (no, you can't play a dragon, no you can't play superman) and what your game setting contained.  In a fantasy setting, you usually couldn't play a science fiction character, for instance.  Other than that?  Anything goes.
Yet recently the new edition of D&D decided they were compelled to include this in the character creation section:
How very inclusive.
This has always been assumed in a game that allows you to play anything.  I'm not an elf, but I could play one.  I've played female characters before, a lot of RPGers have played off-gender characters.  The basic concept of role playing presumes that you play whatever you want.  In other words, this is redundant and unnecessary to include in the rules.
Naturally this has been welcomed with excitement and joy by the usual suspects.  But gamers, from what I've seen, are scratching their heads and saying "huh?"  Because this is pointless and has no bearing on the game.  Yeah, if you want to play a homosexual dwarf you can, that's always been true and always been assumed.  There were homosexual characters in the official modules and game materials for D&D back in the 70s, its not fresh and new.
And that begs the question: why include this?  Why was this put into the rules at all?  Some might argue that its just about informing players of their options, that gender roles and sexuality are flexible in character creation, but that's always been the case and understood.
After all, they didn't bother explaining your character can have an unnatural yen for unicorns or be attracted to children, which are both technically possible as well, if unpleasant.  They didn't tell everyone that your character can be unusually tall or short, or that your character can be fat or thin.  Why this specific inclusion?  The answers aren't hard to figure out.  Its giving them free publicity, and likely Hasbro is hoping they'll get some picketers and the Internet Outrage Machine will get all cranked up.  That helps sales and generates interest in the game.  After all its been years since anyone associated D&D with Satanism or witchcraft and they could use the controversy.
And then there's the usual tired worn out Political Correctness.  The "Social Justice" machine never sleeps, and it insists on being everywhere.  This was not necessary, but it is trendy and hip and makes a certain group of people happy, whereas its exclusion makes them very unhappy.  And further, now that D&D has done so, they have leverage to demand all games do so, or they're being h8ers.
If you're like me, you're just tired of this.  Its like someone who just stopped smoking and is in everyone's face all the time about it.  They won't shut up about it, every conservation is an opportunity to bring up the topic, and every situation is a chance to talk about their pet subject.  Just shut up already.
There's no victory for social justice here, just a another chance to beat people over the head for not agreeing strongly enough.  No one is better off for the inclusion of this in the rules, there was no bigotry against playing alternate lifestyles in role playing games.  There were no lesbian players who felt ostracized by D&D rules or shunned the game because it didn't have enough inclusive language.
All there is now is a pointless injection of trendy modern political language into a game system that honestly is more likely to annoy and push away players than gain new ones.  No one is going to now play D&D that wasn't before because of this, but there are at least a few that will avoid the new rules because of it.
But I guess that doesn't really matter to the grievance mongers and publicity hounds.  For them its never been about sales, success, or business.  Ultimately, it doesn't really matter to me in terms of sales.  I wasn't going to buy the new rules anyway; I didn't buy 4th edition, and don't care to play D&D in any case.  I found a better system decades ago in Hero.
Its just annoying to have some causehead force their way into yet another aspect of life, demanding attention with shrill cries and stamping of feet.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BECHDEL STRONG

"The truth about women is that you can do anything to them except bore them."

Any time you bring up film, TV, or writing, chances are someone will bring up the Bechdel Test.  Recently a chain of theaters in Sweden announced that they will be showing Bechdel Test ratings next to the show times and other information on films they show.
Created by a comic artist named Allison Bechdel, the test alleges to show how independent, complex, and strong a female character in fiction is.  The test is this; does your work of fiction:
a) have two named female characters
who b) talk to one another
about c) something other than a man.
That's it.  The intent of this test is to draw attention to works that have women only as props to talk about men or be victims (or scenery).  Too often, particularly in movies, women are there as objects for the man to chase, save, or be enhanced by rather than fully fleshed out individuals in their own right.  Often, romances end up being about the relationship to such an extent that the women are concerned about nothing else. 
So as far as it goes, the test addresses a valid concern.  Its no secret that good, interesting, deep parts for women are hard to come by in Hollywood.  There's a reason some directors can get the hottest, best women to work for them; they provide good roles in their films that are well directed. 
So the Bechdel Test is an attempt to bring attention to these weak roles, promote feminist ideals in film, and get better, more female-centric movies.  The problem is, the Test doesn't tell you much about how interesting, "strong" or independent the woman is in movies.  At the Telegraph, Robbie Collin writes:
A moment’s reflection reveals that all kinds of popular movies fail – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter were three examples highlighted by the artistic director of one of the cinemas involved – and lo, we discover that mainstream Western cinema is an undulating snake-pit of sexism.

It’s all very simple – too simple, in fact, and on closer inspection, the Bechdel test turns out to be not only next-to-useless, but also damaging to the way we think about film.
...
Two women are walking past a cinema, and one of them says that she refuses to watch any film that doesn’t satisfy the three conditions detailed above. “Pretty strict, but a good idea,” replies her friend. “No kidding,” says the first. “Last movie I was able to see was Alien…the two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”
In fact, Sunny Bunch at the Free Beacon recently poked fun at the test by pointing out that it makes films such as Showgirls, Kick Ass 2, and Requiem for a Dream into feminist triumphs.  Other movies such as The Hottie and the Nottie, Bride Wars, and Bratz: The Movie all pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  Meanwhile, Gravity, which is all about a woman surviving inconceivable disaster through her ingenuity and training doesn't.
Bechdel-approved feminist triumph
In other words, the effort to highlight the quality of female roles and generate interest in more independent, "strong" female roles in fiction and cinema fails by its own rules.  The Bechdel Test is too simplistic and ultimately meaningless to be any help at all.
There is a whole online industry of feminist grievance.  No matter what topic you search for or examine, there is at least one person complaining that there aren't enough women in it, or the women in it aren't treated right, or that the women in it are held back by men and so on.
Even female-dominated fields have loads of internet pieces about how there needs to be more women in the industry (such as literary agents, book editing and publishing).  Of the last ten big names in book sales, women have dominated the scene.  There are still the established major male names, but female authors are hot now and selling faster and bigger numbers in recent years than men.
Yet its not hard to find articles about how sexist and male-dominated book sales are because guys like Steven King are out there selling so many books, the phallocrats.
And among this theme online is a growing concern in fiction about the "strong woman."  The concern of many is that women in books are too often there as props or victims instead of being strong, interesting and independent.  I've seen a good half dozen articles in the last few months alone expressing the concern that there aren't enough "strong women" in fantasy fiction.
They want women who kick as much ass as the men, who are as smart, independent, tough, and capable as the men.  They want women who are at least as good as the men in the story, preferably better.
Now, of all the different literary genres out there, sci fi and fantasy tends to have the most interesting and strong female characters, so the concern is a bit misplaced.  And in any case, a "strong" woman can be strong without fitting a feminist ideal or duplicating the men in the work.
Women are often strong in ways that are different than men.  Granted there is a lot of crossover - courage, honor, loyalty, virtue, etc.  But what makes a man a strong man is distinct from, if not separate from,  what makes a woman strong.  That's why I use the "scare quotes" around the word strong above so often: because the definition is often questionable.
Further, a dependent woman can make for a good role, well written, and fascinating to watch.  Just as a dependent man can, depending on the story.  A fully fleshed out, interesting character need not be strong or independent.  Grima Wormtongue is a memorable, well-written, and interesting character in The Lord of the Rings.  He's a sleazy little whispering scumbag, but interesting.  He's weak in every way that counts and reprehensible, but he's memorable and well-written.
Let me fill out that ballot for you
If the only woman in your book is a Wormtongue, she's still a great character, even though she's anything but "strong" as most people would define the term.  And ultimately, what we should want and expect from fiction in any format is good writing with interesting, well-crafted characters whatever they may be.  Male, female, neuter, robot, whatever you're writing about write them well and you have done your job.
This need for female characters to fit a certain feminist (and lesbian)-approved checklist of characteristics is actually destructive to creativity and writing.  I've read several articles recently bemoaning how minor so many female characters are in fiction and cinema.  Guess what: not every character has to be strong, interesting, and fully fleshed out.  All works of fiction will have characters of varying significance and importance.  Some are just the guy at the magazine stand your detective bums a light off of.  Some are the mastermind behind the entire plot.  Demanding every (female) character be deeply significant and important is ridiculous and destructive to writing.
That would mean the entire world would be populated with insignificant background characters all of whom would have to be male and the only women are the main characters.  Guess what the complaint would be then?
A good writer doesn't need this kind of junk.  They know that if the characters are written well, developed, and interesting, they've done their job, even if it doesn't fit someone's identity group checklist.

Monday, July 21, 2014

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: The Comics Code Authority

“Comics are a new kind of harm, a new kind of bacillus the present-day child is exposed to.”

You don't see it any more these days.  Every single comic for decades used to have a little seal on the cover announcing its compliance with a voluntary self-governing code.  This seal meant that the comic had been checked over by the CCA and contained nothing considered improper for youths to read.
The story behind how this started is somewhat familiar to most comic book fans.  During the 1950s as the old popular comics such as Superman became less popular, comic book publishers started looking for other kinds of stories to attract readers.  Horror and more pulp-focused stories of crime and suggestive, mildly sexy stories started to dominate comic books.
At the same time, there was a growing awareness of a newer phenomenon called "juvenile delinquency" in which teenagers were causing trouble in ways they had not before.  Young people, previously fairly well behaved, were starting to rebel and become involved in crime, gangs, drinking, and even drugs.
A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent in which he postulated that popular culture, mainly movies, television and comic books, were responsible for corrupting youth.  Alarmed parents, looking for someone to blame, grasped this concept and it grew in popularity.
Wertham testified before congress in 1954 before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency chaired by Estes Kefauver (later responsible for anti-mafia hearings).  Wertham was a distinguished Psychiatrist who had opened a clinic to help black youths in Harlem, funded largely by voluntary donations.
Dr Wertham's testimony was that comics of the time period were fixated on sex, violence, drugs, and sadism.  He noted (accurately) that Wonder Woman had bondage themes, then speculated that she was a lesbian.  He argued that comic book imagery, often lurid and suggestive at the time period, was having a negative effect on youths.  He was the first to publicly suggest that Robin was a homosexual victim of Batman's predation - that all sidekicks were likely such a relationship.
Dr Wertham pointed out what he considered 'hidden sexual imagery' in drawings such as tree bark and shading on costumes. He then went on to say that  that 95% of children in reform school read comics, and this was proof that it contributed to juvenile delinquency.
Dr Wertham also was very critical of television, calling it "a school for violence", and said "If I should meet an unruly youngster in a dark alley, I prefer it to be one who has not seen Bonnie and Clyde."
Comic book companies saw a trend in the mood of the public and congress.  Either they made a public display of dialing back the more extreme blood, gore, violence, suggestive material and unethical activity in comics, or they'd be forced to by law.  Already parents were having bonfires to destroy comic books and protesting their publication.  Some businesses were starting to refuse to carry comics, nervous about the mood of the country.
THE CODE
So the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) created a board that would check their comics, called the Comics Code Authority.  Among the requirements were that good should triumph over evil, and that police should not be depicted as corrupt or being killed.  Restrictions on the portrayal of concealed weapons and kidnapping were implemented.  Forbidden was any depiction of "excessive violence," "lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations."  Also banned were vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies, and the word "Crime" in the title.
Anything that seemed too sexual such as cleavage on women, bare midriff costumes, any depiction of "sexual perversion" and most "good girl" art were all banned.  Love scenes were to promote the "sanctity of marriage," and scenes of seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism were all prohibited.  The Comics Code Authority was very similar to the Hollywood Production Code implemented much earlier.
Eventually, comic books moved away from the code, starting with Marvel Comics in 1971 in a Spider-Man story specifically requested by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  They asked Stan Lee to write a story showing how bad drug use is to kids, but the CCA rejected the story.  So Marvel ran it without the code approval and seal, and nobody seemed to notice.  Gradually, publishers began skipping the code, and by the late 1980s it had been dropped entirely from comics.
The general consensus, unstated or not, is that this entire episode was the result of right wing radicals and religious extremists oppressing art and freedom and trying to impose a rigid conservative ideology on the culture.  But was it?
RIGHT WINGER?
Fredric Wertham himself was not right wing religious extremist.  His writings were used in the support of the Brown vs Board of Education decision, he fought for and was influential in the desegregation of schools.  Wertham was a disciple of Sigmund Freud who testified in defense of child rapist and cannibal Albert Fish, arguing that his fixation on religion was the cause of his madness (saying that Fish viewed his murder of boys to be sacrifices ala Isaac in the Bible and cannibalism was communion).  Influenced by Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno, Wertham's efforts were continually for social reform, as defined by the latest progressive theories.
Historian and Wertham expert Bart Beaty wrote a book about the man, praising his efforts in the budding communications field, his progressive liberal ideas, and his fight for social reform.  Wertham was a strong defender of the Soviet Spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and wanted to write a book reconciling Freud and Marx.  He was consistently anti-business and anti-freedom of the press when it came to children.  When he opened his clinic in Harlem, Wertham named it after Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law who translated portions of Das Kapital into French.
Wertham never called for the burning of comic books, and in fact was not concerned with their content aimed at older readers.  He wanted laws to "protect" children younger than 15 from the more lurid and violent content, not understanding that they effectively were already.  Kids younger than 15 were not interested in the monsters and pulpy content of EC and the heavy text and wordy comics that he condemned were just not read by kids.
THE PRUDE
Its easy to see why, with modern eyes, Wertham is viewed as a prude and a right wing religious type. 
He was prudish and seemed shocked by sexual content.  But that was (and still is) not inconsistent with leftist political viewpoints.  Being concerned about children's exposure to sexual and violence content is hardly unique to right wingers, particularly violence.  It is the left, not the right, primarily fighting to get violence in games, movies, and television reduced.  It is the left that fought to get Saturday Morning Cartoons to be less violent.
And in the cultural context, at the time, everyone was more conservative and concerned about sexual content and exposure of children to it.  His condemnation of Batman's homosexual predation on Robin was met with shock by both left and right.  The left has since moved further down the path away from this and toward near-total sexual acceptance (almost nothing is even considered perverted any more), but that took more than half a century of incremental movement.
Wertham's crusade seems quaint and silly today, but it was not at the time. Psychiatry at the time believed almost exclusively in nurture; that bad people were bad because of influences, not nature.  That juvenile delinquency was caused by exposure to bad things and corrupting influence, and that criminals were only that way because they were taught to be.  Prison became about reforming and socializing, not punishing.  
Wertham himself was a senior staffer at New York's Bellevue Mental Hygiene Clinic and before that the lead psychiatrist at Maryland's Johns Hopkins Hospital.  He was very well respected and his ideas not ridiculed or considered absurd at all.  There was testimony pointing out the poor research and shoddy work in his book and testimony, but his positions were not unusual at the time.
JUVENILE DELINQUENCY
Ultimately the whole comics crusade was just one more effort by frightened and concerned parents to find something, anything to blame for their kids instead of themselves and the changing culture.  It was easier to blame movies, television, rock music, and comic books.  Disengaged parents, loosening cultural values, an inability to answer and deal with children's questions, increasing leftist influence in education, and a trend toward rejecting tradition and past ethical absolutes were unacceptable blame.  Better to find an easy to identify bad guy.
And ultimately, the whole thing fell apart.  Few really thought comics were corrupting children, because even the most gory ones never actually showed gore, only hinted, threatened, and suggested it.  Even a particularly shocking (and effective) tale of Dr Frankenstein building a woman from body parts he harvested from victims he killed had all the killing and dismembering, then rebuilding, happen off panel, undepicted in the comics.
But the result was comics became incredibly bland, choked off, and uncreative to the point of absurdity.  Those wanton temptresses Betty and Veronica from Archie comics were put in baggier outfits.  Images that remotely suggested anything adult were excised, cleavages were covered up, and so on.
Of course, these days comics have gone berserk the opposite direction, as the pendulum swings.  Now sexual content, horrific gore, nudity, drug use, foul language, and all sorts of perversity are shown in comics.  Homosexual main characters are trumpeted as some sort of great leap forward in progress, alleged heroes mangle and murder their enemies, and even Batman shrugs when his son decapitates a villain and brings the head home to show off to daddy.
Is this having a negative effect on teenagers and kids?  I doubt its having any effect at all - comics are more focused on late teens up to readers in their thirties.  They've pretty well abandoned the kids market and are losing readers pretty steadily to other media and entertainment options.
While comic book movies are making huge money, that's not translating into greater sales for comics overall.  People seem content to just watch a film rather than lay out 4-5 bucks for a comic once a month.
But the general belief that the Comic Book Crusade was some kind of right wing fanaticism, possibly tied in to the red scare which happened not long before, is without merit.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

Friday, July 18, 2014

SOME PERSONAL STUFF

Do not disturb, author at work

I got back my current book (WIP as some put it, work in progress) from my editor and I'm going through it with rewrites and editing.  He said he didn't have to edit as much this time and found himself being pulled into the work because there was much less to scrutinize than my previous two works.  That's a good sign, I would hope I'm getting better as a writer as time goes on but its always nice to get some support for that hope.
This next novel, Life Unworthy, should be out by fall this year, and I'm considering a Kickstarter campaign to get money to pay my editor, generate publicity, and perhaps pay for a cover designer, although I have a good idea for a cover in my mind and am learning better how to make them.
In my other writing, the gaming books I've written for Hero Games have been selling pretty well, and I got my first quarterly check.  Unfortunately that first quarter is also likely to be the biggest sales; everyone bought a copy that was aware of and wanted one and now its a matter of hoping word spreads to more and reaches more customers.  It wasn't a huge amount of money, but it was pretty good for me.
Work is ongoing for my fantasy Bestiary, full of strange and wonderful creatures such as these:
I'm hoping to get it out by this fall as well, to keep up interest in my gaming books and add to the library.  These books are actually up in the Hero Games catalog and they take a chunk of the sales, but I get the majority of it.
Just a reminder, I have a writer's blog now, focusing on the craft of writing and thoughts on work there.
I still haven't gotten tired of Skyrim, partly due to the abundance of addons and player-created content which about doubles the size of the game for free.  There are real problems with the game but the addons and amazing game play and world setting more than make up for them.
No trip to Salishan this year.  My aunt who gets the beach house once a year had surgery on her rotator cuff and just isn't up to carrying luggage and extra trips so no vacation for me.  But really, its not like I work a hard day every day and need a vacation anyway.  My life is pretty easy and calm not by choice but by necessity.
Keep your loved ones close and enjoy the summer, and I'll keep trying to get good content and interesting thoughts posted regularly here on Word Around the Net.  I'm a bit distracted with editing right now, so content might be a bit light but I'll do what I can.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

THOR, YOU'LL BE A WOMAN SOON

"For any given male character, there is a female version of that character."
-Internet Rule 63

So, this is happening to Thor in the comics soon:

Its not a what if story, its not a dream sequence or an alternate universe, its not in an annual, this is the main storyline for Thor, and its 'permanent' as comics get.  Thor is going to be a girl.
What has been released so far is that apparently Thor has gotten to be such a jerk (again) that Odin takes away his power and gives it to someone else he deems worthy.  As the movie showed, Mjollnir has an enchantment: anyone who is worthy may take up the hammer and gain the power of Thor; anyone who is not cannot lift it.
So a woman picks up Mjollnir and gains the power of Thor.
Now there's the usual "what the??" internet outrage out there, and lots of publicity out there from news organizations covering the event.  Due to the popularity of the Thor movies, the character is pretty familiar to people and so there's quite a bit of interest.
When the discussion online comes up, inevitably someone posts about this from the past in Thor:
Yes, that's Thor as a frog.  It happened during one of the finest runs of the comic ever, written and illustrated by Bill Simonson.  The difference here was that this wasn't some big advertised event to sell comics, it was part of the story.  Thor, turned into a frog by the Enchantress, made his way to Mjollnir and lifted it, becoming Thor Frog.  It wasn't just fun it was actually a great story, but it only lasted one issue because it was a single event.  It wasn't someone else, it was Thor.
This also happened in Thor in the same story run:
That's Beta Ray Bill, an alien.  Its not Thor that turned into this, its not Thor losing his power, its someone else who picked up the hammer, an alien trying to avenge his fallen people against the same demons (from the Fire Giant Surtur).  He didn't replace Thor.  He didn't take Thor's place.  He fought along side Thor (after an initial conflict) as an ally.
Incidentally, after this incident, Odin changed the enchantment on the hammer so that it wouldn't happen again; only one Thor at a time.  But he saw such heroism and greatness in Beta Ray Bill that he was given his own version of Mjollnir.
No, this girl Thor is different.  Its a replacement for Thor, its meant to be long-lasting, and its not a story matter, but a sales matter.  To be sure, they'll work a story up around her, but that's not where the concept originated.  It came from a meeting I can almost hear in my head:
-Bob, the sales of Thor aren't keeping up with Avengers and Iron Man
-You're right, we need to find a way to get more interest
-Or sales are down across the board; people just aren't reading comics as much any more
-Well we need publicity, a big event to get interest, that will pick up sales!
-I know, lets change Thor!
-Comics need more Strong Women© Let's make Thor a woman.
-And she has to have big knockers!
OK maybe that last part didn't come up; it was just assumed, this being comics.
Ever since the Death of Superman storyline, comic book companies have been using events like this and publicity to generate sales.  They release the information about big events of this sort far in advance to create buzz.  In the past, they would keep events like this secret, so that it would be a fun surprise and exciting to readers.  Today, the business is driven not by creators and innovators, but by a board of directors.
Each time a big event like this happens (Spider-Man getting married, Batman having his back broken and replaced by a series of others, etc) the companies push it big in the news interested in the sales that come from the publicity.  And more often than not, its driven by the business end rather than the story.  There are exceptions: the Civil War event recently in Marvel Comics, for example was more story driven, as lame as it was.
But these changes are temporary.  Everyone knows that Thor won't stay a girl.  Everyone knows that Spider-man won't permanently have swapped minds with Doc Ock.  Everyone knows that big events are just for a little while.  And since comic book speculation (buying issues you think will be collectible for later sales) is pretty much dead, the events aren't as good for sales as they used to be.
Comic books as done in the USA face a pretty significant dilemma.  Superman has been continually published since 1938, and he never really changes.  He's still the same basic guy with the same basic supporting cast (Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor et al), with the same hair cut, costume, and so on as always.  After a while, you've pretty much told all the Superman stories you can, but you still have to come out with that next issue for the following month.
But if you keep going without change, the story can easily become stale, so long-term readers become bored or disinterested in the comic, and you lose customers.  The answer is to have the character change over time.  Superman has, over his history, been married, died, changed powers (and split into two), had longer hair, regrettably in some cases, got a dog, and so on.  Spider-Man started out in high school, eventually went to college, got married, had a kid, even went crazy, thought he was a clone, found out he was the real deal, changed his costume which eventually became a villain (literally, the costume was a living symbiote), and more.
But if you change the character very much you run into problems as well.  Part of the reason a character is so interesting and likable is what they are designed as.  Peter Parker as geeky high school student who can't get a date and is picked on was part of his charm.  Superman as do-gooder raised in heartland America for basic ideals and principles was part of his charm.
So if you change them, you run the risk of losing that charm, losing the very thing that made people like them to begin with.  And if you age and mature characters, where do you stop?  Peter Parker at 60 with a gut and grandkids?  Batman in a wheelchair and long white beard?  Wonder Woman going through menopause and fighting varicose veins?
Also, changing characters annoys long-term readers.  They grew up with the Green Lantern as Hal Jordan, so if he goes berserk and tries to kill the universe and is replaced by someone else, you can alienate your basic core of loyal readers.
So comic book creators are in a bit of a bind: they can't really change things, but they have to.  So you get these events.  Wonder Woman loses her powers and becomes an international spy.  Green Lantern goes through a series of different people getting the ring.  Batman is replaced by other people, Gotham City is hit by a 9 point earthquake and flattened, Phoenix dies.
But a year or two later, its all back to the way it was, as if nothing changed.  The latest big stunt coming after Thor Girl is Wolverine dying "permanently."  He lost his adamantium bones a while back and got them back, now he's going to be killed, which I'm not exactly sure is even possible given his conception.
But it won't last.  Wolverine will be back.  Thor will be a guy again.  And the sales of these comics will continue to decline over time as people stop buying 5 dollar comics and get them online or just watch films instead.
In the end it doesn't really matter at all.

Monday, July 14, 2014

THE FRAGILE PRINCESS

"Our words can have a huge impact. Isn't it time we told her she's pretty brilliant, too? Encourage her love of science and technology and inspire her to change the world."
-Reshma Saujani

Recently I saw a public service announcement (PSA) on TV during a Mythbusters show.  Usually these are boring or pointless, and sometimes luridly shocking to try to terrify people into doing something, but this one was... well I'll tell you about it.  You might have seen it yourself.
It starts with a very little girl in a pretty dress outside, and the voice of her mom says "careful not to get your dress dirty!"
The next shot is her, a little older, pinning planets and stars to her ceiling in vast numbers, making it difficult for an adult to move through her bedroom.  Her mom says "I think this project is getting out of control."
The last shot is her a little older now, trying to use an electric screwdriver to build what looks like a rocket, and its obviously a little big and heavy for her, so she's struggling.  The parent says "be careful, let your brother do that!"
The conclusion?  What you say to your child affects them, we need more girls in science.
...
Seriously?  Are girls so totally fragile and glassine, so pathetically weak and easily crushed that gentle parenting to protect and guide them will destroy their gentle souls?  Is the delight in science and industry such a guttering candle flame that it is snuffed by even the mildest breeze?
The moral of this ridiculous PSA is apparently: never correct or guide your girl because you will crush her free spirit and destroy our future.  Boys?  Heck with them, who needs them anyway.
This manic need to get girls into science and technical fields is just wierd to me anyway, is there something inherently superior to these fields, or something shameful if girls just don't care to go into them?  Where's the PSA bemoaning the lack of girls in welding and digging ditches?
The entire exercise is part of the latest feminist jag to get more women into fields they don't seem terribly inclined to be part of, even if they have to be forced to.  The idea that maybe, just maybe girls aren't as interested in these areas seems to completely elude the people behind this stuff.
They quote a stat without any context or information claiming that "66 percent of 4th grade girls like science and math, but only 18 percent of college engineering majors are female." liking something doesn't mean you necessarily want to make a career out of it.  I suspect they ALSO like more traditional female-oriented work as well, is it so bad they go into those fields instead?
Its just such a poorly done, absurdity of an ad, and yet sites like ThinkProgress are touting it as wonderful stuff.  Some days I just shake my head.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

AND SO IT BEGINS

"The only thing that might change that is the fact that they were a brother and sister but we've come a long way from the 1950s – when the position of the English Common Law was that sex outside marriage was not lawful."

Its a sort of recurring theme here at WATN as I watch the culture and try to understand it; where we go next in our morals as a people.  The influences and antecedents to change are usually easiest to spot in hindsight, but sometimes you can see them as they take place, in real time as it were.  The internet makes that easier.
Case in point, a ruling by District Court Judge Garry Neilson in New South Wales, Australia.  In it, he pointed out something I've argued several times in the past.  He argued that incest should no longer be illegal, because its only tangible, measurable drawback is genetically damaged offspring.  But with contraception and abortion, why that's not an issue!
And he based his decision on exactly the argument made by me and many others: if you argue that homosexuality is acceptable because nobody gets hurt and its love, you cannot argue against these other things you currently consider disgusting and wrong.  Jonathan Pearlman at the Telegraph reports:
"A jury might find nothing untoward in the advance of a brother towards his sister once she had sexually matured, had sexual relationships with other men and was now 'available', not having [a] sexual partner," the judge said.

"If this was the 1950s and you had a jury of 12 men there, which is what you'd invariably have, they would say it's unnatural for a man to be interested in another man or a man being interested in a boy. Those things have gone."
Thus, the brother and sister in the case were not doing anything that ought to be considered illegal, because incest is simply a personal choice with no consequences that affect you.
And based upon the exact same arguments used to promote homosexual behavior an marriage, this was not just a reasonable consequence but inevitable.  This is not a slippery slope argument, its a natural series of easily predicted and inexorable stages in a sequence.  There's no "watch out or this might happen" warning involved.  Its a flat out "here's what happens next, the only question is in what order and how fast."
The first one to go will be monogamous marriages.  That's just the easiest and most obvious target; there's just nothing tangible or measurable that anyone can bring up to limit this, its just traditional, from a legal standpoint.  I expect the first cases clearing that away to show up in a year or two at the most.  From there its not clear, but incest, pedophilia, and bestiality are all likely to be on the dock and before people expect.  Unless God has mercy on us all.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

COMMENT TYPE 43: Profiling

"Possible 211 at 1414 West Alameda Drive, see the man."
-Adam 12

You'll see this kind of comment often on news websites, blogs, and around the internet.  It will be in response to a news story of an event, usually a crime, in which some individual is being sought or has been captured, but specific, key details about them are ignored entirely.
Examples of this aren't hard to find, and they come in a lot of different types.  There's the "spot the party" story where the political party of a troubled or corrupt politician is left out entirely or buried deeply into the story.  There's the "spot the religion" type which conspicuously avoids mentioning the religious affiliation of someone who has engaged in an act based on their religious zealotry.  There's the "what color?" story where a criminal the police request people watch out for is notably lacking the suspect's ethnic background.  
Leaving out key details of a person's description or ideology where it makes sense is odd for a news story (remember who, what, where, when, why, and how?), but it happens out of a concern about potential lawsuits, but mostly out of political correctness and mindset.  News organizations are often very, very careful to avoid mentioning Muslims in a negative light out of fears of some mythical backlash.  And in the US, many news outlets will try very hard not to associate Democrats with anything negative.
In response, the comments can become pretty amusing.  Its become a sort of game of charades, with people postulating ridiculous guesses about the missing information.  Why we have no idea what that senator's political party is, could they have been Green party?  Maybe they're in the Silly Party, perhaps they're a member of the Whigs!  What religion could that young man screaming "Allahu Akhbar" been a part of when he blew up that Jewish clinic?  Maybe he was Presbyterian!  Or perhaps Hindu?
It becomes a source of rich and comedic mockery at the expense of the news organization and the writer.  The only reason this started in the first place was because of the blatant omission of applicable information.
Its not that a news story must always include this information.  If someone gets in a traffic accident, who cares what political party they are in or what their religion is?  Its irrelevant to the story - no matter who they are.  There's no reason to detail the race of a person in a news story unless its key to identity in the story or otherwise similar description is being used.
So sometimes the Profiling comment can be just an attempt to jab political targets.  
I bet he was an illegal immigrant!  
He was probably a Republican!  
Of course it was a man that did it!  
What do you want to bet he was Muslim?
Maybe those guesses are true, but that doesn't necessarily matter to the story.  There are bad folks in all sorts of categories, but their different identity groups don't always matter.  If its a story about an individual citizen caught up in something, what difference does it make about the organization they belong to, or what faith they hold?
Profiling comments can be good for tweaking overly sensitive, activist, or foolish writers; they need the feedback to help nudge them toward greater professionalism.  At the same time, they can just be an excuse to bash some group on the head, and that's where profiling goes wrong.
*This is part of the Profiles in Commenting series.

Friday, July 04, 2014

HISTORY AS JUDGE

"The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice."
-Mark Twain

Something often said lately about any social change or progressive idea is that people should be careful how they think or they'll end up on the "wrong side of history."  The idea behind this is that we all should be careful we aren't looked back upon by future generations as backward, regressive, bigoted, or evil like groups we frown on today.
Even some on the right use this, talking about the "ash heap of history" where failed ideologies and systems go to be judged as worthless
Now, most people are concerned with their legacy, even if its a modest one.  We want to be looked back upon with fondness by those who come after, or at least not simply forgotten.  The accusation that unless we toe the line people will think ill of us on the future can be a powerful agent of shame.
Yet the entire concept is flawed and ultimately ridiculous.  Think this through a moment.
MEANINGLESS
No matter who you are, you either believe there is some sort of afterlife, or you do not.  You either think you'll be rewarded (or punished) in a future life beyond this one, or you think you will die and be gone forever.  Even people who believe in karmic reincarnation believe ultimately in an afterlife that is separate from this world, be it nirvana or some similar principle.
So either you'll be beyond the judgement of future generations in a cosmic future... or you'll just be gone and dead.  And either way it will not matter to you.  If you believe in an afterlife, then the judgement of your fellow man is utterly irrelevant; you're held to an objective standard.  That is, you will be judged by something other than humanity.  If you don't believe in an afterlife, you're going to be a rotting corpse and gone so the opinions of the world don't matter a bit.
It simply doesn't matter what "history" judges us like.  They likely won't care a bit about you or I individually in any case.  We're too irrelevant and insignificant for historians to even be aware of.
EVER UPWARD
The second biggest flaw of the "history will judge you" argument is that it presumes some things which are not reasonable or consistent with the past.  The entire case is built around an assumption that the world will get better, people more morally enlightened, and humanity more progressive.  Whether this is based on some sort of mistaken principle of evolution (remember: evolution doesn't say creatures get better, it proposes that creatures become more able to survive in their environment), or based upon an ideology of infinite progression toward utopia, there's absolutely no reason to believe that's how things will turn out.
In fact, humanity is, based on past experience and human nature, more likely to become worse off than better.  There's no principle that makes it reasonable to expect humanity will be better tomorrow than today, or the next day, or the next generation.  Each generation has its positive and negative aspects.  Each generation has things they learn from and avoid in the past, and pitfalls previous generations avoided.
There's zero evidence that humanity is becoming innately better, only that we're becoming richer and fatter and happier.  Slavery has been largely abolished as an institution around the world, but other vices such as sloth, selfishness, and ignorance have become more entrenched.  For every positive we've achieved, there's a negative side.  We developed nuclear power... and nuclear weapons.  We came up with a way to clear roads, and bombs.  We have vaccines for deadly diseases... and bio weapons.
History isn't a continual, obvious slope upward to greater enlightenment in any view of humanity's existence.  There are some ups, a lot of downs, but no general obvious trend; certainly not one that favors one ideology or another.  The left wants to believe that their enlightened genius will certainly and absolutely lead to universal agreement with what they think today, but there's no reason for that presumption.  The right wants to believe that the word of God and obvious logic will lead the future to believe their way, but there's no reason to believe that either.
Holding a certain ideological position today might be judged as brilliant in the future, or reprehensible.  30 years ago homosexuality was considered repulsive and even a mental illness.  Ten years ago, people mocked the very idea of homosexual marriage.  Now unless you're fully and vocally in support, you're a monster.  Even homosexuals used to consider homosexual marriage a bad thing not so long ago - it was considered a heteronormative oppression, trying to force that lifestyle on their alternate life.  There's no reason to presume that tangent continues one direction or another.
FLAWED HUMANITY
Another flaw is that historians are not especially enlightened, noble, and pure people.  They have their agendas, their ideology, and their perspectives as well.  Read about Oliver Cromwell some time.  Its impossible to find an objective, dispassionate examination of the man's life.  He's either portrayed as a horrific demon (as the king that came after him made sure of) or he was a brilliant visionary doing God's work.  Historians judge him based on their perspective of events and people.
Compounding this problem is that historians are sometimes, perhaps often, wrong.  I've got a long running series with over fifty examples of how things we're all sure of and were taught are not the way it happened.  From Pyramids, to the Columbine Shootings, to Radon Gas, we've been fed a bill of goods by historians.  And some historians, such as Howard Zinn write not to give the facts, but to push an agenda, no matter what distortions, omissions, and lies he has to use to get there.
The presumption that the future will look back at us with precise and accurate clarity and moral excellence is simply ridiculous.  Historians will judge us a hundred different ways, arguing with each other, and while one position might gain ascendency or majority support, that doesn't mean it will be accurate, well-informed, or devoid of ideological slant.
WHO ARE YOU
And if you think about it, why does history judging us even matter?  Who cares what historians think about us.  What difference does it make what the majority of a select group of academics and elites say?  Who cares, ultimately, what even the majority of humanity thinks?
You know who was on the wrong side of history based on this principle?  Jews during WW2.  They had lived in Europe for over a thousand years and tried to fit in while holding to their religion and beliefs.  In, but distinct from, the cultures around them.  Then the historians, the elites, the academics, the leaders, the government, and the majority of people living in the Nazi regime judged them not just weird but corrosive, evil, and corrupt.  Jews were on the wrong side of history.  In fact, they've been on the "wrong side of history" over and over again for thousands of years, and its heading that way again, from many signs out of Europe.
Because the idea of "history" judging people isn't some noble principle of academic surety, but just a future consensus.  "History" isn't an entity we can rely on to make proper calls on moral issues, but just how most people figure it went or should have been.  We look back on some things as awful and praise others, but that doesn't make the one evil and the other good.  Our judgment is just as flawed and troubled now as it was back then.  We're not better people now, we just have nicer toys.
The only judge that can be relied on for true and absolutely trustworthy discernment of our lives and behavior would have to be someone better than us.  Someone outside of humanity, not held by its weaknesses and trials.  Someone transcendent from humanity; other.  Someone with ultimate wisdom and clarity of thought, someone who didn't just know what took place, but why, and what would have happened if things had gone differently.  Someone who knows not just what we did but why and what was in our hearts.
Someone God-like.
Being judged by history is utterly irrelevant.  If what you're doing is the right thing, then history's judgment does not matter.  If what you're doing is wrong, then its wrong no matter how history judges it.  Right and wrong is not based on some presupposed future consensus view.
I don't care how history judges me.  Neither should you.  Both of us should worry about someone greater than history being a judge.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

TELLING TAILS

"I can guarantee you anything you want"
-Bender, Futurama

A month ago I took a chance with my book Old Habits.  Amazon Kindle offers better promotion and placement in their website if you go with them exclusively, so I pulled the e-book off all other locations and went with the Kindle Select program.  Then, rolling the dice, I put the e-book up for free for 5 days, using one of Amazon's promotion options.
The theory works like this: if you give your book to a number of people, they read it, talk about it to other people each themselves, maybe a scattered few of them read reviews, and they may even loan it to others to read, who then talk to still others.  The principle is like any giveaway for a company: to spread word of mouth or goodwill.
In theory this means that a few free books given away translates into more sales.  I spread the word through all my social media outlets, told people I knew, and by the end of the promotion, 111 books had been downloaded for free.  That was a month ago, today.
Amazon even put out a promotional email featuring Old Habits at the top for buyers in the sci fi and fantasy interest groups.  They did their job to promote the book.
Since the promotion started, I have sold 2 books.
I gave it a month before I drew any solid conclusions, because it takes time to read, to talk to people, for the word to spread, and for people to do any reviews.
Two books.
For every 55 books I gave away, I sold 2, and I don't think either of those sales were influenced by the giveaway at all.  No reviews have been written.  I'm seeing no buzz or commentary on the book whatsoever online.  Nothing from social media, no feedback to me at all.
Two books.
The Long Tail theory states that you generate buzz and sales online through word of mouth, and one of the ways to do this is by discount prices and giveaways.  Since Old Habits is selling for 2.99, that puts it at a fraction the sales price of major publishing houses and its discounted.
Further the Long Tail postulates that search engines such as Google and sites such as Amazon make products available to readers in a way that local stores do not and cannot because they help guide people to what they want and the shelves are effectively endless.
The problem is that these companies are getting more and more sophisticated and ad-driven in how they present information and how sales and money influences their search engines.  This infographic from SOE Book explains some of the problems that's causing for "Long Tail" theory.
Among the other things they note, the Google results page strongly promotes big sites and paying customers.  If you buy an ad on Google, that shifts searches in your favor.  Also, because Google is buying properties such as YouTube, they actually are favoring searches to their products like YouTube so instead of raw results of what you're looking for, they direct people toward their products.
Because I write this blog on Blogger (owned by Google) I get a bit more favorable site listing when people search for things I've blogged about, for example.  My blog is itty and gets little traffic, but gets superior notice because of my affiliation with a Google product.
This is exacerbated by what else shows up on the page, eating up search result space by notations such as IMDB listings, images, and so on.  Half the page is taken up by the favored results, with the rest of the hits often down the page below the scroll line.
Also, something that the Long Tail theory relies on specific "niche" search engine hits.  But with the way search engines work now, attempts such as "Thief Fantasy novel" are actually adjusted toward more common searches that may even change the terms used and search engines will direct results toward favored traffic.  Type in those words and you get 2 books on Amazon, a handful of images, then sites talking about books rather than the books themselves.
In other words, you aren't getting results about novels, you're getting advertising, pictures, and then general information.  Search for a product on Google and this is typically what you get instead of going straight to the niche seller or product you desire.
None of this is a deliberate attack on the Long Tail as the graphic suggests.  Its just Google trying to maximize their profits and promote their businesses.  They spent billions on these things, and want their money.
The problem is that means theories and ideas that worked even five years ago aren't quite the same any more.  While other search sites have different problems, they all are moving along this exact same philosophy: advertising and moneymaking over search engine results.  Its not that they don't want to give you accurate results, its that they want to do so as a secondary goal, after making money.
And since Google or Bing or Yahoo etc is a business, that makes sense.  What it does, though, is hurt the micro businessman like me trying to reach people in order to get sales. And what might have worked recently may not work any more.
TANSTAAFL, right?  There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.  You get what you pay for, and these search engines aren't under any burden to offer you anything for free.  And I'm fine with that, but it does sort of make the whole "Long Tail" theory problematic.
For me, the experiment is a failure.  I may have cost myself potential sales and am seeing no results.  While it cost me nothing up front, it might have cost me quite a bit in terms of sales - or maybe not, perhaps none of those people meant to buy the book to start with, and only became interested when it was out for free.
The thing is, I'm not sure my book is being presented effectively enough to the public for optimal sales.  I do not really know what I'm doing.  I know the cover could be more dynamic, and I'm sure I could do better in terms of outreach and promotion, but I am doing the best I can with the no money I have.
Its possible that the experiment just needs more time.  Its possible it just didn't catch on and that's just how it goes sometimes.  Its possible people liked it, but not enough to buzz about.  The kind of story you go "that was neat," then forget.  There are a lot of possibilities, but I don't know what to do about it.
At least I tried, I suppose.