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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Stocking Stuffers

‘Tis the season to be giving gifts, and with that in mind, I thought I’d share a few suggestions for stocking stuffers. Books make excellent gifts because they are filled with wonder, can entertain for hours, and provide a uniquely intimate experience for the reader. Here are four rather different books to put on your gift list:

The Halos and Horns Omnibus Edition is a deluxe coffee-table book with 61 breathtaking color illustrations. The ultimate paranormal, supernatural, fantasy saga is available in both hardcover and softcover editions. This special printing includes never before published essays on the series, an interview with the author, a guide to the Halos and Horns universe, and a preview of the forthcoming sequel, Fangs and Fur. Mixing fantasy with philosophy, and written in the style of episodic fiction, the Halos and Horns saga is unlike anything else in its genre.


Shards is a collection of 61 short stories, ranging from flash fiction to a novelette, and crossing all genres: gothic mystery, science fiction, slice of life, humor, horror, drama, urban fiction, political and sociological fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction.


Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger blends humor with social commentary, collecting some of the more entertaining and enlightening blog posts from KeithBDarrell.com.

The Trial of Santa Claus and Other Christmas Stories is an e-book collection of irreverent Yuletide short stories that could only have been penned by the king of snark himself, Keith B Darrell. [Note: the noun snark is defined both as (1) rude or sarcastic criticism and (2) a mysterious, imaginary animal; both definitions have been found to accurately describe the author.]


You can purchase the above books through Amazon or Barnes & Noble using the handy links provided at KeithBDarrell.com.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Cyberspaces

Now that everyone is connected to the Internet and it’s become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, people are shopping for everything online. Take me, for example. This week alone, I've bought shoes, toothpaste, a calendar, and a set of dining room chairs, all purchased online. But many people are taking it one step further and shopping for their significant other in cyberspace.

Dating – or at least the quest for Mr./Miss Right – (or Mr./ Miss Right Now) has moved online for the same reasons everything else has: it’s quicker, easier, and you can do it at 2 a.m. in your pajamas. Typically, dating sites feature a prospective match’s profile (Unless you’re on the prowl for Mr./ Miss Right Now, in which case, you can use the one-paragraph short form, known as Craigslist, and list the acronyms – NSA, SWF, D&DF, etc. – you’re looking for. Don’t put too much thought into this process, because it doesn't matter what you list; Craigslist readers will ignore your criteria and contact you anyway).

In addition to the profile, date seekers usually post a photo of themselves. Usually, but not always. Sometimes, they post pictures of their dogs. Depending on the breed, it may be hard to tell the date seeker from the dog. About a third of the time, the dog turns out to be the better choice. Beware of photos in which the date seeker is hiding his/her face: either not facing the camera, wearing dark glasses, or in costume, or where the thumbnail photo cuts off the head (Alfred E. Neuman lookalike) or body (Sea World reports a whale escaped) … Or where there is no photo at all. There’s a reason why he/she didn't want you to see the hidden feature.

Then there are the misleading photos. The Technically Honest One: it is a photo of the date seeker, however it was taken 10 years ago; The Best Friend: the date seeker with his/her much better looking friend, whom you’ll be disappointed to learn is already taken; The Guess Who: see if you can pick out the date seeker from a group photo shot. Finally, there’s The Glamour Shot: a stunningly beautiful photo that makes you think the date seeker should be a model – it turns out, she is a model and some scammer has used her photo on a fake profile. A word of caution: if it looks too good to be true, Google Image Search the photo.

Avoid profiles that are too short. If the date seeker is continually answering essay questions with “ask me anything you want to know” or “we can talk about that later” it shows he/she has put less thought and effort into meeting you than into writing the weekly grocery list. At the other extreme, if the date seeker has indeed written a long grocery list of specific qualities, characteristics, or other requirements a prospective match must meet, then this person is too picky and shallow to become involved with.

Peruse other date seekers’ profiles to learn what they do right, and more importantly, what they do wrong. I found three examples on one site in the first five minutes, this morning. In response to the question “What are you doing with your life?” she wrote: “Studying hard to become a charter accountant.” Obviously, she wasn't studying hard enough, because if she had been, she would've known her chosen occupation was a chartered accountant. If you’re too stupid to know what you are studying to become (or worse, so careless that you don’t check what you've written before you post it … not a good idea, by the way, for detail-oriented professions like accounting), then you’re not dating material (and I certainly don’t want you doing my taxes, either).

The second profile I saw today featured a chubby girl in a string bikini. Now, health concerns aside, there’s nothing wrong with a potential match being a bit overweight. We can’t all look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. But when marketing yourself, you should always lead with your strongest features, not highlight your weakest attributes.

The third profile began – and ended –  by stating the woman was “Not interested in casual sex”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being upfront about what you are, or are not, looking for in a relationship. But don’t send mixed messages by labeling the same profile with the username “Cutie2PlayWith”.

Remember, online dating is all about marketing yourself. You are the promoter, as well as the product. Prospective daters will assume whatever image your profile conveys is the image of yourself that you've carefully chosen to present. While the zombie costume may have won raves at a Halloween party, it’s not a good choice for your dating profile photo. Your rant about your ex might be justified, but is your dating profile the right place for it… is that the first thing you want a potential date to read?

Successful marketing begins with truth in advertising. Don’t lie or mislead. Be upfront about your weaknesses, but lead with your strengths. Put the time and effort into writing a profile that shows that you think finding the right relationship is important. And if all else fails, at least you can still buy shoes and toothpaste on the Internet.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Pigs at the Trough

In August 2014, President Obama declared war on Medicare fraud. This seemed like a laudable goal, since fraud and unsystematic overcharging account for about $60 billion or 10% of Medicare’s annual costs. Medicare is the best health insurance program in America and should be extended to every American citizen; however, it is threatened by expensive fraud.

Let me be clear: the fraud of which I speak is not committed by the patients or customers receiving healthcare services or products, but rather by unscrupulous doctors, pharmacists, medical device retailers, and other healthcare providers. The solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and end Medicare as some on the political right wrongly argue, but rather to expand the program to cover all citizens while eliminating fraud.

At first glance, it would seem the government had taken the proper initial steps in this endeavor. Medicare sends out a monthly Summary Notice that lists all the claims healthcare providers have submitted to it on a patient’s behalf and asks the patient to report to Medicare any doctor, provider, or service listed that the patient does not recognize. Billing Medicare for services a patient did not receive is a major source of Medicare fraud, so we can all help the government save taxpayer money – not by eliminating an essential program — but by reporting fraud. The government makes this easy by including the following on its Medicare Summary Notice:

“How to Report Fraud: if you think a provider or business is involved in fraud, call us at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). Some examples of fraud include… Billing you for Medicare services you didn’t get.

That seems rather straightforward. So when a friend showed me three identical instances of an unrecognized healthcare provider having charged Medicare on his behalf, I agreed to dial the number and report the suspected fraud. No good deed goes unpunished. Apparently, Medicare does not have a dedicated line to report fraud. All fraud calls go into the main Medicare number, where everything from information to benefit calls are waiting on hold in the queue. Of course, there is no human to answer the phone. Callers receive an option of: “Press 1, Press 2, Press 3” ad infinitum. To make matters worse, there is no option to push to report fraud. But you can stay on hold for the operator… Which I did, until my phone battery died.

I called back later. Again, I waited on hold, simply to reach a live operator so she could tell me to whom it might be I would need to speak. I had plenty of time on hold to ponder the irony of waiting to speak to someone who was not the person I wish to speak to. After 10 minutes, my call was disconnected.

I called back three more times. Finally, I reached an operator and told her the purpose of my call: I was calling Medicare to report suspected fraud, as I’d been instructed to on the Medicare Summary Notice. She told me the number I had dialed – the one clearly printed on the form they had sent instructing people to dial to report suspected fraud – was not the right number to dial. I pointed out it was the number they had printed on their own form under the words “How to Report Fraud” but that did not impress her.

“They put the Medicare number on everything,” she said. “You need to call a different number.”

I asked her to transfer me. She said she couldn’t, and that I’d have to call the number directly. She gave me the number – 1-800-447-8477 – and I dialed it.

“U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General,” a pleasant recorded voice greeted me. It proceeded to offer me multiple “Press 1, Press 2, Press 3” options for everything from the agricultural department to the Affordable Care Act. But there was no option for Medicare fraud, and even more disturbingly, there was no option to speak to a live human being… Not even the option to wait on terminal hold.

Imagine witnessing a crime and not being able to phone the police. Crime would be even more rampant than it is today. I now see the appeal of white-collar crime. Here is a $600 billion piggy bank and no one cares who is siphoning from the trough. I’m surprised only 10% is stolen through fraudulent charges each year.

So, President Obama, here’s a way to save $60 billion a year in your new war on Medicare fraud. Spend $50 a month to set up a dedicated phone line for people to report fraud. If you really want to go whole hog on guarding the trough, hire a few of the nearly 6% unemployed people in the country to answer the phones. If you insist on using automated “Press 1, Press 2, Press 3” recordings, then at least have one option for reporting fraud. Make sure the phone number that you tell people to call to report fraud actually leads to someone who handles that. This is called common sense, a new concept I would like to introduce to the government. Trust me, it will pay for itself. If you have any questions, give me a call at 1-800-633-4227.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Real Turkeys

“I see turkeys… they’re everywhere!” Sorry, I must be channeling the holiday spirit of Haley Joel Osment. But I really do see turkeys everywhere, and I’m not talking about the kind stuffed on your dining room table. No, I’m referring to the taller ones flocking to stores and malls on this Black Friday, which in typical Wal-Mart fashion has been rolled back to 6 AM Thursday.

Otherwise (presumably) rational people line up six or eight hours before the stores open to take advantage of discounted merchandise, or expecting to be one of the six customers in the line to obtain a store’s Door-Buster Special (amazingly, even though the store has only six in stock, the 100th person in line still believes he or she has a chance to snag the item advertised at a ridiculously low price). These same people, who on Election Day refuse to wait 90 minutes on a voting line to decide the fate of our democracy, will gladly arrive hours before dawn and stand in the freezing cold of winter, rain, or snow for a 25% discount (remember, the Door-Busters are gone in the first three minutes) off the regularly inflated price of an item they don’t need.

If they had needed it, they would’ve bought it long before Thanksgiving. No, Black Friday sales, which focus heavily on electronic toys (from TVs to iPads), are hyping impulse items mass-market retailers want consumers to think they need. It’s all about getting consumers to think they need a product they really don’t, and then each year convincing them to upgrade to a newer or larger version. Bought the 52-inch TV last year? That was so 2013; you need a 60-inch this year. Already have an iPhone 5? The new iPhone 6 comes in gold.

The truth is, you really don’t need any of the things the marketers and retailers are hawking this weekend. What you need, is to understand the difference between a “need” and a “want”. A need is something critical that you cannot live without (food, water, a roof over your head). A want is something you desire (a PlayStation, a cruise, a yacht) but can live without.

If you need something, there are two ways to buy it: with money you have, or with credit (borrowing the money with the intent to pay it back later). If you want something, but do not need it, then you should only buy it with the money you have, and not go into debt to purchase something you don’t really need. If you don’t have enough money to buy it (which is another way of saying you can’t afford it), then you should not buy it. What you should do is put away a small amount each month towards savings and use those earmarked funds to purchase your “wants” without having to go into debt to a credit card company at 29% interest.

It’s a trap, because once those credit card statements arrive in your mail in January, you’ll be paying interest at usurious rates on your Black Friday impulse purchases through the next Turkey Day. There’s even a holiday for consumers who fall for this trap. It’s celebrated every April 1. Can you guess its name?

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Better Mousetrap

According to Forbes (via Bloomberg), 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. Put another way, only 20% of new businesses are still around a year and a half later. Increasingly in our post-Great Recession economy – a period defined by a jobless recovery, in which investors are reaping huge gains on Wall Street, while Main Street is littered with résumés – the formerly employed who now find themselves unemployable are choosing self-employment over unemployment. It certainly makes sense they would choose to label themselves as “entrepreneurs” and emulate the Rich Uncle Pennybags (the iconic top hat and tails millionaire from the Monopoly game) rather than admit to being unemployed and resemble a character from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Yet, if Forbes is to be believed, 80% of the newly minted “entrepreneurs” née “unemployed” are destined for failure and bankruptcy. While success in business may appear elusive, a simple axiom known by schoolchildren for hundreds of years holds the secret to establishing an enormously successful business: simply build a better mousetrap. The meaning of this adage is clear: find a product everyone needs and improve upon the competition’s design. Then, logically, consumers will abandon the obsolete version and flock to the new and improved model.

Madison Avenue continually offers consumers “new and improved” – cars, dishwashing detergent, beauty cream… every product is wrapped in the “new and improved” cloak; never mind that the cloak came from the same tailor who made The Emperor’s New Clothes. The products are not really new and the much touted improvements come from the minds of marketing mavens, not research and development engineers. Logically, the words “new” and “improved” are mutually exclusive. If something is new, it has never existed before; whereas, for something to be improved, it must have first existed. It can’t be both. But that hasn’t stopped Madison Avenue from marketing “new and improved” to American consumers for over half a century.

The secret of business success is not saying one has built a better mousetrap, but actually doing so. This is where all those businesses are failing. Let’s examine the basic mousetrap. As you may recall from your childhood Tom and Jerry cartoon days, the traditional mousetrap consists of a piece of cheese set on a trigger that snaps when the mouse tries to snatch the cheese. Attempts to build a better mousetrap usually focus on the design of the trap – we all recall the Rube Goldberg-esque Mousetrap game produced by Hasbro. Likewise, many businesses and entrepreneurs go to extremes modifying design while ignoring the bait.

The bait, of course, is the cheese. And therein lies the problem. It turns out that mice do not like cheese. Really. That’s a fact, I’m not making it up. Mice eat grains and fruit, both high in sugar, and (like most of us) would probably choose chocolate over cheese.  (The pungent scent of cheese might even lead the mice to eschew the mousetrap.) So, to build a better mousetrap, one must not make the mistake of dwelling solely on the design. In business terms, this is best expressed in another adage: “Think outside the box.”

Long-term business success comes from true innovation (think Apple Computer), not from changing the window dressing. Innovation can take the form of a brand-new product or a significant change to existing one. But it must be real and meaningful, not hyperbole. For corporations and wannabe entrepreneurs, that means leaving the comfort zone of simply repackaging or applying a fresh coat of paint to what’s come before, and instead thinking and looking at things in a completely different way. One cannot move forward by continually looking in the rear-view mirror.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bark ‘n Barf

I promised myself I wasn’t going to write about this week’s topic. I tried to avoid it, despite the media bombardment assailing me everywhere I went. But now, I fear I have no choice. I’ve been forced to take to my podium and scream “Stop the Idiocy!” at the top of my lungs.

My dog and I were at the vet yesterday (no doubt, helping put the veterinarian’s kids through college, judging from the bill) when I saw a laminated, 8 ½ x 11 placard taped to the checkout counter, with the ominous heading: “Dogs and Ebola.” I leaned over to the cashier-nurse and asked, “Precisely how many dogs in America have Ebola?” She stared at me as if I had asked a question on the “Do Not Ask” list pinned behind the counter. I decided to narrow the range of my query to make it easier. “How many dogs have ever contracted Ebola in America, in the history of the country, since it was founded?” A pensive gaze enveloped her face, as if she had been transported to the stage of a TV game show and this might be a trick question. Slowly, she answered, “None?”

“Absolutely right,” I replied. “So why are you alerting all of your customers to “Dogs and Ebola” (which I might add concluded at the bottom of the page that we really don’t have to worry about our dogs contracting Ebola, after all) instead of canine influenza; the deadly, yet common, parvovirus; or the life-threatening heartworm caused by mosquito bites?” You know, stuff that could really happen, and does, frequently.

She answered, the owner had insisted on posting the scary placard, even though Halloween had passed, just as the news media insist on scaring the American public over a phantom bogeyman. The truth is, no one has ever contracted and died from Ebola in the United States. The only person to ever die from Ebola on U.S. soil, Thomas Eric Duncan, contracted the disease in Liberia and flew here with it. Only three other individuals in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Ebola and all were healthcare workers: two were directly exposed to Duncan, and the third was a doctor who became sick on his return from helping Ebola patients in West Africa. There is no Ebola epidemic in the United States.

The panic about Ebola is reminiscent of the panic surrounding AIDS when it first appeared. Initially known as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) when first observed in 1981, the condition caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome after researchers discovered it affected more than homosexuals. By 1983, it was thought to affect gays, Haitians, and intravenous drug users. A popular joke at the time was, the hardest part of testing positive for the disease was telling your parents you were Haitian. The disease was spreading rapidly and killing many people, but Americans did not label it an epidemic until two new facts came to light: the incurable, deadly AIDS would kill anyone – not simply gays, Haitian, and IV-drug users – and it was transmitted through sex. Everyone was at risk and you caught it from sex: this was a f--king epidemic!

The word epidemic immediately leads to panic, with good reason. The Bubonic Plague wiped out 40% of Europe’s population from 541-542 ; The Black Death killed between 75 million and 200 million people (30-to-70% of the European population) in the 14th century; 75 million died in the 1918 influenza pandemic; smallpox killed between 300 million and 500 million people in just the 20th century alone; and AIDS has killed 25 million since 1981. The total number of Ebola deaths worldwide since 1976, when the disease was first reported: 6,585.

Ebola is not new; it has existed since 1976. That breaks down to an average of 173 deaths per year. Distressing? Yes? An epidemic to panic over? No. For comparison, last year, 11,419 Americans were killed by guns; 576,691 Americans were killed by cancer; 595,577 Americans were killed by heart disease, and 35,200 Americans died in car crashes. Americans killed by Ebola: 0. Zero, none, nada. Still afraid of Ebola? You’d be better off to pass on the Big Mac and stop texting while driving.

Yet fear is panic’s handmaiden. Ryan White, a hemophiliac, was 13 when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1984. He was expelled from middle school after panicked parents and teachers petitioned against and protested his attendance at the public school. When he was allowed to return to school for one day, half the students refused to attend classes. Many of the people on the boy’s newspaper route canceled their subscriptions because they believe they could contract HIV through the newsprint of the newspapers he handled. The school insisted Ryan eat with disposable utensils and use a separate bathroom. In Arcadia, Florida, in 1986, three hemophiliac brothers – Ricky, Robert, and Randy Ray were diagnosed with HIV and barred from attending school. A week after a court ruled, in 1987, that the children had to be allowed to attend classes, their family’s home was burned to the ground.

HIV, like Ebola, is not an airborne illness. You don’t catch either from sneezes or toilet seats. Both are transmissible only through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. In the case of HIV, bodily fluids are blood, semen, breast milk, and vaginal secretions. In the case of Ebola, bodily fluids are blood, semen, breast milk, saliva, mucus, vomit, feces, sweat, tears, and urine. Since bodily fluids may be exchanged during sex, this has made HIV particularly scary. However, while HIV can be transmitted by a person who is asymptomatic (i.e., displays no symptoms) Ebola can only be transmitted by one who is displaying symptoms.

So what are Ebola symptoms? They include weakness, fever, aches, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, rash, red and swollen eyes, chest pain, throat soreness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and external and internal bleeding. The bleeding can come from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and rectum. While it is possible for Ebola to be transmitted sexually, since the disease can only be transmitted when the victim is symptomatic, I doubt anyone could be horny enough to desire sex with someone bleeding through their eyes and rectum. Ebola is much more difficult to contract than AIDS or influenza. And surfaces can be decontaminated with household bleach.

Meanwhile, the American media have irresponsibly fueled a panic over Ebola and the nonexistent epidemic in this country. A new poll shows one in six Americans believe they will die from Ebola. A woman at an airport dressed in a full body, do it yourself Hazmat suit. A teacher was placed on medical leave merely for attending a conference 10 miles from where Ebola patient Duncan had been treated in a Dallas hospital. Another teacher, Susan Sherman, resigned from her Kentucky elementary school job after being placed on a 21-day leave because she had returned from Kenya – Kenya, a country in the continent of Africa, does not have Ebola. Parents pulled their students from a Mississippi middle school after its principal returned from his brother’s funeral in Zambia. A New Jersey school barred two students from Rwanda, another country in Africa, 2500 miles away from where the Ebola outbreak occurred. One of the results of America’s failure to teach geography in its public schools is that we now have an entire generation of supposedly educated people who do not know that Africa is not a country, but one of the world’s seven continents.


Fortunately, my dog can’t read, so she was not panicked by the notice at her veterinarian’s office. Those humans who can read, and take the time to seek out the facts, rather than the hysteria, will also not fall victim to the Ebola panic. For the rest, who would rather believe in half-truths and superstition, rather than facts and science, I am pleased to announce I am now selling anti-Ebola bracelets, only in the U.S., which are guaranteed to ward off the dreaded Ebola virus. I also have some wonderful books for sale, but hey, a buck’s a buck and I’ll take it where I can get it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Of Mice and Mean

I grew up with cinnamon flavored Lavoris mouthwash, but in recent years have found it increasingly difficult to find on the supermarket shelves. Apparently, the only store stocking it locally is one of those dollar stores. So, I found myself in Dollar Tree in search of Lavoris, and happened to stumble through the pet supply aisle. The entire aisle was filled with dog and cat food, litter, pet toys, and other pet supplies. But directly beneath the “Pet Supplies” sign were two shelves stacked with wooden mousetraps.

I did a doubletake. My eyes shot from the pet supplies sign, down to the mousetraps, and then back up to the sign. At first, I suspected a dyslexic clerk might have been the culprit. It’s easy to confuse “Pets” with “Pest.” It’s only the transposition of a single letter that separates the cuddly from the cringe-worthy. Or perhaps there was an entire subculture of pet owners with BDSM fetishes. It begins with collars and leashes, and before you know it, the mousetraps come out.

I got back into my car and, coincidentally, tuned into the podcast to which I had been listening: an old episode of Ira Glass’ This American Life, specifically, episode 12, entitled “Animals.”  As an aside, I’m a big fan of Ira Glass and his show and highly recommend it. For those who haven’t experienced it, each episode of the radio program consists of multiple segments (called acts) based on a common theme. In Act I, which you can listen to here, photographer Catherine Chalmers was interviewed in her apartment, where she raises small animals and insects, feeds them to each other, and photographs them eating each other.

Chalmers discusses her hobby with a detachment worthy of Hannibal Lecter. At one point, she describes placing a newborn mouse, still furless and not having yet opened its eyes, on the table with her other pet, a snake she has not fed in a week. The two-day old mouse cannot see and can barely move. She has to wait for the snake to realize the “pinky,” as she calls it, is meant to be its meal, but eventually the snake wraps itself around the tiny creature and constricts it. The defenseless mouse cannot see what is attacking it, but it can express its fear and pain in piercing squeals, which it does.

The interviewer asks if she thinks she could be charged with animal cruelty. Chalmers replies, “I don’t think so,” adding maybe, if she took one outside and ripped it apart where everyone could see. This struck me as an interesting defense: that it is not the act, but rather who sees it, which determines criminality. A more common argument is predators routinely consume their prey in nature, and what Chalmers has done is simply a recreation of nature. But it’s not.

In nature, a pregnant mother would have found a spot safe from predators to birth her children, allowing them time to learn to walk, and see, and learn to defend themselves. In the vastness of the wild, there are opportunities for prey to escape their predators, and even for predators to become prey themselves as they feast. This was not the case in Chalmers’ apartment. This was a premeditated slaughter conducted for entertainment and profit.

I see such arguments and defenses employed repeatedly in discussions of political topics. Analogies are frequently made to bolster one side that conveniently leave out salient facts which, if known, would render the analogy meaningless. No, it’s not just as in nature, because in nature there exists maternal instinct and opportunity for escape. Often, an argument may sound rational unless you examine it closely to spot its flaws. For this reason, I advise all my readers not just to listen and read, but to apply critical thinking to what one has heard and read.

It’s a good thing I found my Lavoris; this seems to have left a bad taste in my mouth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It’s Later Than You Think

I started this blog three and a half years ago, as most authors do, to call attention to my books in the hope readers might be motivated to purchase them. I've tried to keep the blog interesting, filling it with social commentary, philosophical musings, and humorous anecdotes, but unlike many other authors who blog, never discussing my personal life. Today will be the first, and likely only, exception.

Today is my birthday. And it’s my first birthday in more than half a century that my grandmother will not be here to celebrate it with me. Somehow, that makes me feel much older. The last survivor of her generation in my family, she died four weeks ago, four months short of what would have been her 104th birthday. She outlived my grandfather, who was born the year the Wright brothers flew the first airplane from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and had lived to watch a man walk on the moon. When Grandma was born in January 1911, women did not have the right to vote in America; when she died, Hillary Clinton was the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

She lived through enormous changes in a lifetime that encompassed two world wars, a global influenza epidemic that killed 50 million people, the Great Depression, the atom bomb, the moon landing, and the inventions of talking motion pictures, radio, television, computers, and the Internet.
When Grandma was born, William Howard Taft (a fat, white man weighing in at 354 lbs.) was the 27th President of the United States; when she died, the 44th president, Barack Obama (a skinny, black man), was in office. Edward VII was King of England, succeeded later that year by his son, King George V. The Mexican revolution was in full swing; famine was killing thousands in China; and in New York City, 146 men, women, and girls, mostly recent Jewish and Italian immigrants, would perish in flames that year in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was the year the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved the monopolistic Standard Oil Company, and the first Indianapolis 500 took place.

A few other things happened that year, besides my grandmother’s birth. The first public elevator was unveiled (in London’s Earl’s Court tube station); Procter & Gamble brought Crisco cooking oil to market; the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre (they got it back two years later); Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole; airplanes were used as military weapons for the first time in history; and the first Marconi wireless transmission was received in New York, all the way from Italy. Also, the Titanic was launched; it would sink on its maiden voyage, the following year.

The American flag had only 45 stars when Grandma was born. The zipper had not yet been invented; nor had the aerosol spray can, frozen food, penicillin, the yo-yo, Scotch tape, or bubblegum. A postage stamp cost two cents, the average wage was 22 cents an hour, and the average annual income was between $200 and $400. There were 8,000 cars in the country and the speed limit was 10 mph. Only 14% of homes had a bathtub, while only 8% had a telephone. Grandma never attended college, but then, in 1911, only 6% of Americans had graduated from high school. Beer wasn’t available in cans, but the local drugstore did dispense marijuana, morphine, and heroin, over-the-counter.

This was the world into which my grandmother was born. I knew her my whole life, and yet I never really knew her. I've often said people, like diamonds, are multifaceted. When you hold a diamond, you can never see all of its sides. The side of her that I saw was that of a loving and devoted grandmother. There were smaller facets I also saw: that of wife, mother, sister, and aunt. Those were the roles I saw her play in my lifetime, but there were facets I had never glimpsed, because I hadn't been alive to see them. She had lived nearly half a century before my birth… what some would consider an entire lifetime in itself. She had been a daughter to my great-grandparents whom I had never met; a sister to several siblings whom I’d never met; and a cousin to individuals who were very close to her, including one who came to live with her family after being gassed as a soldier in World War I; all strangers to me.

These were the facets I never saw, yet these people were as important to her as those of our family who have survived her. She could never bring herself to talk about her oldest sister, Mollie, without tearing up, even though Mollie had died in 1926, before the rest of us were born. I learned secondhand, through Grandma, about all of these people, our distant relatives who were far from distant to her. Through the photographs and her stories, which she shared with me as I was doing my genealogy project, I saw a little more of the diamond, and was able to meet, albeit vicariously, some of the people who had shaped the early years of her life.

Grandma was delivered into this world by a doctor who was also a cousin. At the age of 19, she was a clerk at a New Jersey hotel, where she would connect phone calls for the guests, including some prominent gangsters of the time. She became a legal secretary for three lawyers, and married one of them. My grandfather opened a law office above his uncle’s dress shop, and he and my grandmother also worked in the dress shop during the Depression. Later, they opened their own dress shop in New York and ran it until my grandmother became pregnant. They retired to Miami Beach in the 50s, where my grandmother became a licensed real estate agent and, with my grandfather, were owners of two Collins Avenue motels.

At her funeral last month, I said in her eulogy:
“Grandma had a wry sense of humor, yet her other quintessential traits included stoicism, stubbornness, and perseverance. Her endurance of hardship and pain was a hallmark of her stoicism. Into her 90s and 100s, she would endure frequent painful spinal stenosis at restaurant meals rather than take a prescribed pain pill, because, as she explained, she didn't want to become addicted to them. As for her perseverance, we often referred to Grandma as the “Energizer Bunny,” a phrase that has entered the vernacular as a term for anything that continues endlessly.

“These past few months have been difficult. We didn't lose Grandma this week; we lost her piece by piece, as her advanced age gradually eroded her mobility, hearing, eyesight, and lucidity. With each passing month, we buried a part of the once vibrant woman we knew, until today, when we inter her final remains.

“I spent this past April living with Grandma. One night, she was lying in bed with her feet under the air-conditioning vent, and she said her feet were cold. She asked, “You know what that means? It’s time for me to go…” poignantly adding, “but I don’t know how.” Each day, Grandma would sit in her recliner, tapping her hand and leg to the beat of a song only she could hear. When asked what she was singing, she’d reply, “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.” Grandma had a great sense of humor. One day, I woke her to tell her I was leaving and said, “You fell asleep. You should go to bed; you must be tired if you were napping.” She replied, “I was just rehearsing.”

“Another night, she awoke confused, crying out for “Mother”. I asked her mother’s name, to be sure it was her mother she was calling for, and not mine sleeping in the next room. She replied, “Ida.” I reached across to the dresser and brought her a photograph of her parents. I passed her the photo, and said softly, “I never knew her, you know.” She studied the photograph, and whispered, “She’s gone, isn't she?” I nodded and replied, “We have her pictures and the stories you've shared, and that’s how we’ll keep her alive in our memories.” Grandma nodded and smiled, and I think that made her feel a little better.

“We have Grandma’s pictures, and lots of stories, and that’s how we’ll keep her alive in our memories. Maybe that will make us feel a little better.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

When Bullets Fail…

Exactly two years ago, to the day, I introduced you to the bravest girl in the world. I wrote:

“Today, I want to tell you about the bravest girl in the world. She doesn't fight demons or slay dragons. Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai fights for ideas like freedom and education. She doesn't hate school like many American kids; she fought to be allowed to go to school. For years, the Taliban controlled her village of Swat Valley in Pakistan and strictly forbade girls from attending school... under penalty of death.”

When Malala was only 11, and the Taliban was blowing up more than 150 schools, she diarised the Taliban’s atrocities, like a modern-day Anne Frank, and the BBC republished her blog accounts pseudonymously to the world. This did not go over well with the cutthroat slime terrorizing Pakistan and Afghanistan. Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus. They asked which girl was Malala Yousafzai. The students pointed her out. They watched, as a gunman aimed his pistol at her head and fired.

A Taliban spokesman justified their cowardly act of terrorism: “She considers President Obama as her ideal leader. Malala is the symbol of the infidels and obscenity.” They had employed the only two weapons at their disposal: fear and death. The Taliban believed Malala’s story, and the threat it posed to them, had ended. They were wrong. Malala’s story had just begun.

Malala Yousafzai knew this was her reality, the world she lived in, the world in which she was growing up, and the childhood that would shape her life. Yet, she spoke out -- bravely, loudly, and clearly. Malala knew freedom isn't free -- it's earned. So she stood up for the right of girls to receive an education, amid rising fundamentalism, when few Pakistani adults would do so. In retaliation, the Taliban sought to send a clear message of intimidation by shooting her on a school bus. They failed. She survived. Malala, the bravest girl in the world, continued to write, even from her hospital bed, unintimidated by these murderous scum.

Today, exactly two years later, the world acknowledged it had heard Malala, as she became, at 17, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Appropriately, she was given the news while in her chemistry class, at school, in Birmingham, England, where she now resides. Two years ago, I predicted Malala would one day return to Pakistan, displaying her same spirit, pluck, and confidence, along with a newfound education, to lead her country from the Middle Ages into the 21st century. While I may not live long enough to see it come to pass, I can envision this young girl growing up to become the woman who enables all the girls of her native Pakistan to pursue their educations, not as refugees in a foreign land, but as equal citizens in their own country where they can learn whatever they want and become whomever they wish to be.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Inexorable Weed

I saw a lovely display of outdoor plants at the supermarket, today. I imagined how nice they would look on my patio and was tempted to buy them, until I remembered I have a black thumb. Some people are born with green thumbs, that nurture and nourish whatever flora they touch. My hands, however, are anathema to my chlorophyll producing friends that share the planet with me. Besides, I have a lovely weed at home.

Over the years, I made many attempts to populate my patio with greenery. My patio still displays a scattering of empty pottery filled only with soil, vestigial remains that stand as ceramic monuments to my fruitless endeavors at gardening. Except for one pot. As if to defy Persephone, the goddess of springtime, or more likely merely to mock me, something did take root in the potting soil in this one planter – a weed.

It began as a small weed, but quickly grew, as weeds are wont to do. It covered the surface of the rather large planter, and one day I stepped out on the patio and pulled out the weed by its roots, leaving my planter barren again. A few weeks later, I noticed a small weed sprouting from beneath the planter’s soil. In time, it grew … and spread. Eventually, I yanked it out and assumed I was done with it.

The weed was resilient. It returned with a vengeance. It spread across the circumference of the ceramic planter, and then, to my surprise, grew skyward. More and more, my weed came to resemble a plant. It was green. It looked full. And it had appendages resembling leaves. Visitors would comment on what a lovely plant I had. At first, I would correct them. “No, it’s not a plant; it’s a weed.” I soon tired of that. I learned to nod and mutter a quiet “Thank you.”

Now, whenever I step onto the patio, I’m greeted by the lush greenery spilling forth from the once barren pot. It actually looks rather nice. I can see where people might think it was a plant. I water it, and take undeserved pride in its colorful appearance. I’m uncertain if I've accepted the weed or been co-opted by it.

I came to see the weed as an allegory for aging. Each generation enters the world filled with energy and the irrefutable belief that it will change the world. Yet, as the years turn to decades, that youthful energy fades as entropy sets in, and those once hopeful in their callow, optimistic naïveté realize, despite all their well-meaning intentions and efforts, the world has not changed. Poverty, disease, crime, war – the scourges of humanity – are inexorable weeds in our garden. Eden, like the lovely display of flora at my supermarket, is not the garden to which we come home. Aging, you see, is the process of learning to accept the inexorable, that which we cannot change.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Voyage of Discovery

With a new school year approaching, this is an appropriate excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:



When we gaze into a classroom, we see the faces of 30 young students endowed with differing innate abilities and skills. They were not all designed to work the same way. Our educational system teaches them as if they were monolithic, or at least fungible entities. But they are not. One might be good with his hands, capable of creating fine pottery or crafts; a second might be a thinker; a third, a strategic planner; yet another, an artist or poet. One might be good with numbers, while another able to conceptualize complex theories.

It is distressing to see our leaders place their entire educational emphasis on science and math, ignoring the importance of history, writing (communication and expression), philosophy, and the arts (art, music, and literature). A society needs citizens grounded in a sense of history, for those ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat its errors. Those citizens need the ability to communicate and express their thoughts and ideas in an articulate, cogent manner, free from emotional argument ad hominem. And as we have learned from the relics of all great civilizations -- from Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome forward -- societies need beauty. From the Great Pyramids, to Michelangelo’s “The David”, to William Shakespeare’s oeuvre, a civilization is inspired by, and defined by, its art.

Science and math have their place. Societies have always needed ship builders and navigators, be it the Greeks to design and pilot their penteconters; the Spanish, their galleons; or the Chinese, their junks. From galleys to spacecrafts, math and science have played an integral role in man’s ability to free himself from landlocked constraints and set forth on voyages of exploration. But while important, science and math are not the only disciplines our children must be taught.

Civilizations need thinkers. Philosophers. Individuals who contemplate, as well as those who plan. The de-emphasis of the disciplines of philosophy, history, and the arts, in both our schools and our culture, explains the sorry state of our society today and the Weltschmerz that permeates us. We live in a culture of corporate greed, where individualistic selfishness has replaced altruism, idealism, and principles. But now more than ever, we need thinkers and philosophers to express their thoughts and communicate their ideas, as much or more than we need a nation of scientists and mathematicians, because while it’s important to build the ships that will take us across vast oceans or galaxies, it's more important to know where we're going and why.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Back in the USA!!!

I'm pleased to announce my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger, published in June in the the European Union, is now available for purchase in the United States! Caving in to unprecedented demand, Amber Book Company will distribute Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger exclusively through Amazon.com.

But don't fret if you're located outside the good ole US of A! Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger can still be ordered from Amazon in the United KingdomGermanyItalyFrance, and Spain.

Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger is 332 pages of social commentary and humor, featuring a selection of my best blog columns from the past three years. Order your copy today!



Yes, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger is Back in the USA!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Death Doctors

Corporations aren't people. That’s good news for Johnson & Johnson, because if corporations were people, then J&J would be locked away in a jail cell charged with murder.

One of America’s largest corporations is responsible for the deaths of many of our fellow Americans. Another one may be dying as you read this. This is a tale of corporate greed and money; of the most helpless members of our communities and families; and of the callous death dealers who masquerade as pillars of our society.

Whisper. Can you hear it? That’s the hushed sound of death. No, not whisper. Risperdal. Risperdal is manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, and  was one of the first medicines to be approved for treatment of schizophrenia in adults and teenagers 13 years of age and older. Later, it was approved for use for bipolar disorder, and for autism and behavior problems in children ages five-to-16. But there’s one group of people who should never use Risperdal: old people. Simply put, it kills them.

Risperdal (also called Risperidone) is NOT approved by the FDA for the treatment of behavior problems in older adults with dementia. They have an increased risk of death during treatment. They also have a greater chance of stroke or mini stroke. That’s why the FDA has put a black box warning on Risperdal stating it is not to be used on older adults with dementia. Risperdal can cause agitation, anxiety, confusion, disorientation, and death in these people.

When a drug is used for purposes other than what the FDA has approved its use for, such unapproved use is called “off-label” use. It’s not surprising that businesses are always seeking to find new ways for customers to use their products, and thus expand their market and therefore their sales. Old people with dementia can behave erratically and overburdened caretakers would certainly appreciate a magic pill to make them docile.

In November, 2013, Johnson & Johnson paid $2.2 billion to settle lawsuits for trying to push Risperdal for anxiety problems and for dementia in the elderly when the drug is not approved for such use and has been proven to be deadly when used off-label. The U.S. Justice Department called it “one of the largest health care fraud settlements in U.S. history.” The AARP Bulletin (August 2014) stated: “Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries were fined more than $2.2 billion to resolve criminal and civil charges because of their aggressive marketing of drugs, including antipsychotics, to nursing homes, when they knew the drugs had not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe and effective for a general elderly population. The corporation also allegedly paid kickbacks to physicians, as well as to Omnicare, the nation’s largest long-term care pharmacy provider. Omnicare pharmacists were recommending Johnson & Johnson’s drugs, including the antipsychotic Risperdal, for use by nursing home residents.”

A source told the AARP Bulletin, “There was a push by drug manufacturers, claiming these medications work for seniors when they knew, in fact, that it doubled their risk of death.”

More than 400 lawsuits were filed against Johnson & Johnson. The federal government in 45 states accused Johnson & Johnson of illegally marketing Risperdal for off-label purposes. But it isn't just the 60-to-70% of nursing home residents with dementia who are at risk. Doctors and pharmacists are being misled into believing it’s safe to prescribe Risperdal to the elderly. Many caregivers tending to the needs of their elderly parents or grandparents in their homes have relied on, and trusted, the word of their doctor or pharmacist and given their loved ones this magic pill, unaware of the deadly risk it carries.

I know all too well the horror of Risperdal. Two weeks after it was prescribed for my 103-year-old grandmother, I saw her become lethargic and not recognize members of her own family, as well as exhibiting some of the known side effects of the drug. When I learned the truth about Risperdal, we weaned her off it (the insidious pill cannot be stopped cold turkey) and she returned to normal. Her experience occurred after the $2.2 billion settlement: Risperdal is still being marketed for off-label use, despite the FDA black box warning that it will kill elderly patients. Most caregivers are unaware of its danger and trust their doctors and pharmacists, who in turn trust Johnson & Johnson. And every day, the corporation grows richer, the cemeteries fill more plots, and the prison cells remain empty because you can’t put a corporation in jail, even if it’s getting away with murder.






Thursday, August 14, 2014

Just Published! The Halos & Horns Omnibus – In Color!

Halos and Horns: The Omnibus Edition has just been published in a deluxe paperback edition and I cannot recommend any book more highly than this one. Readers of this blog already know my passion for the Halos and Horns fantasy saga, which I have spent four years crafting. I've often compared this work of episodic fiction to television, likening each chapter to a TV episode, and each book to an entire TV season. Continuing that analogy, Halos and Horns: The Omnibus Edition is the boxed DVD set.

An omnibus is a volume containing several novels previously published separately. That means you can expect it to be a big book. A very big book. Obviously, an omnibus will be a lot heavier than a single book and carry a larger price tag (though cheaper than buying the individual books). Its sheer size can be intimidating. Imagine the complete works of Shakespeare, or Dickens, or whomever your favorite author might be, sandwiched between the covers of a single book. It’s like buying a DVD set of your favorite TV series or movie trilogy. While potentially overwhelming, there’s something magical about that sense of completeness you get by knowing you hold an entire creative work within your hands.

All four books in the saga are included in the omnibus, along with never before published essays on the series, an interview with the author, and a massive Guide to the Halos and Horns Multiverse. The omnibus also includes the novelette, The Pandora Chronicles, a sneak peak at the forthcoming Fangs and Fur fantasy series, a spin-off devoted to the vampires and werewolves of the Halos & Horns multiverse. But what really makes this 904-page book stand out are the 61 stunning illustration that accompany the stories, in breathtaking color.

For the first time, you can read the entire story, from beginning to end, in one book. All the pieces come together as the saga unfolds, the color illustrations vividly bring the characters and settings to life, and the essays and guide take you backstage, behind the scenes, providing essential background for the saga. What’s it about? I’m glad you asked. I proudly present, Halos and Horns: The Omnibus Edition:

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." - Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5). A naïve angel and amoral demon discover the truth of Shakespeare's words, when a wager between God and the Devil lands them on Earth. In the guise of Las Vegas private eyes "Gabe Horn" and "Lou Cypher", the archangel Gabriel and trickster demon Lucifer embark on personal quests of their own in search of their humanity. Their personal journey is also a physical one, spanning both time and dimensions, through the centuries to Camelot and 17th century Salem, exploring the seven Heavens, the nine levels of Hell, the Dark Dimension of the ancient Dark Gods, Thenesia – an ancient land of swords and sorcery, the somnolent realm of the Dreamscape, the Otherworld – home of the Fae, and the eerie emptiness of Limbo.

Beneath the prosaic veneer of urban life, mortal humans live in blissful ignorance alongside preternatural and supernatural creatures: warlocks and witches, vampires, werewolves, the Fae, kitsune, and creatures whispered of in myths of African, Irish, and Japanese cultures. Seers gaze at the Sands of Time as the golden grains tumble through the mystical hourglass, seeking to divine what the Fates have woven. Through these memorable characters and exotic settings, the author explores the nature of good and evil, free will versus predetermination, man's inhumanity to man, universal versus moral relativism, nature versus nurture, loss of innocence, coming of age, death, love and friendship, the quest for power, individualism, sacrifice, and faith versus doubt, among other literary themes. This Omnibus Edition collects all four volumes in the Halos & Horns fantasy saga, replete with 61 new color illustrations; the "Guide to the Halos & Horns Multiverse" detailing each character, place, and object; previously unpublished essays by the author; and the novelette The Pandora Chronicles, a preview of the forthcoming spin-off trilogy, Fangs & Fur.
                       

Halos & Horns: The Omnibus Edition



Available online from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Forgetting Oliver

I’m watching with great interest what’s going on in the European Union. The EU Court of Justice has ruled in favor of the Right to be Forgotten, a concept I discuss in my book, Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law. Europeans have a profound commitment to individual privacy, considering it a fundamental human right, whereas Americans value free speech as a core principle of a democratic society. When the two values conflict, the winner will depend upon the locale.

Europeans believe individual privacy is a matter of dignity. They believe personal information about one’s life is, to put it simply, no one else’s damn business. They think everyone should have the right to remove information about himself or herself from the Internet. That embarrassing drunken photo, your bankruptcy record, your divorce proceedings, your DUI record, your misdemeanor mugshot, the decade-old news report of your sexual abuse by a parent, or the details of your rape are likely to come up on the first page of search engine results when a neighbor, a date, or a potential employer searches for your name. Europeans have a quaint idea that an individual should be allowed to assert a Right to be Forgotten – to make search engines de-link from the offensive material upon request.

Americans take the position free speech should trump individual privacy. After all, this is a nation of reality television that loves to gossip about the titillating details of other people’s lives. America is a “tell-all” nation, while Europe is a “tell none” union.

I have to side with Europeans on this one.

When I was a boy, the president of the United States was the most admired and important man in the world. Especially in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, like any other patriotic American boy, I wouldn't have hesitated to take a bullet for the president. Any president. Democrat or Republican; young, like JFK or old, like LBJ; it didn't matter. The president was the president, and we were taught to be patriotic: every morning, we stood beneath the American flag and a framed photograph of the president, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. We knew we might one day be called to give our lives in defense of our country, and stood ready to give our lives in defense of our president, however unlikely the latter might be.

Oliver Sipple was ready the day fate called upon him. He was in a crowd outside a San Francisco hotel, waiting to catch a glimpse of President Gerald R. Ford emerging, when he saw a woman aiming a .38 caliber pistol at the president. Oliver lunged at Sara Jane Moore as she squeezed the trigger, causing her to miss her target. Oliver became a national hero. He also became a public figure which, in American jurisprudence, effectively meant he no longer had a right to privacy. The press found out Oliver was gay. He begged them not to reveal that portion of his life to the public. Being outted in 1975 meant social ostracism, loss of family and friends, and potential job loss. Although it had nothing to do with the news story, it made for a salacious second day lead.

When his family found out, Oliver’s mother disowned him. Oliver sued the San Francisco Chronicle and the reporter for invasion of privacy. He lost. Oliver Sipple, the American hero who had saved a president’s life, just wanted his privacy and a bit of dignity. He wanted the right to be forgotten. Instead, his private life in San Francisco became public fodder for the news media and titillating gossip for the neighbors of his Midwestern family. Ultimately, Oliver committed suicide.

Europeans believe individual privacy is a matter of dignity. The Right to be Forgotten is a concept we should also adopt in America. I've even got a name for: The Oliver Sipple Act.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

No, It’s Not OK Cupid

Popular dating Website OkCupid revealed today it has been perpetrating a fraud on its users. Until now, OkCupid stood apart from its rivals because of its unique matching algorithm based on users’ answers to questions posed by other users. The seemingly innocuous questions actually revealed a great deal about the individual, depending on how he or she answered them. The answers were weighted, based on their importance to the user reviewing them. They were then scored into percentiles, and users were categorized by percentage as “matches”, “friends”, and “enemies”. Thus, two individuals with a high match percentage would likely share similar values, while someone with a high enemy percentage had probably given the wrong answer to questions the user considered important. The algorithm served to weed out incompatible potential dates.

Or so OkCupid users thought. Christian Rudder, OkCupid’s president, publicly bragged that the dating Website had been experimenting on its users. Apparently, Rudder believes his paying customers are little more than lab rats who exists only for his amusement. He proudly boasted the OkCupid staff hides some of its users’ profile text and photos, and tells some users they have scored highly, when in reality, the opposite is true. Rudder wrote: “But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how Websites work.”

Um, no Christian. That’s not how Websites work. Nor is it how legitimate businesses work. That’s how lying, fraudulent, unethical scumbags work. It’s called deception, as in the sort of unlawful practices that the Federal Trade Commission, under Section 5 of the FTC Act, declares to be unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Also, by changing users’ personal information on their profiles, OkCupid has raised some data protection issues. I predict a class-action lawsuit in the offing. As an attorney, my first question would be, Does OkCupid employ any lawyers on its staff?

I’m not sure which amazes me more: Rudder’s betrayal of his customers or his utter chutzpah (shameless audacity) in blogging about what he’s done. “We told users something that wasn’t true. I’m definitely not hiding from that fact,” The New York Times quoted Rudder. From a business standpoint, it’s mind-boggling. He has taken his company’s main selling point – the proprietary compatibility algorithm – and destroyed its credibility. It’s like expecting customers to go to a gas station after it has bragged about filling half its tanks with water instead of gasoline. How likely are you to go back to fill up your tank at that station? Not only has OkCupid killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but it also has risked, or jettisoned, the trust its users had placed in it. Business is about a relationship between a seller of a good or service and a customer, and the crux of that relationship is mutual trust. That’s Business 101. As an MBA, my first question would be, Does anyone on OkCupid’s staff have a business degree? Or did they all major in monkey business?

In his blog post, entitled “We Experiments on Human Beings,” Rudder wrote, “OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing.” That may be the first honest thing he’s said. But Rudder goes on in an attempt to justify his actions; he contends experimenting on humans without their consent is necessary for scientific advancement. Didn’t Dr. Josef Mengele make that same argument 60 years ago?

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Letter to the NSA

Social commentary mixed with a dash of humor: here's another excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:


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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Pandora Chronicles

After four years – and four annual volumes – the first arc of the Halos & Horns fantasy saga has come to a close. Halos & Horns followed the story of an angel and a demon on the lam from their respective realms (Heaven and Hell) who take human guise and settle in Las Vegas as private eyes. Their tale has ended… but along the way, they crossed paths with a wide array of unusual and interesting supernatural characters. Among them, were two vampires: Sharon Mordecai, an 18-year-old runaway and her slightly older BFF, Pandora.

Sharon shared a mysterious psychic bond with Pandora, but that wasn't the only mystery surrounding the carefree party girl with a penchant for getting into trouble whom she had befriended. In fact, Sharon realized she knew nothing about the strawberry blonde vampire’s past, not even her true age. And although readers came to know Sharon and Pandora through their adventures, how they met was never revealed… nor was how Sharon or Pandora became vampires. Until now.

This preview of the upcoming Fangs & Fur fantasy series reveals the poignant yet humorous origin of the happy-go-lucky, trouble-prone vampire Pandora, from the four-book Halos & Horns fantasy saga. The Pandora Chronicles is a 9,800-word novelette that serves both as a perfect jumping-on point for new readers in advance of the forthcoming Fangs & Fur series, and to whet the appetites of readers of Halos & Horns asking "What comes next?" Join Pandora for a tale of vampires, gangsters, and speakeasies; the Blitz and wartime sunken ships; and disco fever. See how Pandora met her BFF Sharon Mordecai and learn the secret of the psychic bond they share, in this new eBook novelette. All this, and get change back from your dollar!

Click below to start reading The Pandora Chronicles right now. Then, in six months, learn the origins and further adventures of the other vampires and werewolves from Halos & Horns in Flashbacks, the first book of the three-book Fangs & Fur fantasy arc.
The Pandora Chronicles

US  readers.       UK  readers.       German readers    


Friday, July 4, 2014

An Independence Day excerpt from My New Book

And now, on this Fourth of July, an appropriate excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:



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 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society 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 had 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.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What's Hot in Croatia -- Hidden in the Cobwebs of Zagreb

If you happen to find yourself wandering the streets of Zagreb, Croatia, be sure to stop by Superknjizara Bookstore at Rooseveltov trg 4 (opposite the Mimara Museum on Savska Street) or, if that's a tad out of your way, check out their outstanding selection of books. These fine folks obviously have superb taste in books, judging from the sampling on this page of their website!  ;) 

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Welcome to a special edition of my blog this week. Author Kanchana Ayyar has invited me to be part of The Writing Process Blog Tour, in which selected authors answer four questions on their blog. Think of it is how a writer might imagine a Passover Seder… sans the matzoh. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” So begin the traditional Four Questions asked at Passover Seders for thousands of years. In a similar vein, today you might ask “Why is this blog different from all of my other blogs?” because I’ll be answering the same four questions being put to many writers today as part of a new tradition – the Writing Process Blog Tour.

Question #1: What are you working on?

These days, writers wear several hats. When I’m wearing my promoter hat, I’m promoting my most recently published books, The Witches Cauldron and Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger. But when I put on my production hat, I’m designing the forthcoming deluxe illustrated collection of my four-book fantasy series, The Halos and Horns Omnibus Edition. This is probably the most exciting project I've ever worked on. This massive 900-page book has more than 60 color illustrations, a guide to the Halos and Horns multiverse, the novelette The Pandora Chronicles, and several never before published essays. It’s truly a labor of love and if you buy only one book of mine, this should be it.

Then, when I put on my editor’s hat, I’m doing the final run through on my young adult science fiction novel, The 25th Hour, which will be released later this year. It’s a fast-paced action-adventure tale. Mackenzie Mortimer’s a typical junior high geek. He’s shy, awkward, a bit clumsy, late with his homework, and always late for class. There’s never enough time to do everything he needs to do; after all, there are only 24 hours in a day. But when Mac finds his grandfather’s pocket watch buried deep inside a trunk, he discovers his days have an extra hour. According to the eccentric inventor’s journal, the watch can add up to 60 minutes to a single day by freezing time around whomever presses its button. When a crisis looms for Mac and his friends, time is running out... but fortunately, Mackenzie Mortimer has few more minutes than anyone else.

Next, I wear my geek hat and meet with Amber Book Company’s programmer to develop a digitized version of my Issues in Internet Law: Society Technology and the Law for colleges and universities worldwide on one of the world’s leading digital textbook platforms. I look forward to being able to announce the details in an upcoming blog post.

I also don my researcher’s hat and ferret out the latest legal and technological issues to include in the next print edition of Issues in Internet Law: Society Technology and the Law.

Finally, I get to put on my writer’s hat, dip my quill into the inkwell, and write a few more chapters in the first volume of Fangs and Fur, which provides readers with an in-depth look at the vampires and werewolves they've met in the Halos & Horns saga. Fangs and Fur: Flashbacks (Book 1 in the series) should be published by Christmas. You can expect to hear me talk more about Fangs and Fur as we get closer to publication date.

Question #2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I write both nonfiction and fiction. In my nonfiction, unlike many writers, I take complex topics and express them in easily understood terms. One university professor shared his student’s comment about my book, Issues in Internet Law: Society Technology and the Law,  with me: “I just wanted to say I was dreading the fact I had to read a law book and wouldn’t be able to understand the law talk but I love this book! It’s really easy to understand and great because the Internet is a huge part of my everyday life.” That’s what makes my nonfiction books different. My writing style is designed to convey understanding of the underlying material, not to impress students with how smart the author presumably is.

I also write short stories and sagas. My short stories tend to be concise, insightful, and visceral. I think I bring a more literary writing style to the fantasy genre. My writing has a certain elegance atypical of most tales of vampires and demons. There’s a philosophical aspect to my writing and I explore many literary themes, including the nature of good and evil, free will versus predetermination, man’s inhumanity to man, universal versus moral relativism, nature versus nurture, loss of innocence, coming of age, death, love and friendship, the quest for power, individualism, sacrifice, and faith versus doubt. Also, I respect my readers’ intelligence and I don’t write down to them on a fifth grade reading level. When you read my fiction, you’ll come away having added a few new words to your vocabulary.

Question #3: Why do you write what you do?

Besides having to pay the bills, I truly enjoy writing. Often, I find there a lot of things that need to be said and I’ll wrap these social messages in the context of a fictional story.

Question #4: How does your writing process work?

I was trained as a traditional journalist, so I learned to compose my thoughts before my fingers touch the keyboard and write whatever it is I’m writing in one draft. If I’m writing a short piece, I’ll just do it as stream of consciousness, flowing from my mind onto the screen. However, if I’m writing a multi-book saga, or even a novel, I’ll prepare a general one-page outline of the proposed chapters. Then, I’ll flesh out the outline by creating a separate outline for each individual chapter. These sub outlines will contain a list of the characters appearing in that chapter, the subplots, and sometimes, snatches of dialogue. Once I start writing the chapter, I incorporate much of the outline but I’m also free to deviate from it. When I finish a chapter, I’ll upload it into my Kindle and proof it for errors.

Now, I must pass the author baton to the another writer who will take you on the next leg of the Writing Process Blog Tour.


 Alain Gomez lives in San Diego and has been writing since she was sixteen. She works in the field of music but has continued to pursue her passion for writing as an independent author. Though she generally sticks to writing shorter stories, Alain enjoys experimenting with a variety of genres, including science fiction and fairy tales. Her blog is at http://bookbrouhaha.blogspot.com.

Join Alain next Monday to read her answers to the same four questions, but until then, feel free to read some of my previous posts available from the drop-down menu to the left and be sure to bookmark my blog.