31 October 2009

Halloween - A 100 Word Story

This was again part of the 100 Word Stories Weekly Challenge. There's no voting this week, but you can still go and listen (and read) the rest of the stories over at the 100 Word Stories site. If you just want to listen to mine alone, you can do so using the player below. (If the player's borked, try this link.










When I was a kid, I loved Indiana Jones.

I would walk around with my shirts unbuttoned to my pasty navel,
carrying a string for a whip. I ran around the schoolyard humming the
theme song.

I also loved my Luke Skywalker Underoos. When friends came over, I
would sometimes show them off, coming downstairs wearing nothing but
the orange underwear.

That was decades ago.

Yesterday, a friend asked me what I was going to be for Halloween.

"I don't know," I replied. But my hand fidgeted with my shirt
buttons, and I swear my underwear suddenly turned bright orange.

Political Correctness is Useless

Political Correctness is crap. It's done. It's over.

No, really. It is. Read on.

I remember when the phrase first popped up, and I should have realized it then. It simply was never going to do what it claimed to do. The whole idea was to make politeness and courtesy formal again. [1] If you think about the actual words of "politically correct", they're not offensive.

But the term has become a slur. The words "politically correct" have become a tool for racists, sexists, and homophobes.

It's a simple formula. Something offensive happens. Maybe it's a tasteless joke, maybe a stereotypical picture or some kind of racist costume. You point it out, and then you hear the response:

"Oh, you're just being politically correct." [2]

You see the frame there, don't you? That phrase is trying to change being considerate of others into a stupid bureaucratic (and don't forget "overly sensitive" and "humorless") killjoy of a rule. It tries to claim the white viewpoint is the only valid viewpoint [3], and tries to hide behind a screen of "free speech" and "speaking directly". Hell, everyone understood that Bill Maher was trying to say he wasn't pulling any punches when he called his show "Politically Incorrect", and that was over 15 years ago.

When they say that we're "just being politically correct", they're saying that nobody else matters.

I've seen it a lot over the last few months - especially during the runup to Halloween. So I think being "politically correct" is crap. I'm giving up on the phrase. It's stopped being useful.

Let's try something different. When you hear that phrase, respond with this one:

"No, I'm not being politically correct. I'm not being a bigot."

Or if that's too confrontational, try this:

"I'm being considerate of other people."

And for those of you who suddenly find yourselves called on your intolerance... well, maybe you just need to be more sensitive and grow a thinner skin. [4]

[1] Yeah, I consider racism impolite.
[2] The most ironically mind-boggling usage of this was when I was once called "a political correctness Nazi."
[3] I do take a small measure of dark delight when people of Irish and Italian descent try this, since they weren't considered "white" either throughout part of the twentieth century.
[4] Yes, yes. I wanted to take the cheap shot here too.

Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

30 October 2009

They Don't Need Threats Anymore - Vignette Five

[Steve's note - this continues the various short vignettes highlighting parts of Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man Here are links to parts one, two, three, and four.]

"So they're cutting our health insurance to cut costs," he says.

"We should be thankful we have any health insurance at all," his supervisor replies. Many of the workers around him agree.

"Doesn't that sound like a threat to you?"

She looks at him, eyes narrowed. "They're doing the best they can to provide for us," she says. "They're following industry trends. Many companies aren't offering health insurance at all. Personally, I'm glad to still have a job."

The same week, they are advised to use their own vacation days to stay at home if they come down with the flu.

There are no threats. Only memos.

29 October 2009

Inhumanity is (unfortunately) Rational - Vignette Four

[Steve's note - this continues the various short vignettes highlighting parts of Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man Here are links to parts one, two, and three.]

Congress asked the CEOs of insurance companies how they could justify withdrawing healthcare from sick people. (It's about 30 minutes into the episode of This American Life found here.)

"It was allowed under the laws of the state," they said.

It makes sense, after all. They are representing companies, beholden to the stockholders. The real customers of our corporations are not the people who buy their products. The customers are the stockholders. Therefore, they must maximize profits.

Real people denied the care they need never becomes part of the equation.

It's only rational.

Zombies, Romance, and Contests, oh my!

[Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology. I'm serious about what I say below, but hey, you should know. - Steve]


I like themed anthologies. It's partially because I'm a fan of short stories in general. Even more than that, I like to see how different authors can take a basic idea and do all sorts of fun and unexpected things with it.

On that front, Hungry for Your Love fits the bill. This is an e-anthology published by Ravenous Romance that starts with a twist: Forget vampires - what about zombie romance?

The twenty one (well over 300 pages!) of stories capture a huge range of zombie-related stories. Some are sweetly romantic. Some are revenge stories. Some talk about lost loves, or finding someone when the whole world is against you (whether you're a zombie or a human). Some take place in the midst of a zombie infection, some are after things have settled down again. There are occult zombies, superscience zombies, and infectious zombies.

If you're getting the idea that this anthology has something for most people - and definitely something for both lovers of horror and romance - you're on the right track. The stories encompass a huge range, with some of the stories nearly becoming erotica (so yes, it's not for the kiddies), while others are mostly horror with the romance being seen through holding another's hand. One made me kind of sad, and still others were simply funny enough to get me to laugh out loud.

With twenty one stories in this anthology, it's well worth the $4.99. (Yes, that's less than a quarter a story.)

I'm pretty stoked. I had fun writing my story for Hungry For Your Love, and had just as much fun reading it. I think you will too. To help celebrate that, and to spread the word about this book, I'm running a small contest. If you're on Twitter, post a tweet linking to this blog post or the book itself with the hashtag #zlove . Today through Halloween, I'll choose one (or more) random tweet per day and send them one of my 100 word stories on a postcard.

So what are you waiting for? Go check this book out

28 October 2009

Jesus would be ashamed of Christianity (Vignette Three)


Yeshua ben-Yosef was a radical, and died like one. It doesn't matter whether or not he was divine. Not really. The man had the radical idea of treating other people well. He said that we shouldn't profit from the pain of others. He said that all people - even the treasonous Samaritans - were the children of God.

A thousand years later, kings waged wars in his name. A thousand years after that, we drop a few dollars in a plate, sing some songs - twice a year, maybe once a week if we think we're especially pious - and think we're following his example.

Because doing what he actually said wouldn't make much "sense" to our way of thinking.

We call treating everyone well "utopian". We call it unrealistic. We call it anything, everything, except our responsibility to other humans.

27 October 2009

Vignette Two - Why the hell are things still the way they are?

Marcuse's vision of a Marxist singularity - where work is no longer slavery, where people use technology to free themselves from the drudgery of survival - is technologically possible. The cost of our current war in Iraq is more than enough to bring the entire world above the dollar a day extreme poverty level. We have the money and technology to treat the other people on this planet humanely.

We have known this for years. We knew it when we saw the image of a dying, starving child stalked by a vulture back in 1993. We know it now; we know about the famine, starvation, and pain. We know that our neighbors and families are suffering from a lack of healthcare.

But.

We do everything we can to ignore it. We concentrate on the personal characteristics of those who tell us. We wonder how many times Marcuse was married instead of what he has to say. We focus on our fears of changing doctors, ignoring that at a corporate whim we can be forced to change anyway. We marginalize what is, so that we do not have to face what might be.

Admit that things are not right - and that we can change them - and then we realize we ought to change them.

26 October 2009

Vignette One: Introduction

[This is post one in a series; they start here.]

If you understand One-Dimensional Man, even a little bit, the idea of an academic paper discussing or reviewing it is worthy of a deep, dark, tanuki belly laugh.

The entire work is Marcuse’s fear that society has become static. He worried that society made everything fit into a pre-existing frame; that even complaints simply reinforced the status quo instead of subverting it. So we're supposed to make this work fit into the traditional constraints of an academic paper?

Think about this for a minute: Ideas flow through our worldview like water trickling through a rat maze. There's no way for the water - or ideas - to change the course. It has to fit the contours of the walls.

When there are only round holes, where can you fit the square peg? Do you try to move the walls a little bit? Do you smash them all down? Or do you make the squareness of your peg so great that to even begin to comprehend, you have to move your own walls to the side?

So what do you do? Do you risk being accessible and find your work co-opted? Do you blow holes in the status quo and risk being rejected as a simple destroyer? Or do you make it hard to get, force people to make some effort to understand, and risk being ignored?

25 October 2009

Fighting in one dimension

Recently, I had to read Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. There's a lot of really great thoughts and ideas in the work. Really.

Most people would rather throw it across the room than read it. It's hard to read, he's an elitist snob at times, and very definitely stuck in his own time period.

But damn, there's some good thoughts in there.

I had to write a review of the work. I did so, and I think I covered the main points of One Dimensional Man in a way that is a hell of a lot more fun to read. Over the next ten business days, I'll be posting bits from my review.

It's called "Fighting in One Dimension: Marcuse in Ten Vignettes With Quotations From Fight Club"

Yes, this Fight Club.

See you tomorrow.

Peace - A 100 Word Story

This was again part of the 100 Word Stories Weekly Challenge. There's no voting this week, but you can still go and listen (and read) the rest of the stories over at the 100 Word Stories site. If you just want to listen to mine alone, you can do so using the player below. (If the player's borked, try this link.) Also, the background music is from the awesome Ghosts album by NiN, via the Creative Commons license. And now, on to the story.









Before, there was screaming.

The screams were in my head. It was all too much. Keeping up the house. Having the newest car. The stupid forms at work. Her marathon shopping sprees. The kids deciding their new hobby was too boring after we'd rearranged our schedules. Working twelve hour days to afford it all.

Even the dog growled at me.

Then the bum bit me. Twelve hours later, and I'm infected like him. It's simple now. I hunger for human flesh, and I kill. And I eat.

The screams are outside my head now.

But my mind is at peace.

23 October 2009

I take Rocky Horror Seriously

I take Rocky Horror seriously.

I was first exposed to it when I was fourteen or fifteen - I don't remember exactly. I snuck downtown for a midnight showing with a friend; it was my first R-rated movie.

He stopped going. I continued.

At first, it was the audience participation. Screaming funny things at the screen with a couple hundred other freaks is a wonderful experience - and a quick way to find like-minded folks. Then I began to appreciate the music for its own sake.

And then, finally, I came to appreciate the plot.

Oh, the scripting and dialogue is campy as hell. It has to be - otherwise you'd reject it out of hand. The theme of the story, behind all the drag and cheesy music, is the story of a flawed free spirit trying to create perfection, the two "normal" people who find the deep hidden urges they've always kept hidden, and the boot of society punishing those who dare step outside its norms. At the end, Brad and Janet - having discovered things about themselves they never suspected - have to somehow go back to their normal lives. (Don't believe me? Check out the lyrics from "Superheroes", the song that was cut from the movie.)

And those themes - shared with Dracula, actually - are powerful ones. They're even more counter-cultural than simply dressing in drag.

The strength of those themes may be why so much of the audience participation parts became conforming to majority cultural values - that is, openly sexist, homophobic, and racist.

There's a huge difference between laughing at those with power and laughing at those without. The actual show and movie do the first - too many of the audience participation bits do the latter.

It's a narrow line - one that satires like Family Guy have slid across as well. It's slid from satirizing mainstream American values - best exemplified in the episode when Peter gets declared an illegal immigrant or when Herbert (the creepy old pedophile) sings "Proud to be an American" in front of a crowd of schoolboys - into being just a bunch of fat and gay jokes. The show has gone from laughing at those with power to laughing at those without.

I don't know why I wasn't expecting the same thing with the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors.

I only remembered Audrey II saying "Feed me, Seymour", and the dentist being a sadist. I did not remember the rampant domestic violence throughout the first act, or the way it was routinely dismissed or minimized by the other characters. I did not remember the racist depiction of a money-grubbing Jewish shop owner adopting Seymour simply to keep the money flowing in.

And I didn't remember the classism.

Audrey (the woman, not the plant) has a "wish song" a good way through the first act - "Somewhere That's Green". Singing with the other women on Skid Row, she spells out her desires pretty clearly:

A matchbox of our own/A fence of real chain link,
A grill out on the patio/Disposal in the sink
A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine
In a tract house that we share/Somewhere that's green.

He rakes and trims the grass/He loves to mow and weed
I cook like Betty Crocker/And I look like Donna Reed
There's plastic on the furniture/To keep it neat and clean
In the Pine-Sol scented air/Somewhere that's green

Between our frozen dinner/And our bedtime, nine-fifteen
We snuggle watchin' Lucy/On our big, enormous twelve-inch screen


The audience I was with last night laughed throughout. The lady beside me repeated some of the lines in disbelief. "A twelve inch screen! Pine-sol! A garbage disposal and frozen dinner!"

Maybe it was because I had just eaten at McDonalds before going to the theater, sharing space with two people discussing where they were going to find a place to sleep tonight. Maybe it was remembering my parents trying to save enough to move out of the trailer. Maybe it was because two hours before, I had told another person about my experiences when I was on welfare.

But somehow, those lyrics weren't funny to me. I could too easily imagine the people in McDonalds wanting something like Audrey's dream. I'm all too aware that Audrey's wish is still unattainable for billions of people, even if her dreams seem pathetic to an upper middle class audience in the USA.

Ultimately, Little Shop of Horrors has a theme of the price of success in our society, and the ways we dehumanize ourselves to achieve even the most basic commercial and consumer comforts. In one sense, the musical really brings this home with the way Audrey II ends up threatening the entire audience. The greed and desires of one small group of people doom us all.[1]

There's heart and story in both The Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors. Maybe you've had fun just watching both, laughing along with the rest of mainstream society at those silly people up there.

Now take a risk. Stop laughing for a few moments, and try to feel what the characters are feeling.

Go ahead.

I dare you.

[1] Yes, you should be thinking about our current economic woes.

22 October 2009

When surveys fail.

[Steve's note: If you have any relationship to surveys - and in these days, practically anyone in business has a relationship with a customer service survey - this is important to you. This is a critique of a survey used at my university. It doesn't measure what it claims to. It doesn't even do a very good job measuring what it does measure. But we keep using it. This critique not only points out the flaws, but I have at the end an alternate survey that could do a far better job. It only took me about half an hour to make. Hopefully this critique - and my proposed change - will help you work with the surveys you need to deal with so that you get the information you want and need.]

"I hate student evaluations," she said. She teaches at the same university that I attend, though I've never taken a class with her.

"It's better than RateMyProfessor.com," I replied. "I've seen some really stupid comments there."

She was unconvinced. "I have to use this stupid book for the class. I don't have any control over that, so I have a whole bunch of powerpoints and supplementary materials to go with the class. Yet on the question that asks if course materials contributed to the course, I get poor marks." She stops me before I can ask the next, obvious question. "They like the powerpoints. They hate the book. They say so in the comments section. But when it asks about course materials, they always think about the book they have to buy for the course."

Students and instructors alike hate the "Student Evaluation of Instruction" my university uses, and rightly so. For an instrument that presumably captures the efficacy of instructional pedagogy, it has a frightfully poor design, both in visual layout and in terms of data collection.



To be fair, it does possess a few strengths. The instrument is simple. The directions are succinct, clear, and very visible on the survey instrument. It is very short, with a few demographic questions, seven Likert scale questions, and three open-ended questions at the end. It is very possible to complete this instrument within five minutes. That it has open-ended questions with ample space to complete them is a considerable bonus in attempting to collect the fullness of the student experience.

That said, the weaknesses of the instrument far outweigh its relatively minor strengths. Perhaps the largest weakness is that despite the explicit promise of anonymity, the instrument cannot be so. The open-ended questions, especially in a course where a significant amount of composition has occurred, greatly lend themselves to identifying the respondent. Should the instruction be able to obtain the individual data, it may be possible to determine the identity of a student from the minimal amount of demographic data collected.

There are many questions that omit possible - and common - potential responses. In the demographic information, students are asked to list their college or school, but omits the School of Graduate Studies. When it asks what grade you expect to receive, it omits the possibility of the class simply being a PASS/FAIL course.

Throughout the Likert scale questions, there is no provision for "Does not apply". For example, a seminar session may not require (or even reasonably expect) to consult with the instructor. Or the student may have never needed to consult with the instructor, and therefore finds themselves ignorant of the availability of the instructor.

As noted above, "course materials" is not properly conceptualized or operationalized,
resulting in respondent confusion between the text or the other materials provided by the instructor. Even if the situation was reversed - where supplementary materials were substandard and the text was a masterpiece - it is impossible to separate the evaluation of both.

Questions four through six, all nominally asking about the respondent's learning throughout the course, fail to take into account prior knowledge held by the student. Question seven asks if the student was motivated coming into the course, but fails to ask if that attitude changed during the duration of the course. The open-ended questions leave approximately a quarter of the instrument blank and unusable while simultaneously leaving an intimidating amount of whitespace for responses. This creates the perception that such space must be filled - and that can discourage respondents. The instrument is further often administered at a time when students are either pressured to complete the instrument so that class or a test may begin, or at the end of a class period when they have an incentive to leave the classroom and go on about their day.

Finally, this instrument merely measures self-reported perception of the instructor's technique, while leaving unmeasured the actual efficacy of the instructor's pedagogy. For example, an instructor who is extremely lenient may receive high marks on this instrument (though not performing their job), while a more difficult instructor may receive lower marks while more successfully instructing the students. This is compounded by the conflict of interest of the instructor, whose future rewards (e.g. salary and tenure) are influenced by pleasing the respondents. Pleasing respondents is not equivalent to teaching them well.

Part of revising this instrument will involve revising the manner of its administration, so that respondents do not feel pressured to quickly complete the instrument. Further, it should be noted that this instrument cannot be considered a comprehensive evaluation of instructional techniques without assessing student performance in the class. That kind of revamping is beyond the scope of this project, but would involve (at the minimum) determining the correlation between perception and actual performance, and ideally would include making the responses confidential instead of anonymous.

So following you'll find a proposed (by me) revised instrument that actually does the job - and could do it well.

20 October 2009

Pro-life? Then support universal health care.

Yesterday I attended a talk about doctors and medicine under Nazi rule. The talk focused on the historical aspects, but the advertising for it seemed to indicate a relationship with the current health care debate. Realistically, the only connection presented was this:

"When Americans accuse other Americans of being Nazis, that shows they don't know or comprehend what Nazis really did."

And that's pretty generally true. But yet, there was a link.

As the film covered the eugenics run-up to Nazi sterilization and euthanasia in the 1920's and 1930's [1], we saw propaganda promoting the social good of the eugenics movement. To paraphrase one clip: "The care for this mentally retarded child will cost the government thousands of dollars." The image below is another good example.



It was chilling to see such a blatant dollar amount put on a life. When we say a human life is worth a certain amount of money, we make inhuman decisions - like deciding whether or not to give someone medical care - the appearance of being rational. Some folks are already claiming that national health care would do something like that.

But the system we have now does exactly that..

Our current "free market" system of insurers do exactly the same thing, denying care to people who develop life-threatening conditions and treating even domestic abuse as a pre-existing condition. It is not profitable, they say, regardless of the inhumanity of deciding someone should die so they can make more of a profit. Hospitals in some states - most notably Texas in 1999 while George W. Bush was governor - can decide to stop providing care to a patient due to financial reasons. And it's all perfectly legal.

And it continues, because we make it seem rational to blatantly put a dollar amount on a life. To worry more about profits than about the health of an individual. And that brings me to my final question.

Where the hell are the pro-lifers?

I hear the pro-life organizations talk about the sanctity of life for the unborn. Sometimes they'll talk about the sanctity of life in regards to the death penalty, and much more rarely about warfare.

Denying basic medical care to any individual is violating the "sanctity of life". [2] When basic medical care is denied, people die. The deaths are preventable. [3]

But the pro-life groups are silent.

And so I have to wonder how much they believe in the "sanctity of life" - and how much it's a convenient catchphrase for getting what they want.


[1] Mind you, the leader in eugenics at that time was the United States.
[2] I'm explicitly avoiding covering abortion, birth control, etc. Those are separate issues, and should be treated separately. At least, if you are actually concerned about the sanctity of life.
[3] It's even easier to see this when you go outside the industrialized west. Simply providing mosquito nets and clean drinking water alone would prevent millions of deaths a year.

19 October 2009

Crush - A 100 Word Story

You'll want to listen to this story; I think the music (from here) really adds something to it.

As before, this story was entered in the weekly challenge. I'd appreciate it if you take a moment to vote for it at this site.


I loved Sally, though I couldn't understand why a model like her would be with a nerd like me. I told myself I would do anything to get a girl like her.

That's why I didn't object when she squished the bug during sex. "It's what gets me off," she said.

It had been so long, I didn't care. And at first, it was a little exciting.

Then it was spiders. Centipedes. Mice. Birds. A hamster.

When it was finally my own head squeezed under her stilleto heel, I realized I didn't really love her.

It was only a crush.

17 October 2009

Traffic and Me

[This is an edited (length severely cut) version of my academic review of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) for a class. Despite it being for a class, I hope you find it interesting - and I highly recommend the book for anyone who has even thought about getting behind the wheel.]

There were five of us in the car.

I had just turned seventeen, ready to start my first year at college, and finally had a driver's license. The summer sun shone on the asphalt and my car alike; we were on one of the few straight, unwooded roads outside of town. I had been driving for several months; the jitters I'd started with were finally gone. It was a lazy driving summer day.

I don't remember what the conversation was about; I just remember turning to say something to Dan in the back seat. A few seconds later, Loretta and Ray started yelling; I looked up and swerved just in time to avoid hitting the other car. I'd veered all the way into the other lane.

This was the first in a pattern. I've driven in some horrific conditions. Several hours in whiteout conditions during a blizzard in the mountains of West Virginia. A torrential downpour in Virginia, reminiscent of the monsoons in Korea, which flooded the road and introduced me to the world of hydroplaning. Sheets of ice in Missouri that only needed a zamboni to let one skate on the blacktop. None of my serious crashes or near misses happened in these conditions. They all occurred in broad daylight, on sunny days, in relatively boring traffic. They happened when I felt safe.

We live with a comforting reality inside our heads, one where causality is a continuous narrative, explaining the story of our lives. A solipsistic story, where life is a choose-your-own adventure tale rather than a novel where the outcome is far outside our control. We see artifacts of this communal - but private - narrative in our cultural artifacts. We search for controllable differences between crime victims and ourselves. We vilify the mentally ill to provide for criminal minds that are not like us.
We fervently believe that our modern Horatio Algers - Microsoft and HP - really started in garages just like our own.

And we drive as if we know what we're doing.

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt has unintentionally created an accessible postmodern exposé, illustrating through cyclic examples how the world we think we see simply isn't the world around us at all.

He writes in a popular modern style - one I call "new comprehensible snark". It will be comfortable for those who are used to reading Slate, or perhaps listening to the edgier National Public Radio programs (no, that's not an oxymoron) such as Radiolab. This is not surprising, since Mr. Vanderbilt also writes for Slate and Wired. This is fortunate, because not only does he present a mass of information in this text, but also the material itself challenges our worldview.

In one respect, this work is easy to summarize: The world is not as it seems to you. People are stranger than your plans for them, and will probably thwart your good intentions anyway. You do not have as much control as you think, especially in traffic.

Each chapter, despite the different angles by which they approach this theme, simply presents more and more evidence to support this thesis. This is necessary; his goal of convincing us to accept an evidence-based view of the world that directly contradicts our internal narrative is a difficult one for most people to accept. At least, for themselves.

Yet at the same time, this work is difficult to summarize. The devil is in the details, and the details are fascinating, even though they merely skim the surface of concept.

Ultimately, this book is a first step towards changing the way we look at traffic and ourselves. Top-down solutions have routinely failed due to the human element. Instead, this book aims to work at altering the narratives of individuals. By presenting this information, Mr. Vanderbilt hopes to start the realization and discussion. Although he expresses doubt for the persistence of this information in himself, I found it affecting my own driving habits. In the short term, I have noticed myself paying more attention to conditions, eschewing the cell phone, and generally avoiding hitting anyone. It does provide a glimmer of hope for a better future.
Once we are able to set aside our own individual sense of supremacy and total control, once we can become aware of the ways we fail to evaluate reality and risk, once we realize our own biological limitations and tendencies, we may be able to find the roadways to be a civil, polite, and efficient place.

At least, until we have problems from all the pigs flying about.

14 October 2009

Pinball People

[Steve's note: This is pretty autobiographical, so the names have been changed to protect everyone. I originally wrote it years ago for political reasons; I'm posting it now for a totally different reason. I overheard someone at college say that all their high school friends suddenly got on Facebook, and they denied all the friend requests. "Why would I want to be friends with those losers?" he said.
So with that preface...]


Fireball. A wave of memory roared against me; I hadn't seen that pinball game - or even a picture of it - since high school. Like so many things, the memory of it wasn't alone; circling around the game was the memory of Jonathan.

Jonathan's hair was tousled. Not in “cute-as-a-button” child way, but in a slightly greasy unkempt way, framing his overlarge nerd glasses. He was a geek even to us geeks, freaks, and weirdos. From the back of the laundromat where we took lunch (munching on pepperoni rolls, smoking cigarettes), we'd watch him play Fireball. Every day, all through lunch.

The laundromat was within easy walking distance of my high school, back in the days of open campuses where social divisions could be made real by physical distance. We'd stream out in search of a place to talk, smoke, and eat, a trickling babble of black coats, blue jeans, tie-dye shirts, and out-of-style thrift shop fashions - and end up at the laundromat. For that brief moment each day we were free from the demands of classrooms and homework. For a short while, we were free from the "beautiful people", those popular kids who had it all, whose lives were put together, who already knew that they were going to college, and where. For a little while, we were away from them, those people with impossible sitcom lives. We were able to be ourselves.

My second-grade teacher had encouraged my love of writing, encouraging me to create a magazine for my class. I remember the mimeograph machine, the spaceship I'd drawn for the cover - but above all I remember my best friend hiding his face from me while I passed them out during homeroom. Then I knew, in wordless second-grade thoughts, that I was no longer "one of them", no longer accepted. From that day, until midway through high school, I tried to be one of the beautiful people - to be included in their parties, to date them, to be accepted. Despite my efforts, the party invitations were nonexistent, and dances were rituals in emotional pain.

The last school dance I attended was in my sophomore year. I had a crush on Sophia, one of the beautiful people, and spent the first half hour trying to work up the nerve to ask her to dance. Before my courage even thought about making an appearance, Tara approached and asked me to dance. It was one of the shuffling high-school "slow dances" that resembles a stumbling hug set to music. Tara was... she was sweet, and kind of cute. I'm fairly certain that she liked me at the time. But she wasn't Sophia, and she wasn't one of the beautiful people. In fact, a few days before I'd heard some of Sophia's friends making fun of Tara at school. I remembered their words, and turned Tara down. Her face fell; I'd made every last bit of the teasing become real to her. When I finally asked, Sophia still wouldn't dance with me. Even rejecting others was never enough for me to "pass" as one of the beautiful people.

Not long afterward, I stopped trying to be someone else, and discovered those around me. I grew up in a relatively small town. Once you took out the beautiful people, dividing the rest of high school up into groups - nerds, theater geeks, art geeks, punks, hippies, wierdos, burnouts, rebels and more - didn't leave many people in each group. So most of us stuck together. We weren't snooty in-crowd "beautiful people", and didn't care. We were real people.

High school can prepare you for life, but it's not the books or lectures that stay with you. The beautiful people are still out there, living their in-crowd cliquish games. Only now they're CEOs and power brokers, the have-mores, the rich and powerful. They still tease and mock us, hoping we'll turn on each other to gain their favor, knowing they never really have to accept us.

Jonathan was annoying, even while he was playing the pinball game. He'd whoop and holler, and constantly bust into everyone's conversations with his latest high score, or to bum a quarter or a smoke. He'd embarrass us, give the beautiful people a reason to reject us, and at least once he ruined my chance to ask a girl out.

And we'd let go of our prejudices, damn what the beautiful people thought, and laugh with him, play multiplayer pinball, and disagree over which bands were better. After all, he was one of us - a real person.

And real people take care of each other, because the beautiful people sure as hell won't.

12 October 2009

Forty - A 100 Word Story

Once again, I've entered this story into the Weekly Challenge. Feel free to stop by there and vote for my story; you can also read the other entries and hear them there. If you just want to hear mine alone, the MP3 is here.

In this world, lawyers are real predators. Feral copyright attorneys hunt the streets. Outside, a patent infringer's gunship ravages a corporate skyscraper. The building rumbles, preparing to launch into low orbit.

I shake my head. The scene fades as I toss the paper - my fortieth attempt at a believable world - into the wastebin.

I write again, and the world fills in around me. Giant insects buzz, a velociraptor screeches, and I quickly throw that paper aside.

I pick up my pen again. This time, I write you. Your world, your cities, your people.

I'm not sure if I like it.

10 October 2009

We need fewer selfish libertarians

I was just at the post office (yes, the government-run but NOT taxpayer funded one). I ended up parking next to a guy who had the following bumper stickers on his truck: "Drill Baby Drill", "Mob 2008", "Tea Party - Keep our Taxes", and "Socialism is not change we can believe in".

The individual ended up in front of me in line, where he complained about the market-driven one cent price increase in postage for postcards. When asked if he'd like his receipt, he growled "Give it to Obama" to the clerk. As I left, I got to see him back all the way out of the parking lot, back across two lanes of traffic, and make a three-point turn in the middle of a arterial road.

So this "libertarian":

  1. Used a government service voluntarily instead of using a competitor

  2. Complained about free market forces that inconvenienced him

  3. Used taxpayer funded services (the road) while complaining about non-taxpayer funded services (the post office)

  4. Put others in danger with his own reckless behavior (see this post)



I understand that there are well-meaning, philosophical libertarians. Ones who are knowledgeable and fully cognizant of their political stance. Where they will accept the negatives that come with their philosophy, instead of using it as a justification for being selfish.

Could the real libertarians please disown selfish asshats like the guy I saw today?

Thanks.

09 October 2009

When the hard sell gets stupid

A little over a year ago, I made the mistake of inviting a window salesman inside my home. The guy was from ImproveIt! Home Remodeling; this particular branch is based out of Columbus Ohio. He was just supposed to show us the product. I said, up front, that I did not want to buy anything that day. That I just wanted to see the product and then comparison shop.

All the sales tactics I observed when I documented my experience at a multilevel marketer occurred - and I fell for them. I signed stuff, and it wasn't until later that I added things up and realized the windows would cost more than a third the value of the house. That was something that I simply could not afford at the time.

Further, I was upset that I'd fallen for the sales pitch. I did not want them to come back out and subject me to that again. I wanted to take the information, comparison shop, and determine if it really was the best deal. If the product was as great as the salesman thought, then it should hold up when I comparison shopped.

It's worth noting that I still thought the windows were okay at that time. I simply realized I couldn't afford them. (My opinion has since changed, see below.)

Luckily, Ohio has a provision that you can renounce, within three days, a sale of this kind if you sign it in your home. I filled out that form, and sent it with a letter saying "I'm still interested, but I will contact you when I'm ready to buy". I rather specifically said at that time that I was not interested in them contacting me for follow up.

Which they did, contrary to my instructions. They called my wife, and tried to pressure her to make a decision while I was at work. She did not, and at that point I sent them a legal document forbidding them to contact me or any other member of my family. They were not to come to my property, call, or do anything besides return the deposit check.

Which the company did, but in person, and then tried to talk me back into buying the windows.

And then called nine months later.

And now they're e-mailing me again, asking why I got so upset.

Maybe it's because they keep contacting me after I specifically told them to never contact me again.

As a side note, to my (admittedly layman) eye, there were equivalent windows available at Lowe's for a third to half the price, and it was possible to install them two at a time, instead of doing the whole house at once and making extra payments on a loan like this company wanted me to.

Because of their sales practices, I would recommend staying away from ImproveIT! Home Remodeling. Even if their product is significantly better (something I am not convinced of any more), their inability to understand a simple instruction to leave me alone makes me question their entire business model. I'm not alone - take a look at the BBB page for the Columbus, OH branch of the company that I dealt with.

When the customer tells you to bugger off, maybe you should stop trying to sell your product. Just saying.

08 October 2009

How to Be On the Internet When You're Not

I seem to be on the internet all the time. I've even been asked - and quite seriously - if there was a way to make my updates into a daily digest. (There is now, it's called LoudTwitter, and I have it posting to my LJ account.) But this complaint is nothing new for me.

I've been running daily joke lists since about 1997. It grew out of a particular message board on a BBS system back when disabling the "blink" tag was a needed requirement.

Originally, I would just post jokes from my collection when I got a chance. But due to the craziness of my schedule - even then - I would end up posting seven to ten jokes in a huge batch, then nothing for a few days, then a while later would blast out another batch. So I wrote a program to help me space it out for everyone else. The same thing happened when I (informally) started posting online resources to a homeschooling mailing list. So again, I formalized the process into a daily homeschool resources list and blog and try to spread things out.

I can't access the internet from work most of the time. Only when I'm on breaks or at lunch can I get online - and I can never get to Twitter itself. But when I'm at lunch, I don't want to be blasting Twitter (and by extension, Facebook and Myspace since my tweets are mirrored in both places) with all three blogs I update, a Very Short Story, and any links I want to share all at the same time. Not to mention that I'm fond of eating lunch.

So I have tools. The Very Short Stories (and occasionally another observation that I find interesting) are sent by FutureTweets. I often write ten to twelve of these in one day, enter them all, and don't write any more for a week.

I heavily use TwitterFeed as well. It looks through RSS feeds that I specify every so often. Some are set to every thirty minutes, most are every two to four hours, and one of them (the #music feed, which pulls from last.fm) is only checked every twelve hours.

This also lets me share cool links on a delay. One of the feeds that Twitterfeed looks at comes from Google Reader. I can "share" articles from there - but it may not show up in my Twitter (Facebook, etc) stream until hours later.

This can make it look like I am online when I am not.

For example - I mark an item to "share" it at 0700 and leave to go to work. Twitterfeed doesn't see it until 1000, then posts it to Twitter/Facebook/etc. I'm at work, and cannot access either Twitter or Facebook... but it can easily look like I'm getting around the rules somehow. Heck, I'm posting this just after 0630 local; it'll probably hit Twitter and Facebook as a note (the two don't happen on the same schedule) while I'm either on the way to work or actually at work.

Luckily, my supervisor realizes that I'm not stupid enough to friend her on Facebook and then proceed to publicly break company policy. It is, however, something to be aware of if your company has a restrictive internet policy.

06 October 2009

Dark Secrets of A Fantasy Writer - EXPOSED!

I got two rejection e-mails this morning, one with the (rather cruel, I thought) checkboxed form-letter note that the story "did not hold their interest". [1]

But it is still a frabjuous day, because it is Mermaid Day.

Today the second book in Jim C Hines' Princess Novels, The Mermaid's Madness, comes out. [3] I really liked the first book in the series, The Stepsister Scheme. (You can read my review of that book at Goodreads.)

But wait, says my imaginary reader in my head, Where's that "exposing the dark secrets of writers" bit the title promised?

Ah. That's this bit below.

Jim agreed to answer a question - any one question - from fans who sent him an e-mail. Mine is below, and you can see the rest of the questions he answered back at Jim C. Hines' blog. (As he notes there, questions will be added as they go live.) Stop by there and wish him a happy mermaid day!

So enough me, here's my interview question for Jim:

Hi Steven!

I'm a little behind where I wanted to be, but I'm making my way through the one-question interviews.

Q: Have you ever been worried that someone would see themselves (or think they saw someone from real life) in your work?

A: Actually, most of my coworkers joke about ending up in my books, and the horrible deaths I'll write for them after they drop a stack of paperwork in my Inbox.

It's not something I really worry about, though. I don't base my characters on real-world people*, and I've yet to have anyone claim to recognize someone from my books.

Which isn't to say I haven't been tempted. All joking aside, there have been people I feel deserve a very slow, messy, painful (fictional!) death. I've wanted to write them into the books, just to make their characters squeal. But satisfying as that might be, at that point I'm writing as therapy, which means my own emotional catharsis has become more important than staying true to the story.

Not to mention I don't want to get sued! So I play it safe and don't worry about it.

*With the exception of Stub the cat, who is totally based on my cat Pod. But I pay him off in cat food and tuna juice, so we're cool.


Awesome!

[1] This actually doesn't bother me. [2] I have read slush before, and many of the stories I read that did not hold my interest ended up holding another slush reader's. But while that lets me blow it off as a subjective opinion, it's still a bit cruel to have as part of a form letter.
[2] No, really. It just means I submit the work somewhere else.
[3] Mine has already shipped. Order yours now!

05 October 2009

Wings - A 100 Word Story

Once again, I've entered this story into the Weekly Challenge. Feel free to stop by there and vote for my story; you can also read the other entries and hear them there. If you just want to hear mine alone, the MP3 is here.

“We don’t have penguins,” she IM’d. Her avatar’s tail twitched.

He panned his cam over the alife chickens and turtles covering their
parcel. The virtual eggs filled his inventory.

“The people next to us have penguins,” she continued. “And scripted
flexiwings.”

He rezzed his own wings. “I got these from Yadni’s…”

“I don’t want some freebie crap,” she said, and logged off.

He made his wings stretch and flap. They’d been free,
but with full permissions. With them, he could do anything.

The neighbors watched the wings carry him over their chickens, turtles, and penguins, heading east, never to return.

02 October 2009

Starving sheep at work

The problems in my workplace - and probably yours - have to do with starved sheep.

It's become fashionable to appeal to doing the right and pleasant thing. We focus on a contractual "commitment to my co-workers", we are attempting to eliminate a lot of the negative elements of a workplace environment. Things worked well when we instituted this change. There was a palpable upward tick in employee satisfaction and morale. Yet in the months since, there has been a pretty significant - and constant - slide back down towards where we were before. And it's all because of those hungry sheep. (And a lack of pirates.)

Or, rather, it's the same problem as what the sheep faced. Back hundreds of years ago, grazing was done on a common field shared by all the herders. In principle, each person would be using only their share of the land, and there would be enough for everyone's sheep. But such an arrangement - where all are responsible collectively, but none are responsible individually - tends to end up with some people overusing the resource. Then not everyone has enough, and it can leave what was once a fertile commons simply a barren dustbowl.

The tragedy of the commons - as the above example is called - is a frequently-invoked justification for privatization. The argument implies that if you have to bear the cost of your own overuse, then no-one else gets harmed by your mistakes. The interesting thing is that this seems to happen in relationships as well.

Jonathan Haight gave a talk at the 2008 TED conference in Monteray. In it - at about 11’30” - he talks about this problem: (I'm paraphrasing)

In 2002, the paper "Altruistic Punishment in Humans" by Fehr and Gachter was published in Nature. In it, they discussed their unusual experiment on cooperation. An experiment was rigged where everyone could put some money into a collective "pot", it was doubled, and then divided among everyone there. Everyone - not just the people who contributed. At first, nearly everyone participated, and fairly quickly co-operation was at an astounding low rate. People began to "free ride" - that is, they'd collect benefits without contributing anything. As a result, fewer people wished to contribute. It was the tragedy of the commons all over again.

Until the punishments began.

In round seven, the experimenters added consequences - players could gossip, or everyone had to contribute, or you'd get a lesser share if you didn't contribute. As soon as consequence began to show up, participation in the whole system shot back upwards, and continued to rise. It didn't matter what the consequence was - as long as there was a visible consequence for being a free rider.


In our workplace, the tragedy of the commons - what caused the sheep to starve - is in the hamstringing of already existing social pressures. Before, gossip, managerial punishment, and group exclusion served as imperfect punishment methods to avoid problems. Now, however, any managerial correction is administered in secret. Social pressure from the group cannot be legitimately exercised, and those with the strongest egos (and who don't mind conflict) survive personal confrontation.

This unintended consequence of trying to make the workplace a kinder place is bringing the tragedy of the commons back into personal workplace relationships. Those who do the right thing gain no benefit, but clearly see those who take advantage of the system get away with it. Once again, we need that "pirate" spirit to buck the niceness and point out the free riders. Only then can the sheep and pirates live in harmony.