Monday, December 23, 2013

Quackers and Crackers: The Duck Dynasty Controversy

I've never seen the TV show Duck Dynasty, but from what I gather, it’s a coalescence of ZZ Top meets the Kardashians, with a bit of The Beverly Hillbillies thrown in. Judging from the publicity stills, the cast is composed of a family of six scraggly bearded rednecks. Duck Dynasty is what TV executives dub a reality show, which means it bears no relation to reality or anything in real life as you and I perceive the world around us. The show is in the news because of an interview one of its cast members gave to GQ Magazine (putting aside the obvious question of why a publication aimed at an audience of urbane gentleman would showcase scraggly bearded rednecks who hang out in marshes).

Phil Robertson, the self-described “bible-thumper”, in the course of the interview told GQ :

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong . Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.” Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

This upset certain liberals and gay advocacy groups. Robertson also commented about how happy blacks were in the days of the Jim Crow South:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

This doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone, including blacks. Perhaps it is because they feel our “post-racial” society has advanced far enough beyond those days that it no longer matters what nonsense a cracker in a flannel shirt spouts. Or maybe homosexuals are a tad more sensitive.

Regardless, the ensuing din has proven politics makes strange bedfellows. Liberals, who should be supporting free speech, have declared that’s only true when it’s speech they believe in; while conservatives, who would normally argue a business should act in its shareholders’ interests by not alienating sponsors, instead are aghast a TV network would remove a potentially offensive TV star from the air.

Around digital water cooler known as the Web, discussions have revolved around whether Robertson’s First Amendment rights had been violated. This is what’s known as a red herring. The TV network is, of course, free to use its business judgment in deciding whether to dismiss an employee and the First Amendment is not applicable to corporations. The First Amendment is one of 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, which the Founding Fathers tacked onto the newly drafted Constitution to placate the concerns of some of the colonies so they would ratify it. The colonies, having just broken away from England, feared a strong central government and wanted some guarantees that there would be restrictions and limitations on the powers of the proposed federal government. Thus, the First Amendment is a restriction on what the government may do, and not a restriction on what individuals or corporations may do. That’s why it begins “Congress shall make no law…” and not “Corporations shall not…” So, there is no First Amendment issue involved here.

However, the First Amendment is not synonymous with free speech. What the First Amendment does, is protect the concept of freedom of speech from encroachment by the government. This is in recognition of the importance of the concept of freedom of speech –  to our society, and to democracy at large. But that concept goes beyond the First Amendment. As the French philosopher René Descartes said, “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”. Man is an intelligent creature, and as such, cannot help but think. It’s only natural that individuals wish to verbalize their thoughts. When individuals encounter facts, and interpret their perception of those facts, they arrive at opinions. Facts are objective statements; opinions are subjective interpretations of those facts. Thus, opinions cannot be right or wrong, or true or false. Their beliefs are often the result of indoctrination at an early age of a societal or religious belief system. So when self-professed bible-thumper Robertson says homosexuality is a disgusting sin, he is reiterating what he has been brought up to believe and what his religion has instilled within him. His comments are not any different from what the world’s major religions have preached for millennia or what the majority of the world agreed upon in the previous centuries. Even in the progressive United States, the American Psychiatric Association as recently as 1973 classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. While that view has changed in much of America, they obviously didn't get the memo in Russia, let alone in the Bayou.

If I were gay, I wouldn't be concerned about the ravings of a scraggly beard redneck who claims being homosexual will keep me out of his make-believe members only club in the sky after I die. I’d be more concerned with discrimination by people trying to keep me out of real places during my lifetime, and let the afterlife take care of itself.

However, what I find more distressing is the Orwellian concept of politically correct thought police penalizing expression. This inevitably results in a chilling effect, causing individuals to self censor their thoughts and speech, which is the antithesis of a free society. Certainly, some thoughts and speech will be offensive, ill-founded, and inciteful rather than insightful. But the free exchange of ideas is essential to the advancement of society and the proper functioning of a democracy. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  proposed the concept of a public “marketplace of ideas” where individuals could freely exchange their thoughts and the rational ones, like cream, would rise to the top and force the rhetoric to sink. Holmes’ concept advocates more speech as the best rebuttal to offensive speech.

I don’t want to live in a society where individuals are forced to repress their thoughts. I prefer to know which individuals, especially public figures, hold views abhorrent to me. Let them self-identify as bigots or racists, if they are foolish enough to do so.

As the gatekeeper to a medium that chooses which individuals to allow be heard by society, TV networks should be mindful of the chilling effect of punishing those individuals for expressing their opinion – however odious – in forums other than their own. As a free society, we need to jettison political correctness and allow public discourse, accepting that there will be opinions at variance with our own.   

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Christmas Treat!

Christmas is a special time of year, and in keeping with the festive occasion, I suggest you download some appropriate reading material, like this unusual collection of skewed Christmas tales. Every year, Keith writes a special Christmas short story, and now you can read them all in this Kindle e-book.

These warped Christmas classics include "The Trial of Santa Claus", "Far From Home", "A Christmas Carol", "A Christmas Present for Ashley," "Christmas at the Mall". Click the image to purchase.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Did Your Ex Post Your Nude Photo Online?

In Colonial America, public shaming was a popular punishment, evoking imagery of men and women locked in the stocks in the public square or adulteresses branded with a scarlet letter “A”. Public shaming has resurfaced, but today the public square is the Internet, and the shaming is done not by government as punishment but by sleazy businesses for profit. These sites display embarrassing photographs of individuals and then charge them a fee for their removal.

The two main variations of exploitation Web sites are revenge porn sites and mugshot sites. Revenge porn Web sites solicit nude photographs of ex-lovers or former friends. Mugshot sites download their photos from police Web sites and databases. Revenge porn sites argue they're only displaying what others have uploaded and thus fall under the safe harbor of a federal statute, the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects Web site owners from defamation claims for materials posted by others. The mugshot sites claim, while they might be the ones posting the images, mugshots are public records, freely accessible under state Open Record Laws.

No one wants family, friends, or prospective employers to stumble across their mugshot or nude photos on the Web. That’s why these exploitation Web sites charge people to remove the photos they appear in. Exploitation sites are like modern day grave robbers who dig up people’s shameful pasts and charge to rebury the skeletons. You might think charging to remove humiliating images displayed by these sites is extortion, but since the site operator isn't applying force or coercion, it doesn't meet the legal definition of extortion. But even if removed from one exploitation site, the picture may pop up on another, leaving the aggrieved individual trapped in a game of “Whack-A-Mole”.

The adage “The Internet is forever” rings true: The images may still appear in search engine caches; on mirrored sites; in Web archives; or worse, have gone viral, being posted on multiple blogs, Web pages, and social media. For example, The Lubbock Lineup Facebook page digitizes public humiliation, juxtaposing mugshots with “selfies” from an individual’s Facebook page under the heading “I Promise I Look Much Better on Facebook”.

The intent of revenge porn sites is to embarrass the victim. Some sites maximize the humiliation by posting the person’s name and screenshots of, or links to, her social media pages; including contact information and school or workplace, or allow visitors to post anonymous harassing comments. Even more humiliating, because they compile so much information on the victim, revenge porn sites often pop up at or near the top of a Google search for an individual’s name — visible to family, friends, classmates, co-workers, customers, clients, and current or potential employers. The result can be ruined reputations and careers. Victims also face the threat of stalkers and harassment.

While the site owners are protected by the CDA, there are other legal strategies victims might employ. Under federal copyright law, if the photo was taken by the victim (a “selfie”), then she’s automatically considered the copyright holder with exclusive rights to distribute and display the photo. The CDA doesn’t bar a copyright infringement claim, so she could force the site to remove the photo by sending it a DMCA takedown notice. If the site fails to do so, she can sue for infringement. The downside to this approach is, it’s only available to the one who created the work (the photographer). If anyone other than the victim, like an ex-boyfriend, took the photo, she can’t claim infringement. Also, although the takedown notice should result in the photo’s removal, she’ll only be entitled to damages if she had registered the photo with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the infringement. This is impractical, as one is unlikely to submit a copy of a humiliating photograph to the Copyright Office to be archived indefinitely under her name in the Library of Congress, or to suspect a particular photo will be published online until after the fact.

Some revenge porn sites add personal information, screenshots, or links to victims’ social media accounts to the content uploaded by third-parties. Taking a hand in developing the content might destroying their CDA immunity.

Of course, victims can sue the person who posted the offensive photos for invasion
of privacy and seek monetary damages, but they'd have to be able to identify the poster and prove he uploaded the photos. The downside is, the victim, as a plaintiff in a civil suit, would be named in the public record with a description of the posting, and a judgment against the poster would have no effect on the Web site, which might continue to display the photos.

California passed a law in late 2013 making posting revenge porn a misdemeanor
punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail, but it applies only to photos taken by others (not to selfies sent to an ex) and posted “with the intent to cause serious emotional distress” (thus raising a possible lack of intent defense). The law doesn’t target revenge porn sites, which remain protected by the CDA.

Last week, California prosecutors charged a man, not under the state’s new law, but with 31 felony counts of conspiracy, identity theft, and extortion for operating a revenge porn site. The year-old site boasted more than 10,000 “nude and explicit photographs of others without their permission” according to court documents. The man was charged with obtaining identifying information with the intent to annoy or harass because his site required the victim be identified by name, age, and other information. He charged up to $350 to remove the photos, receiving “tens of thousands of dollars.”  

 To learn more about revenge porn sites and mugshot sites, buy my new book, Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law, 8th Edition.

Issues in Internet Law

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Private Eyes Are Watching You

“I’ve misplaced my phone again,” my friend Stallion said. “I don’t know why they call it a smart phone; it’s always getting lost.”

“There’s an app for that, you know.” I had learned there was an application for just about everything on the Internet, other than a “happy” app that would finally make those annoying angry birds happy.

“What’s it called?” Stallion asked.

“Private Eyes Are Watching You. Just think of the old Hall and Oates song. You can download it from the NSA Website.”

“The National Security Administration has an app for finding misplaced mobile phones?” Stallion asked in surprise.

“Why, sure. It makes sense. The government mandated every mobile phone have a GPS chip inside. It can locate any cell phone on Earth in seconds.”

“But suppose someone has stolen my phone. It could be anywhere in the world by now.”

“No problem!  The NSA collects data on the location of five billion mobile phones worldwide, every single day! They have a database that stores the physical locations of hundreds of millions of smart phones and tablets. I’m sure your device is already in the NSA database.”

“You mean, for years, the NSA has known where I’ve gone and whom I’ve phoned or texted?”

“Sure. Using your own phone, the NSA can retrace your movements and expose hidden relationships among people you call or text. The NSA software triangulates calls based on the location of the nearest cell towers. Its powerful analytical tool called CO-TRAVELER searches for known associates by tracking individuals whose movements intersect. But don’t worry; I’m sure they’d never tell your wife. Well, pretty sure.”

“You mean the NSA is tracking my visits to doctors, private business meetings… even hotel rooms? That sucks.”

“Well, you had to realize your smart phone would rat you out, one day. Mobile phones broadcast their location even when you’re not sending calls or texts. You’re walking around with a homing beacon in your pocket, dude.”

“Still, I’m sure the government must need that data to track terrorists.”

”Sure. After all, 5 million phones a day times 365 days in a year… how many terrorists would you say that makes out there? Already, the NSA database has filled 27 terabytes—twice the size of the text content in the Library of Congress’s print collection. But that’s just a start – according to The Washington Post, NSA Chief Keith Alexander said an even broader collection of such data "may be something that is a future requirement for the country". The NSA's FASCIA database stores trillions of device location records and metadata. I'm sure they can help find your lost phone." 

“Still, that’s kind of creepy.”

“If you think that’s creepy, you should check out”

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The New 2014 Edition of Issues In Internet Law Has Just Been Published!

Want to find out more about how the NSA is spying on American citizens? There's an entire brand new chapter devoted to that topic in the 8th edition of Issues In Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law.
Issues in Internet Law
Here's what else is in this edition:
The 8th edition of Issues In Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law has been updated for 2014 with the latest cases and trends in Internet Law. The new edition not only has an expanded glossary and expanded topic, statute, and case indexes but a new chapter devoted to the NSA's spying on Internet users.
Topics include:
Privacy: Invasion of Privacy, Public Records, Workplace Privacy, Employer & ISP Monitoring, Data Collection, Data Retention, Data Breaches, E-Mail & Chat Room Privacy, Web Site Privacy Policies, Behavioral Marketing, Flash Cookies, Device Fingerprinting, Privacy & Children, Metadata, Border Searches, FISA & the USA PATRIOT Act, the NSA, FISA Court, PRISM, XKeyscore;
Free Speech: Defamation, SLAPPs, Gripe Sites, Revenge Porn Sites, Mugshot Sites, Blogs & Vlogs, Obscenity & Pornography, Harassment & Hate Speech, Prior Restraint, Repression, Student Speech, CDA, Anonymous Speech, Commercial Speech, Expressive Conduct;
Social Media: Misuse, Ownership, Coerced Access, the Courts;
Cybercrimes: Spam, Phishing, Identity Theft, Spyware & Malware, Cyberstalking, Cyberbullying, Computer Trespass, Wardriving, Virtual Crime;
Intellectual Property: Copyright, Trademark, Patent, Trade Secrets, Creative Commons, Linking, Framing, File-Sharing, Fair Use, Public Domain, Work-Made-For-Hire, DMCA, VARA, Domain Name Disputes, Keyword Advertising, America Invents Act;
Business & the Internet: Internet Taxation, Internet Interstate Commerce, Web Contracts, e-Discovery, Corporate Securities, Crowdfunding, Reg A, Reg D;
Also: Cloud Computing; Digital Currency; Right of Publicity; Web Accessibility; Net Neutrality; Online Reputation Management; Social Media Monitoring; the Right to be Forgotten; Podcasts; Geofiltering; Digital Journalism; Hyper Local Web Sites, Digital Estate Planning; Sexting; E-Books and many more subjects.
8th edition - published October 14, 2013 - 552 pages
Available from: (Barnes & Noble)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

To: National Security Agency
    Fort Meade, Maryland, USA

Date: Classified

Dear NSA:

Hi, it's me again. I've just read that you are harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging “buddy lists”. I wanted to ask you for another favor. You see, I don't have many online friends. I don't visit chat rooms, and most of my e-mail comes from spammers, not real people. The life of a writer is a solitary, lonely existence. Then, I learned that, in just one day, the NSA collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, and 33,697 from Gmail. Entire address books filled with contact information for all sorts of people. Not to mention the contacts from 500,000 buddy lists the NSA collects daily! It occurred to me, since you have all these contacts, you could share a few with me. Just to help me build my friend base.

I mean, the information is just sitting in your NSA database, anyway. It's not like you're going to do anything else with it ... Come to think of it, what are you planning to do with all of our e-mail addresses and chat names? I understand the address books you download often include, not only names and e-mail addresses, but also phone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information, so can you send me only the people who live near me?

This could benefit millions of the Americans you're already spying on. You could introduce strangers by sharing their e-mails and we could all end up making lots of new friends online. It would be like a creepy version of In fact, I'm so confident you'll be successful, I've even registered the domain for you, Of course, we'll need a disclaimer for the site, because some people will think NSA stands for No Strings Attached. Wink, wink. We know better, don't we?

Your pal,

Keith @ (oh, never mind, you have my address already)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Democratization of Education

Should society provide an education to all of its citizens? At first, the answer seems straightforward. But some argue by attempting to educate everyone, public schools are teaching to the lowest common denominator — forcing the majority of students into the middle of the bell curve. The brightest students are not being intellectually challenged and are not learning a fraction of what our forefathers learned as children. The curriculum studied by a 12-year-old a century ago would be considered college-level material today, and the modern teenager would be hard-pressed to read and comprehend the literature or philosophy his counterpart studied back then.

Christopher Lasch, writes in “The Culture of Narcissism”:  “[T]he democratization of education . . . has neither improved popular understanding of modern society, nor reduced the gap between wealth and poverty, which remains as wide as ever. On the other hand, it has contributed to the decline of critical thought and the erosion of intellectual standards, forcing us to consider the possibility that mass education, as conservatives have argued all along, is intrinsically incompatible with the maintenance of educational quality.”

What Lasch is saying is, by insisting on public education of the masses, the result is a dumbed down populace. Students in the 18th and 19th centuries studied history, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. They read Milton, Locke, Swift, and translations of Homer, Virgil, and Horace. They entered what we would call high school at the age of 14, and their first year consisted of studying grammar and conjugation, vocabulary, and a smattering of Latin. The following year they learned Latin grammar and read works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In their third year, they studied geography and read Caesar’s Commentaries on his campaigns in Gaul. By their fourth year, they devoured Virgil, Horace, Livy, or Homer. Does that sound like your high school curriculum, or your kids’?

Men and women had different roles in society, so the curriculum for boys and girls differed. Dealing with world affairs required men know how to read and write; the homemaker only needed to learn to read so she might study the Bible, when she wasn’t cooking or cleaning. So, boys studied higher math, Greek, Latin, science, celestial navigation (they might need to pilot a ship), geography, history, and fencing. Girls learned cooking, spinning, weaving, needlework, social etiquette, art, music, and nursing.

The democratization of education is a relatively recent development in American history. The notion that everyone should have access to affordable education goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who said it was essential to any democratic nation. But in those days, “everyone” didn't include girls, blacks, Chinese immigrants, or poor people. American society, in a young, sparsely populated nation, viewed the masses as “barbaric”.

The first public school, Boston Latin School, was founded in 1635. In 1642, the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared proper education compulsory. There was a strong religious undercurrent in what passed for public education. Not only did students often study the Bible in class, but in 1647, Massachusetts passed the Old Deluder Satan Act: you see, the Puritans believed their children would be able to ward off the devil if they could learn to read and study the Bible, so it required towns with more than 50 families to set up an elementary school. Students mostly studied Greek and Latin. The student body was almost exclusively male and, by the 18th century, students of all ages were in a one-room classroom in “common schools”. In the South, many students were home-schooled by traveling tutors or sent to small private schools. Few rural Southerners stayed in school beyond eighth grade, at least until after 1945.

Massachusetts, in 1789, required localities to provide schooling for everyone. A year later, Pennsylvania’s Constitution mandated free public education — but only for poor children. The wealthy still had to pay for their kids’ education. Skip ahead to 1827, when Massachusetts mandated all grades of public school be accessible free of charge. But while the North was increasing access to public education, the South was limiting it. At the same time, most southern states had laws forbidding teaching slaves to read. Under those laws, white people convicted of teaching a slave to read could be fined as much as $500 (a lot of money back then) and imprisoned, while black people convicted of the same offense were publicly whipped.

In 1851, Massachusetts made school attendance compulsory. But the federal government took a step backwards in 1864, when Congress made it illegal for Native American Indians to be taught in their native languages. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Reconstruction began in the South and state constitutions were rewritten to grant a free public education. But the public schools would remain segregated for nearly a century, with black and white children each attending their own “separate but equal” schools. In reality, they were far from equal. The black schools were consistently underfunded. It wouldn't be until 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and had to go, that society began to address the issue, which would encompass much of the public debate of the following two decades.

By 1900, a half-century after Massachusetts had made education compulsory, 34 states had followed its lead, only four of them in the South. Still, by 1910 only 72% of American children attended school. Half of them still sat in one-room schoolhouses. Higher education, in the form of college, remained a dream for all but the elite. That changed at the conclusion of World War II, when the G.I. Bill enabled thousands of blue-collar men returning from the war to obtain a college education, harkening back to Jefferson’s declaration that the democratization of education was essential to a democratic nation.

This, however, created a dilemma. Jefferson may have written “all men are created equal”, but that really isn't true. Not everyone is cut out to study calculus, read Latin, or engage in deep debate over the philosophies of Plato, Epicurus, Locke, or Descartes. Some are better learning a trade or devising the next innovative software app. Unfortunately, society refuses to recognize this approach to education, and by insisting on teaching to the lowest common denominator, we are graduating successive generations less knowledgeable than the ones that preceded them. Our top students today would be hard-pressed to perform as well academically as their predecessors in the little red schoolhouse of old.

That means the children of each generation who grow up to become the leaders of society are far less educated than the men who founded our country. Read the Federalist Papers; or the speeches and writings of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and their contemporaries; or the Supreme Court opinions of John Marshall, and compare them with their modern counterparts: Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, any Tea Party congressman, or the opinions drafted by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Our modern society is falling apart due to a lack of leadership at all levels, especially in government, but it’s not really their fault. They were ill-prepared for the job. If it seems as if we have morons controlling our government, society, and our culture, it is because our schools failed to educate them properly -- grounding them in history and philosophy, and providing them with the necessary tools for critical thinking --and hold them to the high educational standards that were once de rigueur.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


I went to see my dermatologist today.

“You have a liver spot on your face,” she said.

“That’s impossible,” I replied. I explained I was a writer, a crafter of ageless tales, who, through some arcane attribute akin to the Picture of Dorian Gray, was able to ward off senescence and hold the encroaching years at bay. Like Oscar Wilde’s magical portrait, my characters aged on the printed page in my stead, not I.

“You’re growing old,” she explained.

I ignored her laconic diagnosis and bade her to remove the offending spot, which she did. Having channeled my Shakespearean muse (“Out, damned spot. Out, I say.”), I proceeded to dine with my grandmother that evening.

“I saw my dermatologist today. She found a liver spot. She says I’m getting old.”

“Only one?” the 102 ½-year-old asked. (Half years, ignored by most of us, are enormously important to those under 10 or over 100 and must therefore be accorded the significance due them.)

I sighed. “The time sneaked by so quickly, like a furtive mouse in a house filled with cats. Where did it go and how do I call it back?” I thought of my grandmother’s rich legacy of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I contrasted it with my own legacy. My children bore spines, but neither hands nor feet. They came into the world as hardcovers and softcovers, and I labored as long and as hard as any woman to birth them. Long after I was gone, my literary issue would serve as my legacy. Their pages would keep my memory alive, reminding strangers yet born, for a little while I shared the same air and grass and sky as they, and, at least for the time it took them to read my words, I mattered.

I glanced down at my fountain (of youth) pen, and to my dismay, realized it was only a Bic, and held less than half the ink I had started with. So many pages yet to write, so little ink.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Letter to the NSA

To: National Security Agency
    Fort Meade, Maryland, USA

Date: Classified

To Whom It May Concern:

My computer crashed last night and I lost all my e-mails. Would you please send me a copy of my e-mails, going back to 1993? Also, some of my e-mails concerned my upcoming book tour for my new novel, The Witches’ Cauldron, and I am uncertain which venues I have spoken with, so if you could check my phone records and let me know, that would be great.

Very truly yours,

Keith B. Darrell

Dear Mr. Darrell,

We have uploaded directly to your computer all of your e-mails as far back as 1993, as you requested. We noticed several viruses on your computer and we deleted them for you, and replaced one with our own Trojan that will copy your keystrokes and send back to us everything you type. Just think of us as devoted fans who want to get an early peek at your upcoming books.

One of our NSA staffers came across an e-mail from a dating site you had visited last Friday, at 7:42 p.m. The e-mail had been relegated to your spam folder, but after reviewing it, the NSA staffer thought the young lady might be a good match for you, based on the profile of you we have developed from tracking your Web surfing and purchase history, as well as from listening to hours of audio recordings of your many  phone conversations with your ex-girlfriend. The NSA staffer conducted a thorough review of the young lady’s profile and is certain you would be compatible, so we have moved the e-mail to your in-box.

Please rest assured, we at the NSA are here to serve and protect you. We value your privacy. In fact, we mine it like gold.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Take Notes, Miley

The buzz on my social media feed today is all about Miley Cyrus and her “spectacle” during the 2013 Video Music Awards ceremony. What did I think about it? I kept getting asked. My initial reaction was, “Miley who?”

I relented and hit “The Google”.  Aha, a child actress on the Disney children’s show, Hannah Montana. That explains my unfamiliarity with Miley, as I don’t watch many kids’ shows these days. She went on to become a 20-year-old singer with an unimpressive voice but a famous country music singer father and her own Disney-enhanced celebrity. (These days, talent always take a back seat to celebrity). Through the time machine known as YouTube, I was able to view the astonishing half-life regression of  Miley Cyrus’ brief musical career, from wholesome teen to punk slut.

Then, I viewed the infamous six-minute VMA clip. Miley enters a stage filled with giant Teddy bears, dressed in a skimpy mouseketeer T-shirt (the mouse ears double as her bra) and spandex shorts. She vies with Gene Simmons for the title of most active tongue in a music video; simulates sex with her partner (not to mention with a foam finger); and strips down to her underwear for gyrations that would make any pole dancer proud.

Was it any more inappropriate than what passes for entertainment in hip hop videos or even the shot of Lady Gaga’s bare posterior viewers were treated to in the opening of the same VMA show? Not that two wrongs make a right, but it is rather hypocritical to criticize Miley for doing what others have done, merely because she did it more effectively. Let’s face it, her goal was to create a buzz, and that’s exactly what she did. Love it or hate it, Miley got a million dollars of publicity in six minutes. We’re talking about her — she won.

Not that I mind watching a 20-year-old strip to her underwear and give me a lascivious  lap dance in my living room. Every man I know is agreeing with his wife or girlfriend how awful the video was… right before they replay it. But I must admit to professional jealousy: as a creator of entertainment attempting to market my own work, I realize Miley managed to get more people to view her work in six minutes than will ever view mine in my entire lifetime. Which I find rather sad.

I lied. I do watch some children’s shows, on occasion. This week, I've been fortunate enough to be introduced to The Sarah Jane Adventures. Up until a month ago, I had never seen an episode of Doctor Who, so I didn't know Elisabeth Sladen had played the Doctor’s sexy companion when she was in her late 20s. My first exposure to her came as she reprised her role as Sarah Jane Smith, reporter and intrepid heroine, 30 years later. She was the eponymous star of The Sarah Jane Adventures, playing a warm-hearted, brilliant, and adventurous older woman. Not merely a role model for girls, Elisabeth Sladen portrayed her character with such grace and class that Sarah Jane Smith became more relevant and independent with age. At 65, Elisabeth Sladen was nonetheless sexy and vivacious; arguably she became more attractive with age, like a fine wine.

Elisabeth Sladen died last year. Cancer. She worked up until the end, leaving behind two generations of fans, old and young. Her performances were marked by grace and class. Her character showed girls they could grow up to be smart, self sufficient, and remain attractive as they age. Elisabeth Sladen proved true Eleanor Roosevelt’s adage: "Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” Take notes, Miley.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Have A Cigar! It's A Book!

At last! I'm pleased to announce The Witches' Cauldron (Book 4 in the Halos & Horns saga) is now available in paperback on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble's Websites. The e-book edition came out in April, and now you can get a dead tree copy you can hold in your hands! I think it's the best book yet and I hope you'll take this opportunity to pick up the entire series -- all four books -- and let me know what you think. The links to purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble are below, toward the bottom of the page.

I want to thank those of you who have supported Halos & Horns these past four years. As you know, I've published a new volume in the series every April for the past four years. I've been especially encouraged, and delightfully surprised, by the overseas sales in the UK, and to a lesser extent, in Germany and Italy. It's been a labor of love and, looking back, I'm amazed how much better each volume reads over its predecessor. I take that to mean I've experienced some real growth as a writer during each of the past four years on the series. I hope my writing continues to evolve in the years to come.

To celebrate the conclusion of the first Halos & Horns story arc, the price of the first three paperbacks will drop from $14.95 to $9.95 in September. I hope this encourages you to purchase the whole set. While I feel The Witches' Cauldron is one of the best books I've written, I can't recommend readers start with the fourth book of a 4-book series; that would be like coming into the last 20 minutes of a movie and trying to make sense of the plot and characters. So get the set! The series is also available on Kindle.

Friday, August 16, 2013

It's the Real Thing

Coca-Cola doesn’t like me.

Granted, our relationship ended years ago, after I gave up sugared drinks. I could never warm to Diet Coke. Still, it hurts when an ex snubs you.

The soft drink company has come up with its greatest marketing idea since New Coke, and the backlash is drowning out the echoes from the thud of that disaster. Coca-Cola has created the brilliant plan to offer limited editions of its iconic bottle personalized with consumers’ names in its signature font. Yes, you can buy a Coke bottle with your name on it, in red Coca-Cola lettering! Or not.

The hitch, you see, is your name must be one of the 250 “most popular names” selected by the soda giant. Complaints have poured in on Facebook from carbonated consumers miffed they were left off the list. It’s like a high school popularity contest with bubbles and caramel coloring. Totally silly; people will get upset over anything, I thought, as I scrolled down the list. Kayleigh, Kelly, Kevin… wait, back up. Maybe they misspelled Keith, I pondered.

Unpopular, forgotten… How could you treat me this way, Coke? After all we shared, for so many years. High school. The movie theater. Pizza and Coke dates. And now, I didn’t even make your list! Who did, I wondered. Whose names could possibly be more popular than mine? I scanned the list and a few names popped out at me: Abdul, Amandeep, Ashleigh, Chantelle, Danielle, Inga, Jade, Jemima, Kataryana, Kofi, Kyle, Lindsey, Marc, Nicholas, Nicole, Pooja, Tomas, Zoe. Really, Coke? Amandeep is more popular than Keith? Oops. Never mind. You bitch!

Ringggg. “Hello, Pepsi? Remember me?”

Saturday, August 10, 2013

These Days, Anyone Can Write A Book

I guess anyone can write a book, these days. The man who posted a photo of his murdered wife on Facebook also wrote a self-help book about marriage. Not sure if I want to skip ahead to the last chapter of that one. In case you missed the news, 31-year-old Derek Medina started the morning with a shout-out to all his Facebook friends: “I’m going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife love you guys, miss you guys take care Facebook people you will see me in the news.” He followed up by posting a photo of his 26-year-old wife slumped on the kitchen floor like a rag doll, bloodied and lifeless. Jennifer Alfonso, a waitress at Denny’s and mother to the 10-year-old girl left alone in their home with her corpse, had made at least one mistake in her life… his name was Derek Medina.

The bizarre crime took place, where else, but in Florida, of course. Since it was America, the weapon of choice was, naturally, a gun. Interviewed on CNN, Dr. Drew Pinsky, the modern-day answer to Dr. Joyce Brothers, opined as to why anyone would post a murder confession on Facebook and then photograph the crime scene and post it, as well. The TV doc blamed it on narcissism exacerbated by social media.

Narcissism is defined as an exceptional interest in and admiration for one’s self. Social Media, like Facebook, excel at promoting narcissism among the “Look at Me!” Generation. Christopher Lasch wrote in "The Culture of Narcissism": “Not withstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem.” I recalled my blog post last month, in which I wrote: “It occurred to me, everyone needs validation. We need it from another person – a lover, a friend, an employer. We need it from society. And finally, it  explains why people post all those inane or pithy posts on Facebook and wait for the ‘likes’ or comments to appear underneath: they need, and receive, validation online via the Internet.”

Welcome to the Age of Social Media, where an entire generation has conflated shame with fame. What the hell, they sound alike, so they must be synonymous. In an era when teenager Giovanna Plowman can become an Internet sensation by sucking her bloody tampon on YouTube, can we really be surprised by Derek Medina’s Facebook post? After all, it’s getting harder and harder to earn one’s 15-minutes of fame amid such fierce competition. But a true narcissist will find a way to place the spotlight on himself and one-up the competition. Medina’s grisly Facebook post garnered 80 shares in the five hours it was up before Facebook removed it.

Narcissism? Dr. Drew should know. After all, he wrote the book on narcissism. Or at least a book on narcissism -- “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America.” Hmm… irony? As I said, these days, anyone can write a book. In fact, I’ve written several. You should buy one today.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dinner at Fawlty Towers

My pasta con sarde is legendary, at least among those fortunate enough to have partaken of it, due in no small part to the effort that goes into its preparation and the superb quality of the ingredients I use, which is why what happened tonight was so appalling.

I sautéed the garlic and mushrooms, while slicing a red onion and green peppers to add to the pan. I sprinkled the mixture with an array of spices and added condiments, including wild fennel, black current, sunflower oil, and salted sardines puree. Next came the cooked shrimp and skinless, boneless sardines, and let’s not forget, the anchovies. Now, it was time to boil a pot of water and add the flax seed enhanced wheat pasta. I opened the carton and, as the stick-like pasta slid into the pot, several black specks rode with them.

The specks, upon closer inspection, were moving, perhaps not wishing to continue the wild water ride that ended in a boiling pot. They skirted and danced along my stove. I stopped them before they reached the larger pot containing my pasta con sarde, sans pasta, and dumped the uncooked pasta into the trash. I let the remaining mixture simmer, like my anger, and headed to the grocery store where I had purchased the suspect carton three days earlier.

I sidestepped the line at the customer service desk and asked the young girl manning it to call the store manager over. Not wanting to trouble the store manager to deal with trivial inconveniences like customers, she instead asked if she could assist me. Noting the ire of the customers waiting in line, who now feared I had cut ahead of them, I replied no, she could continue to sell lottery tickets and cigarettes – which is most of the service provided at this particular customer service desk – and if I had wanted to speak to her, I would have waited my turn in line. You see, bugs don’t respect the boundaries of cardboard containers, and if they are inside one, they are likely inside several, if not all of the other boxes on the shelf. Several bugs escaped from the box as I was speaking, flitting across the customer service desk. An infestation of insects in food products is a public health issue that should be brought to the store manager’s immediate attention, at least, in my opinion. “I’ll tell my manager” doesn't cut it. No, I’ll tell your manager.  

She paged her manager, while I tried to regain my appetite for the pasta con sarde for which I had slaved over a hot stove minutes earlier. A bimbo in the line gave me a puzzled look and asked me if I had checked the expiration date on the box. In my best John Cleese impression, I turned the pasta box sideways, put on my reading glasses, and exclaimed, “Ah, of course! It says so right here. Use within three days after purchase or contents will turn into small insects.”

Not a single Basil Fawlty fan in the crowd. And yes, it’s a true story.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Validation: It’s Not Just for Parking Tickets

I was reading an aspiring writer’s profile when I was struck by the answer she had given to the question of why she wished to join a critique group. It was a mere one-word response, yet it struck me as incredibly profound; so much so, I imagined a light bulb appeared above my head announcing my epiphany.

Her stated reason for joining: validation. Although she believed her writing to be good, she sought the consensus of others to reaffirm that belief.

No matter how much we hold ourselves in high esteem, self doubt lingers. Even when we know how good we are, we require the validation of others to make it real. Recall Sally Fields’ earnestly modest 1984 Oscar acceptance speech: “You like me; you really liked me.”

It occurred to me, everyone needs validation. We need it from another person – a lover, a friend, an employer. We need it from society. And it finally explains why people post all those inane or pithy posts on Facebook and wait for the “likes” or comments to appear underneath: they need, and receive, validation online via the Internet.

Feel free to validate below.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day: Patriotism vs. Plutocracy

Reprinting this often requested Independence Day post:

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed 40% of it thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War, it knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys, and is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

All For One And One For All

Last time, I proposed the notion the two major political parties merely offered the illusion of choice to distract the electorate from realizing they both answer to the same master— be it a corporate oligarchy, the ultra-wealthy one percent, or the Illuminati. Today, I feel I should revise that hypothesis by adding the media to the mix.

When I was a reporter, back in the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein, the press was truly independent, so much so it was often referred to as the “Fourth Estate.” Irish statesman Edmund Burke coined that phrase, referring to the three estates of Parliament (the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons) but we Yanks co-opted the phrase to refer to our three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, making the press the unofficial fourth branch of our democracy. The three branches were created by the Founders with specified Constitutional checks and balances on each other, but that left the question, Who Watches theWatchmen? Enter the free and independent press to serve as watchdog over government.

My, how things have changed. Today, the news media are owned, literally and intellectually, by the same corporate overlords that control both political parties. (Eight media conglomerates dominate US news media, including newspapers, magazines, radio, and television). Two weeks ago, Americans were abuzz with the revelation by National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden that their government was spying on every citizen, intercepting and storing every email sent, phone call made, and Website visited. The public was rightfully outraged, and I detailed why it should be here and here. One week ago, the co-opted national media slyly changed the national narrative from the issue of our government spying on us to the faux issue of whether Snowden was a hero (i.e., whistleblower) or villain (i.e., traitor) for leaking the information. This week, the controlled, no longer independent media again changed the focus, devoting hours of airtime and print to speculating to which country Snowden had fled. All discussion of the outrageous, unconstitutional government spying on US citizens, an invasion of privacy on a scale never before seen in a democracy –  or alleged democracy – was buried, replaced by an international version of “Where’s Waldo”.

Democrats and Republicans, who have been unable to agree on anything the past decade, now march in lockstep chanting the whistleblower is a traitor who must be apprehended and punished for his actions. Forgotten is the fact his actions revealed horrendous actions by our own government against you and me. And that’s precisely the intent of the Powers That Be.

Last time, I told you how the same cereal manufacturer made both Quisp (Democrats) and rival Quake (Republicans). Did you know it also made a third cereal, Cap’n Crunch (the news media)? Got milk?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One Size Fits All

Cereal was one of the highlights of my childhood. Not only did each box contain a toy premium, or a box top that could be mailed in with a dime for an even better prize, but they were advertised on television with brilliant commercials specifically aimed at kids. The best of these were created by Jay Ward – the genius who gave us Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, George of the Jungle, Hoppity Hooper, and Crusader Rabbit. Ward’s cereal commercials included Cap’n Crunch, Quisp, and Quake.

Ward's cartoons and commercial made copious use of clever puns, the painful kind that you remember your entire life, such as when Bullwinkle discovered the “Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam” on the shores of Veronica Lake (The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is the title Edward FitzGerald gave his translation of Omar Khayyám's Persian poetry and Veronica Lake was a famous American actress).

Ward’s Quaker Oats cereal commercials featured comedy, adventures (often continued into future commercials), and puns, all in 30-second installments. My favorites were Quisp and Quake. Quisp was a pink alien with a propeller head from Planet Q and Quake was a hefty miner who wore a helmet with a light. (Years later, Quake was overhauled and became a slimmed down Australian cowboy with a “Quangaroo” sidekick).

What was unique and brilliant about Ward’s commercials was the marketing. Quake would always make a cameo appearance in a Quisp cereal commercial, and Quisp would interrupt Quake during his commercials. Quisp and Quake not only had their own eponymous cereals but a fierce rivalry, as well. Kids, like myself, were encouraged to choose sides: you were either on Team Quisp or Team Quake. We rose to the challenge, stocking our larders with boxes of either (but certainly not both) Quisp or Quake.

And therein lay the genius of Jay Ward and Quaker Oats. For you see, Quaker Oats manufactured both Quisp and Quake cereals. Whichever team you supported, no matter how loyal you were to one, or how much you loathed the rival cereal, Quaker Oats won. They created a false rivalry between two fictional entities, marketed the rivalry, and had millions of us fighting over what was essentially the same cereal marketed in different boxes by one company pulling the strings. More and more, I think about Quisp and Quake whenever I view American politics. It seems I have one box emblazoned with a donkey and the other with an elephant but the content of both boxes is fungible and not terribly healthy for me, and I wonder if perhaps the choice before me is a false dichotomy. What if they are both controlled by the same corporate powers?

What if both political parties offer the illusion of choice to distract the electorate from realizing they both answer to the same master— be it a corporate oligarchy, the ultra-wealthy one percent, or the Illuminati? Was Jay Ward a modern Machiavelli, whose satire formed the foundation of our current political state?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

1984 Is Not An Instruction Manual

Memo to Senators Diane Feinstein & Lindsey Graham: 1984 is not an instruction manual.

These senators, and much of the co-opted US media, are touting the government line: If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the government collecting and storing your emails, Facebook chats, Web browsing, and phone records. This is a disingenuous rationalization from individuals who should – and do – know better.

The concern is not that the government is reading every one of the billion emails a day it collects, or listening in on billions of phone calls. It doesn't have the manpower to do that. But what it is doing is building a database. A very, very large database. Perhaps the largest database on Earth. And everything about you will be in it. Forever. Now, pay attention, and I’ll tell you why that’s a lot worse than it sounds.

A computer can cross-reference information in a database, compiling a profile. Years, or decades, of your Facebook posts, IM chats, Instagram and Pinterest photos, emails, phone records, and Website visited will be accessible as a dossier on you with a click of a button. All that information is being collected and stored for possible future use. And there’s the rub.

With enough material collected, anyone can be made to look bad. Even someone innocent like you, with nothing to hide. Selective culling of the material collected and stored over the years in the government database: That drunken photo of you and your friends at a party; the email where you told your friend you cheated on your spouse; the IM chat where you bragged about cheating on your taxes; the Facebook chat with a friend discussing your sensitive medical or mental health issue; the angry tirade you posted about wanting to blow up all the politicians in Washington. It’s all there, along with tons of innocuous stuff like photos of your cat. But in the right light, selective disclosure can cast a dark shadow on you, no matter how innocent you may be.

Say you’re running for political office. Say you’re writing an expose for a newspaper. Say you’re critical of individuals in government, or of government policies or actions. Say you’re a writer, a thinker, a reformer, a teacher, an agent of change, a dreamer, or a philosopher. Someone who threatens the status quo. Someone who needs to be – and can be—discredited, with the push of a button.

Big Brother is watching you. Big Brother has his finger on the button. The Ministry of Truth has told us not to worry, to trust the government. Big Brother has our best interest at heart. We should trust and love Big Brother, like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Or we can reclaim control of our government (you remember, the one “of the people, by the people, and for the people”?), take away the button, and tell our voyeuristic Uncle Sam a peeping Tom makes for a creepy uncle.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Glass Houses

The U.S. government is spying on your phone calls and e-mails. All of them. This shocking revelation was made public by the U.K. newspaper The Guardian this week, but anyone who’s read my book, Issues In Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law, already knew that.

If you haven’t bought my book yet, this is one reason you should. Smart people get ahead of the curve. They learn what’s going on before everyone else learns about it from the newscasts.

There’s a tension between the individual’s right to privacy and the government’s need for information to ensure safety. But let’s be real. There’s no such thing as total safety. If heavily guarded presidents and popes can be shot, no one is truly “safe”. Since 9-11, two administrations, with the complicity of the media, have worked to convince Americans they must sacrifice their civil liberties in exchange for safety. That’s not the American way. This country, unlike any before it, was built on the concept of individual civil liberties. Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He didn't become one of America’s great patriots by saying, “Take my liberties, just keep me safe.”

America saved Europe, turning the tide of WWII, defeating the Axis forces. We did it without taking our shoes off or having high-tech strip searches before boarding airplanes. Terrorist win when they instill terror in our hearts. In WWII, we beat the bad guys because, as FDR told us, we had nothing to fear but fear itself. The same holds true today.

We won’t win the War on Terror by turning America into a police state reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. We don’t need Big Brother spying on our phone calls, e-mails, and Web browsing. We can only win by preserving and exercising, not eviscerating, the civil liberties drafted by the Founding Fathers and consecrated with the blood of generations of Americans fighting at home and abroad for those freedoms that embody our American values. Thomas Jefferson never envisioned a secret FISA court or that the federal government would be able to disregard the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches with impunity.

To those who argue the innocent among us should have nothing to hide, and therefore not mind exposing their thoughts and words to the prying eyes of snooping government bureaucrats, I suggest they first replace the walls of their homes with eight-foot panes of glass now, before the government mandates it. There’s a reason we choose not to live in glass houses, and that is, we value our privacy. So much so, the Founders declared all Americans had the right to be secure in one’s home and one’s person. The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Unfortunately, the Obama and Bush administrations have confused the Fourth Amendment with the lyrics of a pop song by a group ironically named “The Police” (as in Police State):

Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you
Every single day and every word you say
...  I'll be watching you

* “Every Breath She Takes” lyrics copyrighted by their respective owners, used here for educational purposes only.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Keith's Awards Sweep! Two Books Honored in 2013 NIE Awards!

Beverly Hills, CA (May 22, 2013) - Shards, by Keith B. Darrell, has been named a Finalist in the category of Short Stories in this year's NIE Awards.

"I know the competition was particularly fierce this year, so I am especially pleased Shards has been awarded this honor," author Keith B. Darrell said. "This is the first time since Randoms in 2009 that we've brought home an NIE Award, and this year we received not one, but two awards, in both fiction and nonfiction categories." The 7th edition of Issues in Internet Law was the winner in the 2013 NIE Awards category for books about the Internet, also announced today.

“We congratulate each and every author recognized this year," NIE Awards sponsor Ellen Reid said. "Our competition is unique in that it takes into account all aspects of publishing that go into making a stand-out presentation including cover design, interior layout and promotional text." This national award, based in Los Angeles, CA, is open to all English-language books published between 2010 and 2013. The competition was judged by independent industry experts, including publishers, writers, editors, book cover designers, and professional copywriters. They selected award winners and finalists based on overall excellence of presentation, Reid said.

Shards is a 542-page collection of short stories by author Keith B. Darrell which span all genres, including speculative fiction, flash fiction, fusion fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, slice of life, humor, gothic, and political/sociological fiction. "Although much of my focus has been on my novels, particularly my four-book Halos & Horns fantasy saga, I have always been a devotee, as both reader and author, of the short story format," Darrell said. "My first foray into short stories was a small collection entitled Randoms, which was a 2009 NIE Awards finalist, but Shards is a much more ambitious attempt, clocking in at 542 pages with 62 stories. I hope this recognition will attract more readers to the book and provide it with the exposure it deserves."

Shards is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Four Years In The Making.... Concludes Today!

The waiting is over!

The Witches' Cauldron, the fourth and final book in the Halos and Horns fantasy series has just been published. As you read this, valiant postmen are lifting heavy cartons of the paperback edition of The Witches' Cauldron and delivering them to a bookstore near you. Amazon and Barnes & Noble's Web sites will have at least one copy available soon, as well. For those who can't wait for the postmen to complete their Herculean task, you can download a copy HERE. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Got your copy loaded onto your Kindle? Good, now here's what you need to know. Pay attention... there'll be a quiz later. The Witches' Cauldron is Book 4 in the Halos & Horns story arc. That means, if you haven't read the first three books, it will be like coming in on the end of a really good movie. So make sure you order or download Paved With Good Intentions (Book 1), And A Child Shall Lead Them (Book 2), and To Hell In A Handbasket (Book 3) before reading The Witches' Cauldron. Honest, you'll thank me. While I think The Witches' Cauldron may be the best fiction I've ever written, it'll make absolutely no sense to you if you don't already know the characters and storylines. (This would be a good spot to slip in Amber Book Company is having a four-book set sale HERE, but that would be a shameless plug, so I won't mention it. You didn't hear it from me.)

I'll post the links when Amazon and Barnes & Noble have the paperback edition in stock, but meantime all four books are available for your Kindle (see links elsewhere on this page). Now, here's the rest of what you need to know:

The conclusion of the Halos & Horns story arc is only the beginning! The next story arc will be called Fangs & Fur and it will spotlight the vampires and werewolves of the Halos & Horns universe. A Halos & Horns audiobook version is planned. For you gamers out there, a Halos & Horns game is in development. Between the two arcs, we will release a novelette, The Pandora Chronicles, which takes place after the events in The Witches' Cauldron. The story is done and the cover art looks fantastic. There are also plans to develop comic books set in the Halos & Horns universe. Speaking of artwork, a limited edition omnibus edition is planned, which will collect the entire saga, with illustrations and annotations.

So what are you waiting for? An invitation? This is it! You are cordially invited to hours of thrilling, dramatic, funny, and poignant, action and adventure with the strangest cast of characters in the most unusual storylines you've ever read.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Italian Interview: Characters in Novels

I've been sidelined by the need for unexpected surgery, so I've chosen to delay the official launch of "The Witches' Cauldron", the fourth book in the Halos & Horns fantasy saga, until next month when I can more actively promote it. Meanwhile (as we say in fiction), you can pre-order the entire four-volume set at a $10 discount by clicking this link. All proceeds will go to my surgeon, whose scalpel slices deeper than any critic's pen, lol.

Since I am somewhat indisposed, I'm going to cheat this week and return to the Italian interview with a bit of cut and paste magic. Enjoy the exchange, below. I'll be back in May hawking "The Witches' Cauldron", so save up your shekels!

Q: Do you purposely write strong female characters?

Wow, that’s a good question. I mean, the way you phrased it. Do I set out to write strong female characters? No, I wouldn't say I have a feminist agenda. Many of my characters, like Angelique Ward and Nyx, are deities or supernaturally powered, so they are innately strong, regardless of their gender. And when I say strong, I don’t mean only physically, although I think physical strength enables one to be more assertive in nonphysical encounters.

A lot of their strength comes from who the character is. Sharon is a cop’s daughter, so she doesn't hesitate to draw a gun and shoot when Pandora stalks her. Chiyoko’s strength comes not only from being a vampire, but from her leadership position, as a Nosferatu, Inc. director, and we get a sense of her almost royal lineage. Valentina is a strong-willed, no-nonsense ex-KGB agent. I think the exchange that exemplified the strong female dynamic was the scene where Lilith, the succubus demoness vied against Angelique for the right to kidnap the infant Alaric. Lilith, who was also Adam’s wife before Eve, says “I have stood up to the first man, to angels, to God, and to a plethora of demons. You will not bar my way, Ancient One.” To which, Angelique replies, “I was ancient when you were created as a mate for Adam. I was ancient long before this planet we stand on was formed. You shall not defy me, Lilith.” This isn't a catfight; it’s two lionesses about to tangle. So no, my women characters aren't in the kitchen baking cookies.

Q: Which of your characters would you like to spend time with?

A: They’re all unique, so I think it would be entertaining to spend time with any of them. Watching the angel, Gabriel, and the demon, Lucifer, bicker would be a treat. Ditto for the changeling, Síofra and the emere, Asabi. The vampire Pandora would be fun, in a space cadet sort of way. If I were a kid, I’d hang with Artemus, the boy vampire, and Emma, the teen witch. A wizard like Merlin or Balthazar would be cool. I’d have a ton of questions for Metatron, the aspect of God, but I doubt he’d give me any clear answers I could understand.

Q: Which characters frighten you?

A: All the demons, of course, are scary. Of the vampires, I’d say Warren was the most vicious. Nathaniel Thornhill, the witch-hunter, is probably one of the most evil, sadistic characters in the series, other than Torquemada. Gen. Asad Hashim was human, but absolutely ruthless and murderous. But I think the characteristics that would frighten me the most are unpredictability combined with an unbalanced psyche, so Morgana le Fay and The Morrigan would fall into that category. They’re scary because they are in large part ruled by their emotions and act impulsively, so they might befriend you one minute and behead you the next.

Drusilla Twitch was one of my favorite scary characters to write. Who else could caress Remick’s face with her long, sharp fingernail and make him stiffen and turn pale? And she has these great one-liners. When Remick says he had nothing to do with the Empusae attack, she replies, “I realize that, Mr. Remick. That is why you are still breathing.” Succinct, if not subtle. When the bogarts tell her they’ve heard tales of her sibling’s animosity toward her, she asks if they’ve also heard tales of her kindness and mercy. When they admit they haven’t, she replies “That’s because there are no such tales” before destroying them. Even Morgana found Drusilla’s gnarled fingers crushing her larynx, her long sharp nails biting into her neck, and droplets of Morgana’s blood trickling down her neck within minutes of meeting her, as Drusilla asked, “Tell me who you are and why I might not wish to kill you.” Succinct, but not subtle.

Q: Would you consider yourself a plot-driven writer or a character-driven writer?

A: One of my writing friends and I have this debate all the time. The correct answer is you need both a strong plot and well-defined characters. My position is characterization that reveals the human condition trumps plot. I like to create unique characters with their own characteristics, foibles, and motivations and then place them together in a setting, sit back and take notes as they interact. Usually, the story writes itself from that point on, and I’m more the stenographer than author. That’s not to say they wander mapless throughout the pages without a plot. I draft a skeletal outline of the novel and each chapter, so I know where we’re headed and how we’ll get there.

Dialogue is extremely important. The characters’ words have to reflect who they are. If either of two characters could have made the statement, then the author hasn’t clearly defined his characters. Síofra is a cynical, ancient changeling, while Kaya is a sheltered, naïve, wide-eyed 10-year-old girl. When they converse, Kaya can’t make a cynical comment or appear too worldly. When they meet someone, Kaya is immediately trusting while Síofra is wary. This is who they are, and who they are determines how they will react in a given scenario. If you meet them in the woods, a bubbly Kaya will invite you home for dinner as Síofra casts an untrusting, wary eye on you.

Q: Have you ever regretted killing off a character?

A: I felt a twinge killing off Maudie, because she was such a likable character and I felt she had potential. But I realized some of that potential could be explored in other ways, such as flashbacks.

When it came to killing off a major character toward the end of the Halos and Horns arc, I did ask myself, Do you really want to kill off a major character? The character could have worked indefinitely as a staple to bring the characters into different plots, but in terms of advancing the story, I thought that character’s potential had been nearly depleted. The death created a new dynamic among some existing characters, and as the saga continues into the next arcs, I think it will lead to a healthier, evolving storyline.

Q: Which locale in Halos and Horns would you like to visit?

A: I’d love to prowl around Absalonis’ curio shop in Copenhagen and see the range of mystic artifacts he has. Actually, I’d love to return to Copenhagen and prowl around the city. (Laughs). I had some memorable times there in my younger days. The Dreamscape – walking through people’s dreams. That could be fun, or terrifying, especially if I landed in my accountant’s dreams – have you seen Donald Duck in Mathamagic Land? Heaven and Hell, of course. And Camelot. As a child, I wanted to be Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Italian Interview, Part Two

(Continuing the conversation from last time)

Q: Who was you favorite character to write?

A: That’s hard to say; I enjoyed them all. I think which ever one I was writing at the time became my favorite. Of course, it’s always more fun to write the naughtier characters. I found myself more drawn to Lucifer than Gabriel, especially in the beginning. An angel is often presumed, incorrectly if one studies the mythology, to be the personification of perfection. Characterization is best demonstrated by one’s flaws, and perhaps, a story that shows how those flaws are overcome or dealt with. In Gabriel’s case, I had to instill a flaw – doubt. That’s possibly the greatest flaw an angel could have; it threatens the whole fabric of a reality structured on belief.

Lucifer, on the other hand, is the guy born on the wrong side of the tracks. I've always contemplated how fortunate I was to be born in America, a land of wealth and opportunity, and not in Rwanda or Haiti. Where you’re born is the luck of the draw; it’s something you have no control over. Lucifer, was a demon born in Hell but he aspires for a better existence. To obtain that, he has to earn it, raising the nature versus nurture question. Are we who we are because of genetics or our environment? If we change our environment, can we change, through exercise of free will, or is our fate predestined? That’s a theme throughout the series, and not just for Lucifer.

Morgana struck me as a very flawed character. She starts out as a healer and savior and ends as a villainess. Her father was a brute. Her mother died while she was relatively young and she blamed her half-brother Arthur for her death, once she found out his birth was the cause. She becomes consumed with hatred and desirous of revenge against Arthur, Uther, and Merlin. She sleeps with her half-brother, which would send most people into therapy for years, and is overly obsessed with her son, Mordred. She is rejected by Lancelot and her mentor, Nimue and only finds acceptance among the Fae – and even then, probably more from fear than admiration. She’s haunted by nightmarish patchwork visions she doesn't always understand that warp her sense of reality. Is it any wonder she gradually descends from innocence into darkness?

The comic relief characters were a blast to write. Pandora is especially fun because you never know what’s going to come out of her mouth. Both Pandora and Síofra are insouciant characters, but Pandora is lighthearted, a bit of a space cadet. While Pandora approaches life in a carefree, cheerful manner, Síofra is blithely unconcern with anyone other than herself.

Q: Your characters often formed disparate pairings.

A: I found I could achieve both good dialogue and interesting plotting by matching characters with opposite attributes. Teaming up an angel and a demon; pairing the selfish, corrupted changeling Síofra with the innocent, naïve Kaya; or the innocent, naïve white angel Cassiopeia with the more worldly, black emere, Asabi. The level-headed Sharon and the scatter-brained Pandora; the Twitch sisters: Calliope, representing youth and purity, Samantha, representing maternal maturity, and Drusilla, aged and ruthless.

Q: Or Remick and Callaghan. That struck me as an unlikely combination.

A: Literally the Odd Couple. The chauffeur and the tramp. But they worked surprisingly well together.

Q: And in the Middle East, of all places. I noticed you use a variety of locales in the series.

A: Las Vegas serves as the home base, but parts of the book take place in Heaven and Hell. I incorporated global mythologies into the series, including many Japanese legends, so there are scenes in Japan, too. Some of the time travel takes the reader to Camelot, so England is visited, as well.

Q: But not Italy?

A: You can tell your readers that oversight will be corrected in future story arcs. I’m not sure how I would incorporate Italy into the series, but I did have some Roman vampires in the first book and some of the enchantments use pigeon Latin.

Q: Pigeon Latin?

A: It’s been a long time since I studied Latin, so I’m sure my cases were probably flawed, but fortunately few readers will notice. I did have someone correct me on the Hebrew, though. That wasn't entirely my fault. Hebrew is read from right-to-left. I wrote it correctly, but the software program flipped the letters. Fortunately, the proofreader caught it. But it’s very hard to find a proficient Latin proofreader.

Q: (Laughter). That would not be a problem in Italy.

A: (Laughter). In that case, you’re hired.

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